Do we have free will, giving us the ability to choose to follow Christ, or is our salvation predestined by God? To answer this question we must be clear on what is meant by “free will” and “predestination.”
In Post #2 of this series, I discussed the two different definitions of “predestination” offered by Calvinists and Arminians. Understanding how these definitions differ is important in order to think well about this issue.
Last week, in Post #3, I discussed the three definitions offered for “free will.” Having clarified the various ways this term can be defined, we are in a position to understand how Calvinism and Arminianism understand this term as well.
Since both Calvinists and Arminians believe there is more to reality than the physical realm (for instance, God and souls exist), Hard Determinism is not an option for either position. Of the two remaining understandings of freedom, Calvinists embrace the Compatibilist understanding of freedom, and Arminians embrace the Libertarian view. This makes a huge difference as the debate unfolds.
Calvinism’s Understanding of Freedom and Salvation
Calvinists adopt the Compatibilist (Soft Determinist) view of freedom. This follows from Calvinism’s view of Total Depravity, which is both extensive and intensive (as discussed in Post #2). Extensively, the Fall affects every part of us, including our beliefs and desires. And intensively, the Fall affects our beliefs and desires completely. Therefore, we have no ability to believe anything true about God (that He exists, is good, loves us, etc.) Nor do we have any ability whatsoever to desire God.
It follows from this that, left to our own beliefs and desires, none of us would ever choose to follow Christ. Yet God graciously desires to restore some into a loving relationship with Him as their Heavenly Father. Therefore, He must give the persons He so chooses the desire to know Him, and the belief that if they place their trust in Christ, they will be able to enter a loving relationship with Him.
With these beliefs and desires bestowed on the elect by God, they will necessarily choose to place their faith in Christ (since one’s beliefs and desires determine one’s choices.) In fact, they can only choose to believe in Christ–they cannot choose otherwise. In this way, God draws the elect through His Irresistible Grace, via the beliefs and desires He has given them.
Furthermore, the beliefs and desires God has given the elect are now their beliefs and desires. Therefore, according to the Compatibilist view of freedom, the elect freely choose Christ as their Savior, since the choice was caused by beliefs and desires “inside” them (it was determined by their beliefs and desires, regardless of the fact that God caused them to have these beliefs and desires).
So to the question, “Is a person’s salvation the result of predestination or free will?” the Calvinist responds emphatically “Yes—both!” Believers are unconditionally predestined (elected) to be saved. Yet, they exercise compatibilist freedom to respond to God’s irresistible grace, bestowed through the beliefs and desires He gives them.
Furthermore, to bring His plan to completion, God will continue to give the elect beliefs and desires which cause them to continue choosing to follow Him. Thus, the elect will necessarily persevere in the faith until their final redemption.
Arminianism’s Understanding of Freedom and Salvation
On the other hand, Arminians adopt a Libertarian (counter-causal) view of freedom. This, too, follows from their view of Total Depravity. Agreeing with the Calvinists, Arminians believe our depravity is total in the extensive sense (the Fall has affected every dimension of our being, including our beliefs and desires). Yet our depravity is not also intensive. Therefore, we are still able to have at least a small desire to know God and form at least a few correct beliefs about Him.
These abilities are magnified by God’s Prevenient Grace, which He bestows on all people to help them desire Him even more and to form more correct beliefs about who He is and why they should seek Him. In this way, He is working to draw all people to Himself.
This combination of people having the ability to develop some proper beliefs and desires concerning God, amplified by God’s Prevenient Grace, gives people a libertarian free choice to follow or not follow Christ. This choice is not determined by the person’s beliefs about God or desires concerning God. The choice is between two “live” options. Though the person’s beliefs and desires may influence the choice, the person remains free to reject God, even if he understands much about Him, and has some desire to know Him.
Each person then makes a (libertarian) free choice to either respond to God’s Prevenient Grace and place his faith in Christ, or not. Some will freely choose to follow Christ. From eternity past God knew who these individuals would be. Based on this foreknowledge he predestined them to be among the elect.
Arminians and Calvinists both affirm that we have free will and are predestined. They can do so only in light of very different understandings of these terms. So we find the real question is not simply “Is our salvation the result of predestination or free will?” Rather, the real question is:
Is our salvation the result of unconditional predestination/election and Compatibilist free will, or the result of conditional predestination/election and Libertarian free will?
Though more cumbersome, this more nuanced framing of the question is a necessary step toward resolving this question. As with other questions, taking the time to clarify the terms being used and the assumptions being made helps us see a way forward. These finer distinctions also help us identify the source of confusion, disagreements, and conundrums.
We are now in a position to make progress toward a biblically sound, robust, and satisfying answer. In two weeks (after a break for Christmas), I’ll move into this next phase of the discussion. Until then, grace and peace.