Last week I argued that two truths–the goodness of God and the reality of Hell–taken together are an internal conceptual problem for the Calvinist, but not for the Arminian. Two objections can be raised against my argument. I think these two objections fail. If so, this is further reason to embrace the Arminian view of our salvation: God’s election of us is conditional, based on His foreknowledge of our future (Libertarian) free choice to accept Christ as our Savior.
Objection One: Romans 9 Teaches We Cannot Question God’s Decisions
The Calvinist may respond that Romans 9 tells us we have no right to question who God chooses to be saved. As God, He has complete authority to choose what He desires. If He desires to elect some and not others, we are not to question this, for this is not our place:
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:14-24)
Response One: This Begs The Question
I offer two thoughts in response. First, there is much debate as to whether this passage relates to God’s choice of individuals for salvation, or to God’s choice to use Pharaoh and the nation of Israel (Jacob’s lineage) in redemptive history. When the broader context of the chapter is taken into account, both interpretations become plausible.
This is a clear case of what I discussed in Post 6 of this series. Sometimes the data supports both hypotheses. As in cases where there is competing scientific data, at this point it is wise to look for other knowledge within the field of study that may have a bearing on the question (internal conceptual problems). In hermeneutics (the principles of biblical interpretation) this is often referred to allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.
So in this case, we are at the point of asking whether there are other truths taught in Scripture (internal concepts) that help us adjudicate between these competing interpretations of this specific text. To simply claim the text of Romans 9 teaches unconditional election of individuals is a case of question-begging, for that is precisely the question we are trying to answer. It is stating one interpretation of the data, and thereby dismissing the other interpretation. This is not the way to discover the truth of the matter.
Response Two: Our Responsibility as Image Bearers
Second, as Romans 9 and many other texts make clear, God gives us the ability to know what is good and evil, just and unjust. This is part of being created in His Image. We are expressing our nature as God’s image bearers when we applaud what is just and good, and when we condemn what is unjust and evil. In short, we are rightly exercising our God-given ability to make moral judgments as God created us to do and expects us to do.
It should, therefore, give us pause when we come to believe something about God that cuts against our moral intuitions of goodness and justice. We should be given even more pause if we discover the doctrine does not just violate our moral sentiments, but the sentiments of many other believers now and through the centuries.
This is the case here. For many of us, the idea of unconditional election cuts deeply against our moral intuition of what is good and evil. Our intuition is confirmed by the many Christ followers living and dead who share this same moral intuition.
Thus, the doctrine of unconditional election should give us considerable pause and lead us to re-examine what we believe on this matter, and why. It may turn out the biblical support for the doctrine is very strong. If so, we must conclude our moral intuition is wrong (as certainly may be the case post-Fall). However, in this case the biblical data is not conclusive (as discussed earlier in this series).
Therefore, this moral intuition, given to us by God as His image-bearers, should lead us to further question the doctrine of unconditional election. This, then, further tips the scales in favor of the Arminian understanding of election and free will.
Objection Two: God Is Just In His Condemnation
Some argue that God is just in condemning some to Hell. In fact, He would be just even if he condemned everyone to Hell, since everyone has rebelled against Him and deserves this fate. Instead, we should marvel at the fact that God chose to express His grace at all and be merciful to some—the Elect.
Response: The Injustice Arises When God Is Gracious To Only A Few
This would be a justified response if God had not chosen to make a way to escape this horrific fate. We have all rebelled against the one true and holy God, and the penalty for this rebellion is eternal separation from Him. He could have chosen not to be gracious to anyone. This would not be contrary to our moral intuitions: it is just to condemn the guilty.
However, the doctrine of unconditional election holds He chose to be gracious only to some–those He selected by his divine will. This is what births our sense of injustice. The injustice is in deciding to make a way of escape and then only providing it to the few He wishes to save.
By analogy, suppose some children begin playing with matches that their parents carelessly left on the counter. The house catches fire and quickly becomes engulfed in flames, trapping the entire family of six inside. Unfortunately, by the time the firemen arrive they are not able to get into the house to save anyone, and all six perish. Though tragic, our moral intuitions are not violated. The firemen did all they could have done to save the family.
However, suppose when the firemen arrived they were able to punch a hole in an outside wall where all six family members had gathered. But then, after a way of escape had been made, the firemen chose some to help out of the house, but not all. We would be outraged at the firemen’s choices and actions!
Of course, if the firemen tried to help everyone get out of the house, but some choose not to take the firemen’s hand, the situation is different. In this case, the firemen did everything they could do to make a way of escape, but some choose to turn from the fireman’s offer of help. The fireman still acted in a good and just way, though ultimately the person who turned away was lost in the fire.
In a similar way, the cross is the way of escape God made for all of us who are perishing and cannot save ourselves. The doctrine of unconditional election is similar to the first scenario: God then reaches out his hand to save only some (via efficacious grace). Others have no choice but to perish. The doctrine of conditional election is similar to the second scenario: God reaches out his hand to save all (via prevenient grace). Some choose to respond, take His hand, and are brought to safety. Others chose not to take his hand and die apart from Him.
The injustice, in both cases, arises in the choice to only make the way of escape available to the few the firemen or God chose, rather than all who wish to respond to the gracious gift of salvation from the flames.
The moral difference is the choice the firemen or God made once a way of escape was available. Then, and only then, do we have the sense that the good and just thing to do is reach out and try to save everyone.
It seems both the Calvinist’s view of soft determinist freedom and unconditional election face significant internal conceptual problems. If so, these are adequate reasons to reject this view in favor of the Arminian understanding of our salvation.
However, some may argue these internal conceptual problems are not in themselves adequate to conclude in favor of Arminianism.
This is similar to what often happens at this point in scientific inquiry. The data (specific experiments) were not conclusive in favor of one hypothesis over the other. Some evidence within the field does seem to favor of hypothesis A, yet not strongly enough to conclude hypothesis A is true.
At this point, a second question must be asked:
Are there any external conceptual problems which should be taken into consideration?
Yet I must take a break. My board has graciously provided me with a sabbatical through April 2020. Therefore I’ll discuss the external conceptual problems to be considered when I return.
Until then, grace and peace.
Thank you, Stan! Enjoy your sabbatical…
Overall this was a good and accessible explanation of Arminianism, but the explanation of God’s "predestination" in this system of thought is unsatisfying. I’m inclined to retreat to mysticism and be happy there.
Jerry, can you say more of what you find unsatisfying? And I’m not sure how you are using the term "mysticism." If you can clarify that as well, I’d be happy to offer a response. Thanks.
Thanks for the article. The series was a very good read and clearly articulated. However, I have a clarification. I am not a theologian. The clarification I have is about what you have stated about the justice aspect. Romans 9:14-16 seems to me that in the ultimate analysis, it is based on God’s mercy and will. God would still be just because no one deserves to be saved and also the fact of Romans 9:20.
Vineedh, thanks for your comment. It seems to me the justice issue arises if only some are chosen by fiat. I’ve offered my thoughts in my response to Objection Two above.