Recently I was on another website and responded to an article concerning Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace. Some of you will recognize these two doctrines as the 'U' and 'I' in the famous Calvinist acrostic TULIP. If you're unfamiliar with it, read on.
While TULIP is certainly true, the problem is the Bible also teaches reciprocal truths on each of these points. The so-called Five Points are dealing with eternal truths, focusing on the decretal activity of God as it pertains to individual salvation. It deals with fallen man's state and need, God's purpose and how salvation is applied. But the categories all deal with what I would call the eternal or invisible. This would include God's workings beyond the realm of space and time (meta-creational/eternal) and with man's internal or spiritual state.
For example. Total Depravity of course refers to our extreme fallen nature, the fact that we are dead in sin. This would be opposed to the Arminian (whether they take the name or not) view that we are injured or sick, but by no means dead. Even though the Scriptures are clear, the Arminian presupposes free will and thus is not willing to relegate fallen man to be dead and thus unable to respond to the demands of the gospel.
Calvinists would say that is the very good new of the gospel. Even though we're dead, spiritually dead and unable to discern anything eternal, the Holy Spirit makes us alive that we can repent and believe, have our sins forgiven and be reconciled to God.
The Calvinist/Augustinian would be correct, but the Bible often speaks in terms of man's ability. Choose we are told. Seek we are exhorted.
So, there is some truth to both sides or at least the Biblical data supports evidence for both sides. Are they reconcilable? Yes and no.
We seek God because He's moving within us. On our own, we would not seek Him. And yet in time and space, God uses means to provoke us, a book, a discussion, a life event, and it does in fact seem like we're seeking, like we're making a choice. And in one sense we are, but the ability derives from the Holy Spirit changing our hearts.
But again in time and space, we're doing it. We're consciously making the choice to seek or not to seek. We're not being forced. We have to exert our energies to respond to God's call. We can understand one side of the truth in light of the other, but the Scriptures don't always express this in the Divine theological order I've just presented, nor in the logical order a systematician would develop. The Scriptures often just present it from the human perspective. This is especially true in the portions we would call narrative, the gospels, Acts, Old Testament history. These portions are not trying to delve into eternal truth, they're telling the story. The story is told in temporal terms, not theological or metaphysical categories. I don't believe we can say these expressions are illegitimate, and I don't think we need to descend a slippery slope and explain away their plain meaning and import. And so such language is legitimate. Arminians reason away the other theological truths because of sensory experience and reason/rationality, but many Calvinists are just not letting the text speak, and explain it away. Why? It's reason/rationality coming from the other direction, but the same methodological problem nonetheless. Either way, one side of the Scripture is being explained away.
With Election we find a doctrine clearly taught in Scripture but something that cannot be applied to theology in our normative temporal arrangement. How can we see if someone is elect? All we can do is see if someone professes Christ and has been Baptized and shows some evidence of a living faith. The evidence is not quantitative but qualitative. The evidence is not about points on a scale, it's something that varies in degree indicating a change in the person. It's not a one time (though it is also that) event but an ongoing growth and evidence of the Spirit working.
Election is not conditional based on our response. That would not be Election or Predestination, that would be us setting our own destiny and the Scriptures don't speak that way.....but now we're back to the previous paragraphs. In a way they sometimes do. The picture is not one of the modern man carving his own path, rather it is one of responsibility and accountability.
What about the Conditional part? Logic and the Scriptural data teach clearly those who belong to Christ are His. They cannot be lost. That's a doctrine based or grounded in eternity.
But what about how that works out, how it is applicable here in the temporal realm? We can't look into anyone's hearts and see if they're elect or for that matter if we are. We are told to persevere, overcome, fight, work out our salvation, make our calling and election sure.
Again, a two-sided dynamic. Or as I sometimes call it a Theological Dialectic.
The most offensive Calvinist point to many is Limited Atonement, that is to say that Christ died only for the elect. While minimal, there are a few Scriptures that can be appealed to, but even those can be debated. Largely it is doctrine that is derived inductively. That is to say, by placing other doctrines on the table so to speak, the doctrine of Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption can be safely deduced. Induction takes certain premises and then causing them to interact (placing them in syllogism), deductively reasons a new point or conclusion. The problem is the premises might well be true, but it does not guarantee the conclusion is true. You might place five ideas on the table and work them out to form a solution. But how do you know you have the right five ideas? How do you know there weren't ten more that need to be included before you deduce a conclusion. Your answer might be right, but it also could be dreadfully wrong. You might be misusing the data.
Limited Atonement has been accused of this. Like I said, there are Scriptures that speak of Christ dying for many, Christ coming to save His people....limited or particular language. But nowhere is the doctrine explicitly taught. When you place the other four of the five points together, to surmise or even deduce Limited Atonement seems reasonable.
I will grant that it's true, but I would argue the Calvinist model has placed undue emphasis on Election and misused it as it pertains to New Testament theology. The question is being asked (I argue) because the wrong method is being employed. Thus due to structural demands, the doctrine is developed and becomes part of an integral system, while the Scriptures themselves are more or less silent on the mechanics of the issue.
Calvinists commit themselves to this doctrine and now have a problem, a systemic problem when they approach other texts reflecting the universality of God's revealed will. This view of the atonement seems unable to synthesize with the many passages employing words like 'all,' 'everyone,' 'world,' or any other types of universal invitations.
The solution? Both are true. God has revealed as normative that he desires all men to be saved and yet has also revealed in His decretive will that only the elect will be actually saved.
Many Calvinists seek to alleviate the apparent contradiction by re-defining terms and/or multiplying categories in order to downplay or explain away the clear language of the text. Elsewhere I've called this methodological tool Aristotle's Razor. The data, in this case Scripture won't fit the grid they've erected, and so false alternatives are constructed in order to make the data fit the system. For example, we're told 'all' doesn't really mean all, it just means all kinds, or all of the elect. Every, means every type, and so forth. And yet these alternatives are completely unacceptable and obvious interpolations when one just simply reads the text. You wouldn't come up with those types of interpretations unless you had pre-commitments you brought with you when reading them.
I argue no matter what logical tools are used we cannot alleviate the tension between the two sides, because we in our finiteness cannot grasp the spiritual dimensions expressed in the temporal/eternal dynamic. We cannot subject the eternal will of God to a logic that is only sufficient for the temporal world.
Saving faith is putting our trust into Christ. And Christ has promised, given, and preserved His Word. Just as we cannot understand the exact spiritual and eternal mechanics of the Trinity, the Incarnation, or even exactly what was happening on the cross, nor can we understand how His will can be constantly represented as two-fold. We cannot grasp how in one sense we are adopted and yet are awaiting adoption. We are in Christ, but at the same time we're still here in the not-yet, with unredeemed bodies and sinful natures. Yes, we understand in the already, the eschatological sense we are united to Christ, but can we really understand exactly how that works? I don't 'feel' like I'm in Christ. I feel like I'm in a sinful dying body and yet I understand I'm in Christ.....I understand it by faith, not irrational, but grounded in His Word.
Is grace irresistible? You already know the answer if you're following me. Yes and no. If God wants me to be saved, I will be saved. I cannot control the Holy Spirit. And there are texts to back this up.
And yet there are others which indicate men can frustrate the grace of God. Christ could do nothing because of the hardness of their hearts, we read. In the temporal we can resist and we are responsible for doing so. In the eternal, God's will is accomplished regardless of our actions. God governs using Means and these means can even include our sin-corrupted freewill willingly rejecting Him.
Perseverance? The decretally elect will persevere, but I don't know who they are individually and though I can be sure of my salvation, we are never thought to rest on it in a presumptive sense. We are told to continue and press one, exhorted to finish the race. Those who are elect will do so.
Eternal Security seeks to build a temporal assurance upon the decretal texts. The Scriptures teach those who are Christ's will not fall away, their salvation is sure. But again, we have no way of knowing who is decretally elect. It's a universal category in Scripture, we're not told of individuals beyond a few in the textual narrative. For us, the doctrine is a comfort and a glory, and can provide assurance. It does not provide a lens or filter for us to use in determining who is really part of the church here in space and time. We don't have the perspective of God's throne. Again, God uses Means, even in the church.
Eternal Security abuses the Biblical data and gives a false assurance to those who have a dead faith, to those who are not persevering. Many equate Eternal Security with perseverance but the two are not the same.
Arminianism believes salvation can be lost. Calvinists have always scoffed at this because they're viewing the question from the standpoint of election. The Arminian is not starting in eternity, but in time. And in that sense, the Scriptures do indeed warn and speak of falling from grace, falling away. Salvation is repeatedly cast in conditional terms. We receive the blessings....If. 1 John speaks of those who went out as not being truly 'of' us. Well as an apostle he could say that. I cannot. If Joe departs the church because of error or seeming apostasy, I cannot say...he wasn't elect, or wasn't regenerate. His fruit seems to indicate that, but perhaps he will repent in a month and return. What would we then say? What if he returns after ten years? If I say he is now elect and regenerate, then my criteria before was mistaken. Why try and probe into the eternal when we're not commanded to do so and have not been given the tools to do so? Rather than speak in decretal terms, I will simply say, Joe was no longer a Christian, and now is one again. John's comments seem to be tied to a specific group of people troubling the church. We can still use the language (it's Biblical) and we certainly can say there are many false converts within the church who will leave. Let's just be careful regarding our language, looking at the context before we apply a statement universally and allow it overthrow what other texts also clearly say, even if it seems to be something else. There are texts in Hebrews and in the gospels which speak of those having faith and yet falling away. Should we negate their faith because of 1 John 2.19?
So on the one hand man is totally depraved, dead in sin, unable to believe in Christ or obey the gospel
and yet still outwardly possesses ability and is accountable.
God has unconditionally chosen an elect from before the foundation of the world. Sometimes the elect refers to Christ and sometimes to the individuals who comprise His body.
But in time, in the temporal/visible realm, this election, this final salvation, is cast in conditional language. The disciple must persevere, keep on believing until the end. In Colossians 1 we read, If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel...
Christ died to save the elect, and yet God has revealed that He died for all. We believe His work if efficacious and God's plan is not dependent on man's action. Christ didn't fill up a bank so to speak that everyone can just draw from. No, he died to save and redeem His body.
And yet, from our temporal perspective we are told salvation is available to all. All may come, all are invited to come. As far as I'm concerned everyone I see or meet is potentially elect. Some say if we say God desires all to be saved when He evidently does not, we make God insincere and dishonour Him. God can defend his own honour. We are to be obedient to His word.
Grace can be resisted, rejected, spat upon. And yet, in the eternal, do we think we can stop the Holy Spirit? He wouldn't do that, some object. He respects our free will? If He did, we would all be lost. Again, that's on the eternal side. He has revealed that we must choose to follow him, repent etc... We know these things stem from the work of the Holy Spirit, but the language is not qualified. It merely declares and commands. We cannot resist the Grace of God, but in another sense we can.
And Perseverance as expressed in the Calvinist model I think properly expresses a concept which embraces both sides. We shouldn't think in terms of Eternal Security. Rather we believe the elect will in the end persevere.