Arminian Today

A Jesus-Centered Arminian Blog

The Mysterious Tensions in Theology

We live in a wicked world.  It seems we look around us and see wickedness each and every day.  Some look at wickedness and they simply ignore it and hope it will go away.  For the disciple, we pray Matthew 6:10, for the kingdom of God to come and the gospel can remove the wickedness that we see.  This nation, the United States, as with most of the “Christian” West, needs revival.  We need the gospel to break the chains of sin and to bring true salvation to the nations (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Only the gospel can usher in the kingdom of Christ.

But my purpose here is not to write about the kingdom of God.  Both Arminians and Calvinists agree that the kingdom of Christ is what we long for.  Whether you identify with a certain end-times view it not the issue here.  We want the kingdom to come.  We want the Lord Jesus to be exalted and for His gospel to be preached so that God may be glorified through it all.  We stand in the face of evil and declare that there is hope, there is forgiveness, there is reconciliation with God through the Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).  We know that our God is working to bring about this truth.  The gospel is going forth even as I type this.

What then are we to do with evil?  It is the tension that has caused much friction.  Liberals think the answer for evil is education, less poverty, more jobs, equal money.  Atheists point to evil as “proof” that God does not exist (yet there would be no concept of evil with a holy and good God as the standard).  Agnostics wonder if there is a God then why doesn’t He end all evil with just a wave of His all-powerful hand.  Even among us true Christians there is tension.  Calvinists believe that all that comes to pass happens because of the sovereign will of God and His decree.  A murder is the will of God.  A rape is the will of God.  An abortion is the will of God.  Anything and everything happens because God wills it so.

The Arminian cannot escape this tension either.  We too have our mysteries.  Calvinists wrestle with how God avoids being guilty of sin while He ordains whatsoever comes to pass.  In Calvinism, compatibilism (or “soft determinism”) is the idea that mankind does not possess free will but rather they act according to their nature.  In other words, a sinner sins because God does not give them to them the grace necessary to avoid that sin and in essence God knows the sinner is going to sin, wills the sinner to sin, the sinner makes a choice to sin based on their own sinful nature, and thus while God knew, planned, and ordained the sinner to sin, the sinner is still held responsible for their actions that they freely chose to do.  The mystery is how God is not guilty of the sin when the sinner really could not choose otherwise since there is no true free will in mankind in Calvinism.

Compatibilism is defined by Monergism.com as:

Compatibilism (also known as soft determinism), is the belief that God’s predetermination and meticulous providence is “compatible” with voluntary choice. In light of Scripture, human choices are believed to be exercised voluntarily but the desires and circumstances that bring about these choices about occur through divine determinism (see Acts 2:23 & 4:27-28). It should be noted that this position is no less deterministic than hard determinism – be clear that neither soft nor hard determinism believes man has a free will. Our choices are only our choices because they are voluntary, not coerced. We do not make choices contrary to our desires or natures. Compatibilism is directly contrary to libertarian free will. Therefore voluntary choice is not the freedom to choose otherwise, that is, without any influence, prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Voluntary does mean, however, the ability to choose what we want or desire most. The former view is known as contrary choice, the latter free agency. (Note: compatibilism denies that the will is free to choose otherwise, that is, free from the bondage of the corruption nature,for the unregenerate, and denies that the will is free from God’s eternal decree.)

Notice the article is clear that mankind does not have free will.  A person, when confronted with a choice to murder another person, is not able to choose to do the sin or not.  They are simply doing what God has determined for them to do.  The mystery is that God is not guilty of causing the person to sin nor is He wrong to hold the person to be punished for their sins that they could not chose to do otherwise.

The tension in Arminianism is much more biblical and to me is a biblical tension.  The tension in Arminianism is the mystery of how God is sovereign and does His will despite giving His creatures made in His image the freedom to choose.  God does have the right (since He is the creator) to step into our world and do as He pleases.  He foreknows all things and is not limited in His knowledge.  He foreknew, for example, the fall of Man (Genesis 3) yet does this mean that He caused the fall?  No!  He is perfectly holy and the Bible is clear that He leads no one into sinning (James 1:12-15).  God foreknew that wicked sinners would crucify His Son (Acts 2:23).  Did God cause them to kill His Son?  No!  They did so by their own sinfulness and free will.  The mystery here is free will and how God allowed these creatures of His to do as they please yet His will was done.

The Calvinist replies to this are that God is sovereign and by definition in Calvinism, sovereignty must mean that God alone determines all things.  But I ask why?  Why must we settle for the Calvinist answer?  After all, in the Bible people did things that grieved God yet if Calvinism and compatibilism are true, then why was God grieved?

Glenn Shellrude points out from Ezekiel 24:13-14 that in a Calvinist reading, God simultaneously tried to cleanse Israel and prevented them from being cleansed because He wanted to judge them (Grace for All, p.35).  Does this make sense?  In Jeremiah 7:31 the Lord rebukes the sons of Judah for doing what He had not commanded nor came to His mind.  The Calvinist understanding is that this is merely God coming down on our level so that we can understand His ways.  Yet this does not fit the text.  Is God merely saying something not true about Himself because of our ignorance?  That doesn’t make sense.

Shellrude goes on to point out the many sins in the New Testament we are said to avoid and even the entire book of 1 Corinthians where Paul rebukes the Corinthians for sinning.  If Paul understood compatibilism (and remember that Calvinists will claim that Paul was a true Calvinist) then surely he would understand that the sins of the people were done by the will of God.  The sins could not be avoided if God willed them so.

I accept that there are mysteries in theology.  This is one of them.  I believe in limited free will (because only God has true free will to do whatever He wills) because I see this truth played out in Scripture and in humanity.  Yet I believe in the sovereignty of God but not in the compatibilism use of the word.  I believe that God knows all things and yet the mystery for me is that God is not guilty of sin, that He doesn’t cause people to sin and He would that they not sin yet He allows for free sinful decisions yet He still gets His will done.  That is a mystery I accept because I see it taught in Scripture.  The Bible does not answer all our questions about God and I believe it never could.  God is simply too exhaustive to know.

Despite Calvinism holding to soft determinism, most Calvinists are not consistent in this so that they preach, pray, and live their lives as if free will were true.  No doubt when backed into a corner they will hold to determinism but they don’t live that way.  I know of only one man in all my years who lived as if compatibilism were true.  He would indulge looking at porn and he never felt guilty for it because he reasoned that if God didn’t will for him to look at porn, God would supply the grace for him to not look at it.  He eventually moved on to prostitutes and then to leaving his wife for another woman. Why?  Because God never stopped him.  He reasoned that God could have but God willed for him to do all these sexual sins.

Now to be fair, nearly every Calvinist I know would rebuke this man for his sinning.  They would even call him an apostate and call him to repentance and they should.  Yet did this man not do what God willed him to do?  If compatibilism is true then he has no free will and acted by his nature that God had not changed by His sovereign grace.  As an Arminian, I would (and did) call this man to repent.  I warned him of his sinning but he ignored me because of my Arminianism.  I pointed him to Scripture but he ignored that.  Again, he reasoned that if God wanted him to stop his sinning, God would grant him the grace to do so but God never did and so he continued in his sinfulness.

Now I know that was a hard case.  That is not typical at all and I thank God for that.  Most Calvinists I know are truly godly men and women who love the Lord Jesus.  Yet they live their lives as if free will were true.  They might would deny free will if asked but they wake up each day and seemingly do what they like.  When faced with temptation, they, like myself, are faced with a choice to make and many of them avoid sinning.  I praise God for that.  Yet if I asked them if they could freely choose A or B when faced with temptation, they would say yes yet Calvinism denies such a view.

I am happy to hold to my mysteries.  I have not figured God out and never will.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses who knocked on my door this morning have their god figured out.  That is why the JW’s god is not the true and living God.  God is a mystery.  He is beyond my understanding and His ways are a mystery to me.  I am comfortable with my mysteries in my theology.

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