Free will is the momentum of every person who rejects Christ and of every false believer who assumes they, too, are saved. True believers are distinguished by God’s sovereign election.
The Salvation Controversies
It’s understandable to be perplexed by the different points of view concerning salvation. In fact, conflicts have been around since the beginning of time and throughout history.
But why is that?
Initially, we need to recognize that a spiritual battle is being fought around our eternal destiny as Ephesians 6:12 describes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” A dominant aspect of this battle is Satan’s stated goal to lead humanity astray and prevent people from finding salvation, as explained in 2 Corinthians 4:4: “…the god [Satan] of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of [salvation] the glory of Christ….”
Satan’s objective is undoubtedly helped by men who willfully reject the truth of the Gospel, as illustrated in John 3:18-19: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”
So, let’s put all this in perspective. What roles do God and men play in initiating salvation?
- Is God wholly sovereign and thus elects those to be saved and even secures the fulfillment of that choice,
- or does God look forward in time and space and ratify the free will of individuals?
- Is man unable to initiate salvation because their spirit is dead due to the sin of Adam,
- or was just Adam impacted by his sin, leaving man intrinsically good and thus able to be saved through their own free will?
In all of this, you have three primary characteristics: God’s sovereign election and predestination through faith versus man’s redemption through their free will, which is effectively works, and the nature of humanity as impacted by the sin of Adam. Although this conflict has been battled throughout history, it is readily analyzed and answered through a straightforward reading of scripture.
Note: Throughout this article, election and predestination may be used interchangeably. To clarify, God’s choice of who will be saved is known as “election,” and those He chooses are destined unto eternal life, which is known as “predestination.”
Augustine and Pelagius
The Pelagian Controversy was an influential theological dispute around the 4th century that involved two opposing viewpoints on divine election and predestination, free will, and the nature of man, held by Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius.
Pelagius, a British monk, held a resolutely optimistic view of human nature. He argued that humans were born free of sin and possessed an inherent capacity to sin but also not to sin. He also asserted that Adam’s sin affected Adam alone and did not taint human nature.
Pelagius refuted the idea of divine predestination as he believed that humans could achieve redemption through their own efforts and that while grace is helpful, it was not necessary to attain eternal life.
Conversely, Augustine held a different perspective. He contended that humanity was inherently sinful due to Adam’s original sin, which tainted all of mankind. According to him, humans could not consistently choose good over evil without divine intervention. Augustine argued that salvation was solely a result of God’s grace, and humans could do nothing to earn it.
The Catholic Church eventually sided with Augustine at The Councils of Carthage and Ephesus (397 and 431 AD). It condemned Pelagianism as heresy, upholding the doctrines of original sin and the necessity of divine grace for salvation.
After Pelagianism, a new heresy called semi-Pelagianism evolved, which claimed that salvation is a collaborative effort between God’s mercy and human free choice. This is quite likely the most prevalent false salvific belief in today’s Christian churches.
This debate did not die with Augustine and Pelagius, as it flared up again roughly a century later.
John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius
In the 16th century, theologians John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius engaged in a debate that again focused on divine predestination, free will, and the nature of man.
The Tenets of Arminianism
Born on October 10, 1560, in Oudewater, the Netherlands, Jacobus Arminius was a prominent Dutch theologian and professor of theology; where he studied at Leiden University and became known for his intellectual abilities and sharp debate skills. Arminius initially leaned towards Reformed theology and even trained to be a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church. However, his studies and interactions with various theological ideas led him to develop his own theological system that deviated from the strict Calvinistic doctrine prevalent at the time.
Arminius proposed a theological position collectively known as Arminianism based on five key points.
- Free Will or Human Ability: Arminius believed that while human nature was seriously affected by the fall of Adam, humans were not left in a state of total spiritual helplessness and thus maintained an ability to initiate and obtain salvation of their own free will, with the assistance of God’s free grace; thus approaching semi-Pelagianism.
- Conditional Election: He held that God’s election and predestination were really based on God’s ability to discern the future through omniscience. Thus, an all-knowing God would peer into the future, acknowledge those who, of their own free will, accepted salvation, and ratify their decisions.
- Universal Atonement: Arminius argued that Christ’s atonement is potentially efficacious for all, but its benefits are only received through the faith of those who choose through their free will.
- Resistible Grace: According to Arminius, God’s grace is extended to all but can be resisted and rejected.
- Uncertain Perseverance: He also felt that believers could lose their salvation and that they needed to remain faithful to keep it.
The Tenets of Calvinism
Born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, John Calvin was initially interested in the priesthood but changed his mind and studied law, eventually joining the Reformation. His most notable work, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” has had a lasting impact on Christian theology, particularly regarding his teachings on predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation.
Calvinism, often summarized by the acronym TULIP, was a direct response to the five points of Arminianism cited above.
- Total Depravity: This states that every part of a person is touched by sin, and as a result, humans cannot save themselves or make a decision to trust God without His intervention. Romans 3:10-12 says, “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.’”
- Man’s depravity is depicted in numerous other verses, such as Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short…” and Ephesians 2:1, which states, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Also, Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”
- Man is not basically good, as Jeremiah 17:9 demonstrates: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.”
- Unconditional Election: This point asserts that God’s choice of specific individuals for salvation is established solely on His will and good purpose, not on any human quality, good works, or free will desire. Ephesians 1:4-5 states, “Even as He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” Another verse supporting this is Matthew 22:14, which claims, “For many are called [the general offer of the gospel], but few are chosen [elected].”
- Specifically, John 1:13 and other verses, reject man’s free will as a means to salvation, “Who were born [saved], not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
- There is a significant difference between God’s sovereign election and man’s free will salvation. Election is man conforming to God’s will, while free will redemption is God conforming to man’s will.
- Limited Atonement: Calvin believed that Jesus’s death on the cross was only for those whom God had selected for salvation. John 10:14- 15 says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” In fact, Jesus did exactly that on the cross at Calvary.
- In the following verses, a harmony is illustrated between the Father’s elective will and the redemptive act at Calvary of the Son, Christ Jesus. For example, John 17:9 states, “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours.” Also, Acts 20:28 warns, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” And finally, Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”
- Irresistible Grace: This doctrine holds that those God has elected unto salvation cannot resist His calling. John 6:37 states, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
- Acts 13:48 state this position succinctly: “…and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.”
- Perseverance of the Saints: Calvin also believed that those who are genuinely saved would persevere to the end and cannot lose their salvation. Philippians 1:6 says, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
- Numerous verses support this position, such as John 10:27-29: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
- Another verse is Hebrews 7:25, “Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” The security of our salvation is the consequence of having been saved by Christ’s divine accomplishment versus man’s endeavors at human achievement.
The five points of Calvinism provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the relationship between divine elective grace and human free will. Unfortunately, many, even true believers, agree with certain Arminian concepts, particularly the principle of free will salvation, due to misunderstanding the Biblical doctrines of Salvation. This promotes a man-centered gospel where men are not only responsible for their salvation but for the salvation of others. This is an affront to the sovereignty of God and a mischaracterization of the purity and truth of the Gospel.
Through the tenets of Calvin, we come to understand that salvation is not dependent on our actions but on God’s sovereign choice and unconditional love. Despite our sinful nature, He chose us from before time began to be His children through Jesus Christ. The Bible provides explicit support for each point of Calvinism as it relates to our salvation in Christ, reminding us once again of God’s amazing grace and mercy towards all those whom He has called.