What do Arminians and Hyper-Calvinists Have in Common?
Arminians and Hyper-Calvinists have a great deal in common, in that they both make the same blunders contrary to the plain teaching of the Scriptures. I am thinking of at least two links between them:
- Both believe responsibility and ability are inseparably linked, and
- Both emphasize one set of Scriptures to the total exclusion of another set of Scriptures and then base their philosophical [not theological or biblical] conclusions on that set of verses.
Consider the first set of beliefs Arminians and Hyper-Calvinists share; the belief that responsibility and ability are inseparably linked. They, of course, arrive at different conclusions because of their application of this belief and their exclusive focus on different biblical texts.
The Arminian focuses on those texts in which sinners are called on to choose one course of action or another and in which they are being held responsible for their choices. Based on his presupposition that responsibility implies ability, he concludes that sinners must have the ability to choose correctly. If there is responsibility, there must be ability.
The Hyper-Calvinist focuses on those texts that talk about the sinner’s inability to respond properly to the call of the gospel that results from his sinful rebellion against God and concludes that God could not hold sinners responsible for their unbelief. If there is no ability, there is no responsibility.
They arrive at different conclusions based on the same faulty presupposition but focused on a completely different group of texts.
The same is true with respect to those texts that express alternately God’s immutable decree to save his elect people and his genuine compassion for sinners as sinners and his expressed desire that they come to repentance. The Arminian focuses almost exclusively on those texts that speak of God’s desire to save sinners. The Hyper-Calvinist focuses exclusively on those texts that speak of God’s unshakeable decree.
God’s “Will” Understood in Two Different Senses
It should be a matter that is beyond dispute that God has not decreed everything he has desired or declared should happen. There is no need for me to try to reinvent the wheel. Others have written on this subject much more artfully than I ever could. I would direct your attention to an excellent article by John Piper. It is titled “Are there two wills in God.” You can find it at www.desiringgod.org.
Charnock also wrote concerning these two wills,
God doth not will [sin] directly, and by an efficacious will. He doth not directly will it, because he hath prohibited it by his law, which is a discovery of his will; so that if he should directly will sin, and directly prohibit it, he would will good and evil in the same manner, and there would be contradictions in God’s will: to will sin absolutely, is to work it (Psalm 115:3): “God hath done whatsoever he pleased.” God cannot absolutely will it, because he cannot work it. God wills good by a positive decree, because he hath decreed to effect it. He wills evil by a private decree, because he hath decreed not to give that grace which would certainly prevent it. God doth not will sin simply, for that were to approve it, but he wills it, in order to that good his wisdom will bring forth from it. He wills not sin for itself, but for the event.
The following is a rather lengthy quotation from Piper’s article:
This seems right to me, and it can be illustrated again by reflecting directly on 1 Timothy 2:4 where Paul says that God wills all persons to be saved. What are we to say of the fact that God wills something that in fact does not happen. There are two possibilities as far as I can see. One is that there is a power in the universe greater than God’s which is frustrating him by overruling what he wills. Neither Calvinist nor Arminian affirms this.
The other possibility is that God wills not to save all, even though he is willing to save all, because there is something else that he wills more, which would be lost if he exerted his sovereign power to save all. This is the solution that I as a Calvinist affirm along with Arminians. In other words both Calvinists and Arminians affirm two wills in God when they ponder deeply over 1 Timothy 2:4. Both can say that God wills for all to be saved. But then when queried why all are not saved both Calvinist and Arminian answer that God is committed to something even more valuable than saving all.
The difference between Calvinists and Arminians lies not in whether there are two wills in God, but in what they say this higher commitment is. What does God will more than saving all? The answer given by Arminians is that human self-determination and the possible resulting love relationship with God are more valuable than saving all people by sovereign, efficacious grace. The answer given by Calvinists is that the greater value is the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy (Romans 9:22-23) and the humbling of man so that he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Corinthians 1:29).
This is utterly crucial to see, for what it implies is that 1 Timothy 2:4 does not settle the momentous issue of God’s higher commitment which restrains him from saving all. There is no mention here of free will. Nor is there mention of sovereign, prevenient, efficacious grace. If all we had was this text we could only guess what restrains God from saving all. When free will is found in this verse it is a philosophical, metaphysical assumption not an exegetical conclusion. The assumption is that if God wills in one sense for all to be saved, then he cannot in another sense will that only some be saved. That assumption is not in the text, nor is it demanded by logic, nor is it taught in the rest of Scripture. Therefore 1 Timothy 2:4 does not settle the issue; it creates it. Both Arminians and Calvinists must look elsewhere to answer whether the gift of human self-determination or the glory of divine sovereignty is the reality that restrains God’s will to save all people (Emphasis mine).
The same can be said for all those texts that speak of God’s desire for the salvation of sinners. Those texts argue neither for the autonomy of the human will nor the sovereignty of divine grace since neither is the concern of those texts. We must look elsewhere for the answers to those issues.
Prevenient Grace-Bible Truth or Philosophical Assumption?
If one rejects those texts that teach God’s sovereign control over his universe according to his decreed will and is left only with those texts that speak of God’s sincere compassion and desire for the salvation of sinners, he is left with only two choices. One of these, as Piper has stated, neither the Calvinist nor the Arminian affirms, “that there is a power in the universe greater than God’s which is frustrating him by overruling what he wills.” The other choice for him must be that God has determined to leave the sinner to the inviolability of the human will. Since he finds in Scripture ample evidence that sinners are born in a state of total depravity, he must posit that God has granted to every sinner the ability to choose one way or another. He must argue that God has given all sinners prevenient grace enabling them to “choose Christ.” When pressed for biblical texts that actually teach this concept, they will retreat to those verses that state what the Calvinist believes as strongly as they do.
Alternately, they will bring up examples of people like Cornelius, the Eunuch of Ethiopia and Lydia who seemed to have some affinity for God and the gospel prior to actually coming to faith. They might also appeal to the rich young ruler who expressed a desire for eternal life, but who went away sorrowful because he loved his riches too much.
The assumption is that these people who believed the gospel, were baptized by the Spirit, and received the Word that was taught were recipients of prevenient grace and exercised their free wills to become believers. Another assumption is that these people were as yet unregenerate unbelievers prior to the events recorded for us in the book of Acts. Who can say all of them were not proselyte Jews who had come to faith prior to the establishment of the new covenant? Does prevenient grace grant access to unbelievers into God’s presence apart from the work of Christ and faith in him? One gets the impression that God accepted Cornelius’ prayers and alms. Are we to believe that God accepts and approves the prayers of unbelievers apart from Christ? I believe the Scriptures clearly teach that he will not do so. If that assumption is correct, Cornelius must have had more than an ineffectual “prevenient grace” that enabled him to exercise his free will and make a proper choice.
The issue in Acts 10 was not the personal conversion of Cornelius to Christ. The issue was God’s acceptance of Gentiles into the gospel chruch as Gentiles and not as proselyte Jews.
In addition to all of this, all the people in these examples either were believers at the time or became believers. I suspect no Calvinist would deny that God grants pre-conversion grace to his elect. The question is where is an example of a person who has received pre-conversion grace so that he is clearly as inclined to receive Christ as he is to reject him and who finally rejects him?
Some have appealed to the example of the rich young ruler to show that a person can be given prevenient grace and yet perish in sin. Here was a young man who actually enquired about obtaining eternal life but having learned about God’s terms, went away sorrowful and unbelieving. Certainly this proves a person can have a desire to know and love God and yet perish in his sins. In reality, it proves nothing relative to prevenient grace and free will. There are several reasons I would reject this example as any kind of evidence of prevenient grace that fell short of true conversion:
- We do not know if he became a believer later or not. All we know is that Jesus dealt faithfully with him so that he went away having come to understand the issues.
- Nothing in the text tells us he desired salvation on God’s terms. The text tells us he wanted to know how to obtain eternal life, but who doesn’t want eternal life if he can have it on his own terms?
- The text gives us no indication that he was as inclined to receive salvation on God’s terms as he was to reject it.
There are too many unknown factors in these examples for anyone to use them as the basis of any system of doctrine. Still, one fact is certain. These texts teach nothing about “free will” or “prevenient grace.” As in the case of those verses that speak of God’s sincere desire to receive repenting sinners, these examples tell us nothing about whether faith was the result of free will or free grace. We must look elsewhere for the answers to those issues.
Faulty Philosophical Assumptions with No Biblical Foundation
Assumption one: The Power of Autonomous Self Determination
I have found it is usually futile to try to have an intelligent and meaningful discussion with an Arminian. The reason it is so frustrating is they tend to assume their unfounded presuppositions are actually stated in the Scriptures. Yet, their assumptions are philosophical and not drawn from biblical texts at all. For example, they insist that God, in his sovereignty, has determined that he will not violate the sinner’s free will, but where is such an idea stated in the Bible? If all they meant by “free will” is that people choose what they wish apart from external constraint, I would certainly agree that people have free will.
In this way, then, man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion. This is perfectly true: but why should so small a matter have been dignified with so proud a title? An admirable freedom! that man is not forced to be the servant of sin, while he is, however, (a voluntary slave); his will being bound by the fetters of sin.
But, their idea of free will goes beyond a person’s ability to choose freely and intelligently what he or she wishes. It means sinners are equally as able to choose righteousness as they are to choose sin. They are equally as able to choose to believe in Christ as they are to reject him. Not only do the Scriptures not teach such an idea, they teach precisely the opposite.
Assumption Two: A Divinely Caused Choice is Not A Valid Choice
In their view, if God enabled or caused a person to believe [They like the term “to choose.”] such a faith would not be genuine. When asked if obedience would be genuine if God caused it, they simply decline to answer. In Ezekiel 36:27, God plainly promises that he will “cause people to walk in his statutes and obey his laws.” That certainly implies they would not do so otherwise and that God’s work it the enabling cause of their work. If these people were left to their own wills, unchanged by divine intervention, their choices would continue to be determined by their hearts of stone. There is not slightest hint that obedience resulting from the divine activity described in verses 25-26 of this chapter would be anything less than genuine, heart-felt obedience.
Now, if the obedience God causes people to render to his laws is true obedience, why would anyone assume that if God caused obedience to the gospel it would be anything other than genuine faith?
Assumption Three: Grace Must be Resistible to be True Grace
For some reason, these people seem to be hung up on the term “irresistible grace.” It seems they imagine that Calvinists believe God takes sinners by the hair and drags them forcibly into the kingdom against their loud protestations. This, of course, is not the Calvinistic doctrine at all. J.I. Packer was on target when he wrote, “Grace proves irresistible just because it destroys the disposition to resist.”
The apostle Paul describes the sinner in an unregenerate state as being without the light of the good news of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (see-2 Cor. 4:4). In doing so, he would have his readers to understand that salvation is to be understood as seeing Christ’s glory. It is in gazing on his glory that we are transformed gradually into his likeness. Just as it was in God’s original act of creation, so it is in his act of regeneration. When God commanded the light to shine out of darkness (“and God said, ‘let there be light.’”), there was light. The apostle would have us to understand God’s act of regeneration as an act of creation. God speaks and there is light. It should not escape our notice that he does not describe faith as a “decision” or a “choice.” I am not suggesting that in faith and repentance the sinner does not make a conscious decision to leave his idols and serve the living God. Clearly, such a response is the result of regeneration. My point is that Paul’s focus is not on the sinner’s decision or choice but on God’s regenerating activity. He does not say God has commanded the light to shine into our hearts so that we are enabled to decide whether we want to see or not. The issue is that God has commanded light to shine into our hearts and has thus thwarted Satan’s design to conceal Christ’s glory from us. The obvious question one should ask is “Who that has received the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ would wish to resist him?”
Jesus described eternal life in terms of the knowledge of God. He prayed, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3). The question is how such knowledge is received. Does God give this knowledge to all by prevenient grace and leave them to them to the power of “free will”? If that were the case, why are there any that are described as not knowing God? (1 Thess. 4:5; 2 Thess. 1:8). It is not that they know him and simply have to decide if they are going to become believers or not. In reality, such knowledge is a matter of God making himself known to us. Jesus said, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27).
Assumption Four: The Effects of Depravity Have Been Cancelled
I recently had an online conversation with an Arminian who contended that in prevenient grace God has removed the effects of total depravity [I am not suggesting that all Arminians would be so bold as to make such an assertion]. I am still waiting for him to answer what, in his view, those effects are and why the Scriptures continue to describe unbelievers as hostile rebels against God. If the effects of total depravity have been universally removed, why do those effects remain? Paul described unbelieving Gentiles as follows:
“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Eph. 4: 18-19). Notice Paul does not attribute “the ignorance that is in them” to the failure of Christians to bring them the message. Instead, he tells us their ignorance is due to the “hardness of their hearts.” Surely, this hardness of heart must be one of the effects of total depravity. Additionally, if the God removes all the effects of total depravity by granting prevenient grace, why is regeneration necessary? All of the above are philosophical assumptions that have no biblical foundation. These assumptions are necessary to the system of those who deny God’s will of decree and either deny or ignore the biblical texts that that teach that God governs according to that decree.
Our duty is to believe the Bible in its entirety even though we find ourselves at a loss to understand the intricacies of the divine mind. A while ago I heard about a leader among the Southern Baptists who was questioned as to why the pastors under his leadership did not preach about God’s sovereign grace in the salvation of sinners. His answer was telling and disturbing. He did not say, “They do not teach it because they do not find it in the Scriptures.” Instead he answered, “They do not preach it because our people don’t like it very much.” Such are false shepherds and blind guides who have no business standing in a pulpit. Biblical statements regarding God’s sovereign control over all things are abundant and unequivocal. Failure to acknowledge these texts can only result from biblical ignorance, ministerial malpractice or both. I am reminded of the text in Jeremiah’s prophecy that reads,“An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority; and My people love to have it so” (Jeremiah 5:30-31). On the other side of the coin, if we feel we cannot freely offer Christ to any sinner, not as an elect sinner or a sinner for whom Jesus died in particular but as a guilty sinner who is in need of God’s forgiveness, we have slipped into Hyper-Calvinism. True Calvinists affirm both God’s sovereign decree to secure the salvation of his chosen people and his published desire that sinners turn from the evil of their ways and live. What we do not believe is that his desire to save sinners is an ineffectual wish that sinners by their libertarian free will, will somehow make the right decision. One of my favorite hymns is an invitation to sinners to come to Christ. It begins,
“Come ye sinners poor and wretched,
Weak and wounded sick and sore.
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, joined with power.
He is able, he is willing, doubt no more.
I have often though it expressed the proper biblical balance between Arminianism on the one hand and Calvinism on the other. The Arminian proclaims a Savior who is full of pity but one who, if he has the power to save, would never exert that power lest he violate the sinner’s autonomy. The Hyper-Calvinist proclaims a Savior who has copious power to save but precious little compassion and pity for sinners. The Calvinists proclaims a Savior who is “full of pity” that is “joined with power.” He is both able and willing to save. Hallelujah! What a Savior!