This article and three more to follow are written to assist Methodist members to be aware of their own doctrinal position which is Arminian. We have particularly felt the need to do so in the face of some challenges from the Calvinistic position. We hope that this series of articles will help us not only to understand our doctrinal position and the Scriptures that support it but also to see it as credible, and be able to articulate and defend it.
Revisiting an Old Debate: Arminianism and Calvinism
The “Young, Restless, and Reformed” (YRR) movement has captured the attention of many young Christians in the United States, and its ideas are spreading throughout the world. Following in the footsteps of historical theologians John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, and led by contemporary figures such as John Piper, Albert Mohler, Timothy Keller, and Mark Driscoll, the movement emphasizes God’s glory, the need for deeper theo- logical understanding, and a passion for mission. The movement also emphasizes Calvinism, a particular understanding of how God’s sovereignty and human free will work in salvation. Methodists, beginning with our founder John Wesley, have held to a different position called Arminianism. John Wesley strenuously opposed Calvinistic theology because he believed it distorts God’s goodness and undermines the importance of holiness in the Christian life.
The debate on Calvinism and Arminianism is one on which evangelical Christians have disagreed — often passionately — for over 400 years. This debate has reignited with the advent of the YRR movement, with some leading voices claiming that Arminians are barely Christian and that Arminian theology is human-centered rather than God-centered. As this debate re-emerges in evangelical circles, it is important for us as Methodists to understand what we believe. We need to welcome our Calvinist brothers and sisters in Christ and applaud their work for the gospel while being able to explain why we disagree with them in some issues.
It is not the aim of this series of articles to resolve a debate that is over 400 years old. Rather, this series will introduce the debate, explain the key disagreements the two sides have, examine key scriptural passages, and address some of the criticisms and mis- conceptions commonly brought by the YRR movement against Arminian theology. We have done our best here to express the viewpoints of each position in the words of their defenders. Nonetheless, there exists a variety of views within Arminian and Calvinist theologies, so not every Arminian or Calvinist will express their position the way we do here. We hope that this will be helpful to all readers, Arminian or Calvinist, even though this series of articles is written primarily for Methodists.
Unable to Choose God Except by His Grace
Calvinists and Arminians both agree that human beings, in our sinfulness, are not capable of acknowledging and following after God. There is something in us that yearns for God because we were made for Him, but our sinful nature will not yield to God, recognize Him as Lord, and worshipfully center our lives on Him. We are not capable of choosing God. We are not even capable of truly desiring Him. God must take the initiative if we are to be reconciled. He has done so in history, working His plan to reconcile the world to Himself by calling Abraham and the nation of Israel, dwelling among us in the person of Jesus, and breaking the power of sin and death through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Both sides are agreed on this.
The dispute begins with what happens when God works in the heart of an individual. For the Arminian, God through an act of (prevenient) grace by the Holy Spirit, restores our ability to choose God. In that space and time, a person is enabled by God to respond to the good news and acknowledge God as Lord, or to reject God’s offer of grace and persist in their sin and rebellion. In other words, grace suspense our sinfulness such that we are truly free to choose or to reject God.
For the Calvinist, God’s grace cannot be denied — it is always effective. Whoever God chooses will respond. The person who rejects the gospel message was never actually chosen by God in the first place. In other words, God’s grace cannot be resisted. Once God’s grace come to you, you will respond positively.
God Sovereignty and Human Free Will
One of the difficulties Arminians and Calvinists have when talking to each other is that we use the same words or phrases to mean different things. This is especially true when it comes to “God’s sovereignty” and “human free will.”
To be sovereign, in simple language, is to be in charge and in control. Calvinists and Arminians both say God is sovereign. When Calvinists say this, they mean “meticulous sovereignty,” or “divine determinism.” God specifically foreordains and renders certain everything that happens, including how a person responds to the gospel. For the Calvinists, the Arminian assertion that we have the ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation is a denial that God is truly sovereign.
Arminians say that God could exercise “meticulous sovereignty,” but He does not. Instead He has created room for human beings to have true moral choice. In the matter of salvation, God has sovereignly decided that salvation is conditional upon human response. The human ability to oppose God is no true challenge to God’s sovereignty. The only reason we can do so is because of God’s own decision, permission, and enabling. The problem with the Calvinist view of sovereignty is that humanity’s rebellion against God is foreordained and rendered certain by God Himself.
This brings us to human free will. When an Arminian talks about free will, he means “libertarian free will,” that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God. We can act contrary to our nature, desires, and predispositions. “Libertarian free will” does not mean that there are no constraints at all — our circumstances, experiences, and knowledge all limit the choices available to us. However, in any decision we make, we could truly have chosen otherwise.
Calvinists, on the other hand, hold to “compatibilist free will.” an understanding of free will that can co-exist with divine determinism. In this view of free will, a person is free to act as they desire, but they will always act according to their desires. A person could have made a different choice if their desires were different, but we always choose what we most desire. Since we are unable to control our desires, the only way for a person to turn to God is for God to intervene and change their desires in an act of grace. Once God has done that, it is impossible for that person to refuse Him.
The Problem of Evil and Unbelievers
The primary reason Arminians hold the position on God’s sovereignty and human free will explained above is because we believe God’s goodness and love are at stake. Christians face the challenge of explaining how evil can exist when God is good and all-powerful. This will always be a difficult question to answer.
Arminians have always stood by the free-will defense of God. That God, in creating moral beings who could choose to love and obey Him took the risk that we would reject and rebel against Him. Without the possibility of choosing evil, we would not be moral beings; without the possibility of rejecting God, we would not truly love Him, because love cannot be coerced. Arminians do not celebrate free will because it glorifies humanity but because it glorifies a gracious, self-giving God who made us in His image at risk of pain to Himself. Sin and evil are the result of humanity abusing the gift that God gave us. God made a world in which evil is possible so that we could exist. This possibility of evil did not have to come to pass — it is we, through our re- bellion against God, who are responsible for that.
In spite of our rebellion, God in His goodness and mercy sent Je- sus to die on our behalf, for our sins, and to rise again to triumph over death. God is at work reconciling the world to Himself. Yet, the Scriptures also teach that not all will accept Jesus as God and Lord, despite the fact that God desires that all should be saved. Why then will there be those who are not saved? Is Jesus death insufficient? Did not Jesus die for all? Is God’s grace not enough? The Arminian responds that the Messiah died for all, His death suffices for all, and God’s grace abounds to overflowing. Yet, God who in His wisdom did not coerce us into obedience to Him will not coerce us into repentance. It is His good will that we truly have free choice to love Him and worship Him as God.
The Calvinist has to come up with a different explanation for these two matters. With regard to how evil and sin entered into this world, the Calvinist must say that God foreordained it and rendered it certain. This rightly makes many Calvinists uncomfortable, so some choose to say that evil is a mystery. Many others however, stand by the implications of their position. Why would God render evil, sin, and the rebellion of humanity certain? The answer from the YRR movement is that this is for God’s glory, that His mercy and work of redemption might be displayed.
Arminians find this to be an unsatisfying answer, as God’s mercy and grace seem much-diminished if God is the One who foreordained our sin in the first place. Another Arminian criticism is that the Calvinist position seems to make God the author of sin and evil. Calvinists deny this, and rightly affirm that the responsibility for sin belongs to us. However, it is difficult to see how humans can hold the primary responsibility for sin when God must foreordain the desires that will lead us to “freely” rebel against Him.
Similarly, the Calvinist must account for why not all will be saved. The Calvinist response is that God will not save all, and has chosen not to save all. Jesus’ death is sufficient for all, but Jesus did not die for all (or, at minimum, God has chosen not to apply the benefits of Jesus death and resurrection to all). Why has God chosen not to save all, and instead condemn many? The answer again, is for His glory. The Calvinist will at this juncture point out that God has no obligation to save anyone, and that He can freely do as He wills, and that we have no right to judge God. The Arminian will agree with these three statements, but point out that this seems contradictory with God’s own revelation of His character in the Scripture. It bewilders us how creating human beings for the sole purpose of being condemned is consistent with a good and loving God, and how persistent rebellion brings glory to God.
A Conclusion — For Now
We must be clear: Calvinists affirm the goodness and love of God, and deny that He is the author of evil. However, we Arminians believe that their views on God’s sovereignty and human free will are inconsistent with their views of His character. So, why do Calvinists believe what they believe? The Calvinist would say “because the Scripture teaches this,” and criticize the writers for appealing only to logic and philosophy in this article. This is a valid criticism, and one that needs to be addressed. Having established the issues at stake here, we will follow up with a survey of some of the key Scripture passages that pertain to this debate in the next article on this subject.
What does the Scripture Say?
Myths about Arminian Theology
How Should Arminians Respond
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