This is the second in a series of four articles written to assist Methodist members to be aware of their own doctrinal position which is Arminian. In the first article, we explained how the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement has brought Calvinism back onto the theological center-stage, and raises challenges to our Arminian beliefs. We also discussed issues of God’s sovereignty, human free will, and the problem of evil and unbelievers. In this article, we will examine some of the key Scriptural passages in this debate. 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.
Theology and Scripture
Neither Calvinism nor Arminianism is directly laid out in the Scripture. If they were, it is unlikely that the debate over these two ideas would have persisted in mainstream Christianity for over 400 years. However, both theological systems are rooted in Scripture and attempt to synthesize and organize what Scripture has to teach on salvation into a systematic soteriology (theology of salvation). Therefore, both theological systems are derived from Scriptural passages that their adherents believe speak clearly on certain aspects of salvation and build upon it using logical arguments and derivation to develop a coherent and complete story. This story must then be tested against the Scripture as a whole, to ensure that we have not inadvertently contradicted Scripture in our attempt to understand and explain it.
Calvinists and Arminians alike believe that the Bible is God-breathed, and therefore authoritative, reliable, and consistent. We are not pitting one section of the Bible against another or trying to accumulate more proof-texts than the other side. Rather, our theology should be consistent with all of Scripture. Where apparent incon- sistencies appear, we need to correct our theologies and/or improve our understanding of the Scriptures. In salvation, Calvinists believe that the Scriptures clearly teach predestination and election in a way that necessitates Calvinism and precludes Arminian theology. We will examine some passages from Romans and Ephesians that are commonly quoted to advocate Calvinism. On the other hand, Arminians believe that the Scriptures teach that the offer of salvation is available to all (universal offer of salvation) and that the Scrip- tures warn that falling away from the faith is a real possibility. Both ideas are incompatible with Calvinistic theology.
It is not possible in the scope of this article to be exhaustive in the Scriptures relating to these subjects or even to go into great detail about the passages that we will examine. Arminian and Calvinist theologians alike will have variations on or even outright departures from the exegetical examples we provide here as examples of how these two groups approach these passages. Nonetheless, we believe that surveying these four topics and the Scriptures presented here will introduce the reader to the Scriptural framework of this debate.
A central idea in Calvinistic theology is that God has predetermined which individuals will be saved – and, consequently, who will not be saved. Two main passages used in defense of this view are Romans 8 and Ephesians 1, which talk about predestination.
Romans 8 is a discussion of how we become children of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit that dwells in us. Verse 29 is the key verse for understanding predestination:
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
Calvinists believe that foreknowledge and predestination in this verse are practically synonymous. They argue that foreknowledge is not merely intellectual but implies choice and love. Throughout the Scriptures, knowledge is not merely about information, but implies relationship (e.g. Matthew 7:23, “I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”). Therefore, a Calvinist understanding of the verse might read like this (italics ours):
“For those God foreknew that he would call to be his own he also predestined to be saved, and therefore conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
Arminians have a variety of views on the exact nature of God’s foreknowledge, but all agree that this foreknowledge is derived from future events and does not cause them to be. Or, to phrase it another way, if I were to choose between X and Y, God knows my choice in advance but does not determine what my choice would be.
In addition to the different understanding of foreknowledge, Arminians have a differing understanding of predestination in this passage. Predestination here is not predetermining individuals to salvation. Rather, for those God foreknows will accept His offer of salvation, he has created a special destiny – to be conformed to and thus share in the image of Christ. An Arminian understanding of Romans 8:29 might look like this (italics ours):
“For those God foreknew would love him and answer his call and be saved he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (so that we who were made in God’s image, having being saved, will have that image restored), that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
Both readings are plausible. The correct reading depends greatly on what “foreknowledge” means, as well as the larger context of Romans. We do not have the space here to properly explore the former but will return to the latter further on in this article when we discuss Romans 9.
Another important passage regarding the topic of predestination is Ephesians 1. At first glance, this passage seems to clearly support the Calvinist view, with verses 4-5 reading:
“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”
Calvinists understand these verses as God choosing individuals for salvation even before the creation of this world. God’s choice of these individuals is entirely dependent on God’s “pleasure and will.” In this view, predestination of individuals is part of God’s overarching plan, as seen in verse 11, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
Arminians contend however, that the Calvinist interpretation misses an important point: the central issue that Paul is discussing in his letter to the Ephesians is reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles through Christ to form the Church. In this view, a careful reading of the subject matter and Paul’s use of the pronouns “us,” “we,” and “you” show that he is not discussing the salvation of individuals, but God’s plan to unite both Jew and Gentile in the Church.
The theme of reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles is spelled out in Chapters 2 and 3. In these passages, Paul repeatedly uses the word “you,” to refer to Gentiles (e.g. 2:11, “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands).” He describes how Gentiles were excluded from Israel, and how Jesus has torn down these walls so that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus,” (3:6). It is because of this, that “you” (the Gentile believers) “must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking,” (4:17).
Paul’s discussion of Jewish and Gentile believers actually begins in Chapter 1, and is apparent when close attention is paid to the use of the pronouns in verses 11-13.
“In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”
Here, “we” clearly refers to Jewish Christians, who “were the first to put [their] hope in Christ.” In contrast, “you” refers to the Gentile believers receiving Paul’s letter, who “also were included in Christ” later from a chronologically perspective. In both cases, the pronouns clearly refer to corporate groups rather than individuals. Arminians believe that in verses 4-5, Paul, anticipating the theme of Jew and Gentile, is emphasizing God’s choice of the Church, predestining both Jews and Gentiles to “adoption to sonship”. In this reading, the “us” of verse 4 refers not to individual Christians but rather to the corporate body of the Church. So the predestination that Paul is talking about here is not about individual salvation. Rather, just as God had chosen Israel in the past to be His people, God has now chosen the Church, ending the divide between Jews and Gentiles and bringing both into the family of God.
Some might ask, at this juncture, why God’s choice of groups rather than individuals matters for understanding salvation. We point back toward the history of Israel. While God chose the people of Israel to be His people, many individuals within Israel did not receive the benefits of God’s promises due to their disobedience and their rejection of God. On the other hand, there are accounts of persons such as Rahab and Ruth who began their lives outside of God’s chosen people, but who entered into this group by faith and thus received the blessings God had promised to Israel.
In the Ephesians passage above, we have already started to move from the subject of predestination to the subject of election. In our modern context, we associate elections with voting and democracy. The meaning of the word election, however, is simply to choose. For Calvinists, predestination and election are almost synonyms, both referring to God’s choice of those individuals who will be saved. Arminians contend that the object of predestination is context-specific (as discussed above) and election in the Scripture refers to purpose and service, not to salvation. Indeed, the Scriptures contain various references of how God has chosen some foreign nation and their king to accomplish a particular purpose (e.g. Cyrus of the Persians, Isaiah 45:1). Surely God’s choice of Cyrus has nothing to do with salvation.
The most noteworthy passage on election is Romans 9-11, a passage that has been the subject of extensive exegesis on both sides. Among contemporary Biblical scholars, John Piper and Ben Witherington are particularly well-known for their analysis of these chapters in defense of the Calvinist and Arminian perspectives respectively. The following is a very brief treatment of a complex and intertwined passage.
Before we get into the details of this passage, we have to begin by asking, what is Romans 9-11 – and Romans as a whole – about? The answer that Calvinists (and others) give, is that Romans is about justification by grace alone through faith alone. Calvinists go on to assert that in this context of salvation, Romans 9 clearly teaches that God is in meticulous control of all aspects of salvation including how we respond.
Calvinists point toward multiple passages in this section to support their belief that God elects people to salvation. They show the example of God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael and God’s choice of Jacob over Esau from before their birth (9:7-13); the example of God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, resulting in Pharaoh refusing to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt (9:14-18); and the inability of the people of Israel to recognize their Messiah (11:7-10). Perhaps the section that seems to most clearly support the Calvinist position is Chapter 9, verses 19-23:
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath— prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Arminians agree that justification by grace alone through faith alone is an important theme in the book of Romans. If this was all Paul was discussing – if Paul was explaining the process of salvation apart from any other context – the Calvinists would be correct in their assessment of Romans 9-11. However, we (the writers) see the status of the people of Israel as the particular context in which Paul discusses the topic of justification. This has important implications for understanding Romans 9-11.
Throughout Romans, and in Romans 9-11 in particular, Paul tackles the problem of God’s apparent rejection of Israel as His chosen people, an important question as most of the Jewish people had rejected the Church. This brings up the question of whether God is righteous and faithful – if God had not fulfilled His promises to Israel, will He now fulfill His promises to the Church? To answer this question, Paul examines how God has dealt with Israel in the past, makes the case that God has not indeed abandoned His people, Israel, and affirms that ultimately when the full number of Gentiles have come in “all Israel will be saved” (11:26).
If we accept this framework (that Paul is discussing the position of Israel as God’s chosen people), a different understanding of Romans 9-11 begins to emerge. Israel’s status as God’s chosen people is not an end in itself, but for Israel to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth (Genesis 12:3), according to God’s promise to Abraham. Indeed, the Jews understood themselves to be keepers and instructors of the truth (Romans 2:19- 21). Paul establishes that God has the right to choose whoever He will to fulfill His promise and Israel’s purpose, and that this reaches its fulfillment in the person of Jesus (10:4). Even in the problem that Paul tackles – Israel’s transgression and failure to recognize the Messiah – Gentiles were being blessed and grafted into God’s people (11:11-12), fulfilling Israel’s purpose!
Paul demonstrates that God has been faithful to His promises to Israel – upholding the integrity of God, and the reliability of all His promises.
With this in mind, God’s choices described in Romans 9-11 are not consignment of the individuals discussed to salvation or to reprobation, but rather God’s choosing them to accomplish specific purposes regarding Israel. God’s rejection of Esau as the heir to Abraham’s promise is not the same thing as God predestining Esau to hell. The emphasis in Romans 9 regarding Pharaoh is not eternal condemnation but the display of God’s power. And, the discussion of the pottery in verses 19-21 is not about “salvation” or “eternal destruction” but has to do with “special purposes” and “common- use.” Furthermore, in verses 22-23, God’s patience with “objects of His wrath” is not God postponing the punishment of those He has already condemned to eternal destruction, as is often claimed by Calvinists. Rather, in Ephesians 2:3, Paul makes clear that we believers were ourselves once “objects of wrath;” God’s patience with these “objects of wrath” is that they might become “objects of mercy” instead.
In his argument in Romans 9-11, Paul is explaining the role of Israel as God’s chosen people and how this is still true in spite of the welcoming in of the Gentiles and the turning away of most of the people of Israel. In the analogy of the olive tree in Chapter 11, there is continuity between Israel and the Gentiles – the tree is not replaced, but rather, branches are grafted in. And in this very passage there are conditions for breaking off and for grafting in the branches: unbelief and faith respectively (vs. 19) – which contradicts the Calvinistic idea that there are no conditions to receiving the benefits of salvation. It is consistent, however, with the Arminian view that while the offer of salvation is made unconditionally, the benefits of this gracious offer are only effective when received through faith alone (which God graciously enables, but does not force).
Universal Offer Of Salvation
Arminians believe that there are themes in the Scriptures that Calvinism fails to properly account for. We very briefly address two here: the universal offer of salvation, and warnings against falling away from the faith.
Arminians do not believe that everyone will be saved, but that the offer of salvation is genuinely available to all. Throughout the Scriptures, “all,” “the world,” and “everyone” are repeatedly used to describe who Christ died for and who God desires to be saved (John 1:29, John 3:16, John 12:32, 1 Timothy 2:5-6, Hebrews 2:9, 2 Peter 3:8-9, 1 John 2:1-2, etc.). This stands in contradiction to the belief, widely-held by Calvinists, that although the cross would be sufficient to save all, God only offers salvation to some, a doctrine called “limited atonement.” This is a necessary doctrine for Calvinists, as they believe that God’s offer of salvation is always effectual: those whom God calls are unable to reject His call. Since it is evident that there are non-believers, the Calvinist must believe that God does not call everyone.
Some Calvinists have tried to explain these passages by acknowledging that God does indeed desire that all would be saved, but that God has a higher and better desire (usually God’s glory) that must take precedence. Some Calvinists have also appealed to mystery to explain how God can simultaneously offer salvation to all and effectively limit it to some. Still other Calvinists say that all people receive some benefit from Jesus’ death (so Jesus did indeed die for all), but not all are offered salvation through His death. We find that these attempts to reconcile the language of the universal offer of salvation within these texts with the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement require stretching the understanding of the texts to the breaking point.
One passage that Calvinists have used to justify the idea of limited atonement is Romans 5:12-21, where verse 17 reads, “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” and verse 19 states, “through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” The Calvinists claim that this and other passages (Matthew 20:28, Matthew 26:28, John 10:15, Ephesians 5:25) show that only some receive the benefit of Jesus’ death, and thus Jesus only died for some.
Arminians have no problems with the first part of the claim – only those who receive God’s gift of righteousness benefit from Christ’ death and resurrection! However, nothing in these passages indicate that the offer of salvation is not made to all. The assertion that Jesus died for a particular group of people (“the many”) does not mean that Jesus died for only that group of people (e.g. 1 Timothy 4:10, That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”). On the contrary, if Jesus’ death is greater than Adam’s trespass (vs. 15-16), it would follow that His death must have some universal effect. Indeed, verse 18 states that “one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” The Calvinist assertion that the limited beneficiaries of Jesus’ death proves the limited offer of salvation only makes sense if one accepts the Calvinistic premise that God’s offer of salvation cannot be rejected. This is a premise that Arminians do not share.
Warnings Against Falling Away
Most Arminians believe that the Scriptures teach that falling away from salvation is possible and clear warnings to guard against this are not merely hypothetical. Calvinists, on the other hand, assert that it is not possible for a believer to lose their salvation as this would be a human rejection of God’s effectual call.
In our earlier discussion of Romans, we have already noted that in chapter 11:19, branches were broken off because of unbelief, which would suggest that falling away from the faith is a possibility. There are other passages with more direct warnings, such as Jesus’ parable of the vine in John 15:1-17, where if “you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (v. 6), and passages with examples of people who have “made a shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:18-20). These are not isolated passages; warnings on the subject are numerous with 1 Corinthians 8:11; 9:11-12, Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:12; 6:4-6; 10:26-29, James 5:19-20, and more discussing apostasy.
With all these Scriptural passages on falling away from the faith, what is the Calvinist rebuttal? There are two main Calvinist arguments. The first is that those who appear to have left the faith were never true Christians to begin with. 1 John 2:19 states “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” There are a few ways to interpret this verse, but even if we take it to mean that this group were false Christians rather than genuine Christians who have left the faith, Arminians would argue that this passage refers to a particular group of church-leavers, and should not automatically be generalized to all cases.
The second major Calvinist argument appeals to passages such as Romans 8:38-39, which states, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Other similar passages include John 10:28-29, Ephesians 4:30, and Jude 24. These are important passages, and Arminians point toward these verses to show that we can be assured of our salvation, and that God is more than capable of safe- guarding us. Still, we have to find a way to reconcile these teachings with the warnings against apostasy. The Calvinist view is that the warnings against apostasy are merely hypothetical or are warnings to those who are part of the church but are not truly elect – warnings that these non-elect would be unable to heed. Arminians think that a better way to hold these passages together is found in Jesus’ parable of the vine and branches – that so long as we remain in Christ and Christ remains in us, we are secure. Apostasy in the Arminian view is not something that happens accidentally, or through carelessness but by a deliberate choice (or series of choices) to leave the protection and security that God offers.
Of Making Exegesis there is No End, and Much Study Wearies the Body
(cf. Ecclesiastes 12:12)
If you have made it to the end of the article, thank you for walking through all this exegesis with us! As we stated at the beginning, however, we have merely scratched the surface. Wiser and more learned people on both sides of the issue have studied and written in much more depth than we have, and still the debate persists. What then can and should we take away from this study?
Let us begin by stating what we don’t expect to accomplish here. We do not expect to settle the 400 hundred year old debate on Arminian and Calvinistic theology. We do not expect to convince Calvinists who have already studied the topic in depth and come to their conclusions – though we do hope that any Calvinist readers seeing this sort of Arminian exegesis for the first time will take a deeper look with an open mind.
We stated at the beginning of this article that we hope that this series of articles will help us in the Methodist Church, to understand our doctrinal position and the Scriptures that support it. We hope that those who are challenged by Calvinists on their beliefs will see Arminian theology as credible, and be able to articulate and defend it – not that we want to promote dissension and antagonism over this issue, but we wish our members to be confident in what they believe. We hope that the work we have done shows that the Arminian position is Biblically-based and comes out of a reverence for Scripture. Our Calvinist brothers and sisters may believe we have an incorrect understanding of the Scriptures, but we hope they recognize that we, like them, are attempting to be faithful to God’s Word. And, if you as a reader are introduced to this debate as a result of our writings and find yourself in the Calvinist camp after studying the Scriptures – we gently (maybe vigorously!) disagree with you, but are thankful that you have found the task of studying God’s Word deeply worthwhile.
Our major exegetical work for this series of articles, incomplete as it is, ends here. In the following article, we will discuss common misunderstandings about Arminian theology. Some readers have inquired about references for further reading. That will come in the fourth and final article of the series, entitled, “Where Do We Go From Here?”
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