Optional page text here. The Beast's Lair: Providence and Free Will - Can A Person Say "No" To God?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Providence and Free Will - Can A Person Say "No" To God?

In a recent Lair post a comment was made raising the question of whether it was possible to resist, viz. "say no" to God, primarily in reference to salvation. This is one of those issues that has been debated for centuries, countless books and journal articles have been written, seminars have been conducted, churches have been split, and seemingly nice people turned into ravenous wolves. So, this is not the forum to go into nauseating detail the ins and outs of this controversial issue. What I would like to discuss is a very brief clarification of the two sides followed by my history and current belief.

The question of "can we say no" is in fact a question of the kind of grace God offers to sinful people. Most (not all) evangelical Christians will agree that humans are totally depraved. Sometimes referred to as the "T" in TULIP, this is the one point in the "5 Points of Calvinism" that both camps, Armininian and Calvinists, agree on. Total depravity is a descriptive reflection of the inability for humans, born into a sinful body, to please God. In short, there is nothing we are able to do that is pleasing to God, including have faith, because we are so corrupted by the fall. God would be completely just in allowing his wrath to destroy each and every human who ever lived. But, He is rich in mercy. (pause here and praise God today!) Even though we were completely and totally dead in our sins, God provided His grace so that we "might be raised up" with Christ. Read again with me the power of Ephesians 2:1-7:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience--among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

So, both "sides" agree that grace is required before salvation is possible. But, what is the nature of God's grace? Again, without going into too much detail, Arminians (those who would say humans can say "no") hold to what is call prevenient grace. Calvinists (those who would say humans cannot say "no") hold to what is called effectual (irresistible) grace.

Prevenient Grace of the Arminians describes God as initiating salvation by enabling the human to seek and choose God by placing faith in Christ. For this view, all are "elected" to salvation. Unfortunately, some will choose to not follow Christ, but they will be without excuse on judgment day because the grace sufficient for them to know and choose Christ was offered to all people. John Wesley solidified this view and it is by far the most common understanding of the way God works in salvation throughout our churches.

Effectual Grace of the Calvinists describes God as enabling those whom he has specifically chosen to seek and choose Christ. Since God has chosen them for salvation, when he extends his grace for them to believe, they will in certainty come to faith. In other words, it is impossible for a person who God chooses not be saved. Effectual Grace is coupled with "unconditional election." There is nothing we can do, not a single element of our person, that made God choose us. In His sovereignty and for His good pleasure, he elects those whom He will.

The difference between the two models is obvious. In the first, the final decision is up to the person. They either choose salvation or reject it. In the second, the final decision is up to God.

My journey through this difficult and important doctrine has been and continues to be challenged. I have in the past found myself somewhat contradicting myself. For as long as I have been preaching and teaching, I have stressed the providence of God. I have on audio cassette a message I preached several years ago simply called "The Providence of God." In the message I describe, rightfully so, the universal governing by God over all his creation so that not even a leaf falls to the ground without his counsel. If I could magically summon all the teenagers I have taught and all the laypeople to whom I have preached, the majority would say, I think fairly quickly, that what drives my theology is the bigness of God who controls all things. May God be glorified if they can say that about my ministry. But, having said that, I would never in the past make a clear argument concerning election despite the repetition of the question from curious laypeople. The two really just can't harmonize. If you trust the providential nature of God to bring about and govern all things, even the "sparrow", then how could God not govern what is absolutely most important to him, viz. the salvation of people? If one holds to the prevenient grace, ability to say no model, then that person is acknowledging that God does not bring about all things through his sovereignty, something most are willing to give up for the "greater good" defense of free will. For me, that is simply not an option. I am convinced that God controls, governs, and brings about all things. In short, all things are from God and for God.

What I, and most, will continue to struggle with is the "this just can't be" argument. To think that God would elect and effectually call some and not others is abhorrent to our understanding of fair play. No matter what the issue, this line of argument must be done away with! Scripture's teaching alone should shape our thinking about God. If we operated consistently out of a "this just can't be" mindset, we can do away with the Christian faith altogether. Let's face it, it just can't be that God is born a baby in a virgin's womb only to later raise from the dead.

The last word on this issue must be this: God saves sinners. He saves them by the Word being preached. He has called us to preach the Word! Both sides affirm the need to spread the Gospel to all nations, so that is where our convictions must rest at the end of the day. I will happily discuss the more delicate issues of theology with anyone, just so long as after the discussion, we both go share the Word with the lost.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoever is baptized and believes, is saved...Whoever does not believe is condemned.

Hmm...I wonder where that came from?

September 22, 2007 8:14 PM  
Blogger Bennett Willis said...

The confession of 1689 seems to address the issue clearly. It concludes that even if a person deliberately rejects Christ that he will be saved if he is among the elect. Conversely if a person is not among the elect he may be ministered to at length and claim to have accepted Christ and acted in all ways as a Christian, but he really is not and is condemned.

This strikes me as being the result of taking a conviction (the all powerful God) to an unreasonable conclusion.

Bennett Willis

September 23, 2007 6:16 PM  
Blogger Bennett Willis said...

It is the difference in an all volunteer army and one that is drafted. Or perhaps one made up of people who have been genetically cloned to instinctively join the army. Which would God rather have praising Him for all eternity?

Bennett

September 23, 2007 6:23 PM  
Blogger Kelly Klages said...

It's a good topic for discussion. But please do remember that there is more to Christianity and its views on election that Calvinism vs. Arminianism! Unfortunately, they're the ones that get all the air-time.

Lutherans certainly don't center their theology on "the bigness of God who controls all things" (i.e., sovereignty). Josh S. did a pretty good series of posts on the site of the Internet Monk about God's sovereignty and where Lutherans stand, and why you don't hear too much in that regard from this camp-- definitely worth checking out. There's a series of 5 posts.

Bennett-- I'd say it's a difference in a non-existent army which is dead and therefore not able to volunteer, and a living army which God has brought to life and claimed for his own. Which would God rather have praising him for all eternity? ;o)

September 25, 2007 3:22 AM  
Blogger The Beast said...

Thanks for the comments.

Part of the reason the Lutheran position is not mentioned too often in these contexts is because, by your synod's own declaration, it is impossible to give an answer. They acknowledge God's choice in predestination but do not hold to irresistible grace. I appreciate much of what the LCMS believes and stands for, but I find their position on God's actions vs. His sovereignty untenable.

September 26, 2007 12:03 AM  
Blogger Kelly Klages said...

I thought your own initial post pretty much came out and admitted that it's impossible to give an answer? Rather, the Scriptures are silent with regards to reconciling his love for all creation and his exclusive role in saving sinners, and therefore we can't supply an easy-to-understand, reason-based answer. That's a perfectly legitimate position. In fact, I've known "Reformed types" who have held just that position without recognizing it as Lutheran.

September 26, 2007 5:47 PM  
Blogger Mike Ruffin said...

Since I think I'm the one that raised the issue, I reckon I ought to say something in response to your post!

You said, "If you trust the providential nature of God to bring about and govern all things, even the 'sparrow', then how could God not govern what is absolutely most important to him, viz. the salvation of people? If one holds to the prevenient grace, ability to say no model, then that person is acknowledging that God does not bring about all things through his sovereignty, something most are willing to give up for the 'greater good' defense of free will."

There may be a difference between thinking, on the one hand, that God has so designed the world that eventually sparrows fall to the ground and that he knows about each one who does and thinking, on the other hand, that God has from eternity foreordained which sparrows will fall and which ones won't and when. Perhaps that bird that flew into my window and died was not lacking in God's grace but in flight skills. To quote the knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, "He chose poorly!"

Similarly, perhaps it is one thing to, on the one hand, believe that God has foreordained who will be be saved and who will be lost and another thing, on the other hand, to believe that God has from eternity predetermined that those who are in Christ will be saved. In that case, we stil have to choose well or poorly.

I have always been struck by the very first story in the Bible which sets the tone for all that follows. God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden and told Adam, "Don't." What meaning has that if the choice is not real? Yet when Adam and Eve chose poorly, God still showed them grace. In that is great hope.

Your argument about folks who believe in free will saying that effectual grace "just can't be" because it violates our sense of fair play could be argued in the opposite direction, it seems to me. Strict Calvinists seem to me to argue in the same way: free will "just can't be" because it violates their sense of the sovereignty of God.

I'll be the first to admit that many of us, myself included, have inappropriately talked too little about the sovereignty of God. But, surely that is a more nuanced doctrine than would be summarized, as Dale Moody, who taught at SBTS for decades, used to say: "If you're #7 seven you're going to heaven; if you're #6 you're in a fix."

September 28, 2007 9:52 AM  
Blogger The Beast said...

"Your argument about folks who believe in free will saying that effectual grace "just can't be" because it violates our sense of fair play could be argued in the opposite direction, it seems to me. Strict Calvinists seem to me to argue in the same way: free will "just can't be" because it violates their sense of the sovereignty of God."

I think this is a good point, and is probably something my good friend Kelly above would agree with. The focal point of the "it just can't be" argument was the ultimate need to let Scripture speak for itself. The Arminian position is just much easier to "latch on" to without any sincere study of Scripture. I don't know too many predestination people who just naturally fall to that position based on what makes sense intuitively. That is, of course, not a blanket statement about Arminians, many can make a very strong Scriptural defense of their belief.

Mike, have you seen the latest trend of "4 views" books? They are very helpful. Top scholars write a 20-30 page essay defending their position on that book's particular topic, and then each contributing scholar writes a 5-10 page response. So, in one book, you receive 4 well-written defenses of Scripture with 3 responses. It makes for an excellent way to learn the basis of certain points of view and objections to those claims all in one neat package.

September 28, 2007 1:06 PM  
Blogger Mike Ruffin said...

I have the one called "Four Views on Hell." I wonder what that says about my priorities?

September 28, 2007 1:29 PM  
Blogger Tim Kuehn said...

Before getting all twisted up about people being, look at what can happen to people after they've been saved, and then fall away. The NT discusses what happens to people who "crucify Christ anew" and fall away after they've been saved.

How does that affect the two models you've posted here?

September 30, 2007 8:43 AM  

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