This is session 2 of an 8-part series which will help readers study the Bible and come to their own conclusions regarding Calvinism. Please see session 1 for an overview of these 7 weeks and further background on this series.
A review of session 1
Last time, we looked at several verses used to support Calvinism, and saw that they do not deny the possibility of genuine human choice in salvation. To revisit our definition of the libertarian viewpoint, this does not necessarily entail unsaved people taking positive steps towards God. The Lord is the active seeker and those who stop resisting the Spirit’s conviction of sins and need of a savior are led to salvation.
There is no Bible verse which explicitly states that there is genuine human choice in salvation; likewise, there is no Bible verse which explicitly states that there is no genuine human choice in salvation. If there were, the entire conversation would be over. However, many portions of Scripture can be interpreted in a manner that infers one or the other.
The essential question: whether an unsaved person is inherently able to respond
This is key for our entire study: the essential question of genuine human choice in salvation is whether an unsaved person is inherently able to respond to God. More technical words for inherently (which may be encountered in other readings), include ontologically, or constitutionally. A person convicted by God is enabled to believe in and receive Jesus Christ as savior. We will cover the dynamics of believing, or saving faith, in Session 4.
Is responding to God’s conviction analogous to walking, or flying? Does God need to regenerate the person and thereby override the will, or is a person inherently capable of being led by God to salvation?
We will delve into this question in parts 3 and 4. But first, we will visit some verses on election and predestination this week (these are likely the verses deemed last week to lean more heavily towards the compatibilist understanding), and show how these verses too hinge on this question of inherent ability to respond.
Assuming they are not random, choices are made based on criteria. Only if that criteria isn’t revealed, or is unattainable for the recipient, can the choice be said to be unconditional
When God chooses (elects) some person, God exercises free will. God’s sovereignty in choosing is in determining and revealing (or not revealing) His criteria of choosing. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the recipient of that choice does not have agency in being chosen, unless one or more of the following four are true:
- A) such criteria is unattainable;
- B) such is unrevealed; or
- C) the recipient is unable to communicate with or otherwise respond to the chooser
- D) the recipient is chosen randomly
A simple illustration may help: let’s say I tell my friends that I will sing them a song under the following conditions:
- If they can jump 100 feet (this is A, unattainable criteria)
- I don’t tell them this, but sing to them if they were born in March (this is B, unrevealed criteria)
- My friends are rabbits (this is C, where the recipients cannot communicate with or otherwise respond to me)
- My friends pick straws, and whoever picks the short straw has the misfortune of hearing my voice (this is D, random choice)
- If they buy me lunch (in this case, I am choosing them, but my friends have agency in whether they are chosen)
The Calvinist understanding of election is built upon the belief that people inherently are unable to respond to God. Therefore, the criteria God has set forth for salvation (believing) is unattainable. God has additional, unrevealed criteria whereby He provides selective grace to a portion of humanity, who are saved. In other words, A, B, and C are true for the Calvinist understanding of election; however, the underlying and critical assumption is C) — that people are unable to respond to God.
Such “unconditional” election is an axiomatic extension of the compatibilist viewpoint we reviewed in part 1 (God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. This doesn’t violate human choice because left on our own, we all choose hell, and God changes the wills of the chosen (the elect) so that they want to be saved. God saves all of the elect by giving them the ability to believe). From a human perspective, this choice unto salvation is arbitrary.
Whether election is for service, or for salvation, it is still based on criteria because God is a rational God who does not act on chance
Scripture is very clear that God chooses (or elects) people. He chooses people for service, and He chooses Christians for sanctification and glorification. Since God is beyond time, His choice can be said to have been made in eternity past (pre-appointment, or as it is commonly translated, predestination) and it can also be said to be an ever-present reality (God chooses).
It is debated whether God chooses people for eternal salvation, and that can be considered a hot topic in certain debate circles today. However, for this week, we will grant that God does choose people for salvation, in order to demonstrate a point: even if God chooses people for salvation, whether that choice is conditional or unconditional (from a human perspective) depends on whether an unsaved person is inherently able to respond to conviction of sins and need for a savior, which results in being led to salvation.
Two illustrative examples from John 6
Let’s revisit John 6:37, where Jesus says, “Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me.” At face value, this sentence is structured, “A (every person whom the Father gives to Jesus) equals B (that person will come to Jesus).” The sentence does not demand causality; it does not say that A (Father’s giving) causes B (coming to Jesus). Perhaps an illustrative example would help: all purple plants are poisonous. Does this necessarily mean that purple plants are poisonous because they are purple?
However, in order to make a point, we will allow for the most action-oriented rendering of the word give, so that people come because of the Father’s giving. This is not the only tenable way to interpret this verb, but even so, this verse would still only demand unconditional election and compatibilism if an unsaved person is inherently unable to believe.
It is perhaps difficult to imagine how a more action-oriented rendering of give changes the tenor of the verse, so we will illustrate with this following example:
- Imagine I am in a room with many adults. I am the Father, and you are Jesus, and you are on the planet Jupiter. Here is an illustration of an action-oriented rendering of the verb give: I physically pick up some of these adults (I’m Father God and can do whatever I want), fly them across space, and give them to you on Jupiter. The adults come to you because I gave them to you. They are unable to come to you under their own power or will.
Let’s ask the question – why did I pick some people, and not others, for a space trip to Jupiter? In other words, what are my criteria for election?
The Calvinist would say because of my sovereign, inscrutable will. Well, just between you and me (since you are my Son), I will reveal to you: I picked those who were born in July, and it was my will that they were born in July. This would be unconditional election (from man’s perspective). Or, what if I told you, I told them that I would provide free rides to Jupiter if they wore jeans today? That would be conditional election.
At this point, the Calvinist may say, “the choice must be unconditional because nobody would believe Jesus on their own,” and the non-Calvinist may say, “the choice is conditioned on receiving Jesus.” But even taking the most action-oriented rendering of the verb give does not demand one or the other understanding. The key is whether a person is inherently able to respond to God’s conviction; if the answer is yes, then God no longer needs to [unconditionally] regenerate people so they do believe.
John 6:44-46 and the drawing ministry of the Father
John 6:44-46 states that No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who hears and learns from the Father comes to me
This is a plain statement that everyone who is raised up by Jesus on the last day (has eternal life) has been drawn by the Father, which enables the person to come to Jesus. This is also a plain statement that if a person has heard and learned from the Father, that person will come to Jesus.
Therefore, these words state that every person who comes to Jesus for salvation has:
- Been drawn by the Father, and
- Heard and learned by the Father.
Jesus would quote the Old Testament to prove or clarify His statements, and there is no reason to not believe this is the case here. “And they will all be taught by God” is an Old Testament reference from Isaiah, and clarifies His statement about drawing and coming. Therefore, a natural understanding from this is that the Father draws through the revelation and teaching of the Word.
This harmonizes with our definition of believing, revelation, and conviction (which will be discussed in further detail in Session 4). In order to believe, one must receive necessary information. This is where drawing comes in: the ministry by which people hear and learn from the Father, through the Bible. The drawing and convicting ministries work together to enable a person to come to Jesus for salvation.
This will be discussed further in Session 9 on Arminianiam, but this verse has given Arminians issues because a normal reading is that all the Father draws, Jesus will raise up on the last day. In other words, the drawing is effectual and limited (similar to the giving in John 6:37). Drawing cannot be synonymous to prevenient grace under the Arminian framework.
However, even if we were to accept this interpretation, it would not necessitate unconditional election. We would then ask the question, similar to what was asked regarding John 6:37 – why does the Father draw some, and not others? While the Calvinist would say this is an unconditional choice, it can also be said that the Father draws those who have heard and learned (which would entail a personal acceptance of sinfulness and need for a savior).
When one hears and understands the Gospel, the Father draws the person to Jesus, gives the person to Jesus, who died for the person’s sins, and the person trusts Jesus as savior, and is raised up on the last day.
Predestination and Ephesians 1
Let’s take one more verse on election and predestination, this time from Ephesians 1 (verses 4-5 and 11), and apply this same line of thinking: For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love. He did this by predestining us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of his will … In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession, since we were predestined according to the one purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.
It can be pointed out that Ephesians 1:4 doesn’t say God chose us to be in Christ, but rather that God chose us [who are in Christ] to be holy. In this case, it is an election to sanctification (or, to put it another way, a guarantee of sanctification to each believer and therefore a promise of eternal security). Similarly, verse 11 indicates that Christians are predestined to be claimed as God’s own possession.
However, to make a point, let’s assume that predestination here is unto salvation (as well as sanctification and being claimed as God’s possession), and consider its implications under the framework of inherent ability to believe.
- There was a moment in time where I stopped “kicking against the goads” and accepted God’s conviction of sin and need of a savior. I received Jesus and was born again. In heaven the Lord says to me, I have always known you and loved you, and it was the fore-ordained destiny of anyone who doesn’t reject Me, to be with Me forever.
Since God is outside of time, everything can be thought of as predestined, from salvation to daily stock market prices. The question that is up for debate is whether people have genuine agency in affecting their eternal destinies.
This week’s exercises
Study and ponder over other verses pertaining to election and predestination, the same way John 6 and Ephesians 1 have been discussed here. I hope you will come to the conclusion that whether God’s choice is unconditional from man’s perspective hinges upon whether people inherently are able to respond to God’s conviction.
Some verses to consider:
- Romans 8:28-30
- 1 Corinthians 2:7
- 1 Thessalonians 1:4
- Titus 1:1
- 1 Peter 1:1-2
- Revelation 13:8
We will review Romans 9, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, and Acts 13:48 in part 6.
Some musings on election and predestination
This is unrelated to this week’s discussion and exercises.
Scripture reveals why God elects and predestines us, but doesn’t describe in detail the how other than it is according to God’s will. An elect person is unsaved, until he or she is saved. How does God guarantee this outcome? Could it be possible that election and pre-destination means that God guarantees – to those who would believe – that their physical lives would be preserved until they receive enough information to believe? Could this be the reason behind many sovereign acts of God, from the rise and fall of nations, to where and when one is born, to immigration patterns?
Such a proposition seems utterly impossible from a human perspective, especially given the existence of evil, and there is absolutely no hint of it in Scripture. This could be for an all-important reason as receiving such a promise this side of eternity would destroy missionary zeal.
Yet Jesus gave a promise in John 7:17: If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will know about my teaching, whether it is from God or whether I speak from my own authority. Jesus was addressing a crowd that included unbelievers, and this was a promise to those who want to obey God, that they will learn about Jesus. I would imagine that this includes salvation truth and the opportunity to believe and receive it.
The Calvinist would view this as the Lord giving an offer that cannot be received without divine enablement. But what if this is a genuine offer to all, including those who have yet to be born again to eternal life? What if John 7:17 is the promise that Cornelius and Lydia claimed on their spiritual journey to salvation, the very election and predestination promise which God accomplished according to His will?
Session 6: Romans 9, Acts 13:48, and 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14
Session 7: Understanding predestination
Session 8: Comparison with Arminianism
Session 9: Big picture suggests one of God genuinely striving with humanity