*Author’s note: this post organizes the framework in a new way which should be more intuitive, and replaces the earlier posts. Further updates to this series will be uploaded as follow-up to this post*
The key question is whether an unsaved person is capable of responding to God
Even if it were acknowledged to be true that God chooses certain people for salvation (and, by extension, that God chooses to not save everyone else), it would be a logical fallacy to conclude that we must not have genuine freedom in whether we are chosen for salvation. The key is to examine God’s revealed criteria for choosing one person for salvation versus another – faith in Jesus Christ for remission of sins – and to ask if we have genuine choice in whether we come to such a saving faith. It is not productive for the debate to focus on God’s characteristics, e.g. love versus holiness, for it is impossible to fully understand God. Rather, the proper arena is anthropology: whether an unsaved person is constitutionally capable of positively responding to God.
The Calvinist says no and such an understanding of “total depravity” underpins determinism
The Calvinist-Augustinian would say no: an unsaved person cannot respond to God and therefore cannot freely choose to receive the Biblical promises of salvation, such as what is proclaimed in John 3:16. Therefore, in order for anyone to be saved, God must sovereignly choose to enable certain individuals to believe and be saved, based on unrevealed criteria (which override the revealed criteria of faith, since that is unobtainable). Unconditional election (“U”) is a logical extension of Calvinist-Augustinian total depravity (“T”), and the L, I, and P of TULIP are subsequently deduced. It becomes evident that “T” underpins the entire deterministic theological framework of salvation.
An inductive Scripture study suggests that unsaved people are capable of responding to God, and
An alternative to this deductive reasoning is an inductive approach to Bible study. A plain, normal interpretation of Scriptural salvation testimonies suggests that unsaved people are free to accept or suppress the Spirit’s conviction of sins; those who accept are granted more revelation and understanding and are led to salvation. These passages much factor into the interpretation of theological passages concerning salvation, as Scripture cannot contradict itself. Genuine human free will is preserved under this framework, working with a God who is sovereign in setting the criteria of salvation: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.
Saving faith requires external input (from God), but this does not strip us of genuine freedom
Since the question of faith is central, it must be defined prior to further examination. Saving faith has three components: hearing and understanding the gospel message, and mentally assenting to its objective truth; conviction that the gospel message applies personally – that we are sinful and in need of a savior; and appropriation by turning to Jesus for forgiveness of sins and salvation. God must enable saving faith, as we cannot “force” ourselves to truly believe something arbitrarily (imagine forcing yourself to believe the sky is green). What we believe is a product of our experiences and requires an external input. This external input comes from God, the author and perfecter of our faith, in many forms, from the incarnation of the Son, who is the Word, to the drawing and conviction ministries of the Father and Spirit, to natural revelation, and to the revealed Scriptures.
Although saving faith involves an exercise of the will, it is better described as a response than a choice: a sovereign God has imposed the criteria of saving faith upon the world, and people are required to respond. Not to mention, none of us can even respond to God unless God graciously first chose to reveal Himself to us and to die on a cross for our sins. With this in mind, it is inappropriate to view people as “choosing” God or salvation. Indeed, we don’t have a choice in what we believe – what we believe is a product of the information we have received, as well as our response to that information (whether we deny it, or accept it). While our response can technically be described as a choice, it is a choice made under constraints established by God. Therefore, it is better termed as a response.
This brings us back to the central question which will swing the debate one way or the other: is an unsaved person free to positively respond to these inputs, or is the Calvinist-Augustinian understanding of total depravity correct and an unsaved person is unable to respond to God? The Scriptures provide many examples of the former, of a passive recipient of grace, who may have once resisted the Spirit and suppressed the Truth in unrighteousness, but is longer resisting and yielding to conviction of sins and need for a savior; who is subsequently guided from ignorance to understanding and led to a saving knowledge of the Lord.