Monday, September 10, 2012

Election, Free Will, Sovereignty, and Responsibility- Some Thoughts

Sometimes, it's the questions that others ask that force you to put your thoughts on paper (or a computer). Here are some of mine on an issue that was raised today...

Presently, one of the biggest points of contention in the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination where I am a member, is that concerning God's sovereignty in salvation, free-will, election, etc. This is not a recent development in Baptist history, nor in protestant debates. At this time 400 years ago, the controversy was in full swing in Holland. In 1610, the followers of Jacob Arminius drafted what is known as the remonstrants- five articles of contention with the Calvinism that was present in their day. Eight years later in response, representatives from the Reformed churches from various countries in Europe wrote their own articles, broadly known today as the five points of Calvinism. When the Southern Baptist Convention was formed for the purpose of missions cooperation in 1845, there was no consensus on these issues, and there remains none today.

Whether Reformed or Arminian (some would say, Non-Calvinist) in their view of salvation, either side will agree in the existence of what Scripture terms the "elect." The former believes these have been chosen by God from eternity past for salvation, based on nothing foreseen in them. The latter, that God foresaw the future faith that certain individuals would exercise, and thus elected them to salvation. In either case, there must be agreement that only the elect will be saved- there is no more added to that number or subtracted from it than was foreknown by God prior to creation. The Great Commission, given by Christ to his followers, is the work the Lord's people do in bringing these men and women to believe by taking the Gospel to the corners of the earth. The certainty of their salvation provides great confidence in those who have been called to minister in the darkest regions of the world.

Both sides have their difficulties. If they did not, then there would be no dispute. Both sides can use Scripture to support their view. If they could not, then neither has any ground for argument. The Reformed view, it is argued, presents God as unfair by choosing some and not others. Because at the point of his choosing the elect no one (in the mass of humanity, or possible humanity) had done anything right or wrong, it appears to those who dissent to be arbitrary and unloving. In opposition, the Arminian view posits free will as the answer. Here, they say, God has sovereignly granted free will to his creatures so that they may choose for themselves whether or not they might come to him for salvation. The thought might be to remove God and his lack of equity from the equation and place the onus completely on man, but instead of solving the problem, it simply moves it. God chose to make this world just as it is, with all foreknowledge of future events. No doubt, he could have chosen to make a world where sin would not have existed, or where all people would come to salvation, or any other world we might think is more fair, or where God seems more loving, etc. (Seeing this as a problem, some in the Arminian stream formed the opinion that in order for God to be seen as completely loving and fair pertaining to salvation, He must not know all future events. They say, the future is open [Open Theism]. None inside mainstream evangelicalism hold this view, nor should they).

But He did not make those worlds. God made the world that He did for the supreme purpose of demonstrating his glory, to His praise, by His people. Paul, in speaking of the wonders of the Gospel, mentions this purpose three times in the first fourteen verses of Ephesians. God made a world where sin would exist, and as existant, would lead to the crucifixion of his Son- the most heinous of sins. This was not a back-up plan, but the only plan, ordained by God (Acts 2:23), for He was the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world. With his blood He has ransomed a rebellious people from their sins, cleansing them and propitiating an angry God. Having been children of wrath, they are now adopted sons and daughters. What a glorious Savior! And this was God's intention.

Both sides agree that grace is necessary for anyone to believe in the gospel, therefore eliminating the idea that man is capable on his own to come to faith in Christ. Being fallen in his reason, affections and will, Scripture describes the unregenerate man as dead in his trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), as a follower of the prince of this world (v.2), as a son of disobedience (v.3), blinded by Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4), and the like. Dead men can't walk and blind men can't see without some sort of intervention. Here is where God's grace is necessary, made possible through the preaching of the Gospel. The Reformed believe that grace does everything- regenerating the heart, bringing it to a place where it wills to receive Christ, and does so. The Arminian believes that grace takes the person, and their will, to a state where they can either accept or refuse the call of the Gospel. 

Within the pages of Scripture, there are many tensions, but the greatest of these is that of God's sovereignty, and the responsibility of man. If God is said to be sovereign over all things- the events that occur in history, the kings of the earth, each lightning bolt from heaven, and the salvation of men, the question arises, "how can man be responsible for his own actions?" The Apostle Paul asks this same question, and addresses it in Romans 9:19 and following, and it is here we arrive back at the argument of free will. No one comes to Christ unwillingly, but the question is why does he come? Scripture never divorces the parallel truths of sovereignty and responsibility. Preaching on this issue, Charles Spurgeon states: "They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring."

Regardless of the theology one holds, we can clearly see in Scripture that God calls Christians to preach and teach the Gospel to everyone, without distinction. Whether the elect are ordained or foreseen by God, Southern Baptists, and all evangelicals are to carry out the Great Commission with the confidence that God will bring to Himself a people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Injury is done to the unity of His people and to the Gospel when we caricature one another, or build straw men that do not exist, so that we can quickly tear them down. There will continue to be dialogue on this issue, as evidenced by the recent panel formed by the SBC executive committee to begin discussions on soteriology. These have been cordial and productive thus far, as they should be, but judging from our history, and that which precedes it, these issues are far from decided.

For those who have continued to read (thanks), I'd like to close with the words of Spurgeon (read the whole sermon here), who was always instructive, eloquent, and insightful: "Now, with regard to myself; you may some of you go away and say, that I was Antinomian in the first part of the sermon and Arminian at the end. I care not. I beg of you to search the Bible for yourselves. To the law and to the testimony; if I speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in me. I am willing to come to that test. Have nothing to do with me where I have nothing to do with Christ. Where I separate from the truth, cast my words away. But if what I say be God's teaching, I charge you, by him that sent me, give these things your thoughts, and turn unto the Lord with all your hearts."

In Christ,