Most people are aware that though Protestants mostly share a common understanding of our Christian faith, there are also differences. Many of those differences are relatively superficial (such as whether or not we have an altar in our churches) but there are some substantive disagreements as well. In this Fish Hooks we’ll try to address a very fundamental point of dispute: Do we have ‘free will’ regarding our own salvation? Or is our ultimate fate ‘predestined’ by God? (Or is it somehow both?)
Within Protestantism there is a running debate between two major theories, known as Calvinism, and Arminianism. (Lutherans, as we shall see, don’t accept either theory as Biblical.)
John Calvin (1509-1564) was a French-Swiss Reformer who read passages such as Romans 9:10-18, which clearly states God’s sovereign control over human destinies, to mean that there is really no such thing as human ‘free will’ – some are predestined for salvation and can’t resist God’s grace, and all others are predestined for damnation. If you are one of the fortunate ones chosen for salvation, you cannot fall away, and if you are chosen for damnation, nothing can alter that fate. Consistent with this theory, Calvinism holds that Christ didn’t die for everyone, but only for the ‘elect.’
Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian who couldn’t reconcile Calvin’s position with the many passages in the Bible, such as 1 Timothy 2:1-6, that tell of God’s desire to save everyone and which speak of how Christ died for all. Arminius argued that when scripture speaks of predestination it is really just a way of expressing God’s foreknowledge of what decisions each individual will ultimately make. Logically then, the decision to follow Christ is up to the individual: salvation can be chosen, and also lost if a believer subsequently lapses into unbelief. Arminianism restores the idea of human free will but says that fallen humans have the ability to ‘cooperate’ in their salvation – an idea that scripture doesn’t support.
Some denominations, such as Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian, hold strictly to the Calvinist theory, whereas Methodists, Holiness churches (Nazarene, etc.), and Assemblies of God hold to Arminianism. Both theories may be found within Baptist, Episcopal, and non-denominational churches. As one might expect, this can lead to some very passionate discussions since both are quite logical systems of belief — that is, so long as one accepts certain passages of scripture as fundamental and ‘interprets’ other passages of scripture in that light. For example, Calvinists understand the ‘all’ in passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 to mean ‘all of the elect.’
Lutherans generally don’t get involved in this debate. Our position is that we must accept at face value everything that scripture says about salvation, even if we can’t understand how all the pieces fit together. Thus, we hold that it is God’s desire that all mankind be saved by Christ’s sacrifice for all humanity, but we can resist; that we have no ability to chose our own salvation – it’s all God’s doing – but do have the freedom to reject it. We live confidently in the Bible’s numerous assurances that the God who has chosen us will assure our salvation, yet we also take seriously the many warnings against ‘back sliding.’ In short, rather than trying to reconcile the ‘paradox’ of how divine predestination and human free will can coexist, we simply accept the plain Biblical assertions that they somehow do.
It’s been said that both Calvinism and Arminianism are consistent logically, but not Biblically; Lutheranism is consistent Biblically, but not logically. But how does this ‘illogic’ work in practice? We follow scripture! Just as a physicist must treat a photon as alternately a particle or a wave where appropriate, we Lutherans apply the appropriate scriptural principle for the situation. When we are tempted to take our salvation for granted, we remember that our poor choices can put us in mortal danger. But when our guilt overwhelms us, and our salvation seems hopeless, we remind ourselves that God Himself has named us for salvation, and will never let go.
“… [you should] work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Ephesians 2:12-13).