Section 6: Salvation — Part 1
Digging Deeper Topic: Does God Really Choose Who Is Saved and Who Isn’t?
WHERE DOES FREE WILL COME INTO PLAY?
The doctrine of election, as we defined it in the daily readings, is a controversial subject. The controversy arises because it sounds like we’re saying some people never have a chance when it comes to salvation. If God determines who will come to faith, doesn’t that mean none of us have a choice in the matter? God either forces us to believe or we’re out of luck.
The controversy over election is intimately related to philosophical debates over free will. We started to touch on the subject of free will in the Digging Deeper section on divine providence. At that time, we briefly surveyed three views on God’s control over events in our world — Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism. As you may recall, Calvinists argue God’s plan determines how events unfold down to the smallest details. Human choices are no exception. Arminianists and Open Theists on the other hand worry this implies we don’t have free will. If God determined everything in advance, our decisions are fixed. And if our decisions are fixed, we’re powerless to do anything else. That doesn’t sound much like free will to Arminianists and Open Theists.
For the most part, we side-stepped the issue, saving it until this section because the tension between God’s sovereign plan and our free will is felt most strongly when we ask how someone comes to put their faith in Christ. The tension is felt so strongly at this point because our eternal destinies turn on this one decision and it hardly seems fair to hold us accountable if our choice isn’t made freely.
Because this is such an important subject, we’re going to delve a little deeper and ask what it means to say we possess free will when it comes to choosing faith in Christ. At the outset, it is important to note the vast majority of us intuitively believe we possess free will. As a result, if the doctrine of election implies that we aren’t free – at least when it comes to the most important choice we could make – that would be a significant, if not fatal, objection against it.
The question is: does the doctrine of election implicitly eliminate human free will? The answer depends on how you define free will. And that’s a thorny issue because theologians and philosophers differ on what it means to be free. There are two main views. Let’s take a closer look at each.
A Libertarian Account of Free Will
Some argue for what is known as libertarian freedom. According to this definition, the essence of free will is the power of contrary choice. In other words, when I make a free choice, I wind up choosing one thing, but I actually could have chosen something else. To get a sense of what this means in practice, consider the following example:
As I’m writing, I’m in a great little coffee shop. Before I sat down, I ordered a small cup of coffee and a refill. What factors went into that choice? Well, I plan on being here for a while, and getting just one cup might make me look like a freeloader. I could have gotten a large mocha latte. But that wouldn’t have been very manly (especially since I normally ask them to make it a skinny, no fat latte with organic soy milk). I could have gotten a bottomless cup. But I don’t really need that much caffeine.
Each of those factors had an impact on my choice. According to a libertarian account of free will, however, they only influence my choice; they don’t determine it. No matter how many factors you cite, they never exert enough influence to definitively cause me to choose as I do. For me to be free, there must be a gap between my influences and my ultimate choices. So, even though all the influences pointed toward me choosing the small coffee and a refill, there was still a real chance I might choose the mocha latte because my influences don’t determine my choices. That gap is what leaves space for free will.
A Compatibilist Account of Free Will
Other philosophers and theologians define free will differently. They opt for a view known as compatibilism (i.e. human free will is compatible with events and choices being determined in some way). According to compatibilism, the essence of free will is freedom from coercion by external forces. What makes my choice free is the fact that I choose what I want most at that particular time. In one sense, that means my choice is determined because I will inevitably make my choice based on whatever desire is strongest at the moment. But my choice is still a free choice because it is determined by forces within me. I am the one making the choice.
Going back to the coffee shop illustration, anyone who was fully aware of the factors affecting my decision would have been able to predict with certainty beforehand that I would order a small cup of coffee and a refill. If you were aware of my insecurity, for instance, you would have known I wouldn’t choose the mocha latte. If you knew I wanted to avoid looking like a freeloader, you would have known I wouldn’t choose a single cup. If you knew how jittery I get when I order the bottomless cup, you would have known I wouldn’t choose the bottomless, etc. As you accounted for every factor that could affect my decision, you’d eventually zero in on the choice I’d make. Even though my choice is determined in that way, from the compatibilist perspective, my choice is nevertheless a free choice because my desires determine the choice. I am the one doing the choosing.
As you might expect, Calvinist theologians opt for a compatibilist understanding on free will. Arminianists and Open Theists on the other hand take a libertarian position, which causes them to redefine the concept of election to avoid any suggestion that we don’t determine our own fate. Assessing the competing views on election therefore requires an assessment of the relative merits of the competing views on free will. That’s a complicated issue, but we’ll attempt to sort out the debate in the next section.
ARE OUR CHOICES RANDOM?
In the previous section, we set out two very different definitions of free will. Is one superior to the other? Some believe the libertarian perspective on free will is superior to compatibilism because it fits better with our understanding of human responsibility. The argument is that we hold people responsible for their actions because we believe they could have chosen to do something other than they did. As a result, they deserve praise when they choose to do something good and condemnation when they choose to do something bad. If that’s an accurate explanation, the libertarian account of free will is thought to be superior because it specifically says people have the ability to choose differently where the compatibilist view doesn’t. As we’ll see however, there is a subtle but significant problem with the libertarian account.
I was a fan of the series Breaking Bad when it was on. The show was about a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher named Walter who discovers he has cancer and decides to start selling meth with a former student. Almost immediately his life starts spiraling out of control.
Why did Walter start down such a disturbing path? If you watched the show, you’d probably say a number of factors came into play. He did it because he loved his family and needed a substantial amount of money to provide for them after he was gone; he was too proud to take financial help from family or friends; as a chemistry teacher, he had the requisite skill for making the meth; and no other job provided an opportunity for him to make the kind of money he needed.
From a libertarian perspective however, those factors did not determine his choice. As we’ve seen, according to a libertarian account of free will, there’s always a gap between our choice and the factors influencing that choice.
A Bad Break
Now imagine we take a trip to an alternate universe and meet an alternate Walter. Everything in alternate Walt’s universe is exactly the same as in our Walter’s universe. Alternate Walt has the exact same personality as our Walter, the exact same wife and family, the exact same job, the exact same set of experiences, the exact same desires, etc. The question is: would alternate Walt make the same decision to start selling meth?
According to a libertarian account of free will, he might not. That’s because our influences do not determine our choices. As a result, even though all the influences in alternate Walt’s life are exactly the same, he is nevertheless free to choose differently. But there’s a subtle problem here. If the exact same person can make different choices in the exact same circumstances, there’s nothing that can explain why our Walter makes one choice and alternate Walt makes another.
If that’s true, why should alternate Walt be praised and our Walter condemned? Alternate Walt didn’t make a better choice because he was smarter or because he had a better character. His intelligence and character were exactly the same as our Walter’s. On a libertarian account of freedom, the choices they ultimately make appear to come down to a matter of chance. Nothing else can account for the different choices because everything is exactly the same. In the end, alternate Walt was lucky he made the choice he did and our Walter just caught a bad break (forgive the pun).[i]
The trouble is we typically think of human responsibility as more than a matter of chance. We praise and condemn people because we believe their actions say something about who they are as a person. If Walter lived in your community, for example, how would you feel about him? He led a former student into a life of crime, put his family at risk, and caused the deaths of numerous people. You’d probably be outraged and believe he deserved, at a minimum, to be locked up for a long time. Why? Because he made a series of purely random decisions? No. Because he was the kind of person who would make those decisions.
In the end, that is why I opt for a compatibilist perspective on free will.[ii] The choices we make aren’t a matter of chance. We make choices based on who we are and what we want, and that is why we feel comfortable holding each other accountable for our actions.
At this point you may be thinking, “That’s great, but what does any of this have to do with the doctrine of election?” Hopefully, the connection will become clearer in the next section as we begin to apply our discussion of free will to the specific choice to put one’s faith in Christ.
CAN WE TURN TO CHRIST ON OUR OWN?
If the above description of free will is accurate, our choices don’t arise as a matter of chance. They flow out of who we are. That reality has a profound impact on our understanding of how someone comes to faith in Christ when we consider the effects of the Fall.
The Impact of our Sinful Nature
In the Humanity section, we noted that sin is now part of our DNA. It infects our thoughts, emotions, desires, and actions. That means, when we make choices, we no longer start from a place of neutrality. We now have a natural inclination toward sin. Due to this sinful inclination, we no longer naturally want what God wants. In fact, we don’t naturally want anything to do with God. As Paul says,
For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom. 3:9a-18)
That means if any of us are going to turn to Christ, we need God to intervene. In fact, given the depth of our sinfulness, we need God to intervene in a dramatic way.
Now, if God must step in and overcome the effects of sin before we can turn to Christ, what about those who do not turn to Christ? It sounds like we’re suggesting God decided not to intervene in their case. Many find that troubling because it means some of us never had a chance. Since we all start off with a sinful nature, everything boils down to whether God chooses to overcome the effects of sin for us. If he doesn’t, we’re out of luck.
How Does God Deal with Our Sinful Nature?
Does He Put Us in a Neutral State?
In order to acknowledge the problem of sin but avoid the implication that God determines who is saved and who isn’t, some theologians introduce a concept known as prevenient grace.[iii] Although we all inherit a sinful nature as a result of the Fall, through prevenient grace, God neutralizes the effects of sin and restores our ability to freely choose to put our faith in him. God, however, doesn’t make that choice for us. The Fall robbed us of free will in a sense by inhibiting our ability to turn to God, but God has sufficiently reversed the effects of the Fall to bring us back to a state of neutrality. We don’t automatically turn to him, but we once again have the ability to do so.
The advantage of prevenient grace is that it places the responsibility squarely on us if we don’t put our faith in Christ. God restored our ability to do it. If we don’t, that’s our fault. We can’t blame God.
Election gets redefined in this framework. It no longer refers to God’s decision to save specific individuals. Instead election is understood as a reference to God’s decision to save a particular class of people–anyone who happens to have faith.
Do We Need Him to Do Something More?
Prevenient grace attempts to do justice to the biblical description of the effects of the Fall, but there’s a problem. Prevenient grace doesn’t adequately explain why some people come to faith and others don’t. We noted earlier that our choices flow out of who we are. That means there’s never a neutral state where God can put us. When we come face to face with the gospel, we are either someone who wants to follow Christ or we aren’t.
That’s why God goes beyond what is envisioned by prevenient grace. Because we make choices based on who we are and what we want, God doesn’t aim at neutrality. He goes further and transforms us into the kind of person who is able to see the truth and beauty of Christ. This transformation is referred to as regeneration. As we discussed in the daily readings, regeneration is the result of the Holy Spirit’s work.
If God didn’t work in this way, none of us would come to faith. Resistance is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our sinful nature that nothing short of regeneration could cause us to turn to God. We don’t understand exactly how the Holy Spirit does it, but in some way he works within us to change our hearts and break down our natural resistance. When that happens, we suddenly see our sin differently. It’s no longer attractive because we see sin for what it really is. More importantly, we begin to see Christ as he truly is. When that happens, there is no question whether we will turn to him or not. We inevitably turn to Christ because that is what we want to do.
All of that may explain why God has to work in us to bring us to faith, but it doesn’t address the fairness issue. We know we need God to transform us. We also know not everyone turns to Christ. That seems to imply God does not transform everyone, which of course raises the question: Is it fair to choose to transform some and not others? We’ll turn to that issue in the final section.
IS THE DOCTRINE OF ELECTION FAIR?
The fact that some refuse to turn to Christ is a sad truth. Most of us would like to say in the end everyone will come to faith and be saved. But we know that’s not the case. Unfortunately, we’re all aware of people who continue to reject Christ to the end. The difficulty is intensified by our belief that God loves all of us. In fact, the Bible specifically says, God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) and that he does not want anyone to perish (2 Pet. 3:9). So the reality that not everyone is saved creates a certain tension. If God loves everyone and doesn’t want anyone to perish, why doesn’t he save everyone?
Does Arminianism or Open Theism Allow Us to Sidestep the Issue?
Most of us can live with some tension among our beliefs. We recognize many issues are complex and we can’t expect to fully resolve everything to our satisfaction. But some would argue the doctrine of election doesn’t just create tension, it actually rips our beliefs apart. How can we say God loves everyone if he makes a specific choice to save one person but not another?
Arminianists and Open Theists would say we can’t. In their view, those two beliefs contradict each other. They, therefore, attempt to utilize a libertarian perspective on free will to redefine election. As we’ve seen, Arminianists and Open Theists argue free will requires the power of contrary choice, which means our choices can’t be determined by God. As a result, when the Bible refers to election, it must have something else in mind. If God determines in advance that one person will choose to put their faith in him and that another will choose to reject him, we aren’t really free.
Earlier we noted some major problems with the libertarian perspective on free will and therefore the Armininist/Open Theist position on election. But let’s set those aside for a moment. If we adopted the Armianist/Open Theist position, would that at least eliminate the tension we feel over the fact that not everyone is saved? Not really. Difficult questions remain.
Arminianism/Open Theism Leaves Us with the Question: Why Doesn’t God Do More?
From an Arminianist/Open Theist perspective, what role does God play in someone coming to faith? We examined the Arminianist/Open Theist teaching on prevenient grace earlier. On this view, does God just put us in a neutral state and step out of the picture? Most proponents of prevenient grace would say no. God remains actively involved and tries to persuade us to turn to Christ. As the result of his efforts, many turn to him in faith.
Great! But what does God do when he recognizes someone – let’s call him Joe – remains resistant to the gospel? Does God turn it up a notch? Maybe it took a 5 on the persuasion scale to convince me. Will God go to 7 or 8 for Joe? If necessary, would he turn it up to 11?
The standard Arminianist/Open Theist answer is that at some point God has to dial back the persuasion. He can’t keep ratcheting it up without overpowering our free will, which is something God refuses to do. He values our free will too much.
That’s all well and good, but does it really resolve the problem? In any given instance where someone rejects Christ, aren’t there always options God could have taken to more aggressively lead the person to faith without destroying their free will? In Joe’s case, couldn’t God have helped the pastor preach a more powerful sermon that one time he went to church? Couldn’t God have led Joe’s believing family and friends to share the gospel more clearly or show him God’s love more frequently? If all else failed, couldn’t God bring out the big guns and appear directly to Joe – perhaps giving him a vision of heaven and hell? You have to believe that would have gotten his attention. Yet God rarely goes to such lengths.
Since he often chooses not to pull out all the stops, even on the Arminianist/Open Theist perspective, we’re left with a troubling question when we see someone who doesn’t come to faith. Why didn’t God do more to convince them to turn to him for salvation?
The bottom line is there are no easy answers. No matter what position we take, we’re forced to say God looks at some people, recognizes they are not going to put their faith in him, and makes a specific choice not to do something more about it. God loves everyone, but for some reason he chooses not to save everyone.
What’s a Christian to Do?
That means, in the end, the Arminianist/Open Theist position doesn’t eliminate the tension. When we combine that fact with the objections we raised earlier, I think we’re forced to say the Arminianist/Open Theist arguments against the doctrine of election ultimately fail.
That is why I personally opt for the Calvinist view on election. But that still leaves us with the issue of fairness unsettled. As we noted in the daily readings, Paul’s discussion of the doctrine of election in Rom. 9 is important here. At one point he anticipates the very objection we are now discussing. How does Paul deal with the accusation that God’s choice to save some and not others isn’t fair?
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:14-24)
Paul essentially says it’s not our place to question God. Why doesn’t he say more on the subject? Is it because he doesn’t care? No. The truth is it’s impossible for us to say why some are saved and others are not. In large part, that’s because our perspective is so limited. In the Digging Deeper section on the problem of evil, we noted how difficult it is to assess the ultimate value of any given event because we aren’t able to see how everything will play out in the end. That’s why so many circumstances in our lives look different upon later reflection. If that’s true for one event, how much more so when we consider all of human history.
We need to keep that in mind when we evaluate the doctrine of election. Earlier we discussed the revelatory effects of sin. At first glance, it seems like we’d be better off if sin had never entered the world. But without sin, there would have been no need for the cross. And the absence of the cross would have had dramatic consequences for our relationship with God. God’s love is what draws us to him, and without the cross we would have missed the very thing that highlights his love the most. As a result, although it seems counterintuitive, our love for God is stronger in a world with sin because that sin allowed us to see God’s love more clearly.
I don’t pretend to have insider information, but perhaps something similar is at work in the doctrine of election. If God had chosen to save everyone, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen his justice and holiness as clearly. And without a clear picture of his justice and holiness, perhaps we wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate his mercy because we wouldn’t understand the severity of our sin. I admit that falls short of a full explanation of why God chooses to save some and not others. Fortunately, we don’t need to put our trust in my ability to explain everything. Our trust rests firmly in God’s goodness. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. In order to pay the penalty we deserve for our sin, God the Son had to endure the equivalent of eternity in hell as he hung on the cross for us. We may not always understand what God is doing or why he chooses who he chooses. In the end though, we know we can trust a God who is capable of that kind of sacrifice and that kind of love.
[i] For a discussion of the problem of luck in certain definitions of free will see Clarke, Randolph Clarke, “Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008): secs. 2.2 & 3.2
[ii] We could add another reason to opt for a compatibilist understanding of free will. The Bible, in a number of places, claims God knows the future. In Dan. 2, for example, God reveals the future to King Nebuchadnezzar through a dream. In the gospels, Jesus predicts Peter’s betrayal. And in Isa. 46:9-10, God says, “there is none like me, I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come…” It’s easy to understand how God can know the future in a compatibilist framework because our choices are determined by our desires. We choose what we want most given our circumstances. As a result, if you were able to account for all my preferences, you’d know with certainty what I’d choose to do before I did it. We never know a person or their circumstances well enough to do that. God, however, does. As a result, he knows what we’re going to do long before we do it. According to a libertarian account of free will, however there’s always a gap between the factors that influence my choice and my actual choice. That means there is no way to know for sure ahead of time what I will choose to do. No matter how well you know me, I could always go another way. If that’s true, not even God could have known what I would do ahead of time. God, of course, knows me and my circumstances perfectly. But, since those factors don’t ultimately determine my choice, the knowledge God has about me doesn’t tell him for sure what I’m going to do. He might be able to use his knowledge to make a really good guess, but he couldn’t be certain (See Grudem, Systematic Theology, 347-349). That’s why Open Theists ultimately part company with Arminians on this issue. Both adopt a libertarian perspective on free will. Arminians, however, like Calvinists believe God has perfect knowledge of all future events. But, given the above, Open Theists don’t see how that’s possible. Since they’re not willing to give up libertarian freedom, they have to drop the belief that God knows the future perfectly. I tend to agree with the Open Theist assessment that, if the libertarian account of free will is true, then God doesn’t have perfect knowledge of the future. However, I have a hard time reconciling the Open Theist view with the biblical statements regarding God’s knowledge of the future. Given that, the compatibilist view of free will seems best to me from a biblical perspective.
[iii] These theologians typically come from Arminianist tradition. Most Open Theists have a more optimistic view of human nature. For them implying that our nature is so sinful that we would never choose God is tantamount to denying free will.