Predestination-Freewill Dyspepsia (P1)
Introduction, Salvation's True Starting Point
In the first half of the 16th century, a strikingly dynamic pastor, theologian, and reformationist rose to prominence in Europe. Though he taught and wrote extensively on a myriad of subjects, and preached as many as ten times a week, it was his beliefs on the subject of predestination that made him one of the most influential and controversial figures in all of church history. His name was John Calvin.
In the second half of the 16th century, another exceptional pastor and theologian rose to prominence in Europe. He was known as a warm and sensitive man, with an unusual gift for preaching. Yet it was his beliefs on freewill, and his articulate opposition to Calvin's version of predestination, that made him, too, one of the most influential and controversial figures in all of church history. His name was Jacobus Arminius.
And so began the Calvinism-Arminianism, or predestination-freewill, civil war in the church.
Four hundred years later, the church still has indigestion from this controversy. The subject of soteriology, however, long predates two European dynamos. It traces all the way back to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, and the cornucopia of passages, from short verses to multichapter sermonettes, addressing the subject.
Is It a Rabbit or a Duck?
Soteriology--the mechanics and sequence of salvation--predates Calvin, Arminius, Augustine, Pelagius, and every other Christian who has treated the subject in depth. Soteriology traces back to God Himself, the founder of our salvation (Heb 2:10), and He has given us His written Word, with a bounty of passages on the subject, to help us understand it. Somehow, someway, those passages must be fitted together into a harmonious, coherent machinery of truth.
Predestination--the way Augustine understood it (in his later writings), and the way Calvin understood it--is the idea that God predetermined who would be saved unto eternal life and who would be damned unto eternal punishment. This is also called double predestination and determinism. There are milder versions of this belief, such as single predestination, soft determinism, and partial Calvinism. The hardline predestinarian, however, believes those milder modifications contradict key scriptures, like Romans 9:21-23 and verses about God's "meticulous sovereignty". Predestinarians point to the many scriptures that include words like chosen, elect, predestined, before the foundation of the world, and related concepts.
Freewill, Human Responsibility
Freewill, in the context of soteriology, is the idea that each person has a conscious choice in their salvation or damnation. Arminius went even further. He said an unsaved person could take intentional steps toward God even before being born-again. For example, Nicodemus was not yet born-again when he asked to meet with Jesus and learn more about Him (Jn 3:1-21). Cornelius, also, had been taking steps toward God before he ever heard the gospel or was born-again (Ac 10). Ardent freewillers point to the many scriptures with words like seek, choose, believe, repent, do/do not, and other personal responsibility language.
Is It a Rabbit or a Duck?
Ardent predestinarians and ardent freewillers are both reading the same Word of God. They are looking at the exact same picture, and yet, one sees a rabbit and one sees a duck. Others, frustrated with the entire subject, have resigned to a nondescript middle ground that says, "God's sovereignty and human freewill fit together somehow; it is a mystery that will only be understood when Jesus returns."
No doubt we will understand many things fully on that Day (1Co 13:12). However, I do not believe God wants this subject to be an inscrutable mystery. Why? There are way too many passages on the subject, a mind-bending amount, actually. Would the Holy Spirit inspire a zillion passages on this topic if He wanted us to consign it to a hopeless mystery? There is no predestinarian side, there is no freewiller side, there is no nondescript mysterious middle ground. All the parts--every scripture, every concept--fit together into a harmonious, coherent theological structure.
Salvation's True Starting Point
The intrinsic flaw in many predestination-freewill conversations is that they focus on the wrong starting point (usually predestination). Theologically diligent Bible students realize this more and more.
The salvation sequence does not start with predestination or freewill; those are later events on the trajectory. The sequence begins with God's (1a) sovereignty, (1b) omnitemporality, and (1c) foreknowledge, and even more importantly, how these are expressed. I use the signifiers 1a, 1b, and 1c because these three aspects of God are intricately related. They can even be viewed as progressive manifestations: one aspect of sovereignty is omnitemporality, and one aspect of omnitemporality is foreknowledge.
Romans 8:28,29 reveal this trio is salvation's true starting point (ESV, underline mine): ...for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son...
God "working all things together" for the born-again is a statement of His sovereignty (1a). Before we were saved, God was working in overt and covert ways to funnel us toward salvation. After we were saved, He continued working in our lives in overt and covert ways for our good and His purpose. Only an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, omnitemporal (1b) Being could do that.
Paul continues, "...those whom he foreknew he also predestined." Notice how salvation's true beginning is sovereignty, one aspect of which is omnitemporality, one aspect of which is foreknowledge (1c). If God's foreknowledge is the immediate precursor to predestination, the burning question is, What, exactly, does God foreknow that informs His predestination decree?
Keep reading beloved.
Foreknowledge Flops & Struggles
The theological and logical Achilles' heel in hardline predestinationism pertains to foreknowledge. This group has consistently struggled to adequately explain foreknowledge. The prevailing explanation is, because God foreknew who He would save, He therefore "foreloved" them and foreknew them in an intimate, favorable sense.
Freewillers have offered varying explanations of God's foreknowledge in salvation, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy or hermeneutical viability.
The foreknowledge flops and struggles by 16th-century Calvinists and Arminians created space for a third explanatory construct: Molinism. The term is named after Luis de Molina, a Spanish Jesuit priest who pioneered the construct. de Molina was a contemporary of Jacobus Arminius. Molinism drives deeply into the forms of knowledge/foreknowledge God possesses, and how they pertain to individual salvation. Molinism's level of correctness or incorrectness is too vast a subject for this particular writing. The takeaway, for now, is that hard predestinarians and hard freewillers, in general, have struggled to adequately explain foreknowledge. That struggle has created space for godly thinkers to seek fresh insights and constructs that, perhaps, more accurately account for God's foreknowledge in salvation.
Soteriology, the mechanics of salvation, inevitably forces us to deal with high-voltage terms like predestination, freewill, foreknowledge, elect, repentance, believing, and so on. Our understanding of the salvation machinery affects how tactically skilled we are in evangelism, but even more so, how we live the Christian life. Paul said, several times, the mechanics of salvation are the same mechanics of the victorious Christian life. Understanding soteriology, then, is not simply about understanding how salvation happens or evangelistic skill, it sets a template for how God works in our life post-salvation to get us into the overcoming remnant.
In this book, let's work our way through the salvation sequence. You will see every scripture and every concept is accounted for and has its place.