How Free are We?

How Free are We?

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“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Corinthians 3:17 NIV)

Christian theology is always seeking to balance the transcendence of God – God’s “otherness” – with the imminence of God – God’s “nearness.” 

A class example of this striving for balance can be found in a key debate between followers of reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) and those who came to follow the teachings of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). 

Arminius found disagreement in a key doctrine taught by followers of Calvin (and to a lesser degree, Calvin himself) that God predetermined who would be lost and who would be saved.  For Calvinists, this version of what is known as the doctrine of election kept intact two things:

1) God’s sovereignty (His transcendence/otherness), and

2) salvation as a product wholly of grace and not of any works. 

While Arminius agreed with much of Calvin’s thought he could not embrace such an option in regard to salvation.  For Arminius, the God of the Bible desired salvation for all, not just for a few.  And those who did not accept the grace of God, according to Arminius, would be fully responsible. 

How could those who reject God be responsible if God simply pre-determines those who are saved and lost?  And, if God predetermines salvation in this way, would this not make God somehow responsible for sin?

While this seems like theological hair-splitting, it had long-lasting ramifications.  Arminius felt that one could preserve God’s sovereign rule over creation while also allowing for a kind of freewill; freewill that allows those who respond to the promptings of the Spirit to either accept or reject the grace of God offered to them. 

Shortly after Arminius’s death, the Synod of Dort (a gathering of Reformed theologians, 1618-1619) sided with what became known as a more Calvinistic position.  However, the thoughts put forth by Arminius opened other opportunities for church reform throughout Europe and in other parts of the West. 

Just over a century later, a young Anglican priest named John Wesley embraced the key emphases of Arminius over the determinism of John Calvin.  Many of us in contemporary Evangelicalism, including modern Wesleyans, stand in agreement that God does not predetermine those who are saved and those who are lost. 

Rather, like Arminius and Wesley, we see the love of God as allowing for Spirit-prompted free will in regard to salvation: God, by (prevenient) grace prompts us, and we can respond positively or negatively to His offer of grace. 

What does this mean for us today? 

Among other things, it implies that:

  • We are responsible before God for our sin and for either choosing or rejecting God.
  • God’s grace extends to all, echoing 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promises as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
  • We are to take seriously the Great Commission of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20) and seek to be instruments of God’s prevenient grace in presenting opportunities for salvation and sanctification to the world.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we acknowledge the ongoing reforms and conversations in the Church that allow a clearer reading of Scripture and a stronger affirmation of both the sovereignty and the boundless love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Charles W. Christian is managing editor of Holiness Today

Written for Coffee Break with Holiness Today

To read more about Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, and other key reformers, click here to get your copy of Holiness Today's commemorative Sept/Oct issue!