Freedom of the Will: Looking at Calvinism and Arminianism
By Reed Benson
John Calvin was unquestionably one of the great minds of the Reformation Era. His name is associated with a particular school of thought regarding the process and event of salvation known as Calvinism. Those that disagreed with this theological approach became known as Arminians, after their champion, Jacob Arminius. Although the labels of Calvinists and Arminians are used less today, the argument between them remains.
The essential concepts of Calvinism are summarized in the famous five points of TULIP theology: 1) Total DepravityóManís inability to reach out toward God because his will is in bondage to fallen sin nature. 2) Unconditional ElectionóGod selects whom He wills as recipients of grace, not through merit on manís part. 3) Limited AtonementóChristís atonement is limited to those whom God elected. 4) Irresistible GraceóGodís divine call upon those who are among the elect cannot be permanently resisted. 5) Preservation of the SaintsóGod will providentially preserve the salvation of His elect.
The Arminians drew up five contrasting points that summarized their position. They are as follows: 1) Manís will is not enslaved by sin, but is fully free to choose or reject God. 2) God chose to be recipients of salvation only those whom He foresaw would choose to believe. 3) Christís redeeming work was for everyone, but only became effective if man chooses to accept it. 4) Man can successfully resist the work of the Holy Spirit. 5) Those who believe and are saved can loose this position.
These five interlocking areas of theological debate are broad and deep. Many are the books that have been penned to support one side or the other. Therefore, the topic we shall pursue will be narrowed to the one that is troublesome to the most number of people, freedom of the will. If manís will is in bondage, then the flow of logic runs heavily in favor of the Calvinist position. But if manís will is free, then the Arminians are plainly standing in the better position. What does the Bible teach on this topic? Is manís will free, or in bondage?
A shallow examination of scripture will not suffice to arrive at an answer. There are various passages that appear to be contradictory. For example, in Acts 2:21 we find this statement that apparently lends support to the Arminians: "And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved." On the other hand, Romans 9:11-13 states: "(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." This promotes strong evidence for the Calvinist position.
At this point let it be stated that this writer believes the Calvinist position to be correct. In order to understand the correct position, and avoid the charge that God is unjust in bypassing many for salvation, we must begin our discussion of free will at the beginning, that is, in Genesis.
In the beginning, Adam had free will. He was truly free to choose righteousness or evil. Genesis 2:16-17 indicates as much: "And the LORD God commanded the man saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Later, in Genesis 3:6 we discover that Eve freely ate of this forbidden tree. They exercised complete freedom of the will and chose evil. So, how does this effect us?
We also enjoyed freedom of the will in Adam. This may be difficult for western man to understand because of our intense emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities, but the Bible teaches, and the ancient Hebrew worldview understood, that a corporate, or collective aspect of humanity existed. It is this corporate aspect that allows Christ, as the representative of all the redeemed, to have been a substitutionary sacrifice for all of us. We voluntarily participated in Adamís choice to sin. We participated in that decision!
How can this be? Look at Hebrews 7:9-10 for a clue: "And as I may so say, Levi also, who receiveth tithes, payed tithes in Abraham. For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedec met him." Just as Levi was given credit for paying tithes while still unborn and just a glimmer in his great-grandfatherís eye, so are we reckoned to be liable for what Adam freely chose. In this respect, we are accurately viewed to have been active participants in Adamís choice for evil.
Therefore, Adamís fall placed all of us who descended from him under the indictment of spiritual and physical death. This is the meaning of Romans 5:12: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." A companion passage alluding to the same event and concept is 1 Corinthians 15:21: "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." Adam lived the rest of his life without the freedom of will to choose salvation in and of his own strength. The curse of sin had been imposed, and the will was henceforth in bondage to sin. Adam and all of us present in his loins lost the privilege of free will.
God cannot be charged with injustice. We made the choice to select sin with Adam, thus God would be perfectly just to pass over all of us and give us what we deserveóthe consequences of our choiceóeternal death and separation from God.
In our fallen condition our will is no longer free to choose righteousness. Scripture teaches us this: "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8:7-8). Indeed, in saying we are slaves to sin, this is biblically accurate, for Romans 6:20 states as much: "For when ye were the servant of sin, ye were free from righteousness." The word servant is Strongís #1401 meaning slave or bondslave, the idea communicating involuntary servitude. We, in our fallen condition, are unable to repent, believe the gospel, or come to Christ. In our fallen condition, we have no sense that we need Christ, nor do we have a desire for the things of God. Paul wrote of this inability in 2 Corinthians 3:5: "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God." Coming to God without his prior prompting, prodding, and stimulation is impossible. It is beyond the reach of sinís leash. It is above our glass ceiling. Why do we then feel free? It is only because we do not remember true freedom. We are much like the person who never knew the benefits of electricity in the homeóhe never missed it, longed for it, or desired it. He could not imagine the freedom electricity could provide. Similarly, we do not remember the freedom of choice we enjoyed in Adamís loins, thus we do not now miss it. We presently operate under a mere illusion of free will.
We cannot contribute to our salvation. Belief, repentance, and true contrition are all gifts from God through the Holy Spirit. In this regard, John 6:44 states: "No man can come to me, except the father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day." John repeated this concept just a bit later when he quoted Christ as saying: ". . . Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father" (John 6:65).
Once we are regenerate by the work of the Holy Spirit, do we then regain the freedom of the will? Not quite! We are moved from being an involuntary servant of sin to being a bondslave to Christ, the most just and loving of all masters, which yields freedom to do that which is good and right. Of this Paul wrote: "For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lordís freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christís servant" (1 Corinthians 7:22). Being a bondslave of Christ, we gain the ultimate freedomófreedom from sin.
The Calvinist position is thus quite solid, biblically speaking. If our will is in bondage, and we are fully dependent on Godí grace and cannot contribute to our salvation, but only passively respond to the Holy Spiritís movement, then God is in full control. He is sovereign in all aspects of salvation. He receives all of the glory!