A fresh look at an old debate about God, humanity, and grace.
As we begin a yearlong journey exploring our Statement of Faith, we consider profound questions related to the relationship between God and humanity. Central to such discussions is the Calvinist vs. Arminian debate, which raises questions regarding God’s will, human freedom, and grace. To engage this debate, we consider the five points of Calvinism, summarized in the acronym TULIP:
Total Depravity – the human inability to desire or do good to merit salvation without God’s intervening grace.
Unconditional Election – the election of some humans to salvation and eternal life, based solely and unconditionally upon God’s sovereign will.
Limited Atonement – the teaching that the death of Jesus Christ was intended to atone only for the sins of the elect. All those for whom Christ died will be saved, but those who are not the elect have no possibility of salvation because no atonement has been provided for them.
Irresistible Grace – the inability of humans to resist God’s saving grace, so that all those God elects to receive His grace will receive it and consequently be saved.
Perseverance of the Saints – the elect will persevere in faith, by God’s grace, to the end. No one elected by God for salvation will be lost.
As we begin, we should note that Calvinism is a comprehensive theology that cannot be reduced to five points and that the TULIP was not invented by John Calvin (1509-1564). Rather, these five points were stated at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) when the synod members rejected the five articles of faith proposed by followers of James Arminius (1560-1609). With that background in mind, let us explore these five points over the course of three articles, noting how each of them relates to our understanding of Scripture.
One leading Calvinist theologian, C. C. Ryrie, writes, “. . . total depravity means that the corruption [inherited by all humanity from Adam’s sin] has extended to all aspects of man’s nature, to his entire being; and total depravity means that because of that corruption there is nothing man can do to merit saving favor with God.”
The Church of God (Seventh Day) shares this belief in the total depravity of humanity. Article 3 of our Statement of Faith states, “As a result of Adam’s fall, all humanity became sinners by nature and by choice. The result is spiritual separation from God, physical death . . . , and eternal death. . . .”
In Article 4 we affirm, “Sinful humanity may be saved . . . solely by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from human merit, works, or ceremonies.”
These sentences capture the twofold essence of total depravity: 1) Humanity is sinful by nature and therefore condemned to eternal death; 2) Salvation comes solely by virtue of God’s grace through faith, not by any human merit.
Scripture supports this belief. Many passages speak of the absolute sinfulness of humanity from which no one is exempt; among them, the litany of quotations that Paul shares in Romans 3:9-18. There are none righteous; all have turned away from God. Later, Paul connects this universal condition of sin and death with the sin of Adam and the ongoing sin of humanity (5:12-14).
Regarding the inadequacy of any human work to merit salvation, we think of Ephesians 2:8, 9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast”; and Titus 3:4, 5a: “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy. . . .”
Thus, we reject the idea that humans are naturally innocent and free from sin. We reject the teaching that humans can initiate a redeeming relationship with God by virtue of good works or any other means. While we are left with various questions about the implications of total depravity, we affirm that it is true. But what about unconditional election?
In Philip Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom, Volume 3, the Canons of the Synod of Dort describe unconditional election as follows:
That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree. . . . Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, he hath, out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault . . . a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ . . . This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others . . . God hath decreed to give to Christ to be saved by him . . . The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election . . . the election made by him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled nor annulled.
One searches our Statement of Faith in vain for this understanding of election. The word election does not even appear there. Rather, two elements are emphasized: 1) the grace of God, demonstrated by Christ’s death, and 2) the reception of salvation in human experience by personal faith.
The implication of this is that God’s grace in Christ is available to whosoever will place their faith in Him. There is no suggestion that the opportunity for such faith is predicated on God’s arbitrary election of some and rejection of others.
But what does Scripture say? Arminians and Calvinists both quote proof texts supporting their views regarding election — oftentimes the same texts! Rather than dissect individual verses, let us view the issue of election in broader perspective.
The archetypal figure in election history is Abram, elected to be the father of God’s chosen people. His relationship with God is paradigmatic for how election functions in Scripture. So too is the communal life of the children of Israel, God’s chosen/elect people. The New Testament writers explicitly and implicitly relied on the concept of election from the experiences of Abram and his descendants in their discussion of Christ’s followers and election. Consider three common features of election in the Old Testament.
Grace, faith, and invitation. First, and most significant, is the unmerited grace-initiative of God. Both the narratives and later commentary regarding Abram and his descendants demonstrate that God initiated a relationship with them purely out of His own will and desire. He did not choose them because they were more worthy or holy than others. If anything, they were the opposite! Rather, God set His love on them and chose them by unconditional grace.
However, the second striking feature of God’s election is the response of faith. Abram emerges in Scripture as an exemplar of faith because he responded to God’s election by believing. Contrast this with the children of Israel who, though all elect, are often divided into two groups in Scripture: those who responded to God’s election in faith and those who did not. The most striking example of this is that out of an entire nation elected by God to leave Egypt and enter the Promised Land, only two individuals actually received God’s promise. The distinguishing mark between Joshua and Caleb, and every other adult who left Egypt, was faith in God.
This discussion of faith leads us to the third election reality. Individuals who were not elected by God become part of God’s elect by virtue of trusting Him. We think of Rahab and Ruth, two women who were not chosen, but by faith became a part of God’s chosen people and went on to become ancestors of Jesus. This reminds us of God’s greater purpose in electing Abram, that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed, not just the one nation God had elected. Throughout Israel’s history the prophets and psalmists urged them to answer their sacred call to invite others to join God’s chosen people. God elected some to be His people in order to invite everyone to be His people.
When we look at the New Testament, we see election functioning in the same way. God initiates redemptive relationships with certain ones by virtue of His loving grace. He calls them to be His special people, chooses/elects them to be “in Him.” They, in turn, respond in faith or in disbelief. Those who respond in faith are commissioned to invite others to join God’s people. One thinks of the twelve apostles of Jesus and their individual journeys. By the end of the story, eleven responded in faith and invited others to become disciples, while one of God’s chosen ones turned away in disbelief.
In light of this, when we look at the Calvinist notion of unconditional election, things seem terribly amiss. The Calvinist viewpoint has God predetermining the eternal fate of every person before they are even created. Election becomes an inescapable and completely arbitrary process whereby a group of condemned persons are chosen by God’s arbitrary whim to receive the full complement of His unmerited loving grace, while everyone else is left to their just punishment. In this scenario, faith has no human significance, and the invitation of others who are not elected to join God’s chosen people is futile. Also ruled out is the idea that someone could be elected by God and, through lack of faith, lose out on God’s promises by virtue of their election. In short, the Calvinist concept of Christian election is at odds with the Old Testament examples of election.
It is true, as Calvinists teach, that election is based solely on God’s loving grace and not the merit of the individual. However, those who are elected by God must respond in faith in order to receive the promises of their election. And faith is something exercised by humans in response to God, not something God foists upon those He chooses. To observe this, we must look no further than the elected Judas, who hanged himself, or the elected people of Israel, whose carcasses rotted in the wilderness.
At this point the Calvinist may ask, “Then are you saying people earn salvation by the work or merit of faith?” In response, we point to the consistent distinction in Scripture between faith and works/merit. To construe faith as a work/merit that humans perform is to place it in the wrong biblical category.
Faith is not work or merit. Rather, it is a response of trust and belief to a loving, gracious God. And it is a human response. Scripture is clear that a response of faith is necessary for those elected by God to receive, and maintain, the benefit of their election. And God has given humans the freedom to trust, to believe, to place faith in Him. This is not a unique gift given to an elect few, but a universal gift given to all.
This understanding of faith undergirds our commitment to join God’s mission of worldwide redemption. Those who are elected by God and have responded in faith are called to invite others to join the elect by placing their faith in God through Jesus Christ. As with Abram and the children of Israel, the elect of God in Christ is not an exclusive, closed group. Rather, they are those who have been chosen to invite everyone to become God’s people by grace through faith.
Thus, on the first two letters of the TULIP we find ourselves split. The Church of God (Seventh Day) agrees that humans are totally depraved and thus totally dependent upon God’s mercy and grace to redeem us from sin and death. However, we believe that the reception of God’s gracious election is conditioned upon a response of faith, and that faith is something God allows humans to exercise of their own free will. They are not compelled to place faith in Christ by force, but invited by grace.
In the next two issues of the BA we will consider the remaining three letters. Keep reading!