Addressing Calvinism, 4 of 4: God Leaves to Us a Choice in Receiving Jesus
[Bernard Brown] once worked in a hospital where a patient knocked over a cup of water, which spilled on the floor beside the patient's bed. The patient was afraid he might slip on the water if he got out of the bed, so he asked a nurse's aide to mop it up. The patient didn't know it, but the hospital policy said that small spills were the responsibility of the nurse's aides while large spills were to be mopped up by the hospital's housekeeping group.
The nurse's aide decided the spill was a large one and she called the housekeeping department. A housekeeper arrived and declared the spill a small one. An argument followed.
"It's not my responsibility," said the nurse's aide, "because it's a large puddle." The housekeeper did not agree. "Well, it's not mine," she said, "the puddle is too small."
The exasperated patient listened for a time, then took a pitcher of water from his night table and poured the whole thing on the floor. "Is that a big enough puddle now for you two to decide?" he asked. It was, and that was the end of the argument.1
I think the doctrine of Calvinism creates a similar controversy about who is responsible for sin. For example, the Westminster Confession says, "God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin ..." Wait--so everything, including sin, God ordained (not just allowed)? That makes Him responsible for it, right? And so why does He punish it? He "ordains" sin freely and unchangeably yet isn't the "author" of sin? I'm so confused. Statements like this, which are puzzling and, if I may say, silly (even if they're cloaked in serious-sounding intellectualism), spark a massive amount of "cognitive dissonance" and argumentation about where the real responsibility for sin rests. I hope that in this post, like the frustrated patient in the story, we can "spill the pitcher on the floor" regarding the truth of the free will of man, and thus resolve the tension and end the argument in our own minds. The responsibility for sin lies squarely and clearly on man, not on God.
During a class in firearm safety, the instructor told us, "You are responsible for the bullet you shoot, from the time it leaves the gun, to the time it comes to a complete stop." In other words, you need to be careful of the possibility that a bullet could ricochet off a rock and kill someone, even if you weren't aiming at them. And that's just for accidents. Imagine someone who fires a rifle with the intention of starting an avalanche, knowing that it must inevitably kill many people on a slope below. We rightly blame him with their deaths and credit him with the "authorship" of the deed. If God arranged things with the intent that Adam and Eve must inevitably choose wickedness in the avalanche of circumstances, and even more, arranged it so that each choice of man to pursue greater filth must inevitably follow, then God would certainly be the author of sin. Denying this is simply an intellectual way of throwing up your hands and saying, "I don't understand how, but that's the way it is." I realize that there are many truths about God we don't fully understand; but that doesn't mean we can seek out strange and unbiblical beliefs and defend them with the statement, "It's a mystery," especially when the answer is, so to speak, as easy and as obvious as the nose on our faces!
To be clear, I am not saying that man can simply "decide" to climb out of the pit of sin and become righteous. Man can't lift himself up by his own bootstraps, and real transformation comes only through Jesus Christ. And of course, many factors influence our decisions, but we still have the final say in the actions we choose to commit, and thus, the final responsibility. Nor do we care whether every single decision is free; that's not the question. The point is, God didn't push man into the pit of sin in the first place; man freely chose to jump in, when he could have chosen otherwise. And individually, each of us has chosen to pursue greater sin, and to commit outward actions of sin, when we could have chosen to refrain. Thus, we are entirely responsible for our own predicament in sin, and only God can save us. But I believe that the Bible clearly teaches that He requires us to make a choice to repent and believe.
Our Choice in Receiving Jesus Christ
Romans 10:6-11 says that the "word of faith" is not something out of reach (v6-7), but is "in thy mouth"; i.e., you have the choice to believe, since it's right there! I read about a ship that was out of fresh water reserves, and it sent an urgent S.O.S. to other ships to get more. The response immediately came back, "Let down your buckets." Fresh water was all around them! They had sailed into fresh water flowing from a river off the coast. Revelation 22:17 says, "And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely."
The word "whosoever" is an extremely inclusive word in its scope; it implies that the offer is for any and all, including those who obey and those who don't. The entire thrust of the Bible--the pleading with man, the law, the prophets--all strongly suggest, even to a young child reading it, that God has obviously given mankind a choice in rejecting or responding to Him. Joshua called on Israel to "choose" (Joshua 24:15), as did Elijah (I Kings 18:21); and God warns the "multitudes" who stay in "the valley of decision" (Joel 3:14). God expects man to make a choice.
Predestination, Election, and Choice
When the Bible teaches "predestination," almost always it refers to particular benefits of salvation, both along the journey (John 15:16; Ephesians 1:4-5; 2:10), and its final destination (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 1:11). The same is true for the path of unbelief (II Thessalonians 2:10-12) and its final destruction (Jude 1:4Jude 4). In other words, if you choose the path of salvation, then you are predestined to experience a great many specific blessings which God ordained before the world began, because you are now on that path, being "in Christ." That doesn't mean God predetermined which path you would choose. If we re-read these verses carefully, specifically about "predestination" and God's "choosing," I believe we will find that it never says that God decreed which individuals would have faith in the first place; He is talking about all the wonderful things He has planned for the children of faith (i.e., "us"), including salvation.
Have you ever ridden one of those hayrides? I was on a hayride with my siblings and parents once. The farmer who owned the land had "predestinated" a lot of things about that hayride. He predestinated that we would ride over the fields and through the woods. He predestinated for us to see a few scarecrows along the way, if I remember correctly. He predestinated that we stop at a particular spot, so that each of us could pick our own pumpkin from the patch. He even set up a playground for the little kids. He predestinated that we ride back safely, sitting on nice large square bales of hay. He predestinated all of these details for us; but that doesn't mean he dragged us onto the ride in the first place! In fact, he planned these things before we even signed up. Of course, it's not a perfect analogy; the farmer didn't know who would get onto the ride, whereas God knows everything, even the future. But the point is the same: "predestination" is different than "election."
However, I do believe in the separate doctrine of individual election; but when this is taught in the Bible, it simply means, in my view, that God knows which path you will choose, because He knows everything; and on that basis, He "elects" you. For instance, God can set out the exact number of chairs that will be needed at His marriage supper, down to the very last one, even before anyone RSVP's. Amazing! But that's not the same as predetermining who RSVP's "yes" or "no"; it's just that He knows everything, being God. I Peter 1:2 says, "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father"; and Romans 8:29, "whom he [God] did foreknow, he also did predestinate". Thus, in Acts 13:48, Luke marvels at the rare situation where all the elect present in the city got saved immediately. It's quite a "bang" when all the fireworks go off at exactly the same time!
Maybe you wonder, "Hold on, Peter...how could God possibly know our decisions ahead of time, if we have a truly free will?" I don't know, and yes, it blows my mind! But to me, it makes sense that God is powerful enough to make creatures who have free will and yet hold on to His foreknowledge. I doubt that I could ever comprehend God's foreknowledge any more than I could comprehend the Trinity. Incidentally, some philosophers try to say God couldn't have free will if He knows the future, since He would be bound to choose what He "knew" He would choose from eternity past. Thus, they claim that none of God's choices would be truly free, either! My response? I think we are completely incompetent to understand such things on earth, and if we care to, we saints can ask God about it in heaven!
You ask, "But Peter, doesn't God alone have the right to decide who receives His mercy?" (Romans 9:15-18) Yes, of course; but that doesn't help Calvinism. Maybe you have been in a group of people trying to decide where to eat lunch. Chaos reigns, and finally they turn to you for some decisiveness and say, "Hey, just pick any place and we'll go there, we don't care where." You say, "Okay...how about...Wendy's?" They reply, "No, not there! Pick any place except for Wendy's." "Zaxby's?" "Um...anywhere except Wendy's and Zaxby's." That may sound silly, but we humans can be funny creatures sometimes! Calvinists do something similar to God. They say to God, "You alone decide who gets Your mercy; the choice is completely Yours." But when God chooses to save on the condition of faith, they object: "No, no; You can't use conditions; it has to be arbitrary from our viewpoint." But why? I thought this was God's decision, not ours.
What does the passage in Romans say? That God chose not to grant salvation on the basis of our "good" works ("runneth", Romans 9:11v11); nor on lineage (Romans 9:24v24, Romans 9:21v21 "same lump", cf. Luke 3:8). Most people think that's unfair, but none of us deserves salvation anyway; we can't boss God around about whom He must redeem. Yet again, based on this passage, whom has He chosen to save? Those who will put their faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 9:30-33).
What's more, God doesn't grant salvation based on a mere "decision" to go to heaven, or an intense desire, if it's apart from faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 9:16v16 "willeth"; John 1:13; cf. Hebrews 12:16-17). A popular phrase for secular people today is, "Just have faith" or "Just believe"; but in what? That everything will end up okay somehow? You won't be saved by simply "deciding" that things will work out, any more than a prisoner can be free by simply "deciding" that he is free.
In John 15:16, Jesus says, "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you..." The point isn't that we never make a choice to believe in Jesus; even Calvinists agree that we do (after God gives us the second birth and makes us willing, they say). Most people approach Jesus with the attitude of, "Convince me, and maybe I'll believe in you." They think they are choosing Jesus over other religions the way you'd choose a minivan over an SUV, and that they have some sort of "leverage" on Him, so that He will "keep them on" as patrons. That's totally wrong; we are utterly helpless, and Jesus is the only way of salvation; we have no other choice. He is the One who chose us by dying on the cross when He had no obligation or necessity to do so. He made the excruciating choice full of pain and blood and dying and sacrifice, giving up everything to save us. Nevertheless, God certainly does require that we choose to repent and believe on Jesus Christ to be saved (e.g., Acts 16:31).
The Fallen Nature and Choice
If fallen man can choose Jesus, does that mean that he still has a "spark" of innate goodness that survived the fall of Adam? I think this question confuses several things together. The Bible says that no good thing dwells in our flesh, and specifically in the sense of dwelling there. No fish "dwells" on land, but fish briefly live on land whenever they wash ashore. I think it may be possible (not that I'm dogmatic) that God's goodness could transiently penetrate even our filthy flesh. But even that very verse distinguishes the "flesh" from the "will" (Romans 7:18; cf. Matthew 26:41; also, Ephesians 2:3 "mind"; I Kings 14:13). I'm not entirely clear on how everything relates: the flesh, the mind, the spirit, the soul, and the will. Evidently, there is a will of the spirit, a separate will of the flesh, and yet another will of man (John 1:13; Matthew 26:41); and apparently, above all this, an ability to "decree" which supersedes even our will! (I Corinthians 7:37) Please, don't ask me to explain all of that! We know from Galatians 5:16-17 that there is a part of us which can decide between the spirit and the flesh. This cannot be a subsection of our flesh, or it could not submit to God (Romans 8:7); nor can this be a subsection of our new sinless nature, or it would need no such instruction. It must be distinct from both natures. When I refer to our "free will," it is to this part of us, which exists in each person; in short, the ability to choose. When the Holy Spirit is present, the unsaved can choose Jesus Christ with this will, because it is not the flesh making the decision (also explaining John 6:63). Of course, our free will in no way causes the new birth, as if we could become righteous or go to heaven merely by "willing" to go there, or by willpower, as some false teachings would say (John 1:13 and Romans 9:16). Our willingness is merely a condition required by God for salvation, not a cause.
Second, many of the verses related to this discussion do not necessarily teach the inability of the will to choose good, but merely its inability to enforce good (Romans 7:20; practicing evil worsens this, Jeremiah 13:23). For example, an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit (Matthew 7:18; compare Galatians 5:22-23). But do you know what even the rotten tree out in the yard has the ability to do? It can drop the blossom before the fruit sets. Or later on, it can drop the fruit before it ripens. Likewise, even a sinner can choose not to outwardly commit particular actions of sin, like each act of theft or murder. This is self evident, but it also helps explains why God punishes individual sinful acts (Ephesians 5:5-6; II Corinthians 5:10).
Third, I would say it is only in the presence of the Holy Spirit's grace that we are capable of choosing Jesus Christ. Jesus "lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9), and His grace restrains many evil choices in the unsaved (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). Even the unsaved can make "good" choices that profit to an extent, like choosing marriage according to God's design over immorality (Hebrews 13:4), choosing to spend more time with family, or deciding to avoid drugs and crime. Yes, this is possible only by the grace of God. But if God's grace can enable the unsaved in all of those ways, why can't it also enable them to choose to say "Yes" to salvation through Jesus Christ?
Sovereignty, Providence, and Choice
You might ask, "But isn't God sovereign?" Yes, of course. And it is good to be reminded of this, especially in such a wicked and evil world. When things seem like they are getting out of control, I believe that God's sovereignty is an especially comforting and beautiful truth to remember.
But I've never understood how that is supposed to help Calvinism. Yes, God can do whatever He decrees, and no one can hinder Him. So then doesn't He have the sovereign right to give us a free will? Isn't He permitted to allow us to exercise it within His established boundaries? He understands the implications, knowing that we will make choices which grieve Him and which go against His desires. Is His sovereignty so fragile that He cannot do this? If so, I would say that we are trying to enslave God in His own sovereignty! It would seem very ironic, almost humorous, for us to go up to God and say, "Excuse me, but I don't think this 'free will' plan of Yours is sovereign enough." The only fitting reaction that comes to my mind, offhand, is something a wise man once eloquently said: "What?!"
You might say, "Okay, Peter, but what about God's providence? Doesn't God ordain and order everything in the universe?" Well, I think He certainly allows everything. But if we accept that God has decreed to give man a certain freedom of the will, then to that extent, He has not decreed what those decisions shall be, by very definition. Yes, God knows what they will be in His omniscience; He allows all that happens; He works around these choices; He can prevent people from carrying out their evil decisions; He can orchestrate circumstances so things work out a certain way; He can even channel evil actions to bring about good; and He can regulate how evil manifests itself (I Kings 22:20-22). But none of this is the same as "decreeing" that man choose wickedness.
And wouldn't we agree that God does not currently "run" the universe in the same way in which He shall "run" it when He returns? This seems blatantly obvious to me, considering how many things happen which go against His very law. True, He could take over this very second; but He has decreed to hold off for the time being. Today, God's will is not yet done on earth in the same way it is done in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Today, the kingdoms of this world are not yet become the kingdoms of Jesus Christ (Revelation 11:15). Today, He does not yet rule the nations with a rod of iron (Revelation 19:15; 2:27). What a day that will be when He does!
Does free will rob God of glory?
Does free will rob God of glory in salvation? Can we brag that we were more humble or receptive than our friends who rejected Jesus Christ? First, such haughtiness of spirit would be completely irrational. Because salvation is very humbling, it's difficult to imagine such an attitude in a genuine saint (Hebrews 12:6). The very decision to receive such an undeserved pardon is an admission of our wickedness. When God talks about flesh not glorying in His presence, He refers specifically to physical strength (I Corinthians 1:27-29) and works of the law (Ephesians 2:9). But faith is none of these things (Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 4:5). We cannot accept a doctrine merely because it presents itself as humble; in this case, I think it lacks understanding (Colossians 2:18).
Second, what about all the decisions we make after salvation? Are we entitled to boast in the times where we submitted ourselves to God (James 4:7), when we trusted Him for the right words (Luke 21:14), or when we didn't lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6)? Since we have a choice in these matters, does that rob God of His glory? No, and neither does our choice to receive His salvation.
Third, aren't we often woefully inadequate to calculate which doctrines would bring God more glory? Our viewpoint is very limited; don't we risk being "penny wise and pound foolish"? And although God refuses to share His glory with another (Isaiah 42:8), He does grant glory to His creation in varying degrees (I Corinthians 15:40-41; 11:7). Shouldn't we let the Bible speak naturally, leaving God to deal with such questions, since His perspective is perfect?
Fourth, I personally feel that our free choice ultimately increases God's glory. Have you ever heard a man say of his wife, "I'm so happy she agreed to marry me!" That particular glory wouldn't exist for an arranged marriage. Yes, a free choice risks the pain of rejection, and I agree that man's free will causes God a lot of pain. But that is part of loving sinful people. And I think it makes God's relationship with His saints all the sweeter (I John 4:19).
Fifth, I think the argument confuses salvation's conditions with its means. Suppose a mother bakes fresh chocolate chip cookies and offers her toddler one if he says "Please." Has the toddler earned the cookie in any way? Can he brag, as though he helped to bake it? Not at all! Any help he might offer in baking the cookies would only get in the way. All he can do is agree to meet the mother's condition; and what's more, she may even help him pronounce "Please" correctly, if only he is willing.
As we stand at the base of Calvinism and gaze up at this tall stone tower, which is more like a castle, we can't help but notice that it has been constructed with painstaking effort by skilled architects, evidently with a particular appeal for certain people given to intellectualism. We see that many intelligent theologians are inside this tower and heartily endorse its construction. They have brought with them many colorful banners containing statements we heartily endorse, and have hung these beneath many of the windows, making the tower appear more cheerful. Yet as we look at the structure itself, we quickly realize that something is wrong; it's leaning toward one side! As we glance nervously down at the foundation, we see a gaping crack, which someone has evidently tried to fill and hide. When we look closely, we see several hairline faults shooting up through the load-bearing walls.
Unfortunately, these issues aren't the kinds of little "hiccups" you might expect for a tower still under construction. A fresh coat of paint, a rearrangement of a wall--that won't fix it. The structure will need to be abandoned. We wonder how it hasn't fallen yet, and we notice that amazingly, an army of workers have built an elaborate series of supports on the leaning side, in order to keep it up. We are shocked at how ingenious and creative these supports are. We might think to ourselves, "Wow, I never would have thought of that!" Yet still, as ornate and resourceful as they may be, the supports are awkward and, quite frankly, an eyesore. As we walk away from this tower, we may think to ourselves, "Clever, but sad; sophisticated, yet still just the work of man, and fundamentally flawed."
The Bible makes a big deal about not trusting in the wisdom of words, nor in the intellect of man (e.g., I Corinthians 2:5; Proverbs 3:5-6). We're just too easily deceived! However, if we instead rest our doctrine in the power of God, and not in the logic and wisdom of man, then we will be safe, since the Holy Spirit will guide us, if we will only listen (John 16:13). The gospel is not in word, but in power. In my opinion, most discussions about Calvinism become unprofitable very quickly (and I've regretted wasting time in such unprofitable discussions, too). I think the focus of our lives needs to remain on getting to know Jesus Christ better in a personal way; not just in knowledge, which can "puff us up" if it outpaces other virtues; but in love for Jesus Christ; in awe and wonder at Him; in constant conversation with Him in prayer; in peace and joy; in charity for fellow saints; in holiness; in keeping ourselves unspotted from the world; in good works for Jesus; in having a humble and sweet spirit. I certainly need a lot of more those things, and I think that we as Christians are at our best when our primary focus remains on these, and not so much on doctrinal disagreements.
Well, anyway, those are my thoughts. I believe that Jesus died for everyone and wants everyone to repent unto salvation. This means that if you are a lost sinner, we have good news to share with you! Jesus died for our sins and rose again so that you could go to heaven, if you are willing to repent of your sins and believe in Jesus Christ and be born again. And if you place your faith in Jesus Christ, then some day you can be with me and every other genuine saint throughout history in the most glorious nation imaginable, filled with light and joy and purpose, with a job to fill, where you belong and feel valued, your new healthy body radiating as the sun, with no more pain or death or disease, perfectly safe in the protecting presence of Jesus Christ from all evil, each day more glorious and exciting than the last. The thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ, and eternal heaven following, may not be too far off, given the way the world is going and how quickly prophecies could come together; but in any case, heaven is nearer now than it was when we first believed, and it will be awesome!
(Bits & Pieces, September 16, 1993, p. 22-24.; found at http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/r/responsibility.htm, accessed 2021 December) ↩