I'm a newer Christian with some questions. Would you have time to go over an answer? I started studying apologetics and I am now more confused than ever before. Particularly, I'm confused about the once saved always saved debate. It seems like some scriptures are for eternal security and some are against it. Are we really eternally saved? But what about all the if-then statements in the Bible? Like "everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven"? And "if you don't forgive others their sin God won't forgive yours." I'm just really confused about the whole Calvinism-Arminianism question. Some scriptures point towards it and some speak against it. What are your thoughts on this debate? Are we damned before we're born? What about grace? Please respond!
Sounds like you've been doing some real thinking. I applaud your commitment to being intellectually engaged with your faith. Certainly the questions you have raised naturally demand it. So let me begin by saying with regard to both the problem you are wrestling with as well as the two views you have cited, you may wish to broaden your research to include a 3rd option: a Catholic monk named Martin Luther. But before I steer you in that direction, let me offer a few introductory insights which together, form an important background to your broader questions:
First, it’s important to understand that both Calvinist and Arminianist theologians alike are ultimately adherents of some form of double predestination (however strong or weak). That may come as a surprise to you, but the plain truth of the matter is that no theologian who gives assent to verbal plenary inspiration will unqualifiedly deny that predestination is double. The Bible plainly implies it. Hence, the real question is: In what sense is it double? Or precisely what form does it take? So that is an important point to take into consideration from the outset.
Secondly, it’s important to note that because both groups assent to a basic version of the doctrine, this also means that both believe God has foreknown that a potential mass-majority of people will go to hell, before he created them. For this reason, the inner conflict you are experiencing over the doctrines of God’s grace and his predestining will will not, I am sorry to say, be singly dealt with by choosing between Calvinism and Arminianism.
That said, a third point needs to be considered: namely, the dual doctrines of God’s foreknowledge and his foreordaining. The first deals with his omniscience while the second deals with his sovereign decree. And there certainly is an important difference between them. The chief question is: Does God foreordain our salvation on the basis of his foreknowledge? Or does he foreknow us because of what he has foreordained? That, properly speaking, is what the debate is all about. Has the Lord appointed a Christian to salvation because he foresees that he will believe? Or does he cause the Christian to believe because he has foreordained it? Since both groups adhere to both doctrines, how is this best to be understood?
Well, as your studies have no doubt confirmed, there are problems with both positions. Calvinists teach that God foreknows who will believe because of what he has decided he will do. He is the author of faith. He brings it about. Hence, at the preaching of his word, he gives faith to some. On the positive side, this view teaches that salvation is wholly a gift and has nothing to do with our human ability. On the negative side, it could be reasonably argued that God himself becomes the author of damnation. For on this view, God is withholding faith from some whenever the Word is preached. And that is certainly a very disturbing idea. So what about the Arminian position?
Well, Arminian theologians teach that God foresees, by his omniscience, who will believe the gospel and who will withhold assent. Hence damnation comes about for the non-elect due solely to the fact that when they hear, they fail (or refuse) to believe. God’s ordination therefore becomes commensurate to human choosing. On the positive side, this view indicates that man is the chief cause of his damnation and the ultimate author of eternal evil. And that is certainly a welcome improvement over against the form of Calvinism you are struggling with. On the negative side, however, man becomes the author of his own salvation and God’s grace is rendered powerless to save apart from human choice. Arminianism thus seems to trade one problem for another. So where does all of this leave the inquiring Christian?
The answer, apparently, isn’t very comforting. On the one hand, Christians are terrified because salvation is seemingly dependent upon the precociousness of God’s will. On the other hand, Christians become terrified because salvation is seemingly dependent upon the precociousness of man’s will. So what you get seems to depend on what are you in the mood for! Pick your poison! Calvinism or Arminianism! (Or so it is claimed) But before you make your choice, know that there are other options. Hence, the Lutheran alternative...
The Lutheran confessors essentially thought that Calvin vindicated God by calling evil, good. So God ultimately decides who should be damned. And whatever God decides must be good! The situation therefore becomes precisely as dire as the 70’s rock musician, Roger Waters, suspected it was: “What God wants—God gets! God helps us all!”
On the other hand, the Lutheran apologists also thought that the sort of “proto-Arminian” theology which had already begun to peak it’s head during Luther's day meant that human beings could ultimately save themselves. And in the great reformer's mind, this was essentially no different from Catholicism.
For this reason, Lutheran theologians chose to see God’s predestining actions in an entirely different way. They taught that God "predestines” in view of his ability to foresee who will resist him. This lead to the development of an entirely distinct systematic. For just as the mere hearing of the Law involuntarily causes sin to revive (Rom 7:9), so also, the mere hearing of the gospel involuntarily causes faith to revive (Rom 10:17). Moreover, all of this is said to happen by the mere utterance of the Word of God, entirely independent of additional measures. So, faith (in the gospel) on the Lutheran view becomes an urge that is extremely difficult for the listener to resist.
The important word here, however, is “difficult” rather “impossible.” For the Lutheran theologians, faith was not an unavoidable outcome for the redeemed. It was not a supernatural power which God bestows upon some (while withholdings from others) whenever the Word of God is preached. Rather, according to Luther, the Word itself creates faith.
This lead to the rather ingenious conclusion that both the eternally reprobate and the eternally redeemed are experiencing precisely the same thing whenever the gospel is preached. In other words, faith “just comes.” It “happens” to the hearer. It rises in the heart because the gospel regenerates indiscriminately. The Word therefore needs no augmentation from the Holy Spirit to produce faith, because the gospel itself is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. (Rom 1:16)
What this ultimately meant for the Lutheran model is that the Calvinist notion of “judicial hardening” initially occurs to the reprobate for human (and not divine) reasons. For at the appearance of faith in the heart, the reprobate simply choose to “resist the gift.” In other words, they stop their own ears and inwardly blind themselves, lest the faith generated by the message succeed in converting them.
On the other side of the equation, the redeemed, upon hearing the Word, simply receive the faith produced by the message passively. Hence, on the Lutheran view, God is not the cause of eternal evil, and man is not the cause of eternal salvation. Rather, if a man be saved—the gospel did it! But if a man be condemned—it is because man resisted!
Of course, modern Calvinists will often hold that Luther was mistaken. For to be saved by “not resisting” seems to smack of salvation by human cunning. Hence, on the Lutheran account of salvation, something in the man had to be virtuously wise enough to know what to do when the gospel was preached. (Or so it is argued!) But here, Luther would simply disagree on the grounds that human cunning is not a passive state. Rather it is an active one. Conversely, the man who passively heard the gospel did nothing to attain to the faith that saved him. It simply "happened" to him. How then can man stand in causal relations to such a salvation?
Still others have objected that Luther’s view of salvation is dependent upon a voluntary choice not to resist. However, once again, here, Luther would simply remind us that the Bible does not teach us that man is saved by resisting resisting. In fact, biblically speaking, resistance to sin does nothing to save. Rather, as the Lutheran formula teaches, faith saves involuntary. Therefore, for Luther, salvation is the result of merely hearing the Word of God.
Finally, the principle objection is cast out that this “faith” allows for a man to fall away from the gospel, after he has once believed. For since such faith may be resisted, this would mean that the Christian can resist the gospel message after being saved by it. But here, Luther simply responds by outright rejecting the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security. For if it be argued that Christian perseverance would henceforth be synergistic, the Lutheran would simply point out that this is precisely what Calvinism itself teaches about sanctification—that it is a synergistic process. It is a cooperative partnership from the point of the believer’s initial faith onwards to wrestle against sin and the flesh, and to fight against the devil. It's a pretty simple answer. But of course it still leaves the question: Where do the Arminian objections lie?
Well, shifting gears, the Arminians typically reject Lutheran soteriology because they cannot believe that man does “nothing” to receive his salvation. Surely this is false! Man must do something once he has heard the gospel message! But here Luther simply repeats that the message itself produces in man all that is needed for both his justification and his salvation. Not only so, but it produces all that is needed for his future perseverance as well. For if sin weakens the Christian’s faith, all he needs to do to regain his strength again is to "hear" the gospel afresh. Hence God’s sovereignty orchestrates man’s initial hearing of the gospel. But man, by exercise of his newly freed will, voluntarily seeks to continue to hear the gospel in order to derive nourishment from its life-giving benefit.
So that’s how the Luther confessors came to see the issues. Men are predestined to damnation only because God, knowing ahead of time who would resist him, consents to grant them their inner heart's desires. The Lutheran model is therefore not identical to Calvinism. Neither is it strictly Arminian. It simply teaches that salvation is God’s doing while damnation is biblically speaking, man’s doing.
So hopefully, that can be a possible way you might process the issues you are wrestling with! The gospel is for all people and God doesn't force anyone to go to hell. For a fuller, more scholarly answer, read my article, entitled: "Why I Am Neither A Calvinist—Nor An Arminian!"
God bless Brian!
In His Grip of Grace,
Ben Fischer <><
"For God sol loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)