There is a wealth of information available on the topic of predestination, and so rather than try to re-hash everything as part of this series, I would encourage you to do your own investigation into the perspectives on this contentious doctrine. That way, as we grapple with the thorny issues and questions about predestination which invariably result, you’ll be able to tell if I’m somehow distorting a particular point of view…not to mention Scripture. For while it’s certainly not my intention to misrepresent information for the sake of making a point, I also know that iron sharpens iron. And so my hope is that we—like the Bereans—are more interested in pursuing the truth about predestination, versus simply “having an answer”.
Accordingly, in this post we are going to focus on the singular issue that ultimately divides Calvinists and Arminians: our ability (or lack thereof) to repent and turn to Christ. Because when you sift through all of the verses, arguments, and assumptions that underlie both positions, the pivotal question is simply this: as those who are born under Adam’s curse, are we capable of seeing our need for Christ and subsequently confessing a desire to be saved from certain judgment?
The Calvinist response to this question is an emphatic “no”, which is why they contend that before we are able to repent and embrace Christ, God must change our hearts…first. Put differently, the grip of sin upon our hearts, minds, and wills has rendered us utterly incapable of desiring to receive salvation and responding to God in faith, at least not without His express intervention. Our hearts have become so hardened, and our hatred for God runs so deep, that we would rather perish in our sin than even think about turning from it:
Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’
This assertion tends to shock / offend most people…at least initially…but if we are being honest it is hard to deny how intransigent our hearts naturally are. Don’t we all look for ways to justify our behavior? Haven’t we all pursued our own agendas while minimizing the impact of our choices upon those around us? It’s our nature to be self-centered and stubborn, and the last thing we want is anyone—especially God—calling us out. And quite frankly, not only does our own experience testify to the depth of our sin, but Scripture is also replete with verses that collectively speak to our inherent inability to bring ourselves before God and repent in faith:
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
For no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
These verses, and others like them, seem to paint a pretty stark picture: apart from God taking the initiative to rescue anyone, we would all naturally remain in a state of rebellion against Him and under His righteous wrath. After all, these passages don’t tell us that “some are righteous,” that “some seek God,” or that “some can come to Christ of their own accord.” To the contrary, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” such that “no one is righteous.” They declare there is “no one who seeks God,” there is “no one who does good, not even one,” and as Paul tells us in Ephesians, even our faith is a gift from God!
This being the case, how can we manage to bring ourselves to God in repentant faith before He first condescends to give us that faith? It’s logically impossible, which is why Calvinists deny the Arminian assertion that God predestines all those who willingly come before Him and throw themselves upon the mercy of Christ. We simply will never choose to do it of our own accord! Indeed, why else would Jesus proclaim that “no one can come to Him unless the Father draws them to Him”…first?
Simply put, Calvinists insist that our hearts and wills are so fundamentally corrupted by sin that we are incapable of even feeling remorse for our actions, let alone bending our knees to Christ as Lord and Savior. Moreover, as any Calvinist will surely tell you, the Greek word translated as “draws” in John 6:44 is the same word used to describe someone “drawing” water up from the bottom of a well. The water is not capable of contributing anything to the process, and it is only on account of the person who is “drawing” that the water moves at all. In fact, the same word can also be used to describe “dragging” someone against their will! Hence Calvinists categorically reject any notion of salvation that depends upon our ability to respond positively to the Gospel…prior to regeneration.
So what’s the Arminian response to all this? In a nutshell, Arminianism contends that God pours out His grace upon all people as He draws them to Christ, and that ultimately we bear the responsibility for accepting or rejecting the overtures of the Holy Spirit as God convicts us of sin and calls us to repent. They concur with Calvinists that apart from God drawing us to Christ, no one would ever repent; where they differ is in the scope of those whom the Holy Spirit actually draws. Because whereas Calvinists believe that God draws only those whom He has predestined to save (i.e. the “elect”) Arminians believe that salvation is available to all:
For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9
In other words, Arminians believe that not only does God’s grace demand a response, but that we retain the ability to make a choice either way…in spite of sin’s pernicious impact upon our hearts and wills. As C.S. Lewis put it in “The Great Divorce”:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.
Methodists refer to this grace which draws us to Christ as God’s “prevenient grace,” but Calvinists are quick to recant the “no ones” listed above as proof that no matter how much grace God pours out upon sinners, we simply aren’t capable of responding to it positively. Rather, they acknowledge God’s “common grace” that benefits all people—redeemed or otherwise—while rejecting the notion that sinners will ever act upon that grace in a way that leads someone to submit to Christ. Calvinists maintain that unless God changes our hearts and gives us the faith to come to Christ, per Ephesians 2:8-9, no one will respond to the Holy Spirit with anything but contempt.
And what about John 6:44? Doesn’t the fact that no one can come to Christ unless the Father first draws them (or drags them!) settle the debate? Calvinists would certainly assert that it does, but the verse doesn’t actually say that God draws only those whom He has sovereignly predestined / chosen to regenerate. Accordingly, while declaring that God draws only those whom He intends to save (i.e. the “elect”) is a possible interpretation of this passage, there’s actually nothing to preclude the Arminian notion that God potentially draws everyone—since as Peter already told us, God wants everyone to come to repentance—and that in the final analysis those who ultimately respond in repentance are actually saved.
Thus the lines are pretty clearly drawn, and it would appear that we have something of a stalemate. But we’re just getting started, and next time we’ll look at how the doctrine of God’s sovereignty plays into the equation.