… I think I am unfit to be either a Calvinist or an Arminian.
That’s right; they actually agree on one of their respective five points — total depravity — and as far as i understand it, I disagree with it.
Here’s the way that Wikipedia phrases the first of Calvin’s five points:
“Total depravity“: This doctrine, also called “total inability”, asserts that as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. People are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own natures. (The term “total” in this context refers to sin affecting every part of a person, not that every person is as evil as possible.) This doctrine is borrowed from Augustine who was a member of a Manichaean sect in his youth.
And how the third article of the Arminian Remonstrances reads:
That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: “Without me ye can do nothing.”
Now, the fact is, I agree that no one is capable of being saved by his or her own effort, or without the blood of Christ. I agree that faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8 ), but I do not find anything in scripture that says this gift is given exclusively to those who have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Faith may come by hearing (Romans 10:17) — it certainly does for many, many believers — but scripture nowhere says that it comes solely by hearing. You have to add the word “only” to get that meaning.
- There may indeed be no one who is sinless before God (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Psalm 143:2; Romans 3) … but not one of those passages (or any other) adds, “and therefore they are all automatically damned.”
- Nor does any of them say that a man is incapable of anything truly good. In fact, a good number of Old Testament heroes are spoken of as righteous or fully devoted to God in spite of their sins (Noah, Genesis 6:9; 7:1 … Abraham, Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3, 9; Galatians 3:6; James 2:21, James 2:23 … Daniel and Job, Ezekiel 14:14, 20 … King David, 1 Kings 15:3). And as far as we can tell, none of them ever heard the gospel of Jesus Christ in this life. People can imagine, think and do good … even if the rest of Noah’s generation thought only evil all the time (Genesis 6:5). Noah did, unless somehow you can explain to me how Noah was righteous even though he was also a person whose heart’s inclinations were only evil all the time.
- In addition, when God created man, He pronounced man along with all His creation, not just “good,” but “very good.” (Genesis 1:26-31).
- This is where I disagree with Calvin’s Reformed thought even further; man (through Adam and Eve) chose not to be good one time; God gave them the choice of two trees in the garden, and one was promoted by the serpent to be more attractive though forbidden on pain of death itself. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is choice, and our choices matter to Him, and they have consequences. We have chosen ever since not to be perfect, but that does not mean that we have chosen not to be good. It only takes one time choosing self to bring sin into our lives and render us imperfect. But that does not mean that God sees us as unrighteous and consigns us to the fires of hell upon the commission of the first sin; through Christ’s blood He justifies the ungodly. He judges fairly — and I believe that would have to mean, individually, rather than as part of a class of people (“sinners”) that He can condemn because it will save Him a great deal of time and effort.
- This is where I diverge from Arminius’s Remonstrances even further because the fourth article reads:
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting; awakening, following, and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But, as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many that they have resisted the Holy Ghost,—Acts vii, and elsewhere in many places.
So — if I understand it correctly — this article of doctrine says that only God can sponsor anything good; all good actions come from God as well as all good things and good can only be ascribed to Him. Where does scripture say that? I’ll agree that His grace is not irresistible (one of the points of Calvinism says it is), but where does God’s word tell us that no man is capable of any good at all, of himself? Wouldn’t that be a requirement of free will and choice; the ability to choose within oneself between genuine good and inarguable evil? Don’t we even call it “making a good choice” or “making a bad choice”? Isn’t the purpose of giving people a choice finding out what they will choose?
Let’s face it: all the talk of “total depravity” is just a redefinition of another doctrine of men: Original Sin. It is so tenuously based in scripture that believers in Christ can’t begin to come to a consensus on what it is, what it means, or how it applies to mankind. It seems clear to me in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 that the acts of Adam and Eve introduced sin (and therefore death) into the world. Since Augustine, we’ve read the word “eternal” before “condemnation” into the Romans passage, where Paul is talking about the condemnation of a death sentence — where there was none before Adam and Eve! His point is that the first man brought sin into the world; Jesus took it away. Adam is no more responsible for my sins than I am for his or my great-great-uncle’s or my yet-unborn grandchildren’s (if any — Jeremiah 31:29-31) .
I’ll admit I don’t understand everything about Calvinism and Arminianism. To my view, they lead to extremes: one to excluding man entirely from the salvation process; the other, to virtually excluding God’s sovereignty in favor of free will. I don’t understand all of the arguments that are used to explain away all these doctrines’ inconsistencies with scripture. I don’t get all of the points that new Reformed voices make to ameliorate the extremes of their classic position (does that mean they are reformed Reformed?).
I do understand that these doctrines are two systematized approaches to theology (study of God’s nature), soteriology (study of salvation) and probably lots of other religious stuff, and they are systems created by men.
And I believe I understand what Jesus says about nullifying the word of God by human tradition and invalidating worship by teaching human rules (Matthew 15:1-13; Mark 7:1-13). God doesn’t have to fit in our rulebooks, no matter how cleverly we deduce them or how cogently we argue them or how persuasively we phrase them.
Anything I need to understand about the relationship between God and us — what He wants for us; what He has provided for us — I can see pretty clearly in the life and actions and teachings and sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, His Son.
He didn’t pronounce anyone totally depraved; completely unreachable by God due to their slightest sin. Instead, He seemed to go out of His way to find good in the people that His countrymen expected the least good from, like a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13) and a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). He challenged people with His own perfection (Matthew 5:20, 5:48; John 5:14; John 8:1-11). He was a perfect (mature, complete) example; I believe that He feels we deserve that as much as God’s perfection required it in order for Jesus to be our sacrifice … and that we deserve a challenge of perfection, even if it’s impossible for us to achieve ourselves. But I don’t ever hear Him saying or implying that it’s impossible for us to be good, or to do good, or to have faith in what’s good which can be counted as righteousness.
I think this point of Calvinist/Arminian agreement — total depravity — is pervasive in Restoration Movement thought, too. It supports our view that God cannot and/or will not save anyone who has not heard the gospel, believed, repented, confessed, been baptized, and kept all of our man-made rules, too.
Some of our man-made rules and interpretations give Old Testament heroes the benefit of the doubt, even though none of them ever heard the gospel of Christ in order to believe in it, repent, confess His Sonship or be baptized into a fellowship where we in churches of Christ could explain [sarcasm alert] the salvific importance of a cappella worship. We also excuse babies and small children and usually folks who are mentally challenged from the requirement to obey, though scripture says no such specific thing about their acceptance or rejection by God. So, we Restoration folks kind of believe in total depravity, too … but we also believe in the exceptions we wish to make in it.
Can we even look at these issues from outside our own doctrinal boxes and see what scripture says and doesn’t say?
Those who are saved eternally, are saved by Jesus’ blood and the Lord’s judgment — which is His choice. Those who have heard the gospel and have chosen to accept it and have been immersed into a Christ-like life are recipients of a promise of salvation (Romans 10:9), which they are free to continue accepting or can walk away from it and from Him forever (Hebrews 6:4-6 — now that’s depravity!). Those who have not heard the gospel cannot possibly be expected to obey its implications (Romans 10:14). But you know there are good people who have lived as if they had — including patriarchs who lived before God made clear in His law what kind of good He wanted for His people! Those who haven’t heard, yet live obedient lives, perceive and believe in the necessity of good over evil, repent of and repudiate acts that gratify self at the expense of others … they are a law for themselves (Romans 2:14). We will all be judged by what we have done (Matthew 25:31-46), because what we do testifies to what we believe (James 2).
That’s what I read scripture saying. Not five points decided upon by a Reformation synod or five minimal acts of obedience deduced by the founders of a Restoration movement.
And I can’t find anywhere that scripture says those who have not received the promise are automatically excluded from the gift of salvation through the grace of God in Christ because of their total depravity, or anything else.
So it would appear that I am not fit for Calvinism; I’m not fit for Arminianism.
I do find a fit for myself (and everyone else, excluding no one on the chance circumstance of having heard the gospel) between God’s sovereignty and our own free will to choose and within a human nature that is touched by sin, struggles with sin, yet — along with a lot of other people (some of whom have heard of God’s grace and some of whom have not) — yearning for what is good and right in the world, fully capable of imagining what that looks like and often willing to help make that happen.