Free will or fate? You must decide, but ignore the irony for now. Within Christianity there is an ongoing debate over whether God chooses those He saves or those saved choose to be saved. Those who emphasize God’s choosing trace back to John Calvin and are known as Calvinists. Those who emphasize man’s choosing trace back to Jacob Arminius and are known as Arminians. So who is right, the Calvinists or the Arminians? Does God pick us or do we pick God?
Within these two views there are disagreements and each group has extremist positions. The hyper-Calvinists are extreme in their emphasis of God’s choice. Some even believe that Christians should not even share the gospel message with non-Christians because it might give them false hope. They argue that since God has chosen before the foundations of the world who would be saved (Ephesians 1:4), it is cruel and misleading to tell everyone that God wants to save them since God is only going to save the elect (those He has picked). An all-powerful and all-knowing God clearly does not want to save everyone or else He would simply do it, since salvation is understood as God choosing sinners to save.
Within the Arminian camp there is an extremist position that is commonly referred to as open theism. Greg Boyd and the late Clark Pinnock are two popular spokesmen who champion this hyper-Arminian view. This view basically says that God cannot know the future or else we would not have free will, since the only choice available is the one He knows we will make, which makes the choice not a real choice. Open theists believe that if God knows the future and is all powerful then He cannot be good. Boyd writes,
“If God foreknew that Adolf Hitler would send six million Jews to their death, why did he go ahead and create a man like that?” and “If hell is worse than never being born, as Jesus suggests (Matt. 26:24), wouldn't an all-loving God refrain from creating people he is certain will end up there? If God doesn't want "any to perish" (2 Peter 3:9), why does he create people he is certain will do just that?”1
While both views address important issues they are ultimately wrong for the same underlying reason.
Both views emphasize strong rationalism above all else. They misinterpret biblical passages by interpreting them on the basis of other biblical passages that support their conclusion. The extremist views go wrong in their over emphasis on human reason. They basically assert, “Since I can’t see how these two apparently conflicting ideas fit together, then one must be given superiority to interpret the other.” This kind of thinking is largely driven by strong rationalism, or frankly put, human arrogance. It assumes that since we can’t comprehend how these two ideas fit together then they must not.
Now don’t get me wrong, we should try to understand the Bible and how God's revelation fits together (theologians refer to this as systematic theology) but we should not force puzzle pieces together that do not fit together - especially when we obviously do not have all of the puzzle pieces (Deuteronomy 29:29). This is the crux of the issue, even for the non-extremist views. In an attempt to understand two apparently conflicting biblical truths, both the Arminians and Calvinists misinterpret biblical passages by interpreting them through the lens of other biblical passages that support their position - both are wearing rose colored glasses - both are taking revelation beyond what was actually meant to reveal.
The Arminians emphasize free will at the expense of God’s will; while the Calvinist emphasize God’s will at the expense of man’s will and his personal responsibility - This is best demonstrated by what is likely the most controversial point of Calvinism, the teaching of limited atonement. The idea comes largely out of the intellectual problem of double jeopardy - If Christ died for everyone’s sin then how can a sinner pay for those sins again in hell? Now, each side has their points and their counter-points which I won't go into here, but there is a key issue that is overlooked. Human reasoning and not biblical exegesis is what is primarily driving the theology. The line of reasoning goes, “Since I can’t understand how these ideas fit together then they must not fit together, so passages that appear to be teaching that Jesus did in fact die for the sins of the entire world and wishes that all would be saved are not really saying that (2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4), they must be saying something else." But why must they? Because our faith isn't big enough to embrace two teachings that appear to conflict? Because our strong human rationalism is uneasy with these two truths that appear to be at odds with each other? When Christ tells all who are weary to come to Him does He only means the elect (Matthew 11:28-30)? If so, why even say it? Calvinists must say that when Paul commands all men everywhere to repent he really means all of the elect (Acts 17:30)? Calvinists also assert that when the Bible says that Christ died for all it doesn't mean all, even when it specifically states all (1 John 2:2); it really means Christ died for all of the elect and only the elect.
Arminians make the same mistake but on the oppositie end. They can't comprehend how God can give us free will if He elects those who are saved - They believe this would violates our free will (while severely underestimating the ramifications of total depravity/man's sinfulness). For the same reasons just mentioned it is only a problem if your faith or God are not big enough to do both without causing intereference.
In an effort to avoid an apparent contradiction both views fail to properly interpret passages of the Bible. This is because both confuse contradiction with paradox. I refer to this an apparent contradiction because the conflict is not a real one; it only seems like it since it is really a paradox. A paradox is two things that fit together even though it appears they cannot: we simply do not have all the information necessary to understand how they fit together. Free will and divine sovereignty are a paradox and this is most easily demonstrated by the fact that both the Arminian and Calvinist positions have major problem texts that conflict with their view, so they are stuck trying to smash puzzle pieces together that were never meant to fit. The notion that there must be a rational way to fit the two apparently conflicting truths together must be dropped or else we will not treat the Bible responsibility and fairly. Context is king when interpreting the Bible, not human rationalism.
There is another problem that both groups have. The gospel is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. This does not mean we can't understand any of it, it just means we can't understand all of it. When we embrace strong rationalism and give it superiority over the Bible the gospel does not become clearer, it becomes murky. God never intended for us to completely undersand Him and how He works (is that even possible?), and when we go beyond what He intended us to understand we are relying on rationalism not faith. Calvinism and Arminianism weakens one's faith by not surrending strong rationalism to faith and embracing the paradox of the gospel.
Surrendering to paradox is difficult, especially with western enlightenment-drenched minds in the 21st century, but once you embrace both truths there is a peace that comes with it. No matter what position you take they all have problems that cannot be sorted out rationally, so why not embrace the paradox view and let Scripture say what it intends to say, instead of creating bigger problems? Make no mistake, God is the one who saves sinners from their sin and there is nothing good in us to save ourselves. If God did not move us from spiritual death to spiritual life no one would come to God (Romans 3:11, John 6:44-45, Isaiah 64:6). However, responsibility is still there for every single person to respond to God and accept Jesus Christ (Matthew 4:17, Luke 13:3, Acts 2:38, 2 Peter 3:9, Luke 7:30, Romans 10:14-17, Acts 7:51, Hebrews 2:9 Titus 2:11-14, 1 Timothy 2:3-6). The Great Commission in Matthew 28 calls us to preach the gospel to everyone. If we focus too much on God’s sovereignty we will struggle to have a sense of urgency like the apostles had and not take preaching the gospel seriously (2 Corinthians 5:20). If we focus too much on man’s free will we will struggle to not be overwhelmed by our inabilities to convince others to come to Christ. There is also the possibility of becoming prideful in our salvation because we were the ones who were smart enough to accept the Gospel message where others were not. This is one of the reasons divine sovereignty and election were revealed in the first place, to counter human pride. It is only when we accept both biblical truths and embrace paradox that we will give God all the glory for saving sinful man while not diminishing man’s responsibility.
So the issue is not “either or” but “both and”. Theological problems arise when Christians impose strong rationalism onto biblical texts in order to try and understand God’s revelation fully; but that was never God’s intent (Deuteronomy 29:29). Christians lessen their faith by attempting to better understand something that they cannot. God brings about His sovereign will not in spite of our choices, but through our choices. However God actually operates in the salvation of sinners is righteous and just, even if limited atonement was true, but that requires another conversation.
Key take away: God does not bring about His will in spite of our choices, but through our choices. It is a mistake to embrace strong rationalism and impose it onto biblical texts.
1. Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: a Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000), 10