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Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
This is the 11th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
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I. Calvinism vs Armenianism
One of the most contentious and debated issues in evangelical theology is the doctrine of election. And election has become one of those divided issues, especially in the past ten or fifteen years with the emergence of the new reform movement. But there has also been a revival with the Armenian side of theology. So, let’s consider two extremes: a spectrum with images of extreme Calvinists on one side; a group that always seems to be against everything, a difficult group that are very convinced that they are right and therefore can become very hostile sometimes. Then, over on the other side, we have the image of very angry Armenians who are very much against Calvinist theology where Calvin is almost up there in league with the devil. So these are kind of outside images, and I am not going to talk about either of them. Within the bell curve that is quite a variation and a lot of it comes back to the issue of election.
II. Election and Grace
Now with the less extremes, let’s consider the Calvinists with a reference Ephesians 1:3 where it says, ‘blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.’ Wherever anyone is in their theology, we all agree on this. God chose before creation to bring everybody into the adoption of his children. But how do you get to be ‘in Christ’ and that is where the difference comes. And so what basis did God choose those for salvation and so how do we get to be ‘in Christ’. Did God choose us based on the foreknowledge of what we would say to his invitation? This is the Armenian side or did he do it by the foreknowledge of his own plan to bring a certain group of people in which would be more toward the Calvinistic side. So this is a point of real differentiation. So the basic argument for Calvinism has to do with God showing more grace to some than others. In Matthew 20:12 where the land owner hired someone agreeing to pay one denarii per day and others come in around noon time and then 3 pm and then 5 pm. And he pays them all the same amount. Those who had worked the whole day complained about this, asking why they were all being paid the same amount. The land owner who is God said that he wasn’t being unfair to them as he had paid them the agreed amount. He wanted to give the ones he had hired last, the same as he gave them. He further asked, are you envious because I am generous? So some get more than others and it is based on his decision, not based on their merit.
A. Saul and Jacob
Think of Acts 9 where on the road to Damascus Jesus met Saul. Saul sees the vision where others don’t; God spoke to Saul in some very unique ways. In verse 10, God speaks to Ananias telling him to go find Saul on the street called Straight. Ananias questioned God, basically saying, ‘are you sure? This person did a lot of evil to your saints in Jerusalem. God answered in verse 15, ‘go, for he is my chosen instrument to carry my name to the gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ This was God’s choice, not Saul’s choice. In Galatians 1:15 Paul says that God has set him apart before he was born and that he was called by grace and was pleased to reveal his son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles. We see that the setting apart and the calling actually preceded the revelation. This is an example where God has done this. In Romans 9:11, it says, yet before they were born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls. The older will serve the younger. So we see that the Lord chose Jacob over Esau. It was before they were born and before they had done anything good or bad. This was God’s sovereign choice. Both of these guys weren’t the nicest. Based on these passages, Calvinists believe that God has the right to choose who he may and God has.
B. Appointment vs Rejection
So Calvinists believe in God’s election, his choice is based completely on God’s own purposes and had no basis in human merit or actions. Those whom he elected will be saved; this is Calvin’s way of saying it. Another passage from Acts 13, the story where Paul is coming up to his first missionary journey at Antioch speaking to the Jews and because of jealousy, the Jews began to contradict what Paul was saying. And Paul says that since they reject the Word of God they will spend eternity in hell. Why? They rejected the Word of God. We see in verse 48 that the Gentiles were given eternal life. Why? They were appointed to eternal life because they believed. It was either they were appointed eternal life and believed or they believed as a result of having eternal life. This seems to say that they were appointed to eternal life. People who are in hell are there because they reject the Word of God. So Calvinists in general say that people are not saved because they chose to reject the Word of God.
A. Choice vs Rejection
Western Armenians believe that God’s enabling grace frees all people from depravity so that they can make their own choice. So God in his grace comes so that people can choose to follow him or not. God’s election, his choice is based on the foreknowledge of those who receives and retains Jesus as Savior. Because God’s foreknowledge is perfect, all whom he chooses will be saved. But let’s look at 1st Timothy 2 where Paul is ‘urging that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.’ Then in verse 3 it says that God ‘desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ In verse 1, we see that this includes unsaved people. So God wants all to be saved. This is not all the elect as such but all people. The reason why all are not saved is because many choose not to accept the truth in Jesus. So God desires all to be saved. He doesn’t force any to follow him. We have John 3:16 where it says that ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Here it says, ‘whoever believes in him shall have eternal life.’ The differentiator is their belief.
We also have 2nd Peter 3 where it says that the Lord hasn’t yet come. In the 9th verse it says that ‘the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.’ So God wants everyone to come to repentance and be saved. Acts 2:38, Peter says ‘to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
B. Grace vs Works: Okay for Calvinism
God has appointed eternal life verses the Armenians, where God desires all people to be saved. Their choice is the difference. Is the Calvin doctrine fatalism? When God works, God opens people’s hearts and they realize their sins and they desire to be saved. Is Armenian belief based on works salvation? There is no meritorious work whatsoever; it is only receiving the gift that is offered.
I think they are both right, some of the time! The way I connect everything up is that sometimes God chooses people is because of his own choosing. Jacob for example and then Abraham who worshiped other gods in Joshua 24; God comes and calls him to be the Father of the World. Jacob was chosen strictly as a choice over Esau and then God clearly says that he is choosing Saul as his instrument for the gentiles. These people were chosen by God sovereign choice for a unique and special work. The people in Acts 13 were chosen to witness to the others. So I think God is a Calvinist some of the time but he is an Armenian at other times because he wants all people to be saved and calls all people to himself.
If I look at John 12:32 where Jesus tells us, ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.’ Jesus says exactly what he means here, all people. In John 16:8, ‘and when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement.’ This is the world and not just the elect. In Romans 2:4 we have God’s kindness leading people to repentance. People will spend eternally under God’s wrath because they have a stubborn unrepentant heart. They have rejected God’s kindness that leads them to repentance. His kindness is part of general revelation. Then in verse 7 of the same chapter, ‘to those who by patience in well-doing, seek for God’s glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.’ So what is the good they are doing here? They are responding to God’s kindness that leads into repentance. In verses 5 and 6, they say no and they get God’s wrath but in verse 7, they say yes and they get eternal life. This is God’s gift, not works salvation. They respond to God’s leading. Those that God leads some will say no and some will say yes. This is grace, a kindness, a calling but it is resistible where some can say no and some can say yes. In verses 8 and 9, ‘but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek.’ This is everyone in general revelation context. But in verse 10, ‘but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.’ So his kindness will lead everyone to repentance where some will say no and some will say yes. So it seems that everyone is offered this kindness that leads to his calling, his drawing to himself and some say yes and some say no.
So, to conclude: I think that God works in different ways with different people. I think there are some people where he works against their will to bring to Christ. There are some people who work with their choice saying that they want more of God’s kindness. I think God showed more power to Saul on the road to Damascus than with Lydia when Paul preached salvation and she accepted. The same thing happened to Agrippa in Acts 26 and he rejected it. He said no to the same thing that Lydia said yes to. We see that the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading the Bible and was confused but eventually accepted the truth in Jesus. The same as Cornelius who wasn’t saved and an angel comes and tells him about Jesus. So God works in different ways with different people where everybody has a basic calling, a leading, and drawing, and thus no one can say that if I had seen your kindness, I would have responded, because it has been presented to everyone. So some people are especially chosen for the work of God and I think Calvinists are correct at that point. Everybody is drawn, called, convicted to come to Jesus and I agree with Armenians with this point. I disagree with the Calvinists who say only appointed people get into heaven and I disagree with Armenians who say that God doesn’t force anybody to get into heaven or rather that God chosen some to come into heaven. With some people God convicts and convicts and convicts until eventually they accept his truth and salvation, and with some it is easy; they see the glory of God, his plan and his salvation and they want it.
1. Do you think that God “forces” some people to be saved? Why or why not?
2. Can Calvinists and Armenians both be right about election, at least some of the time? Why or why not?
3. How should the fact that God calls everyone to come to Jesus impact our telling others about him?
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