A Guide to Christian Theology - Lesson 13

Sovereignty, Election and Free Will

From this lesson, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of key theological concepts such as sovereignty, election, and free will. You'll learn about the differences in interpretation between Calvinist and Wesleyan-Arminian views regarding God's sovereignty and how these views affect the understanding of God's plan and human responsibility. Additionally, the lesson emphasizes the importance of clarifying the definitions of theological terms to avoid misunderstandings and theological disputes. It presents a balanced perspective, identifying the speaker as a "Calminian," who combines elements of both Calvinism and Arminianism to account for various biblical data and theological considerations. This lesson provides valuable insights into the complexities of theological discussions and the need for careful interpretation of scripture.

Gerry Breshears
A Guide to Christian Theology
Lesson 13
Watching Now
Sovereignty, Election and Free Will

I. Introduction

A. Background Concept: God's Decree, Plan, and Purpose

B. Importance of Defining Key Terms

II. Unpacking Key Theological Terms

A. Sovereignty

1. God's Accountability

2. God's Plans and Purposes

3. Different Interpretations of Sovereignty (Calvinist, Wesleyan-Arminian, Calminian)

B. Election

1. Calvinist Perspective

2. Wesleyan-Arminian Perspective

3. Calminian Perspective

C. Free Will

1. Definitions of Free Will (Contrary Choice vs. Doing What One Wants)

2. Lack of Biblical Clarity on Contrary Choice

3. Theological Significance of Free Will

III. Conclusion

A. The Need for Clear Definitions and Biblical Support

B. Recognizing Different Interpretations Within Evangelical Theology

C. The Ongoing Debate and Its Foundational Nature

  • In this lesson, explore the significance of systematic theology, blending academic insight with personal devotion. Learn to interpret biblical texts, understand how theology shapes beliefs, and fortify your faith against deception. This study fosters personal, biblical, and responsible theological growth, vital for spiritual development and discipleship.
  • Learn diverse ways to tackle theological questions, focusing on Holy Spirit baptism. Understand deductive, inductive, and retro-abductive methods. Acts 17:11 and Acts 15 show how community perspectives contribute to nuanced theological discussions, promoting unity amidst differing viewpoints.
  • This lesson provides insights into theological certainty levels, categorizing beliefs into "die for," "divide for," "debate for," and "decide for," highlighting essential doctrines, divisive issues, passionate debates, and less crucial matters, while underscoring the significance of understanding diverse perspectives and theological terms across different Christian tribes.
  • Explore general revelation through creation and conscience (Psalm 19, Romans 1). Responding leads to God, though not salvation alone. Special revelation possible. Diverse salvation views, favoring knowing Jesus. Seared consciences don't always void salvation.
  • Gain deep understanding of special revelation: history, divine acts, and communication revealing God's character and redemptive plan via Messiah. Lesson highlights Bible's key role, conveying God's nature, guidance, and transformative power, emphasizing ongoing divine-human communication.
  • This lesson delves into the concept of divine inspiration in Scripture, citing 2 Timothy 3:15-16 and 2 Peter 1:16-21. It explains "God-breathed" as a term highlighting God's creative influence on words, rejecting mere concepts or dictation. Inspiration involves human authors, their personalities, and styles, conveying God's message to the entire church.
  • In this lesson, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of the characteristics of God, including their definitions, biblical support, and implications and applications.
  • In this lesson you will gain insight into the Bible's clarity, sufficiency, and authority, and the Canon.
  • In this lesson, you'll grasp a deep understanding of God's character. His foremost quality is compassion, like a mother's love. He's gracious, patient, loving, faithful, and forgiving, extending favor even to the undeserving. Yet, He's just, not sparing the persistently rebellious. This lesson dispels misconceptions, urging contemplation of God's profound blend of love and justice.
  • This lesson delves into holiness via Isaiah 6, emphasizing dedication over separation from sin. It challenges misconceptions and calls for church reform.
  • This lesson delves into the fundamental characteristics of God, particularly the Trinity, emphasizing God's essential relational nature within Himself and its biblical implications, while also addressing theological controversies and highlighting the complexity of the Trinity.
  • This lesson explores different approaches to knowing God, inspired by Thomas Aquinas, discusses the doctrine of immutability, and highlights how God can change in his attitude and actions based on biblical evidence, emphasizing the value of in-depth Bible study and open dialogue in understanding God's nature.
  • This lesson covers key theological concepts: sovereignty, election, and free will. It explores differences between Calvinist and Wesleyan-Arminian views on God's sovereignty, impacting God's plan and human responsibility. Emphasis on defining terms to prevent disputes. Speaker is a "Calminian," blending Calvinism and Arminianism for a balanced perspective. Valuable insights into theological complexities and scripture interpretation.
  • Exploring various theological views and problematic issues surrounding the concept of providence, we will gain a comprehensive understanding of the role of prayer in providence, as well as the compatibility of God's sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • You will gain knowledge about anthropology and its biblical foundations, creation of human beings and the image of God in humans, fall and sin and their implications on human nature, redemption and sanctification, and human destiny and eschatology, including views on heaven and hell and the return of Christ.
  • This lesson offers valuable insights into the multifaceted nature of providence and its profound implications for our comprehension of God's role in the world.
  • The lesson touches upon various types of suffering, categorizing them into six different types: moral evil (e.g., rape), natural evil (e.g., cancer), persecution, sharing the suffering of another, punishment for sin, and suffering caused by the devil.
  • Learn to discern God's will by cultivating a Christ-like character, living by moral principles, seeking counsel, embracing uniqueness, and praying. It's about aligning with your long-term happiness and godly desires, offering a balanced approach to life decisions.
  • Explore Jesus' nature and incarnation. Learn how He balanced divine and human attributes, challenging traditional views. Reflect on His mission and ours, empowered by the Holy Spirit, bridging divinity and humanity.
  • This lesson delves into the incarnation of Jesus, explaining his dual nature as both God and man during his earthly mission, supported by Old Testament, Gospel, and epistle references. It acknowledges the complexity of his divinity and humanity, even after his ascension.
  • This lesson explores Jesus' dual nature, divine and human, delving into emotions, knowledge, sin, and his role as the Second Adam, offering theological insights.
  • Learn about Jesus' life and mission, challenging traditional beliefs like the virgin birth. Explore his spiritual journey, resurrection, and more, fostering critical thinking and alternative perspectives.
  • This lesson provides a comprehensive examination of atonement, its various dimensions, and the theological concepts surrounding it.
  • Learn about the Holy Spirit, baptism, and its role in Christian faith. Understand diverse perspectives on its workings in believers' lives, emphasizing its incorporation at conversion and empowering influence, supported by biblical insights.
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  • This lesson explores the role of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts. It challenges traditional definitions, proposing that any ability empowered by the Holy Spirit and used in ministry is a spiritual gift. The primary gift is the Holy Spirit himself.
  • Learn about the theological debate on spiritual gifts like prophecy and miracles. Explore four perspectives: cessationism, continuationism, functional cessationism, and word of faith. The instructor, a continuationist, emphasizes discernment and scripture while promoting respectful dialogue among believers with differing views.
  • This lesson explores the Bible's view of humanity, emphasizing humans as God's unique creation, made from dust and breath, in His image. It delves into human origins, our role as covenant partners, and the interaction between spirit and body, supported by biblical passages, offering a holistic perspective on being human in God's eyes.
  • This lesson redefines humans as image-bearers of God, emphasizing the role of reflecting divine attributes in all work, gender equality, and growth in Christ-likeness. It promotes dignity for all, with potential for deeper reflection as faith matures.
  • In this lesson you will explore the origin of sin, rejecting dualism in favor of a Christian perspective where sin arises from the choices of morally responsible creatures. The lesson introduces the idea of a pre-creation rebellion by Satan, emphasizing that humans are called to engage in spiritual warfare by doing good and promoting Shalom in the world.
  • You will gain knowledge and insight into the nature, marks, purpose, structure, and sacraments of the Church and learn about the different views and definitions used to define it.
  • This lecture discusses the leadership offices of a church, including eldership, deacons, and church members, and how they function according to biblical principles of polity, which prioritize following what the Bible prescribes, closely following what it describes, and using wisdom and being Spirit-led in matters it is silent about, all with the aim of effectively sharing the Gospel and achieving unity and focus.
  • In this lesson, you will explore baptism's significance, modes, and theological perspectives, and learn its role in church membership, unity, discipleship, and spiritual growth.
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  • You will gain a good understanding of death and its theological implications, including the biblical view of death, consequences of death, and resurrection and the afterlife. The lesson covers the definition of death, cultural views, and the portrayal of death in the Old and New Testaments. You will also learn about the physical and spiritual consequences of death, as well as the Bible's teachings on resurrection and the afterlife.
  • From this lesson, you gain insight into the biblical concept of God's Kingdom, its significance in Christian theology, and its impact on eschatology, social justice, and the Church's role.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into eschatology, examine biblical perspectives, explore key events like the Rapture, Tribulation, Millennium, and Final Judgment, and learn the significance of eschatology for today's believers.
  • By studying the eternal state, you gain insights into the new heaven and earth, resurrection, judgment, and eternal life, deepening your understanding of Christian hope and assurance.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the crucial role of church leaders, their essential qualities, and the challenges they face, while discovering the importance of support and encouragement for their growth and effectiveness in ministry.
  • In this lesson, you gain an understanding of the nature of Scripture and learn to interpret the Bible within its historical, literary, and canonical contexts while addressing challenges in biblical interpretation.
  • This lesson delves into the structure and authority of a church, examining different leadership models and emphasizing the overarching role of scripture as the final authority, while also highlighting the need for congregational involvement in decision-making processes and the unique nature of the apostles in early church leadership.
  • Learn Dr. Breshears' local church leadership principles: focus on equipping, inspiring, empowering, unifying, exemplifying, caring for, overseeing, and shepherding members. Rooted in biblical teachings, emphasizes servant leadership. The lesson discusses congregational decision-making, women in church leadership roles with respect for differing views.
  • Learn about church leadership principles, roles of elders and deacons, active membership, mutual commitment, gift utilization, and clear processes in this comprehensive lesson.
  • This lesson explores sacraments, focusing on baptism and diverse theological views. Baptism signifies a profound commitment to Christ within a believer community, emphasizing understanding and promptness post-conversion.
  • In this lesson, you'll grasp the essence of baptism, its questions, and debates. Discover belief's role, its confession, and the link to repentance and faith. Explore diverse views on baptism performers, methods, and locations. Gain insights and wisdom for informed baptism decisions in your faith community.
  • From this lesson, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of Communion, also known as the Lord's Supper or Eucharist. It will provide you with insights into the controversy surrounding its terminology and the theological background of Communion, primarily focusing on 1 Corinthians Chapters 10 and 11. You will learn about various theological perspectives on the real presence of Christ in the Communion elements and explore different viewpoints on the frequency, leadership, eligibility, and practical aspects of Communion. Overall, this lesson will equip you with the knowledge to better understand and participate in the Communion meal.
  • This lesson delves into two ends: individual death and the end of the age. It explores human death, material and immaterial aspects (Ecclesiastes 12:7, Genesis 3), fear, loss of autonomy, cremation, death determination, rewards, and urges preparation to meet Jesus, facing the undeniable reality of death.
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Understand the core topics of systematic theology, from what we know about God to the future state of humankind. Special emphasis is given to such topics as Christ, salvation, the church, and the future.

A Guide to Christian Theology
Dr. Gerry Breshears
Sovereignty, Election and Free Will
Lesson Transcript

One of the concepts that's a background concept is a whole concept of God's decree or God's plan or God's purpose. We find this coming up in a number of different passages. We're going to dig into Ephesians Chapter one in our next lesson. But there's a background thing here in terms of God's plan and what's the concept of it. But what we have to do to go back to something I alluded to back early on in this when I was talking about understand that different terms have different meanings in different tribes, and I want to dig into two key meanings. Well, maybe three. In those three terms that I want to dig into a little bit is the term sovereign, the term elect or election, and the term free will. Because these are terms that are foundational to this theological discussion in this area of God's plan and purpose, God's decree, and then human responsibility and human choice.

So I want to take some time here just to unpack these terms. And then as we work through election and providence, those terms become crucial. Because what happens is people say something like, man, don't you believe in sovereignty? And when it says, don't you believe in sovereignty? What you must do, what you must do. You must never, never, never, never say yes or no. Never, ever, ever answer the question. Don't you believe in sovereignty? What do you do with a question like that? You do what Jesus did, always respond to a hostile entrapping question with a question or a Bible quotation. Never, never, never, never answer a hostile or entrapping question, except with a question or a Bible quote. Those are the two right things to do. So don't you believe in sovereignty? What's the right response?

What do you mean by sovereignty?

No. Can you tell me? Don't ask me for the definition. Can you tell me what you mean by sovereignty? And they usually roll our eyes and call you an idiot. Everybody knows what it means. Could you please tell me what you mean by it? Because I'm not sure using the term in the same way. Smile. I think we disagree. Could we talk about it, instead of going into full defense attack mode. And those terms, those three... There's a lot more. Do you believe Christians be demon possessed? Could you tell me what you mean by demon possession? There's a lot of terms like that where the meaning of the term that really is for the issue, unless we settle what we mean by the term and use a synonym or something, we have no way to answer the question. And famously people battle to no end. They use a term, but they mean different things by it.

Baptism of Holy Spirit, Pentecostals fight with non-Pentecostal or the meaning of the term and don't realize it when they agree on almost everything, when you get down and use synonyms. That'll come later. Let's look at these three now. So in your notes, if you've got it, I've got some stuff here on the meaning of sovereignty and freedom. So if you're doing that, you can look at your notes here. Sovereign, what everybody agrees on is God is not accountable to anyone. God doesn't have to give an answer to us. He didn't answer to Satan. Doesn't have to get an answer to their angels. There's nobody else. God is not accountable to anyone. We all agree that his plans and purposes cannot be overcome, nor we can stop God from doing what he purposes to do and God does what he wants. Psalm 115:3, "Our God is in heaven. He does whatever he pleases."

Psalm 115:3, "God is in heaven. He does what he pleases." We all agree on that. The question is, is everything that happens what God wants? Is everything that happens something that pleases God? Can we do things that are genuinely against God's will, God's decretive will? So that's a sovereignty thing. If you look it up in a dictionary just for the normal meaning, sovereign, we say the United States is a sovereign nation. What do we mean by that? We're no longer calling it England. So we're sovereign in that sense. Does it mean that we control everything that happens in the world? The answer is no, much as we like to, we don't. But theologically, the term sovereignty typically means if I believe God is sovereign, what's in the chart here. So from a Calvinist perspective, sovereign is God defines good, bad and all answer to him. That of course everybody agrees on. His plans and purposes, his plans cannot be overcome. But the Calvinist view is God decrees, what's in the blank there? God decrees every action. God plans and renders certain every action.

That's the Calvinist view. God decrees, God plans, God ordains, God renders certain every single action including the actions of Satan. And then the last sentence in the box there, "He never forces anyone. God never forces anyone to sin against their will." He renders their sin certain, he ordains it, but he has not forced anybody to sin against their will. He uses their free choice for his outcome. Now there's a lot built into that and you'll see more as we talk through election and providence. That's a fundamental concept. That's a Calvinist view, that's a standard view. We say God is sovereign. God ordains or decrees or renders every single action. So you get the, I know it's the whole thing now, but Twila Paris sang God Is In Control and that's usually understood to be a Calvinist perspective. Whatever happens has a divine purpose behind it.

But he never forced anybody's sin against their will. This is not fatalism as we'll see. Now, Wesleyan-Arminian believed God is sovereign. They believe the same things. He's defined to good and bad. His plans cannot be overcome and they would say God never forces anybody to act against their will. See Calvinists never force anybody to sin against their will. Wesleyan broaden it out and say God never forced anybody to act or choose against their will. And that's a different view of sovereignty. Now both are affirming sovereignty, but they mean something very, very, very different. Wesleyan would never ever say God renders certain every act of history. Never. Now, I've already told you, and I'm going to unpack more of it, I am a Calminian. And I'm there because I think it's the best way to put together all the passage of scripture, the most scriptural data, the fewest difficulties.

I resist the term Calminian for a long time and I say may well embrace the evil one and give my own definition of it. So I'm going to do that. So same thing, God find good, bad all in [inaudible] plans cannot be overcome. But here's my thing, I think, but many actions are against his will in every sense. I think that when you talk about God as sovereign, I'm going to stop with the idea that his plans cannot be overcome and we add on a somewhat unrelated statement to clarify, many actions are against his will in every sense. So what I'm going to say is sometimes God renders action certain, but I think he never forces people to sin against their will. But I think there are a lot of times when God stands off and lets people make free choice within a right range. And I think he's sovereign when he does that, but different from Wesleyan, I think sometimes he forces people to act against their will.

Poor Jonah. You ever feel sorry for Jonah? I feel really sorry for Jonah. Go to those evil, horrible, awful, skinned people alive Ninevite [inaudible] that I'm going to destroy him. No, God just destroy him. Just destroy. And God wins the battle. Nineveh goes or he goes Nineveh, what happens? They give a superficial repentance and God forgives them for crying out loud. And Jonah's ticked, I am too. God, don't let them off. Don't you know what they're going to do in the next generation? And they do. And God kills them a generation later. Why do we have a whole another generation of evil? And that's a whole story behind that. So yeah, sometimes God forces people to act against their will. Jonah. So that's sovereign. Election we're going to say more about, but I'll just summarize here, in the Calvinist view, God selects who's going to be saved. In the Wesleyan-Armenian, God selects those whom he knows will receive and keep his gift. And in my view, God selects some, but the rest select and deselect themselves. I'm going to postpone that discussion till our next lesson.

Free will is one I focus in a little bit. Because we all believe in free will. We believe very different things by it. So free will from the normal view, if I say I believe in free will, I believe we have contrary choice. If a decision is free, I can do A or I can not do A. If it's free, I can do it or not. If I can only do it, then it's not free. That's the normal definition of free will, and that's the Wesleyan definition. The Calvin's definition of freedom, they see it's free if we do what we want. So on the Calvin side, the blank there is do what we want. On the Wesleyan side, the blank is we have contrary choice. If a decision is free, and of course many decision are not free, we're forced... From a Calvinist perspective, as long as I do what I want, it's a free decision. But that may be the only thing.

So if I give my kids, say... Let's go back, let's take Michael, my nine-year-old grandson. And fill in all the stuff you'd figure for a nine-year-old. it's true of him. He is all boy, great-grandson, had a great conversation a couple days ago. He's cutest kid in the world, bright and knows what he likes. If I offer him Grape-Nuts, Fiber Choice or sugar cocoa puffs... Does he have free choice?

Out of those three things?

He does, but we know what he wants.

See, he'll always choose sugar cocoa puffs. He does not have contrary choice. How come? Prevailing disposition at will. He does not have the power to make contrary choice. Now he makes a choice, but he'll always do sugar cocoa puffs. How come? Are you kidding me? But see, there's choice, but he doesn't have contrary choice. Now if I sit there and you don't move to eat this, okay, that's not a free decision. But at that spot, Michael, given who Michael is, that may change 50 years from now, he will not eat Grape Nuts or Fiber Choice. So he does not have contrary choice. Is that a free decision in a normal American? Not really. I need to give him better cellular choices.

That's a triple example. But that's the question. Do we have contrary choice? And in our standard definition of free will, I got a long, long theological discussion with the guys at the seminary just a couple of days ago. And he's on our maintenance team, bright, did undergrad degree in philosophy. And we got in this big thing. He could not get away from the idea that free will means contrary choice, it doesn't have to. And he just couldn't wrap his mind around anybody saying it's free if you didn't have contrary choice. And that's normal. But see the Calvins say it's free if you do what you want. Nobody made you eat sugar cocoa puffs. Yeah, but I didn't have the contrary choice, so it's not really a free decision. You should have given me more better options. See my take on it, I'll just tell I'm going to come out on this, I don't think the Bible tells us that I have a contrary choice or not.

There's nothing in Bible that says I could have done other than I did. There's nothing in Bible that says I could do other than I did. It says choice, but the Bible's emphasis is responsible choice. It never clarifies through we do or don't have contrary choice. There's a whole theological discussion, depravity and all that sort of thing behind that. But I'm talking about here is the definition of terms. I put in your idea that key terms have different meanings in different theological tribes. And we've got to understand what you mean by key terms, and then does the Bible actually support that. In the context of free will, I don't think the Bible gives us enough data to know if there's a actual contrary choice or not. Choice, yes. But do we actually have contrary choice? All circumstances being the same, could we have done other than what we did?

I don't think Bible gives us enough data to answer the question. So when I fill in the blank here, I say we're responsible for choices. Whether I have contrary choice or not, I at least do what I want and I'm responsible for my choice. And that's what I emphasize. I don't go back and try to emphasize contrary choice, though I think we do have contrary choice. The Bible doesn't say that for me. And then my fallback is, what about science? Can I put together a scientific experiment, not a philosophy of science, but actual science to find out all circumstances being the same, could I have done other than I did? And there's no such example because I can't recreate exactly the same thing for exactly the same person. So scientifically I can't answer the question. Philosophical, I can, but that depends on the presuppositions I bring to the discussion. So again, why this long discussion about theological terms? Because when you do conversations about theology and how we connect the dots of scripture, we inevitably have certain concepts that we bring to the table.

I'm not fighting about definitions of words except those words point to certain concepts. And what I want to do is recognize that we can use exactly the same word to refer to different concepts. So in freedom, the concept is contrary choice. When I say freedom, does that point to contrary choice or does it point to I do what I want? And that discussion has to happen before we can drill down on the questions of God's sovereignty. And we say sovereignty, does that mean that God actually controls every action or God determines every action? And where I come out on this is I think that there are many times when we do actions that are completely against God's will in every sense. But other times he, I'll use the term, forces us to act against our will. I don't think he forces us sin against our will, but I think he does force us to act against our will. So sometimes God's a Calvinist and sometimes he's an Armenian. Therefore, a Calminian. and I'm not trying to find the perfect balance between the two, I don't care about that at all.

But I'm trying to think of which of these spectrum of positions accounts for the most data with the fewest difficulties and is as biblical as possible. And that's why I came out to Calminian. And it's fun. My Calvinist friends hate me. My Armenians hate me. And I don't have any Calminian friends, so I stand alone. That's not quite true. But see, the thing it is, I want us to recognize that many times our theological battles in dividing us, making us mad at each other, we're not even talking about the same thing. We talk as if we were. We've got to come back to key terms and say, what do I mean? And then say what's the biblical definition? So you look in scripture, you look for the term sovereign, depending on your translation, it's never there.

The closest is all mighty, but that's a different idea than sovereign. So that's the irony is sovereign's not even in the Bible, that specific term. There's some terms that come close to that, acts Chapter four, the Paul Prayer of Peter there, and freedom. He never tells us we have a contrary choice or not. So look to the terms because we want to build a place where we can affirm each other as evangelicals from each other's godly people and differ passionately on some of these things. And it does have theological significance. It really does. And we'll drill on that. So, there you go. Questions?

So in the Calvinist position that we do what we want to do, what behind that is that God is enabling us to only do one thing?

God is rendering a certain that we'll do that one thing. And that's the technical phrase, it's used. And when Todd and I have the discussions about in our Prayer and Providence class, he will quickly admit that even Adam in the garden is a problem for him. Did God render it certain that they would eat the fruit? And he's very clear that that's a biblical problem for him.

Do you think God did render it?

Oh no, I don't at all.

But God does?

But John Piper does.


And what he says, he rendered it certain though she acted as she chose to act, but she's not acting [inaudible] prevailing disposition of will because she doesn't have any sinful desires. But what Piper is going to say there is that God rendered that certain in some way, he doesn't explain, in order to lead to the crucifixion, the display of God's glory through the Messiah. And I think my question is now, where's that in the Bible? Oh, it's all over the Bible. Yeah. Could you show me a passage? I'd like to see that. It really makes people mad. I don't mind. Yeah.

Yeah. To the core of my being, wish we get past this argument. But it's so foundational that connects within God is the king and us as his agents. And it is not just in the Western world. I've taught in other parts of the world too. It's one of those fundamental questions. And what happens when we push in the logical extremes? Well, then we're just pawned on a chessboard. No, no Calvinist is a fatalist. Though, unfortunately, many Calvinists preach like fatalists. And Armenians not saying, man, I hope somebody shows up for my party. God is desperately [inaudible] his hands. No Armenian does that, or you end up in some sort of salvation by works. No evangelic Armenian is even close to work salvation. But they do believe their choice matters. It'll unpack some of that, but tomorrow.


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