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.
Sovereignty, Election and Free Will
A. Background Concept: God's Decree, Plan, and Purpose
B. Importance of Defining Key Terms
II. Unpacking Key Theological Terms
1. God's Accountability
2. God's Plans and Purposes
3. Different Interpretations of Sovereignty (Calvinist, Wesleyan-Arminian, Calminian)
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
A. The Need for Clear Definitions and Biblical Support
B. Recognizing Different Interpretations Within Evangelical Theology
C. The Ongoing Debate and Its Foundational Nature
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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
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.