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Three Views on Free Will

We've likely all heard it: "But we have free will." It's a statement that focuses the beliefs of a vast many within the Christian umbrella. It's one side of an attempt to put into words the mystery of forgiveness of sin and reconciliation. We've tried to answer these questions: Who is saved and how? Why are some (many) not saved? Three primary lines of thought have emerged from this endeavor (though the third is often ignored or unknown in American Evangelicalism). One line focuses on the sovereignty of God, a second on the will of man, and a preceding one on resting in the mystery.

In the timeline of what is known as the Protestant Reformation, the theology of the sovereignty of God came second. It gained prominence because its author's Bible notes were translated into the margins of the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was the translation of the people in England prior to the translation of the Authorized (King James) Version. It influenced the theology of the Puritans who settled Plymouth and later the Presbyterians. Eventually this doctrine came to be outlined by five principles. The first confessed the total depravity of humanity: we are completely fallen and cannot choose God. The second declared unconditional election: God elects us to salvation based only on who God is and not in any way according to our merits. The third principle professed limited atonement: the atoning death of Jesus is only for the elect to salvation and not for those whom God has chosen to damnation. Fourth is irresistible grace: if we are of the elect, we cannot resist God's election and if we are among those for whom Christ did not die, we cannot be saved. The last of these principles affirms the perseverance of the saints: those who are elect cannot resist their election and are thus eternally secure in their election. The two questions, then, are answered with God's sovereign choice. The saved are so because God so chose. The unsaved are so because God so chose.

In contrast to this theological understanding came what is the third line of thinking in the Reformation timeline. Five counter ideas emerged, each refuting the ones embedded in the notion of God's sovereignty. (NOTE: It is arguable that these five points are not all consistent with the writings of Jacobus Arminius or the 1610 Arminian Articles, but as one author summarized, "Arminians are often confused about their own theological tradition and function pragmatically as semi-Pelagians." - accessed September 21, 2022) To varying degrees, the first point is that, though we are sinners separated from God because of our sin, there is still a spark of goodness in us: on the one extreme we can choose God, in the middle we can help God, on the other extreme God's prevenient grace awakens us to respond. Second, God's election is tied to, or conditioned, by a faith response: God saves those who choose Him in faith and those who do not are not saved. Third, Christ's atonement is universal: though not everyone will be saved, Christ died for everyone. Fourth, grace is resistible: God does not force salvation on the unwilling. Finally, the fifth point is that it may be possible for one to fall out of grace: as with the first point there is a spectrum of understanding with Arminius himself concluding that Scripture is not clear on the issue. The simplistic answer to our two questions then says we are saved because we can choose God and we are lost because we don't choose God. In reality, there is a great deal of confusion about this and the sovereign election doctrines, and a good deal of mixing of each into a smorgasbord of beliefs.

The last of these three theological lines was actually the first to be articulated on the Reformation timeline. It is tempting to retrofit this first conversation and match it to the five points of the sovereignty model or the five articles of the free will model both which were developed some time after this first option. It is better to conclude that mysteries ought to remain mysteries. Instead of trying to rationalize into a human understanding the answers to our questions, it's best to just let God speak Scripture. Answering first to the challenges of the Roman Church, this is what Luther and Melanchthon did in the Augsburg Confession. The framers of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord did the same, also being mindful of new challenges to Biblical doctrine. We might then summarize as follows. It is God's desire that everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4). Because we are dead in our trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1), our wills are bound (Romans 3:10); we cannot choose God (John 15:16), and we cannot save ourselves (Ephesians 2:8). While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). God uses the means of grace, His Word (Romans 10:17) and the Sacraments (Matthew 26:28; Romans 6:4), to gift us faith. We must believe; we cannot believe; we do believe. The lost are lost not because it is God's choice but because they do not believe (Romans 11:23). And there is the mystery. No matter what we do to try and explain how it all happens, or why, we cannot. The tension is there and we live in that tension. We are saved because God has chosen us to be saved. We are lost because we do not believe.

The doctrines emphasizing the sovereignty of God and human free will were later developments in the Reformation timeline. Both essentially ignored a prior declaration, a reality that has continued in Christianity today. These later two theologies are attempts to rationalize, explain with human reason, the questions of redemption and reconciliation. The reformers who later came to be known as Lutheran sought simply to state the doctrines of Scripture. They, as we ought, were willing to live in the tensions, to rest in the mysteries, to let Scripture be our sole rule and standard.

Next: Assurance of Salvation