SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD, FREE WILL OF MAN AND UNIVERSAL ATONEMENT
Many people when thinking of the Protestant Reformation think of it mainly as being a splitting away of reformers from Roman Catholicism. The Protestant Reformation was certainly that, but it was more than that. It’s reformers did not only challenge dogmas and practices such as church authority, papal infallibility and indulgences, but they opened up and developed a whole school of thought on theological issues such as Divine sovereignty, free will, Divine foreknowledge, election, and predestination. In this article I would like to discuss briefly the issue of the sovereignty of God, human free will and the extent of the atonement.
Predestination has been defined by Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary as “The Divine determination of human beings to eternal salvation or eternal damnation.” 1 Such an interpretation of predestination, unless it incorporates human free-will, is quite Calvinistic. In Calvinistic predestination, the belief that God has decreed to save certain particular men, to demonstrate His mercy and grace and then condemn others, before they were born, to eternal torment, to demonstrate His power and justice. It maintains that in God’s foreknowledge and sovereign will He decreed that man would be created and then fall and that some of the fallen would answer God’s call to salvation through the irresistible force of God, causing them to believe, persevere and be saved. In Calvinistic predestination God shows His grace to a select portion of humanity to demonstrate that aspect of His nature and then shows His wrath to the larger mass of humanity by fixing their destiny of doom through immutable, unchangeable decrees. Under this system men arrive at either salvation or damnation by appointment not by consequence of their own choices. This doctrine is the heart of Calvinism and has been argued by it’s teachers for centuries.
How does Calvinism arrive at its interpretation of of predestination? To understand this we must realize that calvinistic predestination is a combination of beliefs that all build to a theological end. To gain an understanding of Calvinistic predestination there are other concepts we need to study first. Firstly, we must consider the Concept of the sovereignty of God. The Bible teaches that God is all-powerful. Expanding on that idea, Calvinism teaches that for God to be sovereign he must be in full control of all things. It teaches further that to be in control of all things means to be the determiner of all things, and all of God’s wishes must therefore come to pass and the fulfilment of them must be unconditioned by anything outside of Himself.
Directly related to the Calvinistic concept of the sovereignty of God is the doctrine of the Decrees of God. Calvinism teaches that all reality is a result of God’s decrees.It teaches that God Divinely and immutably declares things to be and those things always come to pass and it is upon the immutability and fulfilment of God’s decrees that His sovereignty rests. In Calvinism, God’s decrees are said to include the fixedness of the earth, the changing of seasons, nation boundaries, and the deeds of men both good and evil. Calvinism teaches that unless God is causing all things, then He is not in control of all things and God’s self-determined will is so strong that it always manifests itself in reality. R.C. Sproul explains; “What we mean by the sovereign or efficacious will of God is that determination by which God sovereignty wills something to come to pass which, therefore, indeed does come to pass through the sheer efficacy, force, or power of that will.”2This belief further maintains that when God decrees something it is never conditioned on anything outside of Himself. A.A. Hodge explains; “A conditional decree would subvert the sovereignty of God and make Him… dependent upon the uncontrollable actions of His own creatures,”3 Calvinism teaches that there is nothing in reality which has not been first decreed by God.
The idea that God wills and causes all things, naturally creates questions on how can this be true and God still be good? Many within Calvinism handle the question by teaching that God has two wills. R.C, Sproul says “When we seek the will of God, we must first ask ourselves which will are we seeking to discover.”4 This viewpoint maintains that on the one hand there is God’s “decretive” or “sovereign” will which automatically controls all events in the world but on the other hand God’s “preceptive” or “moral” will is the precepts which are obviously good in a general way. This would include loving your neighbour as yourself. God’s preceptive will is described to be discoverable and discernible to men but His decretive will is said to be hidden until it happens and is not always understood.
Because in Calvinism God has decreed all things, then He knows who He has chosen to receive salvation and who He hasn’t. Some Calvinists believe that because He has known this even before Jesus’ sacrifice was offered, then Jesus’ sacrifice was only for those chosen elect. This teaching is called Limited Atonement and although Calvin himself taught against it, five point Calvinists believe it to be true. Five point Calvinists teach that Jesus died for His sheep (see John 10:11, 15) His church (see Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25), the elect (see Romans 8:32-35), His people (see Matthew 1:21). Five point Calvinists argue that if Jesus died for the sins of the entire world then God would be unjust in sending anyone to hell. No legal court requires the payment of a crime twice. The argument goes that if Jesus died for, and paid for, the sins of every one of the lost, then God would be unjust in punishing the lost for their own sins at the judgement.
What are we to make of these claims? Does the Bible support Calvinism? At this point I want to say that brilliant men have debated this issue for centuries and the evangelical world remains divided over it. I would like to share my own views on the topic and hopefully, together with what God has shown you on the matter, we may come closer to the truth.
The sovereignty of God is something that the scriptures defend. Jeremiah 32:17 reads “ ‘Ah Lord [a]God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You,” (footnote [a]Jeremiah 32:17 Heb YHWH, usually rendered LORD) and “And looking at them Jesus said to them, ‘With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” (Matthew 19:26). Our question is what does the sovereignty of God mean or include? Sometimes Christian theology has been interpreted through the lens of influential medieval figures such as Augustine and others who were steeped in philosophy. The Hellenistic philosophy that they were very much studied in stressed a stoic, unfeeling, unchanging, transcendent God who had power to force His will. God’s glory was His power. John Calvin’s concept of God was also in this same vein. He saw God as a great exalted monarch whose greatest qualities were His power and His exercise of control. His emphasis was that God stood above the turbulent, changing world, untouchable by danger. His emphasis was that God mightily stood in charge and command of all things which He fully and eternally, controls by Divine decrees.
Again, what do we make of this viewpoint? While God is sovereign, He is not one dimensional. There are many qualities in God and God wants to reveal His qualities to men and women. When God’s qualities or attributes seem to contradict other things that we know about God, then it means we have something out of balance in our perception of God. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are out and out wrong but rather that we are not looking at the whole picture. Because the totality of God is so vastly great, there will always be a tendency on the part of people, who are limited in their understanding, to emphasize, in an out of balance way, particular aspects that they know about Him.
God is sovereign but He is also personal. The Bible in many places shows us a God Who is dynamically active in the world of men, interacting with them in personal ways. God is all powerful but, could it be, that He would have a purpose in limiting Himself in some ways for the sake of communicating and having relationship with finite human beings? Surely the greatest example of this is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God became a man, was born in a manger, and lived with men, in bodily form, for 33 years. The Scripture says,
Have this attitude [a]in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be [b]grasped, but [c]emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death [d]on a cross.
(Footnotes [a] Philippians 2:5 Or among [b] Philippians 2:6 I.e. utilized or asserted [c] Philippians 2:7 I.e. laid aside His privileges [d] Philippians 2:8 Lit of)
In those thirty three years Jesus suffered pain, suffered loss, served others and had wonderful relationships with men and women, relationships which resulted in men and women choosing to follow Him and be with Him forever. Could it be that Jesus’ heart is a reflexion of His Father’s heart and that they have not changed in heart this whole time? Could it be that They are still acting in these same kinds of ways? Could it be that God has created an environment where men and women can exercise free will and that God frequently limits Himself to some degree, in His interaction with men, for relational purposes? Could it be that God allows Himself to be disobeyed and even hurt by men, for a period of time, so that He may win their hearts through love and not force? Could it be that none of these things really contradict His sovereignty after all?
Christians from many schools of thought agree that God limits Himself to actions consistent with His nature. What I mean is that God has the power to do all things but will never do anything that is against His character of Holiness. He will never lie or cheat or abuse. He limits Himself to holiness. Does this diminish or contradict God’s sovereignty? Such limitations do not contradict God being almighty, why? Because they are self-limitations. God is free to limit Himself.
Perhaps the question we should be asking is what kind of creation did God want to make? Did He wish to make a robotic one which had no power to do anything outside of what He programmed them to do? Or is a living creation, which thinks, feels, and chooses more wonderful than a robotic one? Interestingly, what takes more power to make, a robot or a living creature which feels and has free will and choice? Man has made robots but only God has the power to make living beings. Many Church theologians have taken the position that God decrees all things because it fits well with a Calvinistic definition of sovereignty. We have been discussing how God may have purpose in limiting Himself, for periods of time, for relational purposes. How can God limit himself and be dynamically interactive with men and women, acting and reacting to them in personal ways, if He has already decreed everything into its set course? If there is no such thing as free will, or chance, and if everything is fate, then why get up and go to work? Why wear a seatbelt? Why tell your children not to play by the freeway? Why pray? Why answer God’s call to repentance and faith?
What about the elect? Calvinism teaches that the elect are men and women chosen by God for salvation before they were ever created. If you believe that the elect are eternally secure in their position as the elect, then consider the scripture; “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;” (2 Peter 1:10).
But is it not true that Christians are predestined by God? Yes the Bible says; “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”(Romans 8:29-30). These are two of four verses in the Bible where the word is used. The other two are Ephesians 1:5, 11. None of these verses use the word to mean predestined to damnation. Predestine is a word. How much are we going to make of this word? I don’t claim to fully understand its meaning, but I come away from these texts with an understanding that salvation begins with God and that God draws men and women towards Himself and towards salvation. I would not say that such a personal drawing is irresistible. I don’t see anything in these texts which mandates an irresistible predestination to personal salvation or to personal damnation.
Did Jesus die for only the elect? The scriptures do say that Jesus died for His sheep (see John 10:11,14, 15) His church (see Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25), His people (see Matthew 1:21). He died for these, but not only for these. If we are to accept the record of scripture, Jesus died for the sins of the world. The Bible says that; “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), also “and He Himself is the [a]propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2 footnote [a]1 John 2:2 Or satisfaction). Furthermore, “ We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.” (1 John 4:14), moreover, “ This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the [a]knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony [b]given at [c]the proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:3-6 Footnotes [a]1 Timothy 2:4 Or recognition [b] 1 Timothy 2:6 Or to be given [c] 1 Timothy 2:6 Lit its own times), and “For God so loved the world, that He gave His [a]only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 footnote [a] John 3:16 Or unique, only one of His kind). The reason that Jesus died for all men is that God’s will has always been that all men and women would be saved. This is one of the most fundamental truths of the Bible and one of it’s frequently articulated points. God in the scriptures says, “Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord [a]God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11 footnote [a] Ezekiel 33:11 Heb YHWH, usually rendered Lord, and so throughout the ch), “ Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘[a]rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23 footnote [a] Ezekiel 18:23 Lit is it not); Jesus said, “ So it is not the will [a]of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.” (Matthew 18:14 footnote [a]Matthew 18:14 Lit before); The Scripture also says, “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the [a]knowledge of the truth.”(1 Timothy 2:3-4footnotes [a] 1 Timothy 2:4 Or recognition); and,“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9); Jesus calls out, “Come to Me, all [a]who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”(Matthew 11:28 footnote [a]Matthew 11:28 Or who work to exhaustion).
Did Calvin teach limited atonement? It may be argued quite convincingly that limited atonement is logically consistent with Calvinism as a theology, but Calvin did defend general or universal atonement in at least some of his remarks. He said, “This redemption was procured through the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of his death, all the sins of the world have been expiated” 7 and commenting on John 1:29 he says, “And when he says the sin of the world, he extends this favor indiscriminately to the whole human race, that the Jews might not think that he had been sent to them alone.”8
If God’s will is that all men and women be saved, and if Jesus’ sacrifice was for all men and women, then His salvation is open to all men and women to receive. How is it received? By choice. This means that men and women have a free will. God designed us this way. He made an atonement for our sin which, we could never earn or have made on our own, and then He offers it freely to us, putting responsibility in our hands to accept or reject it. We accept it by repentance and faith.
By creating an environment for, or perhaps I should say a reality of, human free will, God did not throw away His sovereignty. He did limit Himself for a period of time so He could now interact with man on a personal level and potentially win some by love and not by force. He gave man a free will. In this environment God both acts and reacts with man. God’s actions often follow the actions of man in response to them. God anointed Saul for Kingship and then later had Saul removed from the throne of Israel, but only after Saul’s track record of disobedience. This is also seen when God warned through the prophet Jeremiah;“The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.” (Jeremiah 18:7-10 NKJ). We read in scripture how God told the prophet Jonah that He was going to judge the city of Nineveh. However, when the people of Nineveh repented and turned to God, God relented from judging them (See Jonah 1:1-2; 3:1-4, 10). God not only affects the world, He is affected by it. His feelings are intimately connected with His creation and with the destiny of His creation. His life, in the lives of His children, changes us profoundly and our lives are a factor in His divine plan. Our obedience brings Him joy and our faithlessness grieves Him.
What is the result of the preaching of Calvinism? For many the result has been negative. It is not hard to see why. If everything is predetermined anyway, then why seek God or His salvation? In this theology, the outcome of seeking salvation and not seeking salvation will be the same. Will a man or woman want to draw close to a God who may have in eternity past already decided to damn them? Will they feel guilt over Adam’s sin and accept it as grounds for their own eternal judgement? Will they call out to God in prayer when our message has extinguished all hope that prayer affects anything? If we distort the gospel and the nature of God in these ways we will not be helping them with their spiritual search or with their souls. For that reason James Arminius said concerning the interpretation of predestination which says that souls are predestined to their eternal course irresistibly and impossibly to do otherwise, “This Predestination is in open hostility to the ministry of the Gospel.”9 It is against the character of God, for the praise of His justice, to create a person for damnation with no possible way of escape. It is against His goodness for Him to will eternal suffering and misery on a person before they have ever been born and before they have disobeyed Him. How greatly different from this is the Bible record of a God who bestows mercies on both the just and the unjust. We read; “so that you may [a]be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45 footnote [a] Matthew 5:45 Or show yourselves to be). It is false to teach that God has so much love for certain sinners only, when Jesus says that God so loved the world. It is true for Jesus to say; “ Come to Me, all [a]who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 footnote [a] Matthew 11:28 Or who work to exhaustion).
“Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®,
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973,
1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission.” (www.Lockman.org)
Scripture quotation also taken from:
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Arminius.James. The Works Of James Arminius vol 1.
Bloesch, Donald J. Essentials Of Evangelical Theology. San Francisco: Harper& Row, 1978-79.
Calvin, John. Commentary On The Epistle To The Colossians. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.
Calvin, John. Commentary On The Gospel According To John. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.
Myers, Allen C. ed. Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids:
William Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987.
Guy, Fritz. “The Universality Of God’s Love,” The Grace Of God And The Will Of Man Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.
Hodge, Archibald Alexander. Outlines Of Theology. New York: Robert Carter, 1876.
Sproul, R.C. “Discerning The Will Of God,” Our Sovereign God, ed. James M. Boyce.
Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977.
Sproul, R.C. God’s Will And The Christian. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1985.
1Allen C. Myers, ed. Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 487.
2R.C. Sproul, “Discerning The Will Of God,” Our Sovereign God, ed. James M. Boyce (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 105.
3Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines Of Theology (New York: Robert Carter, 1876), 168.
4R.C. Sproul, God’s Will And The Christian (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1985), 32.
5Fritz Guy “The Universality Of God’s Love,” The Grace Of God And The Will Of Man (Minneapolis:Bethany House Publishers, 1989),39.
6Donald J. Bloesch, Essentials Of Evangelical Theology (San Francisco: Harper& Row, 1978-79),168.
7John Calvin, Commentary On The Epistle To The Colossians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979); 148.
8John Calvin, Commentary On The Gospel According To John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979); 64-65.
9James Arminius.The Works Of James Arminius vol 1. Pg. 118