“The subject of Hell just terrifies me!” a young lady said to me. “My pastor tells me that once I’m born again I cannot be unborn. That means, according to him, I have nothing to fear. But I read some things in the Bible that don’t sound that cut and dry. Do I have a reason to fear or not?”
I wonder if there is an in-house subject as polarizing as the issue of the security of the believer and what are called, the Doctrines of Grace. One would think all believers would be in near perfect harmony as far as this subject goes, but alas, soteriology is one subject that will elicit a great deal of stress amongst brethren. Why?
Soteriology is essentially the study of the doctrines of salvation. It is theology, to be sure, but quickly moves out of the abstract into the existential because of the implications it brings. It is one thing to banter over exactly how Jesus’ atonement saves people, but quite another when it comes to the issue of how that atonement saves me. It gets very personal.
I think, it is because of this personal nature that divergent theological streams of thought get amplified, and potentially hostile to one another. After all, I have a lot invested in my theology.
There are basically two streams of theology in play. We could call one Calvinism and the other Arminianism, named respectively after the theologians, John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius. Or we could refer to the interplay between the Sovereignty of God versus the Autonomy of Man — what comes first? It’s a theological tussle that goes back to fourth century Christianity in the contest between Augustine and Pelagius. It probably goes back even further than that.
Basically, Calvinism is built on the notion that God is ultimately sovereign and deterministic in nature. He determines the outcome of a thing by virtue of His own counsel or by what are referred to as His “decrees.” The counter argument, or Arminianism, proposes that mankind was given a certain degree of freedom in order to become, in some sense, a respondent to God’s reaching out to him. Rather than chosen by virtue of God’s will, a person in this case would be considered free to accept or reject a union with Christ. Thus chosen (or elect) because he “chose” to respond to God’s offer of salvation.
Here they come. Theologians will certainly pick at my reduced description of their beloved systems, but the essence of the debate, I contend, revolves around the notion of the degree of God’s executed sovereignty in the lives of people.
So why would I wade into this subject? Don’t I have better things to do than stand up in a field, in November, dressed like an 8 point buck? The truth is, I’m wanting to call attention to something that is hurting us, and it has little to do with either theological system. I’m talking about love for one another.
I can still remember a person in my congregation who said with disparaging tones, “Those Wesleyans think they can lose their salvation.” It wasn’t so much the words used, but the smug sneer in the tone that bothered me. This person spoke like the Wesleyans were lesser Christians—not quite up to the acumen of our intellectual, theological prowess. Frankly, I found this offensive. In addition to a propagating a putrid arrogance, this person, was echoing a caricature that had been handed down, without even personally understanding Wesleyan theology. Better to just keep one’s mouth shut, I think.
This theological divide has resulted in an entrenched opposition that has been passed down through the generations. Today, as the points of discussion have been reduced, in my view, it has more in common with carnal bigotry than an intelligent point/counter point discussion. I wonder if the new generations even understand the theology of their own system, let alone how their critique applies to another. Too often, we reduce complex soteriological systems to “bumper sticker” statements. Then we shoot them down as being so obviously misguided and simplistic.
Shouldn’t a good theology result in a degree of humility? If our theology is biblical, thus our soteriology, is there any room for arrogance? If I believe I have the best theological grid for interpreting scriptural truths, do I have the freedom to disparage my brother? Which system entails this kind of treatment? I don’t see it in Calvinism or Arminianism! Do I think my paradigm for thought places me on par with the Mind of God, giving me access to all knowledge? Is my theology absolute in scope? How foolish! How about a little humility?
In the end, we will learn who held the correct view. But isn’t a little respect for the intelligence of our brother on the other side of this issue in order? Maybe we could do a little more listening and a little less shouting, or should I say, “Spouting?”
I’m mindful of the ministries of George Whitefield and John Wesley. The two men were polar opposite when it came to this issue of the administration of God’s grace, but neither one believed this issue to be an “essential” one. In contrast to much that goes on today, they loved each other deeply, respected one another, and even worked together for the glory of the Kingdom of God — albeit sometimes with a bit of difficulty. At the height of the controversy between them, Whitefield quoted the reformer John Bradford: “Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance, before he goes to the university of election and predestination.” There was a harmony in their diversity of perspective that many times complemented the other. It was their love for God, manifested in their love for one another.
Will we still continue this theological struggle? Certainly! But let’s remember, the world is watching us. If we must disagree on the nuances of how a person is chosen by God, let’s at least agree that it is God who saves us — not our theology.