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That's a Good Question

Is Arminianism Heritical: Divine Sovereignty vs. Human Choice

November 21, 2023

Jon Delger


Nate Harney

JonHey everyone, welcome to That's a Good Question, a podcast of Peace Church, this place where we answer questions about the Christian faith in plain language. My name is Jon, I serve as a pastor at Peace Church and I also get to serve as the weekly host of this show. You can always submit questions at slash questions. And I'm here today with our family pastor at Peace Church, Pastor Nate. Hi, Pastor Nate.


Hello there. Happy to be here.


Awesome to get to have a conversation around a great listener question today. So, Producer Mitchell, would you mind sharing with us the question?

MitchellYep, here it is. Is Luke 15:17 proof of Arminian theology that we choose our own salvation.

JonSo, I guess a follow-up would be, what is Arminian theology?

NateAnd what is Luke 15?

MitchellYeah, that too.

JonYeah, fair question.

NateJon, can you help us with that?

JonYeah, I got to preach on Luke 15 recently. So, Luke 15 is three stories, but the story that we're, that's, that this one's referring to is the story of the prodigal son has run away and then he's hit rock-bottom, he's in the mud with the pigs and he decides on his own, he decides he's gonna go back to his father. And so I think the question is basically this, so in that story the prodigal son hits rock-bottom, makes his own decision to return to the father, isn't that a model for how people go from being an unbeliever to a believer, and we're going to talk about what is Arminian theology. But isn't that what Arminian theology is, and therefore shouldn't we believe it? Isn't Arminian theology basically that we choose our own salvation, and isn't that what we see in this story? So let's talk about that a little bit. Let's talk about what are some verses that you would use to, that could be used to defend Arminian theology?

NateYeah, I think a couple of them come to mind right away, in terms of how it kind of zoomed in, how it practically works itself out. Think about in Romans 10, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. So that seems to put the onus on the person. If you make the verbal confession then you get saved. Our action of confession or verbalizing then God responds and gives us that salvation that we're asking him for. And then another one that I think of and I get I've wrestled with myself is from 1st Timothy 2 and verses 3 and 4, that's kind of more zoomed out the big picture, but I'll read that for you. It says, this is good and is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. And so that would, that verse in saying, hey, God desires for all people to be saved, and it seems like if that doesn't happen, then there must be a lot of power that we have in that. We can say yes or no. We choose God. We either confess Him or we don't. God's hoping and wishing and longing that we would all say yes, but that's ultimately not up to Him. It's our decision. So those are two that I think of. Do you have any more that come to your mind?

JonYeah, those are really good. I think there's a lot that we could talk about, but one other one I'll add to that is in Mark 1, sort of just the way Jesus frames the gospel when he goes out preaching the gospel, he says, the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel. So, like those other verses and like even the story of the prodigal son, Jesus is making that call. He says, repent and believe in the gospel. The decision is yours. You got to decide. Choose to be saved or not to be saved. To believe in Jesus, to not believe in Jesus. And that's the same way that we preach the gospel, you know, on Sundays and whenever we share it with an unbeliever, you know, whenever I'm sharing the gospel, somebody explain to them what Jesus has done and I give them the invitation. So put your faith in Jesus and receive eternal life. So these verses and kind of those ideas seem to point to the idea that people choose, that it's up to us, and that is kind of, you know, if you're new to this conversation, Arminian theology, that's what they're saying, is that the decision is ours, that we have a, one of the key words is free will, we have a free will, we decide, God doesn't decide, but we decide whether we get saved or not. So before we get too far into it, maybe we should talk about the other side real quick. So the other side is called, often called Calvinism. That's the opposite of Arminian theology. So let's talk about a couple of verses that could be used to support that. I'll kick off, again, there's plenty of verses we could talk about. Let's just highlight a few. One of the ones that I hear often referred to is John 6:44. Jesus says, no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And that sort of feels like it's saying the opposite of everything we just said, right? Jesus, on the one hand, said, repent and believe. On the other hand, he said, you can't come to me unless the Father who sent me draws you. Got any other verses?

NateYeah, I think of Ephesians 2 and really all throughout the scriptures as we're referred to as being dead in sin. That's a very intentional language. We're not just sick, not just broken. We certainly are those things, but the Bible The Bible constantly uses language of us being dead and us needing to be resurrected, made alive again. And just the logical understanding of that is dead things can't come back to life on their own. Outside of Jesus, dead things are dead. Without someone else bringing that dead thing to life, resuscitating it, nothing's going to change. of death. And then another, a huge chapter that you hear over and over again when you discuss Calvinism is Romans 9. It's this chapter and this incredible letter giving us some of our clearest theological understanding of what the gospel is and how it practically works itself out. And in Romans 9, Paul just comes with, I think, some of the most clarity in all the scriptures scriptures of just saying it's not by our will, not even by our desire that we're saved, but by the Father's hand. And it even goes into what some people would say is kind of the other side of election where Paul seems to clearly allude to that there's even some vessels created for destruction. So that goes into a whole other category. another category, but if you're really curious to see the basics of Calvinist theology laid out with total clarity in a whole chapter, Romans 9 is a go-to.

JonYeah, totally. So, this is, so again, if you're new to this debate, this is something that's gone on for a lot of years. Actually, going back to the 1600s is where these two kind of phrases come from. So there's a lot of historical study you could do on this, but these are kind of two different perspectives that people come at the scriptures with. And as you just heard, there's verses that both sides are using and saying, this is, this seems to be what it says. And so, let's talk a little bit about, again, this is like a huge discussion that we could spend like weeks and hours talking about, but to try to do it quickly, I think the bottom line for me is that the Bible had, all these verses are from the Bible, these are God's word. And so they don't contradict each other. They work together somehow, and so we've got to figure out how do they work together, how do we make sense of all of it coming together. So can we make sense of these passages? So let's just start kind of by hammering through some principles. I think the first principle we can start with is the one that you brought up in Ephesians chapter 2, that we're dead in sin. So when I used to do youth ministry, I would have, and I would explain this concept. I would have a student come up on the stage and like, and I'd, I whisper, I'd say, Hey, pretend to be dead. And they would lay on the ground. But, and I'd say, I'd say, you know, pretending to be dead means that, you know, and I'd like reach my hand. I put it in front of their face and I'd be like, Hey, grab my hand and you can be alive. And they wouldn't do anything. Cause they're dead. They can't respond. And so that's the starting point for Calvinism is to say, Hey, if you're dead, you can't do anything. And I think that's that's kind of that's that's a really important principle to start with, is that if you're dead, you can't do anything. And actually, God has to be like the first mover if you're going to come back to life.

NateI think that's good. I think of another principle that I come back to over and over again is that our experience, our daily experience doesn't fundamentally explain reality. That experience is important for informing our reality and we definitely take it as one of the variables that we think through things, but we've all had experiences where we know what we are directly experiencing doesn't necessarily reflect what is true and certainly doesn't make something true. One of the places where I start as somebody who's gotten to interact with people from a lot of different theological backgrounds, I've interacted with a lot of people with Arminian theology, is I kind of understand that their experience, their daily experience seems to be one of choice, seems to be one of total freedom. And so I chose what shoes to wear today. I chose what time to leave for work. And in the same way, I chose God. And I'm choosing God every day. I chose him for salvation and I'll choose him again each day when I wake up. seem this way, it doesn't mean that reveals everything about how it actually works and what is actually true. And that's why, instead of going to our experience, we start with the scriptures. And so I love that you brought that up. You know, to start with saying, the Bible says we're dead, so let's take it at our word. We don't feel dead. You know, when we wake up, we don't feel spiritually dead. But if the Bible says we are apart from Christ, then we are, even if we don't necessarily feel that way.

JonWow, that's a really powerful point to realize, yeah, our experience doesn't describe everything. So, yeah, like you, I've had some of those experiences of talking with people within Arminian Theology. I remember actually having one guy, when I was in college, we were kind of having this discussion, and he got a little frustrated, and he took a pencil in his hand, and he held it right in front of my face, and he dropped it, and he said, I dropped the pencil. God didn't drop the pencil. I dropped the pencil. And I said, well, you sure did. I saw that happen. But the question isn't really whether or not you dropped the pencil. The question is, did God have control over it? Was he in control? Did he know that was going to happen? And did he play any role in the situation? And to me, just looking at scripture and thinking about God's sovereignty, to me, it just always comes back to, yes, God still played a role in that. So one of the things that I've said to people when we first start talking about this conversation is that I think actually it's important to just kind of back out and remember kind of a point of perspective that, I've said it this way, like, you know, when I first got saved, I would then talk about that and I would say, you know, I got saved, I made a decision to follow Jesus, right? I was studying the Bible, I was going to church, I had friends who were Christians, and I decided to follow Jesus. But after some years of studying scripture and knowing the Lord better, I looked back on that, and now I would maybe say it a little bit differently, I'd say, yes, I decided to follow Jesus, but what was actually happening was God was working in my heart. Leading up to that moment, God was doing something. The Holy Spirit was working in my heart, specifically He's working through some Bible studies, we're studying Scripture. And so God was actually moving first. I didn't realize it or I wouldn't have the words to say that at the time, but God was moving first and that resulted in me making a decision. So it's not as though, you know, to me, it's just a matter of perspective is a huge role in this whole conversation.

NateAbsolutely. So you establish that we are dead in our sin. We just talked about even if it doesn't feel like that, we know the Bible is true on that. So therefore, if we are dead in our sin, then it's God who must intervene for us to believe, for us to confess, for us to repent, for us to ask for forgiveness and say, I'm going to follow Jesus. Ultimately, God is the initiator of that. If our place that we're starting from is death, we need God to bring life. But the experience can certainly feel like the rest of our daily experience, where you go, I got up today, I decided what I'd eat for breakfast, and I chose Jesus. That was what my experience felt like. But we know when it comes to salvation, the Bible is clear that something else entirely is happening.

MitchellSo I want to ask just a quick clarifying thought for people who might be hearing both of these terms for the first time, could you give like a Just a short answer of what Calvinism is and what arminianism is? Well, if you're gonna say, you know, like what do these guys believe? And just a quick statement.

JonAnd the short answer is usually the hardest I think these topics. I think you're asking the right question. Its just a little hard.

NateWhen I give my quickest statement, I try to be as charitable as I can. Jon and I, at Peace Church, we are Calvinists, but I've interacted with a lot of godly Arminians. And so the way I explain it is, I think all Christians believe that God is sovereign. You have to believe that in order to understand the Bible, in order to have a real relationship with God. I think all Christians have to believe in some form of human responsibility, whatever, but that gets characterized in different ways. And so I would say Calvinists see the scriptures holding those things in tension, but with leaning towards an emphasis on God's sovereignty and God being in control. And I would say that Arminians, when they read the scriptures, I still, I believe they believe in a form of God's sovereignty, but they would lean in the direction of humanity being more in control and leaning more into, I would say, when they say human responsibility, they mean we're not just responsible for our own sin, but we're responsible for our own salvation. I would say the Bible's clear, we're responsible for our own sin, but in God's sovereignty dictates our salvation. So that's kind of, you can go into the points of Tulip and then the Arminian points that kind of go against it, but if I have to just sum it up really quick, I'd say Calvinists see the emphasis being on God's sovereignty, but there is human responsibility. Where Arminians, the emphasis is on human responsibility, and as kind of a secondary thing, God is also sovereign somehow. Does that work?

JonYeah, I think that was well said.That's good. Well, so let's plan out that tension more, because that is the tension. God's sovereignty, human responsibility, how those two things work together. So you already gave away our position, right? We're on the Calvinist side of this thing. We read the Bible, we see that God is sovereign, humans are still responsible, but that ultimately God is sovereign. God has to be the first mover in order for somebody to get saved. God has to work in somebody's heart in order for, you know, so I, you know, we feel called because the Bible tells us to go and share the gospel with anybody and everybody. But in order for them to really become saved, God has to work in their hearts. And that's a good thing from our perspective. You know, it means that when I go and share the gospel, my responsibility is to share as clearly as possible the gospel, but ultimately, the results are in God's hands. God is the one who's going to either, you know, move in their hearts for them to respond or not. So, to speak from that perspective, I think one place where the Bible is really clear, I think, about these two sides of the tension, both existing at the same time, as in Acts chapter 2 and Acts chapter 4. In Acts chapter 2 is where Peter is preaching his Pentecost sermon and he talks about Jesus going to the cross, the most awful, evil, and sinful thing that's ever happened, human beings killing the Son of God. Okay, and in the Scriptures in Acts 2 and Acts 4, Scripture calls that, on the one hand, it was God's foreknown predestined plan, and on the other hand, it also says that the Jews and the Romans who put him to death are responsible for their sin in killing Jesus. So it says that God is sovereign, it was His plan for Jesus to go to the cross and die for our sins, and it also says that human beings were responsible for killing Jesus. And so, that's where as Calvinists, we say that the Bible holds these two things in tension. That that's appropriate. God was in control, but human beings are still responsible for their actions. How exactly those two things work together, we don't know, but that's what the Bible holds out.

NateAnd there's people who understandably would accuse that kind of statement as being a contradiction. Where we would reply is we would see that as more of a paradox, something that might seem like a contradiction, but understanding that there's a way that it fits together, we could start to explain it, but ultimately only in the mind of God and I believe in eternity will we fully kind of get to learn about that and understand how that all perfectly fits. But I think that's not just the case with this theological category, but with so many things in life. There are things that we understand, hey, I can't fully explain or comprehend how this exactly works. I always think about a microwave. I know the basics. I know that the microwaves heat up liquid, so that makes my food hot, because something about the atoms and whatever liquid is in my food but if you sent me back 500 years I couldn't reinvent the microwave because I don't know how it works. But I do know that it works. I think practically we see and we feel how this works itself out. Can we explain every single facet of exactly how that works in a way that's perfectly just and also gracious and in a way that that grace of God and the justice of God to hold us responsible but also give us forgiveness and give us salvation. How does that all work? That's what we're on the journey of learning more and more about every time we read the Bible and every time we gather and discuss this kind of thing.

JonRight, totally. An apparent contradiction, right, is what we would call it. It looks like, it appears to be a contradiction, but it's not. Also, maybe important to clarify too, by the way, we're saying Arminian, not Armenian. Yes, very important. We have nothing against Armenians. That's right.

NateWonderful people.

JonYeah, we've got a friend actually who used to work at this church, she was Armenian, and we used to joke about that, right? That we're not, yeah, we're not talking about Armenians, they can be wonderful people. Arminian is a theological position.

NateAnd Arminians can be wonderful people, too. They're just theologically a little misguided, is all.

JonYeah, we love them.

MitchellI think there's my question, too. I want to ask that. When we talk about these two theologies, are we saying that one is heretical?

JonLike, where would we come down as a church on that?

NateThat's a great clarifying question. I would say it depends. I think as with a lot of theological standpoints, I think hyper-Arminianism or the extreme version of it, you can get in a territory pretty quickly that it's not gospel, it's not biblical anymore. Because if you believe that humans are in total control and there's a powerless God who doesn't know the future or doesn't have any control over anything, if that's what you mean by Arminianism, then I would say you're not a Christian. You're not a follower of Jesus because you don't know and have a relationship with the God who clearly reveals himself as he is in the scriptures. Now for those who are just, who would have a leaning towards Arminianism, kind of like what we talked about earlier, but still have a grasp and somewhat of a solid understanding of the sovereignty of God, I would say that those are brothers and sisters that we're in theological disagreement with.

JonYeah, Calvinism, and this whole conversation, is a tough, deep thing to digest. It takes a lot of time and thought and study to work through this stuff. So yeah, I mean, that's the first thing I want people to know, is just that there's grace and patience for those who are like, wow, this is, I haven't really thought of this before, or I have, and it's challenging, and I don't get it yet, that's okay. Let's work through it. If you're still just saying like, man, I make choices, I choose, you know, I'm not a robot. I get that. I get that perspective. I think there's a lot more steady and conversation to be done around that, but I get that. And so that's okay to struggle through that and think through that. But I don't want to, I hate to use too many theological terms, but you know, the direction you were talking about if somebody's going down the extreme version of our mini-nism leads to other categories like open theism or Semi-pelagianism is something that Arminians are usually Accused of and those two things are you know open theism is saying that God's not sovereign Semi-pelagian ism is saying that we're saved not just by grace, but also by works. They're saying well hey if God's not in control And it's all up to me, then really this whole faith thing becomes like a work. Like I have to work up the faith in order to get saved. And so, you know, I think then people are asking the question, is that what Arminians are saying? So, yeah, like you said, if you go down that road too far, you get into a bad place. And I think what we're also saying is that if you're just kind of on the wondering side and you're saying, I just don't quite get this yet and it seems wrong to me, then that's okay. We get that.


Absolutely. So as we bring this back to the parable of the prodigal son, then Jon, having just preached it and now thinking through these categories of Calvinism and Arminianism, how would you say that that parable of the prodigal son paints a picture of how salvation works?


Yeah, totally. I think it goes back to what you were sharing about experience versus what's actually happening behind the scenes. So in the story, we don't get God's omnipotent, omniscient perspective. We just get the Son's recounting of it. And so from his perspective, yeah, he hit rock bottom. And he, it says he came to himself. So he opened his eyes, he realized, he looked around and realized, this is not the best thing for his life, this is not good, I want to return to my father. And I think that's the experience for so many of us when we come to salvation. We're living the life of sin and something, for whatever reason, opens our eyes and we all of a sudden see that this is not really life. Life really comes through Jesus and we turn. But I think what we would also say just looking at the rest of the Bible is that actually what the story doesn't tell us is that the Holy Spirit was working in his heart. What really opened his eyes was the work of God in his heart. And then he has that moment where the text says he came to himself, the Holy Spirit opened his eyes, and then he saw his own sin and his need for return to the Father.

NateAnd I think you brought up Acts 2 and 4 earlier. If you go later into Acts as the church is building, you'll find it almost goes back and forth. You'll find there'll be times where the way that the Book of Acts accounts the church growing is, they'll say something like, and 3,000 were saved, or many came to faith. And there's that picture of people coming to faith and them walking towards Jesus almost. And then there's other times where it says, and as many as were appointed unto salvation are saved. And so the Bible doesn't always, Jesus in every parable didn't give an exact theological picture of how everything works itself out. And even as you read through the New Testament, in some of Paul's letters and the book of Acts, all throughout it, you'll see different puzzle pieces of how salvation works. And it's not always the full picture, but one theme that comes through over and over and over again is that we have a responsibility as humanity for our sin, but that God, the Sovereign One, is the one who brings us to salvation, not the other way around.

JonAmen. Awesome. Well, hey, if you have more questions about that, feel free to submit them. It's a deep subject, and so happy to return to it some more in the future. But hey, thanks everybody for listening. Thanks Nate. Thank you. Thank you Mitch. Awesome, thanks everybody for listening. Have an awesome week.

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