Is God In Charge? Sovereignty and Freedom

Is God in charge?

Sovereignty and freedom

By Dr. Jim Denison

As I write this essay, we are in the midst of an economic crisis which many experts consider to be the most serious since the Great Depression. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, the latter characterized as a “downward spiral” in last week’s National Intelligence Estimate report.

The geopolitical situation continues to degenerate, with Russian ascendancy in Eastern Europe, Iranian pursuit of nuclear capability, Syria’s decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Lebanon, and the ongoing Palestinian problem.

Do you sometimes wonder if God is in charge of this fallen world? Does everything happen according to his intention? If not, how can he be the sovereign Lord? If so, do humans have free will?

Am I free to write this sentence, or are my fingers essentially an extension of God? Are you free to read this essay, or was your “decision” to do so actually predetermined by the Lord?

Such questions push us into the muddy waters of sovereignty and freedom, Calvinism and Armenianism. Did God purpose the crises of these days? If he did, what kind of God is he? Are humans free? If he did not, how can he be Lord?

Let’s wade through this theological swamp, and see if we can find firm ground upon which to stand. The next time you face crisis or suffering, you’ll need that place for your soul.

Everything is determined by God

John Calvin (1509-64) was a lawyer before he became a Christian (not to say that lawyers can’t be Christians—that’s just the order it happened for him). And so he brought an insistence on logic and consistency to his new faith. His Institutes of the Christian Religion are still fundamental to the movement known as Reform theology, promoted especially in America by Presbyterian churches.

“Five points” as later detailed by the Synod of Dort (1618-19) are typically seen to summarize Calvinist theology:

Total depravity: the fall of Adam and Eve affected every part of us, our minds and our wills

Unconditional divine election: we can do nothing to earn our salvation

Limited atonement: Christ died only for those “elected” or chosen by God for salvation

Irresistible grace: the “elect” will always accept the grace of God

Perseverance of the saints: those who receive salvation can never lose it

As you can see, the five points begin with letters which make a “tulip.” A “five-point” or “tulip” Calvinist is a person who accepts each of these assertions. Some theologians opt for four or less. Those who believe in all five points maintain that God’s will cannot be defeated if he is God. In other words, if he wants one of his creatures to be in heaven, that person will be in heaven. They add that if God is sovereign over the future, he must know what choice we are going to make regarding salvation in Christ.

Most people hear this theological position and immediately respond that it’s not fair for God to choose some people to go to heaven and the rest to go to hell. Calvinists reply that if God were fair, no one could be in heaven, since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In other words, none of us deserve to go to heaven; all salvation is by God’s grace.

The critic then answers that while none of us deserve heaven, it is unfair for any to be chosen unless all are chosen. None of us deserve a vaccine for bird flu, but if one is developed it would be unfair for only some to receive it. And the debate continues.

Our choices are our own

Joseph Arminius (1560-1609) believed that God made us to worship him, but noted that worship requires a choice. If someone drags you to a church service against your will, it’s unlikely that your worship will be joyous. God wants us to use this freedom to choose to love and worship him. But those who make that wise choice retain their freedom. And so they can later choose against him. They can be “saved” and later “lose their salvation.” You can choose to be married and later choose not to be, or choose to read this book and later change your mind.

This approach accepts “unconditional divine election,” the idea that we don’t deserve for God to forgive our sins and give us salvation. But as you can see, it doesn’t accept much else in the tulip. John Wesley and his followers were greatly influenced by Arminius’s position, and helped popularize it through the Methodist movement.

Getting to the heart of the problem

Since I began struggling with this issue back in college, a middle way has made the most sense to me. Walk with me through the “tulip” again. T = total depravity, the idea that sin affects every part of our lives so that we are incapable of meeting God’s perfect standards or earning a place in his perfect heaven. The Bible seems to teach clearly that all of us have in fact sinned, and that this sin affects every part of our lives. Paul spoke for me, and I would guess for you as well:

“I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24).

I can think of no part of my life which is untouched by sin. My body is decaying by the day. My mind and emotions can run in all sorts of ungodly ways. So I’m forced to be a T Calvinist.


The Fifth Great Awakening and the Future of America

The Fifth Great Awakening

and the Future of America

James C. Denison

There is a Fifth Great Awakening occurring in our world today. According to David Barrett, author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, 82,000 people become Christians every day. More are coming to Christ than at any time in Christian history. Today, 32,000 will become followers of Jesus in Africa, 25,000 in Asia, and 17,000 in Latin America.

More Muslims are becoming Christians than at any time in the history of Islam. Thousands of Muslims are seeing visions and dreams of Jesus and coming to faith in him as their Lord.

Saudi Arabian Muslim leader Sheikh Ahmad al-Qatanni recently reported on al-Jazeera television that every day, “16,000 Muslims convert to Christianity.” He claimed that Islam was losing six million a year to Christian faith. While he could be inflating his numbers to incite Islamic reaction against Christianity, it is clear that a significant Christian movement is occurring in the Muslim world.

However, of the 82,000 coming to Christ every day around the world, only 6,000 are in Europe and North America, combined. While much of the world is experiencing an explosion in Christian growth, we are living in a time of unprecedented skepticism in the Western world with regard to historic Christianity.

According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the number of Americans who describe themselves as “Christian” has dropped from 86% to 76% since 1990. At the same time, the number of those who say they have “no religion” has nearly doubled to more than 15%. The number of those who call themselves “atheist” or “agnostic” has quadrupled, and is now almost twice the number of Episcopalians in our country.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released their “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” Among its findings:

More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion, or no religion at all.

Among Americans ages 18-29, one in four say they are not affiliated with any religion.

Spiritual trends in Europe are even more discouraging. A recent Harris Poll conducted a large survey of religious beliefs in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and the U.S. America was the most religious country, with 73% describing themselves as believing in “any form of God or any type of supreme being.” Behind us, belief in the existence of God falls quickly: 62% in Italy; 48% in Spain; 41% in Germany; 35% in England; and 27% in France believe in any form of a supreme being.

In Great Britain today, there are four times as many Muslims attending mosque on Friday as Christians attending worship on Sunday. Twenty-five percent of Brussels is Muslim. Fifty-four million Muslims live in Europe; their numbers will continue to increase due to immigration and high birth rates.

I recently participated in a debate with Christopher Hitchens, author of god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His book reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List in only its third week of publication. Mr. Hitchens and other well-known atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dawkins are selling millions of books to our culture.

Why are we not seeing a great spiritual movement in Western Europe and North America? Because we live in a culture which views God as a hobby. In our society, Christianity is for church, religion for Sunday. Our faith is to be kept separate from the “real world.” But everywhere God’s people are making God their King, the Lord and Master of every day and every dimension of their lives, the Fifth Great Awakening is coming. How can it come to our culture? God’s word contains our answer:

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:13-14).

Do we need a spiritual awakening?

A “spiritual awakening” can be defined as a socially-transforming spiritual movement. A “revival” is a spiritual rebirth which transforms a person or a church or even a community into New Testament Christianity; a “great Awakening” transforms a nation. There have been four such Awakenings in American history: in 1734, 1792, 1858, and 1904-05. Each created a movement which changed its culture and altered its history for great spiritual good.

I believe that such a movement is the greatest need of our country in these days, and that believers should be praying and working toward this purpose in every way we can. Why does America need a spiritual awakening?

As 2 Chronicles 7 unfolds, Solomon and the people of Israel have just finished their Temple. This is the high-water mark in the history of the Jewish people. Their borders extend from present-day Syria to the Sinai Peninsula. Their wealth and military might are unequaled in the region. Their king has accumulated 100,000 talents of gold (3,750 tons) and a million talents of silver (37,500 tons; 1 Chronicles 22:14)—a net worth of more than $58 billion. Solomon is also the wisest man who has ever lived. And now he has just constructed a spectacular house of worship for his nation’s God.

But Israel’s future prosperity was in no sense guaranteed.

Their Lord warned them that future rebellion would lead to his punishment. In this event he would “shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people” (2 Chronicles 7:13). In a world dependent on rain for crops, defenseless against ravaging locusts or plague, such events would be totally catastrophic.

As it turned out, their future was in greater peril than they knew. Shortly after Solomon’s death, their nation would be divided by civil war. The ten northern tribes would be annihilated and absorbed by Assyria; the two southern tribes would be enslaved by Babylon and then dominated by Persia, Greece, and Rome before their nation was disbanded and destroyed. Their nation would not be constituted again for 20 centuries, and today faces hostility from enemies on every side.