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.