Who limits God: Can the Arminian, Roger Olson, and the Calvinist, Michael Horton, hole up together?

What did Jesus see in me that he wanted to save me? Truth be told, I am – there’re many of us – a sensitive Jewish intellectual. Is it because I’m Jewish that Jesus saved me? Not at all. Is it because I am an intellectual, of sorts, that He saved me. That’s silly. Sensitive? There might be something in that. Sensitive to what, though? Why, to his pleading to let Him into my heart, of course. Alas, that too is way off course. So, what is the reason why some are reconciled with God, and others not? Let’s see.

Roger Olson (an Arminian) wrote a book “Against Calvinism.” Michael Horton threw the book at Olson with his (Horton’s) “For Calvinism.” Olson and Horton were in a conversation moderated by Ed Stetzer. In the last five minutes of the debate, Horton said that Olson would agree that there’s no such creature as a Calminian – a hybrid of a Calvinist and an Arminian – and also a poxymoron. “It’s either yes or no,” says Horton. Yes or no to what? To this. Either it is through grace alone that one is born again (Calvinism) or through “prevenient” grace, something that necessarily precedes the sinner’s will, if he decides to believe – in a nutshell, prevenient grace is a gentle divine shake-up. Actually, contrary to Olson and Horton, there are lots of Calminians, that is, if the songs they sing in church are anything to go by. I describe Calminianism elsewhere. I’m also reminded of the well-known apologist, Walter Martin, who called himself a Calminian, meaning that he believed in both human responsibility and free will. Sorry, but that combination is reserved for Calvinism, not Calminianism. If Calvinism is “yes” and Arminianism is no, then Calminianism is “yo.”

Stetzer, the moderator, asked Olson whether the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism would prevent Olson and Horton from working together in any way. Olson says no. His example: missions. Au contraire, missions is the last thing they could logically (in the interview, Olson hammers the importance of logic) work together on. It would have been nice if Stetzer had addressed that question not only to Olson but to Horton as well. Perhaps Stetzer knew that his Michael Horton had nothing in common with the Michael Horton of the soapie “Days of our lives.” His Horton remained mum on the question of whether a Calvinist and an Arminian could work together in the mission field. If, though, Stetzer had asked this question to Horton, Horton probably wouldn’t have been as brash as Martin Luther was (and delightfully so) to Erasmus. Here are Erasmus and Luther, as reported by Jerome Zanthius in his “Absolute Predestination With Observations On The Divine Attributes” (1811):

“Erasmus (in most other respects a very excellent man) affected to think that it was of dangerous consequence to propagate the doctrine of predestination either by preaching or writing. His words are these: “What can be more useless than to publish this paradox to the world, namely, that whatever we do is done not by virtue of our own free-will, but in a way of necessity, etc.? What a wide gap does the publication of this tenet open among men for the commission of all ungodliness! What wicked person will reform his life? Who will dare to believe himself a favourite of heaven? Who will fight against his own corrupt inclinations? Therefore, where is either the need or the utility of spreading these notions from whence so many evils seem to flow?”

To which Luther replies:

“If, my Erasmus, you consider these paradoxes (as you term them) to be no more than the inventions of men, why are you so extravagantly heated on the occasion? In that case, your arguments affect not me, for there is no person now living in the world who is a more avowed enemy to the doctrines of men than myself. But if you believe the doctrines in debate between us to be (as indeed they are) the doctrines of God, you must have bid adieu to all sense of shame and decency thus to oppose them. I will not ask, ‘Whither is the modesty of Erasmus fled?’ but, which is much more important, ‘Where, alas! are your fear and reverence of the Deity when you roundly declare that this branch of truth which He has revealed from heaven, is, at best, useless and unnecessary to be known?’ What! shall the glorious Creator be taught by you, His creature, what is fit to be preached and what to be suppressed? Is the adorable God so very defective in wisdom and prudence as not to know till you instruct Him what would be useful and what pernicious? Or could not He, whose understanding is infinite, foresee, previous to His revelation of this doctrine, what would be the consequences of His revealing it until those consequences were pointed out by you? You cannot, you dare not say this. If, then, it was the Divine pleasure to make known these things in His Word, and to bid His messengers publish them abroad, and leave the consequences of their so doing to the wisdom and providence of Him in whose name they speak, and whose message they declare, who art thou, O Erasmus, that thou shouldest reply against God and say to the Almighty, ‘What doest Thou?’”

Paul, discoursing of God, declares peremptorily, ‘Whom He will He hardeneth,’ and again, ‘God willing to show His wrath,’ etc. And the apostle did not write this to have it stifled among a few persons and buried in a corner, but wrote it to the Christians at Rome, which was, in effect, bringing this doctrine upon the stage of the whole world, stamping an universal imprimatur upon it, and publishing it to believers at large throughout the earth. What can sound harsher in the uncircumcised ears of carnal men than those words of Christ, ‘Many are called, but few chosen’? And elsewhere, ‘I know whom I have chosen.’ Now, these and similar assertions of Christ and His apostles are the very positions which you, O Erasmus, brand as useless and hurtful. You object, ‘If these things are so, who will endeavour to amend his life?’ I answer, ‘Without the Holy Ghost, no man can amend his life to purpose’ Reformation is but varnished hypocrisy unless it proceed from grace. The elect and truly pious are amended by the Spirit of God, and those of mankind who are not amended by Him will perish.”

“You ask, moreover, ‘Who will dare to believe himself a favourite of heaven?’ I answer, ‘It is not in man’s own power to believe himself such upon just grounds until he is enabled from above.’ But the elect shall be so enabled; they shall believe themselves to be what indeed they are. As for the rest who are not endued with faith, they shall perish, raging and blaspheming as you do now. ‘But,’ say you, ‘these doctrines open a door to ungodliness.’ I answer, ‘Whatever door they may open to the impious and profane, yet they open a door of righteousness to the elect and holy, and show them the way to heaven and the path of access unto God.’ Yet you would have us abstain from the mention of these grand doctrines, and leave our people in the dark as to their election of God; the consequence of which would be that every man would bolster himself up with a delusive hope of share in that salvation which is supposed to lie open to all, and thus genuine humility and the practical fear of God would be kicked out of doors. This would be a pretty way indeed of stopping up the gap Erasmus complains of! Instead of closing up the door of licentiousness, as is falsely pretended, it would be, in fact, opening a gulf into the nethermost hell.”

To return to Michael Horton. Horton writes on “Rick Warren, Modern Reformation, and Desiring God – White Horse Inn Blog Highlights” that the “first Reformation was about God and the gospel of his Son. It centered on the justification of sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” With regard to missions, I suggest that Horton would say that these “alones” (solas) are the three pillars on which missions should be based. Olson, because an Arminian, would leave out “through grace alone.” I suggest, therefore, that it is impossible for a Calvinist missionary to cooperate with an Arminian missionary except on social issues; in other words, doing things for others. For example, Rick Warren, who says:

I’m looking for a second reformation. The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs. This one is going to be about behavior. The first one was about creeds. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what does the church believe, but about what is the church doing” (beliefnet.com/faiths/Christianity/2005/10/Rick-Warrens-Second-Reformation.aspx?p=1). (Quoted in Horton above).

The Arminian missionary and Calvinist missionary can certainly work together. And play together – golf; unless they’re holed up in the Central African Republic. This does not mean that an Arminian theologian, say Michael Brown, and a Calvinist theologian, say James White cannot team up to defend say the perspicuity of scripture. On second thoughts, maybe not the perspicuity of all scripture; for example, for the Calvinist, what is more perspicuous than the clear teaching in scripture that salvation is all of the Lord? The Arminian’s view of grace is that it is always necessary, sometimes effective but never sufficient, while for the Calvinist grace is necessary, always effective and always sufficient. In Arminianism, grace is only effective if the person cooperates with God in removing his hard heart, or, to use another biblical image, if the person cooperates with God in raising himself from spiritual death: Ephesians 2:4-5 – “God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, 5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened (raised) us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved).

Ephesians 1 is clear: it is God’s will not man’s will that saves (Young’s Literal Translation):

1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus:

2 Grace to you, and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ!

3 Blessed [is] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who did bless us in every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,

4 according as He did choose us in him before the foundation of the world, for our being holy and unblemished before Him, in love,

5 having foreordained us to the adoption of sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will,

6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, in which He did make us accepted in the beloved,

7 in whom we have the redemption through his blood, the remission of the trespasses, according to the riches of His grace,

8 in which He did abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence,

9 having made known to us the secret of His will, according to His good pleasure, that He purposed in Himself.

God’s election, that is, God choice of those he saves, has nothing to do with anything in themselves, because there is absolutely nothing they can contribute to their salvation. God’s grace is not only efficient but sufficient. Verses 3 -6 cannot be more perspicuous (clearer). The only thing you can offer God is what he offers you. This truth, like so may truths in the Bible, cannot be learned from human wisdom or philosophy. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards…(1 Corinthians 1;26). The reason why I find it difficult to call Arminians fellow believers is because the issue of the role of believers in salvation is central to the Gospel. If this is so, the Arminian Gospel is another Gospel; it’s not biblical Christianity. (See Greg Price Election and Man’s Responsibility Before God”).

Where does the ability come from to believe. It is a gift of God. James 1:18 of his own will, “Of his own will he brought us forth (gave birth to us) by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” Not of our own will. God acts according to his own pleasure and counsel, according to his sovereign holy will. And in John 15:16 – “You did not choose you but you chose me. When you turned to Jesus in faith, what you did was to only accept your entrance into the kingdom of God. God had elected you to be a child of God. Once the decree is made, you cannot but (want to) persevere to the end.

Scripture says the Christian has been elected/predestined to be holy: “according as He did choose us in him before the foundation of the world, for our being holy and unblemished before Him, in love, having foreordained us to the adoption of sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will (Ephesians 1:4-5). To say that God cannot ensure that you persevere to the end implies the rejection of God’s promise that all things will work together for good for God’s children. If God’s decree is conditioned on our will, how can we be sure about anything? If you will yourself to be born again, you can will yourself to be unborn again, and later born again again – and again .

Greg Price gives the following illustration of the “total depravity” of the natural man:

We are like the stubborn insensitive 10 year-old, Glen, who lived to make fun of a fellow class mate called Jim, who had lost all of his hair in chemotherapy. Glen called Jim “marble head” every time he saw him. Jim pleaded with him not to do it. One day at a pool together, Glen fell into the pool. He couldn’t swim. He struggled to stay above water. Every time Glen surfaced, he called out “marble head, marble head save me.” Jim said stop calling me marble head and I will. Call me Jim. Glen refused even to the point that he could no longer keep his nose above the water. And just when Jim dived into save Glen from certain death, Glen could no longer yell marble head because his mouth was submerged under the water. He raised his hand out of the water in a gesture of shooting a marble. Marble head is going to stay marble head. That is our condition.

The upshot of Grep Price’s illustration is that apart from God’s saving grace, we will not change our attitude to God. That is a bald fact. If a drowning sinner really wants to be saved, if the arm he extends out of the water signifies a sincere acknowledgement to the power and holiness of the one who can save him, this desire to be saved has its source in God, not in the drowning sinner’s corrupt will. “When we were completely helpless to save ourselves, God died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).

How do you know you are among the elect? “Not every one who is saying to me Lord, lord, shall come into the reign of the heavens; but he who is doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens” (Matthew 7:21). You desire to do God’s will. You often struggle but you repent.

It seems to me that the main problem with the idea of freely willing to come to Christ is the Arminian’s lack of understanding or rejection of the doctrine of “total depravity” (“radical corruption” is a better term). For the Arminian, what Jesus can do is based on what individuals want him to do. “This whole idea, says James White that God’s activity in time is limited by man again illustrates the difference between looking at scripture from the divine perspective or the human perspective. If man is at the centre and God is peripheral, if it’s all about what God can’t do without God’s help, that would work. But if it is first and foremost about God, God as creator, and God’s glory, man is therefore secondary to these issues.” (James White’s review of Stephen Gaines’s sermon on Calvinism, Dividing Line, 2 January 2014).

Gaines asks, “Why would God be amazed by their (Pharisees) unbelief if he had predestined their unbelief? “Why, says White, would you be amazed by their unbelief unless you’re an open theist?” Open theism holds that God has to wait to see what his creatures will do. In Arminian theology, “open theism” is generally rejected, and in Calvinist theology always rejected. For most Arminians, and for all Calvinists, God knows what people are going to do.” So why is God amazed at the unbelief of the Pharisees? “The amazement, says White, is not an amazement of ignorance; it’s an amazement of knowledge. He knows their hearts. The God-Man remains amazed when his creatures rebel against his will. We should be amazed when men do not believe.” This unbelief provides insight to the depravity of the human heart, which, alas, Arminians rarely fully, and often hardly, appreciate. What is the doctrine of “total depravity” (“radical corruption). What it’s not is that people are as bad as they could possible be.

Here is Jonathan Edwards’ description of “total depravity.”

“The depravity of man’s nature appears, not only in its propensity to sin in some degree, which renders a man an evil or wicked man in the eye of the law, and strict justice, as was before shown; but it is so corrupt, that its depravity either shows that men are, or tends to make them to be, of such an evil character, as shall denominate them wicked men, according to the tenor of the covenant of grace. This may be argued from several things which have been already observed: as from a tendency to continual sin; a tendency to much greater degrees of sin than righteousness, and from the general extreme stupidity of mankind. But yet the present state of man’s nature, as implying, or tending to, a wicked character, may deserve to be more particularly considered, and directly proved. And in general, this appears, in that there have been so very few in the world, from age to age, ever since the world has stood, that have been of any other character.”

The Reformers – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, for example, accuse the Arminian of not having a saviour but only a possible saviour – possible in the sense that if a person says to Jesus “keep aknocking but you can’t come in” this means that Jesus can only save you if you enable him to do so by inviting him into your corrupt heart. Actually, in Arminianism Jesus is no saviour at all, not even a possible saviour, because in Arminianism, it is ultimately believers who save themselves. Why glorify God in your salvation when it is you that unties God’s hands to save you? This is not what is meant by “having made known to us the secret of His will, according to His good pleasure, that He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9).

So can Roger Olson and Michael Horton hole up together. Sure they can if they want to. But should they do so – off the golf course?

Question: Isn’t it true that most Christian converts who come to accept the Reformed (Calvinist) position were once Arminians? And didn’t you say that Arminianism was, as Paul the Apostle would have put it, another Gospel. So why would Christ use another Gospel to save sinners?

Answer: Good questions. Let me think more about it.

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