Thursday, February 16, 2012

Calvinism and Arminianism: Why There Is No Middle Position

Having grown up and done ministery in an environment that held all positions concerning predestination and our free will to choose, I have experienced being a Pelagian, an Arminian, a supposed middle position between Arminianism and Calvinism, and now Calvinism. But I still move in circles where many of my friends are Arminian or "Middlers," which, as I will discuss below, are just Arminians who don't know what Arminian theology is. I've had good conversations with them for the most part, but it seems like they just don't get it for some reason. I don't mean that they don't get it in the sense that they don't accept what I believe to be the best explanation for all of the biblical evidence. I mean they don't understand the positions they say they reject or accept. They just plain don't get it. Because of this, there is just mass confusion that then goes on to create mass hysteria when one position is demonized to the point of heresy.

Now, of course, one position (Pelagianism) is heresy, but it is possible for many Pelagians to just have this view by default. Our society is Pelagian after all, so one should not expect novice believers or laymen who have not been taught correctly to hold something other than this necessarily. So it is a belief that needs to be corrected, and if the individual is in communion with God, it will be.

Of course, Arminian theology is often fine, unless you're in a Reformed Church. I think Arminian theology is heresy if its implications are implied, but only usually ever heterodox instead, as its implications are pretty much never applied. When they are, the person just moves over to semi-Pelagianism or Pelagianism. But that's not what I want to talk about today. What I want to address today are "Middlers." What I'm calling "Middlers" are people who think that they can just take some of what they agree with from Arminians and some of what they agree with from Calvinists and create a middle position (after all, evangelicals are the kings of "balance" and that means that whatever is in the middle is more level headed than what is on one side of an issue--a truly nonsensical and self serving idea that I've addressed before on this blog).

Now, before I show that there is no middle position, that such a concept is only an illusion created by ignorance of the claims made by each position, I do want to say one thing about some "Middlers" I know. Some of them aren't attempting to teach one thing or another. They just want to teach the text. So if the Scripture emphasizes the sovereignty of God over man, that's what they teach. If the Scripture they're preaching next week emphasizes the choice that man makes, that's what they'll be teaching. In other words, they just follow the lead of the Scripture. I have no problem with that. HOWEVER, since one builds his theology of salvation, ministry, the role of the church in each of those, etc. upon one or the other, it is impossible to completely stay out of the debate. One side is always chosen. Don't think so? Let me ask you a question then, and show you why there is no middle position.

Did you choose God because He first chose you, or did God choose you because you first chose Him?

There it is. That's it. That's the real issue of these systems. Now, where is the middle position in this question? Answer: IT DOESN'T EXIST! There is no middle position. Either your choice was caused by God's choice, or God's choice was caused by yours. There's no "both/and" here. The question is simple, "Is God responding to you choosing Him, or are you responding to God choosing you?"

Now, here is where preaching the text to answer this question, if it were really being preached, would help the Middler; but what I fear is that Middlers are really just Arminians who don't realize that they are Arminians. But I'll return to that in a minute. My point about the text helping them has to do with the fact that when this specific question is the issue, that's when the Scripture talks about God's sovereignty in our salvation. The answer of Scripture is always, "God chose you and you responded by choosing Him." When the Scripture commands us what we are to do, or speaks of doing something to get something (i.e., have faith/believe and you will have eternal life), that question isn't the issue anymore. The question there is, What must I do to be saved? It's the human perspective versus the divine. But lest any man should boast, when the other question I posed above is asked, the answer is never, "Because you believed," since the very question is "Why did you believe, as opposed to others, in the first place?"

What Middlers do is usually agree with most of the TULIP, except for Unconditional election (i.e., the "U"), Limited atonement (i.e., the "L"), and Irresistible grace (i.e., the "I"). In other words, they accept TP, but not ULI. Of course, this is exactly what Classical Arminian theology accepts, so in what way are the Middlers not Arminian? I mean, they may not be Wesleyan Arminians, who think you can lose your salvation, but even most Wesleyan Arminians believe in Total depravity.

This, of course, leaves open the question for Middlers, as it does for Arminians (hint: because it's the same thing), as to how one can make any choice for God if God does not irresistibly draw him to Himself. This is where the idea of prevenient grace comes in, a concept held by both Arminians and, again (you guessed it), Middlers.

So really the only difference is that Middlers are Arminians who accept a form of P, which is not even P actually. They accept the doctrine of Once Saved Always Saved (OSAS), which is where someone cannot lose his or her salvation. Why? Where did free choice go, you may ask. I guess it's lost once someone chooses to follow Christ. So God wants us to freely choose to follow Him initially, but then to be forced the rest of the way. Yeah, I don't get it either. Of course, if one simply explains that God has so wooed those who are saved that their love and desire for Him now causes no one who has been saved to reject Him, then that would be a very biblical answer. Unfortunately, for the Middler, he has just given the biblical reason why anyone chooses God in the first place as well, so he can no longer cast Calvinism as a system that says God forces people to be saved against their wills. Uh Oh. No caricature is left, so why doesn't he just admit that it would be more consistent to say that this is the way God works with us and we choose Him in the first place (i.e., irresistibly, using our choice because God has so caused us to love and desire Him that we simply cannot think of choosing otherwise)?

Again, the Middler's adoption of P is curious, as is his constant caricature of Calvinism, and then his employment of the very reasons Calvinists would use to support, not only P, but also I. Of course, the L isn't necessary to be a Calvinist, so all he has left is the U, "Unconditional election."

For the Middler, U is very confusing, especially when he tries to explain it. On the one hand, he doesn't want to say that we are saved by something we did. It was because I made this decision, exercised this because of something within myself, and that's why I'm saved today and my nextdoor neighbor isn't. Yet, he also doesn't want to say that he is saved because God chose to do a work in him, giving him a love for God he did not have before, and not to his next door neighbor. This is largely just left up to "mystery" by Middlers. What it really is, however, is a real contradiction. It is not a paradox. It is not an apparent contradiction. That's where Middlers make the mistake. This is a real contradiction, which means that both of them cannot be true. Again, it comes back to the first question I asked that deals with the cause of your choosing God. If your choosing was not first caused by God choosing you to choose, then what you have left is that you, your circumstances, other great people around you, etc., caused you to choose God. But God receives no glory for that decision, only the work He did before, and does after, you make that decision. But if God chooses you and that is the reason you chose Him, the lack of Him choosing your neighbor has to be the reason for your neighbor not choosing Him. Which is it?

You can't just say that we can resist. We resist God all the time. The question is whether one who is given the love of God, and now sees God as the best possible choice out of that love that is given, will ever choose otherwise. The answer, as we are told in Scripture, is, No. All who the Father draws come to Christ and are raised up in glorification. He loses none of them (John 6:36-47). Those who are foreknown (the people, not their choices) are predestined, the same are effectually called by the gospel (the drawing/teaching of the Father that brings His people to Christ), the same are justified, and the same people are glorified (Rom 8:28-30). It's not one group that is predestined and a different group that is justified and yet another group that is glorified if they make it.

So, again, what is the reason we have chosen God? If you answer that it is all God, then you are simply stating a firm belief in the "U" and "I," even if you turn around and illogically say that people can resist. If it is all God, and not the human decision to "not reject," and yet all are not saved, but those who are predestined are saved, then that means that the election is unconditional and the offer irresistible.

So make up your mind. Don't be a Middler, because you think you're being balanced. Instead, you're just being dishonest with yourself and with others, and that never leads to something good. If you deny the U and I, you are an Arminian (note: Arminius himself never decided the matter of what would later be considered P, so he himself may or may not have believed a version of P as you do). If you essentially accept that everyone has made the choice to follow Christ because God first loved and chose them (Eph 1:3-12; 1 John 4:19), then you are a Calvinist. Own it. Man up. Who cares about the label? Follow the Bible. Be a Biblicist, but be one that is paying attention to the answers the Bible gives to the right questions that are asked in context, not one that has to ignore all of that to remain comfortable on the couch of the "balanced."

So there is no middle ground. Obviously, God chose us and we chose God. That's not the question. The question is what choice is a response to the other? And there is no middle answer to that. To say otherwise is dishonest to everyone involved.


  1. Good post Hodge.

    I'm a 5-Pointer who's been periodically befuddled by P, of all things. Never any of the other 4 letters.

    I'm of the belief that belief in one entails belief in the other 4. P is logical and P is scriptural.

    But real-life apostasy and deconversions of people who had ministry positions and had genuine fruit and who were part of God's means to bring others to a saving knowledge of Christ sometimes, oftentimes, rattles my confidence in P.

    Anyways, thanks for a great post.

  2. Of all the evil caused by the Calvinism-Arminian debate, the worst is the notion that everyone must enter the debate and take a side.

    I shudder to think of the vulnerable souls who just want to know how to obey Jesus day by day being pushed into the pathology that is this debate.

    The debate is not useless because wrong answers are arising in it, but rather because of the wrong questions being asked which give rise to it.

    I hope you'll reconsider your position and, in the future, refuse any temptation to draw anyone else into this mud.

    Seek first the kingdom of God. That's what Jesus said we should do.

  3. Mike,

    Jesus draws us into this "mud" for the precise reason of understanding of the kingdom of God. Proper glory cannot be given to God without understanding that salvation is gifted rather than earned by a work of human choice. He, therefore, wants His people to understand that no one is saved if the Father does not draw him. Only is the love and justice of God understood well when we understand that God did not save us because we were good enough to be saved, whether made good by our numerous works or by the one work of obedience to the command to obey the gospel. We would be wise to remember that mud is the result of water that seeks to clean the person from dirt. If the person is messy, more water is needed, not less.

  4. May the Lord grant the cleansing water of the word of God to wash away the mud of Calvarmianism.

    If ever there was a detour on the straight and narrow path to the kingdom of God, it is mud pit of Calvarminianism.

    If you would help people find the kingdom of God, focus on what you said: "the one work of obedience to obey the gospel." Too many people today think this is a transaction, a deal made in time. Rather, it is to be a life of obedience to the gospel, living every waking moment in the glory of His presence, enjoying His goodness and living for His pleasure. To obey the gospel is not to "pray a prayer," it is to "live a life." Help people with this and there will be less mud to clean off them.

  5. But one has to do with the other. Your comments remind me of Erasmus attempting to dissuade Luther from asking the question, Can we merit salvation by what we do? If we can, then that dictates what it means to seek the kingdom of God. I cannot live in what I have not entered. Hence, the important question becomes, By what means must I enter? By faith or by works? Is faith a work when we attribute merit to it? How can faith be in contrast to works unless we understand that it is gifted from outside of ourselves versus being produced from within?

    But the questions go beyond these when we merely assume that we can live within the kingdom without entering it first: What does it assume about our nature as dead men? What does it assume about our abilities? And what does it imply to merely say that one should do but not be concerned about what one believes about what he is doing. As Luther answered Erasmus, "How do I know what to do if I do not know what to believe?"

    If the kingdom of God is about glorifying the Father by seeking His reign over us, then our works must be rooted in His work and attributed to it explicitly in our message. That means we're going to have to discuss the issues above. To refrain is to cover up God's glory in our works. Hence, the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul both spoke of it.

    Ergo, to help people live a life in obedience to the gospel must understand the foundation of the gospel and its implications for living a life that gives God the glory for the work He has done. I cannot live in the kingdom as a faithful citizen by going about my business to do "good works" while ignoring the honor due the King for His victory over my sin that caused me to believe and gain entrance into that kingdom in the first place.

    Even if everyone is saved, Mike, (a point upon which we disagree)does God not deserve the glory in every single work that is done, especially the work of faith? Even in your system, is it right to just do and not attribute what is done to Him? The point of the above is to give Him full credit for what has been done in our salvation. I think both Middlers and Arminians are inconsistent here, and if people figure that out, they'll be giving God with one hand a credit they take away with another. That's not appropriate in my opinion for kingdom dwellers.

  6. Faith versus works is a false dichotomy, as James made clear long ago.

    I understand and appreciate the particular circumstances that Luther faced which gave him reason to focus on the merit question in declaring the gospel to his contemporaries. However, let us not be like obtuse generals who fight the battles of the previous war instead of the current one. The problem today is not a works-based righteousness but rather a grace that has become licentiousness.

    The Lord is looking for purified hearts - people for whom repentance is a daily pursuit, people who love righteousness and hate lawlessness. Look across the landscape of American Christianity and tell me where you see that?

  7. Mike,

    "Faith versus works is a false dichotomy . . ."

    Which is why we need to make it clear that faith is not a work of our own, lest we come to believe that we are saved by our own work.

    The war always exists as a fight against the exclusion of one truth in order to over-emphasize another. Hence, we remain in battle against both legalism and licentiousness, as they both do not glorify the Father through our good works. The former glorifies us for making the "good" decisions that we have and the latter gives no glory to God by failing to do what is good as a result of our having returned to His salvific presence. Neither lives for the kingdom that exalts the King through our works, and that is why I will continue to decry both confused theologies that give credit to self and wayward lifestyles that lie against the truth by declaring that a life of bad fruit can come from a good tree. Don't be tricked by the devil, Mike. He may just be using licentiousness to coerce a Christianity into legalism as its solution. Our solution is to attribute all good, including our choice to follow Christ, to the glorious work of God alone, so that we can then get on with obeying passages like Phil 2:12-13.

  8. Are you saying that we need to get new believers engaged in the Calvarminian debate, to learn TULIP, and won to the correct side of it, before they can obey passages like Phil 2:12-13?

  9. Mike, that's not precisely what I said, is it? My point is that Phil 2:12-13 is about understanding our good works in the context of God's work. He is the one who gets the glory for them. Someone can obey passages like Phil 2:12-13 in a partial manner by assuming one side of the debate (and even you assume one side, so I'm not sure why we're having this conversation). An implicature is made in the process of thinking about one's own salvation and to whom it is to be attributed. Hence, one can explicitly give glory to God, but implicitly steal some away from Him. Hence, it's not about either obeying passages like this completely or not at all (that's a false dilemma). It's about being consistent and removing those ideas that are unbiblical and run counter to giving God all of His due in both our explicit and implicit understanding of our salvation. I believe this issue is important for that reason. Again, Mike, is the glory of God not important for kingdom dwellers to seek first that kingdom/rule of God and display His glory in their salvation as they walk within it? Is consistently attributing our best work (i.e., obeying the gospel) to God's credit and not our own something you find to be unworthy of Christian conversation?

  10. "Mike, that's not precisely what I said, is it?"

    No, but it's the implication of what you said...which is why I wanted to give you the opportunity to make yourself clearer.

    "...and even you assume one side..."

    Actually, I don't. I realized years ago that the Calvinism-Armininian debate is like the Gordian Knot - something that ought to be cut rather than unraveled.

    "Again, Mike, is the glory of God not important for kingdom dwellers to seek first that kingdom/rule of God and display His glory in their salvation as they walk within it?"


    "Is consistently attributing our best work (i.e., obeying the gospel) to God's credit and not our own something you find to be unworthy of Christian conversation?"

    No, I just find the Calvinism-Arminianism debate an unworthy way to have that conversation. It's one of those How-many-angels-can-fit-on-the-head-of-a-pin arguments. Useless wrangling about words (2 Tim 2:14).

    You've been kind enough to engage me. I don't want to belabor the point. Thanks for letting me have a say. God bless.

  11. Thanks Mike. I just want to point out that this is a real world issue and nothing like the "angels on the head of a pin" argument by sharing this story with you.

    I was sitting in a Sunday School class where Romans 9 was being discussed. A person in that class proceeded to say, against the text that gives glory to God for our salvation, that the reason why God chose Jacob was because of his good works. He appealed to Romans 2 for this. Now, if that does not steal the glory away from God in our salvation, I don't know what does. The implication that God chose us because we did something good as opposed to other people who are "not as good" as we are is downright evil, and an unworthy theology for Christians to believe.

    Now, Arminian theology would not go that far. That was more of a Pelagian response; but I believe that views as that I have described in the above post assume implicitly a semi-Pelagianism that steals God's glory from the most obedient act we ever made (i.e., to exercise faith in the gospel). Because of that, it shares no affinity with an irrelevant question that neither gives nor takes away glory to or from God.

    It may be that the debate gets too "heady" sometimes, and that it can border on sophistry occasionally in how one presents it; but an important debate it remains nonetheless, precisely because nothing that gives God full glory in our salvation is worthless for Christians to discuss. Hence, this is in no way the wrangling about with words, but the act of speaking the truth in love to grow the body into a mature entity that gives all glory and honor and praise to His Majesty on High.

    Thanks again Mike.