Below is a portion of a March 21-22, 2013 John 3:16 Conference presentation.
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What is missing from the Bible’s articulation of the significance of election? First, as I said earlier, the Bible does not spell out precisely the nature of the operations of God’s sovereignty in salvation and human freedom in responding to or rejecting the gospel. It affirms these realities, but it does not explain them. This includes any deterministic interpretations of election. The Bible does not demand theistic determinism. Moreover, I think the Bible specifically rules out the idea that God determines the salvific destinies of certain persons without respect to their libertarian freedom. It rules out the idea that God chooses the elect and walls off the non-elect. With Lewis, I believe the trajectory of the Scripture runs in the opposite direction: the chosen are chosen for the sake of the unchosen, and this mission will be accomplished through what Christ has done, which is echoed all through the purposes of election in the Old and New Testaments.
When I think about the purpose of election language in the Bible, I am tempted to say that our question of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom actually belongs in another category that should be called something other election because the question is fairly removed from the points that Scripture is making. Biblical election is as much about eschatology, theodicy, ecclesiology, and missions as it is about divine and providence and soteriology, and these issues are rarely touched in most systematic treatments of election. Moreover, election really is as much an aspect of God’s general providence in creating, sustaining, and directing the world to its designed conclusion, including His creation, sustenance, and direction of me as it is an aspect of soteriology per se. I think most Southern Baptists would be comfortable saying that God knows everything about me as an individual and has a specific plan for me, including the moment I came to Christ. Therefore, I think that the nature of God’s plan for my salvation simply belongs in the same category as the nature of God’s providence in all the other aspects of my life, especially the crucial ones, for instance, my marriage and my calling to ministry. God had a very specific plan for me for marriage and ministry. These things were not accidental. They unfolded exactly as He planned. If He had not provided for and initiated every aspect of these events by grace, I would be neither married to my true love nor fulfilling my true calling. But, He didn’t force me to surrender to ministry or ask Janet to marry me. My freedom played a role. If I had rejected God’s calling it would neither have surprised Him nor thwarted His plans. I think most of us agree that this is how things work in the world God wanted. Given biblical election’s true breadth beyond soteriology and the paucity of its treatment of foreknowledge and freedom, I wonder if the biblical writers would even recognize what we’ve made of the doctrine.
Alas, however, over the last 1500 years, the subject of what the biblical concept of election has to tell us precisely about how God’s sovereignty operates in the salvation certain free individuals has been a matter of intense interest and debate. There is no getting away from it. Moreover, I believe that the answer that Calvinism has tried to give to this question is so flawed by determinism that much damage has been done. A correct answer must be given so that people don’t continue to lose their way. So, while I don’t think the Bible’s emphases concerning election comport very well with the question of the specific nature of an individual’s conversion, I do think the question has been important to Western theology and culture and, therefore, must be answered.
Therefore, we are back to the specific question of God’s particular knowledge of and provision for a free individual’s salvation. God knows all things innately, including every aspect of the future. The Bible tells us that the future is this: God will be reigning with the maximum possible number of people who could be His as a result of both His true sovereignty and their real freedom. This will be an expression of the combination of His desire to save all and the necessity of real freedom for such a saving relationship. All those who do not freely respond in faith to the gospel will be condemned to an eternity apart from God in hell. God will have what He wants, so His power is unstoppable in bringing about an end that is characterized by a maximum salvation that includes free decisions. This plan includes those who hear the gospel and freely respond in faith. It also includes those who hear and freely reject the gospel in unfaith. And it includes those, who, through the willful sinfulness of the church, never hear the gospel, and therefore miss God’s provision for their own willful sinfulness.
That being the future that God guarantees, my thesis is this for a doctrine of election that is most faithful to the core concepts of salvation and election in the Bible and most meaningful in bringing those concepts to bear on the questions of God’s sovereignty and human freedom: In keeping with God’s desire for a saving relationship with every sinner through His initiating in-working and the sinner’s free response of faith, election refers to God’s unstoppable decision to have a maximum number of people who are His by grace through faith even and especially in the face of the radically sinful misuse of human freedom. It is not the expression of God’s desire to save some and not others without respect to their response of faith in Christ. Calvinism’s view is both a negation of the biblical declaration that God desires to save all and a negation of real freedom. Such a negation of freedom makes God the cause of evil, and it makes humans into automatons. This is not a misrepresentation of the Calvinist view of election. Rather, these are the clear and necessary implications of their system.
Election speaks of God’s right and intention to act sovereignly in His world in order to bring a people to Himself without destroying freedom. Since it is God’s glorious nature to bring about the best possible world should He freely desire to create, and since the best possible world is one that includes the freedom necessary for real covenant relationships, then our world must contain real freedom. God’s electing plan includes (1) His absolute power to save myriads of sinners exactly as He intends, (2) His absolute knowledge of and choice of that outcome before creation, (3) the free response of sinners both for and against a relationship with Him, and (4) the free response of the redeemed in participating with Him in calling any sinner to salvation. Because God created a universe in which freedom is necessary for covenant relationships, not every person will benefit from His saving purposes, but everyone could have. Those who by faith benefit from God’s saving purposes are the elect. Who are the elect? The elect are all sinners who respond freely in faith to the drawing of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the gospel in a world purposed by God for both the maximum salvation and the real freedom of humans as the critical components of His ultimate design for that world.
The view of election I am espousing here is a view called Molinism or middle knowledge. I know that some non-Calvinists do not really know what that is. Others of you know what it is, but you do not ascribe to it. That’s fine. But the point I want to make to you and to Calvinists is that there are real, powerful, cogent, orthodox, time-tested, and biblical alternatives to Calvinism’s determinism that ought to be seriously considered by any thoughtful person who cares about the gospel. Molinism gives a robust account of both God’s sovereignty in salvation and real human freedom in a way that I believe comports with what most Southern Baptists already believe about these things. I want Calvinists to acknowledge that their system has very real and very substantial philosophical, theological, and biblical problems to which they either need to give better answers than they are giving now or concede as being insurmountable but somehow not debilitating to their system. Molinism helps point out these problems in quite reasonable, non-pejorative ways.
Traditionalists need to acknowledge that it is not enough to point out the problems of Calvinism without offering a well-constructed alternative. We need to be able to account for the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and His predestination, and we need to be able to account for how freedom does not impinge on God’s glory or His sovereignty. I think Molinism gives the best account to date for these things. It is a serious contender, and it needs to be taken seriously. The articulation of this view by such stalwart thinkers as Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Thomas Flint, Millard Erickson, and Ken Keathley gives it a level credibility and substance that those of us less adroit at philosophical and theological speculation can feel good about. Molinism is not a merely middle way between Calvinism and Arminianism, it provides a distinct alternative to these systems, systems that I believe suffer from essentially the same philosophical and theological commitments. Additionally, Kirk MacGregor makes a solid case that the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier, who defended so ably the reality of true sovereignty and freedom in salvation, could be considered a proponent of Molinism fifty years before Molina. This sort of historical link to one of our greatest spiritual forebears adds significant weight to the claim that Molinism is a live option for Traditional Baptists. One might say that we would only be demonstrating faithfulness to our founders in doing so.
I believe that Molinism comports with and gives the best account of the Bible’s strong view of God’s sovereignty and equally strong view of libertarian freedom. To be sure, Molinism has its challenges, most notably the grounding problem, and it suffers from a really ugly name (Molinism sounds like a type of eye infection) and from the fact that it is hard to understand at first. Calvinists think Molinism is too libertarian and Arminians think it is too deterministic. This, however, may be an indication that it is just about right.
With my basic philosophical commitment in mind, let’s break down my answer to the question, “Who are the elect?” with a view to the concerns both Calvinists and Traditionalists want to raise about the doctrine of election. Let me restate my answer to the question of election: The elect are all sinners who respond freely in faith to the drawing of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the gospel in a world purposed by God for both the maximum salvation and the real freedom of humans as the critical components of His ultimate design for that world.
First, what is God’s ultimate design for the world? That’s easy enough to define because the Bible gives it to us in the last chapters of Revelation. When it’s all said and done, God intends to have His creation complete in this way: multitudes and multitudes of human beings, the crown of God’s creation now complete through faith in Christ, are, for eternity, relating to God and reigning with Him in freedom over a new heaven and earth expunged forever of all sin and evil. That end has already been set forth by God, including the exact number and identity of that multitude. At this point, Open Theism is out. So, the remaining question is, “How has God gone about determining with certainty that end, including, as our special interest, the number and identity of the elect?” At this point, we have two options. God either brings about this end with libertarian freedom (which is the view of either Molinism or Simple Foreknowledge), or He does so without libertarian freedom (which is the view of theistic determinism).
What is libertarian freedom? Simply put, it is the freedom of an individual to choose between two or more options in which the cause of the choice is, ultimately, the individual. This is what most people think is going on when they make a choice between A and B. They had a real option between A and B, they could have chosen either, but they choose A. That choice is theirs, and they are responsible for it. Some of you might be thinking: Is there really any other way to define freedom? Well, theistic determinists define freedom as an individual’s ability to do what he desires most. Sounds good so far, right? Where we depart from them is that they believe we are not free to determine what we want. God determines what we want, and we cannot do otherwise. Here is how this works in salvation. Grudem says, “We can say that God causes us to choose Christ voluntarily.” This, of course, is logically contradictory. The implications of such a view is that it makes God the cause of evil and the cause of people going to hell, and it makes humans into robots. Choices caused by someone else are simply not choices, and they certainly are not free. Also, if God causes some people to choose Christ and does not cause others to choose Christ, then there is no legitimate way to speak of God loving everyone and having a desire to save everyone. There is no way to take John 3:16 seriously.
So, if theistic determinism is not a live option for most Southern Baptists, what’s left? We can affirm either Simple Foreknowledge or Molinism. For me, either of these is a legitimate alternative. In fact, Craig sees Molinism as a further and more detailed development of Simple Foreknowledge. Simple Foreknowledge has God looking into the future, seeing what free choice concerning Christ I will make, and then electing me on that basis. This, to me, is essentially the Arminian view. The problem with this view is that it doesn’t really answer the hard questions. How does God know with certainty my future free decisions unless the future is determined? If the future is determined, then how can I be thought of as being free? If God is just endorsing decisions that I will make, how can He be thought of as controlling history or bringing about His desired end? If God is just endorsing my decisions, how does that not render election essentially meaningless?
I think Molinism is the better option. It affirms that God knows innately all the possible scenarios (or worlds) in which both humans are free and His desire to save all is real, and He determines to bring into existence the world that has the maximum number of people coming to faith under those conditions. This world that he brings into existence has been created with the real free decisions of people. That is why God cannot bring into existence a world in which humans are free and His desire to save all is real that results in everyone being saved. To do so would have been to abrogate freedom, which, as Alvin Plantinga has brilliantly argued, would not be the best possible world. However, because God is loving and good, it fits His nature to choose the world that has the greatest possible number of people belonging to Him by faith. There were certainly other possible worlds where less people chose Him but God in His great sovereignty and mercy does not bring that world into existence.
This leads us back to my definition of the elect. I speak of election functioning in “a world purposed by God for both the maximum salvation and real freedom of humans as the critical component of His ultimate design for that world.” Craig asserts that “God chose a world having an optimal balance between the number of the saved and the number of the damned.” Developing this thought, Keathley states, “In other words, God has created a world with a maximal ratio of the number of saved to those lost.” Molinism articulates the way in which such a world comes into existence. Our free acts have contributed to and affected the outcome. Everyone could have come into a saving relationship with God, but our choices rendered that world impossible for God to actualize while taking freedom seriously. Just like God cannot make a square circle, He cannot make a world of un-free covenant relationships. Therefore, freedom is a critical component of the world that God wanted to create, the future of which is clearly foretold in the end of the book of Revelation.
God brings about this world that will end with the maximum number of people worshipping God in Christ through the Spirit forever. If the elect are those that that come into covenant relationship with God by faith in the person and work of Christ, then election is God’s activity of bringing the world to His desired end, especially with respect to those being saved. The means of election are not only the drawing of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the gospel but also the real faith-response of the sinner. While God initiates, superintends, and completes this process, the sinner can still resist, or he has not made a free response of faith. While no sinner is able or even interested in a world-changing relationship with God “on his own,” the power of the gospel in the Spirit alone makes salvation possible for any sinner, but his response to the Spirit’s enabling is necessary, or it is not a covenant relationship. Whatever were the effects of the Fall on the human race, and the effects were devastating, these effects cannot include the elimination of libertarian freedom, or the world God wants ceases to be. Therefore, on this view, God does not elect a person on the basis of his foreknowledge of their future faith decision; He elects them on the basis of His desire to save the maximum number of people in a world where freedom matters. That world includes certain people who will respond freely in faith, just as it includes people who freely reject Christ or never hear. Craig puts it like this: “It is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined. But it is up to us whether we are predestined in the world in which we find ourselves.”
To summarize, even if you don’t buy Molinism, if we believe that God loves every person, that Christ died for every person, that God wants to save every person, and that salvation means that freedom is necessary, then election cannot mean what Calvinists say it means: that God chooses some and not others without reference to their real faith-response. Instead, election means that God has determined, even in the face of radical human sinfulness, to have a world of maximum salvation through His gracious in-working through the gospel of His suffering but unstoppable Son and our free response to it and to living and proclaiming it sacrificially as His people to a waiting world.
Garrett, who places election at the end of his discussion of soteriology, rather than at the beginning like Grudem, says, “Moreover, the placement of election at the end of the entire soteriological discussion and just prior to the beginning of the discussion of the church enables election to serve as a bridge connecting soteriology and ecclesiology” (472). Interestingly, Garrett’s approach mirrors the BFM, which places its article on election (V) after the one on salvation (IV) and before the article on the church (VI).
For a full discussion of this view to which I am much indebted, see Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty.
Paige Patterson, forward to Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, ix.
Indeed, Erickson espouses a view that he considers very close to Molinism (387, note 14).
See my “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 8 (Spring 2011): 86.
Kirk R. MacGregor, “Hubmaier’s Concord of Predestination with Free Will,” Direction 35 (Fall 2006): 291.
Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 5-6.
C. S. Lewis, Yours, Jack: Spiritual Directions from C. S. Lewis, ed. Paul Ford (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 186: “All that Calvinist question–Free-Will and Predestination, is to my mind undiscussable, insoluble. . . . When we carry [Freedom and Necessity] up to relations between God and Man, has the distinction perhaps become nonsensical?”
Walls, 75-104, esp. 98-99.
William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 127.
Alvin C. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).
William Lane Craig, “‘No Other Name:’ A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation through Jesus Christ,” Faith and Philosophy 6 (April 1989): 185.
Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 153.
Craig, “No Other Name,” 188.