(Ed.’s note: This blog post is part 2/2. See part 1, “Led Zeppelin, Calvinism and Words with Multiple Meanings.”)
Both sides of the Calvinism debate will use this term, but they definitely don’t use it in the same way. Most dictionaries will give the word freedom (and liberty) several definitions. The older among us may remember a Kris Kristofferson definition for freedom, which was made famous by Janis Joplin in the song “Me and Bobby McGee.” One line says: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” I think there is some truth in those words, but they don’t provide much help in the context of our debate. However, the line shows how the word “free” can have different legitimate usages.
This whole subject of free will can get pretty technical and philosophical. (Therefore, you may wonder how someone without a Ph.D. could possibly have anything worthwhile to contribute, here, but I’ll do my best - and be brief.) Since both sides insist on their own definition for the term “free will” in choosing to receive (or reject) the gospel, it has become something of a useless term. Let me suggest a better term that helps cut through the fog. It is “the power of contrary choice.” I like this term because it is self-explanatory and doesn’t carry with it any bias toward one view or the other. I think I first heard this term used by the Calvinist John Murray.
Remember, Calvinists teach that we are saved by *irresistible* grace. It is their own term, and by it they mean that no lost sinner can believe the gospel without God’s supernatural and irresistible enabling grace. In their system, the elect must be benevolently forced to choose life. In their system, God would not give those born reprobate any ability to believe in Jesus. In their view, no one could have any saving faith unless they are irresistibly born again first. But Jesus did not say that. He said that we must be born again to see and enter the kingdom but He did not say that we must be born again to confess our sins, repent, and believe in Him. (John 3)
This is a key difference in the whole debate. Calvinists teach that irresistible regeneration precedes irresistible faith; yet “nuanced” Calvinists still insist that the elect receive Jesus voluntarily, that is, by their own (so called) “free will.”
As you can imagine, the Calvinist’s explanation of how faith can be both irresistible and voluntary gets pretty technical. It ain’t no job for boys.
The two terms are opposites. To go much further, here, would take us beyond the scope of this writing and probably be above my pay grade, anyway. We may need the Ph.D.s to pick up here, but I will say this for what it’s worth: I think Jonathan Edwards & Co are looking too much to the hard sciences to explain spiritual realities and therein lies their mistake. They also would deny God the sovereign prerogative to delegate the power of contrary choice to everyone born in sin. In this regard, it is the Calvinists who would “limit” divine sovereignty and resist God’s right to be God. If the LORD wants to delegate the power (or ability) to believe, or reject, the Gospel to lost sinners, then who are we to object? A truly sovereign God can delegate authority as He sees fit. We know that God gave Adam the ability to choose sin even though he did not have a sinful nature, so why can’t He give the rest of us the ability to repent, even though we have a sinful nature?
Simply put, as a non-Calvinist, I would maintain that the power of contrary choice, in believing the gospel, is included in the common grace that God gives to everyone. On the other side, Calvinists, who know their system, would deny that any lost sinner has ever had the ability to receive the Truth and the ability to reject the Truth at any point of time. They call that impossible. They claim that we are born too radically corrupt and too totally depraved to be able to choose Jesus without irresistible compulsion. Again, you will likely agree that it is hard to imagine being irresistibly “dragged” to do something voluntarily, but this is what the dedicated Calvinist must sell. Calvinists are stuck with this contradiction because they uniformly marginalize the power and scope of the common grace of God.
Thus, we should look quickly at one more term, which both sides of the debate use - but don’t agree on how to define. The term is “common grace.” Both sides typically agree that we are all made in the image of God and this obviously brings some great natural benefits (and responsibilities) but we are also deeply marred by Adam’s fall. That which is within us by virtue of God’s common grace is in relentless conflict with that which is within us by virtue of God’s curse on Adam’s race. It’s the way God wants life to be… for now.
The differences in understanding and applying the common grace of God are crucial to the whole debate.A fundamental difference between the two sides lies in understanding the God given ability we have to combat the sinful nature (flesh) which we are born with. Romans 2:14 says that fallen man can do “by nature” the things contained in the law. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says that the “natural man” cannot know the things of the Spirit of God. The apparent friction between these kinds of texts is at the heart of our debate. Calvinists insist that someone “dead in trespasses and sins” is utterly unable to repent and believe the Truth, while non-Calvinists believe that God has supplied sufficient grace for those who are dead in trespasses and sins to repent and believe the Truth. (Note: Some like the term “prevenient grace” as it is grace that comes before, and enables, saving faith. But once again, definitions seem to vary on this term as well).
In their sermons, books, and creeds, Calvinists acknowledge the common grace of God; but they minimize its scope and power. They know that God must be restraining our natural corruption; otherwise the world would be a worse train wreck than it actually is. We all agree that the rain falls and the sun shines on both believers and unbelievers, godly and wicked. We observe, in both life and Scripture, how that many non-Christians are hardworking people, capable of some wisdom, integrity, and charity. They don’t lie, steal, murder, and commit adultery at every possible opportunity. Again, Paul is clear that we all have been given the grace to do “by nature” the things contained in the law, and the law is spiritual. This might seem to contradict all the biblical texts which teach that mankind is eaten up with, and enslaved to sin, but it doesn’t. Common grace solves the tension.
Calvinists struggle to explain why Jesus would use the faith of children as examples for adults; yet, we know that He did. (Mt 18) If we were born “dead in trespasses and sins” as defined by Calvinists, then why would Jesus teach that we need childlike faith to enter the kingdom? Jesus is teaching that in spite of our natural corruption we have the God given capacity for faith, even as children. This ability is part of the common grace of God.
In addition, Jesus told us that the Holy Spirit will come from the Father to convict the world (not just the church) of sin, righteousness and judgment. This explains something that we all experience: God is at work in every heart concerning spiritual issues. The Holy Spirit uses the law written in Scripture and on our hearts to show us our great need of the Savior. This is essentially the drawing that Jesus defined, in John 6:45, as a “teaching” and “learning,” without which no one could come to Him. The universal drawing of the law, the goodness of God in the message of the cross, and the conviction of the Holy Spirit all combine to enable godly sorrow and simple faith in the gospel. Please note the nature of this drawing in John 6: Jesus does not define it as an irresistible compulsion or instantaneous miraculous regeneration, as taught by Calvinists. It is a “teaching” and “learning”, both of which take some time and co-operation. Thus we see an element of meaningful human choice in this grace.
The common grace of God does not enable us to live without sin, but it does enable us to live by faith; and we know that the just shall live by their faith.