If salvation depends on our free choice, how are we saved totally by grace?
Question: I’m an Arminian-turned-Calvinist, and the thing that turned me was the realization that if salvation hinges on whether individuals choose to be saved or not, as Arminians and Open Theists believe, then we can’t say salvation is 100% by grace. If we have to choose for or against God, then the credit for our salvation ultimately goes to us. But the Bible teaches that all the credit goes to God and that we can’t choose to confess Jesus as Lord unless empowered by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). So the ultimate reason why some are saved and some are not isn’t that some choose to confess Christ while others don’t. It must rather be that the Holy Spirit empowers some and not others. And so I’ve come to accept that God chooses (elects) who will and will not be saved. You, of course, reject Calvinism and affirm free will. So I’m wondering, how can you affirm that humans are saved totally by grace?
Answer: I firmly believe that salvation is completely by grace, not works. And I believe the Bible teaches that humans would never choose God on their own, apart from the Holy Spirit. Left on our own, we are “dead” toward spiritual things (Eph 2:1, 5), and corpses can’t do much of anything last I checked. To come to Christ, the Father must draw us (Jn 6:44).
If it was true that humans had enough life, goodness, or intelligence to choose God on their own, and if the reason that some were saved and some not was because some chose God on their own and some didn’t, then I see no way one could avoid the conclusion that the reason some are saved and some not is because some are better or smarter than others! So saved people, give yourself a nice pat on the back!
At the same time, it seems just as clear that God does not pick and choose who will be saved. He doesn’t want anyone to perish but wants all to enter into eternal life (2 Pet 3:9; 2 Tim. 2:4-6). Jesus died for the sins of every person (1 Jn 2:2). So, any line of reasoning that leads to a portrait of God as less-than-universal in his love and less-than-universal in his desire to save people must have something wrong with it.
As I see it, the mistake in the line of reasoning that leads to the Reformed doctrine of election is the assumption that God’s grace must be irresistible. (This is the “I” of the famous Calvinistic Acronym “TULIP”). It’s one thing to say that humans won’t believe in Christ without the Holy Spirit and quite another thing to claim that with the Holy Spirit humans must believe.
As I put aspects of the biblical narrative together, I am led to the conclusion that God wants everyone saved and the Holy Spirit is working in every person’s heart to bring them into salvation. (The issue of whether people need to be brought to the point where they consciously choose Christ to be saved is a separate matter). But the Holy Spirit will not work coercively, for coerced love is not genuine love. So it is that through the Bible we have warnings to not resist the Holy Spirit (e.g. Acts 7:51; Eph 4:30; Heb 3:7-8). The Holy Spirit will bring us to the point where we can believe, but never to a point where we must believe. So, if we do believe, it is all credited to God’s grace, working through the Spirit. If we refuse, however, it’s our own fault.
Does this view in any way compromise the claim that salvation is 100% by grace? Does it leave room for anyone to take any credit for their salvation? I don’t see how it does. Consider this analogy.
Suppose that salvation is dancing to God’s beautiful music. God graciously places us in a room with two loudspeakers and begins to play his music. Surprisingly, we rebel, cup our hands over our ears and begin to sing our own songs to ourselves, dancing to our own music (representing the fall and our on-going sin). God graciously does not give up on us, however. He graciously turns the music up louder, but we continue to rebel by covering our ears harder and singing louder. He turns it up louder and louder, but we persist in our rebellion.
God then graciously puts two more speakers in the room playing them at full volume, and when that fails, he puts in ten more, and then a hundred more, and so on until the room is wall-to-wall speakers, playing at full blast. Incredibly, all these gracious overtures just make us resist more forcefully.
Yet, God continues to desperately want us to dance to his beautiful music, so in the most remarkable act of grace imaginable, and at great sacrifice to himself (representing the Incarnation and death of Christ), God himself comes into the room and begins to personally do everything possible to get us to lower our arms and dance to his music. Weeping and pleading, he himself pulls at our arms to lower them from our ears. We all resist…but finally, his relentless love wears some of us out. We begin to hear the music. We see his relentless love.
And we begin to dance.
This is an analogy, of course, and so it only imperfectly reflects the way in which God saves us. But it’s helpful in getting at the question we’re presently wrestling with. Would any of those who were finally won over to God’s music be inclined to credit themselves for their dancing? After all their rebellion and all God’s grace, would anyone attribute their dancing to their innate intelligence or goodness? Would they not rather testify that the only reason they eventually danced to God’s music was because God was relentless in his grace and wore them out with his love? Would they not say that they’re dancing was 100% God’s doing? I don’t see how it could be otherwise. And yet, as strong and relentless as God was toward toward them, he did not coerce them.
This view is not without its mystery, but it’s not the mystery of why God would irresistibly choose some when he could have just as easily irresistible chosen all (while telling us he wants all to be saved). The mystery in this view is how anyone could, and why anyone would, continue in their rebellion. This is the unfathomable mystery of iniquity.
Whatever I make of this mystery, it seems more biblical and less problematic than the mystery of a selectively saving God. And the last thing it would ever do is make me feel self-righteous for being set free from its dominion.