The Salvation Debate

A paper I wrote that is an interesting topic during my mMDIV at The Masters Instititute.


The debate as to why some people are saved and others is often referred to as the “crux theologorum” (the cross of the theologians) because of the difficulty of giving an answer that is satisfactory using human reason. It is an issue that has been a controversial topic by theologians for many centuries. Arminians answer these questions through the perspective of man’s “free will”; only those who are saved “choose” to be saved. Calvinists answer this question by pointing to God’s sovereign will: God himself “predestines” (ordains) from eternity some to be saved. Some Calvinists go even further and would say God also ordains the others to be damned – referred to as double predestination. Still others (i.e. LC-MS Lutherans) often stand in the middle and allow this question to remain a mystery in an attempt to allow the scriptures to stand on their own and believe this question is impossible to answer using human reason and logic .

Before getting into the minutia of the differences between the various sides that represent the salvation debate, it is important to understand what attributes of God each side believes is non-negotiable. Without understanding the non-negotiables, it is impossible to fully understand the various viewpoints. Understanding the central attribute that each side holds about God allows us to fully empathize with viewpoints that are different than our own. For the Calvinist, the attributes of God that surround His sovereignty are the most important. One of the things they may say is “God is working things out” in His sovereignty for the elect. Sovereignty has a romantic compassion and care in this case. For the Arminian the central attribute that most fully represents God’s beauty is God’s love and the idea of God ordaining people to Hell or taking away choices takes on an anti-love characteristic to them. The love of God represents the great beauty of God and is THE attribute that draws people to Him. For the LC-MS Lutheran, the grace of God represents the greatest love of all. This represents God sovereignly “doing the work” to save man and represents the greatest blessing of all from God – Jesus Christ.
The Calvinistic view uses a 5-point TULIP acrostic that stands for the following: Total Depravity, Unconditional election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Total Depravity means humans are so inflicted by sin (dead in sin) that we cannot respond on our own to God . Unconditional election means that out of sheer mercy and grace God elects some individuals for salvation . Limited Atonement means Christ died only for the elect (4-point Calvinists drop this point) . Irresistible grace means the elect cannot resist God’s grace and calling for salvation . Perseverance of the Saints means the elect can never lose their salvation .

The Arminian view represents parallel but different points: total depravity weakened by grace, conditional or corporate election, unlimited atonement, resistible grace, and conditional security (4-point Arminians drop this point). Total depravity weakened by grace means humans are in bondage to sin but God gives “prevenient grace” (just enough grace to make a choice) so humans can respond to His offer of salvation . Election has two possible views in the Arminian view. Conditional election means God savingly elects those individuals that He foreknows will freely accept Him . Corporate election means “in Christ”, God unconditionally elects a saved community (the Church (NT) or Israel (OT)) and conditionally invites all humans to join their mission . Unlimited atonement means Christ died for the salvation of all people . Resistible grace means humans can resist God’s saving grace . Conditional security means God never abandons a believer, but it is possible for a believer to reject God and lose salvation.

Paul Eddy showed that for most of history many of John Calvin’s theological ancestors (pre and post Augustine) believed God’s will was compatible with freewill. This is called compatibilism. They see God’s sovereignty and freewill as mysteriously working together. However, some theologians pushed Augustine’s view of God’s providence so far that they denied that humans are free to choose. John Calvin came along in the 1500’s and strongly emphasized that God controls all things, including who will or will not be saved. Jacob Arminius argued that Calvin’s definition of providence is incompatible with human freedom and undermines the biblical teaching that God wants everyone to be saved. This view of Arminianism is called incompatibilism and asserts that human freedom is not compatible with God’s control. It is easy to see how the debate on God’s providence and free will is closely connected to the debate about salvation.
Dr. Eddy dug deeper into the history and origins of Calvinistic thought and language in the lectures. Augustine (~300AD) originally defended libertine freewill (or at least had no reason to believe libertine free will was wrong) until a debate with Fortunatas. Fortunatas was a Manichean – a group considered heretical and outside the realm of Christian thought and theology. Following the debate Augustine then plunged himself into scripture and a few years later came up with a more “focused” theology around God’s providence and sovereignty. Augustine also was a compatibilist and believed that freewill is compatible with God’s sovereignty. That view was the dominant view by the church until Jonathon Edwards (~1750AD). Jonathon Edwards thought the belief that freewill and God’s sovereignty was compatible was a bit of a cop out. Some vessels are made for God’s glory and others are made to show God’s wrath would be the scriptural basis for this thought. Out of Jonathon Edwards thought came a “stricter” view of God’s sovereignty often called the “theology of glory” that is held by many Calvinists today. This view believes God is sovereign over all creation, even for evil, as a way of showing His glory. If pressed, this group would state that God is responsible (either directly or indirectly) for every disease, Hitler and the holocaust, as well as every rape because it would ultimately demonstrate His Glory. Today, this “theology of glory” view of Jonathon Edwards continues to be promoted by well-known theologians like John Piper.


As I stated earlier, in order to fully understand each side it is important to understand what characteristics of God each side holds most dearly. For the Arminian this discussion is not about freewill, but rather it is about God’s love. In order for love to be true it must be chosen freely. Therefore, denying freewill is denying a central characteristic of God – His love. For the Calvinist, the attributes surrounding God’s sovereignty and control are the attributes that they hold most dearly. As for me, I believe it is important to be true to scripture and the language of the first century church as much as possible. This may mean playing the mystery card early and often in today’s world. As I read the book and listened to the lectures, I envisioned the barrel of monkeys game. The first century church was the first monkey in long link of monkeys. As church history went on we kept adding a second monkey, a third monkey, etc. However, the language of the last monkey does not completely represent the language of the first monkey. For the theology of glory Calvinists there seems to be an overdeveloped “language of sovereignty” that does not represent the language of the first century church – the first monkey. Paul Eddy’s deconstruction of history clearly showed evidence to this effect as theologians kept adding new “language” (a new monkey) on top of the previous centuries theologian regarding God’s sovereignty. On the Arminian side there was a similar barrel of monkeys that was different in that it used significant doses of human logic and religious philosophy in order to hang on to their central view that God is love. The chain of monkeys continues in things like the Synod of Dordt and every heated debate where they must further refine language to “win” the theological discussion.
In a sermon by Bill Bohline at Hosanna! Church, he once gave a reason for not allowing Rob Bell’s book Love Wins into the Hosanna bookstore. He said some theologians are in love with love. To this day, I also remember Dr. Kyle Fever’s Synoptic Gospel class where he discussed John 3:16 and said that love was not a squishy, “big hug” love but rather God loved us “in this way” and that the word love was not used in the ways the church used the word love. This is all to say that, like the Calvinistic language that seems to have overdeveloped language regarding Gods sovereignty and a difference in tone and language than first century church, the Arminians also have an overdeveloped language about God’s love that seems different in tone and language than the first century Church used in scripture.
As for me, with my Lutheran hermeneutic, I guess I am either a Calminian or an Arminist. My desire is to use language that represents the language of the first century and to continue to be aware of when my language is becoming overdeveloped due to too much theological or philosophical thought. The mystery card is always ready and available in my hand where I can just rest on scripture and not feel the need to defend theological mystery.

Approach to Theology and Ministry
Many years ago my LC-MS Pastor did a study on denominational differences and we studied the Calvinistic TULIP model and discussed where the various denominations and Lutheranism fell on each point. The study actually led me into a multi-year thought process regarding this topic where I tried to understand the various sides. The side most foreign to me was the Arminian side so I made a decision to read several of Greg Boyd’s books. I also made a decision to read Greg Boyd as if he was true as opposed to reading Greg Boyd to prove he was wrong. This led me to great respect for this central viewpoint on the idea that “God is love.” I also started reading John Pipers books and gave him many chances to prove his points. In the end, I was unable to finish his book Desiring God because I felt that the language he used could have been said the same way but in a more gospel-centric way. The language seemed to overdevelop the concept of God’s sovereignty in comparison to the language that I saw in scripture. I sometimes refer to this as language that has been “over baked” from far too much theological thought and debate. However, I gained much respect for God’s sovereignty and Calvinistic thought as well as Arminian thought during this process. I must admit that I have some concerns over the extremes of “Edwardian” Calvinism and the theology of glory of John Pipers.


However, I also have concerns over the overdeveloped theology of love and Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. I believe God’s truth stands mysteriously in the middle somewhere.
For this reason, this course on the various evangelical issues has reaffirmed my desire to do my best to stay true to the language of the first century church and the language of the synoptic gospels and Jesus Christ. I have listened to many sermons where the theological language seems “stretched” or out of proportion to the language that I see in scripture. I want to avoid these “stretches” in my personal Pastoral language. However, I do feel like I can move into a discussion about freewill when the problem of evil comes up. I can also move into a discussion about God’s sovereignty and a belief that God has a purpose in our pain. I also don’t believe I have to use too much theological or philosophical logic to support my theological understanding. Rather, I can point to God being a mystery and not always giving us all the answers.
This course has also given me empathy toward other views and an understanding that these theological issues are not issues that need to create division between Christians. We can have different opinions or theological differences, but these are not central dogma issues.

I did realize when listening to the lectures and reading the material that John Piper and the theology of glory Calvinists use theological language that “triggers” me the most when I listen to them. The lectures and readings have given me empathy even into the more extreme Calvinistic theology as to how their language developed. I have come to realize that if I was brought up in a Church that belonged to John Piper that I might agree with the theology of glory’s overdeveloped language about God’s sovereignty. Personal experience and church history shapes the lens in which we view the world and God. This is important for me since Minnesota and the Twin Cities are “theology of glory” central and I have already come across many Christians that see John Piper as being the “highest Christian truth.” Pastorally, I must always represent the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus even to the Christians and Churches that use language that triggers me.

The largest take away for me is that I desire to have my theological “language” shaped first by scripture, second by the first century church, and lastly by the barrel of monkeys where theologians add new theological language on top of last centuries theologians.

1 thought on “The Salvation Debate

  1. philcarlsonmn

    Great explanation of the of different views. I had some of this in college, but it’s been awhile since I thought much about it. My Lutheran background puts me into the middle. God is sovereign, but also allows free will.

    I think I am moving more to God allowing us complete freedom. His spirit works in us to bring us to faith (prevenient grace). However, he wants us to be independent from him and not in control

    My current thoughts go to looking at how God treats us and then extrapolating that into an example of how we should treat others. Does God’s sovereignty mean control? Does God control us? If he does, then is it OK for me to control others.

    Do we give people free will? Do we give our spouses free will? Or, do we control? My thinking is more along the lines of free will is better than control. At least for us imperfect humans.

    If God is sovereign, I think I’ll let him figure it out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s