An Arminian Conundrum

Let’s be honest, texts like 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 pose a challenge to the doctrine of unconditional election.  And Arminians love to remind Calvinists of this fact. 

Over the years, I’ve discussed theology with my fair share of free will theists.  While exploring the doctrines of sovereign grace, it usually takes, oh, about 3.2 minutes before one of the above passages is unsheathed.  I’ll point to the first chapter of Ephesians, and they’ll smile and point at 1 Timothy 2:4.  I’ll ask them to consider Romans 9, and they’ll promptly turn to 2 Peter.  Know what I’m talking about? 

Here a number of us Calvinists will try to explain what has come to be known as “The two wills of God.”  But if you’ve ever gone that route before, that is, address the difficulty head on, you know it’s a tough sell.  The Arminian scrunches his face and rolls his eyes and usually dismisses the notion.  “Sir,” he replies, “you’re grasping for straws.”

Of course, the Calvinist knows he isn’t grasping for straws.  But then again, how can he help the Arminian see his point? 

Somewhere along the way, I came up with the following argument, or line of reasoning, to help elucidate the point; to help the Arminian feel the weight of the “two will” doctrine.  It’s designed to force the Arminian to adopt conclusions that make him uncomfortable, and to see that simplistic appeals to 1 Timothy 2:4 don’t at all resolve the issue.  You might call it an Arminian conundrum.     

Now to be perfectly honest, the following argument is really only meant for those individuals who are Arminian by studied choice.  Those who are unfamiliar with systematic theology, or young in the faith, should be gently shown what the Scriptures say.  I usually just point to verses and let the verses speak for themselves.             

So, anyway, here’s the argument.  It’s presented in a semi-conversational style.  Just Imagine a Calvinist being shown 1 Timothy 2:4.  He then responds as follows (It is always the Calvinist speaking):   

The Argument:

Now do you think it’s fair to say, based on 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, that God doesn’t want to see any of His sheep perish, or to put it positively, that He wants all of His sheep to attain final salvation?  Surely, He does.  Christians are especially precious in His sight.  He doesn’t want any of them to fall away and perish. 

Given this desire on God’s part, let’s conduct a thought experiment.  Let’s imagine that there’s a Christian who is going to fall away one year from now. And it’s going to be final.  No repentance.  No faith.  True apostasy.  Now given God’s desire to see this individual avoid damnation, could He alter the circumstances of the faltering Christian’s life, so as to keep him from falling away?  Maybe a subtle change in the Christian’s daily affairs could change the course of the future, kind of like those old “Back to the Future” movies?  And since God would exhaustively know all the possible scenarios, as well as their outcomes, He would know exactly what to do, right?   

Why are you giving me a funny look?

I mean really, surely the One who creates calamity (Amo 3:6), or stills it (Mk 4:39), could do this.  Right?  Surely the One who directs the steps of men (Pro 16:9), or steers the hearts of kings (Pro 21:1); the One who controls kingdoms (Isa 10:5) and hardens or softens hearts (Exo 9:12; Acts 16:4), determines ailments (Exo 4:11), or controls whole swaths of history (Acts 2:23; Gal 4:4), even down to the sinful actions of men (Acts 4:28), could orchestrate the circumstances of this faltering Christian’s life, so as to keep him from falling away.  Surely He could do it.

But before you reply, as I can tell you have much you want to say, let’s focus on one particular- just one little action.  Could God, who desires to see this Christian attain final salvation, remove the saint via death at some point before the apostasy occurs, thus sparing him eternal condemnation?  It’s at least possible, right?  Do you agree that God could do it? 

Interestingly, 1 Corinthians 11:32 appears to support this idea.  Due to their partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, some of the Corinthians died so that they “wouldn’t be condemned with the world.”  In other words, there have been people who have died due to God’s chastening.  But it is a gracious chastening, because it’s meant to keep them from being condemned along with the world. 

This is important.  Why?  Because God has set a precedent.  He can and has gone to great lengths to preserve His sheep.  One might even say radical.

Now this is instructive.  It’s instructive because if God has the desire to save His people (2 Peter 3:9), and says He has the power/capability to save His people (1 Thess. 5:23-24; Jude 1:24), and intends to save His people (John 6:37-40), and has specifically planned to save His people (Eph. 1:3-13), and has intervened to keep His people (1 Cor. 11:32; John 18:9), then this means that all Christians could be finally saved, according to this idea of gracious death.  Not one Christian would ever be lost, because for those Christians who might wander or stray, God could intervene and keep them from perishing, even if it means enacting death before the act of apostasy.

It’s possible, right?   

Now if someone argues that 1 Corinthians 11:32 is an exception and not a rule, or that God will not, or does not have to always act in this manner, then something very peculiar emerges. They are admitting that God has a reason for not acting the same way with all Christians, when it comes to their final destiny.  And if that’s the case (and it must be), then they’re admitting that the phrase “He wishes none to perish” is qualified by another plan or desire in the designs of God.

But wait a minute!  Are you really going to qualify the phrase, “He wishes none to perish” with others reasons or desires?  If so, and surely you must, then the statement “He wishes none to perish” is not an absolute statement, irrespective of other divine intentions.  If this is so, then you have just affirmed, in principle at least, the validity of the Calvinistic answer.  And what is that answer?  God has two wills or multiple desires.  That’s how we resolve the tension between unconditional election and God’s genuine desire to see all men come to a knowledge of the truth.  On the one hand, God doesn’t want to see people suffer condemnation, for He doesn’t delight in the death of the wicked.  Indeed, He genuinely wants all men to be saved.  That’s absolutely true.  But it is also true that He desires to glorify His Name and manifest His glory (Romans 9:22-23).  Given the nature of these two desires and His eternal objectives, He determines to allow a number of non-Christians to persist in their unbelief and justly suffer condemnation.

More could certainly be said here, but as it stands, you’re basically faced with two choices.  You can either:

—-

Affirm that all Christians will be finally saved, because God can and will keep them, because He doesn’t want any of His sheep to perish.

Or,

Affirm that God has a reason (or reasons) for allowing some Christians to finally perish, even though He wishes none to perish and could do something about it.

 —-

If you choose to adopt option one, then your Arminian perspective is forced to change.  If you choose option two, then one of your favorite proof texts loses its sting.  It can’t be simplistically thrown at Calvinists, as though it immediately ends the debate.  But more importantly, the second option shakes the Arminian foundation to the core, for it suddenly creates a tremendous amount of internal tension.  All the angst that was once directed at the Calvinistic answer turns on the Arminian.     

In light of all this, I believe the discussion above forces us to do more rigorous thinking about God’s grand and eternal decrees.  At the end of the day, I’m convinced that the Reformed view of unconditional election best represents the biblical data as a whole.  That being said, mysterious elements certainly remain.  The doctrine known as “the two wills of God” would be one such doctrine.  Mystery notwithstanding, there is much we can glean from the Scriptures in this area.  And so in conclusion, I would urge you, my dear Arminian, to consider a fine article by John Piper.  It is simply entitled “Are There Two Wills in God?”  I think it provides the best framework for explaining 1 Timothy 2:4 and unconditional election.   

But I’ll let you decide. 

You can read it here: LINK

2 Comments

  1. Shawn Anderson February 1, 2011 at 11:25 pm #

    “I’ll point to the first chapter of Ephesians, and they’ll smile and point at 1 Timothy 2:4. I’ll ask them to consider Romans 9, and they’ll promptly turn to 2 Peter. Know what I’m talking about? ”

    I know exactly what you are talking about…why do we do that? Instead of trying to understand the text before us, we run to another text that will only strengthen our argument. In reality we lost an opportunity to stop and see if we can come to a consensus on the text before us. God’s truth will not contradict. And though men seek to win an argument, the Spirit seeks to lead us in His truth.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Austin Brown February 2, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

      I think your right, Shawn. Our first priority should be to exegete the passage. And verse slinging usually doesn’t go very far.

      It’s frustrating though when two people can’t agree on what a text says. In the case of the present debate, presuppositions definitely come into play. In this respect, I really like Piper’s article (the one I referenced). Read the last two paragraphs, if nothing else. They’re golden.

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