I first ran into debates between Calvinists and Arminians as a young Christian. Here’s a brief overview.
The Calvinists insisted that God’s sovereign rule is behind the doctrine of election. God alone choses the “elect”—those selected, unconditionally, for salvation—and all others face eternal damnation. The Arminians, on the other hand, thought this made God into an immoral despot. They held that if human morality and eternal life are at stake then each human must be able to choose or to refuse life.
Both camps had a host of Bible proof texts in their favor; and counterarguments for texts they didn’t like. So each side had evidence and logic to offer. Logic, especially, based on competing assumptions.
The Calvinist’s underlying assumption was that it is impossible for a fully sovereign God to be moved by his creatures. Creatures can’t form a Creator’s choice. So, as applied here, they cite scriptures in Romans 3, John 3, or Ephesians 2 that speak of absolute spiritual death in all people: no one comes to faith without the divine work of new birth. Salvation is “monergistic”—look it up if you like.
The Arminians, on the other hand, focused on moral necessity. A good God will not send people to hell just to satisfy “determinative predestination.” As proof of human “free will” they cite the call of Joshua: “Choose this day whom you will serve!” Or point to the jailor in Philippi who asked what he needed to do to be saved—a call based on choice—just before he believed. Many Bible examples like these make human choice the key to salvation. One verse, especially, tells us about God’s ultimate disposition on the question: “God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). So if it’s up to him, and without human choice involved, everyone would be saved. And that’s certainly not the case.
Notice, by the way, that both sides of this debate depend on a will-based portrayal of divine and human processing. Either God’s will is primary, and human choices are subordinate; or God, by grace, gives our will a genuine role. The debate pivots, then, on how God operates in relationship to the human will.
There is, however, another option. One that resolves the either-or tension of seeming Bible conflicts. It’s a heart-based compatibilism that starts with a different view of how God and humans operate; with a result that God’s will and the human will are aligned in salvation. And here’s how.
The heart, not the will, is the true action point of our souls. That is, the will is simply an instrument of the heart. And that changes the whole conversation. It also fits with reams of Bible “heart” expressions.
Once we see the will as an instrument of the heart—tasked with doing whatever is needed to get us what we want—the picture changes. Salvation, in fact, requires a new heart and changed desires. Yet that makes us out to be responders, and not self-moved “choosers.” We actually follow whoever or whatever rules our hearts. Hearts, after all, are always devoted to whatever is most loved—whether it’s good or evil. In Romans 6:15-19 Paul spoke of this divide as enslavement: of a devotion either to sin or to righteousness. The mind is left with the duty to rationalize heart desires.
It also exposes a deeper truth about souls. We are “spirit-to-spirit” people. God himself is One who is bonded by his Spirit in an eternal communion. He “is love”—the love between the Father and the Son. And God shared the Spirit-who-is-love with the humans in Eden. But they grieved him and drove him off as they responded to a new and unholy desire to “be like God.” It was a battle of desires and God lost.
In that loss Adam was at first an “Adam-and-Eve-man” made in God’s own pluriform image. But their Spirit-bonded-unity was captured by another spirit. That was a Lying spirit who then joined them and filled God’s former role. Our basic creation as humans who are spiritual beings was still in play.
Satan’s alternative role, however, is defined by selfishness in place of God’s selfless love. And he is “the spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). He manipulated the first couple, and now rules their offspring by deceitful desires. The foremost of these is an ambition for “free will.” To take this one step further, the enemy of the Triune God always revises reality around his own version of deity: a monadic version of god defined by autonomy. No more a “you-and-me” identity. Now just “me and me.”
The only way we are able to see this broken rearrangement of our former Spirit-to-spirit bond with God—now reduced to a spirit-to-spirit bond with the devil—is by God’s wooing love. As Paul put it in Ephesians 1, “the eyes of our heart” are opened by God’s gracious and captivating love.
And that brings us to how a compatibilistic faith operates. If two hearts share the same love—and the one focus of that love is Jesus—we then live in full accord with the Father. His will and our will are aligned at last. And we start to know the infinite love of Christ that goes on eternally.
Ron, this makes perfect sense to me and explains a complex argument I. A way I can understand. I especially love how you end, “ If two hearts share the same love—and the one focus of that love is Jesus—we then live in full accord with the Father. His will and our will are aligned at last. And we start to know the infinite love of Christ that goes on eternally.” yes!!! Knowing this infinite love of Christ is my life’s journey!! Thank you!
Thanks Ron! I so appreciate how you take something that confuses a lot of people and make it very simple to understand.
Thanks for engaging, Jen; and Eddie. This is so important in my own journey and reflects what I learned from the shared approach offered by Augustine, Martin Luther, and Richard Sibbes. It took a while to sink in! And there are still a host of ‘next questions’ and applications to chase.
Jen, I’m missing my BI friends! Hi to James for me, and to the whole team!
Enjoyed your writing! Reminded me of “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” Gal 5:25. I could live but not walk by the Spirit? The living part is will and the walk part is heart. Hope we can visit sometime.
Sure, Eric, let’s get together. I have a two-week teaching time for a Doctor of Ministries course, so perhaps after that? I’m curious to hear more of what you’ve suggested about Gal. 5.