Calvinism, Free-Will, & Why Sometimes It Just Doesn’t Matter

On a recent mission trip, I was reminded how prevalent Calvinism has become even in many non-Presbyterian circles. While this is cause for concern (at least for me), I happily discovered that different theologies among Christians are not always sufficient to prevent them from working together, even within the same organization. Indeed, as per my recent experience, I am confident that an outsider could not tell that any theological differences existed among our group in the least. In a culture where people (and the church) are overeager to divide over the most trivial of differences, this is a blessed thing indeed.

For those who are unfamiliar with the branding, so-called “Calvinism” was the introduction of the 16th century French reformer, John Calvin, which focused on a few ideas that made it distinct from its co-reformation tradition, Lutheranism. While not the only point of departure between the two theological traditions, it is John Calvin’s preferred interpretation of the biblical terms “predestination” and “God’s elect” that has most often been highlighted (and vilified by critics) as the significant difference between the tradition initiated by him (the Presbyterian church) and its ecclesiological brethren, Lutherans and Wesleyans in particular. In general, Calvin believed these terms meant that before the creation of the universe God pre-selected exactly which people would be saved (or condemned) and enter into heaven (or hell) and that there was absolutely nothing they could do to alter this trajectory in the least. For full disclosure, I am of the Arminian/ Wesleyan tradition (roughly described here as a “free-will” tradition), which does not put stock in Calvin’s particular understanding of what it means to be “elect” or “predestined.” Nevertheless, in terms of the global theatre between the competing forces of evil and those who have aligned with our Creator, Calvinists are neither my enemy nor my rivals in serving God, but rather they are my partners despite the theological differences between us. In that sense, any debates between Calvinism and its free-will critics are strictly in-house conversations among servants of Christ.

While I certainly am biased and consider one Christian theological tradition to be superior to its competitors, it is important that neither Calvinism nor its rival is cast as heretical or unbiblical by either of the respective sides. As much as it pains me to be so charitable, I must acknowledge that Calvinism and free-will theology are BOTH biblical understandings and that neither one can be classified as heresy. That being said, I am convinced that one tradition (free-will) does a better job of answering more questions and explaining more verses than does its counterpart. Such biases are bound to color anything I write, so I invite readers to offer friendly points of correction or suggestions on how I might improve it. My purpose here is not to offer a comprehensive comparison between Calvinism and free-will theology, but rather to voice what I perceive as a bewildering inconsistency between so-called Hyper-Calvinism and regular Calvinism, and most importantly, why it just doesn’t matter.

On the recent said mission trip, I met Buddy Young, the Director of the Baptist Stundent Ministry at West Texas A&M University in Canyon Texas, and he is one committed to a brand of Calvinism (“regular” Calvinism for purposes of this entry) that attempts to distinguish itself from what he called “Hyper-Calvinism.” When queried about the differences, he proceeded to narrate a part of Presbyterian church history where two groups in that denomination began to debate over the importance of evangelism and missions work. One side, which Buddy termed “Hyper-Calvinism,” argued that because God had already fixed who would be saved (and by extension, who would be assigned to hell), it made no sense to engage in evangelism or missions. The argument was that such activities would be a waste of resources and have absolutely no impact, so why bother? A fair question if you ask me.

My new friend then proceeded to explain the other Calvinists’ (his) side of the argument which built upon examples in the New Testament where evangelism and missions work were not only modeled consistently, but directly commanded by Christ most notably in what Christians call the “Great Commission,” found in Matthew 28:19. To be honest, Buddy made a very compelling and Scriptural case for the importance of Christian evangelism and missions, not just because it was his duty, but also because it was his passion. I am persuaded that Christian proclamation IS immensely important, but unlike my friend, I am convinced that this importance is not just because the Bible tells me to do it, but because it actually makes a tremendous difference. That’s a prelude to free-will theology exploration, but I’ll try to keep on track.

The problem with Buddy’s argument is not his understanding of mission work or general evangelism’s importance, nor that these are both modeled and commanded by the biblical text. No, the problem is that he seems unwilling to follow Hyper-Calvinism’s theology to its unavoidable logical conclusion, namely, that missions and evangelism are completely innocuous because they don’t “change” anything. They have absolutely zero impact on who is included in God’s “elect” or “predestined” people. I am impressed that my new acquaintance feels so strongly about missions, etc. I am amazed at his intensity and clear passion for telling people about Jesus. Indeed, he is more gifted in that area than I am, but the fact remains that his theology renders such activities as little more than a formality. By Calvin’s own reckoning, they make no legitimate difference at all. In fact, as I understand it, the only “good news” Calvinism can bring to people is contingent upon the person merely assuming that they were already God’s “elect.” Simultaneously, Calvin’s ideology is the worst possible news imaginable if people assume that they are not “predestined” for heaven, for in both cases, there is nothing that either party can do to alter their final destination.

There are two things to be said about any variety of Calvinism. First of all, I have yet to encounter anyone who has both adopted Calvin’s understanding of “election” and NOT simply assumed that they were “in” that predestined group of special people or that their deeds demonstrated such “election.” I find this to be a little too convenient and worthy of suspicion, not to mention completely antithetical to their adamancy that “works” have no relationship at all with salvation. Secondly, Calvinism preys upon both extremes of humanity’s self-assessment and self-deception when it comes to their relationship with God. On one extreme we have self-righteous people who are certain of their preferential status with God and confident of their salvation because of their faith, attitude, thoughts and actions or avoided actions. On the other end of that continuum, we have people who are so convinced and convicted of their sin, failures and general worthlessness that they have come to believe that there is no way God could ever love them or choose them to be part of his people. But when I read through the Bible (Old Testament and New), I see case after case where both of these conclusions are completely wrong. This alone should give us pause before we sign on to any variation of Calvinism.

But on with it. I can’t see any significant difference between what Buddy labeled as Hyper-Calvinism and his own brand of that tradition. As offensive as he might find the idea of scrapping evangelism and missions, doing so is the legitimate outcome of Calvin’s teaching on “predestination” and at the very least undercuts motivation for the activities. There are only two possibilities here for Calvinists: either telling people about Christ makes a difference or it does not. It is either a legitimate endeavor or it is a mere formality or hoop for Christians to hop. Stated another way, if salvation is given or withheld from a person ONLY because God chose to do so, then missions and evangelism are absolutely pointless, complete wastes of resources and have no impact whatsoever in terms of salvation for anyone.

Alternatively, if missions and evangelism are more than formalities and if they are legitimate endeavors through which Jesus can make a lasting (eternal) difference, then perhaps we should ask if Calvin constructed his theology on an impoverished understanding of what it means to be “God’s elect” or “predestined” in the first place. I reject the notion that missions and evangelism are pointless formalities, and I think this necessitates that I reject Calvinism as well. There is no middle ground here. We simply cannot have it both ways.

When I first met Buddy, he and I began to discuss theology almost immediately. Admittedly, this is a recurring theme in most of my conversations, even when those who speak with me do not always consider themselves philosophers or theologians. Apologies if you find that annoying. But in that initial conversation, one of the first things he said to me was critical of Rob Bell, the pastor, author and speaker based out of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan (not to be confused with Mark Driscoll’s group in Seattle, Washington of similar namesake). My pastor friend’s criticism was linked to the allegation that Bell “waters down theology to make it palatable for his audiences” and that this is not okay. Buddy’s point was that theology makes a tremendous and essential difference, and we cannot abandon it without abandoning the Gospel itself. I wouldn’t state it as strongly, and I think he maligns Rob Bell unfairly, but I share his conviction that theology matters… usually.

What I mean is that after Buddy extolled the virtues of theology and said it was “absolutely” necessary, he proceeded to cast aspersion on the free-will tradition and explain the “superiority” of Calvinism over that tradition as well as Hyper-Calvinism. I believe in open and honest communication, so immediately I told him that I align with a free-will thread, and asked him to explain the differences between Hyper-Calvinism and his own Calvinism. After a brief back and forth and his hasty attempt at proclaming that free-will has no grounds in Scripture, he proceeded to explain where he differed with Hyper-Calvinism. Hence, we have the summary as I provided above.

Ultimately, however, I had to conclude that in the case between free-will theology and Calvinism, our respective theologies did not matter in the least when it came to evangelism and missions. What I mean is that Buddy and I met on a mission trip. We were both there to serve people, some of whom would inevitably be unfamiliar with Christ and his church or those whom some evangelicals might call “the lost.” More than that, my friend took it upon himself to sit with anyone who was willing in order that he might tell them the message of Jesus and invite them to make a decision about Christ and their relationship with him. Buddy did this lovingly and tirelessly with countless dozens of people during our trip. His passion for missions and evangelism shone as bright as the sun. Indeed, he did this better than I could even if I had been assigned the same function on the trip. For my part, I also tried to be quick to speak with people about Christ and pray with them and for them in the hope that they might get closer to him rather than farther away. The point is that Buddy and I had very different theologies and operative rationale when it came to the motivation and seriousness of our mission, but our behaviors and attitudes were completely indistinguishable. From an outside observer’s perspective, I would be amazed if they concluded that Buddy’s theology and my theology differed one iota.  We both acknowledge that salvation is given by God, not earned by human righteousness. We both sincerely and faithfully participate in missions, evangelism and loving God by loving people. Our reasons WHY we do this may have subtle nuances between them, but the practical applications thereof are indistinguishable. In this specific case, theology did not matter in the least when it came to Calvinists and their free-will counterparts working alongside one another. It was fantastic.

Epilogue: As per my own understanding of legitimate free-will, I did not tell anyone I spoke with during the week that they are either saved or not saved regardless of anything they have ever said, thought, done, or would say, think, or do. I am reasonably confident that Buddy didn’t either, and as a skeptical Wesleyan, I think I know why.

Thanks for reading me,

-C. Lambeth


About C_Lambeth

I currently live in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor's of Science and from George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) with a Master's of Divinity. In addition to knowing Christ and helping others know him, I am passionate about peace, the environment, Christian feminism, justice for all (not just the wealthy) and being a lifelong learner. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts here or to suggest new posts altogether. Thank you for reading me! -CL
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One Response to Calvinism, Free-Will, & Why Sometimes It Just Doesn’t Matter

  1. ___ When I tell other members of my synagogue that I feel marginalized, they are immediately and appropriately responsive.

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