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I was introduced into the great Calvinism debate in 1996, as a freshman in college. I was riding in the car with a couple of guys who started talking all things Reformed. Fittingly, we were on church visitation to see some people who had shown interest in our college ministry. I was in the back seat, I leaned up and said, “I have no idea what y’all are talking about.” That led to a series of lengthy conversations. With apologies to my high school English teachers, this was the first time in my life I really started reading. I was given a copy of RC Sproul’s book, Chosen by God. It took me way too long to read but after I made it through that book, I was convinced of this thing called the sovereignty of God in salvation. Countless other teachers helped solidify my beliefs.
Still today, I’m regularly dealing with questions about God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Almost 2 decades post my own personal reformation, I’ve never been more convinced of God’s sovereignty but I’ve also never been more convinced that this is a great mystery. I pray that I’ve matured in how the conversation is handled. Reformed folks often joke that after they see the doctrines of grace, they need to be locked in a cage for 2 years. (Nicely illustrated here). I’m well past the cage stage but I’m also convinced that these doctrines are as needed today as they have ever been.
A couple of years ago, I came across a thought from Doug Wilson which changed the way I handle the conversation when I’m asked about the Sovereignty-Responsibility tension. He argues that freedom of the will does not change the nature but reveals the nature. Which is why, Wilson quips, “Horses don’t eat bacon.” Exactly. Whatever freedom we have, and I believe we have actual freedom, it is inextricably linked to the nature of our wills. Let me illustrate. Imagine a polar bear has found himself in the northernmost edges of Canada. Is he free to migrate to Florida? Sure. Assuming he can get past fences, borders, roads, mounties, and other obstacles, he could, in theory, move into the Ocala National Forest in Florida. He could become great friends with the black bear that tried to steal our cooler while camping a few weeks ago. His freedom reveals what he wants to do — which is to stay in the fridge up north. Assuming man is free, what does man choose to do with his freedom? He is not going to choose to do something contrary to his nature. His freedom reveals his nature.
So what is man’s nature? This is where the divide becomes clear in the debate. The non-Calvinist says, in essence, that man is really sick and needs help. The Calvinist says man is dead and needs life. Does God give “prevenient grace” that enables man to respond or does he effectually cause the new birth by his own sovereign working? I think the biblical answer is the latter. Paul explains with extraordinarily clear language the nature of man in Romans 3:9-18. Both Jew and Gentile share the same nature. They are not righteous, do not understand, and do not seek God (V 10). Paul goes on to explain how man’s nature is changed. It is through the final and complete work of Christ. This work happens as man moves from a state of being an enemy of God to a friend of God. How do we experience such a radical change of heart? It is through a heart transplant. God removes the heart of stone and gives his children a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36.26).
Jesus said it this way: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44) Earlier in the gospel of John, we learn the nature of the saving work of Jesus. John says of those who believe: “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:13)
Choices don’t automatically mean freedom. Take the alcoholic for example. He is free to not drink but the reality is whenever he gets an extra few nickels to rub together, he finds his way to the liquor store. That’s what is so spectacular about what Jesus did. If the son will set you free, you are free indeed! He does not simply affirm our freedom of choice, he gives real freedom that comes from a new heart.
What about all those whosoever will types of verses? (Examples: Mark 8:34, John 3:16). I firmly believe that “whosoever will” may and in fact will come to the Lord. But the fact is they won’t unless God first works. The old illustration holds true. One sees over the door of salvation, “whosoever will may come” and on the back of the door, after one has entered in we read, “predestined before the foundation of the world.” Praise God that he is in the heart transplant business!