Paradoxic Christian ideas about free will

By Dave, the WM

Though by no means the only understanding of soteriological free will, the overwhelmingly popular view expressed by Christians visiting this site is that all humans are free to choose or reject God's offer of salvation. If people freely and sincerely choose God's generous offer to save them, then HE will. If people freely reject God's loving gesture, then they will suffer everlasting horror.

On the flip side of this interesting "truth" is the belief that once a person accepts God's offer of unconditional love and acceptance, there is no way the person can ever change his or her mind about it. In other words, once a "True Christian™," always a "True Christian™." This is expressed in the frequently repeated mantra, "There is no such thing as an ex-Christian."

In a nutshell, what these Christians believe is that people have free will before salvation and are robbed of free will after acquiring salvation. Salvation is a free choice, but once chosen, it can never be unchosen. If these Christians are correct, most of us here have absolutely nothing to worry about. If our salvation experience was sincere, if we followed the correct formula, if our lives were centered on Jesus, if we demonstrated the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit, then we were genuinely saved. If we have permitted doubts and discouragements to overwhelm our faith, if we have elevated reason above emotion, then although we proclaim from the housetops our current apostasy, it matters not one bit. We are saddled with salvation, bereft of free will, and destined to an eternity of blissful fellowship with the saints of old in God's magnificent ever after.

Free will is heralded by these particular Christians as inviolate by even God. "God will not violate your free will." "God doesn't want robots, so HE has given everyone free will, and he will not overrule your free will." These and similar statements choke this site and message boards all over the Internet. We've all heard some variation of this concept hundreds, or perhaps thousands of times.

But how did Christians come by these ideas about free will in regards to salvation?

Pelagius was a contemporary of St. Augustine in the late Fourth Century. Pelagius held that people were free moral agents and therefore possessed the ability to choose to do good or evil. Augustine, however, maintained that people were morally corrupt from original sin and incapable of doing any moral good. Since choosing God's salvation is by far the highest and best good, Augustine, vehemently denounced Pelagian teachings, maintained that Baptism was necessary for salvation, that infants who die without baptism go to hell. Pelagius preached what most Christians today believe: people are free to choose or reject salvation. Augustine eventually succeeded in having all traces of Pelagius and his teachings expunged from Christian thought. Those who dared to adopt Pelagian doctrine were dubbed heretics and persecuted out of existence.

Most Christians are completely ignorant of this tidbit from Christian history. Most Christians have no idea that it was around this same time period that a majority vote decided which writings would constitute scripture, that the doctrine of the Trinity was made a mandatory belief, that the dual human/divine nature of Jesus further evolved, and a host of other ideas were grafted into the list of required foundational Christian tenets. In fact, those who denied the concept of the Trinity were persecuted as viciously as those who promoted free will. But that's another subject.

Flash forward 1,000 years

By now, the Catholic Church had softened it's stance on free will, swinging quite close to Pelagian thinking. Original sin was still a cardinal doctrine, but all but a few Augustinian Catholics now believed people could freely choose salvation. They also believed one could freely loose salvation as well. In this they were at least consistent. If salvation depends on human choice, then human choice is certainly required to maintain salvation, right?

The Protestant Reformation rose up in stark opposition to the perceived apostasy of established church. One of the basic and most foundational teachings of all the early reformers was that human beings are hopelessly dead in sin, and the dead cannot choose salvation. Those who become Christians are "Elect before the foundation of the world." In short, all the reformers believed people could neither choose to be saved, nor could they choose to be unsaved. All of salvation was completely dependent on the grace of God. Those whom God chose to salvation were regenerated, after which they would respond to that regeneration by repenting of sin, confessing faith in Christ, and living a Christian life.

Catholics by now had abandoned their roots, believing that salvation depends on the person. Salvation was viewed as a cooperative effort between man and God. Man moves toward God and God moves toward man. The reformers rejected this notion. Salvation was by grace alone, they shouted. There is nothing a person could do to earn or acquire salvation, they insisted. If God didn't move on a person and unconditionally regenerate the person, there would be no way for that person to "choose God" and be saved.

Reformation doctrine coalesced into the Five Points of Calvinism:
  • Total depravity (or total inability): As a consequence of the fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. According to the view, people are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own natures. (The term "total" in this context refers to sin affecting every part of a person, not that every person is as evil as possible.)
  • Unconditional election: God's choice from eternity of those whom he will bring to himself is not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people. Rather, it is unconditionally grounded in God's mercy.
  • Limited atonement (or particular redemption or definite atonement): The death of Christ actually takes away the penalty of sins of those on whom God has chosen to have mercy. It is "limited" to taking away the sins of the elect, not of all humanity, and it is "definite" and "particular" because atonement is certain for those particular persons.
  • Irresistible grace (or efficacious grace): The saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (the elect) and, in God's timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith in Christ.
  • Perseverance of the saints (or preservation of the saints): Any person who has once been truly saved from damnation must necessarily persevere and cannot later be condemned. The word saints is used in the sense in which it is used in the Bible to refer to all who are set apart by God, not in the technical sense of one who is exceptionally holy, canonized, or in heaven.
—From Wikipedia

In short, the Reformers were preaching that there is no free will in regards to salvation.

Jacobus Arminius, born toward the end of Calvin's life, saw things differently. He held to these beliefs:
  • Humans are naturally unable to make any effort towards salvation
  • Salvation is possible by grace alone
  • Works of human effort cannot cause or contribute to salvation
  • God's election is conditional on faith in Jesus
  • Jesus' atonement was for all people
  • God allows his grace to be resisted by those unwilling to believe
  • Salvation can be lost, as continued salvation is conditional upon continued faith
— From Wikipedia

Arminian doctrine was considered by Protestant Christianity as a return to the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church. Those who supported Arminian thought were persecuted mercilessly, and for the most part, driven to extinction. Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake for disagreeing with Calvinistic doctrine.

Most Evangelical Christians today are Arminian believers, though they probably don't know it. The only point of contention most would have would be with the "Salvation can be lost" idea. Methodists and nearly all Pentecostal denominations are fully Arminian in doctrine and belief. They teach people can freely choose to lose salvation after being saved. Those from a more Baptist heritage are Arminian except for the losing the salvation idea. Only here do they cling to old John Calvin's idea of perseverance of the saints, now watered down to "Once saved, always saved."

Verses supporting and contradicting all of these ideas can be gleaned out of the Bible. And some Christians today are still arguing regarding the "free will question." There is no real agreement on this topic, just a general ignorance and malaise in the majority of the Christian population. Most believers just blindly accept what they hear from the pulpit, and if and when they do read the Bible, the ideas in their book are filtered through what they've been repeatedly taught. Some see free will. Others see no free will.

But those who see free will before salvation and no free will after salvation are the most interesting of all, to me. And what most Christians don't realize is that nearly no Christians before the mid 1800s believed this way. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield and Charles Spurgeon were full Five Point Calvinists. John Wesley was a full Arminian believer. Not until Dwight Moody arbitrarily synchronized the two ideas did Christians believe what nearly all Evangelicals now believe about being able to freely choose salvation, and yet losing free will once salvation is granted.

When I began to comprehend the confused complexity of the history behind the development of my "beliefs," and how I had been programed to "see" certain beliefs supported in highlighted select Bible verses, and trained to bypass other conflicting verses, that's when I realized something about free will: I do have free will when it comes to accepting or rejecting screwy religious notions about reality. And, I soon found out that there is such a thing as an ex-Christian.

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