Eric Landstrom, God, Evil, and Grace in Calvinist and Arminian Theology

, posted by Eric Landstrom

As early as Episcopius Arminians have argued that if acts arise necessarily from decree, then God must have included within his decree for the implementation of how to bring the decree to fruition. Popularly it is said that God wills not only the ends but also the means to accomplish the ends. But if this is so, then it logically follows that God is the cause of sin. Calvinists counter-claim that God foreknows and that God’s foreknowledge necessitates what he knows. They argue that this must be true since, according to Calvinism, God foreknows because he first predestined everything and there is nothing that has not first been predestined by God. What the Calvinist scheme means is that neither our most joyful moments or our most wicked are set outside of God’s determining decree since God predestined all things because God is sovereign. Thus with God’s predestinating all things the problem of evil arises for the Calvinist as a logical problem that, for all appearances, directly conflicts with Scripture where it is written that God is incapable of sin and set radically apart from evil in all forms.

To resolve this apparent conflict between the logic flowing from Calvinist presuppositions and the blunt fact drawn from Scripture that God cannot sin, Calvinists appeal to mystery. But in doing so, they have effectively embraced the philosophy of Hegel’s concept of dialecticism. When seen for what it is, Hegelian dialecticism is little more than relativity of perspective. We can clearly see Hegel’s relativity play out when Calvinists state that God is holy and set apart from sin and in no way the author of evil even as they also state in the same breath that God decreed the fall and all the evil and sin within the fall.

No matter the order one makes of decrees in Calvinism we can be certain of at least one fact: in the Calvinist scheme God withheld the grace necessary for Adam to resist temptation and as a result of God’s withholding of the necessary grace, Adam’s love for Eve became more significant than his desire to obey, serve and be like God. God is the potter and we are the clay and Adam, shaped by God through God’s refusal to give Adam the necessary grace in order to resist temptation, sinned and broke fellowship with God. God decreed the fall and decreed that the grace necessary to resist be withheld from Adam so that the fall would happen. In the Calvinist scheme, no matter how these facts are buttered—whether it be said that Satan was able to tempt Adam using Eve as a conduit to get to Adam or that Adam was a willing participant in the temptation, we cannot escape the blunt fact that with the necessary grace, Adam could have resisted temptation and sin and death would have never entered the world. But that didn’t happen. God withheld grace from Adam and Adam sinned. And now the human race is stillborn to God. In the Calvinist scheme Adam was the means that God used to kill mankind, to cause all of creation to fall, to create endless suffering, to foster bitterness and hatred and vitriol and shame. In the Calvinist scheme God did this.

But the Hegelian says that God is above our standard and cannot be judged as we render judgment—even as we are commanded to take on and cloak ourselves with that very nature as our own. And if such a statement is found unsatisfactory, the Hegelian says that Adam willingly sinned. But remember, Adam sinned only because God withheld the means for Adam to resist and overcome temptation. While the theological implications of the Arminian observation continue to reverberate through the corridors of time, I find the damage done to Christians that adhere to Calvinist presuppositions most damaging. For with every sin and every prayer of deliverance from evil what goes on in the back of the mind the supplicant? Will God withhold his grace from them as he has done in the past when he withheld grace from Adam?

In contrast to the difficulties that Calvinism faces, Arminianism doesn’t have the same difficulty with the problem of evil because Arminians believe that grace is resistible. In this Arminians believe that God sets Adam in the garden perfectly made for the task he is given and filled with the grace necessary to carry out that task. But ultimately the grace God gave Adam was resistible and Adam sinned and then, with Adam’s break in fellowship from God who is the source of life, death and sin entered into the world. Consider then, if you will, the Arminian view wherein like Adam, God gives us grace prior to any response. In this, the Arminian view can take the following form:

  1. God gives grace prior to any human response.
  2. As such, people are already lifted up higher by grace before they respond.
  3. As such, people don’t lift themselves up, God does.
  4. As such, when people respond negatively, they jump off of the higher place God had lifted them to.
    Hence, God does the lifting and people do the sinning.

Now consider the Calvinist alternative if grace isn’t resistible:

  1. God gives grace prior to any positive response and this grace is not resistible.
  2. As such, people are already lifted up higher by grace before they respond positively.
  3. As such, people don’t lift themselves up, God does.
  4. As such, when people sin, they sin because God withheld the grace they needed to resist temptation.
    Hence, God does the lifting and also brings to fruition the sin he hates.

The obvious Calvinist objection to my presentation of irresistible grace is the claim that I’ve made an axiom leap from the claim that God withheld grace to mean that God brings sin to fruition. But remember, sin is only manifested by the lack of grace and since God predestinated all things in His sovereign will before the foundations of creation including sin and evil, the lack of grace is his way of bringing sin and evil to fruition. Because God creates the means for sin and evil to come to fruition in the Calvinist thesis, Wesleyan-Arminians make the claim that Calvinism paints God as the author of evil who “writes evil into existence.” At once the Wesleyan-Arminian criticism of Calvinism on this issue also requires us to justify from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective why God creates wicked people in the first place. The Wesleyan-Arminian response all comes down to how we believe God’s grace pragmatically works. The Wesleyan-Arminian view is explained through the answer of the following question:

What is the purpose of giving people grace that God knows will never believe anyway?

The Scholasticism
By his antecedent will God wills that all people be saved if they repent and believe and he funds all peoples and persons with the grace to begin the journey of salvation. Consequent to the actions of persons, God renders judgment. For example, Tom Oden illustrates the antecedent and consequent willing of God, writing that a judge may antecedently will all the citizens to live, yet consequent to the fact that some decide to be murders, the judge wills the criminals are to be punished. Likewise, God antecedently wills that all persons should be brought to eternal blessedness, yet consequent to the operation of other wills who reject grace and follow another way, God wills those people face the consequences of their actions (cf. Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10 and the like).

The Pragmatics
God the Spirit’s work to reconcile all people and persons to God the Father through the Son, whose efforts are defined as “grace,” are either embodied and acted upon by people or they serve to condemn.

Pragmatically God’s grace brings about one of two results:

  • grace is embodied by the recipient in a good work; or,
  • grace is rejected by the recipient.

Therefore,

  • God either works through the person, or,
  • the person selects their own way, a self-effort.

Hence,

  • God merits the good and
  • man merits the bad.

God’s ministry of grace reveals God’s sincere love and concern for all people and persons since all are provided sufficient means to begin walking toward the Lord. It is vital to remember that God provides grace to bring about action and that He never reveals any truth to a person except to have that person embody and live out life according to the truth that has been revealed. If a person acts out their inward conviction and belief, then the Lord will continue to reveal more and more to that person. But if a person disbelieves and acts against what God has inwardly revealed by ignoring what God has revealed through his ministry of grace when it has been repeatedly presented to him, then the time will come when God no longer reveals truth to that person and the eyes of such people are blinded and their hearts become hardened. Their hearts are hardened not because God ceases to call to them by means of grace but because such people have brought themselves to a place were they are unwilling and unable to hear the call of the Lord. In 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12 we read of “them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” This is solemn language and we all would do well to heed it.

The Big Idea
The conclusion from non-Calvinist thought and the overarching consensus from the ancient, primitive church that is found in both the Latin and Greek church fathers and preserved in Arminian theology, but glossed over by medieval scholasticism, ignored by Enlightenment thought, and unheard of by scholastic, modern theology, is that, come the Judgment Seat, the grace that God gives to all persons either

  • Glorifies the Lord through the good deeds, thoughts and actions that are reflective of his image and reveal that he is the source of all that is good.
  • Or reveals his constant love and mercy toward those who ignored and rejected his ministry of grace throughout their lifetimes.

As such, at the Judgment Seat, the grace the Lord rained upon all persons ultimately either

  • Glorifies the Lord in and through a people whose thoughts and actions reflect the image of God; or,
  • the grace that was given upholds the justice and righteousness of condemnation where the condemned stand self-convicted of the fact that the Lord continually reached out to them to draw them unto himself but they rejected all of his servants and even rejected his continual inward witness to the bitter end.

Those people who ignore salvation and resist the grace they are lovingly and mercifully given and build mansions in which they will never live and plant vineyards they will never harvest, race to their ever-lasting peril toward judgment.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all,

Eric Landstrom