Grace and Free Will: A Parable

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by Roger E. Olson

A Calvinist seminary professor lectured on the incompatibility of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and belief that, in order to be saved, a person must freely accept the grace of God. “Arminianism makes the individual person’s free choice the decisive factor in his salvation. Therefore, in his theology, salvation cannot be a free gift. By choosing it freely the person is contributing something to his own salvation. That’s a meritorious work and therefore his salvation would not be absolutely the work of God.”

After his lecture, while resting in his office, a student knocked on his door and comes in for a chat. “Professor, I don’t know where else to turn. I don’t have parents that can help me. I’m coming to you as a last resort to see if you have any advice. I’ve been ill lately and can’t work. I’m about to be evicted from my apartment and I have nowhere else to go. I haven’t eaten in three days because I have no money. Unless a miracle happens, I’m going to be homeless. Can you tell me where I can find help or at least pray with me that God will supply my need?

After some prayer and reflection, the professor took pity on the poor student and gave him a check for $1,000 — just enough to pay a couple months’ rent and stock his kitchen with food while he regained his health and found a new job. It was truly a life-saving response to the students’ need.

The student took the check, endorsed it, and deposited it in his bank account and then paid his rent and went on a grocery shopping spree.

A week later, the student was telling another student about the professor’s generosity: “Boy, did he ever save my life. If it wasn’t for him, right now I’d be living under the interstate bridge and begging for food.” The other students said, “Wow, you must really be grateful to the professor.” “Yes,” was the reply, “but I take some of the credit, too.” “How so?” the other student asked. “Well, after all, my reaching out and picking the check up off his desk when he laid it down in front of me and my endorsing it and depositing it in my bank account were my contributions to the rescue effort. I deserve some of the credit. After all, I endorsed the check; that was the decisive factor in my being rescued.”

The student who heard this was shocked and dismayed. He immediately went to the Calvinist professor and said, “Did you know that student you gave money to is going around taking some of the credit for being rescued? He’s claiming that he partially earned the money by endorsing the check. ”

The professor was livid with anger at the ungratefulness of the student. “How dare he! That was a pure gift; he didn’t do anything to deserve any credit for it. He’s ungrateful as well as stupid.”

The reporting student said, “But professor, in your lecture you said that our free will decision to accept the grace of God would make it not a pure gift. You said our mere decision to allow God to save us, if it were truly free and not itself an act of God in us, would amount to ‘the decisive factor’ in our salvation. How is that different from that student’s claim about accepting the money you offered him? By your logic it seems he is justified in boasting — at least just a little. Why aren’t you willing to share the credit with him?”

This parable of mine makes one point and one point only: that a gift freely received is no less a gift. Many Calvinists are fond of claiming that Arminians diminish the sheer graciousness of salvation by saying the person must freely accept it. They claim this free acceptance of the gift is “the decisive factor” in salvation (in Arminian soteriology) and that implies salvation is not entirely of God’s grace alone. The parable simply demonstrates the counter-intuitive nature of this claim. Even the Calvinist who makes it would be furious if someone he or she saved from ruin claimed credit for merely accepting the gift. Nobody thinks there is any credit due a person who merely receives a gift. Merely receiving a life-saving gift is never considered “the decisive factor” in the person having been been rescued. To say otherwise would simply cause most people to scratch their heads in bewilderment.

The parable is not intended to deal with other Calvinist objections to Arminian theology. It is aimed at one point only. Some of my dear readers here have tried to minimize the effectiveness of the parable by claiming it misrepresents the ability of the sinner to accept the gift. That can be dealt with by another parable. And the objections overlook the crucial Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace.

I get frustrated by a frequent experience in debating Calvinists. They often argue as if they did not know the whole of Arminian theology. For example, some who object to my parable have responded at length about total depravity as if they did not know the Arminian answer to this. But some of their messages seem to demonstrate a rather broad acquaintance with Arminian theology. If you are going to criticize the parable on those grounds (viz., that it allegedly does not take seriously enough total depravity), at least mention the Arminian way of handling that – prevenient grace. You don’t have to think that’s an adequate answer, but please be fair enough to mention that Arminians do have an answer – whether or not you think it is adequate.

Arminians, of course, should do the same with Calvinism. We Arminians should not argue against a point of Calvinism without at least mentioning the Calvinist answer that we know very well. Then we can argue against that. But to argue against Arminian belief in a sinner’s ability to respond freely to the gospel without mentioning prevenient grace seems a bit disingenuous – unless, of course, you really don’t know about it!

I would hope that Calvinists who undertake to argue against Arminianism would at least read some classical Arminian literature such as Thomas Oden’s The Transforming Power of Grace. Of course, Arminians should do the same with Calvinism. I’ll leave it to Calvinists to recommend what they think is the book in print that best represents their theology. For my own edification, I found R. C. Sproul’s What Is Reformed Theology helpful. But I have also read Calvin, Edwards, Hodge, Warfield, Boettner, Hoekema, Horton, Piper, and Helm helpful (among many others).

I often wonder how many Calvinists have read as much classical Arminian literature as Arminians have read Calvinist literature? How many Calvinists who consider themselves well-informed about Arminian theology have really read any classical Arminian theologians? How many have read Arminius himself or could name even one of his treatises? My experience of talking with Calvinists has led me to suspect that most of them, even Calvinist theologians, know about Arminianism only through secondary literature – usually Reformed. I urge people of both camps to read primary sources truly representative of the other one. My recommendation is Oden. His book is extremely clear, completely orthodox and biblical. He uses the term “Arminian” sparingly, but his theology in that book is completely consistent with classical Arminian thought.