Continuing with the series on Romans 9, we’ll now address the issue of God’s prerogative in saving who He wishes and how Calvinists often misinterpret its implications.
God’s Prerogative Reaffirmed
When speaking to zealous Calvinists, especially those who are very young and/or “educated” by internet echo chambers, the strawmen abound. It’s not uncommon to hear nonsense like,
“Arminians believe that man uses faith to save himself!”
“Free will means that God HAS to save someone who chooses to have faith!”
“The poor Arminian god can’t save people because he’s not sovereign enough to make them believe!”
The problem is further exacerbated by factually sloppy reformed polemicists who put forth no effort whatsoever towards accurate portrayal when discussing Arminian theology, James White being one of the worst offenders,
“…while the synergists get a lot of mileage out of preaching “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life if you will only let him into your heart” the absolutely necessary counterpoint to their feel-good proclamation is “however, I can never tell you He can truly save you perfectly and completely because, after all, my entire point is that He is helpless aside from your cooperation. (White, J. , ‘Phil Johnson on “Desire”‘)”
In contrast to White’s blundering portrayal of God being helpless, the scriptural teaching that he attacks so vehemently paints a far different picture than the one he attempts to dupe believers with. In the initial post in this series, we saw that God has an absolute divine prerogative to save whoever He wishes to. On that particular issue I have no disagreement with our Calvinist brethren. What that prerogative entails is another matter altogether.
The term “sovereignty” itself denotes power, dominion, and authority. A king is sovereign over his country, a man is sovereign over his house. To say that God is “absolutely sovereign” is simply to say He’s omnipotent –all-powerful over everything. I wouldn’t think anyone who believes scripture to dispute such a claim. As stated above, this naturally extends to who is saved; God not only has power to save, but a divine right to choose who is saved.
From that premise, the reasoning of most (sans those few who are more logically astute) Calvinists goes something like:
“God can save whoever He wants, therefore God saves who He wants to on an entirely unconditional basis.”
Those of you versed in logic may recognize that this type of reasoning is a non-sequitur, a fallacous conclusion that doesn’t necessarily follow from the premise(s).
The Critical Flaw in the Calvinist’s Reasoning
The reason why such logic doesn’t follow is that power tells us what one is capable of, not how that power is used. One who exercises his power one way rather than another isn’t more powerful for doing so. This can be easily demonstrated from an example of temporal authority. Let’s say there’s a general in the U.S. military who has been assigned an aide. The aide’s task today is to fill out some forms. The general has several options to get him to do so:
1. Give the order for him to do so and expect him to obey it without supervision.
1. Give the order for him to do so and expect him to obey it while occasionally checking on his progress.
3. Give the order for him to do so and stand over his shoulder to ensure he obeys it.
Q: Which of these options, if taken, will give the general more authority?
A: None. His rank and how he carries out his mission are two separate issues.
Q: Which of these options, if taken, is an indicator of a more power and/or authority on the general’s part?
A: None. All of these options are within a general’s authority to employ. His choosing one or the other tells us nothing beyond that.
How much authority someone has is no indicator of how said power will be used. Much as in the case of the general above, how and on what basis God chooses to save sinners is His prerogative; one method doesn’t make Him “more sovereign” than another, nor does His omnipotence necessitate only a particular method. This is why the occasions in which the over-zealous Calvinists hurl the typical “you deny God’s sovereignty” charge against someone who believes in conditional election merely show that they’re ignorant of what God’s sovereignty actually means and entails.
Armed with these mistaken principles, Calvinists then proceed to interpret Romans 9 in a likewise errant fashion, so that when the chapter speaks of God’s prerogative in who He saves, e.g. “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion,” many eager young Calvinists automatically read, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, which of course means that I do so on an entirely unconditional basis in accordance with the Westminster confession!” In fact, such a statement doesn’t tell us God’s basis for His choices, merely that who is saved and how is His to decide, which does not preclude His saving people on the conditional basis of faith in Christ.
The concept of God having power to choose who to save itself tells us nothing about how or upon what basis He chooses to save.