In Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson dismantles an analogy by which Donald Lakes seeks to deny alleged differences between the Arminian and Calvinist understandings of grace. Carson then counters with an example of his own that helpfully exemplifies the difference that is truly at play.
Donald M. Lake, for example, in attempting to argue that grace is no weaker in an Arminian system than in a Reformed system, offers us the analogy of a judge who condemns a guilty criminal and then offers him a pardon. Although the man must accept it, such acceptance, argues Lake, cannot be thought of as a meritorious work, a work that in any sense makes the man deserving of salvation. “Calvin and later Calvinists,” he adds, “never seem to be able to see this fundamental distinction unfortunately!”
But to argue that the role of grace in the two systems is not different, Lake would have to change his analogy. He would need to picture a judge rightly condemning ten criminals, and offering each of them pardon. Five of them accept the pardon, the other five reject it (the relative numbers are not important). But in this model, even though those who accept the pardon do not earn it, and certainly enjoy their new freedom because of the judge’s “grace,” nevertheless they are distinguishable from those who reject the offer solely on the basis of their own decision to accept the pardon. The only thing that separates them from those who are carted off to prison is the wisdom of their own choice. That becomes a legitimate boast. By contrast, in the Calvinistic scheme, the sole determining factor is God’s elective grace. Thus, although both systems appeal to grace, the role and place of grace in the two systems are rather different. Lake fails to see this because he has drawn an inadequate analogy; or, more likely, the inadequacy of his chosen analogy demonstrates he has not understood the issue.
D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books, 1996), 121–122.
Alright, so I may have overstated things a bit in my title. There are of course subsequent debates on this issue, e.g., Erasmus v. Martin Luther, Arminianism v. Calvinism, and of course the frequent debates in Christian college dorm rooms. And don’t forget what may be Jonathan Edwards’ most famous book, Freedom of the Will. But, all of these can trace back in some sense and in some form to the “original” debate between Pelagius and Augustine in which the good side, the right side, won. (Yeah, I’m biased.) Augustine–the “winner” of the debate as opposed to Pelagius who was declared a heretic–settled the debate… kinda, sorta, …well, at least in my opinion. Augustine explained how human choice, human responsibility, called “free will” by many, is compatible or “fits” with God’s sovereignty (hence the typical “Free will versus God’s sovereignty” is not an appropriate way to describe the tension).
Concerning the theological debate on the extent, nature, and purpose(s) of Christ’s atonement, from my own experience I have found that many Christians have misrepresented ideas about what the main views basically propose. I am not about to engage in a theological and/or exegetical discussion on extent of the atonement at this point (nor will I do so in the comments below). But I have decided to craft a simple graph that I hope helps you to become more informed and to more accurately understand the main views, namely, those other than your own.
While reading Thomas R. Schreiner’s “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election Unto Salvation? Some Exegetical And Theological Reflections” I ran across this subpoint in which he makes some good refutations against the concept of corporate election–the idea that God has elected to salvation a corporate entity (i.e., the Church) as opposed to individuals. I hope that you will find his argument thought provoking and beneficial.
To say that election involves the selection of one group rather than another raises another problem that warrants an extended explanation. Most scholars who claim election is corporate argue that personal faith is the ultimate and decisive reason why some people are saved rather than others. Calvinists, on the other hand, assert that faith is the result of God’s predestining work. But those who opt for corporate election think that they have a better conception of election than Calvinists, and at the same time they can maintain that faith is what ultimately determines one’s salvation. Now it seems to me that there is a flaw in this reasoning that is fatal to those who espouse corporate election. If God corporately elects some people to salvation, and the election of one group rather than another was decided before any group came into existence (9:11), and it was not based on any works that this group did or any act of their will (9:11–12, 16), then it would seem to follow that the faith of the saved group would be God’s gift given before time began. But if the faith of any corporate entity depends upon God’s predestining work, then individual faith is not decisive for salvation. What is decisive would be God’s election of that group. In other words, the group elected would necessarily exercise faith since God elected this corporate entity.
On January 28th I posted a youtube video of an excerpt of a sermon by John Piper in which he described the real difference between the Arminian view of atonement (unlimited or universal) and the Calvinistic view of atonement (historically called limited atonement). (Click here to see that post). Yesterday I was reading a book by Mark Dever entitled The Gospel and Personal Evangelism. At one point in the book, Dever makes a statement in passing regarding the the decisiveness of Christ’s atonement which really hits at the crux of this “extent of the atonement” debate. Again, instead of being a debate over universal v. limited extent, the centerpiece of the issue is whether Christ’s death was a potential or effectual atonement.
The apostles clearly learned from Jesus how they were to understand his death on the cross; and to teach Christians about this, the Holy Spirit has inspired various images in the New Testament that convey the reality to us: Jesus as a sacrifice, a redemption, a reconciliation, a legal justification, a military victory, and a propitiation.