For centuries, the reconciliation of God’s sovereignty and creaturely freedom has been no small obsession of those who traffic in theological circles.
To speak very generally, there are three basic approaches which have historically been pressed into service:
- Calvinism: The idea that human creatures are wholly unable to exercise free will in the choice to serve God. Many (I would say most) Calvinists hold to a form of “divine determinism” which ultimately claims that nothing–and I do mean nothing–happens which God did not will to happen.
- Arminianism: The idea that man has the capacity of his own volition to choose holiness, and even invite salvation from God. Of course, the Arminian wants to affirm that salvation is by grace and through faith–he is just unwilling to grant that he has no part in actively deciding to accept that grace.
- It’s a Mystery!: There are many popular teachers who want to affirm that the Bible teaches both free will and sovereignty, and have largely come to believe that this is a paradoxical mystery which, although true, transcends human understanding.
As I affirm neither Calvinism nor Arminianism, I am left with falling into the “mystery” camp.
Or am I?
As it turns out, there is a centuries-old view which had long been forgotten until just a few decades ago poised to become the third option, and indeed, is gaining popularity among evangelicals. There may just be a way of understanding this “mystery” after all, but to even talk about it requires a bit of background. We are here discussing a view called “Molinism.”
Per my friend Pastor Brian Chilton in his excellent introductory article, What is Molinism:
Molinism is derived from the theological works of 16th century Jesuit priest, Luis de Molina. While the Protestant Reformation was in full swing, Molina was sympathetic to the movement yet did not depart from the Catholic church. It appears that Molina may have known of Luther’s writings as well as Calvin’s. But, the primary theologian that Molina engaged was one Thomas Aquinas. Molina desired to come to a solution as to how one can understand how God’s sovereignty operated in a world where free creatures exist. While Calvin emphasized God’s sovereignty and Arminius emphasized human freedom, Molina sought to find a balanced approach. Thomas Aquinas held to both divine sovereignty and human freedom, but it was not certain how the two could blend. Molina would add a concept that would offer a solution.
Before moving any further, one complication must be sorted out. Unlike the other above-mentioned frameworks, Molinism proper is not a soteriological view; that is, Molinism itself has nothing to say about who is responsible for the work of salvation. It is merely a way of understanding how a sovereign God can be at work in a world where it sure seems like free will abounds. It accomplishes this via a mechanism called “Middle Knowledge” (hereafter, MK). However, the tenets of Molinism certainly can be applied to questions of soteriology, which is the appropriate context for this article.
MK is not difficult to understand, and most informed Calvinists1 want to affirm that God does possess such knowledge. It deals with “counterfactuals”–propositions which are not actually true, but would be true under a different set of circumstances.
To illustrate, consider the scene described in Jeremiah 38:17-18:
Then said Jeremiah unto Zedekiah, Thus saith the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel; If thou wilt assuredly go forth unto the king of Babylon’s princes, then thy soul shall live, and this city shall not be burned with fire; and thou shalt live, and thine house: But if thou wilt not go forth to the king of Babylon’s princes, then shall this city be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and thou shalt not escape out of their hand.
The above example shows with utter clarity that God is able to know what would happen, in any given situation, if the circumstances were different. Per a common example that is given by Dr. William Lane Craig, imagine if you were the person charged with the task of sentencing Jesus rather than Pontius Pilate. In a very real sense, God actually knows exactly what you would have done in Pilate’s shoes. A staggering thought!
The illustration also gives us a clear demonstration of the types of knowledge God possesses: natural, middle, and free.
Per Chilton (with my illustrative application appended):
- Natural knowledge: The way things could be. [There was no logical fallibility involved. Either outcome described in the passage was a legitimate possibility.]
- Middle knowledge: The way things would be given free decisions made in certain circumstances. [God communicated to Jeremiah (and thus to Zedekiah) clearly that the outcome would be different depending upon which course of action he (Zedekiah) chose to take.]
- Free knowledge: The way things will be in the future. [God already knew which way Zedekiah would ultimately choose, even though it had not happened at the time of his warning.]
There are lots of examples of this in the Word of God, and such is the reason why God’s possession of such knowledge is largely uncontested. Where the Calvinist departs is the discussion of when God possesses such knowledge. For if God possesses such knowledge prior to the creation of the world (e.g., “Logical Priority”), it is within the realm of plausibility that the actions of creatures are genuinely free.
Since the Calvinist usually does not grant this point, he must concede that God possesses such knowledge only after creating the world. In such a scenario, it can only be that God causally determines the actions of creatures.2
This background ushers us into the primary discussion point of this article. The Calvinist wants to say that applying Molinism to one’s soteriology necessarily implies synergism–the Arminian suggestion that both God and man have an active role in the work of salvation. But the truth is that many (the majority of?) Molinist’s affirm monergism–the view (held by Calvinists!) that God alone is responsible for the work of salvation.
I also affirm monergism, as I cannot escape the abundant clarity of Scripture that no one seeks after God (Romans 3:11). The human will is not inclined toward God, but toward self. At the same time, I cannot deny the apparent teaching of Scripture (which aligns with our common sense intuition) that we are genuinely free to make certain decisions, and are to be held responsible for the actions we take.
So the “monergistic Molinist” like myself wants to affirm both that (1) humans have limited libertarian free will (here defined as “the power to choose between a range of options, each of which are consistent with and in accord with one’s nature”) and (2) that God alone is responsible for the work of salvation. It is my contention that both of these things are not only true and non-contradictory, but affirmed by Scripture. This is the thesis I’ll attempt to defend.
Now by the time you’ve finished this article, you will likely have encountered some terms, ideas, teachings, and illustrations you’ve never thought of before. There is a ton of information–both reliable and unreliable–to be discovered about this topic.
Throughout, I will continue to quote and suggest resources you should consult for further study into this topic.
TULIP vs. ROSES: An Overview
In the 20th century iconic TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation, we are introduced to a peculiar propagator of galactic unrest known as The Borg.
The Borg “Collective” is both one and many; that is, they are many individual creatures but represent one “hive” mind. Ultimately, the Borg carry out the will of the “Queen.” While one could draw parallels here which argue against divine causal determinism (or at least show its unfavorability), I’d like to use their “mantra” to illustrate why I think Molinism best accomplishes the soteriological reconciliation of God’s sovereignty and the free will of man.
The Borg are known for their eerie battle cry, “Resistance is futile! Assimilate!” One of the most formidable foes of the galaxy, the Borg have conquered planet after planet, system after system, and “assimilated” each of their foes into the Collective. That is, those who they defeat become Borg after some…interesting…modifications are made to the detainees. They intend to communicate that one has no ability to resist. Any appearance of resistance is an illusion–indeed, futile. So they might as well just give up.
Although not a perfect analogy, there are some parallels we can draw here to illustrate the beliefs of the monergistic Molinist. To put this into perspective, let’s first look at TULIP–the Reformed (Calvinist) acronym which intends to summarize the core tenets of their soteriology.
Popular Reformed teacher Matt Slick provides the following helpful summary:
Sin has affected all parts of man. The heart, emotions, will, mind, and body are all affected by sin. We are completely sinful. We are not as sinful as we could be, but we are completely affected by sin. The doctrine of Total Depravity is derived from scriptures that reveal human character: Man’s heart is evil (Mark 7:21-23) and sick Jer. 17:9). Man is a slave of sin (Rom. 6:20). He does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12). He cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). He is at enmity with God (Eph. 2:15). And, is by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3). The Calvinist asks the question, “In light of the scriptures that declare man’s true nature as being utterly lost and incapable, how is it possible for anyone to choose or desire God?” The answer is, “He cannot. Therefore God must predestine.” Calvinism also maintains that because of our fallen nature we are born again not by our own will but God’s will (John 1:12-13); God grants that we believe (Phil. 1:29); faith is the work of God (John 6:28-29); God appoints people to believe (Acts 13:48); and God predestines (Eph. 1:1-11; Rom. 8:29; 9:9-23).
God does not base His election on anything He sees in the individual. He chooses the elect according to the kind intention of His will (Eph. 1:4-8; Rom. 9:11) without any consideration of merit within the individual. Nor does God look into the future to see who would pick Him. Also, as some are elected into salvation, others are not (Rom. 9:15, 21).
Jesus died only for the elect. Though Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient for all, it was not efficacious for all. Jesus only bore the sins of the elect. Support for this position is drawn from such scriptures as Matt. 26:28 where Jesus died for ‘many’; John 10:11, 15 which say that Jesus died for the sheep (not the goats, per Matt. 25:32-33); John 17:9 where Jesus in prayer interceded for the ones given Him, not those of the entire world; Acts 20:28 and Eph. 5:25-27 which state that the Church was purchased by Christ, not all people; and Isaiah 53:12 which is a prophecy of Jesus’ crucifixion where he would bore the sins of many (not all).
When God calls his elect into salvation, they cannot resist. God offers to all people the gospel message. This is called the external call. But to the elect, God extends an internal call and it cannot be resisted. This call is by the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts and minds of the elect to bring them to repentance and regeneration whereby they willingly and freely come to God. Some of the verses used in support of this teaching are Romans 9:16 where it says that “it is not of him who wills nor of him who runs, but of God who has mercy”; Philippians 2:12-13 where God is said to be the one working salvation in the individual; John 6:28-29 where faith is declared to be the work of God; Acts 13:48 where God appoints people to believe; and John 1:12-13 where being born again is not by man’s will, but by God’s.
“All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out,” (John 6:37).
Perseverance of the Saints:
You cannot lose your salvation. Because the Father has elected, the Son has redeemed, and the Holy Spirit has applied salvation, those thus saved are eternally secure. They are eternally secure in Christ. Some of the verses for this position are John 10:27-28 where Jesus said His sheep will never perish; John 6:47 where salvation is described as everlasting life; Romans 8:1 where it is said we have passed out of judgment; 1 Corinthians 10:13 where God promises to never let us be tempted beyond what we can handle; and Phil. 1:6 where God is the one being faithful to perfect us until the day of Jesus’ return.
There are parts of the above I affirm, and parts I vehemently deny. But that discussion is for another day. For now, I want to contrast the above with the Molinist concept of ROSES, and then center in on the theme of “resistance.”
R = Radical depravity. Radical depravity takes the place of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. Radical depravity holds that humans are depraved to the point that they cannot save themselves. However, this depravity does not remove one’s divine image given to them by the Creator. Thus, the human being is unable to save oneself, however this does not mean that he or she could not respond to God’s grace when given.
O = Overcoming grace. Overcoming grace replaces irresistible grace. Rather than holding that a person cannot respond to God’s grace, Molinists hold that God’s grace is able to overcome the depraved human condition leading to a place where the person can respond positively or negatively to God’s free offer of grace.
S = Sovereign election. Sovereign election replaces the unconditional election portion of TULIP. Molinists hold that God knows each person so completely that he knows how each person will respond in certain circumstances (e.g., Pharaoh’s hardened heart in Exodus). Thus, God elects to save those whom he knows will respond to his grace, but this knowledge does not come from the person, but rather within the mind of God. God knows everything about everyone before anything was created.
E = Eternal assurance. Rather than emphasizing the perseverance of the saints, which can be construed to mean that not everyone who makes a profession of faith will persevere, the Molinist (at least many Evangelical Molinists) holds that a person’s salvation is assured because of the working of God in the person’s salvation. God’s promises are always true.
S = Singular redemption. The last S of Molinism’s ROSES replaces limited atonement in TULIP. This doctrine holds that Christ’s death was powerful enough to cover the sins of the world, but only applies to those who respond to God’s grace by faith. Thus, Christ’s atoning work was sufficient to save the world, but efficient to save only the elect.
On the above, the libertarian freedom of man is preserved. That is, on this view, human beings have the genuine ability to make free choices that are “consistent with and in accord with [their] nature.” However, that does not preclude the notion that the salvific process is wholly accomplished by God. By infusing together a few sentences from the overview, this conclusion should become quite clear:
“Humans are depraved to the point that they cannot save themselves. [But] Molinists hold that God’s grace is able to overcome the depraved human condition. Thus, God elects to save those whom he knows will respond to his grace, but this knowledge does not come from the person, but rather within the mind of God, [since] God knows everything about everyone before anything was created.”
The above sentence represents monergism.
Therefore, setting aside whatever qualms I may have with the other tenets of TULIP, the claim that Molinism necessarily entails synergism is just blatantly false. Now, of course, I indeed hold that synergism is false, which means I hold that monergism is true. So what part does man’s free will play in all of this? If God is wholly responsible for this process even on Molinism, why is it important to preserve man’s freedom of choice?4
It is here the discussion must turn to a deeper understanding of “resistance.”
Free Choice and the Ability to Resist
The monergistic Molinist does not want to affirm that the lost sinner has the ability, of his own will and volition, to choose God. Recall that this person would hold that “humans are depraved to the point that they cannot save themselves. However, this depravity does not remove one’s divine image given to them by the Creator. Thus, the human being is unable to save oneself, however this does not mean that he or she could not respond to God’s grace when given.”
The human being therefore can respond positively to God’s grace–but only after God’s grace has been offered. The question then becomes, what is the nature of such a positive response?
The answer, ironically, is resistance.
That is, the positive response is found in the ability to resist, and the subsequent failure to do so.
The monergistic Molinist wants to affirm that God’s “overcoming” grace is so powerful that, indeed, its calling to the unregenerate soul is relentless. One needs to look no further than pop culture to see the evidence. There is radical unfulfillment in the lives of so many who seemingly have had the very best this world has to offer. As Lewis wisely noted, “the only logical explanation is that [they were] made for another world.”
I believe in many of these cases we are literally seeing examples of God’s grace calling out to a person, but their hard-heartedness keeping them from him.
The Bible teaches that one can resist the calling of God’s grace. Consider, as one example, Mathew 23:37:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
Here, we see Jesus simultaneously accessing the MK of God while affirming the ability of humans to resist. If only Jerusalem would have responded favorably, God would have “gathered [her] children together.” But, they would not. This is MK and resistance, illustrated in one sentence from the lips of Christ.
In another seemingly blatant indictment, God scolds the children of Israel (recorded in Acts 7:51):
Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
Whatever creative rationalization one may press into service to rescue the Reformed tradition here, it seems nearly impossible to deny the perspicuity of these statements. On the other hand, the Calvinist may backfire with a verse of his own which teaches that God is the only responsible party in salvation:
They might point out John 6:37:
All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.
A verse such as this teaches that the Father gives souls to Jesus, seemingly implying that man has no say in the process.
Taken together the above two verses seem to result in two observations:
- The Father is ultimately responsible for the salvific work.
- Human beings can resist the process of salvation.
The Calvinist wants to say that these are contradictory notions–but are they? Is there a scenario we could use to demonstrate how a party x could be entirely responsible for the outcome of another party t, but all the while t possess the ability to resist the completion of the process?
There is such a scenario.
To demonstrate I’m going to quote Johnny Sakr writing on the FTM website about Keathley’s “Ambulatory Model”:
“Imagine waking up to find that you are being transported by an ambulance to the emergency room. It is clearly evident that your condition requires serious medical help. If you do nothing, you will be delivered to the hospital. However, for whatever reason you demand to be let out, the driver will comply. He may express regret and give warnings, but he will still let you go. You receive no credit for being taken to the hospital, but you incur the blame for refusing the service of the ambulance.”5
In this illustration you do not do anything to arrive at the hospital. Resisting is the only thing you have the ability to do. Any “contribution”, “work” or “action” made by you is hurtful, likewise ‘all our righteous acts are like filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6). Metaphorically, the ambulance represents the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion. If you come to faith it is solely due to the causative role of the Holy Spirit. However, if you do not come to faith; it is due to the resistance you exerted.
Since it seems that (1) Scripture affirms that resistance of the Holy Spirit is possible even though the salvific process rests solely in the hand of God, and (2) it’s easy to find practical examples which show how this is not logically contradictory, the monergistic Molinist is justified in his belief.
With help from Richard Cross, Sakr helpfully observes that “the only causative work you can do is resist; a negative action. Thus the ambulatory model provides for a monergistic work of grace that leaves room for the sinner to refuse to accept.”
Importantly, one should take note that I have not employed the use of any sophisticated philosophical arguments here (although many could be used). A common criticism of Molinism is that adherents tend to place complex philosophical possibilities over the clear teaching of Scripture, but nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, earlier, I showed how one can see the core tenets of Molinistic soteriology–Middle Knowledge and resistance to grace–in one sentence spoken by none other than Jesus himself!
I conclude therefore that the monergistic Molinist view is not only possible, but the best explanation of the Scriptural data concerning soteriology.
However, we still have not answered the practical question of why this is important. Why must we think it’s important that we preserve one’s ability to resist the call of God’s grace should he so choose?
To answer that question in closing, we need to talk about love.
Conclusion: Free Choice and the Ability to Love
That “God is love” is not only a comforting phrase and one of significant philosophical and theological importance–it is also a direct teaching of Scripture (1 John 4:8).
I am going to wax a bit philosophical on this final point, because I think it’s important and has some very practical and pertinent implications.
Theologians often talk about the divine property of omnibenevolence (all-loving), which is amplified by the philosophical property of maximal greatness. Contemporary Christian philosophy holds that God is the “Maximally Great Being” (MBG).
There cannot be something/someone greater than God, because that entity would then be the MGB (God)! By definition, whatever properties God has, he is the greatest manifestation of them. If God has the ability to love, then, God is the greatest “lover.”
So it seems that to deny that God is all-loving is to deny a necessary property for God to be considered a MGB.
Now, of course “love” should not be understood in the modern notion of “acceptance of any and all activities and behaviors.” Love has boundaries when it comes to behavior, and these behaviors often result, ultimately, in the judgment of God. On the other hand, love has boundaries when it comes to free choice.
The unfortunate “date rape” scenario (which I do not use lightly) illustrates the point. The date rapist inflicts his victim with a drug that “woo’s” her such that she has no ability to resist his nefarious advances. Although I love my Reformed brethren dearly and break bread with them often, is there not a clear parallel here to the doctrine of “irresistable grace”?
Even though the outcome is for the good in the view of the date rapist, and the victim offered no resistance (but only because she was unable to do so), the net result is viciously negative. Indubitably the victim would have resisted had she not been forced to do otherwise.
Here we are forced to ask if the above scenario can be considered an exchange of “love.” We could extend the illustration and consider that the couple went on to get married that night at a Vegas wedding chapel. The marriage is complete with vows, etc., including three important words: I. Love. You.
The victim may say these words; but does she say so out of choice, or obligation? Any rational person would have to admit that the victim did not really choose to love her date rapist–this was a carefully crafted illusion consisting of scenarios that at least might have played out differently had the victim not been subjected to this unwelcome “wooing.”
Once again, the Calvinist may attempt to shirk the undesirable weight of the above scenario by inserting the reality of heaven as eternal bliss, hell as eternal torment, etc. But even when substituting new information in the scenario the analogy holds: whatever the outcome, it still violates the will of the “victim.” When the will of a person is violated in this way, we don’t call that love–we call it “the epitome of evil” (per Stratton).6
If the above scenario is true (which seems inescapable), then God’s love is not demonstrated in the salvific process. On Calvinism, then, the only rational justification for the very existence of God is to hold that he is not omnibenevolent. But if God is not omnibenevolent (how could he be on this view?), then God is not maximally great. And if God is not maximally great, then God–by definition–is not God.
This point of rationale demonstrates why–perhaps above any other reason–I am forced to submit that five-point (TULIP) Calvinism must be false. If grace is, in fact, irresistible, then it is not an act of love, neither is it the clearly resistible grace spoken of in the Bible.
If the reverse is true, however, it answers one of the primary musings of biblioskeptics; that is, the question of “how could a loving God send people to hell?” In light of the above, the answer to that question ought to be right on the tip of your tongue! Persons going to hell has nothing to do with the question; rather, the question has to do with one’s ability to resist God’s “wooing” them into a relationship with him.
God sends us love letters (the Bible!), conversations with Christian friends who ask us about the condition of our soul, the pesky folks from that church down the road that are always inviting us to come, the nagging feeling that there are ultimate values of right and wrong that transcend human opinion, scientists and philosophers who have determined that the universe must have had a cause, historians who have no choice but to admit the actual existence and work of a man named Jesus of Nazareth, etc., etc., etc.
And yet, God’s love for us is so massive that if we choose to resist all that God has to offer–eternal life in fellowship with him–he will let us. You see love has nothing to do with God sending someone to hell. Love has to do with one’s right–as an image bearer of God himself–to resist God’s call to salvation.
In fact, he loves the person who has chosen to resist him so much that he will give them exactly what they desire–separation from him, forever.
Is God the author and finisher of salvation?
But we can tell him no, and the sad reality is that many, many do.
Resistance is not futile. It is a possibility that is both consistent with the nature of our omnibenevolent God and affirmed explicitly by his Word.
Therefore, the soteriological view which best describes the relationship between God and man in the salvific process is monergistic Molinism.
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- Throughout this article, it will likely seem as though I am picking on Calvinists. What you will discover is that while Molinism is compatible with both Calvinism and Arminianism on some level, Calvinists are much more opposed to the idea (for reasons which may become evident). Therefore, most “critical” language will likely be faced in that direction, unfortunately.
- This is controversial, but nevertheless, almost has to be true–even for the Calvinist who wants to affirm that humans possess some measure of freedom. For a discussion on this, see here.
- One will immediately notice that the below does not use any Scripture references, while the above is littered with them. This should not be seen as an indictment on the below. The above was an attempt by the original author to give Scriptural support for TULIP, and as such, made reference to none of the abundant Scriptures which give the counterposition. The below affirms the teaching of each and every verse above (without coloring the interpretation to fit a particular view), but gives equal weight to those verses which could be used to argue against it. Therefore, many of the points below could be supported by the same verses above, without creating any additional tensions upon the introduction of verses which argue against it (such as those mentioned here).
- The reader should bear in mind that this article addresses a mere fraction of the available discussion points. There are far-reaching reasons to preserve the free will of man, but for brevity’s sake, I am desperately attempting to limit this discussion to soteriology (although some overlap is unavoidable).
- Taken from Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (B&H Publishing Group, 2010) 246. See also; Richard Cross, ‘Anti-Pelagianism and the Resistibility of Grace’ (2005) 22(2) Faith and Philosophy 207.
- I’d highly recommend a careful study of this article which ably demonstrates this entire point much better than I could.