God's Sovereignty and Man's Responsibility

About five years ago, I gladly embraced the ‘doctrines of grace’. These are collectively known as Calvinism and emphasise the sovereignty of God in our salvation. I had previously been Arminian, which emphasises man’s role in salvation, such as his ability and willingness to repent. Each side is warranted by the Bible, though I would naturally argue that Calvinism (an unfortunate appellation) is more faithful to the whole counsel of scripture. On whichever side of the fence you find yourself, there are problems to deal with. The Arminian must ask why some people are ‘clever’ or ‘insightful’ enough to see salvation when others can’t. Likewise, if repentance and belief are actions which allow us to be saved, is the Arminian partially saving himself?

Neither does the Calvinist get off the hook. If God is sovereign, and chooses those whom He will save in advance, why should we bother with evangelism? How do I know that I am one of the elect- I appear to believe but what if this is a deceit?

Charles Spurgeon is helpful at this point. I’ve just read Iain Murray’s Spurgeon vs Hyper-Calvinism. London’s most famous Victorian preacher, though a Calvinist, was subjected to many attacks by fellow Baptists for preaching salvation’s availability to all, while still believing that God would only save some. These ‘hyper-Calvinists’ argued that one should never offer Christ’s salvation to anyone, lest they be unchosen, instead offering them the mere historic facts of Christianity. This is logical- why make an offer to certain people who are never able to accept it? Logical, yes. Scriptural, no.

Spurgeon preached on 1 Timothy 2:3-4 at his Metropolitan Tabernacle (Salvation by Knowing the Truth, no. 1516): “God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” He criticises those Calvinist brethren who argue that the text cannot mean that God desires all people to be saved, for it does not fit with their system of theology:

It is quite certain that when we read that God will have all men to be saved it does not mean that He wills it with the force of a decree or a divine purpose, for if He did, then all men would be saved. He willed to make the world and the world was made—He does not so will the salvation of all men, for we know that all men will not be saved. Terrible as the truth is, yet is it certain from Holy Writ that there are men who, in consequence of their sin and their rejection of the Saviour, will go away into everlasting punishment where there shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There will at the last be goats upon the left hand as well as sheep on the right, tares to be burned as well as wheat to be garnered, chaff to be blown away as well as corn to be preserved. There will be a dreadful hell as well as a glorious heaven and there is no decree to the contrary.

What then? Shall we try to put another meaning into the text than that which it fairly bears? I think not. You must, most of you, be acquainted with the general method in which our older Calvinistic friends deal with this text. “All men,” they say—“that is, some men”—as if the Holy Spirit could not have said, “some men” if He had meant some men. “All men,” say they, “that is, some of all sorts of men”—as if the Lord could not have said, “all sorts of men,” if He had meant that. The Holy Spirit, by the apostle, has written “all men” and unquestionably He means all men. I know how to get rid of the force of the “alls” according to that critical method which, some time ago, was very current, but I do not see how it can be applied here with due regard to truth. I was reading just now the exposition of a very able doctor who explains the text so as to explain it away. He applies grammatical gunpowder to it and explodes it by way of expounding it. I thought when I read his exposition that it would have been a very capital comment upon the text if it had read, “Who will not have all men to be saved, nor come to knowledge of the truth.”

In other words, one can believe that God has chosen to save only a few, while desiring that all be saved and commanding the gospel be preached to every creature. Neatly marrying these concepts in our heads is not something we are required to do: 

I thank God for a thousand things I cannot understand. When I cannot get to know the reason why, I say to myself, “Why should I know the reason why? Who am I and what am I that I should demand explanations of my God?” I am a most unreasonable being when I am most reasonable and when my judgment is most accurate, I dare not trust it. I had rather trust my God. I am a poor silly child at my very best—my Father must know better than I. An old parable maker tells us that he shut himself up in his study because he had to work out a difficult problem. His little child came knocking at the door and he said, “Go away, John—you cannot understand what Father is doing. Let Father alone.” Master Johnny, for that very reason, felt that he must get in and see what Father was doing—a true symbol of our proud intellects. We must pry into forbidden things and uncover that which is concealed. In a little while, there, upon the sill, outside the window, stood Master Johnny looking in through the window at his father, and if his father had not, with very tenderest care just taken him away from that very dangerous position, there would have been no Master Johnny left on the face of the earth to exercise his curiosity in dangerous elevations. Now, God sometimes shuts the door and says, “My child, it is so. Be content to believe.” “But,” we foolishly cry, “Lord, why is it so?” “It is so, My child,” He says. “But why, Father, is it so?” “It is so, My child, believe Me.” Then we go speculating, climbing the ladders of reasoning, guessing, speculating, to reach the lofty windows of eternal truth. Once up there we do not know where we are. Our heads reel and we are in all kinds of uncertainty and spiritual peril. If we mind things too high for us we shall run great risks. I do not intend meddling with such lofty matters. There stands the text and I believe that it is my Father’s wish that “all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” But I know, also, that He does not will it, so that He will not save any one of them unless they believe in His dear Son, for He has told us over and over that He will not. He will not save any man unless he forsakes his sins and turns to Him with full purpose of heart—that I also know.

In 1863 he wrote “Divine sovereignty is a great and indisputable fact but human responsibility is quite as indisputable.” This too is my position.

T.D Crawford, Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh, wrote in 1874 that the concepts of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility “appear to be tending in opposite directions…but they are not moving along the same line and hence they cannot come at any time into actual collision”. Like Spurgeon, he says that our inadequate knowledge does not provide us with the means of reconciling two apparently different but entirely correct theological truths. 

John Duncan famously said "Hyper-Calvinism is all house and no door; Arminianism is all door and no house." I thank God that when Christ invited me to the banqueting table, there was a clear door through which I could pass into a safe house in which I still reside.