I recently heard a great message on Mark chapter 2 where Jesus heals a paralytic that four friends bring to Him. The main point of the message was that Jesus has authority to forgive sin and heal. Mark is establishing Christ’s deity. The pastor posed the question that many might ask, “Why didn’t Jesus heal the man right off?” The pastor’s response was twofold: Jesus was establishing His authority as springing from His deity and two, Jesus ministered to the man’s greater need first, that being his need of spiritual healing. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mar 2:5) The man’s greater need was spiritual healing as opposed to physical. That led me to wonder, can we as believers and Christ’s ministers of the gospel tell people that their sins are forgiven? In John’s gospel, chapter 20, verse 23 Jesus grants authority for His disciples to forgive sin. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Jesus has ordained His disciples to carry out His ministry of reconciliation. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2Co 5:18-19) Also in Colossians 1:20-23 “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” The question then is, is this ministry to all mankind or simply to the elect? And if it is only for the elect, how do we know who to minister to? To whom can we say, “Your sins are forgiven.”?
The differences between Calvin and Arminius have divided theologians since the early part of the 17th century. I say that the controversy has divided theologians because many Christians are either unaware or unconcerned about it. In my experience, few Christians understand the differences. This controversy has divided great men of faith such as Wesley and Whitfield. Some church movements like the EFCA have decided that the question is debatable and therefore take no formal position. I’ve heard sermons and read different commentaries or systematic theology texts that convince me one way and then the other. Grudem favors Calvin. Williams supports Arminius. The differences are important and worthy of study, but should not cause us to question another’s salvation. We agree on the deity of Christ, the Trinity, Christ’s sacrifice, resurrection and return.
There are five main tenets of Calvin’s doctrine that are remembered by the acronym TULIP (it’s a Dutch thing), where each letter refers to the following:
- Total depravity; man is born into sin and is incapable of regeneration on his own
- Unconditional election; God chooses whom He will save based upon His own will and not upon any work or inherent merit of those He chooses. (Romans 8:29-30, Ephesians 1:5,11, Galatians 1:15)
- Limited atonement: Christ’s sacrifice for sin only applies to the elect, asserting that God’s grace cannot be ineffectual and as such does not apply to those that He chooses to condemn.
- Irresistible grace; If you are one of the elect, you cannot resist the calling.
- Perseverance of the saints; God will keep until the end those that He has called.
The overarching theme of Calvin’s doctrine is the total sufficiency of God’s grace. All glory is given to God. (Romans 3:24, 11:6) Arminius argued against unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace. I might say that the main theme of Arminian theology is justification by faith.
The primary scriptural text for unconditional election is Romans 8:29-30. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” This verse does teach us that God does predestine or choose certain persons for salvation, but a condition is implied when it says,”For those whom He foreknew…” We know that God is not bound by time. He knows what we will do before we do it. We also know that God does not choose us because of any inherent goodness in us or any good work on our part. Before God regenerates us, we are totally depraved. The verse points to a process involved in our being regenerated. We are first called, then justified and finally glorified. Remember, becoming a part of God’s family and His kingdom involves a process. There are numerous verses that explain how a person gets “saved”, but we know that the process involves a faith response from the person who is called. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22) Then there is Luther’s favorite verse which led to the reformation and the confirmation of the doctrine of justification by faith,”Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2) Even faith is a gift from God and not a work of our own. But, our response to God’s gift is part of the process. Ephesians 2:8 explains how grace works through faith, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,…” Could it be that God knows who will receive the gift and elects them? Our response involves an exercise of the will. Do we have free will, or does God force the elect to choose Him? That leads to the question of irresistible grace.
Consider again the account in Mark 2 of the healing of the paralytic. Note that the paralytic did not pray to receive Christ. He did not confess any sin or confess that Jesus is the Savior. The paralytic expressed no faith of his own. Jesus was responding to the faith of his friends. Christ freely offered forgiveness without any conditions. To the Calvinist, that would be proof that the man was one of the elect, for they believe that Christ’s atonement for sin only applies to the elect. I believe that this tenet of Calvin’s doctrine conflicts with God’s Word. 1Jn 2:2 says,”And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” And John 1:29 says “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” Also see Hebrews 2:9, “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
If we accept that Christ died for the sins of the world does that mean that God forgives all sin for all mankind? Here is where the Calvinist accuses the Arminian of being a universalist, I believe without merit. Clearly, the Bible teaches that not all are saved and that many will suffer hell. Does being a member of God’s elect, a member of His family and a part of His kingdom involves more than forgiveness of sin? Does God forgive sinners and still reject them? Do people suffer hell because of their sin or because they reject a relationship with Christ? Christ warned that He would tell the unsaved, “Depart from me. I never knew you.” Is it possible to forgive someone and still not be in a relationship? Could Jesus forgive the paralytic who never knew Him?
Later in Mark’s gospel we learn that there is only one unforgivable sin and Jesus seemed to be implying that all other sins would be forgiven for all. Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”- (Mar 3:28-29) In this passage, the scribes were accusing Jesus of doing miracles by the power of the devil. They were rejecting Christ for who He is. I believe that the only unforgivable sin is to reject Christ. Further on in this passage Jesus goes on to explain who is a member of His family when His mother and brothers come to “rescue” Him. Jesus says,”For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35) Being a member of His family, being “saved” requires submission to His Lordship and obedience to His will. There is no hint that the paralytic had advanced to this stage and yet Jesus said he was forgiven. The Calvinist might say that Jesus forgave the man because He knew that the man was one of the chosen. But, how do we know who is chosen? And, how can we be ministers of reconciliation without offering forgiveness?
We must recognize that true salvation goes beyond forgiveness. There is another step in the process. “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.(1Jn 4:14-15)See also Ro 10:9. Do not equate forgiveness with salvation. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Ro 5:10
Calvinist: “Have you been called by Christ into His kingdom?”
Sinner: “How would I know?”
Calvinist: “If you believe in and trust in Christ for your salvation, then you must be chosen.”
Arminian: “Christ forgives you for your sins and wants a relationship with you. Will you receive Him?”
Sinner: “How do I receive Him?”
Arminian: “By faith, which He will grant you.”