Previously, we looked at how both Arminians and Calvinists believe in a sovereign God, despite the argument made by Calvinists to the contrary. Now, I want to look at it from the other side. Many Arminians claim that Calvinism falls apart when you take into account the passages that speak of God’s desire to save all men. The reasoning goes that free will explains it perfectly, Calvinism cannot explain how God can desire the salvation of all when so many are not saved. However, there need not be any real disconnect. Both sides can hold to their view on election and still give reasonable and ultimately quite similar explanations for how God can desire the salvation of all without all being saved.
II. The Passages
Any person who does not believe in universal salvation has a lot to answer when it comes to passages like 1 Timothy 2.4, and 2 Peter 3.9. These passages read as follows (From the ESV):
1 Timothy 2.4 – [Speaks of God] who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
2 Peter 3.9 – The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
These passages, on there face, sure make it sound like everyone will be saved. If God wants it, how can it not happen?
One could attempt to address these passages by simply saying that “all” doesn’t mean “literally all men to ever live” in this context, and that wouldn’t even make election an issue. Both sides can use this argument. However, I am not thoroughly convinced by that (though this does occur in scripture). Also, because these passages are commonly used by Arminians against Calvinists, we need to look at it further.
Here is why these passages are used against Calvinisim: The typical Arminian response is that God does want all men to be saved, but because people have free will, they do not always choose Jesus. That makes good sense. As discussed in Part I, this view does not compromise God’s sovereignty, because God willfully chooses to endow His creation, humans, with free will. He could make men do whatever He wants, but makes the choice not to. However, how can the Calvinist respond to this? After all, they don’t believe it is a matter of men choosing God. It is entirely up to God, so how can it be that God desires all men be saved, and yet all men not be saved?
The Calvinist is in a tricky position, but ultimately they can get out. Now, because of the obvious difficulty here, some give less than satisfactory responses, using terms only found in Christian academic circles like “decreed will” and “secret will” which make God sound either like a liar or a maniac. However, bad explanations do not make bad theology. Just because theologians make it sound that way doesn’t mean that it is that way, or that that is how they really view it. When you get beyond complex and bizarre theological terms and ideas, and just look at what both sides are actually saying, then both sides have perfectly reasonable explanations.
Ultimately, both agree that God wants everybody to be saved, and does not delight in the condemnation of anyone. However, God also wants other things. If the two things conflict, God cannot have both. That may sound blasphemous at first, but it’s not, and makes perfect sense if you think about it. It’s like the old question “can God make a rock too heavy for Him to lift?” No, He can’t. That doesn’t mean He isn’t real or omnipotent. The idea that God can desire two things that cannot both happen, and therefore chooses the one that He wants more, is something both sides hold to. Here is why: The Arminian would say that God does want everybody to be saved, but because He chooses to give men free will, some men may not choose Him. It cannot be the case that men have free will, and yet that it is also guarenteed that all men are saved. In order for men to have free will in accepting the gospel or not, it must be the case that it is possible that some will not be saved. So then, what does God choose? God choses free will. He would rather that all men have free will and some not be saved than that all are saved yet have no free will (The only other non-Calvinist possibility is that God simply cannot override free will, which I don’t think anyone is going to seriously argue).
The Calvinist view is actually quite similar. God does want everybody to be saved, but He also wants something else, something that conflicts with everybody being saved. Ultimately, God chooses that second thing over universal salvation. The only difference is that that thing is something besides free will. That literally is the only difference. Arminians say that what God chooses over saving all men is free will. Calvinists would just say that it is something else, and I would imagine that most would say that the Bible doesn’t tell us enough to definititively say what it is. In neither scenario is God unable or a liar; both sides agree that He wants all to be saved, but wants something else even more than that.
What do those passages (and others like them) tell us about election? Not much. Everyone except for universalists agree that these verses do not say that all will be saved, and the ultimate explanations for why that can be the case are quite similar for Calvinists and Arminians alike.
English Standard Version (ESV Bible). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001. Biblegateway.com. Web. 6 Jun. 2011. <http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/English-Standard-Version-ESV-Bible/>.
(Originally published 08/06/2011: http://3-ringbinder.blogspot.com/2011/08/calvinists-and-most-arminians-agree-on.html. Immaterial changes have been made).