“With our fallen tendency to make God in our own image, you would think that we would project upward to God, and argue that God is the most free Being, is the most unrestrained, is the most unlimited, that HIS ABILITY TO CHOOSE IS THAT ABILITY WHICH IS GREATER THAN ALL AND MUST NOT BE ENCROACHED UPON AT ALL; but honestly, we don’t. We may very well say...that God is sovereign and God rules over all things, and that He is at work in all events, but honestly, when it comes down to it, GOD’S SOVEREIGN FREEDOM...IS LIMITED BY OUR SOVEREIGN FREEDOM, our sense of the ability to make choices...in other words, WE LIVE WITH A MAN-CENTERED VIEW OF THE WORLD” (Thabiti Anyabwile, “Romans 9,” at the Nine Marks Biblical Theology Conference, Session 2; September 10, 2010. Held at Binkley Chapel, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary).
“The doctrine of election is the full weight of God’s foot standing upon THE IDOL OF SELF-CONTROL AND AUTONOMY. This is God’s big foot crushing the idea of UNRESTRAINED HUMAN LIBERTY” (22:48—23:06).
“Salvation is also not a matter of human merit. Paul is completely destroying any natural, inherent grounds upon which we can make some claim on God’s mercy and God’s love...FOR SALVATION TO BE COMPLETELY A MATTER OF GRACE, IT CANNOT DEPEND ON HUMAN MERIT...IT MUST BE A MATTER OF GOD’S FREE CHOOSING.”
“God says, ‘I choose sovereignly. God is God. He controls Himself. God is not just sovereign over things and people and events; HE IS SOVEREIGN OVER HIS OWN MERCY, HE IS SOVEREIGN OVER HIS OWN LOVE.”
Dr. Thabiti Anyabwile was one of the Nine Marks Conference Speakers at Southeastern Seminary this past week. He preached on the entire chapter of Romans 9 (the video footage for his sermon was about one solid hour!). When I heard about his sermon through a classmate’s presentation in my theology class, I decided to listen to the sermon for myself. I enjoy the debate regarding Romans 9 and often seek to gain further understanding on this controversial chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
The quotes above by Dr. Anyabwile are some of the statements he made in the course of the one-hour sermon. I decided to focus on the statements above because I think they are key to the never-ending debate between Calvinists and Arminians.
Statements like Dr. Anyabwile’s above are typical of Calvinist theologians and preachers...and Dr. Anyabwile is a five-point Calvinist. However, what may shock Calvinists everywhere is that I agree with every single one of the statements above. Yes, let the last sentence sink in: I agree with ALL of the statements of Dr. Anyabwile above!
But my agreement with these supposedly “Calvinist” statements may shock Calvinists all over the country and the world; why? Because I’m a Classical Arminian...and the assumption is that Arminians disagree with such statements as “God’s freedom” and “God’s sovereignty,” etc. But this has become the “root” of disagreement between the two theological camps because Calvinists fail to hear Arminians when they say that they hold to the sovereignty of God and divine freedom. Roger Olson writes:
“Many Calvinists learn in their churches and educational institutions that Arminians do not believe in the sovereignty of God...and yet some version of this misconception pops up frequently in Calvinist thought...Arminians are more than slightly puzzled by these Calvinist claims about Arminian theology. HAVE THEY READ ARMINIUS ON GOD’S PROVIDENCE? HAVE THEY READ ANY CLASSICAL ARMINIAN LITERATURE ON THIS SUBJECT, OR ARE THEY SIMPLY USING SECOND-HAND REPORTS ABOUT ARMINIAN THEOLOGY? My impression is that many Calvinist critics of Arminianism have never perused Arminius or Arminius's theology” (Roger Olson, “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, pages 115-116).
Let it be known here that Classical Arminians, like Classical Calvinists (of which Dr. Anyabwile is one), hold to the sovereignty of God and God’s freedom to do as He pleases. We in no shape, fashion, or form deny God’s freedom in salvation.
HOWEVER (and this is where I draw the line), we differ with Classical Calvinists on the nature of God’s sovereignty and the nature of divine freedom. While we agree with the Classic Calvinist that God is free to choose to save however He pleases, we differ with WHAT God chooses to do! The question then becomes, does God save by picking some and damning others? Or does God decide to elect on the basis of faith?
When we arrive at Dr. Anyabwile’s quote regarding God choosing to save sovereignly (based on Romans 9:15), Classic Arminians desire to ask the Calvinists, “If God is sovereign, then is He not free to do what He wants?” Calvinists will answer “yes” to this question, but they arrive at a loss of words when Classic Arminians ask them, “If God is free, then is He not free to save on the basis of faith (just as He is also free to save some because of His whim)?” What Calvinists desire to do is monopolize God’s sovereignty such that sovereignty in their view can ONLY consist of God picking some and not offering grace and salvation to all. Here is Olson once more:
“Of course, when Calvinists say that Arminians do not believe in God’s sovereignty, THEY UNDOUBTEDLY ARE WORKING WITH AN A PRIORI NOTION OF SOVEREIGNTY SUCH THAT NO CONCEPT BUT THEIR OWN CAN POSSIBLY PASS MUSTER. If we begin by defining sovereignty DETERMINISTICALLY, the issue is already settled...however, WHO IS TO SAY THAT SOVEREIGNTY NECESSARILY INCLUDES ABSOLUTE CONTROL OR METICULOUS GOVERNANCE TO THE EXCLUSION OF REAL CONTINGENCY AND FREE WILL?...do sovereign rulers dictate every detail of their subjects’ lives, or do they oversee and govern in a more general way?” (Olson, “Arminian Theology,” page 116)
Dr. Anyabwile’s sermon was very well-prepared from a very eloquent man of God. However, as a Classic Arminian, I must say that I think the sermon was more aimed at the Pelagian than the Classic Arminian...and until Calvinists start battling those who hold to Reformed theology like themselves (of course, of a different brand like Classic Arminianism---which is also called “Reformed Arminianism”), they will continue to insist upon sermons directed at Pelagianism. Romans 9 tells us that God is free in salvation; but there are two options before us regarding the divine choice. God can either choose to pick certain individuals and pass by others, or He can choose to save on the basis of faith in Christ. Both are worthy of consideration before Calvinists rule out the possibility of the Arminian notion of God’s freedom.