Is the Calvinist-Arminian debate overblown? It’s a question today from a young man, a listener to the podcast who writes us this: “Pastor John, hello! I’ve argued about predestination and free will with fellow believers for years. I’m a five-point Calvinist. But lately these conversations have grown tiresome to me. No amount of debate seems to settle all the questions. And I recently read a letter by C.S. Lewis where he called the Calvinist-Arminian debate pretty much pointless because it only answers questions about this life, answers meaningless in eternity.
“He wrote, ‘Both the statement that our final destination is already settled [Calvinism] and the view that it still may be either heaven or hell [Arminianism], seem to me to imply the ultimate reality of time, which I don’t believe in. The controversy is one I can’t join on either side, for I think that in the real (timeless) world it is meaningless’ (Collected Letters, 2:703). I think Lewis raises a fair question: Is this whole debate time-bound? And even within time, I find myself more and more asking, What is the real-life fallout? Is the practical and spiritual value of Calvinism for this life significantly better? If so, how?”
Oh, Lewis, Lewis, Lewis! My friend! My mentor! Let’s start here. There is a huge difference between saying, on the one hand, that fruitless debates have grown tiresome — which I can totally understand and would not encourage — and saying, on the other hand, that I’m not seeing the real-life fallout or the practical spiritual value of Calvinism in this life. Those are radically different sentences and the last one is tragic — tragic. And I hope such a theological, personal malaise doesn’t fall on me, and I hope it can be lifted from our young friend.
Philosophy and Exegesis
So, first let me say a word about Lewis — bless his heart and rest his soul in heaven — and then about Calvinism and time. That’s the issue that he raised: time. And as I go along, I will try to show for our friend the preciousness of these things.
I have read more of C.S. Lewis than any other author on the planet except Jonathan Edwards. I love C.S. Lewis. He has made a great difference in my life. But one thing you will look for in vain in all the writings of C.S. Lewis: careful, serious biblical exposition. We have no idea how he did it (I presume he did it); we have to guess how C.S. Lewis read his Bible because he does not show us, which means he comes at biblical-theological questions more philosophically than he does exegetically.
This is certainly the case when it comes to Calvinism versus Arminianism. As far as I can tell, he simply sweeps aside dozens of specific, clear biblical sentences with the philosophical wand of timelessness. Nobody who reads the Bible carefully, and seeks to submit to the Bible’s own logic — not an alien philosophical presupposition — will be content with Lewis’s way of handling the issue of Calvinism and Arminianism. It cannot satisfy if you’re a Bible-saturated person who takes sentences — real, live, meaning-carrying sentences — seriously when you read the Bible.
Let’s just pretend that I’m now talking to C.S. Lewis about the five points of Calvinism. Here’s what I would say to Lewis. Four of them, Mr. Lewis, do not address the time issue at all. And the fifth one addresses the time issue because God made it address the time issue. God put the pre- in predestination. Man didn’t decide to do that; God did that, and he had good reasons for doing it — not to be swept away by the wand of timelessness. So let me take them one at a time.
1. Dead in Total Depravity
The issue is: At the point of my conversion, was I dead? Was I dead? Was I utterly incapable of seeing or savoring Jesus Christ as my supreme treasure? Answer: yes, I was. I was dead, blind, spiritually incapable of believing on Jesus. First Corinthians 2:14: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.” No way. I’m stiff-arming them totally in my deadness and fallenness and blindness. They are folly to me. I’m not able to understand them. They are spiritually discerned, and I don’t have the Holy Spirit. I hate God, and I love myself, and I am in bondage.
The question is not one of time. And the answer makes all the difference in the world about whether you praise yourself or praise your God in speechless wonder that you are now a lover of Jesus — that you can see the light of the glory of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4). John Piper now sees the light of the glory of the gospel.
How did that happen? If you think you were only partially incapable of faith, and just needed a little divine nudge, your amazement, your humility, your worship, your reverence will be hindered. How dead and how helpless were you when God saved you? Come on, Lewis. Come on. Talk about 1 Corinthians 2:14, talk about Romans 8:7, talk about Ephesians 2:4–5, talk about 2 Corinthians 4:4. Don’t give me your philosophical wand of timelessness. Talk to me about the deadness of the human soul.
2. Awakened by Irresistible Grace
The question, Mr. Lewis, is, What happened on that bus ride that you described in Surprised by Joy — the one that you began as an unbeliever, and to your own amazement, you ended as a believer? What happened?
The Bible is not silent about what happened. It is not left to your philosophical speculation. It goes like this: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
God did a creative miracle in your life, Mr. Lewis — just as much as when he called the universe out of nothing. He took out the heart of stone and put in the heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). He raised you from the dead and seated you in the heavenly places with Christ (Ephesians 2:4–6). He opened your eyes to give heed to the truth, and in the very moment when you passed from death to life, God was decisive — not you. You did not impart life to your dead self. This is not an issue of time, Mr. Lewis; this is an issue of worship. To whom will you give glory for your decisive passage from unbelieving death to believing life?
3. Purchased by Limited Atonement
Here the question is not time. The question is whether the new-covenant miracle that happens to every Christian when their dead heart — our dead heart — is replaced with a new heart was definitely purchased for them by the death of Christ, but was not so purchased for everyone. That’s the issue. Everyone would have a new heart if it was purchased the same way for all.
Jesus called his blood the “blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:28). Jesus called it “the new covenant” (Luke 22:20). And what the new covenant promised was that the old, unbelieving, rebellious hearts of C.S. Lewis and John Piper would be sovereignly replaced by God with a new, soft, believing heart, and that the law of God would be written on that heart so that we do from the heart what we’re called to do, like believe and obey. We don’t write it. He wrote it.
This was all secured when we were purchased by the blood of the new covenant. When Christ died, he secured a perfect, complete redemption, including the undeserved mercy of our conversion and faith. This is not a question of time; this is a question of what Christ achieved for his people on the cross. Did he lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:11)? Did he ransom the children of God (John 11:52)? Did he ransom for himself a people scattered among the peoples (Revelation 5:9–10)? Or didn’t he? That’s the issue.
4. Secure in the Perseverance of the Saints
This is not a question of timelessness or time. This is a question about whether you and I will wake up a believer tomorrow morning. Will I? And I cannot imagine for our young friend who wrote in this question anything more immediately relevant to me when I go to bed at night or think about it all day long, than the answer to the question, Will I wake up a believer, heaven-bound, tomorrow morning, or won’t I?
Jude is so blown away by the glory of God’s sovereign keeping that the greatest doxology in the Bible is crafted to extol this work of God’s sovereignty over our fickle, so-called “free will.” If God left me to my fickle free will, I’d be out of here. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it — prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it” — chain it, bind it, keep me.
Here’s what Jude says: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless . . .” He’s going to keep you and present you blameless because he is sovereign. If he doesn’t do it, it isn’t going to happen. And then he says, “. . . to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25).
That’s how amazed Jude was that God would not let him go. God wouldn’t let him fall into unbelief. God would not let his vaunted free will have the last word. This is not a matter of time; this is a matter of sweet assurance that tomorrow morning I will wake up with a heart for God.
5. Awestruck by Unconditional Election
Here we meet time. Ephesians 1:4–6:
He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.
Paul’s aim here is to inflame the praise of the glory of the grace of God. That’s his purpose. That’s the goal of Ephesians 1:4–6. The sovereign saving grace of God that is based not on our so-called “free will,” but on “the purpose of his will.” Paul intends to put God’s saving grace outside our control so that, when all history is said and done, the song of the ages will be to the praise of the glory of God’s free, invincible grace, so that no human might boast except in the Lord.
And I would just say in closing that if these five realities are not humbling, emboldening, stabilizing, worship-inflaming, sacrifice-empowering, joy-igniting, what we ought to do is not ignore them, but get on our knees and cry out for the eyes of our heart to be opened.