Crux Theologorum: The Theologians’ Cross

(The theological question that cannot be answered)

1. We know that people are saved by God’s grace alone through faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We further know that such saving faith is something that we cannot produce in ourselves; rather it is a gift of God worked in sinful and spiritually dead man by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word.

1 Corinthians 2:14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

Ephesians 2:8-9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.

1 Corinthians 1:17-18 For Christ ... [sent me] to preach the gospel -- not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Romans 10:17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.

Colossians 2:13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.

2. We know that God earnestly desires all men to be saved.

Ezekiel 18:30b-32 "Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!"

1 Timothy 2:3-4 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

3. We know that those who are saved were chosen by God in Christ from before the creation of the world.

2 Timothy 1:9 who has saved us ... – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.

Ephesians 1:5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

Romans 8:28-30 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

4. We know that those who are not saved have only themselves to blame.

Matthew 23:37 "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

Ezekiel 33:11 Say to them, `As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?'

Proverbs 1:24 But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand.

Here’s the big question: How do we reconcile these statements? If God wants everyone to be saved, and people are saved only by the power and grace of God, why isn’t everyone saved?

This is the Crux Theologorum: Why are some saved and not others?

Two historic attempts to answer this question dominate in theological circles. They are:

Calvinism: which says, “Because God chose some to be saved and others to be damned. Jesus Christ died only for the chosen or ‘elect’. If you are one of the elect, you will eventually come to faith in the Gospel and be saved; if not, there is nothing you can do. God glorifies himself by condemning you to Hell.” (This is the historic position of the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Christian Reformed Churches.)

Arminianism: which says, “Because it’s a question of free will. Every person has the capacity to choose to believe in Jesus and follow him or not to. Those who choose Jesus are saved. Those who do not are damned.” (This is the historic position of Methodist and Pentecostal Churches, and the present position of most US Baptist and nondenominational Churches.)

The problem with both positions is that they deny clear Scripture. The Calvinist denies that God really wants all men to be saved. The Arminian makes a fallen human’s decision to believe in Jesus and follow him the final factor, denying that man is dead in sin and that salvation is entirely the work of God. Both positions, unfortunately, take the focus of faith off the Gospel of Christ.

How do we resolve this dilemma? We don’t. Why not? Because Scripture does not give us the answer. So instead, we acknowledge the paradox (it’s one of many in the Scriptures like, for example, the Trinity of the Godhead and the Incarnation of the Son of God), and we let what appears to be a contradiction to us to stand as it is.

And we say:

If a person is saved, it is entirely the work of God.

If a person is not saved, it is entirely the fault of the person.

But someone will protest: “That doesn’t make sense!” To which we respond, “That’s right, it doesn’t make sense—at least not to us. But then, it doesn’t have to make sense to us to be true”:

Isaiah 40:13 Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?

Isaiah 55:8-9 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

Romans 11:33-34 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?"

And there’s an important reason why the question must remain unresolved. It’s so that the salvation of humankind can rest entirely on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his work for us on the cross. Here’s why:

1. The Calvinist really doesn’t need to trust in the Gospel. His focus is taken off what Jesus did; and the big questions in his life are, “Did God choose me?” and “Am I one of the elect?”

2. The Arminian really doesn’t need to trust the Gospel either. His focus is also taken off what Jesus did; and the big question in his life is, “Did I decide for Jesus?” or “Did I choose Jesus?” Or, stated another way, “Did I do my part?”

And here’s where the failure of both Calvinism and Arminianism is revealed: sooner or later every Christian wants to find some kind of assurance of their salvation. Eventually every Christian will ask, “How do I know for sure that I am saved? How can I tell?” And here’s the problem: neither the Calvinist nor the Arminian can simply look to the cross and their Savior for assurance. Why not? Because the work of Christ on the cross for the Calvinist is only helpful if he’s one of the elect – and he doesn’t know that for sure. Likewise, the work of Christ on the cross is helpful for the Arminian only if he properly decides for Jesus and chooses to follow him with sufficient faithfulness – and of that he can never be quite certain. So, since neither can look to Christ for assurance, they must look someplace else. And oddly enough, both will end up looking in the same place. Both know from the Scripture that people are saved by faith, and that saving faith produces good works. So they end up looking for the proof of their election (Calvinist) or the sincerity of their decision for Jesus (Arminian) in their own lives. The question then becomes: “Do I see ample evidence of the fruits of faith in my life?” Or, stated another way, “Am I doing enough good works to confirm my faith?”

Unfortunately, there’s no comfort there. Such an examination will always lead either to despair or to self-righteousness. If they’re honest with themselves, they will see lots of sin, and few and flawed good works; and so be convinced of their damnation. If they’re not so honest, they may close their eyes to their many sins and deceive themselves into believing that they’re doing well enough in their Christian walk, and smugly assume they’re saved. Notice that neither is looking to Christ for assurance of their salvation. Both have made the assurance of saving faith a question of their subjective evaluations of their own works.

Fortunately for us, assurance of salvation is found only in the objective Gospel. By leaving the question unresolved to human satisfaction, God forces our faith to rest on what Christ has done for us. So, when struggling with the question, “How do I know for sure that I am saved?” we can boldly answer, “Because Jesus Christ died for my sins and rose again for my justification.” Letting the paradox stand directs the doubting soul to Christ and his work alone where it belongs.

Finally, it’s worth noting one more faulty attempt to resolve this paradox that is sometimes put forth by well intentioned but erring teachers. It’s an attempt to synthesize the election of God from eternity past with the so-called “free will” of the Arminian. The basic notion is that God foresees those who will one day come to faith in Jesus by the exercise of their free will, and in view of their proper choice he elects to save them. Theologians who support this view sometimes use the Latin phrase and say that God elects people intuitu fidei; that is, “in view of their faith”. The mistakes inherent in this idea are fairly obvious. First, it’s clear that such “election” on God’s part is not really election at all. He is not choosing or foreordaining anything. He is simply ratifying and supporting the decision of the individual that he foresees will be made in time. Secondly, salvation in this scheme is still entirely left up to a fallen, spiritually dead person’s choice. Therefore all the errors and subsequent problems related to Arminianism remain.

It is, of course, very tempting to seek some resolution to the paradox that is the Crux Theologorum. But the simple facts are these: God has not revealed to us the answer to the question. And all human attempts to resolve the problem must first deny part of what God has plainly revealed, and their answers ultimately direct a person’s faith away from the work of Jesus on the cross to something else. Therefore it is best to simply accept what God has said about this issue, trust in Christ alone, and leave the resolution of what seems to be a contradiction to the limited mind of man to God who is all wise.