Although Christians proclaim together that God saves sinners through the atoning death of Jesus Christ, they reach different conclusions regarding both the scope of Jesus’ death (for whom did he die?) and also its effect (did it actually save anyone or only make salvation possible?). Calvinists conclude that Jesus died only for the elect, whose salvation his death assured. Non-Calvinists conclude that Jesus died for all people, whose salvation his death made possible but not certain. Since the Reformation, and even since ancient Augustine, advocates of these two views have advanced their alternate understandings.
After centuries of vigorous study, discussion and debate, it appears that full unity of understanding on this subject is likely impossible. All participants acknowledge that God is truly sovereign and humans are truly accountable, but none can explain how these apparently irreconcilable realities both are true at once. As a result, most people finally choose to emphasize either divine sovereignty or human responsibility and then work out their theology accordingly.
It is as though we are standing before two giant pillars that rise upward from the earth into the clouds and out of our sight. Somewhere above the clouds in a place we cannot see, the two columns actually unite in a perfect arch. What is paradox to us is clear to God. (I have visualized this illustration in a short Power Point program based on Romans 8:28 click : paradox
From the heavenly perspective, there is no contradiction between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. On the earth, however, disputants rage and their followers imagine vain things. Tempers flare, voices rise and fingers point. What begins as a humble search for truth too often mixes with pride to produce hardened opinions which, charged by testosterone, degenerate into vitriolic denunciations by warring sects. The world that does not yet know Christ observes the infighting among those who claim to represent him and passes by on the other side of the road.
The Calvinistic/non-Calvinistic war of words has lasted long enough. It is time for both sides to move beyond it by a mutual acknowledgement of orthodoxy (though not full agreement) and an extension of Christian love. Among people of good will, there is even room for enormous progress toward a common understanding of the mystery of divine grace. Despite the fears and charges of their theological opponents, Calvinists do not necessarily make God responsible for anyone being finally lost and non-Calvinists do not necessarily credit salvation to the merit of anyone finally saved.
Indeed, certain Calvinists and certain non-Calvinists alike have offered biblically-based versions of their understandings that narrow the traditional doctrinal and emotional gaps. On both sides of the issue, these versions of the respective cases insist that those finally saved are saved only by God’s grace and those finally lost are lost only because throughout life they personally and persistently rejected the gracious God.
Believers on both sides of the Calvinist/non-Calvinist divide can do much to narrow doctrinal and emotional gaps, and they can do that with integrity. For behind the rhetoric and beneath the arguments, some believers on both sides already agree that those finally saved are saved only by God’s grace, and that those finally lost are lost only because they personally rejected the gracious God.
Some Calvinists, for whom Neal Punt is a leading spokesman, believe that only the elect are saved, but define the elect to include every human being — except those who personally and persistently reject God throughout this life. Other Calvinists, represented by Terrance L. Tiessen, do not define the elect so broadly, but believe that the non-elect also have a potentially-saving encounter with God at least once during this life, at which time God enables them to believe and be saved if they will do so.
Additionally, there are moderate Calvinists who accept four-and-one-half petals of the TULIP’s five but deny that God decreed the damnation of any. Along with Punt and Thiessen, these also can point for support to Luke’s mixed account of the reaction to Paul’s synagogue preaching at Pisidian Antioch. Those who “had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48), while those who disbelieved “judged [themselves] unworthy of eternal life” (v. 46). Ultimately, there is only a human cause for anyone being lost (see the “because” in John 3:18). Ultimately, there is only a divine cause for anyone being saved (there is no human “because” in John 3:16, only a human result).
Non-Calvinists can help bridge the chasm between themselves and their Calvinistic brethren by recognizing that Jesus’ atonement has both objective and subjective elements and by speaking in terms of both. By his sacrificial death, Jesus objectively made atonement for the sins of all humankind and created reconciliation for every human being to the Father. However, each person subjectively accepts and enjoys that atonement and reconciliation only by faith. Any human being can by disbelief reject God’s atonement and reconciliation and be lost.
Scripture regularly speaks of Jesus’ atonement both as objective (“O”) and subjective (“S”) reality. Paul affirms that “God was in Christ reconciling (O) the world to himself” and so we urge people to “be reconciled (S) to God” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20). He says that “God is the Savior (O) of all people, especially of those (S) who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). John writes that Jesus Christ is “the propitiation for our sins (S), but also for the sins of the whole world” (O) (1 John 2:2).
Nor do non-Calvinists necessarily credit salvation in any way to the saved, but to God alone. That is especially true when, like John Wesley, they acknowledge that God gives “prevenient” or “enabling” grace which empowers fallen humankind to repent and believe the gospel, and without which that would be impossible.
All said, Calvinists and non-Calvinists will still have real and serious differences. Nevertheless, for the sake of the gospel and in the interest of a unified witness, surely disputants on both sides can soften their tones, lower their voices, credit with good faith those with whom they disagree, and sit down together as brothers and sisters around the table of the Lord.