Question: I got in an argument last week with a brother at church about the extent of God’s sovereignty in salvation. We both had strong convictions on the matter and Bible verses to prove our position. Neither of us won the debate and I plan to follow up next week. Where should I start?
Answer: You did not indicate which side of the debate you are on, but it doesn’t really matter when it comes to answering the question about where to start in your next conversation: You should start with love.
I am so glad that you use the word “brother” to describe your opponent, because this is oftentimes where debates over the sovereignty of God in salvation go so terribly wrong. Personally speaking, I would rather lose an argument than lose a friend.
That having been said, I would like to share an approach that has proved very helpful to me over the years. It is based on an conversation that occurred on December 20, 1784 between a Calvinist preacher named Charles Simeon and the well-known Arminian preacher John Wesley:
CS: Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
JW: Yes, I do indeed.
CS: And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
JW: Yes, solely through Christ.
CS: But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
JW: No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.
CS: Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
CS: What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?
JW: Yes, altogether.
CS: And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
JW: Yes, I have no hope but in Him.
CS: Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.
This conversation is recorded in J.I Packer’s “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” [London: IVP, 1961, pg. 13-14] and I would highly recommend this book as a resource for understanding and engaging in the theological debate between Arminianism and Calvinism.
More importantly, I would recommend even more highly that we all adopt the loving attitude and approach which Charles demonstrated in his debate with John.