A few days ago I posted some thoughts on how Christians can love those who hold to different worldviews. One of the reasons why the Christian worldview enables believers to love unbelievers is because it teaches that salvation is all of grace. I noted that when Christians are walking faithfully within a Christian worldview they will sense deep love and compassion for those who hold to opposing worldviews. In this article I want to focus particularly on the topic of compassion.
By affirming in the previous article that salvation is all of grace, I was assuming a specific view of grace; namely, a Calvinist view. And, as I’ve continued to reflect on this topic, it has become clear that only this understanding of grace provides the necessary theological grounds for a Christian’s compassion toward unbelievers. Arminian theology cannot, in the final analysis, provide an adequate basis for a believer to exercise compassion on those who reject Christ and the gospel.
By making this claim I am not suggesting that those who hold to an Arminian understanding of salvation are not compassionate to unbelievers. Indeed, I know Arminians who are exemplary in their love for others who would probably put some strong Calvinists to shame. My point, rather, is that Arminians are compassionate to unbelievers despite their theology, not because of it. Let me explain.
Calvinism, Arminianism, and the Freedom of the Will: The Basics
With regard to the important issue of God’s sovereignty in salvation, two major theological camps emerged out of the Protestant Reformation. Both camps have held that man is, because of sin, unable to repent and believe in Christ apart from God’s grace. The difference, however, comes in how each camp defines free will.
Historically, Calvinists have held that the freedom of man’s will can be defined in terms of inclination. That is, God has given man the freedom to do what he most desires. We are free in the sense that God has allowed us to act on what we most want to do. While articulated and defended during the Reformation, this position was crystallized with rigorous theological and philosophical detail in the 18th century by Jonathan Edwards’s work, The Freedom of the Will.
Arminian theology conceives of man’s will differently. In the Arminian scheme, the will is not free unless it is able to choose apart from any internal or external influences, including one’s own desires. I am free if I could have chosen one thing or the contrary of that thing I chose. If we are truly free, then there can be no immediate influence upon our wills, including the immediate influence from God’s Spirit. This understanding of the will is typically called libertarian free will.
Because these two camps view man’s freedom differently, how each understands the nature of God’s grace and how grace effects salvation in the sinner is very different. As I already noted, both theological schemes believe man is unable to come to Christ on his own for salvation: God must provide grace in order for the sinner to embrace Christ by faith. Calvinists believe the grace that God provides is an effectual grace that changes the heart of the sinner so that a person desires to come to Christ. The will is free–it does what it most wants to do–and it freely chooses Christ because God has changed the affections. Previously, the heart’s desires were only for sin and self. Now, by God’s grace, they are for Christ and holiness.
Arminians, however, holding to a libertarian understanding of free will, argue for something called prevenient grace. Because all men are dead in sin on their own and unable to come to Christ for salvation, they need grace. God therefore gives all men prevenient grace which removes the debilitating effects of the fall so that a person is now able to believe in Jesus, if he or she decides to exercise their free will. This grace is given to all people everywhere and is not an immediate, effectual grace. It merely provides man with the ability now to accept Christ, and it can be resisted. The difference comes in whether or not individuals choose to exercise their free will. Some choose Christ. And some don’t.
Compassion for Unbelievers and the Freedom of our Wills
Between these two camps, I believe Calvinism is the most coherent and does the greatest justice to Scripture. I can’t provide a full-scale defense of Calvinism here. I only want to point out that one of the deficiencies of Arminianism is that it cannot finally ground Christian compassion to unbelievers. If the brief sketch I provided above is at all clear, you may have already noticed why this is the case.
If man’s will is free in a libertarian sense and God provides grace to all men everywhere so that the distinguishing mark between believer and unbeliever is man’s choice to believe in Christ, then how can a believer feel genuine compassion for those remain in unbelief? The difference between the believer and the unbeliever is purely a result of the believer’s own actions–namely, the exercise of his free will. Both the believer and the unbeliever are equals, not only in the fact that they are made in the image of God, but because they have equal opportunity and equal ability to choose Christ.
But if you haven’t come to Christ and I have, then you are not rightly the object of my compassion, but of my scorn and rebuke. You are foolish if you do not exercise your free will like I have. We might feign compassion, but it will be self-righteous disdain in the guise of true sympathy: “God I thank you that I am not like this other man, too stupid to exercise his free will. What a poor, poor creature.”
Not Self-Righteous Scorn, but Broken-Hearted Pity
Granted, most genuine Christians won’t talk like that, regardless of their theological commitments. But Arminianism taken to its logical end can only produce self-righteous scorn, not broken-hearted compassion. Calvinism, however, is able to produce compassion in the hearts of believers because it teaches that a man in Christ is so only because of sovereign, effectual grace. Yes, the believer exercised faith, but he did so because God, by an immediate work of the Holy Spirit working through the gospel, changed the affections and enabled him to embrace Christ.
When the Christian encounters an unbeliever, therefore, he has compassion on him because this unbeliever is a spiritual hole out of which he cannot pull himself. Worse than that: he is dead and lying at the bottom of a pit and unable to recognize his desperate condition. But if we were in the exact same state prior to our salvation and it was only the unmerited grace of God that raised us to life, then we have no grounds on which we can boast about our ability to choose Christ. The Christian can now look upon the unbeliever with deep and genuine compassion while hoping that God might do the same work in this one who is still without Christ. Self-righteousness is devastated by effectual grace and scorn is replaced with humble pity. Only Calvinism can do that.