Religious Liberty

Why Calvinists and Arminians (and Those in Between) Can Unite for Religious Liberty

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Next week my denomination will receive the report from a special committee tasked with seeking unity between Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention. The report concludes what I’ve long suspected: we have much more uniting us across these questions than dividing us, and most of us are ready to love one another and work together.

I think it’s important, though, to consider how both the Calvinist and Arminian streams in Christian life bring important emphases together when it comes to one of the most important questions of our time: religious liberty.

John Leland was a Baptist evangelist in the revolutionary era, who agitated Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to include constitutional guarantees of religious liberty. He railed against the Anglican state churches, with their restrictions on gospel preaching. He did so for theological reasons. At one time, he defined his theology as one that preaches “the doctrines of sovereign grace with a little of what is called Arminianism.”

I think both traditions, and the in-between place, have some things to contribute to our defense of a free church in a free state.

Many of our early Baptist forebears were thoroughgoing Arminians, defining the freedom of the human will in libertarian terms. These include such heroes as Thomas Helwys, who fought against the government’s mistaken belief that it could overrule the conscience.

Sometimes people caricature Arminians, and those who share some convictions with them. The Arminian tradition doesn’t believe that the human will is naturally free in this fallen era. They believe that God graciously empowers human beings with the freedom to choose. In fact, much of what some Christians call “Arminianism” is instead the sort of manipulative, emotional revivalism they’ve seen or heard about somewhere. Arminians are, above all people, opposed to manipulation.

They believe, after all, that the human will must make a free decision to follow Jesus or to walk away. That means a clear presentation of what the gospel entails, with all the “cost-counting” that Jesus tells us about. This must be a personal, free decision, and can’t be outsourced to or vetoed by some emperor or bishop or bureaucrat.

The Arminian tradition in Baptist life is committed to religious liberty because of their commitment to free decision. Because God has created every conscience free, they say, no church or no state can compel someone to act contrary to conscience. This is an important point, that ought to serve as a reminder even for those who don’t agree on the theological details.

After all, all Christians, whatever our theological system, affirm that all of us will stand in judgment. We will have no government agency, no denominational entity, standing there with us. We will stand with our consciences, and we can stand only with one Advocate, one Mediator. With that the case, no government has the authority to impede God’s purposes in readying us to give an account on that day.

The Calvinist tradition also has much to contribute to religious liberty. While many in the Reformed tradition have had an awful record when it comes to soul freedom, from Geneva to the Puritan colonies of New England, the same is not true in the Calvinistic wing of the Baptist tradition. Many, including the English Particular Baptists and American Calvinist Baptists such as Isaac Backus were stalwart defenders of religious liberty. Why?

Well, like the Arminians, Calvinists are easy to caricature. Some assume they believe the will is like a computer program operated by God, or that the gospel isn’t freely offered to all people. Evangelical Calvinists believe in the free offer of the gospel to all people, just as they believe in the universal command of the law of God. They believe that, left to ourselves, we will all run away from the law and we will all run away from the gospel. We see the light of Christ, and we hide because, in our sin, we don’t want to meet our God.

The Calvinist doctrine of effectual calling means that the Spirit works through preaching to overturn the power of the devil, to liberate our wills so that we can see the glory of God in the face of
Jesus Christ. God doesn’t overpower our wills; he frees us from occupation by the deceiving demonic powers.

This too has religious liberty implications, that again all Christians, even those who disagree on the theological details, should affirm. The Spirit convicts of sin; Caesar doesn’t. That means one can’t coerce faith into being or out of being with the threat of punishment, regardless of whether one is an Islamic ayatollah or a secularist parliament.

Some Baptists and other Christians agree with the Arminians more on the “how” questions of salvation. Some Baptists and other Christians agree more with the Calvinists. Lots of others are somewhere in the middle. We all agree on the “what” questions of salvation and the “why” questions of salvation. Most importantly we all agree on the “who” question of salvation: Jesus Christ crucified.

We will seek to search the Scriptures on everything God has told us. But we’re not that far apart. And even when we disagree, we can listen to the important emphases that each tradition brings, emphases that are grounded in God’s word and God’s gospel.

We all believe in God’s sovereignty and we all believe in human freedom, though we differ on the qualifications of both. But when the government tries to be the ultimate sovereign, or to coerce free consciences, we know to stand against that, and for another kingdom, together.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).