Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Is Eternal Life Opt-In or Opt-Out?

One of my highly recommended books is Does God Love Everyone? The Heart of What is Wrong with Calvinism by Jerry L. Walls.

He does have a very good introduction to the debate between Calvinists and Arminians, and good insight into what he thinks the debate is ultimately about.

I do have a criticism of one part of his book though.

Near the end of his book, he shows his model of the process of human salvation in a diagram. He uses large arrows pointing forward to show what God does (create us in God's image, Christ dies for us, the Holy Spirit draws us, regenerates us, justifies us, sanctifies us, and glorifies us), and small arrows pointing forward for what we do (freely respond in faith, and cooperate in sanctification).1

(Note: I don't agree with Walls that sanctification is necessary for salvation - see my earlier articles here and here).

This sort of model is opposed by some theologians because, they say, even having to do a very small something in order to be saved - such as "freely respond in faith" as Walls says - becomes a human "work". This tiny "contribution" would be a source of boasting (Rom. 3:27-28, Eph. 2:8-9).

It would mean that a tiny portion of the credit for the Christian's salvation belongs to the Christian themselves, and not to God. God only gets 98% of the glory and credit and praise for the Christian's salvation, whereas the Christian individual can claim 2% of the credit and praise.

These theologians might imagine a Christian in heaven saying to themselves:

"Well, the reason I'm saved is because I believed in Jesus as my savior! Those other people who weren't saved just weren't smart enough or humble enough to believe the gospel message like I did. Clearly, I'm a much better person because I believed and they did not. No wonder God loves me! In fact, how could God not love someone as humble, intelligent, and obedient as me? Wow, I totally deserved to be saved - God simply could not be eternally happy without me here..."

So therefore, some theologians (usually Calvinist, Reformed, and sometimes Lutheran) say that the only way to avoid all pride or boasting in ourselves is to say that Christians contribute absolutely nothing towards our salvation.

They say that because we are all born with a totally corrupt and sinful nature inherited from Adam and Eve, it is only God's irresistible grace which makes Christians able to hear and understand the gospel, and guarantees Christians actually will accept it and believe in Jesus as their savior. God chooses who to give this irresistible grace to, and he doesn't give it to everyone. But if God does give it to you, you will have faith and be saved. Resistance is futile...

Instead, Walls (along with other Arminian, Open Theist, Free Grace, and usually Catholic theologians) wants to preserve some place for human free will to either accept or reject God's offer of salvation. Because otherwise, it would seem God's offer of salvation to all is not genuine. It would mean God doesn't really want everyone to be saved. This is a problem for upholding belief in God's goodness, and also a problem for interpreting many Bible verses, such as 1 Tim 2:3-4 or John 3:16.

But I think there's a way that we can affirm that salvation is fully due to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and not partly due to anything we actively do, while still not requiring us to say God's grace is irresistible.

Salvation is Opt-Out?

There are often two ways that we think of contracts. One approach is that people have to intentionally sign up or opt-in to whatever is being offered. The other approach is that a person is signed up for an offer by default, but can choose to decline or opt-out.

Unlike Walls, I do not think there is any "active" or "positive" contribution we make to our salvation. Instead, our only "contribution" to our salvation is passive non-resistance to the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, who, if not resisted, will eventually bring us to the point where we consent to believing in Jesus as our savior.

But, a person could choose to resist and reject the Holy Spirit's leading (Acts 7:51, Luke 7:30, Matt. 23:37).

Thus, salvation would be "opt-out" instead of "opt-in".

Yet, we can never claim any credit for our salvation, since without this activity of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, all people would remain stuck in sin and would never have any desire to be saved, to love God, or to do any good. Therefore, any progress we make along the way towards having faith in Christ as our savior is only due to the work of the Holy Spirit, and we can never claim any positive contribution.

Even after we're saved, any progress in giving up particular sins and growing in Christ-like character (sanctification) is also due to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and we again, choose to resist or not.

Resistance to sanctification means we may miss out on some of the good things God wants us to do (Eph. 2:10) and as a result, we might miss out on some of the heavenly rewards we could have earned (Matt. 6:20; 10:42, 1 Cor. 3:14-15). But our eternal salvation is secure the moment we first believe (Eph. 1:13-14).

GPS Analogy

I think the Holy Spirit works in people's hearts kind of like how a GPS tells the driver of a car the suggested best route to their intended destination.2

If the driver takes a wrong turn, the GPS will say "Recalculating..." and will find the shortest and easiest way to get back on track. If a person chooses to listen to the GPS, it is usually fairly easy to find a way to turn around without going too far away and wasting too much time.

However, the driver could choose to ignore the GPS and drive further and further away from the destination that the GPS is guiding them towards. They will become more and more lost, the streets get more bumpy and twisted, street-signs disappear, and soon they end up in the seedy part of town. But the GPS never gives up.

A driver could choose to turn off the GPS altogether, and thus they would never hear the warnings or promptings of how to get back towards their intended destination. We could compare this to when a person's conscience becomes seared (1 Tim. 4:2), when they harden their hearts (Heb. 3:15; 4:7), and eventually, God might give them over to a reprobate mind (Rom. 1:28).

But if a person chooses to listen to the GPS before they reach that point, then they will slowly start to be turned around. Depending on how far off course they went, they might have a longer and more difficult journey to turn around and get back on track. But if they keep listening to the GPS, they will eventually find their way back to the well-paved road with good lighting, clear signs, and pleasant scenery.

If we believe the Holy Spirit works in people's hearts from the moment they are born (acting as prevenient grace), then we can think of the journey to the point of becoming Christians as something like the above journey for a driver following GPS directions.

The exact route each person takes to come to the point of recognizing Christ as their savior will depend on their personal situation, personality, background, and may other factors, such as how easily available the gospel is to them.

If a child is blessed with Christian parents, the parents will be able to tell the child what direction they should go, what their destination is meant to be, and help them learn to pay attention to the Holy Spirit's promptings. Parental discipline can help guide a child and make the child's journey to faith in Christ easier and shorter than for someone who is not born to Christian parents.

But in any case, I believe the Holy Spirit makes use of everything available to get a person's attention and alert them to their need for God's forgiveness, the need for Christ to be their savior, and to their desire for eternal life in heaven with God.

For example, a person might be in a bookstore and a particular book with a Christian message in it might catch their eye on the shelf. They can choose then whether to stop and pick it up and examine it further, or ignore this and keep browsing.

A few weeks or months later, a Christian friend might invite them to come to church. Again, they can accept, or brush it off with a "Nah, not interested", "Maybe sometime later", or even "Oh come on, that's for losers!"

But if they say yes, then there's a chance they will hear the gospel, and can make further choices of whether to believe it or not. If they're not quite ready to accept it, but are still open to chatting about it with their Christian friend, they might eventually learn enough to be convinced of the truth of the gospel.

So each time the Holy Spirit tries to get our attention or suggest an idea or course of action, people can choose to resist it. They might distract themselves with entertainment or pleasure, might try to fill any longings for God with other things like wealth, fame, or power. They might just say they're too busy right now to think about that, and bury themselves in work or family obligations.

At each decision point, a person could freely choose to reject the direction the Holy Spirit is suggesting. If they do not, then eventually, they will be brought to a point where they can choose not to resist being brought to faith in Christ as their Savior.

Another Analogy for Salvation as Opt-Out

However, some critics might still say that a choice to not resist the Holy Spirit is still a human "work" that we could boast about. However, I think this is nonsense, as we can show by use of another analogy.

Let's imagine a person trapped in a burning house. This person actually willingly and consciously started the fire themselves, for some unknown and totally unthinkable reason.

Now, the house is about to collapse on them, and part of the house has already fallen in, pinning the person's legs under a heavy beam they cannot lift. They can't get out now even if they wanted to.

Then, a fireman runs in! He uses his axe to cut the beam and frees the person from the debris. But, the person's legs are broken! So the fireman picks them up, wraps them up in his own fireproof coat, and carries them out of the building, while receiving serious burns in the process as he shields the victim from the flames. As a result of these injuries, the fireman later dies in hospital.

Now, can we really imagine that this person, having been rescued like this from a situation that they stupidly got themselves into and could never have gotten themselves out of on their own, and who actually did nothing at all during the process of being rescued, would then say:

"Well, I clearly saved myself, because I contributed to my salvation by choosing not to resist the fireman's rescue. That fireman is lucky he had such a cooperative victim as me - now he will be remembered as a hero, but only because I was so helpful!"

No one would take them seriously. Everyone would realize this person did nothing to be saved, and so deserves no credit for their own rescue.

But it is still true that the victim could have resisted the fireman's efforts to save them.

They could have irrationally chosen to fight off the fireman, punching and biting and screaming as the fireman attempted to save their life. The fireman, after struggling with them as long as he could, would eventually have to give up, accept the sad and irrational fact that this person just doesn't want to be saved, and leave them to their self-chosen fate.

Therefore, I think these two analogies help us understand how we cannot brag that we contributed to our salvation at all, for our only role is to choose to not resist the Holy Spirit's work in our hearts.

And as a result, anyone who chooses to persistently reject the Holy Spirit's attempts to draw them to faith in Christ has opted-out of God's purposes for their lives both now and in eternity, and is fully to blame for their fate.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Jerry L. Walls, Does God Love Everyone? The Heart of What is Wrong with Calvinism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 72.
  • 2. I have heard that others use this analogy also, but this is my own idea, which came to me while watching an ad for a car while I was working out at the gym.