I just came back to an interesting aside in a comment by Dave Warnock on his own blog, from a few days ago. Dave was replying to my own comment there, in which I wrote:
I hold that God does not force people to be saved who specifically reject it.
I am with Peter in that I do not believe God will force anyone to come to faith (surely an oxymoron).
That word “oxymoron” caught my attention because it seems to go to the heart of why I reject the Calvinist, and indeed long before that Augustinian, position that God predestines certain people to believe, leaving them no personal choice in the matter. It seems to me, as apparently to Dave, to be a self-evident truth that faith or belief is an act of the human mind and will. Indeed this seems to be implied by this dictionary definition of “belief”:
- The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another: My belief in you is as strong as ever.
- Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something: His explanation of what happened defies belief.
- Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons.
If belief is an act or condition of the human mind, and if that mind has any kind of free will, it is indeed an oxymoron to suggest that anyone can be forced to believe anything.
Yet I am very aware that this understanding of faith or belief conflicts with one which can be traced right back to Augustine in the 4th-5th century, as he wrote (in On the Predestination of the Saints, Book I, chapter 3):
the faith by which we are Christians is the gift of God.
I am also aware that there is more to Augustine’s position than this, but I don’t want to be distracted by the details from my main point in this post.
There are nuanced versions of Calvinism, which embrace compatibilism and are not accepted by all Calvinists, according to which human free will is real but also compatible with determinism and divine predestination. I do not reject such descriptions. On this basis it is possible to hold both that God decides who he will give faith to and that each human being decided whether or not to believe.
Indeed the idea of faith as a gift can be found in the Bible, as it is listed in 1 Corinthians 12 as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But it seems clear that this is not about saving faith. It is often understood as referring to faith for miracles or healing. Nevertheless this does suggest that there is something in the idea that God gives to people the ability to believe.
So is it perhaps impossible for the human mind to believe or have faith in something beyond its normal experience, such as in the saving death of Jesus Christ or that a miracle is about to happen, apart from a special gift of God? Or can it believe such things with sufficient effort and practice? Was Alice or the White Queen right in this exchange?:
Alice laughed. `There’s no use trying,’ she said `one ca’n’t believe impossible things.’
`I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. …’
Then, can the human mind be forced to believe something against its own will? I am thinking here not so much of the Calvinism that teaches that people cannot believe and be saved without God’s help, as of the universalism that teaches that everyone will believe and so be saved. Yes, one day
at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow … and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord …
Philippians 2:10-11 (TNIV)
But that will be when faith is no longer necessary because all will see the risen Jesus. Will it then be too late to believe? Will the owners of every knee and tongue still be able to benefit from this promise?:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Romans 10:9 (TNIV)
I don’t know. But I feel sure that there will even then be some who, even though seeing the reality of the Christian message and of the fate in store for them if they do not accept it, will still choose to reject Jesus and the salvation he offers. In fact Jesus himself seems to have predicted just this, at the end of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, when he put these words into the mouth of Abraham:
If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
Luke 16:31 (TNIV)
God our Saviour … wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:3-4 (TNIV)
But he chooses not to force people to be saved, and so the inevitable result is that some will choose not to be. We can simply hope and pray that in the end only a few people will not be saved, and by repenting and believing in Jesus be assured that we will not ourselves be among that number.