At once mysterious and compelling, the question of how human beings obtain salvation and whether they can lose it has preoccupied Christians of all traditions for centuries.
While theologically conservative Christendom (made up of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism) shares significant common ground on most essential doctrinal issues, there is a spectrum of views on the freedom of the human will. In this article we’ll address the question of freedom as it relates to whether salvation is initially graspable and whether it is resistible once it has been apprehended.
Three Questions about the Human Will
Three key questions about the human will and its relationship to salvation offered in the gospel of Jesus Christ help to focus the issue. Here we’re considering how both sin and grace may impact the human will.
- Just how free is the human will when it comes to salvation?
- Does sin or the fallenness of human beings limit the human will in its ability to respond to the initial message of salvation?
- Does God’s grace limit the will’s capacity to reject salvation after it has been initially received through faith?
These three questions are intended to get us thinking about whether salvation is genuinely graspable in sin (or as sinners) and resistible in grace (or as believers).1 To put the issue popularly one can ask: (1) When salvation is offered can it be grabbed by all people and (2) After it is embraced can it then be let go of and lost? The first part relates to whether the human will can rise above sin and clasp salvation; the second part concerns whether that same will can cause the loss of one’s salvation.
Four Perspectives within Christendom
This question of the freedom of the will as it relates to salvation is generally reflected in four perspectives within theologically conservative Christendom. These four may not be the only views but they all seem to be distinct theological perspectives. I will present them very briefly and encourage readers to look to the references for more information.2
All four of these views accept that salvation in Christ is ultimately achieved by divine grace and not accomplished by mere human effort. In other words, all branches of conservative Christendom affirm either the exclusivity of grace in salvation (classical Protestantism) or the primacy of grace in salvation (Catholicism and Orthodoxy). However, these perspectives differ about how that grace comes to human beings and to what degree it affects the human will.
1. Salvation Is Both Graspable and Resistible
Eastern Orthodoxy, modern-day Roman Catholicism, and Arminian/Wesleyan Protestants seem to affirm that salvation is both graspable and resistible.3 God’s grace comes either sacramentally (via the church sacraments) and/or preveniently (prior to salvation) and cooperates with the human will to make salvation graspable. Also, human freedom remains operative after salvation, allowing a person to resist grace and thus be potentially lost. So this view seems to reflect a high view of human freedom and underscores the importance of human cooperation with divine grace. This view may be the most popular perspective within all of Christendom.
2. Salvation Is Not Graspable but Is Resistible
Historic Lutheran theology seems to teach that salvation is not graspable because of the powerful and negative effects of original sin. On this view sin causes a serious restriction of the human will. Thus God’s regenerative sacramental grace must specially enable a person to believe the gospel. But salvation is resistible once it has been received. Yet the resistible part must be qualified by saying that though some people may apostacize, the elect (those specially chosen by God for salvation in eternity) will never be lost because of God’s sovereign choice in election.4 Lutheran theology seeks to preserve divine mystery on these profound theological issues concerning the human will.
3. Salvation Is Graspable but Is Not Resistible
Some Protestant evangelicals affirm that a person’s will can choose to cooperate with the grace of God and grasp salvation. Like the first view, this position affirms a high view of human freedom. But once salvation is gripped it cannot be resisted; thus, salvation cannot be lost.5 Descriptions of this popular evangelical position include “eternal security” or “once saved, always saved.” On this view the person can say yes to God’s offer of salvation but will never subsequently say no to it. This position may be the most popular view within conservative evangelicalism.
4. Salvation Is Not Graspable and Is Not Resistible
In Reformed (Calvinistic) theology original sin has caused total depravity (sin has affected a person’s entire being) and thus caused total inability (human beings are unable to grasp salvation). Thus God’s special efficacious and regenerative grace must work in the human heart before a person can grasp salvation (grace uniquely enables the human will). Moreover, Reformed theology posits that salvation cannot be lost because God’s sovereign grace will ensure that the elect will indeed persevere in the faith.6 This view sees human “freedom” as in bondage to sin. Irresistible grace then frees human beings to grasp salvation and ensures their continued connection to salvation.
On Being Gracious
All four views affirm grace in salvation but differ over its form, extent, and result concerning the human will. Some of the debate among Christians concerning such controversial doctrines as election and predestination relate to this issue of sin and the human will’s ability to grasp and then resist salvation.
I hope this brief and popular introduction to the issue of whether salvation can be grasped and resisted helps you to understand the diversity that exists within Christendom on this controversial issue. Christians don’t agree on all doctrinal matters, but if we endeavor to understand our doctrinal diversity we may be able to work better at both discerning truth and respecting theological differences.
Reflections: Your Turn
Which of the four positions do you affirm? Why?
- My thinking on this topic was first influenced by theologian Richard A. Muller, see https://www.theopedia.com/richard-a-muller.
- Some of the issues in this article are addressed in Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation.
- See Catechism of the Orthodox Faith, Catechism of the Catholic Church,
and the Arminian/Wesleyan/classical work by Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (see Part II, chapters 3 and 4).
- See the Lutheran work by John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (see sections on the doctrines of man, freedom of the will, and means of grace).
- See Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free.
- See the Reformed work by Louis Berkhof, A Summary of Christian Doctrine (see chapter 4).