An Arminian Conundrum

Let’s be honest, texts like 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 pose a challenge to the doctrine of unconditional election.  And Arminians love to remind Calvinists of this fact. 

Over the years, I’ve discussed theology with my fair share of free will theists.  While exploring the doctrines of sovereign grace, it usually takes, oh, about 3.2 minutes before one of the above passages is unsheathed.  I’ll point to the first chapter of Ephesians, and they’ll smile and point at 1 Timothy 2:4.  I’ll ask them to consider Romans 9, and they’ll promptly turn to 2 Peter.  Know what I’m talking about? 

Here a number of us Calvinists will try to explain what has come to be known as “The two wills of God.”  But if you’ve ever gone that route before, that is, address the difficulty head on, you know it’s a tough sell.  The Arminian scrunches his face and rolls his eyes and usually dismisses the notion.  “Sir,” he replies, “you’re grasping for straws.”

Of course, the Calvinist knows he isn’t grasping for straws.  But then again, how can he help the Arminian see his point? 

Somewhere along the way, I came up with the following argument, or line of reasoning, to help elucidate the point; to help the Arminian feel the weight of the “two will” doctrine.  It’s designed to force the Arminian to adopt conclusions that make him uncomfortable, and to see that simplistic appeals to 1 Timothy 2:4 don’t at all resolve the issue.  You might call it an Arminian conundrum.     

Now to be perfectly honest, the following argument is really only meant for those individuals who are Arminian by studied choice.  Those who are unfamiliar with systematic theology, or young in the faith, should be gently shown what the Scriptures say.  I usually just point to verses and let the verses speak for themselves.             

So, anyway, here’s the argument.  It’s presented in a semi-conversational style.  Just Imagine a Calvinist being shown 1 Timothy 2:4.  He then responds as follows (It is always the Calvinist speaking):   

The Argument:

Now do you think it’s fair to say, based on 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, that God doesn’t want to see any of His sheep perish, or to put it positively, that He wants all of His sheep to attain final salvation?  Surely, He does.  Christians are especially precious in His sight.  He doesn’t want any of them to fall away and perish. 

Given this desire on God’s part, let’s conduct a thought experiment.  Let’s imagine that there’s a Christian who is going to fall away one year from now. And it’s going to be final.  No repentance.  No faith.  True apostasy.  Now given God’s desire to see this individual avoid damnation, could He alter the circumstances of the faltering Christian’s life, so as to keep him from falling away?  Maybe a subtle change in the Christian’s daily affairs could change the course of the future, kind of like those old “Back to the Future” movies?  And since God would exhaustively know all the possible scenarios, as well as their outcomes, He would know exactly what to do, right?   

Why are you giving me a funny look?

I mean really, surely the One who creates calamity (Amo 3:6), or stills it (Mk 4:39), could do this.  Right?  Surely the One who directs the steps of men (Pro 16:9), or steers the hearts of kings (Pro 21:1); the One who controls kingdoms (Isa 10:5) and hardens or softens hearts (Exo 9:12; Acts 16:4), determines ailments (Exo 4:11), or controls whole swaths of history (Acts 2:23; Gal 4:4), even down to the sinful actions of men (Acts 4:28), could orchestrate the circumstances of this faltering Christian’s life, so as to keep him from falling away.  Surely He could do it.

But before you reply, as I can tell you have much you want to say, let’s focus on one particular- just one little action.  Could God, who desires to see this Christian attain final salvation, remove the saint via death at some point before the apostasy occurs, thus sparing him eternal condemnation?  It’s at least possible, right?  Do you agree that God could do it? 

Interestingly, 1 Corinthians 11:32 appears to support this idea.  Due to their partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, some of the Corinthians died so that they “wouldn’t be condemned with the world.”  In other words, there have been people who have died due to God’s chastening.  But it is a gracious chastening, because it’s meant to keep them from being condemned along with the world. 

This is important.  Why?  Because God has set a precedent.  He can and has gone to great lengths to preserve His sheep.  One might even say radical.

Now this is instructive.  It’s instructive because if God has the desire to save His people (2 Peter 3:9), and says He has the power/capability to save His people (1 Thess. 5:23-24; Jude 1:24), and intends to save His people (John 6:37-40), and has specifically planned to save His people (Eph. 1:3-13), and has intervened to keep His people (1 Cor. 11:32; John 18:9), then this means that all Christians could be finally saved, according to this idea of gracious death.  Not one Christian would ever be lost, because for those Christians who might wander or stray, God could intervene and keep them from perishing, even if it means enacting death before the act of apostasy.

It’s possible, right?   

Now if someone argues that 1 Corinthians 11:32 is an exception and not a rule, or that God will not, or does not have to always act in this manner, then something very peculiar emerges. They are admitting that God has a reason for not acting the same way with all Christians, when it comes to their final destiny.  And if that’s the case (and it must be), then they’re admitting that the phrase “He wishes none to perish” is qualified by another plan or desire in the designs of God.

But wait a minute!  Are you really going to qualify the phrase, “He wishes none to perish” with others reasons or desires?  If so, and surely you must, then the statement “He wishes none to perish” is not an absolute statement, irrespective of other divine intentions.  If this is so, then you have just affirmed, in principle at least, the validity of the Calvinistic answer.  And what is that answer?  God has two wills or multiple desires.  That’s how we resolve the tension between unconditional election and God’s genuine desire to see all men come to a knowledge of the truth.  On the one hand, God doesn’t want to see people suffer condemnation, for He doesn’t delight in the death of the wicked.  Indeed, He genuinely wants all men to be saved.  That’s absolutely true.  But it is also true that He desires to glorify His Name and manifest His glory (Romans 9:22-23).  Given the nature of these two desires and His eternal objectives, He determines to allow a number of non-Christians to persist in their unbelief and justly suffer condemnation.

More could certainly be said here, but as it stands, you’re basically faced with two choices.  You can either:


Affirm that all Christians will be finally saved, because God can and will keep them, because He doesn’t want any of His sheep to perish.


Affirm that God has a reason (or reasons) for allowing some Christians to finally perish, even though He wishes none to perish and could do something about it.


If you choose to adopt option one, then your Arminian perspective is forced to change.  If you choose option two, then one of your favorite proof texts loses its sting.  It can’t be simplistically thrown at Calvinists, as though it immediately ends the debate.  But more importantly, the second option shakes the Arminian foundation to the core, for it suddenly creates a tremendous amount of internal tension.  All the angst that was once directed at the Calvinistic answer turns on the Arminian.     

In light of all this, I believe the discussion above forces us to do more rigorous thinking about God’s grand and eternal decrees.  At the end of the day, I’m convinced that the Reformed view of unconditional election best represents the biblical data as a whole.  That being said, mysterious elements certainly remain.  The doctrine known as “the two wills of God” would be one such doctrine.  Mystery notwithstanding, there is much we can glean from the Scriptures in this area.  And so in conclusion, I would urge you, my dear Arminian, to consider a fine article by John Piper.  It is simply entitled “Are There Two Wills in God?”  I think it provides the best framework for explaining 1 Timothy 2:4 and unconditional election.   

But I’ll let you decide. 

You can read it here: LINK


20 thoughts on “An Arminian Conundrum

  1. Austin,
    Thanks for this great article. I have a quick admonition:

    It seems that you are focusing solely on apostasy in this scenario when the text of 1 Tim 2:4 doesn’t seem to limit the discussion solely to Christians. I think this argument needs to be expanded to all individuals in order to meet the criticisms of an Arminian.

    In Christ,

    1. Hi Dave! Thanks for the admonition. However, while it’s true that I focus on apostasy, which would only apply to Christians, I begin the argument by noting that 1 Tim 2:4 would certainly include Christians, as they are a subset of “all individuals.” It’s embedded in the phrase “based on” in the first sentence. So yes, 1 Tim 2:4 does mean all individuals. But if God wants all men to be saved, then He surely wants Christians to be saved as well (attain final salvation). If that isn’t a fair deduction, then the argument still stands, but it doesn’t springboard very well from 1 Tim 2:4. I would need to reword the opening.

      Perhaps I need to make that point more obvious? Or do you think it’s fine as is?

  2. “I usually just point to verses and let the verses speak for themselves.”

    Wonder why you don’t just do that with 1 Tim 2:4? Calvinism can’t work and won’t work … but it’s always fun to watch the Calvinistic hammer “forge” anything that contradicts their view into shape! nice try!

    1. Hi Mark! To be fair, I take 1 Timothy 2:4 to mean what I think you take it to mean, namely, God does in fact want all men to be saved. The challenge, of course, is relating that fact with other biblical facts (like election). I’m convinced that the best way to fit these two truths together is to go the route of what has come be to known as the two will position. In one very important respect, God desires to see all men saved. Yes, absolutely! But He also chooses to allow some to continue in their unbelief in order to demonstrate His wrath.

      If this isn’t at all convincing to you, I would ask you to consider the argument again. Do you believe that all Christians will in fact be saved? Or do you believe that some will fall away unto damnation?

  3. Thanks for this! I am regular reader of your blog, even though I don’t count myself a Calvinist. Here’s the thing, I would point to those verses, but I also think that once a person is introduced by faith into this grace in which we stand he saved forever:

    “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” Romans 5:1, 2, NASB.

    Faith is in the substance of grace. You can’t lose it, but at one point you have to choose it. God has taken the one choice in the garden for something evil and turned it around so that now we have the one choice for something good. We only need make that choice once. You can pontificate about whether God made us choose it or whatever but it is important in the end that we make some kind of autonomous choice; otherwise how could God judge at all? Arminians think there are a zillion choices you have to keep making for good; I don’t believe that either. So I would say that you have answered well against Arminians, but for the many non-Calvinist believers who think it is by faith alone, who also believe in a very strong message of grace, this overemphasis of Calvinism on a deep mystery of predestination is what doesn’t fly.

    Maybe this is what I’m saying. All protestantism does not fall into the Calvinist/Arminian universe. You can believe what I am saying and not be either one. I’m not really sure how this is wrong.

    I am really in the middle of exploring these things for myself right now, so don’t take this as some flippant criticism, it is really a respectful comment and kind of a question – why does the kind of theology I am talking about not have more advocates? It seems very Biblical and very Pauline to me. I kind of grew up with it and it seems true upon examination, I didn’t know that in the wider world it was uncommon.

    1. Hi Jim! Thanks for sharing your thoughts… and in such a kind and gracious manner! I really appreciate it. And I hope the blog has been of some good use to you.
      You know what?

      You raised a lot of issues in your reply 🙂 I’ll offer a few random thoughts. By all means, feel free to interact with them.

      You’re right about there being different camps besides Arminianism and Calvinism. And even within those two camps there are shades of emphasis, even real differences. For myself, I do call myself a Calvinist. I think the Westminster Confession of Faith is a very good creed, especially when it articulates divine sovereignty and human responsibility. It upholds both. Check it out, if you haven’t already.
      Now to address one of your points, yes, I think men must choose. They must exercise faith. I wouldn’t want to use the word “autonomous,” as that is a pretty strong term, and one, I think, that goes beyond the biblical data. But to stress again, men must choose (The technical term that best describes my position is compatibilism). I do think, and maybe you agree, that God must effectually draw sinners to Himself. Like Lydia in Acts, the Lord must open our hearts. Or as 2 Timothy 2:25-26 says, God must grant repentance.

      I also agree that once men are born again, they will be saved forever. I think we have to be careful, however, not to downplay the warnings in Scripture. Take Colossians 1:22-23. Christians must persevere in the faith. Here I would heartily recommend Thomas Schreiner’s book or lectures on this subject. I highlighted the lectures here: Link. His book is entitled, “The Race Set Before Us.” It could be shorter, but it’s still a good read.
      As far as your last question, namely, why aren’t there more advocates of your position, well, your position sounds like what a free will Baptist would hold. Many Evangelicals in America would probably hold something similar. Many want to affirm eternal security, but deny unconditional election, as that just seems too extreme to them.

      At the end of the day, Christians must sit under the Word. They need to let it frame the issues and reorient their worldview. So I guess I would urge you, as well as myself, to do that very thing. Let the Scriptures instruct us, without imposing our man-made restrictions.

      If I can ask you: What do you believe about election (say in Ephesians 1)?

      God bless

  4. I’m not trying to put a cheesy reference to my blog, but I would rather not burden your site with a huge post, so I am going to put a link to a page on my blog where I wrote a lot of stuff about my position on this:

    I basically think it is a mystery of God, and it is supposed to be like that:

    “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.” Romans 11:33-36, NIV.

    1. I read over your position, Jim. Can I make two observations? My first oberservation would be: I think you are describing and reacting to hyper-Calvinism. The picture you paint is one where human agency is a fiction, and one where God puppets people. Reformed theology does not deny human volition. Consider the Westminster Confession of Faith here (3.1): “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

      Man genuinely makes choices.

      My second observation centers on your appeal to mystery. Here too I would agree that there are many mysterious elements to predestination. But that shouldn’t stop us from affirming and teaching what God has so plainly laid out in Scripture. Along these lines, just consider an epistle like Ephesians. Paul praises God for His electing love. It is something we should understand and believe, for it a great truth. So yes, the exact mechanics are mysterious, but the *meaning* of election is clear enough. We chose Christ, not because we were wiser than others, or merely had better circumstances, or were more humble, or whatever, but because God chose us. He opened our eyes to see the glories of Christ. And with these new eyes, if you will, we then believed.

      So yes, Romans 11:35-36 extols the mysteries of God, but surely Paul meant for us to understand his argument two chapters earlier.

  5. Austin, what a wonderful conversation we’re having, thanks! I hate to differ with the Westminster Confession of faith, honestly. I’m just some guy that probably thinks too much about things.

    I think these are a lot of words, regardless of the council that wrote them, that obscure the fact that free will and predestination are both equally and mysteriously true, which is what I’m saying as a single simple guy in fewer words. Right?

    I also think you’re right about Ephesians being clear about this. I also think Romans 9-11 is clear about both things. It really does boil down to mystery.

    1. It is a good conversation! Thanks.

      Well, I can certainly appreciate your emphasis on mystery. For it is mysterious. Nevertheless, the point I want to stress, and it would be what I would ask you to continue to consider, is what the Scriptures do in fact tell us to believe about election and free will. Sure, there is mystery, but it is mystery within well defined parameters. I think the Scriptures compell us to say that the natural man, without the Spirit of God, will never choose to believe. Their hearts are hard. They hate God. And secondly, election humbles us, for we trust in Christ because God chose us and effectually drew us to Himself. If we obscure these truths, or fail to affirm these truths, due to our stressing mystery so greatly that nothing substantial is affirmed or confessed, then one must wonder why God would spend so much time telling us about these truths. Is that a legitimate concern?

  6. Those are good points, I will consider them. Thanks for the dialog, and I love your blog. I hope you keep reviewing mp3’s, I listen to a number of them while I’m driving to work.

    1. It’s been good talking to you. It’s also a joy to hear that the blog has been useful. I plan on posting as long as mp3s are free and as long as I have hearing 🙂 Lord willing, both will continue for some time.

  7. “Do you believe that all Christians will in fact be saved? Or do you believe that some will fall away unto damnation?”

    The two-wills theory that you advance here fails because I believe God does want all men to be saved but there is more to the salvation equation than just what God wants. God doesn’t, in this case, get His way — some men choose to reject Him. “Choose you this day whom you will serve…” said Joshua. “Save yourselves from a crooked and perverse generation” said Peter. Such passages are, of course, folly from the Calvinist’s viewpoint because no one can choose anything but God.

    And that’s why the two wills theory fails. God’s will is all that matters, according to Calvin. He is sovereign. He overrules everything. So if it is His will it happens. Period. No chance otherwise.

    So if God wants all men to be saved… why aren’t they? And since God is the sole actor in salvation, the only One who determines if people are saved, and He wants people to be saved, how can anyone ever be lost? Such is a logical contradiction no Calvinist has ever been able to work out.

    Further, not only does Calvinism say some are lost, it teaches that some are lost as the express will of God. How can that be? God contradicts Himself? God could save everyone and wants to save everyone but instead damns people to hell… because?

    Again, no Calvinist has ever been able to answer these simple questions. Some offer “we cannot know” or “it’s a mystery.” No, it’s not. Calvinism repeatedly contradicts plain statements of Scriptures. Put Calvinism and its unscriptural view of God (maliciously damning people to hell for no reason or fault of their own!) away and do what you said we should do: let the Scriptures speak for themselves.

    1 Tim 2:4 says God wants all men to be saved. Calvinism says God does not want all men to be saved, and will in fact condemn millions.

    I believe the 1 Tim 2:4, and I suggest all do the same!

    1. Hello again, Mark. I can understand why you might express your view with such passion, which is certainly fine, but I would ask you to please consider a few things. Honestly, Mark, your perception of the doctrines of sovereign grace are extreme- extreme to the point of being a straw man. So allow me to reply in two ways. First, I’d like to correct a misconception. Secondly, I’d like to restate the salient points of the Arminian conundrum, so that you’ll feel its force, perhaps.

      Misconception: Neither traditional Calvinism, nor the Westminster standards, believe that “God’s will is all the matters.” Human volition is real. To say otherwise is simply incorrect. It’s a plain factual error. I can show you if you like.

      An Arminian Conundrum, re-applied: You believe that God does want all men to be saved. Hey, I agree. But then you go one to say that not all men are saved because some choose not to accept God. Fair enough. Let’s take that on its own terms. Do you think it’s fair to say God also wants His sheep to be finally saved? Sure. No doubt. But as an Arminian, as I trust you are (of some stripe), you should also believe that Christians can choose to reject Christ and fall away unto damnation. In fact, you should believe that some have done that very thing.

      Here’s where it gets interesting though. Couldn’t God intervene in the Christians life, before the Christian chooses to commit apostasy, say, by causing the Christian to die, and therefore keep the Christian from going to hell? God could do that, right? Sure He could. 1 Corinthians 11:32 appears to teach that very thing. But regardless, God could do it.

      But wait a minute! You believe that some Christians end up in hell! Why? That’s the million dollar question, Mark. Because if you say that God has another reason for allowing the Christian to perish, then you are qualifying the phrase “God wants all men to be saved.” You are in effect saying, according to your own standards, that God doesn’t really want all men saved.

      The same charge you level against me turns on you.

      So what is the answer? Two wills. We do the same thing. Here’s an awful example. A woman desires to eat ice cream. It’s a genuine desire. She wants ice cream. But she also desires to lose weight. So she has two, real desires. But given her larger intentions, she chooses to not eat ice cream.

      I believe the same is true, but on a much profounder level, with God. God is love. He doesn’t delight in the destruction of the wicked. He truly wants all men to be saved. But He also desires to display His glory (Romans 9:21-22) and absolute free grace (Ephesians 1:3-11). There are other reasons and desires as well, but I’ll only mention those. But the point is this: Both of us have to grapple with the two wills issue. We have to. The Scriptures force us to.

      So do please check out Piper’s article. It will prove very helpful.

  8. nice try … but the straw man is all yours. you wrote:

    “Here’s where it gets interesting though. Couldn’t God intervene in the Christians life, before the Christian chooses to commit apostasy, say, by causing the Christian to die, and therefore keep the Christian from going to hell? God could do that, right? Sure He could. 1 Corinthians 11:32 appears to teach that very thing. But regardless, God could do it. ”

    God has committed to letting men and women choose Him or reject Him (Acts 2:40). God will not violate that decision or force that decision, He will not override free will.

    Thus Arminians do not have two wills. We have one will of God and two actors.

    But Calvinists certainly have two wills – God who wants all saved and God who also wants to damn some (for something they never did and are not guilty of). That is an irreconciable contradiction. There is no way you can say “God wants all men saved” and “God damns some” when God is sovereign and the only actor (according to Calvinism) in salvation. God gets what God wants in Calvinism. So if God wants all to be saved why aren’t all saved?

    The I in the famed TULIP just makes it worse: irresistible grace. So God saves folks He wants saved whether they want to be saved or not. Logically one has to ask “then why not save everybody, since that is what God wants anyway?”

    Calvinism’s answer? There is none. Calvinism serves a God who sends people to hell for no fault of their own and calls that “showing God’s glory” and “absolute free grace.” Talk about calling bitter sweet! Such is arbitrary, mean, capricious and not loving. And 1 Tim 2:4 tells us it isn’t so.

    The Bible says God wants all men saved. You say God doesn’t want all men saved. I believe the Bible. I believe God does want all men saved but not all men want to be saved. Calvinism believes God doesn’t want all men saved which is why He arbitrarily predestines millions to eternal death. Who can believe it? Not anyone who “let’s the scriptures speak for themselves.”

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