If by “sovereignty,” Determinism is meant, then no, Arminians don’t believe in the sovereignty of God. However, if by “sovereignty,” Dominion is meant, such that God has dominion over free creatures, whom He made that way, in order to fill His kingdom with people who chose to love and to be with Him under otherwise adverse circumstances, then yes, Arminians do believe in the sovereignty of God.
Calvinist, Erwin Lutzer, writes: “Arminians teach that God is frustrated by the free will of his creatures. He decrees to save as many as possible, but the numbers are comparatively few. He plans and wills the salvation of all, but his goals remain unfulfilled. In fact, since God granted man free will, it is theoretically possible that no one would have even been saved.” (The Doctrines That Divide, pp.212-213, emphasis mine)
Calvinist, Phil Johnson, states: “God is not going to be frustrated throughout all eternity because He was desperately trying to save some people who just could not be persuaded. If that’s your view of God, then He’s not really sovereign.” (For Whom Did Christ Die? The Nature of the Atonement, emphasis mine)
But isn’t that self-defeating logic? For instance, what if God finds the non-Calvinist system to be more fulfilling as a whole, taking the good with the bad, then how can you say that it defeats His sovereignty if He sovereignly chose it, over an alternative, competing Calvinist system?
The Arminian perspective is not a denial of divine sovereignty, but an alternative perspective of it. For instance, in the providence of God, God has sovereignly chosen to establish parameters, provide options and allow man to make self-determined choices. A perfect example is 1st Corinthians 10:13 which states: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” God knows what you are able to handle, and He sets the parameters so that He will not allow the devil to tempt you beyond what you are able to handle, and countering that temptation, God provides the way of escape. That is every bit a matter of God’s sovereignty in action, and it doesn’t reasonably reflect Hard Determinism either. So, no, Arminianism is not necessarily a rejection of divine sovereignty at all, despite the protests of Calvinists.
Dave Hunt writes: “There is neither logical nor biblical reason why a sovereign God by His own sovereign design could not allow creatures made in His image the freedom of moral choice.” (What Love is This?, p.169)
Hunt continues: “Clearly, God’s ability and even His right to act in His sovereignty are only exercised in harmony with His other attributes, which must all remain in perfect balance. Calvinism destroys that balance. It puts such emphasis upon sovereignty that God’s other qualities are made inconsequential by comparison, and God is presented as acting out of character.” (What Love is This?, p.174)
One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians writes: “The Pharisees were NOT satisfied with his miracles, but demanded a miracle whose motivation was to exercise the sovereignty of Israel by destroying Rome! He never did such, because Sovereignty is not a motive to God, but merely a means to serve his highest values of Love and Justice. Thus, the proper way to judge an idea is to see if it contradicts love or justice, not that it contradicts sovereignty. We see, therefore, that by these criteria, Calvinism is a grave error, since its conclusions expressly uphold sovereignty while denying both love and justice.” (SEA)
Nevertheless, to a Calvinist, this represents a weak God, that can neither be trusted nor depended upon, and that a truly trustworthy and dependable God would be a God who secretly determines whatsoever comes to pass:
Calvinist, Alan Kurschner, writes: “God desires that his sheep are saved. God desires that his people are saved. He does not desire that every single individual who has ever lived, live in glory with him forever. If that were the case, we have an incompetent, unhappy, and impotent God.” (The Calvinist Gadfly, emphasis mine)
Calvinist, Matthew McMahon, writes: “I reject anything which makes God a cosmic bell-hop tending to the commands and demands of sinful men as another gospel. I reject anything which removes God’s sovereignty to place man as the Sovereign as another gospel. I reject anything which denies the sovereign decrees of God and His electing grace to put salvation into the hands of sinful men as another gospel. I reject anything which denies man’s total depravity and exalts his fictitious free will as another gospel. I reject anything which places the perseverance of man to glory in the incapable hands of a sinful man as another gospel. I reject anything which endeavors to treat God as the great Grandfather in the sky beckoning and pleading with man to be saved as changing the true God into a pitiable wimp.” (Why I am a Calvinist, emphasis mine)
Explaining what he feels is the Arminian perspective, Calvinist James White, writes: “…the Father can seek the salvation of each individual, the Son can die to secure it, and the Spirit come to bring conviction of sin, and yet the entire desire and work of the triune God collapse because of the unwillingness of the sovereign creature, man?” (Debating Calvinism, p.332, emphasis mine)
One of the most emotionally charged accusations of Calvinism is that Arminianism denies God’s sovereignty, and makes man sovereign, as espoused by James White. You’ve likely heard this objection more than any other. However, what makes this charge truly fascinating is Ezekiel 33:11:
Ezekiel 33:11: “As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?’” [TLB]
Indeed, Israel, why should you die? Because God has predetermined it so? Apparently not. Does God take pleasure in unconditionally damning billions of souls? Apparently not. Apparently God’s sovereignty and the free will of His creatures do not conflict at all. God’s sovereignty is expressed, in part, when He gets the last word, when at His name, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2:10-11) And what about Matthew 23:37-38?, in which Jesus states: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” Did it make God any less sovereign when He allowed Israel to reject Him, after having often reached out His hands of grace? (Isaiah 65:2) God allows Himself to be frustrated by the free will of His creatures, and that is entirely His prerogative. Nevertheless, as mentioned, God still gets the last word.
John Calvin writes: “We rob him of his glory if we think the Gospel is brought to us either by chance or by human will or labor.” (Acts: Calvin, The Crossway Classic Commentaries, p.338, emphasis mine)
Actually, the presentation of the Gospel is indeed a “divine encounter.” No one suggests that salvation is brought about by pure chance, accident and coincidence. To the Calvinist, The Potter [God] is free to do with His creatures as He sees fit.
Calvinist: “Can it actually be said that God works all things after the counsel of His will if He takes a hands-off approach with the salvation of the creature, man? ... I cannot believe in a God who surrenders His sovereignty to the free will of the creature, man.”
However, without Free Will, judgment against sin is groundless. Calvinistic Determinism teaches that every single thought and deed in the history of mankind is pre-determined by the hidden purpose of God. Such a theory would have to conclude that not only does God take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but also takes pleasure in the wicked themselves who do exactly as God secretly intended.
Calvinist: “Poor God. He works His poor heart out, and you end up cutting Him off at the knees by rejecting His salvation. He tried so hard to save you, but you refused. In the end, you determine your final destiny.”
Sometimes a Calvinist will hear a convincing argument from an Arminian, and then begins to doubt, but will immediately be drawn back to confidence by saying, “Well, if that was true, then God would not be sovereign, and since God is sovereign, Arminianism will ultimately be proven false.” Do you see what happened? The trap that ensnares the Calvinist is Circular Logic. Calvinists have placed God in a box, and determined in their own mind, the limit of how God can be sovereign, or else, to them, God would be weak, surrendering His sovereignty over to the creature man, ultimately rendering Him “incompetent, unhappy, and impotent.” So the Calvinist has presumed, with absolute assuredness, the limit to how a truly sovereign God can deal with His creation, with the result that all challenges against it, are ultimately met by the home base of the Calvinist’s core presumption. In other words, according to the Calvinist, God is not a weak God, and therefore being sovereign, everyone who is saved, is saved by design, and all who are lost, are lost by design. Otherwise, God is not truly in control. And since God is absolutely in control of everything, all of the time, the Arminian arguments cannot be correct. However, what if the initial presumption of the Calvinist was wrong? What if God, according to Arminianism, was not weak, not incompetent, not unhappy and not impotent? The Calvinist simply cannot fathom it, nor do they wish to try. Therefore, the Calvinist remains ensnared by his own artificial declaration as to the nature of how God can be sovereign.
When a Calvinist draws his theological line in the sand by declaring what he feels that truly meets the criteria for a “sovereign” God, then doesn’t it call into question their loyalty to Sola Scriptura, meaning, “By Scripture Alone”? As Christians, we get our “truth” from Scripture, rather than feelings. In other words, we shouldn’t be telling God how He needs to be “sovereign,” and then force the square plug of Calvinism into the round hole of Scripture. If Calvinism doesn’t fit, then dispose of it. Don’t invent “secret will” theories and “of the elect” bail-outs simply to salvage our preconceived notions about God’s sovereignty. Let God speak for Himself, and let the chips fall where they may.
John Calvin explains: “First, it must be observed that the will of God is the cause of all things that happen in the world; and yet God is not the author of evil.” (Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, p.169, emphasis mine)
However, imagine if we turned to John 1:29, and imagined John the Baptist stating, “Behold, the Lamb of God who caused the sin of the world.” Wouldn’t that be absurd? Well that’s what Arminians think of Calvinism, that it’s absurd, and that it turns the Bible into a charade.
To a Calvinist, no one in this lifetime can solve the paradox of the Sovereignty of God and the Free Will of man. The reason for this is because of what the Calvinist has presumed about the Sovereignty of God. Realize, however, that the Arminian solves the riddle of God’s Sovereignty and the Free Will of man, very simply and in this lifetime, though not in a way that is, at all, appealing to the Calvinist, which to the Calvinist, actually sacrifices the sovereignty of God. The Arminian believes that God is always in control, without necessarily controlling everything that everyone does. God sets the boundaries for what a man CAN choose, and determines the consequence, Heaven and Hell, for what a man WILL choose. The Arminian does not feel that if God were to place a man’s destiny, Heaven or Hell, within his own choice, and enabled by God to make either choice, that it would in any way detract from His sovereignty, unless God really, really wanted, for some reason, one person to go to Heaven more so than others. Calvinists do indeed believe that the only reason why they repented and received Christ was because God loved them more than others, which the Arminian feels is not only presumptuous, but also in conflict with the Bible when it states that no one comes to the Father but through the Son. (John 14:6)
One Calvinist responds: “Do Calvinists secretly believe that God chose them for some reason other than their need for salvation? Would I, as a Christian, believe that God chose me for some other reason than my need for salvation? Yes, I do. God chose me for His glory, for His pleasure, for His purposes. Sure I had a need for salvation. But that is not why He saved me primarily.”
The Calvinist answers: “In the Bible, God does not say He chose us because of our desperate need. He chose us before our need ever arose.”
Notice how Calvary is reduced to becoming a mere footnote to Election. Ultimately what it does is demotes Christ from being our sole source of access to the Father. Jesus said: “NO ONE comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6) Hence... NO ONE is plugged in with the Father until first being plugged in to His Son, upon being sealed in Him.
John Hagee states: “Jesus called a Gentile woman, a dog. He never called the Gentiles His brethren. Let me remind you of something. We did not get plugged in until the cross. We had no basis of standing with God until the cross. There’s where we were in Galatians 3 when Paul said you were outside the covenance of Israel, without hope and without God. That’s very important. Then at the cross, we were plugged in, and we received the riches of Abraham, and we received healing, and we received adoption, and we received all the cornucopia of the blessings of God. But before the cross, we were castoffs. You need to understand that.” (emphasis mine)
Consider this quote in contrast to what Calvinism teaches:
Calvinist, John MacArthur, states: “We are chosen unto salvation. We are chosen to belong to Him. When you look at your salvation, then thank God. Thank God! Because you are a Christian because He chose you. I don’t understand the mystery of that. That’s just what the word of God teaches. That is the most humbling doctrine in all of Scripture. I take no credit, not even credit for my faith. It all came from Him. He chose me. He selected people to be made holy in order to be with Him forever. Why he selected me, I will never know. I’m no better than anyone else. I’m worse than many. But He chose me.” (Understanding Election, emphasis mine)
MacArthur adds: “I’m a Christian today because before the foundation of the world from all eternity past, God chose to set His love on John MacArthur and to give him the faith to believe at the moment that God wanted him to believe.” (Understanding Election, emphasis mine)
What MacArthur means is that God, in this “most humbling doctrine,” chose him above billions of others that God created in His own image. More than that, this “most humbling doctrine” teaches that John MacArthur had a special access to the Father from all eternity, apart from Calvary. In my view, this makes Calvinism the quintessential, man-centered theology. Arminianism, in contrast, which teaches that man has no access to the Father apart from Calvary, exalts Christ’s role as sole Mediator between man and God. No one was secretly mediated to the Father from eternity past.
Here is the candid testimony of a convert to Calvinism: “Short version, I was raised ‘Arminian’ although I believed myself to be ‘Calvinist’ because I believed in Eternal Security. Later in life - after becoming an adult - someone suggested that ‘regeneration precedes faith’. I knew that to be false, so I went to bat for the truth. Every time I stepped up to knock down these heresies, I got a face full of Scriptures that seemed, for the life of me, to say that Man is depraved at his core, that God chooses who He will save based on His own purposes, not the ones being saved, and that when God moves, no one can stop Him. I kept swinging, but after awhile I realized I had lost the battle. Overcome with Scripture and unable to disagree with the logic, I found myself engulfed by a sense of awe that grace could be so large, and a sense of awe that God could be so sovereign. Never before had these two features loomed so large.” (Studylight.org, emphasis mine)
Notice what comes next:
Continuing: “I gave up the fight. I won’t do battle anymore, but I am pretty well ‘snared’ by the ‘Scripture and evident reason’ that has forced me against my desires to acquiesce to God’s sovereignty and finally made me comfortable enough to allow myself to be called ‘a Calvinist’ (although I still despise the term). In the course of my battle, my mother was swept along as well, and she has surrendered, too, but my father, raised a Presbyterian, is still a ‘one pointer’. We, however, never do battle over it.” (Studylight.org, emphasis mine)
Sovereignty is important, but sovereignty says nothing about character. Sovereignty alone, is not a basis for worship. If the devil were in charge, would Calvinists worship his sovereignty? Of course not. The primary reason to loathe Calvinism is because it’s an abuse of Christian conscience. Calvinists sometimes relay their testimony of former times where they hated Calvinism and fought against it, as documented in the case above, until they finally acquiesced to “God’s sovereignty.” Well, why did they quit fighting? Obviously their conscience was talking to them. Why did they quit listening? The reason is apparently because they got a “face full of Scriptures” which they otherwise could not answer. Do the Jehovah’s Witnesses do any less? They have a world-view to sell (about the 144,000 and the “Great Crowd”), and they too offer a face full of Scriptures. Now notice what comes next:
Concluding: “I’m sorry. The whole of Arminian theology, in my mind, elevates Man, denigrates God, and leaves me with a mortally wounded sovereign who fell victim to His creation when He surrendered to their wills. In a world where terrorists fly aircraft into buildings, where Christians are divorcing as often as non-Christians, where I live imperfectly myself, I cannot afford a God who is not sovereign, nor can I afford an elevated view of Man. I couldn’t continue the conversation in good conscience because 1) I have been forced by the biblical logic of it, and 2) having arrived here, I like it... a lot. You ask me to surrender my mind and my God, and I cannot.” (Studylight.org, emphasis mine)
Now the last part speaks volumes. It’s what a person likes, that steers them in one direction or another. Part of it comes across like a worship of raw power. In my opinion, the Calvinists should have listened to what their conscience was telling them. It’s not about what we like, or dislike, but about truth that really matters. Your conscience is from God. When it talks, you should listen, and address the face full of Scriptures without a 5-Point system being assumed into the text. God is His own person, and does things His own way. Calvinists may not like the perspective of God being shown at Matthew 23:37, and perhaps prefer a stronger God that does not weep over rejection, or a God that bursts the door down, instead of standing and knocking. But if that’s who God is, why erect your own God in His place? Calvinists often say that they just want to let God be God. But do they mean that?