Scripture presents Christians with a number of paradoxes—places where unresolved tension exists between two or more teachings. There are any number of examples. The most basic is probably the doctrine of the Trinity. Scripture teaches that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. It also teaches that there are not three Gods, but one God. This is not a contradiction—we do not say that God is three and not three (or one and not one) in the same sense at the same time. We instead recognize that God is three in person and one in essence—that He is three in a sense and one in a different sense. Paradoxes like these do not trouble most Christians today because they have been hashed out by our predecessors centuries ago. The hardest work has been done for us already; we have inherited a vocabulary and theological framework that makes these concepts less troublesome (though their difficulty becomes apparent when attempting to explain them to non-Christians). The doctrine of the Trinity remains a mystery—we do not understand the mechanics of how God is three persons in one essence. Nevertheless, the Church agrees upon a logical resolution.
Other paradoxes prove to be more difficult. The Bible provides us with sufficient detail to be able to describe who God is. However, it does not always provide us with sufficient detail to suggest answers to other paradoxes. Unfortunately, this does not stop many theologians from presenting their speculations as definitive solutions—even after they have been shown as failures because they deny parts of the paradox. Compounding the problem is that after the Reformation, the Church at large lost much of its ability to achieve unity on the kind of common theological framework that exists for earlier controversies. What is more, many improper speculative resolutions have become part of the heritage of different denominations. As a result, many of these paradoxes have become not just difficult, but thorny.
One of these thornier issues is the doctrine of predestination—that God Himself chooses who will be saved. The basic form of the paradox is comprised of three key points:
- We are clearly told that God has unconditionally elected his church to heaven from before the foundations of the world—not on the basis of what they have done, but wholly by His own work (Rom 9:1-29; Eph 1:3-11, 2:4-9).
- We are clearly told that God wants everyone, without exception, to be saved. If anyone is not, it is his own doing. (1 Tim 2:4; John 3:16; Matt 23:37).
- We are clearly told that not everyone will be saved (Mark 16:16; Rev 21:8; Matt 25:41-46).
This set of teachings is a paradox—a puzzle which many Christians have unsuccessfully tried to solve—and many traditions have their own errant “solutions.” Calvinists try to solve it with their concept of “double” predestination—that God chose some people for heaven and others for hell before the foundation of the world according to His will. They try very hard to save points #1 and #3, but do so by sacrificing point #2. The result is that God authors people into hell. Rather than wanting everyone to be saved, he wants some people to be damned and then makes it happen. Arminians, on the other hand, try to solve the paradox by means of a conditional election—God has foreknowledge of which people will choose to believe and which won’t. He then elects people accordingly. This theology jettisons point #1 in order to save #2 and #3. God “elects” based on the way we react to his offer of grace—not true election, but a mere foreknowledge or recognition rather than His sovereign choice. Finally, universalists try to solve it by declaring that everyone will be saved—that because God wants all to be saved and is entirely responsible for it, every sinner will end up in heaven eventually. This theology jettisons #3 for the sake of #1 and #2. Hell becomes a mere myth or metaphor despite Scripture’s clear teaching to the contrary.
Each of the three groups mentioned above has provided a solution that makes sense. However, it is achieved by discarding at least one of the clear teachings of Scripture–it makes sense without fitting the facts. Even worse, doing this requires obfuscating those verses which teach these things. Of course, hermeneutics which make clear Scripture unclear are unhelpful; when those hermeneutics become habits, the errors are compounded. Calvinists, for example, are forced into teaching that Jesus did not die for everyone because God doesn’t want everyone to be saved. Because God’s election is reactive, Arminians have to teach that our salvation begins to depend on what we add to God’s work (our belief, our decision, etc). Salvation ceases to be through grace alone by faith alone because of Christ alone, but hinges on our having adequate works of our own. When we obscure one teaching, it is not long before we are forced to deny others. It is anybody’s guess as to what we will be left with by the end.
How is the Lutheran approach to issues like this different? Lutherans, in contradistinction to Calvinists, Arminians, and universalists, consciously hold all three of the points to be simultaneously true. Rather than requiring a solution that makes sense, we retain the tension between them. God elects people to salvation completely apart from their works, he wants all to be saved, but not everyone is saved. We do not insist on having any explanation beyond that. There are some uncomfortable consequences to this with respect to how we teach, because we have to say “I don’t know” to certain questions. How can this be? Why are some saved but not others? We do not claim to know; we only claim what Scripture claims—that this is so. Reason wants to understand how this works, and it is right to so want. Nevertheless, in the face of the brute fact that it does not understand, reason must submit to a faith which receives assurance that in this time and place, we have been told all that we need.
Holding onto this paradox does not mean holding onto a contradiction. “God wants all to be saved but does not want all to be saved” is a contradiction. God wants all to be saved but does not save everyone is a mystery. Like a child complaining that a difficult riddle is impossible, declaring a paradox to be a contradiction is ultimately a failure in imagination. There is logical room for a solution. For example, one reality that could provide simple coherence to Biblical predestination is the possibility that God wants all to be saved but wants other mutually exclusive things as well. Which things? We do not know (although we know it cannot be our cooperation in salvation). Why mutually exclusive? We do not know (although we know it cannot be that he wants some people to go to Hell). Is this possibility even the real answer? We do not know; there could be many other possibilities. We do not know any of these things because we were not told any of these things in Scripture. We can speculate about possibilities, but have insufficient information to come up with a definitive answer. Nevertheless, we can still spot the false answers given by Calvinists, Arminians, and universalists because they disregard at least one of the sides of the paradox taught in Scripture.
This is a humbling reality. It was not given to us to be that confident fellow who has all the answers to all the hard questions. More important than being that fellow, however, is that we treasure what God has taught us in Scripture. We must be honest about our shortcomings rather than covering them up through obfuscation, oversimplification, or outright denial of what God has taught us in His word. When a paradox is handed to us, we must receive it as such.