Consider one more interjection before I defend the thesis of my book. When I became a Christian, I was so overjoyed about being restored to fellowship with God. I was also so excited to have the huge pack of guilt removed from my back. I literally skipped. However, it was not long before my joy was sobered with two painful realities. One, I was still a sinner. Two, other Christians were still sinners. I was ready for heavenly fellowship, but instead my eyes were opened to the struggle of rugged discipleship. Wizened believers sometimes rhyme,
To live above with the saints we love,
Ah, that is the purest glory;
To live below with the saints we know,
Ah, that is another story.
We have hard work to do. We must confront destructive sin in the lives of our Christian brothers, for we are our brother's keeper. However, we must also "take the log out of our own eye" and deal with our own sin first. Our goal should be joyful, godly fellowship with all God's people. Jesus prayed for it and so we should pursue it.
Yet great divisions remain, as I have already highlighted the division between Arminian and Calvinistic thought. This division specifically highlights just how destructive sin can be -- even within Christendom. One might hope that Christians could agree on something as basic as Salvation. Yet we are reminded that we are ultimately saved by grace and not by our understanding of grace. So it continues to be extremely sad when disagreements and misunderstandings result in division.
One historic example directly related to our theme is the division between the General and Particular Baptists. I attended Baptist churches in the past and so I have some insight into this division. (However, for the record and in keeping with Jesus' prayer for unity, I am not a Baptist, but a Christian.) The division between General and Particular Baptists falls directly on the line between Arminians and Calvinists. So a study of this historic division in the body of Christ may bring understanding to our discussion.
General Baptists believe that Christ's atonement is available "generally" to all mankind, but only those people exercising the free will choice of faith are finally saved. They are classic Arminians. In contrast, Particular Baptists, sometimes called Regular Baptists, believe that Christ's atonement only applies to a "particular" subset of mankind, referred to as "the elect," who are born again to faith. They are classic Calvinists. Of course this is a simple analysis of the division for there are many other points of agreement, disagreement, and variations of thought. Furthermore, there are way more than two camps of Baptists, but many splinter groups and sects historically related to these two larger categories. Baptist Christians suffer from the same disunity found in every other category of Christian fellowship.
Why highlight this division? This division is especially useful to show us how labels and interpretations subtly shift from generation to generation placing band aides over our painful outstanding questions. Historically, the General Baptists did not thrive as well in America; the Particular Baptists did better, giving birth to the denominations we know now as the General Association of Regular Baptists, Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, Continental Baptist Churches, Sovereign Grace Baptist Association of Churches, Sovereign Grace Baptists, and others. The large well known Southern Baptist Convention remains split on the Arminian / Calvinist debate.
One interesting explanation of the Arminian / Calvinist puzzle has been hammered out in the furnace of Baptist theological debate. Many Calvinist Baptists, because of their strong emphasis on proper Biblical exegesis, have acknowledged the Scriptures I highlighted earlier (Ephesians 2:8-9 and 1 John 2:1-2). They agree that Salvation is ALL by grace. They also agree that Christ's work has atoned for ALL mankind. Yet they think that SOME people are sentenced to eternal damnation while others are saved. So how can this be?
These "Calvinists" have proposed that Christ's atonement itself must be understood to be divided into two components. The first level of Christ's atonement is "general," toward ALL mankind, but does not actually reconcile anyone fully to God. We might legitimately question what "part" of the atonement does not atone -- if it does not atone, then what does it do? Continuing, the second level of Christ's atonement is "particular" toward an elect subset of mankind, and does reconcile them fully to God. They have concluded that this is the answer to why SOME within mankind are not saved, even though the Bible says the sins of ALL mankind are atoned. This view could possibly be called the General + Particular view of the atonement.
Wait a minute!
This is starting to sound like the General and Particular Baptists all over again! We are back where we started, except this time instead of a division between Christians, we have divided Christ himself! We are well reminded that Jesus said that a "house divided cannot stand" and neither can a divided atonement.
So we see that the Arminian / Calvinist puzzle is no simple matter to explain. Instead, it causes a dizzying array of logic, interpretations, and verbal gymnastics even from thoughtful theologians and has left the body of Christ in a Full Nelson on the wrestling mat with Satan on top.