In a book review yesterday, Roger Olson expressed his puzzlement about how God’s giving rewards to believers in the final judgment coheres with Calvinism’s monergistic understanding of sanctification. He wrote:
“My fear is that Spence, and Calvin before him, rob rewards of any meaning and imply that God is actually rewarding himself and not believers. If that is the case, why mention rewards at all? Why preach or teach heavenly rewards as motivation for obedience and service as the New Testament clearly does?
Ah, yes…the Calvinist will say “foreordained means to a foreordained end.” Back to that. But this seems to take to an extreme a right emphasis on God’s sovereignty and glory. The upshot of it all, then, is that whatever a believer is or is not accomplishing is out of his or her control. And that at the judgment seat of Christ all God will be doing is rewarding himself. Now, this might make sense WERE IT NOT FOR THE DEGREES OF REWARDS ISSUE. Clearly there will be degrees of rewards. How is God glorified in awarding to himself a lesser reward than is possible?
My point is that the Calvinist doctrine of rewards involves a conundrum. It actually makes no sense at all. Which is perhaps WHY preaching and teaching about heavenly rewards has virtually ceased. They only make sense within a synergistic view of sanctification.
In the past, and perhaps to some extent still today, SOME Reformed preachers have taught that justification and regeneration are monergistic while sanctification is not. That doesn’t seem to fit with a consistently Calvinist understanding of God’s sovereignty, however, and as Calvinism has become increasingly consistent under the influence of people like Sproul and Piper (and yet, in my opinion, still very inconsistent) any element of synergism, even in sanctification, is slipping away (if not totally condemned).
It seems to me that heavenly rewards is an inescapable biblical truth. Calvin believed that. Obviously Spence believes it. Who can even deny it? And yet it makes no sense within a strictly, consistently monergistic soteriology (in which even sanctification is interpreted as solely God’s work to the exclusion of any free human contribution in which “free” is understood as power of contrary choice).”
I understand Roger’s puzzlement. Although compatibilistic human freedom seems to me to be the clear entailment of the biblical description of God’s sovereign grace in human salvation, I can’t penetrate its mystery. I know that humans are morally responsible for their actions, because Scripture clearly teaches this. Unbelievers are accountable for their unbelief, even though they could not believe unless God graciously granted them faith, which he has chosen not to do. Humans have authentic, morally culpable, agency, even though their decisions are made within the will of God’s eternal purpose. J. I. Packer called it an “antinomy.”
Roger is puzzled about God’s rewarding of the good deeds of his people, the goodness of whose deeds is creditable only to God, to whom the glory therefore belongs. But this puzzlement is not a new one for him. When I commented on his book (Against Calvinism), we frequently noted his fundamental objection to compatibilism, because he considered divine determination incoherent with human moral responsibility.
While not pretending to solve the mystery, all I can say to Roger is that whatever it is that grounds human moral responsibility within a compatibilistic framework is what makes it valid for God to reward the good deeds of God’s people, whose deeds were good only because of the work of God’s sovereign sanctifying grace.
At the same time, however, I am prompted to repeat my counter puzzlement. Roger is (thankfully!) insistent that the glory for the good deeds done by God’s people, through their incompatibilist freedom, belongs to God, before whom we will cast our crowns. I do not think that Roger has any clearer explanation of the non-meritoriousness of human faith and obedience within his synergistic soteriology than Calvinists have of the moral responsibility of compatibilistically free creatures.
Both of us are left with mystery. So we cannot choose between monergistic soteriology (e.g. Calvinism) and synergistic soteriology (e.g. Arminianism) on the basis of logical coherence. We must make that decision on the basis of the overall biblical teaching concerning the degree to which God has chosen to control the outcome of his gracious work in human history.
This being said, however, I’ll put on the table for your consideration and comment a thought that has been rumbling around in my mind of late. It has been dawning on me that although I find the soft-compatibilist account of human freedom most plausible theologically, I act as though I had libertarian freedom. Precisely because it is difficult for me to explain my moral accountability when I act compatibly with God’s determinative government of human history, I always approach decisions indeterministically. I act as though I have the power of contrary choice, as though I could do a) or b), and I choose between them, always aware that if this choice is of a moral kind, I will give account to God for the choice I make.
It may seem to Roger (or other synergists) that my practice of acting as though I were libertarianly free invalidates my conviction that I am soft-compatibilistically free. At this point, I see no other way to proceed in my daily life, both prospectively and retrospectively. But I take this to be the entailment of the mysteriousness of the interplay of divine and human agency, of our limitations in defining the nature of human freedom. And I see evangelical synergists in no better position than evangelical monergists on this point. We both plead mystery eventually.
I welcome your perspectives on this, which will also serve to address the puzzlement that Roger and I have with one another’s conception of human moral responsibility and sole divine glory, which both of us affirm, though we conceive their coherence differently.