As Calvinism now seems to be all the rage in certain circles of the church, a number of people have come recently to me with questions on it, as they have not embraced this theology (view of God and His plan). One of my issues with this doctrine is that it seems many times when one becomes an adherent of it, it seems to take over their life. It determines who they fellowship with, what they talk about, and their new sense of mission is not to make lost people Christians, but Christians Calvinists. It thus becomes very divisive. I have always held back my beliefs on this out of respect for other believers, but now it seems I can no longer do this.
For the uninitiated (blessed are you), Calvinism is a theological position that asserts that God alone chooses who will or will not be saved, because man is too lost even to respond to the offer of salvation (this is called “total depravity”). God alone knows the reasons He picks some and not others, but since all are deserving of hell, He is perfectly justified in choosing whom He wills. If you are not chosen, there is absolutely nothing you can ever do to respond to the offer of salvation. Other beliefs are associated with this – “limited atonement” (Jesus did not die for everyone, but just for those who are ‘chosen’), and “perseverance of the saints” (we know who are the chosen because they’re the ones who stick it out to the end). Calvinism gets it’s name from John Calvin, a contemporary of Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestant Reformation starting in 1517. Many Calvinists prefer the term “Reformed”, or more recently “doctrines of grace”, but I take issue with both, as I am a child of the Reformation (justification by faith, the scriptures as sole authority, etc.), without being a Calvinist. I most certainly believe in grace, so I don’t appreciate their attempt to hijack these more universal terms in order to make their doctrine more widely accepted. It’s deceptive and insulting to many of us. It’s like “liberal” becomes “progressive”, so if you’re not liberal (politically, socially), then you’re just not progressive. You’re stuck in the past. Many neo Calvinists are taking the same attitude – we’re the orthodox faith, and if you don’t line up, you’re not into ‘grace’ or you don’t accept the ‘reformation’. So… I for one will continue to use the word “Calvinism”.
Problems with “determinism”
Of course, all Bible believing Christians believe in the ‘sovereignty of God’, and that God has a chosen people the Bible calls “the elect”. He has predestined certain things to happen. The difference is how we view this. As a non Calvinist (I’m supposed to be an “Arminian”, but I prefer to call myself just a New Testament Christian), I believe the vast majority of scriptures Calvinists use to say that God predestines certain people to be saved and others to be lost do not refer to individual salvations but to the larger (corporate) purposes of God. For instance, the classic passage used by Calvinists is Romans 9. There we read how God chose Jacob over Esau without any actions either took, and how He hardened Pharaoh’s heart to purely exercise His sovereign will. However, all of the examples given refer to God’s people, Israel, being raised up and delivered by His mighty hand. It was Esau not, Jacob who was the first born and should have been the heir of Isaac and Abraham, whom God chose to lead His people. It was Esau’s birthright, not his salvation that was at stake (Gen. 25:29-34). We have no indication that Esau turned away from God. He and Jacob were reconciled in the end (Gen. 33). Pharaoh is mentioned as a head of state, not as an individual. God endured him as a vessel of wrath (Rom. 9:22-23) so that Israel could multiply as a nation in Egypt and be let go with signs and wonders in what has become one of the most famous acts in all of history. It was the historical development of God’s people that was being dealt with in all these passages. Most Bibles even begin this section of Romans with a subtitle such as “Israel’s Rejection and God’s Purpose”, as mine does. There is nothing said about individual salvations here anywhere, and I believe it is a dangerous extrapolation to teach otherwise. Paul even ends Romans 9 with the teaching that the Gentiles receive salvation (righteousness) by faith (and not just because God chose them) and not by the works of the Law, as the Jews did, and that this is the unfolding of God’s sovereign plan, something the Jews found offensive, as they were considered “the elect” up until this time. The entire section of Romans 9-11 deals with God’s purpose for Israel and the Gentiles. Paul spills much ink in the scriptures on this subject throughout his epistles, and this is the main reason he was so persecuted by the Jews.
There is not enough space in this brief essay to give all the scriptures critiquing Calvinism, but for me, the “elect” or “chosen” has to mean something different than God arbitrarily choosing certain people and leaving everyone else without hope because of the entire sweep of the Bible where God provides salvation and offers it to mankind. A few of these passages:
- Gen. 4:7 – God tells Cain that “if you do well, you will be accepted, if you do not do well, sin is waiting to dominate you.” Why would God tell Adam’s first offspring that he has choices, if he is so corrupt he can neither make choices, or even respond to God’s overtures, as Calvinism teaches? For that matter, when God tells Adam and Eve the curses in the garden in Gen. 3, why not tell them how corrupt their natures now are, since that would be that main effect of the Fall of man?
- Deut. 30:19,20 – as Israel nears the promised land, God rehearses His history with them and tells them to choose life. They were not born again and still had the old nature, so they shouldn’t have been able to choose anything.
- Matt. 22:37-39 Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they ‘were not willing’ to come to God.
- Mark 6:6 – Jesus marveled at their unbelief. Why do that if God did all the choosing?
- Acts 7:51 – How could Stephen condemn people for ‘resisting the Holy Spirit’, if they have no choice in the matter?
- Acts 17:30 – How could Paul tell people that God commands every man every where to repent?
- Rom. 2:5-11 How could Paul say that God “will render to each one according to his deeds”, not to just the evil but to the good (v. 7), and that there is no partiality to with God (v. 11), if God indeed is partial to some and not to others, for reasons we can never know in this life (that is, when we have the opportunity to actually respond to His will)?
- Heb. 3:8 – How is it possible to harden our hearts and not hear His voice if grace is irresistible? (also Ch. 4:7)
- 2 Pet. 3:9 – How could God be “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” if in fact He is willing that most perish?
Multiple times over a 40 year span I’ve studied and reviewed the scriptures on this, thinking, “Am I missing something here?”. The plain sweep of scriptures speak of God appealing to man, judging him for wickedness, and rewarding both his faith and his righteous deeds, both now and forever. There are many other passages I could cite, almost in every chapter of the Bible, but I will conclude with a summary verse from the last chapter in the Bible,
“Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.” (Rev. 22:17)
Of course, there are a number of passages where the scripture does talk about God’s chosen people, or His predestined purpose. But, for the reason’s cited above, I cannot take the Calvinist position on these. I believe when the Bible talks about “the chosen”, it refers to:
(A) His sovereign purposes (Israel, the Church, nations) or vessels, such as the apostle Paul (for good), or Pharaoh (for evil). I cannot find any scripture that definitely teaches that God randomly picks people for eternal damnation, without any actions on their part bringing this about.
(B) His foreknowledge of who will and will not respond, as taught in Rom. 8:29.
The ‘two wills of God’
The Calvinists have an explanation as to why God seems to will for man’s good and seems to offer him a choice, when in fact it’s all an illusion and it’s all been predetermined. It’s called “two wills”. God has a moral will and a sovereign will. His moral will is that we would have never sinned to begin with. His sovereign will has to override that because we did. John Piper (probably the primary leader in the neo Calvinism movement today) goes into great lengths in his book, “Does God Desire All Men to Be Saved?”, where he attempts to explain the many seeming contradictions in scripture with divine determinism, which is the belief that God’s sovereign will now overrides man’s ability to choose. His theses is stated as “We must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen.” (p. 22) God seems confused here.
Piper cites many examples in scripture where God seemed to act contrary to His moral will of good and benevolence by judging and punishing men and nations, culminating in causing men to murder Jesus (murder is against His moral will). But his examples only underscore my point. Almost every example given is for God’s sovereign purposes for kings, nations and special servants (prophets, apostles, Messiah, etc.), not for man’s individual salvation. I do believe God’s sovereign purposes are beyond the will of man. Praise God for that. Man cannot thwart His march through history!
The only examples Piper gives toward individual salvation are Mark 4:11-12 and Rom. 1:24-28. Both of these passages again confirm what I’m saying.
In Mark 4, Jesus did not speak plainly but in parables “lest they believe”. If the ability to believe is all the sovereign work of God, then why does it matter if they heard or understood the Word of God? Those of us who reject this doctrine teach that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:18), not from some arbitrary hidden decision of God’s sovereignty. This is also indicated in another passage Piper quotes, John 6:44, where Jesus said that “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him”, a passage frequently quoted to support Calvinism. However, they leave out the next verse, 45 “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me”, indicating that it is through the anointed Word of God that people are drawn to Jesus.
Rom. 1:24 starts with the preposition, “therefore”, referring to the preceding verses (v. 21-23),which states that the reason God “gave them up” to corruption was because of their choices to ignore Him, their pride, and their idolatry. This is in accord with the entire teaching of scripture, where it states why God judges man, even to letting him be deceived and corrupted (see 2 Thess. 2:9-11).
How do you see God?
Does it matter what you believe about all this? Maybe or maybe not.
Austin Fischer, a young ex Calvinist and author of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed writes – “Our opinions about God will not change God; however, they can most certainly change us.” (http://purpletheology.com/black-holes/).
“If we are confused about God’s election and God’s universal invitation to salvation, we will not love the world as we ought.” (John Piper, “Does God Desire All Men to Be Saved?”, p. 11).
No matter how you slice it, if you’re a Calvinist, you have a God who sends people to endless torment simply for having the fallen sin nature of Adam, if they’re not the “elect”. No hope ever of salvation in this life. You can say they deserve it all you want because they’ve sinned, but you’re condemning them to hell because of Adam’s sin, not theirs, and certainly not for rejecting Christ. No way around it. You also have to accept that you may have children, and you can pray all you want for their salvation, teach them diligently the way of salvation, model wonderful Christianity to them, and it means absolutely nothing if they’re not the elect. I hope you’re okay with that, because I’m not. Do the Calvinist teachers really accept this reality? Is this why Matt Chandler, in his sermon “Does God Have Two Wills?”, a message where he professes Calvinist theology answers the question “What would you do if you suspected one of your children was not the elect?” with “I would beg God for their salvation!” You hear many such contradictions from those who profess this doctrine.
In Matt. 22:1-14, Jesus tells a parable which I believe wonderfully illustrates both free will and God’s sovereignty. A king had a wedding feast for His son, clearly a reference to God’s people (the elect) who will gather in the last day to begin their eternal romance with Jesus (Rev. 19:7). However, those who were invited refused, which the Bible exhorts us consistently not to do. So, the King sent his servants (witnesses) out for others to fill His House. God in His sovereign purpose decrees He will have a people. He will keep appealing until enough respond. Just like the disobedience of the Israelites didn’t destroy His purpose of bringing them into the promised land, it only delayed it. His purpose will be fulfilled. Jesus then ends the parable with the instructive statement, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (v. 14). God calls many, but “chooses” (elects) those who respond to His call, much like a military recruiter would send out many invitations and ‘choose’ those who are willing to meet the conditions (see Matt. 16:24-26).
Love and tolerance
No matter how objectionable the ‘other view’ is in this issue to any of us, we should treat those who hold those views with love and respect, and not get into the trap of judging their motives as to ‘why’ they embrace such a view. Or look disparagingly on them as if they possess a ‘lesser’ Christianity. I’ve benefitted from the teaching of a number of Calvinistic pastors such as Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller (on other subjects!). We are, after all in the same family. I suggest we all use the majority of our energy reaching beyond our walls to those who are truly without God.