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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Some Thoughts On Calvinism

A regular reader asked a few days back if I could share some thoughts on the issue of Calvinism. Since that is such a non-controversial topic I decided to oblige. Actually I have had trouble determining exactly where to start.

Calvinism simply stated is the proposition that God exercises his sovereignty in such a way that he determines who goes to hell and who goes to heaven, that is some are predestined to heaven while others are predestined to hell.

Calvinism is embraced in varying degrees of severity. There are primarily five positions that are assumed in the theological context of Calvinism.

Total depravity
Unconditional election
Limited atonement
Irresistible grace
Perseverance of the saints

Total depravity - depending on how this is defined I would embrace the concept. I would assent to the fact that man is incapable of doing any good apart from redeeming grace. We have no capacity to do anything to merit the favor of God. Faith does not merit us God's favor, Christ does. Our faith is not meritorious the work of Christ on our behalf is. Faith is not a work.
Romans 4:16 - Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; . . .
Romans 11:6 - And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.

Unconditional election - I'm not sure about this one?? Salvation is not unconditional. It requires repentance and faith. Of course many Calvinist would contend that one can not repent and believe unless God enables them. I would contend that the ability to repent and believe is something for which all men have the capacity and that both of these heart responses are the result of exercising the will. Of course the Calvinist would argue that the will is in bondage and it cannot respond to God. This is one of Luther's primary arguments in his book Bondage Of The Will, which was written as a rebuttal to Erasmus' tract challenging Calvinist doctrine. I have read Luther's book and while he made some interesting arguments I was not convinced. I also was very turned off by the tone of Luther's writing. He was very vindictive and condescending.

Limited atonement - This is the most offensive of the five points in my estimation. It is the position that Christ only died for the elect, that he did not die for the whole world. This, in the face of many verses that surely indicate he loved the whole world and died for the whole world. He died for sinners. That means that if you are a sinner then Christ died for you. He died for the wicked. That means if you are wicked then Christ died for you. He died for the transgressor. That means if you are a transgressor then Christ died for you. Since every one is a wicked, transgressing, sinner then I am compelled to confess that Christ died for everyone and his atonement is unlimited in its offer and only limited in its application (those that repent and believe the gospel).
1John 2:2 - And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
For the Calvinist the word all does not mean all, it means the elect.

Irresistible grace - If I understand correctly Calvinist believe that the call of God to salvation is effectual and that there is no resisting it. If you can resist it then it was not the call of God they would have us believe. I cannot accept this premise. To do so, in my mind, would make much of the Scripture a sham. The many places where we are told that people did resist God.
Proverbs 1:24,25 - Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof.

Perseverance of the saints - I too believe that true saints will persevere to the end.
Matthew 10:22 - And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.
Matthew 24:13 - But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. Mark 13:13 - And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
They persevere because they are saved, not in order to be saved. That subtle difference is key.

Much of the controversy concerning Calvinism is rooted in the sovereignty of God and how that sovereignty is exercised. I think we must be careful that we do not dictate to God how his sovereignty must be exercised. I believe the Calvinist err at this point.

Psalms 115:3 - But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.
Psalms 135:6 - Whatsoever the LORD pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places.
Isaiah 46:10,11 - Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure: Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.


I had a Calvinist once present me with a whole list of verses similar to the ones above and he asked me what I thought about them. I said I believed them and he took offence. I don't know that we disagree that the Lord can do what he wants. That is not in dispute to my knowledge. The question is what does he want to do? It is important that we remember that he is in heaven and we are upon earth. We cannot always know what he wants to do. When it comes to the exercise of his sovereignty in the saving of men I think some things should be noted.

None of us deserve to be saved.

He could choose to save whoever he wanted upon what ever basis he determined. Had he chosen to save everyone over 5'10" no one would have a right to complain. He is showing mercy. And as God he can show mercy to whomsoever he will. If he chose to show mercy only on tall people we would have no basis upon which to question the exercise of his sovereignty.

Romans 9:15,16 For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.

Romans 9:20-22 - Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, . . . .

We do not question that he saves who he wants. The question becomes who does he choose to save? I think the Bible make it quite clear that he chooses to save those who repent and believe the gospel.

I think the Calvinist see the doctrine of man being a free moral agent as a threat to the sovereignty of God. In my estimation this is a weak view of God. God does not have to determine every act and thought of man in order to secure his sovereign control over his creation. He can allow man the absolute and unfettered ability to exercise his will and even in that context ultimately have his will done. The Calvinists want to place in conflict the sovereignty of God with the teaching that man is a free moral agent. In doing so, one or the other must of necessity give way. For the Calvinist it is the ability of man to exercise his will that is sacrificed to sustain the sovereignty of God. It is my view that neither need be sacrificed. I have a God that is big enough and wise enough and sovereign enough to let man exercise complete freedom of will and still ultimately have his will done. The Calvinist set up the same dilemma that is arranged in the question, "Can God create a rock he cannot move?" The Calvinist's question is just a little different. Can God create man a free moral agent and still be soverign?

For the Calvinist to say that God predestines some to hell raises some eyebrows when we read things like:
2Peter 3:9 - The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
God desire is that all men be saved, that none should perish. But because some will refuse and not regard his offer of salvation he determines to use them as vessels fitted for destruction that he might show his wrath and make his power known. So that ultimately his will is done in both the vessels of mercy and the vessels of destruction.

Then of course there are other realities, things that we do know, that cause us to stand back and say this is beyond my feeble attempt to grasp.

Isa 57:15 - For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
I am fond of saying that God lives in the eternal time zone. He does not live in the Central time zone, or the Eastern time zone, or the Mountain time zone. Everything is in the present with God. The omniscience of God is not simply that he knows everything. He knows everything at the same time, all the time.

Thus when I take a little time to reflect on Him and that he is in heaven and I am upon earth I am forced to say with Job, "Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth."

When dealing with high and lofty things I often fall back on the words of Abraham, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

I believe he will!
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