Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ten Questions For My Calvinist Friends



Ten Questions for my Calvinist Friends

John Calvin’s theological system was centered around five points constructed in the acrostic: TULIP. His theology is most often mirrored with Jacob Arminius’ interpretations. Both Calvinists and Arminians often get a bad rap because of those who have taken either theological system to extremes. But the basic system of John Calvin can be summarized in this way:

Total Depravity – Man are so utterly infected with sin that he is rendered completely helpless. He is deeply infected in heart, mind and body. Man is so saturated by sin and his heart is so depraved that it is not possible for such a sinful heart to seek a holy God. Therefore, men have no part in their own salvation. They are completely at the mercy of God. If God chooses to save them they will be saved. If God chooses to damn them they will be damned.

Unconditional Election – There is nothing within any individual that merits salvation. A man’s salvation is arbitrarily decided by an all sovereign God. Man’s will has nothing to do with his salvation. He may want to be saved but still be lost or he may want to choose the way of sin and yet be saved against his own will. Nothing man wants or decides can overcome the sovereign will of God.

Limited Atonement – Jesus didn’t die for all men, he only died for those who have been predestined for eternal life by the will of the Father. When Christ hung on the cross he was saving only the sheep and not the goats. He bore the sins of many but not the sins of all.

Irresistible Grace – God’s sovereignty overwhelms the will of men so that they cannot resist when he calls. There is a general, external call to all men but the internal call to the elect can never be rejected. It may be compared to a law officer coming to your door to arrest you. You may not want to go with him but he has chosen that you go so you shall whether you agree or not.

Perseverance of the Saints – You cannot lose your salvation. If you have been chosen by the Father and purchased by the shed blood of the Son and called out by the voice of the Holy Spirit you are saved and made eternally secure. Nothing can take away your salvation. If you experienced saving grace but returned to your old sinful ways you were not really saved in the first place. You experienced a false conversion. It can be likened to ‘Motel California’, once you’ve checked in you can’t check out?

My Calvinist friends come in at all different levels. Some are 3-point Calvinists, some 4-points Calvinists. Most are 5-point Calvinists. I can probably claim to be a 1-point Calvinist. I believe strongly that the heart of man is totally depraved and cannot in and of itself respond to the call of God. I believe no man comes to God lest the Spirit of God first call him. It’s like sitting in the doctor’s office. You don’t walk in to see the doctor until he calls you in. I believe this is prevenient grace, the Spirit of God preparing the heart to receive salvation as a farmer prepares the earth for planting in the spring. Men cannot determine the time and manner in which they come to Christ. I believe not so much that men have free will as I believe that God frees their will through prevenient grace.

I agree with Jacob Arminius when considering the Perseverance of the Saints. I have trouble balancing the sovereignty of God with the free will of man. I know God will finish the good work he has started in us. I know that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. I know that we are granted eternal life, not when we die, but when we confess our sins and accept salvation. But I resist the idea that when we are saved we become prisoners and we are locked behind bars. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of whether we can or cannot decide to walk away from Christ. I think rather it is more a matter of whether we will or will not. I can’t imagine arriving at heaven, spending a day and then deciding I’d rather go to hell. If we experience true genuine salvation and enter into a personal relationship with Christ, who in their right mind would decide they didn’t want that?

My heart leans heavily toward Arminianism because I cannot seem to reconcile the middle three points of Calvinism. I may yet be convinced if perhaps one of my Calvinist friends would give me convincing answers to the following questions:

1. If God has already determined who is and who is not to be saved, why do Calvinists witness to and pray for others? If man cannot be saved by any of his own effort why would we think he could be saved by our efforts of witnessing and praying? His salvation is unaffected by our effort because he was chosen before the foundations of the world. Is it not a waste of energy and time?

2. I have three sons. Suppose all three are drowning and I have an opportunity to save them. But, I arbitrarily decide to save two and let the third die. Would my love for my sons be considered somewhat deficient? Isn’t the love of God perfect? If so, how can he demonstrate love by arbitrarily determining some of his children will perish while others will not?

3. The good news isn’t so good for some. When Paul and Barnabas preached to the pagans they were told that there was good news (Acts 14). Christ had died for their sins. This is problematic because Christ actually didn’t die for all pagans, he only died for some pagans and the good news is actually bad news for some.

4. If some are predetermined to damnation before they were even born how are they accountable for the punishment they will receive? If a man is penitent and falls to his knees, sincerely seeking repentance, shall we say to him, “You may or may not be saved. God alone knows if you are of the elect?”

5. Is God a loving God? Is he just and is he good? Does God love the elect unconditionally but despise the non-elect? Is God’s system of justice inferior to man’s system of justice? In the American system all men are declared deserving of a fair trial. Is God fair and just when he unconditionally chooses some for heaven and some for hell? If God is good how is it that he can create some to go to heaven and purposely create others to send to hell? What is the predetermined quota God has determined for heaven and hell? If that number is already set, why does the Bible indicate that God decided to send more to hell than to heaven “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matt. 7:14)

6. Why did Jesus teach about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? There is a sin for which there is no forgiveness but if the non-elect can never be forgiven anyway what is the point?

7. What is the explanation for the evil and suffering that men experience in this life? Is suffering not the instrument that draws men toward God? Did he not say, “Take up your cross?” But if you are of the non-elect, for what purpose do you suffer? Does God delight in torture?

8. Historically, the Calvinist view seemed to have its roots in Augustine approximately 380 A.D. Are there any church fathers before Augustine who taught the tenets of Calvinism? Did Jesus teach Calvinism to his disciples? The words of Jesus are capsulated in John 3:16 "For God so loved the world (not just the elect)that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever (not just the elect) believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It is blatantly obvious that Jesus is not willing that anyone should perish. Jesus never taught election.

9. Is it possible that God predestines us for salvation based on his foreknowledge? He knows who will and who will not commit to become Christ followers? Therefore, he arranges for the ‘elect’ certain circumstances conducive to their own salvation. He knows that given the right opportunities these ‘elect’ will make a decision for Christ. (Molinism)

10. If men are deprived of free will to accept Christ (hyper-Calvinism) then why are they granted free will to reject him? Why does God, in his goodness and love, not predestine all men to eternal salvation rather than just some men?

Jacob Arminius did not oppose Calvinism to defend the free will of man, he opposed Calvinism to defend the love and goodness of a holy God.


  1. Hi Kevin,

    I came across this the other day. The questions are fairly common and I wanted to give a thoughtful response. Each question or paragraph raises a topic worthy of a book, so I have tried to be fairly thorough. I don't have time to write 20 books, so I've also tried to be concise. Though, I might hope to persuade you, I certainly hope to give you a better idea of what Calvinists teach.

  2. 1st Paragraph - TULIP is an English rendering of abbreviations of titles of the Canons of the Synod of Dordt, written decades after Calvin's death. They are points of response to the Arminian Remonstrants . John Calvin's theological system is centered, so to speak, around the Sovereignty of God and the implications thereof.

    As an aside, the theologian's name is Jacob Arminius, not James.

  3. Total Depravity - Your description contains the fallacy of equal ultimacy--that election to wrath is the same as election to life. We say that this is not so. All men deserve to die. God mercifully chooses to save some. It's not that God has men and sorts them into cateories; rather all men are already dead and God resurrects some.

  4. Unconditional Election - God's election is never arbitrary, as this claims; rather, God's electing is according to God's good pleasure, based on what He desires and decides to do.
    Further, in talking about people who want to be saved, but can't be, or people who don't want to be saved but are anyway, you misunderstand depravity and election. Fallen man _never_ seeks God (Romans 3). Whosoever will may come, but only those lead of God will want to come. One isn't "saved against his own will"; rather, God changes his will.

  5. Limited Atonement - You have an accurate description of this one. I would add that this point in the acronym is more forced than the others. The atonement is limited in application, but unlimited in efficacy. Whereas, the Arminian says the atonement is unlimited in application, but limited in efficacy (it must be accepted).

  6. Irresistible Grace - Here again is the fallacy of the unwilling Christian. Grace is irresistible because the Spirit always makes the recipient willing. Until such a saving work by the Holy Spirit, a person is never willing. Before the Spirit converts a man, he is never truly willing to follow Christ. After the Spirit converts a man, he will be willing to follow Christ (not perfectly, but truly).

  7. Perseverance of the Saints – I would clarify on this point that it PotS is different from most conceptions of eternal security or once-saved-always-saved in that the one preserved by God will show evidence (Matt 12:33, Eph 2:10, Jam 2:26). We do not work to be saved, we work because we're saved.
    Also, a person who falls away had never experienced "saving grace". Instead, "they went out from us, but they were not of us" (1 John 2:19).

  8. 1. Calvinists witness and pray because God has ordained to use means to accomplish His ends. He "who works all things according to the counsel of His will" (Eph 1:11) has not only the right to ordain whatsoever comes to pass, but also how it comes to pass. God has chosen to use prayer and preaching as ways in which He calls His people from the nations.

    Men are not saved by our efforts, for "it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy" (Romans 9:16). Men are saved by God. The Gospel "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:). We work hard, though it is not us, but the Grace of God that is with us (1 Cor 15:10). So we preach and so God's people believe (1 Cor 15:11).

    The election of God is, in fact, the reason why we know that praying and preaching will never be wastes of time. Paul endured everything he endured for the sake of the elect (2 Tim 2:10). The knowledge that some definitely would be saved gave him hope. Paul stayed in Corinth for a year-and-a-half, after God encouraged him to stay for the elect (Acts 18:9-11). In the sovereignty of God, His word goes out an does not return void, but it accomplishes what He wills it to accomplish and succeeds in what He wills it to do (Isa 55:11).

    If man's free will is the final arbiter of who gets saved why does the Arminian pray? After all, God can't/won't violate their free will.>>

  9. 2. God's will is not arbitrary but is according to His good pleasure.
    Yes, there would be a deficiency of love in the situation you've described.
    Yes, the love of God is perfect.

    However, your analogy is wholly broken. All children of God will not perish. Those adopted as sons will never bear the wrath of God. Those who remain children of wrath, rebel sinners, hating Christ until their deaths, they never were children and God is under no obligation to show them any kindness. Man is not a helpless victim. Man is the criminal, the traitor, the condemned. Far from being sons we are the ones who slew His son. Our sins yell "Crucify!" louder than the mob. It is mercy beyond mercy that God would save any, and no man has a right to demand anything of Him, that He would save any.

    "What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For He says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'For this very purpoe I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.' So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills.'" (Romans 9:14-18)

  10. 2. God's will is not arbitrary but is according to His good pleasure.
    Yes, there would be a deficiency of love in the situation you've described.
    Yes, the love of God is perfect.

    However, your analogy is wholly broken. All children of God will not perish. Those adopted as sons will never bear the wrath of God. Those who remain children of wrath, rebel sinners, hating Christ until their deaths, they never were children and God is under no obligation to show them any kindness. Man is not a helpless victim. Man is the criminal, the traitor, the condemned. Far from being sons we are the ones who slew His son. Our sins yell "Crucify!" louder than the mob. It is mercy beyond mercy that God would save any, and no man has a right to demand anything of Him, that He would save any.

    "What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For He says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'For this very purpoe I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.' So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills.'" (Romans 9:14-18)

  11. 3. This isn't so much a question as a statement, so it needs a response rather than an answer, per se.

    I think you're referring to the account of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra. My initial observation is that Paul does not tell the pagans that Christ died for them. Paul tells the pagans to repent.

    Further, the fact that news is good news doesn't necessitate that it is good news for absolutely every-person-everywhere-ever. Was it good news that Osama bin Laden had been found? Yes. Was that same news good for Osama? Not so much.

    In the same way, "the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18). Further, "we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:23-24).

    The Gospel is good news because its goodness is the goodness of God, not because it may benefit men.

  12. 4. Again, let me point you to Romans 9 where Paul answers this objection directly, starting in verse 19 and going from there. "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?"

    People are accountable for their actions, because they want to do them. Men don't sin because God forces them to, we sin because that is our hearts' desire. God punishes people according to their sins, He judges according to what each has done (Rev 20:13).

    If a man sincerely seeks repentance, it is because God has granted him faith to do that. As mere humans, we cannot judge another's heart; so we do not make ourselves Popes, declaring him saved. "Whosoever will" may come, but salvation is of the Lord, true "willing" is of the Lord. It is hard for a man to discern whether another is coming out of selfishness or fear of God. When one outwardly expresses repentance, he is to be encouraged to work out his "own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12). Assurance of salvation is not a right, but is a gift.

  13. 5. God is loving, just, and good. I love my wife differently than I can, will, or should love any other women. God is not less than man so as to lack this freedom. He loves His Bride differently than he loves any others.

    God's justice is superior to man's justice. We do not start in a neutral state from which God decides to save some and to damn others. We are wicked and depraved, even from the beginning of our existence (Psa 51:5, Gen 6:5, Jer 17:9). The better question to ask is how God could possibly be just and let anyone escape the wrath he deserves. "He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord" (Pro 17:15). The amazing statement in Romans 9:13 is not "Esau I hated"; rather, it is amazing that God would say "Esau I loved".

    From the mass of dead humanity, God chose to raise some. He would have been fully just to condemn everyone, "but now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law [...] through the redemption in Christ Jesus [...] so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom 3:21-26). God imputed the sins of the elect to Christ and poured out His wrath upon those sins at the crucifixion. God imputes the righteousness of Christ to those whom He bought as He saves them.

    God's election is not some quota or pre-determined number. God elects individuals individually. "Those whom He foreknew, He also predestined" (Rom 8:29). Only God knows the number and identity of His elect, and He is merciful to elect any.

  14. 6. This is a good question. It had me fully stumped for a while and I would not characterize this as a final conclusive answer. But, I'll venture an answer.

    In the passage where Christ describes this particular sin, Christ is addressing the Jewish leaders, who say that the works of the Holy Spirit were done by the devil. They see the Holy Spirit working and they know the scriptures He inspired, but they reject Him. This hearkens to Hebrews 6:4-6 where the Writer of Hebrews warns against apostasy.

    Jesus would, therefore, be warning about a particular sin of which those who think they are elect are in danger. He is warning those who would think themselves safe because years ago they prayed a prayer, went to church, or had an experience, but do not bear the fruit of true converion.

  15. 7. Among other things, suffering is an instrument to call men towards repentence. God "commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). Being totally depraved, men do not heed this call, nor do we heed any other knowledge of God, nor do we see anything else God shows us of himself (Rom 1:19). Rather, we "suppress the truth" in our unrighteousness (Rom 1:18).

    Joy and suffering and all things work to the good of God's elect, no matter what it looks like to us (Rom 8:28). This truth can feel unsatisfying at the moment of pain, but we trust God that He doesn't lie.

    God, as described by Calvinism, has a good purpose in the suffering he causes and allows. God, as described by Arminianism, tends to allow evil and suffering to no purpose--sometimes bad things just happen.

    Finally, it would be good to remember the depravity of man. Man is desperately wicked, deserving of only wrath. I think R.C. Sproul said it well: "Why do bad things happen to good people? That only happened once and He volunteered." We haven't a claim on any good thing. Any thing besides Hell is better than we deserve, and Hell itself is no worse than we deserve.

  16. 8. Are there any Church fathers before Augustine who taught the tenets of Arminianism? Did Jesus teach Arminianism to his disciples? Calvin didn't even teach the five points of Calvinism. They were written in response to the Five Articles of Remonstrance--the Five Points of Arminianism, so to speak. These questions do not make sense, neither the systems of Calvin nor of Arminius will be in explicit terms 1500 years before either of these men lived.

    Looking then in the teachings of Our Lord and the Church Fathers, we would be looking for them to be saying the same things as we say, but in different ways than in which we say them. I certainly believe the Calvinist finds this in the teachings of Christ. And while I am not an expert on the Church Fathers, John Gill compiled a great many pre-Augustinian references in his book available here:

    When it comes to John 3:16, the only thing "blatantly obvious" is that there is not a direct Greek equivalent of the English "whoever". The Greek refers to (rough transliteration) "pas ho pisteuon", literally "all the ones believing", that is "whoever believes". The Arminian mistake here is chopping "whoever" out of its context. "Whoever believes" is the specific elect who shall not perish.

    Jesus teaches election again in John 6 when He says: 1) all the Father gives Him will come, 2) whoever comes will not be cast out, 3) those given by the Father are all raised on the last day (v 35-40). Further, none can come unless the Father draws him, and the one drawn will be raised on the last day (v 44).

    Here, Christ teaches Total Depravity and Limited Atonement(none may come unless the Father draws), Irresistable Grace (all the Father gives will come), and Perseverance of the Saints (whoever comes will not be cast out). Finally down in vs 63 one might see Unconditional Election in that "it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail".

  17. 9. No, Molinism is not an acceptable alternative.

    Romans 8:29 says God's foreknowing comes first, not His foreknowledge. That may seem like splitting hairs, but Molinism is a philosophical system. Romans 8:29-30 lays out what has been called the "Golden Chain of Redemption", and every link in that chain is an action of God. In the first step of the chain God foreknows. That is an active verb; it doesn't say that He simply has foreknowledge.

    So then, what does God foreknow? Does He know facts about who will make decisions? No, that which He knows isn't a "what" but is a "who". The passage speaks of God knowing people, of His choosing individuals. The election of God is far more personal and intimate than knowledge of facts about you; He knows you.

    God doesn't just know the number of your hairs, he has given each its number (Matt 10:30, Luke 12:7). God not only "determines the number of stars; he gives to all of them their names" (Psa 147:5). In the same way, the knowing of Romans 8:29 is a knowing of people and choosing them. It is not knowing the actions of people and choosing the ones who act rightly.

    There are further problems with Molinism that could be discussed: it doesn't escape the perceived problems with predestination, it makes salvation impersonal, it turns God into little more than the cosmic supercomputer, it makes much of man's freedom and denies that freedom to God, and it is without Biblical warrant. If you'd like to pursue this topic further, I will. I think it would take more time than I want to devote to my initial answer.

  18. 10. First of all, let's be clear about the term "Hyper-Calvinism". In its historic meaning, it claims that because of irresistable grace, there is no need to evangelize and only Christians should hear the gospel, and it claims that there is no call to all men to repent of sins. In its modern usage, it is most often a perjorative against Calvinists. I will not defend Hyper-Calvinism as it sets itself against the clear commands of scripture to preach the Gospel and against the examples of the Apostles. We should refrain from the modern usage because such is against the leading of the Holy Spirit to be kind and truthful. If you wish to know what I personally believe the Scriptures teach, I would refer you to the 1689 London Baptist Confession and the 1695 Baptist Catechism as accurate descriptions.

    Now to the question at hand. Man has always been able--within obvious limits, physics, etc--to do what he wants to do. Why is man only able to reject God? Our race has been totally depraved since the first sin of Adam made us ashamed. Man began with the possibility to sin and the possibility to do good. Since the Fall, our nature is corrupted and all creation cursed so that the natural man is unable to not sin and cannot do good. After regeneration, the believer is able to do good, but is still not free of sinning. After the resurrection, nature's curse will be lifted and it will no longer be possible for us to sin. Why is God doing it this way? Because it is the wisest, best way that glorifies Him in the way that He desires.

    Why does God in His righteousness and wrath not condemn the whole race of mankind to eternal damnation? Why should God save any? In view of the righteousness and justice of God, we should not be amazed by "Esau I hated"; we should be stunned beyond words at "Jacob I loved" (Rom 9:13). God desires to show both His wrath and His mercy, His power and His love; even the reason He endures "with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" is for the sake of the elect on whom He will have mercy (Romans 9:22-24).

  19. David,
    Thank you very much for your thoughtful replies. Being strongly persuaded toward Arminianism I am not convinced but I acknowledge that both systems have strong arguments and sound scriptures that can be interpreted for either system. Though I disagree with you on most points, I respect you as a Christian brother. I would repeat the old mantra that attempts to find common ground and ensure peace between Christian brothers: "In essential beliefs-we have unity. In non-essential beliefs-we have liberty. In all our beliefs-we show charity." I feel certain both Calvin and Arminius have dined together in heaven.