I had a phone conversation with a college student whose family attends our church about Calvinism and election. Her questions forced me to rethink my own views of “will and grace” and I thought I would post them here. As always, my thoughts are constantly evolving and I reserve the right to retract anything I say here.
I didn’t know it, but I was an Arminian until I went to college. At Cedarville University, I came face-to-face with Calvinism for the first time. It angered me. I questioned the salvation of the professors who dared suggest such horrid things about God. But in the end, I converted. I left Cedarville a solid “four point” Calvinist who bought into everything but limited atonement.
At Dallas Theological Seminary I explored the issue further and concluded that limited atonement was the inevitable inference of the other four points of Calvinism. I was officially a “five star general.”
Since seminary, I have continued to reflect on salvation, and I have drifted from my Calvinist convictions. (I am by no means an Arminian, but I recognize some weaknesses in the Calvinist position.) My beliefs are a mixture of Reformed theology and the New Perspective on Paul. (I promise; I am still working on that post on the New Perspective!)
For those of you who don’t know, the five points of Calvinism are:
Total Depravity. This is the idea that every fiber of our being has been infected by sin. It does not mean that we are as bad as we could be, but that we are wholly bad. Our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and reasoning are all affected by the power of sin.
Unconditional Election. This is the idea that everyone has been elected either to salvation or destruction. No one is “saved” by their own volition; the saved have all been elected to salvation.
Limited Atonement. This is the idea that Christ’s death on the cross was sufficient for all but only efficient for the elect. Jesus “died for the world” in the sense that He died for all kinds of people, but not in the sense that He died for every single person.
Irresistible Grace. This is the idea that God’s call and God’s grace cannot be resisted. If God calls someone to salvation, that person will respond. Modern Calvinists now refer to this doctrine as effectual grace, but that breaks the TULIP acronym.
Perseverance of the Saints. This is the idea that those whom God has called will persevere in their faith to maturity.
Calvinists have proof texts for these doctrines, and I don’t disagree with all of them. (I disagree with enough of them that I can confidently say, “I am not a Calvinist”.) But beyond the force of their proof texts is the logical force of their argument. In fact, the logic of the five points of Calvinism may be stronger than the textual support for any of the individual tenets.
A professor of mine in Seminary said, “If you accept total depravity, the other four points are inescapable. For example, if you are totally depraved so that you cannot choose God and you cannot help but to sin, then you need irresistible grace to convert. If God’s grace is resistible in any way, sinful humanity would resist it (otherwise, you could add, salvation would be “earned” by those who didn’t resist God’s grace and therefore would not truly be of grace). If God’s irresistible or effectual grace is the only means of salvation, and those to whom God shows His grace will be saved, then salvation and condemnation are determined solely by God and whether or not he chooses (or “elects”) to call someone by His grace. Thus you have unconditional election. If salvation is based solely on God’s choice, then the extent of Jesus’ atonement doesn’t extend to the “non-elect” in any meaningful (or efficient) way, so you have limited atonement. Finally, since God’s call is irrevocable, He will complete the work He has begun in the believer and the saints will persevere.
Clearly there is compelling logic behind Calvinism. Accepting total depravity almost naturally leads one to accepting all five of the points of Calvinism.
To show why I am not a Calvinist, I am going to show that (1) the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity is not completely accurate (there is much truth in it, but they go too far), (2) the Bible does not teach that God’s grace is irresistible, and (3) the Bible’s language about election refers to corporate election (i.e. God’s choosing of Israel or the church) and not to the election of individual Jews or Christians. My theology of salvation lines up with the Calvinist’s doctrine of perseverance of the saints and it makes limited atonement to a non-sequitur.
The Nature of Humanity—Totally Depraved or Totally Impotent?
The first point of Calvinism, and the hinge on which the logic of the system swings, is total depravity. Calvinists believe that humanity is completely infected by sin. It’s not that we are as bad as we could be (some people are clearly worse than others), but that we are wholly bad.
The classic text describing humanity’s inherent sinfulness is Romans 5:12–21. Romans 5:12 NET says, “So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned.” Humanity is worse off because of Adam’s sin, but notice what Paul says it is that we inherit—death. All of humanity shares in the guilt of Adam’s sin, thus we are all sinners and we are all mortal. But Paul’s emphasis is not a change in moral tendency, but a change in mortality.
However, Adam’s sin does affect the “moral tendency” of his descendants, but not because human beings are naturally evil. Instead, Paul thought that human beings were naturally weak. He calls the weakness of humanity the flesh, and the flesh is powerless to resist sin. In Romans 7:18–20 NET, Paul writes, “For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.” Even when Paul wants to do good, he does evil. However, this is not because he is evil, but because he is weak. The power of sin is too strong for the flesh to overcome.
I think it is more appropriate to speak of human nature in terms of impotence than of depravity. While I would agree with the Calvinists that all people are born under sin and that no one has the power to turn to God, I would say that this is because our flesh is weak, not because it is evil. It’s not that we are rotten to the core, it’s that we are weak to the core. The power of sin is so strong that we are incapable of resisting it. Thus, by our behavior, we can be considered “rotten.”
God’s Grace—Is It Irresistible?
If the human condition should be described in terms of weakness rather than depravity, what then is the change that God brings about in salvation? While the flesh is unable to resist the power of sin, the indwelling Holy Spirit is powerful enough to overcome sin. Paul writes, “So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh (for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.” (Romans 8:12–13 NET)
This is also what is going on in the famous fruit of the Spirit passage, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God! But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:19–23 NET)
So, to Paul, the lives of those who live according to the (weakness of the) flesh will be characterized by sin and death, but the lives of those who live according to the Spirit will be righteousness and life.
How then, does the Spirit begin to work in someone’s life?
The Spirit works through the Gospel. In 2 Thessalonians 2:13–14 NET, Paul writes, “But we ought to give thanks for you always, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. He called you to this salvation through our gospel, so that you may possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Salvation was worked among the Thessalonians “by the Spirit and faith in the truth” and “through our gospel.” This is what Paul meant when he called the Scriptures theopneustos, or “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Spirit works through the Gospel. Thus Paul can say, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God's power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16 NET)
So, the power of sin can only be overcome by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of the Gospel. Does this mean that everyone who hears the Gospel and experiences the power of the Holy Spirit will be saved? No, because this power can be resisted.
Acts 7:51 NET says, “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did!”
Matthew 23:37 Net says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it!”
Hebrews 3:12 NET says, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God.”
The argument that I made about the impotence of humanity is key to the argument of resistible grace. Calvinists point out that if humanity is inherently evil, then he cannot choose God. Humanity needs irresistible grace to be saved. I would reply that since humanity is inherently weak, he still cannot choose God. However, if the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel overpowers the weakness of the flesh, a person can live for God (Romans 8:12–13).
While my system would be considered synergistic rather than monergistic, I am not advocating Semi-Pelagianism. People are not morally neutral in the sense that they are free to choose either good or evil. They are morally impotent so that they are powerless to resist evil. However, if the Holy Spirit works in them, then they are free to choose good. However, because the Holy Spirit can be resisted, the person is still responsible for responding to the Gospel in faith. Thus, salvation is synergistic and not monergistic.
Election—Whom Has God Chosen?
To demonstrate why I am not a Calvinist, I have shown that humanity’s plight is one of weakness and not of pure evil. I have also shown why I think God’s grace is resistible. Thus unrestrained by the logical reasons for believing in election as understood by the Calvinists, I can have a different understanding of election.
In short, God’s election refers to His election of people groups rather than of individuals. Thus, Israel was elect, but individual Israelites were only elect in the sense that they were part of the whole. In the same way, the Church is the elect people of God, but individual Christians are only elect in the sense that they are part of the whole. God does not play, “Duck, duck, damn” with people, as Mark Driscoll points out.
The classic proof text for election is Romans 9–11, especially Romans 9:6–8:
“It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, nor are all the children Abraham's true descendants; rather ‘through Isaac will your descendants be counted.’ This means it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God; rather, the children of promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise declared: ‘About a year from now I will return and Sarah will have a son.’ Not only that, but when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac-- even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God's purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling)-- it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger,’ just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’
What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not! 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 does not depend on human desire or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may demonstrate my power in you, and that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then, God has mercy on whom he chooses to have mercy, and he hardens whom he chooses to harden.” (NET)
Notice from the start the two questions that the passage seeks to answer: (1) Has the word of God failed, and (2) Is there injustice with God? Whatever this passage means, it answers those two questions. So, what does it mean that the word of God had failed? I think this is an allusion to Deuteronomy 4, especially verse 30–31, “In your distress when all these things happen to you in the latter days, if you return to the LORD your God and obey him (for he is a merciful God), he will not let you down or destroy you, for he cannot forget the covenant with your ancestors that he confirmed by oath to them.”
In short, the “word of God” was the promise that God made to Abraham that His descendants would always be His people. As Paul unfolded his Gospel—that the Gentiles had been accepted as well as the Jews—the natural objection would be, “Well, what about the covenant? Did God break His word? Isn’t that unfair?” Notice, Paul’s response—it is perfectly fair because God has mercy on whom He wills.
I am not a Calvinist. I have a lot of good friends who are and I have respect for their position. I disagree with it. I do not believe that God has elected some people for salvation and some people for destruction. He has elected the church for salvation, and all people have equal opportunity to join the church. Sure, people are born guilty under sin and they cannot turn to God on their own. They need the power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to respond in faith. But that power can be resisted. Thus, anyone who hears the Gospel and responds in faith will be saved, but only those who hear the Gospel and respond in faith will be saved.
“For the scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How timely is the arrival of those who proclaim the good news.’” (Romans 10:11–15 NET)
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