I have a friend from Corban University that recently posted a meme on Facebook espousing his Calvinist views. This is the quote from John Piper he posted with a picture from the movie “Gladiator” showing Caesar with a thumbs down: “Before you were born or had done anything good or bad, God decided whether to save you or not.”
For those of us who are not Calvinists, this statement gets to the heart of our disagreement. As I read it, the quote says that God decides who is saved and who goes to hell. In other words, God assigns some to heaven and some to hell.
This is a problem for me and many of my Christian brothers and sisters, most of whom are not Armenians either.
I read an article by a guy named Roger Olsen, who is known for a book he wrote refuting Calvinism in favor of Arminianism. Some of his arguments are sound while others are a bit weak, but he did hit it on the head when he said that the basic argument between the two camps comes down to what each believes about God’s character. I have to agree with him there.
You see, from my study all evangelicals agree in the basic fundamentals of our doctrine, including inerrancy of scripture, predestination, the elect, original sin, salvation, hell, and the rest. Where we disagree is on who we think God is.
Calvinism often is regulated to the acronym TULIP, which stands for:
Total Depravity – Man is totally depraved an unable to please God due to original sin
Unconditional Election – God chooses who is saved and who is not
Limited Atonement – Jesus dies only for the elect (limiting the atonement to those predestined people)
Irresistible Grace – The “elect” cannot resist God’s grace which He gives as He gives
Perseverance of the Saint – Basically, once saved always saved; the elect cannot lose their salvation.
There is A LOT more to Calvinism than this – read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion for a more robust understanding. There’s honestly a lot to like about Calvin’s views. However, there are three of the five TULIP points that should give you heartburn.
If you look at the U,L and I of TULIP you come to an understanding that man really has no free will because God chooses them and they cannot resist; that God assigns people to Hell again without their input; and Jesus’ death on the cross is only for the predestined elect not those God bypasses.
There are three scripture verses that bring those ideas into stark contrast with God’s word:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:2
“For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.” 1 Timothy 2:5-6
Let’s start with John 3:16. It says God so loved the world, not just the elect. The fallen world is filled with fallen people, those who will choose God and those who will reject God. Yet, Jesus was given for the whole world according to this scripture. And, the rule about interpreting scripture is to interpret it literally unless the context clearly shows a different literary style. One also interprets it against other scripture (scripture interprets scripture).
That brings us to 1 John 2:2. John tells us that Jesus is an atoning sacrifice not just for the elect but the sins of the whole world. Check mate…unless of course you do some biblical gymnastics to make it say something it clearly doesn’t say.
Lastly, Paul makes it clear in his first letter to Timothy that Jesus died for all not just the elect.
Here’s the problem with the ULI of TULIP – it determines that man has no real choice in the matter. I get where Calvin gets this – Romans 8:29 states, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” It clearly appears that God made a diving mandate that certainly does not need man’s free will or approval.
Further in Ephesians 1, Paul gives a longer explanation:
“3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he[b] predestined us for adoption to sonship[c] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he[d] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
11 In him we were also chosen,[e] having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”
So, it’s easy to see where St. Augustine first and then Calvin define the elect and predestined as meaning more predetermined than free will. However, I humbly would argue that God’s omnipotence to know who would choose Him thus predestining them does not take away a person’s free will to actually choose God.
The example I used with my friend was this. He and I both teach at a Christian university. In our classes, we certainly know which students will pass and which will fail. However, we don’t assign that fate to them. They choose it by their actions even though we clearly know what is going to happen! Thus, the student has free will although we absolutely know the outcome.
God clearly knew before the beginning of time which of us will choose Him! Jesus’ sheep know His voice! But God did not force us to choose Him, because that’s not love – to have relational love you must have choice!
Scripture tells us that God wants none to perish (2 Peter 3:9) and Jesus tells us to go out into the world baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28). If God wants none to perish, why would he assign people to hell in the Calvin model? It’s both inconsistent and contrary to God’s nature. Second, why would Jesus tell us to evangelize people if they are already elect from the beginning of time? What’s the point? Why would Paul tell us that people need to hear the gospel to choose Christ? Again, if they are elect they are elect, right? They don’t get to choose! Yet, we’re told they must choose through faith!
Now don’t get me wrong, I can’t go along with everything strict Arminianism says either. I tell people I follow Jesus not men’s commentary on Jesus.
But for me, it seems clear. Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world, reconciling God and His creation. However, man clearly has the choice of accepting the free gift of salvation through faith or rejecting it. God does not send men to hell for their rebellion – if He did, Jesus did nothing on that cross. Men choose hell over eternity with God by rejecting the gift of Jesus’ propitiation. God weeps over his creation who choose this the same way Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they did not recognize and choose Him (Luke 19:41-44).
As I said earlier, Calvin has a lot of brilliant things to say, but I just can’t go as far as he does when it comes to taking away man’s free will, because by doing so we no longer have a real relationship with Jesus, but instead are nothing more than puppets predestined to do whatever God has determined we do.
My “reformed” Calvinist friends may tell me to be careful to remember that God’s ways are not our ways and His ways are higher. Absolutely! Nobody gives God counsel. However, I am made in His image, meaning I have intellect, volition (will) and emotions. I need none of those things if everything is already predetermined, especially volition. God says that we should reason together (Isaiah 1:18). Again, no need for that if man has no free will and nothing to add to the conversation. There just a certain logic that is missing when you take away man’s free will from the equation, which God put in us even though He is beyond us.
That said, to my Calvinists friends I say, bless you. But as for me and my household, we’ll remain in Jesus through our choice of faith and accept His gift of relationship, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and atonement not through any merit on our part, but only through His blood.