*This article originally appeared in Uplook Magazine, which is available at Uplook.org
I grew up in a passionately evangelistic assembly where we were taught the railroad track view of divine sovereignty and human freedom. I deeply admired the brethren who taught me the Word and consider it one of the best Bible schools I could have attended. These men took every word of the Bible seriously. They did not harp on particular doctrines and did not press exotic views.
It was not Calvinism we heard, for man could freely accept or reject the gospel. Christ died for all, and the gospel was offered to everyone. However, having accepted Christ, we were told, a new believer discovered that he was destined for heaven before time began. Was it a real choice? Yes, they insisted. He must repent and believe the gospel in order to be saved. But could this elect person actually choose to perish? Theoretically, yes, but actually, no. God had elected him. These are parallel truths, they told us. Like railway tracks, they appear to meet at the horizon but they would only actually “meet” in the mind of God. I could not help wondering what would happen to that train of thought when the lines actually met. In these discussions I felt more like an engine spinning in the round-house. I saw the words “elect” and “chosen” in the Bible, but what did they actually mean?
In those days I rarely heard the words Calvinist or Arminian. But a caricature developed of the two views: Calvinists believed God saved you and you couldn’t lose it; Arminians believed you chose to be saved, so you could also choose to “unsave” yourself. And everyone was in one camp or the other, it was said. If that definition held, I would be with the Calvinists. But it doesn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of my friends are unabashed Calvinists. Others reject the tag but believe the teaching, or most of it. And I’m surrounded by fine, hard-working Calvinists in Grand Rapids. (In this area of the country I regularly tiptoe through the TULIP.) As well, many of the representatives of evangelicalism— R. C. Sproul, D. J. Kennedy, John Stott, J. I. Packer, and now John MacArthur—promote Calvinistic soteriology.
John Calvin (1509-1564) systematized the teachings of the Reformation, largely based on Augustinian theology. Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), a scholar in the Reformed Church (who admired Calvin), questioned certain of his teachings. His followers called on the Dutch theologians to consider whether Calvin’s teachings were biblical at five points. At the Synod of Dort (1619), Arminianism was rejected, and the answer stated five points as the Church’s position. But after careful study, I find myself a 0-point Calvinist. Here’s why:
1. Total Depravity (Inability):
The notion not that every man exhibits his depravity as thoroughly as he could, but that the guilt of Adam’s sin rests on everyone, and the corruption of sin extends to every part of man’s nature, making him incapable of responding to God’s offer of salvation. The Calvinist believes man is not only separated from God but insensible to God, “unable of himself even to stretch forth his hand to receive salvation” (Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, p. 109). Thus God must quicken man before he can believe.1What does Scripture teach? That man has been damaged in every part by the Fall, and does not seek God by his own initiative (Rom. 3:10-18). But God has come seeking sinners. How many sinners? The world! His light lightens every man who comes into the world. Paul could preach to the pagans at Mar’s Hill: “He [is] not far from every one of us,” and “God commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:27, 30).
The verse, “There is none that seeketh after God,” is an important verse, but it is not the whole Bible. What of “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found…” (Isa. 55:6)? See also Acts 15:17; 17:27. But, says the Calvinist, man is dead and cannot respond to the offer of the gospel. Reformed scholar Loraine Boettner writes: “If any person believes, it is because God has quickened him; and if any person fails to believe, it is because God has withheld that grace.”2 Yet the passage which is the basis for this view (Eph. 2:1, 5) speaks of the dead walking, and having a manner of life. It is true that man is spiritually dead, but to think of death as inability to receive God’s gift is wrong. Death in the Bible is separation. Man is still morally responsible and capable of responding to invitations—“ come,” “believe,” “trust,” “receive”—the list is extensive. The Judge at the last trial declares the basis of His judgment in John 3:16-19—not because they are non-elect, or because they were not given faith,3 but because they chose darkness over light. See also Jn. 20:31; 2 Thess. 2:10; Heb. 10:39.
2. Unconditional Election:
This is said to be the act of God in eternity, to choose to save certain ones whom He fore-loved, entirely apart from any cause in them or choice by them. God has indeed chosen some (Christ, Israel, the Church) but for a role—to be the means of accomplishing His purposes. The basis of that choice is found in 1 Corinthians 1:23-31 (see also Jas. 2:5).
Dr. James Orr states: “Electing love, one comes to see, is never election to the exclusion of others, but election with a view to the future larger blessing of others.”4M. R. Vincent, in his Word Studies in the New Testament(Vol. IV, p. 16) writes, “Election…and the kindred words, to choose, and chosen or elect, are used of God’s selection of men or agencies for special missions or attainments; but neither here (1 Thess. 1:4) nor elsewhere in the N.T. is there any warrant for the revolting doctrine that God has predestined a definite number of mankind to eternal life, and the rest to eternal destruction.”
It should be noted that multitudes in Israel (including Judas Iscariot5), though elect, perished, while some nonelect (like Rahab and Ruth) were saved. The election of Christ obviously had nothing to do with His being saved.
What of “chosen you to salvation” in 2 Thessalonians 2:13? Lightfoot, Kittel, and Arndt & Gingrich all concur that this is not the usual word for election. Plummer writes: “The verb (eilato) is rare in Biblical Greek, and is not used elsewhere in N.T. of election by God…It does not imply predestination to final salvation…”6 The word “chosen in the Lord” (Rom. 16:13) is translated as “eminent” by Vine7 and by Young as “the choice one.”8
Believers are not elected and therefore put into Christ any more than Israelites were chosen and therefore put into Israel. In the last dispensation election was based on natural birth; now it is based on spiritual birth. The sphere of our choosing is “in Him” (Eph. 1:4). How does one come into that sphere of privilege? “…through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13; see also 1 Pet. 1:2).
3. Limited Atonement:
This idea that the death of Christ was only for the elect, that His death not only provided salvation, but accomplished it for the elect alone. But what does Scripture teach? That God so loved the world (Jn. 3:16); that He is the propitiation not for our sins only, but for the whole world (1 Jn. 2:2); that the “righteousness of God…is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Rom. 3:22). The last invitation in the Bible says: “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).
4. Irresistible Grace:
The notion that everyone on God’s “list” will be saved and cannot resist God’s grace when He “sweetly force[s]” us in. This because God’s sovereignty cannot be thwarted. But what does Scripture teach? The Lord Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying, “I would [willed]…ye would not.” Why was He weeping? He wanted them; they did not want Him. He let them have their way. To those in His day, Jesus said: “Ye will not come to Me that ye might have life” (Jn. 5:40). They might have had life, but they would not come. Stephen declared, “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did” (Acts 7:51). Notice also Heb. 10:29 ["Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?"].
5. Perseverance of the Saints:
At first this appears to be the biblical doctrine of eternal security. But this point teaches not merely that the saints will persevere (or be preserved, more correctly) but that the proof that you are a saint is that you persevere. This is necessary in the Calvinistic system because if not only the provision but procurement of salvation is all of God, how do I know when I am saved? As stated in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, “The fruits which accompany salvation supply to us men the proof of God’s election” (p. 179). While it is true that fruits supply proof to others: “…by their fruits ye shall know them,” a recipient of the gospel does not need to wait until fruit develops in his life to assure him that he is saved. God’s promise is our own proof: “as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name.” [John 1:12]
God sovereignly chose to give man a will. Christ has fully provided salvation for all who will receive His gift, a gift to which we contribute nothing. The Spirit must initiate the process, and has done so—He has come to convince the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Faith comes to the individual, not as a special gift to some, but by hearing the Word of God. There is no merit in the sinner’s empty hand receiving this wonderful gift. To believing sinners come all the blessings; to God be all the glory.
1 Are sinners quickened (or regenerated) before they believe? “Heareth…believeth…hath everlasting life” (Jn. 5:24). See also the order in Lk. 8:12; Jn. 20:31; Acts 16:31.
2 The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, pp. 166-167.
3 Is faith the gift in Ephesians 2:8? Not according to Alford, Robertson, Bruce, Vine, Sir R. Anderson, and others (Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom by Samuel Fisk, pp. 32-36).
4 Sidelights on Christian Doctrine, p. 34.
5 “I have chosen you” (Jn. 15:16) must be put beside Jn. 6:70.
6 Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, pp. 75-76.
7 Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.
8 Young’s Literal Translation