Friday, August 31, 2012

t3h LOLzorz

Last night, for a friend's birthday, I attended the first ever Internet Cat Video Film Festival at the Walker Art Center. Yes, internet cat videos are apparently an established enough art form to draw thousands of people to watch them outdoors for almost the length of a feature film. As I am a firmly established cat hater, a part of my soul died last night. A few of them were pretty funny.

When I got there around 7, it was already pretty surreal. At least a thousand people were already sitting on blankets all over the hill next to the Walker. Some people were wearing cat ears; some had brought their cats. There were stands selling food, T-shirts, and souvenirs by the building; also one calling itself the "Death Metal Drawing Club". (I saw nothing at the stand that made that name make any sense) A local band (also in cat headgear) was playing music on the stage. It was a pretty nice amphitheater, all for watching crazy cat videos.

People kept coming to the hill and I sat and talked with friends as they arrived until about 8:30, by which time they had put up a screen where the band was and an announcer gave a brief introduction. After a few quick ads from the main sponsor, Animal Planet, we were off.

The videos were organized into categories: the obvious "Comedy", but also ones like "Drama", "Musical", "Foreign", and "Documentary". It was basically like a YouTube cat video binge only you got to enjoy it with thousands of other people, which more than made up for the smallness of the screen from our distance. I probably laughed and "Aww"ed less than anyone there, but some of them were legitimately pretty good, particularly the peoples' choice winner, the melancholy faux-French "Henri 2 Paw de Deux", and a nightmarish/brilliant animated video, "Kitty City".

So, there you have it. Life imitates internet memes.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Providence, Part V: Evaluation

This is part 5 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
Disclaimer: All of the views expressed in this post are absolutely my own and not those of my church, my small group, or any other religious entity I am or have been involved with.

The last three posts in this series have been difficult. I've learned that I have trouble simply doing non-evaluative studies of subjects with a minimal amount of my own opinion; as a J on the MBTI scale it's hard for me to spend so much time figuring out what others think or what has happened while shutting out most of what I think. Well, that is about to change. Here is what I think about Calvinism and Arminianism. I'm not going to get into what I personally think about providence until post 7, but as will become quite clear soon, my position falls much closer to Arminianism than Calvinism.

First, I'd like to point out and decry the tendency debates among Calvinists and Arminians have to focus entirely on comparing and contrasting the respective five points of each. The parallels that exist between these points seem to invite these comparisons and so they are often weighed against each other to decide the matter. This is unhelpful and, I think, ineffective at actually resolving these debates. These points all descend from a particular, internally consistent system of interpreting the Bible.

As I showed in the previous two posts, Calvinists and Arminians don't simply stake their claim on the parts of the Bible that support their position and try to nullify the parts that damage it; they can each look at the same passage and interpret it completely differently, each in a way that supports their system. Calvinists can argue from Romans 9 to prove unconditional election all they like, but an Arminian need not be convinced as he is already set in his own way of reading this chapter.

In this way debates over the individual points usually don't get far because each side is arguing from the perspective of its own system for interpreting the Bible, and these arguments don't carry the same weight in the other side's system because they interpret the evidence differently. It's the same reason internet debates between Christians and atheists are exercises in futility; both argue for their worldview using evidence that has been interpreted through the lens of that worldview, while the other side sees it differently. A evaluative decision between Calvinism and Arminianism has to look deeper, at the views of God, human nature, and the Bible that give rise to these two different ways of reading it--the guiding views of God I talked about at the end of each post. And so, before I get into any discussion of the individual points, it is these underlying perspectives and motivations that I will be evaluating.

Strengths of the Calvinistic Perspective

I would say the great strength of the Calvinistic view (above and behind the five points) is its majestic view of God as discussed in post 3. It puts the utmost emphasis on God's sovereignty as Lord and Creator over all things, even the depths of the hearts of people. God does not simply leave His creation to fend for itself but has a perfect plan for it according to His good pleasure to work all things, even the evil actions of people who rebel against Him, for His glory. The salvation of men is not left to any contingency but is firmly in His capable hands. This view of a righteous God who can never in any wise be defeated or thwarted in what He sets out to do and does not let evil happen but actively works good by it is rightly a source of great peace and comfort to Calvinists.

In keeping with its complete trust in God to elect and save, Calvinism also has a very high view of the efficacy of the Atonement. Its insistence that Jesus' death did not merely make salvation possible but actually secured it for individuals along with everything that comes with it comes from a sincere love for Jesus and for the gospel. The Atonement is seen as the crowning glory of God's perfect, immutable plan for all of eternity, the way for God to perfectly accomplish His purpose of election.

Shortcomings of the Calvinistic Perspective

My criticisms of the Calvinistic view can be broken down into five main points. (Which I will not attempt to organize into an acronym)

1. It loses sight of God's essential goodness and justice

This is the classic "Calvinism makes God the author of evil" objection; as I will explain, I do not find any of the defenses against this accusation very convincing. In its quest to make God as sovereign and autonomous as possible, exercising "meticulous control" over a fallen creation, it raises some serious questions about His moral nature. I do not think Calvinism provides satisfactory answers to the questions it raises.

One of my strongest convictions, which I think I share with Arminians, is that God does not cause anyone to sin. If He does, then His goodness and justice both become meaningless and He is no longer worthy of our love or praise. For what does God's holiness mean if He is the creator of the sin and evil He detests, and what does His justice mean if He punishes us for doing what He caused us to do? What difference is there between good and evil if God causes both and works both for His glory? How is evil not another equally just way for God to work all things to His glory? This conviction puts limits on just how much sovereignty we can ascribe to God, at least in the realm of human activities.

It also clashes dramatically with Calvinism's understanding of God as the "primary cause" of all things. (Calvin, Institutes, 16.8) As I mentioned in post 3, Calvinism operates on a "cause and effect" rather than an "influence and response" model of human behavior; the doctrine of Irresistible Grace is built on this understanding. I often seen Calvinists, when confronted with this question, revert to speaking about God's working through evil in permissive, rather than active, terms--perhaps God causes the good acts of men, but does not cause and only permits the evil they do. But this concept of the "permissive will" of God is more of an Arminian concept than a Calvinistic one, and indeed is denied by Calvinism. Calvin, in chapter 18.1 of his Institutes, writes:
It seems absurd that man should be blinded by the will and command of God, and yet be forthwith punished for his blindness. Hence, recourse is had to the evasion that this is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that he does this, repudiates the evasion. That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on any thing but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of scripture.
So Calvin, in the chapter in which he defends his theology from accusations that God is the author of sin, only intensifies them. To this doctrine, Arminius responds:
Because, according to this doctrine, he moves to sin by an act that is unavoidable, and according to his own purpose and primary intention, without having received any previous inducement to such an act from any preceding sin or demerit in man.
And elsewhere:
This Predestination is inconsistent with the nature and properties of Sin, because Sin is called "disobedience" and "rebellion ", neither of which terms can possibly apply to any person who by a preceding divine decree is placed under an unavoidable necessity of sinning.
Arminius cleverly catches the implication of God's "meticulous control" over all things, even human wills, which no one can avoid or resist, that this necessarily makes Him the cause of not only our righteousness but also our sin.

Also, as I mentioned before, Calvinism's answer to the question "Why is everyone not saved?" is, ultimately, "Because God does not wish or try to save everyone." When did it become acceptable to believe this about God, even take pleasure in it? Indeed Calvinism, by making God the sole planner and effecter of salvation, begs the question of why God doesn't simply save everyone, which would not do any damage to His justice as it was perfectly satisfied by the Atonement. Calvinists have to explain away verses about the universality of God's compassion and mercy on sinners like 1 Timothy 2:4 and many other verses brought up by Arminians in support of universal atonement, dampening their meaning by calling the meaning of words like "all" and "world" into question, which is an awkward solution at best.

In all its fervor about emphasizing God's sovereignty, Calvinism comes perilously close to losing sight of God's essential goodness and mercy or to viewing them as simply the flip side of His wrath as part of His grand, mysterious plan. The goodness and love of God are not hidden attributes, nor should you have to exercise faith to believe that they are really true of God. The gospel is the ultimate revelation of God's love and mercy, and I think that if it ever seems to call them into question, you are thinking about it wrongly.

2. It justifies its view of God by abusing the concept of His "good pleasure"

The most common response I hear from Calvinists to this objection that God is not loving for not saving everyone is something along the lines of, "God does not owe anything to sinful man; we owe everything to Him. He has mercy on whom He will have mercy (Romans 9:16), predestining people for good or evil as part of His perfect plan, according to His good pleasure (Ephesians 1:9). Who are you, O man (Romans 9:20) to judge God's designs by human standards of justice and fairness? For His ways and thoughts are above ours as the heavens are above the earth (Isaiah 55:9), and He is not obligated to save anyone because we justly deserve destruction for our sinfulness."

A few things I will pick out of this response:
  • God's will or "good pleasure" is assumed to be atomic, impenetrable, incomprehensible to humans by being far beyond and above us. Calvinism answers the difficult questions it raises about God's nature by retreating to this "good pleasure" as the justification for it all. Any attempts to question it are necessarily assumed to be based on human (that is, fallen; unreliable) standards and reason, even if those arguments are based on other parts of God's revelation of Himself in the Bible.
  • In its desire to free God from all constraints on His will, it asserts that He is not obligated in any way to sinful man, ignoring the fact that God graciously obligates Himself to us by His promises (such as John 3:16) and His perfect faithfulness to keep these promises. He was not obligated to make these promises, but now we can trust and rely on His holding to them.
  • And, perhaps most seriously, it makes some seriously misguided assumptions about God's "good pleasure". In making that the unifying justification for everything Calvinism ascribes to Him, Calvinism creates a picture of a God who, while unconditionally denying individuals the chance to be saved and experience all of His perfect goodness, smiles serenely and says "All is going according to plan, according to My good pleasure." This is a picture not of a good and glorious God, but of a psychopath.
The fact is that God's "good pleasure" is not atomic or incomprehensible, and we can gain some facts about how it works. When God says things like "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy", F. Leroy Forlines writes, we should not simply leave it there and conclude unconditional election but should respond by asking, "On whom does God will to have mercy?" Or, in this case, "What does God actually take pleasure in? What does God actually desire?" Now is not the time for a thorough study of this matter, but here are a few illustrative examples:
  • His son, Jesus Christ (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22)
  • Sanctifying us through "grace-driven effort" (Philippians 2:13)
  • Giving good gifts to His children (Luke 12:32)
  • Those who love and fear Him (Psalm 147:11)
  • Uprightness (1 Chronicles 29:17)
  • The wicked coming to repentance (Ezekiel 33:11)
  • The salvation of everyone (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9)
  • Predestinating the elect (Ephesians 1:5)
And what does God take no pleasure in?
  • The death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11) or of anyone (18:32)
  • False/empty religion (Malachi 1:10, Hebrews 10:6,8)
  • Faithlessness (Hebrews 10:38)
God's "good pleasure" is in fact much more comprehensible and transparent than Calvinism makes it out to be. These verses clearly show that taking pleasure in ordaining acts of evil or predestining people for destruction is antithetical to God's nature. Rather than deciding God's nature based on His actions in the Calvinistic system (a school of thought known as voluntarism), it makes much more sense to learn about God's nature and reason that He wills and acts according to this nature (known as essentialism).

Of course, it's easy to see how Ephesians 1:5 can be taken in support of Calvinism, so I will briefly offer an alternate interpretation: God takes pleasure in predestining individuals for salvation, but not in predestining those He knows will not be saved. The idea of God taking no pleasure in something He does (not getting His way!?) will no doubt horrify Calvinists, but if He is as sovereign as they say, the alternative is the psychopathic picture of God we saw above. I will get much more into this in post 7, but for now let me suggest that God's ultimate purpose in all that He does is the glory of His name, not His "pleasure" as we may think of it, and that the two are not equivalent. By justifying its difficult points with God's "good pleasure", Calvinism misses the sincerely-caring, condescending (in the sense of Jesus becoming man and humbling Himself to identify with us) view of God in favor of that of an imperious, all-powerful judge and sovereign.

3. It misunderstands human nature and how God works with it

As I mentioned in post 3, Calvinism has a compatiblist view of free will (or incompatiblist view in the case of hyper-Calvinism, which denies free will altogether). But, as it turns out, you can believe free will is compatible with different things. I agree with Calvinism in that free will is compatible with divine determinism (more on that later), but Calvinism goes on to say free will is compatible with divine causation. The doctrine of irresistible grace is the best example of this. It portrays regeneration as the Holy Spirit doing a powerful work in our heart that causes us to freely believe in God. (Perhaps by realigning our hearts to desire Him, so that in doing what we desire most we believe) I think this is a contradiction in terms.

Again, see the above quote in which Calvin names God as the "primary cause" of all things and goes on to expound on the completeness of His control over our affairs. Lorraine Boettner in his landmark book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination echoes this though, naming God as the "primary cause" of human affairs and humans as the "secondary cause" (p. 222)

A common objection against Calvinism is that it removes any responsibility from us to make any effort to believe or be sanctified. I don't think this is the case, but only because the application side of Calvinism is not consistent with its thinking on free will. If God truly causes us to believe, all the times salvation is conditioned on "our" faith become meaningless. God powerfully influencing us to believe in a way that we never could without Him does not have this difficulty. If God truly caused the Fall in the sense of withdrawing some measure of grace from Adam and Eve so that they inevitably sinned, then good and evil become meaningless. A truly cause-and-effect view of human nature is incompatible with "free will" and moral responsibility.

Another point relates to how salvation works. A lot of Calvinistic writings I've read are so focused on God's plan of election and predestination that it becomes the "true" reason we are saved, not the real condition we are given, namely faith (John 3:16). Again, the reason given in Romans 9, the chapter used most often to prove unconditional election, that not all Jews are saved, is nothing like "God unconditionally chose some and not others", but "not all believed." (Romans 9:32) Predestination has nothing to do with Jesus' proclamation, "Your faith has saved you" in Luke 7:50. This is not necessarily a factual error, but a case of misplaced emphasis.

One other thing to point out here is Calvinism's interesting placement of regeneration before faith or justification in the "golden chain" of salvation. This divorces regeneration from the rest of sanctification for the sake of supporting the points of total depravity and irresistible grace. In other words, you are "born again" before you are saved. Regeneration, rather than being the birth of our eternal life in Christ, happens before it with no context, then we are saved. I don't see it necessary to point out the sheer bizarreness of this from a doctrinal standpoint any further. Just because you can read the Biblical testimony on regeneration this way does not mean you should.

4. It defends itself with an "argument from mystery"

While it probably isn't in reality, from reading Calvin's writings on providence and predestination I get the feeling that his favorite verse of scripture is Romans 9:20: "But you are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me like this?'" I refer to the use of this verse, especially the first part, to defend the Calvinistic perspective on predestination as the "argument from mystery"--it is foolish or prideful to ask why God unconditionally predetermines things the way He does, and if you do so you are judging God. In this way Calvinism lays out many apparently contradictions and defeats any attempts to resolve them except its own.

The arrogance of assuming the complete truth of Calvinism and interpreting any challenges to it as talking back to God is astounding, but unsurprising if you see it as the only way to read the Bible. Not all challenges to unconditional election are made by human standards of justice and fairness; it is possible to judge interpretations of the character and actions of God based on what He has told us about Himself, as I have been attempting to do. The nature of God, not His bare "good pleasure" or will, gets the final say.

Lastly, this is not an argument against Calvinism, but to date in my research I have not read even one Calvinist who appears to actually understand Arminianism or view it as anything other than a logically flimsy strawman system to either dismiss or constantly rip on (Boettner is almost unreadable because of his constant jabs at his conception of Arminianism). Grudem is the closest I have read to this understanding (or Geisler, if you consider him a Calvinist), as well as my friend Mitch, who I can't claim to have "read". Calvinists: just like in anything else, before entering into a debate, make a point of actually understanding the opposing side from its own perspective.

5. It incorporates numerous other confusions of concepts and false dichotomies

I will go through these quickly:

Confusion of faith and "merit"/works. Calvinists seem to think that if salvation is really conditioned on our own faith, then this is tantamount to man saving himself by some work that he does. Never mind that the Bible treats faith and works as completely separate things; Romans 9:32 directly contrasts the two; see also Ephesians 2:8-9 (note: according to the Greek grammar, salvation, not faith, is said to be the gift of God here) and Galatians 2:16.

God being in "meticulous control" over all things and utter chaos/humans and demons having the power to thwart His plan. If God isn't in total control of all things, the reasoning goes, if humans have any power to determine their own actions, then this means they can oppose God's plan for all things, and we can't have that! Calvin cites Augustine as saying, "If anything is left to fortune [not God], the world moves at random." It is either the Calvinistic view of God's providence or a blind, uncaring universe ruled by chance and contingency. Really?

Man having no spiritual agency and salvation by works. Calvinists like the image of man pre-salvation as "spiritually dead", like Lazarus in his tomb. From this they conclude that, prior to regeneration, man has absolutely no power to seek God, respond to God, love God, or comprehend anything of the spirit; he is dead, and dead people can't do anything! The only alternative they see is, at best, semi-Pelagian; man saving himself either by simply doing good works or by believing in God all by himself! (Nevermind that taking advantage of God's promise to offer salvation to anyone to believes is in no way saving oneself) Once again, this narrow perception of only two extremes leads Calvinism to choose the more Biblical, but still misguided one.

Man possessing absolutely free will and the constrained Calvinistic view of free will. I will only touch on this one briefly because the main source I've heard it from is my pastor. "Free will" does not necessarily mean "being able to do absolutely whatever you want", so that our inability to sprout wings and fly becomes a rebuke to free will. Only God has this kind of freedom, but I don't think this is what anyone means when discussing free will.

The pleasure and glory of God. See point 2 above.

And one last thing that occurred to me: I really don't see how to reconcile the Calvinistic view of God's total sovereignty over evil with the kind of pitched, militaristic language Evangelicals use to talk about free will. If Satan and his fallen angels are really only serving God (if unwillingly), why get so worked up about them? Why not just trust God to shepherd them wisely and with our best interest in mind?

6. The Individual Five Points

With my position on the assumptions and conceptions on the perspective of Calvinism in place, I can move on to briefly discuss the five individual points. It will suffice for me to show which of the above misconceptions each is based on and to offer my own interpretation of the Biblical data (in post 7).

Total Depravity

As I mentioned in post 3, Calvinism's perspective on total depravity departs from the Arminian view mainly in its understanding of free will and human nature (cause-and-effect vs. influence-and-response).   To a Calvinist we are so far gone that God has to cause us to believe by regeneration; to the Arminian we are still unable to desire or seek God on our own, but the influence of His spirit calling us allows us to respond to Him with faith. People having, by prevenient grace, the ability to freely respond to God's acting on our hearts is no threat at all to the doctrine of total depravity.

Unconditional Election

I believe unconditional election is a case of eisegesis: the reading of the Calvinistic perspective into passages like Romans 9 to support something the Bible never clearly says. Given no clear Biblical proof of why God elects some and not others, and plenty of verses on why we are not elected or saved, Calvinism concludes that God is absolutely free to have mercy on whom He wills, not intrinsically constrained by anything outside the pleasure of His will.

Here is the shocker: I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. What I disagree with is how Calvinism extends it to say that God does not take anything outside Himself into account at all in predestination, which is where the conception of God arbitrarily going "duck, duck, damn" comes from. (Point 2 above) Just because we cannot force God to elect us by anything we do or are does not mean He does not still consider our natures or lives in His decision. Ironically, Calvinism, ruling out any consideration of individual people from God's decision in the desire to make His sovereign will truly free, ends up constraining it in a different way. As Forlines points out, since salvation is conditional, there is no reason why election can't be (in some different, confusing, eternal sense).

Limited (Definite) Atonement

This doctrine is how Calvinism most directly answers the question of why everyone is not saved: God does not wish or try to save everyone. Again, I have dealt with the dangers of this belief in points 1 and 2; God does wish (or desire, or please) that everyone be saved. This doctrine stands on its own perhaps less than any of the others; it relies on systematically denying the common-sense reading of a great deal of passages on the universality of God's compassion and the atonement, which in my opinion should cast a lot of doubts on your argument.

Irresistible (Effective) Grace

I have dealt with this doctrine, its placing of regeneration before salvation, and its interpretation of the Bible's reliance on Calvinism's cause-and-effect view of free will above. (Point 3)

Perseverance of the Saints

Again, this doctrine is basically saying that, once He has regenerated them, God causes the elect to persevere in faith until the end (point 3). In response to the criticism of Boettner and others that Arminianism provides no real assurance of salvation by conditioning it on continued faith, I would respond that Calvinism really isn't much more helpful; the question is not Will I continue to believe? but Is my faith real? Am I elect? Neither question is answered with certainty until we meet God.

Strengths of the Arminian Perspective

Okay. I am pretty much done talking about Calvinism now. I feel able to say less about Arminianism because a) my disagreements with it are not nearly as sharp and b) much of my thinking in subsequent posts will incorporate it. On to what makes Arminianism great!

First, Arminianism obviously takes a very high view of God's perfect love, benevolence, goodness, moral perfection, and grace. Where Calvinism seems more concerned with God making and perfectly seeing to completion a plan that involves people, Arminianism is much more after God's direct affection for His children. It avoids all of the difficult questions raised by God being meticulously involved with sin or unconditionally predestining people. The picture of God as a father who identifies with His children, shares in their joys and sufferings, and truly wishes all of them to find their greatest good in Him that I mentioned Calvinism misses out on, Arminianism has in spades.

And Arminianism's response to the burning question "Why is everyone not saved" is, I think, much more reasonable and consistent with who we know God to be. Not everyone is saved because not everyone believes, because God has graciously offered everyone salvation on the condition that they let Him help them to believe in Him and love Him. In this way it puts the gospel and God's love and benevolence front and center, with His harshness and wrath a necessary consequence of the damnable sin of rejecting Him.

Shortcomings of the Arminian Perspective

A (perhaps necessary) consequence of this focus is that Arminianism does see God's sovereignty much less actively and powerfully than Calvinism does, though while still affirming it. Whereas Calvinism has to twist the meaning of verses that deal with the universality of the atonement and God's love, Arminianism, with its embrace of God's "permissive will", has to at least get a bit awkward in how it interprets verses that Calvinists gleefully cite on the directness of God's governance of the world.

Arminianism, because of its incompatibilistic perspective, also tends to see no middle ground between its conception of libertarian free will, and no free will at all. This is just the dichotomy on free will seen by Calvinists, viewed from the other side. Yet it does hold that free will is compatible with divine foreknowledge, just not divine determination. I tend to agree with Calvinists when they point out that there is less difference between these things than you may think. Anyway, the difficulty in reconciling God's sovereignty or foreknowledge with libertarian, undetermined free will has long been a major difficulty for Arminians and has led to dangerous schools of thought that have given Calvinists plenty of ammunition against it, like Molinism and open theism.

While it's true that Arminianism is not intrinsically opposed to predestination, it is also softer on this point than Calvinism, which has become nearly synonymous with the term. I think the interpretation of predestination being "God predestining Jesus as savior" really misses the point of passages like Romans 9 that directly speak of us, not Jesus, being the ones who are predestined--as does theology supporting corporate election.

Arminians also tend towards a very "hands-off" view towards God's dealing with sin, seeing it as the only alternative to God being the author of sin. Whereas Calvinism begs the question of why sin exists in the first place, Arminianism begs the question of how sin doesn't deal a serious blow to God's sovereignty, and it has trouble with passages where God does seem to be more directly involved with acts of sin. (More on that in post 10)

And finally, while I don't think true Arminianism is overly concerned with human free will over the nature of God, it is very, very easy to think otherwise.

Common Shortcomings

Obviously Calvinism and Arminianism have most of Protestantism and reformed doctrine in common as their strengths, so in favor of not writing my own systematic theology yet, I'll skip that. Instead I'll move on to some ways in which I think both perspectives fall short.

First, I think they both miss out on a really eternal perspective of God. There is a tendency to anthropomorphize God's workings and decrees, or view Him as an omnipotent, omniscient being who otherwise exists in time and moves through it like we do while enacting His perfect plan. One way I see this is theologians hinting at God making different parts of His plan at different times. If God has perfect knowledge of all things and is unchanging to boot, then we can't think of Him in any way as making and executing His plans (or "decrees") concurrently like we do. Also in Calvinism's conclusion that since God's election was decided "before the foundation of the world", it can't be based on anything about us because we weren't born yet. More on the applications of this in post 7.

Another big way I see this misconception play out in more serious debates is in the whole infra/supra/sublapsarianism debate. I didn't understand what it was about for the longest time, and I still can barely believe I do. Debating which parts of God's eternal, perfect, unchanging plan were made first? Why not debate which member of the Trinity came first? Somewhat related are the attempts made by both unconditional and conditional elections to offer simple rules explaining why God elects and predestines the way He does. Do we try to explain any other part of God's plan (like why He permits wars, or uses disease in peoples' lives) in this way?

Both sides also tend to conflate election (which is eternal and part of God's plan) and faith and salvation (which happens in time), saying that one directly leads to the other. In Calvinism this looks like trying to apply the unconditionality of election to salvation, minimizing the crucial role faith plays in the process and making it more of an effect of election than a condition of salvation; Arminianism goes the other way in tying election completely in with faith; God simply elects those who will have faith. I think that simply trying to make one of the two an aftereffect of the other is an oversimplification that diminishes their crucial role in the "scheme of things".

I see both sides, in their (I would say excessive) discussions of free will, assuming a simplified picture of human nature as very little besides the will; man is simply a will in an otherwise inert body that is acted on and chooses things (especially faith in God) and the question is how he chooses those things in relation to his external influences. Except for token sections that take on a more holistic perspective, writings of both sides tend to neglect the roles of personality, desires, affections, intellect, etc. in how we come to believe and take faith. They also tend to talk about faith as if it is a single, crucial decision you make, so all the weight falls on how that one decision is made, rather than viewing faith as a lifelong commitment to God.

And, finally, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is an almost irresistible tendency in any conversation about Calvinism and Arminianism to make it about the individual, corresponding five points and playing them against either other without looking beneath the surface at why the sides' interpretations of scripture are so different.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Hitting the Bulls-eye

At work today,an image of concentric circles popped into my mind, like a bulls-eye or that one target-shaped logo. Each layer corresponds to a different way I have related to God (or not), getting worse the farther out you go. In fact, an extremely abridged form of my testimony would be the story of my slow, tortuous journey from the outside of these circles to the innermost one. (With lots of backtracking involved) Maybe this just applies to me and other people would label the circles differently, but just in case it helps, I'm reposting what I drew, with my usual complete disregard for aesthetics.

It kind of gives new meaning to the teaching you hear about sin being "missing the mark". Only the innermost circle will do.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Providence, Part IV: Arminianism

This is part 4 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
Disclaimer: All of the views expressed in this post, unless stated otherwise, are what I perceive to be the views of Arminianism, and not my own.

And on to the counterpoint of Arminianism. The alternative theology is largely based on the writings of the Dutch theologian Jakob Hermanszoon (latinized to Jacobus Arminius), and also (its followers would argue) the early Augustine and Paul himself. Born four years before Calvin's death, Arminius was dissatisfied with the theology of predestination taught by Calvin's followers and so developed his own. The year after his death, in 1610, his followers, known as the remonstrants, published the Articles of Remonstrance, the points they wished to clarify with the mainstream reformed tradition, and which were later met by the Canons of Dort which became the five points of Calvinism. Though Arminianism has never been as widespread or influential as Calvinism, it has remained as an alternative ever since, being held by the revivalist John Wesley and the Methodist church he founded.

A simple summary of Arminianism is that it is a synergistic view of predestination and salvation that focuses on the goodness and benevolence of God to all. "Synergistic" means "two-handed"; Arminianism believes that while God is the author and perfecter of our salvation, he extends the gospel offer freely to all and gives them the responsibility to accept or reject it. This responsibility of resisting or not is the role humans are given in their salvation. Arminians would answer the question, "why is everyone not saved?" with "Because not everyone believes."

For years I didn't think the five Articles of Remonstrance had a handy acronym like TULIP, but I found one: FACTS.

Freed by Grace (to Believe)
Atonement for All
Conditional Election
Total Depravity
Security in Christ

Once again, going through the points (in logical order rather than acronym order):

Total Depravity

Though Calvinists and Arminians don't hold exactly the same view on total depravity as I foolishly assumed before, it is the point on which they hold by far the most common ground. Both would affirm that humans are fallen, separated by sin from God, unable to make themselves righteous. Both hold that, though in our natural state we can do good works, these works ultimately count nothing towards being justified. Both would agree that total depravity is extensive (affecting every part of the person) but not intensive (humans are not as evil as they possibly can be). In fact, most of the scripture I cited for the Calvinist view of total depravity applies here as well. The third Article of Remonstrance reads:
That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: "Without me ye can do nothing."
What differences exist are largely results of the theologies' differing perspectives on free will. Though I will cover this in more depth after the five articles, Arminianism holds a different view of free will, an "incompatibilist" or "libertarian" view, which states that an action is only freely done if the agent could have acted otherwise. Because of this, while Arminianism holds that while fallen man is incapable of knowing the things of God or desiring Him, the pre-salvation work of the Spirit (referred to as "prevenient grace") restores him enough to be able to freely accept of reject God's proactive calling to salvation by the same spirit. Arminius writes:
What then, you ask, does free will do? I reply with brevity, it saves. Take away free will, and nothing will be left to be saved. Take away grace, and nothing will be left as the source of salvation. This work [of salvation] cannot be effected without two parties--one, from whom it may come: the other, to whom or in whom it may be wrought. God is the author of salvation. Free will is only capable of being saved. No one, except God, is able to bestow salvation; and nothing, except free will, is capable of receiving it.
Atonement for All (Unlimited Atonement)

Unlimited atonement states that because God loves everyone in the world and wants them to be saved, He sent His son Jesus Christ to die for the salvation of everyone without exception. However, while God has provided for the salvation of everyone, He has conditioned our receiving it on faith so Christ's death is only applied to those who believe. The second Article of Remonstrance says:
That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John iii. 16: "God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life"; and in the First Epistle of John ii. 2: "And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."
As Calvinists point out, in this view Christ's death made salvation possible for all but did not automatically save anyone. By sending Jesus to die for the sins for everyone, God is able to offer salvation through faith to everyone and apply it to all who believe. It is important for Arminians that this gospel offer be real and sincere for everyone, rather than only for the elect.

I have already mentioned most of the verses Arminians use to back this doctrine up in the post on Calvinism; namely, all the verses using universal language like "world" and "all" that Calvinists interpret in a different, more limited sense. Arminians take these verses at face value, and also note that the verses that speak of Jesus dying for "us", "the church", etc. do not say that Jesus died only for the church, but that the people of the church are those who have received these blessings by faith. Verses that say Jesus died "for many" could just as easily mean "for all" as they could "a specific subgroup". Verses which speak of Jesus' intent in coming (Luke 19:10, 1 Timothy 1:15) actually play right into unlimited atonement; "Jesus came into the world to save sinners", presumably without exception.

Also, Arminianism justifies this doctrine with verses that speak of God's intent to save all people, such as 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 as well as Ezekiel 33:11 and 18:32 which state that God has no pleasure in the death of sinners, or of anyone for that matter. If God wishes all people to come to salvation, it is absurd to suggest that He would not make provision for everyone to be saved.

The other pillar of scriptural support is the body of verses that talk about people for whom Christ died dying or being destroyed: Romans 14:15, 1 Corinthians 8:11, 2 Peter 2:1. Also see the stern warning against apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6. I will get more into the defense of these verses in the section on believers' security, but they seem clear on the fact that it is possible for those Jesus died for to ultimately be destroyed--not everyone Jesus died for will be saved.

The primary Calvinist objection to this doctrine is that it says that it is possible for Jesus to die for someone and that death to amount to nothing. To which an Arminian might reply, "Yes, apparently it is." They might also add that God's plan does not consist a priori in the definite salvation of certain individuals, but in extending salvation to everyone to accepts His offering it by faith.

Freed by Grace (to Believe) (Resistible Grace)

Once Jesus has died to make salvation available to everyone, the doctrine traditionally known as resistible grace states that God freely extends the offer of this salvation to everyone without exception by His spirit. His prevenient grace restores their fallen will enough for them to freely respond to this offer either by accepting or rejecting it. The offer of salvation is conditional on faith; no decision to believe in Jesus, no salvation. God exercises His sovereignty in the extension of this conditional offer to everyone. The fourth article of remonstrance reads:
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of an good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting, awakening, following, and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But, as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many that they have resisted the Holy Ghost—Acts vii, and elsewhere in many places.
This doctrine is a direct logical result of unlimited atonement and the Arminian perspective on free will.  God has sovereignly decreed to make salvation available to all by faith and to extend that offer to everyone. However, because we are always free to do otherwise than we do, we are therefore free to accept or not accept this offer; we are not inevitably compelled to accept it in any way.

Now it might be worthwhile to mention another part of the Arminian perspective on human nature, as F. Leroy Forlines points out. Arminianism looks at interactions between people (or God and people) in an "influence and response" pattern rather than the "cause and effect" pattern of Calvinism. Because of how He has made us, God can offer the gospel to us and influence us to accept it in numerous ways (the inward calling of the spirit, external preaching, reason, emotional appeals), but He cannot cause us to believe.

Another corollary of this is that Arminianism puts the step of regeneration, being "born again", after the faith decision, not before, as the first step in the process of sanctification.

One of the main verses supporting this doctrine is, as alluded to in the article, Acts 7:51, where Stephen says the Jews "always resist the Holy Spirit", showing that it is possible to do so. Much of the other support is closely tied in with the next point, conditional election, focusing on how the offer of salvation is repeatedly conditioned on our faith, as well as with unlimited atonement; if everyone is called to salvation, it follows that those who are not saved successfully resisted this call.

Conditional Election

Just as unconditional election is arguably the linchpin of Calvinism, so conditional election is for Arminianism. I think it's significant that the FACTS article puts it after the doctrine on the atonement rather than before, however; Arminianism strongly associates the person of Christ with election, believing Calvinism separates the two. Conditional election states that God has foreknown who would and would not believe in Christ and has decreed to save precisely those who do. The first Article of Remonstrance reads:
That God, by an eternal, unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ, his Son, before the foundation of the world, hath determined, out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ's sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath, and to condemn them as alienate from Christ, according to the word of the Gospel in John iii. 36: "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him," and according to other passages of Scripture also.
Among Arminians, there are two different perspectives on conditional election. The individual view, which is generally the sentiment of the article above, simply says that God sovereignly predestines those individuals He foreknows will believe in Jesus in a manner otherwise similar to the predestination of Calvinism. The corporate view says that God has predestined to save the redeemed and purchased bride of Christ, the church, and all those who belong by faith to that body will be saved. Either way, the result is the same: people are elect because they believe, not the other way around. The distinction is that God foreknows the faith of the elect, rather than foreordaining it to cause them to believe.

The scriptural support for this doctrine looks at many of the verses commonly cited by Calvinism and notes the distinction between foreknowledge and foreordination, or predestination. Arminianism holds that God does not predestine people to believe, but predestines because of foreknown belief. Romans 8:29-30 specifically gives foreknowledge as the condition of predestination. 1 Peter 1:1-2 also mentions people being elect "according to the foreknowledge of God". The understanding is that this foreknowledge is God foreknowing people for all eternity either as believers or as nonbelievers and deciding to save them based on their foreseen response to the gospel of Christ.

Again, conditional election is very consciously Christ-centered, and it is the universal teaching of scripture that salvation is conditional on faith in Christ (John 3:16, many others). Ephesians 1:3-14 makes conspicuously frequent use of the preposition "in him" (Christ) while describing our salvation. Jesus makes the association undeniably clear in Luke 7:50, where he tells a woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Not "God has elected to save you so I will" or even "God has saved you on condition of your faith", but simply "Your faith has saved you". Forlines concludes that "if salvation is conditional now, it necessarily leads to the conclusion that election in eternity past was conditional. The burden of proof is on those who think otherwise."

Security in Christ

The last point corresponds to Calvinism's last point. It holds that just as we are led to believe in Christ and saved because of that belief, by faith we also have assurance of our continued salvation save from anything that would seek to harm it; God enables us to persevere the way He called us, by the Spirit. There is not an agreement among Arminians as to whether God is able to prevent believers from losing their faith and falling away; the last Article of Remonstrance deliberately leaves this issue open:
That those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, have thereby full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory, it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Ghost; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no craft or power of Satan, can be misled, nor plucked out of Christ's hands, according to the word of Christ, John x. 28: "Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand." But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before they can teach it with the full persuasion of their minds.
So the key difference or disagreement with Calvinism is whether it is possible for a believer to lose faith and therefore the salvation that is conditioned on that faith. (The popular belief of "Once saved, always saved", that we are assured of salvation when we believe no matter what we do or believe afterwards, is not seriously held by either side) The possibility that God is able to prevent this does fit with the Arminian view of free will; just as we are unable to move toward God until His prevenient grace allows us, by His grace he might also make us unable to remove ourselves from His presence once we are there. I believe the consensus among most Arminians is that it is possible to fall away.

In response to verses which speak of the eternality of the life Jesus gives, the Arminian interpretation says that this eternal life belongs to Jesus, and by faith and union with Him we share in it. If we lose that faith, the connection is severed and the eternal life is no longer ours to enjoy, though it is certainly still Christ's.

In response to verses like John 10:28-29, which says that Jesus' "sheep" will never perish, Forlines brings up John 3:36, which says that "He who does not believe the Son shall not see life." Obviously this warning is conditional on the person continuing in unbelief, and if he comes to believe, it will no longer be true. Conversely, John 10:28 then says that whoever is saved in Jesus will never perish as long as the condition for salvation (faith) is still met.

The last promise in v28, "and no one will snatch them out of my hand", says that it is impossible for any external power to destroy anyone's salvation, but does not preclude that person from removing himself from relationship with God. The promise in Romans 8:35-39, if it is talking about the same thing, can also be answered by this, though it also may simply be an awesomely strong affirmation of the unconditional and unchanging nature of God's love for those who are in Christ.

Meanwhile, there are also the "apostasy" verses mentioned under unlimited atonement which speak of people for whom Christ died being lost or destroyed. The foremost of these is Hebrews 6:4-6. In the Arminian view the people spoken of in this passage were indeed saved, and if they fall away, they are worse off than they were in their original fallen state, for they have lost all hope of coming again to repentance. (This "falling away" is likely the "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 12:31, a deliberate rejection of Jesus with full knowledge of Him and the work of the Spirit; see my post from a few months ago) See also Hebrews 10:26-29, 2 Peter 2:20-22, and Colossians 1:21-23. The emphatic and repeated nature of these warnings against falling away is only justified if there is a real possibility of it happening.

A criticism of this doctrine leveled by Calvinists is that an assurance of salvation that is conditioned on something we do is no assurance at all--as if God simply leaves us to fend for our faith after it is ours. The Arminian view does not say that we go to hell if we have unconfessed sin, or go through a period of doubt or even serious sin. The "falling away" being discussed here is a willful, serious, and settled (not careless or accidental) rejection of God and severance of relationship with Him that leads to loss of salvation because of loss of faith. Arminianism (or the greater part of it) holds that this is possible for believers because it is warned against repeatedly; Calvinism believes it is not.

Free Will

As mentioned above, the Arminian view on free will is libertarian (an act is only free if the agent could have done otherwise) and incompatibilist (incompatible with determinism). Some more extreme Arminians in the Molinist and open theist camps take this view of free will far enough to limit God's omnipotence or omniscience with it, but mainstream Arminianism states that though God perfectly foreknows our actions, He does not compel or determine them in any sense, and they really are free.

And again, as Forlines puts it the big difference between Calvinistic and Arminian views of free will is that Calvinism sees God's interactions with people in a cause-and-effect model, whereas Arminianism uses an influence-and-response model. God cannot "cause" anyone to believe, though He can powerfully influence. It is precisely this freedom from external causation that is meant by "freedom to do otherwise". If an action was predetermined, certain, or compelled to happen, it wasn't really freely chosen regardless of whether the agent desired it.

Romans 9

This Arminian interpretation of Romans 9 comes largely from Forlines' book; it is by far the best non-Calvinist explanation of the chapter I have ever read. The first five verses, again, speak to Paul's deep concern for the salvation of his fellow Jews. But the interpretation of verses 6-13 diverges widely. The Calvinist interpretation of this section emphasizes Paul's argument for the unconditionality of God's "purpose of election", independent of any qualities of the individuals, and mentions that it is also individuals who are being considered. But the Arminian interpretation focuses on the individuality of the election and denies that it is about the Calvinist interpretation of unconditional election at all.

This interpretation is based on historical, rather than Biblical, context. The prevailing view among Jews at the time was that they had all been unconditionally, corporately elected to salvation under the old covenant, and also, somewhat contradictorily, that their remaining in this covenant was somehow conditioned on their continued obedience to the law. Paul's emphasis in verses 6-13 is the individuality of God's election, because the Jews would never see their need for Christ if they believe they were already saved corporately. Paul had to convince them of the reason some Gentiles, and not all Jews, were being saved, and that reason was that election is individual and not corporate.

Paul's purpose in 6-13, then, is summed up in the statement in verse 6, "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel." In 7-13 he is reminding the Jews of something they already accept, that not all the descendants of Abraham, the original recipient of the old covenant, are part of that covenant. This section is not speaking about salvation at all, but only of inclusion in the old covenant. If the Jews had a broad and narrow usage of the designation "Covenant Seed", then, Paul said, there was no reason why there couldn't be a broad and narrow usage of the term "Israel". Again, his point here is not the condition of God's election, but its individuality.

The Calvinist interpretation holds that the objection Paul is answering in verse 14 is that God is unjust to elect people unconditionally. Arminianism would say that the objection is simply to the idea that not all Jews are corporately elected. Again, the Jews already believed they had been unconditionally elected over all the other nations, so they would not have had trouble accepting the idea of unconditional election per se. And if Paul's argument were simply that God had unconditionally elected some, rather than all Jews, what relief would that have been to them? Paul has simply been trying to get the Jews to set aside their belief that they were unconditionally, corporately elected.

Verse 15 is said to not be a defense of God's righteousness, which was not up for debate with the Jews, but another proof from the Old Testament that election is individual. The expression "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" is to be taken not as an affirmation of unconditional election but as evidence that God has conditioned salvation on faith in Christ; He wills to have mercy (in an eternal sense) on those who believe. Again, verse 16 is not a proof text for unconditional election but a denial of salvation by works and the idea that man can, by anything in him, obligate God to save him. Forlines writes, "Rather, it is God who has obligated Himself by His very righteous commitment to His promises, to save the person who believes." Paul is also is turning his attention to the other part of the Jewish line of thought, that their works of obedience to the law were somehow a condition for salvation.

The interpretation of verses 17-23 is somewhat predictable at this point. It takes all the statements of God's freedom that Calvinists use to argue unconditional election and, rather than drawing conclusions there, ties them in with the condition God has given for salvation, namely faith in Jesus Christ. It is people who know Jesus that God wills to have mercy on, and people who do not that He wills to harden.

After that verses 25-26 are the flip side of 6-13 (some Gentiles will also be saved by faith), and 27-29 are a reaffirmation of his argument that not all Jews will be saved, but only those who accept Jesus. Finally, 30-33 make his point clear: election is not decided corporately by nation, but individually by faith. Some Gentiles have attained this righteousness that is by faith. (v30) And why did some Jews not attain this righteousness? Because God sovereignly passed them by in His purpose of election? No, because they pursued this righteousness by works rather than by faith (v32).

So the Arminian interpretation of Romans 9 sees it as largely speaking about individual rather than corporate election, as well as refuting the idea of salvation by works held by the Jews. Though it does not affirm either unconditional or conditional election, but can easily be read from a perspective of conditional election by asking "On whom does God will to have mercy?" rather than simply taking verses 16, 18, etc. to mean unconditional election.


As I mentioned in the previous post, the prevailing view among Arminians about the order of God's sovereign decrees is sublapsarianism, which orders them:
  1. To create the world and all in it.
  2. To permit the fall.
  3. To give His son Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice for the elect.
  4. To elect some up out of their sin to eternal life, and to leave the others along with the devil and his fallen angels to their punishment.
  5. To apply by the Spirit this redemption for their salvation.
It only differs from infralasparianism in that it places election after the appointment of Jesus as savior rather than before, fitting with conditional election's emphasis on the saving work of Jesus Christ rather than on God's decision.

In Summary

In parallel with my summary of Calvinism, I would say that the positive focus of Arminianism is a God who sincerely and unconditionally loves His wayward children, desires for them all to be saved from their death by His just punishment, and offers a means in the person of His son Jesus Christ for this to happen. At every stage God makes Himself available to people and takes the steps to initiate a saving relationship with them, but does not violence to the freedom He has given them and leaves room for their freely chosen response even while remaining in sovereign control of all things.

Arminianism, then, chafes at any attempt to impinge on the goodness of this view of God, any suggestion that He does not really desire everyone to be saved or does not truly offer salvation to everyone. It is equally (if not more) repulsed at any line of thinking that implicates God as responsible in any way for sin or evil, which it holds to be the sole product of fallen men and angels.

Ways Calvinists Misunderstand Arminianism

First, Arminianism does not deny that God is sovereign over all things. It merely denies that this control is "meticulous" as Calvinism claims, i.e. that God is always in control in a cause-and-effect sense. God can still be sovereign without being the "primary cause" of everything that happens. It also does not try to constrain God by human behavior or limit His freedom to do as He wills, but only affirms that He has constrained Himself by His promises, namely to have mercy on those who believe in Christ. Affirming that God has constrained Himself is not judging God by human standards, but by His own promises.

Arminianism does not believe in salvation by works; it affirms the Biblical teaching that contrasts salvation by faith by salvation by works and affirms that God has made faith the condition (but not the ground, which is the Atonement) of salvation. It is on the ground of Christ that God makes the offer of salvation real; faith is simply the condition He has set for receiving that offer.

Arminianism is not focused primarily on human agency or ability, and it certainly does not hold the semi-Pelagian view that man is able to initiate his relationship with God. People know God only by responding to the gospel offer He extends to them through the calling of the Spirit and are enabled to accept only by prevenient grace. As the above summary explains, Arminianism is more concerned with the perfect goodness of God than with defending human free will, the theology of which is partially determined by belief in this goodness.

And lastly, Arminianism certainly does not deny predestination or place free will as an alternative to it. The belief that predestination and free will are mutually exclusive held more by Christians-at-large, who rarely examine it closely, than by theologians; in my church I often hear jokes along the lines of "Did I decide to say that or did God predestine it?" which express this perceived dichotomy. Arminianism affirms that God does elect individuals to salvation and only disputes on the nature of this predestination.

One other sentiment I hear from Calvinists that I don't think is fair is when they ridicule conditional election by contrasting God "looking down the corridor of time" to decide whom to save when making His decision with simply predestining people independent of anything about them. This kind of language seems to assume that God is bound to move in time along with His creation, as if His knowledge of the future, though complete, were somehow less real or useful than what He currently "knows". Arminianism believes in the eternal, transcendent nature of God as a timeless being just as much as Calvinism does; He knows the future because He is present in every moment of history, not because He can peer down the "corridor of time".

Recommended Reading/My Resources

Classical Arminianism, by F. Leroy Forlines
Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, by Roger Olson
Arminius Speaks, edited by John D. Wagner
And the articles and resources at

Providence, Part III: Calvinism

This is part 3 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
Disclaimer: All of the views expressed in this post, unless stated otherwise, are what I perceive to be the views of Calvinism, and not my own.

Enough beating around the theological bush; it's time to get into some actual doctrinal discussion. This post will provide a sufficiently thorough overview of Calvinism, lately the Intel to Arminianism's AMD in the predestination debate. (That is probably the only computer reference I'll get to make in this whole series) I'm going to focus mostly on an objective overview of Calvinism in this post and avoid the evaluation until #5.

Calvinism gets its name from the French reformer John Calvin, but by strength of influence it could almost as easily be called Augustinianism or Edwardsism. (Perhaps not Piperism) It is one of the cornerstones of the wider category of "reformed theology" and, as mentioned in the previous post, is now quite influential in the evangelical world I inhabit.

What is Calvinism? In general, I would summarize it as a monergistic view of predestination and salvation that focuses on God's absolute sovereignty and providence of all things. "Monergistic" here means "one-handed", or a focus on God's active and total agency in all things rather than also involving human agency. The term is particularly applied to soteriology, where monergism portrays God as the sole initiator and worker of salvation with no human role in determining it. In response to the burning question, "why is everyone not saved?", Calvinism would answer that it is because God does not will or attempt to save everyone.

Calvinism also extends this monergistic view to all of creation and puts an emphasis on God's active sustaining, determination, and working of all things according to His perfect plan and good pleasure for the glory of His name. Of course, when most people (including myself a year ago) summarize Calvinism they use the "five points of Calvinism", or TULIP, written by the Synod of Dort in 1619:

Total Depravity (or total inability)
Unconditional Election
Limited (or definite) Atonement
Irresistible (or effectual) Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

I will go through each of the points in considerably more depth than before.

Total Depravity/Inability

The first point of Calvinism concerns human nature. The "total" in total depravity does not mean that humans are as sinful as they can possibly be or are incapable of doing good, but that the corruption of the sinful nature extends to every part of the natural man. Humans are said to be "dead" in their sins (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13) or "slaves" to their sinful nature (Romans 6:20) The "total inability" refers to man's inability in his natural state to please God or make any move towards Him. Though people who don't know God can do many good deeds, these deeds are not done for the glory of God and ultimately avail them nothing because they are not done by faith. The Westminster Confession says this about our free will:
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.
Steele, Thomas, and Quinn in The Five Points of Calvinism state that
The natural man is enslaved to sin; he is a child of Satan, rebellious toward God, blind to truth, corrupt, and unable to save himself or prepare himself for salvation. In short, the unregenerate man is dead in sin, and his will is enslaved to his evil nature.
From here we can see how Luther (along with most Calvinists) disbelieved in free will; though he believed man was able to make real choices, he was unable to choose God over the desires of sin which everyone is born serving. In other words, Calvinism would say that free will means man is free to do what he desires most, but on our own we will always desire sin and death over God and cannot change this. Paul writes one of his better summaries of the doctrine in Romans 3:10-18:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
The doctrine of total depravity involves two main components:

Deadness to God.  Again, Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13 both use say we are "dead" in our trespasses. David writes that he was born into a state of iniquity (Psalm 51:5, 58:3). In the flesh (our natural state) we cannot please God (Romans 8:8) and are said to be "darkened in [our] understanding" (Ephesians 4:18). The natural person cannot accept or understand the things of God; they are folly to him (1 Corinthians 2:14) We are darkness (Ephesians 5:8) and God is light (1 John 1:5). Jesus taught that no one would seek God without Him (John 6:44, 65) and that without God we can bear no good fruit. (John 15:5) Left to his own, there is not a single man who has ever lived who does what is right (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Even our attempts at righteousness, because they are not done in faith (Romans 14:23), are "filthy rags" to God. (Isaiah 64:6) In short, the natural state of sinfulness, from which no man can escape on his own, blinds and deafens us to God's goodness, which we can neither understand nor desire; a common image used by Calvinism is that of the dead Lazarus, who, being dead, was unable to do anything but lie in his tomb until Jesus came and called him out (John 11:43). So it is with us and our sins until God calls us.

Active Rebellion Against God. Besides simply being dead to the good things of God, sin also entails active disobedience against God. The Greek word "hamartia" (αμαρτια) is often translated to "sin" and has connotations of rebellion or revolt. We are not simply dead men in need to reviving; we are traitorous rebels who need to lay down our arms. In Genesis 6:5 God sees that "every intention of the thoughts of [man's] heart was only evil continually". Jesus teaches that every evil we see in the world comes not from "society" or from Adam's bad example, but "out of the heart of man". (Mark 7:21-23) The mind set on the flesh (sinful nature) does not and cannot submit to God's law (Romans 8:7). Those who don't know God are said to be "children of the devil" (1 John 3:10, John 8:44) and "slaves to sin" (John 8:34, Romans 6:20). In light of total depravity, there is no "middle ground" between sinfulness and righteousness. As I often say, you are always a slave to something: either to sin, or to God. Our natural state is that of slavery to sin.

A quick aside for a possible objection that will be covered in more depth when we get to predetermination. You might protest that if man really is helplessly lost to sin, unable to change or desire God, why does God condemn us for that which we can't help or control? This was where Pelagius diverted from right doctrine; he concluded that since God holds us responsible for breaking His law, we must be innately able to obey it fully. To this I would say (and I think Calvinists would agree) that we are condemned by God not merely for what we do, but for who we are. Our total enslavement to sin does not in any way excuse our depravity in God's sight, but intensifies it. If a man accused of child molestation tries to defend himself by saying it's part of who he is and that he can't help it, we don't feel inclined to let him off the hook because he doesn't know any better but are all the more disgusted by his total identification with his sin. So it is with us and God.

So, then, the human condition is almost spectacularly bleak. Our hearts are corrupt to the core, unable to understand or desire the things of God that would lead us to life and repentance, active in rebellion against him. On his own no one seeks God or desires salvation; we are content to wallow in sin and the righteous condemnation of God awaits us for our treachery (Romans 6:23). If Christianity ended here, it would be the worst news ever delivered to anyone and would be rightly rejected by any sensible person. As my pastor Steve says, though, it's critical that you understand the bad news before you can really get the goodness of the good news! Which leads into the second point of Calvinism.

Unconditional Election

Though God would have been justified to simply snuff out humanity on the spot for its rebellion (and almost did in the flood), because of His overabundant mercy and compassion He has decided (or elected) to redeem and save some by the atoning death of His son Jesus Christ. This decision is eternal, having been made "before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4), and is completely independent of any merit, good works, faith, or other distinguishing characteristics God foresaw in us. The Westminster Confession says, in many more words:
III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.
IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace.
VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.
VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.
Going into more detail on some important characteristics of God's predestination of some individuals to salvation, or more technically, "election":

It is unconditional. Or, to put it differently, it is unconstrained. It is crucial to the Calvinistic system that God did not base His elective decision on any distinguishing factors in the individuals being elected; that He was not obligated by any foreseen faith or merit to save anyone; that He was free to elect no one and that the decision to save some was based solely on His good pleasure and sovereign will. Romans 9, considered by Calvinists to be one of the keystones of the doctrine, addresses the total impartiality and unconditionality of God's "purpose of election" (v. 11). Jacob and Esau were twins, born from the same parents, yet God chose Jacob, the younger, rather than Esau, to carry on His covenant and to make into His chosen nation. Why? It clearly states that this decision was made before Jacob and Esau were born or had done anything good or bad, "not because of works but because of his call". God unconditionally elected Jacob over Esau and so was able to say, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." (v. 13) I'm going to go into more depth on how Calvinists interpret Romans 9 later, so I don't want to spoil it all now, but suffice it to say that they also point to verses 15 and 16, as well as 18, as further proof of the absolute freedom of God's will to choose anyone He wishes. In his exegetical work on Romans 9:1-23, The Justification of God, John Piper goes so far as to argue that this sovereign freedom to bestow mercy on whoever He wishes free from any constraint is the essence of God's glory.

Other verses used by Calvinists to prove the unconditionality of God's election are 2 Timothy 1:9 (God called us not because of our works but because of His "purpose and grace), John 15:16 (we did not choose Jesus, He chose us), and verses that emphases the freedom of God to do as He pleases (Exodus 33:19, Matthew 20:15, Psalm 115:3). God predestined us "according to the purpose of his will" and His election was done independently of anything He saw in us. If we have eternal life, it is only because He loved us and chose us for salvation even while we were still His enemies (Romans 5:8).

God's election is also eternal and immutable. Ephesians 1:4 clearly says God's sovereign election took place "before the foundation of the world". 2 Timothy 1:9 and Revelation 13:8 and 17:8 also speak to the timelessness of God's choice of individuals for salvation. And if this election proceeds from nothing other than the sovereign will and good pleasure of God, then any change in it would mean than God has changed His mind; election is as immutable as the rest of His will, and His plans cannot be thwarted. (Job 42:2)

And lastly, election is double-sided. The other side of the doctrine of unconditional election is unconditional reprobation. Believers in "single predestination" like Augustine try to portray this decision as more of a passive one; the Westminster Confession above uses the language "pass by" to emphasize that God is not actively deciding to condemn these people, but simply and justly leaving them in their self-inflicted state of sin, as we see in Romans 1:24,26. Proponents of "double predestination", like Edwards and Calvin himself, recognize that God's decision to save certain individuals is necessarily a decision not to save others, and emphasize that God is perfectly just to do this. Those not predestined to salvation (the "reprobate") are said to be "vessels of wrath fitted to destruction" (Romans 9:22).

Unconditional election (and reprobation) is possibly the most hotly contested point of Calvinism; Arminians take issue with the idea that God unilaterally decides to save only some and not others. How can this be just or fair? First, recall that according to the doctrine of total depravity, we all deserve condemnation for our rebellion against God, who would be just to not save anyone at all. The focus should be on the mercy of God in saving some, not in His "injustice" in giving others what they deserve. Second, Calvinists repeat Paul's retort to the same objection in Romans 9:20: "But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" Who are we to judge God for His plan? In Isaiah 55:8-9 God says,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
The point is clear: God is the great Judge and is not subject to human judgment for His actions. Who are we to question His wisdom, righteousness, justice, and mercy? Also, in conjunction with the last three points of Calvinism, unconditional election of a limited number of individuals is necessary to avoid universalism. (The belief that everyone will be saved)

Limited (Definite) Atonement

Limited (or definite) atonement is closely tied to unconditional election. It simply states that Christ's death was intended for and applied to God's elect to justify them in God's eyes and effectually purchase their salvation. In other words, the atonement had a limited (or "definite") scope, namely the elect. In other words, Christ died only for the elect, those God chose to save. It's strongly in opposition to the Arminian belief that Christ's atoning death only made salvation possible for everyone; Calvinism holds that the atonement secured salvation and everything it is conditioned on, including faith and repentance, for the elect, whereas it did none of these things for the non-elect (reprobate). The Westminster Confession says:
VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
Loraine Boettner describes limited atonement with an analogy of a bridge: "For the Calvinist it is like a narrow bridge which goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian it is like a great wide bridge which goes only half-way across." His point is that Calvinists and Arminians both limit the atonement in different ways: Calvinism in its extent, and Arminianism in its power. Another Calvinist maxim to describe the atonement is that it is "sufficient to save all, but efficient only for the elect".

The first pillar of the scriptural support for this doctrine is that Jesus actually saves (does not merely make salvation possible) all those He died for. This is seen in passages like Matthew 1:21, Luke 19:10, 1 Timothy 1:15, Titus 2:14, Galatians 3:13, Colossians 1:13-14, or 1 Peter 3:18. The languages of these passages is strong and definite; Jesus did these things--saving, delivering, redeeming, purifying, &c.--for us, He did not make it possible for us to do them for ourselves. Romans 5:10, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Ephesians 2:15-16, and Colossians 1:21-22 all declare that Jesus reconciled us to God; Romans 3:24-25 and 5:8-9 both say that He justified us. In Jesus we have faith (Philippians 1:29), repentance (Acts 5:31), regeneration (Titus 3:5-6), and sanctification (Ephesians 5:25-26). All of those blessings are actually the elect's through the atonement. The inevitable conclusion from all of this is that Jesus did not atone for those who do not receive all of these things, i.e. the reprobate.

The other pillar is the passages that speak directly of the scope of the atonement. Matthew 1:21 says that Jesus saved "his people"; Ephesians 5:25 says He "gave himself up for [the church]". In Romans 8:32 Paul is speaking of God giving up Jesus for the church. Other verses like Matthew 20:28, 26:28, and Hebrews 9:28 speak of God offering the life of Christ "for many", as opposed to "for all".

There are, of course, verses that speak of the atonement as being "for all", such as "Romans 5:18, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 1 Timothy 2:4-6, Hebrews 2:9, and 2 Peter 3:9, or "for the world", as in John 1:19, 4:42, 2 Corinthians 5:19, and 1 John 2:2, 4:14. These verses should be taken to mean "all kinds of"; partly this was to correct the Jewish belief that they were the chosen people of God and that salvation was only for them. Steele, Thomas, and Quinn explain that "These expressions are intended to show that Christ died for all men without distinction (i.e. he died for Jews and Gentiles alike), but they are not intended to indicate that Christ died for all men without exception (i.e. He did not die for the purpose of saving each and every sinner)

The common, knee-jerk objection against this point is, of course, along the lines of "Calvinism doesn't believe that Jesus died for everyone?" This is why the name "limited atonement" is somewhat unfortunate. For Calvinists, the focus is not on the limited scope of Jesus' atonement, but on its perfect completeness for the elect. It actually secured total salvation for all of the elect, rather than merely making it possible to be accepted or rejected. The "definite" extent of the atonement is a direct consequence of the definite extent of God's election, not the central point. If Jesus had died for everyone, from the Calvinist perspective this would directly imply universalism; everyone Jesus died for is saved. The alternative of Jesus dying an incomplete death for sinners who would reject Him and nullify what He did for them is unacceptable for Calvinists. If Jesus died for any whom God never elected to save, what would that say about the consistency and unity of God's plan?

Irresistible (Effectual) Grace

This point again ties right in with the previous two. God unconditionally purposed to save certain sinners and sent Jesus to die for them and purchase the complete package of salvation for them. The next step in His electing purpose is bestowing that salvation by the work of the Holy Spirit. The fourth point simply states that all of those God has purposed to save are certain to respond to the calling of the Spirit and be saved when they hear that calling. Again, the common, TULIP name is somewhat misleading here; "irresistible" creates an image of someone being dragged against their will to salvation, when nothing could be further from the truth. In keeping with the Calvinist view of free will (which I will get into later), this "effectual (or certain) calling" always succeeds in concert with the sinner's will, not against it. The Westminster Confession states:
I. All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.
II. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.
The doctrine of effectual grace draws a sharp distinction between the general call of the gospel (by preaching, evangelism, and the Word) from the special calling of the Holy Spirit on sinners' hearts. Because of total depravity, external calls alone can never reach the dead, rebellious hearts of those who do not know God. Though the special calling may use any of these as means, it alone is God's means for reconciling sinners to Himself, and all those who receive it will inevitably respond with faith and repentance. (The Westminster Confession says the elect are "made willing by His grace", so they "come most freely") The external call of the gospel can be rejected, but this inward call can (or will) never be regardless of anything about the individual receiving the call. My pastor compares it (in his usually classy style) to Dairy Queen; if you really understand how good Dairy Queen is, you'd be out of your mind to turn it down.

This inward calling of the spirit by which the sinner is made able to accept the gospel is what is referred to in theology as "regeneration", the "being born again" Jesus speaks of in John 3. This is when God creates a new heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26) in the sinner, which inevitably leads to the sinner freely repenting and believing in Christ. His eyes and ears are opened to the perfections of God and, so dazzled, he can only move towards the light he sees. This is all the work of the Spirit and God's grace alone, not dependent on human effort at any point.

The Bible affirms that it is the Spirit that gives the life Jesus purchased for us (1 Corinthians 6:11, 2 Corinthians 3:6). The same Spirit also sanctifies us (1 Peter 1:1-2) and allows us to believe in Jesus as Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3). The Spirit performs the work of regeneration (John 3:5, Titus 3:5), giving us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26-27, Galatians 6:15, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18). It is by Christ's atoning death, through the Spirit that we are made alive (John 5:21, Ephesians 2:1,5, Colossians 2:13). It is only by the Spirit that we know God and can draw near to Him (1 Corinthians 2:14, Matthew 11:25-27). Faith and repentance themselves are gifts from God (Acts 5:31, Acts 11:18, Ephesians 2:8-9, Philippians 1:29, 2 Timothy 2:25-26).

Elsewhere scripture speaks frequently of God's special calling by the spirit (Romans 1:6-7, Romans 8:30, Romans 9:23-24, Galatians 1:15-16, Jude 1, 1 Peter 1:15, 2 Peter 1:3). Lastly, the doctrine of effectual grace affirms that salvation is solely the work of God (John 3:27, Romans 9:16, 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, 1 Corinthians 4:7, James 1:18), so that no one can boast that he has merited any part of it.

It bears repeating that throughout this whole process of calling, nothing is done by the Spirit against the sinner's will. "Rather, the mind is illuminated and the entire range of conceptions with regard to God, self, and sin is changed." (Boettner) In keeping with Calvinism's compatibilist view of free will, God does not forcibly change man's will but tenderly changes his desires by opening his eyes to that which is truly desirable above all else.

Perseverance of the Saints

The last point of Calvinism completes the process set in motion in the previous three. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints states that, once God has predestined His elect, atoned for their sins on the cross, and effectually called them to Himself, they will certainly continue in saving faith to the end; none will fall away, reject Him, or be lost. Concerning this, the Westminster Confession states:

I. They, whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.
II. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which arises also the certainty and infallibility thereof.
III. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
This doctrine is a great comfort to Calvinists. Nothing can separate God from those He has foreknown and loved; they are assured of reaching eternal glory and heaven. This proceeds directly from the previous points; after God has decided in His immutable will to save someone and infallibly done so, it is unthinkable that anything could ever negate that salvation and foil His plan. It is a direct consequence of His omnipotence; no plan of His can be thwarted (Job 42:2).

This does not, of course, mean that everyone who professes to be saved will infallibly be saved. This doctrine implies that those who claim, for a time, to be Christians but later fall away are not after all God's elect and never had salvation to begin with. On the other hand, it also does not mean that God's true elect will not have periods of falling into sin and doubt, but that they will never be completely separated from Him.

Those who are saved in Christ are frequently said to have "eternal life" (John 3:16, 3:36, 6:47, 1 John 5:11-13). It is also called an eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15) or an everlasting covenant (Jeremiah 32:40). The thing about eternity is that it never ends. Eternal life coming to an end isn't just impossible, it's a contradiction in terms. Elsewhere God's preserving us in His love is portrayed as more of an active keeping (Isaiah 54:10, John 10:27-30, Romans 8:35-39 1 Corinthians 7:9, Matthew 18:14, 2 Timothy 4:18, Jude 24),  in which He keeps us safe from everything that might threaten our abiding in Him. The Holy Spirit, besides being the enactor of our salvation, is also given as a seal (or guarantee) of it (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Free Will

As I mentioned earlier, Calvinism holds a compatibilist view of free will, that is, that free will is compatible with determinism, the view that future events are already certain (or determined) to occur in a certain way. These two concepts at first seem impossible to reconcile. The prevailing Calvinistic method for doing this is soft determinism, which simply states that humans are free to choose to do what they desire, but since our desires are enslaved to sin, "free will" doesn't really exist. The will is "free" in the sense of acting voluntarily rather than under coercion. In contrast to Arminianism's incompatibilist view of free will which holds that an action is only free if the agent could have done otherwise, the compatibilist view holds that our actions, though voluntarily chosen, could not have happened any other way.

Romans 9

The following is a highly abridged summary of what I think is a fairly mainstream Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9, a very important chapter for the view. (I say "abridged" because John Piper has written an entire book on verses 1-23) This chapter is the keystone of the doctrine of unconditional election and also touches on total depravity and limited atonement.

The first five verses of the chapter express Paul's deep, agonizing concern over his fellow Jews for their salvation. He is so concerned for them that, if it were possible, he would give up his own salvation for their sake. In verse 6 he is quick to clarify that the word of God (the covenants and promises He made with them in the Old Testament to be their God) has not failed because not all Jews were saved. Rather, God's purpose has been unconditional election, the choosing of certain individuals, the whole time.

Paul begins unpacking this in verse 6b. "Not all who descended from Israel (the physical descendents of Abraham) belong to Israel." Instead of the children of the flesh, it is the children of the promise (the elect) who will be saved. Paul uses illustrations from the Old Testament patriarchs to demonstrate this. Isaac was chosen over Ishmael and Jacob was chosen over Esau to carry on the promise of the covenant. In Jacob and Esau's case, they were both from the same mother and Jacob was the younger, so he wasn't expected to receive the birthright. Why, then, was he chosen? "In order that God's purpose of election might continue". (v11) This purpose of election is specifically contrasted with any god or bad works of the twins, or indeed anything about them, because it was decided before they were born. God unconditionally elected Jacob over Esau to be the father to Israel. (v13)

In verse 14, Paul moves to counter the incoming objection to this unconditional election: that God was unjust, unfair, or arbitrary in choosing Jacob over Esau. By no means! In 15 he quotes Exodus 33:19, where God says to Moses: "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."--a clear statement of God's total freedom to how His glory and His mercy in any way He chooses without being constrained by anything in us. Election is not decided by human will or exertion (some translations say "running") but by God who has mercy (v16). At the same time He hardens or rejects whoever He wills, as in the case of Pharaoh (v17-18).

He then turns to answer another objection that is often raised against Calvinism to this way: How can God condemn us for simply being part of His plan and subjects to His will? To which Paul replies, as Calvin and many others since have, "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" Who will dispute the freedom God claims in Exodus 33:19 to have mercy on whoever He wills? Remember that we are all rebellious, dead sinners unable to please God and deserving wrath, not mercy. Verses 21-23 affirm God's freedom to make people to be vessels for His undeserved mercy or for His just wrath, the latter amplifying by contrast His goodness and glory to the former. In the rest of the chapter Paul explores the significance of God offering salvation to the gentiles, who were formerly not "his people" in any way.

Infralapsarianism vs. Supralapsarianism

One other, somewhat more advanced facet of Calvinism is its study of the order or precedence of God's decrees. The two prevailing Calvinist views on this subject are infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism. Infralapsarianism orders them thus:

  1. To create the world and all in it.
  2. To permit the fall.
  3. To elect some up out of their sin to eternal life, and to leave the others along with the devil and his fallen angels to their punishment.
  4. To give His son Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice for the elect.
  5. To apply by the Spirit this redemption for their salvation.
Whereas supralapsarianism would order them:
  1. To elect some men yet to be created to eternal life.
  2. To create.
  3. To permit the fall.
  4. To send Christ to redeem the elect.
  5. To call the elect to Himself by the Holy Spirit.
The difference is, of course, that infralapsarianism places election after creation and the fall, while supralapsarianism puts it before. Supralapsarianism, with the extreme precedence it puts on election over the other decrees of God, is seen more as an extreme or hyper-Calvinist view, while infralapsarianism is held by more moderate Calvinists. They are both contrasted with sublapsarianism, the prevailing view of Arminians and some Calvinists, which places the election after the appointing of Christ.

In Summary

So, then, I will summarize Calvinism in two more ways: by what it is drawn to above all else, and what repels it above all else. I would say that Calvinism is positively focused on (drawn to) a God who is as sovereign and in control of all things as He is loving and caring for His people. It is a God whose every plan is immutable and invincible, who ordains all things, even evil, for His glory and the good of His elect, perfectly deserving of our trust and submission. This, I think, is the view of God that Calvinism is enthralled with.

The negative focus of Calvinism then, the thing it is repulsed by, is anything that tarnishes this view of God, particularly His sovereignty. They chafe at any suggestion that God might not be meticulously in control of all things, or that His will and purposes might not really be sovereign but constrained by factors outside Himself. Calvinists cannot accept that anyone or anything has the ability to thwart or hinder any plan that God has established.

Ways Arminians Misunderstand Calvinism

One way in which I think Calvinism is unjustly assailed is the compression of its moderate and extreme wings into one, easier-to-attack group. It's important to keep in mind the differences between classical Calvinism and its "hyper-Calvinist" offshoots. Hyper-Calvinism can refer to a variety of ways of taking Calvinism too far, such as taking the "effectual calling" of the spirit as rendering all preaching and evangelism useless or God's total agency as removing any need for human effort or cooperation in our sanctification. While these things may be taught by some fringe Calvinists, I think they are more often used by its naysayers to attack it.

Mainstream Calvinism also does not look at humans as mere "robots" devoid of any agency. It affirms that we do have free will in the sense of being free to choose what we desire and that God's effectual calling works in concert with rather than against our will. This is in contrast to "hard determinism", a view held by hyper-Calvinists, which is incompatibilist in that it denies that any kind of free will exists and is effectively little different from the deterministic view of a "clockwork universe" held by atheists and skeptics, portraying people as mere cogs in God's plans.

Also significantly, Calvinism certainly does not deny salvation by grace through faith, as if God's election and not our faith were the real reason we are saved. Rather, the doctrines of limited atonement and irresistible grace hold that the death of Jesus and work of the Holy Spirit not only secure our salvation, but also graciously give us all the conditions for it, including faith.

One other way Calvinism is unjustly assailed is by attempts to portray its view of God as arbitrary or capricious in His electing whoever He wishes with no external conditions. I would answer that the focus of Calvinism is not on an arbitrary view of God but one that is completely free from constraints of obligations. This is the meaning of unconditional election; it's not as if God is simply mentally flipping a  coin or going (as Mark Driscoll puts it) "duck, duck damn".

Recommended Reading/My Resources

The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, by Lorraine Boettner
The Justification of God, by John Piper
The Five Points of Calvinism, by David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn
The articles and resources at
My friend Mitchell, for graciously fact-checking this post when he had so many other things he could be doing.

And, of course...
Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin