Wednesday, August 22, 2012

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

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