Many weeks ago in our small group, the discussion turned to Calvinism and Reformed theology. As I sat back and listened, I realized that I had little to no idea what everyone was talking about! Truthfully, Calvinism and Reformed theology were never topics that, up until now, I had never been interested in. I like to talk about theology, but it’s really not my primary area of interest. I like to learn doctrine and I’ll happily read a book on systematic theology, but it’s not a common practice for me. And when it comes reconciling the Doctrine of Election (or Pre-determinism or Predestination) with the Doctrine of Free Will, I’ve always been content with Spurgeon’s response: “I never reconcile friends.”
The fact is, they’re both taught in Scripture. Therefore, they’re both true. This isn’t an either/or issue; it’s a both/and issue. So what else is there to fuss about? Isn’t anything beyond that point just someone unnecessarily spewing hot air?
I would have been content with leaving it at that, but one member of our small group said, “I feel uncomfortably saying this in this group, but I am not a Calvinist.” Immediately the rest of the group went into theological triage. I sat there, astounded at what was happening. In a setting where individuals ought to feel safe to share something, they immediately became someone’s project—something everyone dreads and forces them to silently struggle with the turmoil inside. As a side note: this knee-jerk reaction to “fix” someone is a huge problem in the church (as a whole), and it must stop. People used to come to the church for hope and feeling. But they only face judgement from the mouths of self-righteous “saints.” We’re supposed to come to the cross daily, remember our sinfulness, rest in God’s grace, trust in Christ’s righteousness, and bring that very hope to a hurting world. But I digress.
I left that small group time wondering, What do I believe about Calvinism? I’ve read a book on Calvinism. And I’ve read a book about Calvin. That’s really the extent of my exposure to Calvinism. If I’m part of a group of Calvinists, then I ought to know what they’re talking about, right? Someone’s theological beliefs give me some indication of what they’re meaning when they talk, especially when it comes to things like God’s sovereignty. If I don’t know what they mean, then I can’t understand the content. But I have to know what they’re thinking in order to know what they mean. Right?
That week in small group has stuck with me for months. I’ve since tried to learn what I could about Calvinism and differing viewpoints. I’ve asked Uncle Google about it with mixed results (after all, I don’t even know what source would be reliable. I’ve asked my pastor about it and he referred me to a book (which is absolutely fine because I love to read). And I’ve talked with a Molinist friend of mine. I have respect for many Calvinists and Molinists, and I read authors on both sides.
But here I am, like a guy in a drive-thru who can’t decided if he wants cheese on his hamburger.
So in the middle of this journey, I thought I’d give Calvinists the opportunity to convince me. Right now, I’m leaning toward Molinism, though I don’t fully grasp the entirety of that either. (Don’t worry, Molinists, you’ll get your chance.) So here I am, leaning on a theological fence, wanting to be persuaded one way or another.
At the moment, I’ll only be focusing on parts of TULIP. I know that there’s more to Calvinism that just TULIP, but you can’t have Calvinism without TULIP.
I put “Unconditional” in brackets because I don’t disagree that there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s favor. He doesn’t love us because we first loved him. My problem is solely with the Doctrine of Election.
“If you believe in Christ, it’s because God decided to save you long before you saw you needed to be saved…Election means that before [creation], the triune God chose which depraved sinners would receive his mercy in Jesus Christ. God chose who would be saved.” -J.A. Medders, Humble Calvinism
God decided. God chose. He picked who would be “in” and who would be “out.” And there’s nothing you can do about it. So, the Doctrine of Election according to Calvinism says: God chose who will spend eternity in Heaven with Him, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Likewise, he chose who receive his eternal wrath and punishment in Hell, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
To some extent, I do agree with that. The fact that anyone is saved is an act of grace because we all deserve eternal punishment in Hell. Our sin and depravity have condemned us to that fate. But, in God’s love for us, Christ died for us. God’s grace isn’t conditional; we didn’t earn it and we didn’t deserve it. But because is a gracious God—it’s stems from his very nature and character—he has bestowed it on us in the work of Christ.
But my issue is according to the Calvinist view of election, nobody, and I mean nobody, had any choice in the matter to any extent whatsoever (except God).
Now again, I believe this is true to a point. Since we are depraved, we could not choose God on our own. However, I don’t believe that God has limited the call of salvation only to those he has chosen. If he has, how can he hold anyone accountable for rejecting Him? After all, isn’t their rejection of Him ultimately His decision anyway?
J.A. Medders calls the Doctrine of Election a “gracious doctrine.” But to whom is it gracious to? Calvinist election can only be gracious to those who have already been decided to be saved. But if God is only bestowing limited grace, and if grace is a part of his character, then either 1) grace is a limited part of his character, or 2) God is limited in his grace. But for God to be God, he must be wholly and fully of any and all attributes that he possesses. And if grace is one of his attributes, then his grace cannot be limited in anyway.
Really, that’s my biggest issue with Calvinism. All my other problems with Calvinism stem from the understanding of election. If election is cleared up, then I imagine that everything else will fall into place.
I am of the opinion that Christ died for all, but not all will be saved. Christ’s work on the cross isn’t a blanket of salvation for anyone any everyone without question. Instead, it’s an open invitation to all who accept it. At that point, Christ’s righteousness gets applied to the believer. And since Christ’s righteousness cannot be applied to anyone who does not believe in him, then the atonement must limited.
I’m uneasy talking about Jesus’ death on the cross without talking about His resurrection. You cannot have one without the other. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then there is no atonement. His death was in vain and we’re all still dead in our sins.
So to explain Limited Atonement in conjunction with the resurrection: Christ died for all, but not all will choose to be risen with him. The sins of the world are nailed to the cross, but will only stay that way if walk out of the tomb with Christ. We are ultimately faced with two choices: be dead in sin, or be risen in Christ.
Imagine, for a moment, if there was an individual cross for every person who ever lived. Above each cross, there was a sign that said, “This cross belongs to [Name]. There’s a cross for you, a cross for me, a cross for Calvin, and so on. At the time of Jesus’ death, Jesus effectively was nailed to every single cross. He was nailed to your cross, he was nailed to my cross, he was nailed to Calvin’s cross, and so on. He died for the sins of the entire world, but at the same time he died for everyone’s sin individually. But at the resurrection, we were given a choice:
Someone has to hang on your cross. Who is it going to be?
Many people will believe in Christ. As such, Christ’s righteousness and payment for sin will be applied to them. In a way, Christ will hang on that cross and you will walk out of the tomb.
But if you choose not to believe in Christ, then you will hang on the cross for your own sins, and there you’ll remain. Your sins were already nailed on that cross when Jesus died. But you’ll love your sin so much that you’ll choose to join it. And there you’ll stay.
Now, this isn’t anywhere close to a perfect analogy, so don’t quote me and say “He’s claiming that Jesus died on a bazillion crosses. And he’s claiming that Jesus is still hanging on the cross!” That is not what I’m saying. I’m trying to illustrate atonement and make a point that each and every person has a choice to either pay for their own sin or accept Christ’s payment on their behalf.
I believe that this idea is supported by Scripture, but is especially highlighted in the book of John. For example:
John 1:29 – [John said], “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (emphasis mine)
John 3:16 – [Jesus said]…”For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
John didn’t say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the chosen ones!”
Jesus didn’t say “For God so loved the elect, that he gave his only Son, that the elect may believe in him and have no choice about the matter so that they may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world to save the elect and condemn the non-elect. The non-elect are condemned already because God chose them to not believe in the name of the only Son of God.”
However, if we take this into account with the Calvinist view of election, then Christ didn’t die for the sins of the world (which I believe contradicts Scripture and the actual spoken words of Jesus). I don’t—I cannot—accept that.
I also don’t believe that, in these instances, “the world” means “all of creation” (because creation itself is affected by sin), or that it refers to “all the people groups of the world,” And I think that anyone who makes that argument is guilty of equivocation—changing the definition of the word in the middle of an argument. Given the context of John 3:16-18, it would be dishonest to say that the “the world” was anything except individuals (because whosoever implies individuality).
Furthermore, “sin of the world” implies ownership. Earth, dirt, creation (except for man) cannot sin, thus it cannot be sinful, thus it cannot have sin. It can be, and is, affected by sin. But Jesus cannot die for the sin of all of creation because all of creation does not have sin—only humanity does. Jesus can only die for the sin that has affected all of creation.
So there you have it, Calvinists. I’m not trying to start an argument or a debate. I’m just laying out what I believe and why I believe it. I could probably write a book on why I believe what I believe, but that’s a little too much for a blog post. This post became a lot longer than I originally anticipated anyway.
I’m open to being wrong, but I have to be convinced.
I want to listen to you and learn from you. And I look forward to hearing from you. But I would ask you: please don’t write a book in the comments. If you’re a blogger, please post a response on your blog and leave a link in the comments. If you’re not a blogger, please leave a link that would direct me to a helpful article on the subject.