What’s Wrong with Calvinism?
I have been asked the question, “What’s so wrong with Calvinism?” I have a couple of issues. First of all, Calvinism appears to have a very broad definition today. It seems that a lot of people are Calvinistic in some of their thinking. The problem is, Calvinism’s definition is way too broad today. As far as I am concerned, Calvinism can be defined very simply. If an individual believes that God in His sovereign choice decided in eternity past who would be saved and by His divine initiative through the process of regeneration produces saving faith and repentance in a lost person, then that person is a Calvinist. This involves accepting the 5-Points of Calvinism, which are Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints. Some people claim to be 4-Point Calvinists, saying that they cannot accept the tenet of Irresistible Grace. Some will say that they are 3-point Calvinists adding to Irresistible Grace Unconditional Election or possibly Limited Atonement. This is evidence that there needs to be some new terminology that better defines the salvific process. It is virtually impossible to be a 3 or 4-Point Calvinist. That is tantamount to saying that “one is almost pregnant.” A woman either is or is not pregnant. There is no in between. A person is either a Calvinist or he or she is not.
One of the big problems with this whole issue is actually a matter of language. It seems that everyone is using the same words but we are all using different dictionaries. It is time to redefine some of these polarizing issues and seek to establish some common ground that a majority can rally around and move on in carrying out the priorities that the Word of God has given to us in the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.
I have had pastors say to me, I am not a Calvinist. I have heard that from denominational leaders. Pulpit committees have heard that statement from prospective pastors. It is morally and ethically wrong for anyone to lie about his theological position. If your position is not popular, understand that this is your problem; it should not be the problem of the people who are looking to you for leadership. It is also not your responsibility to correct the incorrect theological position of others without some word of warning in advance of your intentions. There is no way the Holy Spirit will honor nor condone any kind of decision that is intentionally entered into deceptively. This is a problem in our convention today and it is time to address it and do something about it before it is too late.
One of the problems with this whole debate is the fact that the Calvinists are fully armed with their arguments and scriptures and big, superfluous terminology. Most non-Calvinist can care less about why the Doctrines of Grace are not as essential as the Calvinist insist that they are and the Calvinist knows that he will win most every debate or discussion. Sadly, the same thing is true in debating Mormons, Muslims or Atheists for that matter. I am not putting Calvinism in those categories but I am saying that as a non-Calvinist, I have no desire whatsoever to be able to discuss the scriptures that the Calvinist wants to present to prove his position any more than I care to debate the Jehovah’s Witness who thinks there are 144,000 that are going to make it into heaven. However, the criticism is that non-Calvinists do not know what they believe nor why they believe what they believe and that gives the Calvinist a “leg up” in presenting his point. This position of intellectual superiority is also feeding a lot of young intellectual’s minds and fueling the flame to flock to Calvinism. I do believe we ought to know what we believe and why we believe it. We need scriptural authority to back up what we believe. Calvinists are certainly to be commended for doing that. However, this critical attitude of superiority aimed at people who disagree with Calvinism is certainly not called for.
With that being said, since I am accountable to God for what I believe and what I teach, God is the standard that I am most concerned about and I am not concerned about what anyone else thinks about why I believe what I believe or teach what I teach. I have no desire to be an expert in what someone else believes and I am not personally responsible for correcting everyone else’s theological positions. Sometimes I think I believe more in the sovereignty of God than the Calvinist does, because I do not try to put Him in a box that I can explain. I do not really understand why the devil exists. I do not understand why sin exists. I can rationalize the existence of sin better than I can rationalize the existence of Satan. All I know is that the Bible says he exists so that is all I need to know. I do not have to have a theological explanation for his existence to preach that he is real.
In a similar way, I do not have to have a neat theological understanding of why Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for the sin of all men yet not all men are going to heaven. I understand the argument that says if Jesus paid the sins for all men, then one of two things is true; all men will go to heaven or Jesus’ blood was shed in vain. There is the argument that if Jesus died for the sins of those who do not go to heaven then the penalty for those sins is paid twice; once on the cross and finally in hell. The problem with these and other similar arguments is that they assume certain presuppositions that are based on human logic. If I understand anything about the sovereignty of God I am convinced that God is not restricted by my logical limitations. When the Bible says that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” then I have no problem believing that this is true. I have heard countless testimonies of individuals who have read that verse and had its words touch their heart and bring them to Christ.
I actually believe Conversionism rests more on the sovereignty of God than Calvinism does. The Calvinist says that man’s depraved will is stronger than God’s will to reveal Himself through revelation and reconciliation and so God has to initiate this process of regeneration to allow man to even respond to Him in the first place. I believe that God is thoroughly capable in His sovereignty to reveal Himself to me and to draw me and reconcile me to Himself, especially when that is what He says He is going to do. If it is indeed God’s will that none perish and that all come to Him in repentance then I would prefer to believe what He said about Himself as opposed to trying to explain why God did not really mean what He said. That in and of itself makes God look suspect in His sovereignty or else He would not need someone explaining why what He said was not really what He meant. This is especially troubling because God is telling us what His will is! If He is having a tough time with that, this whole Christian journey is suspect! I also believe the difference between the Perseverance of the Saints and the Perseverance of the Savior is paramount. It appears to me that the Calvinists have this elaborate system of God reaching down from heaven and snatching people out of the throws of hell, but they have to work to keep their salvation! As I see the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, persevering becomes more important than conversion in the first place as far as glorification is concerned. If one fails to persevere then there is no hope of heaven. The Calvinist cannot even know for sure that he is saved until he reaches the pearly gates and hears the Savior say, enter or depart.
I was in Brazil several years ago and was introduced to a lady who would assist me as a translator while I was there. She shared her testimony with me. I have never forgotten it. She had worked with the Brazilian government as a translator. She had travelled all over the world. While in Washington D.C. one year following a divorce and some very difficult times in her life, she contemplated suicide. In a hotel room, she reached for some pills that she had placed in the bedside table and she saw a Gideon Bible and picked it up to read it. A card had been placed at John 3:16 and that verse had been highlighted. As she read that verse she began to cry because she knew somehow that this God really did love her and she fell to her knees in that hotel room and asked Christ to come into her heart and to forgive her of her sin and He did and God began to put her life back together again.
Here is the thing. This lady had several choices to make. She was about to commit suicide. She had every intention of doing so. The Holy Spirit intervened. Salvation never happens by chance. Salvation is always at God’s initiative. She picked up that Bible and John 3:16 had been clearly marked for her benefit. This was no accident. It was a divine appointment. She read this verse. This lady was depraved. There is no doubt about it. The question is, how depraved was she? The Calvinists say that the only response she could make on her own was to reject God. Without God’s initiative of regeneration, she would have closed that Bible and reached for those pills and committed suicide on that evening. That did not happen and the Calvinist would say, God reached down and plucked her out of the pits of hell and saved her right then and there. Regeneration for the Calvinist proceeds saving faith and repentance. Faith and repentance are the result of regeneration.
That‘s what’s wrong with Calvinism.
I believe the Bible teaches that this lady was depraved but not dead. She may have been dehydrated but she was not dead. She was dead in her trespass and her sin spiritually as far as her ability to right the wrong and to stand before God justified was concerned, and as such she was totally lost. She was thirsty and needed to drink from the well of living water. The Holy Spirit touched this lady’s heart not by regeneration but by revelation and reconciliation. The Scriptures presented the gospel message to her and this gospel message is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. She read that passage and God revealed Himself to her and she had a choice to make; what am I going to do with what I have just read? She was like the officers who refused to arrest Jesus that said, “We have never heard anyone speak like this man has spoken.” Was this lady unconditionally elected? She came to Christ that night so some might conclude that the answer would be “yes”! Did God know before the foundation of the world that this woman would pray to receive Christ in Washington D.C. on that evening in that hotel room at 11:30 PM? I have no problem answering that question, “yes.” However, I also have no problem accepting the fact that God’s knowledge of what she would do had absolutely nothing to do with her decision to do what He knew she was going to do. She made the choice to respond to God’s touch on her heart. That touch was not a response to God’s irresistible Grace. He did not reach down and “change her want to” and because of what He did, she did what she did. This is the logic that the Calvinist employs in their theological system. They have a number of passages of scripture that they use to support their claims. Calvinism is nothing more than a theological system that is based on a couple simple statements of logic that are not even themselves logically grounded.
That‘s what’s wrong with Calvinism.
Calvinists try to contend that non-Calvinists are irresponsible in their salvific application of easy grace. They site examples of preachers and evangelists touting man’s use of emotionalism to get people to make decisions at altars and these people are no more saved than the man on the moon. There may be a lot of truth to that argument but that has absolutely nothing to do with the validity of the claims of Calvinism. There is no doubt that there have been people who have taken a preachers hand and prayed the sinners prayer and got baptized and died and stood before the Lord and heard Him say, “Depart from me you worker of iniquity, for I never knew you.” I will also argue that there will be Calvinist pastors and deacons and Sunday School teachers and maybe even an elder or two who will stand before Lord and hear Him say the same thing to them as well. The responsibility to teach sanctification as a part of the process of salvation has nothing to do with the issue of how a person’s relationship with Christ is initiated. This is where my primary contention with Calvinism lies. I do not believe that a person is regenerated by God and that process results in saving faith and repentance and spiritual adoption. I do not care how you look at it, that kind of approach to salvation makes God directly responsible for every person who escapes hell and goes to heaven but it also makes Him personally responsible for every person who dies without Christ and does not escape hell. God is not responsible; we are. We choose what we are going to do with the glorious gospel message that Jesus Christ saves and that He has come to seek and to save those that are lost. “How shall we neglect so great a salvation?”
The Calvinist will counter saying, “God is not responsible for anyone who goes to hell.” Every man is responsible for his own sin and the Bible says that the wages of sin is death. Men go to hell because that is God’s decretive will. Here is the point of contention with that argument. If ALL men deserve to die and go to hell and God can save them all but He does not, then He is responsible for those who do not make it to heaven. There is no way to dance around that fact. Calvinists ought to man up and just admit that fact. The answer that I have heard on a number of occasions is, “The question is for me is, not why God saved some but why God saved any.” Well how do you do; that is like asking someone, “would you like to have an orange or an apple” and he answers “I think I would like to go to the movies.”
That‘s what’s wrong with Calvinism.
Did Jesus die to pay the penalty for Judas’ sin? Did He pay the penalty for Adolph Hitler’s sin or Jeffrey Dahmer’s sin? It is unthinkable that He could have done so knowing what kind of life they would live and the horrible things that they would do to so many innocent people. The same can be said of Bob Hadley as well. However, the Bible says that Jesus died for the sins of the world. I do not understand that. My lack of understanding however does not negate the validity of the statement. When I was in college there was a popular statement that said, “If God’s Word says it; that settles it; I believe it.” I remember thinking that sounds great! I wrote it down and began repeating it. James Robison came to the Jackson Civic Center and held revival services there. As a young pastor, I remember being part of the meetings and he made mention of that popular statement and I was so proud that I knew the quote. He went on to say, “If God’s Word says it, that settles it whether you believe it or not!” Whoa! That was really powerful and I wrote that down and have quoted him a number of times over the last 30 plus years.
God’s atonement is indeed limitless in its power to save. God can save anyone at any time and under any circumstances. This atonement is limited in its scope to save as the Calvinists accurately contend. That scope however, is the point of contention. Calvinists contend that Jesus died for those who would come to Him in faith and repentance and be saved. He did not die for those individuals who for whatever reason would reject the offer of God’s salvation and remain lost and under the power and penalty of sin. Jesus did not die for those that God would not offer the gift of regeneration to. Because this is true, God would have to know who would and would not be saved so the Calvinists developed the 2nd and 4th points of Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace. They are all like strands of twine all mingled together to make this rope called Calvinism strong enough to hold up. They then add to the three strands this fourth strand called Total Depravity for good measure to make the Calvinistic rope even stronger. The last strand called The Perseverance of the Saints is a slip knot that causes the whole system to completely unravel and the Calvinists fail to even realize it.
The Perseverance of the Saints is really a doctrine of salvation by works. It is a tenet that says the “true saint” is that person who is the elect and he will persevere to the end and find salvation when this life is over. Calvinists will say this is the same thing as the “Eternal Security of the Believer.” These two statements are as far apart as they can possibly be. It is really amazing that the Calvinist can contend that God is sovereign in regeneration which leads the dead person to come alive and chose Christ and live but there is no way for him to know that he will go to heaven until his life comes to an end and he has persevered. When the Calvinistic system is analyzed and all of its points are set out on the table, the truth is perseverance and not conversion is the “tell of the tape” in salvation for the Calvinist. The Calvinist will counter with the fact that perseverance is not even possible without regeneration and conversion. Make no mistake about it, perseverance is the road that gets the Calvinist to heaven.
This is a lengthy quote but it says everything that can be said about the Calvinist’s 5th point, the Perseverance of the Saints.
“This Judgment-Day-orientation is also the basis for threats or alarms addressed to all people, especially to all who profess to be Christians, whether baptized or not. The threat of judgment and of condemnation is universally present in the New Testament. We are repeatedly warned against neglecting to forgive others (Matt 6:15), indulging the flesh (Rom 8:13), being cut off from the covenant of promise (Rom 11:22), putting confidence in the flesh (Gal 5:4), disowning Christ (2 Tim 2:12), neglecting God’s great salvation (Heb 2:3), falling away from Christ (Heb 6:4-6), deliberately sinning (Heb 10:26ff), missing the grace of God through bitterness (Heb 12:15), subtracting from scripture (Rev 22:19), and many other similar warnings.
All these threats of the gospel, frequently expressed by conditional expressions (e.g., “if”), call upon all people indiscriminately, without separating people into the “elect” and “non-elect,” “genuine believers” and “spurious believers,” or “regenerate” and “unregenerate.” The gospel does not make any room for anyone to presume, “I am of the elect” or “I am a genuine believer.” We are all sinfully prone to disconnect God’s election from obedience (contra 1 Pet 1:1-2), as if salvation is ours apart from perseverance. The entire gospel cries out against the exercise of presumptive logic that, though not always verbalized, is nonetheless often thought:
The call of the gospel is always to persevere in faith and not to presume upon God’s grace. The exhortations that call us to endure in good deeds and the warnings that appeal to us lest we fall away from Christ function, not to cause us to doubt our justified standing before God in Christ, but rather to elicit steadfast obedience which is faith’s authentic behavior (cf. Rom 1:5; 6:16-17; 16:25-26). Thus, they establish by the Spirit bold confidence that we who obey the gospel are precisely the ones to whom the promise of justification unto eternal life is given.
The gospel’s threats against failure lest we lose eternal life and its admonitions for us to persevere in order to attain salvation function to emphasize the inseparable connection between perseverance in holiness and attainment of salvation. The gospel inseparably links by obedient and persevering faith the attainment of what we have not yet received with what is already ours. According to the gospel, on the Day of Judgment there will be no admission into God’s kingdom for anyone who has failed to do “the heavenly Father’s will” (Matt 7:21). Furthermore, in this passage Jesus makes it abundantly clear that our election to be God’s children will be demonstrated at the judgment only by doing “the heavenly Father’s will.” For apart from works of obedience, Christ the Judge will disown those who presume that election theirs because of religious activity. He will disown them with the eternally resounding words, “I never knew you!” (Matt 7:23).
We who believe find that our justification and hope of standing justified in the Last Day is exclusively grounded in the obedience of Christ Jesus (Rom 5:19). At the same time, the gospel unequivocally affirms that our obedient faith, which was the condition called for initially by the gospel, is the necessary condition or means by which we shall finally be welcomed into God’s presence as justified and blameless (Col 1:21-23; Gal 5:1-5; Acts 13:43).
Obedience is not only the evidence that God has begun his good work of salvation in us (Phil 1:6) but it is also the means of salvation precisely because, according to the gospel, faith, repentance, obedience, and good works are inextricably bound together though distinguishable. So when the gospel calls upon us to do good deeds which are profitable (Titus 3:8; 1 Tim 6:17-19) or to forgive others (Matt 6:14-15) or to obey God’s commandments (Luke 18:19; 10:25-28), the gospel is commanding the activity of belief, the kind of belief that is required in order for anyone to be saved. What the gospel requires is obedience of faith (Rom 1:5; 16:26). All obedience is the obedience of faith so that only those who obey Christ receive his gift of eternal salvation (Heb 5:9).
The inseparable linkage of faith and obedience and of being declared righteous and being made righteous is spanned by the gospel’s promise and by its incessant calls framed as warnings and exhortations. The gospel that promises salvation to all who obey its urgent call also marks out the pathway that will lead us from where we are already to the place of salvation to which we have not yet arrived. This, then, is the function of the many warnings and exhortations. Warnings function as signs that caution against the multitude of dangers that lie on every hand. Admonitions function as signs that point us to the right path as they exhort us to press forward in order that we may enter into God’s kingdom and inherit the life that has been promised (cf. Heb 6:12).
The gospel that warns and exhorts is the same gospel that promises eternal life and provides the Spirit for us who enables us to obey the call of the gospel with all its appeals (Rom 8:1-12). The eternal life, for which we strive, and the promised Spirit, for whose fullness we eagerly hope, are already ours. Therefore, we are not left helpless to obey the gospel, but rather we obey the gospel only because it is the Spirit of God that already enlivens our mortal bodies with heavenly life; it is the same Spirit who enlivened Christ in his resurrection (Rom 8:11). It is only by this enlivening Spirit that we, then, can understand and heed the paradoxical call of the gospel: “if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13).
It is this same Spirit, who in conjunction with enabling us to obey, also testifies with our spirits that we are God’s children (Rom 8:15-16). The Spirit of sonship does this only for those he leads in the path of righteousness. Spirit-given assurance is not restricted to what we already are (God’s children) but it also encompasses what is not yet ours (our inheritance). Thus, we are assured that we are not only on the right pathway but that we who have already been declared righteous will not be condemned by God at the close of this journey (Rom 8:31ff).
The gospel assures us that we belong to God’s elect only as we adorn our faith with the Christian virtues that God’s Spirit is pleased to work in us (2 Pet 1:5-11). We assure our own hearts that we are God’s elect children only as we exercise obedient faith. Assurance that we are truly God’s children does not come to us by logical deduction; it is ours only as we walk the pathway of obedient faith. Assurance is not the happiness to be found at the end of the course; it is our divinely implanted joy that accompanies us in the journey itself.
God promises that he will finish the good work he started (Phil 1:6). God also promises that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love (Rom 8:35-39), that all whom he calls and justifies will be glorified (Rom 8:30), that God will keep us from apostasy (Jude 24-25), that those who have eternal life will never perish or be snatched from the Father’s hand (John 10:28-30), that all those who are given to the Father by the Son will be raised on the Last Day (John 6:40), that the one who called us will establish us until the end so that we will be blameless in the day of Christ (1 Cor 1:8), and will sanctify us completely on the day of redemption (1 Thess 5:24). All these promises give us believers great assurance because we know that just as we did not initiate our salvation, neither can we sustain it apart from God’s grace. These promises assure us that God will complete what he started. They protect us from a paralyzing fear that looks within and sees no resources to persevere to the end. The gospel promises that God will grant the grace necessary to finish what he began. None of these promises, however, rules out the threats and warnings or exhortations and admonitions in the scriptures. Indeed, the gospel’s threats and warnings and the gospel’s admonitions and exhortations are means that God uses to see to it that the promise of perseverance will be realized in us.
Christian assurance of salvation is not retrospective; it is prospective. It is not introspective; it is Christ-focused. The assurance that the gospel holds out to us does not focus our attention upon the beginning of salvation but upon its consummation. Furthermore, the assurance that the gospel calls us to embrace does not look within ourselves but away to Christ who is the prize to be won (Phil 3:8). Though the gospel does frequently appeal to past perseverance as reason for continued faithfulness to the end (e.g., “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure” [Heb 6:11]), assurance concerning the past is now passed. The kind of assurance the gospel gives is never content either with the past or with what we already are. Rather, the assurance that the gospel provides for us is of the essence of faith, for this assurance is “being sure of what we hope for” (Heb 11:1), namely confidence that we shall be what we are not yet –fully like Jesus Christ (1 John 3:2-3). This assurance is born out of faith that acknowledges that God “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb 11:6)
Caneday, A.B., http://trsbu.blogspot.com/p/forty-theses-on-perseverance.html (accessed July 12, 2011).
That’s What’s Wrong With Calvinism
Grateful to be in His Grip!