The Critiques of Calvinism, Part III: Oh, the Injustice of It All!

So I’ve shown that Calvinism accords with the human experience and leads to good human fruit. But there’s still the unresolved question of if God is unjust to predestine people to Hell. There’s really no logical way out of the belief that God predestines people to Hell if you’re a Calvinist. If you’re in Heaven because He picked you, what does that mean but that He didn’t pick the other person?

Any Arminian worth his salt finds that positively unjust. John Wesley said that believing that makes God worse than the Devil. Well, whether we like it or not, that is what Scripture says. Jesus explained, “But there are some of you that believe not. Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:64-65). In other words, My people come to Me because My Father does something for them that He doesn’t do for others. Or Paul: “Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardeneth” (Romans 9:18, KJV). What about Peter saying of nonbelievers, that they “stumble at the word, being disobedient, whereunto also they were appointed” (I Peter 2:8, KJV)?

I think I can lessen the sting a bit. I think what most people have a problem with is supralapsarianism, the branch of Calvinism that maintains that God picks out the people He wants to send to Hell and then ordains the Fall to bring that about. That’s what turned Arminius himself off from Calvinism. I agree that that is unfathomably cruel. I’ll even admit that I think John Wesley was right insofar as supralapsarianism goes.

I subscribe to sublapsarianism, which holds that God decides to permit the Fall and then simply chooses to do justice upon some people rather than show mercy. Justice is about giving people what they deserve for their actions, so I don’t see how logically we can say God decides what is just to do to a person before He decides what they’re going to do.

But is it then unjust to decide not to save some? Clearly Hell is what they deserve, else God wouldn’t send anybody there at all since then He would be unjust. But if we say that grace is undeserved favor, we can’t then complain if He doesn’t show it to some because it was undeserved in the first place. We can’t have it both ways that grace is an amazing gift but that God owes it to everyone. Once something is owed, Paul reminds us, it’s not a gift, but rather wages. I don’t know exactly how many of the great Calvinists were sublapsarian, but I maintain that it is more Scriptural and logical, besides being less offensive to our sensibilities.

Besides, God’s sovereignty in the area of sin is really the only way out of an apparent contradiction in the story of David’s census. II Samuel 24:1 says God “incited” David (ESV) when we know God tempts no one, and then, to add to the confusion, I Chronicles 21:1 says Satan “incited” David (ESV). Then God holds David accountable and punishes him severely for something He incited him to do! So, how can God and Satan both be responsible for something God doesn’t do, something in fact that He was willing to kill 70,000 people over? The only way I can see out of this is to take the Calvinist position. We say that God, in His justice and wisdom, decided that the time had come for David to number the people and let Satan, who was of course more than ready to oblige, tempt David, whose weak human nature caved in to the temptation. That same kind of scenario is described in more explicit detail in I Kings 22 when a lying spirit volunteers to deceive Ahab’s prophets and gets God’s permission to do so. The census was ultimately God’s idea, but the free agents who followed their natures are held fully accountable in His justice.

(In case you think God was overreacting in sending a plague over a census, I have a theory. Samuel explains that He was angry with Israel. My guess is that, after they had conquered their mighty empire, the Israelites were becoming puffed up and feeling self-sufficient, so he let David give that pride a visible manifestation throughout Israel before punishing them.)

By now, I hope you’ll see that our infamous worldview is not a warped and self-serving distortion of Scripture. It accords with Scripture, reason, and the human experience. It doesn’t lead to disobedience of God’s commands to let our light shine before men, and it doesn’t make Him evil (if it’s worked out correctly). And who can really object to a worldview whose rallying cry is, “To God alone be the glory!”

The Critiques of Calvinism, Part II: By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them

Thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s and others’ slanderous writings, people have a very definite image of a Calvinist. He’s an up-tight, self-righteous bigot (doubtless a hypocrite to boot) who believes that he is going to Heaven because he’s so good while everybody else is going to Hell. He’s basically a Pharisee who calls the multitude accursed and doesn’t want to do anything to help them because he knows nothing he will do will ultimately make a difference.

A common critique we Calvinists get is, “Why should we do the things God told us to- i.e., good works, evangelism, prayer, etc.- if we don’t believe it’s going to make any difference?” Well, many of you know Anne Hutchinson was kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritans for saying just that. It’s called antinomianism- the belief that we don’t have to live by the Law because we’re saved anyway.

Well, evidently the Apostle Paul had this come up too. He asked rhetorically, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” and answered, “God forbid! How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1-2, KJV). It’s a paradox of Reformed theology that we are not saved by works but that we are not saved without works. The resolution is that, if God has changed your heart such that you love Him and believe in Him, you’re going to want to do good works. He’ll be recreating you as a good tree that bears good fruit. As a child of God, you’ll want to resemble Him and emulate your father. Put another way, if you don’t want to follow the Law because you think you’re saved anyway, you probably aren’t saved in the first place. The fact that Anne Hutchinson was expelled for preaching antinomianism should show you that Calvinists take doing good works very seriously.

As far as evangelism goes, why should we go out and preach if people are going to Heaven whether we proclaim the Good News to them or not? The Westminster Confession explains this brilliantly when it deals with Providence in Chapter 5. It states that, while everything goes according to God’s plan as the primary cause, “He ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes.” In other words, God has picked people out to save, and our evangelizing is the means He’s chosen to bring it about.

One thing I’ve learned about God is that He loves to delegate. Can He save people without us preaching? Of course! But, then, did He need the widow of Zarephath and her oil to feed Elijah? He could have kept feeding Elijah through the ravens or made the cakes appear through an angel like He did later. Instead, He wanted to involve another person in the process so He could save her soul.

The Great Commission is God’s love and wisdom in action since it’s a win-win-win situation. The first Christian gets the joy of sharing the Gospel and the eternal reward that comes from it, the convert gets saved from eternal ruination, and God gets the glory from both. I’ve heard of at least one group of so-called Calvinists that don’t do evangelism because they don’t care about others, but that’s overwhelmingly not the predominant Calvinist attitude.

Most of us are deeply committed to evangelism. George Whitefield, one of the greatest evangelists in history, was a Calvinist, as was Jonathan Edwards. I know you’re thinking now, “Jonathan Edwards. Ugh. ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’- bad!” but consider this: He was out taking the Gospel to Native Americans, whom his fellow colonists regarded as subhuman and targets for exploitation. That’s how great his commitment to evangelism was. William Carey, who metaphorically wrote the book on modern mission work, was a Calvinist. The Calvinist David Livingstone was all but crippled by a lion attack during his far-flung travels to preach the Gospel to Africans, but he didn’t let that keep him from evangelism.

And prayer. I love the way the late Dr. R. C. Sproul explained this. People want to know if prayer is any use from a Calvinist point of view, or, as they put it, can it actually change God’s mind. Dr. Sproul asked them, “What exactly do you think you’re going to tell God that He hasn’t considered already?” So, clearly there’s no way your prayers are going to dissuade or persuade God from His plan. But there are those secondary causes at work again. He wants you to pray because that’s the way He wants to work out His plan. That’s how James can say, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (5:16) while Samuel affirms, “And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent (that is, change His mind), for He is not a man that He should repent” (I Samuel 15:29, KJV).

This next one I’m not sure why I’m bothering with because I have never disabused an Arminian of this despite it being an outright falsehood. I’m just being thorough here. Every Arminian I’ve talked to believes that Calvinists believe that God chose them because they were more righteous than others, which Arminians at least claim they think is unscriptural. Well, it is unscriptural. It is also uncalvinist. When we say God is absolutely sovereign in His election, we mean He doesn’t owe us a thing. With Paul we ask, “What then? Are we better than they?” (Romans 3:9, KJV) and answer that we “were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Ephesians 2:3, KJV). When we say everybody is born into a state of non posse non peccare, we’re including ourselves.

We really don’t know why God chose us, but if anybody believes God chooses them on the basis of their righteousness, it’s Arminians! I’m thinking of the famous dispute over what exactly is going on when Paul says, “For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestine…” (Romans 8:29, KJV). As everyone knows, Calvinists say “foreknew” means, “loved beforehand,” and Arminians say “foreknew” means, “foresaw their choice of Him.”

I’ll make the obligatory Calvinist explanations in passing that proginosko refers more readily to a relationship (as the word “know” is frequently used in the Old Testament) than to knowledge of facts and that it is translated, “foreordained” in I Peter 1:20. What I’m really interested in here is the Arminian explanation. It says, “God picks me because He foresees that I will choose Him.” Or, perhaps it can be phrased this way: “God picks me because He knows I’ll do something righteous that this other fellow won’t.” Well, we all know that’s unscriptural. It flies in the face of the Apostle John’s explanation that, “We love Him because He first loved us” (I John 4:19, KJV). It even more blatantly contradicts Jesus’ words that, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16, KJV).

So how accurate is the caricature of a Puritan that’s been part of American culture for two centuries? I hope you can see that Calvinism isn’t a hindrance to evangelism and a help to self-righteousness. If a Calvinist grows lax in missions or thinks God owes him his salvation (and I’m sure that does happen), it’s a sign that their Calvinism is defective.

Next blog post: the obligatory theodicy (vindication of God’s righteousness).

The Critiques of Calvinism, Part I: What Do We Really Believe?

Calvinism’s a dirty word to most people. It conjures images of self-righteousness, snobbery, and vicious hypocrisy. Thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Calvinistic Puritans have become the bad guys of early American history; certainly their descendants have moved as far away from their worldview as they can. I save revealing my theological convictions for once people have gotten to know me better. Nevertheless, I’ve had a lot of theological interaction with Arminians, so I will now give my reasoned responses to their critiques after a few years’ more reading and reflection. This week’s blog post will explain how what you believe Calvinism teaches is probably wrong.

It’s important in debates to define terms, especially when emotions and preconceived notions are running high. So here are my terms: Calvinism is a worldview that holds God to be sovereign in everything, with particular emphasis on the area of salvation. Arminianism holds that a person’s eternal destiny is ultimately determined by the individual’s free choice. I don’t think Arminianism is that misunderstood, but I assure you Calvinism is.

My father summed it up as, “The popular caricature of Calvinism is that on Judgment Day people are going to be dragged kicking and screaming into Heaven while others who are begging to get in will be shut out.” In other words, people believe Calvinism teaches that some people who want to go to Heaven can’t because they’re not on the list while others who don’t care about Heaven get in just because they are. To Arminians, this is the ultimate injustice since it ignores the person’s free will.

I can categorically state that is not what Calvinism teaches. People wind up where they want to. Well, of course, people who go to Hell don’t want that, but they certainly don’t want Heaven either. The last thing they want to do is praise God forever, which isn’t surprising because they didn’t do it while they were here on earth. Conversely, God doesn’t bring people into Heaven who don’t want to praise Him. The whole point of Heaven is fellowship with God, and He is seeking those who want to worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23), not people who couldn’t care less about Him.

Calvinism teaches that a person must be in one of three moral states. In an America that’s all about individualism (you vote, you comment, you like, you post, you, you, you…), it’s pretty dangerous to deny free will, but here goes. Calvinism teaches that everyone starts with an inherently sinful nature, one, in fact, that cannot help but sin. I would like to point out for those who think that Calvinism was a relatively recent innovation by one grumpy Reformer that the technical term for this state, non posse non peccare (Latin for “not able not to sin”), comes from no less than St. Augustine. His position was deemed orthodox by the Council of Carthage in the early fifth century when the Church had to choose between him and Pelagius, who taught absolute freedom of the will. Calvinism teaches that when God saves a person, He gives them a new nature that can do good (posse peccare et non peccare), and He finishes in eternity with a nature that cannot sin (non posse peccare).

Do people have free will? Sure, in the sense that they’re not an automaton God winds up and pushes where He wants to go, but the will is bound to the nature. It follows its inclinations and preferences. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good, and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil. For of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45, KJV). Jesus also said, “Even so, every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Matthew 7:17-18, KJV). The tree doesn’t bear just any kind of fruit; it necessarily brings forth the type of fruit it naturally produces (non posse non peccare and non posse peccare, in other words). When people tout humanity’s free will, are they considering Jesus’ words, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, whosoever commiteth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34, KJV)? Not very free sounding, I’m sure you’ll agree. Then you can add His explanation for the source of sin, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19, KJV). If we equate heart with will, we have a will enslaved to sin.

Basically, your free will does what it wants to. That’s why you do everything you do- because you want to. You may not look forward to it or think it pleasant, but in the end you do it because you expect some benefit that will outweigh the cost. Can you think of anything you’ve decided to do that you can’t drill down and find an underlying desire for? Alcoholics know that drinking too much is bad for them, but they think it’s worth the bad effects to get the feeling of being drunk. Even if you do something you don’t like for someone else, you’re doing it because you want to be nice to them. Sometimes you make a decision you don’t like just because it’s the least bad choice, but even then you want to cut your losses. Put another way, if you did something you totally did not want to do, something you don’t see any benefit in whatsoever and that you think is actually completely bad for you, you’re being extremely irrational! I agree with those who say about a sin, “It’s only natural”- for an evil creature! How much easier is it to develop a bad habit than a good one? And even when we do in fact do something good, Paul says it wasn’t our idea: “For it is God which worketh in you, both to will, and to do, of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, KJV).

I’m going to get really bold here and say that Arminians, when they think they can make a good choice before God changes their nature, are claiming an ability that even God doesn’t possess. Why does the Bible say God cannot lie or be tempted? Isn’t He free to lie if He wants to? Is someone going to stop Him? I think what God’s saying is that His nature is so pure and holy that there’s not one iota of a chance that He would even consider doing such things. Even He cannot go against His own nature (which is actually a very good thing).

Most people think humans are naturally good or at least capable of goodness. After all, even atheists love those who love them. Certainly, everyone does things that are outwardly good. Even Hitler loved his dog Blondi (until, that is, he needed a subject to test the poison he was about to commit suicide with). But, according to Jesus, that doesn’t make us good. In Matthew 7:11, He says that parents who give good things to their children are still evil. Martin Luther drove himself half-mad when he realized what Jesus was getting at. Coming from a background as a most promising law student, he said that, since Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our being, there’s our greatest obligation, and do we ever do that? No! Everything we do falls short of that standard, and thus everything we do is somewhat sinful. How can nonbelievers, who by definition have no faith, do a good work in God’s sight when Paul says, “For whatsoever is not of faith is sin”? (Romans 14:23, KJV). People can do outwardly good things because they know it’s good for them to do so, but they don’t do it out of love for God and thus fail to live up to what they were designed for.

So much for free will. Next blog will examine the fruits of Calvinism. After all, that’s ultimately how you must judge any doctrine.