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.