“Now…he [God] arranges all things by his sovereign counsel, in such a way that individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify him by their destruction…. If your mind is troubled, decline not to embrace the counsel of Augustine….”
John Calvin (1509-1564)
The Calvinist – Non-Calvinist debate at the end of the day hinges on one thing and one thing only: the character of God that the believer holds to be true. The choice (as we’ll see) couldn’t be more stark. Notice too this argument, ultimately, isn’t about man’s choice vs God’s choice. It is about the character of the God choosing.
Before getting into the details, you should first know that neither side of this debate actually “knows” the truth. They can’t. They’re not God. And God never tells us exactly how it is that He goes about identifying those who would one day find themselves in love with Him and living within His Son, the Christ. So both sides have formulated and apply presuppositions about God.
In order for one side of the debate to “win” the debate requires that God provably has to have the character that the arguments of that side ascribe to Him as necessary.
Historically, of course, the Calvinist side has officially “won” the debate convened as the Synod of Dort(1618-19), although this wasn’t so much a debate as a trial of a collection of fourteen devotees of the Arminian[i] school. It lasted 180 days. But, (and this is important), it could have lasted 1800 days with the same people and extant mindset in the room and the verdict would have been unchanged.
In this piece I don’t intend to dig down into the minutiae of each side’s position but will attempt to focus only on the “big” issues that separate them, all having to do with the mechanism of God’s redemption of His humanity.
The essence of the Calvinist’s belief regarding God’s redemption of His humanity can be summarized by Calvin’s own words:
God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.
Calvinists revel in their hypothesis that the act of God in choosing some for salvation and, consequently, others to “eternal damnation” is a tour de force of God’s sovereignty. Truly, for the Calvinist, the sovereignty of God is the key issue. By “sovereignty”, we learn that what the Calvinist means by this term is absolute, deterministic direction of all consequential actions and events, which for them extends well beyond the act of salvation.
To Calvinists, human action is only that action which God has ordained for them (or influenced their wills to choose, in the “Compatibilist” school) before the Creation event. (To the Calvinist, this control is appropriate and necessary because of man’s unrepentant sin and evil heart.) Think of it this way: For the Calvinist, God is the only efficacious actor in the Universe. Only His actions (which, recall, include damning the vast majority of His Creation) are actually “willful” and have any effect on reality.
The takeaway here is that for the Calvinist, if man can chose anything opposed to God’s will, then God isn’t, to them, “sovereign”. This is essential for the Calvinist notion of Divine Sovereignty as their belief is that man, in making a unilateral decision, would run the risk of contravening God’s intent in the matter. And this is simply incompatible with their understanding of Divine Sovereignty. God must discreetly control events to preclude man from doing something that violates His will.
I’m not sure what Arminians think about man’s free will in general. But, when it comes to man’s redemption to God, their views are crystal clear.
The Arminian belief is that God extends an offer to all men to believe and trust Him for their lives, as an act of His (prevenient) grace. Humans have noting whatsoever to do with this offer and have no basis to think themselves deserving of it. It is exclusively God’s gift. The one so offered has the ability, according to Arminian belief, to either accept or reject that offer (or “call”). It should not go unnoticed that men are completely impotent to trust and follow God apart from God’s offer. We see this call/offer throughout scripture as the “call” of God to faith in Him (e.g. Matthew 11:28, Rev 22:17, Prv 1:24, 1 Pet 2:9, Rom 1:5-6, Heb 3:7-8, 1 Corinthians 1:2, 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Ephesians 1:18, 4:1-4, Colossians 3:15, 2 Thessalonians 2:14, 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 1:9, Hebrews 9:15, 1 Peter 1:15, 2:21, Jude 1:1, Matthew 22:1-14 [parable of the call to the wedding banquet]). (This call is distinct from God’s call to those already in faith to service with/in Him [Rom 8:30, Rom 1:1, John 15:16, 2 Tim 1:11]).
Arminians certainly agree that God can and does compel some to believe, Paul being the classic example of faith in Christ through God’s compulsion/unilateral election (Acts 9:1-9). But this is one of only a few examples of forceful regeneration or degeneration/”hardening” (e.g. Saul, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, etc.) to achieve a specific purpose of God – the exception that proves the rule.
What’s At Stake in this Question?
In other words, why should you keep reading? The stakes are extremely high. They include:
1. The integrity of the Bible. If the Bible paints a deceptive picture of reality, why on earth should it be trusted for anything; knowledge of God?; knowledge of our relationship with God?; requirements for our salvation?; permanence of our salvation?; etc.?
2. The righteousness/truthfulness of God. If God uses disingenuous statements in His Word, why should He be trusted with our lives?
3. Our understanding of the meaning of being a Christian. If what it means to be a Christian (i.e. one of God’s children; one of His servants; destined for His glory) is only that we win His lottery, then what of the Christian life and being called and equipped to “every good work” (2 Tim 3:17)? Why doesn’t Calvinist doctrine say one word about living the faithful life – Jesus’ primary message (i.e. the Kingdom of God)?
4. The purpose of Creation. Is the purpose of Creation solely to demonstrate God’s ability to direct things? Or is it that which the Bible teaches – that through Abraham’s seed God would bestow His blessing on all nations, accepting them into His family (through Christ)?
5. The doctrine of God’s election. Is God’s choosing of those who will live in Him eternally arbitrary? Or is it predicated on some response by His created humanity once it has been called? A related question is: “Would God be clueless as to who would respond to His grace to become His child, or did He know that a) He would extend this grace, and: b) who those were that would answer “Yes, Lord”.
Yes, I’d say the stakes are pretty high.
John Calvin was a 16th century French theologian and supporter of church reformers of the time who formulated his theology based largely on the writings of the fourth century theologian Augustine of Hippo. For our purposes here, the key feature of the theology that Calvin espoused was that of God’s comprehensive, meticulous sovereignty over all things in His Creation. Once fully formed it was comprised of these specific tenets:
- Unconditional Election and Predestination (and its corollary). If God chose us for redemption from our sinful state, what does this “choosing” mean? Calvinists like to cite 2 Thess 2:13 (as at least some versions render the choosing as “from the beginning”). But the real question is: What is the effectivity of being chosen by God for salvation? Does this mean it’s a “done deal”? Several scriptures indicate that God intends all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4, 1 Tim 2:6, 1 Tim 4:10). So maybe His “choosing” isn’t the whole story?
- People as a species are incapable of responding to God (Romans 8:7). Why, then, were they created? What is the purpose of creating a species (say like cattle or sheep or beetles) that is incapable of recognizing and accepting their God/Lord/Creator? What possible value do they add to His creation over any of the other animals? What was the purpose of creating us in His image (Gen 1:26), unlike anything else? Is our neshama ( נְשָׁמָה nešāmāh, nesh-aw-maw’ – Gen 2:7) indistinguishable from their nephesh (5315. נֶפֶשׁ nepheš, neh’-fesh; — Gen 1:20 )?
- God’s (“saving”) grace (and perhaps all of it) can’t be resisted by the one to whom it is dispensed.
- Once one “believes in” God/Christ, one is assured of his eternal salvation and life with God.
These four features of their doctrine are known as: “Unconditional Election”, “Total Depravity”, “Irresistible Grace”, and “Perseverance of the Saints”.
Calvinists seem to be led astray to some degree by temporality; the sequence of things in time. God is timeless (2 Peter 3:8). God’s “eternality” means He is not subject to nor constrained by time as we are. To Him, time is irrelevant (as Peter’s testimony states). Therefore, for God, His “foreknowledge” takes on a somewhat different meaning than some Calvinists seem to assign to it. They insist God does not use His Omniscient knowledge – of all time and all its events – in His judgment of who He has predestined to be conformed into the likeness of His Son. Calvinists would have you believe that God randomly (or at least for no stated reason), selects some for salvation to Him (in order to demonstrate His mercy) and others to at least death. Morality isn’t involved here. Calvinists confess that everyone deserves death/eternal damnation. So this selection by God involves nothing that can reasonably be called justice. Nevertheless they say this in the face of the Bible’s characterization of God as not a God of ”disorder” (1 Cor 14:33) but a God of “justice” (Isaiah 30:18). The Bible doesn’t even hint at this divine fore-blindness. On the contrary, David says of God that He knew him intimately (Psalm 139:1-18), and God says of Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5), not to mention Paul’s own words in Romans and Ephesians.
The Calvinist’s overarching doctrinal and hermeneutical problem, however, seems to be that he sees things only as absolutes. To him, all Israelites (because they were human) were absolutely depraved and incapable of responding to God. God dictates, absolutely, all man’s actions. God dictates absolutely who will be saved to Him and who He condemns to death or damnation. There simply can be no “middle ground” within Calvinism because, quite simply, middle ground introduces doubts, and forces the Calvinist to give up the certainty of his doctrines. Their assurance seems to be in doctrines of men, not in the faithfulness of Christ..
Clearly, if we take the Bible seriously, many of its characters did not reject God but sought Him and His blessings[ii]. One who is committed to the total depravity of man cannot allow that these heroes of the Bible acted in faith, but rather acted only (and could act only) in response to the compulsion of their God. And having done so, why does God memorialize their lives in His scripture when that scripture keeps God’s responsibility for their faithfulness a secret?
Calvinism asserts that one who follows Christ and shares in His Spirit cannot lose that position — ever. (We can, perhaps, forgive them for this hope and the assurance they seek from it.) They use several verses to make this case, among them: John 10:27-29 and Romans 8:37-39. However, they ignore or disparage the verses that warn believers about abandoning their faith (e.g. 1 Tim 4:1, 1 Tim 6:20-21, 1 Cor 16:13, Luke 8:13, Heb 6:4-6, 2 Peter 2:20-22, 1 John 3:6, Rev 2:4-5, Heb 10:35-39, Col 1:23, 1 Tim 1:19, Heb 3:7-8, 1 Tim 4:1-2, Galatians 1:6, 5:13,).
The Calvinist argument is surely correct for any external agent attempting to pull the believer away from his home in Christ. However, it rejects the obvious conclusion that follows from these explicitly cautionary verses that it must be that the believer himself can abandon his faith, as many of us have sadly seen first-hand, resulting in these warnings to Christ-following audiences. The Calvinist simply claims that people who abandon their faith, despite the testimony of their believing lives, were never really God’s in the first place. This they claim of the same God that says “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
Calvinists thoroughly embrace God as all-powerful and meticulously sovereign, awe-some, and alone worthy of glory. This unsurprisingly instills in them a humble reverence for and gratitude to Him that they, though depraved sinners, were chosen. What, however, it does not seem to instill in them, at least comprehensively, is God’s commanded obedient love. There is an unmistakable difference between reverent gratitude and obedient love that simple observation reveals. One wonders why a God, who unilaterally chose some to be in His Son and who commands our love, would choose not to instill that required love in them at the time of their conversion. Churches today are filled with people who agree with the Calvinist doctrine but who show little, if any, love for God or neighbor – at least as would mark them out as having been selected by Him to be His, as distinctive from those that He chose to let die in their sin.
Calvinist doctrines can’t withstand a plain reading of the scriptures on the merits and so are compelled to invent characteristics of God to explain away countless scriptures. Scripture has a way of exposing falsehood. When one believes something is true, and is confronted with evidence that it is false, he, in defense, must invent alternate explanations for why he is, nevertheless, right. This is what the Calvinists have done in promoting their theories of God’s “general” call vs His “effective” call; His “moral” will vs His “sovereign” will; His common “grace” vs His “efficacious” grace. All of these are inventions of fallen men to explain why their doctrines make the Bible say what they say it says.
The largest theological category that can be called “non-Calvinist” is Arminianism. But the larger category is those who reject Calvin’s: a) doctrine of man’s absolute depravity; b) God’s absolute, deterministic, micro-control of all events; and c) God’s disdain – even hatred[iii] – of humans in general, despite His creating them in His own image (Gen 1:26). What does humanity’s creation in the image of God mean to the Calvinist? We’re never really told[iv].
The one central difference between Calvinist belief and non-Calvinist belief is the ability of a person to respond to God’s call to Himself. Non-Calvinists say all men have that ability. Calvinists say: “No, that’s just a PR move by God to show the goodness of His moral will (1 Tim 2:4-6). But, He really only effectively calls those He elected to His salvation.” This despite His command: 1 John 3:23.
Two Ways of Reading the Bible
There are two ways of reading the Bible. You can read it through the lens that you have been fitted with by your teachers, conforming your interpretation of its words to fit with your learned understanding. Or, you can read and interpret it by what its words actually say in the context they say it. This is a choice. The later method, obviously, takes a lot more effort of study and seeking the Spirit’s wisdom to understand why the writer used the original words he did to communicate his thought that expresses God’s inspiration.
Invariably, Calvinists read the Bible through the lens they have been fitted with by their doctrines. It’s as if to them the doctrines of Calvin and Augustine are, though they were just men like you and me, superior to what God’s word actually says.
Old Testament Appeals to Faithfulness to God
In this complaint we’re not merely talking about nuances in the interpretation of New Testament doctrines. Consider the sweep of the entire Old Testament, in which God’s language is overwhelmingly covenantal: “If you will do this, I’ll will do that”. From Adam to Abraham to Moses to David and beyond, we are taught that faith in God is what God desires for us, particularly those with whom He has established a Covenant.
“Today, if you (should) hear His [God’s] voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked me [God], as in the day of trial in the wilderness.”
Here we’re led to believe that the Spirit of God is instructing us to do something: to not harden our hearts. This teaches that God believes we have the ability to make our hearts unresponsive to Him, which further implies that our hearts aren’t constrained to always be unresponsive to Him – that we have some ability to control the extent to which we respond to Him. But, much more profoundly, it also teaches that we can hear God’s voice. He says “Today, if you (should) hear”. This says we can hear God’s voice – at least in some situations.
Who is David addressing with these words? His people, the Israelites. They are living under God’s Mosaic covenant that commanded their trust and faith in Him alone, through their obedience to His rules, as His elect people. So here, His elect are being admonished by God to use their God-given abilities to act in faith to Him.
So you might ask: “So what? What’s the big deal?” The big deal is this plain interpretation of God’s word is rejected by the Calvinist. The Calvinist says we are totally incapable of responding to God. They would say something like David wrote this passage to prove to Israel that they would never be able to do anything other than harden their hearts against Him. But, as we’ll see later, there were many Israelites who did not harden their hearts against God.
Let’s look at a couple more examples.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
The context here is that Isaiah is experiencing a vision in which God is telling him the words to give to his fellow Israelites. God’s instructions to Israel are a sequence of reforming actions the Calvinist asserts are impossible for them to carry out. So if that’s true, God is effectively taunting Israel, violating what He teaches us elsewhere is His character.
Jeremiah 35:18-19 (ESV)
18But to the house of the Rechabites Jeremiah said, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Because you have obeyed the command of Jonadab your father and kept all his precepts and done all that he commanded you, 19therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Jonadab the son of Rechab shall never lack a man to stand before me.”
In this portion of his book, Jeremiah relates the story of God instructing him to invite the “Rechabites” to come to the temple to be served some wine. They refuse the offer explaining their enduring obedience to their father to abstain from wine.
God here commends their faithfulness to their father, and says they will always be represented in His Covenant – in His family – as a model of the faithfulness He sought from all of Israel. God in effect points to these people and says: “Look upon these folks to see how obedience looks in their lives, and how it should look in yours, before your Father.”
Why feature this story if the rest of Israel was incapable of similar obedience to their Lord? What, then, is the point of the story?
And finally, we have a portion of the prophet Haggai chastising the remnant of Israel returned from Babylon for being selfish – for tending to their own comforts while ignoring the task of rebuilding God’s temple. In response to this chastisement, the remnant is convicted of their sin and set about to obey the Lord’s admonition:
Haggai 1:12 (ESV)
12 Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him. And the people feared the LORD.
So here we’re given a clear example of Israelites obeying God by exercising their wills. So apparently, that obedience isn’t an impossibility after all.
In all of these passages there is never a mention or inference that God has already decided their outcome. In fact, YHWH outright states in Isaiah 45:19 that He specifically did not tell the offspring of Jacob to seek Him in vain. On the contrary He says “I the LORD speak the truth. I declare what is right.” When God has predetermined an outcome (say the reprieve of Jerusalem from Sennacherib, or the Babylonian destruction) He tells the people through His prophets (Amos 3:7). What we learn from all of these stories and history is God’s desire for people to be faithful to Him; to trust and obey Him. And when they don’t we see His judgments on them for their disobedience. But there is no mention of the “fact” that they had no ability to be faithful to His pleadings in the first place. None.
So what do we have in the Old Testament: a kind of Kabuki play designed by God to instill the impression that Israel actually could have been faithful to Him when, in fact, they actually could not have? Yes, say the Calvinists. It was all a Kabuki to prove that they had no ability to be faithful to God. (If this was God’s message, did nobody receive it until Augustine in the 4th century, after it was long over?) And this ignorance of God endured despite their being the “chosen” of God, by His grace, with the potential to be His “special people” and a nation of “priests” for Him to the nations (Exodus 19:6)? Yes, say the Calvinists. Israel was a singular demonstration to humanity all that humanity itself was incapable of following God.
So, you might ask, wasn’t God disingenuous, perhaps even deceptive in imploring Israel not to worship idols; not to intermarry; and to follow the Torah? The Calvinists would answer “yes”, despite the fact this makes a mockery of the majority of the Bible. To the Calvinist, God’s integrity in the face of this behavior bordering on sociopathic is unassailable. “If that’s the way God operates, that’s the way He operates, and has every right to do so. Who are you to question God?”
Who worships a God who creates such a fraud (and then preserves it for all future generations) on His chosen people, let alone His created humanity at large? Answer: Calvinists.
New Testament Teachings
The New Testament is full of God’s imploring of people to “repent”, starting with John at the river, but quickly extending to Jesus and His ministry (Mat 4:17). But Calvinists say the people who heard this command of Jesus had no ability to follow it. So was Jesus disingenuous? Calvinists apparently don’t seem to care if He was.
If the Son of God comes demanding that we repent of our sins that we are wholly incapable of doing (and chastising us when we do not [Mat 11:20-24]), why? What of the violence done to the word of God in the average person’s mind? Is that an outcome also specified by God?
Well, if Jesus was disingenuous, what of the Apostles? Peter (Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19)? Paul ([and the already-repentant jailer – Acts 16:24-34], 2 Cor 7:10)? Luke (Luke 24:47, Luke 18:13)? Mark (Mark 6:12)? No matter, say the Calvinists. Repentance is not something man can do. (We’ll look at this a bit more, below in [2 Tim 2:25–26].)
There is another appeal to His hearers that Jesus makes, recorded in Matthew and Luke that deserves our attention. Here He says simply:
 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.  Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
The context of this message is His Sermon on the Mount. The people He is addressing are not believers. They were area peasants attracted to hear Him speak because of His reputation as a miracle-worker in the surrounding Galilee. They were just common farmers and fishermen and laborers.
So what is Jesus saying to His audience of common people? Here He is portraying God the Father as merciful to them (certainly not hating them or condemning them); as desiring good for them; and not only willing it for them, but saying, in so many words: “I will do it. I will meet your needs.” Quite clearly, He is talking about His favorite subject – the Kingdom of God – the one He is here to inaugurate as King. He’s saying “ask Me, and it will be given you”; “seek Me and you will find Me”; “knock on My door and it will be opened to you.” Then He recites perhaps the single most devastating verse in the entire Bible to the case for the Calvinist doctrine: “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
Now, we have to sit back and feel the full weight of this passage. These are the words of Christ. He is speaking to an undifferentiated crowd attracted to Him by His miracles. And He is saying “if you seek Me you will find Me; if you ask you will receive Me.” He’s saying if you take these actions I will bless you. (What He doesn’t say here but could have is that His grace will not just enable the finding but also the seeking.) This interpretation of these plain words is a Calvinist heresy.
I don’t know how Calvinists explain this passage, but Calvin himself said Jesus was teaching about praying. Who prays to God? To them, only believers – the elect. Were all of those folks on that hillside that day believers in Christ as the Son of God? No, they weren’t. So Calvin had his context wrong. What Calvinists may fail to understand is the unimaginable magnitude of the Christ event, buried as it is down in the bowels of their doctrine; that, indeed, this was God inviting common people to ask of and seek Him; and they would find Him.
What about Christ’s appeal here (Matthew 11):
28Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
The setting here is Jesus is publicly ministering in the Galilee. Presumably He has attracted a crowd within earshot to whom His “Come to Me” message is addressed. Is He baiting the unaware non-Calvinist here? Are we perhaps not to come to Him because He’s going to ‘drag’ us anyway? The question for us is: Is this appeal sincere? Are we, in fact, to decide to follow Him? If we are to understand Jesus’ appeal as meaning we have the ability to come to Him, then, indeed, this is what we are to do. If we’re Calvinist, perhaps we just ignore this verse as we know that we’ve already been elected by God and so going anywhere or doing anything is not a requirement of the bargain. We’re “in”. Is Jesus here just making it sound “good” for others to hear?
So, in addition to the fraudulence of the Old Testament we must add the fraudulence of the New, including the Gospel message (“Believe that Christ is the Son of God, sent to redeem His Creation.”) None of this comports with the Calvinist vision – the repenting, the coming, the believing. For them, it’s all a contrived fiction in the sense of it being actionable by the hearer, despite it being the common understanding of the common person reading these words.
As we’ve discussed, Calvinists hold that humans are depraved by which they mean not just abjectly sinful but literally incapable of seeking God. Key verses they are fond of citing to substantiate their belief are:
 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
The Genesis passage is talking about the pre-flood population, all of whom were wiped out save for the “righteous” Noah and his family. So it actually doesn’t apply to post-flood humanity.
Paul’s verse in Romans is quoting David (Psalm 14, 53) who is speaking against the enemies of Israel. This is a classic example of hyperbole in the Jewish Bible – overstatement to make the author’s point emphatic. The Bible is full of such writing as it was a common style used by the Israelites throughout their history, even into the New Testament period (e.g. think of Jesus’ “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own Father and Mother…” Luke 14:26).
David here is not asserting that every single human being does not seek for God. We know this not only because of his fondness for hyperbole, but by reading down in the Psalm where we find him contrasting the character of his own people (“for God is with the generation of the righteous”) with their oppressor’s (“fool”, “evildoers”, “sinners”). If the Calvinist insists on a literal reading of this (and his other favorite verses) he’s going to have a hard time understanding Revelation, or, indeed, large tracts of the Old Testament. Neither of these verses say what the Calvinists eisegete into them. Paul’s point in citing the passage is simply that everyone (including his Jewish brethren) are sinners in need of God’s redemption offered by Christ.
Further, we read in Acts 16 Paul’s encounter with the women at Philippi, including Lydia, about whom the Luke says:
14Among those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God.
If people (in this case prior to their conversion) can “worship…God”, then the Bible is testifying to a nature of mankind contrary to the Calvinist doctrine. So which one do you believe?
Does God Decree Who is His, or Offer the Gift of Adoption as His?
This is the fundamental point at issue here. The question is not so much the theologian’s “Ordo Salutis” (sequence/phases of one’s salvation) but rather what is the seminal event that triggers whatever events follow. We once were apart from God but now have His Spirit living within us. What happened?
That there are at least two major competing answers (and many other variants speculated by some) to this question today, 20 centuries after the fact, should tell us that no answer commands an overwhelming majority among believers and scholars. Our goal is to understand their respective arguments so that we can apply our God-given reason (and, for Christians, the wisdom of the indwelt Spirit) to assess the most truthful and the one that seems best to uphold the character of God attested in His Word as just, righteous, merciful, all-knowing, all-powerful, loving, truthful, and both glorious, and one who seeks to be glorified, from His humanity (Isaiah 43:7).
The first thing we need to understand is what the context is for even asking this question (“What happened?”). Many (and among them most Calvinists) think the context of the question is:
“How does God save me so that I can go to heaven?”
I assert that this is not the context. I (and many well-respected theologians and Biblical scholars) contend that the context is:
“What changed with Christ’s death and resurrection so that now God can achieve His purpose of extending His covenant family (Romans 9:25, Matthew 22:1-14) beyond the Jews to all humanity, and establish His Kingdom among all those who say ‘Yes!’?”
This later question focuses our attention on the Bible’s concept of our “justification” by God. Those declared “righteous” by God are those who enter the Covenant of Faith He established with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) and become members of His family (Gal 3:29). How and why this can happen is what the Apostle Paul is talking about throughout all of his epistles, particularly Romans and Galatians[v].
Perhaps the best way to proceed is to look at the Bible and verses each side uses to establish its case, many of which we’ve already noted in the preceding.
Since my goal here is to defend God’s character from what I consider the slander of Calvinism, I intend to focus in on those verses that they see as foundational, to see if their hermeneutic is trustworthy.
We would do well to start with this verse, as it sets the context for God’s interaction with and gifting to His people: “for the sake of Christ”, and is used by Calvinists to claim God as the cause of our belief.
 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,
The key word here is the one in this version translated “granted” (other versions have “given”). Does the word carry the meaning “assigned”? No, it is passive. Or is it more akin to the idea of a gift. Here’s what a respected dictionary[vi] has to say:
5483 χαρίζομαι charízomai; fut. charísomai, mid. deponent from cháris (5485), grace. To show someone a favor, be kind to. To give or bestow a thing willingly, with the acc. of thing and dat. of person (Lk 7:21;Ac 27:24;Ro 8:32;Phl 2:9); to hand someone over to the authorities (Ac 25:11,16) or to a mob (Ac 3:14). The most common meaning peculiar to the NT is to pardon, to graciously remit a person’s sin (Col 2:13). With the acc. only, charízomai means to forgive something (2Co 2:10;12:13); with the dat. only, to forgive someone, be gracious to (Ep 4:32;Col 3:13). 2Co 2:7 uses it without any expressed obj. with the meaning to forgive. In Lk 7:42,43 it means simply to pardon or remit a penalty. In the pass., especially in the aor., echarísthēn, and the fut., charisthḗsomai, it means to be permitted or granted something (1Co 2:12;Phl 1:29;Phlm 22).
Deriv.: chárisma (5486), a gift of grace.
From this we conclude that Paul is saying that because of Christ’s sacrifice (“for His sake”) you have been given a gift from God that not only enables you to believe in Him but also enables you to suffer for Him. Both belief and the endurance to suffer are made possible by grace from God.. So chalk one up for the non-Calvinists.
This is the Calvinist’s “Ordu Salutis”; their “golden chain of salvation”. If any passage is going to clearly show the veracity of the Calvinist’s doctrine of God’s unconditional election to salvation, it’s this one.
 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Arminius’ insights into Romans relied on its Chapter 7. There, we find Paul’s anguished pleading concerning his will to do good, but sin’s defiance of that will (Romans 7:13-25). Here, among other things, we see two principles articulated by Paul: 1) he has an effective will (contrary to the Calvinist understanding), and 2) that will seeks to do good (contrary to the Calvinist dogma of total depravity).
To Arminius, man could be convicted by the Holy Spirit before his regeneration (so before he “loves God”). His belief was that God’s grace, through belief in the faithfulness of Christ, was the determinant of salvation, rather than a predestined, arbitrary divine choice. Grace, he said, is “sufficient for belief, in spite of our sinful corruption, and thus for salvation.”[vii]
Of the effectiveness of this will he says[viii]:
“[T]he grace sufficient for salvation is conferred on the Elect, and on the Non-elect; that, if they will, they may believe or not believe, may be saved or not be saved.”
What system could better demonstrate both God’s mercy and justice?
Calvinists, in explaining Romans 8:28-30, emphasize God’s “foreknowing” of those He predestines, and the special nature of that knowing as something much more than foresight or perception of the future. And they’re right. Biblically speaking, to “know” is to have a close, intimate relationship with the one known. But it is odd that they sign-on to Paul’s enumeration here when Paul himself puts “foreknew” first – before any predestination. Don’t they believe that the choosing – the electing – comes first? Yes, they do.
As noted earlier, the entire passage is addressed to “those who love God”: in this case, the Christ followers in Rome. If one expresses his love for God by his obedience to His Son, why should it surprise anyone that God, who commands this love from us, would know that person intimately? After all, God’s purpose is in redeeming all of His created humanity, as Hosea informed us (Hosea 2:23), and Paul attested to Timothy.
That takes us to the issue of this “knowing” being “pre-knowing” or foreknowing. Paul here has the problem of expressing the time-unconstrained knowledge of God to his readers, who are stuck occupying their temporal state now. Those in Rome in love with God He predestined to be conformed to Christlikeness due to their love. And He called them to His service, and He adopted them as children within His family, and He glorified (past tense to Paul) them[ix].
If this is meant to be a description of the process of salvation, as Calvinists believe, where each set of people is the same set of people, then Paul’s words are in conflict with Jesus’ words: “Many are called but few are chosen”. Of those “called” only some will experience “chosen-ness”. The irresistible, effectual call comes first, right? How then is it that some don’t answer it “Yes, Lord”? Or, is Jesus purposely weakening His reproach of both the Jews and unresponsive Gentiles in His parable (Matthew 22:1-14) by covertly sneaking in a reference to God’s “general” call? You be the judge.
But Paul here is not describing God’s choosing or His salvation sequence. He is describing what is true now of those in his audience – the faithful in Rome; those who “love God”. He’s saying to them: You, who love God, have been foreknown. You have been predestined to be conformed to Christlikeness. You have been called, you have been justified (declared right by God) and you are glorified in Christ. Paul is encouraging his brothers in hopes of steeling their faith and resolve by describing their pedigree as God’s possession – that they are His children and will be glorified by Him. It is not a statement of the sequence of steps in salvation.
 even as he chose us in him[x] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love  he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,
There are two main non-Calvinist interpretations of this verse. The first is that its subject is corporate, not individual, and doesn’t rely on God’s specific omniscience; that Paul is describing the Ephesian faithful as “us-in-him”. So God chose those who would be found to be “in Christ” (He always knew what Christ was going to do and the effect it would have on the faithful) “before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before Him”. In other words, all those who would answer God’s gracious calling/offer of redemption in Christ would be seen as holy and blameless because of their relationship in and to Christ.
The second interpretation is individually-based, but simply acknowledges God’s omniscience of who had said “Yes, Lord” to God’s gracious call. Remember, for a timeless (some call it “timeful”) God, past, present and future are all a single known continuum. But for us, locked as we are within our time dimension, we are compelled to see things differently than God, in terms of their sequence in time. Paul has to use tenses here: “before the foundation of the world”. That’s how we think. But the God he is describing is tenseless, for whom it is an impossibility to not see the entire span of His Creation and the hearts of each of its creatures (Psalm 139:4,6, Jer 17:10, 1 Sam 16:7, 1 Peter 1:1-2)[xi].
 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,  so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.  In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,
In 1:11 Paul is talking about he and his fellow ministers (“we who were the first to hope in Christ”. This is some 20+ years after Christ’s resurrection. Paul first visited Ephesus in 52 AD). He distinguishes between he and his ministers in v13 when, speaking of the Ephesians, he says: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, …” So here, at least, Paul is not attesting the Ephesian’s “predestination” to salvation, but his, and his fellow minister’s, own to God’s service. I agree with him completely: he (or someone just like him) God did predestinate to bring the Gospel to the Diaspora, given his depth of knowledge of the scriptures and prior training as a Pharisaic Rabbi. What better credentials could one have who was called to this ministry to the scattered Jews (and their Gentile neighbors) throughout the Roman world?
 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Calvinists say this verse proves that man’s faith in God is a gift of God. For technical reasons[xii], the thing referred to as the gift of God is not the word ‘faith’, but the entire thought “by grace you have been saved through faith”. The ‘gift’ from God is: His grace producing salvation in those whose faith is in Him. They also sometimes claim that answering “Yes, Lord” to God’s call is a ‘work’. Of course, that is absurd. But they must exclude any activity of the person in their salvation formula due to their assumed definition of his depravity.
1 Peter 1:1
[1Pe 1:1] Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,  according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
This verse is sometimes claimed by Calvinists to attest to predestination because of Peter’s use of the term “elect” (1588. ἐκλεκτός eklektós). There is no relevant Biblical evidence for this conclusion, however. Why would Peter suddenly call his audience “elect”? Peter was a Disciple to the Israelites. The Israelites had been God’s chosen/elect since Egypt (1400+ years ago), and now some were coming to faith in the Christ. Peter here is likely simply claiming, rightfully, that the Jews in the diaspora who had come to faith in Christ (to whom he is writing) were of the faithful remnant of Israel now dispersed. This was the common understanding in the first century amongst the early church, including Paul (Romans 11:5).
1 Peter 1:3
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
This is a Calvinist favorite because of its inference of God’s causation of our regeneration. Of course! Who else can regenerate us but God? The real question is, was there an invitation to which the believer responded? Did He call? Did we answer “Yes, Lord”? If so, of course He was the cause of our regeneration. Obviously, we can’t regenerate ourselves! But we can answer His call (or reject it). This particular verse proves absolutely nothing about the seminal event we’re interested in.
2 Tim 2:25–26
God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
This is akin to the phrase we saw earlier in Phil 1:29, but linguistically different (the word here for ‘grant’ is δώῃ., while the term used in Philippians 1:29 is ἐχαρίσθη). The former means “To give of one’s own accord and with good will.” While the later means “to be permitted or granted something” The question is whether God “granting” something to us is God compelling something for us. In this verse as in the Philippians verse, the answer is that God is gifting to us the opportunity to effectively repent[xiii]. What we do with that gift is not prescribed by the gift, or by God. We should notice the instances where those implored in fact did repent (e.g. Zec 1:6, Jon 3:8-10) or were chastised for not doing so (Mat 11:20-24).
We looked earlier at the Eternal salvation (or “Perseverance of the Saints”) tenet of Calvinism. In thinking about the leap of faith one must take to accept the Calvinist doctrine (given that it forces you into such an unnatural interpretation of God and His Word), I have come to wonder if this doctrine of “once saved, always saved” may not be the incentive that prompts their suspension of disbelief concerning their other doctrines.
There are numerous verses and passages that caution believers to remain faithful; to not turn from and leave the Faith, many of which we looked at previously. The book of Hebrews is full of them. Given that the talisman of this belief is the eternal security it offers, it is odd that Calvinists present no guarantee (more than any other soteriological model) that they, in fact, will be found to be one of the elect on the Last Day.
You can draw your own. But for me, the conclusions of this study are:
- Salvation is exclusively the enterprise of God, not men. Nothing man can do is the cause of his salvation. However, God is not ignorant of a man’s reaction to the knowledge of Him and His Son – either to love and serve Him, or to ignore or fight Him. The Calvinist’s are right about one thing: None of us deserves God’s redemption. But the Arminians are right that, as a result of Christ’s faithfulness, God is righteous and just in extending His gracious offer that is sufficient to faith to those who seek for Him (Matthew 7:7).
God did not implore Israel for its faith and obedience in Him for 1400 years as a way to hide His real plan to just run a lottery for the souls of those who He would arbitrarily choose to live in Him. This is basic, fundamental, and not subject to corruption by the doctrines of men. A man doesn’t make a theological calculation for his salvation. He chooses the way Christ has provided to him. And, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the value of the one who so chooses. It has only to do with Christ’s atoning sacrifice and the believer’s response to his Lord upon his call from Him – “Yes, Lord”. Were it other than this, we could reasonably expect the Bible (God’s word) to tell us so.
- God doesn’t lie to us in His word. It is not in His character to do so.
- God didn’t purposefully use His word deceive us as to His will for us. It is not in His character to do so.
- God doesn’t give us the information necessary to prove exactly how it is that some of us enter into His family, and others not. But, He does tell us a great deal about His own character of righteousness and His insistence on justness.
There is nothing “just” about arbitrarily condemning the vast majority of all the humanity that has ever lived to destruction or, worse, eternal damnation, and for the minority of equally defective people, perfected life with Him for eternity. This is the poster-child for injustice by whatever standard one understands that term.
- The Calvinist doctrine of predestination is based on the eisegesis of passages in Romans and Ephesians. To foreknow is not to foreordain. There are only four verses in the Bible that can be interpreted as a foreordination and those are Romans 8:29-30, which translates the word as “predestined” and which we’ve already discussed, Acts 4:28, which speaks of God’s ordination of Jesus, and 1 Cor 2:7-9, which speaks of God’s ordination of His love for those that love Him. There are no verses which, properly read and interpreted, say that God predestined at the beginning some for salvation and some for destruction, despite the Calvinist arguments to the contrary.
- Man-made dogmas lead large numbers of people to misunderstand the very scripture the Spirit uses to inform us of His workings and will for us. Calvinism (dependent as it is on Augustine and his [uninspired] development out of Manicheism and into Christianity) has a long track record of doing exactly that, to the great harm to the faith of many. More than that, because it portrays God as one who is unfaithful to His own words and, at best, disingenuous in His appeals to the ancient Israelites and ourselves to respond to Him to place our faith not in ourselves or our idols, but exclusively in Him.
- I am not disputing, nor do I know of any non-Calvinist follower of Christ who disputes, the absolute sovereignty of God. He is the first cause; the alpha and the omega; the first and the last. He can do whatever He wills with us. What I am disputing is that He purposefully deceives us; that He exercises meticulous control of every detail of Creation so that He can dispense some “justice” by damning some and choosing others to life from among a population that all deserve death (based on nothing revealed to us in the Bible).
What I Believe
It’s simple, really. God orchestrates (through His plan, about which I’ve written elsewhere) events, including sinful people coming to faith in Him through His Son, which glorify Him. In this orchestration He asks a simple question: “Do you want me or do you want your world?” This is the call of God. If we reject it we have no excuse. Because He’s God, this orchestration is perfectly designed to enable anyone to answer “Yes, Lord” to Him. BUT, He does not compel that answer. He does do everything else.
If the person’s answer is “Yes”, He does the rest. He grants them a repentant spirit for their former life and fills their heart with contrition; He gifts them faith in His Gospel; He justifies them (declares them, to Him, “right”); He positions them within His Son, allegiant to Him; and sanctifies them through a series of life circumstances that test and steel their resolve to remain “in Him”.
What’s different in this view from the Calvinist is that man must respond to God’s call. No answer is an answer. This is, in fact, the pattern we see established throughout the entire Bible, a pattern which the Calvinists, using their hermeneutic, completely explain away in preference to the few verses of Peter and Paul which they, I would argue, misrepresent.
Throughout the scripture we see God issue and consummate covenants that He decrees with people – agreements in which if the people do something, God will do something. If the people don’t do as God desires, He will take different action. The current “New” covenant is no different: believe the Gospel of and trust His Son and be redeemed to life in Him. Refuse His call to this faith, and be destroyed. It’s a covenant, not an edict.
The question the reader has to grapple with is which is it? Is God the enforcer of the redemption of some, or is He the offeror of redemption to all because of Christ? How you answer determines the character of the God you worship.
[i] Named for Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch theologian whose followers joined him in challenging the prevailing theology of the early Reformers (documented in the Belgic Confession), earning them the label “Remonstrants” after the title of their paper (Remonstrantiæ) disputing Calvin’s position.
[ii] The kings David, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Jotham, Hezekiah, and Josiah are all identified as doing “what was right in the eyes of the LORD.” All the prophets whose narratives contributed to the Bible had God’s favor starting with Moses down through Israel’s history to Malachi. Then we have individuals – including some Gentiles– who found sufficient favor with God to have their stories recorded in His scripture: Noah, Job, Ruth, Esther and Mordechai, Gideon, and, of course, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
[iv] In his Commentary on Genesis Calvin writes: “For the greater confirmation of the above doctrines God declares, that he is not thus rashly caring for human life, and for no purpose. Men are indeed unworthy of God’s care, if respect be had only to themselves. but since they bear the image of God engraved in them, He judges himself violated in their person. Thus, although they have nothing of their own by which they obtain the favour of God, he looks upon his own gifts in them, and is thereby excited to love and to care for them. This doctrine, however is to be carefully observed that no one can hurt his brother without wounding God himself. Were this doctrine deeply fixed in our minds, we should be much more reluctant than we are to inflict injuries. Should any one object, that this divine image has been obliterated, the solution is easy; first, there yet exists some remnant of it, so that man is possessed of substantial dignity; and, secondly, the Celestial Creator himself, however corrupted man may be, still keeps in view the purpose of his original creation; and according to his example, we ought to consider for what end he created men, and what excellence he has bestowed upon them above the rest of living beings.” He seems to argue that humanity’s Imageo Dei survived the fall, and because of it God was “excited to love and to care for them”.
Calvinists themselves, however, don’t seem to agree, pointing to scriptures like Psalm 5:5 “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers”.
[v]I’ve never understood the Calvinist position in the context of having the Bible that spells these things out. Why, according to their understanding, is a Bible even necessary within God’s Sovereign Rule?
[vi] “AMG Complete Word Study Dictionary — New Testament”
[vii] There is another long-standing debate in Christianity over whether a person’s accepting of God’s saving Grace is a “work”. This belies a profound misunderstanding of what Paul was talking about throughout Romans and the rest of his epistles that has unfortunately broadly infected modern Christendom.
[viii] Works of J Arminius (V1): ARTICLE XXVIII (VIII.)
[ix] The logician’s principle of Ground and Consequent would affirm the statement: “One is glorified because one loves God.”
[x] Notice it doesn’t say “chose us to be in Him”; it says “chose us in Him”. So the statement could just as easily be read as addressing those who are now “in Christ” in the Ephesian Church as stating a soteriological doctrine.
[xi] Why is it, indeed, that God “looks on the heart”? Why does He bother if it is of no consequence to His righteous election?
[xii] In Greek, the noun ‘faith’ is feminine. The ‘this’ in ‘this not of yourselves’ is neuter. Grammatically then the ‘this’ (τοῦτο) cannot refer to ‘faith’ (or to ‘grace’, for the same reason).
[xiii] The idea of “granting” here is the same as found in Rev 3:8: “ I have given you an open door”