Reformation Day Musings on Chapel

One thing God has really been challenging me on over the last few years has been my tendency to be overly critical,  my tendency to—at the sight of anything I disagree with, especially when worded antagonistically—throw out the entirety of the sermon I am hearing or book I have been reading. He has been challenging me to look past the minor errors or flippant comments we all make/say when we are preaching/writing and take what I can learn out of it, often there are a lot of good things I miss in my arrogance and hotheadedness. Today I found myself challenged in this area. I heard a speaker who had a lot of good to say, but, for a minor portion of what he was saying, took at aim at something I think is important in Scripture and set up a straw man which he then proceeded to tear down.

In talking with my life group about what we learned from what we heard we got a sound application for our lives. The speaker was talking about taking the choices we make in this life very seriously, being ready to make the right choice in whatever circumstance approaches us, looking to God and choosing His way so as to facilitate His work in our lives. This is an application I think is very important. No matter what theological viewpoint we take up we need to understand that the choices we make in this life are incredibly important; Calvinist or Arminian, we must realize that we are held responsible for the choices we make in this life and that God works His will through human actions and human choices. In my life group we talked about how this applies to our daily lives; we must take all due diligence to be ready to make the right choice when the times come, how can we be ready to do this? I think the Scriptural precedence is to study and mediate on the word of God day and night, to treasure God’s Word in our heart so that we may be able to keep our ways pure (Psalm 119:9-12), to have our mind’s renewed so that we may know what the revealed will of God is and be faithful in following it (Rom. 12:1-3).  The speaker also spoke of something I find we who are generally grouped under the heading “Calvinist” can often forget; God is predictably good!! If we truly believe that God is good and that He always acts in accord with His good and perfect nature for the sake of His name, for the result of His glory, then we can know that in the suffering we face, in the pain and sorrow of this life, God’s is always good—predictably so! We can truly remember that for those of who love God and are called by Him He works all things in this life, including trial and temptation (though he is not the cause of temptation, cf. James 1), for the good of us becoming conformed to the Image of His son (Rom. 8:28-39).  These where tremendous applications of what the speaker was saying today, but—unfortunately—for those of us who share a different theological viewpoint from him it seemed as if we could not apply these things to our lives. It would seem that these applications are invalid because our belief would seem, according to him, to render our choices meaningless. This is a pattern of thought I have encountered before in the thinking of Evangelical Arminian Roger Olson (you can read my full reviews of two of his books here and here) and I would like to quickly rehash here my thoughts on these things so that those of us who would fit into the broad stream of thought known as “Calvinism/Reformed/Augustinianism” can know that indeed our choices in this life do matter and the application of this sermon is as important for our walk with God as it for an Arminian.

The speaker today set up a false dichotomy between a reality determined by God and freedom of the will. In one sense this is true, for the majority of thinking on what it means to be “free” these two realities are mutually contradictory, but this is not what Scripture teaches. Scripture teaches us, at least how Calvinists understand Scripture, that these realities are both true; the universe is rendered certain by God’s secret will—His sovereign plan that infallibly comes to pass—but we make genuinely free choices that make a difference, that mean something. The speaker today set up a straw man that suggested that Calvinists did not believe in meaningful choices in this life, that those going to Hell are sent there by God and not by their own rejection of Him in their depravity for which they are held accountable.  I think this seriously misunderstands, or misrepresents, the mainstream Calvinist view. There are those who like to characterize their Calvinist views in ways that would seem to suggest this, but these are neither the majority nor the best defenders of Calvinism today. Some would suggest that Calvinism has God sending people to hell without any genuinely free decision made on their part to go there. That statement may be true for some extreme forms of Supralapsarianism (the view that God damned some with a decree of reprobation and then created the fall to damn them in reality, a view introduced by the reformed scholastics after the time of Calvin and not the mainstream view of Calvinism), but other than that—if it even exists—it is only true if one marries an Arminian understanding of Libertarian Free Will with a Calvinist doctrine; something that no Calvinist will do! To even suggest this is to misrepresent the Calvinist view. For a Calvinist, men and women make genuinely free (though some may debate the use of free here for its Libertarian connotations) and meaningful choices for which they are held responsible and this is 100% compatible with God’s sovereign determination[1] of the entire course of the past, present, and future in His creation.  Unconditional election is God (from a Infralapsarian perspective) looking at the mass of fallen men and women who are absolutely bound to sin and are condemned by their own depraved nature (something that Arminianism affirms) and choosing in accord with His own nature, which is to be absolutely free and unobligated by anything outside of Himself in dispensing His mercy (Romans 9, specifically Paul’s quote of Ex.), to display mercy on some of His fallen creation showing specific and special love to those undeserving people to whom He desires—solely out of His sovereign and gracious mercy—to show mercy and passing over the rest of fallen man leaving them condemned in their own sin and guilt and inherited guilt of Adam to face the eternal consequences of their sin against God’s holy and righteous nature. It is often thought that, for a Calvinist, God dictates and determines—or, sometimes, causes—our choices and our destinies. Though in one sense this is true—not that God causes actions but renders the outcome certain in His secret will—with  the use of the word “dictating,” a word no Calvinist I know of would use, alongside of “determining” and no complete explication of the Calvinist doctrine this will leave an inexperienced listener with the undeniable impression that God forces those whom He has elected and reprobated into their respective destinies; this is a understanding more akin to Fatalism than Calvinistic soft determinism—a position where God’s determination of all things is compatible with meaningful human choice and responsibility! God, through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, raises those dead in their sin to life and gives them the desire to choose Him so that they will willingly (not from a Libertarian perspective, but definitely from a Compatibilist perspective) respond to His effectual call and be saved, He leaves those whom He has not elected in their depraved condition so that they willfully sin and will never respond to the Gospel solely for the reason that they despise it from the very core of their being.

What the speaker was saying also has import for the Calvinist doctrine of Irresistible grace. For a Calvinist Irresistible Grace, or the Effectual Call, does not mean that God forces people against their will to be saved, instead the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration renders one’s will positively inclined to righteousness and God so that a person once dead in sin will, upon hearing the gospel message, see clearly the beautiful offer it is and joyfully accept without questions God’s free offer of salvation. The end of someone coming to God is guaranteed, the call will always result in justification and glorification (Rom. 8:28-39), but God does not force someone against their will to believe; He gives them the positive desire to come to Him, He draws them by giving them a new heart (John 6:44 with context, 30-46, and Ezekiel 36:22-32, Isaiah 54:13, Jeremiah 30).

 

My last issue here is with a statement made in passing, that the Calvinist God is a moral monster, and that the speaker could never worship that kind of God. I think this is a desperately sad statement none of us should ever even think of making. My problem with this statement is that it throws out any ground for the speaker’s claim that Scripture is his absolute authority. Let me explain. I believe that the speaker genuinely loves the Lord, and is truly a believer; as such he will not reject God. The speaker is convinced of the truth of Christianity, so he will continue to worship God. What happens if, let’s suppose Calvinism is even slightly true, the speaker runs into a Scripture that affirms a Calvinistic idea of God’s determination of the universe? I do not believe that the speaker is going to throw away his faith, for he is a committed Christian; this only leaves him one choice. If the speaker cannot worship a Calvinist God, and we suppose that he will not disown Christianity, his only option open encountering a verse that incontrovertibly teaches an even slightly Calvinistic doctrine (along the lines of the U, L, or I that he hates) he can only throw out what Scripture is saying and eisegetically (reading in his own meaning) interpret it in a way that reconciles it with his pre held view of who God is. Because of his philosophical presupposition (any form of determinism=God being a moral monster and libertarian free will) he has, in light of this quote, given away any claim he would make to Scripture being his absolute authority in this area.

 

These issues have been weighing on my heart since I heard the message this morning, but I do not want to leave this post on a negative note. The Calvinist-Arminian divide has existed in its current form for 400 years and shows no sign of dissipating. While I desperately think that those who hold to Arminianism are wrong and that they are missing out on a profound truth of Scripture, I don’t believe that this at all affects their salvation or their status as evangelicals. No matter how much we disagree with a brother or sister, if they are not distorting the core truths of the Gospel, we must show them grace and in our discussions with them avoid inflammatory language and straw men that leave those who hold the opposing view with the a bitter taste in their mouths. I respect the man who spoke today and believe that his message has tremendous application for all who heard it; I just fear that the antagonistic edge of some comments may have diminished the understanding of how this applies for many of those listening. My hope with this post is to show that those of us called Calvinists can equally apply the truth the speaker gave and must watch our actions carefully; let us pursue sanctification (Thess. 4), let us strive to enter the glorious rest of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (Hebrews 3-4), let us work out the salvation He has given us with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12) knowing that it is He who works in us to desire this and be able to do it (Phil. 2:13), that it is He who works through our faith so that we will endure (1 Pet. 1:1-7) and be glorified (Roman 8:28-30).

 

Soli Deo Gloria – Have a blessed reformation day!


[1] Determination is again a controversial term because of the negative connotations of active primary causation which it carries, sometimes in Calvinist usage it does mean this, but often God’s determination is the rendering certain of the choices human beings will make in accord with their greatest desire; God is the cause of all things in the sense that He renders all things certain and created all things, He is also active as a primary cause in our world, but often causation in relation to His world is often secondary—God determines all of our free (in a compatibilist sense) choices and renders certain our sinful choices in His plan to work all things for His glory, but this determination does not mean that He forces us to sin or even that He plants the desire for that specific sin into our minds, it means that He renders certain in line with His immutable will the choices we will make out of our wills in accord with our greatest desires. To say God has determined all things does not undermine the truth that humans make genuine and meaningful choices for which they will be held accountable, it means that all things transpire according to God’s definite and immutable plan for His creation; the context of statements using the term “determined” needs to judge whether the other is referring to God as a primary cause of the event or act in question.

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