This is the second essay in a series defending Calvinism against misunderstandings and harmful caricatures.
I do not claim that you are incapable of exegetical thought if you deny Calvinism. I do not claim that preaching is impossible for a non-Calvinist. Neither do I assert that the power of God unto salvation is a trivial matter. My single proposition with this article is: Calvinism is a Biblically defensible theology, such that claims of heresy are exegetically untenable.
The most basic point of Calvinism is “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jon 2:9). Yet this is not the most basic and distinct point, because all Christians agree that salvation is by grace. To defend the distinctive claim of Calvinism, I will focus my exegesis on three points: the inability of man’s innate will, the effectual nature of God’s salvific call, the reality and freedom of God’s choice to save certain individuals.
I hope that my words prove helpful to you.
A Faith Treasured in Holy Writ
I. The Extent of Our Wickedness
All Christians agree that mankind is guilty. Pelagianism is heretical, so we can also agree that mankind is wicked. The point of contention is what this wickedness extends to. Is every faculty ruined in sin and incapable of positive progression towards God, or does mankind possess a will intrinsically capable of choosing God? My efforts here will focus on providing Biblical evidence that mankind is morally unable to come to God on his own.
Historically, man’s innate inability to choose God on his own has been considered a staple of orthodox theology. Apart from Roman Catholicism, recent centuries (ex. Wesley, Finney) boast an historically-unique flavor of Semi-Pelagian theology. After refuting Pelagius on the issue of Original Sin, Augustine of Hippo then engaged in a dialogue with Cassian regarding Semi-Pelagianism (ie. Cassianism). Semi-Pelagianism/Cassianism is the suggestion that mankind cannot obey God without grace yet can take a step towards Him without grace. Cassianism is synergistic (“with two energies”; ie. God and man) in its entirety. Augustine countered that because man’s will was in bondage to sin, God must do a monergistic (“with one energy”) work to draw him to Himself.
After a century of discourse, the Synod of Orange (529) decidedly renounced Cassianism in favor of Augustine’s monergism (although they made no decision on election and effectual grace). This would be the ideal even into the Calvinist and Arminian dialogue of the Reformation. Classical Arminianism affirms Total Depravity and the need for awakening grace. The distinction between Arminian and Calvinistic grace is whether or not it is effectual (for this reason, it would be helpful for Calvinists to refer to Wesleyanism as Semi-Pelagian, rather than Arminianism). This will be addressed in the next section.
From these texts I mean to prove the following: natural man’s hatred for God is such that he will never serve Him.
All men are under sin (Ro 3:9). Sin lords itself over mankind, as Christ’s enemies in Acts 2:35 are a footstool for His feet. We are in subjection to sin. The picture of a humanity under sin is elaborated in the following verses: “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Ro 3:10-12). Clearly this subjection is not in unwillingness, because there is none who seeks for God. It is not the case that individuals want God but can’t repent. Rather, individuals could repent but don’t care to. “The heart of the problem is the problem with the heart” (Matt Chandler).
Our speech (vv.13-14) and pattern of life (vv.15-17) manifest the wretchedness of our natural inclinations. The root of the problem: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (v.18). Paul seems to be quoting Psalm 36:1, which David follows: “For [transgression] flatters him in his own eyes concerning the discovery of his iniquity and the hatred of it” (v.2). The natural man is flattered by his own sinfulness and takes delight in depraved things.
Man’s natural bend away from God is hostile: “Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Ro 8:7-8). In this text, the fleshly man’s hostility toward God is spoken of in terms of ability. Christ Himself used this language.
Jesus told the Jews that He was the bread of life (Jn 6:35) and could save His people without fail (v.39). When they grumbled in disbelief (vv.41-42), He addressed the problem of their doubt: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (v.44). Clearly the Jews were grumbling about Him of their own volition (v.41), yet Jesus labeled their doubt as a lack of ability. “‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father’” (vv.63-65).
What kept the rich young ruler from selling all He possessed and following Christ (Mk 10:21)? Was Jesus forcing him to idolize gold? Did Roman soldiers place him under house arrest? By no means – the text says, “But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property” (v.22). Christ then explains to the disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (v.25). Why is it hard for the rich man, but because of his own unwillingness to abandon riches for Christ? The disciples understood that this statement was not simply applicable to those who idolize money, for they respond: “Then who can be saved?” (v.26). This question is very appropriate: if the hearts of men are so easily prone to idolatry, then who can be saved? “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (v.27). Again Christ utilizes the language of ability in reference to the will of man.
Consider Jeremiah 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Here God speaks to the Jews of their imminent destruction via those coming from the north (v.20). Destruction is coming because of the magnitude of Israel’s iniquity (v.22). Crying for deliverance will be of no use because Israel’s history has clearly demonstrated man’s natural inclination towards evil. Because they are wicked and unable to be otherwise (v.23), God will therefore scatter them like drifting straw to the desert wind (v.24).
II. Regeneration Before Faith
If no one wants God, then how is anyone saved? God could step down from heaven and extend His arms in mercy, but we would spit in His hands and run the other direction. If no one wants God, then how does anyone ever come to love God?
God must take the first step. The initiative in salvation is God’s. Classical Arminianism acknowledges this point, yet denies that this initial grace is effectual. In this case, it is not salvific. The Calvinist, however, sees this initial grace as salvific in that it is actually the soteriological doctrine we call “regeneration.”
From these texts I mean to prove the following: God’s preceding grace effectually turns a God-hater into a God-lover.
1 John 5:1 immediately comes to mind: “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” This is the last of three statements in 1 John in regards to the fruit of being born of God. This birth precedes deeds of righteousness (2:29), love (4:7) and faith (5:1). In his gospel, John recounted Christ’s dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21). Jesus asserted, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless on is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v.3). He continues: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v.6). Clearly Nicodemus had been physically begotten (“How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” [v.4]), yet Christ spoke of a spiritual birth. “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do now know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v.8). This birth is clearly “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:13).
“God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified” (1 Co 1:21-23a). In contrast to signs and wisdom, the church offers Christ crucified. This gospel seems silly to the world. “To Jews a stumbling block” (v.23b) – to suggest that Israel crucified their own Messiah, that this carpenter’s Son was in fact the bread of life? “and to Gentiles foolishness” (v.23c) – to suggest that a Jewish Messiah, in a remote corner of the world, alien from Athens or Rome or any center of philosophy, is my only hope for life? This gospel is truly foolishness – “but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” To whom is the gospel power and wisdom? To whom is the gospel a message of profound riches and counsel? Only to those who are called. The call of God makes the difference between those perishing and those being saved.
From these texts, it would appear to be the case that God powerfully begets and calls certain men and the result is that they delight in and cling to Him. Romans 9:6-13 refers to calling in effectual terms. If there are Christ-haters among the Jews, doesn’t that prove God is unable to save His people (vv.1-5)? God chose the Jews to be His possession (Deut 7:6) yet many Israelites are never saved. Either God has chosen to save all Jews yet is not able to, or God is able to yet has chosen not to.
Paul says plainly that the problem is not God’s sovereignty: “It is not as though the word of God has failed” (Ro 9:6a). More specifically: the Word of God always accomplishes what it intends to accomplish. The distinction lies in God’s purpose: “They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants” (vv.6b-7). It was never God’s intention to save all of ethnic Israel. Rather, “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants” (v.8). God never said He would save all of ethnic Israel, Abraham’s descendants of the flesh. God only made a promise to save certain ones.
Therefore, a damned Israelite does not prove God to be a liar. He promised Isaac, not Ishmael: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son” (v.9). He promised Jacob, not Esau: “And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac…it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger’” (vv.10, 12). Verse 11 describes the nature of God’s promise to Rebekah. First, though the twins were not yet born. Second, and had not done anything good or bad. Third, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand. Fourth, not because of works but because of Him who calls.
The word went forth to Rebekah before the event happened. This word, therefore, was prophetic. It also came before the twins made any moral choice. Paul’s reasoning is that because the word preceded the birth, it therefore remained unaffected by the actions of the twins. The idea of God looking forward into the future to act in response to what the twins would do is completely alien to Paul’s logic. The word, therefore, was free. Thirdly, His word ensured that His will would not be frustrated. The word did not act arbitrarily or randomly – it accomplished what God had decided it to accomplish. The word, therefore, was purposeful. Last of all, it was important that the word accomplish God’s purpose in order that it be because of God and not because of works. This is the realm of the will, not the legal context of justification. The prophesy was not a prediction of what would happen but a promise of what God would make happen. The word, therefore, was effectual.
Romans 9:6ff proves that God’s word does not fail. In everything that it sets out to do, it succeeds to the uttermost. It is by nature effectual and successful. Earlier, we read that those who love God are also called according to His purpose (8:28). The calling of God unto salvation (v.28) is that calling which makes a difference unto salvation (1 Co 1:22-24) and nothing can stop it (Ro 9:6-13). “These whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (8:30). Every individual whom God calls is then justified and glorified – no one is lost.
It seems evident from these texts that before anyone can love and cling to God, there must be a powerful work to bring them into such a state. This calling is not an offer or question: it is the power of God unto salvation (1:16). God’s calling is will-awakening (Mk 10:27), begetting a living spirit (Jn 3:1-8) that clings to God in faith (1 Jn 5:1). This is the beautiful promise of the New Covenant: “moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezek 36:26-27).
Before an individual has faith, God must regenerate him. Before God regenerates him, He must choose to do so. This choice is called Unconditional Election. It is “unconditional” because there existed no necessary condition which the chosen individual had to meet in order to be elected. The only condition was God’s desire to choose him.
From these texts I mean to prove the following: Whether or not an individual is saved depends wholly on God’s choice to save him.
Romans 9 has more fruit to bear. “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there?” (v.14a). Is God unjust to freely love Jacob and not Esau? Is God under some type of obligation to love both Jacob and Esau, so that when He chooses Jacob only He is acting unjustly? Because God Himself decides what is just or not, this inquiry is actually concerning God’s consistency. Is God consistent to choose Jacob over Esau? We might ask, “Is this the God of Scripture?”
Is God unfaithful to Himself to choose Jacob and not Esau? “May it never be! For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’” (vv.14b-15). God is not inconsistent to work this way because He has always worked this way. It has always been the case that God’s decision to save someone is the determining factor in that individual’s salvation. “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (v.16). God also hardens certain individuals according to His own free purposes (vv.17-18).
Ephesians 1:4-6 also references God’s electing purpose. “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” God chose the saints for salvation in reference to Christ before He even created the universe. Our adoption as sons is not by our own will but by God’s predestination. His will is the ultimate, determining factor.
God’s freedom in election is certainly undeniable in the call of Abram. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). Why Abram? Certainly the election of ethnic Israel to bear the oracles of God is at play here (Ro 3:2), but is this not also the out-working of God’s plan to save Abram as the father of those saved by the Messiah (Gal 3:29)? If God exercised freedom in choosing Abram and not others, it is reasonable to assume that He might have exercised the same freedom to choose and not choose other individuals.
If my exegesis has been faithful, then Scripture provides us with ample reason to believe that mankind’s will is morally incapable of loving and clinging to God on its own. Therefore, if anyone is to be saved through faith, there must be a preceding grace to gift that individual with faith (Eph 2:8-9). Due to the successful and effectual nature of God’s salvific call, we understand that human salvation depends on the purposes of God.
While there are further claims distinctive to Calvinism, these three points are of most fundamental importance. I dearly hope that I have proved Calvinism to be a Biblically defensible theology. These truths are not the musing of one man, the secrets of one cult, nor the baggage of one movement. They are exegetically defensible propositions: “heresy” is not an appropriate response.
I make no assertion that Calvinism is the only Christian option available to you. Calvinistic soteriology is not a test of salvation. You can think that I am in error to assert that the above texts defend Calvinism. However, I hope that my exegesis above has proved that Calvinism is a Biblically defensible theology, such that claims of heresy are exegetically untenable.