I've been reading Romans and am finding it very difficult to understand some of the concepts I find there. For example, does God create people to be destroyed in order to show his goodness to others who will go to heaven (9:22-23)? Does he cause people to choose -- without really having free choice? I just can't believe this. I can't believe that this is in God's nature. Is there any other explanation for this passage? Does it even fit in the Bible? I can't balance this with the love I've learned about and seen in God all my years as a Christian! -- Carolina de Castro Sollero (Campinas, Brazil)
You are right to be disturbed. Spiritual men and women, when faced with a dilemma involving God's justice, speak out (Habakkuk 1, Jeremiah 12, Genesis 18, etc). The good news is that the Bible consistently teaches that human beings have free will. God's sovereignty, providence, and plans do not override our free will; the most that can be said is that they undergird or overarch them.
I would like to refer you to what I have written on the subject in Shining Like Stars (IPI, 1987, 1989, 2000, 2006, 2010), now retitled Till the Nets Are Full (IPI, 2018). For your convenience, I am reproducing the relevant section of the book below. Each section not only criticizes Calvinism, but also underscores the positive (biblical) emphases of its various doctrines.
John Calvin (1508-1564) was one of the leading thinkers in the Protestant Reformation. He re-taught many of the ideas of Augustine, bishop of Hippo (in North Africa), who lived 354-430 AD. Denominations that follow his thinking are numerous: Baptists, Presbyterians, Reformed, many Anglicans, even the original Churches of Christ (1690-1830). Calvinism is a unified and internally consistent system. The basic teachings are described by the convenient acronym T.U.L.I.P.:
Perseverance of the Saints
The purpose of the following study is to show the consistent error of Calvinism. (Sometimes, this is also called "Reformed Theology.")
1. Total Depravity
* Doctrine: There is absolutely no good in fallen man. Before he is converted, all his actions and thoughts are sinful and selfish. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing he can do to save himself: salvation is completely from God, and man plays no part in it. Only when God's Spirit quickens a man and enables him to believe can he be saved.
* Supporting passages: Calvinists appeal to Ephesians 2:1, Romans 3:12 and many other passages to prove that we are no more able to save ourselves than a corpse is able to rise up and walk.
* Biblical emphasis: Calvinism stresses the sinfulness and lostness of man. This is an emphasis sadly lacking in the religious world, which prides itself on its good deeds and empty rituals.
* Error: The Bible does indeed paint a dark picture of man's selfishness, but to say that there is no good at all in an unsaved person is going too far. Romans 5:7 and many other passages assume or imply that there is some good in the world at large. Cornelius was a good man (Acts 10:2, 35). As far as salvation goes, Calvinism grossly undervalues the part man plays in accepting the salvation that God offers. To illustrate, we'd all agree that there is nothing a drowning man can do to save himself. But when he is thrown a life preserver, he must decide to accept it and then do something about it (grab on). Calvinism misses the obvious truth, because it denies that man has free will.
* Total Depravity logically leads to the next of the five basic Calvinistic doctrines, Unconditional Election. Since there is nothing man can do to save himself, God and God alone decides who will be saved.
2. Unconditional Election
* The doctrine: Unconditional Election, or Predestination, teaches that the decision about who will be saved is 100% God's. He has decided in advance exactly who will be saved. Not only is there no way for us to save ourselves, but even if we wanted to be saved, unless God had already chosen us, we would have no chance of going to heaven.
* Supporting passages: God's grace saves us, and faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Acts 13:48 speaks of "those who were appointed for eternal life." Revelation 20:15 mentions the "book of life," in which the names of the saved have been written. Romans 8:29 mentions predestination, so obviously who will be saved has already been determined.
* Biblical emphasis: This doctrine emphasizes God's sovereignty, another truth missing in our selfish world, where everyone wants to determine the course of his own life. Furthermore, it is true that God is willing to save men and women of any race, nation, social class, income bracket or religious background; salvation is unconditional in that sense.
a. To begin with, Ephesians 2:8-9 doesn't teach that faith is a gift from God (though ultimately God does help us to believe, through his Word, Christians, circumstances, etc). Ephesians 2:8-9 says that salvation is a gift from God!
b. Acts 13:48 discusses God's involvement in man's salvation, but Acts 13:46 clearly shows that man is justly responsible for accepting or rejecting the gospel. Again, free will has been overlooked!
c. Revelation 20:15 mentions the Lamb's book of life, but Revelation 3:5 implies that it is possible for our names to be erased from it. Psalm 69:27-28 is yet another passage shattering the notion that God's book contains only the names of the saved, and that the list is unchangeable. See also Exodus 32:32-33: Isaiah 4:3; Malachi 3:16; Nehemiah 13:14; Daniel 7:10; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 21:27. (In familiar extrabiblical literature see Jubilees 30.20,22, 36.10; 1 Enoch 47.3, 108.3.
d. Romans 8:29 says that Christians are predestined to become like Christ (not the same as being predestined to salvation), but in Ephesians and other books there is a sort of predestination that is mentioned. Two analogies may be helpful:
(1) Train destination: You board a London train, and the destination is clearly marked "Heathrow Airport." This destination has been decided in advance. Heathrow Airport is its "pre-destination."As long as you stay on the train, you are fine. If, however, you choose to leave the train, you forfeit your "predestination." The train still goes to the airport, but you will miss your flight -- unless, of course, you manage to get back on the train. This analogy assumes, unlike Calvinism, that we have free will.
(2) Aerial view: From the top of a tall building, you are able to view two intersecting streets. Down the first street a speeding sports car approaches the deadly intersection; down the other street zooms a motorcycle. From your vantage point, you can 'see' the accident even before it happens. But are you responsible for the collision? Foreknowledge does not imply predestination.
e. 2 Thessalonians 2:14 clearly teaches that God does call us; but the call is not arbitrary, or through strange sensations, but through the gospel. There is an inseparable link between the gospel and the "sanctifying work of the Spirit." No one is saved in a vacuum! See also Romans 10:13-17.
f. Finally, Unconditional Election is unfair! Imagine the scenario: you are standing before God's throne, hoping to be saved, and hear the sentence pronounced on you: damned! Moreover, God informs you that the deck was stacked against you from the beginning: there never was any hope of your being saved. Would you or would you not be justified in accusing God of unfairness? Calvinism promotes a distorted, negative concept of God. And it's not going too far to say that in Calvinism, conversion is a mere formality, since people are saved or damned even before they are born.
* Since God does nothing in vain, and since only the few "elect" will be saved, Christ must have died only for those who would be saved. Thus the doctrine of Limited Atonement flows logically from Unconditional Election, or Predestination.
3. Limited Atonement
* Doctrine: Christ's sacrifice on the cross was limited to those who would be saved. In other words, he did not bear the sins of all mankind, only those of the elect.
* Supporting passages: In Matthew 26:28, the blood is said to provide forgiveness of sins for "many," and in Ephesians 5:25 Christ is said to have given himself up for the church. Acts 20:28 teaches that God bought the church with his blood (not the world at large).
* Biblical emphasis: This doctrine enhances the "success" of the crucifixion, and affirms that God does nothing in vain. So many in our world today have no appreciation of the cross, and like to think that, if there is a God, everybody will be saved anyway.
a. The Bible teaches that all men are potentially saved through the cross (Romans 5:18). In fact, 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God wants all men to be saved. If this is God's sovereign will, why did Christ die only for the elect? Thus, Calvinism contradicts 1 Timothy 2:4.
b. Matthew 26:28: Either the word "many" refers to all mankind, or we can say that while the blood was shed for mankind, the "blood of the (new) covenant" mentioned here implies that salvation is only for those in the covenant, not that the blood was shed for a set number of persons.
c. Ephesians 5:25 and Acts 20:28: the idea that God bought the redeemed with his blood is certainly biblical, but that in no way necessitates that he only shed enough blood to redeem those who would be saved. A good illustration is found in 1 Timothy 4:10: "God is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe." The Bible teaches that anyone willing to believe and repent can be saved.
* Since Christ died only for the elect, no grace is "wasted" on non-elect unbelievers. So when God's grace, through his Spirit, starts to work in an unbeliever's heart, it cannot be resisted.
4. Irresistible Grace
* Doctrine: The Spirit of God draws men to Christ, and it is utterly impossible to resist God's grace once this has begun to happen.
* Supporting passages: John 6:44 says that God the Father draws men to Christ. Acts 16:14 discusses Lydia's conversion, and says that the Lord opened her heart to believe.
* Biblical emphasis: This doctrine certainly emphasizes the Spirit's power, something many of us have under-emphasized.
a. John 6:44 only says God draws all men to himself, not how or on what basis he draws them. Other passages in John make it clear that the people God chooses to draw are those who will accept God on his own terms (1:12, 8:31, etc.).
b. It is not denied that the Lord opened Lydia's heart, but how did he open her heart? Through the message (Acts 16:13). As always, faith comes through hearing the word (Romans 10:17)!
c. Acts 7:51, Galatians 5:4, Hebrews 3:7 (3:15; 4:7; Psalm 95:7), Hebrews 10:29-30, Hebrews 12:15 and many other passages teach it is possible for people to resist God's grace. How can grace be "irresistible" if so many people do in fact resist it?
d. Calvinism, through teachings such as Irresistible Grace, make humans into robots. Once again, there is no free will.
* Since grace is irresistible, it follows that once you are saved, you are always saved. In other words, falling away is impossible.
5. Perseverance of the Saints
* Doctrine: Once a person is saved, it is impossible for that person to become "unsaved." And if someone seems to be saved, but later leaves God, that is proof that he was never saved to begin with. Only the saints persevere to the end.
* Supporting passages: John 10:29 says that no one can snatch the sheep (Christians) out of the hand of the Shepherd (Christ). And Romans 8:38-39 teaches that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
* Biblical emphasis: We need to feel secure in our salvation. So many religions and denominations do not offer their members the security of knowing that they are saved. It will be difficult for us to operate effectively as disciples if we are always doubting our salvation.
a. John 10:29 says that no one can snatch a Christian away from his secure position, but it never says that a Christian cannot choose to walk away from the flock (and the Shepherd). Isaiah 53:6 says that all of us like lost sheep had gone astray. Even the chosen people, the Jews, were able to go astray, and Jesus told his disciples to go first to "the lost sheep of Israel."
b. Romans 8:38-39 is certainly a great comfort to real disciples, but Jude 21 shows that we need to do our part to stay in God's love.
c. Ironically, far from providing any real security, Calvinistic teaching destroys it; you can never really know you're saved, since if you give up that means you never were in the elect to begin with! The Bible, on the other hand, says that you absolutely can know that you are saved (1 John 5:13 -- see 1 John 2:3-6).
d. James 5:19-20 (see 1:15) shows that a Christian can wander from the truth.
e. The Bible repeatedly says that we will be saved if we obey God, persevere: John 15:6, Hebrews 12:25, 1 Corinthians 15:2, 2 Peter 1:10. Salvation is unconditional, in the sense that there is nothing we can do to earn it; but it is not unconditional, in the sense that we can lose it.
f. It is often (correctly) said that we are saved by faith. If this is true, what happens when we give up our faith? Will God force us to be saved? Again, where is free will?
g. 2 Peter 2:20 makes it abundantly clear that a Christian can fall away, as do many other passages. (See discussion in Supplementary Study, below.)
h. Moreover, Perseverance of the Saints is contrary to experience! There are many men and women who became Christians, were doing well spiritually and bearing fruit and growing in the Lord, but who allowed their hearts to stray and harden. They are not with us today -- but that does not mean that they were never saved initially! They most certainly were saved, but they have wandered away!
i. Perhaps the gravest error of this doctrine is that "Perseverance of the Saints, or Once Saved, Always Saved" is a great disincentive to evangelism and commitment in general:
(1) Although a noble heart should be eager to do good, discipleship is in fact secondary, or irrelevant, since our salvation was decided in heaven long before we were born. Not surprisingly, most Calvinists are lukewarm in their commitment.
(2) Why evangelize the "lost" when there's nothing you can do to save them? If they're damned (not of the elect), no amount of evangelism can help them. And if they are in the elect, sooner or later God will make that plain to hem; but in the meantime your evangelizing them really doesn't matter, since they will be saved anyway! Sadly, but consistently with their system, very few Calvinists try to seek and save the lost.
* By now you can see that Calvinism, although it contradicts the Bible over and over, is internally a highly consistent system.
Concluding Thoughts and Strategy
We have studied the five petals of the Calvinistic tulip, and have seen that they do not fit with what the Bible teaches. This is obviously a complex subject, and a good few persons would be unable to grasp the preceding study as it stands. An easier way to ease into the subject might be to share the supplementary study below, which focuses on the fifth petal of the tulip, Perseverance of the Saints. Then, refer to the main study as necessary. This is probably the best strategy for helping someone to see the error of Calvinism.
On the positive side, we have seen that Calvinism is correct to emphasize the:
* Sinfulness of man
* Sovereignty of God
* Success of the crucifixion
* Spirit's power
* Security of grace
However, on the negative side, we saw that there were many faults with Calvinism:
* Too negative a view of man
* The denial of free will
* No salvation "by faith"
* Little incentive for evangelism
* Creation of an unjust God
* Contrary to experience
* Breeds lukewarm commitment
* Refuted by hundreds of verses
Supplementary Study: Once Saved, Always Saved
There are literally hundreds of scriptures which demolish the position of those who claim it is impossible, once one has come to know Jesus Christ, to lose salvation.
Hebrews 10:26-31 -- Deliberate sin can cause us to lose our salvation. This is clear, yet some insist this passage applies only to non-Christians, or unsaved churchgoers. But verses 29 ("the blood of the covenant that sanctified him") and 30 ("The Lord will judge his people") show that the writer has in mind the covenant people -- who are already saved.
Hebrews 6:4-8 -- It is impossible to bring certain people back to repentance. Where the "point of no return" is God only knows. "Crucifying the Son of God all over again" implies they have already shared in Jesus' death and resurrection. (Hebrews 6:7-8 continues the thought.) This is the strongest passage in Hebrews refuting "Once Saved, Always Saved" (see also 3:12-14, 4:1, 4:11, 6:11-12, 10:36, 12:14-15, 13:4). And yet there are hundreds of other verses in the New Testament which disprove this false doctrine -- not even to consider the Old Testament.
John 10:28 -- This verse is often cited as proof of the impossibility of apostasy. However, it does not state that it is impossible for someone to turn his back on God (Luke 9:62) and walk away, only that it is impossible for external powers to drag away a disciple against his will.
Romans 8:39 -- Nothing can separate us from the love of God, but it's our responsibility to "keep ourselves in God's love" (Jude 21). Again, there is free will. Most advocates of "once saved, always saved" ("perseverance of the saints," "eternal security"), at some point, deny free will.
2 Peter 2:20-22 -- This verse clinches the argument. These people have "escaped the corruption of the world," which is possible only through participating in the divine nature (see 1:4). The corruption of the world is vividly symbolized by vomit and mud. It is tortuous to argue that the "washing" applies to a non-Christian. Finally, if they give up on God, they are worse off at the end than they were if they had never become Christians. Clearly it is possible for a Christian to lose his salvation!
Although at first Once Saved, Always Saved appears to take on an academic point, in fact it strikes directly at the heart of the issue: one's free-will decision to follow Christ.
This article is copyrighted and is for private use and study only. © 2004. Reprints or public distribution is prohibited without the express consent of Douglas Jacoby.