Cork Free Presbyterian Church, 10 Briarscourt (Annex) Shanakiel, Cork, Ireland Pastor: Colin Maxwell. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
THE CALVINISM DEBATE SIMPLIFIED
There are many people out there who are investigating what, for the mere sake of convenience, we call Calvinism. In order to do so, they turn to many books or web pages written on this subject, both from friend and foe alike. A lot of what is written in the various forms is good. Even some criticisms of Calvinism have a point which Calvinists cannot easily dismiss. No one claims that Calvinists have a six lane motorway through the difficulties of scripture. (It is worth noting, though, that many of the difficulties attributed to the Calvinist system are equally shared by all Christians.) However, there is also an awful lot of rubbish out there as well. We have documented some of thiselsewhere. We can well understand how confusing the whole debate must be for those who want to learn more.
In order to facilitate an honest inquiry into the matter, I have decided to try and simplify this debate as much as I can. I am aware of the danger of reducing mighty soul stirring doctrines down to a serious of either/or theological points, but at least this will give us an insight into what is at stake at the very heart of this debate. Any comments on the following thoughts may beemailed to me and if you keep it reasonably short, I will seek to answer you on our Calvinism emails page.
WHAT THE DEBATE IS NOT ABOUT:
Let's clear the ground so that we can get to the real heart of the matter. The issue here is not aboutinfant baptism. This is an entirely separate issue. Many Calvinists do not accept that children who have not yet professed faith should be baptised. Many non Calvinists (e.g. Methodists) do believe in infant baptism. The Calvinism debate is not about defending every last personal belief of John Calvin. Neither for that matter is the debate about whether Servetus should have been burned for denying the Trinity or whether you can run a theocratic state on this earth. If you come across these issues while researching the beliefs of Calvinists, then simply read on…because they are not relevant to the debate. You may, of course, return to them in the context of another matter, but don't expect any Calvinists to be interested in discussing them with you.
Another issue which is not at stake here is whether we shouldevangelise the lost or offer the gospel to every last creature, elect or not. A lot of non Calvinists seem awfully ignorant of basic church history and forget that many of the greatest soul winners the church has ever seen were Calvinists. These include Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, C.H. Spurgeon and include great missionaries like William Carey etc., It is true that some hyper Calvinists (a very small minority) do not believe in the free offer etc., but it is patently wrong to tar everyone with the one brush. Some people left Calvinism to embrace Arminianism and ended up in Universalism…would it be fair for a Calvinist simply to say that all non Calvinists were Universalists? No it would not, but the sword cuts both ways. If you want to get to the crux of this debate, then see that there are a few matters raised which are not really relevant.
WHAT THE DEBATE IS ABOUT:
While we need to look at certain subjects on their own, we need to remember that they all fit together like a jig saw picture. We cannot isolate the various arguments, but we can lift them out for examination on their own.
1) A CRUX ISSUE IN THE CALVINISM DEBATE IS WHETHER OR NOT GOD HAS ORDAINED ALL THAT COMES TO PASS…INCLUDING SINFUL ACTS.
Calvinists believe that God has a plan and, basically, any event which comes to pass has been included in this plan. Nothing, repeat nothing, therefore happens by chance or outside the plan of God. We believe this on the basis of statements like the following:
In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: (Ephesians 1:11)
We know that God's working extends to small matters (Proverbs 16:33/Matthew 10:29) and great matters (Daniel 4:25/35) We know that it includes sinful deeds, including the deeds of wicked men at the Cross (Acts 2:23) Such working does not in any man force the hand of the creature.The making of an event certain does not make it necessary and therefore God can remain sovereign and pure, while man is responsible and sinful. God makes the wrath of man to praise Him (Psalm 76:10) while still punishing man for that wrath.
The enquirer has to establish whether Calvinists are right in so believing. Remember, Calvinists do not hold God to be the author of any sin. Nor do we believe that men are robots. But we do believe that whatever happens has been ordained of God. It is because of this that Calvinists can consistently believe in Romans 8:28
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
If God has done something - or is about to do something - then He was always going to do it. He is immutable i.e. He cannot change His mind (Malachi 3:6/Numbers 23:19/James 1:17) or change His plans or adopt something new. Therefore He must have planned to do what He eventually does or allows to be done.
If Calvinists are right, then this perfect plan of God extends to the most important matter of all…the salvation of precious souls. Calvinists believe that all who will be eventually saved have been saved purely on the basis of God's sovereign grace. Those who will be eventually lost were never in God's salvation plan. Calvinists do not believe that men are damned without any reference to their sins. The immediate cause of spiritual death is sin (Romans 6:23) and Calvinism affirms this as much as any school in Christendom. No man is in hell without the right to be there.
If Calvinists are wrong in this overall belief that God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass, then you have to come up with a viable alternative which still allows God to be God. Bluntly speaking, I cannot see what alternative there is. You will reduce God to being helpless or a mere spectator in His own universe. You will rob believers of their assurance in prayer because if God is not absolutely sovereign but is under some obligation to wicked men, then how can we pray with any confidence that we are not overstepping some boundary behind which God has caged Himself in?
Under careful consideration of all what is revealed in the Bible, I think the earnest Bible student will come to accept the Calvinistic interpretation.
SUMMARY: You must decide how sovereign is God as revealed by the Bible. Absolutely sovereign or with a reduced sovereignty.
2) A CRUX ISSUE IN THE CALVINISM DEBATE IS WHETHER SINFUL MAN LOST HIS ABILITY TO OBEY GOD THROUGH THE FALL.
How sinful is man? Has he a free will capable of doing what God has commanded? Calvinists believe that man's will is free in the sense that it is compelled to none outside itself i.e. man is not a robot or a block of wood. On the other hand, the Bible teaches us that man is a servant or slave - either to sin or to righteousness (Romans 6:16) and in this sense man's will is not free but in bondage to his heart. Since man's heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9) and his carnal mind is not capable of embracing the things which belong to the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:14) nor is subject to the law of God and neither can be (Romans 8:7) then Calvinists believe, that without divine power, man will never savingly receive the gospel for himself. Calvinists believe that man's inability to believe is self induced and that therefore he has only himself to blame for his impotence. He cannot blame God who is under no obligation to man whatsoever.
Non Calvinists believe that God has given all men the ability to repent and believe the gospel. They believe that man has only to choose of his own free will to believe and that all will fall into place.
A main argument of non Calvinists is that it would be unjust of God to expect man to do something (repent/believe) if man was incapable of doing it. This argument is a non starter on two points. [i] No man can sin himself out of responsibility before God. God is God whether man can or cannot obey Him. If we could sin ourselves out of responsibility, then there would be no hell for the most depraved sinners. [ii] It is agreed by Calvinists and non Calvinists alike that the sinner is required to keep the law of God perfectly. It is failure here which constitutes sin (1 John 3:4) and yet, because of sin, man cannot keep the law of God perfectly. If we follow the same argument that God cannot expect faith and repentance unless man has the ability to deliver…then how can He expect total obedience unless man has the ability to deliver it also? This is a serious inconsistency in the non Calvinist argument against the Calvinist position.
SUMMARY: You must decide whether man can freely of his own free will decide for Christ or is he totally helpless - really blind, deaf, lost etc., - and must altogether rely on the free grace of God.
3) A CRUX ISSUE IN THE CALVINISM DEBATE IS WHICH COMES FIRST - FAITH OR ELECTION?
Calvinists believe that faith is the fruit of election. I believed because God elected me to believe and be saved. Non Calvinists believe that faith is the source or cause of election. I believed (or God knew I would be believe) and on that condition He elected me to salvation. The Calvinist position, in keeping with its view that God is indebted to none, puts God in the driving seat. He is under obligation to save none and therefore under no obligation to save all. He saves whom He will and does so purely (100%) on the basis of His free grace. The non Calvinist is tied into his philosophy that God cannot treat men (even non deserving sinners) differently and that He is bound to respect man's decision which, (according to the non Calvinist) he has given indiscriminately in the first place. In order to bolster his position, the non Calvinist is forced to interpret verses like Romans 8:29 which speak of God's foreknowledge as meaning what God knew before hand. However, in Romans 8:29 we are not talking about information but individuals. It is not what God foreknew, but who God foreknew. It is illogical to argue that God foreseeing that something would happen, then ordained it to happen. Obviously, it would happen whether God ordained it or not. This issue is tied in to the first mentioned here - has God ordained whatsoever comes to pass or is He a reactionary or spectator type of God who lets man practically run the whole show?
SUMMARY: You must decide whether God or man effectively makes the first move in salvation. Calvinists start and finish with God. Non Calvinists start with man.
4) A CRUX ISSUE IN THE CALVINISM DEBATE IS HOW LIMITED IN THE ATONEMENT?
Both Calvinists and non Calvinists both agree to limit the atonement in one particular way. We are agreed that Christ did not die for the sins of Satan or his demonic hordes and that automatically limits the atonement to those of the human race. After this, both Calvinists and non Calvinists limit the atonement in one of two opposite ways. Calvinists believe that the atonement of Christ did not merely make salvation possible, but that it actually secured the salvation of all for whom it was intended. Since there are people in hell, then we conclude that their sins were not atoned for at Calvary. This limits the intention of the atonement. Please note, Calvinists do not cast any shadow upon the worth of Christ's atonement. It has an unlimited worth or merit. Calvinists believe that the scope of the atonement is limited to the elect of God and therefore it will actually achieve that which it set out to do. 100%. Non Calvinists cannot say this about the atonement as they view it. They limit the power of the atonement because obviously (in their view) it did not achieve that which it set out to do unless it did not actually save men but merely make them saveable. If it was the intention of God, through the atonement, to save every last sinner, then we may judge this intention to have failed since hell has opened her mouth without measure to receive those whose sins were actually laid on Christ but who, according to the non Calvinist, decided to go to hell anyway.
SUMMARY: You must decide how effective the Cross was meant to be. Where do you want to limit the Cross - in its scope and so be able to say that it was 100% successful in its power or do you want to severely limit its success and confess that there are men now in hell suffering for sins for which Christ has already suffered.
5) A CRUX ISSUE IN THE CALVINISM DEBATE IS HOW WIDE ARE WORDS LIKE "ALL" AND WHEN DO YOU DECIDE WHICH IS WHICH ?
This is linked to the debate over how limited is the atonement. Non Calvinists, to support their claim of an unlimited atonement (i.e. that Christ suffered for the sins of every last sinner in hell and out of it) point to those scriptures which use the word "all" or "every man" or "world" and insist that it must mean "all" etc., without any exception.
Calvinists reply by pointing out that "all" is often used in the Bible to denote "all" within a limited range and means "all" without distinction as opposed to all without exception. For instance, is the love of money the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10) in the sense that every last crime or sin can be traced back to greed? It certainly was not the root of the first sin in the Garden of Eden nor have we any reason to believe that it is the motivating factor in any of the temptations of Jesus Christ (Matthew 4:1-11) Evidently the word "all" means "all kind of" in this aspect. Calvinists believe that the "alls" which relate to the sinners for whom Christ died are "all kinds" of sinners i.e. fornicators, adulterers etc., as listed in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Likewise the phrase "every man" as found in Hebrews 2:9 need not mean every last individual. It certainly doesn't in Luke 16:16 where "every man" is said to press into the Kingdom of God or in Mark 8:25 where the man whose sight was restored saw "every man" clearly. Nor does the "world" necessarily mean every last person who ever inhabited it. The world often means the Gentiles as opposed to the Jews. In John 12:19 the Pharisees murmured that "the world" had gone after Christ. Are we really to believe that every last soul who ever lived on this planet were, at time or any time, going after Christ. Obviously not. But the very next verse (John 12:20) vindicates the limited meaning when we read that certain Greeks (as opposed to Jews) sought Jesus. It must be said that sometimes these terms are total in their application. Non Calvinists insist that it is so when it applies to the work of the Cross. This necessitates Christ dying for men already in hell and who will never escape it or men, whom He well knows, will never have the gospel preached to them by missionaries etc., but for whom He died anyway. Calvinists limit these terms, recognising that scripture often does so, and (as stated above) renders the Cross a 100% success as in keeping with God's character.
SUMMARY: You must decide when and where and if the more limited sense of otherwise universal terms apply. You must, especially decide if they apply to the substitutionary of Jesus Christ. Such a decision will greatly colour your perception of the Cross and if it really can save your soul from hell or can be frustrated in its design by the fickleness of the human will.
Doubtless there may be other either/or situations which can be raised here. Does God keep His elect or can they really be lost one day and so overthrow the decree to save them? How real are the warning verses? Does the decree of God render them out of place? etc., But once the ones mentioned above and expanded upon are thought through and studied in the light of Scripture (Acts 17:11) you will be well on your way as to discerning whether those doctrines nicknamed Calvinism are true or not. You cannot decide these things in a night. In my own experience, I wrestled for many weeks with them. I regret some rather hasty words spoken when the full picture was yet unperceived. I would advise any enquirers to avoid some pretty way out sites or books which think they are refuting Calvinism. Go to Calvinistic sites, such as this one, and see what Calvinists have to say for themselves. Even if you decide against the Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture, at least learn that Calvinists are as anxious as you to be Scriptural and have a burden for souls just as much as any non Calvinist. If you do decide that these doctrines are Scriptural, please be gracious to those who cannot see them as you see them. They are spiritually discerned and evidently God has not seen fit to imbibe each and every Christian with this knowledge.
If I can be of help to anyone reading these pages, please email me and I try to get back to you ASAP.
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