Thursday, June 9, 2011

What is Theology?: Tulips and Daisies Pt. 2

Limited Atonement: There is some disagreement among Calvinists on how to define this point, so for the most part I will be explaining it as I've heard it stated by John Piper. Jesus Christ died so that his atonement was capable of applying to the world, but ultimately it paid for the actual deciding faith and repentance of the church. We can decisively support verses that say: "whoever believes will be saved," but we can be sure that only those God has chosen to give the gift of faith will in fact believe. Therefore the atonement is limited.

The opposing Arminian point should be obvious: Unlimited atonement. Now, those of you who have already settled on your Arminianism have probably already stated your disagreement in your mind while reading this. Understandable. However, let me point something out to you. Both Arminians and Calvinists limit the atonement, unless they are universalists. Both sides believe that not everyone will be saved. The difference again is a matter of "basis." What is the basis of this limitation? What is it that God finds so important that he would allow it to get in the way of everyone being saved?

The immediate answer from Arminians is usually "free will!" If we are truly to love God, we must choose to do so. If it is not a choice, it is not real love. The Calvinist response to this should be obvious by now. One needs simply to appeal to the first point, "total depravity." Why would an Arminian appeal to this thing called "free will" if he has already stated his agreement that we have nothing to boast of in our salvation? We have squandered our free will in sin. We have made our choice. We have chosen to oppose God. But thanks be to Him that we don't have the final say. Unbelief can be overcome by God just as easily as any other sin.

The next question should be obvious. If God is the deciding factor, why would he limit the atonement? Why not save everyone? What is the basis of this limitation for the Calvinist? Well, the answer for them is also free will. But it is the free will of another, that person is God. God, being the ultimate free being, has chosen through the cross, to save some. Before you jump to saying this is unfair, let us not forget the starting point of salvation. We are all unworthy of being saved, therefore God would be fully justified in saving no one. Therefore, by saving some, he has chosen to reveal his glory both in salvation and in damnation of his creatures. He is indebted to no one. Before we move on from this point, let me point out a somewhat lengthy text in Romans 9 that many of you may have forgotten about where Paul answers this very question concerning fairness:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

What is Paul's answer to this very difficult question? At first glance it seems like he is saying, "Who do you think you are? Don't ask questions!" But after hearing a deeper exegesis of this passage, I think there is a bit more to it. What many don't notice is that one of the first things Paul does in response is to quote God's words to Moses in Exodus: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy..." Why does he do this. What is the context? God says this when Moses asks to see his glory and God tells him to hide in the cleft of the mountain so that he would pass by him. It was in response to this request from Moses that God said "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy..." John Piper asks the question, could it be that one of the foundational aspects of God's glory that he be free to show mercy and wrath to those that he wills completely independent of the person? Could it be that it would subtract from his glory if he based his love for Jacob and Hatred toward Esau, who were both sinners, on anything within themselves? If so, then the question is, do I care more for God's glory, or do I care more about everyone getting a second chance?

Don't decide what you think right now... I certainly haven't. I am just beginning the actual book where Piper defends this position... we'll see where that goes.

Very quickly, lets move onto our fourth and fifth points. Point number four:

Irresistible grace: This point should be obvious to anyone who has fully processed the ramifications of believing in total depravity. As I stated before, if our inability to choose God is total, then our dependence on his saving work must also be total. His overcoming of our rebellion is total and therefore irresistible. Again, the Arminian response should be obvious: Resistible grace. Arminians usually will defend this position by pointing out the many instances in scripture where people resist God. Calvinists respond by admitting that we can resist God's grace to a point. This should be obvious. Without a decisive work from God, all we will ever do is resist. The difference comes when they state that God only allows us to resist for as long as he chooses. Eventually, if he wants us, his grace will overcome.

Finally, point five:

Perseverance of the saints. Many refer to this point as "Eternal security." Those whom God has saved will endure to the end. We did not earn our salvation in the beginning, and we are not earning it now. Again, the Arminian response should be obvious: "Perseverance of some saints." While God holds us to an extent, we can still walk away if we choose to. Arminians will defend this by pointing out the strong warning passages in the New Testament, for instance, in the book of Hebrews that speak explicitly about Christians falling away. The extreme of this Arminian view, which is rare, is that we actually lose our salvation every time we sin. This leads to a joke I once heard. "You know how the Calvinist flower is 'TULIP'? Well the Armenian flower is 'Daisy' because, He loves me, He loves me not, He loves me, He loves me not.

Strangely enough, this may not be the only point I struggle with, but currently I struggle with it the most. The warning passages do seem blatantly clear. I will not site them now, but will give John Piper's basic response, which I find acceptable, though it still does not necessarily leave someone without resistance to the position. Basically put, he emphasises the fact that this point is called first and foremost "perseverance of the saints" not "eternal security." Often when we call it "eternal security" we conclude that we can do whatever we want and still get to Heaven. When we call it "Perseverance of the saints," we recognize that "Without Holiness, no one will see the Lord." Persevering faith is required to see Heaven, but what God requires, God provides. It is still God that holds us and confirms us to the end as Paul says. It is still God who works in us to will and to do for his good pleasure. One of the ways God preserves his true elect is by way of these warnings, that they would remain vigilant.

So there you have it. Those are the five points of Calvinism along with the Arminian responses. To finish I would just like to cover a few of the most basic responses to the Calvinist system as a whole.

One that I have asked and have heard the most is, "How could God hold a totally depraved people accountable for disobeying when they are incapable of obeying? Doesn't a command require "capability"?

The best response I've heard to this question was from John Piper, yet again when he made reference to Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards digs a little deeper into the idea of being incapable of something. He points out two different kinds of incapability, "physical incapability" and "moral incapability." If someone were tied to a chair and then commanded to get up, they would be physically incapable and therefore not responsible to carry out the command. However, what if the chair had vibrations and massage system that made the chair very pleasurable to sit in, so much so that one would never choose to get out of it?

Is it possible for us to love our sin so much more than God that because of our love for it, we are literally incapable of loving God? When we are physically incapable, every inclination "wants" to love God, but can't, therefore taking away responsibility. But with moral incapability, every inclination is against God therefore intensifying our guilt and making us totally responsible while at the same time incapable. Now, the question obviously is, can you believe in such a category of incapability? Perhaps you might struggle with it still. It's not an easy idea to swallow, yet it seems that the Bible does in fact teach "inability" as well as "responsibility."

Another big question I've heard asked of Calvinism is very simply, "If God ordains those who will be saved, why evangelize and do missions?" The Calvinist response demands humility and obedience. I've heard an interesting analogy to illustrate the answer to this. I can't remember it word for word, but I'll take a shot at getting the idea right: "It is God's will that your stomach be full, but why would you not eat? It is God's will that your lungs be filled, but why would you not breathe?" something like that. In other words, God ordains means as well as ends. It is God's will that the world be saved, why would you not go? I can almost see God saying, "do you want to take part in this or not? Why would you disobey? I made you for this. I even gave you a heart for this, now go!"

One danger many Arminians see in Calvinism is an arrogance that comes with being "elect." They have a fear of seeing Christians boast that God chose them. This is of course possible, but it would not be merited by anything within the five points. After all, election is "unconditional" so that no one has anything to boast about. In actuality, I see much more reason for boasting in Arminianism. In the end they can at least say that they CHOSE God when so many others didn't. But the Calvinist can say the words of Jesus to His disciples in response, "You did not choose me, I chose you." Many may find the Calvinist/Arminian debate impractical and not worth having, but when it comes to points like this, I find it very relevant.

So, some of you might ask, what is hyper Calvinism? Hyper Calvinism, quite simply, is the conclusion that because there are only a select people, "the elect," we should only preach the gospel to those who show evidence of election. This positon, however, is strongly rejected by most Calvinists. They preach clearly that we should spread the seed of the gospel on every soil. We should never be so arrogant as to think we know who will respond. This, however, leads me to think of another extreme which is on the side of Arminians. While a Calvinist may arrogantly use his theological system to stop evangelizing, there is a danger for those on the other side as well.

I've been in a situation where I watched an Arminian evangelize, but to no avail. He said all the right things, but the guy resisted. After about an hour, he began to grow frustrated. He simply couldn't believe someone would resist news this good. By the end, he was making snide, arrogant remarks about how foolish the guy was for not believing. He couldn't believe someone could resist like this. A while after this happened, and after I thought about it for a while, a very Calvinistic, but I think true thought occurred to me. "Of course he's resisting! There is nothing in his natural self that would be inclined to the gospel! You've said enough. You've made the truth clear. Now be quiet! Walk in love. And pray that the Holy Spirit would do his part! Pray that God would 'grant him repentance' as Paul says in his letters to Timothy. You've done you're part, now step back and let God do his, because when he does, there's no stopping him!"

Think on these things. The debate is old. Some may be tired of it, but I find it worth the trouble, even if tensions remain in the end.

For a truly exhaustive defense of the five points of Calvinism, Here's a link to where you can find John Piper's 9 Part series on TULIP... I'm sure most of you have had enough after this post, so this is for those of you who are sick like me!


  1. A couple of things.
    First, we should talk after you have kids.
    Two. How will anyone know that they are a Christian while here on earth and are elect? If fruit is the answer and results then walk lightly.
    Third. How do you respond that they are both extremists views?

  2. Well, in terms of the question concerning how you know you're elect, I don't really think there's an easy answer for either side. Neither side wants to see people just do whatever they want, but it seems to me that Calvinism leaves it up to God's decisive work of sanctification and not our effort. So how do we have security? Personally, I usually put it this way: You can't lose your salvation by accident, like you would your car keys. The fact that you would care if you're still saved proves you are. I've heard it said this way: you can't lose what you didn't earn, but you can reject what you once received. Calvinists don't say you CAN'T, more that you WON'T.

    Do I think both sides are extremes? Well, seeing as I haven't fully embraced a side, that's certainly possible. My goal was mainly to point out how much scripture you would have to ignore if you fully rejected either view

    Thanks for the comments!

  3. Well, many agree and believe that all scripture is true from both sides of this debate. I have been Armenian leaning my whole life. I know you can't deny the Calvinistic looking scripture so what is one to do. I choose to recognize that the truth lies beyond my current grasp. I have had other seemingly contradicting scripture get sorted out as I have walked with the Lord. I hope someday I sort this little nagging question that I have had for some 35 years. Is not this though what makes being a Christian fun!!

    I think it does. WE need to give Him the time and space in our lives to sort out so many things.