Perseverance of the Saints: The P in TULIP, and something that Calvinists love to use as a bludgeon against Arminians and other non-calvinists. “My salvation is secure because it’s rooted in God, not my fickle ‘free will,'” they’ll say. In fact, John Piper asks the question “How do you know you will still be a believer when you wake up in the morning?” And he answers, “God will see to it.”
Of course, Piper is only able to arrive at such a simplistic answer by ignoring the vast number of people for whom God apparently did not “see to it.” He is ignoring the vast number of people who, to themselves and those around them, certainly seem to be Christians…who nevertheless fall away from the faith.
And that leads to two HUGE questions that I think Calvinism has absolutely terrible answers for:
“Whence the apostate?”
“How do I know I’m not one?”
Let’s tackle the first one: Whence the apostate? Where do apostates come from? How do they come to be? How do they first gather the wherewithall to approach the faith in the first place, andwhy do they leave it? How do they seem to display true love, true joy, true peace, etc, only to fall away?
This is a question asked and answered by none other than John Calvin himself (Institutes 3.2.11), and here he is brutally honest. He asks why faith sometimes seems to be attributed to non-elect, and recognizes that even in daily life, “experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected by almost the same feeling as the elect, so that even in their own judgment they do not in any way differ from the elect.” Calvin states that the reprobate are sometimes “affected” (affected by whom or what? Answers to come) in such a way that even in their own judgement, there is no difference between them and the elect. In other words, they are so affected that they believe themselves to be elect. Their experience is, to them and others, so similar to the experience of the truly elect that they cannot tell the difference.
This is important. More on this later. For now…affected by who? Who is doing the affecting? Why, the only Person who can ultimately affect anything!
“Therefore it is not at all absurd that the apostle should attribute to them a taste of the heavenly gifts – and Christ, faith for a time…”
So Calvin says that the Apostle attributes a “taste” of heavenly gifts to these non-elect apostates, and that Christ Himself attributes to them “faith for a time.” But what does this mean, and why does Christ do this? Calvin explains.
…not because they firmly grasp the force of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith, but because the Lord, to render them more convicted and inexcusable, steals into their minds to the extent that his goodness may be tasted without the Spirit of adoption.”
These non-elect individuals do not actually grasp the force of spiritual grace, nor do they possess the sure light of faith. How could they? It has been kept from them! However, in order to damn them further, Jesus “steals into their minds” to trick them into thinking they’re elect.
This is horrifying. This goes well beyond the typical Calvinist portrayal of the long-suffering God who merely punishes the sin He happens to find. Here, God deliberately tricks the non-elect into believing that they are Elect. He gives them a “taste” of spiritual gifts, gives them a tiny bit of temporary faith. Indeed, he steals into their minds to make them think that they’re really elect. And why does he do this?
“To render them more convicted and inexcusable.”
And there is NO hint that Calvin realizes the horrifying cognitive dissonance he is displaying here. “To render them more convicted and inexcusable”? What, God deliberately and intentionally stops short of giving them what they need, then punishes them for failing? He lies to them, and punishes them for believing him? He tricks them, and punishes them for falling for it?
This is Calvinism at it’s darkest, and it reveals the deep dark truth that God enjoys tricking people into believing that they’re his children, just to make their damnation and eternal, fiery punishment that much more satisfying.
Whence the apostate? God. God is the one who drew the apostate to Himself with the intention of damning them by causing them to fall away.
And here’s the thing, the really important thing: Honest, consistent Calvinism cannot appeal to a different answer. They can’t simply say, “Well, Calvin was just wrong here.” Because if Calvinism is true, and there really aren’t any “maverick molecules”, and everything is going exactly according to God’s decretive will…then there isn’t any other explanation for the apostate. The apostate could not have come so near to God without God leading him on, and he could not have fallen without God letting him go. Again: If meticulous providence is true, then God is the one who drew the apostate to Himself with the intention of damning them anew by causing them to fall away.
So. That’s one shudder-inducing question-and-answer out of the way. Now, on to the follow-up question…one that Calvin anticipates and yet utterly fails to provide a satisfactory answer to.
How do I know I’m not an apostate?
“Suppose someone objects that then nothing more remains to believers to assure themselves of their adoption.”
Yes. Yes, I do object that. That is my objection exactly. What do you have to say for yourself?
“I reply: although there is a great likeness and affinity between God’s elect and those who are given a transitory faith, yet only in the elect does that confidence flourish which Paul extols, that they loudly proclaim Abba, Father. Therefore, as God regenerates only the elect with incorruptible seed forever so that the seed of life sown in their hearts may never perish, thus he firmly seals the gift of his adoption in them that it may be steady and sure.”
Really? But…I mean, you just said that there are reprobate individuals who so closely resemble the elect, so closely feel what the elect feel, that “EVEN IN THEIR OWN JUDGEMENT” they cannot tell the difference! Indeed, you said it was because GOD HIMSELF desired for them to believe that they were elect! You said it was because Jesus wanted to render them more inexcusable! If God wants to trick me, then I will be tricked. If God wants to make me believe that I’m elect, then I’m pretty sure I’m going to believe it.
And your only response to this is essentially “You’ll know your faith is real because you’ll know”? The “confidence” will “flourish”? The gift of adoption is “steady and sure”? I suppose the unspoken-but-necessary qualifier is “until it no longer flourishes, and is no longer steady and sure.”
So how do I know I’m not an apostate, in the Calvinist scheme?
I don’t. Because I could have all the confidence in the world that I’m a true believer. I could know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is my Abba and Father. I could feel the gift of adoption in me as steady and sure. And then one day – or one morning, as John Piper posits – I could wake up to find it was nothing but an illusion. One day I could wake up to find that Jesus had merely stolen into my mind to make me think I was an elect, and that the whole thing – my whole “Christian” life – was nothing but a farce to render me even more damnable.
So the question begs to be asked: Does Calvinism really offer assurance of perseverance
Of course not. One can never be truly sure they’re elect, because God Himself apparently makes it his business to trick people into believing they’re elect. And again, there is no other explanation for the Calvinist who affirms meticulous providence. Here, Calvin states what is simply and brutally true if Calvinism is to be at all coherent.*
So…if meticulous providence and Calvinism can’t offer any real assurance, can Arminianism?
Of course it can.
God has promised throughout the Bible that he desires all men to come to him, and that whoever comes to him he will not cast out.
And he has called and enabled us to come.
Therefore, all that remains is faith. All that remains is, every morning, to put faith in the one who has called us. God will never take our faith from us, as Calvin envisions. We have faith, and so long as we continue in that faith, our perseverance is absolutely assured. So long as we remain in Christ, he will remain in us.**
For those who aren’t quite convinced, there is a simple thought experiment that demonstrates this whole thing pretty handily:
Scenario A: My love for my wife is irresistibly caused by a 3rd party, who at any time could flip the switch to the “off” position and immediately irresistibly cause me to stop loving my wife.
Scenario B: My love for my wife is the result of my recognition of my wife’s loveliness, and a commitment and dedication to love her, made and renewed every single day.
In which scenario is the continuation of that love “assured”? In which scenario can I confidently assert that I will wake up tomorrow in love with my wife?
Calvinism offers no assurance: Indeed, it offers a God who actively deceives people into believing they are saved when they are not. Arminianism alone offers a way in which believers can “make their calling and election sure.”
*It is at this point (or before) that a Calvinist may well object to my distaste of God’s actions. “Who are you, o man,” etc etc. The objection goes that if God desires to deceive people and make them believe that they are elect, that is his prerogative. This may well be the case (in the Calvinist scheme, at least). But in any case, it does nothing to address my concern here: You cannot simultaneously say “It is apparently God’s good pleasure to cause people to falsely believe they are elect” and “But I know that my own election is secure.” If any person falsely believes they are elect – and I believe any Calvinist will admit that – then it was necessarily God’s decree for them to be deceived, and therefore no Calvinist can be secure.
**Any good Calvinist will object that our salvation is then works-centered, if we must “do” anything, like “have faith” or “remain in Christ.” The objection is easily answered, of course, since this language is strictly biblical. Christ says that He will abide in those who abide in Him, and Paul repeatedly commands Christians to remain in Christ, and frequently recognizes that some Christians will not remain in Christ. Our faith in Christ is not a work which saves: In fact, it is an explicit recognition and statement that our works cannot save us.