Calvinism and Consistency

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Admittedly, no systematic theology is perfect. That takes a load of pressure off of every sincere Bible student. Not one of us will ever have all of his or her doctrines correct. C. I. Scofield wrote that there will always exist a measure of false teaching in true, orthodox Christianity, due to our fallen nature and our design as finite creatures.

I was once convinced that Calvinism was right because people showed me a lot of proof texts to propagate this theology. I had read Chosen by God by R. C. Sproul and concluded that he, too, was correct. How could I have missed out on this teaching for so long? I will never forget what affect Sproul’s book had on my heart. How could God have chosen me and not others? Moreover, why would God have chosen me and not others?

Even further, why would God only choose to save some (deterministically by an eternal decree) and not others? And how does this notion correspond with what the Bible teaches concerning God’s love for the world and His sending His Son to die for the sin of the world, and His desire that all people be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, etc.? It was questions such as these that forced me to re-think and to further study what the Bible taught on these matters. I certainly believed that God is sovereign.

To Calvinism’s credit, if one accepts its presupposition that man is totally depraved in the sense that he must first be regenerated in order to believe on Christ Jesus (represented by the T in TULIP, for total depravity), then the rest of the structure for Calvinism works well together. Thus those who are truly regenerate have been chosen by God for salvation from eternity past and that accounts for why some people are saved and others are not saved.

However, if this teaching is incorrect, then the rest of the Calvinistic system falls apart (to which Sproul has also attested); everything hinges on the Calvinist’s interpretation of total depravity. If no one can believe in Christ apart from God’s regenerative act, and only some are saved, then God, necessarily, elected whom He would save, and this was done in eternity past.

Arminians and Wesleyans believe and teach the utter depravity of man. We understand all too clearly that human beings are sinful and of their own volition have no desire for God’s salvation: we depend wholeheartedly on the grace of God for salvation. However, we do not believe and teach that a person must first be regenerated in order to understand the gospel or to have faith in Christ Jesus for salvation ~ though the Holy Spirit must work in the heart and mind of a sinner in order to accomplish repentance and faith (and this is not an irresistible work).

Let me advance toward my goal of exposing what I see as inconsistencies within Calvinism. First, the Bible does not teach that a person is saved to faith, but by faith. Thus regeneration does not need to precede faith. Paul taught such at Colossians 2.13. God justifies and regenerates the one who has first been forgiven of his sins through faith in Christ Jesus. Biblically and logically, then, faith precedes regeneration. In this, Calvinism is not necessarily inconsistent within in its own system as much as it is inconsistent with the clear teaching of Scripture.

Second, and most important, through the grace of God, justification and salvation are attained by faith in Christ Jesus alone, as the Reformers have taught and as the Bible confirms. For the Calvinist, however, salvation seems not to be truly contingent on faith but on God’s effectual decree. What is even more troubling is that this “faith” is not something freely exercised by the sinner in need of salvation, but is actually “given” to him by God in the sense that he is irresistibly caused to believe (a sort of faith by proxy), so that God might have a means of justifying him.

Robert Picirilli writes,

    Reflecting the logical consistency of Calvinism, many theologians would object to a simplistic statement that salvation is by faith. (1) Since election is unconditional (and must be so for God to be sovereign), it follows that salvation ~ in the broadest sense of the word ~ rests in the decree of God and not on the individual’s faith. (2) Since the atonement was intended to save only the elect and is applied efficaciously to them by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, it follows that salvation ~ still in the broadest sense ~ is by atonement and grace rather than faith. (3) Since man’s depravity is so total that he is utterly dead and unable to respond to the gospel until regenerated, it follows that salvation ~ still the broad sense ~ is to faith rather than by faith.

If all this is true, can it be said that salvation is by faith? In a sense, yes: even the thoroughly committed Calvinist will insist that the words are legitimate. But in that case ‘salvation’ is being used in a narrower sense.

The Scripture is clear, and so is the Calvinist, that justification is by faith. As important and central as justification is, the word ‘salvation’ is often used . . . as though it were a synonym for justification. In that narrower sense, then, it can be said that salvation (justification) is by faith.

In fact, however, ‘salvation’ means more than justification. And when it is used in its fullest sense, it is essentially equal to election. We should make no mistake about this: if election is not by faith, then neither is salvation . . . [In the Calvinist’s scheme, regeneration] is not by faith, therefore salvation is not by faith.1

Third, and by no means less significant, it is entirely, in my opinion, absurd for a Calvinist (who inevitably holds to some form of determinism) to become upset at Arminians, Wesleyans, or whoever else disagrees with Calvinism, seeing that God has foreordained everything! If Arminianism is wrong (or worse, false, heretical teaching) then God predetermined me (and all who hold to it) to be an Arminian, since (in the Calvinist’s theology) God must foreordain whatever comes to pass in order for Him to be sovereign.

So, when a Calvinist is angry at false teaching, or false religions, or atheists, or child molesters, or adultery, or nudity, or America’s moral decline, should he not really be angry at his God, for it is He who has foreordained whatever comes to pass (as the Westminster Confession teaches)?

And, Yes, this still includes those who hold to soft determinism, for it is determinism nonetheless. Even with God using secondary cause, things could never have been any different than what He foreordained (not foresaw or foreknew, but foreordained). And though (in the soft determinist’s ideology) God foreordained (permitted) people to do what they do, they still had no other choice but to do what they do because God foreordained it.

Walls and Dongell note, “We contend that Calvinists often vacillate between compatibilist and libertarian freedom in a way that is neither clear nor consistent with their other commitments . . .”2 This is seen most clearly within a soft determinist view of the providence of God.

Elsewhere they stated, “[In the case of soft determinism, the] crucial point to keep in mind is that the agent could not want to do otherwise than she in fact does. If the agent had wanted to do differently, she could have done so, but it was impossible for her to want to do differently, given the prior causes and conditions that strictly determined her psychological states and character.

“Still, soft determinists have formulated a definition of freedom that is compatible with strict determinism. So they can’t be fairly faulted on this score. The question is whether their view of freedom is an adequate one . . .”3

Of course, we do not believe it is an adequate one. And I guess it is more than obvious that we do not think Calvinism gives adequate, biblical views on the providence and sovereignty of God, nor His intentions where the salvation of humanity is concerned. In these things we find Calvinism to be inconsistent not only with the Bible and reality.

1 Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, and Free Will (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 169-170.

2 Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 164.

3 Ibid., 109.