Calvinism vs. Arminianism: Should We Tell Unbelievers That God Loves Them?

, posted by Gene Brode, Jr.

Last week on the way to my small group Bible study at church, I had an interesting conversation with a pastor friend who’s a Calvinist. I said something about hoping my son would get saved soon and he, having a Presbyterian/covenantal theology leaning, told me that since our children grow up in a covenantal community (the Christian home) we can tell our children that God loves them. But we don’t tell unbelievers that God loves them. Since my friend and I were parting ways, the only answer I could think to give was, “I guess that depends on how you believe,” or some such lame response, where only I knew that I was talking about Arminianism.

I’ve had four days to think about it and now I have a better answer. There are problems for Calvinists with this line of thinking. In Calvinism, God does not love the reprobate (those who ultimately reject him) in the same way he loves his children. His children are chosen from before time to be his children, and nothing will ever change that. It doesn’t matter whether you have a covenantal theology, only those who are the elect will be regenerated, given faith and persevere until the end. The reprobate have no chance whatsoever.

One obvious problem with this line of thinking is that not all children who grow up in a Christian home become Christians [1]. If they ultimately die and go to hell, then telling your children that God loves them was a big fat lie (in the Calvinist way of thinking about God’s love). And if these children prove to be reprobate, then they are no different than any other unbelievers. This is a double standard where you tell some unbelievers that God loves them (your children) but not others (strangers).

Within their theological framework, Calvinists have no way to be sure who is really part of God’s elect. Not unbelievers who outwardly respond to the Gospel in anger but later repent and trust Christ without our knowing, not professing believers who outwardly show fruit but later abandon their faith without our knowing, and certainly not your sinful, rebellious children who may or may not follow Christ. In fact, there’s no sure way for Calvinists themselves to know whether they will ultimately persevere or fall away. Since Calvinism creates a false dichotomy out of God’s love and no one can know who it is that God really loves, if I were still a Calvinist I would probably not tell anyone that God loved them just to be on the safe side. You wouldn’t want to give your future reprobate children a false sense of God’s love, would you? In reality, this was something I struggled with prior to abandoning Calvinism, especially in regard to my then infant son.

Our church is going through The Gospel Project. Last week we went through session 10 in the Fall 2014 edition. After I had this conversation with my friend, I read this:

God not only wants us to be secure in His love, but He also wants us to experience what He experiences in giving love! This is who we are as His church–people sent to love as we have been loved so that others might believe the good news and then love as they have been loved, and so on!
(p. 98, emphasis mine)

Our church has Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the membership as well as in leadership. As far as I can tell, the Gospel Project remains relatively neutral despite the focus given it by The Gospel Coalition. Whether this remains true, we shall see, since the next edition is about the doctrines of sin and of salvation (I’m expecting to see Calvinism come out strong). Nevertheless, the above quote shows that God is actively loving people of the world and sharing his experience with us when we go out and tell them about Jesus. If it is true that God wants us to be secure in His love (which I would argue for), and we are sent to love others, then the false dichotomy Calvinism makes of God’s love starts to rub against the actions of his people and what we are learning in this study.

God shows love to people as we share Christ with them, as we feed the poor and help widows and other such things. Yet some Calvinists are hesitant to tell unbelievers outside of their home that God does love them. It seems like a simple matter, a yes or no question to me. Does God love people, or not? It’s not so simple within the construct of Calvinism. There is no short answer. You have to define love, explain a bunch of Scriptures, redefine the meaning of words such as “all” and “world,” discuss the topic of election and refer to a lot of passages before you can finally feel comfortable telling anyone that God does love them (in a way). The whole thing is just awkward.

If we follow Calvinism’s reasoning to its next logical conclusion, one might argue that God’s people love the reprobate more than God Himself does [2]. We are moved to tears for unbelieving friends and family who perish without faith, yet God is content to let them perish and somehow bring glory to himself for not counting them as part of his elect. We hear such phrases as, “Who are you oh man?” taken from their context of Israel and the Messianic lineage and imported into the conversation (or music videos) when non-Calvinists object to Calvinism’s interpretations of Romans 9. Calvinism brings these problems upon itself and casts doubt on the very nature of God himself. God is love (1 John 4:8) and in Him there is no darkness (1 John 1:5), yet in some secret corner of his mind He can get away with murder and call it glory. As a former Calvinist, trying to make sense of this was quite confusing, and the arguments defending God’s two loves were never quite satisfactory as I walked away and tried to love unbelievers. Especially my own son (I defaulted to God really loving him).

While I wouldn’t promote telling an unbeliever that God loves him/her and offers a wonderful plan for his/her life, I would also not hesitate to tell of God’s love for all people and individuals given their current predicament if it came up in discussion. The preaching of God’s law has an amazing way of opening up the door of the conscience and allowing the preacher to walk right through, many times unhindered. It breaks up hard hearts and paves the way for the Gospel, which by the way, then makes better sense than telling people about God’s love without telling them about the wrath of God and the torments of hell.

The real beauty of God’s mystery, plans and love is that God did not exclude anyone from the kingdom [3]. No. He kept it all hidden for ages and swung the door wide open when he sent Jesus Christ as a fragile baby in a manger. He sincerely loves all sinners the same way (John 3:16) and sincerely desires all to be saved (2 Peter 3:9). The elect of God are those who are found in Christ when they cross over into the next life. Indeed, believers in Jesus are in a New Covenant with God. As an Arminian, I can tell my five-year-old son that God really does love him without wondering if I’m telling him a lie. Yes God is angry with sinners. But He still showed his love for sinners by sending His own Son as a sacrifice for sin. As an Arminian, I can have full confidence that I am telling sinful people the truth when I say, “God loves you.” He really does.


[1] For further reading, Ben from Arminian Perspectives has written about this in a post called “Does Erwin Lutzer Offer False Hope to Calvinist Parents?

[2] I’m in the process of tracking down this argument further. Presently I have not been able to find where I once read it. When I find a link I will add it.

[3] After studying Ephesians over the past year, I’ve become more convinced that Calvinists place too much emphasis on Ephesians 1:4-11 while ignoring the rest of what Paul has to say about God’s mystery, purpose, plan and will. A careful study shows that God’s hidden mystery/purpose/plan was to include the Gentiles as fellow saints and heirs. God did not choose people to be saved as much as he chose believers to be holy (1:4). I have been working on a written study that I hope to publish some day, but my time has been stretched very thin.

 

This was originally posted on the Grace Apparatus