Does Erwin Lutzer Offer False Hope to Calvinist Parents?

, posted by Ben Henshaw

I hope to do a few posts on Erwin Lutzer’s [1] book, The Doctrines That Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines That Separate Christians. One might expect that such a book would look to lessen division and ease tension between Christians, but it seems that Lutzer’s purpose is more to present certain divisive doctrines and explain why his views of the doctrines are correct. Many of the issues center on the major doctrinal disagreements between Catholics and non-Catholics, and as a non-Catholic I agree with Lutzer’s general assessment against Catholic dogma. However, Lutzer’s book is not limited to the divisions between Catholics and non-Catholics. Lutzer also examines doctrinal controversies within protestant Christianity, and one of these main controversies centers on the debate concerning Calvinism and Arminianism. Unfortunately, Lutzer does not set himself apart from the many Calvinist authors who misrepresent Arminianism and the history of the controversy in an apparent attempt to paint Calvinism as orthodoxy and Arminianism as a sort of unfortunate heresy left over from the protestant break with Catholicism. I hope to take a closer look at many of Lutzer’s claims and arguments in a series of posts. This post, however, will simply examine an important difficulty with Calvinism that Lutzer rightly identifies along with his proposed solution.

In dealing with the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election Lutzer ponders the problem of evangelism in Calvinism. He concludes that Arminians are really no better off than Calvinists with regards to the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of evangelism in their theological system (more on that in a future post), as well as why one can supposedly have confidence in his or her elect status in Calvinism even though the decree of election is secret (for serious problems regarding salvation assurance in Calvinism see this post). He then shifts to an interesting question and takes only a paragraph to dispatch the concern with what he seems to think is a sufficient solution. He writes,

God’s choice of those who will be saved appears to be neither random nor arbitrary. He planned the context in which they would be converted. That is why I have never wondered whether my children are among the elect. Since they were born into a Christian home, we can believe that the means of their salvation will be the faithful teaching of God’s Word. God’s decision to save us involved planning where we would be born and the circumstances that would lead us to Christ. Election is part of a total picture. (The Doctrines that Divide, pg. 217, italics his)

The person I borrowed Lutzer’s book from wrote “very comforting” in the margin next to this paragraph. But does Lutzer’s solution really offer enough certainty to provide a Calvinist with any real comfort concerning the eternal destiny of their children? I don’t see that it possibly can, given fundamental Calvinist assumptions and the way that they have traditionally handled certain passages of Scripture to support unconditional election.

Lutzer seems to be suggesting that if one is born in a Christian home, that person will grow up to hear the gospel and be converted. Is that really what he thinks? Surely he is aware of cases where children have grown up in Christian homes under godly Biblical teaching and yet rejected God and lived and died as unbelievers. It seems to me that there have been many Atheists who grew up as children of ministers [2]. Indeed, in Calvinism the “means” or “context” is never enough. The reprobate can hear the gospel a thousand times and will never believe it. In fact, God has made it impossible for him or her to believe. While the proper means and context may be a necessary ingredient in Calvinism, without an irresistible regenerating act of God no amount of means or context can ever avail. How can Lutzer assume that because his children are being placed in a context where they can receive the means of conversion that conversion will necessarily follow? He can’t if Calvinism is true. Sadly, if one of his children is among the reprobate no amount of context or means can help that child. Context and means cannot change a decree that was made by God from eternity. Context and means cannot help a reprobate who will forever be denied the regenerating grace of God in accordance with an unchangeable eternal decree.

To be perfectly frank, what right does Lutzer have to even hope that his children are elect when reprobation supposedly magnifies God’s glory? What if God wants to magnify His glory by reprobating one of Lutzer’s children? In such a case Lutzer’s hopes would be in stark contrast to God’s desire to magnify Himself and His glory through the reprobation of one of Lutzer’s children. Perhaps God wants to display His “mercy” and “love” in one child by contrasting His electing love of the one child with His reprobating hatred of the other child. Perhaps this reprobation will help the elect child to better recognize and revel in God’s mercy and grace and thus magnify God’s grace and mercy in that elect child in such a way that would not have been possible had the other child been elected as well (or perhaps this reprobation will serve to help Lutzer better appreciate His own election as well). Such thoughts are hard to even write, yet these are the unavoidable implications of what Calvinists regularly teach concerning God’s grace and supposed reasons for reprobating most of humanity.[3] But even beyond that we have a traditional Calvinist proof text that flatly contradicts Lutzer’s claims,

Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad — in order that God’s purpose in election would stand: not by works but by him who calls — she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10-13)

This is the primary Calvinist proof text for unconditional election and this passage completely undermines Lutzer’s claims. Esau and Jacob were born to quite possibly the godliest family on the planet at that time. They grew up under godly teaching and instruction. Yet, despite all of that, according to Calvinism, Esau was hated by God from the womb and this hatred is supposedly to be equated with the eternal decree of reprobation. If the first born son of Isaac can be a hopeless reprobate (despite his father’s love for him over his supposedly unconditionally “elect” son), then why can’t one of Erwin Lutzer’s children likewise be a hopeless reprobate despite the context and means of being brought up in a godly environment? In fact, if we can learn anything from this, God might very well reprobate the favorite child of the parent for His good pleasure and for the sake of somehow magnifying His grace and mercy in the elect. Again, such things are hard to even contemplate, yet these are the fundamental underlying assumptions of Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election.

Another example would be the sons of Eli the priest. Not only had these children been brought up by a godly father (probably one of the most godly men in Israel at the time), but they had also been brought up in the ministry. Despite this, both of Eli’s sons became so wicked that God put them to death [4]. What better context and means could they hope for than to be the children of a father who was devoted to serving God daily? One might argue that the fault lied with Eli’s failures as a father, but who among Christian fathers has not fallen short? If the “means” and “context” includes perfect parenting skills, we are all in trouble, including Erwin Lutzer.

The simple fact is that Calvinism can provide no such comfort to Lutzer or any other Christian parent. Nor can Lutzer really explain how God’s choice of one over the other is not ultimately “arbitrary” or “random”. Simply talking about means and context doesn’t explain how God’s choice to elect and save some from the mass of equally depraved humanity is not arbitrary.

Calvinists typically claim that God’s choice is not arbitrary even though there is nothing to differentiate the one who is chosen and the one who is reprobated. After all, both were depraved God-haters prior to God’s choice (according to traditional infralapsarian Calvinism). That is why the choice is considered unconditional. Nothing in the person or about the person (like faith) conditions God’s choice. Calvinists might try to solve this problem by claiming that the reason is hidden in God and we cannot know it. It seems random and arbitrary to us but we can supposedly be sure that God has a good reason for choosing one and reprobating the other, even if there is absolutely nothing in or about either person to condition the choice [5]. Perhaps this provides the key to the only possible comfort Calvinist parents can have. While Calvinist parents cannot have comfort that all (or any) of their children will be elect, those parents can at least take comfort in the fact that if God did reprobate any (or all) of their children, He had a very good secret reason for doing so [6]

[1] Erwin Lutzer is the senior pastor of the historic Moody Church in Chicago.

[2] One need only check out a few atheist websites to find several who came from Christian homes.

[3] It has become increasingly popular for Calvinists to claim that God can only be ultimately glorified and His attributes fully displayed by reprobating the greater part of humanity in order to help the elect fully appreciate and understand God’s mercy and grace towards them. In such a scheme the eternal torment of the reprobate is to a large degree for the sake of the elect that they might somehow see God in a greater light and love Him more. This concept was popularized by Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards and has been reintroduced with great support by contemporary Calvinists like John Piper. Such a scheme also seems to make sin and reprobation necessary for God’s attributes to be fully displayed, threatening His holiness and quite possibly His aseity as well.

[4] 1 Samuel 2:12-34

[5] Likewise, Peterson and Williams assert that unconditional election should not be considered arbitrary while failing to explain why this should be so, preferring instead to punt to mystery: “But why must God’s sovereign decision to love some be considered arbitrary? All deserve wrath; none deserve his grace [which is precisely why it seems arbitrary]. He freely chooses to bestow saving grace on billions of undeserving sinners. That is not arbitrary; the Bible itself teaches that election is the result of God’s love and will [but this only begs the question that God’s love and will is not arbitrary in election, the very issue in dispute]. His gracious choosing ultimately transcends our reason, but it is not arbitrary.” (Why I am Not an Arminian, pp. 65, 66- bold emphasis and brackets mine)

[6] The typical Calvinist retort to such things is to claim that the Arminian system creates the same difficulties. Even if this were the case it wouldn’t change the fact that Calvinists like Erwin Lutzer are offering hope and certainty that the fundamental tenets of Calvinism cannot provide (and flatly contradict). Still, Arminianism does fare better as parents can be assured that God indeed loves all of their children and truly desires their salvation, hearing prayers and continually revealing Himself in accordance with those prayers and His desire for them to be saved. While Arminians do not believe that God does such things in a way that guarantees results (i.e., God works resistibly and not irresistibly), Arminians are in a far better position to reveal God’s love to their children since there is no doubt that God truly desires their salvation and Christ certainly died as a provision of atonement for them. In contrast, consistent Calvinists cannot even truthfully tell their children that Jesus loves them in any meaningful way or that Christ showed His great love by dying for them. Indeed, God may hate them just as He hated Esau and have no desire to save them. Likewise, Christ may not have died for them at all.

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