Calvinistic scholars often insist that God is not arbitrary (“without reason”) in His judgments (or His selection of those who will or will not be saved), but insist God has secret reasons that are simply unknown to us. Nevertheless, the Calvinist maintains that while we cannot know what the reasons are, we can know that it has absolutely nothing to do with mankind’s choices or behavior. In other words, on Calvinism, God elects or rejects (reprobates) each individual based on reasons that have nothing to do with those individuals. Yet, somehow they feel this belief does not make God out to be arbitrary.
This perspective is largely resting on the Calvinist’s interpretation of Romans 9:11, which says,
“…for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls.”
Calvinists insist this passage proves that God had unconditionally elected to effectually save some individuals and pass by all the rest without any regard to their future choices or behaviors. Alternate interpretations of this passage are offered elsewhere in this book, but one glaring problem of the Calvinistic interpretation must be highlighted at this point. If God ultimately determines the good and bad behavior of these twins (as most Calvinists insist), then what point is there in mentioning that the twins were not chosen based on the good or bad behavior that God determined for them to do?
Even Calvinists acknowledge that everyone who is saved will believe and practice good works by God’s sovereign decree, so is Paul’s point that the choice to save one over another somehow ignores what He has determined for them to do (i.e. like respond in faith to the gospel)?
Clearly, Paul is speaking of God’s choice of the weaker, younger brother through which to bring about the promise of the Messiah rather than the more obvious choice of the elder, stronger brother. God has often chosen the weak and seemingly less qualified through which to accomplish His redemptive plan so as to demonstrate His power (see Gideon’s army or the choice of David as king). Jacob was not chosen because he was more worthy, qualified or moral than his elder brother. But, he also was not chosen for effectual salvation without any apparent reason (arbitrarily).
What do Calvinists believe?
That God chooses according to the good pleasure of his will does not mean that his choices are capricious or arbitrary. An arbitrary choice is one made for no reason at all. Though Reformed theology insists that God’s election is based on nothing foreseen in the individuals’ lives, this does not mean that he makes the choice for no reason at all. It simply means that the reason is not something God finds in us. In his inscrutable, mysterious will, God chooses for reasons known only to himself. He chooses according to his own pleasure, which is his divine right.75
Assuming Calvinism for the moment, if the choice to elect one person over another to become a believer is not “arbitrary,” such that God has a definite reason, in terms of God’s specific plan for that particular individual, then why would God engage in Favoritism by being pleased to favor one person over another?
What do Calvinists believe?
John MacArthur: “Why he selected me, I will never know. I’m no better than anyone else. I’m worse than many. But He chose me.”76
Deferring Unconditional Election to mystery, while insisting it is not arbitrary is like saying: I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s not that. But, how do you know for sure if it is a mystery to you?
What do Calvinists believe?
D. James Kennedy:
Again and again we see that people are predestined (elected) to salvation–but nowhere do we see that anyone is ever predestined to condemnation of Hell. When we think of God as unfairly, arbitrarily electing people to Heaven or Hell, it is as if we have a mental picture of a row of people sitting on a fence, and God passes down the line and points at each one, ‘It’s Hell for you, Heaven for you, Hell, Hell, Hell, Heaven, Hell…’ Now, that would be unfair–and absolutely capricious! But that’s not the kind of God we love and serve.77
That is a confusing statement coming from a Calvinist. After all, what is named as “absolutely capricious” appears to be exactly what the Calvinist doctrine of Unconditional Election is all about.
What do Calvinists believe?
John Calvin: “There are some, too, who allege that God is greatly dishonored if such arbitrary power is bestowed on Him. But does their distaste make them better theologians than Paul, who has laid it down as the rule of humility for the believers, that they should look up to the sovereignty of God and not evaluate it by their own judgment?”78
So, even John Calvin admits that Unconditional Election involves “arbitrary power,” and thus to charge Calvinism with being arbitrary is clearly not a misrepresentation. Choosing between two things, in which the choice is not based on anything about either of those things, is the very definition of “arbitrary.” In the Calvinist perspective, though, the decision to choose “arbitrarily” between two individuals is not an arbitrary method, but a purposeful method, for the purpose of magnifying God’sCalvinism’s elect had gotten “lucky,” and perhaps are the result of good fortune? “No,” says the Calvinists, who believes that luck or good fortune never had anything to do with it, but that they were only and always ever going to be “elect.”
Consider the following analogy. Assuming that I am a good pet owner, imagine if I wanted a kitten, and a friend offered me two, but I only wanted one. Imagine if the two kittens were absolutely identical in every conceivable detail. Imagine if I blindfolded myself and simply pointed to the owner that whichever one was placed on the right side, I’ll take. My choice, then, would be completely arbitrary concerning the kittens themselves, as I don’t really care which one I choose, but only that I choose just one. Imagine that I am later informed that the other kitten didn’t find a home and ultimately had to be euthanized. So, could it be said that the kitten that I chose was lucky and fortunate? A reasonable person might indeed conclude that. The fact is, though, that when compared to God under the Calvinist doctrine of an Unconditional Election, this analogy is flawed in many ways because in God’s case, He is neither blindfolded, nor picking based upon someone else’s random ordering, nor unaware of the consequences of His choices. Therefore, it seems that it is impossible for God to pick anything, truly arbitrarily. God has to have a reason to pick one thing over another, as He controls all of the variables. So, Calvinists can claim that they don’t know why God chose them, but they would ultimately have to concede that God, with eyes like a hawk, knew what He was doing in picking them over someone else. So, if Unconditional Election is not about anything that is arbitrary, or luck, or good fortune, then in Calvinism, they have a greater basis to boast over anything in the Arminian or Traditionalist system. In fact, if there was never any possibility of Calvinism’s elect in being anything other than elect, then the question arises as to how that might meaningfully distinguish an image of Calvinism’s elect appearing as demi-gods. Meanwhile, in Arminianism or Traditionalism, what makes one differ is that one sinner submits to God while the rest self-determine to refuse, but not that either one was born with the scales tilted in their favor.
75 What is Reformed Theology? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1997), 147.
76 The Sovereignty of God in Salvation (sermon 80-46T, 6/22/1980), https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/80-46/the-sovereignty-of-god-in-salvation.
77 Solving Bible Mysteries (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 29.
78 Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians, translated by Ross Mackenzie (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 209-210.
[This post has been excerpted with permission from Leighton C. Flowers with Richard Coords, [re]Reformed: A Journey In and Out of Calvinism with a Verse by Verse Commentary (Trinity Academic Press, 2020).]