Christians get into endless debates about free will, predestination, and once-saved-always-saved, get lost in the complexity of it all, and don’t even see the 800 pound gorilla sitting in the room.
I feel a need to expose one of the most insidious heresies to ever infect the Christian church. Though I have strong words to write about this doctrine I have nothing but love for my Baptist, Presbyterian and other brothers in Christ in the churches of the Reformed tradition. In fact, I may be teaming up with some to oversee a local body of believers in my own town. I don’t bring this burden to divide the body of Christ, but to provide a bulwark against yet another wind of doctrine that has blown through the Christian church and has stuck in some quarters, this quarter being about 80 million strong, about 10% of those who consider themselves to be Christian.
One reason this doctrine has flourished in some parts is because it’s complicated. With complicated doctrines many adherents on both sides of the debate get sidetracked and never really deal with what needs to be dealt with. Christians get into endless debates about free will, predestination, and once-saved-always-saved, get lost in the complexity of it all, and don’t even see the 800 pound gorilla sitting in the room. Calvinists spend their time trying to figure out if they are 5 point or 4 point Calvinists, as if there is any real difference, and don’t even consider the kind of God they have created.
Right here before we get past the first page I want to lay it out as clearly, succinctly, and simply as possible:
Calvinism teaches that before any humans were born, God picked out which of us would spend eternity with Him and which ones would end up in eternal conscious torment.
That’s about as clear as I can make it. Calvinists will word it like this (taken from the Acts 29 Network doctrinal statement):
God chose us (to be saved) not on the basis of foreseen faith but unconditionally, according to his sovereign good pleasure and will.
If you’re up on this topic you can see some of TULIP in that statement and recognize this is the conclusion to the doctrine.
In other words, if anyone ends up suffering for eternity it is because God chose him for that. This is what Calvinists mean by “predestination.” If a person accepts the Gospel and gets saved it’s because that was God’s eternal purpose for him and divinely enabled him to accept the Gospel and get saved. Without that divine intervention in his heart he would never have had faith in Christ. If he doesn’t hear the Gospel, or if he does hear it and rejects it, that’s because that was God’s eternal purpose for him. He was created for God’s good pleasure and his good pleasure is to have him or her suffer for ever and ever and ever, with no end. Ever.
To sum things up, and this is the point that gets lost in all the debating about free will and losing one’s salvation:
This Doctrine Makes God Out to be an Evil, Sadistic Monster
We could stop right here because this is all the information we need to reject this doctrine. Any doctrine that makes God out to be something that he isn’t, in fact makes God out to be the opposite of what he actually is, can be and should be rejected on that basis alone. End of debate. We can all call it a day and be done with this. Nothing more needs to be said.
But of course more we shall say.
It doesn’t matter if you believe in free will or not. It doesn’t matter if you believe in predestination or not. It doesn’t even really matter if you think you have scriptures to support what you believe or don’t.
My dear Calvinist friends please consider: If the result of your doctrine is that God is an evil, sadistic monster, then there is something wrong with your doctrine.
You may think you have scriptures to support Calvinism but it should be apparent that your interpretations of said scriptures are wrong, terribly wrong, and you shouldn’t be working so hard at defending your doctrine. What you should be working hard at is finding a way to interpret those scriptures in such a way that is consistent with the idea that God is a God of love, justice, and yes even wrath, not someone who creates people for his good pleasure and his good pleasure is to see them tormented for ever and ever and ever with no end and no mercy, as if that is somehow what a God of justice and wrath would actually do.
If you are not willing to consider that your interpretation of scripture is wrong, you have no business teaching the Word of God to anyone else.
The End of the Debate for Some Calvinists: You Can’t Question God
If you are not a Calvinist you may wonder why this doctrine has gained such wide spread popularity. Like I said before, it gets complicated, and according to them I can’t even raise the issue and question their doctrine. They quote the verses in Romans 9 about how God created some for glory and others for destruction:
But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath– prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory–even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
This verse does indeed imply God has created some for destruction, but what does Paul mean by that? Who is he talking about and what kind of destruction is he talking about? We need to understand what Paul meant by that and not take it out of context to use it to support an insidious doctrine that makes God out to be a cruel, sadistic monster, something Paul would never have done. Paul was talking about God bringing the plagues on the Egyptians and hardening Pharaoh’s heart so he would chase the Israelites out of Egypt. That was a seminal moment in Israel’s history and if you follow Paul’s line of thinking (not always an easy chore), you will see that he is saying to the Jews that just as the Egyptians had no “right” to complain to God for being a part of God’s plan by being the ones to receive the plagues, the Jews have no right to complain that God’s blessings are now going to the Christians and has left the nation of Israel, who, by the way, were about to be destroyed by the Roman army in 70 AD.
First it was the Egyptians who would have been asking, “Why have you made me like this?” and then it was Israel’s turn. The destruction spoken of was physical and temporal, not spiritual and eternal.
Calvinists will judge me, and you if you agree with me, as ones whose carnal minds God has not illuminated to be able to embrace the glories of their “gospel”. To them I am one of those whom God has hardened, or at least left in my natural state and I have no business even asking questions like this, branding me as the same clay that cries out to the potter, “Why have you made me like this?”
To a Calvinist, this is the end of the debate. No one has the right to question God. Nothing more needs to be said. Call it a day and go home. Some will even go so far as to say that since I do not believe their “gospel,” as they define it, i.e., I am not a Calvinist, I am not of the elect and my end will be eternal hellfire. And if you, like most of the Christian church, are not a Calvinist, you will end up there too.
Not all Calvinists are that legalistic to think that only Calvinists are saved but it’s not hard to see why some do since it’s easy to see how one can confuse the Gospel with a person’s doctrine about the Gospel. They errantly reason that if you don’t believe a person gets saved the way they believe a person gets saved then you don’t believe the Gospel and thus can’t possibly be saved. We’ve also seen this with Catholics who don’t believe Protestants are saved because we don’t include works as necessary for salvation. Conversely we see this type of legalism with some Protestants who don’t believe a Catholic can be saved if that Catholic believes works must be added to faith in order to be saved. We see it again here with some Calvinists who won’t accept faith in Christ as sufficient for salvation. As you might suspect there are non-Calvinists who don’t believe some Calvinist can be saved because some Calvinists ad to faith in Christ a particular doctrine about salvation that must be understood and believed in order to be saved. Thus in their minds the Calvinist has a false gospel and how can anyone get saved through a false gospel, they might argue.
Sometimes I think the Catholics are right: Protestants left unsupervised just create a mess and don’t clean up after themselves.
I agree that Calvinists have a false gospel but right in the middle of their message is a message of faith in Christ which does exactly that, leads to a faith in Christ. I think God is good with that. Amen anybody?
Let’s get back to the problem raised by Romans 9. We are not the clay questioning God, we are mature men and women of integrity questioning the Calvinist’s doctrine about God. Can you see the distinction? Many Calvinists can’t and that’s why they are still Calvinists.
Other Calvinists are able to see the distinction between questioning God and questioning their doctrine of God but have been led to believe the tenants of Calvinism are biblical so have no option but to accept the conclusion that God created millions to suffer in hell forever, no matter how unsettling a proposition that may be.
Dear Calvinist, if your understanding of theology leads you to a conclusion that doesn’t sit well with you, have you considered this is the Holy Spirit gently speaking to you? Is your heart soft enough to act accordingly? There is another option, and millions of your brethren have found it. This other option is fully consistent with the idea that God is good, that he is a Father, that he is love, and that he is just, holy and a God of wrath. It does not do violence to what Jesus and his apostles taught us about God and what we as Christians know of God, as does the doctrine of Calvinism.
This leads to a second reason Calvinists are trapped in Calvinism:
The End of the Debate for Some Other Calvinists: Spiritual People Accept Hard Doctrines
If you think I’m implying there’s a bit of spiritual pride involved you would be correct. The line of reasoning goes like this: God says some things that are hard to swallow, but the spiritual swallow them nevertheless. If you don’t accept God’s hard sayings, you are like the multitude that left Jesus after he told them they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. A spiritual person, one who loves God with all of his heart and all of his mind, one who loves truth and is willing to have his human understanding enlightened by the Holy Spirit, will accept biblical teaching, no matter how hard it is to accept.
To that I agree. The problem is, we must first determine what is biblical. I submit that a doctrine that makes God out to be an evil, sadistic monster is not a biblical doctrine to begin with. How could it be? Instead of feeling spiritual for accepting a doctrine that is, to put it mildly, uncomfortable, we should actually be spiritual and examine it closely and critically. To do any less does not show a genuine love for God and truth, in my not-so-humble opinion.
If you can’t see what the big deal is and can’t see why a Christian would be unsettled with the proposition that God created for his “good pleasure” people to suffer for eternity then there is a problem. All I can say to you is don’t be afraid to think about it. God honors honest questioning. Spiritual people don’t take difficult issues and sweep them under the rug.
Making God a Moral Monster – An Unnecessary Stumbling Stone
I started out with some pretty strong words about Calvinism being one of the most insidious heresies to ever infect the Christian church. I can think of only one other wide-spread heresy that has done more spiritual damage: Roman Catholicism.
Why is this one so concerning, other than the fact it makes God out to be a monster, you ask? It causes people to lose faith in Christ because at some point they think, “If that’s the Christian God, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
This won’t concern many Calvinists, and this is part of the problem, since they believe a person who loses his faith in Christ never really had it to begin with and if his end is eternal suffering that was God’s choice and it doesn’t really matter how he got there. A Calvinist can teach the Word of God any way he wants with impunity. Or so he thinks.
All this of course assumes Calvinism is true to begin with. To a Calvinist, he’s just preaching the hard truth. Those whom God has not included in the elect and has not softened their sinful hearts to receive the truth won’t receive the truth. That’s just the way it is. Que sera, sera.
If that’s you have you ever stopped for one moment and wondered if maybe you got your interpretation of scripture right? That would be hard to do because if the answer is no then you might be implicated for causing someone to stumble and lose faith after portraying God as something other than what he really is.
Who has enough integrity to even allow their minds to wander down that path and squarely deal with the implications of being wrong and causing others to stumble and end up in hell forever?
How about you? Are you willing to seriously question your own beloved doctrine? Or is your doctrine always going to be a Sacred Cow wandering the streets of Calcutta that must not be touched, much less slaughtered to help feed the starving Indians?
The False Rest and Comfort of Election
Many people who entertain the idea that a person’s salvation depends on God’s election and not on one’s own response to the Gospel find comfort in thinking they are saved and thus can never lose their salvation. That’s all well and good if they don’t think about it much beyond that. What about all the people who thought they were Christians but end up at some point in their lives rejecting the Christian faith? There are only two possibilities for them in the Calvinistic scheme of things: either they never were part of the elect but just thought they were or if they were part of the elect they never really lost their faith no matter how negative toward Christ they may have gotten. Either way we don’t really know who is elect and who isn’t. When a Calvinist, or someone entertaining the idea of election per the Calvinistic understanding, thinks about this a little deeper he will inevitably conclude that he doesn’t know if he’s of the elect any better than the millions who also thought they were of the elect but ended up in Hell forever. He will then have to face the reality that there is no real comfort in being a Calvinist trying to rest on God’s saving grace because he can never really know if he has it to begin with. If he has any humility he will realize he’s just as susceptible to being wrong about his state of salvation as the next guy who was a strong Christian but ended up denying Christ later in life. There really is no rest for a Calvinist and those holding out a false hope need to think about what they are saying before leading another soul down that path.
As for me, I rest in God. I’ve never worried about my salvation or ever had a need for reassurance. I know the admonitions to stay faithful to the end have real meaning and aren’t hard because God is on my side. Nothing will come along and pluck me out of God’s hand. I’m secure, eternally. Yet I can reject God and his Savior at any time I want to. And suffer the consequences. It really is my choice, not God’s. I am not predestined to salvation, I am predestined to what comes after my salvation. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son. That’s a verbatim quote of Romans 8:29. That image of his Son is the goal of our Christian life, according to 2 Corinthians 3:18: “We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” That’s our destination, determined beforehand at the foundation of the world.
Once we are saved, God has a choice as to what to do with us. His choices were: A) conform us to the image of Christ, or B) conform us to the image of something else, or C) not conform us to anything. His choice was A, conform us to the image of Christ, according to Romans 8:29. That is to what we are predestined, not salvation. The Gospel is not about who was predestined, but to what we are predestined. Those who are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ are the New Covenant elect of God.
The Doctrine of Total Depravity Requires Total Scrutiny
For the sake of brevity I’m not going to go into a full-blown disputation of TULIP but for those who aren’t familiar with it I’ll briefly go into it. TULIP is a popularly used and useful acronym to describe the Calvinist’s doctrine of predestination. TULIP stands for:
T – Total Depravity
U – Unconditional Election
L – Limited Atonement
I – Irresistible Grace
P – Perseverance of the Saints
John Piper makes it even easier to understand by putting this in the order we experience it and thus the acronym becomes TILUP:
1. We experience first our (Total) Depravity and need of salvation.
2. Then we experience the Irresistible Grace of God leading us toward faith.
3. Then we trust the sufficiency of the atoning death of Christ for our sins (Limited to only those whom God chose to be saved).
4. Then we discover that behind the work of God to atone for our sins and bring us to faith was the Unconditional Election of God.
5. And finally we rest in his electing grace to give us the strength and will to Persevere to the end in faith.
In either scenario the first step is the same and from this understanding everything else in the Calvinistic system follows. The doctrine of Total Depravity says that due to the sin nature that we are born with man is incapable of hearing the Gospel and responding to it in a positive manner, i.e., respond in faith and trust God for our salvation through his Son Christ Jesus. Without God first making us able to have faith in Christ, after having chosen us to such a grace, and conversely not choosing the others, we would never have faith in Christ.
If you believe in Total Depravity there is only one logical conclusion: if you are saved God chose you to be saved because without that predestination, election, and then at some point in your life reformation of your heart, you will reject God every time you hear the Gospel.
If this sounds to you that in the final analysis human free will is eliminated you would be correct since God must control the will to get you saved and without such control you will not get saved.
But again that’s a side issue and to a Calvinist it doesn’t matter anyway. Discussions about it never get resolved. Though they might consider it a great song by Rush, Free Will is to them your issue and your problem, not theirs.
So how do we get past Total Depravity so we don’t end up making God a monster?
The vast majority of false doctrines can be boiled down to the same problem with logic that a skilled debater will do his best to expose: the argument is a Non Sequitur, that is, it does not follow. In other words, the doctrine doesn’t follow from the scriptures used to teach the doctrine. To put it even more simply, the bible doesn’t teach what they say it teaches.
That sounds simple and if it were actually that simple this doctrine wouldn’t be so popular but as usual the devil is in the details. Look at any list of scriptures used to “prove” Total Depravity and ask yourself if those scriptures are really saying man is incapable of having faith in Christ apart from God picking him out ahead of time and giving him the ability to believe the Gospel. They may say something close to that, but close is only good enough for horseshoes and hand grenades. It isn’t good enough if we want to prove a doctrine which ends up making God out to be a monster. When the stakes are this high we should demand scriptures that say exactly what the doctrine says is says. Nothing less will do. We should walk carefully, very carefully.
The Church’s Achilles Heel: Pride of Literalism
Catholics take pride in taking Jesus literally when he said to the disciples they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Evangelicals take pride in taking the Genesis account of the seven days of creation literally no matter how convincing the evidence for an old earth. Before about 1500 AD almost everybody thought the sun went around the earth due to a literal interpretation of scriptures and took great pride in believing so when challenged by astronomers. A God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it attitude has been pervasive in the church and kept Christians from considering the possibility that they are taking some scriptures too literally, that is, the author never intended them to be taken literally in the first place.
The rather incriminating language in Romans 3:10-18 is often cited to support Total Depravity:
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
If your mom is unsaved, does this description fit her? Does it fit anyone you know? If this was meant to be taken literally and is literally true about all men who have not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit then the human race should have become extinct long ago since “their feet are swift to shed blood.” If all the rest were meant to be a literal description of mankind I think I would want to be a hermit living as far away from other people as possible. I hear you can homestead in the wilds of Alaska – maybe we should all stake our ground a dozen mountain ranges away from the nearest town. No, wait, you can’t come with me, I’m trying to get away from people like you.
A favorite maxim of literalists is to take scriptures literally when at all possible. This isn’t one of those times. Taking this passage literally leads to ridiculous conclusions.
Paul wasn’t quoting this Old Testament passage to teach Total Depravity. What Paul is saying is that Jews are no better than the Gentiles and quotes these verses to keep the Jews who are still under the Law from being proud and arrogant. The verses immediately before and after these verses (9 & 19) give the context: “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin . . . Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God.”
Paul is quoting Old Testament hyperbolic statements to illustrate a point, that all men are sinners. The scriptures are full of hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. If we are going to take this passage literally we might as well be consistent and take them all literally, including the one that says we should gouge our eyes out if our eyes cause us to sin.
To use this passage from Romans and others to teach Total Depravity is just plain sloppy exegesis. It’s not even exegesis at all, it’s eisegesis, reading our interpretation into scripture rather than discovering what scripture has to say to us.
Pitting Scripture Against Scripture – Both Sides Are Wrong
Quite often discussions about theological issues boil down to one side pulling out their list of scriptures proving their doctrine and the other side pulling out their list of scriptures proving a contrary doctrine. Whoever has the longest list wins. This approach to theology is faulty to the core. We should not be pitting scripture against scripture but be doing our best to harmonize all of the scriptures that deal with any given topic. If we have a theology that seems to ignore the scriptures used by those who oppose our doctrine then we have not done our job and we are not being honest with the Word. We can’t possibly be “rightly dividing” the Word if we can’t harmonize all of the Word.
If the bible has one author then we can rightly assume it will be self-consistent and not be self-contradictory. Whenever we find ourselves thinking two scriptures seem to contradict each other then that’s a sure sign we aren’t correctly interpreting one or both of them. Isn’t that what we say to the atheists who want to disprove divine authorship by pointing out what they think are contradictions in the bible?
It doesn’t matter if one side appears to have more scriptures or “stronger” scriptures on their side. He hasn’t done his homework and the Holy Spirit hasn’t taught him the truth on the matter.
An Appeal for Unity – God’s Way
This wasn’t meant to be a refutation of Calvinism, though you’ve been given plenty enough reason to flee it like the plague. This was meant to begin the discussion with the point that gets lost in all the debate and complexity of the issue and frankly many people are afraid to even think about it much less discuss it.
Refuting Calvinism would require showing why all the scriptures used to teach it don’t teach it and then introducing the scriptures that refute it. And that’s just for starters. We also need to ask the right questions. I’ve often said 90% of theology is asking the right questions. Here’s a couple: are we predestined to salvation or to a blessing once saved? Since election is defined as “picking ahead of time,” is it God picking who will be saved or what the nature of that salvation and blessing will be? The nation of Israel was called God’s elect and they obviously weren’t saved. What does that tell you?
Though I have strong words regarding this doctrine I don’t believe those who teach it should be branded as heretics, though biblically speaking a heretic is one who causes division and this doctrine has certainly caused a lot of division in the Body of Christ. The older I get and the longer I study theology, which is pushing 40 years with 6 of those years in full-time, intensive bible study, the more grace I have for those who have been caught up in the numerous false doctrines that have blown through the church and have their very intelligent and educated proponents who are just trying to be faithful with what God has provided us to guide us in His ways.
I’ve often said if God really expects us to have doctrinal unity he would have either provided us with a much thinner book or he would have provided an infallible interpreter for the rather thick book that we have. If he has done the latter then we need to determine which of the cults that claims to be God’s channel for infallible truth is actually that. So far in my analysis none have a valid claim though the Mormons, the Watchtower Society, and the Roman Catholic Church sure have convinced a lot of people they are it.
That being said we are adjured by Paul to “speak the same things” which tells me that the Holy Spirit does have doctrinal unity as a goal and we need to be on the path with other Christians to get to that point, but we need to do it God’s way, not man’s way.
Man’s way to produce “unity” is to ostracize anyone who doesn’t agree. That can take a rather overt form such as the Catholic Church burning at the stake anyone who dares to teach anything different than what it teaches or it can take a more subtle form when churches and para-church organizations make you sign a doctrinal statement in order to be a member.
At the other extreme are those who say you can believe what you want, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. Just love each other and if we do that then that’s all that matters. Never mind the fact that false doctrine leads to bondage and to truly love each other we would want our brethren to be set free by the truth.
God’s way to produce genuine doctrinal unity requires maturity. It requires having enough faith in the working of the Holy Spirit that we allow people of all theological persuasions to be able to express what they feel is the truth. It requires humility to understand that the person on the other side of the theological fence may have something to teach us if we just open our hearts and minds enough to find out what it is. Genuine unity requires a lot of work and is a long process, much more work than the easy methods employed by much of the church. And finally genuine doctrinal unity requires the grace for others that comes from realizing that if it weren’t for the grace of God in our own lives providing us with truth through books, articles, teachers, our own study of the scriptures and the aid of the Holy Spirit, we would be just as blown about by the winds of doctrine as those we are trying to help.
Our God is a God of love and justice. That much we can agree on. What that actually means and how we actually portray God we need to work on, for God’s sake.
Your Brother in Christ,
Kennewick, WA USA
April 4, 2014
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