In discussing the particulars of Calvinism, I have to confess that I probably won’t add too much to the discussion. This debate has been going on for 400+ years so just about every argument for and against Calvinism has been discussed by someone at some point.
So why bother?
1) Theological discussion is good and stretching. Theology used to be considered the “queen of the sciences” and the history of our Western universities (and science itself) stems from a theological worldview. It is only in recent times that we have considered theological discussion to be “much ado about nothing” while we spend our time debating the “important matters” of politics and sports. But what greater subject is there than God? And what greater value is there than wrestling with God, pondering His revelation, and exploring the ultimate issues of life, meaning, and eternal salvation?
2) Tozer once said that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” We were created to worship God and reflect His glory. If we are not worshiping Him, then we are worshiping something else. And we are becoming who or what we are worshiping (Psalm 115:8). Thus, a distorted view of God leads to a distorted life…while a truer view of God leads to a truer humanity.
So the debate is important…particularly as it affects our view of the character of God.
Calvinists agree. In fact, they usually frame the debate as an assault on God’s sovereignty. To question Calvinism is automatically to demean God’s power and exalt man’s will. This is not a fair assessment. I don’t question Calvinism because I want to dethrone God. I question Calvinism because I don’t think it adequately deals with the incomprehensible love of God as revealed in Scripture.
Limited atonement is a case in point.
When I was in Bible college, I remember one of my Calvinistic teachers saying that limited atonement was more of a logical conclusion from Calvinism than a biblical one. Wow. Quite an admission.
The logic goes like this.
- Since God unconditionally chose who would be saved and who would be damned before the foundation of the world.
- And since all of humanity is dead in sin, deserves God’s wrath, and can only be saved by God’s action alone.
- Then, when Christ died on the cross, the extent of His death and the real intent of God’s love was only for the elect.
It makes logical sense. It seems airtight. Unfortunately the biblical data doesn’t support the third point.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6).
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time (1 Timothy 2:3-6).
For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe (1 Timothy 4:10).
My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (1 John 2:1-1).
Ironically, Calvin himself was too honest of a theologian to explain all these verses away. A recent Ph.D. dissertation study has shown that Calvin almost certainly did not subscribe to a view of limited atonement, http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?p=230.
J.C. Ryle, a 19th century pastor and Calvinistic theologian, said this in regard to John 3:16.
Those who confine God’s love exclusively to the elect appear to me to take a narrow and contracted view of God’s character and attributes. They refuse to God that attribute of compassion with which even an earthly father can regard a profligate son, and can offer to him pardon, even though his compassion is despised and his offers refused. I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic to their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by idolatrous veneration of a system (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 3:157).
My sentiments exactly.
So why do strict Calvinists fight against the concept of universal atonement, against the thought that Christ’s death was for all the sins of humanity and satisfied God’s wrath (propitiation) for the whole world?
Because now there is a problem. If God loves the whole world (John 3:16) and desires all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and Christ’s death atoned for all sin (Isaiah 53:6, John 1:29, 1 John 2:1-2), then on what basis does God still judge and condemn the unelect?
John Owen, the great 17th century Puritan theologian and perhaps strongest advocate of limited atonement, theorized that such a concept defies logic and makes there be a double payment for sin since Christ paid for sins that the unelect will still suffer for in hell. Owen believed that the doctrine of a universal atonement could only lead to universalism…that all people are eventually saved.
So the logic of the strict Calvinist system struggles under the weight of the cross and the love of God. Even D.A. Carson recognizes the conundrum that the universal love of God poses for Calvinism. When I heard him speak at Dallas Theological Seminary, his topic was the “Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.” How can God express unending, unyielding wrath against those whom He says He loves, for whom Christ died, and to whom He could unconditionally give salvation if He wanted to?
That’s why I think this great salvation of ours can’t be reduced to an airtight theological system. Here are some things we see from the basic teachings of Scripture.
- God created all people. Every person bears His image.
- All people have turned away from God, are dead in sin, and incapable of saving themselves.
- God is holy and just and must judge sin.
- In His great love and mercy, God sent His Son, Jesus, to die for the sins of all people.
- The Spirit works in the heart of all people to convict them of sin, righteousness, and judgment and point them to their need for Jesus.
- All people, through the work of the Spirit, must make a response to this offer of grace in order to experience God’s salvation.
- We are to take this message of grace and salvation to all people.
We can rightfully acknowledge that, behind the scenes, the interplay between God’s sovereignty, His love, the Spirit’s work, and man’s response is hard to discern and open to debate. But let’s continue to allow Scripture to expand our amazement at God’s wisdom and knowledge (Romans 11:33-36) rather than let any system “narrow and contract our view of God and His attributes.”
Calvinism reminds us of God’s power and sovereignty. God is in control. No scheme of man can thwart His plan. He knows all things and works all things according to the counsel of His will. Because of His sovereignty, I can rest in Him (particularly in a tumultuous age) and be secure in His salvation. As someone has said, “Because I think like a Calvinist, I can sleep at night.”
But Arminianism keeps Calvinism from going too far, from downplaying, limiting, or over-analyzing the love of God. It keeps us from making God’s universe an “engineer’s universe” without the mysteries and grandeur of a divine lover’s heart. And, in the end, even a strict Calvinist has to live like an Arminian, making daily choices with their will either to live for self or live for God, to love Him supremely or love other things, to love others (even our enemies) with humility and grace or to cut off those who offend us, irritate us, or disagree with us.
And I believe that when both sides of the coin are acknowledged in Scripture and received in humility, then God’s love is not difficult. It is simply amazing.