Romans (Part 11) - Chapter 9: Calvinism
The last post covered three of four key concepts that frame our discussion of God’s application of Christ’s accomplished redemption. Those three and our concluding thoughts about them are as follows:
1. Sovereignty – God’s absolute control, accomplishing His prioritized will.
2. Death – Separation from God, requiring God’s intervention for saving faith.
3. Faith (Saving) – Assent to Christ, which is God’s basis for application of accomplished redemption.
The fourth key concept is Love. First Corinthians 13:13 states, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” This is an amazing statement. Faith is that with which we see Christ and enter into relationship with Him. In hope, our spirits look forward to the eternal blessings of the New Covenant. Yet, love is greater than these? Why?
I believe love’s elevated status comes from its foundational aspect to all existence. God does all things for His glory, and so, of course, He created for His glory (Revelation 4:11). But specifically, He created people for relationship in its highest, purest form. Consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:3-6:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
Here Paul gives the mind of God in eternity past in the prelude to creation. God has always had in mind our creation for this love relationship with Him. And if that is the purpose in the grand scheme of all creation, it is also the particular purpose of individual salvation—reconciling someone so that the end goal (or prioritized will) of God is realized.
A good definition of pure love is the uncoerced, selfless desire for the benefit of another that outweighs all other desires. We can see that definition in Christ’s claim that the greatest love is a person giving his life for another (John 15:13). The selfless concern for another’s benefit shown in giving your life defines the purity of the love.
Our conclusion for this fourth key concept, then, is that love is uncoerced desire for another’s benefit, which is God’s purpose for creation and the basis of everlasting relationship.
So, now, with these four concepts framing our outlook, let’s turn to a discussion of God’s application of redemption in conjunction with the five points of Calvinism. What we know of as the five points of Calvinism are actually answers to five points of Arminianism that were published in 1610 by some followers of Jacob Arminius, a Dutch pastor/theologian. Leaders of Reformed Theology, mostly Dutch, but from several other countries as well, met in Dordrecht, Holland in 1618-19, specifically to address those Arminian points. Their efforts produced the Canons of Dordt—the answers or judgment, which we have come to know as the five points of Calvinism. These five points can be named so as to spell the word tulip with the first letter of each point: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.
We have discussed Total Depravity previously, and it coincides with our key concept on Death. In our separation from God, we have nothing by which we can generate faith in anything righteous (ultimately God) on our own. But while we agree on that, a difficulty arises with unconditional election.
First, we need to define unconditional election. The Westminster Confession states that predestination occurs “…out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto” (III.5). In the Canons of Dordt we read that election “took place, not on the basis of foreseen faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, or of any other good quality and disposition, as though it were based on a prerequisite cause or condition in the person to be chosen” (Point 1, Article 9).
Notice that in these documents, what is affirmed is not only that God’s election is based on no meritorious condition, but more than that they affirm that God’s election is based on no condition period. The difficulty I have here is that as we look around at Christians, we find the vast majority of them having grown up in Christian homes. Of course, not all were of Christian families, but enough to make a majority. If election truly has no condition, Christians should be randomly spread through population (which is, of course, the definition of no condition). But that is not what we see.
The other difficulty is that by insisting that faith is not a condition, the Calvinistic view is to place faith after regeneration. We briefly discussed this in the last post, but will do so more in a moment.
The third of the five Calvinistic points is that of Limited Atonement. This means that Christ died for only the elect. This is more a logical point than a biblical one. Two arguments favor this distinction. One is that if Christ died for someone’s sins and that person ended up in Hell, his/her sins effectively would be paid for twice—once by Christ and the other by the person. That would appear unjust. Secondly, if Christ paid for the sins of someone who ended up in Hell, Christ’s death would, in essence, be ineffectual for that person.
I think both these arguments take too simplistic a view of Christ’s atoning work. His death was not a divvying up of blood drops per person covered. It was an all inclusive payment, effectual in providing payment for all but procuring payment for only the elect. I use the illustration of renting Disneyworld for a weekend and inviting everyone from my hometown to come to the park without cost. Some people may decline my invitation, but the renting of the park did not become ineffectual because those people rejected my offer.
Furthermore, if limited atonement is true, why does God offer a general Gospel call to all people? Of course, those not elected would not respond, but that’s thinking only from their perspective. From God’s perspective, why does He say “Come!” to those not elected? His call would appear to be disingenuous if He calls those to come for whom He hasn’t provided.
Even Calvin could not hold to this idea. In his commentary on I John 2:2 he says, “He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world’—as follows: Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and in the goodness of God is offered unto all men without distinction, His blood being shed not for a part of the world only, but for the whole human race; for although in the world nothing is found worthy of the favor of God, yet he holds out the propitiation to the whole world, since without exception He summons all to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than the door of hope.”
The fourth point, Irresistible Grace, speaks especially to the regeneration-preceding-faith idea. God’s work to regenerate, the Calvinist argues, is not weighed by the person and then possibly rejected. It is something that God accomplishes without decision of the individual and thus is irresistible.
Finally, Perseverance of the Saints relates to the fact that people who are redeemed can never lose their salvation because God is the one who elected, applied, and holds.
As noted above, I have a problem with the idea found in Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace that regeneration precedes faith logically in applied redemption. Let’s discuss that. Justification is the declaration by God that a sinner is righteous. Several verses in the Bible state that we are justified by faith. Thus, the logical progression in Reformed theology is as follows:
Regeneration – faith – justification
Note that this is a logical progression, not chronological. Chronologically all of this occurs simultaneously (or just about).
I can understand the Calvinist argument (built from our same conclusion in the key concept of Death mentioned above) that without God’s intervention a person could not have faith to believe. So, the Calvinist argues that, logically, regeneration must occur first in order for a person to believe. Where the system breaks down, I think, is in saying that justification logically proceeds from faith. Justification is the declaration of righteousness. Righteousness occurs based on regeneration (the cleansing of sin and application of Christ’s righteous fulfillment of the covenant requirements). How then can we defend this logical order of justification proceeding from faith? From this order, it appears we can’t. And yet the Bible argues that we, in fact, are justified by faith (Romans 3:28; 5:1). The order of regeneration—faith—justification, therefore, simply does not work logically.
If, on the other hand, regeneration came logically after faith, we would, then, have logical cohesiveness. Regeneration logically proceeds from faith (Romans 9:30 – righteousness by faith; Romans 4), and justification proceeds from regeneration (Romans 5:9). Therefore, since faith is the initial point in the logical string, we can logically conclude with Romans 5:1 that we are justified by faith. Without this order, I believe the logical application of redemption fails.
Of course, in this order of faith—regeneration—justification, we run headlong into the problem of our key concept of Death. The unregenerate mind cannot assent to (cannot have faith in) spiritual goodness (God). My reconciliation of this point has its basis in Romans 1. In this chapter, God makes clear that He has given to the world (to every person that ever lived) the realization that He exists (so that each person is without excuse). If God can intervene to reveal Himself in this way—to open eyes (as it were) to spiritual understanding, He can reveal Himself and open eyes to any extent without necessarily having to regenerate the person before doing so. I believe (again based on Romans 1) that God does interact with His creation in innumerable applications of grace and revelation. Based then on no merit, but on the condition of mere intellectual assent (faith), God regenerates those whom He has elected in eternity past based on His all-encompassing foreknowledge of infinite activity on His part in the revelation of Himself and the faith response of the individuals.
What this does for me is the following: (1) it assures me of God’s sovereign control of everything, (2) it assures me that salvation is all of God without any meritorious work by the elect at all, (3) it provides a logical cohesiveness to the Scripture’s emphasis of faith—regeneration—justification, (4) it provides a logical reason for the majority of Christians to be from Christian households, (5) it shows God not to be disingenuous in His effectual or general call, (6) it satisfies every verse on election within all of Scripture, (7) it dovetails with Covenant theology, (8) it takes care of the Calvinistic problem of why God would elect only some and not all, and (9) it satisfies my understanding of God’s application of redemption without presenting any problem that I have to shrug my shoulders saying, “Well, we’ll find that out in eternity” or “I don’t know why, but God just did it that way.”
Thus, my conclusion is that people are dead in sin (spiritually unaware). God must reveal Himself to people so that they may become spiritually aware. By faith (assent to the spiritual awareness given by God), God applies accomplished atonement to individuals. Through His omniscience in the individual instances of faith and God’s incomprehensibly abundant and intricate acts of influence and withdrawal, God so faithfully controls all activity to work out His will of the ultimate good of pure love relationship with His people of faith.