I wasn’t raised a Calvinist, but I have been immersed in Calvinistic churches for a long many years now, and most of the pastors I listened to on line have been Calvinists. So, I knew it existed, and I knew Calvinism was locked in an eternal struggle against the evil forces of Armenianism.
Those filthy heretics.
And the fact is, it’s not something a lot of pastors tend to address directly. It’s sort of a background assumption that they hold, but don’t talk about, like the value of the Electoral College, or the bennefits of Vitamin D. And with the knowledge that Calvinism is rooted in the clear teaching of scripture, I occasionally wondered how ANYONE could be foolish enough to be an Arminian. But it slowly began to occur to me that, as long as I had been aware of this debate, I couldn’t name a single Arminian. Eventually I realized that I had only heard ABOUT Arminianism, but I had never heard about it FROM an Arminian.
As someone who debunks Evolution by quoting evolutionists, and who debunks Islam by quoting the Quran, and as someone who spent weeks watching far more videos about the flat earth model than is necessary to cause lasting brain damage, I decided I needed to find an Arminian to tell me, in his own filthy heretical words, why he rejects the Bible. Assuming he did. Which, of course he did. Heretics.
By Googling for a bit, I discovered Dr Leighton Flowers of Soteriology 101, and here’s the weird thing: He’s not a Calvinist OR an Arminian. No one ever told me there was another position. It was like discovering that there are people whose computers aren’t running Windows OR Mac OS. It blew my tiny mind. Dr. Flowers calls himself a Provisionist, which just means that he believes that God provided salvation for all people through Jesus, whether they accept it or not. And I was all, “well, yeah, duh.”
And then I was all, “Wait… Calvinists don’t believe that? Hold up. What DO they believe?”
I listened to a lot of Leighton Flower’s programs wherein he goes through the doctrines and arguments and proof texts of Calvinists showing that Calvinism isn’t Biblical. So now I knew that Calvinists were heretics who rejected the clear teaching of scripture… so I needed to go back and listen to Calvinists explain themselves in their own words so I could get a clear understanding of both sides again.
And that brings me to John Piper.
I found a teaching series from popular Calvinist pastor John Piper teaching on TULIP, which is the acronym through which the main doctrine of Calvinism is summed up. I’m going to teach you what Piper said, so you can see why I’m confused by the whole thing, and how this debate doesn’t encourage me to be optimistic about the future of the human race. But I was pretty cynical to begin with, so it’s not all Piper’s fault.
TULIP stands for: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.
Unless they are teaching on these issues directly, and from a Calvinistic point of view in order to teach Calvinism itself, almost no Calvinist would describe these in a way that anyone in a Christian church would disagree with. All of us would just join hands and sing Kumbaya together. Because nothing in that list sounds anything but Biblical, right? And when these Calvinists preach the gospel, they preach THE GOSPEL. So, it MUST be Biblical, right?
Not so fast. Let’s look at these one at a time. Remember, I listed to NINE HOURS of John Piper so you don’t have to. I did that for you.
Total Depravity: While a lot of people define this to merely mean that all of creation is touched by sin, and thus that the depravity- the evil- of our rebellion against God has touched everything, including every part of us- this is NOT what Total Depravity means to Calvinism. On Calvinism, Total Depravity means that EVERY SINGLE HUMAN is born, not only a sinner, but as someone who instinctively HATES GOD and CANNOT understand nor accept the Gospel. Remember that word “Cannot” because we’re going to come back to it. This is not just a belief that we are born bent toward sin and selfishness, but rather that we are born HATING God and unable to change, and also unable to even WANT to stop hating God. Our depravity is total, not because we are always as evil as we could possibly be, but because our sinful selves are totally bent against God and totally unable and unwilling to change.
Maybe this is a terrible metaphor, but I don’t watch professional sports. I don’t want to. I don’t even WANT to want to watch sports. I hope I never develop an interest in any professional sport or team. It’s kind of like that if you swap out Major League Baseball for the Gospel.
Unconditional Election is the doctrine that God chooses who will and who will not be saved. FULL STOP. No alternatives, no options. And you may be thinking, “Oh, sure, they mean God chose to save those who put their faith in Jesus Christ…” and you are 100% wrong. That is NOT what they mean, and they curse you as a heretic who is putting your faith in the works of man. What Calvinism means is that when people get to heaven, it is because GOD chose to put them there, and when people get to hell it is because God chose to put them there, and you will notice I didn’t just now say anything about their choice to put their faith in Christ or their choice to reject Christ. On Calvinism, it is not the Christian Church who is elect the way that Israel was elect, but rather than each individual Christian is a Christian because God decided before time began that they would be. Keep your theological seatbelts on, because we’re about to dive deeper into this idea.
Limited Atonement is not about the application of salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross, it is about the scope of it’s intent. According to Calvinism, Jesus did NOT die for the sins of the whole world like the Bible seems to say. Jesus ONLY died for those select people who God picked to be saved. A consistent Calvinist CANNOT preach “Jesus died for you!” to a room full of sinners. He can only preach “Jesus might have died for some of you, but probably not most of you. He hates most of you and wants you to go to hell, because somehow they gives Him glory.” You think I’m being sarcastic or exaggerating or something, right? I’m not. Hold on. The rabbit hole gets deeper.
Allow me to clarify. On Calvinism, Jesus went to the cross with a predetermined list of those persons for whose sins he was dying. He was not- on Calvinism- merely dying for the sins of the whole world so that, whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. He was, if you pardon the metaphor- like Santa on Christmas Eve. That sleigh is not loaded up with toys for all the children of the world. It ONLY has toys for the boys and girls he has already put on the NICE list. In a sense, Jesus went to the cross the same way- with salvation and grace ONLY for those on the NICE list- although in this case, it’s not based on their niceness or anything else we can know. That list doesn’t get made after you choose to be naughty or nice. You’re on one of those lists before you are born and the sleigh was loaded up from eternity past. And in case you are tempted to think Calvinism is teaching that we are put on the “Nice” list through faith, and not by works so that no one can boast, you are about to learn that faith is not something we CAN do. It’s one of the gifts on the sleigh for those who were put on the Nice list before they were born.
Irresistible Grace is just as it sounds- no one can resist the grace of God. At first, this sounds good, right? Sure! The love of God is powerful and overwhelming! Some of us have felt that! But this is not what Calvinism is teaching. Remember when I said “EVERY SINGLE HUMAN is born, not only a sinner, but as someone who instinctively HATES GOD and CANNOT understand nor accept the Gospel”? That was Total Depravity. And remember when I said “when people get to heaven, it is because GOD chose to put them there”? That was Unconditional Election. Now we put these ideas together to ask, if people are born totally depraved, and salvation is based on God’s application of LIMITED Atonement to individuals chosen by His Unconditional Election, then how are people saved?
We all know this. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.…” (Ephesians 2:8-9) We choose to put our faith in Jesus, and He gives to us his righteousness, as our sins are paid for on the Cross…
Oh, wait, no. In order to choose to put our faith in Jesus, we would have to overcome our innate instinct to hate God and reject the Gospel. We can’t do that. We can’t even WANT to do that. This is where the Calvinist points to the part of Ephesians 2 that says “It is the gift of God.” Yes, they say, it is through faith you are saved, but if it was by choosing to put your own trust in Jesus, you would be DOING SOMETHING to save yourself (by WORKS so that you COULD boast). That means you cannot choose to have faith in Jesus. Also, that whole total depravity thing. You don’t even want to. You’re like a child being offered broccoli. You can’t want it. You don’t even want to want it. You hate it. But like a good father, God can take that plateful of faith broccoli and shove it down your unwilling throat. But once he does, you’re glad he did.
That’s actually a fairly accurate metaphor.
Let me clarify again. On Calvinism, if you are saved, you are chosen before time began, for no reason we can know, and are among the “elect.” Jesus dies for the elect, and ONLY the elect. Then you are born, the same God hating sinner as everyone else. At some point, God forces you to believe in the gospel, and after that you discover that, as a result, you have faith in Jesus. Where most of us assumed that Jesus taught that when we put our faith in Him, we are born again, the Calvinist says, NO! When you are born again, then you are given the gift of faith. When Santa lands the renewal sleigh on the roof of your heart, you are given the gift of faith, and it is a gift you cannot refuse.
That’s a terrible metaphor but I stand by it.
So you cannot choose to have faith, and you cannot choose to accept the Grace of God. And you can’t resist it. God chooses you, and applies that grace and faith to you. You are ENTIRELY PASSIVE. You don’t even choose to accept the free gifts of salvation and faith. You CANNOT choose. You cannot even want to. While not necessary to the rest of this, it is worth noting that a lot of Calvinists argue that you cannot choose ANYTHING. And I mean, you can’t choose to be saved, you can’t choose to reject the Gospel, you can’t choose what sins to commit, and you can’t choose what cereal to have for breakfast this morning. Everything that ever happens anywhere- every action, thought, feeling, behavior and result are all entirely determined by God. EVERYTHING.
But when you do bad things, it’s still your fault. How do they square that circle? “Mystery.” And that’s the best answer you’re going to get.
Perseverance of the Saints is where I feel like John Piper’s whole Calvinism falls apart completely. As he explains this, he presents the Perseverance of the Saints, not as a gift like faith, but as a RESPONCIBILITY. He includes a story where a woman- a Calvinist- decided that, since she is ELECT, and CHOSEN BY GOD, and has been given IRRESTISTABLE GRACE, that her faith and salvation- both the choice of God alone for His glory- are gifts she cannot choose and thus cannot lose, and so her salvation is entirely secure without question. And to celebrate, she takes a lover and cheats on her husband. After all, if she can’t even choose to have faith, then her sins can’t undo God’s eternal election of her- a choice that Jesus died for. Right?
And Piper tells her that, if she doesn’t stop cheating on her husband, she will go to hell. This almost made my brain explode.
See if you can follow the logic here: We are born sinners who hate God and who CANNOT understand nor accept the gospel- and we CANNOT do any different. God picks a small select few of us to give his irresistible grace to, the result of which is we have faith in Jesus. But then we apparently have the ability to sin enough to lose the irresistible grace and go to hell.
But as a Calvinist who rejects our ability to make choices, isn’t Piper actually saying that IF GOD CHOSES TO MAKE US SIN, we can sin enough to lose the salvation that we didn’t choose? Because, again, on the view of many Calvinists, we don’t even choose which shoe to put on first, let alone whether or not we will be faithful to our spouses. So if that woman was choosing to cheat on her husband, and her choices are all determined by God, then Piper’s view would be that she can lose her salvation if God determines that she is going to keep sinning. Do you see the theological merry go round this turns into when you start to fall down the rabbit hole?
Other Calvinists would argue that Piper is wrong here, and that Perseverance of the Saints is not about our ability to lose our salvation because we choose to sin. As RC SPROUL puts it, “.. the perseverance of the saints is this: If you have it—that is, if you have genuine faith and are in a state of saving grace—you will never lose it. If you lose it, you never had it.” (https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/tulip-and-reformed-theology-perseverance-saints)
So not every Calvinist believes the same things, but it does little to fix the whole situation.
TULIP in a nutshell is, You hate God when you are born, and you can’t even want to repent. Before Time began, God made a Naughty/Nice list (which is actually a saved/Damned list) which is not actually based on who is Naughty or Nice. At some point in your life, the elect (Nice List) are saved through the slice of salvation Jesus earned just for their sins on the cross. They cannot choose this salvation, nor can they resist it when God decides it is time to receive it. After they are saved and changed they are able to admit they are sinners and repent, and they are given the gift of faith. And depending on who you ask, you either continue in that faith until you die, or you never had it, or maybe you have to work hard to keep it by avoiding sin, or maybe you have the option to sin away your irresistible grace. Like I said, it depends who you ask.
The debate over this can spread over a lot of Bible passages, arguments, metaphors and proof texts. When it comes to most doctrine, I find it saves a lot of time to simply see what Jesus said. He said this:
Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God. “The time is fulfilled,” He said, “and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel!”Mark 1:14-15
Repent in the Greek is metanoeó and it means to change one’s mind or purpose. Jesus is giving a command- change your mind. Reject lies and embrace the truth- the good news. DO THIS.
Calvinists will say that we CANNOT choose to do that. After all, salvation is by grace, and doing ANYTHING would be adding our own work to Jesus, even just putting our faith in Jesus. So, again, what did Jesus say?
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”John 6:28-29
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
Apparently Jesus said, “OK, if you want to call faith a work, it’s a work, but its the one you have to do.”
If the Calvinists are right, then Jesus is giving a command that he KNOWS that no man is capable of obeying. But Jesus calls all people to repent- to change their minds. He is not preaching that SOME of you will be given faith by God. He is not saying that repentance will HAPPEN TO some of you. He is not visiting those select few he knows he is going to die for to let them know in advance that, someday soon they will be his disciples. He is telling all to repent and believe. It’s a command, not a warning, and its the same message he sends his disciples out with.
But that means it’s not irresistible. Jesus thinks we can resist the command.
And it means it’s not forced on us from the outside. Jesus thinks we can choose to obey the command.
But that means we aren’t born unable to obey the command. Jesus thinks we have the ability to respond to His command to repent.
So maybe Jesus wants all people to be saved. Maybe he really wants all people to respond to His command and repent, and be saved. So maybe he died for all of them. But one thing seems clear- Jesus was not a Calvinist. For me, that’s all that matters.