It’s midnight. The red preacher-phone rings.

            Pastor Al, the late-night parson, answers again...

"The Tale of a Reformed Calvinist"
Posted: 15 April 2008 Revised: 29 September 2011

     I was sitting at the counter enjoying a donut and a cup of coffee, conversing with the owner and another customer, when a bearded gentleman walked in. Since we were talking about the Bible he decided to join us. Eventually, the conversation turned to the character and nature of God.

     Seeking to make a point, the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a pen and held it up. "See this pen," the man intoned before dropping it to the counter. "God determined before the foundation of the world that I would walk in here on this day at this time and drop this pen on the counter."

     I looked at the man and said, "No He didn't. You choose to walk in here on this day at this time and drop that pen on the counter. God foreknew that you would but He didn't make you do it."

     Unfortunately, many, like the man with the pen, equate foreknowledge with "fore-cause-age." They believe that because God is sovereign in all things God causes all things. Therefore, since God causes all things God knows all things. Everything that happens, in other words, happens because God determined before the foundation of the world every single event and the outcome of every single event.

     The natural consequence of this belief means that neither you, nor I, nor anyone else has free will. Nothing that you do, say, or think originated in your mind or came about because of your will. Everything, including this article was conceived by God, decreed by God, and caused by God.

     This concept is an integral part of a belief system known as Calvinism. Calvinism takes its name from the 16th Century reformer John Calvin, though its roots go back to Augustine in the 5th Century and beyond to the ancient Greeks. John Calvin applied his legal training to the Scriptures and, heavily influenced by the earlier writings of Augustine, developed his own system for understanding and interpreting the Bible while still in his twenties.

     Calvin was born on July 10, 1509 and raised in the Roman Catholic Church. He began writing his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion, in 1534, even before fully separating from the Catholic Church. He completed the Institutes in 1535, while in hiding from church authorities, and published the first volume in 1536. By 1541 he had become the de facto ruler of Geneva, continuing until his death in 1564. Called the Protestant Pope and the Genovese Dictator, he was able to bend the civil government and courts to his will, enforcing his peculiar religious beliefs and practices upon the citizens of Geneva, while ruthlessly persecuting, imprisoning, torturing, excommunicating, and executing those who resisted.

     Today, Calvinism is embraced by a wide spectrum of Protestants and Baptists. Although they may differ and disagree over a number of doctrines, they have come to a general agreement over five central tenants of Calvinism. These five points, referred to as the TULIP, are:

     1. Total Depravity
     2. Unconditional Election
     3. Limited Atonement
     4. Irresistible Grace
     5. Perseverance of the Saints.

     Even so, not every Calvinist accepts all five points. Some call themselves "One-Point," "Two-Point," "Three-Point," or "Four-Point" Calvinists and those who accept all five are called "Five-Pointers." In addition, there are also are Strict, Moderate, Hyper, and non-Hyper Calvinists, among others.

     The five points of the TULIP essentially stem from misunderstanding God's sovereignty. Calvinists overemphasize God's sovereignty to the degree that there is no place for man's free will. In fact, Man's free will is presented as a threat to God's sovereign will.

     Here's how it breaks down. God is sovereign. Because God is sovereign, God and God alone is responsible for each and everything that happens. If man has a free will then there are some actions and events that God is not responsible for. If God is not responsible for each and every thing that happens then God is not truly sovereign. Therefore, man cannot have a free will if God is sovereign.

     Now, if God is responsible for everything that happens, God is responsible for all things, both good and evil. Consequently, every truth and every lie that has been or ever will be uttered was, in the words of the bearded man mentioned at the beginning of this article, determined by God before the foundation of the world.

     Calvinists are faced, then, with the problem of God being the author of both all truth and all lies. And that brings them into conflict with the Scriptures, which say "God is not a man, that he should lie…" (Numbers 23:19), "…God, that cannot lie…" (Titus 1:2), and "…it was impossible for God to lie…" (Hebrews 6:18).

     Confused? Well, if the Calvinists are correct then it is because God decreed before the foundation of the world that you would be. You should rejoice in that you are fulfilling God's sovereign will by being confused. And, it would, of course, be God's sovereign will for you to rejoice in your confusion as well.

     But, if the Bible is correct and God can neither lie nor be the author of a lie, then maybe Calvinism isn't of God after all. Maybe the Apostle Paul was more correct than the Calvinists when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:33, "…God is not the author of confusion…". Or, maybe the truth lies in John 8:44 where Jesus tells the Pharisees and unbelieving Jews, "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it."

     When first I surrendered my life to full-time Christian service I didn't really understand what Calvinism was. I mistakenly thought that I was a Calvinist, albeit a mild one, because I didn't believe that you can lose your salvation. So far as I knew, Arminianism was the only alternative to Calvinism and since Arminians believed that you can lose your salvation I figured I must be a Calvinist.

     I thought, as do many, that the two systems are polar opposites in a theological spectrum stretching from hyper-Calvinism, with its overemphasis on the sovereignty of God, at one end to hyper-Arminianism, with its overemphasis on man's free will, at the other. The way I understood it, the main distinction between Calvinism and Arminianism centered on eternal security. If you believed in eternal security you were on the Calvinist end of the spectrum. If you thought you could lose your salvation you were on the Arminian end. The implication being either God keeps you secure (Calvinism) or you do (Arminianism).

     Consequently, I did not think I was an Arminian because I believed what Jesus said in John 10:28-29: "And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand." If this passage does not teach eternal security, then Jesus must be a liar when He says that He gives us "eternal life" and says that we will "never perish." So, I figured that I must be, at the very least, a mild Calvinist. After all, if the Arminians taught that you could lose your salvation I sure couldn't be one of them!

     Once I concluded that I must be a Calvinist I decided that I was at least a one-point Calvinist because I thought point five of Calvinism's TULIP, Perseverance of the Saints, meant eternal security. Soon after accepting that I was a one-point Calvinist, I concluded that I must be a two-point Calvinist since both Romans 3:23 and 5:12 clearly tell us that "all have sinned." This, to my understanding, was what the TULIP's first point, Total Depravity, meant.

     I never got much beyond two-points in my Calvinistic journey, though. I briefly considered Unconditional Election but quickly rejected it. At first, I thought Unconditional Election meant there are no conditions to salvation other than those found in the gospel formula, namely faith and repentance. I rejected Unconditional Election when I found out that it actually means that God unconditionally elects only those whom He has predestined to be saved for salvation according to His sovereign will, without regard to their will. And, only those elected will be saved because God has predestined all others to eternal damnation. That, however, contradicts the Bible. For example, 2 Peter 3:9 says, "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance."

     Unconditional Election also leads inescapably to the conclusion that God creates some people to populate heaven and others solely to populate hell. In other words, if you are not one of the elect, created by the sovereign will of God to be saved and added to the population of heaven, then you are one of the non-elect. If you are one of the non-elect, then you are also created by the sovereign will of God just as the elect are. Only, in this case, God has chosen to create you to add to the population of hell instead of heaven. Never mind that Matthew 25:41 says that hell was originally "…prepared for the devil and his angels:".

     Rejecting the second point of Calvinism's TULIP led to rejecting point four, Irresistible Grace, as well. Since Calvinists over emphasize the sovereignty of God, God's will must preclude man's will in every area, including salvation. So, when God decides that a certain person is to be saved He unconditionally elects that person regardless of their will. That person cannot resist God's grace and not be saved. After all, if God's will can be resisted then He is not truly sovereign and so, therefore, God's grace must be irresistible.

     Here again, Calvanism runs afoul of the Scriptures. According to the Calvinist position, God's will cannot be resisted. Yet, in Luke 13:34, Jesus laments, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!" Use of the word "would" in this passage is essentially the past tense of the word "will". In other words, Jesus (God) willed to gather Jerusalem (the Jews) under His arms but Jerusalem (the Jews) willed not to be gathered. God's will, in this case, was trumped by man's will, yet God is still God and God is still sovereign.

     Look also in 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12: "And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness." Paul clearly states in this passage that some choose to reject the offer of salvation. They "received not the love of the truth" and "believed not the truth" because they "had pleasure in unrighteousness." Yet we know from 2 Peter 3:9 that God is "…not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." Again, God's will, is trumped by man's will and still God is God and God is still sovereign.

     Point three, Limited Atonement, never made much sense to me so I was never in much danger of accepting it. After all, the Bible clearly indicates that Jesus died on the cross and shed His blood to make atonement for the sins of the whole world. John 3:15-16, for instance, says: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." The Bible also clearly teaches "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." (Romans 10:13).

     Calvinism, on the other hand, teaches that Jesus did not die on the cross for the whole world. Rather, Calvinism teaches Jesus went to the cross only for the elect, those predestined to salvation. They attempt to explain away the "whosoevers" by claiming that "whosoever" does not actually mean "whosoever." Instead, "whosoever" really means "whosoever of the elect." However, when you think about it, changing "whosoever" to "whosoever of the elect." makes no sense. "Whosoever of the elect" implies that some of the elect might not believe, which contradicts the Calvinist's concept of irresistible grace.

     So, what about those two points that I did accept, Total Depravity and Perseverance of the Saints? Well, at the time, I did not realize that my understanding of those two points was wrong. To me, Total Depravity meant that we are all sinners. As sinners, we are totally depraved (sinful) and unable to merit eternal life, and therefore in need of a Savior. After all, Romans 3:10-12, 23 the Apostle Paul writes, "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one." "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;".

     Wrong! Calvinists teach that Total Depravity means that man cannot respond to the gospel because he is spiritually dead and, hence, totally depraved. Therefore, it takes a special act of God to regenerate the hearts of sinners specially selected according to His sovereign will to be saved. Then, in their newly redeemed state, they can now respond to God's irresistible grace and believe. Or, to put it another way, Calvinists teach that redemption precedes belief. This is despite clear teaching in the Bible that redemption (salvation) follows belief (faith):

"That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:15-16)

     "To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins." (Acts 10:43)

     "But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed." (Romans 10:8-11)

     Likewise, Perseverance of the Saints wasn't what I thought either. I understood it to mean that all who are truly saved will persevere to the end. In other words, I equated it with eternal security. Instead, it meant, according to the Calvinists, that only those who are chosen and redeemed by God will make it to heaven. These select saints are known as the elect.

     Unfortunately, there is no way to be certain that you are one of the elect. You may think that you are, but how can you be sure? It may be that God never chose to save you but merely chose to allow you to believe that you are saved. You may be one of those who, in Matthew 7:22, say, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?" only to hear "I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matthew 7:23)." So, ultimately, the only real way to know that you are one of the elect is to stand before the Lord and hear Him say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant...enter thou into the joy of thy lord. (Matthew 25:21)." Only then will you know for sure that you are one of the elect because you have persevered to the end.

     So, having rejected all five points of Calvinism's TULIP, had I now become an Arminian? I mean, I did believe that man's will could at times trump God's will, which seemed to be an Arminian concept. But then again, there was still the matter of eternal security, which seemed more of a Calvinistic concept. Was it possible to be a zero-point Calvinist?

     That brings us back to the bearded gentleman at the beginning of this article equating foreknowledge with "fore-cause-age." That line of reasoning makes God responsible for everything that happens. That seems to make sense until you realize the logical result is that God knew Adam would sin because He made Adam to sin. In fact, it makes God the author of every act that has ever occurred, from a man walking into a donut shop on a particular day and dropping a pen on the counter to the most horrible, vile, wicked, evil sins that ever been committed.

     No, God's foreknowledge does not mean that He knows what is going to happen because He predetermines everything that will happen in advance and then causes it to happen, no more than my saying that the sun will come up tomorrow morning means that I will make it come up. It is because God transcends time. He is "…Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." (Revelation 22:13). He is "…the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy…" (Isaiah 57:15). Consequently, the future is as real to God as the past and present are. And, although God can and does predetermine some things such as the cross, He knows our future choices because He knows the future.

     Now, Arminianism doesn't fare so well either. It's elevation of man's free will ultimately makes not only our salvation but our eternal security dependent on self rather than God. Yes, "whosoever will" must ultimately chose to believe and accept Jesus Christ as Savior, but, as we saw earlier in John 10:28-29, "whosoever will" does not keep us saved. That responsibility belongs to God and God alone. We are kept in His hand by His will and His power, not ours. Or, as 1 Peter 1:3-5 puts it, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. "

     So if I am not a Calvinist or an Arminian, what am I? Answer: a Biblicist!

     On the surface, Calvinism and Arminianism both seem to provide apparent answers for some difficult passages. Unfortunately their answers, as we have seen, often create more difficulties and logical conundrums than they solve. By forcing the reinterpretation of clear passages in light of difficult passages we are forced to violate the common sense rule of using the clear to interpret the difficult. As a consequence, most Calvinists and Arminians are not pure Calvinists or Arminians. Many struggle, like I did, with the obvious contradictions and forced interpretations demanded by their respective belief systems.

     However, as a Biblicist I do not have to pick and choose between Calvinism on the one hand and Arminianism on the other or conform to a position somewhere between the two. In fact, instead of being opposite positions along a linear theological spectrum, Calvinism and Arminianism occupy the bottom of a theological triangle. The Biblical position, at the peak of the triangle, allows man's free will and God's sovereign will to operate in conjunction with each other. Perhaps a better way to put it is that God allows man's free will to operate with some limitations within the overall confines of God's sovereign will. Think of a dog on a long leash following its owner he walks across a field. The owner determines where they are going but the dog is allowed to go back and forth, run and jump, stand and sit, etc. The dog moves freely, according to its own will, yet within the limits of its owner's will as imposed by the leash and the owner's pace and direction.

     The Biblical position also allows for God to legitimately offer salvation to "whosoever will" while knowing that some won't. It requires man to "believe and be saved" but makes God responsible for the eternal security of the believer. It predetermines that "…we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10) yet demands a daily surrender to the Lord in order to serve Him effectively and enjoy the blessings of our salvation.

     Consequently, my travel away from Calvinism did not mean becoming an Arminian. Instead, it meant heading toward the Biblical position at the top of the triangle. It meant rejecting the errors of two false, man-made systems for the truth of the Bible. It also meant working through and harmonizing some difficult passages addressed by both Calvinists and Arminians with an open Bible, an inquiring mind, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. After all, departure from the Biblical position at the top of the theological triangle down to the bottom corners of Calvinism and Arminianism represents a departure from truth to error. It means that although both Calvinism and Arminianism may contain some truth, both are fundamentally erroneous departures from the truth. It also means that Calvinists and Arminianists are not ultimately at odds with each another, they are at odds with God.

-Pastor Alfred B. Davis
Bible Baptist Church, Richfield, Ohio