Yes, it’s true. We really can rely completely on and hope fully in God’s grace without becoming Calvinists. Calvinists don’t own the grace of God, and we non-Calvinists don’t have to fear it either. The first point we need to examine is how to rely on God’s sovereignty and magnify God’s glory without becoming a Calvinist.
You have stumbled across a series of posts in which I hope to explain a third alternative in a major religious debate today. Some seem to believe there are only two options: 1) Believe we are not saved by grace or 2) Be a Calvinist. This series of articles proposes a third alternative: 3) Rely completely on God’s grace without becoming a Calvinist. For more insight to this series, click here to read the introduction.
I have no desire to misrepresent Calvinism, though I have no doubt that any Calvinists who stumble across this will claim I have. But, in an effort to be fair and fully representative, I’m not going to tell you what Calvin meant or what Calvinists believe. I’m going to give you quotes (sometimes lengthy ones) straight from the sources themselves.
Then I’m going to do something a little shocking. I’m going to explain what Calvin got right. You see, I think that is one of the big problems we non-Calvinists have when discussing these things. We are afraid to admit that Calvin got anything right. Remember, we are Calvinophobes. We fear that if we admit John got something right, our friends will start accusing us of being Calvinists. But we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. After all, I’m not going to quit believing in God just because John Calvin also did.
Then I’ll wrap up with why I’m still not a Calvinist even though I agree with many points Calvin made and Calvinists still make.
I’ll apologize now. As much as I’d like to keep these articles down to 800 words or less so you have time to read them on your coffee break, they are probably going to be much longer. And I doubt they’ll be as witty as the introduction was. After all, when theology tends to wit it usually becomes sarcasm that bites its opponents. I want to steer clear of that.
God’s Sovereignty and Glory
I know TULIP is what you expect when you hear about Calvinism. We’ll get to that. But TULIP is not the heart of Calvinism, it is the symptom. It is the result of an underlying and more fundamental belief about God’s sovereignty and glory.
Let’s hear what Calvin and Calvinists have to say about it.
“When the question relates to righteousness, we see how often and how anxiously Scripture exhorts us to give the whole praise of it to God…Observe, that the righteousness of God is not sufficiently displayed, unless He alone is held to be righteous, and freely communicates righteousness to the undeserving…For so long as a man has anything, however small, to say in his own defense, so long he deducts somewhat from the glory of God…Let us remember, therefore that in the whole discussion concerning justification the great thing to be attended to is, that God’s glory be maintained entire and unimpaired;…The sum is, that man cannot claim a single particle of righteousness to himself, without at the same time detracting from the glory of the divine righteousness” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. Henry Beveridge, Eerdman’s Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, v. II, pp. 68-70).
“For the five points, though separately stated, are really inseparable. They hang together; you cannot reject one without rejecting them all, at least in the sense in which the Synod meant them. For to Calvinism there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology: the point that God saves sinners. God—the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son, and Spirit; three persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father’s will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose for the Father and Son by renewing. Saves—does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners—men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God’s will or better their spiritual lot. God saves sinners—and the force of this confession may not be weakened by disrupting the unity of the work of the Trinity or by dividing the achievement of salvation between God and man and making the decisive part man’s own, or by soft-pedaling the sinner’s inability so as to allow him to share the praise of his salvation with his Saviour. This is the one point of Calvinistic soteriology which the ‘five points’ are concerned to establish and Arminianism in all its forms to deny: namely, that sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all, but that salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present and future, is of the Lord, to whom be glory for ever; amen” (David Steele and Curtis Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Philipsburg, NJ, 1963, p 23, quoting J.I. Packer).
What Calvin Got Right
Having written that subject heading, I know it sounds a little pretentious. I don’t mean to suggest I am the standard of what is right. All I really mean is I agree with Calvin on some things. And I can say that without being a Calvinist. Here are some things I’m certain Calvin got right, not because I’m the standard, but because God’s Word is, and in these places Calvin agrees with God’s Word.
- God really does save sinners (Luke 19:10).
- Man cannot save himself (Matthew 19:25-26).
- If I am going to be saved, I really do have to rely on God who will save me (I Thessalonians 5:23; I Peter 5:10).
- If I trust in myself that I am righteous, my trust is in the wrong place, and I will not be justified (Luke 18:9-14).
- God really is sovereign and has dominion (I Peter 5:11).
- God deserves all glory (Ephesians 1:5, 12, 14; Revelation 4:11).
- When I have victory, I need to give God the glory (Revelation 14:7).
- I must never boast in myself as if I have done any great thing that has accomplished my victory or my salvation (Romans 3:27; Ephesians 2:9; II Corinthians 12:7-10).
God’s Word is clear. He is sovereign and we must give Him all glory because God saves sinners and we do not save ourselves.
Why I Don’t Want to Be a Calvinist
Having agreed with Calvin and Calvinists in all the above, I still don’t want to be a Calvinist. Why? Because I believe he got some things fundamentally wrong. Therefore, while I rely completely on God’s sovereignty and grace, I can’t make the plunge to Calvinism. Here’s why.
We’ve already talked about false dilemmas in this series. A false dilemma is the logical fallacy of presenting two options as if they are the only ones, when in fact there are more. When it comes to God’s sovereignty, Calvinists have developed a false dilemma and too many of us have bought it. They believe and teach there are only two options. 1) Every single part of the process of salvation is God’s working even the parts that look like what we are doing, therefore He is sovereign and deserves all glory or 2) Man can and does even one thing that has a contributing factor to salvation and to that degree God is not sovereign and not receiving glory. I suggest there is a third option. 3) God, through His sovereignty and His ability to do far more abundantly beyond all I can think, has created man to act and choose God without taking away from God’s sovereignty or glory. In fact, that free choice brings more glory to God than a predestined action.
What I find interesting is that God actually gives a lengthy defense of His sovereignty in Scripture. We can find it in Job 38:1-41:34. God claims He is sovereign and deserves glory because of His creation and sustenance of all things in the universe (Job 38-39). He is sovereign and deserves glory because of His power to judge man’s actions (Job 40:10-14). He is sovereign and deserves glory because His power exceeds man’s (Job 40:15-41:34). Not once does He claim His sovereignty means He predestined man’s actions. In fact, in Job 2:3, God said Satan incited Him against Job. If Calvin’s definition of sovereignty is true, no one can incite God to do anything.
In fact, I’m not exactly sure where the idea that sovereignty means every righteous action must be from God. We need to recognize a difference between being “in control” and “controlling.” God is in control. That is, His plan will work out. He will accomplish His ends. But that doesn’t mean He is controlling, that is predestining and mapping out every move along the way. For instance, when Joseph was sold into slavery and then framed for attempted rape, God was in control. God was going to use all of this to work out His plan to save Israel from the coming famine and set Joseph up as a blessing to all nations. But God was not controlling. That is He didn’t predestine Judah to come up with the idea of selling Joseph. Nor did He predestine Potiphar’s wife’s attraction and attempted seduction of Joseph. Nor did He predestine Joseph’s faithfulness to God in the face of this temptation. He was in control, but not controlling.
In fact, being controlling usually demonstrates a lack of being in control. If the only way to get what I want is by forcing everyone to do things a certain way, it says I have less control over the situation than I like to think. God’s true sovereignty, reign, and control is so much greater and more beautiful than the Calvinistic version because God doesn’t have to manipulate and control our every choice, but still gets the outcomes He plans. Now that is true sovereignty and control.
“Sovereignty” simply means “reign.” Run a search for “sovereign*” using Bible software. I like to use Blue Letter Bible. You’ll find in most translations the word isn’t even used all that much. When it is used, it rarely is actually applied to God, except in the ESV where it is used three times to refer to God (Acts 4:24; I Timothy 6:15; Revelation 6:10), and also in the NIV where they commonly translate “adonai” as “Sovereign” when it is immediately connected with the tetragrammaton (e.g. Psalm 68:20). Don’t misunderstand, God is sovereign. He is the ruler of the universe. But there is nothing in the Bible that suggests “sovereignty” means controlling everything everyone does. There is nothing that suggests this means if you or I choose to access the strengthening empowerment of God to overcome sin that we have detracted from God’s sovereignty. When I choose God, God is still reigning and in control, just as when I rebel against Him. In fact, when I consciously make the choice to do a right thing because I want to serve God, I am magnifying His sovereignty because I am examining all the evidence and deciding that God’s rule is right and I am allowing His rule and reign to be over me. In fact, it is not behaving in righteousness that attacks God’s sovereignty, it is behaving in unrighteousness that does because in unrighteous behavior I am trying to throw off God’s sovereignty and rebel against it. In this vein, it seems to me the Calvinists get it exactly backward.
I can’t save myself. I can neither provide myself with forgiveness, nor set myself free from the slavery of sin (cf. Romans 7:14-24). I can only surrender fully to God’s grace for that. But I must turn to God. I must surrender to the grace He offers. I must choose God, volunteering freely. I must do that. God will not do it for me. God has not predestined me to do it. And when I have, I cannot boast against God or above God. But this action in no way threatens God’s rule and reign over the universe, over me, or over redemption. In fact, it displays Him as ruler of all those things and magnifies His sovereignty.
Psalm 110:3 explains God’s people is made up of those who volunteer freely. This does not, as Calvinists are wont to say, mean they volunteer simply because they want to. This is a weak smokescreen attempted by Calvinists to pretend they accept a modicum of free will. But it is no free will at all. In the Calvinist scheme, the volunteer only does so because God irresistibly called them to do so. They only want to because God irresistibly filled them with desire. That is not volunteering. Volunteering implies an actual choice that the truly Calvinistic scheme does not allow. If they are irresistibly called to do so, they had no choice not to. That isn’t volunteering any more than the draft is volunteering to be in the army. What Psalm 110:3 does mean is they have the effectual choice between serving the Lord and not serving Him. They have not been limited either by their nature or by God’s irresistible call to pursue only one of these options, but rather they have the freedom to pursue either option. As said above, this does not at all take away from God’s sovereignty. In fact, it magnifies it because they have weighed their options and chosen to surrender to God’s sovereignty in their lives.
Neither does this volunteer ability detract from God’s glory. What small glory God would have indeed if the only way He can truly be glorified is by not allowing anyone else to do something right apart from His predestining them or irresistibly calling them to do it. I am the first to proclaim my own unrighteousness and God’s complete righteousness, but please tell me, how could me doing something righteous remotely detract from God’s righteousness? Is God only righteous if He is the only one who can do anything righteous? Please, don’t confuse this issue with discussions of accidental righteousness (my term, not the Calvinists’). This is another Calvinistic smokescreen. They have to account for the many right things non-elect people do. So they will speak of non-elect who do seemingly righteous things like go to church or give money to the poor, but they aren’t doing it because of righteousness, but as it were because even a blind squirrel can find a nut now and then. Is God’s esteem in Scripture so weak that if anyone else did something righteous because they long for righteousness that His righteousness is diminished? Surely God’s righteousness and glory are greater than that.
If I actually choose God, volunteering to serve Him, did I do something righteous? Of course. Did I do it from my volition? Yes. Am I detracting from God’s glory? Hardly. Instead, I am magnifying it. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (ESV). Think about what this passage says. It says I have a choice about whether or not I will magnify God’s glory. When I do things to God’s glory, I don’t detract from His glory because I did them of my volition; rather, I magnify His glory. It boggles my mind to think that if someone freely volunteers to obey God by their own will accessing the strength and power God has offered everyone that anyone would claim they have somehow hindered God’s glory. I simply cannot understand that mindset and so, I cannot become a Calvinist.
A Biblical Illustration of the Third Alternative
In 1 Samuel 17, David stepped onto the battlefield without man’s armor. David selected the stones. David swung the sling. David aimed the stone. David sent the stone flying. David took Goliath’s sword. David cut off Goliath’s head. But for all that, God is the one who killed Goliath. At least according to David in 1 Samuel 17:45-47 it was God who did it. Through faith, David won the victory. If David had been like Saul, Goliath would have gone undefeated. But David volunteered freely. However, when it was all said and done, David believed God was the one who should be glorified. Consider Psalm 8, a psalm that many believe was written in the wake of Goliath’s defeat. David was a mere infant whose strength was established by God to fight God’s foes. David was amazed at the victory. But David still volunteered freely. That free volunteering did not take away from God’s glory and sovereignty. Instead it magnified both.
God is sovereign. God deserves all glory. I rely completely on God’s sovereign grace. However, I don’t have to be a Calvinist to do that.
Keep coming back to discuss more.
Great thoughts, Edwin. A few years ago, I preached a series on Romans. At the end, I dealt with Calvinism since Romans is the Calvinists’ playground (or so they think). In reviewing the five points, I made the same observation several times: that I can agree with quite a bit of what they teach. In fact, that’s what makes this doctrine so deceptive. People wouldn’t be nearly so quick to believe it if it didn’t have a lot in harmony with the Bible. The conclusions drawn using man’s limited reasoning are what make this a problem. And it’s what makes the other extreme just as much a problem.
Thanks, Carl. Keep coming back.
Henry Webster says
Great article. I have believed this for a long time now and you have verbalize it perfectly. I also say to Calvinists that we are not robot’s and Eve chose to eat the fruit, and if they argue that God predestined her to eat it, I then state since when has God ever predestined anyone to sin. it was a choice she made. I also remind them of the verse that says ‘there is life and death in the power of the tongue so CHOOSE life.’
You bring up what I think is an interesting point. For the full on five point Calvinist who believes that if man does anything good on their own or it takes away from the glory of God, Adam and Eve present a challenge.
According to the system, Adam’s sin corrupted everyone. So Adam and Eve sinned without sinful natures. But it also means that before they sinned they did things from their own will that were obedient and God glorifying. Their first actions were not to disobey and sin. So, is God’s glory diminished by their righteous behavior before their sin?
To get around this, the hard core Calvinist will talk of God predestining Adam and Eve as well. This, to me, seems to destroy the notion that God is not the author of sin.
Henry Webster says
People ask me am I Arminian or Calvinist, I say to their shock I am Calminian. I believe a bit of both.