Common Misunderstandings


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Doctrines of Sovereign Grace

The following Roman numeralled points are common misunderstandings about what the doctrines of Sovereign grace teach and imply. For the purposes of this discussion, the terms Calvinism and the doctrines of Sovereign grace are effectively interchangeable. In practice, Sovereign grace is only a subset of the Calvinistic system of theology, and not everyone who subscribes to the former wholly affirms the latter. Nevertheless, for the sake of convenience the shorter term will be used here as a nickname for the longer.

  1. Calvinism says that Man does not have free will.
    You may have heard it said that Calvinism makes man out to be like a robot or puppet, manipulated by God. Usually, this conclusion is leaped to from the affirmation that God predetermined who would be saved and who would be lost. The one does not follow from the other by necessary inferrence. In fact, the doctrines of Sovereign grace affirm that man is a truly free agent, and consider it a necessary part of the system of thought. The Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture poses no contradiction between God's sovereignty and man's free will. The appearance of a contradiction arises only when one fails to take into account two factors:
    1. Choices are not made in a vaccuum; we choose in accordance with our desires:
    2. Calvinism teaches that the Fall corrupted Man to such a degree that, by nature, we desire not to cooperate with God.
    Please consider two examples that have to do with one of my favorite subjects: food! :-)
    1. The 41st President of the United States of America, George H. W. Bush, reportedly hates brocolli so intensly that he simply refuses to eat it under any circumstances. There is no chance of him choosing it, not because he is a robot or a puppet, but because he hates it. If you had the power to change his tastes such that he suddenly loved brocolli, you could effectively predetermine whether or not he would ever eat it:
      1. If you chose to leave him as he is, and not change his tastes, you would be effectively dooming him to brocolliless meals forever! You could count on the fact that he would always shun it of his own free will.
      2. If you elected to step in and change his tastes, you would be effectively assuring that he would eat it. If he began to love it, he would seek it out of his own free will.
      George's free will remains intact, and you make certain your will is done, with no contradiction.
    2. What parent has not had to say a million times (if they've said it once), "Don't eat that until after dinner! It will spoil your appetite!" All children delight in candy and cookies. But few get as excited about vegetables. Parents in the modern West expend great effort to minimize their childrens' sugar intake and get them to eat healthfully. It's a daily battle.
      The problem is two-fold. First, sweets are notoriously light on nutrition, not to mention the short-term effects a sugar overdose has on a child's behavior, or the long-term effects on his or her teeth (and the dental bills that show up in the mailbox!). Vegetables, on the other hand, are loaded with the nutrients necessary to grow them up strong and hale, and have no ill side-effects. Second, most children have a natural predisposition toward poor nutrition. Imagine for a moment, parents, that God stepped in to aid you in your struggle for your childrens' health—by correcting their tastes. Wouldn't that be nice? Suddenly, their obsession with sweets is reduced to a passing interest. Their new mantra becomes, "Pile on the veggies, Mom!" Before the change, they fight your every effort to feed them properly. Afterward, they would eat all the natural goodies they need without even being asked—no setting the timer, giving stern scoldings, bribery attempts, or threatening them with various forms of negative reinforcement. Life is good. If God did such a thing for your children, would it be good or evil of Him? Would it not be an act of grace? Would he have turned them into robots? Attached strings to their arms and legs by which to manipulate them? Infringed upon their free wills? Not at all. On both sides of the change they choose freely. In their natural state they can be counted on, without fail, to exercise their free wills strongly in favor of candy, and against brussel sprouts, freely choosing to seek to indulge in harmful things, and to avoid healthful things. But what sort of twisted freedom is that? Although they are not forced by external decree to attempt self-injurious behavior, they are constrained by their immature desires. If God miraculously changed their nutritional disposition, though, they would begin to desire good stuff, and thus become truly free to choose it. By this means God could effectively predetermine whether or not you have to fight to get your children to eat right. By choosing to leave them in their natural condition, He is effectively dooming you to a decade of battles over the dinner table. If He elected to intervene on your behalf by correcting their tastes, He would effectively ensure permanent peacetime for you on that front. By deciding in advance to transform your children, He could predestine you to peaceful dinners without infringing on anyone's free will. In fact, I daresay that everyone involved would be delighted to have that happen. That is to say, His intervention would manifest His goodness. The same goes for us with respect to believing in Christ. A person who does not wish to cooperate with God can be counted on to freely choose not to. If God were to step in and graciously change his disposition through the New Birth, that person would then desire to embrace Christ, and would thus freely choose to do so. Calvinists believe that the Scriptures teach that in our natural state, we all love sin and hate God. He must miraculously change our nature before we are disposed to embrace Him. In this view, God's saving grace is far from being an infringement on human freedom. Instead, it is the means of freedom from our bondage to sin. "If the Son make you free, you shall be free indeed." On that basis, it is possible to affirm both absolute Divine sovereignty, and genuine human free agency, without contradiction or even conundrum.

    Many Christians don't believe that consequences of the Fall were so severe as to leave us dead in our trespasses and sins, unable to move toward God apart from His grace, the plain statements of scripture notwithstanding. That makes it harder for them to follow the Calvinistic line of reasoning to its natural conclusion. When faced with Scriptural statements about God's sovereignty in His dealings with men, they are left with a conundrum at best, and a contradiction at worst—one that gets amplified when transposed onto a system to which it doesn't belong. The meanings and ramifications of propositions in a system of thought must be drawn in keeping with the other propositions of its own system, along with whatever assumptions underlie them. To say, "You claim that God predermines who will be saved; I assume that man has the moral ability to embrace Christ prior to receiving His grace; therefore, you are saying that man is not free to choose," is not a reasonable argument.
  2. The doctrines of Sovereign grace deny that man's choices can have real consequences.
    This is similar to the first misunderstanding both in how it comes about and in how it is resolved. The chief difference is that the object is man's actions rather than the motivations behind them. The flawed line of reasoning goes, "If God foreordains all that comes to pass, then man has no choice in the matter." However, Calvinism affirms both that God foreordains all that comes to pass, and that man's choices have real consequences, and it is internally consistent in doing so. The misunderstanding arises from not taking into account that when God foreordained the course of history, He was perfectly aware of each person's condition at any given time. He saw in advance the states of our hearts, not only generally because of the Fall, but specifically for each individual. He knew my heart better prior to His laying the foundations of the world than I do at this moment. Given any set of circumstances at any given time, He knows what I will choose to do, better than I know. And He has always known. When we say that God foreordained all that comes to pass, we don't mean that He decided to make it happen (except in the cases of His own actions), but that He chose to allow it for His own wise purposes. Mostly, I think, His purposes are to reveal Himself to us, to show us His holiness, power, wisdom, and glory; and to make a holy people for Himself. He never causes anyone to sin, nor does He desire that we sin, but he chooses to allow it so that we might, by contrast, see His holiness and see his power to save us from our sin. So, His foreordination of the actions of His creatures is not a positive or active pre-determination of them. For example, He did not choose to force the 1st century Jews to have Jesus crucified. But He knew that they would do it, and He chose to allow them to do it. They are responsible for their choice to do it, and will receive just judgment for their sin, even though Christ was the Lamb of God slain before the foundations of the world. This is a great mystery. I don't pretend to fully understand it, and I don't suppose anyone really does. But it is not a contradiction. It is a demonstrably self-consistent position, it was plainly articulated by Christ and the apostles, and it is the position of the whole of scripture.
  3. Calvinism says God forces some people to be saved, and prevents others.
    This accusation often appears in the inflamitory form, "You're saying that God drags some people kicking and screaming into heaven while shutting out those who want so badly to get in." What Calvinism teaches is that God graciously gives people new life in Christ, just as He gave his friend Lazarus physical life after he had been dead four days and begun to decompose. A person who is spiritually dead cannot arise from his tomb and come to Christ, however passionately you or I may plead with him to do so. But when Jesus calls him to come forth, the life-giving Spirit of God breathes into his nostrils, and he becomes a living soul. Now, living people tend to be averse to lying around in dark, dank tombs, wrapped head to foot in burial cloth. So, he comes out, right? No one expressed disgust toward Jesus for "forcing" Lazarus to rise from the dead. Neither should we accuse God of wrongdoing when His Spirit brings resurrection power to those who are dead in their trespasses and sins. The disturbing thing about this misunderstanding is what it betrays about attitudes toward salvation, God's goodness, and worship. Even though Calvinism doesn't go so far as to affirm it, let's assume for a moment that God did drag some people kicking and screaming into the kingdom of heaven. Would that be so bad? Is your free will of such high value to you that you would prefer to suffer the wrath of God against you forever than to be forcibly rescued from it? Many wildlife workers have endured the fangs and claws of frightened, angry, completely uncooperative animals while rescuing them from a trap or an accident. No one berates them for violating the animals' freedom. Such brave souls get high praise, and deservedly so. We understand the fear of a wounded eagle finding itself in a cage with its wing in a cast. We understand why it might fight the person who is working in its best interests. But we are able to know the joy of our salvation while we are being saved. We should be ashamed to hint at any wrongdoing on God's part in rescuing from our sin, even if it were against our will. If we value our freedom of will more highly than our salvation, that should be a red flag that it's time to examine our priorities. If we consider our free will to have greater worth than God's will, if we give it the highest worth-ship, whom are we really worshipping? Man is not the only being who has free will; God has one, too. If we place our free will on a higher pedistal than God's by telling Him He may not save us against our wills, are we not guilty of idolatry? Let us tear down the Baalim and Asherim, stop sacrificing on the high places, and bend our knees to YHWH alone.
  4. Calvinism makes God out to be a respecter of persons.
    It is true that God is no respecter of persons; He judges everyone impartially. The doctrines of Sovereign grace affirm that as strongly as any system of Christian thought in the history of the Church. The critical question here is, what constitutes respect of persons? Most parents give their children gifts on their birthdays, and at certain holidays like Christmas. We do it not because our children deserve it, nor because we hope to get something back from them as a result, but because we love them. Since the motivation is our special love for our own children, no one takes us to task for failing to give gifts of equal value to everyone elses children. In a very real sense, we give our own children preferential treatment. But that doesn't make us respecters of persons. When we do it out of the proper motivation of love, not out of greed or selfishness, it is unfair only in the most technical sense, but it is certainly not unjust. As a matter of fact, it is gracious, and that is praiseworthy. God is no respecter of persons because He chose to rescue some of us mercifully from our sins while punishing others justly for theirs. He is under no obligation to save anyone. If He saved one person, that would be infinite mercy and grace. But He chose to take a remnant for Himself, forgive us, provide us with the righteousness earned by His only Son, and adopt us as His children. That is truly amazing grace! If He is merciful to some, must He be merciful to all? No. Why should He? On what basis do you place an obligation upon God? Because otherwise it wouldn't be fair? But why should God be fair to sinners? Do we deserve to be treated fairly? No, we don't. What we each deserve is to receive his eternal wrath against us in hell. But surely, being fair is more consistent with God's character! Well, no, actually, it's not. Be careful not to confuse fairness with justice. God is both gracious and just. For God to give some people the judgment they have earned is just; for Him to give other people good that they have not earned is grace.
  5. Calvinism says that God doesn't love everybody.
    This is the Big Bad Wolf. Some people's outrage may be assuaged simply by pointing out that what Calvinism really teaches is that God doesn't love everybody equally. But for others, that's still sufficient grounds to be burned at the stake. But those doing the burning would be operating on an assumption rooted in democratic ideals, not in the truth of scripture. The chief object of God's love is His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who are in Christ by faith are special objects of His love, since He has adopted us into His family. Just as we understand why any parent loves his own children more than those of other's, so we should understand why God loves His children more than He loves those of the serpent. This is true even though He chose who would be His children and who whould not. We don't restrict our understanding of parental love to natural parents, demanding that adoptive parents love the children of other families equally to their adopted children. We should allow that picture to inform our view of God's love. I recommend the book Loved By God, by Dr. R. C. Sproul, for a deeper understanding of this issue.
  6. Calvinism denys that salvation is by faith.
    This misunderstanding is seldom if ever stated forthrightly. But it is regularly insinuated by the Scripture fragments that are most frequenly cited as if they were objections. These fragments usually contain the words all, everyone, or who[so]ever. Common examples are
    • John 3:16 "...whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life."
    • John 11:26 "And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die."
    • Acts 10:43 "...whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins."
    • Romans 3:22 "...the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe..."
    To offer these statements as objections to the doctrines of Sovereign grace is to beat a straw man. Calvinists affirm them as strongly as anyone. It was Calvin, Luther, and their fellows who delineated the Five Solas of the Reformation, one of which is sola fide, [salvation is by] faith alone. You will never hear a Calvinist say that some people will perish despite their faith in Christ. Instead, you will hear that everyone who believes in Christ receives eternal life, same as in all Christian teaching. Additionally, you will hear other Scriptural doctrines that bear on the issue, such as that fallen Man is at enmity with God, and that faith in Christ arises only in hearts that God turns toward Himself through the gracious gift of the New Birth.

The book What Is Reformed Theology, by R. C. Sproul, offers a fuller understanding of the Calvinistic system of doctrine. The objections I've attempted to answer on this page are, in one way or another, variations on the five objections offered to the Council of Dort by Grotius, a disciple of the Dutch theology professor Jacob Hermann, known historically as Jacobus Arminius. Technically, historical Arminianism objects to only to a small but important subset of five points in the systematic reform of Christian doctrine set forth by the magisterial reformers led by Martin Luther and John Calvin. But since that system is so broad as to be really more a world and life view than merely a theology, and since it is a coherent, self-consistent view, a real appreciation of Calvinistic soteriology can only be got by understanding reformed theology holistically.

David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL