Category Archives: Reformed Theology
It’s not uncommon to hear that the view of God’s sovereignty manintained by Calvinists reduces human beings to the role of a mere robot. Here John Frame thinks through this objection:
Scripture is concerned, above all, to glorify God. Sometimes glorifying God humbles man, and those who believe Scripture must be willing to accept that consequence. We covet for ourselves ever more dignity, honor, and status, and we resist accepting a lower place. But Scripture assaults our pride and honors the humble. Scripture compares us, after all, not to sophisticated robots, but to simple potter’s clay.
What if it turns out that we are robots, after all—clay fashioned into marvelous robots, rather than being left as mere clay? Should we complain to God about that? Or should we rather feel honored that our bodies and minds are fashioned so completely to fulfill our assigned roles in God’s great drama? Some creatures are born as rabbits, some as cockroaches, and some as bacteria. By comparison, would it not be a privilege to be born as an intelligent robot?
Indeed, what remarkable robots we would be—capable of love and intimacy with God, and assigned to rule over all the creatures. Is it not a wonderful blessing of grace that, when we sinned in Adam, God did not simply discard us, as a potter might very well do with his clay, and as a robot operator might well do with his malfunctioning machine, but sent his only Son to die for us? Risen with him to new life, believers enjoy unimaginably wonderful fellowship with him forever.
As we meditate upon these dignities and blessings, the image of the robot becomes less and less appropriate, not because God’s control over us appears less complete, but because one doesn’t treat robots with such love and honor.
-John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God
Why do the biblical writers find it so natural to bring [God’s sovereignty and creaturely responsibility] together, a conjunction that seems so paradoxical to modern readers? Why does Paul in Philippians 2:12 – 13 actually appeal to God’s sovereign working in order to motivate our responsible activity? Here are some suggestions as to why this linkage makes sense in the context of a biblical worldview:
1… God’s sovereignty involves not only his control over everything, but also his authority, his evaluation of everything. He is the supreme standard, the source of all value. Control and evaluation are two aspects of lordship, mutually implicative. It is therefore not at all surprising that they should be conjoined in Scripture. By his control, God foreordains our actions; by his authority, he evaluates them. Because of that authority, we are answerable to him, responsible. Far from being inconsistent with God’s lordship, therefore, our responsibility is based upon it.
2. God’s promises of success motivate believers to act in accordance with those promises. Theoretically, of course, someone might respond to such a promise by relaxing and waiting passively for God to do it all. Two opposite responses to the certainty of God’s promises, then, are theoretically possible. But taking action to further God’s goals is not an irrational response to revelation, and it is eminently rational when we consider that our obedience is not only commanded, but also a tool by which God accomplishes his purposes. Those who obey have the joy of being God’s instruments – and of reaping his rewards.
R. C. Sproul answers:
To say that God foreordains all that comes to pass is simply to say that God is sovereign over His entire creation. If something could come to pass apart from His sovereign permission, then that which came to pass would frustrate His sovereignty. If God refused to permit something to happen and it happened anyway, then whatever caused it to happen would have more authority and power than God Himself. If there is any part of creation outside of God’s sovereignty, then God is simply not sovereign. If God is not sovereign, then God is not God.
– R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God
John Piper summarizing the theme of redemption in the Gospel of John:
We can sum up this great salvation from John’s Gospel with the following steps: all that the Father has chosen to be his, he has given to the Son (17:6); and all whom he has given to the Son, the Son knows (10:4) and calls (10:3); and all whom he calls, know him (10:14) and recognize his voice (10:4-5) and come to him (6:37) and follow him (10:27); and the sun lays down his life for the sheep (10:11, 15); and to all for whom he dies he gives eternal life (10:28) and keeps them in the Father’s word (17:6), so that none is lost (6:39) or snatched out of his hand (10:28), but is raised up at the last day (6:39) to glorify the Son forever (17:10). This is why the Father has pleasure in election. It is indestructible foundation for an infallible salvation that redounds in the end to the glory of the Father and the Son.”
– John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God, 140
Justin Taylor interviews Greg Forster on his new book The Joy of Calvinism. I think it’s helpful to argue that Calvinism is primarily about grace, and grace is about God’s “personal, unconditional, irresistible, unbreakable love.”
Listen again to Sinclair Ferguson in his chapter in Christian Spirituality:
Because sanctification involves the imitation of Christ, it’s goal is true humanity, regained through Christ. That this is the heart of the Reformed doctrine of sanctification cannot be overstressed. Sanctification is radical humanization. It means doing the “natural” thing spiritually, and the “spiritual” thing naturally. “What a redeemed soul needs,” wrote Abraham Kuyper, “is human holiness.” Restoration of the image of God to true humanity is God’s ultimate purpose for his people. The model and source for this transformation are both found in the humanity of Jesus Christ, the one truly sanctified human.
Here’s a nice little interview with Jamie Smith on his new book Letters to a Young Calvinist.
Disclaimer: I want to address an understanding of election that’s quite common, but also a bit confused. In my experience of talking to people about predestination and election as taught in Rom. 9 and Eph. 1, people have responded by telling me that election is based on God’s foreknowledge. They understand Rom. 8:29 (“Whose whom God foreknew he predestined…”) and 1 Pet. 1:2 to mean that God looks into the future to see how people will respond to the gospel and seeing that some will respond positively, on that basis, elects them for salvation. So foreknowledge is taken to mean “know-before”. Now, surely God does know how everybody will act in any possible situation before they do it. I don’t want to deny that. But, in all honesty, that’s not what foreknowledge means in Rom. 8:29.
Here are my 2 primary reasons for coming to this conclusion. First, Rom. 8:29 speaks of God “foreknowing” people, not things. The focus is not on actions, but persons. And in the context of relationships “to know” means a deep, personal, intimate bond with a person. In Gen. 4:1 Adam “knew” Eve…and the result is a baby! Likewise in Amos 3:2 God tells the nation of Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” This doesn’t mean that Israel is the only nation on the whole Earth that God knew existed. Of course he knew of all the other nations. But Israel is the only nation with which God entered into a covenant relationship. The NIV clarifies this by translating Amos 3:2 as, “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth.” Coming back to Romans 11:2, we can see that this meaning of “know” as “chose” is in the forefront of his thinking as well. In Rom. 11:2 he says, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” Again, the sentence doesn’t make sense if one takes “foreknow” as “to know beforehand.” The “problem” that Paul addresses in Rom. 9-11 is how God will deal with unbelieving Jews. In Rom. 11:2 Paul says no, God is not done with the people He has “foreknown,” i.e. chosen. Foreknown, in both Rom. 8, and Rom. 11 should be taken to mean “fore-loved.” “Those whom God has fore-loved He predestined…”
Second, and I’ll keep this one short, if Paul did want to imply that predestination is based upon God looking into the future, he already had a perfectly good Greek word to use to convey that, but he avoided it. In Rom. 8:29 Paul uses the word proginosko. In Gal. 3:8 he did want to speak about God knowing something beforehand (“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed”) he uses a different Greek word, prooraoô. (I know, that’s technical, which is why I kept it short).
That ends my small introduction to the reasons I find the so-called Calvinist understanding of election, predestination, and salvation persuasive.
Evangelism and Prayer. Paul strongly speaks of unconditional election in Rom. 9, and this raises the question of how the elect are saved. He answers that in the very next chapter, Rom. 10. His answer is that God brings his elect into the fold by opening their hearts in response to the preached word of God.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom. 10:13-17 ESV)
The Lord himself, in John 10, says “My sheep hear my voice, they will not follow another.” In his death, Christ purchased the believer’s faith and repentance (which the Bible describes both as gifts, Acts 11:18, 2 Tim. 2:25, Phil. 1:29). Truly born-again people are guarded by faith for salvation by God until the last day (1 Pet. 1:4-5). Those that walk away from the faith demonstrate by their apostasy that they were never truly born again (1 Jn. 2:19, Matt. 13:18-23, Heb. 6:4-6 in the context of verses 7 & 8). So faith in Christ is absolutely necessary, but as a fruit and evidence of genuine saving faith, not as a condition of maintaining one’s salvation.
God has eternally chosen that certain things will not happen unless his people pray. He has given us the incredible privilege of working with Him toward Hi goals. By His Holy Spirit He works in our hearts, stirring us up with a heart for the lost, and a hunger and thirst for holiness.
For the purpose of His great name and the exaltation of Jesus Christ, the Lord has eternally set his love upon a hell-deserving sinner like me. One thing that so drew me to this understanding of grace is that it’s thoroughly God-centered. J. I. Packer has said that Reformed Theology essentially teaches one point: God saves sinners.
God. The truine, infinitely holy, righteous, just, and beautiful Creator has swooped up and saved me from His justly deserved wrath. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together, not just for my election in eternity past, but for my trust in Jesus Christ, and for my continued trust and obedience during my lifetime. In perfect divine consistency the Son lays down his life for those whom His Father has given him. The Father sets his love upon a fallen people, marks them out to receive his amazing grace, his Son comes to die in their place, taking the wrath of God on himself. The Holy Spirit applies this redemption won by the Son to the people whom the Father has chosen by granting them new spiritual life (irresistible grace).
Saves. So God graciously “elects” me and sends His Son to die for me. Jesus doesn’t simply make His bride “savable.” “The Son of man came to seek and save the lost.”
“Irresistible grace” draws attention to the fact that when God sets His perfects love on you, He will not fail to rescue from you from the bondage to sin. He will perfectly succeed in opening spiritually blind eyes and granting a heart of flesh to those whom He has chosen. We see an example of this in the book of Acts where the Lord “opened the heart” of Lydia in order to believe what Paul was preaching. Sure, we know that not all people believe the gospel the first time they hear it. But ultimately God never, ever fails. He is the perfect savior. Irresistable grace doesn’t mean that God drags people kicking and screaming into the Kingdom. It doesn’t mean God violates their will (remember, sinful man’s will is not neutral but is hostile toward God). He does mean that he gives them an appetite for good things, holy things, and these are ultimately fulfilled in Christ alone.
Sinners. Since I was a hostile, rebellious, blind, and spiritually dead sinner, if God was going to save me He couldn’t set any conditions for me to fulfill. I would fail them all. There is no difference between me and those who will be screaming curses at God in hell other than the sheer, unmerited, free, and boundless love of God.
The Doctrines of Grace. Here I will very quickly lay out the so-called five points. I won’t have time to address every Scripture passage (after all, this is an email, not a book), but I hope to sketch out what Calvinists believe and why. I should say here that many of the questions and concerns are warranted, and if I didn’t think Reformed theology’s understanding of Scripture could handle them, I’d abandon it. As you’re probably already familiar with, the doctrines of grace are summarized in what’s called the 5 points of Calvinism. Again, these points are:
T- Total Depravity
U- Unconditional Election
L- Limited Atonement
I- Irresistible Grace
P- Perseverance of the Saints
This summary is both good and bad. It’s good because it’s helpful for people to remember and is kind of logically ordered. It can be bad as well because in the attempt of the English translators of Calvin and others, they made it into an acronym, and in doing that sloganized some doctrines in order to make it fit.
The question to be raised is whether fallen human beings have ability to love and trust in Christ. Our need for atonement is the result of our sin. Because of the Fall we are “totally depraved.” That’s not to say that humanity no longer bears the image of God (we do), or that all sinners are as bad as they possibly could be (we aren’t). It is to say that sin has effected every aspect of our humanity (our thoughts, emotions, intellect, desires, and will, cf. Rom. 3). We are spiritually dead, not merely wounded (Eph. 2:1), and left to ourselves we are hostile to God and literally unable to obey God’s will (Rom. 8:7-8).
This makes the “U” in TULIP absolutely necessary. If anyone is going to be saved God cannot leave it up to the person to “choose” Him because, since his will is turned away from the living God, the spiritually dead and hostile sinner will always choose against God-even to their own eternal harm! If anyone is going to be saved from literally going over the eternal deep end God must step in and save completely. It can’t be “conditioned” by anything in us because, since the Fall, there’s nothing within us that merits salvation. If God were to base salvation on what we deserve or have earned we’d all be lost.
Romans 9 says this strongly when Paul writes that we are chosen for salvation “apart from anything good or bad in order that God’s purpose of election might stand.” Of course, this is an incredibly tough pill to swallow; if God has chosen to have mercy on some, then he has withheld mercy from others. This is true, and Paul tackles it head on when he asks and answers the question:
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— (Rom. 9:19-23 ESV)
God owes no one mercy; after all, if grace is something earned or owed it wouldn’t be grace at all (Rom. 11:6). So that’s the bitter end of the doctrine. But there’s a sweetness to it as well and it’s this: I’ve come to realize that though I deserve nothing but God’s displeasure and wrath, nevertheless he has decided to have mercy upon my lost soul.
how sweet the sound/
that saved a wretch like me/
I once was lost/
but now am found/
was blind, but now I see!
Several weeks ago, I posted an entry on What is Reformed Theology? There I answer this way: Reformed theology is a sweeping understanding of all of life under the sovereign authority of the covenant God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ.
Here I’d like to fill out a little more of what makes up Reformed Theology, the 5 point of Calvinism. Over the course of the last decade I’ve talked to friends and students about this issue, and I’ve come to a conclusion. I’m thoroughly convinced that roughly 80-90% of what people believe about Calvinism is mistaken and/or confused. Here are the so-called 5 points of Calvinism:
T- Total Depravity
U- Unconditional Election
L- Limited Atonement
I- Irresistble Grace
P- Perserverence of the Saints
Now, I’ll share my thoughts as bullet points.
1. I don’t believe in Calvinism because of the authority of John Calvin. In fact I know of very few people who feel comfortable calling themselves Calvinists who agree with everything the man taught. In fact, Calvin would be appalled that Christians are naming their theology after him (much as Luther was upset when he heard the early Protestants calling themselves Lutherans!). Calvin was a godly man and a fine teacher of the word of God…but he was merely a man. It’s really sad that the people you spoke to about this couldn’t explain it from the word of God but instead repeated what they’ve heard others say. Now to a degree that’s not bad, because we all help one another learn more about the Scriptures. But at the end of the day, it’s God speaking in Scripture that dictates what we should believe as followers of Christ.
2. Calvinism is only a nick-name. It’s theological shorthand for a cluster of doctrines that this group holds. In fact, I know many Calvinists who hate being called Calvinists and instead prefer the more historical title Reformed. Guys like Luther and later Calvin urged for biblical reform as they observed all of the excesses and unbiblical practices of the medieval Catholic Church. They didn’t get everything right, but God certainly used them as instruments to reclaim the gospel of salvation through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. But whether people feel comfortable with the label isn’t a big deal to me. If it’s a stumbling block, feel free to drop it. The only name that we’re required to own proudly is that of Jesus Christ as Lord.
3. As for me personally, I absolutely would not believe in it if I wasn’t convinced in my heart that the essential distinctives of Reformed Theology are a faithful reflection of what’s taught in the pages of Scripture.
4. I’ve found that many people who come to accept Reformed theology (and just to clarify I don’t mean “accept” in the same way I would when I speak of someone “accepting” Christ as savior! I just mean “come to be convinced that it’s true and biblical”) enter what James White calls “the cage stage” where all they want to do is debate the issue and correct people. That’s certainly not a proper and God-glorifying presentation of Reformed Theology. In fact, historically the 5 points of Calvinism have been called the doctrines of grace. Any presentation of the doctrines of grace that is not in itself graceful dishonors our Lord and distorts the message.
Reformed theology is a sweeping understanding of all of life under the sovereign authority of the covenant God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ.
That last sentence is quite weighty and needs to be parsed out.
Reformed theology is a sweeping understanding of all of life…The Reformed faith is holistic and comprehensive. It insists, with Abraham Kuyper, that “no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Whether it is Scripture, sex, or science, exegesis, economics, or education, preaching, painting, or poetry, every thought must be taken captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
…under the sovereign authority… Reformed theology is well-known for its high view of God’s sovereignty. It is precisely because God “works all things after the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11) that there are no tidy “religious” and “non-religious” spheres. But such micro-management of his creation (if we can call it that) should never leave us discouraged, fretting that we are mere cogs in an impersonal system. On the contrary, God’s absolute rule over his creation is the very ground of human responsibility, value, dignity and worth. Knowing that God has each hair on our head numbered and accounted for (Lk. 12:6-7) is a great comfort in times of trial and distress (Rom. 8:28).
…of the covenant God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ. The Reformers, such as John Calvin, insisted that to be a Christian is to be intimately united to the story of the Israelites. To be hidden in Christ is to be a part of the family of Abraham (Gal. 3:29), through whom God promised all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). Paul the apostle teaches that all who place their hope in the Messiah, irrespective of their ethnic origin, are ingrafted to the tree of Israel, God’s precious people. But this covenant God is known fully only in Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus is the fullness of God in bodily form (Col. 1:19) who lays down his life in order to atone for his covenant-breaking people, taking the punishment that rightly belongs to us upon himself, restoring shalom between God and his people (Rom. 5:1), with the ultimate promise of a renewed heavens and earth (Rom. 8:21, 2 Pet. 3:13, Rev. 21).
This understanding of Reformed theology invigorates, encourages, strengthens, and drives me to press into all that God is for me in Jesus.
For more, see: