Calvinism and Free Will
Examination of specific claims of Calvinism
Now we apply the principles of choice and free will to specific teachings.
God will save whoever chooses to come to him, but everyone’s nature is depraved to the point of being unable to so choose. God must therefore change a person’s nature to be capable of making the choice.
“Our inability to come, therefore, isn’t like a physical handicap which we could not be held responsible for but, rather, a moral bent, a disposition of the affections which is naturally hostile to God, a willful hostility. Therefore we are responsible and culpable for our rebellion – and even more culpable now since Jesus extended forgiveness to all who would believe through His self-sacrifice. This leaves people with no excuse for their rebellion. Thus the Reformed understanding of the gift of eternal life to all who would believe is nothing less than genuine. If we do not repent and trust in Christ it is because of our willful unbelief, not because anyone is holding us back. Those who refuse to come could come to Jesus if they wanted to. God does not ultimately restrain people from wanting to come, it is by their own will that they refuse Him.” (a compliation of quotes, likely from monergism.com as I recall; emphasis mine)
Logically, free will and not free will cannot both be true at the same time, and free will and accountability cannot be separated. We cannot be held accountable for our inability to come to God. It is, in fact, very much like a physical handicap. To scold a person bound to a wheelchair for not getting out for daily walks is exactly the same as holding the morally depraved accountable for their inability to come to God. Will is limited by nature, but if we are so limited in nature (depraved) that we cannot choose between acceptance and rejection of the Gospel, then we cannot be held accountable because we do not have the capacity to choose.
A gift is not a wage. Nothing can be both a gift and a wage. I didn’t earn any part of my salvation, because it’s impossible to merit or earn a gift. I did not deserve or earn the offer of salvation, I could only accept it or reject it, which is not a ‘work’. I made a choice based upon known consequences, and chose the path according to my preference, which was to live eternally in heaven. Faith and works are continually contrasted in the Bible, so Calvinism cannot call our putting faith in Jesus a ‘work’ or ’synergism’ (working with God for salvation).
Claim:(probably same source as previous quote)
- Repentance and faith are the free acts of men. Every person who so responds to the gospel call does so because he truly desires to do so. God does not repent or believe for anyone. We must personally and willingly trust in the person and work of Christ in order to be saved.
- All persons must repent and believe the gospel in order to be saved. The Bible from cover to cover teaches that no one can be saved without this.
- Every person who repents and believes the gospel will be saved. In other words, whosoever responds to the gospel command will be received by the Father. It is our belief that the gospel requires us to declare to ALL HUMANITY that Jesus laid down his life for the forgiveness of sins to ALL who would believe.
- Because men love darkness they are unwilling to repent and believe.
- People will not desire Christ and thus understand the gospel until they first are given a new nature. (1 Cor. 2:14; John 1:13; John 6:39, 44, 63-65;1 Pet 1:3).”He still sets apart a favored people for Himself and restores our spiritual faculty that we might, in new affection for Him, turn and believe the gospel.”
There is no problem with points 1 through 3, but possibly with 4 (if it means ALL, and unable), and definitely 5. None of the verses in point 5 hint at a new nature given before an expression of faith. None speak of restoring our spiritual faculty before belief.
A two-stage salvation? Affection before birth? Life before life? Are there people who are in limbo— somewhere between life and death, between quickened and saved? And do these people in limbo have the choice (free will) to either accept God or reject him? If they don’t have a choice, then there is still no free will involved in salvation, and Calvinism asserts that there is. If they do, then it must invent a class of people who are quickened but lost. There is no such group of people either expressed or implied in the Bible.
In its zeal to avoid man’s having any part in meriting salvation, which is Biblical, Calvinism makes the mistake of equating the acceptance of a gift with the earning of a wage, which is not Biblical. Without Christ’s sacrifice it would have been impossible to be saved; with it, it is possible. This fact alone makes our salvation completely dependent on Jesus. God, in his sovereignty, has permitted us to choose whether to accept or reject the free gift of salvation, offered to all but accepted by only a few.
God’s permissive will is not a lack of power or sovereignty; our choices are within conditions controlled by God. Calvinism already concedes God’s permissive will in its arguments against universalism (God desires all to be saved, but doesn’t always do what he desires). Permission cannot exist without choice. If there was no choice (no free will), then none of God’s will would be permissive; it would all be directive.
1 Cor. 2:11-14 is not speaking about the ability to accept the Gospel message but about spiritual truths in general.
John 1:13 is illustrating the difference between physical procreation and spiritual birth, not that people are incapable of making spiritual decisions. Verse 12 says “to all who received him he gave the right to become children of God”, which is shown in opposition to those of physical birth. So this right to be spiritually born (regenerated) follows reception, yet Calvinism claims it precedes it.
John 6:39 refers to the security of the believer, which has no bearing on the issue of predestination. Verse 44 is presumed to mean that the Father doesn’t draw everyone, even though Jesus said that he would draw “all” to himself (John 12:32). Verses 63-65 show his foreknowledge. The “enabled” of verse 65 are those of verse 12, the ones who are receptive. 1 Peter 1:3 is not a proof of predestination, since no one argues that birth is anything but a gift.
Acts 16:14b “the Lord opened her heart to respond” seems on the surface to mean that he made the choice for her. But notice that it was only after the apostles “spoke to the women” that she responded. Is it “quickening”or faith that comes from hearing the word (Romans 10:17)? The phrase “opened her heart” in context most likely means that she understood the message. God can limit or increase a person’s perception (see also Luke 24:31-32), but this does not violate free will because a person is still responsible for what they understand. The choices may be few or many, broad or restricted, but we are responsible for whatever those choices are.
1 John 5:1 “Whoever believes… is born of God” is taken by Calvinism to mean that the being born caused the believing, but the word order gives me the clear impression that it is the believing that causes the being born. According to Mounce’s Analytical Greek Lexicon, the word translated is [or has been] born is gegennhtai which is parsed as perfect passive indicative third person singular:
- Perfect: a past event with continuing action
- passive: action done to subject by another
- indicative: shows a fact
- third person: he/she/it
- singular: one subject
But the NIV, KJV, NASB, ASV, and Darby all translate it as “is born”; the only versions I could find translating it as “has been born” are Young’s and the NET Bible. “Is born” to me means that I was born once in the past and continue in that condition, which is in accordance with the Greek perfect tense. “Has been born” carries the meaning of having been born once in the past but not necessarily that this condition continues, so personally I think the phrase should read “is born”.
The big issue, though, is exactly when in the past the action happened. To say that the Greek tense shows that being born happened before belief begs the question. Here again, the fact that the sentence mentions first belief, then birth, would give more weight to identifying the timing of events as belief and then birth.
John 5:21 “is Jesus Himself clearly exercising sovereignty on whom He will grant the spiritual resurrection: ‘For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will’”. But to whom does he will? The answer is found in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”. To read anything else into that verse– that any and all refer only to those chosen by God to be saved– begs the question (see also John 12:32 discussion above).
John 10:16– Is evangelism making sheep or gathering sheep? The Calvinistic view, of course, is that the sheep already exist but are not yet ‘gathered’, meaning there are people who are regenerated but not yet saved. On the other hand, there’s verses 9 and 10: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved… I have come that they may have life…”. Obvious emphasis on will be and may have, which means they’re not “alive” yet, and thus not “regenerated”. Who are the “other sheep”? They are Gentiles, the ones who are “not of this fold”. So Jesus is saying that he will make the two “folds” into one; he will extend salvation not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles.
Calvinism claims that the spiritually dead cannot make spiritual choices, and thus choose life. But in Deut. 30:19 Israel is told that the moral choice between life and death was before them, and that they should choose life. Why the admonishment to choose life if no choice were possible? Romans 1:21 shows the ungodly knowing God but rejecting him; Romans 2:8 speaks of them rejecting the truth; Romans 5:18 speaks of both the condemnation and justification of all, not just some or many. 1 John 2:2 says “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world”.
Jesus’ sacrifice was God’s love and holiness working together. It is a complete act in itself, satisfying God’s holiness and demonstrating his love for all. The Cross was necessary even if not one soul ever accepted it, because justice had to be met and love had to be proven. Those two things having been completed by God alone, nothing else is needed or possible on our part. This is the point at which some would say “everybody’s going to heaven”, but available salvation is not the same as accepted salvation. We have no part in our salvation, but we can choose to accept it or reject it. In so doing, we are not working with God, we are simply accepting him.
Salvation is purely a gift. But for a gift to be exchanged, acceptance must be made. Does this mean that the giver “works with” the receiver, or that the receiver “has a part in” the gift? No, the acceptance of a gift is simply a choice. The receiver could not earn the gift or it would no longer be a gift but a wage. The giver earned the item to be given but was under no obligation to offer it to anyone. When a man proposes to a woman, he is motivated by love to spend money on a ring. He then offers this ring he paid for to her, not requiring her to accept it, but simply offering it. She is free to choose either way. In accepting it, she has not earned it or had any part in its purchase. So it is with salvation.
Calvinism says: “Regeneration (the new birth) both precedes and elicits faith in Christ. The only reason you were able to receive Christ was because you were first “made alive” or “quickened” by the Holy Spirit when you were regenerated.”
But to say that regeneration (the new birth) precedes faith is to say that birth precedes birth! Since it is faith that saves me, and since the moment of salvation is the moment I am reborn, then the new birth cannot precede faith. Romans 10:9 says, “if you confess… and believe… you will be saved”. Hebrews 11:6 says that “without faith it is impossible to please God”, yet Calvinism proposes a ‘regeneration’ without faith. In John 3:15 Jesus says that whoever believes has eternal life. Therefore, whoever does not believe does not have life. In other words, to not believe is to be dead, so life (the new birth) cannot precede belief.
Can God love the dead? John 3:16 says that he loved the world, not that he only loved the living.1 The world is always contrasted with God’s people, so it refers to the lost, i.e., the dead. John 3:17 says that “God sent his son into the world so that it might [made it possible] be saved”. The lost, or dead, have the opportunity to be saved. Romans 5:8 says that Christ died for us while we were still sinners– while we were still dead (see also Eph. 2:1)– and that this was in demonstration of his love for us, the dead! So the Bible says that God loves the dead.
Now if God can love and die for the dead, he can certainly offer them a gift: the Gift of Life (when you think about it, to whom else could life be offered?). To say that he cannot is to limit God to our finite understanding. Yes, in human terms, gifts and love are not offered to the dead, but this is God we’re talking about. The analogy of human love and giving is meant to illustrate the fact that the exchange of a gift does not involve works of any kind.
To say that only Adam was truly made in God’s image (had the true power of choice) is to say that none of his offspring are made in God’s image– in contradiction of Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9. It also means that there was no point in God giving us his Word, or filling that Word with exhortations to choose, strive, contend, etc., for the results are predetermined by God and will come to pass regardless. The fact that God's Word exists and tells me to make choices is clear indication to me that I in fact do have the power to truly choose, not simply to react.
Objections to Calvinism’s TULIP
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
It is logically necessary to conclude that if man is utterly incapable of choosing to accept salvation, then God must literally “elect” each person that is to be saved. All the other points depend completely upon Total Depravity (more accurately, Total Inability), being both unnecessary and unable to stand without it. While some Calvinists do not hold to all five points, it is not logical to accept less than that as long as the first point is accepted. So if there is no such thing as Total Inability, then the whole system of Cavlinism falls.
Man is incapable of saving himself in whole or in part. But total depravity is not taught in Scripture. There is not the slightest hint in Genesis of the alleged death of man’s spirit, which is a glaring omission for the very passage that allegedly establishes it. That man became physically mortal no one would deny. But where is any contextual support for a figurative, spiritual meaning for “death” in that passage? It is conspicuous by its absence. Neither Adam nor Eve were cursed, only the serpent and the ground. Calvinism must rely upon pulling doctrine from poetic passages and generally ignoring the context of many others in order to claim spiritual death. And what of Romans 6?
5 If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin– 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (TNIV, emphasis mine)
What kind of death did Jesus die? Was it physical or spirital? Since Paul likens our death and resurrection to that of Jesus, and since no one would dare claim Jesus died spiritually, then the only choice we have here is to understand that Paul is talking about the physical, especially since he speaks of “the body ruled by sin”. And what of the fact that we are said to have “died” to sin? To take the Calvinist interpretation of it being spiritual, then it would follow that the regenerated believer is utterly incapable of sinning!
It should be obvious that the unsaved are not as literally dead as Calvinism would have us believe. They cannot claim that the lost are just as incapable of choice as the physically dead, while also claiming that the regenerated “elect” are still capable of sinning. Either death means complete and utter incapacitation, or it means having a broken relationship. The latter has support as a common expression in the first century, cited even by Paul in Rom. 6:11: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” But the former would have us believe that the lost are too dead to choose good but not dead enough to keep them from choosing evil.
In practice, the degree of deadness seems to depend completely upon the point being argued. For example, if someone says the lost can choose life, the Calvinist response is that a dead body can do nothing. But if someone says that there is ample proof of lost people doing good things, the Calvinist response is that people are not always as evil as they could be. This glaring double-standard is required in order for Total Inability to stand, since it really isn’t as “total” as claimed.
Rom. 8:29– “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his son”– does not say “predestined to be elect”. The “elect” are those who choose to accept the gift of salvation, and God has known from eternity past who that would be; this is the meaning of foreknowledge.2 These are, then, through no choice or power of their own, predestined to conform to Jesus.
This is perhaps the weakest of the points, rejected by many Calvinists. To take a verse such as John 3:16 to mean less than what it says requires the redefinition of key words: “the world” becomes “all people without distinction instead of all people without exception”;3 “whosoever” becomes “the ones God chose”; Rom. 5:18-19 requires a ream of fine print to keep redefining “all” and “many” to conform to Calvinist theology.
But the more disturbing implication of this point is what it does to the blood of Christ. To call it limited is to reduce it to something unworthy of the infinite God. If Jesus had shed a mere drop of his sinless blood it would have been enough! It is not the quantity but the quality of that blood that paid for all sin for all time.4
Some Calvinists would respond that while the atonement is sufficient for all, it is only efficient for the elect. If this is the case, they are agreeing with the non-Calvinist view which states that Jesus died for all but only those who accept His death on their behalf are saved, since salvation is by faith. This is clearly not limited atonement but limited salvation; the key difference is that the Calvinist attributes this limit to God’s choosing, while the non-Calvinist attributes it to individual acceptance or rejection of the gospel.
Grace is not a force to be resisted, but a bestowing of kindness from the greater to the lesser. In Romans 6:14 it is contrasted with law, so grace can also be defined as freedom from the law. Those in this current dispensation of the church age (see Eph. 3:2) who accept this gift from God are no longer under bondage to the Law. Without this gift we would have no hope of salvation; therefore, our hope of salvation is totally dependent upon God. We are saved by placing our faith in the grace of God instead of in our own abilities. To call it irresistible is to make God more like a predator who selects his bride by brainwashing her to love him. There is no other conclusion for this point to come to, and it shows the ridiculous implications that Total Inability brings us to. And of course there are scriptures such as Acts 7:51 which clearly speak of people resisting the Holy Spirit.
The Calvinist would respond that they do not say every influence of the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted, but that the Holy Spirit is able to overcome all resistance. Yet this does not change the problem, only the timing. Regardless of exactly when God overcomes a person’s resistance does not change the fact of that inevitable outcome. So this counter-claim is mere semantics. It is an attempt to redefine its own terminology when confronted with obvious scriptural proof against it.
Perseverance of the Saints
In a logical fallacy rather like the phrase “survival of the fittest”, Calvinism teaches that the ones who persevere in faith must be the ones God chose or elected. But rather than resorting once again to grotesquely elevating the sovereignty of God above his nature, the simple explanation is that the security of the believer is due to the unique promises of God for this age. Neither before the “church” nor after it do we see guaranteed salvation granted to anyone who puts their faith in God. No other group of people in any period of history is said to have the Holy Spirit indwelling individuals as a “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance”.5
And yes, once this saving faith is placed in Jesus, it is secured by the power of God instead of ourselves.6 Is this a violation of free will? Yes it is, but who would complain about being kept from falling away due to the pressures and temptations of life? How is that unjust, and how else would eternal life be guaranteed? There is an infinite gulf between decreeing that people are born in sin and then blaming them for it, and making it impossible to change one’s mind once that choice is made. Do we complain about not having more than one chance at life?7 That is no different from crying foul if God prevents us from changing our mind after we have chosen.
Some Calvinists respond by contrasting this point with a more extreme minority view among non-Calvinists, that of “Free Grace”, which also has various sub-groups.8 Both of these views must ignore or marginalize some scriptures. But Calvinists themselves have stated that even the most outwardly-saved person can never be sure of their election.9 So in examining the details of this point we find that it actually denies assurance.
- 1 And there is no fine print defining “all” to mean “all sorts of”.
- 2 A common objection is that God cannot foreknow without fore-ordaining; that is, God directly and deliberately causes all that he foreknows. But how much divine foreknowledge is required in order to predict the outcome of a game that you rigged? To cause is not foreknowledge at all. Divine foreknowledge is knowing precisely that which God did not cause.
- 3 Election, about paragraph 12.
- 4 1 John 2:2, Heb. 7:27, 9:12, 26, 10:10
- 5 2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5, Eph. 1:14
- 6 1 Peter 1:5
- 7 Heb. 9:27
- 8 Free Grace defined
- 9 Iustitia Dei vol. 2, Cambridge University Press (1986), p. 114., quoted online at Persevering Most Assuredly