Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sovereignty, or Tyranny?

(This post is the first in a series dealing with the difficult subject of Reformed theology.)

Any discussion on the subject of Reformed theology hinges on the subject of God’s sovereignty.  Inevitably, those who reject the 5 points of Calvinism, known as the TULIP – especially those dealing with predestination and election, are met with accusations that they “deny the sovereignty of God!”  In my experience, this is simply not the case.  Most of the believers that I have encountered who care enough to examine the teachings of Reformed theology and engage Reformed apologists on the subject of the TULIP readily recognize that the Scriptures declare God’s sovereignty throughout the canon:

The Scriptures tell us that there was no God fashioned after our Lord, nor shall there be any after Him (Isaiah 43:10), therefore there is none who could rightfully challenge God’s position.

The Scriptures tell us further that God’s purposes will stand, that He declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), and that He created and holds the very fabric of the universe together (Colossians 1:16-17), therefore there is none who could successfully challenge God’s power.

The Scriptures tell us that, before the end, every knee shall bow to the Lord (Philippians 2:10), therefore there is none who could successfully challenge His authority.

The idea that God has a master plan for the universe that He will ultimately accomplish is not in question.  The idea that God, being the creator and sustainer of the universe is the only being that merits His appellation is not in question.  The idea that only God is able to discern the very thoughts and intentions of His created beings (Psalm 139:2), and therefore is the only rightful and righteous judge is not in question.

In short, God’s sovereignty is not in question.  What is in question, however, is the definition of God’s sovereignty put forth in Reformed doctrine and theology.  You see, in the Reformed view of His sovereignty, God must have decreed and directly caused every single event that ever happened or ever will happen throughout all of history.  If man is able to act as a free agent in opposition to God's will, they argue, then God really isn't sovereign. This fails both the test of common sense and sound Biblical hermeneutics. 

It fails the test of common sense, simply because the definition of sovereignty posited by TULIP apologists is foreign to any common understanding of the word.  Is a nation somehow less “sovereign” if one of its inhabitants exceeds the posted speed limit on one of its highways by 10 mph or 15 kph?  Absolutely not – and the sovereignty of that nation’s government is demonstrated by the traffic summons received by the offending driver upon his apprehension.  Must a King, to be a King, decide every action taken by every one of his subjects, right down to what they eat at a meal, what time they sleep, and what clothing they wear?  Of course not!  Even in the most despotic of regimes, the mundane day to day details ordering people’s lives are left largely to the people themselves.  And yet, this is exactly what Calvinism proposes under its definition of sovereignty:

He has fore-ordained everything “after the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11): the moving of a finger, the beating of a heart, the laughter of a girl, the mistake of a typist—even sin. (Edwin Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, Baker, 1972, pp 24-25)

It fails the test of sound Biblical hermeneutics.  The surest signs of this are the linguistic gymnastics employed by Calvinist apologists in trying to harmonize the teachings of Calvin with the revealed Truth of Scripture. Witness respected preacher and author John F. MacArthur’s attempt to explain 1 Timothy 2:4 in the light of Calvinism’s assertions concerning the sovereignty of God:

1 Timothy 2:3-4 (English Standard Version): This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.


The Greek word for “desires” is not that which normally expresses God’s will of decree (his eternal purpose), but God’s will of desire. There is a distinction between God’s desire and his eternal saving purpose, which must transcend his desires. God does not want men to sin. He hates sin with all his being (Ps. 5:4; 45:7); thus, he hates its consequences—eternal wickedness in hell. God does not want people to remain wicked forever in eternal remorse and hatred of himself. Yet, God, for his own glory, and to manifest that glory in wrath, chose to endure “vessels . . . prepared for destruction” for the supreme fulfillment of his will (Rom. 9:22). In his eternal purpose, he chose only the elect out of the world (John 17:6) and passed over the rest, leaving them to the consequences of their sin, unbelief, and rejection of Christ (cf. Rom. 1:18–32). Ultimately, God’s choices are determined by his sovereign, eternal purpose, not his desires.  (John F. MacArthur, Note on 1 Timothy 2:4, ESV MacArthur Study Bible, Good News Publishers/Crossway Books.)

So, according to MacArthur (and Sproul, and Packer, and many  others), God has not one, but two wills; a will of desire, in which He truthfully expresses His heartfelt wish that all could be saved; and a will of decree or purpose, in which, as the cause of every action in the history of the universe, He regenerates a select few unto belief, while leaving others to reprobation (a polite word for damnation to hell).  So, the omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God truly wishes that all men could be saved, but is somehow constrained by His apparently conflicting purpose that some must damned, in order to reveal His glory (to whom – who can challenge Him?).

Christ instructs us in the Gospels that “a kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” and that a “house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matthew 12:25, Mark 3:25, Luke 11:17), and yet we are supposed to believe that God desires for all men to be saved and, at the same time, wills that some must perish in the lake of fire to demonstrate His glory?

The god described by MacArthur in his commentary sounds much less like the God of the Bible than it does like the “dead” believer described in James 2 who expresses his wish that the hungry “be filled” and the naked “be warmed,” while refusing to do what is in his power to feed and to clothe them.

An explanation of why some are saved while many are lost that is much easier to harmonize with Scripture and that does not carry with it the necessity that God works at cross-purposes with Himself is that God, in His sovereignty and love, created man that we should love Him in return, and that, in order to glorify Himself, decreed that man should have the opportunity to receive and obey Him or to reject and disobey Him.  To convict man of his need for a Lord and Savior, He has written eternity on our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), as well as His Law (Romans 2:14-15). Nevertheless, some men “reject God’s purpose for themselves” (Luke 7:30), and so do not enter into the Kingdom.  This does nothing to thwart God’s ultimate purpose, as in His omniscience and omnipotence, He has foreseen every decision man will ever make and is able to use even the wickedness of men to accomplish His will.

As Reformed apologists generally set much store by visible fruit in the lives of professed believers, it might serve us to examine the fruit of Calvin’s faith and teaching in his personal walk.  Perhaps the best illustration of the “fruit” of his misunderstanding of the sovereignty of God comes from Calvin’s own attempts to establish Augustine’s “City of God” in Geneva, Switzerland.  There Calvin attempted to exercise absolute control over the lives and even the thoughts of the city-state’s unfortunate inhabitants.  Home visits were established for the purpose of interrogating inhabitants on matters of theology and doctrine and inspecting their possessions for signs of disobedience or impiety.  Publicly disagreeing with the religious ruler of Geneva was declared to be heresy and met with penalties ranging from fines to banishment to death by burning at the stake.  Church attendance was compulsory; attending a Catholic mass or Anabaptist service was heresy, punishable by law with penalties up to and including even death.  Over a period spanning two decades, 58 people were put to death on charges ranging from witchcraft to heresy; 76 were banished (Will Durant, The Story of Civilization VI: The Reformation, p 473).

The word “Christian” means “little Christ.”  As “little Christs,” we are called to emulate our Lord in our dealings with our Heavenly Father, our neighbors, and our brethren.  How do Calvin’s actions in Geneva square with the admonishment of our Lord in the Scriptures not to “lord it over” our brethren as the Gentiles do, but instead to serve each other in humility (Mark 10:42-43)?

In the Biblical account of Simon the sorcerer, do we see Peter calling for Simon to be burned at the stake? No! Instead, Peter rebukes him and instructs him in righteousness, bringing him to repentance (Acts 8).

And yet, many Reformed apologists will go to great lengths in order protect the reputation of the revered father of their theology, stating that Calvin was just acting in accordance with his time (since when are Christians supposed to act like the rest of the world?), or even applauding Calvin for his restraint in prosecuting so few! To put this into perspective, there  are several mega-churches today with populations similar to or even greater than that of Geneva (approximately 20,000) during the rule of Calvin.  Would we applaud the pastor of one of these churches for his “restraint” in executing “only” 58 backslidden members over two decades? Or would we question why a church claiming the name of Christ had a provision for execution in its bylaws in the first place?

Undoubtedly, Calvin did much good in his lifetime – not the least of which was advocating that people should have access to the Scriptures in their own language.  But then, so did the scribes and the Pharisees, of whom the Scriptures say they “tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4), and whom the Savior named “children of devil who do the work of their father” (John 8:44).

Calvin had zeal for the Scriptures, but so did the Pharisees.  Like the Pharisees, Calvin advocated for moral purity, as did the Puritans who followed him, but moral purity stretches beyond matters of sexual conduct and covetousness.  The first recorded murder occurred within one generation of the Fall and essentially started as a religious dispute!  Hmmm…  Are we to model our conduct after Christ, or after Cain? The Bible records that God destroyed the earth once because it was “filled with violence” (Genesis 6:13); Christ spoke against violence in His Sermon on the Mount in much the same manner as He spoke against lust (Matthew 5:22).

Clearly, Calvin missed the mark in other areas of his life and ministry.  Why then, should we not question the teachings of John Calvin concerning the sovereignty of God?