When I first came to the Christian faith as a young boy, my understanding of the Gospel was quite simple: I knew I wasn’t really a good boy; I snuck cookies when I thought I could get away with it. I told lies to avoid punishment. I was mean to my little sister. In short, I was bad – sometimes very bad. I understood that bad people go to this place where they are tortured forever, like burning to death without dying. I was scared of where I would go if I died. I liked to read the Bible, though. It was filled with all sorts of exciting stories and adventures. One of those stories was about a man who somehow was really God. This man did all kinds of miracles – even raising people from the dead. This Man died for my sins, and if I would just believe and trust in Him with my life, He would take me to heaven, even if I did bad things. This man loved children like me and didn’t want to see me go to Hell. His name was Jesus.
I prayed fervently for this Jesus to come into my heart and rescue me from Hell, where I knew I was going. I also prayed He would help me to be a better boy, so my parents wouldn’t be mad at me so much. My understanding of the faith as a 1st-grade youth was pretty simple, but I am convinced it was enough – and that when I understood about Jesus and prayed that prayer, my eternal destiny was changed forever.
A few years later, I came to, ahem, “understand” that the faith was more complex than I had understood as a boy. Some people taught that, even though we are saved from our sins by faith in Jesus, we could lose our salvation if we sinned enough or decided to stop believing in Him. These people were called Armenians. I wasn’t sure what all this had to do with a little country that I had only heard of in association with gypsy culture, but I figured, maybe Armenianism had started as some kind of regional movement. On the other hand, these other guys, called Calvinists, believed that you couldn’t lose your salvation by sinning, because that would be like saying we had to earn our salvation through works. I decided I must be a Calvinist.
It was only much later that I came to understand who Calvin and Arminius were, and that the argument between Calvinists and Arminians went much deeper than the issue of whether one could lose his or her salvation, and that I did not have to be either an Arminian or a Calvinist in order to be a Christian.
At the heart of the argument between Calvinists and Arminians (and others who would not categorize themselves as either) is their respective understanding of the terms Predestination and Election.
In short the Reformed doctrine of election (or rather predestination, which encompasses both election and non-election) is the belief that:
“From all of eternity God decided to save some members of the human race and to let the rest of the human race perish. God made a choice – he chose some individuals to be saved unto everlasting blessedness in heaven, and he chose others to pass over, allowing them to suffer the consequences of their sins, eternal punishment in hell.” (Sproul, What is Reformed Theology, P 141)
So the Reformed position on salvation is that human will and free choice play no role whatsoever in the salvation of their soul. While we might feel as if we freely chose to believe in Christ or to reject the Gospel, free will is really an illusion and the elect are elect simply and only because God chose to regenerate them unto belief while passing over their unbelieving friends and family (more on this in the future installment on Irresistible Grace). Sproul takes great pains to explain that this choice is in no way related to God’s foreknowledge of those who would receive the Gospel and believe in Christ, despite the fact that the most oft-cited verse in Scripture dealing with predestination clearly refers to such foreknowledge:
“For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30, NKJV)
Sproul goes on to explain that the doctrine of election is borne out by the fact that in this passage the word predestined precedes the word called, yet somehow, according to Sproul’s convoluted logic, that fact that foreknew precedes predestined in Romans 8 is not semantically important.
The crux of Sproul’s argument hinges on the assertion that, though the word all does not appear in this passage, the passage should be read as if it does, so that all He called, He also justified. Once we do this, of course, we are forced to infer (invent) a mystical internal call that some receive while others do not, as it is readily apparent that there are some who hear the external call of Gospel preaching while continuing to reject Christ. The problem with this idea is that the Bible does not speak of such a call. In fact, in this very same letter to the Romans, Paul asserts that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word” (Romans 10), and uses this argument to underscore the importance of going out and preaching the Gospel to all men. Even in the miraculous accounts of Scripture, we see that God calls His prophets and heroes, not through some mystical, internal feeling, but by appealing to their senses of sight, hearing and touch – by spoken word, in visions, by appearing as a burning bush, or a cloud of fire, by striking men blind, and so on.
We should reject Sproul’s argument for election / predestination for at least three reasons:
First, it is dangerous to assert hidden language in Scripture. The essence of this argument is to suggest that somehow God’s words were imperfectly transmitted to and recorded by His chosen authors – an approach that sounds eerily similar to the tactics the serpent used to deceive Eve in the Garden of Eden ( Genesis 3:1: “Did God really say…?”).
Second, it is unfathomable to me how anyone who is not God could dismiss out of hand the role God’s omniscience and omnipresence might have played in His decision to create the universe as He did, and might play into His dealings with mankind and with individual men and women. When we consider that God is not bound by time (John 8:58, and that there is not a single thought that goes through our heads or a single word we speak that God didn’t know about before we were born (Psalm 139), it seems rather foolish to try and describe His sovereignty apart from these attributes.
Lastly (for now), the Reformed line of reasoning on this issue fails to take into account the clear expression in Scripture of God’s desire that, not some, but all men be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). The doctrine forces upon its adherents a God who is double-minded and says one thing while doing another – an attribute I would be very hesitant to ascribe to the Almighty.
The point that Sproul and others seem to miss in their exegesis of Romans 8:29-30 is that these verses appear, not in the midst of a dissertation on God’s sovereignty, but in the context of a message of hope to believers who were suffering cruelly at the hands of their pagan rulers. The point of the passage is not that God arbitrarily saves some while passing over others, but that God is a God who makes good on His promises, and that the suffering we endure, whether at the hands of our cruel neighbors or as a result of our own sinful behavior, pales when compared to the glory we will witness and the reward we will receive when our Lord welcomes us into the eternal Kingdom.
In their argument against any possibility that human free choice plays any part in their salvation, Reformed apologists often present yet another false dichotomy in defense of their flawed theology: If you do not believe in the Calvinist position on election, you must be a Pelagian or a Semi-Pelagian. Pelagius was a 4th century philosopher who argued against the doctrine that original sin has tainted the human race and asserted that it was possible, however difficult, to lead a sin-free life – an idea clearly refuted in Scripture (See Romans 5). Semi-Pelagians are defined as those who believe that, though all are tainted by sin, it is possible to initiate one’s own salvation by seeking God - even before God seeks us – again an idea refuted by Scripture (see Romans 3:11). So, according to the Reformed argument, one must either believe that man has no choice whatsoever as to whether to believe in Christ; or one must believe that man initiates his own faith in Christ, rather than responding to Christ initiating a call to us. There is no room for the possibility that God seeks us out while giving us the freedom to receive or to reject His gracious offer of salvation.
To illustrate the ridiculousness of this false dichotomy, and of the Reformed position on election in general, allow me to paint a scene for you:
You are a poor working class person in a small town. You have a vague notion that other - perhaps even wonderful - places exist outside your small world, but the concerns of day-to-day living have eliminated the possibility of ever visiting any of these places from your consciousness.
One day, a close friend confides in you that he or she has been saving money away and now has enough to go and see Europe! Not only that, but your friend has enough to take two people and would like for you to come along!
Suddenly, the possibility of seeing new things opens up before your eyes. After a few moments’ consideration, you wonder why you are even hesitating and you joyfully accept your friend’s gracious offer.
Now, according to Reformed theologians, this scene (as applied to soteriology) could not possibly play out this way. Either you are a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian, in which case the only ways the scene could have played out is with your either saving your own money to go to Europe (actually never making it), or with you finding out your friend is going to Europe and begging him or her to take you there. On the other hand, if you are rightly Reformed in your thinking, the scene would have played out with your friend kidnapping you and dragging you to Europe, whether you wished to go or not (or perhaps would express the fond wish that you could go, but then purposely schedule the trip at a time when you could not possibly make it).
Acceptance of the Calvinist doctrine of election leads us to another scary possibility – one that has been acknowledged by well–respected Reformed scholars, such as Sproul and J.I. Packer. Since we cannot know for certain we are elect, we must acknowledge the possibility that we may think we have saving faith in Christ, when in reality, we do not, and are under a deluding influence that will hold us blind to our predicament until we face the throne of judgment and it is too late. The only way to have at least some assurance in this life, according to Reformed theology, is to manifest the visible signs of conversion – typically described in terms of service to Christ and obedience to the moral Law of God. Since none of us do this perfectly, none can have perfect assurance of their salvation (more on this in the future installment on Perseverance of the Saints – the “P” in the TULIP).
My friends, you do not have to go through life worrying about whether you are one of the elect or whether you are just a fake believer. The Bible offers simple assurance to those who wish to spend eternity in the presence of the Lord:
When the Philippian jailer became aware that his sinful actions had incurred God’s wrath, he fell on his face and asked the question of Paul and Silas “Sirs; what must I do to be saved?” They replied “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16). Peter offered the same simple formula to the Jews who had realized that they had crucified their own Messiah. The letter to the Hebrews defines faith very simply as “assurance of things not seen.”
If you are here reading this today, chances are that you already recognize that you are an imperfect sinner. This is a part of repentance, but not the whole thing. We can resolve to do better in the future – to avoid sin and live better. This is a form of repentance, but it is not the repentance of which Peter spoke in Acts 2. True repentance involves recognizing that we are really sinful inside and out, and that we cannot be good enough to earn a place in heaven. True repentance involves changing our mind about our own goodness and recognizing that we need a savior. True repentance involves changing our mind about who Christ is and recognizing that He is Lord and Savior – and placing our trust completely in Him and our eternal destiny in His hands alone. If we have done this, Christ Himself says that we already have eternal life (John 3:16, 5:24).