Sin, Reprobation and Foreknowledge: The Calvinists’ Attempt to Have Their Cake and Eat it Too

The doctrine of the unconditional election of a part, necessarily implies the unconditional reprobation of the rest. I know some who hold to the former, seem to deny the latter; for they represent God as reprobating sinners, in view of their sins. When all were sinners, they say God passed by some, and elected others. Hence, they say the decree of damnation against the reprobates is just, because it is against sinners. But this explanation is virtually giving up the system, inasmuch as it gives up all the principal arguments by which it is supported. In the first place, it makes predestination dependent on foreknowledge; for God first foresees that they will be sinners, and then predestinates them to punishment. Here is one case then, in which the argument for Calvinian predestination is destroyed by its own supporters. But again if God must fix by his decree all parts of his plan, in order to prevent disappointment, then he must fix the destiny of the reprobates, and the means that lead to it. But if he did not do this, then the Calvinistic argument in favour of predestination, drawn from the Divine plan, falls to the ground. Once more: this explanation of the decree of reprobation destroys all the strongest Scripture arguments which the Calvinists urge in favour of unconditional election.” (Calvinistic Controversy: Embracing A Sermon On Predestination And Election, And Several Numbers, Formally Published In The Christian Advocate And Journal, By Rev. Wilbur Fisk, D. D.)

The Calvinist who wants to claim that the condemnation of the reprobate is conditioned on their sinfulness while the salvation of the elect is conditioned on nothing at all run into serious problems regarding the typical Calvinist accounting of foreknowledge and the exhaustive pre-determinations of a divine secret eternal decree.  If the decree is the basis for foreknowledge (as traditional Calvinism asserts), and therefore the means by which God foreknows anything, then it must be admitted that God irresistibly decreed the sinfulness of the reprobate from eternity, just as He decreed all else, and it is only because of God’s eternal decree that He is able to foreknow the state of the reprobate as sinful (because He previously decreed that it must be that way).

So the reprobate finds himself in a sinful state for no other reason than because God irresistibly decreed it from eternity.  If that is the case it is nonsense to say that God’s decree for the reprobate is based on them being considered as rebellious and deserving of condemnation already.  And as Fisk points out, it cuts against the typical Calvinist argument concerning the nature of foreknowledge, that it is based on the eternal decree.  And in doing so, it affirms the Arminian view that God has foreknowledge of true contingencies that are not based on the necessity of an irresistible eternal decree.

This is the same problem that Calvinists encounter who want to claim that Adam had libertarian free will (LFW) when he fell in the garden after the pattern of what Augustine taught (which is often quoted or paraphrased by Calvinists),

God holds us accountable because we were included in Adam so far as God is concerned.  Adam was our source, our representative, our “head.”  When he rebelled and fell into death and condemnation, we all fell with him.  Before he fell, Adam had the power not to sin; after he fell, he lost that power.  We are born in the condition of Adam after the fall: unable not to sin. (God in Dispute: “Conversations” Among Great Christian Thinkers, by Roger E. Olson, pg. 93)

Or as R.C. Sproul puts it in Chosen by God,

The Reformed view follows the thinking of Augustine.  Augustine spells out the state of Adam before the fall and the state of mankind after the fall.  Before the fall Adam was endowed with two possibilities: He had the ability to sin and the ability to not sin…stated another way, it means that after the fall man was morally incapable of living without sin.  The ability to live without sin was lost in the fall.  This moral inability is the essence of what we call original sin. (pg. 65)

Clearly, the claim is that Adam had the “ability” and “power” to avoid temptation in the garden and “not sin.”  That is an apt description of libertarian free will: the power of contrary choice.  But if Adam did not have to sin in the garden, then how did God foreknow that He would indeed sin?

This is no problem for the Arminian who claims that God has the ability to foreknow libertarian free will choices.  But this is precisely what traditional Calvinists deny.  Instead, they say that God can only foreknow what He first decrees.  If that is the case, then Adam had no power to not sin since God irresistibly decreed from eternity that he would sin.  Clearly, Adam could not have the power to act contrary to the irresistible eternal decree of God (by definition you cannot resist the irresistible).  This leads to major theological problems for the Calvinist who claims that Adam had libertarian free will prior to the fall, but this power was lost by all after the fall (following Augustine).  He would need to affirm that:

1) God could not foreknow Adam’s sin (if it were truly free), or

2) Admit that God can indeed have foreknowledge of libertarian free will choices and that not all of what God foreknows is based on a prior decree

#1 puts the Calvinist in the arms of Open Theism

#2 puts the Calvinist in the arms of Arminianism

On this score, the Calvinist simply cannot have his cake and eat it too

So if foreknowledge of libertarian free will choices be denied, the oft repeated argument that God’s decision to reprobate was justly in view of mankind’s sin and rebellion must fall (as Fisk notes above).

And if foreknowledge of libertarian free will choices be affirmed (as it must be to claim that Adam did not have to sin in the garden), then the arguments against Arminianism based on the incompatibility of free will and foreknowledge must fall (as well as arguments that try to paint LFW as logically absurd).

The only way to avoid the horns here is to accept the view that Adam’s fall was irresistibly predetermined by God and Adam’s posterity are therefore sinful and rebellious by divine necessity so that God’s decision of reprobation cannot be based on a sinful state that God simply found them in (of their own accord), and justly left them in as a result.  Instead, it is a state that God Himself necessitated by way of an irresistible eternal decree.  The reprobate has no power over his depraved state or over his actions, and never did.  So reprobation can only be based on raw decree, which includes the fall of Adam and the sinful state and actions of all his posterity.

Related: Calvinism on the Horns: The Problem of Divine Foreknowledge in Calvinism And Why You Should be an Arminian

John Piper on God Ordaining All Sin And Evil Part 1: An Arminian Response to Piper’s First “Question”

Does 2 Thessalonians 2:13 Support Calvinism?

Since this passage often comes up in discussions of election and is often put forward as evidence for the Calvinist view, I thought I would share this brief Q & A from the ??Questions?? page,

Question: Can you tell me how you view 2Th 2:13? Thanks.

Answer: That passage comes up as supporting Calvinism some times, but I think a careful reading of the language supports Arminianism better than Calvinism (as is so often the case). First, Paul says that they were “chosen” through…belief in the truth. That would most naturally be understood as faith being the means through which they were chosen (just as we are saved by grace through faith). So basically, we have a passage that says they were chosen “through faith” which is exactly what Arminianism claims, and is counter to the Calvinist view that we are chosen unto faith.

Now Paul also says they were chosen through sanctification, but we know that sanctification and the reception of the Spirit that sanctifies us is also by faith in Scripture (Acts 26:18; Gal. 3:2, 5, 14). We are “set apart” to God and marked out as belonging to Him through the reception of the Spirit of promise, and all of this is through faith.

The other issue is “from the beginning” in this passage, which probably has reference to the beginning of Paul’s ministry among the Thessalonians (there is no reason to take it as a reference to eternity or the beginning of time as Calvinists often do). It would be like saying. “from the very start, you were receptive to God’s working among you, receiving God’s salvation and becoming His people through faith and the sanctification of the Spirit.” There is also a textual variant issue at play in this passage which has “chosen as first fruits” rather than “from the beginning” here, which might convey the same basic idea of them being the first to embrace the Gospel in Paul’s ministry in that area.

Grace For All: The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation (Book Review)

John D. Wagner has produced  an updated and expanded version of “Grace Unlimited”, originally edited by the late Clark H. Pinnock.  This updated version is called “Grace For All: The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation.”  This newer version contains several new essays along with some changes and heavy editing of  a few essays that appeared in the original version.

Essays that remain from the original version include: “God’s Universal Salvific Grace” by Vernon Grounds; “Conditional Election” by Jack Cottrell; “The Spirit of Grace (Heb. 10:27)” by William G. McDonald, updated and expanded by editor John D. Wagner; “Predestination in the Old Testament” by David A. Clines; “Predestination in the New Testament” by I. Howard Marshall; “Exegetical Notes on Calvinist Texts” and “Soteriology: Perseverance and Apostasy in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” both by Grant Osborne, and “God’s Promise and Universal History: The Theology of Romans 9” by James D. Strauss, updated and expanded by editor John D. Wagner.

For the purposes of this review I will focus on the new material and make some closing comments that will address some of the older material as well.

The first essay in this new volume is “Arminianism is God Centered Theology”, written by Roger Olson.  In this section Olson clears up many misconceptions and misrepresentations of Arminian Theology commonly propagated by Calvinist authors and those who simply have not carefully studied the subject.  In doing so, Olson convincingly demonstrates that Arminian Theology is thoroughly Evangelical and grace oriented.

Another new essay in the volume is “Calvinism and Problematic Readings of the New Testament Texts Or, Why I Am Not a Calvinist” by Glenn Shellrude.  This is an excellent essay which looks at numerous Biblical texts and the overall tenor of Scripture against the backdrop of Calvinist determinism.  Shellrude succeeds in showing that one cannot read or understand Scripture in any coherent manner when the fundamental presuppositions of Calvinist determinism are in view.

Picirilli’s contribution on “The Intent and Extent of Christ’s atonement” focuses on the exegesis of the many key texts that point towards an unlimited provisional atonement in accordance with God’s love for the world and desire to save all.  Picirilli does an  excellent job showing how these texts support the Arminian view and are simply incompatible with the Calvinist “limited atonement” claims.

The next new essay in the volume is J. Matthew Pinson’s “Jacob Arminius: Reformed and Always Reforming” which looks at Arminius and his Theology in historical context and how his Theology is thoroughly “reformed” despite being at odds with Calvinism on many crucial points.  Like Olson’s essay, this essay serves as an important corrective to so many false views and claims about Arminius and his Theology.

Another new contribution comes from Fundamental Wesleyan scholar Vic Reasoner which focuses on John Wesley’s attention to  grace in his own articulation of Arminian Theology called: “John Wesley’s Doctrines of the Theology of Grace.”  Not surprisingly, Dr. Reasoner spends a good deal of time describing Wesley’s view of entire sanctification and it’s relation to God’s powerful working of grace in the hearts and lives of believers.

The final essay that is new to this updated volume is Steve Witzki’s “Saving Faith: The Act of a Moment or the Attitude of a Life Time?” which argues strongly for the need of continuance in faith to reach final salvation.  While Witzki’s essay argues against  any Theology that would deny the possibility of apostasy, he especially takes aim at the popular and very dangerous version of “Once Saved, Always Saved” that would deny the need for perseverance in faith at all, claiming that an initial moment of genuine faith is all that is needed to guarantee one’s eternal place in heaven regardless of any subsequent eventuality, including loss of faith and rejection of Christ.  Witzki’s exegetical work is devastating to this dangerous  and surprisingly popular “saved regardless” view of eternal security.

Overall, this is a great effort by editor and contributor John D. Wagner,  pulling solid essays from the original “Grace Unlimited” and many newer essays of several contemporary and important Arminian writers together in order to take this work to a whole new level.  My only complaint would be that the corporate election view as articulated by such notable scholars as Brian Abasciano and William Klein was not represented in this new volume.  However, Wagner does incorporate some minor elements of this view in his contribution to the essay on Romans 9, while still not fully capturing the essence of this view as articulated by the best proponents of the view like Abasciano, Klein and Shank.

I also found it disappointing to see Dr. Jack Cottrell representing the Arminian election view in his essay since, despite the name of the new volume referencing “The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation”, Cottrell is not, himself, an Arminian, as he denies two key features of Arminianism: total depravity and the need for enabling grace to overcome that depravity in order to make a faith response possible.  For those reasons, Cottrell’s soteriology is more  properly classified as semi-Pelagian  and not “Arminian.”  And while Cottrell does  a good job describing the classical Arminian “election by foreknowledge”  view in his essay, he also unfairly dismisses the corporate election view and demonstrates that he does not fully understand the view he is rejecting in his brief interactions with Robert Shank’s work “Elect in the Son.”

Despite Cottrell’s misunderstanding of the corporate view and the fact that a key contributor to this volume on Arminian Theology is not even Arminian,  this updated volume is a huge improvement over the original publication and is a valuable resource for anyone who is interested in the topic of Arminian Theology.

Great Quotes: Richard Watson on John 17

It has been urged, indeed, that our Lord himself says, “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me.” (John xvii 9). But will they here interpret “the world” to be the world of the elect? If so, they cut even them off from the prayers of Christ. But if by “the world” they would have us understand the world of the non-elect, they they will find that all the prayers which our Lord puts up for those whom “the Father hath given him,” had this end, “that they,” the non-elect “world,” “may believe that thou hast sent me:” (verse 21) let them choose either side of the alternative. The meaning of this passage is, however, made obvious by the context. Christ, in the former part of his intercession, as recorded in this chapter, prays exclusively, not for his church in all ages, but for his disciples then present with him; as appears plain from verse 12: “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in they name.” But he was only with his first disciples, and for them he exclusively prays in the first instance; then, in verse 20, he prays for all who, in future, should believe on him through their words; and he does this in order that “the world,” in its largest sense, is not cut off, but expressly included in the benefits of this prayer.

Related: Great Follow-up Comments by David Martinez on the Recent Conversation Between James White and Austin Fischer

Dr. Brian Abasciano Critiques James White’s Argument That Acts 13:48 Proves Unconditional Election

Brian Abasciano, James White’s Faulty Treatment of the Greek and Context of Acts 13:48

Excerpt:

So really, White’s argument is very weak. Sometimes it seems that some are convinced by arguments like these because an author gives concrete reasons and mentions Greek, but that they do not necessarily think through the arguments well enough. In the midst of White talking about the mysterious sounding Greek pluperfect, he says it would have to apply to such and such a point in the narrative, though without any foundation for doing so, and his following naturally believe it. But the argument is not sound.

Related: Acts 13:48: Two Non-Calvinist Views

Reproof: Recent Book Looking to Re-Package Calvinism With a Fresh New Acronym (PROOF) is Reviewed by a Former Calvinist

Former Calvinist, Doug Sayers, gives a concise and irenic review of the recently released Calvinist book, PROOF.

Excerpt:

It is a fair criticism to say that PROOF is a one-sided cherry picking of the biblical texts that would seem to support their teaching with very little time devoted to the texts that present Calvinism with its biggest problems. This may work among those who don’t read the Bible very much but thoughtful Bible students will come upon many texts which will not jibe with PROOF’s inferences. For example, a careful study of scripture will reveal that there are no texts which teach clearly (or by necessary inference) that Jesus did not die for some people. If there was such a text in the Bible you can be sure that all Calvinists would be rallying around it like desperate bees on a lone flower.

Do Arminians Really Pray Like Calvinists?

It is often said by Calvinists that when Arminians pray, they pray like Calvinists. Typically this is expressed in such a way as to imply that while Arminians may deny the theological claims of Calvinism, they affirm Calvinism in the way that they pray. The Calvinist assumes that when Arminians pray for God to work or to save the lost we are praying for God to work irresistibly. But why should that be the case? Prayer is relational and if it is true that we are asking God to work in people’s lives, even bringing them to salvation against the backdrop of relational assumptions, then we have no reason to expect God to act irresistibly in response to such prayers. Why should it be assumed that if someone asks God to save a loved one that the person praying is expecting God to do so in an irresistible manner? This isn’t what such things would imply in our normal experiences, so why should we think that way with regards to prayer? Dr. Brian Abasciano makes this point well,

 …respectfully, I strongly disagree that as Arminians we should not pray for God to save people or that it is inconsistent with Arminian theology to do so.

It is all a matter of what is meant by such prayer. We use such language in everyday life all the time of resistible action. What corroboration is there for such language naturally implying a request for irresistible action? The evidence of actual language usage counters the automatic assumption of irresistible action. If I ask my son to take a visitor in our home to the bathroom, that does not mean to overpower them and force them into the bathroom. It means something like, “show them where the bathroom is and lead them there as long as they *willingly follow you*. Similarly, if I say to my son, “Please bring your mother here,” I certainly don’t mean, “get your mother here at all costs; overpower her and drag her here if necessary.” I simply mean something like, “let your mother know I want her to come here.” Or if I ask my friend to pick up my wife from the doctor’s office, that does not mean “force her into the car and drive her back to my home.” Such examples could be multiplied. One more. If a morally upright store owner tells his salesman to sell an item to a customer, he does not mean to do whatever is necessary to make the sale, including drugging the person and coercing them to buy the item, or overpowering them, taking their checkbook, and writing the check out himself, or kidnapping their family and holding them hostage in exchange for buying the item, or anything of the kind. “Sell them this item” or “make the sale”, simply means, “do all you can do that is not coercive or in violation of their free will to persuade them to buy the item.”

Similarly, when we ask God to save someone, we do not mean, “Take over their will and irresistibly cause them to believe and so be saved.” We mean something like, “Take action to lead them resistibly and willingly to believe in Jesus,” which would include any number of actions God might take. Olson mentions God bringing circumstances into their lives that will increase their awareness of their need of God and of his love and power to save them. Yes, that. But there are so many more things God might do that would work toward leading people toward faith in Christ. Be that as it may, I would argue that in a context in which there is the assumption of the honoring of free will, then such language implies a request for resistible action rather than irresistible action. If an Arminian prays for someone’s salvation, then it should be assumed that the prayer is for resitible action for the person’s salvation.

In my opinion, to discourage praying in such a way is needless, ignores this normal use of language, and limits our proper expression to God in prayer. It also fails to rightly grasp the critical issue of the meaning behind words and assumes a Calvinistic meaning for language that is completely compatible with an Arminian understanding. Indeed, it is biblical language–as Paul says in Rom 10:1, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation” (NASB)–and I think it would be very unwise to concede this language to Calvinists, just as it is unwise to let them own the terminology “doctrines of grace” (the *biblical* doctrines of grace = Arminianism).

So the important thing is what the person means by their prayer for God to save. I disagree that asking God to save someone is an incorrect or misleading way to express a request that God work resistibly for someone’s salvation. Indeed, I would argue that it is a perfectly natural and biblical way to pray for this. God, please save the lost! (From: Arminians Can be Consistent and Pray for God to Save the Lost; note that Abasciano’s comments were in response to some posts written by Arminian Roger Olson)

Old time Methodist theologian and philosopher, Daniel Whedon, argued in a similar manner long ago, pointing out that certain things are presupposed when either a Calvinist or an Arminian makes requests of God,

Calvinists often claim that the prayers even of Arminians presuppose that God may at any time consistently with his administrative system convert any man they are praying for, or even the world, at any moment. But in this matter Calvinists truly contradict themselves. They pray, as the result often shows, that God would do contrary to his own sovereign election. Their prayer, though itself decreed, is often against God’s decrees. They pray that God would act contrary to the strongest motive; which they say God has no moral power to do. That is, they commit these contradictions unless all prayer is considered as offered under the proviso that what is asked for be consistent with the Divine Will, and is in fact asked for so far only as allowable by the fundamental laws of God’s administration. Not my will, but thine be done, tacitly or expressly limits and underlies every true prayer.

And such a proviso as fully explains the prayer of the Arminian as of the Calvinist. When an Arminian prays that God would awaken the public mind to repentance, or convert an individual, or spread the Gospel through the world, and turn all men’s hearts to righteousness, he thereby expresses his earnest desire that such things be accomplished in accordance with fundamental laws. Just as when he prays that a temporal blessing may be bestowed, as health restored, or life preserved, he usually expects no unequivocal miracle, but trusts that it may be done in such way as Infinite Wisdom may devise in accordance with the constitution of things; and that on the condition of his prayer it may be ordered otherwise than if such prayer were not offered. We know not how far the prayer of the saints is a condition to the goings forth or putting forth of God, nor how fully he requires the co-operation of his Church, in order to render possible such displays of his truth as will convince the unbelieving, and such impressions by his Spirit as the free wills of men in process of time will, it is foreseen, accept and obey. Certainly man’s Will and not God’s remissness has prevented the complete good of the world. (Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner, 119)

As Whedon points out, unless a Calvinist brings certain presuppositions to his prayers with him, he may indeed be praying contrary to the will of God. Since the identity of the elect is hidden, the Calvinist cannot know if the subject of his prayer is one that God desires to save or one that God has decreed to forever leave in his or her hopeless state. They might pray for countless hours for the salvation of someone who God has decreed from eternity to reprobate and has no desire to save. Indeed, they might be praying for God to save someone who, as the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 would have us believe, has likewise been hated by God from the womb and been made an irrevocable vessel of wrath doomed for destruction. This is a difficulty that seems out of line with passages like Rom. 10:1 or 1 Timothy 2:1-6. Furthermore, 1 Timothy makes it clear that we should offer prayers for all people because God desires all to be saved and because Christ died for all. So the Arminian has Biblical warrant for praying for the lost and knows that in doing so he is always praying in line with the will of God.

But what of the Calvinist? If they interpret 1 Timothy 2:1-6 to mean “some among all kinds” or “some among all classes”, then in what way should they pray? Should they say: “God I pray for some among all men to be saved?” Or should they pray: “God, I pray that you will save all of the elect from among the various classes of men in the world?” Such prayers, driven by the Calvinist approach to such passages, illustrate again that the Calvinist shouldn’t pray for the salvation of any specific person because he cannot know that it is actually God’s will to save that person.

Furthermore, if Calvinism is true, it is hard to understand why one should even bother to engage in intercessory prayer at all. In Calvinism, God has already pre-determined from eternity which persons will be saved and which persons will be damned. That eternal decree is unchangeable, and that decree was not made in response to the prayers of yet uncreated people, who will in fact be created for one destiny or the other in such a way that nothing could possibly work to change that destiny. The person the Calvinist prays for is either elect or reprobate, and nothing can change that. No amount of praying can bring salvation to the reprobate, and no lack of prayer can prevent the elect from being finally saved. It would seem that the Calvinist prayer cannot possibly accomplish anything since eternal destinies cannot possibly change in any way.

Some Calvinists reply that such prayer may yet serve as the ordained means by which God saves the elect, but also maintain that God is in no way influenced by our prayers. It is, therefore, hard to understand how prayer can be a means to salvation, if those prayers can have no possible impact on God or His predetermination to save some and reprobate others. If prayer really plays no part in whether God will save or not, then how can it be a “means” towards accomplishing salvation? As one commenter responding to a post written to help understand and defend prayer in Calvinism well said,

While God knowing everything is consistent with prayer, God planning everything in the Calvinistic sense of unconditionally decreeing it is not. Calvinism cannot account for the Bible’s portrayal of prayer as a cause of God’s answers to prayer because it holds that God unconditionally decides all that he wants to happen and then irresistibly causes it to come to pass, including the prayer that supposedly causes him to respond to it with action that grants the request. It would be like saying that with putting a sock puppet on your hand and having the puppet ask you to do something, that the request made by the sock puppet is a cause of you doing what you had the sock puppet ask you to do. (link)

This observation is important because it highlights how Calvinism, if consistently held, can serve to undermine one’s motivation for prayer (and this eventual lack of motivation to pray is something we often see reported by former Calvinists). If all things are decreed by God from eternity, then whether we pray or not, it is likewise decreed and can have no impact on whether anyone is ultimately saved or lost. A Calvinist can still pray because he thinks it his duty as a Christian or because he thinks it has certain personal spiritual benefits, but petitionary prayer still seems essentially useless since it can have no impact on anything since God has already decreed whatsoever will come to pass from eternity (including any such ineffective petitionary prayers that might be prayed).

So it seems to me that if Arminian prayer has difficulty, Calvinist prayer has far more difficulty. And while Arminians can pray for the lost knowing that such prayers are in line with God’s desire to save everyone and Christ’s provision of atonement for everyone, Calvinists cannot. While Arminians can make sense of why Paul’s heartfelt desire was for his fellow Jews to be saved (and in the context of Romans 9-11, Paul is speaking of the same Jews that Calvinists insist were reprobated and “hated” by God from eternity), Calvinists struggle to make sense of Paul’s anguish.

But if Arminianism is true and God desires all to be saved, why should prayer move God to act anymore than He would already be moved to act? The answer seems to be that as a relational God who so strongly values genuine inter-relational interactions, He wants us to be a part of the process (we are co-laborers with Him, 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 6:1) . He wants us involved. He wants us to demonstrate our own love and concern for others by petitioning Him for others which further glorifies Him in that it is an example of His love expressed freely in us for others. We reflect His love in our efforts to bring people to Christ and in our prayers for the salvation of the lost, efforts and prayers that are themselves empowered by God with a view towards seeing all saved.