Limited Atonement and the Divine Command to Believe Falsehood

(Revised 11/30/2014, removed a paragraph with little relevance and revised/expanded the conclusion. Much thanks to members of the Society of Evangelical Arminians for their feedback)

When Christians who aren’t from a Calvinist tradition hear about limited atonement, something usually seems entirely wrong about the idea. Indeed, in the face of having no clear biblical data to support such an idea, a substantial body of passages that seem to indicate just the opposite, along with numerous logical difficulties, something just seems entirely wrong with the idea that Christ didn’t die for the sins of a great many people.

Many times, an incorrect belief by itself isn’t particularly harmful, but if taken to its inevitable conclusions, tends to produce great inconsistencies. Limited atonement, if taken in conjunction with the common Calvinist beliefs about the gospel call, inevitably leads to the conclusion that God commands people to believe falsehood. I’ll start by postulating and defending the necessary premises.

Premise 1: God’s command for the non-elect to believe the gospel requires that they must believe that Christ can save them.

For the first part of the premise, we need only establish that the command to believe is given to all, including the non-elect (if limited atonement is true, the term ‘non-elect’ here describes the people for whom Christ did not die to save). Surprisingly, despite their belief in limited atonement, Calvinists are usually among the first to agree that the everyone, elect and non-elect, are commanded by God to believe the gospel.

“First, the preaching of Paul goes out to all, both Jews and Greeks. This is the general call of the gospel. It offers salvation to all who will believe on the crucified Christ. But by and large it falls on unreceptive ears and is called foolishness.” (John Piper, What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism)

“I can proclaim God’s command to repent and believe to all men, and I can do so with passion, not because I pretend to look into God’s heart and mind, but because I know the reality of God’s wrath, the sin of man, and I believe implicitly the promise of God that anyone who turns in faith to Christ will be saved.” (James White, “Phil Johnson on ‘Desire'”)

“If we take the command to believe, with the promise of life upon so doing, for an offer of mercy, there is an eternal truth in it; which is, that God will assuredly bestow life and salvation upon all believers, the proffers being immediately declarative of our duty; secondly, of the concatenation of faith and life, and not at all of God’s intention towards the particular soul to whom the proffer is made….” (John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ)

“The commission He has given His servants is to preach the Gospel to every creature, and they certainly have not fully obeyed until they bid their hearers “Repent ye, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Whom God quickens, is His own affair; ours is to faithfully warn the unsaved, to show wherein their sins consists (enmity against God), to bid them to throw down the weapons of their warfare against Him, to call upon them to repent (Acts 17:30), to proclaim the One who receives all who come to Him in faith.” (A.W. Pink, Duty-Faith)

“It is a command to enter and not to enter is disobedience. That is why judgment falls on those, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, “The retribution of God comes to those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. You obey because the gospel is a command. When you share the gospel, you command people to believe. You command people to repent so that it is crystal clear that what they have done is obey or disobey. That’s why I say invitation is not a word that is consistent with commanding. Better to finish your sermon with a command than an invitation.” (John MacArthur, “Two Paths, One Way”)

“We see that God commands men everywhere to repent, Acts 17:30, but it is God who grants repentance 2 Timothy 2:25. We see that God commands people to believe in him yet he opens their hearts to believe, as he did with Lydia in Acts 16:14….” (Matt Slick, Matt Slick vs Lou Rugg Discussion on difficult questions)

It seems that only a far-left-field-hyper-Calvinist could deny that the command to believe is given to everyone. Slick’s comment cites a key passage that makes it clear that the command to believe the gospel is for everyone, everywhere.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent…” (Acts 17:30)

Disobeying such a command is mentioned as being among the reasons that sinners are condemned.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:18)

The command from God Himself, which goes from the mouths of His servants is for all, even people who ultimately end up being false teachers.

“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” (2 Peter 2:20-21)

Notice that they turned aside from the holy commandment given to them, not a command given only to others.

1b. Obedience to the gospel entails believing that Christ can save you

Christians since the beginning have understood that believing in Christ is more than just assent that He died and rose (as James also notes, even the demons believe that). True and living faith in Christ requires that we trust in His work on the cross, and in Him as our Savior. Herein lies the second part of the premise: that the aforementioned command requires that they believe that Christ can save them. I don’t think any tenable objection can be raised to this point. One cannot trust Christ as his Savior without believing that He has power to save him.

Consider the counter-example of a lost man who has a Calvinist friend that faithfully witnesses to him. Despite not trusting Christ as his Savior, the man is convinced that limited atonement is true, and that Christ died to save some people. He’s convinced by his prior hardness of heart that he’s simply not one of the elect. As he lays dying, his Calvinist friend tries to persuade him to believe, to which he receives the sinner’s final declaration: “Therein lies life for you, but in that cross there is no hope for me.”

This man has accepted what are, according to Calvinism, the correct facts. But has he obeyed the gospel? No. By the measure of any Christian, he has rejected the gospel and rightly incurred eternal condemnation. To actually obey, he would have had to believe that Christ could save him, not just that Christ can save other people.

Thus is our first premise established: God’s command for the non-elect to believe the gospel requires that they must believe that Christ can save them.

Premise 2: If Limited Atonement is true, then the idea that Christ can save the non-elect is a lie.

Many Calvinists don’t like language that Christ cannot save certain people, but that is an inescapable ramification of limited atonement. Christ either can save one through His sacrificial death, or He cannot. Christ cannot save people for whom He did not die to save. The sacrifice has already been offered, there’s no going back and changing who it was for; there is no other sacrifice, and there is no other way. If the non-elect were excluded, that decision has already been made, and cannot be abrogated. It matters not how many sins the sacrifice was sufficient to cover, if its power to save is not applicable to a person, then Christ cannot save that person.

Thus to believe that Christ can save one of the non-elect, if limited atonement be true, would be a falsehood -often called a ‘lie’ when speaking in an objective sense.

Putting it together

Taking our premises,

P1: God’s command for the non-elect to believe the gospel requires that they must believe that Christ can save them.
P2: If Limited Atonement is true, then the idea that Christ can save the non-elect is a lie.
Conclusion: If Limited Atonement is true, God’s command for the non-elect to believe the gospel requires that they must believe a lie.

Conclusion

And herein lies a major inconsistency that holding to limited atonement yields. In short, if 5-point Calvinism is true, then God effectively commands the non-elect to trust in Christ to save them, when He’s already limited Christ’s atoning sacrifice such that He can never save them!

Besides the readily apparent absurdity of God commanding people to believe what is false, such an inconsistency raises other problems: Accepting and obeying the gospel is characterized throughout the New Testament as belief in the truth, while refusing to do so is opposition to the truth (c.f. John 8:32, Romans 2:8, 15:8 Galatians 2:5, 5:7, Colossians 1:5, 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12, 2 Timothy 1:4, 2 Timothy 2:25, 3:8, Titus 1:1, James 5:19). Contrary to that description, if Calvinism is true, then the man in our example above is accepting the objective truth and rejecting a falsehood in his rejection of Christ as his Savior. Worse than that, not only is he believing the truth in his rejection of Christ, but he’s condemned for doing so!

Truly, one’s theology is built on shaky ground if it entails that God condemns men for believing the truth. I for one could not swallow such a preposterous ramification. The word of the Lord, especially the proclamation of the gospel -the holy commandment to trust in Christ for one’s salvation- is not given to induce anyone to believe deception. Christ Himself states,

“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:7)

Calvinists should sustain the admirable zeal to proclaim the gospel to all people. Let us all do that without hampering it with tertiary doctrine that would lead to confusing and unscriptural ideas, such as God commanding a great many of those people to believe a lie.

Double-Talk From a Double Predestinarian

Dr. John Piper recently responded to the question, “What did the death of Jesus on the cross accomplish for the non-elect? Anything?” His reply, oddly, raises more questions than it answers. Despite his views on unconditional election and reprobation, Piper frames his answer in terms of God giving those who aren’t chosen a “chance” at salvation. Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, was identified partially by his unusual, but correct use of an oft-misquoted proverb that’s very applicable here: “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.”

To understand the issue, the reader should understand that Piper is a 5-point Calvinist, and believes that whether one is saved or not is strictly up to the choice of God, with no input from man or conditions fulfilled by man whatsoever, and that God unchangeably chose or rejected each individual before the world was ever made. He also believes that Christ didn’t die for the ones that weren’t chosen in any sort of way by which they could be saved (this is commonly called “limited atonement”), and that whether one accepts the gospel or not is entirely dependent upon whether he has been “regenerated” by God beforehand (per Calvinism, one who is regenerated inevitably will believe the gospel, one who isn’t regenerated never can). With that said, let’s examine Piper’s response.

In one sense, as soon as we sin we should be punished eternally. We shouldn’t get another breath. There should be no reprieve. There should be no time given to us. So clearly then, in some sense, the time given to us is grace. And grace for a sinner requires some kind of payment or purchase or warrant from a holy God. And Christ would be the one who provides that.

So I’m inclined to say, “Yes, the fact that the non-elect, the unbelievers all over the world are still breathing and have another chance to believe is a gift, just like the offer of the gospel is a gift. And that offer is provided by the cross.”

I’m not sure I agree with that logic. I do believe God, in His just nature, punishes sin; and that atonement is required to escape one’s being punished. But now there has to be some sort of payment for delaying that punishment? I also did a double-take when I read this. The guy who regularly stresses double-predestination just used the phrase “chance to believe?” Read on, it gets weirder.

Now here’s the catch. Romans 2:4 says, “Don’t you know that the patience of God is meant to lead you to repentance? But you, by your hard and unrepentant heart, are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when the righteous judgment of God is revealed.”

So if a non-elect person spurns-which they do-they spurn this grace, the grace itself becomes added judgment. Which makes me wonder, “In what sense was it grace?” In some sense it is. It’s a real offer, it’s a real opportunity. But if you spurn it, if you reject it, it backfires and mounts up with greater judgment.

I would agree with Piper’s sentiment that one who spurns God’s grace opens himself up to harsher condemnation. What’s confusing about his answer is his use of terms like “real offer” and “real opportunity.” Per Piper’s own views, whether you will believe and be saved or not has already been unconditionally and immutably settled before you were ever born.

Previously, Piper insinuated that the non-elect are given a “chance to believe” (“chance” apparently not implying randomness, but being used in the idiomatic sense to convey opportunity). But the only “chance” involved is the [to us] unknown factor of whether you are already one of the chosen ones: If you are one of the elect, there’s no chance that you won’t believe; if you’re one of those who have been unconditionally rejected with no possible appeal or recourse, there’s absolutely no chance that you will. And whatever you are, your position as elect or non-elect can’t and won’t change. It’s not a matter of there being a “chance” of backfire for the unchosen in the Calvinistic view, such “grace” cannot do anything but backfire.

It’s like the more kindness is shown to a person that they resist, then the more wicked they show themselves to be. And the more wicked they show themselves to be, the more judgment falls upon them.

I think the answer is yes. I think real grace, real common grace, real offer of salvation-right now, just watching this-is grace. And if you’re a non-Christian, grace is being offered you at this very moment in my warning you that, if you spurn this, judgment will be greater.

Again, I’d largely agree with the sentiment. The question is how can this kind of statement square with Piper’s divinely fatalistic views? It’s also notable that Piper isn’t just talking about how people perceive things, but about things that God intentionally does.

And that’s a gift to you right now that God may be pleased to then use to awaken you to say, “Whoa. I don’t want to multiply my judgment. I want to respond to this moment of grace.”

That’s what I think the upshot of this conversation should be: respond to the grace. You’re alive! There’s still a chance to believe and be saved.

Again, per 5-point Calvinism, if you’re not among those elected to salvation, tough beans. God hasn’t chosen you, Christ didn’t die for you, and the Holy Spirit most certainly won’t regenerate you. You are lost without remedy, condemned already beyond repair, there isn’t a single ray of hope, and you never had a prayer. The accessibility of salvation to you is absolute zero. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. So how can a person to whom salvation isn’t even remotely applicable have any sort of “opportunity” to be saved?

Put even more simply, if Christ didn’t die for the forgiveness of one’s sins in any sense, then there can never be an “opportunity to be saved” for him, because there is no way to be saved unless Christ died to forgive his sins.

Such doublespeak is strong cause to question Piper’s personal theology. If his determinist views are so repugnant that he has to “balance” them with concepts that flatly contradict his doctrine, then he’s essentially embraced cognitive dissonance. If you reject universalism, but believe that God still genuinely offers salvation to all men, then which is more consistent and less convoluted to believe?

1. Christ died provisionally for the sins of all, such that any who believe in Him will be forgiven.

2. Or Piper’s view, where if you’re not one of the elect, you’re given an “opportunity” that you can’t possibly take, to accept an “offer” of salvation from God that isn’t really His will that you accept, just so you’ll have a “chance” to obtain faith that isn’t even accessible to you, wrought by a Savior who didn’t die to forgive your sins, but whose death fortunately did provide “grace” that will inevitably backfire and condemn you even more. Makes perfect sense. Where do I sign?

The Fallacies of Calvinist Apologetics – Fallacies #14: Conditional Election Makes God a Respecter of Persons?

Related Fallacies:
Equivocation

John Hendryx, who we’ve noted has employed numerous fallacies in defense of Calvinism and distortions against Arminianism, is at it yet again. This time he’s trying to prove that it’s conditional election, not unconditional election, that makes God into a “respecter of persons.” Before I address his points, I believe that the idea that God is impartial has to be defined and qualified carefully: God being impartial does not mean that He treats everyone exactly the same in every respect, nor does it imply that He gives the same circumstances or blessings to everyone. Scriptural references to God’s impartiality appear to refer primarily to how He makes His judgments of men’s hearts and actions, and how He accepts people who fear Him. It doesn’t imply God having some kind of warped, hyper-egalatarian mentality where He ensures everyone’s lot in life is exactly on par. Having examined the issue myself, I think it would be difficult to make a solid case for either conditional or unconditional election violating the principle of God’s impartial judgment in scripture, since election isn’t really the same thing as judgment. However, Hendryx seems to think this does make a good case against Arminianism, and so he tries to paint Arminian doctrine as making God into a respecter of persons, while exonerating his own doctrine. As we shall see, this is one of the worst possible maneuvers, and backfires on him badly.

Redefining Partiality

Hendryx cites Leviticus 19:15, Proverbs 24:23, 1 Peter 1:17, Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, and James 2:1-9 among others, to prove that God is impartial. Quoting him,

They are clearly warning the believer against showing favoritism or partiality, because they declare that God Himself does not show partiality or favoritism. And. most importantly, in each of these instances it means neither we nor God give special treatment to a person because of his position, merit, wealth, influence, social standing, authority or popularity. Thus ‘respecter of persons’ means we are not to favor one person over the other because of ANY superior personal trait in the one favored, and likewise we are not to show prejudice toward those who lack these characteristics.

Hendryx’s definition of “respecter of persons” is too narrow: to show respect to persons extends beyond just showing favoritism due to superficial personal traits, it implies special treatment based upon any unobjective, uneven or irrelevant criteria. Let’s give an example: Suppose a judge renders his verdict in a case, but bases his decision not upon guilt or innocence, but upon how much he personally likes the plaintiff and defendant. Is that showing partiality? It most certainly is. Keep that in mind as we continue….

So when God unconditionally elects a person in Christ does he first determine who he will choose based on their position, wealth, good looks, influence etc? No.

We’re agreed on that point.

By definition unconditional election means unconditional. It is not conditioned on ANYTHING in us or potentially in us.

This is also technically correct. Judgments are to be based upon what is actually done (guilt, innocence, or other objective criteria pertaining to action), not personal traits.

God does not stand to gain from currying anyone’s favor … even those who are in high positions … because God gave them that position, wealth, authority or social standing to begin with. The Bible unambiguously teaches, therefore, that God is no respecter of persons in election. Those who are chosen are chosen “in Christ” not because God is thinking about what he has to gain by helping them over others.. God has no need for such things, so, by definition, his choosing us cannot be tainted with such a motive.

This is something of a non-sequitur: having a motive of personal gain is one way to show partiality, but is by no means the only way. Proving that God has need of nothing and that He doesn’t judge on the basis of material gain or influence doesn’t automatically establish impartiality. Looking at our example of the judge above, if asked why he rendered the verdict that he did, which responses would indicate partiality or impartiality?

“The evidence that came out in the proceedings made it overwhelmingly clear.” – impartial
“Multiple eyewitness accounts establish this beyond reasonable doubt.” – impartial
“The argument was logically sound and airtight.” – impartial
“I rendered judgment strictly as the law dictates.” – impartial
“I scratch his back, he’ll scratch mine!” – partial (motive of personal gain; but there are plenty more than just this)
“He looked guilty.” – partial
“I just had a feeling.” – partial
“He’s my nephew.” – partial
“The other guy made his case much more eloquently.” – partial
“I don’t like his type.” – partial
“I just wanted to do it that way.” – PARTIAL

Note that the last example is unconditional, a verdict rendered simply by arbitrary fiat (hereafter, just “fiat”). It is not objective, and it therefore doesn’t really matter what other reasons he has for declaring one guilty and the other innocent in such a case, such a ruling is partial. Hendryx refers back to the quote from James 2:1-9,

James question is rhetorical, of course. Because yes indeed God HAS chosen the poor of the world … i.e. those who are spiritually bankrupt who have lost all hope in themselves… S0 God is not looking to benefit from those who are already full, but shows special care those who are empty or impoverished. … So according to the Bible, showing special favor to the poor is the very antithesis of what it means to show favoritism or respect of persons.

Hendryx again displays a misunderstanding of what impartiality is. The quote he cited above from Leviticus declares,

“You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15, NKJV)

Which plainly indicates that it is partiality to show favoritism in judgment to a poor man simply because he is poor. I would instead interpret James as referring to correlation and contrast: people are seldom granted riches in both spiritual and material possessions. Hendryx also unwittingly argues for conditional election in stating,

“[So] God is not looking to benefit from those who are already full, but shows special care those who are empty or impoverished.”

If God elected on that basis, that would still be conditional election, since being empty and impoverished would be a condition to being elect.

So far, Hendryx’s major errors have been in equating partiality as being based upon,
1.) personal traits
2.) motive for personal gain

And in concluding that judgment that isn’t for personal gain must be impartial (which is not necessarily true, since judgment based upon fiat is also partial).

Redefining Synergism

…it is actually those who defend CONDITIONAL election who make God a respecter of persons. This is because, if it were true that meeting some condition prompted God’s decision to elect his people then His choice of them would be based on their wisdom, prudence, sound judgment, or good sense to believe. He would therefore be looking at the character or merit of that person and choosing them because of it.

This is entirely incorrect for one simple reason: election based upon whether one does (or will) believe is not rooted in traits, but action: belief in Christ. Hendryx’s reasoning falls completely apart when applied to actual cases of judgment. If a judge discerns from the evidence that a man is innocent, and declares him “not guilty,” is he showing favoritism because of the man’s “good sense not to commit the crime?” Not at all, his judgment is based upon action, not character. Whether the man is smart, stupid, sensible, foolish, etc, is irrelevant. A just and impartial verdict is based upon the objective criteria of his actions.

The Bible, on the contrary, declares that we are all ill-deserving and, as such, God reserves the right to have mercy on whom he will, which is not based in any way on the will of the flesh (John 1:13; Rom 9:15, 16).

Simply having the right to do what one wishes doesn’t make on impartial, those are separate issues (as supreme power allows for fiat). God is both sovereign and impartial (and therefore doesn’t rule by fiat).

If God is basing his election on who will have faith then this would, in fact, make God a respecter of persons because these persons are meeting God’s criteria in order to be chosen.

In synergism God’s love for his people is not unconditional but is given only when someone meets the right condition… i.e. whether someone has faith or not. He chooses them only if they believe in him. Isn’t that favoritism?

Here is Hendryx’s third major error: basing decisions upon objective and relevant criteria (such as action) is not showing favoritism. Complaining about objective criteria as a basis for decisions is directly analogous to (and exactly as ridiculous as) accusing a judge of partiality in his rulings because he’s “biased in favor of the innocent.” Decisions based upon objective conditions (rather than merely who the persons involved are) are the very epitome of impartial judgment. In labeling that as “favoritism,” Hendryx has the issue completely and totally backwards.

God loves his people because he loves them. Is there some better reason OUTSIDE or ABOVE God that should make him do so? The Arminian would have us think so.

This is also a bit strange, nothing makes God love anyone; He does so freely, and extends saving grace to those who freely believe. And Arminians don’t believe in anything “above” God, so Hendryx seems very confused in his verbiage at this point.

Redefining Conditionality

It is the synergist who believes God shows favoritism or partiality because it is based on whether or not that person meritoriously meets the condition God gives him.

To define believing as a “meritorious” act goes completely against the theology of all major Synergists. Something being a condition does not make it meritorious, as even demeritorious things can be conditions (sin is a condition for damnation). As orthodox Synergists maintain, faith is a condition to salvation, but is of itself of no intrinsic worth or merit. Hendryx is in such a fervor to promote his Calvinist agenda that he’s stooped to badly misrepresenting Synergist theology.

Redefining Context

Hendryx drones on with his ridiculously Westernized canard about parents unconditionally loving their children and making sure they don’t get hit by oncoming traffic (apparently while making sure that the children they don’t like do get run over). He tries to use this analogy to establish that God’s love for His children isn’t conditioned upon things like faith. This is countered easily enough: first, God does love all men in the world unconditionally, which is why Christ was sent (John 3:16, which also specifies the condition of faith for eternal life). Secondly, trying to frame God’s relationship to His children as being strictly analogous to the relationships between human parents and our children is fatally flawed: none of us (apart from Christ) are His children in any sense pertaining to salvation, but we’re rather children of wrath. But the scriptures declare,

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26)

So faith is a condition to even being His child to begin with; Hendryx’s analogy, contrary to Galatians 3, incorrectly assumes that the elect are God’s children in some special sense apart from faith.

So now God is partial?

He leads into this with some minor issues, noting that God is not obligated to save anyone and his choices are always good (I agree). He cites people’s varying circumstances and stations in life, people treating their own children differently from their neighbors, Jesus’ selective healings & resurrections of the dead (e.g. Lazarus), and so on, to prove that in actuality, God does show favoritism. As I pointed out at the beginning, God’s impartiality is descriptive of His judgment and acceptance, trying to twist it to mean that people should have identical circumstances in the world is stretching it well beyond its intended meaning. Nonetheless, we now start to see a subtle shift in Hendryx’s argument: he was just arguing that condtional election (as opposed to his view of unconditional election) makes God out to be playing favorites, but now he’s actually acknowledging that he believes God is showing favoritism, and that he extends it to election as well. He argues,

…everyone is born equally guilty in Adam and so it is perfectly just that not all get the same benefits in this life when they are born. If this is true of everyday life why is it such a stretch to carry the same idea into eternity? it is hypocrisy not to recognize this inconsistency.

The question really is not whether God shows favorites but IN WHAT SENSE does God not show favorites because God chose Abraham out of all the people’s of the earth, not because he saw something good in him, nor because he earned God’s favor, but because God chose to.

I agree that not everyone gets an equal lot in this life; I don’t believe that’s what the Bible’s teachings about God’s fairness and impartiality are in reference to. But Hendryx has turned it into a problem for himself: No sooner has he finished arguing that conditional election implies God playing favorites, than he takes supposed examples of God’s “favoritism” in regards to people’s life circumstances and tries to extend them to election. As the saying goes, “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” It’s a stunning display of cognitive dissonance for him to condemn one view of election for allegedly being partial (and therefore inferior to his view), then holding up alleged examples of partiality, and proceeding to use those to promote his own view of election! This inconsistency is Hendryx’s fourth major error. First he tries to blast conditional election for making God partial in His choosing, yet now he’s backpedaling and making the claim that God is partial in His choosing, He’s just partial in a different way.

If God doesn’t satisfactorily explain to you the good reasons He has for what he does, do you thereby condemn Him for it?

No one’s arguing that God needs to explain all of His reasons, we’re discussing how God’s revelation of His impartiality relates to divine election. Despite his decrial of condemning God based upon not understanding His reasons, Hendryx himself is quick to condemn the Arminian understanding of God as partial, and he does so without even understanding what partiality in judgment means.

Sanity Check

The issue of people having different circumstances in life doesn’t necessarily denote God being partial at all. As a counter-example, if I give my children different chores according to their ability, different bedtimes appropriate to their ages, different gifts to fit different interests, and different rewards and punishments fitting for differing behavior, I’m not playing favorites. However, if both are equally guilty of willfully disobeying a rule that carries a standard penalty, it would be playing favorites and partial judgment for me to unconditionally punish one and unconditionally pardon the other. The last major underlying error apparent in Hendryx’s reasoning is the idea that everyone being guilty makes God’s choosing some unto salvation impartial. Everyone being guilty of offending the supreme God would make His treatment, at the very least, equal to or less than what we deserve. I must stress though that this is not the same thing as impartiality. The issue is not fairness to just an individual, but partiality between individuals.

Take for instance a judge who is rendering his judgment against two men who have been proven to be equally guilty of the same crime. If he unconditionally shows leniency to the one, but condemns the other, his judgments are at worst, what the men deserve, but they are not impartial, as he is showing favoritism to one over the other. While this example pertains to judgment, not election, it is nonetheless exactly analogous to the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. Hendryx condemns conditional election as making God partial, yet himself proposes a scheme of election that is partial by definition. By that token, conditional election would be akin to the judge offering both men an opportunity for acquittal: say he offers that if one or both of them will sign a pledge of loyalty and service to their rightful ruler that apologizes for and renounces their evil acts, then the judge will show undeserved leniency to whoever signs it. One signs it and goes free, the other does not and is condemned. Was the judge showing favoritism in giving a different verdict? Not at all. The conditions were laid out; he judged them worthy of condemnation by the same standard to both, and showed undeserved leniency (or not) based upon the same objective (yet non-meritorious) condition to both. This is likewise analogous to how election is conditional per the Arminian view, and plainly demonstrates that God shows no respect of persons, but rather shows leniency based upon the objective standard of faith in Christ.

If God’s impartiality does apply to election, then unconditional election will invariably be shown wanting. The only options when choosing impartially are,

1.) Everyone is chosen unconditionally.
2.) No one is chosen unconditionally.
3.) Only some are chosen, but upon an objective basis.

The only way for God’s choosing to be impartial is if only some are chosen unconditionally, AKA unconditional election. If God is impartial in election, and only some are elect, then conditional election is the only game in town.

Bottom Line:

* The impartiality that the Bible attributes to God has to do with His righteous judgments and acceptance of righteous men; it doesn’t follow from this that everyone will have identical life circumstances.
* Hendryx’s definition of partiality is too narrow. There are more ways to be partial than simply judging based upon personal traits or for personal gain.
* The act of choosing one over another by fiat is, by definition, showing favoritism.
* That all men are guilty of sin is irrelevant to the issue of God’s impartiality: choosing one over another unconditionally is still being partial.
* God choosing according to one’s belief is not basing His choice upon a personal trait.
* God choosing based upon objective and relevant criteria (like faith) is not showing personal favoritism.
* Something being conditional is not the same as it being obtained by merit.
* If God’s impartiality does extend to election, then conditional election is the only impartial method by which some (not all or none) can be chosen. Thus such an argument ultimately backfires on the Calvinist.

Where Calvinism Gets Romans 9 Wrong: Proof-Texting From a Translation Choice

So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
(Romans 9:16 ESV)

Romans 9:16 is often cited by Calvinists to prove that who is saved is in no way connected with free will or any kind of “human effort.” The problem with this claim is that the wording of the translations that they appeal to is often doubtful, and the actual wording of the passage seems to indicate something different. Looking at the Greek wording, the passage doesn’t directly state anything about human will or exertion per se, but is talking about people who will and do. Notably, and perhaps even more important, there is also no word for “depends” in the verse, as is rendered in many translations. Several versions that render it with better word-for-word accuracy give us a better picture of what is being said:

” So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that hath mercy. “ [ASV]

“So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” [NKJV]

“So then [it is] not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shews mercy.” [Darby]

“so, then — not of him who is willing, nor of him who is running, but of God who is doing kindness:…” [Young’s Literal]

Even the ESV (quoted above) qualifies itself with the footnote, “Greek not of him who wills or runs”.

The Significance

Looking at the two renderings, “it does not depend upon man’s desire or effort” and “it is not of him who wills or runs,” they may appear to convey the same idea, but consider the exegetical implications:

By inserting the term “depend,” the former strongly implies that there is no connection between anything people do, and whether they obtain mercy or not. The latter, being more accurately translated as, “it is not of,” makes no such demand. It rather expresses that the mercy that is shown in the New Covenant flows from God, not from man (regardless of what he desires or does). The main difference in what is expressed by the two renderings is that the former conveys that nothing people do could be “selection criteria” for God showing His mercy, the latter simply tells us that people aren’t the ones who are showing the mercy -God is. Or even more concisely, the former apparently denies human cooperation in obtaining salvation, the latter only denies human origin of salvation.

The Meaning in Context

The context of Paul’s writing here is the issue of why many in Israel haven’t obtained the covenant mercy of God, while many Gentiles have. This would seem unfair to the Jews who desired Him and clung to the law. Against this, Paul makes the point that they who desire righteousness and keep the law aren’t the ones showing mercy -that is for God alone to grant. This point was addressed in the first post in this series,

At first glance, God choosing a heathen over a practicing Jew would seem to convey unjustness in God’s judgments. Here, a key point and theme of the passage is brought out: divine prerogative. That is to say, God’s blessing is His to give to whom He will in His Holy purpose. No one can claim it by accident of birth or merit of deeds. In answer, Paul asserts God’s right to show His covenant mercy to whom He wishes. It doesn’t matter what men want or do, who and how God chooses is His prerogative, no one else’s.

Since none of us merits His blessing, then none can rightfully lay claim to His favor or obligate Him to extend His covenant mercy. Man cannot ‘elect himself;’ just as in the case of His choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, it is God’s prerogative to decide to whom the promise goes.

I’ll stress again that God having the prerogative to show His mercy to whoever He wishes doesn’t imply that He chooses unconditionally. While by no means precluding the idea, the thrust of the passage in question (according to more accurate renderings) apparently being salvation’s origin (rather than its non-criteria), Romans 9:16 doesn’t serve as viable evidence for Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election.

Proof-Text Pitfalls

Reliance upon doubtfully inserted terms in garnering scriptural support is nothing new. I recall arguing over the meaning of Hebrews 6:4-6 with an eternal security proponent some time back: I’ve heard several good arguments against that text not implying apostasy of a true believer, but this particular gentleman built his entire case around the presence of the word “if” in the passage. Imagine his shock when it was pointed out that the Greek wording of verse 6 doesn’t even contain an “if,” and that other translations now give the participle form of apostasy an apparently more accurate rendering (“have fallen away” rather than “if they fall away”). When building a case from a passage, it’s best to ensure that appeals to the wording reference actual words in the original text, and don’t rely upon version-specific translation choices or insertions. In the same way, while the wording “it depends not on human will or exertion” makes a strong-sounding polemic for unconditional election, that exact wording is very doubtful, and the more textually-reliable rendering doesn’t give anything approaching iron-clad support for it.

Bottom Line

Romans 9:16 provides strong evidence for God’s prerogative of showing mercy to whom He wishes, but doesn’t lend such support to the idea that He lavishes His mercy on a strictly unconditional basis.

Where Calvinism Gets Romans 9 Wrong: “Not of Works” means “No Conditions”

10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac
11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls),
12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” [quoting Genesis 25:23]
13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” [quoting Malachai 1:2-3]
(Romans 9:10-13)

The Appeal

The typical Calvinist treatment of the text quoted above goes something like this:

…Paul chooses the twin brothers Jacob and Esau as a case study in divine election. Paul sets out to prove that election to salvation flows solely from God’s will and purpose

Furthermore, in order to make it absolutely clear that election has nothing to do with human merit or choice, Paul says that God chose one to salvation (Jacob) and one to reprobation (Esau) before they were even born; before either had done good or evil.

(Schwertley, Brian; “Chosen by God: The Doctrine of Unconditional Election”)

The standard apologetic for Calvinists is to frame the analogy of Jacob and Esau as representative of elect versus non-elect individuals, then go on to interpret Jacob’s election being “not of works” as being an analogous expression of, “nothing a man does or chooses can have anything to do with whether he’s elected/saved”– AKA “Unconditional Election.”

The Catch

As we’ve noted before from the context of the passage, the contrast being given in the Jacob vs Esau analogy isn’t meant to reflect the difference between John M. Elect and Joe D. Reprobate, but between national Israel and the true Israel of God (the Body of Christ), which illustrates God’s choosing of those who walk by faith over those who live under the Mosaic law.

Since Paul isn’t contrasting individuals, but the corporate bodies of national Israel and those who are true children of Abraham through faith, there is very little basis to interpret the statement that election and salvation are “not of works” to mean that “no conditionality is involved.” A far more fitting interpretation is that the “works” he’s referring to are the works of the law that national Israel attempts to keep. That is to say, election isn’t based upon how well one keeps the law given at Sinai, which partially explains why many in Israel are not among the chosen (which is what Paul is explaining in the chapter, note verses 1-8). This interpretation also fits the context much better in that it correlates precisely with the point Paul makes in his conclusion of the matter at the end of the chapter (verses 30-33),

30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith;
31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.
33 As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” [quoting Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16]
(Romans 9:30-33)

Israel has not obtained righteousness because they sought it not by faith, but by the works of the law. This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that being chosen unto righteousness is not of works, but rather of God who has rejected those who rest in the law in favor of the those who follow in Abraham’s footsteps of faith, and calls us into fellowship with His Son. The analogy of one being chosen over the other before they’d committed any good or evil is very fitting then, both in highlighting the irrelevancy of the law in terms of our salvation, as well as in a more literal sense, for the sacrifice of our Lord and the redemption to which we are called to in Him were planned from the very beginning (Eph 3:9), even before any law had been given.

Bottom Line:

The scriptural teaching that election is not of works doesn’t preclude conditions to salvation (such as faith, which is not a work), but rather indicates that the choice of to whom God shows His mercy isn’t based upon adherence to the works of the Mosaic law.

Where Calvinism Gets Romans 9 Wrong: Prerogative Equals Unconditionality

Continuing with the series on Romans 9, we’ll now address the issue of God’s prerogative in saving who He wishes and how Calvinists often misinterpret its implications.

God’s Prerogative Reaffirmed

When speaking to zealous Calvinists, especially those who are very young and/or “educated” by internet echo chambers, the strawmen abound. It’s not uncommon to hear nonsense like,

“Arminians believe that man uses faith to save himself!”

“Free will means that God HAS to save someone who chooses to have faith!”

“The poor Arminian god can’t save people because he’s not sovereign enough to make them believe!”

The problem is further exacerbated by factually sloppy reformed polemicists who put forth no effort whatsoever towards accurate portrayal when discussing Arminian theology, James White being one of the worst offenders,

“…while the synergists get a lot of mileage out of preaching “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life if you will only let him into your heart” the absolutely necessary counterpoint to their feel-good proclamation is “however, I can never tell you He can truly save you perfectly and completely because, after all, my entire point is that He is helpless aside from your cooperation. (White, J. , ‘Phil Johnson on “Desire”‘)”

In contrast to White’s blundering portrayal of God being helpless, the scriptural teaching that he attacks so vehemently paints a far different picture than the one he attempts to dupe believers with. In the initial post in this series, we saw that God has an absolute divine prerogative to save whoever He wishes to. On that particular issue I have no disagreement with our Calvinist brethren. What that prerogative entails is another matter altogether.

Sovereignty Defined

The term “sovereignty” itself denotes power, dominion, and authority. A king is sovereign over his country, a man is sovereign over his house. To say that God is “absolutely sovereign” is simply to say He’s omnipotent –all-powerful over everything. I wouldn’t think anyone who believes scripture to dispute such a claim. As stated above, this naturally extends to who is saved; God not only has power to save, but a divine right to choose who is saved.

From that premise, the reasoning of most (sans those few who are more logically astute) Calvinists goes something like:

“God can save whoever He wants, therefore God saves who He wants to on an entirely unconditional basis.”

Those of you versed in logic may recognize that this type of reasoning is a non-sequitur, a fallacous conclusion that doesn’t necessarily follow from the premise(s).

The Critical Flaw in the Calvinist’s Reasoning

The reason why such logic doesn’t follow is that power tells us what one is capable of, not how that power is used. One who exercises his power one way rather than another isn’t more powerful for doing so. This can be easily demonstrated from an example of temporal authority. Let’s say there’s a general in the U.S. military who has been assigned an aide. The aide’s task today is to fill out some forms. The general has several options to get him to do so:

1. Give the order for him to do so and expect him to obey it without supervision.
1. Give the order for him to do so and expect him to obey it while occasionally checking on his progress.
3. Give the order for him to do so and stand over his shoulder to ensure he obeys it.

Q: Which of these options, if taken, will give the general more authority?
A: None. His rank and how he carries out his mission are two separate issues.

Q: Which of these options, if taken, is an indicator of a more power and/or authority on the general’s part?
A: None. All of these options are within a general’s authority to employ. His choosing one or the other tells us nothing beyond that.

How much authority someone has is no indicator of how said power will be used. Much as in the case of the general above, how and on what basis God chooses to save sinners is His prerogative; one method doesn’t make Him “more sovereign” than another, nor does His omnipotence necessitate only a particular method. This is why the occasions in which the over-zealous Calvinists hurl the typical “you deny God’s sovereignty” charge against someone who believes in conditional election merely show that they’re ignorant of what God’s sovereignty actually means and entails.

Armed with these mistaken principles, Calvinists then proceed to interpret Romans 9 in a likewise errant fashion, so that when the chapter speaks of God’s prerogative in who He saves, e.g. “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion,” many eager young Calvinists automatically read, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, which of course means that I do so on an entirely unconditional basis in accordance with the Westminster confession!” In fact, such a statement doesn’t tell us God’s basis for His choices, merely that who is saved and how is His to decide, which does not preclude His saving people on the conditional basis of faith in Christ.

Bottom Line:

The concept of God having power to choose who to save itself tells us nothing about how or upon what basis He chooses to save.

The Contradiction Between “Perseverance of the Saints” and the Scriptural Warnings Against Apostasy

I’ve written plenty on this topic before, this is what I consider the strongest argument against inevitable perseverance/eternal security in a nutshell:

The primary purpose of a warning is to provide incentive to avoid its consequences.[1]

A warning that can’t provide such incentive is effectively nullified in its purpose as a warning.[2]

A warning can’t provide such incentive to a person who believes its consequences to be unrealistic.[3]

A warning is therefore effectively nullified with regards to a person who believes its consequences to be unrealistic.[4]

With that in mind,

The Bible sincerely warns believers against falling away from the faith and perishing.[5]

The crux of the doctrine commonly called “perseverance of the saints” (and its variants, e.g. “eternal security”) is that no true believer can ever fall away to the point of perishing.[6]

Because “perseverance of the saints” categorically denies that the consequences of the warning passages will ever be incurred by any saint, then the consequences of those warnings are unrealistic by such a view.[7]

With regards to those who believe it then, the “perseverance of the saints” doctrine effectively nullifies the biblical warnings against believers committing apostasy.[8]

Notes:

[1] Consequences may be stated directly or implied, and avoidance can be in the form of positive and/or negative action; e.g. “Save for your retirement, or you’ll have insufficient funds.” or “Avoid running into traffic.”

[2] One could doubtless always find some other contrived purpose for a warning; it could be claimed that it’s being used to just get peoples’ attention through shock value, or perhaps inflate the length of a writing if nothing else! But the fact remains that if something keeps a genuine warning from instilling its hearers with some incentive to avoid what’s being warned against, then it is ultimately being rendered without force and ineffectual in its purpose.

[3] This should be self-evident. There may be warnings against things that a person could theoretically suffer, but some consequence that can’t be realistically incurred won’t give any reasonable person incentive to avoid it. Take for example the fact that quantum tunneling (theoretically anyway) allows for an almost infinitesimally small chance for solid objects to pass through each other: someone could warn me to stay in bed and not get up to reduce the chances of my falling through the floor. Such a warning wouldn’t deter me in the least from getting out of bed, because I know the chances of such an event actually happening are too absurdly low to be taken seriously.

[4] Going off the example ridiculous warning from [3], since I don’t believe I can realistically fall through a solid floor, for whatever other tertiary purposes such a warning might serve, it doesn’t give me any incentive to avoid its consequence, and is therefore ineffectual as a warning where I (along with anyone else who understands probability) am concerned. Regardless of how sincerely any warning is made, if one doesn’t believe it’s consequences are realistic, then to expect some caution or action on the part of that hearer to avoid said consequences is absurd.

[5] Matthew 5:27-30, 10:33, John 15:1-7, Hebrews 4:9-11, 12:15-17, Revelation 22:18-19, Romans 11:19-22, 2 Timothy 2:11-13 for just some examples. One could perhaps attempt to impute different meanings to the warning passages, asserting that they’re just idioms or some other literary device, but a rather heavy burden of proof would be on him to demonstrate from the context that the very apparent warnings against believers committing apostasy are something otherwise.

[6] Some proponents of these doctrines may concede that it’s possible in some sense for believers to fall away, but all are agreed that the scenario of a believer actually suffering such a consequence will without exception, never occur. While there is some variation in what proponents of eternal security believe, those details are irrelevant to this argument, as all versions of the doctrine teach that no saint will ever truly fall away.

[7] Note that this argument assumes someone interpreting warnings consistently with his beliefs.

[8] While eternal security proponents may attempt to sidestep the problem by appealing to the fact that unbelievers and false professors will perish, this argument concerns warnings directed specifically to the saints, not the unsaved.

One may also appeal to uncertainty, i.e. that one can’t know with absolute certainty that he’s saved, and so he likewise cannot be absolutely certain that he can’t suffer the consequence of damnation. That defense doesn’t exactly address the issue however, since acknowledging that one could conceivably be lost doesn’t change warnings against forfeiting one’s eternal inheritance into warnings against never obtaining said inheritance in the first place. Were the latter point the message being conveyed, we’d naturally expect the consequences to be framed in terms such as “you never were/aren’t grafted in,” rather than “you will be cut off.” All these defenses really do then is replace one problem (that of nullifying the scriptural warnings) with another (making the text out to say something it doesn’t indicate).