Does Arminian Theology Suggest That We Depend on Ourselves Instead of Christ for Salvation?

From the late R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries we find a short article “praising” limited atonement by Richard Phillips.  For the purpose of this post we will be focusing in on a section that promotes a critique of Arminianism that has been common among Calvinists for a long time and has been expressed in many different ways:

Second, if we grasp how personal in its application and how efficacious in its effects is the cross of Christ, we will find solid ground for our assurance of salvation.

There can be no assurance if the ultimate cause of our redemption is found in ourselves. The Arminian concept of a universal atonement, Packer remarks, “destroys the Scriptural ground of assurance altogether… . My salvation, on this view, depends not on what Christ did for me, but on what I subsequently do for myself.”

These comments by Packer, quoted favorably by Richard Phillips, represent just one of many Calvinist talking points that relies on a total misrepresentation of Arminian theology.

Since Packer and Phillips see this as a valid critique of Arminian Theology, it is worth addressing.  Thankfully, it is so easily shown to be false that this response won’t need to be very long.

Let’s start by looking at some of the language Packer uses here.  He says that in Arminianism, salvation does not depend on Christ but on us.  It depends on what we “subsequently do” for ourselves.  Since I do not have the full quote, I can only assume he is talking about our response of faith to the provision of the atonement.  Never mind that the Bible plainly teaches that the benefits of the atonement are received by faith (Rom. 3:25), the main issue here is the claim that if it is up to us to put faith in Christ (or His “blood” as Rom. 3:25 says), then suddenly salvation “depends not on what Christ did for me, but on what I subsequently do for myself.”

Really?  Putting faith in Christ and His atonement is an exercise in self-dependence?  Does he really not see how it is exactly the opposite?  Put simply, if we could save ourselves, we would not need to trust in Christ to save us.  If we could atone for our own sins, we would not need to trust in His blood to receive the benefits of His atonement.  Indeed, to say we need to trust in Christ to save us is the same as saying we need to “depend” on Him to save us.  Trusting in Jesus is an act of dependence.  That is why faith is the perfect non-meritorious condition for receiving the free, unearned and undeserved gift of salvation (cf. Rom. 4).

Let’s just look at a simple statement that all Arminians and Calvinists should readily agree with: “We need to trust in Christ to save us.”

Not controversial, right?  Now let’s ask a simple question regarding that statement: Who does the saving in that statement?  Is it the one who trusts in Christ?  Of course not.  Christ does the saving.  Again, that is why we need to trust in Christ to save us because we cannot save ourselves.  If we could save ourselves, we would not need to trust in Christ to save us, now would we?  That we need to trust in Christ to save us proves that we are powerless to save ourselves.  It is so painfully simple and obvious it is hard to understand how Calvinists can so easily miss it.

Are we responsible to trust in Christ?  Yes.  But that in no way means we save ourselves.  It is still Christ who does all the saving.  Trusting in Christ to save is depending on Christ to save.  If we are depending on Christ to save us by trusting in Him, how can Packer not see how false it is to claim that Arminianism teaches that “salvation, on this view, depends not on what Christ did for me, but on what I subsequently do for myself”?

Arminianism in no way teaches that salvation depends on us.  It teaches that salvation depends wholly on Christ and His atoning work on the cross.  Because we are powerless to save ourselves or atone for ourselves, we must trust in Him to do what we cannot do.  Arminianism cannot be rightly charged with promoting self-salvation or salvation by works.  We fully believe in salvation by grace through faith, while rejecting the unBiblical idea that if we are not irresistibly caused to trust in Christ, that faith is somehow a work.  Paul didn’t think so, nor does logic demand such a conclusion.  So why do Calvinists persist in libeling Arminianism in such a way?

And of course, in Arminianism, we are not even able to trust in Christ in the first place without the prior intervention of God’s enabling grace to overcome our depravity and make faith possible.  Not only do we need to trust in Christ to save us (proving we are powerless to save ourselves), but we are also fully dependent on His grace to even be able to trust in Him to save us.   So the charge of Phillips and Packer against Arminianism is seen to be completely without merit.

The “ultimate cause of our redemption” is not found in us, it is found in Christ, which is why we need to trust in Christ to redeem us.  The fact that we need to trust in Christ to redeem us in no way means that we are the cause of redemption.  That is like saying that if we receive a free and unearned gift from someone, even though we could just as well have rejected the gift, that we are then somehow the “ultimate cause” of the gift.  Freely receiving a gift from someone does not mean we earned the gift.  It does not mean we bought the gift.  It does not mean we contributed to the gift.  It does not mean we caused the gift, and it certainly does not mean we gave the gift to ourselves.  All of that is plainly absurd and yet that absurdity forms the basis of this Calvinist argument against Arminianism.  Behind this argument also lies the bizarre assumption that a gift cannot truly be a gift unless it is given irresistibly or unconditionally. It is truly hard to understand how many Calvinists still find this line of reasoning compelling.

Phillips continues:

This is why assurance of salvation is a field of theology and Christian experience plowed only by the Reformed. Murray notes, “It is no wonder that the doctrine of assurance should have found its true expression in that theology which is conditioned by the thought of the divine atonement or effective redemption, the irreversibility of effectual calling, and the immutability of the gifts of grace.

It is when you realize that even your faith is the outworking of Christ’s saving death for you, by the electing will of the Father, as applied by the Spirit, that you know the solid ground on which your salvation stands. If you truly believe–and the Bible gives you tests to determine whether you do–you can rest your heart in God’s sovereign grace and begin looking forward to an eternity of glory in the kingdom that you are now called to serve.

Actually, many of the fundamental claims of Calvinism work to severely undercut Biblical salvation assurance, rather than bolster it.  For more on that see:

Perseverance of the Saints Part 13: Salvation Assurance

An Important Admission on Salvation Assurance From Prominent Calvinist C. Michael Patton

A Telling and Ironic Tweet by John Piper on “Waking up in The Morning” as a Believer 

Does Erwin Lutzer Offer False Hope to Calvinist Parents?

The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism Part 3: Who’s Really Holding the Daisy?


An Insightful Review of Austin Fischer’s New Book on Leaving Calvinism

Check out this reflective and insightful review of Austin Fischer’s book, Young, Restless And No Longer Reformed.  John Frye (also a former Calvinist) presents a short and thought provoking summary of the problems inherent in Calvinism that Austin highlights in his book.

John Frye, Review of *Young Restless and No Longer Reformed*

Related Posts:

Glen Shellrude, Calvinism and Problematic Readings of New Testament Texts, Or Why I Am Not A Calvinist

Calvinist Prayer (And Many Other Things) Explained

How Can God’s Glory Be “Diminished” in Calvinism?

Category: Salvation Assurance

Is God Like A Black Hole in Calvinism?

X-Calvinist Corner


A Telling and Ironic Tweet by John Piper on “Waking up in the Morning” as a Believer

Calvinist John Piper recently gave the following Tweet:

 I fall asleep quietly confident that I will be a believer in the morning not because of my free will but God’s free grace. 

This is an obvious attack on Arminianism and those that reject Piper’s Calvinistic presuppositions, though it is misplaced.  While Arminians do believe that our will plays a part in our continuing to trust God and remain a believer, it is inaccurate to suggest that Arminians believe our wills are the only factor.  Our wills must be continually empowered and enabled by God’s grace in order for us to continue to trust, obey and remain in Christ, for without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).  Thankfully, God has provided us with everything we need in order to continue to trust in Him and strengthen our faith so that we will not “stumble.” (2 Peter 1:2-11).  But it is also true that God’s empowering us to believe and continue to believe can be resisted.  While we cannot believe or continue to believe unless God empowers us, we are still capable of walking away and resisting the abundant grace He provides.

Piper seems to see this fact as some sort of reason for insecurity.  But that is not the case at all.  It is similar to the security that would accompany any relationship that involves a level of commitment.  Marriage is a prime example.   I acknowledge that I need to guard and protect my marriage by the choices that I (freely) make that will either strengthen that relationship or weaken and harm it.  I must concede that it is possible for me to neglect that relationship, even to the point of infidelity.  It would be presumptuous to assume such a thing were not possible.  However, I don’t live in fear and terror and insecurity over my marriage, always thinking about how it might not last, and I certainly don’t go to bed at night fearing that I might wake up and no longer love my wife or want anything at all to do with her.

Does Piper really think that those who fall away go to bed believers and suddenly wake up “in the morning” as hardened unbelievers?  It is hard to even imagine such a case.  Such a scenario presents a rather silly, simplified and unrealistic way of speaking about  someone leaving the faith.  Nobody who falls away just wakes up one morning an unbeliever after having gone to bed a believer.  The road to unbelief is gradual, at least to some degree, and it typically involves many (free) choices along the way.   But of course, since Piper rejects the possibility of apostasy from genuine faith, he can only hold that deluded hypocrites can go to bed thinking they are saved and that their faith is real only to apparently wake up in the morning in a more honest frame of mind, finally embracing their unbelief instead of clinging to their false fleshly hypocritical faith that was never real in the first place.  And that leads us to the most problematic difficulty in Piper’s trite little Tweet: As a Calvinist, John Piper can have no assurance that he is saved when he goes to bed or assurance that he will be saved when he wakes up!

Calvinists, like Piper, believe that those who have been truly regenerated will inevitably persevere to the end in saving faith.  But how does one know that he is regenerate?  The only true test is to persevere to the end in saving faith.  If one fails to persevere, that person only reveals that while he may have thought his faith was real, it was only a case of self deception, or even worse, divine deception.  John Calvin called this divine deception “evanescent grace”.  It was his answer to the problem of so many real life cases of those who lived for many years seemingly loving and trusting in God and producing godly fruit, only to eventually fall away and abandon the faith.  According to Calvin, God gave such people a delusion that made them think they were saved, and even feel like they were saved, only to eventually remove this fleeting grace and reveal that they were just deluded hypocrites that God had never regenerated and whose faith, while it seemed very real to them, was not real faith at all.  For a more detailed look at Calvin’s evanescent grace and the way that Calvinism undercuts Biblical salvation assurance, see the first link given at the end of this post.

So for Calvin and Piper, confidence of perseverance is tied up in being regenerate, and it is not at all clear how one can be sure she is regenerate unless she perseveres (to the end) in the faith (a problem of circularity that effectively kills assurance).  So the bigger problem for Piper is that he cannot be sure that he will wake up every morning as a believer because his faith may, in fact, be spurious.  The only way that he can have confidence that his bedtime faith is not spurious and that he will wake up each morning as a [true] believer is if he in fact wakes up each morning as a [true] believer.  So he can have no real confidence at all that he will wake up tomorrow morning, or any other morning, as a believer.  In short, he is guilty of wishful thinking and nothing more. Again, the main problem for Piper is how he can know that he is even going to bed a true believer and not a deluded hypocrite.   There is simply no way to be sure of this if Calvinism is true.

The irony is obvious.  While the Arminians that Piper wanted to discount can have significant salvation assurance while going to bed and in day to day life, Piper’s theology effectively undermines and makes such assurance impossible and, in so doing, nullifies the promises of Scripture that we can indeed know that we presently have eternal life (1 John 5:13).  While the Arminian could rightly say what Piper says in his tweet, John Piper cannot.

For more on the problems with Calvinist assurance in contrast with the strong basis for assurance that Arminians possess, see the following posts:

Perseverance of the Saints Part 13: Salvation Assurance

An Important Admission on Salvation Assurance from Prominent Calvinist C. Michael Patton 

Does Believing Apostasy is Possible Lead to Insecurity, Lack of Assurance and Anxiety?

An Important Admission on Salvation Assurance from Prominent Calvinist C. Michael Patton


It may surprise you to know that just about every contact I have had with people who are doubting their salvation are Calvinistic in their theology. In other words, they believe in unconditional election. These are the ones who believe in perseverance of the saints. These are the ones that believe that we cannot lose our salvation! Yet these are the ones who are doubting their faith the most…Isn’t this ironic? I have never had a call from an Arminian (or any other believer in conditional election) about this. In my experience, it is only Calvinists who doubt their faith in such a way with such traumatic devastation. Why? From: Doubting Calvinists.

This article is interesting in a lot of ways and should be carefully considered by all Calvinists.  I have always maintained that Calvinist doctrine undercuts Biblical Assurance.  Patton finds assurance in his present belief (though he admits that assurance is not total).  However, Calvinist doctrine makes present assurance impossible, while Arminian doctrine fully comports with that possibility:

Perseverance of the Saints Part 13: Salvation Assurance

An Ironic And Telling Tweet by John Piper on Waking up in The Morning as a Believer 

Does Erwin Lutzer Offer False Hope to Calvinist Parents?

Does Believing Apostasy is Possible Lead to Insecurity, Lack of Assurance, and Anxiety?

[some of the material below was recently added]

Not only that, but the Calvinist cannot even have assurance of final salvation as he cannot be certain that his faith will endure to the end until it in fact endures to the end.  Only when his faith endures to the end will it prove to be a genuine saving faith.  Since the Calvinist cannot know that his faith is genuine till he endures in that faith till the end, he cannot have even present assurance of salvation as mentioned above.  But the Arminian has a strong basis for present salvation assurance.  Not only that, in knowing that God desires his salvation and will give him all the power he needs to continue to trust in Him, the Arminian has a strong basis for assurance in final salvation as well.  A commenter in one of the posts linked to above, put the matter well when he wrote,

But I would add that Arminians do have substantial assurance of future final salvation, simply not absolute or unconditional whereas Calvinists, as you point out, can have no present assurance and therefore no future assurance whatsoever and be consistent with their own doctrine. In everyday life, people have substantial assurance of future benefit which is nonetheless conditional on their continuing to meet the condition for that future benefit, for example continuing to consent to receive it. So Arminians can have solid assurance of present salvation, and substantial assurance of future final salvation, which is contingent on them continuing to meet the condition, which is faith. Put another way concerning future salvation, we have full assurance of future salvation on the condition of faith. And wonderfully, God promises true believers the ability to persevere in faith and that nothing can tear them away from him. So with present salvation we have the absolute assurance that God will enable us to persevere unto final salvation and that God is for us. He simply does not gaurantee that he will *make* us persevere. Arminian theology gives far more assurance than Calvinism: In Arminianism, full assurance of present salvation, and substantial assurance of future final salvation (i.e. full assurance on the condition of faith) vs. in Calvinism no assurance period.

Now it is important to note that many Calvinists have assurance *despite* their theology. But the important point is that it is despite their theology, which puts their theology at odds with Scripture, which teaches that we can know that we are saved….let me restate one of my points in stronger language: in everyday life, assurance of a future benefit is almost always conditional on at least the continuing free consent of the receiver of the benefit. Hardly anyone ever thinks of such assurance as minimal or meaningless. It is simply a given that receiving a future promised benefit remains contingent on consenting to it. Here’s an illustration: if one is on a train that the company assures will get you to your destination (and it has never failed a customer), one can have assurance that one will arrive at the destination (and assurance is accordingly greater with the reliability of the one promising the result; in salvation it is God, so assurance is certain). But that does not mean that one cannot decide to jump off the train. The company’s assurance to take you to the destination does not include forcing you to stay on the train. So saying Arminians don’t have absolute, unconditional assurance for final salvation verges on being a red herring or perhaps irrelevant instead. It is not the type of assurance people ever normally have with respect to future promised benefits. We have seen that Calvinists don’t have such assurance from their theology anyway. But it is good to underscore the very real and profound assurance of future salvation that Arminian theology gives in harmony with biblical teaching from which it is draw and that Calvinistic theology can never deliver. [link to comments]

As noted above, a believing Calvinist could still have salvation assurance based on the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, despite the fact that their fundamental doctrines negate the Biblical basis for salvation assurance.  But as Patton’s post reveals, it can serve to put the knowledgeable Calvinist in great tension between what the Holy Spirit might be communicating to him and what are the unavoidable implications of the Calvinist doctrine of inevitable perseverance.

Does Believing Apostasy is Possible Lead to Insecurity, Lack of Assurance, and Anxiety?

Not if it is understood properly (Biblically).  Here are some short comments from a discussion on the topic:

Visitor: Why should someone who has no more condemnation fear [falling away] on a regular basis? It makes no sense to me…

Such a fear is a healthy concern so that such a person will remain in Christ where alone there is no condemnation. It isn’t the type of fear that is suppose to be anxiety producing. Maybe that is the problem with how you are seeing things. For example, if I have no concern (or fear) at all over the possibility that I might at some point commit adultery on my wife, then I would probably not be careful not to look too long at attractive women, or thumb through magazines that I shouldn’t. If I had no concern (or fear) over the strength of my relationship with my wife, I wouldn’t make the effort to love her and do things for her that she appreciates. I wouldn’t invest in our relationship which would inevitably weaken it, possibly even to the point of breaking up. But such “fear” is not the same as a constant anxiety. Still, that fear is very important. I love her and know she loves me, but I also know I am weak and susceptible and need to be on guard (i.e., “don’t be arrogant”). It’s the same with God. We can know that God loves us and love Him too, but if we have no concern to keep that relationship strong and no understanding that despite our love, we are weak and susceptible in the flesh, we would not strive to overcome the flesh through His Spirit. But that doesn’t mean we need to live in anxiety or constantly worry that we will fall away. You may think that is how Arminians live, but that is not how I live and it has not been the experience of so many more like me who share my view.


You can read the entire exchange in the comments section of this post.

1 Corinthians 15 and the Claims of Calvinism

Calvinism as a system claims that God reprobated a large segment of mankind so that they can never be saved. [1] It further claims that the atonement is for this reason limited only to the elect who alone will benefit from the atonement and be saved (with no possibility of falling away).  In such a system Jesus died only for the sins of the elect.  If this is the case it seems that many passages of Scripture are disingenuous in commanding all people everywhere to repent and believe on Christ when repentance is impossible for reprobates and Christ did not die for them anyway (For more on that see here).

If Calvinism is to be consistent in these claims it cannot allow for a person to rightly tell someone that Christ died for them.  The best one can do is say that if they repent and believe, Christ died for them [2] or that Christ died for sinners (meaning “some sinners” but not necessarily the sinner they are presently speaking to) or that Christ might have died for them, or something similar [3].  Therefore, consistent Calvinists say it is wrong to tell the unsaved that Christ died for them [4].  This may seem shocking enough to most Christians, but Calvinists today are often claiming further that the Bible never gives us an example of anyone telling unbelievers that Christ died for them.  It is with this claim in mind that we turn to our text:

 1CO 15:1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand,

1CO 15:2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.

1CO 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

1CO 15:4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, (NASB, emphasis mine)

Paul is recounting to the Corinthians the content of the gospel message as Paul first preached it to them.  The need for this reminder is made clearer later in the chapter where we discover that some are denying the resurrection and by extension are denying the gospel that Paul preached.  Paul makes it clear that the message as he describes it here is the message he first brought to them “of first importance”.  This gospel message includes three main components.  The first is that “Christ died for our sins” followed by the fact that Christ was buried and then rose again on the third day, all of which happened “according to the Scriptures”.  This is the specific content of the gospel message as Paul first delivered it to these Corinthians.  They “received” this gospel by faith and are currently standing on these truths delivered to them by Paul when he first preached this specific gospel message to them.

We can draw several conclusions from what Paul says to the Corinthians in this passage.  The one that most concerns us at present is that the initial message of the gospel to the Corinthians prior to their receiving (by faith) the message Paul preached is that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”.  The rest of the gospel message about the resurrection reinforces this central truth.  We know this because Paul later explains to them that if Christ is not raised then their faith is worthless and they are “still in [their] sins” as a result.  Therefore, the central message of the gospel, according to Paul, is that “Christ died for our sins”.  The resurrection is no less important in that it gives ultimate verification to the primary message of the gospel, Christ’s death for the forgiveness of sins.

But does Paul say that Christ died only for the sins of the elect?  To the contrary, Paul’s initial message to these unsaved Corinthians was that “Christ died for our sins.”  The natural way to understand Paul’s language here is that Christ died not only for Paul’s sins, but for all of their sins as well.  This is the message they needed to receive in order to be saved.  In accepting the truth by faith that Christ died for their sins, they received the forgiveness that results from Christ’s death to all that believe.  So here we have a clear example of the gospel message being preached to unbelievers and the central message of that gospel being not that Christ died for the elect, or that Christ died for sinners (meaning “some” sinners), but that Christ died for “our” (everyone’s) sins.  This is, according to Paul’s own words, the content of the gospel message delivered to them “as first importance.”  Paul is now admonishing them to remember that message that they received (that Christ died for them) and to continue to stand on that message, less their faith prove to be “in vain”.  But if it is unclear whether Christ died for them, how then can they be called on to stand firm on that truth?

Suppose we take Paul’s words to mean Christ died for “our” (the elect’s) sins [5].  That would be a most unnatural way to read the text.  Beyond that, it is hard to imagine how they would appropriate that message.  Is it by believing that Christ died for the elect alone that they are saved?  Surely not.  They could believe that Christ died for Paul and others that at least appeared to be elect (see note #3 below) without believing that Christ died for them in particular.  Indeed, according to Calvinism there is no way to know if Christ died for us until we repent and believe (and even then we cannot know for sure that Christ died for our sins until we persevere to the end [death or Christ’s return] in faith, see note #4 below).

But believe what?  According to Paul it is that Christ died for our sins.  That is the preeminent message of the gospel and it is a message that is grossly at odds with the claims of Calvinism [6].  We can’t trust Christ to save us if Christ did not die for our sins [7].  We can only trust that Christ might have died for us, though the odds are against it (see note #1 below)

We will now take a moment to examine the first part of Paul’s message as it has further relevance for Calvinism in that it seems to plainly contradict the Calvinist doctrine of inevitable perseverance:

1CO 15:1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand,

1CO 15:2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.  (NASB, emphasis mine)

In verse one Paul makes it clear that he is addressing those who received his initial gospel message that Christ died for their sins and was buried and raised again.  Not only did they receive this message, but they are presently standing on that message and as a result will be finally saved, with one important qualifier: they must continue to hold on to that truth in the faith that they initially received that truth in.  In other words, if they turn from the truth of that initial message that they received and deny the resurrection, they would in turn be denying the very truth that will ultimately save them.  In such a case their initial faith in the death and resurrection of Christ will prove to have been in vain, since it did not continue.

This is problematic for Calvinism in two important ways.  First, Calvinism asserts that true faith will always endure because God will preserve that faith and cause the believer to persevere in that faith Himself.  So if one receives the truth of the gospel and stands on that truth he will certainly continue to stand on that truth to the end.  If one does not continue he never really stood on that truth to begin with and never truly received that truth to begin with.  But this is at odds with the way Paul speaks of the matter.  Paul does not doubt they received the message; nor does Paul doubt their present commitment to the message.  Paul only questions whether they will continue in that message or turn aside to deny the resurrection, an indispensable part of the message initially received.

If Paul believed that those who fall away never believed in the first place we would expect him to end with “unless (otherwise) you never really believed to begin with” or something similar.  But instead Paul simply points to the fact that in abandoning the faith one will not attain to the object and hope of that faith once exercised since he has turned away from the very message that will ultimately save him.  Therefore, their faith, while it truly existed for a time, will prove to be “in vain” since it does not continue to the point of fully receiving the promise of the gospel- final salvation.

We see similar language in Romans 11:16-24.  After describing election in the context of the ancient olive tree (which represents God’s covenant people beginning with their identity with the patriarchs and ending with their identity with Christ, the final and supreme Head of the covenant), Paul goes on to warn the Gentiles who have entered the new covenant through faith in Christ and have been grafted into the people of God as a result, that they must be careful not to be arrogant over the Jews who have been broken off from the olive tree as a result of their rejection of Christ, the final and supreme Head of the covenant.  The problem for Calvinism is that Paul describes these Gentiles as believers who have been grafted into God’s chosen people and who are presently standing by faith.  There can therefore be no doubt that Paul is speaking to saved individuals who are presently enjoying the blessing of the new covenant through faith union with Christ.  The specific language makes this indisputable,

Ro 11:17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root,

Ro 11:18 do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.

Ro 11:19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.”

Ro 11:20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.

Ro 11:21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

Ro 11:22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.

Just as in 1 Corinthians 15 we find Paul telling those that he describes as presently saved and enjoying the benefits of salvation that they can yet be “broken off” from the people of God and the salvation that belongs to them alone if they do not “continue” in God’s kindness through faith.  Again, if the Calvinist accounting of perseverance were true, we would expect to find Paul telling them that they would have never been in the olive tree and have never believed in the first place.  However, Paul says exactly the opposite; describing them as true believers who can be broken off from a tree they are presently attached to, enjoying all the benefits of God’s elect people in Christ Jesus. [8]

Conclusion:  We have found that Calvinist claims about limited atonement and inevitable perseverance are severely challenged by the language of 1 Corinthians 15.  We have also found that the Calvinist claim that it is unscriptural to tell sinners that Christ died for their sins is inaccurate, as we have Biblical precedent in Paul’s initial gospel proclamation to the Corinthians that “Christ died for our sins.”  We have also examined a few possible counter arguments and found them to be severely problematic given the context and specific language employed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.


[1] If Jesus is correct that “few” in contrast to “many” enter through the narrow gate unto salvation (and I assume Calvinists would agree that He is correct), then we must conclude that God has reprobated the vast majority of humanity “for His glory” (Matthew 7:13, 14).  Somehow, it would then seem that reprobation must bring God more glory than election unto salvation.  It should also be noted that when I speak of God reprobating people, it could be conceived as a direct action of God or as a more indirect action, as in “passing over” the many that will as a result be left reprobate.  I agree with Wesley and many others that this amounts to a distinction without a difference, or as John Wesley notes after carefully dissecting the claims that passing over is very different and less offensive than direct reprobation, it is “the self same thing.” (See Wesley’s famous sermons, Predestination Calmly Considered and On Predestination).

[2] This would probably seem to most to be the inverse of what the Bible claims and what we should tell unbelievers about the Gospel- that because Christ died for them, they should repent and believe.  Peter actually says exactly that in his second sermon in the book of Acts (For a more detailed study of that passage see here).

[3] In such a scheme Calvinist parents can have no real assurance that Christ died for any of their children or that God even loves their children in a saving way (God may instead “hate” them in reprobation as He did Esau).  Nor can a Calvinist parent tell their children that Christ died for them or that God loves them in any meaningful way.  Calvinist Erwin Lutzer tries to claim that Calvinists can have strong assurance that their children are elect, but that claim is easily refuted given the fundamental premises of Calvinism (for more on that see here).

[4] But really it is unclear how a Calvinist could even tell someone who appears to be a saved believer that Christ died for them as they may yet fall away and, by Calvinist assumptions, prove that they were never saved or elect to begin with.  Calvinism severely undercuts Biblical assurance in many ways (for more on that see here).

[5] Another possible Calvinist explanation would be to claim that Paul was speaking of them as they presently were in saying that Christ died for “our sins” since upon their believing Paul could now say that Christ had in fact died for them.  But this would be an extremely awkward way to understand the text since Paul is recounting his initial message to them and admonishing them to continue to believe it as they first received it.  Not only that, but as noted above, even if they appeared to believe, Paul could not say with confidence, according to Calvinism, that Christ died for them until they demonstrated their faith was genuine and saving by persevering to the end.  But isn’t it true that even in Arminianism many might not have genuine saving faith?  Indeed it is, but that would not change the fact that Christ died for them since in Arminianism Christ died for all, even those who will never believe.  So Arminianism would still be fully in harmony with Paul’s gospel message.

[6] Again, we find the same basic gospel message in Peter’s second sermon recorded in Acts 3.  For details concerning that message see my post, Provisional Atonement Part 3: The Integrity and Justice of God in the Gospel Offer.  But even if the Bible nowhere showed anyone preaching the message that “Christ died for your sins” it is everywhere implied, especially in those passages which command all to repent and believe on the message on the basis of Christ’s death along with those passages which use universal language in describing the extent of the atonement, of God’s love or desire for all to be saved.  There are many things that believers speak about in ways that the Bible never directly does.  For example, the Bible nowhere describes the Trinity as we often explain it to those who have questions about the Trinity (as God in three persons, or One eternal Being existing in three persons, etc.).  However, we can confidently say such things based on what the Bible does say, even if the Bible does not use that specific language.

Furthermore, the Bible only records a few accounts of the gospel message being preached to sinners and we should not assume that there were not many other ways the message was articulated in the hundreds or thousands of other times the gospel was preached to unbelievers.  And thankfully, we have in 1 Cor. 15 clear evidence that Paul indeed preached to unbelievers that Christ died for their sins (since, in that context, “ours” naturally includes “yours” as well as “mine”).

[7] A Calvinist could possibly answer this by pointing out that in Calvinism God must cause us to have faith irresistibly and would only cause those that Christ died for to believe that Christ died for them.  But this still does not address the resulting disingenuous nature of the offer of salvation throughout Scripture or the specific language that Paul used in presenting the gospel message to the Corinthians as recounted in 1 Corinthians 15; neither does it address the difficulty inherent in the fact that only a faith which perseveres to the end can be considered genuine in Calvinism (see note #4 above).  There again, the Calvinist has no solid grounds for believing that Christ died for them at all since he may yet fall away and prove that his faith was not genuine after all and that Christ did not die for him, though he thought he did.  Only the Arminian view allows for us to accept the straightforward language in Scripture concerning the gospel offer and the nature of the gospel to be received, that Christ died for all and there is therefore forgiveness of sins available for all (Acts 3:19-26).

[8] We should further point out that if Paul’s warning to these believers can never attain or actually happen since God will inevitably preserve them in the faith, then it is nonsense for Paul to tell them to “be afraid” lest they are broken off as a result of not continuing in the faith.  Paul speaks to them as true believers joined to God’s elect people and for that reason, according to Calvinism, they have nothing to fear since it is impossible for true believers to fall away. Everything in Paul’s language points us towards the real possibility of apostasy and away from the Calvinist doctrine of inevitable perseverance.  For a detailed study of several Scriptures which contradict the Calvinist doctrine of inevitable perseverance, see my series here.

Does Erwin Lutzer Offer False Hope to Calvinist Parents?

I hope to do a few posts on Erwin Lutzer’s[1] book, The Doctrines That Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines That Separate Christians.  One might expect that such a book would look to lessen division and ease tension between Christians, but it seems that Lutzer’s purpose is more to present certain divisive doctrines and explain why his views of the doctrines are correct.  Many of the issues center on the major doctrinal disagreements between Catholics and non-Catholics and as a non-Catholic I agree with Lutzer’s general assessment against Catholic dogma.

However, Lutzer’s book is not limited to the divisions between Catholics and non-Catholics.  Lutzer also examines doctrinal controversies within protestant Christianity and one of these main controversies centers on the debate concerning Calvinism and Arminianism.

Unfortunately, Lutzer does not set himself apart from the many Calvinist authors who misrepresent Arminianism and the history of the controversy in an apparent attempt to paint Calvinism as orthodoxy and Arminianism as a sort of unfortunate heresy left over from the protestant break with Catholicism.  I hope to take a closer look at many of Lutzer’s claims and arguments in a series of posts.  This post, however, will simply examine an important difficulty with Calvinism that Lutzer rightly identifies along with his proposed solution.

In dealing with the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election Lutzer ponders the problem of evangelism in Calvinism.  He concludes that Arminians are really no better off than Calvinists with regards to the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of evangelism in their theological system (more on that in a future post), as well as why one can supposedly have confidence in his or her elect status in Calvinism even though the decree of election is secret (for serious problems regarding salvation assurance in Calvinism see this post).  He then shifts to an interesting question and takes only a paragraph to dispatch the concern with what he seems to think is a sufficient solution.  He writes,

God’s choice of those who will be saved appears to be neither random nor arbitrary.  He planned the context in which they would be converted.  That is why I have never wondered whether my children are among the elect.  Since they were born into a Christian home, we can believe that the means of their salvation will be the faithful teaching of God’s Word.  God’s decision to save us involved planning where we would be born and the circumstances that would lead us to Christ.  Election is part of a total picture. (The Doctrines that Divide, pg. 217, italics his)

The person I borrowed Lutzer’s book from wrote “very comforting” in the margin next to this paragraph.  But does Lutzer’s solution really offer enough certainty to provide a Calvinist with any real comfort concerning the eternal destiny of their children?  I don’t see that it possibly can given fundamental Calvinist assumptions and the way that they have traditionally handled certain passages of Scripture to support unconditional election.

Lutzer seems to be suggesting that if one is born in a Christian home, that person will grow up to hear the gospel and be converted.  Is that really what he thinks?  Surely he is aware of cases where children have grown up in Christian homes under godly Biblical teaching and yet rejected God and lived and died as unbelievers.  It seems to me that there have been many Atheists who grew up as children of ministers[2].  Indeed, in Calvinism the “means” or “context” is never enough.  The reprobate can hear the gospel a thousand times and will never believe it.  In fact, God has made it impossible for him or her to believe.

While the proper means and context may be a necessary ingredient in Calvinism, without an irresistible regenerating act of God no amount of means or context can ever avail.  How can Lutzer assume that because his children are being placed in a context where they can receive the means of conversion that conversion will necessarily follow?  He can’t if Calvinism is true.  Sadly, if one of his children is among the reprobate no amount of context or means can help that child.  Context and means cannot change a decree that was made by God from eternity.  Context and means cannot help a reprobate who will forever be denied the regenerating grace of God in accordance with an unchangeable eternal decree.

To be perfectly frank, what right does Lutzer have to even hope that his children are elect when reprobation supposedly magnifies God’s glory?  What if God wants to magnify His glory by reprobating one of Lutzer’s children?  In such a case Lutzer’s hopes would be in stark contrast to God’s desire to magnify Himself and His glory through the reprobation of one of Lutzer’s children.

Perhaps God wants to display His “mercy” and “love” in one child by contrasting His electing love of the one child with His reprobating hatred of the other child.  Perhaps this reprobation will help the elect child to better recognize and revel in God’s mercy and grace and thus magnify God’s grace and mercy in that elect child in such a way that would not have been possible had the other child been elected as well (or perhaps this reprobation will serve to help Lutzer better appreciate His own election as well).  Such thoughts are hard to even write, yet these are the unavoidable implications of what Calvinists regularly teach concerning God’s grace and supposed reasons for reprobating most of humanity.[3]  But even beyond that we have a traditional Calvinist proof text that flatly contradicts Lutzer’s claims,

Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac.  Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad- in order that God’s purpose in election would stand: not by works but by him who calls- she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10-13)

This is the primary Calvinist proof text for unconditional election and this passage completely undermines Lutzer’s claims.  Esau and Jacob were born to quite possibly the godliest family on the planet at that time.  They grew up under godly teaching and instruction.  Yet, despite all of that, according to Calvinism, Esau was hated by God from the womb and this hatred is supposedly to be equated with the eternal decree of reprobation.

If the first born son of Isaac can be a hopeless reprobate (despite his father’s love for him over his supposedly unconditionally “elect” son), then why can’t one of Erwin Lutzer’s children likewise be a hopeless reprobate despite the context and means of being brought up in a godly environment?  In fact, if we can learn anything from this, God might very well reprobate the favorite child of the parent for His good pleasure and for the sake of somehow magnifying His grace and mercy in the elect.  Again, such things are hard to even contemplate, yet these are the fundamental underlying assumptions of Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election.

Another example would be the sons of Eli the priest.  Not only had these children been brought up by a godly father (probably one of the most godly men in Israel at the time), but they had also been brought up in the ministry.  Despite this, both of Eli’s sons became so wicked that God put them to death[4].  What better context and means could they hope for than to be the children of a father who was devoted to serving God daily?  One might argue that the fault lied with Eli’s failures as a father, but who among Christian fathers has not fallen short?  If the “means” and “context” includes perfect parenting skills, we are all in trouble, including Erwin Lutzer.

The simple fact is that Calvinism can provide no such comfort to Lutzer or any other Christian parent.  Nor can Lutzer really explain how God’s choice of one over the other is not ultimately “arbitrary” or “random”.  Simply talking about means and context doesn’t explain how God’s choice to elect and save some from the mass of equally depraved humanity is not arbitrary.

Calvinists typically claim that God’s choice is not arbitrary even though there is nothing to differentiate the one who is chosen and the one who is reprobated.  After all, both were depraved God haters prior to God’s choice (according to traditional infralapsarian Calvinism).  That is why the choice is considered unconditional.  Nothing in the person or about the person (like faith) conditions God’s choice.

Calvinists might try to solve this problem by claiming that the reason is hidden in God and we cannot know it.  It seems random and arbitrary to us but we can supposedly be sure that God has a good reason for choosing one and reprobating the other, even if there is absolutely nothing in or about either person to condition the choice[5].  Perhaps this provides the key to the only possible comfort Calvinist parents can have.  While Calvinist parents cannot have comfort that all (or any) of their children will be elect, those parents can at least take comfort in the fact that if God did reprobate any (or all) of their children, He had a very good secret reason for doing so.[6]

[1] Erwin Lutzer is the senior pastor of the historic Moody Church in Chicago

[2] One need only check out a few atheist websites to find several who came from Christian homes.

[3] It has become increasingly popular for Calvinists to claim that God can only be ultimately glorified and His attributes fully displayed by reprobating the greater part of humanity in order to help the elect fully appreciate and understand God’s mercy and grace towards them.  In such a scheme the eternal torment of the reprobate is to a large degree for the sake of the elect that they might somehow see God in a greater light and love Him more.  This concept was popularized by Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards and has been reintroduced with great support by contemporary Calvinists like John Piper.  Such a scheme also seems to make sin and reprobation necessary for Gods’ attributes to be fully displayed, threatening His holiness and quite possibly His aseity as well.

[4] 1 Samuel 2:12-34

[5] Likewise, Peterson and Williams assert that unconditional election should not be considered arbitrary while failing to explain why this should be so, preferring instead to punt to mystery: “But why must God’s sovereign decision to love some be considered arbitrary?  All deserve wrath; none deserve his grace [which is precisely why it seems arbitrary].  He freely chooses to bestow saving grace on billions of undeserving sinners.  That is not arbitrary; the Bible itself teaches that election is the result of God’s love and will [but this only begs the question that God’s love and will is not arbitrary in election, the very issue in dispute].  His gracious choosing ultimately transcends our reason, but it is not arbitrary.” (Why I am Not an Arminian, pp. 65, 66- bold emphasis and brackets mine)

[6] The typical Calvinist retort to such things is to claim that the Arminian system creates the same difficulties.  Even if this were the case it wouldn’t change the fact that Calvinists like Erwin Lutzer are offering hope and certainty that the fundamental tenets of Calvinism cannot provide (and flatly contradict).  Still, Arminianism does fare better as parents can be assured that God indeed loves all of their children and truly desires their salvation, hearing prayers and continually revealing Himself in accordance with those prayers and His desire for them to be saved.  While Arminians do not believe that God does such things in a way that guarantees results (i.e., God works resistibly and not irresistibly), Arminians are in a far better position to reveal God’s love to their children since there is no doubt that God truly desires their salvation and Christ certainly died as a provision of atonement for them.  In contrast, consistent Calvinists cannot even truthfully tell their children that Jesus loves them in any meaningful way or that Christ showed His great love by dying for them.  Indeed, God may hate them just as He hated Esau and have no desire to save them.  Likewise, Christ may not have died for them at all.