I’ve never heard an Arminian (or open theist, or universalist) teach in such a way that these questions even appear to be natural or plausible defeaters.
I don’t think we need to abandon what you refer to as “our God-given sense of right, wrong, justice, and mercy.” But I do think we need to “test all things” (1 Thess. 5:21)—including our presuppositions and dispositions—against the word of God. The functional dividing line in a lot of these discussions is whether we will be over or under the word of God. Are we in the dock, or is God (to use C.S. Lewis’s imagery)? Are we committed to being transformed by God’s word and worldview or will we be content to be conformed to the way in which the world defines.
Let me give two quick examples of why this issue ultimately boils down to exegesis. In a very rough sense we’d both probably define our terms in a similar way: justice is someone receiving what he or she deserves, with there be appropriate proportion between crime and punishment; grace is receiving favor that is undeserved. But we can’t get much further than this until we carefully examining what the biblical authors understand that we do and don’t deserve, and the nature of what Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. For example, we might disagree that offending God is an infinite crime, and therefore we’d disagree on the appropriate recompense. Or we might disagree on whether we all “deserve grace.”
I’ve already gone on too long here, but I’d recommend R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God for a compelling look at what Scripture really teaches on justice and grace.
From Kat: What would you tell someone who has not been chosen by God to be saved?
Who is ultimately among the elect will only be known with certainty at the Day of Judgment. Now—in the already/not-yet, “between the times”—we must obey God’s revealed will, which is to preach the gospel indiscriminately. (For the distinction between God’s secret and revealed wills, see Deut. 29:29.)
So I would tell anyone to “believe in the risen Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9). I would encourage them to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). I would tell them that Jesus is calling them: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28)—even though in the previous verse Jesus had said that no one knows the Father expect those to whom the Son reveals him (v. 27).
From Susie: If there is limited atonement and irresistible grace, then why do we bother with mission work and strive to spread the Gospel?
The short answer is that God ordains both means and ends. In other words, he not only ordains certain outcomes (say, salvation) but also the way in which those come about (e.g., prayer, the preaching of his Word, etc.).
Here’s the longer answer: If limited atonement (or better: definite atonement, particular redemption) and irresistible grace are properly defined, in accordance with what I think the Bible teaches, then these form the foundationfor my confidence and motivation for gospel ministry rather than in any way counting against it.
Definite atonement means that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross not only makes salvation possible (for all) but that it actually achieves salvation (for some). Everyone “limits” the atonement in one way or another (universalists excepted). Calvinist “limit” the intent of the atonement; Arminians limit the extent. One Reformed author explained it like this: Arminianism pictures an infinitely wide bridge that only goes halfway across the water. Calvinism pictures a narrower bridge but at least it brings you all the way to the other side. But nothing about definite atonement prevents me from saying that if you trust in Jesus his blood will cover all your sins.
Irresistible grace says that all people resist God’s will (“you always resist the Holy Spirit,” Acts 7:51). But God in his sovereign grace can have “mercy on whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18). This gives me great confidence for mission work. I know that around God’s throne in the new heavens and earth there will be people purchased and drawn from “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). This is why Paul could have hope for evangelism in Corinth even before any evangelistic fruit, because God assured him “I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10).
It’s no coincidence that the father of the modern missions movement was a Calvinist, as tend to be many ofthe great missions mobilizers of our day. John Alexander, a former president of Inter-Varsity, said in a message at Urbana '67, “At the beginning of my missionary career I said that if predestination were true, I could not be a missionary. Now after 20 years of struggling with the hardness of the human heart, I say I could never be a missionary unless I believed in the doctrine of predestination.”
One last note on this: I think our hearts are often better than our minds on this sort of thing, and our prayers better than our articulated theology. When we pray for the salvation of a friend—aren’t we ultimately praying not just for opportunities to present the Good News, but that God would break through, drawing them to himself (John 6:44), lifting the veil from their eyes (2 Cor. 4:3-6), opening their heart (Acts 16:14)?
From Justin B.: Looking back over the controversy with Love Wins, do you wish you would have done anything differently? The firestorm, after all, was started by your blog post accusing Bell of heresy before his book was even released.
I’ve been hesitant to answer this question at one level because hindsight is 20/20, and it feels a little less than honest to (a) see how things play out and then (b) pronounce how I should have done things differently. On the other hand, there’s no virtue in being obstinate if and when mistakes are made!
At the end of the day I stand by the content of my blog post. I thought it was enormously telling how many people were disgusted with an ambiguous three-word tweet by John Piper but essentially yawned at Bell’s false teaching on a matter of eternal importance.
To answer your question more directly: If I had a “do-over” I would have added my later clarification the first time around and I would have made clearer that my point was not to predict what he would say in the book but to lament over the video itself, which ultimately mocked the heart of the gospel.
From Don: I do not see how Calvinism does not lead to a kind of fatalism, if what will be will be and cannot be changed, why try to change anything? Just accept your fate. When I read Calvinists it seems like they keep trying to explain why their faith is NOT like this, even though from an outsider's perspective it really IS like this. So any wisdom you can impart here would help me better understand.
Thanks for asking, Don.
The reason for the pushback you’re getting is that the Bible is opposed to “fatalism” (which makes our actions inconsequential for changing things and leads to resignation in the face of such powerlessness) but teaches and presupposes “compatiblism” (that God’s absolute sovereignty is compatible with genuine human freedom and responsibility).
D. A. Carson explains the biblical both/and:
1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized, or mitigated.
2. Human beings are morally responsible creatures—they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.
I think we see this both/and approach on nearly every page of Scripture. Just a few examples: Gen. 50:19-20; Lev. 20:7-8; 1 Kings 8:46; Isa. 10:5; John 6:37-40; Acts 18:9-10; Phil. 2:12-13; Acts 4:23-31.
Or if you want just one example to examine, take a careful look at how things play out in this story of Paul being shipwrecked.
For more explanation of how genuine means and consequences function in a world of absolute sovereignty, this imaginary conversation may prove helpful.
From Brian: My question is one of personal advice. I grew up Reformed, have been a member of a Reformed church nearly my whole life (I'm 33). For the most part, I've always been deeply committed to the doctrines I've learned in this tradition & lived committed to spreading the good news of our sovereign God. Lately, though, I've been reading a lot. I've let myself read other views - something I had always avoided - and have spent a lot of time reading blogs, like this one. I still think a lot of this stuff is crazy, thought Rob Bell was way off par, and very much lean towards Calvinism. But the truth is... I can't say I'm 100% sure anymore. And that torments me... If I don't believe 100% in reformed theology, if I'm not sure... am I even saved? How can I really know if I'm one of the elect? And what should I do from here? I've always admired your writings, Justin - wondering if you can reach out to a fellow brother & give me some advice. I've found myself teetering on the edge of faith & it's a terribly scary place to be. I don't know what to do.
Brian, thanks for writing, brother. I wish I knew a little bit more of your story and your struggles. If I did, I might be able to give a more focused (and perhaps more helpful) answer. So my apologies in advance if I’m not scratching where you’re itching, especially if I’ve misunderstood where you’re coming from.
If I don't believe 100% in reformed theology, if I'm not sure, am I even saved?
Nowhere will you find a verse in the Bible that says something like, “Call upon the Lord and profess the five points of Calvinism and you shall be saved!” We are justified by grace along through faith alone in Christ alone. Calvinism is a good summary of all that this entails and more, but it’s certainly not a perquisite for salvation.
How can I really know if I'm one of the elect?
2 Peter 1:10 exhorts all of us to diligently confirm our calling and election—so this seems like a good place for us to look regarding how to, well, confirm our election. Peter encourages us to practice the qualities of virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (vv. 5-7). Now at one level that sounds like a regime of just “do more, try harder.” But notice v. 9. If you are falling short of those qualities—those fruits—the reason is that you have become “nearsighted.” Remember, if you’re “nearsighted” that means that objects at a distance grow fuzzy. So what’s the object that we’re in danger of losing sight of? I think it’s the cross, for Peter explains that we’re becoming willfully blind and forgetful of the fact we are “cleansed from [our] former sins.”
So my main encouragement to you would be to fix your eyes upon the crucified and risen Lamb of God. Remember that the goal of the Christian life is to become like Christ, and that the way in which we become like him is to behold him. (Meditate on 2 Cor. 3:18 in context.)
"I've found myself teetering on the edge of faith and it's a terribly scary place to be. I don't know what to do."
Remember that though it’s important for us to examine and test ourselves, to see whether we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), it’s also important for us to spend much more time looking upward than inward.
Thomas Chalmers put it well:
"So if you wish to look well inwardly, look well out. . . . This is the very way to quicken it. Throw widely open the portals of faith and in this, every light will be admitted into the chambers of experience. The true way to facilitate self-examination is to look believingly outwardly."
Or Robert Murray McCheyne:
Learn much of the Lord Jesus.
For every look at yourself take ten looks at Christ.
He is altogether lovely. . . .
Live much in the smiles of God.
Bask in his beams.
Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love.
And repose in his almighty arms.
Or another way to put it: re-read the story of Peter walking on the water with Jesus and notice what caused him to start sinking.
Finally, be careful to avoid a Lone-Ranger form of Christianity, influenced more by American individualism and pietistic evangelism than biblical Christianity. God has ordained that the ordinary means of grace (Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, sacraments, preaching) be done in the context of a local church. The fight of faith is a community project.
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You can read some of my previous posts about Calvinism here.
***Update 1: I'm closing the comment thread on this one because it has become too difficult to manage, and I'm afraid I allowed some sarcastic/unhelpful comments to remain there for longer than I would have wanted as a result. So sorry! ***
***Update 2: Apparently this post sparked a rather heated debate over at Justin's site regarding whether or not he should have been a guest here and whether or not I am a Christian worthy of fellowship.***