Ask a Calvinist…(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

It is perhaps serendipitous that yesterday’s post spoke of the “accidental fences” we build between one another as people of faith, because today’s interview highlights something that can spark emotional divides within the Christian community: the theology of Calvinism

Justin Taylor is a popular blogger and leader in the modern Reformed movement. The vice president of book publishing and an associate publisher at Crossway, he has edited and contributed to several books and served as the managing editor for The ESV Study Bible. He blogs atBetween Two Worlds

I really appreciated Justin’s thoughtful and charitable responses to your questions about Calvinism, and I hope you will respond in kind, even if you disagree. 

From Dustin: Hi Justin, thanks for your time!  The link Rachel provides for the "neo-reformed movement" implies that you would doubt the salvation of anyone who does not share your particular interpretation of Scripture regarding Reformed Theology.   Is this an accurate portrayal? If so, what leads you to believe that this issue is essential doctrine for salvation as opposed to an area where two committed followers of Christ can reasonably disagree? If it is not an accurate portrayal, then how do you view those of different perspectives? 

Many thanks to Rachel for facilitating discussions like these. I think we need more dialogue like this. And thanks, Dustin, for the good question. 

Let me tackle it in two parts.

(1) Is this an accurate portrayal? 

I like Scot McKnight (the author of this piece). But this is area upon which we would disagree. When his comments were first posted online I responded here

In short, he makes two charges in the piece Rachel linked to: (1) The so-called “neo-Reformed” disagree with Mike Horton on the village green of evangelicalism and require Reformed confessions and credentials to “enter the green”; (2) The “neo-Reformed” are “mean and graceless.” 

While there may be debates on precisely what defines an “evangelical,” I don’t know any key influencer among the neo-Reformed who substantially disagrees with Horton on this. To offer one example: I see no good reason that the label “evangelical” should not be applied to John Wesley, and I recently commissioned a book by a Wesleyan on Wesley on the Christian Life for a series I am co-editing. I certainly don’t doubt the salvation of everyone who is not Reformed!

Regarding the second accusation, I hope I’m not a “mean and graceless” person! One can find examples in any group of those who could be more gentle and careful, but McKnight’s charge is fairly sweeping. The reality is that you can find “mean and graceless” people in all segments of Christendom. I watched with some amusement several years ago as a particular theologian constantly lamented the lack of “irenicism” among conservative evangelicals, only to turn around an unleash a litany of uncharitable labels against Calvinists, including that “the God of Calvinism scares me; I’m not sure how to distinguish him from the devil.” Maybe this is what we could call ironic irenicism! 

Even though I certainly fall short of these ideals, I would commend the sort of vision that David Powlison lays out here

(2) If it is not an accurate portrayal, then how do you view those of different perspectives? 

I’m a small-c catholic and “I believe in the holy catholic church”—the church universal. If someone is born again and trusts in Jesus alone for salvation and walks in fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit, then he or she is a family member—adopted by God and a fellow-heir with Christ. And those in the family of faith should treat one other as members of a physical family ought to treat one another. And as is true in physical families, so in the large spiritual family of God there can be some forms of distinction and disagreement and painful distance. As family members, we still engage in iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17) and contending earnestly for the faith once delivered (Jude 1:3) and practice loving discipline (Matt. 18:15-20), even as we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:39) and speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). 

To get more specific than this, we’d probably have to look at whom you have in mind. I would probably begin with the framework behind this analysis, distinguishing between first-order doctrines (a denial of which represents the eventual denial of Christianity itself), second-order doctrines (upon which Bible-believing Christians may disagree, but they create significant boundaries between believers, whether as distinct congregations or denominations), and third-order doctrines (upon which Christians may disagree, but yet remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations). 

From Josh: What, if anything, within Calvinism makes you feel uncomfortable? Is there anything particularly hard for you to swallow? What is the hardest tenet of Calvinism for you to buy into?

'Tulip' photo (c) 2010, Steven Lilley - license:

One clarification first: I’ll focus in these answers on what could be called “evangelical Calvinism” and the distinctive most people have in mind when discussing or refuting it, namely, God’s absolute sovereignty. It should be pointed out that Calvinism itself is an entire God-centered worldview, and is often used more specifically to refer to covenant theology. But I’ll focus here on God’s sovereignty in salvation.

John Piper once said something to the effect that if you’ve become a Calvinist and you haven’t shed any tears in the process, you probably don’t understand Calvinism in the first place. Yes, there have been tears. When I realized that my own views of how God should be were at odds with what he has revealed about himself and his actions, that was one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever experienced.

But the adoption of a worldview often means that certain “defeaters” that were once troubling now become more understandable. Those things which at first are only believed intellectually begin to be absorbed spiritually. 

All of that to say that there are not really areas of my theology where I feel an existential angst on a day-to-day basis. I find the theological alternatives to my belief in God’s absolute sovereignty to be (paradoxically) more rationalistic and simplistic, and I’ve grown content living in the light of God’s mysterious ways

Those areas of my discomfort and struggle have more to do with the living in a post-Fall world with indwelling sin, a melancholy streak, and a longing for the day when all that is sad will come untrue

From Charissa: I have wrestled with the issue of Calvinism for as long as I can remember. One of my biggest struggles is with our inherent understandings of mercy and grace. The idea of God pre-destining someone to hell with no POSSIBLE way of anything other than that happening is repulsive to me and offends my sense of justice. And when I ask my Reformed/Calvinist friends if this bothers them as well, I usually get something like this, "God's ways are not our ways. Everything God does is just, so if someone is going to hell we can trust that God is still good even in that." So my question is this: How does that logic not make our understandings of right and wrong completely arbitrary and meaningless? What does it make of our God-given sense of right, wrong, justice, and mercy?

Thanks for your question, Charissa. I think you’ve articulated what is at the heart of a lot of distress—even disgust—about the doctrines of grace. 

Let me begin with one clarification before attempting to give more of an answer. Some people think that Calvinism entails that some people could end up in heaven who don’t want to be there or some people end up in hell who want to be with Christ. C. S. Lewis didn’t say everything that could and should be said about hell, but he was getting at a valid insight when he observed: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'"

In my journey to Calvinism (which was not at all easy) and in numerous conversations with those struggling with the Bible’s teaching on divine election and absolute sovereignty, it doesn’t take long to encounter two fundamental questions: (1) If this is true, then how is God just? (2) If this is true, how can God hold us responsible? 

One of the most eye-opening experiences for me was to read carefully through Romans 9 and to see that as Paul teaches on election these are precisely the questions that he encounters as a response. For example, after explained that Jacob was chosen and Esau was not, before they were born and before they’d done anything good or bad (v. 11), Paul knows the inevitable objection: “Is there injustice on God’s part?” (v. 14). And he’s emphatic that there is not. 

Paul goes on to explain that God has compassion and mercy on whomever he wills, not dependent upon human will or effort (vv. 15-18). Paul once again knows what all of his readers must be thinking: “Why does [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?” Paul goes on to explain that God is God and we are not.


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.


More Interviews: 

Ask an Atheist 
Ask a Catholic 
Ask an Orthodox Jew 
Ask a Humanitarian 
Ask a Mormon 
Ask a Mennonite  
Ask an Evolutionary Creationist 

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.***

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