RePost: The best way to defend soteriological Calvinism?

I had objections to the doctrine of predestination but, eventually, these were overcome. What happened is R. C. Sproul’s original (black hair, turtleneck, plaid pants) lectures on “The Holiness of God”powerfully reintroduced me to my own depravity and guilt. The new understanding of my depravity broke down my objections to facing the passages that talk of our need for God’s invincible grace. The new understanding of my guilt broke down my objections to facing the passages that spoke of God’s sovereign rights to have mercy on whom he chooses.

From that point on, I was sure that all objections to decreetal calvinism stemmed from an underestimation of our depravity and our guilt in comparison to God’s holiness.

But what if there are Arminians who are not concerned about such issues?

What if they simply want the cross of Jesus Christ and the offer of salvation in the Gospel to be as deeply revelatory of God’s nature as anything else in Scripture?

It was Athanasius, I think, who said we learned something more essential about God when we named him “Father” from the revelation of His Son, Jesus, than when we named him “Uncreate” from the revelation we find in creation. The point was that creation was God’s volition but that begetting the Son, and being begotten of the Father were eternal relations. God could have chosen not to create and would have been no less God, but he could never fail to beget the Son. Knowing the Son is the Son and the Father is the Father is a grasp of God’s essence much more than knowledge of God as Creator.

And here is the problem. Salvation is supposed to be a revelation of God. It can’t be given equal weight with the trinitarian relationships, of course; if God could choose whether or not to create then the cross could also be chosen or not. But, within creation and the revelation therein both special and general, when we compare the wrath of God to the love of God, wrath looks like it is more fundamental and more revelatory of God’s character.

Think about it. What do we know about God’s character? What must be true about God beyond any possible contingency? The answer is: God must inflict penal suffering on sin. What is fundamental about God is that he punishes. That he is loving and merciful is true, but it could just as easily not be in regard to sinful human beings.

From one angle, this all makes perfect sense. Mercy can’t be obligated, of course. But when it comes to understanding God’s fundamental nature, what it can sound like is that it would make no difference to who God is if he were to damn all creation. He would still be a holy and righteous God. (Come to think of it, inasmuch as Sproul’s lectures were intended to make the listener open to TULIP, the entire project was theological: to relativize love and make it subordinate to holiness. God can decide to be forgiving but fundamentally he must establish separation, control, perfectionism, and punishment.)

Every time a Calvinist tries to get an Arminian to see things differently, he might well be saying something that sounds quite different to the Arminian than what he intends. I have assured and do assure people every time the issue comes up that we should not be amazed that sinners are reprobate but instead should be amazed and thankful that any sinners will ever be saved. Soteriologically and legally this is fine. Theologically it sounds like we have no real revelation of God’s character in his salvation of sinners. The fundamental reality is wrath and the contingency is sometimes that wrath gets put on Jesus instead of the sinner. And this rhetorical gap only widens as we talk about who amazing it is that God saves, how suprising and how strange. Are the doctrines of grace a revelation of or an exception to God’s essence?

I have known of professing Christians who struggle with assurance for no apparant reason. I’m beginning to wonder if this is not a sort of existential or metaphysical angst. Yes there is grace and salvation but the bedrock character of God is punitive justice. Wrath is the fundamental metaphysic. And I think we see other problems cropping up in the Christian life, though if someone wishes to simply deny this, I have no argument to make. Recall Jack Miller’s query as to whether believers who affirm that God loves them are willing to concede that God likes them? Is our presentation of God’s love for sinners something like Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice? Does God confess that he loves us in spite of his better judgment and even against his character? Do we give that impression? Would it be good news if we did? Yet it is hard to know how we can affirm slavation as a gratuitous gift without risking sounding like this. Obviously God wasn’t obligated to forgive anyone. Nevertheless, there is tension present in affirming this. It sounds like we don’t know God and this may be the reason why the particularism of Calvinism is resisted.

Is it possible much promotion of calvinism is designed to distract listeners/readers from this problem? Of course, the distraction involves truths about God’s holiness, our sin, and God ability to save. No one is trying to be distracting. But when we find people resisting, maybe it is not because they want to believe they are less depraved than they really are or that God is less capable of salvation. Maybe they want to believe that God is love–that the giving up of his Son is just as revelatory of God’s character as anything else.

So what to do?

First off, I think we should beat Arminians to the punch in bringing up this objection. Let’s admit to it and face it.

Secondly, let’s say that, as powerful as such considerations are, exegesis still trumps our feelings. Of course, by that I don’t mean that our feelings are wrong. On the contrary, it is obvious from reading the Bible that God wants us to have those feelings. Rather, the point is that those feelings must somehow be compatible to what the Bible teaches about predestination and salvation. Even if everything doesn’t fit together as neatly in our minds, it still remains true that the Bible teaches God’s ultimate plan for all things, total depravity, unconditional election (nothing foreseen is the basis for it), limited atonement (God’s motive for sending Jesus was personal), invincible grace, and the preseverence of the eternally elect.

Thirdly, lets emphasize The Free Offer of the Gospel and Common Grace. Here John MacArthur’s excellent comments are a helpful corrective to a lot of hypercalvinism is a great help. But there is a lot of great stuff out there including John Piper, Robert Dabney, and, of course, John Calvin. A couple of things are important here:

  1. Creational Grace The difference between monotheism and everything else–atheism, pantheism, deism, or polytheism–is that the latter means that one can and should have ultimate grattitude and ultimate trust. Reality is not the product of chance, whether impersonal forces or competing personal agents, but a gift of grace. The awful truth of sin and reprobation is found in the fact that people have refused to given thanks and refused to trust (Romans 1.18ff). The background and presupposition of depravity is God’s initiating love.

    We believe that man was created pure and perfect in the image of God, and that by his own guilt he fell from the grace which he received, and is thus alienated from God, the fountain of justice and of all good, so that his nature is totally corrupt. And being blinded in mind, and depraved in heart, he has lost all integrity, and there is no good in him (Gallican Confession, Article IX).

    Everytime we tell of sin we have a chance to tell people of the goodness and love of God that we have and continually deny and distrust. This doesn’t answer every possible question one might have but it does reinforce the metaphysical reality that God is the giving God (James 1.5)

  2. The offer of mercy and grace is sincerely given to all who here it. Even in affirming that the resistance to God’s kindness will lead to perdition Paul does not hesitate to affirm that God’s kindness is intended to bring us to repentance (Romans 2.4, 5). We need to teach God’s decree but not allow it to be used to portray God as either insincere or stingy.

This won’t solve every issue, but it will help us all remember that an ontology of love is something that wrath must somehow fit into rather than love being an inexplicable raft on a sea of fire.

Fourth, lets remember the danger of relying on the printed word to persuade people of the truths of predestinaton and monergistic salvation. When people hear new doctrines (new to them) they have nothing but their imaginations to guess how these new principles would alter their lives. It is much better to introduce people to new communities where people can see that these truths are embodied in love. Otherwise, many may reject the doctrines of grace thinking that, in order to be in the image of God, they must be selective in their love. And worse, some who do embrace these teachings may miscalculate and become the charicatures we all want to avoid. (Think of John MacArthur’s words in the article linked above: “I am troubled by the tendency of some-often young people newly infatuated with Reformed doctrine-who insist that God cannot possibly love those who never repent and believe. I encounter that view, it seems, with increasing frequency.”)

Fifth and finally, when one sees photographs of people who lived their lives in the American frontier wilderness, one often sees people hardened by the elements. And, in our literature and moveies we often see those who survive scoffing at the “tenderfoots” and “soft” Easterners who pass by on trains. Let us not grow hard because we have mistakenly been thinking of reality as hostile, and if we have grown hard, lets not rationalize this by mocking Christians who seem more concerned about portraying a God who is generous than one who is the ultimate cause of all things. One shouldn’t have to choose between those options but if one does, it is not at all clear that one is superior to the other.

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