This is session 1 of an 8-part series which will help readers study the Bible and come to their own conclusions regarding Calvinism. The reason I’m creating this series is because I have been told many times that the Calvinist understanding of how God saves people is the only accurate theology of Christian salvation.
I have also started to read from more and more non-Calvinists who may have started thinking that the only way to avoid the conclusions of Calvinism is to assume the Bible isn’t inerrant or infallible, or that it wasn’t meant to be interpreted in a “literal” manner.
My goal isn’t to convince you that the Bible can be interpreted at face value. My goal, rather, is to hopefully show you that, even if you read the Bible at its plain face value, it does not necessarily lead to Calvinism.
The following are ways that this series will be different from the millions of other articles on the Internet against Calvinism:
- My posts will be short, to-the-point, and I will make my best effort to make them easy to understand
- I won’t think for you. My posts will present a few simple propositions, and then invite you to check out some verses of the Bible and come to your own conclusions
- My posts won’t be academic and will minimize discussions on the original Greek and Hebrew and textual criticism, because they are for the everyday person
- My posts won’t quote other theologians or writers because the focus will be on what the Bible says
Session 1: Do people really have a choice in whether they end up in heaven or hell?
At the crux of the “Calvinist debate” are two different understandings on the nature of human will as it pertains to salvation:
- God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. This doesn’t violate human choice because left on our own, we all choose hell, and God regenerates and thereby changes the wills of the chosen (the elect) so that they want to be saved. God saves all of the elect by giving them the ability to believe. The technical name for this is the “compatibilist” understanding.
- God genuinely offers salvation to all, desires everyone to be saved, and pursues everyone to that end. The Holy Spirit’s universal conviction ministry, if not resisted, enables a person to truly understand God’s personal offer of salvation so that it can be received. God may close someone’s heart to salvation if the person continues to resist the Holy Spirit. The technical name for this is the “libertarian” understanding.
An overview of conviction
This will be discussed in more detail in session 4, but we cannot believe something, or have faith in something, until we have received necessary information. The Biblical term for this is revelation (or, special revelation): God has revealed Himself and the saving message of the gospel through the Bible. However, in order for this revelation to be understood and acknowledged as applying to ourselves (so that the offer of eternal life can be received on a personal level), the Spirit needs to convict us of our sinfulness and need of a savior.
Most Calvinist texts can support either the compatibilist or libertarian viewpoint
There are certain things that the Bible is very clear on. For example, Jesus was crucified and was resurrected on the third day. There is no wiggle room there. However, there are many other things that the Bible is either not clear on, or is silent on. One issue that the Bible is unclear on is whether the compatibilist or libertarian understanding is true.
My theory is that much of the Calvinistic framework is built on the assumption that the “compatibilist” view is true. After assuming this “compatibilist” view as truth, it then interprets the Bible to fit the philosophical assumption.
To prove my theory, I invite you to take popular Calvinist verses, and read the “libertarian” view into them and see if they could make sense. I think most of the time, they do!
To hopefully kick start this process, I will provide a few examples of common Calvinist proof texts and show how they don’t only support the compatibilist understanding:
Romans 3:10-12: Just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.”
Libertarian (non-Calvinist) view: No one seeks after God. All have turned their backs from God. God is the seeker, and gives people the opportunity to respond. Those who stop resisting God are led to salvation. These verses neither speak to nor conflict with the two viewpoints.
John 6:65 – So Jesus added, “Because of this [because some of you have rejected the Lord’s teachings] I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has allowed him to come.”
Libertarian view: Of course it is true that one’s salvation must be allowed by the Father. The alternative would be conflict in the Trinity (in part 2, we will review the scenario where the word “allowed” is understood to be more action-oriented).The Father and the Son (and the Spirit) are in union regarding who comes to Jesus.
But the religious Jewish folks in the synagogue to whom Jesus said these words would beg to differ. They were the ones who did not believe Jesus, yet they believed that they were following Yahweh (God the Father) through the Torah (Jesus was the deluded one, in their eyes).
Jesus is telling them, in effect, “Not so fast. You don’t have the approval of the Father either.” He is asserting His divinity here. A bit earlier, Jesus had told a group of people who also did not believe, that they have failed to learn from the Father (John 6:44-45). Could John 6:65 be an exhortation to these people to study the Torah (Old Testament), which points to Jesus Christ?
To take a step back, this passage does not reveal what the Father’s criteria are for allowing people to come to Jesus. The Calvinist would say that this is God’s sovereign will, arbitrary from the human perspective. The non-Calvinist would say that the criteria is saving faith . Was their rejection because the Father didn’t allow them, or was there a genuine option to be convicted by the Spirit, which leads to believing in Jesus and receiving salvation? As you can see, neither are definitely affirmed by this passage, but both can be read into it. This is our goal here, to remove the label “Calvinist proof text” from this passage.
If you are thinking ahead, the underlying question for all of this is whether unregenerate, unsaved people are inherently able to respond to God’s conviction; if the answer is no, then they would require God’s regeneration so that they do respond (and since not all are saved, this regeneration must be unconditional from the human perspective). This question of inherent ability to respond will be considered in parts 3 and 4. If the answer is yes, then people have agency in ultimately receiving or rejecting God’s universal offer of salvation.
Isaiah 6:8 He said, “Go and tell these people: ‘Listen continually, but don’t understand! Look continually, but don’t perceive!’ Make the hearts of these people calloused; make their ears deaf and their eyes blind! Otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, their hearts might understand and they might repent and be healed
Libertarian view: This occurred after the nation Israel had rejected God’s persistent seeking and pleading. God is delivering on His promise of judgment to those who would continue to resist Him. However, this passage does not illuminate whether A) it was God’s will that the people had already rejected His message (compatibilist view), or B) it was the peoples’ will to reject God’s message (libertarian view).
Both the libertarian and compatibilist views are tenable from this passage. Indeed, we have a tendency to read philosophical assumptions, about the nature of free will and sovereignty, into these texts.
That’s it for this week! Are there a few verses about individual salvation or damnation that you have struggled with? I invite you to try this for yourself. Don’t know which verses to try this with? Just Google Calvinist proof texts, and you will find no shortage of eager folks who would love to show you.
My conclusion from having done this is that the overwhelming majority of verses can easily be read both ways, and only a few lean towards the compatibilist understanding. This will just be leveling the playing field before we begin actual work looking into the Biblical case against Calvinism.
I look forward to learning whether you all are coming to the same conclusions as I am. I hope you all make some great discoveries studying the Word this week!
Session 6: Romans 9, Acts 13:48, and 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14
Session 7: Understanding predestination
Session 8: Comparison with Arminianism
Session 9: Big picture suggests one of God genuinely striving with humanity