Usually when people start to talk about Reformed Theology or Calvinism they usually start with a discussion on the Doctrine of Election. However, I think this is not the best way to go about it because while it may be one of the more controversial doctrines you run in to, it is sort of like going to step 2 before you go to step 1. What I mean by this is that I find the reason most people take issues with Election is that they have a misunderstanding of the state of mankind, that is, the doctrine of Total Depravity.
It may help to put this in an example of a hypothetical conversation, which is actually based on several conversations I’ve had just like it:
Me: Would God be entirely justified in sending all men to hell because all have sinned and fallen short of His glory? (Romans 3:23)
Person: Yes, absolutely
Me: Would it also be true that God would be showing incredible grace by saving even one person?
Person: Yes it would
Me: So do you still have problems with Election because God saves some and not others?
See this disconnect here? I think the idea is that God could do these things and it would be logically possible, but He really wouldn’t. At this point I think it’s appropriate to point out that not everyone reading this will identify with the hypothetical conversation above and claim that they don’t use that problem with Election when talking about it, and of those people I am aware, but this is just one example of a very common objection.
There are two things that I feel are at the root of this objection, that is just how bad our sinful, fallen, nature is and how good God is, or rather how God’s love is often stressed without His other attributes of justice, holiness etc. I’ll deal with the 2nd of these ideas in another post, but for now we’re going to focus on the fallen nature of man.
Culturally speaking, we live in a time when the self-help industry is still booming and the general idea is that, deep down, all people are by nature good. Much effort is put into psychology to deal with the apparent things within people that scream out against this idea. For example, many psychologists will tell you that the reason someone is exhibiting bad behavior A is because something happened in their past to make them turn out this way. This way, the person becomes the victim and automatically has an excuse for whatever action they are doing…and also, conveniently why you need their help continuously. I would like to point out that I’m not entirely against psychology as an academic discipline or as a career because it’s certainly a very helpful and fruitful field. What I am saying is that psychologists can’t get at the root of the problem of human nature, and that therefore, their helpfulness is limited. Phrases you hear now and when you were growing up (or at least I did when I was growing up) are things like “You can be anything you want to be!” , “Just look inside yourself to find the strength!” , “You are absolutely unique and wonderful!” etc. Now again, I feel the need to clarify that I’m not against these things per se but only the extent to which they’ve taken hold in society to where they become the bedrock. I feel this sort of thing leads to problems, not the last of which are young people (women, more often then men it seems) who live by the rule of “following their heart” and then you see them in relationship after relationship in an emotional roller coaster because they feel that the next significant other will be able to satisfy their desires and fix their lives etc.
Now how does that relate to Christianity? Well, the idea is that nobody really wants to hear bad news or be made to felt guilty, and especially told that there’s something wrong with them. So in other words, large masses of churches have taken to preaching (and this is not a new thing, I know) a very feel-good kind of sermon. 45 minutes or shorter in length because nobody wants to listen to someone talk for more than that, especially if it’s Sunday morning running into lunch time. The basic idea is that Jesus loves you and He wants you to be a good person and to be successful. Now, this isn’t exactly a falsehood on the surface of it because God certainly does love you and desires that you live a life in the image of His Son etc. but the problem is that the only idea people come away with is the sort of cultural self-help ideas with the name Jesus mixed in there. They don’t learn about what Godly love is, or what Jesus actually said and taught, and they just go away feeling better about themselves and perhaps having assuaged their guilt. The problem with this is that if people only hear this kind of “preaching”, why on earth would they feel the need for them to have a Savior?
I’ll cover a bit more of that aspect in the next blog, but to bring things back to the original topic, I feel this sort of pervading attitude about mankind is one of the things which underlays people’s problems with the doctrine of Election. If we feel that man is, deep down, good and just sometimes does bad things, despite of himself, then of course we are not going to like the doctrines of grace, or, truthfully, God Himself. If God has power over man, and does things that we might deem unfair or not nice, we are going to react against it very strongly. However, as Christians, it’s important that we take our notions of mankind not from society and psychology, but from Scripture itself.
I already listed briefly a passage from Romans above, and in it is even more stark in its context:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (3:11-18)
This passage is very in your face, and Paul lists it in referring to everyone, both Jews and Greeks (verse 9.) and this refers to everyone, not just the physical people groups of Jew and Greek. This is also not simply something the New Testament talks about either, because the prophet Ezekiel talks about this a few times well, in chapter 36
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (36:26-27)
Note that this passage says two very important things, that we have a heart of stone instead of a heart of flesh and, more importantly, that we are not able to change that. The verbs here are all monergistic, and are all due entirely to God. He will “give” a new heart, will “put” a new spirit within, will “remove” the heart of stone, and “give” a heart of flesh. He will “put” His Spirit within, and “cause” us to “walk” and “obey”. These are not passive actions, nor do you see anywhere the cooperation between the human will and the Divine will. At this point I think a distinction needs to be made as to what exactly the reformed approach is, to the freedom, or bondage, of man’s will is. The Westminster Confession of Faith states it as follows:
“Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.” (IX:III)
The footnotes which it uses to correspond the statement to Scripture is as follows:
4: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6) “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot.” (Romans 8:7) “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
5: “As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10) “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:12)
6: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved -” (Ephesians 2:5) “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:13)
7: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (John 6:44) “And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the father.” (John 6:65) “in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved -” (Ephesians 2:2-5) “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:3-5)
Listing all of these out serves a few different purposes. First, the initial statement in the confession makes plain what the reformers were talking about when they talked about the bondage of the will. It’s not like we’re saying that you do not have the choice to, say, pick up a pencil. What we’re saying is, that within our fallen nature (original sin) we don’t have the capacity to chose our own salvation. Also, when we speak of Total Depravity, we do not take that to mean total in the sense that human beings are as completely and utterly depraved, evil, and bad as they possibly could be. We mean that every aspect of man, that is his mind, heart, will, spirit etc. is effected to its core by sin. Secondly, listing all these verses not only clarifies the doctrine of Total Depravity in terms of Biblical terminology, but it also addresses directly the cop-out excuses of “well, you shouldn’t base so much on one verse” or “well, the prophets spoke in very metaphorical terms” or “well, you know, even Peter said that Paul taught things that were hard to understand” etc. because we see here represented a wide variety of people, including Christ Himself, all teaching the same thing. There are not many that would take the stance of historical Pelagianism, but there are many who would take a form of Semipelagianism in saying that yes, man’s will has been corrupted by the fall and original sin, but there’s still some aspect of his will that remains uncorrupted, and that therefore, under the right circumstances, has the ability to move himself towards God.
This list of verses is not by any means exhaustive, but I feel it necessary to talk in more detail about a few of the verses that I feel speak most clearly about this doctrine. “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others an hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:3-5, emphasis mine) This places the complete work solely on God, and not in any sort of cooperation mode either. You don’t see God trying as hard as He can, yet not able to do anything until man adds something to the mix. No, this is God alone doing the work and we are the recipients by the grace of God alone (Sola Gratia).
This doctrine didn’t come from the people who wrote up the Westminster Confession of Faith, nor did it come form John Calvin, or Martin Luther , or Saint Augustine. And even if we are tempted to side against Ezekial and John and Paul, as Christians we absolutely must deal with the words of Jesus.
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” (John 6:63) “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:65)
Those words are so clear, and strike down the very heart of human pride. The flesh is no help at all. Not only does man not have the ability to save himself, but he can’t even help! He cannot add anything to the sovereign grace and power of God. The second is such a well known verse that we often miss its significance. This verse does not say that no man may come so as to suggest that some can and some can’t based on certain situations and conditions; it says that no man can come. This means that no man has the power, or the ability, or the desire to come to Christ unless, which is a word which means a necessary condition follows it, it is granted him by the Father! Granted, not earned, or merited or anything else, but granted him by the Father. The Arminian has to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to attempt to justify their salvation in conjunction with the dogmatic assertion of human free will being involved but scripture is unanimous in its declaration of God being the author and finisher of the work of Salvation, and that mankind is in bondage to our will and can add nothing to the work of Christ.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
This is not meant as an exhaustive discussion on the whole of reformed theology or the five points of Calvinism, nor is it going to answer every question even relating to this topic. However, hopefully this serves as a decent introduction into the doctrines of grace and answers a few of the questions of the nature of the will/being of man and its being effected by the fall and therefore sin. The second step is discussing how good God is, and finally putting the two together in relation to one another, and what that means for our lives theologically and therefore practically.