The Most Controversial Letter In TULIP
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When I first started studying Calvinism, I thought that the most controversial element of the TULIP was the “L”–Limited Atonement. This is summed up in the Westminster Confession of Faith III.6:
Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. (emphasis added)
But I’ve found that everyone believes in the Limited Atonement, whether they think they do or not. A Universal Atonement is not just logically impossible, but outright cruel. Think about it like this: if Christ died in atonement for the sins of all of mankind, then why does God still send people to Hell? To what point and purpose must some people pay for their sins twice, once vicariously through Christ and then again for all eternity in Hell?
It makes no sense. Aside from that, only John 3:16 stands in support of a Universal Atonement. In nearly all other cases where the Atonement is mentioned in Scripture, the word “many” rather than “all” refers to those effectually called and saved. Looking back at the Old Testament, both Daniel and Isaiah confirm this idea of an elect people, or “the many” (cf. Dan 9:27 and Is 53:11-12) Scripture teaches, therefore, that only those who die in Christ are effectually saved by the Atonement. Even non-Calvinist writers agree on this point.
The most controversial element of Calvinism is the doctrine of predestination, which the Confession says “is to be handled with special prudence and care” (III.8). I found out why last night as I attempted to explain this doctrine to a friend over an Instant Message. He was aghast that I believed in this doctrine, since (in his opinion) it takes away free will.
First, before I delve into some of the finer points of the misunderstood doctrine of predestination, I must affirm that, to my surprise, Calvinism does teach that mankind has free will. I say “to my surprise” because I resisted Calvinism for so long for the sinful allure of open theism because of the question of free will. I made the mistake of checking what the critics said of Calvinism instead of looking at Calvinist authors like R.C. Sproul wrote on the subject. The Westminster Confession devotes an entire chapter to the free will of man.
In summary, the Confession states that God has placed a free will that is neither good nor evil within man. Pre-Fall, that will was good and pleasing to God, but mutable so that man could fall from his state of grace. Post-Fall, the will of man is dead in sin and unable to will and do any spiritual good. That means that man is unable to save himself apart from the drawing of the Father to Christ. Upon salvation, God regenerates the sinner and endows him with complete freedom to will and do spiritual good–but not perfectly, so he is still able to will and do evil.
Knowing that Calvinism affirmed the free will of man made it a lot easier for me to call myself a Calvinist, rather than just a reluctant Calvinist. While waiting in the long line for the most recent Harry Potter book, I had the incredible fortune to read portions of Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul, which helped me see that predestination is the ultimate expression of God’s love and grace, not the expression of tyranny that many critics of Calvinism make it out to be.
So what is predestination, exactly? Let’s take it one step at a time, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith:
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (III.1)
So this, with the chapter on free will above, confirms that the liberty of the creatures, though the secondary cause only, does not remove the responsibility for those actions from the creature. So if Bob murders Ted, that doesn’t make God responsible just because He made Bob and knew that Bob was going to murder Ted.
Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. (I.2)
This means that God’s will is the ultimate will: He decrees what He sees as right according to His will and pleasure, not simply because He foresaw it as a potential future. This passage also affirms that Molinism is out of the question–God freely ordains what happens, He doesn’t place His creatures in such a way as to bring it about based on certain conditions.
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.
These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished. (III.3-4)
So God knows all who will be His, and in fact has declared from the beginning who it will be. All done according to His will and pleasure, not according to what has or will happen. Read on:
Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace.
As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. (III.5-6)
He has selected us, and He will order the events in our lives and work on us until we are in full communion with Him. Now, the double-edged sword of predestination–if He has chosen some for Heaven, He has necessairly chosen the rest for Hell:
The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praised of His glorious justice. (III.7)
It is that part that is so controversial. We want to believe that our will is completely free, but as I’ve seen affirmed in my own life and the lives of the many unsaved souls I work with, we are not free. Our will is truly enslaved to sin, and it is only by professing saving faith that we are sanctified by God and can freely will to do good. I’ve seen it over and over again, people are enslaved to their sins and they make excuses. “Everyone does it.” “I can stop anytime.” “I’ll cheat on my girlfriend now to get out of my system before we get married.” “I’m pretty good compared to that guy.” If you’re not in Christ, do you see yourself in those excuses?
The point is that sin enslaves us and makes us unable to freely will to choose a life of righteousness. That’s where God enters the picture. Christ lived the perfect life so that we don’t have to, His willing sacrifice to the Father makes atonement for our sins in a way that animal sacrifices never could. I’ve written on the Atonement before; this post is on election, so I won’t go into the particulars here. Suffice to say that, as the apostle Paul taught, we are a new creation once we are in Christ (2 Cor 5:17), now able to will and do spiritual good.
What election boils down to is this: “We love because He first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). The obvious objection to that is the double-edged sword of predestination itself–how can a loving God pick and choose like that? But there is a precedent for God not loving all of His creation equally–look at the judgments that He issued over sinful man throughout the books of the Torah. Look at the example of Jacob and Esau (Mal 1:2-3). Some of His creation He loves more than others, but that love isn’t based on any perceived qualities of the creature, affirmed in the Confession and in Romans 9:10-13. It is based solely on God’s will.
Whether a person is elected to salvation, or chosen for wrath, it is all to God’s glory according to His will and pleasure. That may sound unpleasant or even tyrannical to many. But the fact is that we brought this judgment upon ourselves when the first of our race disobeyed God. Remember that the Confession affirms that, even though executing our free will is only a secondary cause of an event, it does not remove any responsibility from our heads. That Fall from grace left us unable to will to do spiritual good; we can’t even choose God over sin. God has, in His mercy, preserved some of us from that in Christ. I’m sure it grieves Him to have to choose, but it was a necessary consequence of the original sin that we brought upon ourselves. We shouldn’t be blaming God for this, we should blame ourselves for necessitating the situation in the first place.