Listen to the Podcast, HERE: “THE 5-POINTS OUT OF CALVINISM”
For more of this story and a commentary on Romans 9, see: THE POTTER’S PROMISE: A Commentary on Romans 9
Recently several people have asked what specific points led me away from Calvinism. Being a Professor of Theology that once affirmed T.U.L.I.P gives me a unique perspective on this subject. However, I do not claim to be an expert in the field nor do I begrudge those who disagree with my perspective. I simply desire to interpret rightly the Word of God. Hopefully this article can help you understand why I could not continue to support the Calvinistic interpretation of the scripture.
Why are people so interested in what led me out of Calvinism? I believe there are many who are hoping to convince someone they care about to leave behind their Calvinistic beliefs. I hate to tell them, but it is doubtful an article will accomplish that feat. It is very difficult to convince YOURSELF to leave a long held theological perspective and next to impossible to convince another. For me it was a painstaking three-year journey after I engaged in an in-depth study of the subject. I had no desire to leave Calvinism and I fought tooth and nail to defend my beloved “Doctrines of Grace” against the truths my studies led me to see. There was no single argument, article, or discussion that led me to recant my adherence to the T.U.L.I.P. systematic.
In fact, I’m quite certain I could never have been “debated out of Calvinism.” I was much too competitive to objectively evaluate my systematic in the heat of a contentious type discussion. Even if I were to come up against an argument I could not answer, I would have never admitted that to my opponent. Few individuals would be able to get around the intense emotion and pride inducing adrenaline brought on by debating theology. Our innate desire to be esteemed by others and seen as “smarter” than we really are often overwhelms any potential for learning and profitable dialogue.
If someone disagreed with me, my presumption was that they must not really understand my perspective. So, instead of attempting to listen and objectively evaluate their arguments I focused on restating my case more clearly, confidently and dogmatically. If I did not fully understand what they were saying I would often label and dismiss them instead of taking the time to fully evaluate their point of view. I am not attempting to suggest every Calvinist makes these errors — I am only reflecting on what I now view as my mistakes.
I competed on the state level in CX Debate in High School and College. Our debate coach drilled into us the SKILL of taking on both the affirmative and negative side of every issue. And believe me, that is a learned skill. It is very difficult to put down one view in the defense of another opposing view, especially if you are emotionally and intellectually attached to a given perspective. It is rare to find real objectivity in a discussion among theologically minded individuals over a doctrine as emotionally charged and intimately personal as that of our salvation. This is ESPECIALLY true of those who have made a living and developed their identity around a particular set of beliefs. Imagine R.C. Sproul, for example, coming to believe he was mistaken on these points of doctrine. Think how much it would cost him and his reputation as a scholar to recant those views. This is never an easy or painless transition for anyone at any level of notoriety.
I say all this to tell any Calvinistic readers who may have clicked on this link in order to refute my claims: I am NOT so naive as to think this article is going to convince you to leave Calvinism, thus that is NOT my goal in creating it. My goal however, is that you simply understand the reasons I left Calvinism…and I mean REALLY understand. That most likely cannot happen if you begin with an axe to grind or a point to defend. Can we put down the weapons and first seek to hear and fully understand each other before launching into a debate? If you finish this article and walk away still as Calvinistic as you are right now, but you fully understand why I felt I had to leave Calvinism, then I will consider this a great success.
I adopted all five points of the Calvinistic T.U.L.I.P when I was a freshman in college after digesting books from John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer and later John Piper. Louie Giglio, the man who brought John Piper into the mainstream through events like Passion, was one of my father’s close friends. My first ministry position was with GRACE at Hardin-Simmons University modeled after Louie’s ministry at Baylor University in the 80s. Here is where I worked along side Matt Chandler, being discipled by the same mentor. I grew very convinced in my Calvinism over the next decade of life even helping to start a new “Reformed” Baptist Church that split off from my home church.
Later I served on staff at the new Reformed Church and then began working for the Texas Baptist state convention. We hired John Piper along with various other notable Calvinistic communicators to speak at many of the events I direct. I very much loved being apart of this “brotherhood” of ministers who proudly affirmed the doctrine of Spurgeon and the forefathers of our Southern Baptist faith. I was a card-carrying member of “The Founders” of the SBC and would never have dreamed that one day I would be writing this article.
One morning I was reading a book by A.W. Tozer, a man I knew was respected in the Calvinistic community. John Piper often quoted him and people referenced his works regularly in my Reformed circles. Some of what he wrote simple did not fit into my paradigm. As I read, I remember thinking to myself, “Isn’t Tozer a Calvinist?” I distinctly remember how I felt when I learned that A.W. Tozer and C.S. Lewis, two men I greatly respected, did not affirm T.U.L.I.P. At that point, I recalled what my debate training taught me and I realized I had never really objectively and thoroughly vetted the scholarly views that oppose Calvinism. This started my journey.
Six months to a year into this sporadic study of doctrines I was not the least bit convinced that Calvinism was wrong. Even after being presented with several convincing arguments against my long held beliefs, I subconsciously felt I had too much too lose to leave my Calvinism. My reputation, my friends, my ministry connections–all gone if I recant my views on this! I had converted way too many people and hurt way too many relationships in defense of these views for me to go back on what I was so certain to be true for so many years. However, my years of training in debate helped me to recognize this bias and proceed with my studies nonetheless. As I was trained, I forced myself to drop my preconceived ideas, my biases, and anything that might hinder me from fully understanding the other perspective. I wanted to know what Godly, intelligent men like Tozer and Lewis saw in the scriptures that lead them to their conclusions. I wanted to fully vet their perspective on soteriology.
In that process there were five key truths that came to light which eventually lead me out of my Calvinism. Below is a short summary of those views:
POINT #1: I came to realize that the “foresight faith view” (classical Wesleyan Arminianism) was not the only scholarly alternative to the Calvinistic interpretation.
I had so saturated myself with Calvinistic preachers and authors that the only thing I knew of the opposing views was what they told me. Thus, I had been lead to believe the only real alternative to Calvinism was this strange concept of God “looking through the corridors of time to elect those He foresees would choose Him.” Notable Calvinistic teachers almost always paint all non-Calvinistic scholars as holding to this perspective. Once I realized I had been misled on this point, I was more open to consider other interpretations objectively.
I found a much more robust and theologically sound systematic in what is called “The Corporate View of Election,” which so happened to be the most popular view among the biblical scholars of my own denomination (Southern Baptists). Much more can be said about this view that I will not take the liberty to expound upon in this article. However, I must warn readers that the all too common phrase, “nations are made up of individuals too,” does not even begin to rebut the claims of this perspective. Individuals are just as much involved in the Corporate perspective as they are the Calvinistic perspective (maybe even more so). Anyone who believes the Corporate view is easily dismissed with that simple one-liner has not yet come to understand it rightly. In my experience, very few Calvinists give this view the attention it deserves because it requires a shift in perspective that, if recognized, would undermine their entire premise.
Do you understand “The Corporate View of Election”…I mean really understand it? Could you defend it in a debate if you had to? Could you explain it objectively to a classroom of students? Are you willing to study it and evaluate its claims?
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” -Aristotle
Point #2: I came to understand the distinction between the doctrine of Original Sin (depravity) and the Calvinistic concept of “Total Inability.”
Calvinists teach that “the natural man is blind and deaf to the message of the gospel,” but I learned that is the condition of a judicially hardened man, not a natural condition from birth (Acts 28:27-28; John 12:39-41; Mark 4:11-12; Rom. 11). Instead, God’s gracious revelation and powerful gospel appeal is the means He has chosen to draw, or enable, whosoever hears it to come. Thus, anyone who does hear or see His truth may respond to that truth, which is why they are held response-able (able-to-respond).
At the time while Christ was on earth, the Israelites (in John 6 for example), were being hardened or blinded from hearing the truth. Only a select few Israelites (a remnant) were given by the Father to the Son in order for God’s purpose in the election of Israel to be fulfilled. That purpose was not referring to God’s plan to individually and effectually save some Jews, but His plan to bring the LIGHT or REVELATION to the rest of the world by way of the MESSIAH and HIS MESSAGE so that all may believe (John 17:21b).
The vine the Jews are being cut off of in Romans 11 is not the vine of effectual salvation, otherwise how could individuals be cut off or grafted back into it? The vine is the LIGHT of REVELATION, the means through which one may be saved that was first sent to the Jews and then the Gentiles (Rom. 1:16). The Gentiles are being granted repentance or “grafted into the vine” so as to be enabled to repent. The Jews, if provoked to envy and leave their unbelief, may be grafted back into that same vine (Rom. 11:14, 23).
KEY POINT: God DOES use determinative means to ensure His sovereign purposes in electing Israel, which includes:
- (1) the setting apart of certain individual Israelites to be the lineage of the Messiah, and
- (2) the setting apart of certain individual Israelities to carry His divinely inspired message to the world (using convincing means like big fish and blinding lights to persuade their wills) and
- (3) temporarily blinding the rest of Israel to accomplish redemption through their rebellion.
However, there is no indication in scripture that:
- (1) all those who DO believe the appointed messenger’s teachings were likewise set a part by such persuasive means (especially not inward effectual means).
- (2) all those who DO NOT believe the appointed messenger’s teachings were likewise hardened from the time they were born to the time they died.
As a Calvinist I did not understand the historical context of the scriptures as it relates to the national election of Israel followed by their judicial hardening. When the scriptures spoke of Jesus hiding the truth in parables, or only revealing Himself to a select few, or cutting off large numbers of people from seeing, hearing and understanding the truth; I immediately presumed that those were passages supporting the “T” of my T.U.L.I.P. when in reality they are supporting the doctrine of Israel’s judicial hardening.
“FROM AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, WESTERN CHRISTIANITY HAS TENDED TO INTERPRET THE DOCTRINE OF ELECTION FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF AND WITH REGARD TO INDIVIDUAL HUMAN BEINGS. DURING THOSE SAME CENTURIES THE DOCTRINE HAS BEEN FAR LESS EMPHASIZED AND SELDOM EVER CONTROVERSIAL IN EASTERN ORTHODOXY. IS IT POSSIBLE THAT AUGUSTINE AND LATER CALVIN, WITH THE HELP OF MANY OTHERS, CONTRIBUTED TO A HYPER INDIVIDUALIZATION OF THIS DOCTRINE THAT WAS HARDLY WARRANTED BY ROMANS 9-11, EPH. 1, AND I PETER 2? IS IT NOT TRUE THAT THE MAJOR EMPHASIS IN BOTH TESTAMENTS FALLS UPON AN ELECT PEOPLE — ISRAEL (OT) AND DISCIPLES OR CHURCH (NT)?” – James LEO GARRETT
Point #3: I realized that the decision to humble yourself and repent in faith is not meritorious. Even repentant believers deserve eternal punishment.
Calvinists are notorious for asking the unsuspecting believer, “Why did you believe in Christ and someone else does not; are you smarter, or more praiseworthy in some way?” I asked this question more times than I can remember as a young Calvinist. What I (and likely the target of my inquiry) did not understand is that the question itself is a fallacy known as “Question Begging.” (or more specifically “plurium interrogationum” or “Complex Question”)
Begging the question is a debate tactic where your opponent presumes true the very point up for debate. For instance, if the issue being disputed was whether or not you cheat on your taxes and I began the discussion by asking you, “Have you stopped cheating on your taxes yet?” I would be begging the question.
Likewise, in the case of the Calvinist asking “Why did you made this choice,” he is presuming a deterministic response is necessary thus beginning the discussion with a circular and often confounding game of question begging. The inquiry as to what determines the choice of a free will presumes something other than the free function of the agent’s will makes the determination, thus denying the very mystery of what makes the will free and not determined.
The cause of a choice is the chooser. The cause of a determination is the determiner. It is not an undetermined determination, or an unchosen choice, as some attempt to frame it. If someone has an issue with this simply apply the same principle to the question, “Why did God choose to create mankind?” He is obviously all self-sustaining and self-sufficient. He does not need us to exist. Therefore, certainly no one would suggest God was not free to refrain from creating humanity. So, what determined God’s choice to create if not the mysterious function of His free will?
In short, whether one appeals to mystery regarding the function of man’s will or the function of the Divine will, we all eventually appeal to mystery. Why not appeal to mystery BEFORE drawing conclusions that could in any way impugn the holiness of God by suggesting He had something to do with determining the nature, desire and thus evil choices of His creatures?
What also must be noted is that the decision to trust in Christ for our salvation is not a meritorious work. Asking for forgiveness does not merit being forgiven. Think of it this way. Did the prodigal son earn, merit or in any way deserve the reception of his father on the basis that he humbly returned home? Of course not. He deserved to be punished, not rewarded. The acceptance of his father was a choice of the father alone and it was ALL OF GRACE. The father did not have to forgive, restore and throw a party for his son on the basis that he chose to come home. That was the father’s doing.
Humiliation and brokenness is not considered “better” or “praiseworthy” and it certainly is not inherently valuable. The only thing that makes this quality “desirable” is that God has chosen to grace those who humble themselves, something He is in no way obligated to do. God gives grace to the humble not because a humble response deserves salvation, but because He is gracious.
Point #4: I accepted the fact that a gift doesn’t have to be irresistibly applied in order for the giver to get full credit for giving it.
According to Calvinism, God does not merely enable people to believe (as the scriptures say), but He has to actually change their very nature so as to certainly make them believe. As a Calvinist I remember shaming other Christians for “stealing God’s glory” by suggesting they played any role in their salvation. I insisted they would be “boasting” to believe that they chose to come to Christ unless they first admitted that God irresistibly changed their nature to make them want to come. I recall a wise elder from my home church challenging me on this point by asking, “Why do you believe God’s choice of you for no apparent reason is less boast worthy than his choice of me for being a weak beggar?” I honestly did not know what he meant at the time, but I do now.
At the time of that encounter I had not reached the pigsty of my life. I was young and arrogant. I had never really been broken by my sin and brought face to face with my depravity. I thought I understood forgiveness and grace but truthfully it was not until much later in my life that I would be brought to the end of my self. I used to think the idea that God chose to save me before I was born and done anything good or bad was humbling, but it is not near as humbling as the reality that God would choose to save me in the middle of my worst sin, my brokenness, my humiliation and my shame. Like the prodigal who returned home from the pigsty of his life, broken and humiliated, seeking to beg for handouts, deserving nothing but punishment, receives instead the gracious love of a father, I too felt the choice of a Father to forgive me right then and there in the middle of my filth. It was not some theological concept of God picking me for no apparent reason out of the mass of humanity at some distant inexplicable time before time was. It was my Daddy choosing to love me in the middle of my deepest sin and pride crushing shame. No one…no Arminian, no Calvinist or any one in between…I mean NO ONE boasts about being forgiven like that. If they do, or they think others would, I cannot imagine they have ever been there.
“But let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jer. 9:24)
Why can’t we give God all the glory for enabling mankind to respond to His gracious truth? Why must he irresistibly cause our acceptance of that truth in order for Him to get full glory for giving it?
It in no way robs God of glory by suggesting He does not irresistibly determine men’s choice to accept or reject the gospel appeal. In fact, it seems to lesson His glory by making Him appear disingenuous in that appeal sent to all people. Should not God get the glory even for the provision of those who reject Him?
“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.” – C.S. Lewis
Point #5: I came to understand that sovereignty is not an eternal attribute of God that would be compromised by the existence of free moral creatures.
Some seem to believe that for God to be considered “sovereign” then men cannot have a free or autonomous will. Should sovereignty be interpreted and understood as the necessity of God to “play both sides of the chess board” in order to ensure His victory? Or should it be understood as God’s infinite and mysterious ways of accomplishing His purposes and ensuring His victory in, through, and despite the free choices of creation?
I’m not pretending that we can really understand His infinite ways or the means by which He accomplishes all things in conjunction with man’s will. We cannot even understand our own ways, much less His. But, I’m saying that the revelation of God’s holiness, His unwillingness to even tempt men to sin (James 1:13), His absolute perfect nature and separateness from sin (Is. 48:17), certainly appears to suggest that our finite, linear, logical constructs should not be used to contain Him (Is. 55:9).
One point that really helped me to understand the apparent contradiction of this debate was realizing the divine attribute of sovereignty is not an eternal attribute of God. Calvinists always argue that God cannot deny Himself or His eternal nature, which is true. God cannot stop being God. Based on this Calvinists conclude that because God is eternally sovereign that He cannot deny that sovereignty, an attribute of His very nature, by allowing for others to have any measure of control or authority.
What the Calvinist fails to see is that sovereignty is not an eternal attribute of God. Sovereignty means “complete rule or dominion over creation.” For God to be in control over creation there has to be something created in which to control. He cannot display His power over creatures unless the creatures exist. Therefore, before creation the concept of sovereignty was not an attribute that could be used to describe God. An eternal attribute is something God possesses that is not contingent upon something else.
The eternal attribute of God is His omnipotence, which refers to His eternally limitless power. Sovereignty is a temporal characteristic, not an eternal one, thus we can say God is all powerful, not because He is sovereign, but He is sovereign because He is all powerful, or at least He is as sovereign as He so chooses to be in relation to this temporal world.
If our all-powerful God chose to refrain from meticulously ruling over every aspect of that which He creates, that in no way denies His eternal attribute of omnipotence, but indeed affirms it. It is the Calvinist who denies the eternal attribute of omnipotence by presuming the all-powerful God cannot refrain from meticulous deterministic rule over His creation (i.e. sovereignty). In short, the Calvinist denies God’s eternal attribute of omnipotence in his effort to protect the temporal attribute of sovereignty. Additionally, an argument could be made that the eternal attributes of God’s love and His holiness are likewise compromised by the well meaning efforts of our Calvinistic brethren to protect their theory of deterministic sovereignty over the temporal world.
Please understand, sovereignty is most certainly an attribute of God, but it is a temporal attribute. The Omnipotent God has not yet taken full sovereign control over everything on earth as it is in heaven. Is not that His prerogative? Passages throughout the bible teach that there are “authorities” and “powers” which are yet to be destroyed, and that have been given dominion over God’s creation.
A time is coming when the Lord will punish the powers above and the rulers of the earth.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the evil powers of this world.
1 Corinthians 15:24
Then the end will come; Christ will overcome all spiritual rulers, authorities, and powers, and will hand over the Kingdom to God the Father.
Don’t misunderstand my point. I affirm that God is greater than these powers and authorities. He created them after all.
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
And one day God will strip them of that authority:
God stripped the spiritual rulers and powers of their authority. With the cross, he won the victory and showed the world that they were powerless.
Much more could be said, but in short we must refrain from bringing unbiblical conclusions based upon our finite perceptions of God’s nature. We must accept the revelation of scripture. He is Holy (Is. 6:3). He does not take pleasure in sin (Ps. 5:4). Some moral evil does not even enter His Holy mind (Jer. 7:31). He genuinely desires every individual to come to Him and be saved (2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:4). No man will stand before the Father and be able to give the excuse, “I was born unloved by my Creator. I was born unchosen and without the hope of salvation. I was born unable to see, hear or understand God’s revelation of Himself.” No! They will stand without excuse (Rm. 1:20). God loves all people (Jn. 3:16), calls them to salvation (2 Cor. 5:20), reveals Himself to them (Titus 2:11) and provides the means by which their sins would be forgiven (1 Jn. 2:2).
“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.” – A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God
Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.