One of the most important concerns for any Christian is the doctrine of salvation (called “soteriology” by academics). The subject raises important questions: What is salvation? How do I get saved? Can I ever lose my salvation?
In this brief article I want to look at salvation from the point of view of Calvinism and the associated doctrine of predestination. Calvinism is the Protestant school of thought associated with the reformed theologian John Calvin. Predestination is the idea that long before we are born God decides whether or not we will be one of His “elect” who will be saved by His grace during our earthly lives.
I want to discuss five key points of Calvinism, and criticise them with specific reference to my own ideas about free will. I am not going to include scripture references here, but if you want to know whereabouts in the Bible the Calvinists get their ideas from you may like to read this helpful article. I am not claiming to get my ideas from the Bible.
1. Total Depravity
This is the idea that due to original sin we are born sinners and that during our human life we are slaves to sin, which affects our minds, bodies, wills, and emotions.
I have always thought that original sin is a strange idea; that through the disobedient actions of God’s first created man we have all become sinners from our very conception. I know that I am in a sense separate from God, as clearly I am living through an embodied experience with a human consciousness, whereas I believe God has attributes that I don’t possess, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. But Christians tend to understand sin as disobedience, rather then mere separateness.
As I have argued in this article, the ultimate truth is that it is not possible for humans to have fallen away from God as God is, and always has been, in control of everything that happens. We are not free to act in any way that is contrary to the will of God, as God is everywhere. This is a simple attribute of the nature of God.
We do possess the illusion of free will, as God is able to hide His ultimate nature from us during our earthly lives so that many do not realise that we are like puppets in a puppet show and God is the cosmic puppeteer. When I breathe, move, think, grow, digest, or act in any way, it is because God is controlling these activities in the present moment. God is a living God – He didn’t create the universe and then sit back and watch it unfold; but rather He is actively sustaining and developing this vast universe which is not ontologically different from Him. God is all that exists and therefore nothing can happen outside of His will. It seems to me that the idea of Total Depravity in Calvinism ignores this reality.
2. Unconditional Election
This is the idea that we can do nothing to earn our salvation. From a certain perspective this makes a lot of sense to me as if God is always in control, then we do not have free will, and therefore how could we possibly do anything freely to warrant election or damnation? It makes more sense that our cosmic puppeteer would choose whether we are saved based on His will, rather that our own free will which is illusory.
The whole purpose of creation is for God to experience possibility (His own vast nature) in all its fullness; the yin and yang; light and darkness; good and evil; heaven and hell. I have heard it said by one Calvinist that this is indeed the purpose of creation, but to me it seems terribly unfair that some people would have to suffer in hell just so that God can experience that part of His nature.
I have speculated in my book Ultimate Truth that I believe God is ultimately merciful and would never let anyone suffer too much, although I believe the Calvinist would argue that those who are not among the elect are damned to hell for all eternity. Would a merciful God really punish people in this way, even though they have done nothing freely to warrant such treatment? It is not for me to judge God, of course, but nevertheless I think it’s an important point.
3. Limited Atonement
This is the idea that Jesus died only for the elect. If life is God’s game and we are all puppets in God’s hands, then I can see that it is possible that as part of the game Jesus came to shed His blood as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of men, as most Christians believe. The Arminians believe that Jesus died for everyone in the whole world, and that each individual has a free choice as to whether to repent and believe and in doing so to get saved.
The Calvinist idea that Jesus died only for the elect seems to make sense only if we embrace the idea that we don’t have free will and that God is controlling all things. You see, if God is in control, then He knows who will be saved, so therefore it becomes possible to say Jesus died only for them. Free will is again the central issue here.
4. Irresistible Grace
According to Calvinism, when God calls the elect, they cannot resist. The implication here is clearly that they don’t have free will. But what confuses me here about the Calvinist position is that they argue the Gospel message is offered by God to all people. I would have to argue that because God is in control, those who reject the Gospel are only doing so by the will of God. Another problem is that in reality there are millions who will live and die without ever hearing the Gospel (unless of course God brings the Gospel to them in another realm that we don’t know about), so in ultimate reality they are damned by the will of God who has not chosen to impart His irresistible grace to them. We might call this “irresistible damnation” (I believe it is also called “double predestination”).
5. Perseverance of the Saints
The idea here is that the elect are eternally saved and can do nothing to lose their salvation. This is a very comforting thought, but in reality our present moment living God can change His mind in any moment, and as He is in control of all things, there is always the possibility that our destiny could change. It may well be that God does choose to save the elect eternally, but we shouldn’t deny that it is within God’s power to change His mind at any moment.
The central problem within Calvinism, and I would argue within the whole of Christian theology, is free will. With an omnipresent God there can be no free will (the two ideas are logically incompatible) and therefore Calvinists are misguided if they combine their doctrine of election, which implies a God who is in control, with the idea that we are free to act independently of God’s will (which is the very definition of what free will is).
For a deep-dive into the divine sovereignty vs human free will problem, including a discussion of many issues related to Calvinism, I invite you to check out my book God’s Grand Game, which is currently available for free. To find out more and get your copy, visit the Books page.