FURTHER THOUGHTS ON CALVINISM’S 5 POINTS
I received, from a friend, a link to John Piper’s comprehension and explanation of the 5 points of Calvinism. (I have to admit that I have already written more on Calvinism, on this blog, then I ever planned to write.) One of the things that Piper says near the beginning should always be kept in mind. “We share the sentiments of Jonathan Edwards who said in the Preface to his great book on THE FREEDOM OF THE WILL, 'I should not take it at all amiss, to be called a Calvinist, for distinction's sake: though I utterly disclaim a dependence on Calvin, or believing the doctrines which I hold, because he believed and taught them; and cannot justly be charged with believing in everything just as he taught.'” No one thinker agrees on all points with another, that is a fact of reality, therefore, when we give a name to a system of beliefs (i.e. Calvinism), we are simply pointing out a general system, and anyone who holds the main claims of that system fits under it, whether they like it or not.
We must, however, be careful to not make the same error as the church at Corinth. That is, to claim that one particular way of understanding things is true Christianity. Paul rebukes the church at Corinth in the following way, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’” At Corinth there were groups of zealous Christians who were lining up under the various teachers and doctors of the early church. The early Calvinists and Arminians. There was even a holier-than-thou group who claimed that they were following Christ. Now, as the great preacher, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, once said, “Of necessity, we all hold a particular point of view and adhere to some system of doctrine. We cannot avoid doing so. People who say that they do not hold to any particular system, and that they are ‘just biblical’, are simply confessing that they have never really understood the teaching of the Bible. But though we may find ourselves, in general, following a certain line of exposition, a particular school of thought and of teaching, a particular view of dogmatic theology, we must never allow that to turn into a party spirit...Therefore, though we are governed in general by certain views, that does not mean that we must slavishly follow in every detail what has generally been taught by that particular school of thought.”
That being said, I want to note Piper’s views on some of the points that I mentioned in my previous article. In my previous article I quoted a well-known Calvinist author, James White, as the representative of Calvinism, in order to make sure that I did not improperly state what contemporary Calvinists believe. Before we can critique an argument, or position, we must make sure that it is properly stated, and who better to state it then someone who adheres to it. In this brief return to the 5 points of Calvinism I wish simply to point out some of the agreements between Piper and White, and note some of the implications of their thoughts.
In order to make it easy to follow, I will keep a similar format to my preceding article:
1. Total Depravity: Piper delineates four ways in which man is depraved. We find the first way summed up in this quote, “Yes there are those who come to the light—namely those whose deeds are the work of God. ‘Wrought in God’ means worked by God. Apart from this gracious work of God all men hate the light of God and will not come to him lest their evil be exposed—this is total rebellion.” So, man can in no way seek God unless God draws him, man does not desire God in any way. The second way is explained as follows, “Therefore, if all men are in total rebellion, everything they do is the product of rebellion and cannot be an honor to God, but only part of their sinful rebellion. If a king teaches his subjects how to fight well and then those subjects rebel against their king and use the very skill he taught them to resist him, then even those skills become evil.” The third way is as follows, “The ‘mind of the flesh’ is the mind of man apart from the indwelling Spirit of God (‘You are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you,’ Romans 8:9). So natural man has a mindset that does not and cannot submit to God. Man cannot reform himself.” The final way is summed up as follows, “Our rebellion is totally deserving of eternal punishment.”
a. Critique – See this article for an interesting critique of Total Depravity, by C. S. Lewis, that I took the time to elaborate. I would simply like to note a couple of interesting things. According to Piper, man is so corrupt that there is no good in him, not even the human faculties can produce anything good. We see this in the second way that he describes total depravity.
One of the problems of the Calvinistic view of Total Depravity is that they do not distinguish between various types of goodness. Absolute Goodness is found in God alone. Speaking metaphysically, goodness is a transcendental that is another way of understanding being. Everything is good insomuch as it exists. Man did not lose ALL goodness at the fall, otherwise, metaphysically speaking, he would have ceased to exist altogether. Speaking morally, a thing is good when, possessing the faculties of reason and will, it freely chooses to perform a virtuous act. (In this way we can talk about unbelievers who perform good acts. For more on moral virtue and the foundations of morality see here, here, here, and here. These links are in french.)
The Bible distinguishes between the good acts of an unbeliever (done without faith) and the good acts of a believer (those that are done by faith). So, for example, to love is to desire the good of the beloved, and to desire to be united with the beloved. An unbelieving man can love an unbelieving woman in the true sense of the word; however, that love which is pleasing towards God is that love which is accomplished for the purpose of glorifying God.
So, it is true that man is totally depraved, however, not in the Calvinistic sense of the doctrine. They do not make the appropriate distinctions between the different types of goodness; therefore, their claim that man is not good is only partially true.
2. Unconditional Election: Piper treats Irresistable Grace and Limited Atonement prior to Unconditional Election (which is interesting), because he wishes to treat them in the order, so he says, that people experience them. We, however, in order to maintain the traditional order will treat of Unconditional Election now. I mentioned, in my previous article, that the five points of Calvinism are all interdependent. Piper seems to agree inasmuch as he says, “If all of us are so depraved that we cannot come to God without being born again by the irresistible grace of God, and if this particular grace is purchased by Christ on the cross, then it is clear that the salvation of any of us is owing to God's election.” His view of Unconditional Election can be found in the following quote, “Election is a condition for faith. It is because God chose us before the foundation of the world that he purchases our redemption at the cross and quickens us with irresistible grace and brings us to faith.” In this quote we see again see the interdependence of the five points of Calvinism. Man is so depraved that he cannot do anything good, desire God, realise he/she is a sinner or even recognize his need for a saviour. Therefore, only those that God chooses will be regenerated so that they can exercise faith in Christ. This is exactly what White says (see previous article).
a. Critique – My critiques in the previous article still apply to Piper’s views, so, I will add nothing here.
3. Limited Atonement: Piper describes the atonement in terms that all Christians should be able to agree with, “The atonement is the work of God in Christ on the cross whereby he canceled the debt of our sin, appeased his holy wrath against us, and won for us all the benefits of salvation.” Piper sings the typical Calvinist tune concerning the limitation of atonement. He claims that it is not the Calvinist who has limited atonement but the Arminian. This is due to the fact that the Calvinist says that Christ’s atonement is fully efficacious for the elect, and, therefore, in no way limited. The Calvinist accuses the Arminian of having limited atonement, as its effect is limited to only those who believe. (I am struck by the rhetorical prowess of the Calvinist’s who turn the Arminian accusation on its head, by changing the subject.) For the Calvinist this doctrine means, in the words of Piper, “Christ died for all the sins of some men. That is, he died for the unbelief of the elect so that God's punitive wrath is appeased toward them and his grace is free to draw them irresistibly out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
a. Critique – When the Arminian claims that Calvinism teaches a limited atonement the idea that they are getting at is that the atonement of Christ is not for all men, but is limited to only those whom God freely elected prior to creation. In this sense, Calvinism teaches a limited Atonement (this is why I note above that I am struck by the rhetorical prowess of Calvinists who point the finger of limitation back at the Arminians.) My critiques in my previous article also apply here, so i will add nothing.
4. Irresistable Grace: Piper says the following, “It means that the Holy Spirit can overcome all resistance and make his influence irresistible.” If that is all that it means, then no Christian can contest this doctrine. (It is a question of the power of God, and it is expressed in terms of what is possible “can”.) However, it is not only that, Piper goes on to say, “More specifically irresistible grace refers to the sovereign work of God to overcome the rebellion of our heart and bring us to faith in Christ so that we can be saved. If our doctrine of total depravity is true, there can be no salvation without the reality of irresistible grace. If we are dead in our sins, totally unable to submit to God, then we will never believe in Christ unless God overcomes our rebellion.” This is exactly what James White would say. Calvinists often use the example of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead as an example of what it means to be dead in sin, unless God acts, in giving us grace, we will remain dead in our sin.
a. Critique – Again, my critiques in my previous article apply here as well. Of course, if Lazarus is a good example of what fallen humans are prior to the saving grace of God, then Calvinism must be true. However, it is doubtful that this is what scriptures teach, and though it is easy to find scripture passages to back up just about any view that we wish to expound, we should be less concerned with making a system work, then with teaching the truth. It does seem that if Calvinism’s doctrine of Irresistable Grace is true, then man is not responsible for rejecting Christ, as we cannot hold a dead man responsible for acting, he cannot!!!! If dead men are not responsible for acts that they cannot commit, then how can God justly hold them responsible and justly send them to Hell??? Just a thought.
5. Perseverance of the Saints: Piper summarizes his views in 7 declarations: “Our faith must endure to the end if we are to be saved... Obedience, evidencing inner renewal from God, is necessary for final salvation.... God's elect cannot be lost.... There is a falling away of some believers, but if it persists, it shows that their faith was not genuine and they were not born of God... God justifies us on the first genuine act of saving faith, but in doing so he has a view to all subsequent acts of faith contained, as it were, like a seed in that first act... God works to cause his elect to persevere... Therefore we should be zealous to make our calling and election sure.” It should be noted that this is not exactly the same as my exposition of it in the previous article.
a. Critique – There are some logical declarations in the above statements which carry with them some interesting implications, which are not contained in the idea of the security of our salvation. As stated I am not sure that I can agree 100% with this statement of the Perseverance of the Saints. First of all, this exposition of the perseverance of the saints seems to imply that our salvation is either dependent on our works, or that our works are not truly “our” works, but God using us as puppets, in which case we cannot be said to be the cause of anything, and therefore not responsible for anything, etc. Note the following: If we are to be saved, then our faith must endure to the end. We must ask ourselves the following, who is responsible for making sure that our faith endures to the end? If it is man, then it seems that if I lose my faith, then I lose my salvation. If it is God, then I am not responsible for having faith in Christ, and, therefore, it seems pointless to say, as Peter says, and Piper quotes, in 2 Peter 1:10, that we should be zealous in confirming our election. Obedience is necessary for final salvation. Which seems to imply two things, first of all, obedience is necessary but not sufficient for salvation, which means that other things can bring final salvation, but that if there is obedience then there is salvation, regardless of what else is needed. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the theological problems that are caused by such a statement. I will leave you with these humble thoughts and reflections.
1 Cor. 1:11-12. All quotations will be from the ESV unless otherwise noted.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapters 7:1-8: The Law: Its Functions and Limits (1973, repr.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 178.
Ibid., Section 3.
Ibid., Section 2.
Ibid., Section 6.
Ibid., Section 5.
Ibid., Section 4.
Ibid., Section 7.