This is a 7 week series. Be sure to read parts one, two and three and four. Join us next Friday for part six.
As we approach the end of our journey through the TU[D]IP, we come now to the fourth petal of our lovely flower: Irresistible Grace. This doctrine identifies the essence of God’s sovereignty as it relates to the individual salvation of sinners. It refers to the sovereign work of God to effectively call individuals to himself by the power of his Holy Spirit. This happens when the Holy Spirit causes regeneration to occur. Fortunately for sinners, this glorious truth is perhaps one of the most explicit soteriological teachings in the whole Bible.
What Do We Mean By “Irresistible”?
Some may object to this doctrine on the basis of this simple observation: grace is resisted. Every single day. Of course the grace of God is resisted by man. No Calvinist will ever say that God’s grace is never resisted. In fact, the Calvinist will insist that God’s grace is always resisted, until that resistance is overcome. That’s what makes this grace so spectacular; it overcomes our sinful resistance. Given the nature of our rebellion, this is precisely the kind of grace necessary in order for us to be reconciled to God. This is essentially what the New Covenant is all about (Jeremiah 31:30-34, 32:39-41, Ezekiel 36:26-27). “I will put fear of me in their hearts,” God says, “that they may not turn from me.” (Jeremiah 32:40b) Did you catch that? Why will God’s people not turn from them? What will it take to keep them from doing the only thing they have consistently been doing from day one? God will put a fear of him in their hearts! In Ezekiel he goes a step further; not only will God put the fear of him in his people’s heart; he will give them an entirely new heart–one that has his Holy Spirit as its resident (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Irresistible Grace In the New Testament
At this point, I think it would be beneficial for us to simply examine some of the explicit mentions of irresistible grace. I would like to look specifically at 6 passages.
- John 1:11-12 – Notice the description of the children of God here. Those who believe in the name of Jesus, and thus have the right to become children of God, are those who have been born of the will of God. Lest we think that John is communicating the reverse (namely, that being born of God is the effect of believing unto adoption, rather than the cause), John explicitly says that this sort of birth happens independent of the will.
- John 3:1-15 – In this familiar episode, Nicodemus comes to Jesus to show him honor (v. 2). Jesus replies by telling Nicodemus how he might see the kingdom of God; namely, by being born again (v. 3). Nicodemus sees this as a difficulty, seeing as how he is a grown man, and his birth happened a while back (v. 4). Jesus clarifies this whole “being born again” business, saying that the new birth he is describing is a Spiritual kind; of “water and Spirit” (v. 5-7). He then goes on to say this that you have about as much control over this new birth as you do over the wind; it is the Spirit’s prerogative to go where he wishes, to stir whom he wishes, to remake whichever heart he wishes (v. 8). Nicodemus is flabbergasted by this statement (v. 9), and Jesus is flabbergasted by Nicodemus’ ignorance of a teaching (v. 10). So we should ask the question: why is Jesus surprised by Nicodemus’ surprised reaction? Apparently, Jesus thinks that a sovereign new birth, of “water and Spirit,” should be obvious to anyone who has an authoritative working knowledge of the Old Testament. So where in the Old Testament do we see such a description? The answer is Ezekiel 36:25-27, in which God promises the New Covenant which will entail a sprinkling of water for purification, and the deposit of God’s Holy Spirit. So from this passage, Jesus teaches us that the application of the New Covenant comes in the form of a new birth, initiated sovereignly by the Holy Spirit.
- John 6:35-65 – This is a heated scene following Jesus’ miracle in which he feeds the five thousand. Here, Jesus offends the entire crowd by claiming to be the bread of life. What I wish to point out from this passage is what Jesus has to say about those who will respond to him; he says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (v. 44) He then asserts that this reality is precisely what was taught by the prophets, quoting from Isaiah 54:13 and Jeremiah 31:33 (again, a passage describing the New Covenant): these prophets, he believes, confirm the teaching that “everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (v. 45) Who comes to Jesus? Those who have been drawnby the Father; those who have learned from the Father. Later, when Jesus is clarifying this to his disciples privately, he tells them that disbelief is directly linked to the Father’s lack of drawing: “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (v. 64-65)
- Acts 16:14 – In this passage, we are told of a woman named Lydia, who was a “worshiper of God.” This title doesn’t signify that she was saved, but that she was a Gentile convert to Judaism. However, she would be saved and baptized upon hearing the gospel explained to her by Paul. How would she be saved? Luke tells us, “the Lord opened her heartto pay attention to what was said by Paul.”
- Romans 8:30 – The link of this glorious chain I would like to pay special attention to is the second: called. Sandwiched between predestinedand justified, this calling is necessarily an effective, sovereign call of God. This is to be distinguished from the general call of the gospel for the world to repent and believe; many individuals who receive this general call will not practice saving faith, and will thus not be justified, which means that they had not been predestined. In this verse, those who are called will necessarily practice saving faith leading to justification, because they have been predestined for glorification, and justification from effective calling is the only way for them to get there. This is the lovliest form logic in Paul: unambiguous and rock-solid.
- Titus 3:4-7 – Again, notice Paul’s description here; God is active, we are passive–hesaved us. We are told that his mercy is manifested “by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.” This salvation is the opposite of our works done in righteousness, it is according to his own mercy.
I once heard a gospel invitation that went like this, “God is a gentleman. He won’t force you to do anything. He doesn’t demand for you to come to him; he wants you.” Although it is certainly true that Jesus does want us, is this really the best way to describe God’s saving work? As a gentleman who doesn’t demand anything? That doesn’t sound like the King of kings and Lord of lords, who will have every knee bow before him, and every tongue confess that he’s Lord. Rather, it sounds like a trembling, shaking, love-struck admirer who is eagerly waiting the response of his crush.
Part of what lies behind such gospel invitations is the criticism that irresistible grace is tantamount to spiritual rape. “If he comes and overpowers our will” it is reasoned, “then we are forced to do what we don’t want to do.” But that’s not an accurate description of irresistible grace. We’re not talking about a love-struck admirer who will overpower and dominate the object of his admiration in rape. We’re talking about a liberator, who breaks into a prison and brings the captives to the light of day. We’re talking about a physician, who heals the sick of their life-long chronic infirmities. We’re talking about a God, who breathes life into a corpse. Did Lazarus feel violated when those words, “Lazarus, come out!” spoke life into his rotting body? We were blind, and the irresistible, gracious regeneration is the salve that gave us vision. We were dead, and the sovereign, effective call of God brought us to life in Christ.
Imagine you’re sitting in a pitch black room, holding on to what you believe to be a treasure chest, but is actually a box full of garbage. Sovereign regeneration is King Jesus turning the lights on, opening the door, and bringing you to himself, where there is actually “the fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore,” (Psalm 16:11). That’s not violation, that’s liberation. The irony is that non-Calvinists resent the doctrine of irresistible grace because they feel that it violates our freedom, but irresistible grace is actually the very thing that gives us freedom.
This is a 7 week series. Be sure to read parts one, two and three. Join us next Friday for part five.
The most infamous of the five points of Calvinism is certainly the third; namely, Limited Atonement. The very mention of it makes many cringe. To be sure, it is the toughest one to swallow, and if you ever meet a self-proclaiming “four-point” Calvinist, there is no question as to which point is being rejected. For many—myself included—the term “limited” is nauseatingly inadequate and misleading (even though it fits in nicely with that wonderful little acronym). So even though it’s far less catchy, I will refer to this doctrine rather as Definite Atonement (so our TULIP is now a TUDIP).
So What Is the Atonement?
When we speak of the atonement, we are talking about that event in time, whereby Jesus shed his blood on the cross to decisively pay for sins. This idea of atonement is rooted all the way back in the early days of Israel. Crucial to understanding God’s relationship with Israel is an understanding of atonement. The book of Leviticus lays out specific instructions for atonement in various circumstances. These instructions were handed down by God to communicate this simple message: sin must be dealt with, and it can only be dealt with by blood. So God established the Levitical priesthood to be responsible for carrying out these ordinances; their work was intercessory.
What Is the Nature of the Atonement?
Up until this point, there’s a general consensus of what the atonement is, basically understood. It’s a payment for sin. The Levitical priests offered payments for sin continually in anticipation of a permanent, sufficient offering for sin; which would eventually be provided by the Great High Priest, Jesus. Wonderful. The theological road forks at the question of what Jesus’ atonement actually accomplishes. The non-Calvinist would say that the atonement actually accomplishes the possibility of salvation for all the earth. The Calvinist, on the other hand, would say that the atonement accomplishes much more. Not only does the blood of Jesus provide the only possibility of salvation for the whole world (it does, by the way; I will elaborate in a bit), but it also actually purchases salvation of the elect. In other words, salvation isn’t merely made possible by the atonement; salvation is accomplished in the atonement. I’ll argue this from three angles:
- The blood of Jesus purchases the New Covenant (Luke 22:20)
In this episode, Jesus is letting his disciples in on a juicy secret; he is informing them that his blood is the very thing that will inaugurate the New Covenant, mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-34, 32:39-41, and Ezekiel 36:26-27. The New Covenant is the great promise that God would forgive the sins of his people and that he would write his law on their hearts. This Covenant includes: a fundamental heart reorientation, the gift of the Holy Spirit, forgiveness of sin, and a fear of God. This is significant to our discussion because the non-Calvinistic understanding of the atonement would insist that Jesus’ blood provides for a possible way to be justified before God. However, these texts teach us that the faith which appropriates justification is caused by the New Covenant, and Jesus says that the New Covenant is purchased by his blood.
- The nature of Jesus’ intercessory work as the Great High Priest (Hebrews 7:23-24)
Here, it is vital that we keep in mind the relationship between the atoning sacrifice offered by a priest, and that priest’s intercession for the people. It is the offering that qualifies the intercession “…the priests go regularly into the first section…but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.” (Hebrews 9:6-7) This is the idea: the offering is made for the people who are interceded for. In other words, Jesus intercedes for those he died for; in a priestly sense, Jesus’ intercession and his death are inseparable. Furthermore, Hebrews 7:24 says that the effect of Jesus’ intercession is salvation to the uttermost; which rules out the possibility that Jesus is interceding for non-believers, which would necessarily follow if his atonement was meant to deal with their sins. To say it negatively, if Jesus offers an atoning sacrifice to pay for the sins of a non-believer, and thereafter does not intercede for that non-believer, then his priestly work is incomplete.
- The effectiveness of Jesus’ offering to sufficiently deal with sins (Hebrews 9:11-12)
In the above text, we are told that Jesus’ offering of his own blood secures eternal redemption. He then goes on to elaborate on this bold assertion, “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:15, note also 10:12-14) Notice, it is the death of Jesus that redeems “those who are called.” To say that the death of Jesus provides the possibility of redemption is to introduce an additional step in the process of redemption that the text does not allow.
Christ’s Unique Love for His Flock
In John 10:14-17, Jesus says that he lays his life down with a particular group of people in mind; his flock. Astonishingly, Jesus mentions that his atoning intent extends to those who are not yet in his fold, but who will be when they hear his voice; so he–as the good shepherd–lays down his life, with the unregenerate elect in mind. Not only does he state this positively, but also negatively, when he informs the Pharisees that they are not his, and therefore, that he is not laying his life down for them–at least not in this sense (John 10:25-30). This kind of exclusivity of intent is echoed later on, when Jesus makes a point to pray for his own, and not for those in the world (John 17:9).
There are many other passages we can talk about specifically (Matthew 26:28, Mark 10:45, John 11:50-52 Ephesians 5:25-30), but I think it’s appropriate now for us to start making applications. If all of these things are true, how are we left to think about the notion of a universal atonement? If the atonement is for the whole world in every sense, does that mean that the non-believer has had his sin dealt with? And if so, why is he going to hell? Will the wrath of God be poured out on him for his sins, for all of eternity, even though the full wrath of God has already been poured out on Jesus for those same sins? In response, it has been said that the hell-bound sinner is hell-bound even with his sins being atoned for, and is thus hell-bound because of his disbelief in the gospel. But is that disbelief a sin? Is all sin sufficiently atoned for at the cross, or not? A universal atonement simply will not work. As drastic as it may sound, a universal atonement for some undefined mass of people is an atonement offered for no one at all.
Universal “Problem” Passages
If a universal atonement will not work, what do we do then with those passages that seem to signify a universal atonement? I’m talking specifically of passages like John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, Titus 2:11-14, and 1 John 2:2. To be sure, these are legitimate concerns, and they have been given fuller treatment by men much more qualified than myself. I won’t be able to deal with them extensively here, but I will make a few observations. First of all, sweeping statements like “all men” or “all peoples” or “the world” can have a broader semantic range than we might initially assume. “All” could possibly, and often must, mean “all kinds” or “all types” rather than “each and every one.” However, in certain passages, this won’t work (like 1 John 2:2, for example). Honestly, in this text I do believe that the whole entire world is in view. The question is, in what sense is Christ the propitiation for the world. Here I think the emphasis is not that the whole world benefits from propitiation, but rather that Christ is the only propitiation that the world has. In other words, I think it would be wrong for us to take this passage and extrapolate the inclusivity of propitiation (the actual removal of wrath) extending to the whole world, and we should instead read it as an exclusive claim of Christ as the only propitiation available to the whole world.
In this way, the open invitation of the gospel is maintained, even for the five-point Calvinist. In fact, I would say that it is strengthened; because the Christ that we offer is a complete Christ. “If you will have Christ,” we say, “you will have all of him.” The fact that God knows beforehand who will respond, and thus, whose response has been purchased by the blood of Jesus, doesn’t negate the authenticity of the offer; if foreknowledge did that, then none of God’s offers would be authentic. Given what we have explored in Unconditional Election, we ought to be humbled enough to recognize that God can simultaneously desire for all men to come to him, and thus authentically offer himself to all men, while also only purchasing the faith of some. Unless we love the taste of our own feet, we should bend a knee at those (apparent) paradoxes and say, selah.
This is a 7 week series. Be sure to read parts one and two. Join us next Friday for part four.
So here we are; a race totally depraved, hostile to God and deserving of nothing less than eternal wrath. The only kind of love that God could possibly have for us at this point is an unconditional kind; a gracious kind. And so we arrive to the next lovely pedal of the Calvinist’s favorite flower: Unconditional Election.
This is the doctrine that deals with God’s role in determining who will be saved. It figures that a theology that is unembarrassed to insist that God freely ordains whatever comes to pass will not be nervous to include the salvation of sinners in that “whatever.” And yes, we’re talking about that dreaded word on the tip the tongue: predestination. Before I became a Calvinist, I was really uncomfortable with the doctrine of predestination; and I was secretly quite frustrated that Paul didn’t pick a squishier word in Ephesians 1:5.
A Positive Case for Unconditional Election
Unconditional Election is not first about trying to discover who’s in and who’s out of heaven. The heart of unconditional election is God’s sovereign freedom; he is bound and compelled by nothing but his own good pleasure, and as the ontological beginning and teleological end of all things, he is absolutely justified in choosing to act this way. Why did God glorify himself by creating the universe? Because he wanted to. This means that God’s interaction with his creatures are entirely his prerogative; he does not–and cannot–owe humanity a thing. Why did God make Adam? Why did God choose Abram, rather than some Joe-shmoe next door? Why did God choose Isaac rather than Ishmael? Why did God choose Jacob rather than Esau? Why did God choose to save Jacob’s family with Joseph rather than Benjamin, and why did he choose the line of Judah for his Messiah? Why Israel and not some other nation? The answer: because God wanted it this way.
He was certainly not compelled by any particularly desirable trait that these men had. Abram was a cowardly husband, who was willing to pimp his wife out to secure his own safety (not once, but twice). Isaac was an apple not fallen far from the tree, and he followed in his dad’s footsteps. Jacob was a sleazy con-artist. Joseph was a cocky little brat. Do we need to mention Judah’s little episode with his daughter-in-law, Tamar? And Israel, as a whole, proved to be no less idolatrous than any of her neighboring nations. God did not catch a twinkle the eyes of these people which convinced him that they were beautiful little snowflakes, and that their endearing qualities were simply to die for (no pun intended). God did not choose these people because of them; he chose them because it was his fancy to do so. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)
Lest we think that his sovereign unconditional election only pertains to temporally significant destinies, let us briefly explore four passages that emphatically deal with God’s decision to eternally save sinners: Acts 13:48, Romans 8:29-30, and Romans 9:18.
- Acts 13:48 – So Paul and Barnabas stroll into Antioch in Pisidia and preach the gospel to a crowd of Gentiles, and some of them respond with saving faith. Question: which ones believed the gospel? Answer: “as many as were appointed to eternal life.” (I don’t think we need we ask, “appointed by whom?”)
- Romans 8:29-30 – Paul describes God’s decisive role to bring his elect to himself. Note, it is God who is the active party in these verses. Some have rashly assumed that this text’s order of “foreknowledge” before “predestination” implies that God predestined to save those who would freely choose to accept the gospel invitation, and that his foreknowledge revealed to him who those people would be. In other words, they would say that God looked into the future and saw who would receive the gospel invitation, and on the basis of their choice, he predestined those people for salvation. But this won’t work, because the scope of people at the end of this journey (glorification) is the same as the scope of people at the beginning of the journey (foreknowledge). All of those individuals foreknown are predestined, and all of those individuals predestined are called, and all of those individuals called are justified, and all of those individuals justified are glorified. God has a general foreknowledge (which is what’s advocated for by the non-Calvinists here) of the entire human race, yet he does not predestine, call, justify and glorify the entire human race. Therefore, the foreknowledge of verse 29 cannot simply be an observing eye. It is a grasping foreknowledge; a gracious foreknowledge. It is a foreknowledge that applies uniquely to those who will travel akibg this golden chain to glorification.
- Romans 9 – We can’t deal too extensively with this chapter, but notice some of the key elements. Paul is faced with the problem that many of his kinsmen of the flesh (Jews) are not saved, and are therefore damned to hell; yet they were collectively chosen by God for his purposes (v. 1-5). For the next three chapters, he will explain how God is not unfaithful to his collective chosen nation, Israel. He affirms that God does in fact have eschatological purposes for Israel, and that this apparent failure on God’s part is no true failure at all (not all of Israel belongs to Israel). In the meantime, Paul explains how God is faithful to his purposes in the present by describing what kind of God he is; that is, an electing kind. So, for example, Paul goes out of his way to describe how Jacob and Esau, “though they had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls,” were positioned decisively by God: “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” (v. 6-11) He then reiterates that God’s decision to show compassion on some and not others is contingent upon nothing other than his own sovereign freedom; and he juxtaposes the mercy that he shows Moses with the judgement that he brings on Pharaoh to illustrate his point. (v. 14-18)The primary objection is to say that God’s act of hardening Pharaoh’s heart was simply a way of solidifying what Pharaoh had already begun doing; thus God’s hardening was reactionary, rather than causal. But this won’t work for a couple of reasons. First, God’s hardening is contrasted with his mercy, which has already been established as not being reactionary (v. 11, 16). Second, the hardening does not here correspond with anything that Pharaoh is doing, it corresponds with Scripture’s statement, “For this very purpose I have raised you up.”
“Problem Passages” for Unconditional Election
We cannot talk about biblical passages in support of predestination without addressing those passages that seem to contradict it. I’m talking specifically about those passages that express God’s desire for all men to be saved. Passages like 1:Timothy 1-4, 2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 18:23, Matthew 23:37. Which is it? Does God want all men to be saved, or does he specifically save some to the neglect of others? On a very basic, take-the-bible-at-its-word kind of level, we have to say: both. The question for biblical inerrantists is how to synthesize these two desires of God; his desire to save some (and harden others) and his desire for all men to be saved.
This is not unique to Calvinists; non-Calvinists agree that God’s desire for all to be saved is limited by another, more ultimate desire. For the non-Calvinist, this is the desire for all men to utilize unencumbered volition without his decisive intervention. In other words, God wants for all men to be saved, but he doesn’t decisively save all men because he wants to preserve their free-will even more. For the Calvinist, this ultimate desire is for God to demonstrate the full range of his glory; the vibrant, bright hues of grace, along with the dark hues of wrath. In other words, God wants for all men to be saved, but he chooses only to save some because his ultimate desire is for the full range of his glory to be displayed (Romans 9:19-23).
The Instinctual Problem
Most of the time, however, objections to unconditional election don’t start with chapters and verses; most of the time they start with the instinctual reaction, that’s not fair! Of course, biblically speaking, this objection is, in itself, self-contradictory; God is fair. It’s a characteristic that he necessarily holds, and fairness is a category that we only know in relation to him. This is why Paul responds to this very objection the way he does (Romans 9:19-23).
I do want to add this though: the appropriate disposition to accompany this doctrine (along with all the doctrines of grace) is humility. It is astonishing how believers of this doctrine can hold their position with a haughty attitude. Is it possible to say, “I was dead in my trespasses and deserving of the full wrath of God, but God saved me according to his own will, owing to nothing that I deserve and nothing that sets me apart as a greater recipient of grace than my unbelieving neighbor” all while giving your listener a perfect view of the inside of your nostrils? This doctrine should bring us low. It’s a mystery that he would save any of us at all! We ought to engage on this topic with the understanding that this doctrine is incredibly counter-intuitive, and those who initially object are not stupid, they simply recognize how scandalous it is. Because it is scandalous.
This is a 7 week series. Be sure to read part 1 here. Join us next Friday for part 3.
And so we arrive at the first petal of this glorious TULIP; Total Depravity. In theory, this might be the point of Calvinism that is the most broadly accepted. It essentially says that all of mankind is full of sin, and in desperate need of salvation. We establish this doctrine from certain sweeping statements in the Bible, like “God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 53:2-3).
Most Christians seem to agree that, more or less, this is where man is; he is a sinner in need of grace. For some reason though, many Christians get tripped up when answering the question of how we got here. Or for that matter, to what extent a sinner is in fact in need of grace. Calvinism would answer these two questions with “original sin” and “totally.”
The Bible is pretty clear on its description of when sin came into the world. Genesis 3 chronicles the famed story of the Man (Adam), his Wife (Eve), the Serpent (Satan), and the first act of human disobedience on earth. God said, “You shall not” and Adam said, “I shall.” It’s important to recognize that the heinousness of this sin is not about the act itself, but who the act was committed against. This is true of all sin. A person’s act of defiance will carry gravity with proportion to the prestige of the person who is acted against. So for example, if a teenager pulls his friend’s pants down at school, this act of defiance will be relatively less significant than if he were to try to do the same thing to the President of the United States at the inaugural speech. This is why Adam’s original sin was so significant; it was treason against the Most High God.
Now, when Adam sinned, he sinned as a representative of the entire human race. He was standing as a federal head of man, and his defiance was counted to the mankind that he represented. Much like how our President speaks on behalf of our nation in diplomatic relations, Adam acted on behalf of all of mankind in his interaction with God.
See Romans 5:12-14, for example. In this passage, Paul is saying that when sin was brought into this world, he (that is, Sin) came in as a slave-driver. And when Master Sin established his authority, he established the authority of Mr. Death as his co-regent. The sovereignty of sin is evidenced by the presence of death, which only and always accompanies sin. This much is hardly disputed; the issue that distinguishes the Calvinists from the non-Calvinists in this regard is in what nature Adam’s sin affects the rest of mankind. The Calvinist position insists that all of mankind is not merely affected by Adam’s sin, but is guilty of it.
Therein lies the dividing line of total depravity: Are we struggling beneath the weight of Adam’s sin because we are casualties, caught up in the crossfire of divine wrath, or are we struggling beneath the weight of Adam’s sin because we are guilty of it? Are we guilty of a hypothetical original sin that we would have committed had we been there, or are we guilty of the actual original sin committed in Eden because, in Adam, we were there? Calvinism would say the latter.
Our reservation with this doctrine of Original Sin is due to a misplaced sense of entitled autonomy (which is, ironically, how Adam got in this mess to begin with); we feel as if it’s not fair that we should be counted guilty because of someone else’s crime. It certainly is unfair, in isolated situations, for an individual to be guilty of another individual’s sin. However, we are not entirely isolated, autonomous individuals. And by the way, we don’t want to be! We should love the concept of Federal Headship, because if we are not found guilty by Adam’s imputed sin, we can’t be made righteous because of the Second Adam’s imputed righteousness (Romans 5:15-20). So this is our plight as sons of Adam; we are guilty by birth; by nature (Psalms 51:5, Ephesians 2:1-3). By virtue of being born in Adam, we are deserving of the wrath that Adam deserves.
What Does “Total” Mean?
So to what extent does that depravity reach? How much of a person is depraved? The Calvinist would say, “all of him.” This means several things. First, it means that we are, by our now-adjusted-default, rebellious towards God. We are his enemies (Romans 5:6-10). We comfortably belong to the domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13). We are those who know the truth of God, but out of our hatred for him, we suppress that truth; we refuse to worship God as God, and thus fall utterly short of his glory (Romans 1:19-23, 3:23). Man, in his fallen state, does not want to be freed from his bondage to sin; Stockholm syndrome is woven in his DNA. In other words, man cannot, on his own, be reconciled to God because he has no desire to be reconciled to God.
The totality of man’s depravity not only refers to his volitional inability to befriend God, but it also refers to the scope of man as a holistic being. In other words, it’s not only his morality that has been touched by sin; his relationship to literally everything is tainted by sin. This is how Paul can say, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Sinful man can’t not sin. Even his own thinking is fallen (Romans 1:21). This makes sense when we think about what Adam separated himself from in the garden of Eden. The entire universe finds its ontological substance in the God who created everything from nothing. So to cut God out of thought by suppression of will is for man to cut himself off from true knowledge of anything.
So what of free will? The most common objection goes that if man is enslaved to sin, and has no freedom to choose liberty from that sin, it would be unjust to condemn him for being enslaved. There are a couple problems with this argument. To begin with, there is no such thing as the absolute freedom of the will–in the sense that the will is not bound by any desire. The will is that which pulls out of the heart what’s there; it can act upon the desires of a person, but it can’t arbitrarily create desires–that’s beyond the scope of the will’s function. People are always bound by the desires they have, and the desires they have are determined by the kinds of hearts they have (Luke 6:43-45).
Additionally, this argument completely undermines the Bible’s assertion of the graciousness of grace. Who gets bragging rights for your salvation? Did you “give your life to the Lord” or were you “snatched from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son”? To be fair, some non-Calvinistic theological systems insist that grace is key; but in most, that grace is less of a let-me-jump-into-a-burning-building-to-carry-your-unconscious-body-to-safety type of grace, and more of a let-me-hold-the-door-open-for-you-so-you-can-decide-what-to-do-from-here type of grace. Even if, as some insist, this special grace is richly lavished on all men who have their sinful fetters loosened long enough to make a free decision upon hearing the gospel invitation, they still have something to boast about. If salvation happens with 99.99999% God’s contribution, and 0.00001% the contribution of your free will, you still rightly have 0.00001% grounds for boasting. But Paul expressly leaves no room for boasting in anyone’s salvation (Ephesians 2:9). Our depravity doesn’t leave us injured, it leaves us dead.
The second objection has been succinctly expressed (sadly) by one of my greatest heroes of the faith, C.S. Lewis. He writes, “I disbelieve [Total Depravity], partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature.” (The Problem of Pain, pg. 61) Lewis’ main problem here is that he’s not really paying attention to the Calvinist when the Calvinist talks about Total Depravity. He is here assuming that “Total” means “Absolute.” But, of course, no consistent Calvinist would be so ridiculous as to say that man is as wicked as he possibly can be. There is relative “goodness” in this world. There are scientists who have cut themselves off from the only source of true knowledge, who have nevertheless made marvelous discoveries in God’s universe. There are men who have turned their back on the only perfect Father, who have nevertheless been relatively kind and generous to their children. We could all be a lot worse than we already are. You can chalk this phenomenon up to common grace, and it does not effect the doctrine of Total Depravity in the slightest.
But while “total” does not mean “absolute,” it still nevertheless means “total.” So this is where the doctrine of Total Depravity discovers mankind. Rebellious. Blind. Guilty. Hateful. Darkened. Dead. This may sound bleak, but it’s wonderful news; this doctrine is the great equalizer of men (and women; sin is all about equal opportunities)! The only contribution we can ever make to our salvation is the sin that makes the salvation necessary. But, that means every one of us is primed and ready for redemption. We can do nothing to save ourselves; which makes us excellent potential recipients of a Savior!
This is a 7 week series. Join us next Friday for part 2.
A Word of Explanation
These posts were originally written up as part of my assignments for the Emmaus Residency. During that time, I posted them on my blog, and have since then trimmed them down to be posted here. By way of introduction, let me first just affirm that, yes, these doctrines are about Calvinism–and by “Calvinism,” I’m really just concerned with soteriology here (the doctrine of salvation). Also, the term “Calvinism” is really only helpful insofar as it serves as theological shorthand; I hope to show that these doctrines are biblical. In other words, these truths are much older than Calvin. In fact, they’re older than the foundations of the world. That being said, I would encourage you to read these blogs with the Scriptures on hand so you can carefully consider my words in light of God’s Word.
Setting the Stage
Let’s start in the beginning. Christian’s hold that God created the universe ex nihilo–from absolutely nothing (Genesis 1). This reality itself sets the stage for how we understand everything. This beautiful doctrine finds God situated squarely in the middle of all existence; nothing in this universe can be properly understood until it is understood in relation to God.
Most theological traditions that unintentionally minimize the sovereignty of God do so by starting here; by failing to recognize what “from nothing” truly means. They view God as the director of a movie; whose sovereign authority is genuine, but who is nevertheless dependent on his actors and crew to play their parts and add their personal flair to make his vision possible. In contrast to this, the Calvinistic tradition views God as more like an author, whose sovereignty literally creates his characters. He needs them for nothing, his imagination is the sole origin of their very existence.
Creator and Sustainer
Now, this much we could establish from the doctrine of creation alone. However, God has graciously given us more liberty to justify such audacious claims about him. Let me explain. In Genesis, we are told that God’s Word is the instrument for conceiving the universe (“And God said, ‘Let there be…’”) and in the first chapter of John, we discover that this Word is not merely a sound coming from his mouth; the Word of God is the second member of the Trinity; God the Son (John 1:1-3). So this originating instrument of everything is the eternal Son of God. And the work of the Son in creation is constant. Lest we think that Jesus’ creative contribution was simply a thing that he performed at the dawn of time, we are told by Paul not only that “all things were created through him and for him,” but also that “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-20) Additionally, we are told in Hebrews not only that “he created the world,” but also that “he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
This means that Jesus is willfully, intentionally keeping our hearts beating at this very moment. I woke up this morning on purpose; that is, Jesus’ purpose. There are stars in the cosmos–stars we may never become aware of–which are dying at this very moment because Jesus is telling them to. Somewhere in this world, a mountain goat is giving birth at the command of Jesus. There are no loose ends; the whole thing is kept together not merely by a system that God designed, but by God himself. This is what Calvinism means when it says that God is sovereign. He is the boss. Not hypothetically, but in real time and space.
History On Purpose
If this is true in the broad sense, it must be true in the narrow as well. If God’s sovereignty extends to the very fabric of every created thing, this must include the fabric of every individual who drives history forward, which means that he is sovereign over history as well. This is exactly what we find in Scripture. He can never be thwarted by the will of man (Psalm 33:13-19), he does what he pleases (Psalm 115:3). Kingdoms rise and fall according to his purposes. (Proverbs 21:1) Human history isn’t incidental; God is telling a story. This is how Nebuchadnezzar can appropriately say of God,
His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34b-35)
When God answered Job in a whirlwind with a litany of questions, it wasn’t because he was curious and was hoping that Job had the answers; he was telling Job the answers (Job 38-41). This is how God can literally use Babylon as a “hammer of war” to punish Israel (much to Habakkuk’s horror), and then turn around and punish Babylon for being a hammer (Jeremiah 51).
The Problem of Evil
Now, this is where things get a little hairy for us. Because the most glaring consistency in human history is sin. The wheels of history are covered in blood; blood shed in sin, by evil people. What about God’s sovereignty there? God clearly hates sin; he does not approve of it and does not want us to participate in it. Yet he orchestrates a history that is marked by evil and sin. What can we say to these things? This is really where other theological traditions can mistakenly assume the position of moral high ground. They say that God has nothing at all to do with the evil events in history, and the responsibility is solely man’s. To be sure, we are told that man is personally and solely responsible for his own sin, and is never actually justified in accusing God of making him sinful (Romans 9:6-21). However, this does not alleviate us from the problem. The Bible clearly describes God using evil for his own purpose (Genesis 50:20). The very crucifixion was the most wicked event in all of human history, and it went completely according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). These things are in tension; God is absolutely sovereign and he absolutely hates sin, and man is totally wicked and is absolutely responsible for his sin.
We often attempt to minimize the tension of this mystery by hiding behind theological jargon. So we say things like, “There are two wills of God; his revealed will and his secret will.” or “We affirm compatibilism.” Don’t get me wrong, these terms are helpful and useful, and I will explain them in more detail as we proceed. But these terms are only useful insofar as they are merely ways of stating the tension that exists in scripture, as opposed to explaining them away. The Christian faith is built on mysteries. The Trinity. The Hypostatic Union. Union with Christ. The resurrection from the dead. We cannot be afraid to have our thinking adjusted by the word of God. In fact, we must have our thinking adjusted by the word of God.
Big, “Boots-On-The-Ground” Theology
What frustrates us are scenarios in which we cannot conceivably think of an outcome that would justify a given crime. Like a plane crashing into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Or a myriad of Jews, marched like cattle to be poisoned or burned in Nazi death camps. Or Africans ripped from their homes by slave traders, to be put to forced labor and treated as subhuman. Or millions of infants hacked up in their mothers’ wombs, to be offered up as a sacrifice to the idol of Autonomy. Or young girls being lured away from their homes and assimilated into the deplorable, and lucrative business of sex trafficking. Is God actually glorified by this crap? And if so, could his glory actually be worth it?
This is where our theology is very important, and if it operates properly, it will certainly take the swagger out of our step. We must hold these bold truths with humility, because ultimately, we have to deal with the harsh reality that God is allowing–more than that, ordaining–these nauseating realities that he hates. But lest we allow for our indignation towards these realities pull us away too soon from the (seemingly) unbearable possibility that God has good purposes for them, let us consider our options. It makes our stomach churn to think that God might have good eschatological purposes for keeping the heart of a rapist beating while he rapes his victim, but what’s the alternative? A God who can’t say “stop beating” to the rapist’s heart? Or worst yet, a God who can stop his heart, but chooses not to because he values the free will of the rapist over the safety of his victim? No. I, for one, am glad that God has promises to work all things out for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).
We can either tell the victim, with tears in our eyes, that her suffering matters to God, but the autonomous volition of her abuser matters more; or we can tell her, with tears in our eyes, that her suffering matters to God, and it is not wasted; it is an affliction that will yield for her an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). We need a God big enough to say that about, and we need a theology big enough to describe him. Thankfully, we have Calvinism.
In his work, The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung says that, “Union with Christ may be the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of.”
I think he is right. Union with Christ deserves to stand next to the most vital of the Christian doctrines in terms of significance yet many of the people in our churches have never heard about it. This must change.
One of the reasons Union with Christ isn’t taught in many churches is that it can be a difficult doctrine to wrap our heads around. Where there are 10 scholars you will have 11 nuances as to what the doctrine actually is. In short though, Union with Christ is the reality that by grace through faith the Spirit makes a believer “one” with Christ, and therefore confers upon the believer many of the rights and rewards that Jesus has earned.
What this is getting at is this reality: The believer is found in Christ. This has incredible implications. Maybe none greater than the fact that when you are in Christ, the Father looks at you and doesn’t see your wickedness, rather he sees the beauty of His Son, Jesus.
That means for every time that you lie, the Father sees Jesus telling the truth. When you lust, the Father sees Jesus being pure. When you cheat, the Father sees Jesus being honest. When you are wicked and ruined and found in low places like you and I both find ourselves in more than we would like to admit, The father sees His perfect and righteous Son.
The Beauty of the Union
It is difficult to get at the beauty of Union with Christ in any amount of words, let alone a short blog post. Yet, think with me for a moment about some of the more beautiful realities of Christ’s ministry.
His perfect obedience, Christ came and lived a life full of temptation like you and I yet without sin. He was completely obedient to the Father in every way.
His atoning death, Christ was obedient to the Father even to the point of death. Though we deserved to die a cursed death, Christ becomes a curse on our behalf on His glorious and gruesome cross.
His death-killing resurrection, Christ utterly brings death to death in his resurrection. What’s more is we are promised to share in this outcome when He comes back for His bride.
These 3 realities alone are enough to cause the Christian to be in awe of God for the rest of their days. Here is where the importance of Union with Christ comes in. None of these things matter for the believer if they are not United to Christ. Union with Christ is the place where the beautiful realities and rewards of the gospel are given to the believer.
The reality that Union with Christ is the place where gospel realities are given to the believer isn’t too difficult to see in the scriptures. All one has to do is pay attention to the God breathed, God inspired prepositions. Let’s take the preposition, “in” for example. We can see that the believer has redemption in Christ (Eph. 1:7) Lost all condemnation in Christ (Rom. 8:1) Sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 2:1) Chosen in Christ (Eph. 1:4) and even raised in Christ (Col. 3:1) These are but a fraction of the glorious rewards the Christian has “in” their Christ.
If you want to have your breath taken away by grace, wonder the New Testament in search for what happens to wicked men and women who are “in, with, through, and by” Christ.
Christian, when you are in Christ you are abiding in a Savior that brings rest and liberty to all those who are found in Him. No longer can you depend on your hard work mentality or your 5-step lists to get you through the Christian faith. On the contrary, you rest in the reality that when you are in Christ you have everything you need to be completely redeemed.
“No longer can you depend on your hard work or your 5-step lists to get you through the Christian faith.” -@RonniKurtz
Praise God that our salvation is not found in our strength, or in our ability to follow along and keep rules or promises. Praise God that our salvation is found, “In Him.”
This post originally appeared on FTC.co
Ronni Kurtz is the Pastor of Teaching and Equipping at Emmaus Church. His passions center around the gospel, his wife, historical and systematic theology and helping the people of Emmaus treasure Jesus. Ronni and his wife Kristen have been married for 3 years.