A Biblical Critique of Calvinism
Part 1c: The Inclusivity of the Gospel Invitation
by Dr. Michael A. Cox, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Pryor, OK
and author of Not One Little Child: A Biblical Critique of Calvinism
Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians maintains that Christ died for all (2 Cor. 5:15). Paul believed that Christians had been given the ministry of reconciling all to Christ (2 Cor. 5:18), not just a select group. Further, Paul echoed the words of Jesus found in John 3:16 when he wrote that God was in Christ reconciling the entire world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19).
Paul’s letter to the Colossians discloses that the apostle pleaded with everyone he could to come to Christ (Col. 1:28). If language means anything, Paul taught everyone that he or she could come to Christ (Col. 1:28), and passionately desired to present everyone complete in Christ (Col. 1:28).
The writer of the Book of Hebrews said that Christ is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him (Heb. 5:9). In Heb. 12:15 the same writer admonished his readers to exhaust all resources to see to it that no one misses out on the grace of God. This insists that people pursue the grace of God. Evangelical Christians then must strive to see to it that nobody comes short of the grace of God, for we are our brother’s keeper. To rely on one’s own works is to come short of God’s grace. The writer to the Hebrews knew well that to become aware of God’s grace in Christ and still revert to the temple sacrifices would spell disaster. To rely on anything other than the blood of Christ is to come short of God’s grace. God’s grace is tall, man’s works are short. God’s grace is deep, man’s works are shallow. God’s grace is free, man’s works are costly. God’s grace brings cleansing, man’s works leave filthiness. We must be active evangelistically such that we do all that is within our power to see to it that every person has the opportunity to experience God’s grace. And it is plainly possible to reject God’s grace. We must allow no root of bitterness to spring up, cause trouble, and defile because bitterness rots the bones. Bitterness, like sin itself, is contagious. We are herein told to uproot bitterness in our life. When the weed of bitterness rears its ugly head it poisons everyone around it. We must prevent this. Does this verse not demonstrate that God’s grace is both resistible and accessible to all? I believe that it does.
Peter argued that the atoning work of Christ is for all of mankind and that Jesus is the Master who bought all, including unbelieving heretics (2 Pet. 2:1)! Further, notice that the false teachers bring destruction on themselves (reflexive pronoun) and others. This clearly implies personal accountability for choices, arguing against having been “destined” from eternity by God to be a false teacher.In 1 John 2:2 John the Apostle insisted that Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. Propitiation means satisfaction to the demand of God. His holy revulsion to sin demanded it and His loving grace provided it. God is the provider of salvation. Moreover, propitiation, in my estimation, is not appeasing an angry God, it is removing the cause for alienation. John intended for his readers to understand that God does the reconciling, in that He initiated it by providing Jesus. With the death of Christ, the cause of our estrangement from God, sin, is removed and the way of approach to God is made possible through union with Christ. As the propitiation, He is available to atone for the sins of all believers and for the sins of the whole world. The scope of His work is all sin and all sinners. Christ’s propitiation is effective for all, bringing life to whosoever will believe and death to whosoever will not believe, for God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself (2 Cor. 5:19). First John 2:2 is, quite simply, an obvious reference to a general atonement.
In 1 John 4:14 John echoed this same truth when he wrote that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. The apostolic witness of John and his colleagues is that they beheld Jesus Christ as the one sent by God the Father to be the Savior of the world. The apostolic witness is convincing because they were there and had been bearing witness to God’s plan of salvation, even in the face of danger and death. They refused to be silenced and continued to proclaim that the Father had sent the son. This sending by God speaks to His intentionality. “Was sent,” not “was created,” declares the pre-existence of the son, thus confessing the deity of Jesus Christ. And their confession was that the son was sent to be the world’s Savior. This means that He had a purpose and that purpose was to be the world’s Savior. This affirms that every person is important to God. God wants all to receive Christ as Savior.
Later in his life the Apostle John wrote that the Spirit and bride say come to all and take the water of life freely (Rev. 22:17). He taught that anyone who hears, who is thirsty, and who wishes to drink of the water of life may do so.
We have seen, then, that God wants all to be saved and that Christ died for all, although this does not mean automatic, universal salvation is applied to all without personal faith and repentance. We have also seen that many remain unsaved, like the Pharisees of Paul’s day and the false teachers of Peter’s. Conclusively, then, they are unsaved due to their own rejection, not God’s rejection of them. But some choose to receive Christ. Therefore, man is not so totally depraved that he cannot respond affirmatively to God’s grace. Election is not unconditional, the atoning work of Christ is unlimited in its scope, and the grace of God is resistible.
Moreover, Calvinism misses the biblical point that election was always for inclusion rather than exclusion. God extended a call to Abram (Gen. 12:1). God intended to make Abram into a great nation (Gen. 12:2). God designed to bless Abram and make his name great (Gen. 12:2). God meant for Abram to be a blessing to others as well as to Himself (Gen. 12:2). God’s selection of Abram was for the express purpose of blessing all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). Abram’s exclusive selection always had an inclusive objective: all humans. God intended to enter the stream of history through Abram and redeem all the people of the world. Abram was elected to be God’s primary ambassador. Abram was chosen to bring others to God and to take God to others. Therefore, these undeniable facts demand that any references to election be interpreted from the perspective that the elect are whosoever will, while the non-elect are whosoever will not.
The power of life and death rests in the work of Christ (John 17:3) and God gave Christ power over all humanity. God also presented Christ with the assignment of redeeming humanity, and Jesus did not fail. Christ purchased redemption for all humanity. I like to use an athletic illustration by saying that He “drafted” all, wishing to give eternal life to all, since He has been given all, but not all choose to sign with His “team.” The elect are “whosoever will” sign with His team, while the non-elect are “whosoever will not.” And, there is a major difference between will not and cannot. God made a way for all to come to Him, and that way is Christ Jesus. This offer of redemption is universal in its scope, meaning that it is for all of humanity. Nevertheless, this redemption must be appropriated individually by way of faith and repentance: no Universalism allowed. Redemption is not automatic. Mankind must respond individually. Alister McGrath asserts that the doctrine that Jesus died only for the elect is not found in the New Testament. So, do God’s standards vary between the “elect” and the so-called “non-elect”? Does God have any expectations for the “non-elect”? If there are expectations, what does it matter, if Calvinism is biblically correct, since they are destined to remain in their non-elect condition?
Calvinists seem to be theoreticians who rarely reflect upon the serious theological and anthropological implications their system of thought necessitates. As I state elsewhere, it would be ludicrous for Paul to argue so forcefully for the condemnation of the entire race (Rom. 3:9, 10, 11, 19, 22, 23) and then argue for a cure available only to a few. Paul had been a Pharisee and was the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Timothy Trammell says that Pharisees were the most prominent religious group of Judaism. They were descendants of the interbiblical Hasidism and had crystallized into a distinct party by the time of the Hasmonean era (142-63 B.C.). They placed emphasis on divine providence, but also recognized that individuals are free moral agents with choices to make. If Trammell is correct, Paul’s training as a Pharisee, then, would have led him away from understanding depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace as defined by Calvinism.
How do most evangelicals interpret the word “depraved,” particularly with reference to the depravity of mankind as discussed by the Apostle Paul in Rom. 1:28? The Greek word Paul employs is adokimos, which is routinely translated depraved (NASV), base (RSV), and reprobate (KJV).
While word studies are necessary and helpful, they are rarely the final court of appeal when one is engaged in biblical interpretation, which is known as hermeneutics. Evangelicals have long championed the grammatical-historical method of interpretation, recognizing that word definitions are simply one of several integral elements to be included, along with other components, in order for sound interpretation to occur. Most would agree that the single most important element in the interpretive process is context.
Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought regarding human depravity. The first, that of Pelagius, says that mankind’s mind was damaged as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin. The second, that of Augustine and the Calvinistic/Reformed tradition, says that mankind’s mind was not only damaged, but that it was also destroyed such that it became totally and incorrigibly unreliable as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin.
John Newport, representing evidential apologetics and the dominant evangelical position, argues that humans can indeed grasp knowledge about God despite being hampered by finiteness and sin. Conversely, Cornelius Van Til teaches that, because of the destructive effects of sin, unsaved mankind cannot understand the world as it really is. Even though God has shed His light throughout the created order, the minds of unsaved humanity are so radically darkened in sin that they cannot see spiritual truth; yet, he says, the Holy Spirit will enable the “elect,” and only the “elect,” to respond to the Gospel. On his own, man is so totally depraved, says Van Til, he cannot even respond affirmatively to God. This definition of depraved uses the word “totally” and means precisely that. Proponents of this view contend that mankind’s reasoning capabilities were utterly destroyed, not merely damaged, such that God must do everything in order for one to be saved. He must even orchestrate the response of the individual.
As stated above, context is the key hermeneutical (interpretive) element. The paragraph of Rom. 1:24-32 clearly discloses that people, long after Adam and Eve, did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer (Rom. 1:28). “Exchanging” (Rom. 1:24) means they tested God at first and had knowledge of Him, but consciously rejected truth and enthusiastically received lies. A description such as this accurately summarizes an individual’s life as one which becomes hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). The heart does not start out this way. Paul concluded that intentional casting down of God in the mind (Rom. 1:28) results in depravity. This means that anarchy and chaos come from a mind that removes God from its knowledge. In estrangement from God, speculation displaces perception, and most are keenly aware that religious conjecture is legion in today’s world. It is at this point that one is given over to do what is improper, and Paul unswervingly denounced homosexuality as improper (Rom. 1:26-27), citing this sinful activity as one classic example of depraved individuals who have been turned over to the darkness of unrestrained impulses.
Still, a depraved mind, even that which manifests itself in the vilest of ways, is not such that it cannot respond to God’s grace. Van Til’s concept of all people being born with his definition of a totally depraved mind due to Adam and Eve’s sin simply does not square with the contextual definition presented by the Bible in this passage of Scripture. Depravity does not erase innate (inborn) knowledge of God, nor does depravity render one unable to respond to God’s grace. While it is true that all have sinned and fall short of God’s splendor and perfection (Rom. 3:23), and in this sense all have a mind damaged both by Adam and Eve’s sin and one’s own sin, the human mind is not destroyed such that it cannot respond with faith in Christ Jesus, thus accepting God’s provision of grace. Sadly, though, many show no interest in God’s grace until tasting of sin’s disgrace. This is unquestionably the majority interpretation among evangelicals, regarding the biblical meaning of depravity.
From bumper to bumper, we have seen that God’s Word expresses His focus of redeeming the world. Once the Bible has been consulted, it is obvious to see that Calvinism sports a terrible inclusive weakness.
The next article in this series will explore some weaknesses of Calvinism.