Decoding Calvinism | Part One

Ronnie Rogers | Pastor
Trinity Baptist Church, Norman, OK

Decoding Calvinism: Does Unconditional Election Include a Forced Change, a Freely Chosen Change, or Both?

There are many examples of confusing language regarding man’s free exercise of faith in Calvinism. Lewis Sperry Chafer responds to Arminians’ rejection of the term “sovereign grace” and their charge that such coerces or annuls the human will by saying, “No step can be taken in the accomplishment of His sovereign purpose which will even tend to coerce the human volition. He does awaken the mind of man to spiritual sanity and brings before him the desirability of salvation through Christ. If by His power, God creates new visions of the reality of sin and of the blessedness of Christ as Savior and under this enlightenment men choose to be saved, their wills are not coerced nor are they deprived of the action of any part of their own beings. It is the unreasoned objection of Arminians that the human will is annulled by sovereign election.”[1]

This is quite obviously intended to explicitly confirm that the salvific process according to Calvinism does not require man’s will to be forcibly changed in the outworking of the doctrine of unconditional election through irresistible grace (the efficacious call), monergistic salvation in which man is completely passive, and the free exercise of faith. To further clarify and bolster the refutation against Arminians, he quotes Principal Cunningham who so deeply embeds the idea of compatible freedom in his answer that unless one is thoroughly familiar with the idea, it will most assuredly be unnoticed. I will quote him at length so that you may see the actual context of the particular statements that I address, and then I will comment on his defense against Arminians. In reference to the Arminians’ charge against Calvinists, Principal Cunningham says,

“They usually represent our doctrine as implying that men are forced to believe and to turn to God against their will…. This is a misrepresentation. Calvinists hold no such opinion; and it cannot be shown that their doctrine requires them to hold it. Indeed, the full statement of their doctrine upon the subject excludes or contradicts it. Our Confession of Faith, after giving an account of effectual calling, which plainly implies that the grace of God in conversion is an exercise of omnipotence, and cannot be successfully resisted, adds, ‘Yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.’ That special operation of the Spirit, which cannot be overcome or frustrated, is just the renovation of the will itself, by which a power of willing what is spiritually good—a power which it has not of itself in its natural condition, and which it could not receive from any source but a divine and almighty agency—is communicated to it. In the exercise of this new power, men are able to co-operate with the Spirit of God, guiding and directing them; and they do this, and do it, not by constraint, but willingly,—being led, under the influence of the news concerning Christ, and the way of salvation which He has opened up to and impressed upon them, and the motives which these views suggest, to embrace Christ, and to choose that better part which shall never be taken away from them. In the commencement of the process, they are not actors at all; they are wholly passive,—the subjects of a divine operation. And from the time when they begin to act in the matter, or really to do anything, they act freely and voluntarily, guided by rational motives, derived from the truths which their eyes have been opened to see, and which, humanly speaking, might have sooner led them to turn to God, had not the moral impotency of their wills to anything spiritually good prevented this result. There is certainly nothing in all this to warrant the representation, that, upon Calvinistic principles, men are forced to repent and believe against their wills, or whether they will or not.[2]

Let me delve into this for a moment. Remember that according to compatibilism, one is considered to make a free choice when one chooses according to his own desires even though one cannot choose differently at that moment of decision given the same past or nature; thus, according to compatibilism, every decision is both determined and free. Now, with this understanding in mind, one is equipped to detect the otherwise undetectable compatible view of moral freedom ensconced in his response to the Arminians.

First, he argues that Arminians are wrong for accusing Calvinists of believing that men are “forced to believe and to turn to God against their will.” Provided that this is an accurate citation of some Arminians, Cunningham is technically correct because this is not what Calvinism or compatibilism teach.

Second, Cunningham says, “Our Confession of Faith, after giving an account of effectual calling, which plainly implies that the grace of God in conversion is an exercise of omnipotence, and cannot be successfully resisted,” adds “yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.” In this statement, he almost indiscernibly blends the effectual calling, which is irresistibly forced against man’s fallen nature (man’s fallen nature will never produce a desire to do anything but to freely resist God), and the result of that unwanted, monergistic, irresistible work of God that produces a new nature (emanating new desires) from which man freely chooses to believe in Christ.

Notice that the irresistible omnipotent act preceded man’s free choice to believe, which he describes as coming after the lost man is “made willing by His grace.” Although he meticulously avoids the term, this is clearly compatibilism. To wit, at the precise time of this omnipotent work, man is spiritually passive, and God monergistically does a work of grace in changing fallen man’s rebellious sinful nature that can only disbelieve, so that from the completion of this divine irresistible work, man receives a new nature emanating new desires from which man now can freely believe. Importantly, it is only after having been “made willing” that man transitions from being passive and incapable of believing or participating in any way to playing an active part in the process by freely believing. To engage the beliefs of Calvinism properly, this distinction must be recognized.

Third, the following statement says precisely what I have said in my explanation of his words, albeit far more concealedly of compatibilism. He says, “That special operation of the Spirit, which cannot be overcome or frustrated, is just the renovation of the will itself, by which a power of willing what is spiritually good—a power which it has not of itself in its natural condition, and which it could not receive from any source but a divine and almighty agency—is communicated to it.” (italics added) Observe the emphasis upon the irresistibility of this operation of the Spirit, which underscores again that given compatibilism, fallen man cannot choose to believe given his nature and past, and yet he is also incapable of successfully resisting this initial work of God (which is precisely the only thing he is capable of trying to do given his nature or past according to compatibilism).

He refers to this act of God as “the renovation of the will itself” which gives a “power of willing what is spiritually good.” Up until the “renovation” the individual could not act (except in rebellion against God), participate, or believe, but subsequent to the renovation comes a new power to will what is “spiritually good.” That is to say, the renovation (some use regeneration, quickening, etc.,) changes the person’s nature from which emanates new desires. From these new desires, he now not only can will the “spiritually good” (believe in Christ), but he will necessarily and inviolably only will himself to freely believe; to wit, he can no longer choose not to believe given this new past.

Part Two Coming Soon!

 

[1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 284.
[2] William Cunningham, Historical Theology, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1870), 413-414; as cited in Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 284–285.