Where Calvin Went Wrong

October 18, 2013

by Dr. Scot McKnight

Dr. McKnight — professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill. — is the author of  the award-winning The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Paraclete, 2004), which won the Christianity Today book of the year for Christian Living. Dr. McKnight obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham (1986), and is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Society for New Testament Studies. He is author or editor of 40 books, has given interviews on radios across the nation, has appeared on television, and regularly speaks at local churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries in the USA and abroad. SBCToday is grateful for his permission to link to this article.


At the core of Calvinism is God’s sovereignty, but just what sovereignty means is the essence of Calvin’s core: sovereignty means determinism in that God elects, God awakens, God shows grace, God predestines, God regenerates, God preserves and God glorifies. John Wesley, on the other hand, can be said to teach each of those, but where he thinks Calvin went wrong is that Calvin’s view of sovereignty so overwhelmed his theology that he ends up denying the capacity of humans to choose to believe. We are looking at Don Thorsen’s fair-minded comparison of John Calvin and John Wesley, in his book Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Life in Line with Practice.

Do you think meticulous sovereignty denies human’s capacity to choose (for and against) something? Does it deny, in that sense, “free will”? Do you think Christ died for all?

In his study that compares their views of salvation, Thorsen begins with conversion experiences — comparing Wesley’s famous Aldersgate experience and Calvin’s cryptic comments in the introduction to his commentary on the Psalms, which differs slightly from other tellings of his experience. What perhaps ought to be observed is that folks like Calvin and Wesley didn’t up and say “Here’s when I got saved.” (That, perhaps, is worth our pondering more than it is often pondered.)

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Yes, Calvinism conflicts with the ability to choose something or not. If God decrees you to do something, such that the opposite is impossible, then you don’t have the ability to choose – which requires alternatives. Now I know that Calvinists are often compatiblists and they say they can choose, but compatiblism has it’s own problems and doesn’t solve this one. So in effect, Calvinism ends up undermining all the passages in scripture that say we choose things.

God be with you,

Bob Cleveland

Inasmuch as God stated the “natural man” cannot appropriate, or comprehend, things of the Spirit, what then must happen before that natural man CAN?

The best explanation I’ve seen indicates the natural man can no more desire salvation, can no more comprehend his lostness, than a natural man is, himself, able to hover like a hummingbird or breathe water like a fish. Even if, in his free will, he wants to, it’s not within his nature to do so.


    “The best explanation I’ve seen indicates the natural man can no more desire salvation….”

    Acts 13:6-7 (KJV)……..
    “And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and **desired to hear the word of God**.”

    So much for the “best explanation”.


    Bob asked:

    “In as much as God stated the “natural man” cannot appropriate, or comprehend, things of the Spirit, what then must happen before that natural man CAN?”

    Bob do you do any evangelism in the real world?

    I ask this question because it seems evident that anyone who does real world evangelism on a regular basis knows that the answer to your stated question here is that what *must* happen before the nonbeliever (your term “natural man”) *can* is this:

    *they must experience the preconversion work of the Holy Spirit*.

    No one can believe, no one has the capacity to believe and trust in Christ alone for salvation *unless* the Holy Spirit reveals things to that individual. The Spirit must convict that person of sin; show them their spiritual condition that apart from Christ they are lost and headed for an eternity separated from God. The Spirit must show them who Jesus is and what he did and that he is the only way of salvation. The Spirit must show them that they need to repent of their sinful lifestyle and that only by belief and repentance can they be saved. There are other things the Spirit reveals, and yet my point is simple the Spirit must do this preconversion work in the person to enable them to have a faith response to the gospel. Without this preconversion work of the Spirit no one is able to believe.

    It is interesting Bob that in answer to your own question you simply presented the Calvinistic understanding of the nonbeliever’s condition: a view that emphasizes the inability of the nonbeliever. The *big*, *big* problem with your answer is that you *completely* leave out *any mention* of the preconversion *work of the Holy Spirit*. Considering that he is God, and that His preconversion work is absolutely essential in the conversion process of a person. To leave that out and make no mention of the Spirit’s work is almost unbelievable. And yet it is standard coming from Calvinists such as yourself as you focus almost exclusively on the condition of the nonbeliever and usually totally neglect the Spirit. When I evangelize my confidence is in two things: the power of God’s Word to transform and the powerful and supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in sinners.

    Bob in your answer to your own question you mention only the condition of the sinner: you make no mention of the power of God’s Word to transform people nor do you even mention the Holy Spirit who is God. It is like you present the problem (i.e. the nonbeliever’s condition apart from any work by the Holy Spirit in them) but make absolutely no mention of the solution (i.e. the preconversion work of the Holy Spirit).


Tim G

You are my new hero! That was priceless!


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