For and Against Calvinism 9

Michael Horton examines a basic question contested between Calvinists and Arminians: Is the grace of God resistible? Well, he reframes this with what is surely a more accurate framing of the issues into effectual calling rather than “irresistible,” arguing as he does that the latter sounds like coercion. Further, he addresses yet another topic: perseverance and apostasy. As you may know, we are this series on Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism and Michael Horton’s For Calvinism.

Horton’s sketch here roams freely from Bible to the major statements in the Reformed tradition, and he has a constant eye on the Arminian and tosses some barbs at them. Central to this whole debate is whole debate is the human condition, and he makes much of humans being “dead” in sins and that means they need to be awakened — by God’s grace — to new life. That awakening is a sovereign act of God. And Michael Horton knows the golden chain of Romans 8:30 – what God begins, God finishes. It’s all of God.

Do you believe in “eternal security”? Do you believe all genuine Christians will persevere to the end? Do you think genuine Christians can “fall away” and be finally lost?

The new birth, then, is an act of God; it is not dependent on human decision. (Here Horton pushes against synergism.) He thinks grace is always resisted by humans apart from God’s regenerating grace which then awakens a person to obedience.

Horton believes we must carefully distinguish “new birth” (an act of God; we are passive) from “conversion” (we are active). The commands to respond to God are not “conditions” but “gifts” from God. [This sort of distinction requires positing information when the NT texts don’t talk like this very often.] But the odd thing for me in this chp was that I think Horton becomes, in effect, synergistic in conversion but not in new birth. Yet, he works hard to deny that his approach here is synergistic. He sees us as “covenant partners,” not “synergists.” {My first response: OK, then, Arminians then can be covenant partners in the new birth.]Horton has a reasonable sketch of perseverance, esp when it comes to apostasy. Essentially, his argument is that there is real apostasy (it is not hypothetical) but by those who are visibly connected to the church but not inwardly regenerated. None of this can be found in the texts in Hebrews so in his explanation he captures those texts through the grid of this approach. So, in Hebrews 6 we are reading about “those who belong only outwardly” and taste etc are not regenerative words but the experience of those outwardly connected to the visible community.

He then pokes the views of synergists: consistent and inconsistent synergism (former see everything in grace but push for it is a possiblity until the person responds, the latter emphasizing eternal security without perseverance where the emphasis is on personal decision). He sees Lutherans as inconsistent monergists.

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  • Tom F.

    I really don’t know what I believe about “eternal security”. I do wonder, though, if one of the unforeseen results of this doctrine is actually a loss of security in one’s subjective experience.

    Consider a male pastor who is unrepentant about infidelity to his wife, and actually decides to leave his family to start a new life with his mistress. For the sake of finality, let’s say this pastor dies shortly thereafter, unrepentant to the end.

    Some in the pastor’s Calvinistic church decide to interpret this serious of events as indicating that he had never been “inwardly reborn”. But others are not so sure: the pastor had been a blessing to many of them, and his character and service had been exemplary. If he hadn’t been “inwardly reborn”, the pastor surely thought he had been, and never confessed any doubt whatsoever before the affair.

    Well, the Calvinistic folks respond, that just goes to show that you can’t trust your own feelings about the state of your election. Lots of people are probably fooling themselves, they suggest.

    But if you can’t trust your own feelings about your election, the others ask, than what is really so secure about election? Sure, IF you are elect, THEN it’s secure. But how could one know if it’s so easy to fool oneself?

    So, IMHO, the great irony of eternal security is that even as it promises security to the elect, because it has to explain apostasy in ways that invalidate subjective experience, it actually just moves anxiety about salvation from anxiety about right action (“works”) to anxiety about right status (“how do I know I’m elect”).

    I don’t know, maybe its the existentialist in me, but I guess I prefer my fear and trembling straight, no chaser.

  • Gabriel Hauber

    @Tom F

    For me, you hit the nail on the head – one of the things I don’t understand about Calvinism is how it can promise any assurance at all? If you can be fooling yourself into believing you are elect, then… ?

    I honestly believe the Arminian has a better assurance in the promises of God than the Calvinist hope that they might be one of the elect God chose before the foundation of the world. We don’t have to wonder if we are fooling ourselves, we can *know* for certain!

    I believe strongly that I *am* one of the “elect” because in response to the gospel I believed, repented and was baptised, and God promised that for those who respond, he would forgive their sins and put his Holy Spirit within them. I believe that God is a faithful God, and thus I believe he kept his promise, and so I believe that my salvation is secure.

    The only way I can lose it is if I decide to up and walk away. Otherwise, God has promised that nothing and no one at all can snatch me out of his hands, and he certainly said he would not cast me out.

  • Paul W


    I think what you touch on with regard to election is a contributing factor to why the Puritans and so many of their ilk wrestled so intensely and existentially with their ‘assurance.’

  • It seems to me, that whether you speak of irresistible grace or effectual calling, coercion still takes place. I say this as a Calvinist. Our wills, when we were spiritually dead, were set against God. And it is God and only God who makes us alive, turning our wills toward Him in the process. I’d rather that God coerces some so that some may experience eternal life than coerce none so that none may experience eternal life.

  • Calvin Chen


    I haven’t read either book though I plan to read both, but I am Reformed (CRC) and a fan of both Olson (whose Mosaic of Christian Belief is the introductory doctrine book I use with the undergraduate students I disciple) and Horton (the majority of whose books I’ve read).

    I think Horton is distinguishing between (I hesitate to use these terms) saving grace and saving faith — the former which the monergist or Calvinist would argue is purely the work of God among only the elect and the latter which all but the strictest hyper-Calvinist would acknowledge is a “covenant partnership” and perhaps even a *gasp* “personal decision” (most of us are, after all, evangelicals!). The difference between the two appears like a technicality but it’s important to the Reformed, and Horton (as he likes to do) would probably remind us that conceptually the two must be distinguished but never separated.

    The grace/faith, monergistic/covenant partnership relationship and distinctions are reason behind Reformed subscriptions and membership vows distinguishing between acknowledgements of faith — to which we respond “I do” — and vows which require obedience and grace — to which we respond “I do, God helping me.”

  • Scot, excuse the plug, but you might be interested in the article I’ve just published in TynBul on this issue in Hebrews. I found your article from twenty years back extremely helpful, BTW!

  • I guess we have to engage in this from the Calvinist perspective. I have to acknowledge that the differences I hold on this I don’t find that important, but I live in an area (Grand Rapids) in which you can find many Calvinists who aren’t willing to die, so to speak, for these distinctives, if they hold to them much at all.

    That said, no, I doubt eternal security. Of course one is secure by grace through faith in Jesus, but that leaves questions open. Sure, there are passages which seem to indicate something like eternal security for all believers, and passages which do not. I’ve seen extremes on both sides, and the accompanying dangers. Those who try to be faithful to the full revelation of God will seek to mediate all the passages, take into full consideration everything.

    In practical terms then I end up probably in agreeing with brethren who differ, pastorally on nearly everything, with just different theological twists underlying.

  • Susan N.

    Wow. I realize in reading this post that I have come a long way in the past few years (by God’s grace?), to consider the competing claims of systematic theology in a cool, detached manner… At one point, I was so confused about what was true — Calvinist or Arminian interpretation, and, was mildly obsessed with finding out the answer.

    In retrospect, I think it was all good (God’s grace, again?) in the sense that I have a better understanding of where other evangelical writers/speakers are coming from (and, hence, where they’re going with their thesis) when I hear certain buzz words/phrases. Reading/hearing these things doesn’t rattle me the way it used to.

    But, I wonder now, what good is it really to ask whether eternal security is set in stone, whether “genuine” Christians can fall away and be “lost”, and whether we are born again by sheer act of God, or converted through an act of our own will? Insofar as all these questions and thinking lead us to grow in knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ, I guess it is worthwhile. The unfortunate thing is that in the short run, it’s very difficult (if not impossible?) to run this particular course without collateral damage; that is, judging, condemning, hurting those in the faith who don’t meet *our* qualifications as a “genuine” Christian — not to mention those outside of it who can be dismissed as unworthy of ours and God’s love. The risk is the direct effect on the ways and means of preaching the gospel (or not) in word and deed. And in a more general sense, alters how we view and treat each other, our own self-image, and our relationship with God (running to God vs. hiding from Him — i.e., what kind of God is He, anyway?)

    Like most things in life, and certainly where relationships are concerned, it’s complicated. We struggle. We err. God’s love is constant. I like the Wesleyan model of grace: Prevenient, justifying, sanctifying. Glorified, perfect status is not yet available… I guess that makes a good case for humility in the here and now 🙂

  • Scot McKnight

    Andrew do you have a link?

  • Many look to their feelings for their security. I am currently living in Africa, and here amongst my more charismatic friends (more/less, charismatic is a big broad word ain’t it?, many look to a particular experience. For some it is a baptism or re-dedication.

    Looking at one’s own feelings is, as has been shown above in the comments, a poor measuring stick. It can change day to day, week to week and focuses on the self. Well these all focus on the self, the human, who unfortunately has a sin nature with which to content.

    So primarily looking at a prayer, a baptism, or a re-dedication experience will probably result in doubts – and then repeats. Here I see people get baptized pretty frequently; that is the same person getting baptized and re-baptized. Why? They are looking to their own actions for assurance and that just cannot work – at least not as the primary assurance.

    No, one must, for assurance, turn and look past their own works, past their own feelings, experience, and experiences. One must look back 2000 years to the cross. Only there can one find assurance as we daily preach to ourselves the Gospel. Ask me how I know I am elect; I believe.

  • John W Frye

    I’ll write it again, the Calvinistic system has to “read” a theological subplot throughout the Bible. We cannot take the evident relational dynamics between God and decision-making human beings at face value. For Calvinists, beneath the Story as it so plainly unfolds is a ‘secret’ decree which apparently isn’t so ‘secret’ because the Calvinists, bless their hearts, have discovered it. Ever read the “Diary of David Brainard”? The poor man became mentally ill trying to find out if he was elect or not (see comment #1- Thanks, Tom). I may be way off base, but I live in the same area as Ted Gossard (comment #7) and I surmise that Pine Rest Mental Hospital was originally created to deal with elect-or-not-obsessed Reformed types with sensitive consciences. As for eternal security I highly recommend Scot McKnight’s *Trinity Journal* essay on the warning passages (not just chapter 6) of Hebrews (see comment #6–Andrew I’d like to read your TynBul article, too).

  • Re John #11, “relational dynamics”, you beat me to it! Doesn’t our narrative as the people of God couch these things in terms of relationship? Family relationship? The never ending argument is couched in other categories, and seems to treat “salvation” or “assurance” as an object or possession or right that we can “lose”, rather than a relationship to be developed and cultivated.

    Is there a good treatment of this issue that’s framed by God as Father, us as His household, our status as adopted into the family, with Jesus as our elder brother co-heir? Genuine question – does the issue fade away if you begin framing things differently?

  • gingoro

    “The only way I can lose it is if I decide to up and walk away. Otherwise, God has promised that nothing and no one at all can snatch me out of his hands, and he certainly said he would not cast me out.”

    I would echo Gabriel’s statement but add that in the majority, possibly the vast majority, of cases God’s grace in preserving Christians is effective and they persevere to the end. So I am likely only a 4++ point Calvinist. Thus I expect to resign as a member of a CRC congregation as this is not in conformance with our confessions.
    Dave W

  • Keith

    There are two ways I look at this issue. One, I use the phrase “Not saved, never saved”; if someone ends up lost, not among the elect, then at no point in his life was he ever truly saved. Secondly, God knows the eternal destiny of each one of us and has since before the creation (setting aside the issue of whether He monergistically determined it). Therefore how can it change?
    I know these statements are, respectively, negative and not very helpful to those who want to know their salvation status now. But it’s how I arrive at an answer to the first question, which is “yes.”

  • dopderbeck

    I probably don’t have as well developed a perspective on this as I’d like, but here goes…

    As I have heard this debate framed, I think the wrong question usually is being asked based on incorrect assumptions. The assumption, either among Calvinists or Arminians, seems to be that “salvation” is something individual people “possess” such that the question arises whether it could be “lost” by a particular person. This assumption further assumes that “salvation” primarily consists in a forensic transaction involving an individual’s personal sins and that person’s consequent final place in Heaven or Hell.

    If the nub of salvation were an individual forensic transaction involving my personal sins and my consequent final place in Heaven or Hell, then I would tend towards the Calvinistic view here. Would it make sense for God to “revoke” the judicial declaration of “justified?” It would in that case only be a conditional declaration.

    But what if “salvation” is a much broader, much more holistic, much more corporate notion? Then it would seem to me that there is a possibility for a person to “lose” the benefits of “salvation” by turning his or her back on the tangible benefits of salvation experienced right now in the community of God’s people — and that this might set the stage for that person’s participation in the eschatological community as well. So this is a place, it seems to me, where a broader theology of “salvation” — as in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, or Barth, or the New Perspective — perhaps helps point a way forward.

  • dopderbeck

    Just another thought, following up on my prior comment — I’ve never seen much in the discussion of this issue among Evangelicals about the role of the sacraments in offering us assurance concerning salvation.

    Austin (#10) noted that neither feelings nor a dramatic experience such as a “re-dedication” can really offer much assurance. I agree — as one who, as a very spiritually sensitive youth, had wildly fluctuating emotions and many, many, many “re-dedication” experiences!

    This is increasingly leading me towards a stronger understanding of the role of the Eucharist in the whole picture of salvation. At this table, as the Church historically understood it, Christ is regularly present in an objective, tangible, quiet way, not contingent on my personal feelings or my personal dramas. Isn’t it in the elements offered at this table that Christians have historically found assurance of Christ’s continued presence? Why is it that Evangelicals of every stripe — Arminian or Calvinist — turn away from this objective outward sign towards their own existential inward sense of certainty? Could this be a place where the fruits of the Reformation have over-ripened?

  • Joe Canner

    I have a pretty strong view of eternal security, at least as it applies to our relationship with God in the face of our sin. My view on this was strengthened by seeing how “insecure” African believers are in this respect (see Austin #10).

    My view of eternal security in the face of unrepentant sin and/or apostasy is more muddled. Ironically, the Calvinist approach as outlined here has an almost universalist flavor, in that it assumes that no matter how badly someone strays, if they were chosen to begin with God will forceably restore them in the end. This turns around the usual argument against universalism: that God would not force someone to spend eternity in His presence if they did not want to be there. But perhaps I’m reading too much into the Calvinist approach…

  • Scot, I’ll email it if that’s OK – the abstract is at, but the full piece isn’t online yet.

  • Randall

    Yeah, what Dopderbeck said, it does seem that this discussion derives it’s life from a view of salvation that assumes it’s a ‘sin management scheme’ and that God can just barely abide mankind to begin with. Talk of ‘possessing salvation’, while useful to a degree, I think overcooks a transactional mentality that is already antagonistic to the Gospel. God’s promises are ‘yes and amen’ and if we believe them then it will change us beyond our understanding.

    Is our reconciliation rescindable? Objectively, I don’t think it is; but we can needlessly forfeit our experience of it by our unbelief.

    And while I understand Horton is representing a widely held view I think it assumes many things that I don’t see scripture affirming as neatly as he wants it to be.

    But again, I think talking about gaining personal salvation and losing personal salvation is swimming in pools of transactionalism that I don’t wade in.

  • Percival

    I think the question should not be framed around us. Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb. By the cross and resurrection and Christ’s priesthood we are joint heirs of that salvation/completeness. If we remain in Him, we are being saved. If we abide in him we have eternal life, but it is not something we possess; it is who we partake of.

  • Percival

    After looking at my comment above, I guess I should say that my short answer is “no”. I don’t believe in eternal security as it has been framed, but I think salvation is not primarily about “where you go” after you die. It is about abundant life in Christ.

  • DRT

    Like many of the other commenters I don’t agree with the transaction.

    I still think the next critical question is what it means to be saved. In this post it seems the opposite is damned, which inherently has an action of god associated with it in some sense.

    I am thinking the opposite of saved is lost, wandering, searching. I have been found! I now know true north and can make my way toward the path out of the woods. The expedition party is yelling to me and I hear the direction of their voice. I am saved.

    Now can I get lost again? Well, if I get injured or decide I don’t want to be found anymore then perhaps.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Horton’s use of the word “effectual” instead of “irresistible” is common, but un-helpful. For one, it’s loaded – it implies that Arminians believe God’s grace is “ineffectual,” which I don’t think any Arminian would ever say (I know I wouldn’t). For two, it’s a wholly ambiguous term. In any case, it certainly doesn’t do any better to answer the criticism that are laid against it, regardless of which term is used to describe the exact same concept.

    If God’s grace cannot be rejected when it is set on certain individuals, then human beings have no choice whether they are saved or not, and that is the DEFINITION of coercion. Our wills are “effectually” bent (rather than willingly submitted) to His.

    I believe in eternal security as I believe in God’s grace – it is conditional upon belief. If believers can walk away, it is not satisfactory to respond (as Calvinist do): “Well, that person was never saved, then.” How do you know? And if you didn’t know that person wasn’t saved until they walked away, then how do you know YOU are saved?

    The problem with the Calvinist understanding of eternal security is that, in the case of the apostate, it is assumed that they never believed in the first place, even though the apostates themselves affirm that they thought they were saved. If that is the case, then believing you are saved in the Calvinist sense is not security at all – it may just be self-deception, or worse – divine deception.

  • DRT

    …and to extend a bit further. We are still in the woods. We have the direction, and we must follow, we are experiencing the saved as here now, but not yet.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Also, what is the scriptural evidence that Horton cites to support his belief that “grace is always resisted by humans apart from God’s regenerating grace which then awakens a person to obedience.” How does he know that grace is ALWAYS resisted?

  • Joshua Wooden

    I realize that Arminians generally would agree with Horton that, “grace is always resisted by humans apart from God’s regenerating grace which then awakens a person to obedience.” Arminians do, after all, believe in total depravity and prevenient grace in salvation, but I’m just curious for myself, even if Arminians on the whole would agree with Horton at this point.

  • Joshua Wooden

    I realize that Arminians generally would agree with Horton that, “grace is always resisted by humans apart from God’s regenerating grace which then awakens a person to obedience.” Arminians do, after all, believe in total depravity and prevenient grace in salvation (they just don’t believe that God’s grace is “effectual,” they believe it is resistible and can be rejected), but I’m just curious for myself, even if Arminians on the whole would agree with Horton at this point.

  • Charlie Clauss

    As a charter member of the anti-Soterian club, the answer to the question about eternal security is “no.”

    dopderbeck in #15 and Randallin #19 (echoing) says it well.

    What Percival says in #20 bears repeating:

    “I think the question should not be framed around us. Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb. By the cross and resurrection and Christ’s priesthood we are joint heirs of that salvation/completeness. If we remain in Him, we are being saved. If we abide in him we have eternal life, but it is not something we possess; it is who we partake of.”

    Salvation needs to operate in many “tenses”: We ARE saved; we ARE BEING saved; and we WILL BE saved. And this should point us back to the ONE who saves.

  • Kenny Johnson


    Thanks again for your comments on this blog in general and your comments on this post in particular. Love it.

  • Tom F.

    I like the refocus on the “soterian” question, but I wonder, even if you get a more Jesus-centric gospel, I think the question of Calvinist vs. Arminian positions would still exist, it may just not be as important. I don’t think moving away from a “soterian” gospel would necessarily “dissolve” the distinctions of something like eternal security vs. some sort of conditional security.

  • Not trying to be “snarky” here, but some lines from Tennyson come to mind (and, yes, they are out of context, but they seem to apply to this never-ending question):

    Ours not to reason why,
    Ours not to make reply,
    Ours but to do and die…

    (and note that it doesn’t say do or die….)

  • rjs


    Ours not to know that some one has blunder’d?