In part one, I established a baseline argument – that Calvinism is fundamentally harmful in all five of its tenets – and spent time looking at the T in Calvinism’s mnemonic, TULIP; Total Depravity. I argued that Calvinism focuses on original sin and fails to notice original goodness, which came before the Fall and is fundamentally who we are. We are made in God’s image, and that image is beautiful.
Sin derailed and derails us, but our fundamental nature is goodness. We know this when we look at our children, but abdicate from simple knowledge in preference of the heavy, theological structure Calvinism imposes. Calvinism robs believing hearts of joy, and is the enemy of ‘positive self-regard’.
Today, I’ll be looking at the U in TULIP – Unconditional Election. Calvinists believe that God chooses who will be saved and who will be damned. According to Calvin, election has nothing to do with a personal response to God, or even divine foreknowledge of how a person will respond to grace. The doctrine of Total Depravity, as discussed last time, states that people are dead in their sins, and therefore fundamentally incapable of responding to God. The choice is God’s alone, and we have no ability to do other than go along with it. Those chosen by God for salvation are called the Elect, and everyone else is destined, without choice, to an eternity in Hell.
The crucial passage used to put forth this idea is Romans 9. Calvinism relies on a stack of misunderstood scriptures, but Romans 9 is the foundation upon which other misinterpretations are built. I’ll focus entirely on this key passage, because if this, most difficult knot can be untied, the others come apart with a tug.
When interpreting any New Testament epistle, it’s important to remember several things:
- It was written by a human, to humans, for a purpose.
- In its writing, the author would not have known it would become scripture, or be interpreted by people living thousands of years later, in a cultural context so different it requires considerable study to bridge the gap in assumptions and understanding.
- The author was trying to make points to his key audience, using reasoning and rhetoric, along with straight theological assertion. It is important to be able to tell the difference.
It is also important to note that Romans was written to a mixed audience of Jewish and Gentile believers, and that Romans 9 is largely addressing the Jewish group. Early in the chapter, Paul touches on the assumption many Jewish readers would have carried – that they were God’s special, chosen people, preferred by God over the Gentiles. This would have made sense under the Old Covenant, but a transition to the New was proving difficult for many. It is always hard to give up one’s privileges.
This idea of Hebrew specialness was a common misunderstanding in the Early Church, and Paul was at pains to explain that through Christ, the promises God made to Israel had been broadened to apply to all people on Earth, which had always been his intention. Paul’s comments then, about God having the right to choose who he likes, as a recipient of grace, are to be understood in this context. He wanted to convince Jewish readers that God has sovereignly chosen to reach beyond the Hebrew nation and flood the world with grace. This is entirely in line with his promise to Abraham – the earliest and most profound of the Hebrew Covenants. Genesis12:3b,
‘Through you, all families of the Earth will be blessed.’
Romans 9 begins with Paul’s deep longing for the people of Israel to turn their hearts back to God. He has just finished expounding on the incredible victory we have in Christ (‘Therefore there is no condemnation…nothing can separate us from the love of God’), and after exalting in all that is given to us through Jesus, his thoughts turn to his own people, the Jewish nation, and those who are not experiencing the wonders he has just expounded upon. He goes from the heights of celebration to deep, concerned introspection for the Hebrews.
Calvinists rely on the later part of the chapter, for their thinking. Romans 9:14-32,
‘What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?’
If read through a 21st century lens, without an understanding of who Paul was trying to persuade, and of what, this passage paints God as infinitely cruel. However, this issue of election was crucial for Jewish Christians to understand. Paul is at pains to persuade them that grace has spilled over the walls of Hebrew identity and flowed out to the rest of the world. Perhaps anticipating the defensiveness his words would arouse, he challenges the readers:
‘But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?’
He goes on to use even stronger language, to enforce the idea that God can choose who he wants, and cannot be challenged on it:
‘What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?’
The notion that God might have designated specific individuals as ‘objects of wrath’ is meant to be shocking, but this is a theoretical question (What if?), rather than a doctrinal statement. Much of the chapter is rhetorical, to be understood as part of an argument, where the writer is representing both sides. Paul has an important point to make:
What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea:
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”
This is Paul’s punchline – that God has the right to choose whomever he sees fit, but has sovereignly chosen to extend grace to the Gentiles, to all families of the Earth. God has sovereignly chosen to include, rather than exclude.
Calvinists would argue we have to take Paul’s hypotheticals as doctrine, but the Holy Spirit will not allow me to do that, because it would nullify so much of the rest of scripture. For starters, it would undermine that most crucial tenet of Christian belief; free will. It would render this passage in 2 Peter 1 (5-10), utterly meaningless.
‘For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is short-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’
Peter seems to be saying that our ‘election’ (being chosen by God), which Calvin taught is something we have no control over, is something we can confirm and make sure, by walking closely with God and growing in grace. It is impossible to hold to a doctrinal interpretation of Paul’s rhetorical argument in Romans, while also embracing Peter’s teaching in his second epistle.
Christian fatalism sucks the heat out of much of the Bible, neutering calls to choose God, to choose life and to seek God. It makes a mockery of the Lord’s patience, and hope that we will yield to grace. 2 Peter 3:9,
‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’
Why would the Lord need to be patient, if the decision has already been made? Hebrews teaches us that faith pleases God, and in the Gospels we see Jesus delighted and amazed by faith, when he encounters the staggering belief of a Roman Centurion, whose child is dying and in need of miraculous intervention. Why be amazed, if that faith was simply a product of God’s choice, without any human element?
So we have two very different versions of God, and of the Gospel, depending on how Romans 9 is read. On the one hand we have Calvinism, which tells us we have no choice in this life about how we respond to God. For me this is Christian fatalism, and empty of goodness. It makes us powerless pawns of a wilful and arbitrary God, who is more concerned with his right to do what he wants than loving the people he made in his image.
Does that sound like Jesus? Did God not send his son because he loved the whole world? Did he not die for all? Is he not good to all? Does not mercy triumph over judgement? Calvinists believe Christ only died for ‘the elect’, which I will deal with in the next instalment of this series, but it isn’t exactly a hard argument to counter, given the number of scriptures making it clear that the goodness of God is over all his works.
In the church of my youth, where Calvinist teachings had an influence (without forming the basis of all instruction), certain Bible teachers used to say we should pray as if everything is down to God, but act as if it were all down to us. To me, this Augustinian teaching is the purest form of nonsense. It is beyond the human being to believe that God is in control while simultaneously acting as if we had actual choices. The way I see it, holding to that position means losing our grip on simple, childlike faith.
In other words, this is a woeful answer to an inevitable question – if God is in control of our destiny, why bother ourselves with choices that aren’t ours? This idea that we pray one way and live another fails to answer this question at all.
That is the Calvinist offering, to the best of my understanding, and I reject it in full. Instead, I embrace a God who, despite having the right to choose whoever he wishes, has chosen to include, rather than to exclude. This is the God of Abraham, promising that all families of the world will be blessed. I choose the generous compassion of Jesus, accepting that he is the full and perfect manifestation of God, and that in him we see the Father.
I invite you to remove the rigid scaffolding of previously assumed doctrine, and to prayerfully bring these two versions of the Gospel before God. What does the Holy Spirit whisper to you, as you pray? When you hear His voice, choose life.