Are evangelism and human responsibility for sin rational in Calvinism?

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Here is a quote from Dr. Craig that seems to get Calvinists so angry:

“The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which confront Him are outside His control. He has to play with the hand He has been dealt.”

(Source)

Calvinists have told me that this quotation from Dr. Craig is “heretical” or “borderline heretical”. They are claiming that Dr. Craig thinks that God is lacking in power somehow. But why is God’s power limited, according to this quote?

Well, it’s because God respects FREE WILL. That quote is simply Dr. Craig’s way of saying that God does not override the free will of his creatures.

So let’s make sense of Craig’s statement. Either there is determinism and God causes people to act, or humans have free will and they cause themselves to do things. If you do not cause yourself to act, then you are not responsible for what you do. Just think for a minute. If I push you into someone and you fall into them and then they fall off a cliff, then are you a murderer? No – I would be, because I am the cause. The Bible teaches that God has chosen to limit his power so that that people have genuine responsibility for their actions, and that means they have genuine free will. Humans can only be responsible for their sins if they have the ability to do other than they do, and this is the traditional Christian view.

It’s true that human beings are totally depraved as a result of the fall, and do not want God in their lives, but they are responsible because God wants them to be saved, and it is their free choice that prevents it. Rather than force humans to love him against their will, God lets them resist him, and so they are responsible for their sin.

Dr. Craig cites the famous Calvinist D. A. Carson (who I like) explaining some of the themes of the Bible that affirm robust free will and human responsibility:

The classical Reformed [scholars]… acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with Scriptural texts affirming divine sovereignty is inscrutable. D. A. Carson identifies nine streams of texts affirming human freedom: (1) People face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands, (2) people are said to obey, believe, and choose God, (3) people sin and rebel against God, (4) people’s sins are judged by God, (5) people are tested by God, (6) people receive divine rewards, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s initiative, (8) prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God, and (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, pp. 18-22). These passages rule out a deterministic understanding of divine providence, which would preclude human freedom.

On Calvinism, however, all of these 9 features of reality, supported by dozens and dozens of Bible passages, are all false. On Calvinism, God is the sole causal agent. There is no free will. People go to Heaven or Hell as a choice of God. People can only perform good actions if God acts unilaterally to “regenerate” them, making obedience to God possible. Calvinism teaches that God and his agents are constantly exhorting and commanding things that they literally cannot do because they are unregenerate, and the only way to get regenerate is for God to regenerate them, against their will. And they can’t resist that.

So let’s make sense of D.A. Carson’s list of 9 items:

  1. On Calvinism, when God or his agents exhort or command people to perform good actions, it’s meaningless because God has to unilaterally regenerate them first, so that they can perform the good actions.
  2. On Calvinism, when God or his agents tell people to obey, believe and choose God, it’s meaningless because God has to unilaterally regenerate them first, so they can obey, believe and choose God.
  3. On Calvinism, when people sin and rebel against God, it’s like people are soda cans that God shakes up some of them, and then pops the tabs on all of them and the ones he shook up fizz.
  4. On Calvinism, when God judges people for sinning, it’s like God sends the cans who don’t fizz to Hell for eternity, even though he unilaterally chose not to shake them, which is the only way they could fizz.
  5. On Calvinism, when God tests people, it’s meaningless, because there is no way they can pass the tests unless God unilaterally regenerates them first, so they can pass the test.
  6. On Calvinism, when people receive divine rewards, it’s meaningless, because all the credit goes to God for regenerating them. They are just fizzing because God shook their can of soda.
  7. On Calvinism, when people respond to God’s initiative, it’s meaningless, because God’s regeneration is irresistible and irrevocable. They can do nothing other than fizz when he shakes the can.
  8. On Calvinism, when people pray, it’s meaningless, because God unilaterally decides whether to regenerate people or not, and all their fizzing comes solely from his decision to shake or not shake the can.
  9. On Calvinism, when God pleads with sinners to repent and be saved, it’s meaningless, because God has to unilaterally regenerate them before they can repent, and then that repentance cannot be resisted at any time after.

Here’s William Lane Craig to explain it further in an answer to a question of the week from Dr. Craig’s Reasonable Faith web site.

5 problems:

  1. Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture.
  2. Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed.
  3. Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility.
  4. Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency.
  5. Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce.

If God’s choice, to regenerate or not, causally determines whether we can respond to him, or not, then that is determinism. And it makes our lives meaningless because we are not responsible for anything we do. Life is a puppet show, and there is only one person pulling the strings. Evangelism makes no sense, because God decides unilaterally and irrevocably who is saved. When I explain this to Calvinists, their response is that God commands us to evangelize, so we must even if it makes no sense on their view.

A Calvinist might respond to this defense of free will and human responsibility with passages from Romans 8 and 9, but those are best understood as speaking about corporate election, rather than unilaterally-determined selection. Membership in the elect group is based on people responding to God’s drawing of them to him. That interpretation fits with the rest of the Bible, which is uniformly affirmative of human free will and human responsibility. Concerns about diminished divine sovereignty are resolved by middle knowledge, in which God chooses to actualize exactly the world that achieves his sovereign will out of all the possible worlds, and he saves exactly the people he chooses to save – but without violating their free will. Yes, it’s cosmic entrapment, but at least the cosmic entrapment does not violate the free will of the creatures, which would render then irresponsible for their own sins.

Disclaimer: I don’t think that this is an issue that should divide Christians, and I do think that Calvinists are most definitely Christians. And that they are very devout and intelligent Christians, too. I think they just have a presupposition of theological determinism that colors the way they read the Bible, resulting in an unBiblical anthropology. This often leads them to a Mormon epistemology (“the Bible is true because I feel that it’s true”) and magic words evangelism (“the correct way to evangelize is not to use evidence but to invite unbelievers to presuppose the truth of the Bible because it causes them to have all the feels”).

If you are looking for a good book on this issue, I recommend Kenneth Keathley’s “Salvation and Sovereignty“, which is a thorough discussion of the problem of divine sovereignty and human freedom.

24 thoughts on “Are evangelism and human responsibility for sin rational in Calvinism?”

  1. The more I examine the language of Calvinists, the more I think they choose Calvinism not because it’s fully Scriptural but because they dislike the alternative. They don’t like the idea of a universe where man and angels have free agency, because that frightens them and removes their sense of security. Man having causation is a sobering prospect, to be sure. But there’s way too much subjectivity in rejecting free will for that reason.

    1. Calvinist agree that man has a will or has the ability to make decisions, that’s not our beef. Reformed theology teaches that man’s will is in bondage to his sinful nature. Consequently an unregenerate man cannot do what is pleasing to God like repent and believe unless God first changes his disposition. Again, we agree that man has causation(secondary) and that’s why he is held responsible for his actions. So don’t reject free will on the account of your argument, our stand is simply that man’s will is in bondage to his own sinful nature. He can’t choose what “by nature” he abhors anymore than a lion would choose to eat plants over meat,it’s just not in the lion’s nature to do so. Hope this helps you bud.

        1. No, that is the reformed position on “free will”. Maybe you’ve had conversations with uninformed calvinist.

          1. The reformed position on free will, James, is that God decides who is saved unilaterally, and his decision cannot be resisted. This means, necessarily, a denial of free will where it matters: eternal life. Calvinism is double predestination, and there is no Calvinism which is not 100% double predestination. There is no free will not human responsibility in Calvinism, no morality at all in fact. Whereas as the Bible says that God is not willing that any should perish, man’s philosophy denies the Bible and says that God will most people to be damned. It’s his decision, nothing to do with us, on your view. reformed theology is just man’s philosophy of determinism overriding the plain meaning of Scripture which urges humans not resist God, as I explained in the original post.

          2. WK I’m sorry but your just wrong in regards to the reformed position on free will. Please read the very tiny 9th chapter in the Westminster confession of faith on our position of free will so you’ll have a thorough understanding of what your attempting to refute. You’ve confused it with election. Man in his fallen state and being dead in sin only chooses what’s desirable to him and what he desires in his fallen state can only be contrary to the things of God. Rom.8:6-8, 1Cor.2:14. I addressed double predestination in my last comment but briefly, and again my friend you don’t have a good grasp on the reformed position. Your distortion makes God out to be the author of sin but our position is this, God simply and sovereignly intervenes in the lives of sinners and monergistically regenerates them. To the reprobate He simply and sovereignly passes them by leaving them to themselves. God doesn’t work in them any new sin therefore making God himself unjust. Arminian theology which you espouse starts from the premise that man is basically good and that God should award him his just desserts but my position is that man’s just desserts are hell deserving. We as bible believing christians must let God be God. Your blinded by tradition as I was until I started to take scripture on its face value. Scripture’s starting point is that “none are righteous, no one seeks after God, all have turned aside and have become utterly worthless Rom.3:10-12. A consequence of being dead in sin. Please tell me how does God violate a dead man’s free will? Or do you mean that some want to choose God but he doesn’t allow them and that others don’t want God but he drags them into the kingdom kicking and screaming? God takes away our stoney hearts and replaces them with hearts of flesh so that our new desire is to want God’s good and holy will for our lives. We now long for God and this is what we mean when we say His grace is irresistible. Irresistible in the same sense as me doing all that my wife wants me to do because I so cherish and love her not because she coerces my will. I truly hope that this helps you to love God as you’ve never loved him before.

      1. Then people still go to hell because God wants them to, not due to their own ways. For if God can override the sinful nature of the elect, He could have done so for all.
        The reprobate have nothing at all to do with their end in calvinism.

  2. One fellow I think we both know and respect believes that allowing free will necessarily requires God ceding sovereignty. My response is that sovereignty means that God can also remove free will at any time should He so choose. Thus, with that ability intact, God is still ultimately sovereign whether He allows us free will or not.

    He also speaks of the elect in a manner that frightens me for my sin nature, which I must consciously work to overcome. I want to be good, but I continue to be bad. The lure of sin often overrides my desire to please God. I feel that I am called…that I am among the elect for my desire to be a child of God, but my struggles with temptation would suggest that I am not truly among God’s elect. I believe He calls each of us always regardless of how we respond to that call. He draws us all, though some of us resist due to our sin nature and its desire to please the self.

    All of the above assumes I’m understanding this fellow’s position properly, which is in no way guaranteed.

  3. One consequence of taking Calvinism’s rejection of free will to it’s logical end is that you end up making the Fall (and ALL it’s horrendous repercusssion, war, disease, natural disasters and death) God’s fault. Some of the motivation for this insistence on God’s TOTAL sovereignty is a desire to protect “God’s honour”… But then if a TOTALLY sovereign God decides to create man with free will, who will oppose this decision??

  4. Note to WK: I would strongly recommend you read Packer’s Evangelism and the Soevereignty of God. I love your site but lately you’ve been a gratuitous Calvin basher. Most of the arguments you raise are logic-based not scripture-based and Packer might help you come to grips with some of the logical arguments you seem to endorse.

    1. I shouldn’t be saying this in public, but I attended a Reformed Baptist church for the last decade on and off, and since I just moved a few months ago, I’ve been attending a PCA presbyterian church every week – service and Sunday school. It’s totally awesome! I love church now. I only ever read Reformed theologians like Sproul, Packer, Grudem, Keller, etc. I wouldn’t read theology from a non-Calvinist, because that would be weird.

      1. I’ve been reading your post for quite some time now and acknowledge that very bright,but when it comes to reformed theology your understanding is kind of skewed. And don’t be ashamed to admit that you’ve attended a r.b church and are attending a pca church, it’s where every thinking biblical Christian should be. And continue to read from reformed theologians seeing as how historically they’ve been the ones doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to doctrine etc… My prayer is that God in His sovereignty will open up your heart to the beauty of the doctrines of Grace.

        1. Being published and popular does not conclude that reformed teachers are the ones doing all the work regarding doctrine. There are many local pastors who reject it that teach doctrine quite well. Thank God The Holy Spirit guides us and can also teach the believer. I encourage people to give all of these theologians a break to be honest.

          I think thinking biblical Christians should reject the so called doctrines of grace, for I cannot see grace in it. Quite horrid as far as I can see. It is beautiful to you, because you are one of the “elect” , but for those whom God has “passed over”? Before they did anything good or bad, mind you. With that, they are not passed over due to sin, but just because God did not want to save them. All for His “glory”.

          Makes me cringe.

          1. Let me try to explain to you Paul what makes grace truly “amazing”. I believe it is the doctrine of election. For us who were totally depraved and dead in trespasses and sins (Eph.2:1), and without strength, Christ died for the “ungodly”(Room.5:6), and chose(elected)us in him before the foundation of the world (Eph.1:4). This is where you err my friend and are in good company with the apostle’s objectors over in Rom.9 where they say “is there Injustice on God’s part”. God’s answer to your question is “I’ll have mercy on whom I have mercy and compassion on whom I have compassion. You have issues with God being able to “FREELY” choose. When you say God passed over the non-elect before they did anything good or bad so their being passed was not due to their sin is to “not” realize how oxymoronic your statement was. The process of electing some while passing over others indubitably must call for God’s redemptive work and wherever God’s redemptive work is, SIN is there also. If there were no sin involved on anyone’s part, those individuals wouldn’t need to be elected or passed over because they wouldn’t have to be redeemed. Your misunderstanding of election turns God into an unjust monster. Keep this in mind that all of God’s actions towards us are from a redemptive viewpoint so from the foundations of the world we all are on equal footing and all deserve hell but God in his amazing Grace freely decides to intervene and save “some” of those hell deserving sinners and “not intervene” on behalf of the other half of the hell deserving sinners. Lastly I’ll say this, a governor has the power to pardon whomsoever he will on death row. Now if he intervenes and pardons (elect) 2 out of 50 death deserving inmates would we say that the gov is unjust because he could’ve let the other 48 murderers go free but he passed over them? No. That’s where you go wrong when you think that God owes us salvation and that the non elect have done no wrong. You Paul should get on your face and praise the Lord that he chose you in spite of your sin and rebellion against him, to Him be the glory Amen.

      2. Thomas Schreiner’s ECNT Commentary on the Book of Romans has an excellent insight on this matter. In specific, page 276, exegeting on Romans 5:12ff: https://books.google.com/books?id=Vsc9rz5pdY8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=schreiner+romans&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi67oj397bVAhVhlFQKHcc6DrkQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=page%20276&f=false
        (Schreiner is a Calvinist)
        “As a result of Adam’s sin death entered the world… all people enter the world alienated from God and spiritually dead by virtue of Adam’s sin. By virtue of entering the world in the state of death (i.e., separated from God), all humans sin.”
        So is every individual accountable for his or her own sin? Yes.
        And is sin inevitable because each person who was born after Adam not in the life of God and therefore incapable of sinning? Yes.
        Both statements are true.
        At the same time, God has provided a remedy. Whether one believes in effectual calling resulting in [Regeneration and Conversion, in either order] or Prevenient Grace (ala Wesleyan Arminianism), God has to intervene in some way, shape or form before people can actually come to Him.
        I could answer some of your points, point by point, but that would be very tedious.
        There’s a number of “Other Calvinists” worth reading, including John Calvin (especially Institutes and Commentaries), J. I. Packer, Douglas Moo, the older Calvinists like B. B. Warfield and so on. I know you’re already reading Millard Erickson and Wayne Grudem.

    2. Hank,

      Is logic not antecedent to Scripture? In other words, how could you possibly understand Scripture were it not that you first understood logic?

      I’m always baffled by Calvinists who reject logical argumentation in favor of “Scripture” while simultaneously ignoring that any argument for Calvinism (based in Scripture or not) relies on the antecedent reality of logic. To put it bluntly, Scripture trumps logical argument then there is no meaningful difference between “Calvinism” and “Not-Calvinism.”

      1. Oh I wasn’t going to respond but why not put my 2nd in…pardon the pun. I’ve never ever heard a calvinist reject logical argumentation in favor of scripture because as you rightly stated, logic must precede any form of a coherent argument. Setting our agreement aside I must now disagree with what I think is the crux of your post, that us calvinist pit logic against scripture or that somehow they’re at odds with one another. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In my heart I think you’d agree that calvinist are some of the most smartest christians who are well rounded, not with just theology but in other walks of life. And lastly it seems that you place a higher value on “being logical” over accepting scripture. I grant that the two should naturally go together and logic in and of itself has nothing to do with rivaling scripture, it’s bad philosophical arguments that rival scripture.

      2. Certainly we endorse logic and human understanding, but must we press our logic on the Almighty? God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are not mutually exclusive concepts.

        “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
        ‭‭Romans‬ ‭11:33‬ ‭ESV‬‬
        http://bible.com/59/rom.11.33.esv

  5. I don’t know of many people that are full five point Calvinist. I am sure there are some but in many cases there are those that have a slight variation in how they define it, or they are more of a three pint Calvinist

    1. God foresaw the free will decisions of those in all circumstances and he chose to have certain ones born as Joseph’s brothers, where they would freely choose to be awful to Joseph. Like he places people in the right time and place where they will freely respond to him in Acts 17:27. He’s the cosmic entrapper, he plans everything, gets everyone he plans to get, and all while letting them make their free choices. It’s not much different from Calvinism but the difference matters because each person is responsible. I also believe in God creating people he knows will not respond to him in any time or place – the “vessels of wrath”. And he’s totally fine to do that in order to get what he wants.

  6. But they are both responsible for the same event, correct? You can see how that’s possible? And honestly, if you think God plans everything, and that everything He plans comes to pass (i.e., that He’s not constrained by human choice, but He creates things to make the choices He desires), then I don’t see how you can object to Calvinism. Calvinism doesn’t deny that people make choices, nor does it deny their responsibility. (As I noted, when God intended for Joseph to go to Egypt through slavery, the brothers were still responsible, even though it was God’s plan that He brought about. The same is true for the cross.) People choose what they want to choose according to both Calvinism and your view. On your own view, God plans for people to choose what He wants them to choose. And they do.

  7. Hey, awesome article, I agree with you but just wanted to let you Know it’s Kenneth Keathley not Heathley. It’s an honest mistake. :)

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