Tag Archives: Grace

Tim Keller explains basic Christian doctrines to Nick Kristof in the New York Times

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

My friend Neil Shenvi posted this New York Times on Facebook, and I had to blog about it. Although I am more conservative than Tim Keller on many issues (economics, race issues, intelligent design), he does a pretty good job of explaining and defending basic Christian doctrines to Nicholas Kristof. Kristof one the secular leftist columnists who writes for the New York Times, which is one the most secular and most leftist media sources.

The format of the article is question and answer, and I’ll choose a few that I really liked. (The questions were all good, by the way)

Excerpt:

But let me push back. As you know better than I, the Scriptures themselves indicate that the Resurrection wasn’t so clear cut. Mary Magdalene didn’t initially recognize the risen Jesus, nor did some disciples, and the gospels are fuzzy about Jesus’ literal presence — especially Mark, the first gospel to be written. So if you take these passages as meaning that Jesus literally rose from the dead, why the fuzziness?

I wouldn’t characterize the New Testament descriptions of the risen Jesus as fuzzy. They are very concrete in their details. Yes, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first, but then she does. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) also don’t recognize Jesus at first. Their experience was analogous to meeting someone you last saw as a child 20 years ago. Many historians have argued that this has the ring of eyewitness authenticity. If you were making up a story about the Resurrection, would you have imagined that Jesus was altered enough to not be identified immediately but not so much that he couldn’t be recognized after a few moments? As for Mark’s gospel, yes, it ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us.

Skeptics should consider another surprising aspect of these accounts. Mary Magdalene is named as the first eyewitness of the risen Christ, and other women are mentioned as the earliest eyewitnesses in the other gospels, too. This was a time in which the testimony of women was not admissible evidence in courts because of their low social status. The early pagan critics of Christianity latched on to this and dismissed the Resurrection as the word of “hysterical females.” If the gospel writers were inventing these narratives, they would never have put women in them. So they didn’t invent them.

The Christian Church is pretty much inexplicable if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection. N.T. Wright has argued in “The Resurrection of the Son of God” that it is difficult to come up with any historically plausible alternate explanation for the birth of the Christian movement. It is hard to account for thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshiping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical. The best explanation for the change was that many hundreds of them had actually seen Jesus with their own eyes.

The part in bold is what distinguishes a person who has studied apologetics from the average Jesus-hollering Bible thumper who cannot speak except in Bible verses. We have too few people who can argue historical analysis (e.g. – the criterion of embarassment) and quote authorities on the historical Jesus (e.g. – N.T. Wright). I really think that we need to start shaming people who argue for Christianity by quoting the Bible, as if non-Christians accept the Bible without any kind of historical analysis.

Here’s another:

What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell?

The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:

You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.

Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”

I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.

There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.

As you can see from the article, Christians can and should prepare themselves to answer these basic questions, because there are a lot of people on the secular left who can’t find anyone who can answer them. We lose a lot of young people because we focus too much on feeling good and being liked, not enough on giving other people’s questions the respect they deserve. Keller quotes historians like Wright and philosophers like Plantinga. He defends the Bible verses he cites using the criteria of embarrassment. He defends the existence of God by appealing the creation (Big Bang cosmology) and design of the universe (cosmic fine-tuning). If questioned, I know from his writings that Keller is able to put scientific meat on his assertions. It is very important that Christians understand that Christianity is a religion that from the beginning was started by a man who appealed to evidence (miracles) to ground his claims.

As you can see from Keller’s responses, there is a lot more to defending the faith than simply quoting the Bible as if non-Christians all believed it. Some pastors do that – citing the Bible as if just saying the words will have a magical effect on people’s views. I call this the “magic words” approach to apologetics, and it’s not Biblical. The right way to defend the faith is to put more effort into it – crafting responses that are persuasive and effective with your intended audience.

Reformation Day celebrates the supremacy of Scripture and reason in theology

Martin Luther defies the Roman Catholic hierarchy with his 95 Theses
Martin Luther defies the Roman Catholic hierarchy with his 95 Theses

The Ligonier Ministries web site has a summary of the event that kicked off the Reformation.

Excerpt:

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther tacked up 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg. With this act, he hoped to provoke a discussion among the scholars about the abuses of the indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. He was not trying to create a public furor by any means, but within a fortnight, these theses had spread through the country like wildfire. The last thing Luther had in mind was to start some kind of major controversy, but nevertheless major controversy did begin.

From the discussions at Wittenberg, the disputations began to accelerate and escalate. Copies of the theses reached Rome and critical meetings were scheduled with the young monk. In these debates, Luther was maneuvered into proclaiming publicly that he had questions about the infallibility of church councils and also that he thought that it was possible that the pope could err. In 1520 a papal encyclical was issued which condemned Martin Luther as a heretic. Luther burned the document in a public bonfire and his defiance before the church was now a matter of record.

In response, Martin Luther picked up his pen to challenge the entire penitential system of the Roman Catholic Church, which undermined in principle the free remission of sins that is ours in the gospel. By doing so, he was unswervingly advocating his commitment to sola fide, the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

In 1521, Luther was summoned to the Imperial Diet, an authoritative meeting that involved the princes of the church, called by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to be held in the city of Worms in Germany. Luther was an outlaw. For him to appear at the Diet was to risk his very life; therefore, he was given safe conduct by the Emperor to attend. With a few friends, Luther traveled from Wittenberg to Worms. The eyewitnesses of that episode tell us that when Luther’s little covered wagon appeared around the corner of the bend, there were lookouts posted in the church tower at Worms. All the people were agog waiting for the arrival of this notorious person. When Luther’s caravan was sighted, people were throwing their hats in the air, blowing trumpets, and creating all the fanfare of the arrival of the hero. It was the 16th century answer to a ticker-tape parade.

Things, however, became very solemn in a hurry because the next day he appeared before the Diet. His books were stacked on a table in the room, and he was asked and ordered to recant of his writings. This surprised Luther because he thought he was going to have an opportunity to defend his writings; but the only question really of any importance that was asked of him was this: “Are these your writings?” And when he said yes, they said, “Are you ready to recant of them?”

Hollywood has their version of Luther standing there boldly with his fist in the air saying, “Here I stand!” and so on. But instead he dropped his chin on his chest and muttered something that nobody could understand, so they asked him to speak up. “What did you say?” He said, “May I have 24 hours to think about it.” And so Luther was granted a reprieve of 24 hours to return to his room to contemplate the seriousness of this occasion.

The prayer that Luther wrote in that ensuing 24-hour period was one of the most moving prayers I have ever read in my life. In that prayer, Luther cried out for God in his sense of total loneliness fearing that God had abandoned him, and proclaimed, “O Lord, I am Thine, and the cause is Thine, give me the courage to stand.”

And on the morrow, Luther was called once again back to the court and was told to reply to the question. He said to the Diet, “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I cannot recant, for my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” And with that there was an instant uproar.

The Protestant Reformation emphasizes the responsibility of each person to become familiar with what the Bible teaches for themselves and to make sense of it using the laws of logic for themselves. There is an enormous focus on the individual’s responsibility to puzzle theology out for himself, using the tools available to him: reason, science, Scripture, and history. When doing theology, Protestants do not accept the authority of someone who has a fancy title, fancy hat, fancy robe or fancy staff. Everyone is responsible to read the Bible, read systematic theology, consult history, and determine what the truth is based on evidence, not authority.

The Reformation put forward the famous five Solas: “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone); “Sola Gratia” (Grace Alone); “Sola Fide” (Faith Alone); “Solus Christus” (Christ Alone); and “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Alone Be Glory). The vertical relationship with God is seen as more important than making people feel good here and now. True beliefs about God are deemed to be more important than being a good social worker. And that’s why Jesus said that the most important commandment is to love God, then secondly, to love your neighbor. It’s important to get that in the right order, because true beliefs about God’s existence, God’s character, and God’s actions in history are the most important things.

The Reformation was the beginning of evangelical Protestantism, which is really the view that the Christian religion ought to be rooted in actual historical events that are documented in the Bible.

Is Christianity intended to provide you with health, wealth and happiness?

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

I don’t have any friends who believe that Christianity is supposed to give them health, wealth and happiness. I mentor one girl from Africa, and she is always telling me that it is only Western Christians who think that suffering and evil is unexpected for Christians. Anyway, Lindsay shared this post about the so-called “prosperity gospel”, and so I am linking to it and excerpting something for me to comment on.

Here’s the post on the Gospel Coalition.

It says:

I am a pastor in a small village about 500 kilometers west of Nairobi—in Kenya’s sugar belt region. For the better part of my adult life, I was a Pentecostal/charismatic/Word of Faith preacher. But the day came when my faith made no sense at all.

I first heard the gospel as a young man, though the message contained false advertising about a Jesus who would meet all my needs and fulfill all my dreams. Remaining unsaved would lead to a life of misery, sickness, and poverty, I was told. It appeared logical, then, to embrace Christ and step into a world of limitless blessing.

I wanted all God had for me, and I zealously rose to become a herald of the message I had received—which I later learned is Word of Faith teaching some call the “prosperity gospel.” I knew of no other gospel. I believed God was good, and this meant nothing uncomfortable came from him.

I learned to deal with Satan for causing anything negative in my life. Spiritual warfare was ingrained in me. As part of the “God class,” as Word of Faith teachers say, I had absolute authority to create my own world through positive thinking and faith-based confessions.

I believed God’s will included health and wealth, which I could call into existence by faith. Anything less should be repudiated. If all else failed, I could engage the heavenly language of angels—praying in tongues—to bypass Satan and the hosts of darkness.

Do you believe any of that?

Well, the pastor goes on to explain all the terrible things that happened to him – and these are the most difficult experiences that can happen to anyone. How did he respond to God allowing all these bad things happening to him?

Well, pretty badly at first:

Without answers, we were dismayed with God, whose ways no longer made sense to us. Though faith became a mirage, we kept up appearances, trying to pretend we didn’t despair. Yet inwardly we felt doubtful, hopeless, even cursed.

How could we reconcile these bad things with a good God? Our Word of Faith teaching instructed us to dismiss Job’s suffering as a consequence of his negative confession: “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away” (Job 1:21). But how could we make sense of Paul himself falling sick (Gal. 4:13) and yet rejoicing in his afflictions (2 Cor. 12:10)? How could we continue to reconcile this portrait with modern “super-apostles” who market health and wealth in their books, DVDs, and mega-meetings?

In my faith crisis and anger at God, I vowed to quit the ministry. I felt like a fraud for preaching a “gospel” that did not work. God had become an enigma, and faith a labyrinth. Yet the passage of time and the routine activities of Churchianity soothed our restless minds—for a while.

But then this happened:

My friend asked me to translate in Swahili as Billy delivered a message in English. The topic, “justification by faith alone through the imputed righteousness of Christ,” sounded ridiculous to me. Onstage for one awkward hour, I forced myself to deliver words I believed were unbiblical and heretical. But the sovereign Lord worked in my heart, calling forth reason through an inner witness to the truths proclaimed. The Holy Spirit planted sufficient doubt about the system I’d defended.

Over the next three weeks I felt tortured by God for my errors, which became apparent with every Bible text I once thought supported my beliefs. The same verses now looked different, affirming Billy’s message.

[…]Though I didn’t understand the fine points of theology, my conversion was decisive. Enthralled by Christ, who bids his own to “take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), I now felt that “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

I guess I should say the obvious – I have no idea how you would get the idea that you can coerce God into giving you health, wealth and prosperity. This is such an immature view of God. Anyone who has ever been involved in any kind of serious enterprise knows that the best people are the ones who stick to the mission through thick and thin, and just keep on fighting through the hunger, suffering, sickness and other setbacks. And that’s everywhere in the Bible. For goodness sake: Jesus was obedient to God to the point of suffering torture and giving his life as a sacrifice to save others from their rebellion against God. How do you get health, wealth and happiness from that?

But more than that, this makes me think of when I was young and first exposed to the Christian message. Far from being something that pushed me away from Christianity, the Bible’s message of suffering with honor, and doing the moral thing regardless of happy outcomes, really resonated with me. It is very real world. In this world, it is rare that doing the right thing works out for you. In fact, there should be some area of your life where you are missing something that you really want and need. Consider that a joy, because when you are poor and hungry sad and meek, that’s when you are most like the people in the Bible who had to experience these things while remaining faithful and obedient. For me, not being married and not being a father is my empty hole that will never be filled. I get asked about it a lot by my co-workers, and they know I am not happy about it, but they also know I am still faithful even if my needs are not met.

These are my two favorite passages in the Bible:

1 Corinthians 4:2:

1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.

3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.

4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.

Matthew 5:13:

10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.

12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden;

15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.

The Bible doesn’t shy away from suffering and evil. That’s part of the normal Christian life. And how you respond to lack and suffering and evil is a powerful signal to the watching world about what Christianity is all about. It’s not about feelings. It’s not about community. It’s not about impressing people with how much you know, or how accomplished you are, or how much stuff you have. It’s about putting truth above all, and learning obedience to God in Christ, no matter what happens to you.

From a practical point of view, I do recommend making good decisions so that you don’t experience unnecessary suffering, though. Be wise, but resolute. If you are careful to make yourself defensible to unexpected setbacks, not only will you be able to endure them, but you will be strong to help others endure them, too. The goal is to not let go of God because unmet desires and dashed expectations.

Are evangelism and human responsibility for sin rational in Calvinism?

Bible study that hits the spot
Theology 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 he shook the can.
  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.

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.

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

Are evangelism and human responsibility for sin rational in Calvinism?

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 he shook the can.
  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.

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.

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