A painting of John Calvin holding a book

The Confusion of Calvinism

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I’m subscribed to the Desiring God mailing list and I often read John Piper answering questions about Christian doctrine from curious believers. While I don’t think that peddling the term ‘Christian Hedonism’ is necessarily helpful, I appreciate Piper’s lengthy ministry, his biblical knowledge, and the insights he gives on theological subjects.

This week I read an interesting post on Piper’s website entitled Does God Control All Things All The Time? Aha! I thought. This is right up my street. I was genuinely interested to read what Piper had to say about this question which cuts into the heart of Christian theology.

As I read through the article I found myself in almost total agreement. I do agree with a lot of what Calvinists like Piper have to say about God’s sovereignty. But just as Piper was concluding, he made a statement that I think highlights why I could not ultimately describe myself as a Calvinist:

God’s sovereignty does not diminish our accountability.

Alarm bells immediately started ringing in my mind and my heart sank as I read these words, which represent a confusion that is at the heart of Calvinist thinking. Earlier in the article, Piper had made another statement along the same lines:

Even in situations where God is permitting, He is permitting by design.

Are you able to see the contradiction that exists in both of these quoted statements? You see, Calvinists want to strongly state God’s sovereignty and insist that salvation is solely a work of God. But the trouble is, we only need to be ‘saved’ because of rebellion against God, and this rebellion implies freedom of the human will.

Without God’s sovereignty, Calvinism doesn’t make sense, but with God’s sovereignty, Christianity doesn’t make sense.

It’s simple. If we are free to sin, then God is not in control of our lives, and so we cannot call Him sovereign. If we are not free to sin, and our lives are under God’s control, then the need for salvation, and therefore the whole Christian gospel, evaporates.

Calvinists would have to deny what I affirm, which is that we are merely puppets in the hands of God. I believe all of creation is part of God – He is omnipresent – and this is what true sovereignty means. We have to be able to affirm this truth about God and then deal with the implications for our theology, which are far-reaching, and which I have discussed at length in my paper entitled An Almighty Predicament: A Discourse on the Arguments For and Against Christianity.

What’s your understanding of the divine sovereignty / free will predicament? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.

32 comments

    1. Starting with sin is, I think, the wrong place to begin a discussion on relating to God. We need to think what it is that will enable us to love, obey, and worship God. The ability to have God with us and in us and for us is what we are obligated to acquire if we are going to have eternal life. We cannot totally end our affliction by sin in this life but it can be reduced by the work of the Holy Spirit in us so we can rejoice in what God has done in us through his Son, Jesus Christ, which in the end is all that matters.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I have had many conversations and debates with a good friend of mine on this topic and after all of that we are far from settling it. The bible seems to present to us these two pictures without resolving it philosophically – God is sovereign and humans are free. What does it mean for God to be sovereign?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Its actually quite simple if we just look at the written text.

    We are all naturally born sinners with the will to sin but are given the chance to have it changed by choosing to accept Christ as our Savior, Repent of our sin (actually feel guilty and remorse and obey the words of Jesus), Be baptized for the washing of our sin then receiving the manifestation and sanctification (reborn) of the Holy Spirit that Convicts us, Guides us and leads us into all truth and ultimately Gods eternal kingdom (AFTER the tribulation and the first death of the flesh). And therefore no longer able to sin, and this is why we have the debate, because we cannot fathom the reality of an actual spiritual change in our hearts and minds aka free will, because we don’t acknowledge the spirit within.

    Free will is a reality in the flesh, but an illusion in the spirit because it is the will of our spirit that guides us. While in the flesh we have a choice, but in the spirit we ARE PRE- Destined. I know, it blows the carnal mind to pieces.

    1John 3:4-9
    4 Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
    5 And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.
    6 Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.
    7 Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.
    8 He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.
    9 Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

    1John 5:18-21
    18 We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.
    19 And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.
    20 And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.
    21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Steven,
    As you, I read John Piper’s ( Desiring God). Free will and no free will, I suppose will always be a mystery. This would be a good question to send to John Piper for a answer, but what’s the chances of getting it answered out of the millions of people that follow him?. I follow him on Facebook also and it’s astounding the likes he receives. I also wrestle with the same thoughts. It always brings theses verses into mind.
    Romans 7:19 “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

    Romans 7:20 “Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

    Romans 7:21 “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.”

    Is this free will or not free will?

    Greas article!
    Cathey Lynn

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Does it matter which soteriological model a person might accept? Does God conduct an examination asking questions on the precise accuracy of a person’s doctrine? Is the division described at Matthew 25:31-46 based on soteriological models? Or is the division based upon outcomes?
    Because Paul provided no soteriological explanation, Christianity’s 2000 year history has seen a succession of models. Augustine’s soteriology had dominated for 1000 years before Anselm created his model, only to be refuted by people such as Abelard and others.
    The judicial penal substitution model held by some is by no means the only current model. For example, it is strongly argued against by the Eastern (Orthodox) Church.
    Again I ask: Does God condemn those who do not agree with a certain soteriological model?
    Doug

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  5. Good post Steven and one I have thought about today. This is my conclusion. I think that because we do have “free will” is indeed what makes God a sovereign God. I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but this is what I mean.

    He set it up that He is indeed the all powerful God. In doing so He said, “I am not going to be a dictator. My children are going to have the right to choose to sin or not to sin.” Even though He did this in no form or fashion did He ever lose His sovereignty.

    I say this because at the “end” we are all going to have to answer to Him. Even so that does not take away our “free will.”

    So when I look at His entire plan of slavation for mankind, that is what indeed makes God, God. To me He is saying, “You are a sinner. I have laid out this plan before you which is a path you can follow or not follow. If you follow it you will answer to Me. If you do not follow it you will answer to Me.” Either way we choose to go with our free will, it is all going to end up, with Him. So He does not control the strings of the “puppet” (us) controlling our thoughts, words, actions, or decisions.

    But…He created the “puppet” (us) and as our Creator will decide how it is all going to end up, with us. That is to me what makes Him, sovereign.

    God Bless, SR

    Liked by 1 person

  6. We have the freedom to choose God or not (ie. Jesus as our Savior and accept the work he did on the cross, and our saving grace through him). If God is the Alpha and the Omega, he must have knowledge of what will happen all through our linear time, but he knows the end, and He is the end, the beginning and is in His own time-space, which we do not understand. We can choose to be obedient, or not. If we are saved, he still may work with us so we do not choose to lie, cheat, steal, etc., but it is our choice if we do those things. We are not “puppets”, we have free will to choose our actions and whether we believe or not. I think He chooses who he reaches out to, and Jesus was given the people who will follow Him. In some way I believe God knows who is ultimately saved through Grace. I hope all this makes sense but it may not answer your points you are making.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A common thread is the belief that we are all sinners and that somehow our goodness at the time of creation has been corrupted. The view of the Eastern Orthodox Church is that the integrity of human nature remains intact despite our transgressions, otherwise, God did not provide us with a robust goodness. God’s will is within us; our Nomic will come to the fore because of our doubts, fear of our mortality and corrupt conditioning from our early life experiences.

    For those who believe the creation story in Genesis, there are many questions to answer:

    1) why is there no explanation for God to place the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden?

    2) how was it possible for Adam and Eve to hide from God if He is Omnipresent?

    3) why does the Genesis account suggest that God was ignorant of what had happened if He is Omniscient?

    4) if God is good and Omnipotent, why didn’t He forgive Adam and Eve reset back to their previous condition?

    5) why did God allow Satan into the garden to tempt Eve knowing that she would yield to his persuasion?

    Eventually, we are led to believe that God would make everything right again by causing the Great Flood destroying everyone except the Noah and his wife (Naamah), his three sons, Shem, Ham, Japheth and their wives. Another chance for a reset but it went wrong because of Ham’s sin against his father who was drunk from the wine of his vineyard. Various sources differ about the nature of the sin from the literal seeing his father naked and telling his brothers, to committing sodomy on him or having sex with his father’s wife. What happened next is given in Genesis 9:25 KJV, “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” We have to wonder why Noah cursed Canaan (Ham’s son) and not Ham and it may lend credence to the view that Ham had sex with his mother and that she became pregnant with a son, Canaan? Hence sin came back to mankind starting with the Canaanites.

    Leviticus 18:8 King James Version (KJV)
    8 The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness.

    https://realityisnotoptional.com/2011/05/29/was-canaan-the-child-of-ham-and-noah%E2%80%99s-wife/

    Is God making frequent mistakes, are His attributes in question or are the scriptures not entirely reliable?

    I will leave those readers who are brave enough to ponder these questions to do so.

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Hi Steven. This is well written and thought out. However … regarding a statement you made: “Without God’s sovereignty, Calvinism doesn’t make sense, but with God’s sovereignty, Christianity doesn’t make sense.” As I noticed from your other writings, you have a desire to want things all wrapped up in black-and-white fashion. I sure do! However, when it comes to God, things just aren’t that way.

    The main issue is that God is infinite and all-knowing, and we are finite and limited in our knowledge. For instance, I totally believe in the doctrine of Election, which the Bible clearly teaches. It states, basically, based on Ephesians 1:4-5; 11; 2:8-9 and numerous other places, that God chose us to be His (to be saved) BEFORE He created the world. This indicates that those elected WILL be saved, and those not elected WON’T be saved. Yet, we are told that accepting Christ as Savior or rejecting Him is also a matter of choice and self-will.

    How can this be? To the finite mind, it certainly doesn’t make sense, but to God’s infinite mind, it makes perfect sense. When we enter the eternal state, we will certainly have more understanding.(You can read more on this in my blog, “A Practical View of Biblical Election”: http://wp.me/pUwhF-jx )

    So, too, does this apply to your understandable confusion over Calvinism (which I share with you). It’s a matter of our “finite limitations.” Some things must be accepted by faith even without fully understanding.

    Anyway, I appreciate your searching heart and fine writing skills.

    Take care, my friend!

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    1. Hi David!

      Many thanks for your comment and for engaging with me on these issues, I appreciate it.

      It seems to me that you are happy to hold certain convictions about reality and theology yourself, so it is somewhat inconsistent to criticise me for trying to understand things about God. How do you deal with the reality that committed, thoughtful, Bible-studying Christians disagree profoundly on theological issues?

      I’m sure that you have many beliefs about a number of things that aren’t specifically addressed in the Bible – how did you reach a conclusion on those matters? An example would be (off the top of my head) whether exercise is good for you. Another example might be whether to marry a certain person. It seems that we are always making decisions; doesn’t this suggest a certain capacity for rational thinking and reasoning?

      I do appreciate your point that perhaps there are things that need to be accepted by faith. And I recognise that the Christian needs to do that. It comes back to the heart of what I was saying in my essay (An Almighty Predicament), that there are certain things that seem illogical to me about Christian doctrine, and it is very difficult to just ‘accept’ everything when certain things seem illogical and inconsistent.

      Blessings, friend!

      Steven

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Steve, appreciate the comments. Actually, I do agree with your points. One thing that struck me regarding what you wrote is the way all people are “hardwired” differently. For instance, I am black-and-white and pragmatic, making quick decisions rather than thinking them through at too great a length. Positively, this is good professionally as it helps me get a slew of stuff done. On the other hand, it could lead me to some hasty decisions.

        You, quite the opposite of me, are definitely more thoughtful, pondering, and considerate. You are more likely to take your time and weigh things, which is how more people should be. Most of my acquaintances have your qualities, which definitely helps balance out my more abrupt side.

        Another thing I considered in my comments and yours, is that when I say something, I should consider at what stage of life we’re at. I turn 60 in December, a father and grandfather, and have known the Lord for 31 years. Of course I view life, and issues regarding faith, differently than a much younger man or women.

        Of interest, though, is that we both came to know the Lord following family tragedy. You lost your mom; I lost both my mom (age 53), and one year to the day later, my dad (age 57). I was 28 and 29 at the time.

        Anyway, I’ll let you get back to getting your musical career off the ground!!!

        Have a great day and talk to you soon, my friend.

        In Christ,
        David E.

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        1. Hi David,

          Bless you, I’m grateful for your warm and understanding comment. So sorry to hear you lost both of your parents at such a young age (I did read your testimony on your blog but couldn’t recall this). Wow, I can appreciate a little of how hard that must have been.

          I appreciate you have been on this planet a lot longer than me, and I respect that. But remember Jesus was only around 34 when He died, so wisdom isn’t always to be equated with age! 😃

          I haven’t even got around to focusing on music today, have been too busy with emails! It’s around 3pm and the day is flying by. I love it though. Aren’t we blessed to be able to blog, and be in touch with people all around the world?

          God bless you David, thanks again – I appreciate you!

          Steven

          Liked by 1 person

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