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All Christians Are Closet Calvinists

I enjoyed this from Thabiti Anyabwile. It reminded me of this. And this.

So deep down, Don is a Calvinist, albeit one in denial. I love it.


25 Responses

  1. I find it very interesting people claim it is by man’s will that man needs to trust Christ for their salvation because God gave man “free will” to choose or reject Christ. However, when these people pray, they ask something like this, “Lord, if it is Your Will, we pray for ‘so-and-so’ to be saved”! Hmmm!

  2. Like all discussions on this subject, it reduces the doctrine to caricature, and congratulates itself that it carries the day.

    And no, Doug, I don’t pray “if it be your will, save so and so.” It is God’s will. God is not willing that any should perish.

    I am on the road, but will try to come back and give a bit of thought to this when I get some time.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Don’t feel like you need to defend yourself, Don. I’m just goofing off. Pretty much. :)

  4. Announcement: Click here to see a video of Don Johnson reading My Two Cents.

  5. “Calvinism has an appeal because it tends to have an answer for everything -– you can explain everything [by saying] that God predestined it.”

    Drace told the group he currently is working with some young pastors who are “so leaning in this morphed Calvinism that they almost laugh at evangelism. It’s almost to the extent that they believe they don’t have to do it. So [Calvinism] gives them an excuse not to do evangelism.”

    This is from an excerpt from a article I found linked to SI. This is the part of Calvinism I don’t understand. I don’t get how every single act of life, from the color of socks you “chose” in the morning, to the donut you thought you “chose” on the way to work, to things in life that have meaning, can all be attributed as fatalistic and that man has no control in anything he does. I don’t understand what “Chose you this day whom you will serve” means. I don’t know why that phrase is there if we have no choice in the matter.

    This is all so confusing!

  6. J. Jones,

    I don’t have time today for a long dialog, but the angst of your response concerns me. I apologize if I’ve contributed to your confusion. I actually use “the C word” very rarely (outside of incendiary posts like this intended to provoke thought among most and ulcers for my friend Don). Let me speak for just a minute as a pastor. A few thoughts…

    1. Sort through the issue of God’s sovereign grace not as one studying a system of theology, but as a student of the Scriptures. Read passages like Ephesians 1-2 without the bias of a controversy, but seeking the clear meaning of Scripture.

    2. The gist of the profitable discussion on this point is this: we are saved because of the goodness of God, not because of our own wisdom. Indeed, Scripture teaches that apart from God’s gracious work in our our hearts, we are unwilling and unable to seek God (Romans 3:10).

    I think the last illustration in Thabiti’s post is very helpful on that point.

    3. Certainly the people of Israel were accountable to God for faith and obedience, as you note from Joshua 24:15. So are all people of all time. However, if you want to use the analogy of Israel for God’s saving work today (as Romans 9-11 encourages), you need to consider the entirety of the OT. Start with the rest of Joshua 24, for example. We are told repeatedly that God chose Israel in spite of herself; that there was nothing to commend her to Him; that He made a sovereign choice of her from the pagan nations because it pleased and glorified Him to do so. Lest I be accused of proof-texting, I’ll allow you to search it out on your own. But Scripture is clear that God chose Israel for no good reason other than to display His grace and glory.

    4. The biblical teaching that God has saved us as a work entirely of His grace is never intended in the Scriptures to be the source of controversy or anxiety. Quite the opposite is true: it is the source of great comfort (as in Romans 8, for example). It is motivation for obedience and humility and worship. It is intended to comfort, not confuse.

    5. Per the two specific concerns you mentioned, I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers. Indeed, resting in the sovereignty of God should be a humble response to God’s working, not an arrogant attempt to dissect or perfectly explain it.

    And as for the idea that there are Calvinists that are un-evangelistic, I suppose that will always be a challenge. Sinful men abuse biblical doctrine. Thus, a message like this one by Dr. Michael Barrett urging Calvinists to be evangelistic is very helpful. (As an aside, I’d also suggest that the examples of extreme Arminians are even more damaging than the examples of extreme Calvinists, if we want to argue against a system based on the actions of a select few of its adherents. Neither argument is really wise or fair, I think.)

    That said, most reformed men I’ve met in recent years are missionaries and church planters. They have a great burden to see God’s glory displayed through the salvation of the lost, and a great sense of obligation to obey Christ’s Great Commission. (Consider, for example, the Gospel message made available here.) Take, for example, the ministry of DBTS. They are unabashedly reformed in their understanding of salvation. Yet, they are thrusting missionaries and church planters out year after year, they host a fantastic missions conference for college students (Student Global Impact), etc. Their understanding of God’s sovereignty doesn’t make them rest; it animates them for evangelism!

    Beyond that, the teacher most often maligned for his Calvinism (and he wears it on his sleeve) is John Piper. Yet, I’m not aware of a teacher that is more passionate—both in the pulpit and in print—about the necessity of missions than John Piper. So the idea that Calvinists aren’t evangelistic really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    I know that this isn’t an adequate answer for a discussion that has endured for centuries and has been written about in thousands and even millions of pages. However, I at least want to try to point you in what I think is a helpful direction.

  7. Thanks, Chris. I really appreciate your input and helping to sort this all out. And like you mentioned, there’s only been millions of pages down through the ages written about this (and what, 500 years?), so I doubt if we’re going to figure it all out on this message board, blog, or whatever it’s called.

    After your gracious response I almost feel guilty bringing up another “but”, but I’ll go ahead and comment anyway. I think you made a great response, btw. You mentioned Israel as God’s chosen people. But didn’t God still punish Israel when they rebelled? In other words, doesn’t that imply that they had a choice to rebel or obey because they were not robots? The other thing about the C word that I struggle with is that EVERYTHING is of God. I believe more so that God can turn bad into good and work all things together for good. But are all bad things totally God’s doing? I’m not trying to purposefully bring up a ridiculous point here, but what about when a child gets raped and stabbed? Yes, our glorious Lord can use these situations for good! But did God actually preordain that to happen in the first place. I guess my belief is that God can turn a bad situation good instead of necessarily causing the bad situation in the first place.

  8. Back of all that foes have plotted,
    Back of all that Saints have planned,
    Back of schemes by men or demons
    Moves a Higher, Hidden Hand.

    Mysteries which hurt and baffle,
    Past our power to understand
    In the end are turned to blessing
    By the Sovereign Hidden Hand.

    Arthur Pierson

  9. Glad to help if I can, J. Jones. And again, I’m not so foolish as to think my little answer is satisfactory at all. I’m kind of doing theology on the fly here.

    I certainly wouldn’t say people are robots. We are (as Israel was) accountable of our decisions. But that is not the same as saying that we are “free” (which is another way of saying we are sovereign). Were God to leave us alone to act according to a genuinely “free will” so that we could do whatever we desire, the Bible is clear that no one would be saved. Our “free will” choice is never in favor of God (Rom. 3:10-18; Is. 53:6; etc.), but is instead rebellion against God. Frankly, when the Bible describes someone being free to do as He pleases without intervention, it makes it clear that that person is hopeless, for that’s what reprobation is—freedom from God’s intervention (Rom. 1:28; Tit. 1:16). All that to say, we don’t want to argue for a free will—it’s not biblical, and it’s not in our best interest. We need God’s intervention to save us from our own sinful free will. Indeed, it is our only hope.

    As for your question about the relationship of God to evil, it’s admittedly difficult. However, the Bible describes a God who is in control of everything (Psalm 135:5-6, et al)—who even has Satan on a short leash. Consider the record of Job, or the fact that only what God allows to happen can happen. He could stop rapes or assaults. He could have stopped Satan’s rebellion or Adam’s fall, but He didn’t. He doesn’t just respond to evil; He actually (in some sense) allows/orders it (consider Romans 9:17; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).

    Again, it’s complicated, and I’m not the best person to address it, but nothing happens that God hasn’t ordained to happen. Nothing. He is never passive; never even merely responsive. I thought for a time that to say that evil happens merely by the will of man or Satan would be encouraging. Indeed, it is not. But that doesn’t just get God off the hook (which is a pretty arrogant thing to try to do, or have the ability to do); it makes Him less than God. And, in fact, it’s not good news at all. Far better to be in the hand of a sovereign and good God (as Scripture teaches) than to be at the mercy of circumstances and sinners.

    FWIW, you might find this post helpful.

  10. Chris, thanks for your wonderful scholarship reflected in such a great response. You are very good even when you answer “…on the fly…” Great stuff.

    BTW, here I thought all christians were closet lutherans. Go figure. :)

  11. Chris, I just met Don today *in person*! He assures me that he’s not a Calvinist. :-)

  12. “Denial.”

  13. Na … That’s a river in Egypt!

    BTW, Don is a super nice man.

  14. Good answers, Chris. I probably would pretty much agree. Btw, I don’t want to beat this thing to death because I’m not sure it’s going to get anywhere, but I do think this is a good conversation. I think right here you’re sort of being a little confusing: “He doesn’t just respond to evil; He actually (in some sense) allows/orders it (consider Romans 9:17; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).” You put allows and orders together as if they basically mean the same thing in essence. But in my mind, those two little words make a world of difference. They are polar opposites, not similar at all. I believe God is still God and may ALLOW evil, but I’m not convinced yet he ordains it.

    Can I relay something from my personal life that I’ve never told anyone before? Sometimes in life I’ve had a “bad day” because someone was unkind to me, I got a traffic ticket and the cop was extremely rude and demeaning, or any other myriad of situations you can think of. There have been times when I’ve felt that God was chastening me and sanctifying some areas of my life through some of these situations. In other words, I deserved what I got. BUT, perhaps that other person was still being unduly unkind and cruel and was still sinning. Even though they were being used of God that day to chasten me and ultimately bring about good, they were still sinning in that they had an evil heart.

  15. J. Jones, I think your last illustration is exactly on. People are culpable for their own sin, but God ordains and uses that sin to accomplish His purpose. Re-read Acts 2:23 and 4:27-28 (which I referenced earlier) with that in mind. It’s amazing. There is no disconnect between God’s ordaining something and man’s responsibility for it.

    As for the “allows/orders” comment, I don’t think they’re as different as you suggest. For example, we know from Job 1 that God “allowed” Job’s trials. Yet, Job himself knew that God had actually done it; that’s the point of the whole book. The active (vs. passive) hand of God in Job’s circumstances is especially seen in Job 1:21, where Jehovah is credited with taking away. We certainly wouldn’t say “The Lord has given, and the Devil has taken away.” Job rightly submitted to God’s sovereignty in his circumstances. We understand that. That’s why I say we’re all “closet Calvinists.” We know God’s in charge in Job, not just “allowing,” but “ordaining.” That seems to be the point of the first stanza of the Pierson quote you gave. I agree with that.

    See the same thing in 2 Samuel 12:15 (which I’m addressing in Bible study tonight). God didn’t just allow David’s baby to get sick and die. God “struck” the baby. (The same is true of the calamity promised in 2 Sam. 12:11-12, BTW.) That may be uncomfortable, but there it is. God can’t be domesticated and de-clawed to make us feel better.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  16. I was not saying you prayed that way, Don! I was just making a generalization, and I was predestined to make that comment! :D

  17. I just got around to reading Part 2 of Thabiti’s “Closet Calvinists” posts. Give it a look:

    Calvinists Who Don’t Know They Are, 2

  18. Hi Chris

    I must have missed the development of this thread during my recent trip where I met the likewise very nice guy, Rob. We are forming a mutual admiration society. I figure if no one else likes us, at least we can bolster one another’s self-esteem.

    Your comments above sound like fatalism.

    And Packer, in the second post, again continues to make a straw man in his argument. I don’t know many people who deny the sovereignty of God, Calvinists or not. The sovereignty of God is not the issue.

    Packer asks if we non-Calvinists pray for our daily bread and the salvation of souls. Of course. The sovereign God calls us to pray for such and seems to teach us that the prayer is meaningful and achieves something. I might turn the question back to the Calvinist by saying, why do you pray? At all? If God has ordained all events, why bother? You will get your daily bread, or not, according to his sovereign will, no? But of course, God has ordained that you pray, so little automaton that you are, you do, but does it make any difference?

    Please, note, to quote Dr. P., “I speak as a fool”. I know that now I am caricaturizing Calvinist theology. But the same knife cuts both ways. The question is much more complicated than: do I believe in the sovereignty of God?

    Some of the answers to the question are revealed to us. MOST are not. There is a huge presumptiveness on the part of many when they think they have the whole matter figured out. Packer claims that passages are ignored by non-Calvinists. I make the same claim the other way.

    And even in trying to submit my mind to all of Scripture in this, I find that still not all questions concerning the metaphysics can be answered. God has not chosen to reveal them to us, so we don’t need to know them. We are going to have to simply trust and obey.

    And last, btw, trust and obey is the central idea of Job, not that God did it all. Job was rebuked for charging God with doing it all. He thought he had a case against God, but God showed him ‘who are you to talk? just trust me’.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  19. Hi, Don.

    We’re at an impasse, I’m sure. But for the record… :)

    What I expressed isn’t fatalism. In fact, I’m wondering which portion made you say so. Anyway, I could as easily say that what you’re advocating sounds like Open Theism. But of course, I wouldn’t do that.

    As for Job, it certainly presents God as being behind the mysteries of providence. To say that God isn’t responsible for allowing/using Satan to try Job is, in my mind, like saying David isn’t responsible for Uriah’s death because he didn’t actually shoot the arrow. (Perhaps a bad illustration, but my point is that utilizing a secondary cause doesn’t remove one’s responsibility as an ultimate cause.)

    Despite the fact that I’ve posted this under the Calvinism moniker, my understanding of this really grows out of biblical statements, not a system of theology.

    Finally, I think Packer’s point that our prayers reveal our recognition that God is in charge of literally everything is well made.

  20. Hi Chris

    The part that sounded most like fatalism is where you said:

    “nothing happens that God hasn’t ordained to happen”

    Later you say that you think there is hardly any distinction between allows and ordains. Well…

    Do words mean anything? There is a mountain of difference between allows and ordains.

    With respect to Job, I am not arguing that God is not behind the events of the book (although I would argue that God allows rather than ordains them). My issue with you there was the notion that the point of Job is that God did these things. The point of Job is not what God did, but what man must do regardless of his circumstances. The whole book is about man’s reaction to God. Count the number of verses where men are talking and the number of verses where God is talking. Clearly, God’s words carry more weight! But in the end, God is concerned with Job’s response to his circumstances, not with Job knowing what in the world was happening. God never explains what was happening to Job. He just tells Job to trust him.

    As to God being in charge of everything, NO ONE DENIES THAT. My point is that it is foolish to charge non-Calvinists with being closet Calvinists because they believe in God’s sovereignty. Of course we believe in God’s sovereignty. We believe in God.

    Where we differ is in our view of how God exercises His sovereignty.

    Anyway, we will not settle these questions. My reason for writing is partly because I am a compulsive blogger (I need a 12 step program!!) and partly because it was Packer whom you used to incite me. He of ECT fame is no authority to me.

    I remember Barrett once being very dismissive of a popular writer of my college days because “a new evangelical can’t tell me anything about the will of God.” I was a little shocked at his vehemence then, but I tend to agree with him.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  21. One more thing, Don. You ask, “Do words mean anything?” I’m wondering the same: how can you say that God is sovereign and in charge of everything, but deny that He ordains it? What definition of control and sovereign are you using?

    Oops. One more. Of course, Packer’s participation in ECT is abhorrent to me. But really, you know you can’t deny a statement simply on the basis of the person who made it. In fact, you argued elsewhere that reading and learning from new evangelicals has long been the practice of even the most conservative of fundamentalists. (Well, maybe not the “most” conservative.)

  22. You’re right re Packer, and of course, the argument he makes should be engaged regardless of who wrote it. But his many betrayals, not just ECT make him so repugnant to me. I think I have one of his early books, but none of the others.

    Ok, meanings of words:

    Sovereignty – 2 a: supreme power especially over a body politic b: freedom from external control : autonomy c: controlling influence (from M-W.com)

    For those under a sovereign’s dominion, free acts are allowed within limits. Of course, the sovereign can directly intervene wherever he wills, but he may not always will to do so.

    God’s sovereignty is not diminished if he allows free acts within his domain. He has the power to overrule any free act, and sometimes (often?) does. But he normally allows creation to proceed within the scope of laws he has established.

    Dr. Bell once said that God sovereignly decreed that man should have a free will. He didn’t give us a verse for it, and I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but I think that it fits the whole of revelation.

    Finally, God as sovereign will ultimately exercise his will such that all will bow their knee. No one will escape this destiny. I take it that Satan himself will bow his knee in the end. (Not willingly.) But for now, Satan is allowed to rebel, though God is still sovereign. That doesn’t mean that God controls every thing that Satan does, or that God plans everything that Satan does. God knows it all, allows it all, and will use it all ultimately for his glory. But he doesn’t order it all.

    I don’t know if that helps any…

    And I am quite content to let it rest here. I am not on a mission! At least not on this mission!

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  23. So your understanding of “sovereign” is that God could control all things, not that He does, though He eventually will. FWIW, that seems to be at odds with your earlier insistence that we all agree that “God is in charge of everything.”

    As I said, we’re at an impasse.

    As for Dr. Bell’s comment, well, he’s got the fact that he’s not a new evangelical on his side. ;)

  24. Dr Bell would be pleased to hear that. By the way, I mean the Dr. Bell at BJU, not the other ones.

    But let’s be clear about one more thing. Being in charge doesn’t mean that every detail must be controlled. Any detail could be controlled, ordered, ordained, but not all are. Many are not.

    God could control my wardrobe selections today. He may in fact have done so, although I see no evidence that he did. The fact that He is Sovereign and in charge means he could. And the fact that he is God means that he knew those selections from eternity. But whether he ordered them or not, we can’t say without specific revelation to that effect.

    But that’s enough for now. No one denies that God is sovereign. The issue is whether God orders every event down to the minutest detail. Because the fact is that God knows every event down to the minutest detail.

    So if foreknowledge = predestination, then every event is ordered by God. I can’t go there, and I suspect you can’t either.

    On the other hand, the universe is not a godless place where everything is just random either.

    So those are the two ends of the spectrum.

    For God-fearers, the differences are really not nearly so far apart.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  25. Sorry, Don, but this one is still cracking me up a day later:

    “Dr. Bell once said that God sovereignly decreed that man should have a free will. He didn’t give us a verse for it, and I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but…”

    At least you’re honest! :D

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