I want to put aside for a moment the question of the validity of Calvinism. There are many Calvinists I respect – none of which I would consider to be in the same camp as the neo-reformed. Mike Bird, Michael Patton, Denny Burk, to name a few. But rather than argue against the validity of Calvinism, I want to zero in on one tiny but enormous point Calvinists would rather seekers just not know.
Often when people convert from one intra-Christian tradition to another, it’s usually for reasons other than doctrinal validity as the book Journey’s of Faith reveals clearly enough. People convert for many reasons, not least because they have a sense of incompleteness. They feel that another tradition offers something that their current tradition lacks. Whether it be a worship style and attitude, freedom or liturgical structure, perhaps sacraments, people are always moving back and forth between traditions in search for a sense of something.
In the case of Calvinism, I believe the number one feature which draws people to it is the doctrine of the preservation of the saints. They want to feel eternally secure. Exhibit A: I have grown up with people personally who have become Calvinists because of the attractiveness of this very doctrine. I knew one man whose brother, a Pentecostal minister, was decidedly Pelagian when he taught. As a result my friend, who had difficulty managing those things he desired most – women, alcohol and popularity – wanted to find eternal security. Obviously his brothers Pelagian tendencies, and the insecurity that comes with it, lended itself to my friends decision to become a Calvinist. Of course there were other complex factors involved, but escaping a perceived Pentecostal Pelagian insecurity seemed to be a vital one.
Exhibit B: I am a member of an online Arminian group where a few months back another member had stated that his views on the preservation of the saints had changed. He had hoped that holding to a doctrine of once saved always saved will help make his Arminian soteriology more palatable to his Baptist Calvinist brethren. The general response among the Arminian group was to cheer and applaud this move, acknowledging that less people would convert to Calvinsim if more Arminians embraced once saved always saved. Or, to put that backwards as the very idea suggests, many Baptists Calvinists are Calvinists primarily because of the doctrine of the preservation of the saints. People want to feel secure and Arminianism doesn’t offer that (supposedly).
Exhibit C: On the progressive scholarly front, Michael Bird embraces this view as a part of the package of his Calvinist soteriology. Scot McKnight rejects the Calvinist soteriology at preciously this point. Since Hebrews teaches that someone can abandon their faith, the Calvinist soteriology must be wrong. N.T. Wright chimes in, coming up the middle between these views since it seems he doesn’t embrace a Calvinist soteriology wholesale, but he also pushes back a bit on McKnight by saying of Hebrews, “that’s not the right question.” (But I think if it’s not the question Hebrews is asking, it is at the very least precisely the issue Hebrews takes up.)
But no matter where you land on this issue, whether you believe in the perseverance of the saints or you believe that it is possible for an individual to abandon the faith to which they once clung, one thing is certain: the idea that God elects some to salvation and “passes over” most others is not the most difficult idea that Calvinism has to offer. No. The most difficult idea Calvinism has to offer is that there is no way in this life that you can know if you have been passed over or not. No way to know if you are one of the elect!
I feel like repeating that last three sentences. Read it again.
The most terrifying part of Calvinism’ soteriology (and it’s best kept secret) is that there is no way to know if you are one of the elect. None. Read on.
While documenting the rise of the so-called new Calvinism, Collin Hanson interviews many young Piper cubs who admit that the most difficult part to accept while journeying towards Calvinism was the idea that God elects to salvation some and passes over others. This is Exhibit D that many people who convert to Calvinism have not thought through it’s doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Because surely I would think the most difficult part to accept while journeying to Calvinism wouldn’t be that God passes over others, but that God may have passed over you! And there’s no way to know.
Let me say this another way – and yes, I am hammering home this point until you get it! – Calvinism offers about as much security to the believer as full blown Pelagianism!
Let me explain how by making three points about Calvinism:
1. Calvinism fits squarely within the holiness tradition (as does Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism). That some people run around claiming to teach that someone can make a sincere confession of faith and then live their life nilly-willy any way they wish and still get to heaven is patently not Calvinism. Whatever it is – and yes, I have people like Charles Stanley in mind – it is not Calvinism.
In the book Why I Am Not An Arminian the co-authors – both Calvinists – Robert Peterson and Michael Williams write:
“Easy believism, the view that persons are to be regarded as Christians who have made professions of faith but whose lives are unchanged, is incompatible with biblical teaching. On this point Arminians and Calvinists agree.” (p.81, emphasis mine)
2. Calvinism teaches that if God has elected someone for salvation, that person will be saved by the grace of God. There is no chance that they will not be saved. No one can snatch them from the Fathers’ hand (John 10:28).
3. If someone who was among God’s people walks away, this is clear evidence that this person was never really saved in the first place (1 John 2:19). Peterson and Williams write again:
“If they don’t believe to the end, they have not come to share in Christ. This indicates not a loss of salvation but a demonstration that the professed Christians had not really been united to Christ in the first place.” (p.80, emphasis mine)
So far this is pretty standard stuff. Calvinism does not shy away from teaching that if someone “falls away” it is clear proof that they were never saved in the first place. But there’s a catch. An emphasis that is never brought up either by Calvinists, Arminians or otherwise.
Its easy to judge a person who walks away as being someone who was never saved after the fact. But what about before they walk away?
The person comes to church week after week, singing with all sincerity of heart. Perhaps preaching or teaching your children in Sunday School. Perhaps they lead your Churches mission and evangelistic programs. Or maybe they were your worship leader. And how did they get to those positions unless others around them also saw “fruit” of their salvation. Are we to say that through all of those years they were just pretending? Perhaps for some small portion of them that is true, but it is beyond reason to suggest that every person who has shown clear fruit of a life devoted to Christ was just faking all along. No. Rather these people – at the time – where as sincere a follower of Jesus are you are today. But for whatever reason – perhaps church abuse, tragedy in their lives or any number of other reasons – they then abandoned the faith. What do we make of those situations?
Calvinism’ teaching is clear enough. If they do not hold firm to the end, it is proof that they were never saved in the first place.
But then what were they, if not genuine Christians?
Or perhaps, the more pressing question is, if they were as sure in their salvation then as you are now, how can you be certain that you are really saved?
How does Calvinism answer these question? Have you read any books by Calvinists where the doctrine of the preservation of the saints is dug into deep enough to acknowledge this dilemma and offer some type of answer?
Because the unspeakable answer seems clear enough. It’s terrifying really. The Calvinist John Frame, in his book against Open Theism titled No Other God, does reveal Calvinism’s answer to this question, albeit in a footnote:
“There are also cases where God chooses someone for a task and for a limited kind of fellowship with him, without the intention of giving him the full benefits of salvation.” (p.117, n.9, emphasis mine)
Read that answer again.
How do you know that does not describe you? How do you know that you have been given the “full benefits of salvation” and not just a “limited kind of fellowship with him”?
For those who convert to Calvinism because in it they think will have obtained a teaching of eternal security that offers them assurance in their faith, answer that question:
How can you know?
In Calvinism you may have been chosen for a limited fellowship with God, a specific task of – say – a missionary or pastor or evangelist, and not for the “full benefits of salvation”.
And for Arminians who think that we need to adopt a doctrine of eternal security to make Arminianism more palatable, I suggest you think again.