The Crux of Calvinism
While it may first appear that the foundation of Calvinism (also called Monergism or Reformed Theology) is the concept of Free Will, Calvinism really stands or falls on the concept of Total Depravity. Man is said to be so completely fallen and depraved in nature as to be incapable of responding positively to the Gospel message. On this assumption rests the entire Calvinist TULIP. Although the question is hotly debated as to whether any such thing as free will is even logically possible, the question here is not whether Total Depravity is necessarily logical but whether it is Biblical.
Central to Total Depravity is the premise that “regeneration precedes faith” (hereafter referred to as RPF), so if it can be demonstrated that this premise is Biblically invalid then TULIP, and Calvinism with it, must fall. In the following discussion I am attempting to accurately summarize points and arguments from several articles: one each by David R. Anderson, Larry Hafley, George Zeller, and Herb Evans.
Let’s begin with Anderson’s article, specifically a quote of R. C. Sproul:
“The logical priority of regeneration in Reformed theology rests on the doctrine of total depravity or moral inability. Because fallen man is morally unable to incline himself by faith to Christ, regeneration is a logical necessity for faith to occur. If we were to posit that faith precedes regeneration, then we would be assuming that unregenerate people, while still in an unregenerate state, have the moral ability to exercise faith. If the unregenerate can exercise faith, then it follows clearly that they are not fallen to the degree of moral inability, as claimed by classical Augustinian and Reformed theology.” (see source footnote 3).
Sproul appeals to history for RPF, specifically to Augustine. But Anderson shows the great influence of the belief in baptismal regeneration on Augustine and others, the practice of which Augustine did not consider to be “a work of man”. Thus he held infant baptism to be the means by which original sin was removed. Anderson goes on to say,
“Incredibly bright as Augustine must have been, his training was in rhetoric, not exegesis. His language was Latin, not Greek. Much of his theology comes from the sheer weight of his logic. He does little to defend his views of baptismal regeneration and infant baptism from the Scriptures. Like most of us, he filtered Scripture through his own experience; his understanding of regeneration was born of a marriage between tradition and logic, not the Scriptures.”
After noting that even Martin Luther believed in baptismal regeneration, Anderson makes this observation:
“So let’s get the picture here. An infant or little child is water baptized. As he grows up he is told that at water baptism he was regenerated and exercised an elementary faith in Christ because of the intercession of his sponsors, most likely his parents. Now, if he is truly elect, all this which occurred within him before he had any conscious awareness of what was going on will be confirmed by his repentance, mature faith, and obedience. Obviously, if he is not obedient, it proves that he is not truly elect and for some unknown reason his infant baptism did not ”take“. But the fires of hell await such a one. Hence, be obedient to make your calling and election sure. It all goes right back to a works-oriented approach to salvation, especially since through certain egregious sins one can lose this hard wrought salvation. To fall back on Phil 2:13 at this point to try to prove that it is by God’s grace that one is able to work out his own salvation is pure exegetical sophistry. Calvin himself defined regeneration as the entire process of new birth, repentance, faith, justification, and sanctification. Regeneration for him was the umbrella over all the others. It began at water baptism, but regeneration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year. Instead it was accomplished ”through continual and sometimes even slow advances.“
In all fairness, many Calvinists today have rejected the concept of baptismal regeneration, yet they have retained the logic of it to support RPF. Again quoting Sproul:
”Remember that in Reformed Theology’s ordo salutis regeneration precedes faith. It does so with respect to logical priority, not temporal priority. Reformed theology grants that God’s act of regeneration and the believer’s act of faith are simultaneous, not separated, with respect to time. The ordo salutis refers to logical dependency. Faith logically depends on regeneration; regeneration does not logically depend on faith. Again, the priority is logical, not temporal. Regeneration is the necessary condition of faith; faith is not the necessary condition of or for regeneration.“
Yet in all of this the Scriptures are barely mentioned. One would expect extensive exegesis to support such a foundational teaching, yet little is offered. Let’s look now at Biblical references to the issue of regeneration. Anderson makes this comment on Titus 3:5:
”Of course, it is this reference to washing which convinces so many that the actual physical act of water baptism effects regeneration. But the near proximity of the reference to the Holy Spirit combined with other passages on the same subject help us understand that this regeneration is a ministry of the Holy Spirit, not something directly connected with water.“
He then makes this comment on 1 Peter 1:3,33 (similar comment on James 1:18)
”But notice that in none of these four references (nouns and verbs) do we read about faith in connection with regeneration. Not that our faith is not involved, but there is nothing in these texts that would indicate that regeneration leads to our faith or that our faith leads to our regeneration. However, in this final reference in 1 Peter there is mention of the tool used by God to accomplish this regeneration: the Word of God. This would suggest that until one hears and understands the message, one cannot be born again.“
Anderson goes on to point out the significance in these verses of the analogy to birthing. Being born is not a lifelong process but a single event. One does not speak of his life as a process of being born, but as the result of that single event. The aorist tense of the verb in 1 Peter conveys this idea of a single past event with continuing results.
Commenting on John 1:13 and 3:3-8, he continues to show that spiritual rebirth is taught by the Bible as a single past event. These passages also make clear the connection between rebirth and the Holy Spirit, who regenerates all who believe in Christ (vv. 14-18). Anderson concludes with this thought:
”We conclude that there is zero biblical support for placing regeneration before faith in the ordo salutis. And to say it takes logical priority without taking temporal priority is contradictory. The very word priority in this context speaks of time. It is a “temporal” word. Unless one switches the meaning of priority to “first in importance” (which is obviously not intended), then a statement about logical priority without temporal priority is nonsensical. And certainly in Historical Theology regeneration was seen to have temporal priority over faith, since infants were thought to be regenerated when water baptized. It was not until Reformed theologians realized how little biblical support there is for infant baptism that they began arguing for logical priority instead of temporal priority.“
The Scriptures continually contrast as mutually exclusive opposites faith and works, yet Calvinism calls faith preceding regeneration a work! It seems incredible to me that anyone could not consider baptism as a ”work of man“, yet call faith prior to regeneration a ”work of man“. Based upon this nonsense, Calvinism declares any belief against RPF as a belief in salvation by works. Thus they label all non-Calvinists as ”synergists“ who deny that salvation is by grace alone, which of course is not true.
At this point Anderson addresses the question of whether God’s ”drawing all men“ to himself is a forced ”dragging against our will“ or a ”wooing“ and ”drawing with love“. They cannot both be true regarding salvation, and he gives scriptural references to show that the latter idea is Biblical. For the purpose of illustration, a man may do everything possible to persuade a woman to marry him, but he would never try to force her to accept. Why? Because love precludes force. She has the option, the freedom of choice, to either accept him or refuse him. The only ”election“ that happens in this scenario is that the man doesn’t make this offer to every woman, but only to one he ”selects“.
This is not ”synergism“! God is the Persuader, man is the responder. The Bible never calls this divine persuasion ”regeneration“, and it is not ”irresistible“. Calvinism is guilty of a number of exegetical and logical errors, including straw man and false dilemma, and accuses non-Calvinists of eisegesis while committing the same.
Now we turn to the article by Larry Hafley, who deals more specifically with whether choosing to put one’s faith in God is a work or not. His article is more illustrative in nature and thus serves as a good complement to Anderson’s approach. Hafley begins with this illustration:
”The man with a headache simply cannot will the headache away. However, he can will, or decide, to rid himself of the headache by taking the aspirin which God has prepared in the law of nature. Likewise, the sinner simply cannot will away his sins. However, he can will, or decide, to rid himself of his sins by obeying the gospel which God has prepared in the law of the Spirit. “Save yourselves from this untoward generation” (Acts 2:40). “To you is the word of this salvation sent .... through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified” (Acts 13:26, 38). “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).“
But the Calvinist would say that the man with the headache is incapable of understanding what aspirin is, much less of asking for it!
”No, man cannot will away his headache; man cannot will away his sins. But he can cure his headache by taking God’s power unto its relief. So, he cannot will away his sins by the power of his own mind, but he can accept the remedy, the gospel, God’s power unto salvation, and be forgiven of his sins. “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17). “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mat. 11:28).
[One] wonders how he could “will” to change his “stony heart into a heart to know God.” I suppose he could do it the same way Israel “made their hearts like flint so they could not hear the law” and the word of God (Zech. 7:12). When [he] explains how they could turn their hearts and make them “like flint” “so they could not hear” the word of God, he will then know how he could turn his “stony heart into a heart to know God.” Next Hafley offers the following verses relating to “quickening”:
- Thy word hath quickened me (Psa. 119:50)
- It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life (Jn. 6:63)
- Thou hast the words of eternal life (Jn. 6:68)
- Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible. by the word of God.... And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you (1 Pet. 1:23-25).
- I have begotten you through the gospel (1 Cor. 4:15)
- Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth (Jas. 1:18)
- He called you by our gospel (1 Thess. 2:13)
With these scriptures and many others, the Bible teaches that the way God “draws” people is through his Word. Clearly then, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:17) There is no “faith through quickening”.
Concerning the popular proof text of John 6:44, Hafley points out that Calvinists usually don’t go on to verse 45: “It is written in the prophets, ’ And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who hears and learns from the Father comes to me.” Conversely, the Calvinist version of these verses should read, “No man can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him. It is written in the prophets, And only the elect shall be miraculously and mysteriously regenerated of God. Every man therefore that hath been regenerated of God shall come to Christ while those whom God fails to regenerate shall die in their unbelief and be sent to hell for it. Whether the regenerate ones ever hear and learn of the Father, they are still saved eternally.”
Next, the article by George Zeller. It begins with what Paul’s answer to the Philippian jailor should have been if he were a Calvinist:
“You can do nothing to be saved, absolutely nothing. You are dead in sin and a dead man can do nothing. If God doesn’t regenerate you, then you are doomed.” How different was the answer Paul gave: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31)!“
Calvinists use the analogy of a physically dead person to describe our hopeless spiritual condition, but it is an incomplete analogy without scriptural support. Most Calvinists will say that the spiritually dead can experience conviction, yet how is this possible if they are as dead as Calvinism asserts?
Another oft-cited proof text is John 5:40: ”And ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life“. But the Calvin Translation should read, ”And ye will not have life, that ye might come to me.“ In this and other verses, Calvinism must reverse the Biblical order of events. It must also contradict itself:
”R. C. Sproul believes that regeneration precedes faith. But in spite of his doctrine, he once wrote the following: “Once Luther grasped the teaching of Paul in Romans, he was reborn” (R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 1993 edition, p. 144). He must have written these words in haste because to be consistent with his theology he should have said it this way: “Once Luther was reborn, he grasped the teaching of Paul in Romans.”
If regeneration precedes faith, then this would make faith unnecessary since the person would already be saved. If a person is regenerated, then he is born of God, a member of god’s family and a possessor of eternal life. If you are a member of God’s family and a possessor of eternal life, then you are already saved. So what need is there for faith?“ Charles Spurgeon had this to say:
”If I am to preach the faith in Christ to a man who is regenerated, then the man, being regenerated, is saved already, and it is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ to him, and bid him to believe in order to be saved when he is saved already, being regenerate. Am I only to preach faith to those who have it? Absurd, indeed! Is not this waiting till the man is cured and then bringing him the medicine? This is preaching Christ to the righteous and not to sinners.“ [Sermon entitled The Warrant of Faith].”
Another common proof text is Ephesians 2:8-9, where Calvinists assert that “even our faith is a gift of God, not of ourselves”. But if that is true then why does John Calvin teach that it is salvation that is “not of ourselves” (The Epistle to the Ephesians, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1965, p. 144)?
Finally we take a look at Herb Evans’ article, easily the most blunt of the four. Many of his points have already been covered here, so I’ll just highlight a few things.
Acts 11:18 reads, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.” The Calvinist emphasis is that God grants the repentance, so the people did not produce it themselves. Yet the context gives a more accurate emphasis: that God was now including Gentiles in his plan of salvation, not just Jews any more. A new group of people was now being given the option of salvation! This was the cause of rejoicing, not exactly the reaction you’d expect if they simply understood that God had forced himself on even more people. Evans remarks:
“Repentance is unto life and not life unto repentance, regardless whether God grants it and what the Calvinist spin is on that. Repentance precedes conversion and both precede regeneration and the remission of sins.
Since remission of sins and conversion or turning to God all hinge on previous repentance, it follows that they all must precede regeneration or life. Unless a Calvinist is prepared to argue life without the remission of one’s sins because one is of the elect.
Romans 8:9 takes care of both Charismatics and Calvinists. If one is a child of God by faith in Christ Jesus and the Holy Ghost cannot be in anyone but a child of God, then regeneration cannot precede having the Holy Spirit. Unless the Calvinist is prepared to argue having the Holy Spirit before repentance, conversion, remission of sins, faith, righteousness, holiness, salvation, eternal life, and possessing the Son.”
The TULIP acronym stands for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.
Article by David Anderson as of October 2004 entitled REGENERATION: A CRUX INTERPRETUM.
Article by Larry Hafley as of October 2004 entitled Does Man Have a Free Will? (part 2 of 4).
Article by George Zeller as of October 2004 entitled Does Regeneration Precede Faith?
Article by Herb Evans as of October 2004 entitled Born Again Unbelievers?