A reader named Joey wrote one of the most thoughtful and well-reasoned comments I personally have seen on this page. For that reason and since the objection seems a common one, I thought it deserved its own post in response. His comment responded to Dr. Flower’s article entitled “Answering the Calvinist’s Most Popular Argument” so you can check out his original comment there.
Thanks for the comment, Joey. You write:
In this worldview, ‘saving faith’ or ‘belief’ is an action that anyone can exercise based on the individual’s inherent character (i.e. wisdom, intellect and spirituality).
I would change “character” to “characteristic/ability”. An ability that every single person who has ever been or ever will be born possesses since they were made in the Image of God and that characteristic was given to them by God.
Consequently, if ‘saving faith’ is derived from man’s inherent character, God is not the ultimate cause of that action.
So then, it is up to man (though unregenerate) to exercise it whenever he chooses.
Yes, this puts the responsibility to respond to God’s gracious call for reconciliation onto man. God calls to man, God sends a Holy Spirit powered appeal to man, but man is responsible for what he does with that appeal. I’m not seeing the problem here.
Without this inherent ability of unregenerate man to freely obtain ‘saving faith’ out of his own inherent character, it is argued that man will not be held responsible for his eternal destiny.
That’s exactly the situation, yes.
Notice that our problem with the answer is not about whether ‘saving faith’ is worthy of salvation. We recognise that even ‘Non-Calvinists’ believe that God is not obliged to save anyone who has ‘saving faith’.
You’re a more fair-minded Calvinist than most. Almost every Calvinist I have discussed with will not cede a single inch of ground to our perspective and I appreciate you for doing so. Almost every Calvinist I have discussed with has, at some point, lobbed the “you believe man is in control of God” grenade in my direction as a way of winning the argument. Thank you for not doing so.
But, in their worldview, God has chosen to save those have ‘saving faith’ and them alone. The problem with the answer is two fold: 1) How it can be shown from the Bible that ‘saving faith’ is something ultimately generated by an unregenerated man’s inherent character (i.e. his intellect, his wisdom, and his spirituality).
How about everywhere (Eze 18:30-32; Acts 11:18; 15:9; John 5:40, John 6:53; 6:57; 12:36; 20:31; 1 John 1:12-13; Gal 3: 2,5; 3:26; Eph 1:13; Col 2:12; 2 Cor 3:14-16; 1 Tim 1:16; James 1:8). Not one time in the Bible does regeneration precede faith. Each time the Bible discusses such things, faith precedes regeneration. Remember, it is from an in-born, Image of God, ability/characteristic, not an unregenerated, self-built character.
Ultimately, if the ‘Non-Calvinist’ can show this exegetically then even the staunchest ‘Calvinist’ will have no other recourse than to bow to the authority of Scripture. Obviously, all ‘Calvinist’ believe that this is not warranted based on the Bible.
2) How it can be defended that God has chosen to make salvation grounded upon man’s inherent character when it seems that the Biblical Gospel specifically points to an external action of the Trinity to save man.
Because it’s both. It is both an external action of the Trinity to save man and man using the ability given to them by way of the Image of God to respond to that action/appeal. The part where you are hung up is that on your view the action of the Trinity is irresistible because man is totally unable to respond, which of course we would argue neither are found in the Scriptures.
However, the word ‘ground’ as it is being used by ‘Calvinist’ refers not only to the basis or justification of God to save sinners but includes the ultimate cause of the sinner’s salvation.
That’s a fine point on its own if logical deductions weren’t a thing. But since they are, even Calvin recognized that this means that God is the cause, therefore, of the damnation of the vast majority of mankind. He even calls this doctrine “dreadful”. This is how Calvin put it:
Again I ask: whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many peoples, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it so pleased God? Here their tongues, otherwise so loquacious, must become mute. The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess. Yet no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree. – Institutes III.xxiii.7
So you either have a picture of a God who restricts His power in order to put the responsibility on man to respond to His gracious saving work or a picture of a God who decrees, and causes, the damnation of the vast majority of humanity, unchangeably, without them having any chance at reconciliation, for the sole reason that He does not desire for them to be saved.
On non-Calvinism, Joey writes:
The Cross did not procurement the certainty of man’s individual fate but leaves it to the individual to either be saved or lost.
But God didn’t just send Jesus to the cross and then stop working in the world. He then used a blinding light to convince the smartest man in 1st century Judaism to become the greatest evangelist the world has known and to write most of the New Testament. He orchestrated it so that hundreds of people saw the risen Jesus and that fact was recorded and preserved down the annals of history. God sent His Spirit to empower the work of His followers to this day, and the Spirit does this sometimes in overt, earth-shaking supernatural power. God is continually at work to persuade man to be reconciled to Him. God worked to assure that at least some men would be saved, He just didn’t decree from the foundation of the world which individuals and how many would be saved.
If we ask a ‘Non-Calvinist’ what differentiates him from the person who ends up in hell, he will respond that it was his humility, wisdom and sipirituality that made all the difference.
This is biblical though. The Bible is clear that God gives grace to the humble (Prov 3:34, James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5) and there is an entire genre of Scripture, wisdom literature such as Job and Proverbs, that claim wisdom to be desirable, honorable, and contributing to human flourishing. and so why are you using this as a negative criticism of our view? The humility does not earn the merit, that’s why grace is still required. But God has promised to grace with merit those who meet the condition. If you object to this you will have to be careful not to “answer back to God”.
In addition, you would have to show from Scripture that unbelievers have somehow lost the spiritual part of them given by the Image of God. Which I do not think you can do.
The ‘Calvinist’, however, believes that the ground of salvation is the work of the Trinity.
This is a completely different question than “who differentiates between a believer and unbeliever?” Surely, you would agree that a non-Calvinist also believes that the ground of salvation is the work of the Trinity. Of course, we believe that without the work of the Trinity there can be no salvation. We just don’t think the Scriptures teach this work is monergistic, irresistible, and without conditions.
Furthermore, I do not see how this rids you of the question, “What made you better?” You assume the answer “I humbled myself” is obviously wrong, but why is “God humbled me and not someone else” superior? Either way, humility is better than pride. Whether someone humbles themselves or God irresistibly does so, that person is still “better” or, at least, exercised a “better” ability.
One can easily claim superiority based on God’s choice to give them humility. Indeed, I would argue more so. On our view, choosing to humble oneself is an ability all of humanity possesses. It’s not special or superior if I use an ability everyone else has also. It would be like boasting about being able to blink. On the Calvinistic view, only a minority of humanity has been given that ability and a tiny, special minority the ability to understand that correctly. It is much easier to boast about being able to do what only a very small percentage of people can do.
The Spirit gives spiritual life to the sinner which leads him to believe in Christ and to grow in holiness; the Son provides for him the basis of his righteousness through the Cross; and the Father sent the Son and ordained the salvation of those whom he has chosen to save. In this worldview, nothing inherent in the person is the decisive factor of why he is saved.
I am whole-heartedly with you until you get to “the Father…ordained the salvation of those whom he has chose to save“. But my main rebuttal to this point would be that you have consistently assumed that the exercising of humility that leads someone to repentance and faith in Christ is a bad thing. But how can this be? We agree that the humility is not meritorious to save. With that out of the way, how is it a criticism of a soteriological position that humility is a condition of recognizing your need for a savior and trusting in Jesus for that salvation? “Your theology of salvation sets up humility as a condition to salvation” is not a criticism but a statement of fact. You have to add something else, another argument, hopefully with some biblical evidence, as to how humility being a condition of salvation is either immoral, irrational, or unbiblical. I don’t see an argument that gets you there but I’m open to being shown otherwise.
Everything points to the triune God. If we ask a ‘Calvinist’ what differentiates him from the person who ends up in hell, he will respond that it was not his wisdom, nor his intellect, nor his spirituality that made all the difference saved for the mercy of God.
It certainly sounds nice to say that everything points to the triune God, but is that what God does? It seems to me that God sends a member of that triunity to become a man, suffer as we suffer, and die an unjust and horrifying death on our behalf. The Prodigal Son parable pictures a God who humiliates himself in running towards his lost children. Again, it does not sound like a criticism to say, “On your system, God is about saving as many people as will be persuaded and humble themselves”.
As for what a Calvinist says what differentiates him from an unbeliever; I agree, a Calvinist would say “nothing”. But I do not see how that is an argument in favor of Reformed soteriology. I know you would not put it in these words, but a valid logical deduction from what you’re saying is that since God does not choose who to save based upon any condition, therefore, His choice is completely arbitrary. Arbitrary meaning “without a discernible reason”. The non-Calvinist says “I was persuaded by the Gospel message and I humbled myself” while the Calvinist says “I have no idea what God chose me, it was arbitrary”. How is that comforting or superior? At least on non-Calvinism, there is SOME discernible condition or reason. This all sounds academic until you’re talking to someone who asks you “Why didn’t God choose my father to believe?” and the honest answer is “I don’t know, His choices are arbitrary”. This is superior…how?
I think, at the end of the day, we all have a view that it was all of God’s doing that made the difference (Whether this fact is consistent based on our worldview is another story).
I appreciate the charitable and cogent nature of your thoughts, Joey. This was argued so fairly I thought it deserved a post in response as an example of how we can discuss our differences while being fair-minded to the other side. I would simply ask you to consider that while “it was all of God’s doing” may sound good, and I’m sure comes out of a place of genuine reverence for God, that perhaps viewing God’s choice to save as arbitrary has bigger problems. Add in the logical deduction that God not only chooses which individuals would be damned with no chance at reconciliation but also creates them as such, gives your view more problems than seeing humility as a condition to salvation.