The Gospel Coalition recently published an article written by Courtney Reissig titled, How Does a Mom Pray as a Calvinist? This article was written in direct response to my interview with Andy Stanley, Pastor of North Point Community Church in Georgia. In this post I would like to provide a cordial but direct response to several key points raised in this TGC article (represented in blue):
Andy Stanley—senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta—posed several questions as he critiqued Calvinism from several angles. In one particular segment, he talked specifically about women, and from his vantage point women are less vocal about their belief in God’s sovereignty in salvation because of how harsh it sounds (to him).
I think it should be noted that the unique claims of Calvinists not only sound harsh to Andy and other non-Calvinistic believers, but even many Calvinistic scholars and pastors are on record confessing their feelings of disdain for the doctrine of reprobation, which is defined this way by Calvinistic scholar, RC Sproul, of Ligonier ministries:
If only some people are predestined to be saved, then it logically must follow that other people are not. The doctrine of predestination to salvation is called the doctrine of election, and the doctrine of predestination to damnation is called the doctrine of reprobation. <link>
In the Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin himself declared, “The decree [of reprobation], I admit, is, dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny…” Calvinistic Pastor, John Piper, preached a message confessing that he was tormented and wept for three days when first confronted with these teachings. Calvinistic Pastor JD Hall did a podcast about the “stages of grief” one must go through when first introduced to Calvinism. And Calvinistic Pastor Matt Chandler spoke of TULIP being an “itchy blanket” for a time before it finally became warm and comfortable. <link>
There are testimonials of many notable Calvinists reflecting on this struggle and quite frankly, they would have to be heartless not to somewhat recoil at the thought that God may have chosen to condemn to eternal hell one of their own children before the child was born and had done anything good or bad. It seems to me that this author is not willing to own up to the harsh reality that other Calvinistic scholars have openly confessed, but instead puts it off as something uniquely felt by Andy and other non-Calvinists.
Mothers, he said, would have a hard time reconciling their maternal instinct to protect, care for, and provide for their child with a view of salvation that, as he sees it, provides little assurance that they will be saved.
Again, is this merely “as he [Andy] sees it” or is it a reality given the claims of the Calvinistic worldview? In a rather moving and heartfelt message, John Piper concluded with these words…
“But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the almighty. He is God. I am but a man. The potter has absolute rights over the clay. Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.”
Notice that he confesses the lack of assurance that his sons are savingly loved by God. He admits the destiny of his own sons is something he, as their father, really has no influence on and therefore rests on the hope that they are numbered among the relatively few who are arbitrary selected before the foundation of the world.
Stanley rightly appeals to maternal instinct. A mother’s heart pulls at her in powerful ways. Why wouldn’t it? She’s created in God’s image, a God who cited a nursing mother when he wanted to show Israel how they could trust him (Isa. 49:15). If a nursing mother can’t forget her child, how much more can God whose image she bears? Even if she does, Isaiah says, God won’t forget you.
When Jesus longed for his people to repent and believe, he said this:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:14)
Even the apostle Paul used nursing-mother imagery to talk about his tender care for the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:7).
The maternal instinct is strong. It makes you do things you never thought you would or could do. It’s Godlike.
There are several issues that stand out in this section of the article. First, if God is “sovereignly controlling” their willingness or unwillingness, then what is the point of “Jesus’ longing” recorded for us numerous times throughout the scriptures? Is Jesus just pretending to want people He really doesn’t want, or that He really didn’t die for?
Second, how does this motherly comparison to God apply in a discussion about the likelihood that a particular mother may have an actual child who God has unchangeably elected for reprobation? In this instance the mother would be MORE not less self-sacrificially loving than God.
So I trust God in the care of my children, because he’s good, and he gave me (an image) to my children to tell the world what he is like… The clarity of Jesus’s words is striking and sobering. He’s in utter control, both of the means of salvation and also the sustaining grace that keeps us to the end. Perhaps this would be terrifying, as Stanley asserts, if you don’t know the character of the one telling you how this will all play out. But we know the character of God, who preserved his people through many tribulations and endured the ultimate trial on our behalf. We can trust him with our very lives, and with the lives of our beloved children.
What does it mean to say that God is good? What is it about the character of God that would cause us to trust him with the care of our children? Consider two potential caregivers:
- A caregiver that genuinely loves and takes good care of some of the children entrusted to him, but also uses a good portion of the children for his own pleasure at their expense and without regard to their well being.
- A caregiver that genuinely loves all the children, provides for them and desires the best for each one of them. And he takes good care of all the children entrusted to him so long as they do what he asks.
What is “terrifying” to Andy (and those of us who are objectively viewing God’s character from the Calvinistic vantage point) is that God, on Calvinism, is glorifying Himself even if it means the sacrifice of most people. He reprobates a good number of children, all of whom have mothers, for His own pleasure without any regard to that child’s choices or his parent’s nurturing care. Can we really call that “good?” If so, by what standard?
A Better Way
God does not sacrifice creation for the sake of His own glory, but instead He sacrifices Himself for sake of His creation, which in turn reveals Him as the most glorious of all. It is the selfless motive of Christ’s sacrifice that brings Him so much glory. To in anyway undermine the selflessness of the Divine motive actually undermines the very thing that makes His grace so glorious.
Dr. Jerry Walls summarized this issue quite well by appealing to the biblical teaching of John Wesley:
John Wesley underscored the fact that our theology will go off the rails if we do not keep squarely in mind that God’s very nature is love.
“It is not written, ‘God is justice,’ or ‘God is truth.’ [Although he is just and true in all his ways.] But it is written, ‘God is love,’ love in the abstract, without bounds; and ‘there is no end of his goodness.’ His love extends even to those who neither love nor fear him. He is good, even to the evil and the unthankful; yea, without any exception or limitation, to all the children of men. For ‘the Lord is loving [or good] to every man, and his mercy is over all his works.’”
Now I think we are in position to clearly see the heart of the difference between Wesleyan theology and Calvinist theology. The fundamental difference lies in how we understand the character and love of God. For the Wesleyan, the fact that God’s very nature is love means that he truly loves all persons and desires their salvation. He does everything he can to save all persons, short of overriding their freedom. For the Calvinist, by contrast, love is a sovereign choice, which means he gives his grace to some but not to others. He sovereignly chooses to save some among the mass of fallen sinners, but leaves the rest in their fallen condition, thereby consigning them to eternal damnation…
Again, the difference between Wesleyan theology and Calvinist theology could hardly be more profound at this point. The idea that God might need to damn many people, even if they could be saved with their freedom intact (as Calvinists understand freedom) is utterly at odds with the biblical picture of God, who loved us while we were yet sinners, and gave his Son for our salvation. As Wesleyans see it, God’s extraordinary love demonstrated most fully in Christ, and offered freely and truly to all persons displays his glory most clearly. God does not need any to be damned for his glory fully to be displayed. Those who are lost are lost entirely by their free choice to reject God’s glorious love and grace.
Wesleyans and Calvinists radically disagree, then, about the character of God, and how his glory is displayed. This is the issue we need to keep squarely in focus as we discuss and debate the vital biblical doctrines of sovereignty, predestination and election. <link>