We’ve talked through a book on the topic by Richard Mouw, the history of the doctrine, and I offered my own humble reframing of Calvinism’s traditional first three “points”: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, and Limited Atonement. Today, we will look at the final two emphases of Calvinist belief.
I hope you’ve been challenged to evaluate Calvinism in broader and deeper ways so that, if you already agreed with it, you were challenged in the complexity and nuance of the issues here; and if you did not, that you found Calvinism a bit more inviting and interesting.
For more on just how broad and diverse Calvinist thought it, I can’t more highly reccomend Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology or the book that initiated this whole discussion, Richard Mouw’s Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport.
Irresistible, Subliminal Grace
Calvinist doctrine got its start in an atmosphere of extreme abstract and academic thinking called Scholasticism. This means that pretty much every traditional aspect of Calvinism is very ethereal and takes a more “God-perspective” of things, with little to be said for actual human experience.
That’s part of what gives Calvinism its reputation of arrogance. So much of what it says flies in the face of our intuitions and how it feels to live real, human life. This doctrine, usually called “Irresistible Grace”, is a good example of this.
We all sin. We do wrong things. We feel impulses toward both good and bad things and resist these pulls and draws all the time. And yet, this doctrine says that God’s call for people to believe in him and become his own cannot be resisted by humans. Calvinism is saying, in essence, that the single most consequential decision for you, the world, and eternity is something you cannot say “no”.
How do we understand this? Well I have various strands and fragments that help me sort it out.
(1) There is no such thing as “free” will. We cannot will ourselves to fly, for example. Our wills are never fully “free”. They are free within limits and boundaries. Even God isn’t “free” in this sense. He can’t will himself to be evil or not exist. Or rather, maybe instead of “can’t” we ought to say “won’t”. Our wills always act in accordance to our nature. And so if God, by his grace, changes our nature in union to him, then we will only ever always say “yes” in accordance with that nature.
(2) God is the one for whom our souls were made. We just “fit” with him. Our deepest selves and his deepest self were made and destined for union. And so, someone can no more say no to this union than a magnet can change its own polarity after already being joined to another magnet.
(3) I have an image in my head that always pop up when I think of this doctrine. Imagine you’re dead, drowned at the bottom of a pool. God reaches in, picks you up, and breathes new life into you. You take your first gasp of fresh air and open your eyes again to see reality with more fullness and beauty and clarity than you ever did before. Further, you’re staring in the face of the God who made you, for whom your soul was made and finds its rest. God looks at you and says, “I can let you die again, if you want. Just say the word.” Will you ever choose that? In other words: even if grace was resistible, we simply wouldn’t.
Perseverance of the Kingdom Creation
The last point of Calvinism in called “Perseverance of the Saints”. This pretty much means that once you belong to God, you can never “un-belong” to him. God’s people (the “Saints”) will “persevere” to the end, no matter what comes their way.
The idea here is that “salvation” belongs to God, not to us. Just as with Irresistible Grace above, I often tell people, “you can lose your salvation; but you won’t.” I suppose technically, God could release his hold of you, but he has said he won’t.
“Perseverance”, then, is not a naive, simplistic “once saved; always saved!” triumphalism. It is a radical trust in the nature and character of God that he constantly, at all times and situations, is upholding you and committing himself to you.
But again, as with so much of this Calvinism discussion, we too often (even here in this post) only talk about individuals. Fundamentally, though, election, salvation, etc. are done at the “corporate”, or communal level, and only secondarily overflow into our individual lives.
And so, in a sense, this discussion about whether individuals can “lose” their salvation is a little ridiculous. The Church is not an assemblage of “saved individuals”; it is the realm in which Salvation exists. Salvation is not your own little personal gift from Jesus, it is the future destiny of God’s Kingdom and Creation breaking into the present.
Salvation is a reality we are called to “inhabit” more than a binary legal status we suddenly “obtain”. Salvation simply is the accomplished reality for all of creation–some people are numb to this fact, others receive it with gladness and gratitude, but it nevertheless true. Salvation isn’t something you “get” or “lose” or have “taken away”; it’s a Kingdom you’re brought into; it’s the guaranteed future destiny of all things which you’re invited to participate in.
So no, people can’t “lose their salvation” because Creation and the Cosmos can’t lose theirs. God’s ruling Kingdom is here, now. Creation and the Church have been promised this newness of life and salvation.
Jesus: The First & Final Calvinist
To tie this all up, we go back to Jesus. All the parts of Calvinism that might be true are only true because Jesus was the first person experience both sides of the Calvinist equation:
- He is both the righteous standard and took on our Total Depravity;
- he is both the Electing One and the Elect One;
- he is both the Judge and the particular, specific place of atoning judgment;
- he is both the Divine Caller and the Obedient Called;
- and he is both the Saint that went to Hell and the persevering one that came out the other side, destroying its power.
Asking if the Saints will persevere is the exact same question as “did Jesus rise from the dead” and “will God make all things new”? They are the same question, and thus can only have the same answer. You as an individual have no salvation to lose. Jesus has the salvation, and you cannot and will not lose him. He has promised. I’ll leave us with these words from Lesslie Newbigin from his remarkable little book The Open Secret:
There is no election apart from Christ [who is] the chosen one…. It is through him and in him that those little companies of believers in Ephesus and the other Asian cities have been chosen, “destined in love” (1:5), “appointed to live for the praise of his glory” (1:12), and entrusted with the understanding of the “mystery” of God’s purpose to “unite all things in Christ” (1:9-10). It is all the action of the Father, who has freely chosen them in his beloved Son and assured them of the completion of what he has begun by giving them the Spirit – “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it”. The whole action has its origin in the eternal being of the triune God before the creation, it has its goal in the final unity of the whole creation in Christ.
[image credit: Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal”]