The ungracious “doctrines of grace.”

by K.W. Leslie, 16 November
DOCTRINES OF GRACE 'dɒk.trɪnz əv greɪs noun. The six points of Calvinist soteriology: Deterministic sovereignty, human depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, efficacious grace, and certainty in one’s eternal destiny.

A number of Calvinists are uncomfortable with the title “Calvinist.”

For various reasons. Some of ’em don’t like being part of an “-ism.” They consider their theology part of a long, noble, five-century tradition. (Some of ’em try for longer: They claim the ancient Christians also believed just as they do. But good luck finding anyone other than St. Augustine who was comfortable with determinism.) In any event they want their tradition defined by something grander and longer than the reign and teachings of a solitary Genevan bishop, no matter how clever he was.

Others concede not everything Jean Calvin taught is right on the money. They won’t go so far as I do, and insist Calvin’s fixation on God’s sovereignty undermines God’s character. But obviously they’ve a problem with other ideas Calvin had which undermine God’s character. Like double predestination, the belief God created people whom he never intends to save, whose only purpose is to burn forever in hell, and thus be a contrast to God’s love and grace by showing off God’s hate and rage. Calvin acknowledged it’s a necessary logical conclusion of his system… but understandably a lot of Calvinists hate this idea, and try their darnedest to reason their way out of it. With varying degrees of failure.

Regardless the reason, many Calvinists prefer to call themselves “Reform Christians”—with a capital R, because they’re speaking of the Protestant Reformation, and not just any reformed Christian group. As far as some of Calvinists are concerned, they’re the only truly reformed part of the Reformation. The other movements capitulate to Roman Catholicism much too much for their taste.

The problem with relabeling? Yep, not every Reform Christian is Calvinist. Lutherans and Molinists aren’t necessarily. Arminians (like me) and Anabaptists certainly aren’t. If you’re Protestant, Reform means your movement and theology go back to the reformers of the 1500s, and you embrace the ideas of scriptural authority (prima/sola scriptura), salvation by grace (sola gratia), justification by faith (sola fide), and atonement by our sole mediator Christ Jesus (solus Christus). You know, stuff just about every Protestant believes—plus many a Catholic and Orthodox Christian, even though people in their church leadership might insist otherwise.

“The doctrines of grace” is the other label both “Reform Christians,” and Calvinists who don’t mind their title, like to use to describe their central beliefs about how God saves people—or as we theologians call this branch of theology, soteriology. They’re called “doctrines of grace” because God saves us by his grace, right? What else might you call ’em?

But like I said, Calvin’s fixation on sovereignty and power undermines God’s character. And in so doing, it undermines much of the grace in his system. Grace is God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude towards his people. But when Calvinism describes salvation, you’ll find not only is it not gracious: It’s coerced, involuntary, hollow, and sorta evil.

Not generous, but limited.

Grace offers salvation to everybody, to all who call on God’s name. Jn 1.12 Whereas Calvinism offers salvation to nobody.

No, not because God doesn’t wanna save people. See, according to John Calvin’s view of sovereignty, salvation doesn’t work that way at all. God’s in absolute, almighty control of the universe. Nobody gets saved without his say-so. So, scriptures regardless, calling on God’s name has nothing whatsoever to do with salvation. It’s entirely about God’s election. If he chooses to save us, we’re saved. If he chooses to not save us, we’re doomed.

What’s God’s election based on? Does he pick people who trust him, like Abraham? Or who obey him, like Moses? Calvin figured it’s actually neither. God picks people in spite of us not trusting him, not obeying him. But thanks to this grace, we respond to God with faith and obedience. While the rest of Christendom recognizes God grants this grace to absolutely everyone, Calvin insisted he doesn’t work like that: He only grants grace to the elect, those he chooses to save. Only they will naturally fall into the patterns and behaviors of a devout Christian. God passes over the rest, and they’re gonna remain totally depraved as usual. The elect respond to their election by invariably coming to Jesus. The rest don’t, so hell.

You thought coming to Jesus was in any way up to you? Nah, Calvin concluded: God’s been priming us for it. And not only has God readied us for Jesus, but that our free will is wholly an illusion: We’re just riding the grooves God laid out for us since the beginning of time. So really, God doesn’t offer salvation. It’s been assigned. We’ve no choice in the matter. Just the illusion of choice, at best.

Don’t Calvinists find this idea really bothersome? Not really. Because God chooses to save them! Their place in his kingdom is guaranteed by his irresistible will. It requires no further action nor stress on their part. So gracious of God to handle everything for them.

Well yeah it’s gracious of God… for them. What about everyone else?

Ah there’s the rub. See, limited election, limited atonement, limited salvation, limited anything, would be totally understandable coming from a limited God. Such a God can’t save everyone, so he’s what he can! But Calvinists correctly recognize God’s in no way limited, and can totally afford to not be parsimonious with salvation.

So… why’s he holding back then? Since there’s nothing stopping God from saving absolutely everyone, yet large swaths of humans are abandoned to hell, what’s the deal? Imagine a doctor who can treat everyone, but won’t… for his own personal, private reasons. Imagine a lifeguard who says, “Of course I don’t save everyone, and that’s why you should appreciate it all the more when I save you.” What the what?

How’s this gracious of God? How’s it generous? Is this the way God defines favoritism: In order to show his great love for some, he’s gotta screw over pass over everyone else?

Well, Calvinists say, yes. And they trot out this favorite proof text whenever we complain their interpretation of God turns him into a cosmic jerk:

Romans 9.20-24 LSB
20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? WILL THE THING MOLDED SAY TO THE MOLDER, “WHY DID YOU MAKE ME LIKE THIS”? Is 29.16, 45.9 21 Or does not the potter have authority over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 And what if God, wanting to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath having been prepared for destruction, 23 and in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles?

Yeah, they’re totally misusing this passage. These chapters of Romans are about election, not salvation. It’s about God choosing people, not saving people. But in Calvin’s view of sovereignty, election is salvation: When God does the one, the other automatically follows, because God is sovereign: He always gets what he wants. So the reason people go to hell is because God wants it so. If he didn’t want it so, they’d enter his kingdom!—but he doesn’t, so they don’t. And hey, it’s God’s prerogative to create “vessels of wrath,” “prepared for destruction.” Lucky for us, we’re “vessels of mercy,” predestined for heaven.

Once we realize Paul isn’t yet talking about salvation, turns out these chapters are actually about God’s prerogative to choose gentiles. ’Cause the LORD elected ancient Israel for his special attention, saved them from Egypt, gave them his Law, and offered to have a relationship with them. But not every ancient Israeli turned to the LORD and abandoned sin and idolatry. Election didn’t lead to their salvation. Because there’s another element necessary to catalyze salvation: Faith.

Through Jesus humanity, not just Israel, is elected for his special attention. God’s being patient with these “vessels of wrath” because there’s always a chance of saving them. 2Pe 3.9 But he really does want everybody, 1Ti 2.4 because Jesus didn’t only die to save some, but to save all. 1Jn 2.2 God loves the world enough to send us his Son. Jn 3.16

The problem isn’t a God who created an arbitrary, unnecessary cut-off point for salvation. It’s a humanity who would totally set limits on it if we were God. Calvin would; so he imagined a God who would, and told us that’s what God is like. No he’s not.

And though God wants to save everyone, humanity resists his will. We call this resistance sin; we do it all the time. People don’t care to obey God, much less repent and be saved. Because God is love, 1Jn 4.8 and love doesn’t force its way, 1Co 14.4-5 God’s not gonna reprogram people into followers when we resist him and want nothing to do with him. People go to hell because they choose hell.

But to the Calvinist, people only think we choose anything. People go to heaven because God decreed it; people go to hell because God, either wrathfully or passive-aggressively, decreed they’re not going to heaven. And again: Not because he’s short on resources, for he’s not. But because he just doesn’t wanna grant grace to those people. He shares humanity’s apathy. And really, to make himself look more impressive, in the scheme of things it’s a lot more important to him that they perish.

In what way does this idea not violate grace?

Not kind, but compulsory.

Grace is kind, for God is immeasurably kind. Ep 2.7 It’s because of his abundant kindness that we repent and turn to Jesus. Ro 2.4 Yet Calvinism doesn’t bother with kindness, ’cause under their system, grace isn’t a kindness. When God grants grace to humans, it’s irresistible. We can’t help but receive it.

Calvinists prefer the terms efficient and efficacious. (They put up with “irresistible” because it comes in handy for this “TULIP” acronym they like to use. “Irresistible” is the I.) The general idea is God’s grace is so potent, it saves everyone it touches. Ergo God can’t just grant it to anyone. It’d save ’em, and you might recall they insist God doesn’t wanna save everyone.

Paul described grace as a gift. Ro 5.15-17 Calvinists might use that word, but they’re using it wrong. To them it’s not a gift but an obligation. Gifts can be refused, remember? But to Calvinists it’s only our self-centered culture which insists a gift isn’t really a gift unless we can refuse it. That there are certain gifts which can’t actually be refused… like when your grandma foists ugly family heirlooms upon you. God’s grace is one such gift.

But in reality every culture defines gifts by whether they’re compulsory. When they are—when the giver calls it a “gift,” but we don’t think of it that way, and only play along lest we give offense—we don’t consider it a gift at all. No one does. You might’ve heard this story: The kings of Siam used to give sacred albino elephants to their courtiers. Sometimes as an honor—’cause they’re sacred—but the courtiers didn’t see it that way. They couldn’t refuse them, couldn’t give ’em away, and they were a huge expense. And their king was totally aware of this, yet often gave ’em these “white elephants” anyway, sometimes just to ruin them. The one significant thing missing from this so-called “gift”? You guessed it: Grace.

See, unwanted grace is an oxymoron. It’s not grace! Even when the person imposing the gift considers it grace. Like when I try to give a needy friend 20 dollars, ’cause he could totally use the money—but he refuses it because he “doesn’t do charity.” Look, you seriously need the money; take the money, you moron. But he won’t hear of it. And if I press him hard enough, at some point I’m actually no longer being gracious. I’m being an overzealous jerk, who’s trying to force my will upon someone else. Love doesn’t force its way, remember? 1Co 14.4-5 I gotta respect his refusal, even though I think he’s being a proud fool.

To Calvinists, God doesn’t have to respect us. Or our will. ’Cause he’s God. His will trumps his kindness.

See, whenever Calvinists imagine what they’d do if they were God, love always comes second to sovereignty. If God decides you should be saved, you will be. Your own free will doesn’t matter. Discussion’s over. ’Cause he loves you. And though you may not love him back just now, you’ll learn to. Just stop fighting them, close your eyes and go to your happy place, and let this happen.

No, this rapey scenario doesn’t accurately describe God in the slightest. God is love. He’s not gonna act in any way inconsistent with how he and his prophets have defined love.

From time to time God’s gonna judge and punish the wicked, but only in the course of defending the weak and righteous—because he loves them, and is acting out of love. And if the wicked repent and turn away from their evil, God’s often gonna stop judging and punishing them, because he loves them too. Ek 33.11

But we humans don’t care so much about love. Instead we care about and covet power, and that’s much of the reason some of us fixate so on God’s sovereignty. We’re totally willing to compromise God’s love in favor of his power, and try to emphasize his might and wrath and will and secret plan over his compassion and forgiveness. Even though the LORD defines himself and emphasizes these things, Ex 34.6-7 we skip right over that and fixate on how God’ll still let the evil suffer their consequences. ’Cause that’s the part we like best. Not the grace: The judgment.

Hence when Calvinists describe grace, it doesn’t sound gracious at all.

Love behaves kindly. Calvinist grace behaves no such way. It’s only “grace” because we get the good future. To hell with those who don’t.

Not about love for others, but God’s glory.

One of the slogans Calvinists keep trying to slip into the Protestant solas is sola Deo gloria/“for God’s glory alone.” Which is a great slogan… but not so great when we recognize what Calvinists mean by sovereignty.

See, Calvinists were looking for the meaning of life, and they’re pretty sure they found it in God. If everyone and everything would simply revolve around him, everything’d work out! And y’know, they’re not wrong. God knows how we oughta live; God knows how the universe oughta run. If we do seek his face, do submit to his will, things’d be way better than they are now. And in the End, God’s gonna fix humanity and the world—and we’re gonna praise him for it, and rightly so.

So far so good, right? Here’s where it all goes astray: Since the best thing for us is to prioritize God above all else, Calvinists presume God shares that attitude. That he prioritizes himself above all else. That everything he does has the goal of self-exaltation. Self-promotion. Self-glorification. Not for selfish reasons though: He’s doing it for our benefit. He glorifies himself so we can see we need to glorify him too.

Um… is self-glorification God’s primary motive? Not in the slightest. Love is. Love’s his sole motivation. He doesn’t need another.

And no, it’s not self-love. Love doesn’t promote itself. 1Co 13.4-5 Love considers others first. God actually prioritizes us above himself. So much so, he became human and died for us. But to Calvinists, anything which exalts a human—even God’s actions!—might puff us up, make us proud, make us think we’re worthy or good or anything other than dirty sinners. Can’t have that. Humanity must be brought low so God can be lifted high.

So humanity gets slammed, and God gets exalted. And supposedly, not only is God okay with this behavior, he does it himself. He slams us and exalts himself.

Is this how Jesus behaved when he walked the earth? Not at all. He came to earth so we could become God’s children. Jn 1.12 He didn’t exalt himself; he honored his Father, Jn 8.49 and left it to his Father to honor him. Ac 5.31 Because love doesn’t exalt itself. It exalts others.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t honor God. Of course we should. Nor am I saying it’s okay for us to exalt ourselves; we do plenty enough of that as it is. But this idea God gets to self-promote… well, it has a bothersome side effect. Namely that Calvinists figure there exists a form of selfishness which is actually okay: Divine selfishness. It’s okay for God to seek his own, even though love doesn’t do that. It’s okay for God to prioritize his glory over our needs, even though love definitely doesn’t do that. And sometimes—and in practice it turns out to be often—we get to be selfish too. Just a little. After all, God does it.

A graceless religion.

Y’know, whenever disaster strikes, and pagans wanna snipe at God over it, how do they usually depict him? Exactly the way I’ve described the Calvinists do. Their interpretation of God lacks grace, and who wants to follow a graceless God?

Well, people who imagine they’re exceptions to his gracelessness. Who figure the rest of the world is getting destroyed, but they get to escape God’s raging judgment ’cause they’re his special favorites. Who figure if God limits his grace, it’s probably okay if they do too. Gracelessness begets gracelessness.

You can probably see from this article why I’m not Calvinist. I have big problems with the fruitlessness of their whole system. To be fair I’ve known many fruitful, generous, gracious Calvinists; my theology professors in particular. But their graciousness doesn’t derive from “the doctrines of grace” whatsoever. They stem from a personal relationship with Christ Jesus, whose interaction with them supersedes a lot of the faulty wiring in Calvinist soteriology.

That’s them. Now if you’re a Christian who has no such personal relationship—like a cessationist whose only “relationship with God” is really with their bible, who resists the Holy Spirit instead of letting him correct ’em—your attitude and behavior is gonna be amplified, and justified, by your theology. If you’re a friendly, patient person, you’re gonna interpret “the doctrines of grace” in a friendly, patient way. If you’re kind of an impatient pain in the tuchus, your theology’s gonna be just as graceless as you. Know any cranky preachers? That’s why. Doesn’t matter whether they’re Calvinist or not: Christendom has plenty of graceless legalists of every stripe, who forget to forgive sin and love sinners.

But if you’re looking for a graceless God to suit your own bad attitudes, Calvinism’ll do ya. Plus it’ll let you call God’s supposed evil plan to save few and destroy many, “grace.” Now that’s some 180-degree rebranding worthy of the archfiend itself.