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calvinism

December 08, 2008

Read an outside view on Calvinists or Calvinism, and you are sure to read something about God’s wrath. The God of Calvinism is a wrathful, vengeful God, boiling over in anger against any part of creation that has turned against him. He is no God of love, this. Sure, he may have some love for his elect, but to the rest of the world he is this angry, brooding presence eagerly awaiting the day of judgment in which he will cast the rest of humanity into the flames of hell.

I suppose Calvinists have sometimes given others reason to think that this is what we believe to be true of God. Perhaps Calvinists have at times erred by over-emphasizing God’s wrath and have done so at the expense of his love. But this angry, vengeful God is not the true God of the Calvinist.

It is good and useful, though, to consider the relationship of God’s love to his wrath. Are they equal characteristics or is one greater than the other? How can God both love and hate? Just recently I read a powerful response. It came from the pen (or more likely, the keyboard) of Michael Wittmer, professor of systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Do not let the title intimidate you. His new book Don’t Stop Believing (his previous book is Heaven Is a Place on Earth—anyone else noticing a pattern here?) is a very good, popular-level look at some of the hard questions facing Christians today. One of those questions concerns the cross and whether, as some have suggested, a traditional Christian understanding of the cross is tantamount to cosmic child abuse.

In this chapter Wittmer explains how we can (and must) reconcile God’s wrath with his love. “Scripture says that God is love and that he has wrath. This means that love lies deeper than wrath in the character of God. Love is his essential perfection, without which he would not be who he is. Wrath is love’s response to sin. It is God’s voluntary gag reflex at anything that destroys his good creation. God is against sin because he is for us, and he will vent his fury on everything that damages us.”

Love is at God’s very core. 1 John 4:8 says, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Through all of eternity, God has been love; he has existed in a state of love of Father to Son, Son to Spirit, Spirit to Father. There has never been a time that God has not been expressing love; nor will there ever be. But God’s wrath is far different. God has not always been wrathful. He has not always had to express anger. His anger is a reaction to a lack of love—a lack of love for him or a lack of love to others. Wrath is a response to sin. Thus wrath did not exist until sin existed. And as sin came to be, God had to respond to it in a way befitting his holy character. God’s response to sin is wrath. How could it be otherwise? Sin is cosmic treason against the Creator of the universe. He must respond.

At the cross, God’s love met God’s wrath. Wittmer says, “Jesus endured God’s wrath when he bore the curse of sin, but he also experienced God’s love, for the cross was a necessary step in crowning Jesus as Redeemer and Ruler of the world, the Lord whose exalted name forces every knee to the ground. Similarly, though we receive unmerited grace from Jesus’ passion, our old self of sin must die in order to rise to his new life of love.” And so wrath is closely tied to love. If God did not love, God would not be wrathful. It is because of his love that God has to feel and express his wrath. We cannot neatly separate the two. “Every act of God flows from his love, even—and especially—those that demonstrate his wrath.”

Is he a God of love or of wrath? God expresses both love and wrath, but where wrath is demonstrated, love is personified. God is love.

October 20, 2008

It was quite a while ago that I received an email from a father, concerned about the task of sharing the gospel with his children. While I answered the email then, I also filed it away for further thought. Today I want to answer it in a little bit more detail. Here is what this reader wrote to me:

I have such a hard time grasping this notion of election as a father. God made the very emotions in me (love, care, would lie down in front of an 18-wheeler for my children….he gave me that). But nothing can assure me that i can have an influence in whether their “number was called”?

I would appreciate any thoughts you have on this as I’m really struggling with it. Also struggle with why so much of Bible addresses us as decision making/choice making creature, appealing to us to recognize something and depart from sin and accept Christ. If God is simply “zapping” us with irresistible Grace, then it seems rigged and the begging / pleading to turn away sin and accept Christ is really not genuine? I just haven’t been able to reconcile these two paradoxes of Truth that seem to exist between Calvinisms viewpoint and choice.

I certainly understand the heart behind this question. I, too, am a father and one who is deeply concerned about the eternal welfare of my children. I love them so deeply and desire nothing greater than that they would turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Like this reader, I am sometimes tempted to express frustration with the way God has chosen to save a people for himself. But through it all I know that his ways are good; his ways are the best.

I will break my answer into three parts.

First, I think we need to have much greater confidence in God’s sovereignty than in the ability of our children to choose God without his foreordaining grace. This is why Calvinistic theology begins with “T” for Total Depravity. This doctrine tells us that without God’s grace, none of us could ever turn to him. We are so radically depraved that we are unable, totally unable, to follow God or to even want to follow God. Thus if we properly understand human nature, we will thank God that he has not left us ultimately responsible to choose whether or not we would want to be saved. The Bible tells us clearly that we would never make such a choice; we could never make such a choice. So we need to take refuge in God’s sovereignty and not make it an occasion of fear or dread. Our hearts are so wholly polluted by sin that God’s election is the only way that anyone could be saved, ever.

Second, I think it is helpful to see predestination as something that is of far greater concern to God than to us. While we see from Scripture that God has predestined his elect to eternal life, I’m not sure that it is helpful for us to think too much about who is among the elect and who is not. God has not seen fit to reveal that information to us. Charles Spurgeon once said something along these lines: “if a stripe were painted down the backs of the elect, then I’d go around lifting up coat-tails.” But there is no such mark; we cannot know infallibly who is among the elect. Human experience tells us that some people who seem to have everything going for them—great natural ability, an early interest in the Christian faith, a childhood spent in a Christian home—turn away from Christ while others come from the most unusual and rebellious circumstances and are drawn to him. Some people we could have sworn were Christians have fallen away while some who were utter rebels have had their hearts turned to God. We just cannot know who is counted among the elect.

When it comes to the task of preaching the gospel, we sometimes make a false distinction between the means and the end, assuming that since God has ordained the end we ought to take little interest in the means. When we hear of hypercalvinists, we hear of people who do just this. These people insist that, since God has already ordained who will be saved, we need to have little involvement with calling people to turn to him in repentance and faith. They say that we have no business extending the free call of the gospel to those who are unregenerate. But nothing could be further from the truth. While God has, indeed, ordained who will be saved, he has not told us who he will save. And so we are called us to take the gospel message far and wide, preaching it to all men and allowing God to work the gift of faith into those whom he has chosen for life. Our task in evangelism is not ultimately to win people to Christ but to faithfully preach the gospel message. If we have preached that message, we have done what God calls us to. We then leave the results to him.

Third, we need to be careful in how we understand God’s work of election. The Bible does not describe this work as “zapping” or “random” or anything of the sort. We know that God has chosen a people for Himself but he has not told us why or how. Scripture does not say that certain people “had their number called” and others did not. Instead, we read that God chose some because he had special love for them. There is nothing random about it. It is difficult to illustrate this, but I think we could turn to adoption as an example, albeit an imperfect one. When a couple sets out to adopt a child, they have a large number of potential children available to them. But somewhere in the process of adoption they set their heart on a particular child. It is not that they have chosen this child randomly and (hopefully!) they have not chosen this child for what he or she can do for them. Instead they have chosen to love this child, setting their affections upon him. I do not think many adoptive parents look at their selection of a child as random or arbitrary. Furthermore, their selection of a particular child is not unfair to the other children. One child was graciously selected for the special blessing of adoption while many others were not. Giving a gift to one person does not make it unfair to withhold a gift from another.

Too often, I think, we approach this subject from the point-of-view that every person deserves a chance to go to heaven. We see our sweet children and are unable to believe that they justly deserve an eternity of separation from God. And so we deem it unfair that they may not be among the elect and hence can never turn to Christ. But Scripture tells us that all men, even children, have turned away from Christ. All men have committed an act of cosmic treason and deserve to be punished for it. God chooses to extend grace to some, but not all. But the very fact that it is grace tells us that it is not deserved; it is a free gift.

I conclude by pointing again to the goodness (Psalm 107:1, James 1:17, Psalm 84:11) and sovereignty (1 Samuel 2:6-7, Psalm 135:5-6, Proverbs 16:9) of God. God is good and does only what is good. This is as true in election as in any other area. When the Lord calls us home and when we stand before him, we know that none of us will question God’s wisdom; none of us will deem him unfair or unkind. We will rejoice in his goodness and will rejoice in his sovereign choice.