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  • Writer's picturePastor Jared

What is Reformed Theology? - Dealing with Misconceptions

My students know that I have two tenets which guide my scholarship and theological thinking; and I demand that it guides theirs as well. Ironically, both were gleaned from an Arminian (at least he got these two things right).

  1. Before you say "I disagree" you must say "I understand" - So many Christians err on this one. They disagree with things they have no idea about. They may have heard from someone about Reformed theology (hereafter RT), and the person they heard it from may have heard about it from someone else, etc., but along that line, NOONE has taken the time and effort to study and understand RT. That is not acceptable. We must understand an opposing viewpoint before we critize it or engage it.

  2. Always deal with the best possible presentation of a view which you are examining - Often it is easier to take a fanatic or quack in a movement (and there are lots of those around) as representative of theological position or movement. We need to avoid doing this at all costs. We must, instead, take the best presentations and arguments offered by those viewpoints we oppose and deal with them; not the crazy nut jobs. For example, to debunk dispensationalism we should deal with Walvoord, Pentecost and MacArthur, not Lindsey, Van Impe or stuff written on the blood moons.

It is on account of the violation of these two principles that we have the legions of misconceptions concerning RT. You may disagree with RT, but then disagree with what it ACTUALLY says and not a straw man. Disagree with it because Scripture demands you to and not because you might not like it and/or its implications.

In an effort to clear up the some of the main misconceptions of RT I offer brief corrections to the 5 most common misunderstandings and misrepresentations of RT. I am not dealing with well-argued opposing viewpoints; all of what follows are bogus ideas that would be rendered mute if only one would truly understand RT. I will end this blog by offering a few very readable resources on RT.

Misconception #1 - RT says that people are robots and do not have free will - The assumptions abound in this statement, which need to be exposed in order to deal with the issue. For example, what is free will? How does the Bible define it? The answers to these two questions are not as simple as we might think because Scripture never defines free will, nor does it ever say that we actually have it. The Bible speaks about choice, about action, about consequences for action, and about doing what we want, but it never offers us a definition or any explicit, extended teaching on the nature of our 'free will'. Thus we must glean our information by inference and implication from the biblical text. And this is often when we go terrible wrong.

Stay with me here, the answer might get a bit confusing. (See here for an extended discussion of free will from a biblical perspective.)

The Arminian who objects to RT and its perspective on free will, argues for libertarian free will which is the power of contrary choice. A person might have reasons for doing what they do, but none of those reasons compel them to choose one thing over another, and none of those reasons are so compelling that, if given exactly the same situation again, they could not or would not choose the opposite. This means that we can choose A or B, without anything inside of us or outside of us moving us in that direction. For if we are pushed in the direction of either A or B, which leads to our choice of, say, A over B, then our wills are no longer truly free.

Arminians defend this philosophical view of free will by appealing to a simple line of reasoning. It goes like this - God asks us to obey and follow him, and there are consequences to doing so or not doing so; therefore we must be able to do so without any outside (including divine) influence. Thus our wills are free, unbound by anything (including God's influence for this would compel the will and thus deny us free will).

But hold on. There are a few problems with this line of thinking, some philosophical, but the main ones are biblical. First the philosophical issues. I'll keep them short.

  1. Choices as described above become entirely arbitrary in nature - if there is no compelling reason, a reason that moves the will in one direction or the other, all actions are arbitrary.

  2. The implication of this is simple and devastating - arbitrary unmotivated actions cannot be judged. They may be 'free' but they are meaningless actions since they are arbitrary.

Now the theological problems.

  1. It doesn't factor in the overwhelming biblical reality that we are totally depraved and as a result totally unable to do anything that is good, including choosing God for ourselves. Romans 3:9-18 settles that debate, and there are many other passages that confirm Paul's perspective.

  2. Jesus teaches us that our words and our actions come from within us - Mark 7:14-23. Our thoughts, disposition and actions are all significantly influenced by who we are; by our natures.

  3. What we are left with can be stated in this simple question - if we are wicked without God, and our attitudes, words and actions flow from that internal wickedness, then how free are we really? We can surely choose to do things, we are in fact self-determining beings, but what we will choose will always be in accord with who we are, and thus will be evil all the time.

  4. There is a difference, then, between physical ability and moral ability in our free will. We are physically able to obey Gods laws, we have reasoning ability, and the ability to speak and act. BUT we are morally unable to obey and follow God. For the Arminian, we must be free in both the physical and moral senses to truly be free. The Bible, however, does not agree. Our natures are bound by evil even though Gods commands stand. Thus we are free to obey God, even though we cannot. We are free and yet at the same time bound.

  5. Further, God doesn't even possess the kind of freedom Arminians desire us to have; and how thankful we should be! God's will is determined by his nature, and since he is holy, loving, perfect, etc., we know that all he does is in accord with this nature. How encouraging and wonderful this is!

  6. How God's knowledge of all things from eternity past and his sovereign eternal plan work together with our free will is a truly unanswerable paradox. The Bible doesn't tell us how it all fits together. All we know is this - God is sovereign and we are not. We are called to obey him and follow him. We know that without his sovereign, saving grace we cannot do so. And that is where we leave it.

RT theology affirms that people have the freedom of self-determination in the sense that we can choose to do that which we want, but that our choices are always bound by our natures and thus we are always influenced in our choosing. We do what we want to do, but what we want to do is determined by who we are. We do not, then, have the power of contrary choice, we will, apart from God, always choose evil all the time. As one commentator writes,

Calvinists affirm that human beings are always free to choose whatever they want. In this sense, they affirm free will. Yet, at the same time, Calvinists note that human beings are only free to choose “whatever they want.” In this sense, our will is not as free as we tend to think. It is limited by our natural desires. [which are evil apart from God]

Misconception #2 - If people are elect there is no reason to witness - Paul would disagree vehemently. In Romans 10:13-17, in the midst of a discussion in which he argues for divine election, Paul explains that without the preaching of the gospel people will not be saved. Faith, Paul says, comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ, and the word of Christ is brought forth by faithful preachers and evangelists.

This misconception does not arise from any Scripture passage or any RT theologian. It is a bogus misrepresentation of Reformed doctrine. The following commentator rightly identifies the perspective of RT,

Election is not a hindrance to evangelism. It simply explains to us why some believe the Gospel and why some do not. Jesus said to one group hearing Him "you do not believe because you are not My sheep" (John 10:26) and Luke explained the evangelistic results of the early church by declaring, "as many as were ordained to eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48)

Misconception #3 - If God elects only some to salvation, he is an unloving and unfair God - This is the big one for many. Most Christians have a concept of the love of God that, while very popular and very soothing to our human sentiment, is not particularly biblical. They believe that if God is love, he loves all people in just the same way and that since we are told in Scripture that God does not desire any to perish, (2 Peter 3:9) that he cannot, then, elect some to salvation and leave others in their sin.

Let's get one thing out of the way - nobody deserves salvation. All of us have fallen short of God's glory and all of us deserve death as payment for our sin. We all deserve Gods wrath, punishment and an eternity in hell. God does not elect some to salvation and some to damnation from a neutral standing point - as though we were all innocent and he chooses to damn some. He elects to save some out of the fallen and sinful human race, all of which are deserving of damnation.

Time and space does not allow me to review the biblical view of Gods love, except to say this - God does love everyone in some sense, but he has a love for his Son which is greater than his love for demons, and a love for his sheep which is greater than his love for the goats. God loves all, but not equally or in the same way.

The greater point at issue is this - does God's desire for all to be saved trump all of his other desires? It seems not, since not all are saved he must have a higher desire than to see all people come to faith. It seems that Gods will is not so easy to decipher and in fact Scripture articulates that God's willing is exceedingly complex. (Not that we should be surprised by this fact; cf. Deuteronomy 29:29) For the Arminian the desire to give humanity free will trumps his desire for all to be saved. Since all are not saved God doesn't get what he wants, but it is on account of his desire to allow humans libertarian free will. But for RT it is something different, that motivates God, something which is explicitly stated in Scripture as his highest goal for ALL things - the pursuit of his own glory. Ephesians 1:3-14 is patently clear on that point. Gods pursuit of his own glory is the reason given for choosing some and passing over others and it is his reason in EVERYTHING he does.

There is one further point to be made. Since all of Gods attributes are who he is and none is greater than any other (the doctrine of simplicity), we cannot elevate Gods love above his other attributes. This means that Gods election of some to salvation is loving, just, holy, righteous, gracious, etc.. For God cannot act in any other way.

Still have a struggle with the idea that God elects some and leaves others in their sin? Paul's answer to this objection needs to be heard,

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:14-18 ESV)

Misconception #4 - RT belief that salvation cannot be lost undermines the pursuit of continued holiness - RT defends a doctrine called the perseverance of the saints. It is NOT the same as 'once saved always saved' in Evangelical circles. This latter belief is usually tied to a prayer or a moment of conversion which is seen as the key that unlocks the door to heaven. Once prayed or stated, we are through the gate of heaven and nothing we can do could possibly remove us from God's house.

The RT view of perseverance is much different. It is God who preseveres the true believer. They are now a new creation and they are united with Christ and as such all of the blessings of God are theirs, including Christs victory over sin and the Holy Spirit given to them to apply those benefits moment by moment. It is God who, as Augustine says, demands what he wills, but also gives what he demands. We must follow Gods commands, not because it saves us or keeps us saved, but because we are doing our Master's will and submitting to his Lordship. Any person who does these things reveals the fruit of true salvation.

As one commentator writes,

In no way does Calvinism teach that a person born again may continue in their rebellion, sin against God, and see eternal life with the Creator. Instead, reformed theology upholds just the opposite: that a true Christian will manifest holy affections that prove their salvation, although they will always struggle with the sin nature that they have (see Romans 7).

Misconception $5 - Election is a violation of free will; thus God can potentially drag people into heaven that don't want to be there, and reject those who do - This one is related to #1 above and it misunderstands how God draws and saves. Given what we have argued for in many blogs and in #1, people are totally depraved and totally unable to save themselves. Thus they need the effectual calling of God, the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, and the gift of faith in order to believe in Christ unto salvation. RT thus teaches that God lovingly overcomes the natural rebellion in the sinner's heart so that they may accept his gift of salvation. J.I. Packer sums up this doctrine in a very succinct manner when he says, "Grace proves irresistible just because it destroys the disposition to resist"

There is no kicking or screaming on the part of those being saved, and their is no desire to be saved among those who are "dead in their trespasses and transgressions."

Recommended Reading on Reformed Theology

For Calvinism by Michael Horton

The Doctrines of Grace by James Montgomery Boice

What is Reformed Theology by R.C. Sproul

Redemption: Accomplished and Applied by John Murray

The Christian Life by Sinclair Ferguson

Soli Deo Gloria


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