Justin Taylor Answers Questions for Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans has been doing an interview series, and today’s installment is “Ask A Calvinist.” Justin Taylor does a fantastic job fielding questions from Rachel’s readers. I think his engagement is a model of gospel clarity and charity. Be sure to read this one.

Here are the questions posed to Justin:

From Dustin: Hi Justin, thanks for your time!  The link Rachel provides for the “neo-reformed movement” implies that you would doubt the salvation of anyone who does not share your particular interpretation of Scripture regarding Reformed Theology.   Is this an accurate portrayal? If so, what leads you to believe that this issue is essential doctrine for salvation as opposed to an area where two committed followers of Christ can reasonably disagree? If it is not an accurate portrayal, then how do you view those of different perspectives?

From Josh: What, if anything, within Calvinism makes you feel uncomfortable? Is there anything particularly hard for you to swallow? What is the hardest tenet of Calvinism for you to buy into?

From Charissa: I have wrestled with the issue of Calvinism for as long as I can remember. One of my biggest struggles is with our inherent understandings of mercy and grace. The idea of God pre-destining someone to hell with no POSSIBLE way of anything other than that happening is repulsive to me and offends my sense of justice. And when I ask my Reformed/Calvinist friends if this bothers them as well, I usually get something like this, “God’s ways are not our ways. Everything God does is just, so if someone is going to hell we can trust that God is still good even in that.” So my question is this: How does that logic not make our understandings of right and wrong completely arbitrary and meaningless? What does it make of our God-given sense of right, wrong, justice, and mercy?

From Kat: What would you tell someone who has not been chosen by God to be saved?

From Susie: If there is limited atonement and irresistible grace, then why do we bother with mission work and strive to spread the Gospel?

From Justin B.: Looking back over the controversy with Love Wins, do you wish you would have done anything differently? The firestorm, after all, was started by your blog post accusing Bell of heresy before his book was even released.

From Don: I do not see how Calvinism does not lead to a kind of fatalism, if what will be will be and cannot be changed, why try to change anything?  Just accept your fate.   When I read Calvinists it seems like they keep trying to explain why their faith is NOT like this, even though from an outsider’s perspective it really IS like this.  So any wisdom you can impart here would help me better understand.

From Brian: My question is one of personal advice.  I grew up Reformed, have been a member of a Reformed church nearly my whole life (I’m 33).  For the most part, I’ve always been deeply committed to the doctrines I’ve learned in this tradition & lived committed to spreading the good news of our sovereign God.  Lately, though, I’ve been reading a lot.  I’ve let myself read other views – something I had always avoided – and have spent a lot of time reading blogs, like this one.  I still think a lot of this stuff is crazy, thought Rob Bell was way off par, and very much lean towards Calvinism.  But the truth is… I can’t say I’m 100% sure anymore. And that torments me… If I don’t believe 100% in reformed theology, if I’m not sure… am I even saved?  How can I really know if I’m one of the elect?  And what should I do from here?  I’ve always admired your writings, Justin – wondering if you can reach out to a fellow brother & give me some advice.  I’ve found myself teetering on the edge of faith & it’s a terribly scary place to be.  I don’t know what to do. 

23 Responses to Justin Taylor Answers Questions for Rachel Held Evans

  1. Donald Johnson September 8, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    I ‘fess up to asking the question from Don.

    I guess I would need a face to face Q and A to better understand, but his answers were a start.

  2. Tom1st September 8, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

    The question I would’ve asked….

    Calvinists believe that God COULD save ALL PERSONS without violating their free will (that is, free will and determinism are ‘compatible.’)

    But God chooses NOT to do so.

    Why? How can we really speak of God’s love (genuine love that strives to bring the sinner into Triune relational love!) when HE COULD HAVE SAVED ANYONE without violating their free will, but HE CHOSE NOT TO.

    Yeah, let’s blame the sinner all day long. But in the end, God determined how things would be. And God determined that, though he could save/choose everyone, he would only choose a few.

    That’s not really what I call love.

    How, Justin, do you explain God’s love in light of this fact that God could save everyone without violating their free will, but has chosen not to?

    That, to me, is the heart of the matter.

  3. RD September 9, 2011 at 7:45 am #

    If scripture tells us that anyone who believes in Jesus will not perish but, instead, will have eternal life (John 3:16), but God has already determined who will believe and who won’t, then scripture is completely misleading. Should a true Calvinist reading of the verse go something like- For God so loved the whole world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever God determined would believe in him would not perish but have eternal life.

    If each human being makes the choice, freely and of his/her own volition, then John 3:16 can stand as written. If God makes that decision – determines (a strong word) before the creation of the world – who are saved and who are lost, then there is no way the verse can be honest.

    And, if God can determine from the foundations of the universe, who will be saved and who won’t be, why would God determine to put the entire scenario in play the way he has? This means God determined that Satan would rebell against his authority, that evil would exist in the universe, that human beings would be sinful (humans never had a choice- when God said, don’t eat of that tree, Eve had no choice but to disobey since God determined she should disobey), that Jesus would die a brutal and humiliating death on a cross simply because God determined the scenario to be a, primarily, bloody and horrific endeavor for most. Determine, again, is such a strong word! It means God set everything up to take place in an one specific way (designed the race track to follow a predetermined path). This begs the obvious question, why not determine that all would be saved? Or that there never was a fall to begin with?

    • Tom1st September 9, 2011 at 9:46 am #

      RD – To be fair to our Calvinists brothers and sisters, they really can read John 3:16 – whoever believes will be saved. I certainly see your larger point, but i don’t think they misleadingly use that verse. Again, they believe that human free choice and God’s determination are compatible. Thus humans do make a ‘free’ choice. And God really does determine. There’s no contradiction here with John 3:16, unless we assume Liberatrian Free Will (which I do, but they don’t).

      I have a lot of your same questions in the last paragraph. I find Calvinist answers to most of those insufficient, too. Though, they are right that some things are just a mystery.

  4. RD September 9, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Thanks for the comment Tom1st,

    I’m first to insist that there is much mystery to the faith, and much that we don’t understand. Still, the idea of determinism seems like something that isn’t mysterious, really. Either something is determined (outcomes set with no possible chance of alternative outcome) or its open. If a gang member determines that he is going to shoot a victim, and then tells that victim to beg for his life if he wants to live, the victim can beg all day long, but the outcome is determined. The shooter shoots. Period. It’s determined. To suggest that the victim truly had an honest chance of changing the outcome by begging is silly. Conversely, if the victim refused to beg and was then shot, was it because he refused to obey the command of the shooter (even though the shooter was going to shoot him whether he begged or not)?

    If human beings have honest choice and outcomes are not set in stone, then human beings bear responsibility for choices and outcomes. If everything is determined, there is no personal responsibility. Outcomes are the responsibility of the one who truly determines those outcomes. If God determined – one outcome possible – that Eve would disobey and eat the fruit, then Eve had no choice and human fallenness is God’s responsibility. God is the reason we are sinners. That is, if God is deterministic. I don’t think he is.

  5. Tom1st September 9, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Yes. We are most definitely in agreement. I find Calvinism logically, theologically, and emotionally problematic. I just try to go out of my way to be as fair as I can to how THEY approach things.

    They don’t believe in outright determinism (though they somtimes tend to slip into that language). They believe in compatibilism – determinism + freewill.

    God doesn’t determine a person’s actions; he determines their affections. They, then, act (by their own ‘free will’) according to their affections.

    They ACT how they choose to act. God determines only their affections. BUT he also created them to only be able to ACT according to their deepest affections.

    Again, I have huge problems with this. I just wanted to clarify their position…since, uh, it seems no one else has taken up our questions 🙂

  6. Darius September 9, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    Tom and RD, the problem is that if God doesn’t choose who is saved, then how does one get saved? The Bible says we are all naturally enemies of God and that only by Him making the first step of renewing our hearts can we choose to love Him. So logically, for anyone to not be saved, He hasn’t chosen to renew their hearts. And that’s not because some hearts are just harder than others (though that may be the case), since that would lead to a salvation by works (or salvation by being better than others). It’s grace, completely grace. As for your other questions… I would encourage you to read Romans 7-10 (and beyond) with an unbiased eye. Let it say what it actually says, and you will see that the kind of free-will theology that you believe in is not Biblical. I’ve been reading a prominent agnostic book recently and even the author (an avowed agnostic but atheist when it comes to the Christian God) recognizes that libertarian free will is not a Biblical concept. Plus, libertarian free will isn’t logical at all. Not one person makes decisions independent of their own nature, much less God’s interaction with that nature.

  7. Tom1st September 9, 2011 at 3:48 pm #

    I really don’t mean to sound snide, but by “unbiased eye” you mean, like Calvinists have? I only wish I had an unbiased eye! I’m sorry, friend, but such a comment smacks of arrogance. And you may not have intended it that way, but you need to know how you ‘sound’ when you say something like that…that Arminians who’ve been reading Romans for 500+ years were all misunderstanding it because they were biased and you’re not.

    With that said…

    Still, my question remains unanswered. All you’ve done is given us a paragraph long statement which basically reads, “I’m a Calvinist because my unbiased reading of scripture supports it.”

    Furthermore, if you think Arminians believe “persons can make a decision independent of their nature” and apart from “grace, completely grace” then you have totally misunderstood Arminianism. In which case, “the kind of free-will theology” you think I believe in isn’t the kind of free-will theology I really do believe in…nor do any informed Arminians I know.

    Besides – for the Arminian, free-will is NOT, NOT, NOT the main issue. We believe in ‘free will’ only as a logical implication of our larger theology of God’s love. We don’t start with free will or defend it for it’s own sake. That’s a misunderstanding of Arminianism, too.

    Indeed, quite to the contrary, like Calvinists, we believe the natural person has a bonded will that is in slavery to sin. All their choices are enabled by God’s prevenient grace. So, yes, we believe all is of grace and nothing but grace. But our wills are ONLY FREE WHEN WE SUBMIT THEM TO GOD. They are NOT free by nature. Let’s be clear about that.

    Also, honestly, I don’t really care what the agnostic says. 1) Because Free will is not my primary point of defense for Calvinism, and 2) I’m sure you wouldn’t care if I cited a different person who said a different thing; so I think you can understand.

    FINALLY: Here’s what I want Calvinists to admit: If true love is desiring and working for the flourishing of the other person, and the flourishing of the other person is grounded in their knowledge of God, then to truly love someone means to desire that they know God in a saving way. Now, Calvinists DON’T believe God really desires all persons to know him and flourish in him. And if God doesn’t desire that, he doesn’t really love all persons. He only truly loves the elect.

    Are you willing to admit that, Darius? I hope so, because it’s what you believe.

    Because, in the end, God could save all persons without violating their free will. But God chooses NOT to do so. Therefore, he only wants to save .00001% of the population he created. And he really only expresses his love to that population. All other persons are given revelation in order to further their damnation (which hardly seems like ‘love’ to me…and I bet you would agree if you look at it with ‘unbiased eyes.’).

    So just be upfront about it – Admit you don’t believe God loves most of the people he created. That’s all I’d ask from Justin Taylor, Denny, you, or any Calvinist.

  8. Tom1st September 9, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

    Is there a reason I’m being moderated.

    Haven’t said anything rude, I promise! 🙂

  9. Tom1st September 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    Let’s try to post this again…

    Darius,
    I really don’t mean to sound snide, but by “unbiased eye” you mean, like Calvinists have? I only wish I had an unbiased eye! I’m sorry, friend, but such a comment smacks of arrogance. And you may not have intended it that way, but you need to know how you ‘sound’ when you say something like that…that Arminians who’ve been reading Romans for 500+ years were all misunderstanding it because they were biased and you’re not.

    With that said…

    Still, my question remains unanswered. All you’ve done is given us a paragraph long statement which basically reads, “I’m a Calvinist because my unbiased reading of scripture supports it.”

    Furthermore, if you think Arminians believe “persons can make a decision independent of their nature” and apart from “grace, completely grace” then you have totally misunderstood Arminianism. In which case, “the kind of free-will theology” you think I believe in isn’t the kind of free-will theology I really do believe in…nor do any informed Arminians I know.

    Besides – for the Arminian, free-will is NOT, NOT, NOT the main issue. We believe in ‘free will’ only as a logical implication of our larger theology of God’s love. We don’t start with free will or defend it for it’s own sake. That’s a misunderstanding of Arminianism, too.

    Indeed, quite to the contrary, like Calvinists, we believe the natural person has a bonded will that is in slavery to sin. All their choices are enabled by God’s prevenient grace. So, yes, we believe all is of grace and nothing but grace. But our wills are ONLY FREE WHEN WE SUBMIT THEM TO GOD. They are NOT free by nature. Let’s be clear about that.

    Also, honestly, I don’t really care what the agnostic says. 1) Because Free will is not my primary point of defense for Calvinism, and 2) I’m sure you wouldn’t care if I cited a different person who said a different thing; so I think you can understand.

    FINALLY: Here’s what I want Calvinists to admit: If true love is desiring and working for the flourishing of the other person, and the flourishing of the other person is grounded in their knowledge of God, then to truly love someone means to desire that they know God in a saving way. Now, Calvinists DON’T believe God really desires all persons to know him and flourish in him. And if God doesn’t desire that, he doesn’t really love all persons. He only truly loves the elect.

    Are you willing to admit that, Darius? I hope so, because it’s what you believe.

    Because, in the end, God could save all persons without violating their free will. But God chooses NOT to do so. Therefore, he only wants to save .00001% of the population he created. And he really only expresses his love to that population. All other persons are given revelation in order to further their damnation (which hardly seems like ‘love’ to me…and I bet you would agree if you look at it with ‘unbiased eyes.’).

    So just be upfront about it – Admit you don’t believe God loves most of the people he created. That’s all I’d ask from Justin Taylor, Denny, you, or any Calvinist.

  10. Darius September 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    Sometimes Denny’s blog just randomly moderates… I’ll keep my eyes peeled for your comment, Tom. 🙂

  11. Tom1st September 9, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    Thanks, Darius.

    I tried again…but, alas, it failed again due to waiting on moderation.

    Until then…in short…

    1) Didn’t like your ‘unbiased eyes’ comment.
    2) Didn’t feel like you addressed my original question.
    3)Free will is NOT the main point of Arminian theology. It’s an implication of it, not the ground of it. This matters!
    4) Would like Calvinist to admit they don’t believe God loves the non-elect (love being defined as a desire for/taking actions to bring all persons into triune redemption.)

    I was a little more long-winded above. And I’m a direct, get-to-the-point kind of guy. That comes off as rude sometimes over written communication. Please don’t take it that way.

    Cheers, mate.

  12. Darius September 9, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    1) The reason I said “unbiased” is that Paul specifically asks and answers some of the questions that non-Calvinists always bring up, like “Does God really choose some for salvation and some for destruction?” It’s right there in Romans, I don’t understand why we have to find ways to deny it.

    2) Sorry about that, I forgot about your original question, which was “How… do you explain God’s love in light of this fact that God could save everyone without violating their free will, but has chosen not to?”

    Leaving aside the fact that I believe God DOES “violate” free will, I would explain God’s love with a couple primary considerations. One, man is not the center of the universe, God is. We are merely ants in His creation (though we are worth more than ants, just so you don’t misunderstand me). Two, His creating the world was not primarily about man. Man was the pinnacle of all created things, but he wasn’t the purpose for it. Displaying God’s glory was the purpose. How, you ask? By showing his love… as N.D. Wilson says in his excellent book, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, “[Creation] exists so that He might be demeaned and insulted, so that the depth of His love and sacrifice could be expressed as much as is possible in the small frame of history.” I view the history of eternity like this: Satan rebelled against God, claiming that God wasn’t the best, most glorious, all-good being that He claimed to be. God said “fine, let me show you just how great and good I really am.” And everything since He first spoke this world into existence has been about God showing that greatness to the angels, demons, and all of His creation (Col 2:14).

    4) Fine, if you define love that way, then yes, God doesn’t love the non-elect.

    No problem, I’m a direct guy too, so I understand.

  13. Tom1st September 9, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    1) We will just disagree on this matter. I’m okay with that. But that wasn’t the essence of my complaint, anyway.

    2) You think God violates free will? That’s not classical Calvinism, which states that they are compatible WITHOUT VIOLATION. But I don’t care to argue this point. You’re free to believe what you want.

    3) Also, I find your position disturbing. But it’s not just yours, it’s Calvinism’s in general. So nothing personal directed at you.

    4) I define love like Jesus does…with unbiased eyes, at least 🙂 (I jest, of course!)

  14. Darius September 9, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    4) Psalms tells us that “the Lord hates the wicked.” What do you do with that? Is the Psalmist lying?

  15. Darius September 9, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Oh, and 2) I was referring to libertarian free will, which classical Calvinism does not support. God clearly DOES affect our behavior or decisions. That’s not of our own doing, so that none of us can boast (wait, where have I heard that before? 🙂 ).

  16. Tom1st September 9, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    Was the psalmist lying? Aww, c’mon, man, give me some more credit than that. Of course the psalmist wasn’t lying.

    But the first rule you learn in Hermeneutics 101 is that genre’s the first thing you need to determine. And as the psalms are part of the literary genre of poetry, and as poetry is filled with exaggeration (that’s part of the genre’s very DNA) then I’d consider that an important piece of interpreting Psalm 5:5

    Furthermore, as an completely biased (read: enculturated/contextualized) person, I must also recognize that words like ‘love’ and ‘hate’ don’t translate 1 to 1 into our culture. God’s love and hate are covenantal words in the OT, not strictly emotional words (like in our culture). The point being that the exaggerated language of ‘hate’ combined with the cultural context give us a good indication that the psalmist point is exactly true – Those who are wicked fall outside of God’s covenant (which is Paul’s point [and Malachi’s] when he writes of the same thing concerning Jacob and Esau in Romans 9…he’s building on a covenant theme he’s been talking about the entire book.).

    Was the psalmist lying? No. He was writing poetry. Plain and simple.

    Per your #2 – No Arminian I know boasts of winning his/her salvation on her own doing. But, then again, I don’t think Paul’s polemics in Romans were about ‘works salvation’ of which people can boast, but about covenantal and ethnic identity brought about through specific ‘works of the law’ which were identity markers regarding ‘whose in the covenant’, not ‘how is one saved.’ So, yes, I agree with Paul that no one can boast in their salvation. All is of grace! All is of mercy!

  17. Tom1st September 9, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    I just to be clear – by ‘exaggeration’ I simply mean that the point of poetry is that language gets strained on purpose; it expresses deep emotion and is highly metaphorized and symbolic. The very genre itself calls for us to be careful in our literal interpretations, highly sensitive to exaggeration, metaphors, authors context, etc. so as not to take the poem beyond what it intends.

    In other words, Psalm 5:5 is not a good place to begin if you want to create a doctrine of God’s hatred for all persons whom he has not chosen.

    With all of that said, I am content with your words, “if you define love that way, then yes, God doesn’t love the non-elect..” That’s really what I wanted to hear. Thank you for being honest about it. I appreciate an honest Calvinist who doesn’t shroud their true beliefs in euphemism.

  18. Darius September 9, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

    Fair enough, Tom, and sorry about some of the snarky comments from me, I tend to make those more often than I should. Very good comments regarding the hermeneutical context of poetry and genre, I agree that one shouldn’t build too much of a theology from a single poetic verse. But I don’t, the Bible shows repeatedly where God “hates” one person and “loves” another, even though the one He loves can actually seem like the one with more character flaws. For example, God loved Jacob and hated Esau, even though for the most part, Jacob was a loser compared to his brother. As Paul says in Romans 9, God chooses some for mercy and some for wrath. As the pots (or ants), we don’t have a right to question why God does that. We merely are to proclaim what the Bible proclaims: God loves the world and has died for it and all men who choose life through Jesus will live.

    As for God loving the non-elect… in a sense He does, since He loves and pities all men. But in another sense, He doesn’t. Not all are His people, and we don’t become His people because of something good in us or some ability we have that others don’t. And God’s love has many facets, and His main concern isn’t saving all people. It is displaying His glory, which apparently, if we are to believe the Bible, is displayed best by saving some people of all humanity who deserve death.

    Some mystery there, but I think we can grasp some of it through the prism of Calvinism. I don’t see other theological views as being as Biblically consistent on all aspects. I think that a big tripping point is that if we say God wishes all to be saved and would really really love it if everyone chose Him but can’t break someone’s heart against their will, we logically deny large parts of the Gospel, particularly the total depravity aspect as well as salvation by grace. There is nothing in me that is any less depraved than in someone who rejects Christ his whole life and goes to hell. God didn’t pick me because of anything in me, at least, not from my knowledge of my heart nor based on what the Bible says. So if I start saying that the only reason that not all people are saved is because some of them are too hard-hearted, that necessarily implies that I did or had something that helped to accomplish my salvation. I don’t want to boast in myself, I boast in Christ despite myself.

  19. Tom1st September 10, 2011 at 12:21 am #

    No need to apologize, man. I’ve made my fair share of snarky comments in my day. I’ve got no room to judge anyone.

    In the end, we could go over and over our exegetical reasons. But I’m just ‘beyond’ being interested in that…at least on blogs. As a pastor, my time is way too limited. I’d much rather be loving on people…elect and ‘non-elect’ alike 🙂

    Besides, it’s not like I’ve got perfect theology or anything. Unlike Justin Taylor, both when I was a Calvinist and now as an Arminian, I always have serious questions about my theology. It wouldn’t be too long before I’d say, “Yup, you’re right. That’s an Arminian weakness in exegesis.”

    And, yes, God’s love is complex and vast and beautiful and glorious. And his love is exactly how he has chosen to glorify himself…by sending his Son to die on a cross and displaying His humility and glory and love all in one package.

    And that, my friend, is why this debate will never be settled. We can never speak too highly of God’s love. We can never speak too highly of his justice. We can never speak too highly of Him.

    We simply disagree on the details of all of it. And I’m content with that. And with your honesty regarding God’s lack of desire to save all persons or love them in a saving way.

    And we boast only in Christ together…and not at all in our systematic theologies!

  20. Darius September 10, 2011 at 12:55 am #

    Amen, brother.

  21. Darius September 10, 2011 at 1:05 am #

    Oh, your comment got unmoderated.. we’ve hit on most of it already, but here is one comment I want to address: “Therefore, he only wants to save .00001% of the population he created.”

    I don’t believe that he’s saving so few people. I believe that by the end of the world, upon Christ’s final return, that he may very well save MOST of the people who have ever lived. Or, at the very least, a huge minority of them. As a postmillennial/amillennialist, I believe God is actually doing what He said he was going to do between Christ’s ascension and His return: put everything and everyone under Jesus’ feet. The Church is growing and will continue to grow exponentially until that day, even if it may not look like it in certain areas of the world (such as modern day America). I don’t subscribe to the idea that the world is going to get worse and worse before Christ returns. I don’t see that in the Bible (though I understand how people COULD read that into the text). I think that comes more from the “newspaper eschatology” that we’re all prone to do; we look at the horrible things around us and think that this world is falling apart. Instead, I compare the world to how it was when Jesus left and see how incredibly better it is in so many ways even as terrible things continue to happen. The Kingdom of God is already here, though it hasn’t come fully. We may still be 10,000 years from Christ’s return, and considering how far Jesus’ power has spread already, imagine what 100 more centuries would do.

  22. Tom1st September 10, 2011 at 1:22 am #

    In regards to the number saved – I most certainly hope and pray you are right. May God always be glorified for us wide arms of mercy!

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