While the majority of my visitors are very positive about the content of monergism.com, this short essay is written in response to the growing number of Hyper-Calvinists and Arminians who write to me with similar complaints about the alleged errors in my theology and the theology of Classic Evangelical Calvinism.
What Do Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism Share in Common?
by John W. Hendryx
"Let us arose ourselves to the sternest fidelity, labouring
to win souls as much as if it all depended wholly upon ourselves,
while we fall back, in faith, upon the glorious fact that everything rests with the eternal God."
- C.H. SPURGEON
The great error to be found in both Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism is the neglect one side of the word of God. They each tend to reject the twin biblical truths that go together: that God's will is sovereign and effectual in the salvation of men AND that man is responsible to believe the gospel. In contrast to these extremes, classic evangelical Calvinism has always taught that while repentance and conversion are the resulting and effectual work of the Holy Spirit alone, it also heartily proclaims the duty of all men to repent and be converted. Like the above quote by Spurgeon, we must all hold these truths in the appropriate biblical tension. To the surprise and dismay of both Arminians and Hyper-Calvinists, we energetically embrace the free proclamation of the gospel to all men. A truly biblical Calvinism must never cease to be both evangelistic and at the same time teach that conversion is solely the result of a work of God's grace alone. (There is no problems of logic or reason here as we shall see below). The greatest pastors and theologians of all time have all seen the necessity of teaching this balance. Historic Calvinists such as Whitefield, Edwards, Spurgeon, the Puritans of the 17th century, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, James M. Boice and more recently John Piper and R.C. Sproul have all made this a hallmark of their ministries.
There should never be a restriction on God's command and loving invitation to all men to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. God calls us to proclaim this gospel to every creature; a gospel that has unambiguous promises held out to all:
" for "WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED." Romans 10:13
"He who believes in Him is not judged." John 3:18
"And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost." Rev 22:17
"Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses. Acts 13:38, 39.
When we look back on the clear testimony of Scripture, the apostles preached the gospel to all, whether or not they were God's elect. Clearly the secret will of God, unknown to us, was meant to be left to God. The distinction God would have us make therefore is not to whom we preach the gospel but rather to let it either be applied by the Spirit or left to be cast aside by men.
We are all still growing in our understanding of God through His Self-revelation in the Scriptures. There is no doubt that there are some things of which I am wrong about in my theology. My limitations as a man keep me from seeing the whole picture yet I exert the utmost of my faculties and prayers for grace to be as close as I can to embracing the whole counsel of Scripture, and this is not without the help of the greatest theologians who God placed within the history of the church. I am not interested in defending any particular system or person but have found the Reformed tradition to be the most faithful to a balanced view of Scripture. Well, something must be right about my view when I am receiving a steady flow of opposition letters from people in both the Hyper-Calvinist and Arminian camps. The Hyper-Calvinists write me to say that I should stop pretending to be Reformed and to go join and Arminian church. Arminians write to tell me that my God is unloving and unjust. Go figure.
There is something that may be of interest to you that both of these positions, who doctrinally oppose traditional Calvinism, share in common. Hyper-Calvinists and Arminians both erroneously argue that sinners cannot be required to do what they are not able to do. Hyper-Calvinists will argue that ability belongs to the elect so we must first find out who they are and preach only to them only. Arminianism, on the other hand, believes that since God commands all men to believe the gospel, we must, therefore, have the natural ability to do so. Both positions are reading into the text, since responsibility does not necessarily imply moral ability. Statements in the Scripture like "If thou art willing" and "whosoever believes, choose life" are clearly in the subjunctive (hypothetical) mood. A grammarian would explain that this is a conditional statement that asserts nothing indicatively. What the Scriptures say we "ought" to do does not necessarily imply what we "can" do. The Ten Commandments, likewise, speak of what we ought to do but they do not imply that we have the moral ability to carry them out. The law of God was given so that we would be stripped of having any hope from ourselves. Even faith itself is a divine command (1 John 3:23) that we cannot fulfill without the application of God's regenerative grace by the Holy Spirit (John 6:63-65). But we nonetheless preach the gospel because the gospel contains within it the "seed" of which the Holy Spirit "germinates", so to speak, to bring His people to life. He supernaturally enables us and illumines our understanding so we come out of our darkness, look away from ourselves to Christ alone for salvation. 1 Thessalonians 1:5 reads, "...for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." (Also see James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23, 25).
Here is another area that these two systems share in common. Both Hyper-Calvinism
and Arminianism make the extent of the atonement a part of all gospel
presentations to the lost. Hypercalvinists make sure that the unbeliever understands
all of the theological implications of limited atonement before they can be
saved. The Arminian, on the other hand, erroneously teaches that Christ's died
for all men. But the Calvinist, rather than trying to fit the truth of a particular
redemption into the gospel, goes to the Scriptures which shows that neither
of these positions are correct (in their way of heralding the gospel). Instead
we teach that Christ died, not for all men, but rather for all who
would believe and then we call them to faith in Christ. Like Peter in Acts
chapter two we preach that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord
will be saved" and "the promise is for you and your children and for
all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself."
There is the true balance of the Scripture. Peter hearlds the gospel to all
but he rests in the fact that their belief ultimately depends upon the work
and calling of God alone.
Due to a one-sided view of Scripture, another error that these unbalanced systems in both camps share in common is that they go to extremes in the degrees to which God desires men to be saved. The Hyper-Calvinists will argue that God has no desire whatsoever that all men be saved, even in the face of glaring texts of Scripture which say otherwise. The Arminians equally err on this account by dogmatically asserting that since God desires all men to be saved He therefore cannot possibly have any "elect" that He chooses, also in the face of glaring texts that say otherwise. In both counts, this is a leap in unaided human logic, to say the least. The evangelical Calvinist instead embraces the full counsel of Scripture that these other positions only partly reveal the truth of. But I am convinced that while each of these other positions are trying to do the right thing but they both have an unbalanced view of the Holy Scripture. Thus they continually oppose a historic evangelical Calvinism.
The Hyper-Calvinist has his good points in that he is rational, creedal and puts emphasis on lining up his theological ducks by intellectually understanding critical doctrines but this alone often leads to an affectionless Christianity and dead orthodoxy. While they believe many of the right things, yet they believe far too little. The realm of grace is far wider than they dream and therefore they miss the truths that make up the whole evangelical circle. The God of the gospel would have us proclaim his earnest desire for all men to come to faith. This calls for big-heartedness, magnanimity of soul and a nobleness of mind.
The Arminian, on the other hand, is filled with emotion, enthusiasm, affection, but love seems to be his God's only attribute and holds to this in such a way that is undermines any basic fully formed doctrinal/biblical truth. Thus, his vision of God is too small and falls woefully short in proclaiming the full truth about who God really is, as He is revealed in the Scripture. The more "distasteful" attributes of God are often left out. Like the Hyper-Calvinist they too do not believe enough about God. An amusing side note is that whenever I debate with evangelicals who say, "I am not a Calvinist, nor am I an Arminian, but somewhere in the middle" yet when questioned about their specific doctrinal position regarding grace, the view they describe is decidedly the Arminian positon, without exception.
But the evangelical Calvinist earnestly calls all men to repentance, not because, on their own, they are able to respond, but because we are commanded to the cast forth powerful word of God as a seed to which the Holy Spirit sovereignly enables men to respond as He applies the grace of regeneration to His elect, to those the Father has given to the Son as a bride from eternity (John 6:37, 39).
We conclude that a truly biblical Calvinism must never cease to be evangelistic and we must always hold in tension the equal biblical truths that God desires all men to turn and be saved, together with the truth that those who are saved receive salvation because of the grace of God alone and not because of some virtuous choice we make or good He sees in our actions (John 1:13). Some are eternally lost, not because of some fatal necessity of divine coercion, but because they freely and willfully reject the gospel according to God's providence. In other words, the wicked are lost because of their sin, hostility and wickedness and they receive the just judgment of God. But the saints are found, not because I was naturally more humble or obedient than my neighbor but because of God's grace alone, which is infinitely better than we deserve. John Duncan once said, "Hyper-Calvinism is all house and no door; Arminianism is all door and no house." We, need to be faithful to the whole of Scripture and thus preach a full-orbed Christianity that includes both door and house ... and historically this balanced view of Scripture has been most faithfully transmitted by the tradition known as Calvinism.
(1) God desires all PERSONS TO OBEY the gospel to be saved
(2) God does not desire TO SAVE the reprobate.
Are these two statements contradictory?
The first principle we need to remember is that the truth of God's word is honored not in holding exclusively to one revealed truth to the exclusion of another revealed truth, but rather, in believing the whole counsel of God. So If we don't understand how both kinds of desires can be true, and must have a rational explanation for every doctrine, we should consider that we also cannot rationally explain the Trinity or the depths of mystery in the incarnation. There is certainly mystery involved here in God having desires at various levels. Let's not be hasty to draw quick conclusions when speaking of God. God is infinitely bigger than our simple understanding. Even so, I think that in this case the concept is just within our grasp. To believe, as some do, that my position makes God a "double-minded fool" is to have too small a view of God, Imho. This would be to conclude that we finite creatures must be able to grasp God's ontological essence at the level of His desires, rather than just embrace the clear "paradox" the Scripture holds forth. It may be helpful to see one as His ultimate will and the other His penultimate will. Questions of mystery such as this should really serve to increase our appreciation of God's greatness.
The following two statements are not contradictory and both are Scriptural
(1) God's desire is for all people to obey the gospel, repent and be saved
(2) God in no way desires to save the reprobate
Sentence (1) is God's revealed preceptive will toward mankind about what man should do (his duty). God desires that man obey his will. It would be hopelessly contradictory to say that God wills (commands) that the reprobate obey the gospel and say this has nothing to do with His desire at any level. Jesus even weeps over the reprobate who refuse to recognize the time of His coming to Jerusalem. He says, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling." If that does not express some kind of desire then I don't know what does. Note that Jesus even uses the term "wanted" here. Therefore, God's preceptive WILL for man to obey is the same as His DESIRE for them to obey, even for the reprobate. It is not saying He desires to save them Himself, it is saying He desires that they obey His preceptive commands to believe the gospel. But sentence (2) speaks specifically about what God HIMSELF does not desire to do - in this case to save the reprobate. God does not desire TO SAVE the reprobate but (1) He does desire that THEY REPENT and be saved. Of course they will not do it for they love darkness.
For God to desire both be true is as if He said, "I want you to obey because rebellion is a breach of my holy law and an offense against Me so it is deserving of my just wrath. I want you to come but you won't. And for very good and just reasons (My sovereign will) though not yet discernable to you, I refuse to do it for you. My affection and help is reserved for those in my family."
... In fact seen this way we can come very close to understanding this at a human level because we also desire things at various levels in every day life. And if finite humans have ultimate and penultimate wills concerning the same object then certainly it is not beyond God to. For example, I desire to live, but my desire is greater for my wife to live so I would lay down my life for her if it came down to it. God has reasons we cannot even comprehend, and though I don't know them, He has revealed His desires on both levels in the Scripture so I trust in His truthfulnesss regardless of whether I have full comprehension of how it can be done. But even if you cannot fully comprehend it let these truths serve to increase your appreciation of God's infinite wisdom and accept that His ways that are above your ways.
We must learn to distinguish between God's decrees and God's precepts. -- the first has to do with what must and what will happen with certainty, the second has to do with what God morally requires of mankind, and has nothing to do with whether man will actually do it. God's command is what He wants man to do on a preceptive level. God's decree determines what actually happens.
Reformed Theology teaches the concept "Semper Reformanda" (Always
Reforming) which means we can always grow in our understanding of Scripture
in ways that can further illumine truths already discovered and expressed in
the confessions. This endnote to my essay is in no way a modified form of Reformed
Theology, as some may suggest. The belief in God's eternal decree remains wholly
unchanged in my theology, (that God from all eternity determines whatsoever
comes to pass, including who will be saved and who will be lost - for everything
falls within the purview of His providence). These only express a deeper understanding
of this long held truth. Historic Calvinists may indeed have said that God does
not desire all men to be saved but most were only referring to God's decretive
will (which I agree with), not His revealed prescriptive will --- so I would
NOT usually place them under the banner of "hypercalvinism" on this
issue, unless warranted. In other words I believe Calvin and others have always
themselves believed that God wants people to repent and be saved on a preceptive
level even though they may not have considered or expressed the nuance we are
exploring here. The point is that I am not calling those who believe that "God
does not desire TO SAVE the reprobate" hypercalvinists. But rather,
I am criticizing a form of hypercalvinism which takes this extraordinary truth
of God's eternal decree and brings it into the realm of the prescriptive will
of God. This is exemplified by those hypercalvinists have written me to say
that since God does not want to save the reprobate so we must therefore never
preach the gospel to the non-elect but must find those who are elect and preach
only to them. No historic evangelical Calvinist, including John Calvin himself,
ever believed this. Such teaching, in my view, completely misapprehends the
Scripture and promotes a very unhealthy imbalance, not to mention is a source
of great harm to the gospel. Thankfully the number of persons who believe such
things are but few.
So again I think it is critical that we should learn differentiate between
God's desire for someone to BE SAVED (prescriptive will) and God's desire
TO SAVE (will of decree).
it God's Desire for All Men to Be Saved? by John Hendryx
If you are still having problems reconciling these truths I would recommend
a fine article written entitled:
Are There Two Wills in God?: Divine Election and God's Desire for All to be Saved by John Piper
Light of John 3:16, How can Election be True?
Why Does One Person Choose God and Not Another?
Visitor Comment The Monergist Conception of God's Love is Limited