Calvin and Freedom of the Will

Apr 18, 2008
Mr. Kelly,

I am curious what in your experience that has led to such disdain over even the mention of the word Calvin or Calvinism? Since returning home I have gotten books by Spurgeon, I especially like the Morning and Evening devotional, and commentaries written by Calvin. But there is something that seems to really offend and even bring disgust and contempt when there is any association with this. Now am I a Calvinist? No, but sure, I agree with him on a variety of things. But what is so offensive about it? People wonder how I can read this “murderer’s” statements. But I am wondering if it has to do with the issue of the will, in that man cannot choose God unless God chooses first? I know people would think it even a cult, an extreme error.

So since talking to you I have opened a whole new can of worms, ha!=D But it seems related to the Church and Israel and the revelation of God in the last days to me somehow.

While I’ve read many writers such as Spurgeon and others from what is usually called the Reformed tradition, I’ve never made a sustained study of “Calvinism” as a system of theology, nor have I read anything by Calvin. But over time, I came to find that all that God revealed to me in my early years concerning Israel seemed always to get me identified in some way with Calvinism. Why? Well, it is because one cannot wade too deep into the subject of Israel without raising all the old questions of predestination, and from that must follow a number of other difficult questions and issues that are notoriously controversial. We see that Paul could not approach the question concerning God’s faithfulness towards Israel without first passing through the deep waters of predestination theology in Ro 9. It would be otherwise impossible to give any satisfaction to the great issues of the faith that Israel is divinely intended to raise and to press (see my article “Why the Jew”).

There is a doctrine that is taught in Calvinism called ‘irresistable’ grace. Now, of course, that doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. It means rather that all men invariably and without the exception (“none seek”) naturally resist the true nature of God unless specially drawn by the Spirit (Jn 6:37, 44-45, 65). A sinner’s natural resistance must be overcome before he will ever come to Christ. The gospel may be preached ever so clearly and the grace of God manifest ever so publicly, but apart from the special quickening of the Spirit, the natural man is spiritually dead to what he is hearing. Remember how the Lord ‘opened’ Lydia’s heart to understand the things spoken by Paul? The sinner’s intellect may be persuaded; His emotions stirred, but still, his inmost spirit is dead until raised by the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:1). This kind of grace accomplishes regeneration, which is a resurrection event. Remember when I shared with you about the three R’s, namely, Revelation, Regeneration, and Resurrection, as summing up the whole of scripture as a theology of resurrection?

I don’t prefer the name ‘irresistable’ grace, but I do see in scripture what I would rather call ‘prevailing grace’, or ‘conquering grace’. The elect remnant that is preserved from death throughout the unequaled calamity of Jacob’s trouble unto the day of salvation are each and everyone quickened in one hour, in one day (Isa 66:8; Jer 31:34; Ezek 39:22; Zech 3:9). Now that’s prevailing grace!

Just like Paul on the Damascus road, the surviving remnant will be powerfully and suddenly arrested by ‘the Spirit of revelation’ (Zech 12:10; Ezek 39:29). That revelation is Christ; it is the gospel. It always and invariably ‘transforms’. It raises the dead spirit to the everlasting righteousness of the New Covenant (Isa 45:17; Dan 9:24: Jer 32:40). Go read it in the covenant; that life necessarily and without fail perseveres in true holiness (Jer 32:40; Ezek 36:27). It assures the eternal end of exile and dispersion, because the chronic tendency of the nation to always slide back has been forever cured through radical conversion. Therefore the inheritance is secure forever, and that’s precisely the point.

All the language of the covenant (the divine “I wills”) is writ large with the prevailing power of transforming grace, which is also keeping grace. It’s the gospel of Old Testament promise, and this is precisely what’s at stake when it comes to the question of Israel in Ro 8-11. The very name and glory of God is at stake in this issue of ‘prevailing grace’. The gift of such a transforming revelation doesn’t occur in a vacuum, nor does it do violence to what I like to call ‘the rules of the race’. There is a preliminary work of the Spirit that prepares and goes before the Lord in His sovereign design to ‘quicken whom He will’. Only such ‘prevailing grace’ can guarantee that there will always be an “election according to grace.”

Now this implies no violence to the freedom of the will (properly understood). It simply leaves to God the sovereign prerogative to liberate the will from its natural bondage through a process of death and resurrection, a process that breaks the pride of our power, that shatters carnal confidence through tribulation preparing the way for revelation (compare Lev 26:19; Deut 32:36; Dan 12:7). But none of this without the hearing of faith, which assumes the role of the church as witness (Ro 10:14, 17; 1Cor 1:21). “The people (Israel) shall be ‘willing’ in the day of His power” (Ps 110:3). The time to favor Zion comes only at the ‘set time’ (Ps 102:13; “seventy weeks are ‘determined’; “that which is determined shall be done;” “the end shall be at the time appointed” etc.). And we know that that ‘set time’ is the time of Christ’s post-tribulational coming (Dan 12:1; Mt 24:29-31; 2Thes 2:8). It is then that the Deliverer comes out of Zion in order to “turn ungodliness from Jacob,” as nothing short of His return will finally accomplish the turning of the nation (Mt 23:39 with Acts 3:19-21). Paul said “when it pleased God to reveal His Son in me.” It is the same with the nation; I’m sure of that.

I simply do not find it possible to follow the evidence where it leads where the eschatology of Israel is concerned without it colliding at some point with man’s mortal enmity with the God that elects. It is the divinely ordained collision of humanism with the ‘Godness of God’,. The coming ‘day of the Lord’ salvation of ‘all Israel’ (the surviving remnant) is the public vindication of God’s glory and sovereignty; it is the ‘open’ display of ‘the power of His Christ’. Even Christ’s resurrection was seen only by a few select witnesses, but this will be in the sight of all nations.

There is indeed a deadening form of what is called ‘hyper-Calvinism’ that Spurgeon openly reproved. It has created much unnecessary ‘guilt by association’. It can be quite proud, elitist, and sectarian, but not more proud or sectarian than many that dismiss the great lights of the church as false because they believe in the sovereignty of God in special election. Certainly the reading and interpretation of scripture that is more amenable to reason will typically prevail with the humanistic thinking of a compromised church. So this will not be decided by popular vote.

Not merely many, but I can safely say that the far greater number of the pre-millennial writers that labored to restore to the church the truth concerning Israel (such as Saphir, West, and Baron) were from the Reformed camp. That means they too would have been called by that nefarious name, ‘Calvinist’, by the same folks that dismiss us with the same broad brush.

It is amazing but not surprising that so many now days are so sectarian and conveniently ignorant of church history as to call such an innumerable host of martyrs, theologians, and hymn writers a cult. At very least permit men to work out their own salvation with the same fear and trembling with which all true hearts must approach scripture in honest quest for the truth. But God did not intend it to be an issue of convenience. The tension exists by divine design and heaven is making note of what we do with it, and with one another in the meantime.

The temptation is always to exalt reason over revelation. Without the profound difficulty and mystery of Ro 9, we could not have Paul’s glorious doxology in Ro 11:33-36, because the way to that glory must pass through the perplexities of Ro 9, offenses notwithstanding. Paul simply does not answer the dilemma of election with the naturally expected appeal to free will. He does not satisfy our natural objections by that more ‘reasonable’ solution. Rather, he says “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” And “so then, it is NOT of him that wills or of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy.” I just have to leave it there. I dare not say more than scripture, but I must not say less. For this, any servant that refuses to compromise will suffer great loss and reproach, as I’ve often experienced the intimadation of the powers tempting me to refrain from getting anywhere near the subject, lest I open the proverbial can of worms. However, such convenience can only be maintained if the subject of Israel be kept at a comparitively minimal and superficial level; but is that God’s intention?

Whatever your final position on the matter, if for nothing more than to nourish the devotional life, don’t let anyone dissuade you from using Spurgeon. Art loved Spurgeon. Though always knowing of his notoriety, Art didn’t discover and begin to read him until about five years ago. After that discovery, that’s all we heard. He got everything he could find (especially loved the “Treasury of David”) and made much of Spurgeon’s surpassing love of Christ that came through every line. Art would often describe Spurgeon’s grasp of the ‘sweetness’ of Christ that moved him more than any other writer to prayerful emulation for the same. I know of many that will not read Spurgeon because he was a Baptist and baptists back then were typically Calvinistic, though that varied greatly between communions. How sad that such prejudice and tragic ‘guilt by association’ has to rob us of some of the greatest gifts to the church.

Ever yours in His precious service, Reggie

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