Photo Credit: Crossway Books
I've read a lot of books on Calvinism, and it often seems that there are many differing opinions in the Calvinist camp on what exactly Calvinism is. Greg Forster's new book THE JOY OF CALVINISM is easily the best and most thought-provoking book on the subject that I've ever read. I found much to agree with in the book, things that could easily be said of biblical orthodox Christianity. While the book is specifically aligned with the Calvinist branch of Christianity, Forster presents a case for Christians to find joy and life-giving transformation through a daily walk with a God who is sovereign. Forster delves into Calvinism, dispelling common misunderstandings about it, and clearly, profoundly, and beautifully describing exactly what Calvinism is by focusing less on the negative descriptions associated with it and more on the active role God plays in our salvation. Using language that is easy to understand as well as descriptions that illuminate some of the key doctrines, Forster presents a defense of Calvinism that would be difficult for someone to argue with. As I was reading, it was easy to see that a lot of people who are not Bible scholars would likely walk away from this book convinced that Calvinism is true, even if they weren't exactly comfortable with its implications.
All that being said, I'm not a Calvinist, and no more so after reading this book. I have much respect for many Calvinist teachers, but ultimately find too many logical and biblical inconsistencies in the Calvinist system to be able to embrace it as an accurate portrait of the character of God. What I do appreciate about Calvinism is its commitment to seeing God as a loving and sovereign ruler over his creation.
Forster expresses discomfort with the TULIP acronym that is often used to describe Calvinism's five points, and I must say that Forster's descriptions of Calvinism's main tenets is a more positive and less discomforting approach. After a look at how depravity affects us, Forster outlines the main tenets of Calvinism in four chapters:
• God loves you personally
• God loves you unconditional
• God loves you irresistibly
• God loves you unbreakably
The focus on God's love and how that works for us was a brilliant move by Forster and one of the strengths of this book, even if we don't agree completely on how God's love plays out for all people. Forster's main point with God's personal love is that when Jesus died, he made atonement for specific individuals with those specific individuals in mind. In other words, God had a specific intention with the atonement for a specific group of people comprised of specific individuals. If you're a believer, it is because when Jesus died on the cross, he did it for you because he loves you.
This obviously means that the atonement was not meant for all people because if the atonement was meant for a guy named Jack and Jack never believes, then the atonement made for him was wasted; it didn't have its intended effect. Would God waste the atonement made for Jack? If God loved Jack enough to die for him to save him, then wouldn't Jack's rejection of God be a flaw in God's plan? Wouldn't that mean that God doesn't get what he wants?
So Forster argues that the atonement was meant for a specific set of individuals known in the Bible as the elect. These are the ones for whom the atonement accomplishes its intention in saving those individuals. The obvious implication is that God doesn't love everyone equally and some aren't loved enough for God to die for. Forster expresses discomfort with this implication, but states that it must be accepted because the Bible teaches it.
The problem is that the Bible doesn't teach that the atonement was intended for some individuals and not others. What has been commonly referred to as limited atonement is arrived at because of the appalling idea that a single drop of Jesus' blood was wasted and because it is logically necessary to be consistent with Calvinism's other tenets. I would agree that God has intention with the atonement for every single person and that no drop of Jesus' blood will be wasted by a failure of the intention coming about.
The Bible presents a two-fold antecedent/consequent intention for the atonement. It's most clearly outlined in John 3:18, "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." The atonement was made for everyone, but the benefits of the atonement are only applied to those who believe. For those who don't believe, the atonement serves as the basis for their condemnation before God. Why would God punish someone for rejecting something that wasn't intended for them? Furthermore, concerning God's personal love, the Bible tells us that Jesus loved the rich young ruler, yet the rich young ruler walked away from him. Peter talks of some false teachers rejecting the one who bought them. 1 John 2:2 tells us that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. So the antecedent intention of the atonement is the sins of all people paid for. But the consequent will is for the benefits of the atonement to only be applied to those who believe, while the atonement serves as the basis for the condemnation of those who don't believe.
Next, God loves you unconditionally. Nothing you could do could earn God's love for you, and his love for you is an utmost priority for him. Forster's argument in this chapter is quite interesting. He discusses how God prioritizes what he loves. Forster's suggestion is that all other theological traditions besides Calvinism hold that God loves something more than he loves people, and his love for this one thing is the reason not all people are saved. This one thing he calls the system of nature, which he clarifies as free will. In other words, God loves your ability to make a free choice more than he loves you. Therefore, if you choose to reject him, God lets you not because he loves you, but because he loves free will.
Forster suggests that only Calvinism teaches that God loves you above all other things, including life, and was willing to die for you. While it's a brilliant and almost convincing argument, it would be easy to counter that God does love people more than free will, but that he loves people who have a free will. He's not placing their ability to choose above them. He's choosing to love free individuals above all else, and this means that some of those free individuals will freely reject him (and the atonement will serve as the basis of their condemnation). God loved you enough to die for you. He did not love your free will enough to die for it.
Forster makes the argument that God's love for you is independent of anything in you and wholly dependent on himself. However, the conclusion Calvinists reach with God's unconditional love is that God's electing love is only for a certain set of specific individuals, and this love for them is not conditioned upon anything in them. This means that another certain set of specific individuals, while loved by God, are not the object of God's electing love. Forster makes the common Calvinist claim that God values his own glory more than his love for all people, and for the second set of specific individuals, their ultimate good in salvation comes in competition with God's glory, so God doesn't elect them. He gives no reason why their salvation will compete with his glory, and instead appeals to mystery as all Calvinists do. Never mind that to say that anything threatens God's glory is in itself to actually diminish God's glory in our own eyes.
Why does God choose one individual and not another? Forster says that God's choice isn't arbitrary or ramdom, but also that his choice is based on nothing in the individuals themselves. The choice is unconditional. The problem with the Calvinist conception of unconditional election is that there isn't a way possible for someone to make a choice that is based on nothing in individuals without it being a random choice.
I'll explain using an illustration that I once heard from a Calvinist. The illustration is of an individual walking on a beach and picking up seashells. The person claims to pick up any seashells they want and that the reason they choose the specific seashells they do is not based on anything in the individual seashells themselves but upon reasons grounded in the person choosing the seashells. A sovereign, unconditional election of seashells. The seashells are not alive (a picture of humanity being dead in sin), therefore they are unable to do anything to affect the person's decision in choosing them or not, including meeting a condition.
The problem is that if the person were pressed to explain the reason for choosing the seashells they did, they could not explain it without mentioning something characteristic about the seashells. For example, the person might say I picked these seashells because I love big seashells, or dark-colored seashells, or smooth seashells. A Calvinist would have to say that the person wouldn't state any such reasons for their choice because obviously to be chosen, the seashells had to meet the condition to being chosen. But if the person were to state that they picked the seashells they did based on something they loved in them self, without any regard for anything in the seashells, the choice would have to be arbitrary or random. If the choice of them is based on nothing in them, then that means they are viewed all equally as the exact same. Any differences in them would have no bearing on the person's choice. It is truly unconditional, but it's also random.
In the Calvinist system, God views all human beings as equally depraved, equally in desperate need of salvation, but chooses a set number of them to give faith to so that they are no longer equally the same as the rest of humanity. But his choice of them, if the reason is based only on something in him, has to be random. That means that God has rolled the dice with your eternal destiny. If you're in, it's because you were lucky enough to be chosen in the random drawing. But we believe that God does nothing at random and that he loved the elect specifically as individuals. Calvinists are uncomfortable with the idea of God saving someone based on their response of faith to him. This seems to put a person's salvation squarely in their own hands.
But does faith really save us? If Jesus hadn't died to make atonement, but you placed your faith in God, would your faith save you? Not at all. We don't take the initiative to repair the broken relationship with God. Here's the position we find ourselves in: If you're in a relationship with someone and you betray them in a way that ends the relationship, can you do anything to fix it and undo your betrayal? Can you make the person you betrayed forgive you? Clearly, you hold no power in the relationship whatsoever. The ball is completely in the other person's court. They can forgive you or not forgive you, and there's nothing you can do to move their decision either way. It's completely their decision to make alone. Let's say this person extends forgiveness to you and an opportunity for a reestablished relationship as if the betrayal never happened. This is their gift to you, freely offered. By offering it, they are absorbing the betrayal so that they are paying for your betrayal rather than you. When the gift is given, and salvation is described in the Bible as a gift, there is a giver and receiver relationship. By giving you the gift of reconciliation, the person you betrayed is also giving you the opportunity to accept or reject the gift. If you reject it, reconciliation doesn't happen even though it was genuinely offered. Ifyou accept it, reconciliation happens, but did you cause it? We've already established that you hold no power. If forgiveness isn't offered, there's nothing you can do to make it happen. If you accept, can you make the person you've betrayed keep their end of the offer? No, they still hold the control over their offer of forgiveness.
God has declared salvation as a gift in Romans 6:23, and John 1:12 describes our receiver relationship. By believing, do we save ourselves? No, because we're not in control. We're not making God do anything. God is under no obligation to me to save me because I choose to believe in him. Faith would be completely irrelevant if God hadn't declared it as the condition of our receiving his free gift of salvation. So Christ alone saves. In this way, Christ alone is responsible for our salvation, and unbelievers are completely responsible for their condemnation. Hell is tragic because the people living there had their sins paid for and reconciliation offered, but they didn't accept the gift.
If God made atonement for all and sovereignly chooses to apply the atonement only to those who believe, then it's easy to see that God doesn't love individuals irresistibly. Titus 2:11 states, "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people." But not all are saved, so clearly God doesn't ensure that his grace leads to salvation in every person. Instead, God's grace carries us toward God, and provided that we don't resist, we're carried to salvation. But our condemnation is our own fault based upon our final resistance of God's grace. If God made atonement for all, then he pursues all with his grace.
Finally, I loved the chapter on God's unbreakable love for us and Forster's focus on suffering's role in our progressive sanctification.
THE JOY OF CALVINISM was incredibly well-argued, and it helped me to wrestle with my own conception of God's character. There's definitely a lot that is helpful in this book. I would only encourage that people not read the book alone, but in discussion with others so that they too can wrestle with what the Bible reveals about God's character.
I received this book for free for review from Crossway Books