Doctrine & Theology

The Dividing Doctrines of Grace

Have you ever met a theological fence-sitter? These are those who like to have their proverbial cake and eat it too. They epitomize the old adage, “love the one you are with” so as not to anger any.

This phenomenon is found in various circles and even in many professing Christian circles, but the ones of whom I write today are those who waver with the wind in regard to their soteriological profession. One can almost imagine the Apostle Paul shaking his head at the mere thought.

For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

The word ‘Calvinism’ is divisive

We have all heard this feeble argument, haven’t we? “I don’t believe everything Calvin taught, so I do not say that I am a Calvinist,” say some. At face value, this sounds reasonable, but might it be a cop-out?

It seems fair to state that when the majority of Christians hear the word “Calvinist,” they assume that what is implied are the “five points” of Calvinism (i.e., total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). Quite simply, most who claim the name of Calvinist do not claim to believe everything the man John Calvin taught.

Another common argument set forth by these fence sitters might be: “I don’t follow a man, I follow the Bible.” This ought to be a great insult to all who hold to the doctrines of grace, for it is an unjust accusation of idolatry.

S. Lewis Johnson was one of the twentieth century’s great expositors of Scripture. Of Johnson, Dr. John MacArthur has said, “Through the years I have listened to the preaching of S. Lewis Johnson far more than any other preacher.” With that in mind, in his exposition of Romans 8, Johnson states that John Calvin “was one of the greatest interpreters of the Bible down through the centuries.” He goes on and explains,

Now, I want to make something very plain, because unfortunately all of the people who listen to the word of God are not well taught in the Bible. When we talk about the five points of Calvinism, we are talking about soteriological truth, salvation truth. Now, it is possible for a man to hold this doctrine and not necessarily hold to all that John Calvin taught and believed. For example I would stand there myself. I don’t believe everything that Calvin wrote. He was a man and he made some mistakes, on the other hand, these are important teachings in the doctrine of salvation. [1]

In short, over the course of Church history, the word “Calvinism” has come to be synonymous with these five soteriological truths. The word itself, then, is a mere shortcut, a nickname, a brief way in which to refer to these doctrines. If the Christian would simply search the scriptures, he would find that the word of God exalts and proclaims these doctrines over and over again:*

  • Total depravity — Jeremiah 17:9; Jeremiah 13:23; Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 3:10-12; Romans 8:6-8
  • Unconditional election — Matthew 22:14; John 6:37, 65; John 10:27-30; Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:4; 2 Peter 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 1:4
  • Limited (or actual) atonement — Matthew 1:21; John 6:37-40, 10:11, 15, 19:30; Ephesians 5:25; Titus 2:13; Romans 5:17, 19
  • Irresistible grace— John 6:37-40, 44; Romans 8:30; Acts 16:14;
  • Perseverance of the saints— Philippians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; 2 Timothy 2:13; Jude 24

The Bible teaches both!

Now, very often one of the primary points of contention for these fence-sitting individuals is the doctrine of unconditional election. “The Bible teaches free will and election so I believe them both!” is their exclamation.

Well, it is true that the Bible speaks greatly about the free will of God (i.e., His sovereign will) to do as He pleases. But what of man’s so-called “free will”? Says John MacArthur,

[T]here’s a way to understand free will that is very important. Man’s will is free to choose the form of sin that most appeals to him, but that’s the limit of his freedom…. 

We’re depraved…our nature is fallen, it is dead, we are blind, we are alienated from God. We do not possess the life of God. We are dead in trespasses and sins, to borrow the language of Ephesians chapter 2. But within the framework of our sinfulness we could pick our poison. 

When you talk about free will, we’re talking about the freedom that the sinner has to choose his iniquity. That’s what his freedom is, that’s the sum and substance of his freedom. The one thing he’s not free to do is to choose salvation, or to choose righteousness, or to choose holiness, or to choose God, or to choose Christ unaided and on his own. 

The natural man understandeth not the things of God, they are foolishness to him, the preaching of the cross is foolishness to those that are perishing. The Jews are looking at it and it’s a stumbling block and it’s folly and foolishness to the Gentiles. All that the Bible says about the fallen man is that this man has no capacity to make the righteous choice. So…the will is bound by sin so that mingling around in the reality of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, you can pick your sin. But the one thing you can’t do is extricate yourself from that condition of sin and death. [2]

Man is only free to choose according to his nature. Apart from the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, sinful man is enslaved and in bondage to his sinful nature:*

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” (John 8:34)

But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18)

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:20-23)

Now, a paradox does exist as regards the role of man’s responsibility. What many do not seem to understand, however, is that one can believe in the sovereignty of God over all things and still affirm human responsibility as he walks and grows in faith. This is simply done by examining the Scripture in context:*

All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:27-28) 

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

The realities of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility rest side-by-side in Scripture; however, as we have already seen, man is not in control of his own salvation. He cannot be, else no one would ever be saved!*

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

As much as it may offend our human sensibilities, salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Wholly. Entirely. Woe to those who would say otherwise.

So pay attention to your favorite Christian personality. Is he or she doing a doctrinal tap dance?

God’s Word declares difficult but glorious truths. May we never falter or fail to stand upon them simply because we seek to please men. We serve Christ alone.

* The scripture verses presented serve only as a sampling of the myriad of texts that could be given.
[1] S. Lewis Johnson, “The Divine Purpose: Romans 8:28-30,” accessed 02 April 2016.
[2] John MacArthur and Phil Johnson, “Answering the Key Questions About the Doctrine of Election,” accessed 02 April 2016.

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  • Elizabeth Prata

    So glad you are writing about this! Thanks! Someone I read on FB posts a lot like this and defends his posts gracefully and I've been wondering how to be more forward in presenting and defending the Doctrines of Grace. You did a great job on the post and I thank you!

  • Lori at Falsified Ministries

    Excellent work Erin. You worded this with skill and the proof of the text is there.

  • Peter Lewis

    I've had a long day and all I feel like doing is taking a nap….and then I read this and started jumping up and down. Oh how I love sound doctrine! Thanks a gazillion times over!