Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black” (Henry Ford, My Life and Work).
Believe it or not, one of the enduring questions among Christians is, “Just how much like Henry Ford is God?”
What do I mean by that?
In the quote above, Henry Ford appears to give the customer a wide range of choices—“any color that he wants”—but in fact, it’s no choice at all. Clearly, Henry Ford was in charge of Ford Motor Company.
Some early Protestants came to a similar conclusion about God. If God is truly in charge, they reasoned, then He must make all the decisions, and this must especially be true of the most important decisions, of choices concerning crucial issues. And, of course, one of the most crucial issues concerns who is saved: who is to be granted eternal life and who is not; who must suffer eternal punishment and who must not. For God to be truly in charge, they reasoned, He must be the one who decides who is saved and who is lost.
But is this true?
Since the sixteenth century, there have been two dominant schools of thought about this among Christians. The one I already mentioned is named after the man who first articulated it, John Calvin, and it’s called Calvinism. The other view, named after the Dutchman Jacobus Arminius, is called Arminianism. In simple terms, Calvinism says God is a lot like Henry Ford in that He decides who is to be saved and who is to be lost, while Arminianism says that you and I have a part to play in determining our salvation.
The answer may seem obvious to us, but the more we look into the issue, the more complex it becomes. To begin with, the Bible tells us that God is omniscient—a word that means He knows everything—and not just everything that already is. In Isaiah 46:10, God says, “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please’ ” (emphasis added). In other words, God knows the future as well as the past and the present. And that raises another question.
For example, as I write this article, am I really choosing the words I put on paper, or am I merely writing words that God knew I would write, and therefore I had to write? If God knows the future—if He knows what I’m going to do tomorrow—do I really have a choice about that? The psalmist explicitly tells me, “You perceive my thoughts from afar. . . . Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely” (Psalm 139:2, 4, emphasis added).
If God knows my words before I speak them, and if He knows the end from the beginning, and if He knows the future, does this mean that you and I and everyone else are simply acting out a script written by God long before our birth? It makes us wonder whether Shakespeare wrote more truly than he knew: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Are we free moral agents? Do we have real choices? Or are we “merely players”?
I’m tempted to dismiss Calvinism out of hand. After all, it seems pretty clear to me that I am choosing these words as I write them. No one is looking over my shoulder or whispering in my ear. But I’ve learned the hard way that until I examine contrary evidence and arguments, my beliefs and my faith are fragile and will fail me in a crisis. As philosopher John Stuart Mill warned us, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”
John Calvin was no dummy. He and his followers have good reasons for believing as they do. Until we know what those reasons are, we have, as Mill warned us, “no ground for preferring either opinion.” So let’s look at the arguments of Calvinism, which are cleverly summed up in an easily remembered acronym: TULIP.
The essence of Calvinism
The T in TULIP stands for “total depravity.” Essentially, this means that human beings are inherently so evil that it’s impossible for us to do anything good, much less aspire to salvation. And there’s strong evidence for that. To begin with, the evening news makes it clear that we humans are in a desperate situation. Every day we see evidence of people doing terrible things to one another. It isn’t just that through weakness they failed to be perfect. No, we see clearly that some people choose to do evil things. In fact, all of us do things we know we should not. We would like to think we’re different, but the Bible leaves little doubt about that.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus pointed us to the source of the problem: “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21, 22).
We would like to believe that our hearts are different, but the prophet Jeremiah warned us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Paul tells us that we are slaves to sin (Romans 6:20); and echoing Old Testament sources, he warned us that “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10–12). To top it all off, Paul tells us, “You were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds” (Colossians 1:21).
The U in TULIP stands for “unconditional election.” If you start out with a belief in total depravity—that you can’t even choose God until He chooses you—then it appears to follow that God saves an individual because He chooses to do so, not because of any choice on our part. In Calvinist terms, God “elects” us for salvation. And because He is all-powerful, we cannot reject His choice.
The L in TULIP brings us to “limited atonement.” Essentially, this is saying that Christ died only for those whom He had unconditionally elected to be saved, not for everyone the world over.
“Irresistible grace” gives us the I in TULIP. All Christians agree that we are saved because God chooses to save us, not because we deserve it. That’s what the Bible calls grace, which theologians define as “unmerited favor.” Paul said that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), so when we receive eternal life instead, it can only be the result of grace. As Ellen White so beautifully expressed it, “Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His.”
Calvinism goes further: it claims that this grace is irresistible. If God chooses to save us, and He is all-powerful, they reason, then we can’t resist His all-powerful gift.
Finally, there’s the P in TULIP. It’s called “preservation of the saints.” If we cannot resist God’s election, then it logically follows that we can’t reject it at a later time either. The essence of this is “once saved, always saved.” And to back this up, Calvinists quote John 10:28, among other texts: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
There’s much to agree with in these five points. There’s a certain logic to them, and their proponents cite numerous texts, not all of which I have included in this article. But in the end, I find myself unconvinced. And while I could go through point by point and raise contrary evidence, my problem with the doctrine of predestination arises from a deeper level. The beliefs of Calvinism present two problems that seem insurmountable to me.
First is the question of responsibility. If nothing happens that God has not foreordained, if no creature in all creation has a free will, then God must be responsible for sin. After all, if nothing happens that He has not foreordained, then Adam’s sin must have been foreordained, and Adam had no choice but to fall. In that case, why should Adam incur the penalty of death? If he had no choice, he was not responsible. Sin, like everything else, was God’s will.
But when we speak of God’s will, the apostle Peter tells us that God is not willing that any should perish but wants everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). This exposes a contradiction within Calvinism: if what God wills must take place, what happens when His will that none should perish collides with His will that some will be lost?
This leads to my second concern with Calvinism—the repeated calls by God throughout the Bible for people to exercise their own will, to make their own choices. Joshua called for the children of Israel to “choose . . . this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). The apostle Paul, speaking “on Christ’s behalf,” implored the Christians in Corinth to “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). At Pentecost, Peter appealed to the throngs in Jerusalem to “repent and be baptized, every one of you” (Acts 2:38). And Ezekiel called for Israel to “turn away from all your offenses. . . . Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? . . . Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:30–32).
What’s the point of these and many other calls in the Bible for our personal action if we have no choice in what we do? What’s the point, in the end, of any part of the Bible? If God knew what was bound to happen from the beginning and none of us have any choice in the matter; if we are, in Shakespeare’s terms, “merely players,” why has God put us through all the suffering that has taken place in human history?
At the Nuremberg war-crime trials, several Nazi high officials pled “not guilty” on the grounds that although they had indeed committed the heinous acts of which they were charged, they had done so because they were “following orders.” In other words, they claimed they had not chosen to do bad things but were compelled to do so by their superiors. Comedian Flip Wilson used to joke, “The devil made me do it.”
If predestination is true—if we cannot really make our own choices—could we not logically claim in the last judgment that “God made me do it”?
Perhaps it’s possible to reconcile that with the God of love and grace pictured the Bible, but I, for one, cannot.
Ed Dickerson is a freelance writer who lives in Garrison, Iowa, United States of America. He is the lay pastor of the HomePage Seventh-day Adventist company in Marion, Iowa, and a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.