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The Inconsistency of Four-Point Calvinism

Category Articles
Date June 7, 2003

Calvinism isn’t a produce stand from which we can pick and choose which doctrines we wish to keep and pass over the rest in a sort of hermeneutical reprobation. Calvinism is an interwoven system of theology which must be accepted or rejected as a whole.

I can still remember the relief I felt when I, a young four-point Calvinist, heard that I didn’t have to believe in limited atonement in order to be Reformed. The man who was explaining this assured me that the pastors at his church disagreed among themselves about this doctrine; he personally didn’t believe it, but he knew pastors who did.

It wasn’t until several months later that I had to admit the truth: four-point Calvinism is no Calvinism at all. If limited atonement is false, then the other four points are false as well. One cannot truly and consistently believe in total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints without accepting definite atonement.

The doctrine of total depravity, first in the acrostic TULIP, is a good place to start in the explanation of why this is so. Total depravity means that unregenerate man is so bound by sin that he willfully suppresses the truth of God and cannot of himself turn from that suppression to the truth. He is in such darkness that he cannot-or rather will not-find the light. Thus if he is to be saved, God must save him. No one is willing; there is “none that seeketh after God” (Rom. 3:11).

Universal redemption, on the other hand, insists that Christ died to make salvation possible for or accessible to all. But how can one who agrees with total depravity subscribe to such a view? Four-point Calvinism reduces to this proposition: Man is incapable of choosing Christ, but at the same time he is capable of choosing Christ-which is, of course, self-contradictory.

The doctrine of unconditional election leads to the same conclusion. No work, faith, receptivity, or anything done in or by us had anything to do with our election. Election is an “election of grace” (Rom. 11:5). This means that God designed to save a certain number and no more. But then why would Christ die for all? Universal redemption holds that God wills to save everybody, but unconditional election holds that God wills to save only the elect.

Then, too, the inconsistency may be seen in the light of the effectual calling. Calvinists-even four-point Calvinists-believe that that the elect, who have been purchased by Christ, will be surely brought to enjoy the benefits of this blessing. Christ does not pay a ransom for us and leave us in the dungeon. But if one truly believes in irresistible grace, how can one say that Christ died for all? That is equivalent to saying that Christ either cannot or will not apply redemption to the redeemed-which is unacceptable in light of unconditional election.

What about the last of the five points: the perseverance of the saints? This doctrine insists, against Arminianism, that when God chooses to redeem and save a sinner, He does not do it merely to lose him to eternal destruction. That is the point of unconditional election: salvation has nothing to do with our merit, so it will not end with our lack of merit. The implication for the limited atonement debate is this: if we believe that Christians cannot lose their salvation, then we believe that God must be upholding them. If we believe that God upholds them, then we believe that He does it for a particular reason. This reason, if you believe in unconditional election, is that Christ has made satisfaction for all our sins and covered us with His merit and righteousness. But if He did that for all, then all would persevere. Thus we have two choices: (1) all will persevere (which is not the case: see Jn. 17:12); or (2) Christ did not die for all (the biblical choice: see Matt. 26:28, Jn. 10:15, Eph. 5:25, etc.).

At this point the four-point Calvinist may cry foul and charge that these arguments misrepresent his view. He doesn’t hold to the Arminian view of the atonement; he merely insists that Christ died for all. By this he may simply be expounding the view, held by Charles Hodge and others, that there is “a sense in which it is scriptural to say that Christ died for all men.” Hodge points out, “To die for one is to die for his benefit. As Christ’s death has benefited the whole world, prolonged the probation of men, secured for them innumerable blessings, provided a righteousness sufficient and suitable for all, it may be said that he died for all.” Yet, cautions Hodge, “this is very different from saying that he died equally for all men, or that his death had no other reference to those who are saved than it had to those who are lost.” (Charles Hodge, 1 & 2 Corinthians [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994], p. 149. Italics his.)

Whether or not Hodge’s view is correct, it’s at least thoroughly Calvinistic; it asserts that Christ did not die in the place of all. So long as our four-point friends believe this, they aren’t four-point Calvinists after all, for, as Hodge says a page later, “all this is perfectly consistent with the great scriptural truth that Christ came into the world to save his people, that his death renders certain the salvation of all those whom the Father hath given him, and therefore that he died not only for them but in their place, and on the condition that they should never die.”

These lines from Hodge sum up the whole point; the letter L is not in the center of the word TULIP for nothing. The heart of the Gospel is that, in J. I. Packer’s words, God saves sinners. He does this through the vicarious death of Christ for all the elect so that they would be saved. “God helps sinners save themselves” is alien to Reformed theology, and, for that reason, so is universal redemption.

Calvinism isn’t a produce stand from which we can pick and choose which doctrines we wish to keep and pass over the rest in a sort of hermeneutical reprobation. Calvinism is an interwoven system of theology which must be accepted or rejected as a whole. From the acceptance of one point, one is compelled by simple logic to the acceptance of all the rest. You can’t deny one without denying them all. The four-point Calvinist is as consistent as a psalm-singing atheist.

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