The following is a short and simple illustration that captures the most practical essence of the longstanding disagreement between those who are Calvinistic (or Reformed) in their understanding of the biblical salvation and those who are not.
NOTE: This is not a straw man misrepresentation of either view. It is not a description of so called, hyper-Calvinism, on one hand, nor is it a description of a Pelagian, or works based, system of salvation, on the other hand. It is a real life application of two contrary systems of biblical interpretation. We don’t need a lot of big words, Latin phrases, complex logical syllogisms, and long sentences to state the basic differences (or cloud the issue). At its core, the disagreement is pretty simple. For best results… read carefully. For a biblical defense of this summary and a more in-depth study, see Chosen Or Not?
A baby is born.
Two Christian pastors will come to visit the family. (The reason there were two pastors is a long story and irrelevant to our discussion. Not to worry though… it’s all friendly.)
The first pastor, who visits our young family, believes the child has been born guilty of Adam’s sin and with a sinful nature. He believes the child’s eternal destiny (heaven or hell) has already been decided by God. He believes that God does not merely foresee the child’s eternal destiny but God has already made the crucial decision as to what that destiny will be. He is confident that God (before He made anything) would have already decreed if this child will eventually meet the salvation requirement of repentance and faith – or not. Either the child will be irresistibly enabled to repent and believe, or he will be hopelessly left to perish in hell for being an unbelieving sinner. This pastor believes the predestined outcome can’t be altered; God’s choice would be an immutable eternal decree. He calls it the doctrine of “unconditional election” and it drives his entire understanding of Christian salvation.
A little later, the second pastor comes to visit. He believes that the child has inherited a sinful nature from Adam but isn’t guilty of any sins… yet. The child will suffer consequences of Adam’s sin but not the blame. This pastor does not believe that the child’s eternal destiny (heaven or hell) has already been irreversibly predestined by God. This pastor teaches that, if the child grows normally into adulthood, he will (by the sovereign, free, and immutable decree of God), play a crucial and decisive role in his own eternal destiny. (He is sure that there could be more than one crucial and decisive role in salvation.) He insists that the requirement of repentance and faith is a condition that must be met by the culpable sinner, without God’s irresistible intervention. Both heaven and hell are still actual possibilities. He says that God truly desires this newborn soul to eventually join Him in heaven but He has not decreed it. He teaches that God sovereignly refuses to force His desire on any culpable sinner.
Well, there you have it. That pretty much sums up the most practical essence of the long standing controversy between those who believe in salvation by irresistible grace and those who believe in salvation by grace. I hope that was clear. The Calvinistic pastor teaches that salvation is utterly irresistible for those born elect, and damnation is utterly irresistible for those who are not born elect. He insists that God, alone, decides who will be a believer. In his system, there is no essential aspect of salvation that can be resisted by the chosen sinners. Likewise, he insists that there is nothing that those who are not chosen can do to avoid perishing forever. Our non-Calvinistic pastor insists that God has sovereignly delegated to each one of us the authority and ability to decide for ourselves whether we want to embrace the Truth, with a faith that works by love – or not. You don’t have to go to heaven. You don’t have to go to hell. But you will go to one or the other.
Both pastors agree that the condition of salvation is not keeping the law of God. They agree that the salvation of culpable sinners is conditional upon repentance and faith in the truth, and Jesus is the Truth of God, personified.
The first pastor claims that if the child is chosen for salvation then Jesus made a definite atonement for his sins. If the child is not chosen then Jesus did not make a definite atonement for his particular sins. He calls those folks the reprobate. There is no plan of salvation for them. They aren’t supposed to be saved.
The second pastor insists that the death of Jesus accomplished an actual atonement for everyone’s sins but this atonement must be applied (imputed) to each culpable sinner through their faith. This pastor rejects, as unbiblical, the assertion that Jesus did not die for some people.
Our non-Calvinist pastor believes in salvation by grace through faith alone. The Calvinist pastor believes in salvation by irresistible grace through irresistible faith alone; (he just doesn’t like to say it so clearly, as careful presentation is essential to the survival of the Calvinistic system.
Question: Why does all this stuff matter? Why do we persist?
Answer: Because the righteousness of God is important. To impute guilt to a newborn baby is unjust, unbiblical, and absurd. The universal promise of salvation to all men everywhere is a trustworthy promise from a trustworthy God. He would not promise salvation to someone who He has denied the means of salvation. It is clear in the Bible that Jesus came so that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:17) It is unthinkable that God, who is the source of all truth, would not desire and enable everyone to come to the knowledge of the Truth. It is unthinkable that God would eternally punish someone for that which was entirely outside of their control.
Which best describes the beliefs of your pastor? You?
A challenge: Kudos to any Calvinist sympathizer who could defend the Calvinistic view without trying to explain how we, with our fallen and finite minds, must understand the scope of God’s omniscience to make sense of their system. (We don’t need to understand omniscience to understand the Gospel.)