Those readers who are near my age and had a well-rounded heathen upbringing will remember the very popular 1970’s song by Led Zeppelin entitled “Stairway to Heaven.” (You don’t have to admit that you still like it-but we know you do). In that song, the writers Jimmy Page and Robert Plant acknowledged a deficiency in virtually all language. One line says:
“There’s a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure, cuz you know
sometimes words have two meanings.”
They were right. We encounter these double meanings quite often. When I say “glasses,” some of you think of eyeglasses and some of you probably think of drinking glasses. Bible words are no exception. Words like work, seek, dead, flesh, baptize, day, world, and draw can have a lexical range of meaning, or different meanings in different contexts. Sometimes we use the term “fat chance” to describe the same thing as a “slim chance”. In the vernacular, a “wise man” is not the same as a “wise guy.” This problem in language has caused no small amount of controversy as we try to sort out theological terms in the debate over Calvinism, and other biblical controversies.
A few examples:
When Calvinists speak of salvation by grace or the “Doctrines of Grace” they do not understand the term in the same way as non-Calvinists. What they really mean is the “Doctrines of *Irresistible* Grace” but they will rarely use that phrase. It’s too clear. Calvinism survives on its proponents’ ability to slightly obscure their bottom line conclusions… not state them plainly. We know that the term “grace” means unmerited favor. But the Calvinist interprets the word “grace” as *irresistible* unmerited favor, when using it in the context of salvation. This is a big difference. If we want to get some traction in the tug-of-war with the Calvinists then we must make them own (and use) the word “irresistible” wherever it is found in their views. This is not to be snarky but to be clear. There are quite a few Christians out there today, calling themselves Calvinistic, who do not fully grasp the startling implications of what they are professing. In the historical Calvinistic system, there is no essential aspect of salvation that is not utterly irresistible. In the Reformed way, election to salvation is irresistible; effectual calling and/or the new birth (prior to faith) would also be irresistible. Likewise, our repentance and saving faith would be irresistible, in their theory. This exposes their system as a kind of Christian fatalism since our eternal destiny would be 100% determined by outside force. God would supply the force for the elect and Adam would have supplied the force for the reprobate. Perhaps, the reader can see why we always end up in a discussion of the terms “original sin” and “free will.”
If you find yourself discussing these issues with professing Calvinists, a good question to ask them is: “In your system, are there any essential aspects of salvation that can be resisted by the elect”? Or we might ask: “In your system, is there anything that those born reprobate could do to avoid eternal misery”? A real Calvinist will answer “no” to both questions, thus they should own the title of Christian fatalist. (But they probably won’t and their attempts at explanations will likely include the words “nuance” and “robust”).
We have the same problem with the double meaning in the term “Original Sin.” Both sides use the term but they don’t define it the same way. The Calvinist insists that we all suffer the consequences and the guilt of Adam’s sin; whereas the non-Calvinist (and Scripture) teaches that we all suffer the consequences of Adam’s sin but not the guilt. Both sides agree that we are born in sin. You don’t need a Bible to believe that children are naturally selfish but nobody is born guilty of anything. That would be absurd and Scripture explicitly teaches, in Romans 4 and 5, that sin is not imputed when there is no law. Like everyone else, Jacob and Esau were born in sin, but Paul clearly teaches that they had not done anything evil, or guilt worthy, prior to being born (Rom 9:11). Like the blind man in John 9, we are born this way so that the “works of God” should be revealed in us. Thus the following is good advice for us all: Stop whining, play the hand you are dealt, and leave the judging to God.
Next term: World. The multiple meanings of the word “world” are also at the heart of our debate. If it weren’t for the legitimate diversity of this word’s usage in Scripture then, I think, Calvinism would have fizzled out a long time ago. Calvinists seize upon this diversity to rescue their system from certain destruction. I won’t take the time here to examine all the ways in which the word “world” is used by Jesus and the biblical writers. One thing is quite clear: the word “world” in the Bible should never be defined as the “elect;” yet this is what many Calvinists try to do with texts like John 3:16. When they read of Jesus dying for the world, coming to take away the sins of the world, being the Propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and a boatload of other texts they understand all these texts to mean only the elect of the world. They are quick to remind us that when the Pharisees complained that the “world” had gone after Jesus they were using hyperbole. (John 12:19) Obviously, every single person in the world had not decided to follow Jesus. It just seemed like it and the Pharisees felt threatened by His popularity at that time. Calvinists try to force this limited use of the term on all the universal language concerning the cross in Scripture. Thus, as long as translators maintain their integrity, Calvinists will forever be battling the way the Bible reads concerning God’s love and the death of Jesus for every person in the world.
Again, the thorough and consistent Calvinist does not believe that Jesus died on the cross to actually atone for every single sinner in the human race. He believes that Jesus only died on the cross for some sinners in the human race… from all over the world. This is a key difference between the two sides. In true historical Calvinism there is no plan of salvation for the reprobate/non elect. In their system, the reprobate weren’t chosen to be saved, Jesus did not intend to die for their particular sins, they won’t be effectually called or born again, and they will not be given the ability to repent or receive the gift of saving faith. They infer that this decree would have been made by God before Adam was put in the Garden; and this decree would not be based upon anything foreseen that these poor souls would actually do wrong in their entire lifetime. In their system, every sinner in the world could not be saved because Jesus did not make a definite atonement for every sinner in the world. He only made a definite atonement for some sinners from all the various ethnic groups throughout the world. The rest of mankind would have no hope… from birth. It’s really not that complicated but rare is the Calvinist who will just come out and teach their system with such simple clarity. Calvinists don’t like their doctrines of salvation to be put in nutshell summaries… they need libraries. This approach is both their strength and their weakness in terms of winning the majority of minds within the Church.
Perhaps, another time, we could look at the disputed meanings of the terms “free will” and “common grace.”