What must a sinner do to be saved, (that is, to be forgiven of his/her sin)? I’m sure most readers already know the biblical answer to that question. But this question begs a second one, which is not so easy: How can salvation be “all of grace” and yet require a condition, which must be met by the sinner alone?
This is a very important, if not crucial, question in understanding the biblical doctrines of salvation. It helps us to identify the differences between the biblical teaching of salvation by grace and the Calvinistic teaching of salvation by irresistible grace. The presence of any voluntary, or independent, human condition would suggest that salvation might be somehow “merited”. The problem, as most know, is that the word grace means “unmerited favor.” How you answer this 2nd question will help determine whether you are a Calvinist or not.
I have always felt some sympathy for kids who are told that they can’t do anything to be saved, but they are also told that they must repent of their sin and believe in Jesus, if they want to be saved. This could confuse an adult.
Calvinists, and those influenced by them, often struggle with this question. Some Calvinistic teachers will scoff at the very notion that we each must meet a human condition in order to be forgiven. This would be, in their minds, salvation by works. It would be the same as paying money or sacrificing animals to be saved. Their system is really simple and easy to illustrate. It goes like this:
Adam’s house is on fire and all of his descendants are to blame for starting the fire. They are all overcome by the fire; in fact, they have already died in the fire. God simply chooses some of Adam’s deceased family to be rescued and brought back to life. Jesus drags them from the inferno and leaves the rest to burn. End of story. In this brand of Calvinism, it is not about having an opportunity to be saved. It is only about God’s choice of who to save. This understanding is sometimes called “Hyper (or Extreme) Calvinism.” The chosen sinners played no essential role in their own salvation.
Now, most Calvinistic pastors and teachers are a little more nuanced than that. (Note: The term “nuanced” can sometimes be code word for inconsistent or illogical; as one person’s “mystery” is another’s “contradiction.”) Most Calvinists will also scoff at the notion of a conditional salvation in one sermon, but then in another sermon, they teach that salvation has a necessary human condition. Thus, they implore sinners to repent and trust Christ, but they really don’t like the idea of an independent condition, which must be met by the chosen sinner. Nevertheless, the nuanced Calvinist tends to agree that the “chosen” sinners still must repent and believe the truth or they will not be saved. This would be their story:
Every person is trapped by the fire in Adam’s house, which they helped to start. These Calvinists also assume that everyone has already died in the fire. Jesus rushes in and commands everyone to cry out to Him if they want to be rescued. He promises that if they do then He will take them to safety. However, no one answers because dead people can’t hear and answer the call. So God resuscitates the chosen souls in such a way that they can now cry out for help. They are no longer capable of silence. Thus, they cry out for help, and Jesus drags them to safety. In this scenario, it appears that the rescued sinners were “voluntarily” asking to be rescued-but not really. That is all they could do once they were resuscitated. God benevolently and irresistibly enabled them to cry out for help and then He “answered” their irresistible prayer. They did not meet the condition independently. They were “graciously enabled” to meet the condition. They could not do otherwise. If you buy into this story, as biblical, then you will make a good Calvinist. However, I hope you can see that there isn’t much meaningful difference between this scenario and the first one.
(A personal confession: When I was a Calvinist, I had more trouble fending off hyper-Calvinism than non-Calvinism. I really didn’t want to be a hyper-Calvinist but I came to see that there wasn’t any real and substantive difference.)
A Calvinistic pastor teaches that those who are not chosen (the reprobate) will not receive the ability to have faith; therefore, they cannot meet the “condition” which is attached to salvation and they will be consumed by the fire in Adam’s house. They weren’t chosen for rescue. They won’t enjoy God forever. God never really wanted them to enjoy Him forever. They were created as “vessels of wrath” to be eternally destroyed. They would never have a genuine opportunity to be saved. If God had wanted them to trust Him then He would have given them the ability to trust Him.
A non-Calvinist pastor, on the other hand, insists that God’s offer of mercy is genuine for every sinner, since it is backed up by the death of Christ for everyone in the whole world. He teaches that God has given everyone the capacity to repent. In his system, everyone is trapped by the guilt of their own actual sin in Adam’s burning house. They didn’t start the fire but they have thrown gasoline on it and cannot escape on their own. They cannot put the fire out but they can actually cry out for help. If they do, then Jesus will drag them to safety. This pastor teaches that God has sovereignly decreed that the individual sinner will play a vital, meaningful, and co-operative role in his/her eternal destiny.
Again, the Calvinistic position is simple. If God chose you for salvation then you can’t resist choosing life. If He did not choose you for salvation then you cannot resist choosing death.
In the Reformed system, it is not about having an “opportunity” to be saved. Either you will be saved by God or you will not. An opportunity suggests there would be a meaningful condition for salvation.
The beauty and brilliance of the biblical gospel is that sinners must meet a condition – that is impossible to be proud of. The nature of the law of faith assures that “boasting is excluded.”