In the late summer of 2000, I interviewed Dave Hunt on
KPXQ radio in
When we began the program, I noted that both Dave Hunt and I engage in public, formal debates with Roman Catholic apologists. I also noted that I had recently debated Robert Sungenis, a Catholic apologist, on the topic of justification by faith. Here is how the first question and response between Dave Hunt and me went:
White: One of the key issues that came out there…this is one of the main reasons I contacted you, one of the main reasons I wrote you the letter…is the issue of monergism versus synergism; that is, the idea that there is one force that brings about salvation, over against a synergistic viewpoint that views it as a cooperation, a cooperative effort between two forces, man and God. And the reason I brought that up…is that Mr. Sungenis, in representing the Roman Catholic perspective, very strongly attacked the Reformed emphasis upon the sovereignty of the grace of God.… In light of your article, and the fact that…you reject the concept of irresistible grace…you and I are responding to one of the key issues of the Reformation in a different way. In essence, my first question to you would be: Do you feel that the Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin were in error in emphasizing the deadness of man in sin and the absolute necessity—not just necessity, but sufficiency—of the grace of God to bring a person to salvation?
Hunt: Well, first of all, James, I’m very ignorant of the Reformers. I have not had time to read them. There are truckloads, I guess, of their writings. I like to just kinda’ pretend that we’re back there in the days of the apostles before all of these things were written. And I like to go to the Bible. So whether the Reformers said this or that, I don’t know.1
Mr. Hunt went on to say that we should go to the Bible, and I
surely agreed with that. But I was surprised that he was unaware of the issue
Luther had described as the very hinge upon which the entire Reformation
turned; namely, the freedom of God and the sufficiency
of the grace of God in salvation. This was even more surprising due to the fact
that Mr. Hunt’s attacks upon the Reformed faith parallel those of Roman
Catholics. When it comes to the issues of the freedom of God, the efficacy of
grace, and the will of man, Mr. Hunt’s evangelical tradition stands side by
It was most surprising, then, to hear only a few months later that Mr. Hunt was writing a book about this very subject, especially in light of his own confession of ignorance of the topic. At one point in our correspondence, Mr. Hunt mentioned his forthcoming book, and I told him that, in light of the errors of understanding he had enunciated during the radio program, I felt it was out of line for him to be publishing on the topic.
The publication of What Love Is This? prompted me to write an open letter, which was posted on our website and very quickly distributed to a very wide audience.2 The book was disappointing on every level. The tenor was harsh. The attacks upon historic figures were unfair and unkind, revealing a bias that no honest historian should abide. The misuse of sources was rampant and included numerous errors in understanding even of my own work, which played a prominent role in Mr. Hunt’s broadside at “Calvinism.” The same misconceptions spoken in self-professed ignorance in August of 2000 were now being promoted under the banner of research and argumentation in print. But most importantly, I noted the continued enshrinement of tradition over sound exegesis of the Scriptures.
Some may question the wisdom of engaging in a point-counterpoint
debate with Mr. Hunt on this topic. Allow me to say that I do so first and
foremost out of love for God’s truth and God’s people. As an elder in a
Reformed Baptist Church,3
I believe it is my duty to “refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9) and give
an answer for my faith. As an apologist, I must be consistent in my stance as
well. If I point to
Dave Hunt does not understand the Reformed faith, and his book is filled with numerous straw-men caricatures that have nothing to do with the reality of it. It is not as if Mr. Hunt had not been warned that he was going to put in print many errors that would be quickly documented and refuted. I, along with others, can prove that we gave him that brotherly warning. But he has refused to take heed, so now the issue is the impact of the publication and dissemination of error on the wider audience of the church.
In our radio conversation, Mr. Hunt at one point made a very important statement. When I pointed out that he was simply responding to the Scripture passages I was raising on the basis of his “traditions,” he said to me, “James, I have no traditions.” I replied that we all have traditions and that the man who thinks he has none is the man who is the most enslaved to them. To truly practice sola scriptura we must test our traditions by the ultimate authority of God’s Word, even if they are beliefs we have held for many years and have had pounded into our heads in sermon after sermon. That is what this debate is really about.
I am Reformed because of one thing: Consistently, honestly, and thoroughly read, God’s Word, the Bible, teaches that God is sovereign over all things, that man is a fallen creature, and that God saves perfectly in Jesus Christ. It is the consistent application of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and tota scriptura (all of Scripture) that leads inevitably to the doctrines of grace. When we use consistent, proper, unvarying exegesis of the text of the Bible, we are led to believe Reformed theology concerning the grand work of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I do not believe the doctrines of grace because of Augustine or Calvin or Jonathan Edwards or Charles Spurgeon or Benjamin Warfield or R.C. Sproul. I rejoice in their company and am thankful for the testimony of men of God down through history. But first and foremost, I believe in the doctrines of grace because of the exegesis of the text of the God-breathed Scriptures, the Holy Bible. This is the firm foundation of Reformed theology, and it is what must be dealt with by anyone who would seek to truthfully convince men that the doctrines of grace are not divine truth.
In this exchange I will be challenging Mr. Hunt to test his traditions, not merely reiterate them. I have chosen to present the positive case for the doctrines of grace based upon the text of Scripture. The reader is encouraged to hold both sides to the same standards. Who presents consistent arguments? Who presents a biblically based position that provides a consistent and sound exegetical basis for the assertions made? Does one side simply state basic assumptions over and over again, while refusing to respond to a critique of those presuppositions?
In his book, Mr. Hunt focused on attacking Christian men of the past personally; specifically, John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Augustine of Hippo. Seemingly, he believes that if a teacher of the past held to doctrines he disagrees with, everything that person believed was wrong. Amazingly, he hands all of history to the Roman Catholic Church, making Augustine a Roman Catholic (although Augustine would have had no concept of the phrase and, as we shall see, held to all sorts of beliefs contrary to Roman Catholicism)—and then he asserts that Calvinists are in essence crypto-Catholics!
This charge is made in ignorance of the facts; indeed, it is
Mr. Hunt’s position that stands in harmony with
The very term Calvinism is a strange fact of history, for Calvin is in no way the originator of “the doctrines of grace.” His name became connected with the view simply because of the unrelenting consistency of his writing on the subject, not because he taught on it more often than anyone else. Indeed, the section on prayer in The Institutes of the Christian Religion is longer than that on predestination, and Luther spoke more often on the subject than Calvin did. Hence, the issues of God’s freedom in salvation and man’s inability are not to be decided by reference to John Calvin, or to Augustine before him, but simply on the basis of the examination of the text of Scripture. Hence, all the time Mr. Hunt spends going after Calvin and Augustine is irrelevant to the real issue.4
Mr. Hunt certainly has one advantage in this exchange. In the place of sound biblical teaching, modern evangelicals have adopted sentimental traditions regarding God’s character and love. Hence, the mere repetition of those traditions is often enough for those whose traditions do not conform to the Word of God. Reformed believers know the meaning of the motto semper reformanda, “always reforming.” It is a lifelong duty to conform one’s beliefs to the Word of God, to always be growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. And when it comes to the issue of God’s character and love, one must allow the Bible to define one’s beliefs.
In the articles he has written since he initially began addressing this issue only a few years ago, in his book, in his talks, and in the encounter he had with Dr. Joseph Pipa of Greenville Presbyterian Seminary, Mr. Hunt repeatedly asserts that Calvinists deny God’s omnibenevolence. His belief seems to be that unless God loves each and every creature in the same way, He is not “all loving.” There can be no distinctions in God’s love. Patiently withholding judgment from a wicked man cannot be included in God’s “love” unless He does everything in His power to save that person, even if the person is utterly undeserving and justly condemned. For Mr. Hunt, God must love every person equally, try to save every person equally, and leave the results up to men (which is why he denies the freedom of God in election and regeneration). This means that God’s love for the apostle John in heaven will be equal to, and completely undifferentiated from, the love He will have for Adolf Hitler as he undergoes God’s wrath in hell for eternity. God’s love can admit of no degrees, no differentiation, for if it does, God is not “all loving.”
Of course, we see from the start that this makes God less than the creature, man. We rightly and properly discriminate in our love. Men are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. I am not to love my neighbor’s wife as Christ loved the church. The love I have for someone other than my wife is of a different nature, substance, and intensity. The same is true for my children and my family. This is why the Lord said that, in comparison to the love we have for Him, our love for family and friends must be different. We are expected to recognize this basic fact. Even the Bible refers to the “apostle whom [Jesus] loved” (John ), showing that the Lord, though He loved all the apostles with divine and perfect love, had a special love for John. It is obvious that the love God showed Moses is substantially different than the love He showed Pharaoh. No one can possibly argue that God expended the same effort to redeem the Assyrians that He expended to redeem Josiah or Isaiah or Ezekiel.
God is not less than His creature, man, and since it is proper for man to differentiate in the nature, extent, and purposes of his love for others, so too God demonstrates different kinds of love toward His creation. Indeed, consider even the phrase “as Christ loved the church.” Do we not have to see that Christ’s love for the church is of a completely different nature and purpose than His love for anything else?
We need to point out the results of Mr. Hunt’s assertions. In his system, God’s love cannot be redeeming love, since man must have the final say in the matter. Hence, God must love everyone equally, and try to save each one equally, and fail with regularity to do so. Indeed, we must conclude that God will be eternally unhappy, since He will love those in hell with the very same kind of undifferentiated love He has for the myriad redeemed surrounding His throne. Surely we cannot even begin to consider such an obviously unbiblical concept. It is a tradition—a very popular tradition indeed—to deny God the same freedom in His love that we have as His creatures. But it is a tradition that must be rejected upon biblical examination.
Recognizing this truth completely undercuts the primary thesis of Mr. Hunt’s attacks on Reformed theology. When faced with exegetical truths for which he has no answers, Mr. Hunt makes reference to the “impossibility” of the Reformed interpretation because “it violates what we know of God’s love.” As soon as a person realizes that God will not be spending eternity in agonized disappointment, weeping endlessly over the objects of His undifferentiated, unending, “I tried but failed” love, the main plank of Mr. Hunt’s anti-Reformed platform collapses.
Unfortunately, Mr. Hunt constantly misrepresents the Reformed position by stating that “God has predestined billions to go to hell without any chance of being saved.” The wonder of God’s act of predestination is not that He justly condemns rebel sinners who love their sin and spit in His face on a daily basis. The wonder is that He actually quells the rebellion in the hearts of innumerable rebel sinners and solely from grace works the miracle of regeneration, removing their hearts of stone and giving them hearts of flesh.
Yes, God’s decree includes the punishment of the wicked, all to His glory, but (unless your tradition denies to God the ability to love freely) simple fairness demands that the whole of the truth be stated: God is under no obligation to extend His grace to the rebel sinner, and every single person who enters into eternal punishment would, were they given the opportunity, freely choose to remain under punishment rather than bow the knee in loving adoration of the God they hate. The idea that those who are punished are innocent victims or denied a “chance” is scandalously false. The thrice-holy God is under no obligation to grant “chances” in the first place, and to base one’s entire argument upon a tradition that says otherwise is the fatal flaw of the anti-Reformed polemic.
I invite the reader to place his or her traditions squarely on the table. It can be uncomfortable to admit the role of tradition in one’s thinking, but the reward is great. The Christian who constantly seeks to be conformed to the truth of God’s Word will have confidence in that truth. May God grant us all the desire to believe everything He has revealed, and only what He has revealed, in the Word.
1. You can listen to the discussion at http://www.straitgate.com/jwdh1.ram
4. I will gladly refute the calumnies launched at these men but only for the sake of truth. The attacks are irrelevant to the actual debate.
Never forget that the ultimate aim of Calvinism (as with all of James White’s erudite arguments and references to original Greek and Hebrew) is to prove that God does not love everyone, is not merciful to all, and is pleased to damn billions. If that is the God of the Bible, Calvinism is true. If that is not the God of the Bible, who “is love” (1 John 4:8, emphasis added), Calvinism is false. The central issue is God’s love and character in relation to mankind, as presented in Scripture.
I never wanted to engage in public debate about Calvinism. But we at the Berean Call began to receive numerous questions about this subject from readers telling us of church splits and family breakups. Many mentioned that R. C. Sproul is on the radio daily across the country, promoting Calvinism. Were Calvinists becoming more aggressive, or was I just awakening?
I went from never having heard of John Piper to being asked
questions about him from such remote places as
Before Piper, John H. Gerstner had already written that “Calvinism is just another name for Christianity.”2 Non-Calvinists, then, were not Christians! Even earlier, in a book I had often recommended, Jay Adams had written, “As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him.… No man knows except Christ himself who are his elect for whom he died” (emphasis added).3 Jay was a reformed Christian! What was that?
Somehow I had missed the fact that Calvinists claimed not only
grace and the gospel as their own—but the entire Reformation as well! Calvinist
churches were “reformed churches,” and Calvinism was “Reformed theology.” In
his introduction to The New Geneva Study Bible, R. C. Sproul assures
readers that its Calvinistic notes are “based on Reformed principles” that
convey “Reformation truth” in order to “present the light of the Reformation
afresh.”4 The Reformation was Calvinism? But John Calvin was eight
years old when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door in
Furthermore, millions of biblical Christians resisted
Because these Christians
rejected infant baptism, Calvinists and Lutherans joined
In the report of the Council of the Archbishop of
The Parliament at
Even in Protestant Switzerland, Calvinism was only part of the
Calvin often complained of opposition and of the rumor that
From early 1554 until his death in 1564, “no one any longer
dared oppose the Reformer openly.”12 Calvin’s opponents had either
been silenced, expelled, or had fled from
Today, non-Calvinists are accused of rejecting “the great Reformation creeds.” But these creeds, such as the Westminister Confession, were forced on Independents, Baptists, and Brethren by a Calvinist state church.14 Historian David Gay writes:
The Puritans…set up the Westminister Assembly [to impose] upon
Baillie…complained of the Independents…they “will admit of none to be members of their congregations of whose true grace and regeneration they have no good evidences.”
Baillie admitted that if this principle were applied to the
Reformed Churches—Presbyterians in particular—only about one in forty members
would remain!… [And] the Baptists…insisted on marks of regeneration before
they baptised and welcomed any into membership.… The Westminster Assembly
The inflated claims of today’s Calvinists are not new. Benjamin Warfield long ago declared that “Calvinism is evangelicalism in its purest and only stable expression.”16 Loraine Boettner, leading critic of Roman Catholicism, long claimed that the Five Points of Calvinism present “what the Bible teaches concerning the way of salvation.”17 Such assertions that non-Calvinists had a false gospel and weren’t even Christians could not remain unchallenged.
Beginning an intensive study of Calvinism, I noticed that
nowhere in the many volumes of Calvin’s writings and sermons does he tell us
when, why, and how he, a Roman Catholic from the cradle, became a Christian. In
fact, Calvin never documented an experience of being born again of the Holy
Spirit through believing the gospel. He considered that new birth unnecessary
for all who had been baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in infancy and had
confirmed their baptism. Consequently, today’s ex-Catholics would not accept
Calvin into their ranks; and were Calvin alive today, he would reject them as
he did the Anabaptists he banished from
Calvin considered himself to have been a Christian from the moment of his infant baptism:
At whatever time we are baptised, we are washed and purified once for the whole of life.… We must recall...our baptism…so as to feel certain and secure of the remission of sins.… It wipes and washes away all our defilements.… God in baptism promises remission of sins.… Let us therefore embrace it in faith.”19
Calvin trusted in his baptism as proof that he was one of the elect,20 and he denounced the Anabaptists who, like today’s evangelical ex-Catholics, were baptized after believing the gospel:
Such in the present day are our Catabaptists, who deny that we are duly baptised, because we were baptised in the Papacy by wicked men and idolaters; hence they furiously insist on anabaptism. Against these absurdities we shall be sufficiently fortified if we reflect that…baptism is…of God, by whomsoever…administered.… Be it that those who baptised us were most ignorant of God and all piety…[baptism] certainly included in it the promise of forgiveness of sin.…Thus it did not harm the Jews that they were circumcised by impure and apostate priests.21
Rejection of infant baptism was one of the two charges for which Michael Servetus (prosecuted by Calvin the lawyer) was burned at the stake. Of Servetus, Calvin wrote, “One should not be content with simply killing such people, but should burn them cruelly.”22 Many historians agree that the “most hateful feature...of popery adhered to him [Calvin] through life—the spirit of persecution.” (emphasis added)23
Calvin accused Servetus of “specious arguments” against infant baptism. But the latter’s main objections (in spite of his other faults) were actually quite sound. Calvin’s derisive response, purged of that unchristian “biting and mocking tone of ridicule that would never leave him,”24 is condensed as follows:
Servetus [argues] that no man becomes our brother unless by the Spirit of adoption…only conferred by the hearing of faith.… Who will presume…that [God] may not ingraft infants into Christ by some other secret method?… Again he objects, that infants cannot be…begotten by the word. But what I have said again and again I now repeat…God takes his own methods of regenerating…to consecrate infants to himself, and initiate them by a sacred symbol.… Circumcision was common to infants before they received understanding.…
Doubtless the design of Satan in assaulting paedobaptism with all his forces is to…efface, that attestation of divine grace…that from their birth they have been…acknowledged by him as his children.25
Here, as elsewhere, Calvin promotes the error of baptismal regeneration, of salvation by “some secret method…of regenerating” without “the hearing of faith [of the gospel],” the error that children of the elect are automatically children of God, and the error of equating circumcision with baptism: “The promise…is one in both [circumcision and baptism]…forgiveness of sins, and eternal life…i.e., regeneration.… Hence we may conclude, that…baptism has been substituted for circumcision, and performs the same office.”26
Nothing more than this section of his Institutes is needed to disqualify Calvin as a sound teacher of Scripture and to call into question his entire concept of salvation. His sacramentalism mimics Roman Catholicism:
We have…a spiritual promise given to the fathers in circumcision, similar to that which is given to us in baptism…the forgiveness of sins and the mortification of the flesh…baptism representing to us the very thing which circumcision signified to the Jews
We confess, indeed, that the word of the Lord is the only seed of spiritual regeneration; but we deny…that, therefore, the power of God cannot regenerate infants.… But faith, they say, cometh by hearing, the use of which infants have not yet obtained.…
Let God, then, be demanded why he ordered circumcision to be performed on the bodies of infants.… By baptism we are ingrafted into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians xii.13) [Therefore] infants…are to be baptized.… See the violent onset which they make…on the bulwarks of our faith.… For…children…[of] Christians, as they are immediately on their birth received by God as heirs of the covenant, are also to be admitted to baptism.27
This same baptismal regeneration, contempt for believers’ baptism, and blindness concerning the difference between circumcision and baptism is still found among Calvinists today. Under the heading, “Infant Baptism,” The New Geneva Study Bible echoes Calvin:
Historic Reformed theology contests the view that only adult, believer’s baptism is true baptism, and it rejects the exclusion of believers’ children from the visible community of faith.... Rather, the scriptural case for baptizing believers’ infants rests on the parallel between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism as signs and seals of the covenant of grace.28
On the contrary, baptism belongs to the New Covenant and is only upon confession of faith in Christ (Acts ); circumcision was under the Old Covenant and without faith. Neither one saves the soul. Moreover, not only did circumcision not effect regeneration, forgiveness of sins, or salvation, but it couldn’t even be a symbol thereof, since it was only for males. How could women be saved? And it was for all male descendants of Abraham. Even Ishmael, a rank unbeliever, was circumcised, as were millions of Jews who never had the faith of Abraham but rebelled against God and are now in hell.
If, as Calvin taught, circumcision effects “forgiveness of
sins, and eternal life…i.e., regeneration,”29 how could Jews who
were circumcised be lost, and why did Paul cry out to God “for
What then of Calvin’s declaration that “baptism has been
substituted for circumcision, and performs the same office”? 30 And
what of the many pronouncements of judgment upon duly circumcised Jews? God
I sent unto you all my servants the prophets, rising early…saying, Oh, do not this abominable thing that I hate [burning incense unto other gods]. But they hearkened not.… Wherefore my fury and mine anger was poured forth (Jeremiah 44:4–6).
God’s condemnation of millions of Jews, in spite of their having been circumcised, refutes Calvin’s unbiblical statements about circumcision. Moreover, if only the elect have salvation and if they can never be lost, and if circumcision brought salvation, how could millions of circumcised Jews be condemned?
Most of Calvin’s “Reformation” errors came from the influence of Augustine. John Piper, who has called himself “a seven point Calvinist,”31 admits:
The Standard text on theology that Calvin and Luther drank from was Sentences by Peter Lombard. Nine-tenths of this book consists of quotations from Augustine.… Luther was an Augustinian monk, and Calvin immersed himself in the writings of Augustine, as we can see from the increased use of Augustine’s writings in each new edition of the Institutes.… Paradoxically, one of the most esteemed fathers of the Roman Catholic Church “gave us the Reformation.”32
What, then, of the boast that Calvinism is the Reformation? In chapter 14 we will consider Augustine’s influence upon John Calvin.
1. John Piper, TULIP:
The Pursuit of God’s Glory in Salvation (
2. John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991), 107.
3. Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1970), 70.
4. R. C. Sproul, gen.
ed., The New
5. E. H. Broadbent, The
6. Francois Wendel,
trans. Philip Mairet, Calvin: Origin and Development of His Religious
7. John Calvin, Lettres françaises, ed. J. Bonnet (Paris: C. Meyrueis, 1854), 1:351, .
8. Calvin, Lettres, , 229, passim.
9. Wendel, Calvin,
98–101; Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography (
10. Wendel, Calvin, 100; Cottret, Calvin, 198–200.
11. Cottret, Calvin, 200.
12. Amédée Roget, L’Église et l’État a Genève du temps de Calvin. Étude d’histoire politico-ecclésiastique (Geneva: J. Jullien, 1867), page.
13. Cottret, Calvin, 235.
14. G. T. Bettany, A Popular History of the Reformation and Modern Protestantism (London: Ward, Lock & Bowden, 1895), 416–22.
15. David Gay, Battle for the Church, 1517–1644 (City and state: Brachus, 1997), 438–9, 451–3.
16. Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1956), 497.
17. Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Faith (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1983), 24.
18. Cottret, Calvin, 129.
19. John Calvin, Institutes
of the Christian Religion, tr. Henry Beveridge (
20. Calvin, Institutes, IV: xv, 1–6; xvi, 24, passim.
21. Ibid., IV: xv, 16.
22. Ronald H. Bainton, Michel
Servet, hérétique et martyr (Geneva: Droz, 1953), 152–3; letter of
23. William Jones, The History of the Christian Church, 5th ed. (City and state: Church History Research & Archives, 1983), 2: 238.
24. Cottret, Calvin, 78.
25. Calvin, Institutes, IV: xvi, 31.
26. Ibid., IV: xvi, 4.
27. Ibid, IV: iii–xvi, viii, x, xvii–xxxii, 22.
28. Sproul, gen. ed., New
29Calvin, Institutes, IV: xvi, 4.
31. Bob Wilkin, “Ligonier National Conference,” The Grace Report (July 2000): page numbers.
32. John Piper, The
Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther,
and Calvin (
God is all-sufficient, and all life, glory, goodness and blessedness are found in Him and in Him alone. He does not stand in need of any of the creatures that He has made, nor does He derive any part of His glory from them. On the contrary, He manifests His own glory in and by them. He is the fountain-head of all being, and the origin, channel and end of all things. Over all His creatures His is sovereign. He uses them as He pleases, and does for them or to them all that He wills. His sight penetrates to the heart of all things. His knowledge is infinite and infallible. No single thing is to Him at risk or uncertain, for He is not dependent upon created things. In all His decisions, doings and demands He is most holy. Angels and men owe to Him as their creator all worship, service and obedience, and whatever else He may require at their hands.1
Thus the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith describes the great foundational truths of the biblical revelation of God. God is the Creator, and therefore He is King over all that He has made. The King rules over His creation. This is the divine truth of God’s sovereignty: His right to rule over what He has made. Those who love their king and are subject to Him find His sovereignty a great comfort and delight. Those who are in rebellion against Him fight and chafe against this divine truth. Much can be determined concerning our true subjection to God by asking if, in fact, we love God as He has revealed Himself to be, the divine ruler over all things, or whether we seek to “edit” Him down to a more “manageable” and “manlike” deity.
Modern men struggle with the biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty. One of the reasons may have to do with the fact that we do not have many true kings today. Instead, many transfer their ideas of democracy to God’s rule, thinking that God is limited in what He can do by what man “agrees” to allow by his “free will.” The truth is that the Bible speaks much of free will—God’s free will, that is, not man’s. The utter freedom of God to do with His creation as He sees fit, not as His creatures see fit, is a constant theme. God’s purpose rules over all, not just in the “big things” but in all things. This is the basis of the Christian doctrine of God’s eternal decree: that in creating all that exists, God does so for a purpose, that being His own glorification. His decree is personal in that it is focused upon His own intent and purpose.2 The biblical testimony speaks for itself:
Our God is in the heavens;
He does whatever He pleases. (Psalm 115:3)
Whatever the Lord pleases,
In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps. (Psalm 135:6)
The lot is cast into the lap,
But its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:33)
Many plans are in a man’s heart,
But the counsel of the Lord will stand. (Proverbs 19:21)
Man’s steps are ordained
by the Lord,
How then can man understand his way? (Proverbs 20:24)
The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord;
He turns it wherever He wishes. (Proverbs 21:1)
“Since his days are determined,
The number of his months is with You;
And his limits You have set so that he cannot pass.” (Job 14:5)
These passages from the Psalter and the Wisdom Literature show us how basic this truth is for the child of God. And when God engages in a demonstration of the foolishness of idolatry by proving He is the only true God, His sovereignty over creation comes out with force:
“It is I who have declared and saved and proclaimed,
And there was no strange god among you;
So you are My witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“And I am God.
Even from eternity I am He,
And there is none who can deliver out of My hand;
I act and who can reverse it?” (Isaiah 43:12–13)
The One forming light and creating darkness,
Causing well-being and creating calamity;
I am the Lord who does all these. (Isaiah 45:7)3
“Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, ‘My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” (Isaiah 46:10)
Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass,
Unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
That both good and ill go forth? (Lamentations 3:37–38)
Space prohibits further testimony, though the list of such passages goes on almost indefinitely. The complete freedom of God, combined with God’s role as the divine King who rules over His creation, provide the irrefutable foundation of God’s sovereign decree.
When Paul extolled the grace of God in salvation in the opening of his letter to the Ephesians, he included these words in his discussion of God’s predestination of a specific, elect people unto salvation: “We have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” (Ephesians 1:11)
God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ is grounded in the truth that He is sovereign over all things. The certainty of the inheritance that is ours in Christ is based upon the fact that God’s purpose will never fail, and His purpose is grounded in the more basic truth that He “works all things after the counsel of His will.” This is the positive way of stating what Paul said in Romans 9:11 (“So that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls”) and 2 Timothy 1:9 (“[He] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.”)
God’s purpose, God’s will, is the basis upon which God acts. He works all things in accordance with the counsel of His will. Man’s will cannot thwart or destroy His purpose, and this truth is stated here in Ephesians in the context of salvation itself. In light of the context, the “all things” cannot be limited to the physical creation but must include the work of salvation itself. The inheritance, predestination, and all that is associated with it in the preceding verses, must be included in the “all things” that are done in accordance with God’s purpose. The very foundation upon which the certainty of the gospel rests is the divine attribute of sovereignty and active rulership over the creation. Without this truth, one is left with the religions of men: God offers, God tries, but in the final analysis, men dispose.
Many are willing to confess God’s sovereign rule over such things as earthquakes, floods, or other “acts of God.” Yet the fortress of man’s pride, his “free will,” is strictly off-limits. But does the Bible provide any basis for limiting God’s sovereignty and leaving man in a position of autonomy, with God merely “foreseeing” what His free-willed creature will do? It certainly does not. Instead, we are provided with numerous examples of God accomplishing His will despite not only the individual “freewill” decisions of men but also the combined “freewill” decisions of entire nations. The Psalmist was speaking the truth when he said:
The Lord nullifies
the counsel of the nations;
He frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
The plans of His heart from generation to generation. (Psalm 33:10–11)
By repeating the same phrases, the Scriptures communicate a basic truth. As Sproul has put it, “God is free. I am free. If my freedom runs up against God’s freedom, I lose. His freedom restricts mine; my freedom does not restrict his.”4 When the counsel of the nations is opposed to God’s counsel, God’s counsel stands forever, and the nations’ counsel is nullified. This truth extends to the most personal level, the actions of men and women. In fact, it extends to the very commission of sin itself. Remember what God said to Abimelech regarding Abraham’s wife, Sarah:
God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her.” (Genesis 20:6)
God revealed to Abimelech that He had kept him from sinning. Consider what this means. God prevented Abimelech from committing an act of sin. If God could keep him from sinning in this instance, could He not have kept him from sinning in any other given instance? Of course. And yet, He had not done so. Why? He had a purpose in restraining Abimelech in this instance. And if He has a purpose in this instance, does He not have a purpose in all instances, with each and every person? Surely.
God could, if He chose, restrain all evil this very moment. Indeed, I believe that God is preventing the expression of the vast majority of evil that fills the hearts of men. This “common grace” makes it possible for us to live our lives and preach the gospel, for if God were to allow the evil that fills the hearts of men to come to free and unrestrained expression, this world would self-destruct in a fireball of sinful violence. But if God does not restrain any particular act of evil, does it not inevitably follow that He has a purpose in it? And does this not mean that God’s eternal decree, by which He acts in this world, includes the existence of evil for a purpose, one that leads to God’s glorification through the work of Jesus Christ in redeeming a people unto Himself?
This is not speculation, but a certain biblical fact based on more than Genesis 20:6. Consider this amazing promise from God’s law:
I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your borders, and no man shall covet your land when you go up three times a year to appear before the Lord your God. (Exodus 34:24)
All the men of
If, as we have seen, the Bible teaches the absolute sovereignty of God over His creation and that He has a purpose He is accomplishing in all that happens as part of His divine decree, what of the obvious fact that man makes choices and God holds him accountable for them? Despite the constant misrepresentation of the opponents of God’s sovereignty, to fully appreciate the biblical evidence is to recognize that God’s decree does not make Him the author of sin. As the 1689 Confession says:
From all eternity God decreed all that should happen in time, and this He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will. Yet in so doing He does not become in any sense the author of sin, nor does He share responsibility for sin with sinners. Neither, by reason of His decree, is the will of any creature whom He has made violated; nor is the free working of second causes put aside; rather it is established.5
The biblical relationship of God’s sovereign decree to the creaturely will of man has been aptly called “compatibilism,” the belief that these two things are not contradictory but compatible with one another, when viewed properly. This truth is presented in numerous passages of Scripture, such as Genesis 50:20, where Joseph, in the presence of his brothers, refers back to their betrayal of him: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”
One sinful action (the betrayal and sale of Joseph into slavery) is in view: Joseph’s brothers meant their actions for evil. But in direct parallel, God meant the same action for good. Due to the intention of the hearts of Joseph’s brothers, the action in the human realm was evil. The very same action as part of God’s eternal decree was meant for good, for by it God brought about His purpose and plan. One action, two intentions, compatible in all things. Joseph’s brothers were accountable for their intentions; God is to be glorified for His.
The longest, clearest presentation of compatibilism is found in
God’s use of
And the staff in whose hands is My indignation,
I send it against a godless nation
And commission it against the people of My fury
To capture booty and to seize plunder,
And to trample them down like mud in the streets.
Yet it does not so intend,
Nor does it plan so in its heart,
But rather it is its purpose to destroy
And to cut off many nations.”…
So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on
In one passage we have God’s holy intention of judging His
people through the means of
By far the greatest example of compatibilism is found in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. The early church confessed:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against Your
holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along
with the Gentiles and the peoples of
One action, the great sacrifice of the Son of God, is in view. Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the Jews were all gathered together against Jesus. Their actions were obviously sinful. Their intentions were evil. Yet, the Word of God is clear: They did what they did because God’s hand and purpose predestined it to take place. Were they accountable for their intentions and desires? Of course. But was the certainty of the Cross and the sacrifice of Christ ever dependent upon man’s will? Never. It happened according to the predestined plan of God and is therefore completely to His honor and glory. One action, part of the divine decree, sinful on the part of the intentions of the men involved, and yet fully in harmony with the holy purpose of God, to His glory and praise. Man’s will, God’s sovereign decree, compatible with one another. This is the biblical teaching.
The truth of God’s eternal decree flows from the fact that God is the Creator of all things and that everything He does (including the act of creation) is done for a purpose. In the final analysis, all things lead to the glorification of God. This would not be true if, in fact, God does not sovereignly reign over His creation, working all things in accordance with His will. As we will see, this divine truth forms the necessary basis for the truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
1. A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of 1689 Rewritten in Modern English (New York: Carey Publications, 1997), 2:2.