My esteemed colleague, Dr. Richard Davis, has published an attack on Calvinism that misses its intended target by a rather wide margin. The problems with this piece are several but the major one is that he misunderstands the nature of justice and grace. Another problem is that he misrepresents what Calvinists actually believe in order to smuggle his conclusions into his premises, which vitiates his logical argument. And, along the way, he also inadvertently shows how rejecting Calvinism and embracing Arminianism creates further problems that drive Arminians toward liberal theology.
Justice and Grace
First, why does God punish sinners? Dr. Davis would have us believe that God condemns people to hell for not receiving Divine grace and responding to the Gospel on the basis of that grace. Here he seems to agree with many opponents of eternal punishment. He writes:
It is part of the essence of Calvinism that there are two distinct groups of individuals in God’s overall economy: the elect and the non-elect. The elect are the grateful recipients of God’s irresistible, unmerited grace and are thereby saved. The non-elect, by sad contrast, receive no such grace; they are passed over. Consequently, they are damned for all eternity.
Note the word, “Consequently,” in the last sentence. In this context it appears to mean: “they are damned because they did not receive prevenient grace.” But surely this is not what Scripture teaches. In Romans 3:23 we read: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This verse occurs just after a long section of the epistle (1:18-3:20) in which Paul establishes the guilt before God of all men: Jews because they have not kept the Law of Moses perfectly and Gentiles because they have known God but have rejected Him, worshiped idols and broken God’s moral law, when the knowledge of God and God’s moral law is accessible to them through reason, nature and conscience.
The Gentiles are guilty before God and deserve only judgment:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Rom. 1:18)
And the Jews are no better off, despite having special revelation in addition to general revelation:
“For God shows no partiality. Those who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” (Rom. 2:11-12)
It is worth emphasizing that God judges human beings for breaking His Law, that is, for sinning. And, Paul stresses here, all human beings sin. So all deserve eternal punishment. It cannot be unjust to get what you deserve.
Sin is the true reason why some people end up in hell. It is not because God does not give them a “second chance” in the form of prevenient grace, but because they used their “first chance” to suppress their knowledge of God, worship idols and break the law.
Therefore, in punishing sinners, God is just. Dr. Davis appears to agree with this point at one point in his article, even though at another point he says that some people go to hell because God did not give them prevenient grace. So, which is it? If God not giving some people prevenient grace is the real cause of some going to hell, then God is the cause of evil, an idea which Calvinists strongly reject. If their own sin is the reason why people come under judgment, then sinners cause their own evil.
But, Dr. Davis would protest, his real point is that Calvinism makes God appear to be partial to some and not others and partiality is unjust. But is God really partial in giving prevenient grace only to the elect?
This is a common line of argument put forward by liberals who reject eternal punishment altogether. God is unjust to save some and leave some in hell. But this argument misunderstands both justice and grace. Justice is giving someone what he deserves. Grace is giving someone what he does not deserve. Now, Dr. Davis is arguing that if one person receives Divine grace then all people deserve Divine grace. But this is a false argument which depends on confusing justice with grace. Justice cannot be partial without turning into injustice, but grace can be partial if it wants.
Once or twice in my teaching career I have had occasion to help a student out financially. There were very unusual circumstances that I won’t go into here. But what if a student came to me tomorrow and said: “I heard that in 1997 you helped out a student financially and I need help now. Moreover, if you don’t help me you are partial and therefore unjust.” Would Dr. Davis certify this argument as valid and compelling? I doubt it. What if the circumstances of the two students were identical? I still doubt it. If the definition of “grace” as “unmerited favour” is to be maintained, then notions of merit (I deserve to receive prevenient grace if anyone does) and a definition of universality that smuggles merit in through the back door (everyone gets it or no one should) have to be excluded. God’s grace depends on His will alone. Nothing constrains Him. That is what makes it grace. Justice is different; it cannot be dispensed with partiality. But grace can because it is unmerited favour not merited (or deserved) favour.
As a side note, if we took Dr. Davis’ argument seriously, all charity would logically have to cease until we could be sure that no person in need was being overlooked. Foreign aid projects on this way of thinking would come to a screeching halt: “If we can’t feed every hungry person, we are being partial and therefore unjust.” What amazes me is that this is the very logic behind some people arguing for “social justice” and against charity. Socialism is the only logical approach if we must treat everyone equally in order to be just. I can only record my astonishment that Dr. Davis would offer an argument that leads in this direction!
Do Calvinists Concede that Grace for Some Appears to be Unfair?
Dr. Davis says:
Now even Calvinists admit that this scenario makes it at least appear that God is being unjust or unfair. After all, why not just give irresistible grace to both groups?
Dr. Davis provides us with no footnotes here so, for all I know, there may be some Calvinist somewhere who unwisely makes such a concession. But the Calvinist tradition as a whole would not do so. I certainly concede no such thing. God is not unfair if He chooses to give grace only to some and would not be unjust even if He had chosen to give it to no one.
Dr. Davis’s little rhetorical ploy here is camouflage for his smuggling of his conclusion into his premise. But that makes all his wonderful logic pointless. If you start from a definition of partiality that makes God giving grace to some unjust, then guess what the conclusion is bound to be! (In logic, as in computer programming the rule is: “garbage in – garbage out”). As I have demonstrated above, it is not actually unfair for God to choose to give grace only to some, rather than to all. But if you start with the assumption that it is, then you will find your logical argument yielding that conclusion. Calvinists, however, find this argument unconvincing because they keep the definitions of grace and justice clear and distinct.
With regard to the fallen angels, it does appear that God has, in fact, chosen not to redeem any of them. Is that unfair? After all, God did decide to save at least some humans. Is Dr. Davis going to accuse God of injustice for not extending prevenient grace to angels? (I wonder; would this be “speciesism?”) All such worries trade on the confusion of justice and grace.
What about Those Who Have Never Heard?
A question that naturally occurs when reading Dr. Davis’ article is “What about those who have never heard the Gospel?” Prevenient grace is fine when you are talking about those listening to Gospel preaching. They come under conviction by the Holy Spirit, receive prevenient grace and then make a decision to accept or reject the Gospel. The reason Arminianism is merely incorrect doctrine and not a heresy is that it still makes salvation dependent on hearing the Gospel, receiving Christ through repentance and faith and being born again. But what about the millions who live and die without ever hearing the Gospel?
One presumes, from reading Dr. Davis’ article, that he must believe that they receive prevenient grace too. Otherwise the full force of his argument comes down on the Arminianism that refuses to say that those who have never heard the Gospel definitely receive prevenient grace. If those who never hear the Gospel did not receive prevenient grace, then they would be treated with “partiality,” according to Dr. Davis’ logic. But how does this work? Can people be saved without ever hearing the name of Jesus Christ? Without ever repenting and believing in Him? Without faith? Apart from the preaching of the Gospel?
One imagines the noble pagan, a Socrates perhaps, receiving the enabling grace of God and then living by his conscience so as never to sin against God’s moral law. But is that picture consistent with the portrait of humanity drawn in Romans 1? Is it consistent with “For all have sinned . . .” But if the noble pagan can sin and still be saved somehow, by prevenient grace apart from any conscious knowledge of Jesus Christ, then why does the Bible make such a big deal out of emphasizing Christ as the only Way to God? (eg. Acts 4:12, Jn. 14:6) On the other hand, if the noble pagan cannot be saved, even with prevenient grace, then what is the point of insisting that he must have it? To follow Dr. Davis’ line of thought, he is lost because of “an accident of birth”? After all, God could have had him be born in Canada, couldn’t He?
I’m afraid that, to accept Dr. Davis’ argument against Calvinism is to land oneself in this pickle: either one accepts that those who never hear the name of Christ are definitely lost, which means that Arminianism teaches that God is partial, just as Calvinism purportedly does, or else we must imagine people all over the world following conscience, living good lives and being saved with the help of God’s prevenient grace. We must either throw out Arminianism, along with Calvinism, or else believe that people can be saved apart from any conscious knowledge of Jesus Christ. Some liberal theologians do the first, some the second, and not a few do both. But this is a dilemma the Calvinist does not face.
Roman Catholics bite the bullet and claim that people can be saved without knowledge of Jesus Christ and perhaps Dr. Davis would too. I’m not sure. But as for my position, I would want to plead agnosticism on this point because I think it is dangerous to be definitive about something so mysterious. I am especially wary of saying that it is definitely possible for people to be saved apart from Christ. After all, being saved by prevenient grace without a conscious knowledge of Christ’s atoning death on the cross sounds uncomfortably close to salvation by works. And, unlike Dr. Davis, I don’t have any pressure on me to go one way or the other because I do not view it as unjust for God to withhold His grace from some people. I leave it in God’s hands.
Arminianism has to wrestle with the same difficult problems relating to grace that Calvinism does. All of us find it difficult to be categorical about the fate of those who have never heard. But the logic of Arminianism leads one to embrace the concept of the “anonymous Christian” or some such idea and Liberal Protestantism has trod this road already with disastrous results for missions and evangelism. Arminianism is a departure from Augustinianism/Calvinism that goes half way toward modern theological liberalism and then suddenly stops. The question is whether it logically can remain where it is permanently or whether its logic inevitably drives it onward toward liberalism.