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Recently I was asked a good question about Calvinism. Which of the five points are most difficult for you to believe?

Before giving my answer, let me give a quick summary of what is traditionally called the five points of Calvinism.

  • Total Depravity: Humanity is absolutely alienated from God by virtue of our sin, in fact, we are slaves to sin. There is no island of righteousness in us that we might stand upon and commend ourselves to God. Before thinking about what we do (sin) we think in terms of what we are (depraved). And we have no ability to save ourselves.
  • Unconditional Election: God chose his people before the foundation of the world. He does not choose (elect) people based upon some good they might do but in spite of our inability to be or do good. It is all of grace.
  • Limited Atonement: All that Jesus accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection was for his people. His work was vicarious, substitutionary, and successful. Therefore, he did not die for (and therefore remove the wrath of God for) everyone who ever lived, but rather for his elect.
  • Irresistible Grace: We might use the term “effectual” here to describe God's grace. It simply means that God is sovereign and able to do what he sets out to do. None may stymie God in his sovereign work of salvation if he means to save them. When God calls a rebel to himself he overcomes their sinful resistance to his rule.
  • Perseverance of the Saints: Those who have truly been born again by the grace of God will continue in the grace of God not fall away. They will persevere until the end.

I wonder which of these five are most difficult for you. I once heard R. C. Sproul say that the most difficult one was total depravity, because if you believe this then everything else falls into place. You may or may not agree with him. Most people I talk to have the most trouble with limited atonement. Perhaps this has to do with confusion stemming from the (unhelpful) language of the atonement being limited. (I prefer the word "definite" myself.)

As I think about the question I come back to a different point. And it may surprise you. For me the most difficult point of Calvinism is the fifth, perseverance of the saints. The reason for this stems from the fact that I live with myself 24 hours a day. I get the "check engine" alert, and when I pop the hood of my soul and take a look, I'm discouraged. I feel the weight of sin, a cold heart, lethargic disciplines, lukewarm devotion, embarrassing zeal, and a regrettable reflex of pride. This is what I feel and experience some days. But then I look on the trunk of the car and see the bumper sticker, perseverance of the saints. What? How? Like driving a clunker across the country, I have a hard time believing I can push this spiritual hooptie to the Celestial City.

As unsettling as this is, it is actually right where I need to be. Through the feeling of my own inadequacy I actually cry out to God for grace. I need help, Lord! How am I going to keep going? Then I remember how I got going in the first place. It was an act of God's sovereign grace. It was God who caused me to be born again (1 Pet. 1:3). It is God who made me alive (Eph. 2:4). God himself will keep me (Jn. 10:28-29). It is God who justifies; who is there to condemn (Rom. 8:33-34)? It is God who will present me blameless with great joy before his throne (Jude 24-25).

In other words, I believe in the perseverance of the saints because I believe in the perseverance of God!

But we forget this, don't we? In the day-to-day we forget about the perseverance of God and looking unto ourselves we get discouraged. I find the fifth point of Calvinism the most difficult to believe because my spiritual life is a grind. The "check engine" light is on and the fuel tank is low. But this is not the last word. God will persevere his people. The God who made us alive will keep us alive. God is able to complete his work (Rom. 8:29-30). There is sufficient grace in the divine reservoir to fuel our tanks and take us home! We should praise him for this.

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8 thoughts on “Which of the Five Points of Calvinism Is Most Difficult for You?”

  1. Mike B says:

    Interesting question. My first initial response is actually the 6th point, the S in TULIPS. That would stand for Sovereignty (meticulous) as often described by Calvinists and the WCF. In a nutshell states that God has decreed all events w/o the benefit of foreknowing any acts of people. This requires every act to be what God planned, purposed, and intended to happen. Since it doesn’t take into account freewill, it explicitly rejects that as input to the decree/plan, it means God does not permit evil such that He allows it to occur (even if that is how it is most often expressed by Calvinists). It means that He is the master mind, the origination of the idea, behind all the evil that occurs, even if other agents actually commit the acts.

    But to answer your actual question regarding the 5 points. The L, as you note, would be a good choice. After all 4-point Calvinism rejects this point and people debate whether Calvin held this or not. Logically if it is true then the gospel can’t be sincerely offered to all people, but only the elect. Asking someone to believe that Christ loves them and died for them when He in fact did not, can’t be taken as a genuine offer.

    But in the end I have to land the plane on U because that is the basis for L. Without the idea of an unconditional election, the limited/definite/particular atonement as expressed in TULIP is no longer possible. The Scripture is full of passages that express that salvation is by faith (a condition). And expresses the gospel as an offer to accept or reject Christ. This faith, understood as a trust and loyalty toward another, is often portrayed as an active verb. That makes it hard to see as something God obtained for someone (as Owen argues), or irresistibly effects in someone.

    As full disclosure I am not a Calvinist. But as I study theology, these are the points that I find most difficult to accept.

  2. Nick says:

    I cannot accept Calvinism on many levels. First is the total depravity. Yes, humans are fallen. However, we still bear the image of God, and there is good still in us. I also have big problems with unconditional election, and that God chose some people before the foundation of the world. This means that he also chose others for eternal suffering. This ties in to my problem with limited atonement. Jesus did not come to save a handful of select recipients who happened to have won the lottery by being born in a white, evangelical family in the US as opposed to a strict Muslim family in Syria. If God created a world knowing that humans would become totally depraved, and hand selected a few to show his grace, while damning the rest of humankind for all eternity, then that God is a monster, and not a God I can believe in.

    Disclaimer: if you cannot tell, I am Armenian in my views. I believe God creates humans with radical freedom. Love demands freedom. Without freedom, there can be no love. That freedom gives humans the ability to accept or reject the love of God.

    1. I think Calvinists forget about common grace. Non-Christians still have the ability to reason and as Paul says in Romans 1 they can see and understand the deity of God through the creation and their own sinfulness through their conscience. God gives people what they need to enable them to respond to the light he has given them because without it they would not respond at all.

  3. doug sayers says:

    The check engine light analogy is a good one, Erik, thanks.

    The last of the 5 inferences of Calvinism includes our pursuit of assurance and is obviously crucial to our joy. It make sense that you, as a Calvinist, might struggle, even more than non-Calvinists, with perseverence / preservation. A true Calvinist is someone who chooses to believe that there are some people who are born reprobate. They aren’t supposed to be saved; Jesus would not have made a definite atonement for their particular sins…. yet they can look, act, and sound like real believers (even when they are so dead in sin that they would be incapable of seeing anything desirable in God or Christ). This mis-understanding can really get in your head when battling besetting sin and the check engine light stays on for a while. That’s scary. It’s one thing to wonder if my faith is sincere – it is another to wonder if God even desires to save me!

    It is much better to know that God desires each soul to be saved, so much so – that Jesus died for everyone.

    You “wonder which of these five are most difficult for” me?

    Not enough room here! See chosenornotdot com.

  4. Jeff Rickel says:

    Great article. I like your point, I feel the same way a lot, but I keep wondering if perseverance of saints is actually perseverance in faith, when we fail, when we are overwhelmed, when we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see we can look to Jesus and beg him to change us and remember his promise to change us. (1 John 1:9). You may be actually a better example of perseverance than you give yourself credit for.
    1 John 1:9
    If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sinsand purify us from all unrighteousness.

    The part I have the most trouble with is the second sentence under Unconditional Election, :
    ” He (God) does not choose (elect) people based upon some good they might do but in spite of our inability to be or do good.”

    It is not so much the concept I am arguing against, but the certainty with which it is phrased, and I may just be reading it wrong. I don’t know why God choose me? I am just extemely humbled and grateful to God that HE did for whatever reason, and extremely glad that God works to change me in accordance with that choice.

    There is a certain mystery associated with God and for anyone to say with certainty I know how God thinks, I know what God will or won’t do, seems to me to be presumptuous and arrogant especially when teaching or publishing.

    Again I am not arguing for or against this point, I am saying that extreme caution should be used when claiming with certainty to know the mind and plans of God even with limited support of scripture. Van Till spoke of the secret councils in the Chambers of God before the world began and trying to peer into or guess what took place there. He always claimed we could guess to some degree based on God’s revelation, but knowing would not come until we stand before Him in heaven.

    1 Corinthians 13:11-12
    When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

    Romans 11:33-34
    Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and[i] knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
    “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”

  5. What criteria does God use to choose? He is not an arbitrary tyrant like Allah who chooses some good people to go to hell and evil one to paradise in order to demonstrate his sovereignty. God is the author of reason and so must have some criteria for choosing. What is the point of the Bible if not to explain his criteria? Without it, the Bible is trivia.

    As for total depravity, wouldn’t common grace elevate mankind to the point where he could have faith? After all, Reformed teaching place a lot of emphasis on common grace, God’s providing good things like the sun and rain to rebellious people. What good are those trivial things if God’s common grace doesn’t give people a chance to choose Him?

  6. Tim says:

    The article provides encouraging words. I believe I would have agreed with Limited Atonement. God’s grace keeps us as well. Reminded of passage from Philippians that says, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Phil. 1:5

  7. Abram Braden says:

    Man, this hits home for me. Perseverance of the saints has been the one I struggle with as well. This article has been encouraging. Thank you Erik!

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Erik Raymond

Erik Raymond is senior pastor of Emmaus Bible Church in Omaha, Ne. He and his wife Christie have six children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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