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Earlier in the week I saw this quote from Wendell Berry go out on Twitter:

Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of His human creatures.

Knowing what I do about Berry, and considering the theological persuasion of those I see repeating the sentence, I wonder if people consider this line from Jayber Crow to be a repudiation of Calvinism. Many people would. I’ve encountered numerous Christians who object to Reformed theology because they can’t believe “we are puppets on a string,” or that God “made us as robots,” or to put it more elegantly like Berry, that God “would coerce the love of his human creatures.”

And yet, that’s not at all what Calvinism teaches. At least, that’s not what we should be teaching. It’s true that Calvin, like Augustine before him, believed the will of God to be the necessity of all things. But the Church’s leading theologians have always carefully distinguished between different kinds of necessity. Calvin, for example, though he held to the highest view of God’s sovereignty vehemently rejected any notion of necessity which entailed external coercion or compulsion. In this matter he was simply following Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and the entire tradition of Christian orthodoxy.

This is why the puppet and robot analogies don’t work, and no Calvinist should own them. While we believe that God’s grace is irresistible and flows from his electing love, we must be clear that this grace renews us from within. It does not coerce us from without. God is not a puppet master pulling on our strings so that we do what he wants apart from our own willing or doing. His will precedes our will, but it does not eradicate it.

Anyone familiar with the Canons of Dort should know that Calvinists do not believe that God works on his people by means of forcible coercion. Instead, we believe that God supernaturally, sovereignly, and irresistibly renews our hearts so that we can feel and choose and do what we ought.

However, just as by the fall man did not cease to be man, endowed with intellect and will, and just as sin, which has spread through the whole human race, did not abolish the nature of the human race but distorted and spiritually killed it, so also this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—in a manner at once pleasing and powerful—bends it back. (Third/Fourth Head, Article 16; emphasis added)

In short, Calvinists have no problem affirming that God does not coerce the love of his human creatures. Where we may differ with others is in our joyous affirmation that our love for God is only possible when God—by mercy alone, through sovereign grace, and by his eternal decree—chooses to love us first.

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59 thoughts on “Does Calvinism Teach Puppet Theology?”

  1. Mike B says:


    If I currently do not want to repent and believe the gospel, can God work within me so that I change my mind?

    Yes. That is generally what Arminians assert happens with prevenient grace. God illuminates and convicts man of sin, righteousness, judgment to come to a point where he/she can make a decision on whether to accept or reject the gospel.

  2. Kraig says:

    @ Mike B

    I’m sure we are at an impasse, and that’s ok.

    My point to the causation thread: God is the ultimate cause of evil because he created a world in which evil could happen. No theology can avoid God being the ultimate cause of human evil. Even if God were not omniscient and did not know what free agents might do, God still ultimately caused what happens in the world by the mere fact that he created it.

    But causation is not directly related to morality. Morality has to do with law. “Where there is no law there is no transgression.” God can do whatever he wants and not be charged with evil because there is no law governing the works of God.

    My point in the Spirit’s work thread: Does God know how much influence is needed in order for a person to make the decision to accept the gospel? If he does, then God is “causing” the person’s decision by influencing enough or not enough for them to believe.

    Or is prevenient grace more like a half-way second birth that is the same for all men? — We are all “born again” or “enabled” to the state of Adam where we can choose to believe or not believe, and at that point the Spirit’s influence stops (so that he does not sway the decision one way or the other), and then if we do believe we are born again.

  3. Jim says:

    Yes God created this world and the evil in it. However, that was not and is not His will or intention. The evil was allowed because of His ultimate love. Because God deals only in love, He wants all His creations to love Him back freely and without any influence. In order to obtain a world of true love where His creations love Him freely, God had to take the chance of being rejected by His creations. This is ultimate love. When there is a possibilty of rejection and yet, the partner still loves you, the relationship is fulfilling and lofty. This is the level of love God regards His creations. How can you fault God for loving us so??

  4. Casey says:

    My understanding of God’s sovereignty is that nothing that we do is our own actions. The gospel says that we are all saved, but we are not saved if we don’t accept Jesus to be our guide and ultimate representation of God to lead us to eternal life. My question is, if God is omniscient, then He knows what I will do. Therefore, He knows if I will go to hell or Heaven, and He has known it since the creation. Even If I commit to follow Jesus, or not, my decision has been made, Even if I have not made it yet. So Calvinism, in my mind, sucks. But there is no escaping the fact that God is omniscient, omnipresent and my creator. The only light that I see is that whatever I do, I am doing my creator’s will. Whether it be gunning down school children or doing missionary work, I’m doing, following the plan that the Calvinistic God has made for me. How am I wrong?

  5. John Piper: “Being made willing, they come most freely.”

    Most people would have a hard time relating to the logic of this statement. Analogies are often helpful in making complex and tricky subject more simplified. Can Calvinists point to a real world analogy which can clearly show how a person who is “made willing,” comes “most freely”? I can think of an analogy of a wartime prisoner who is “made” to be forcibly brainwashed, who then afterwards spill his secrets “most freely.” Would Calvinists be willing to accept that as an analogy of what they intend? Or do Calvinists wish to use a differently example to explain their meaning?

    Erwin Lutzer explains: “Now (and here it gets tricky) Calvinism goes on to say that God grants the inclination and ability to choose Christ to some, namely, the elect. God does not coerce anyone, if that means he saves a man against his will.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.191)

    So Calvinists candidly admit that their teaching is a bit “tricky” and therefore should not fault people for their reasonable objections. Imagine if we changed Lutzer’s statement to: “God does not coerce anyone, if that means he [regenerates] a man against his will.” In that instance, Calvinists would have to agree, but how it evades the point of coercement seems logically challenging. A real world human analogy could help, if Calvinists would be willing to provide one.

  6. Martin Platt says:

    “…we must be clear that this grace renews us from within. It does not coerce us from without.” How is that not still puppetry? Unless there is something within us, independent of God’s assertion, that responds willingly, it is still puppetry by any definition of puppetry that I understand!

  7. Casey Miller says:

    I, as with others, question the omniscience of God. God made me. Before I was born, He knew every strand of hair on my head. So, my question is, how is my salvation up in the air? Also, why is salvation needed by the creator of the universe?
    Why does God make us meet standards in order to be with him for eternity?
    Does not God love each and every one of us? Aren’t we all HIS creations?
    Isn’t satan also a creation of God?
    My entire life is already known to God. He knew before I was born if I would end up in heaven or hell. That is definition of omniscience. To know all things.
    Jesus was crucified. He was the son of God. If Jesus was the result of an immaculate conception, then what was the point of it? What made a baby born of solely the mother such a game changer? The old testament? The prophecies of the old testament?

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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