Point of View: Calvinism on grace

Article Date: Nov 12, 2012

Editor’s note: This article is the eleventh in a series of 12 columns that will be published in 2012 addressing the always controversial theological issues surrounding how Southern Baptists understand the doctrine of salvation. The Witness welcomes letters to the editor on this subject as the series is published throughout the year, keeping in mind the irenic spirit modeled by Mark Rathel, who teaches theology at The Baptist College of Florida.

Calvinists and Arminians agree on many points of theology. Both groups affirm the necessity of God’s grace for the salvation of humans. Regrettably, Arminians and Calvinists depart company in understanding grace beyond the common agreement of the necessity of God’s underserved grace. Arminians affirm God extends grace to every individual, a grace that enables the believer to respond to the Gospel invitation, while humans may resist God’s gracious call to salvation. Calvinists, on the other hand, distinguish between two kinds of grace: a general call to salvation that humans resist and an irresistible grace, or efficacious grace, that actually brings an individual to salvation.

The division between Calvinists and Arminiains on the issue of grace concerns the nature of God’s call to salvation. Baptist theologian Augustus Strong defined “calling” as: “that act of God by which men are invited to accept, by faith, the salvation provided b Christ.” 

What characterizes the Calvinist understanding of grace and the call of individuals to salvation?

First, Calvinists affirm a general call to salvation extended to all humans that is universal, general and external. Calvinists point to the following biblical passages in support of a general call to salvation: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isa 45:12 HCSB). “Come unto Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28 HCSB). “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all [people] to Myself” (John 12:31 HCSB). This call to salvation issues from the communication of the Word. Because of bondage to sin, people inevitably resist this external call to salvation.

Arminians critique the Calvinist position as an “insincere” offer of the Gospel to individuals unable to respond. Baptist theologian E. Y. Mullins defended the concept of general call. He used the illustration of human affairs in which an individual extends a sincere invitation even though the individual knows the invitation will be refused.  Foreknowledge of a refusal does not affect the sincerity of the offer. 

Second, Calvinists affirm an effectual call to salvation that actually brings an individual to salvation. Effectual call is God’s work in an effective manner to enable humans to respond to the Gospel invitation with repentance and faith, insuring that an individual does respond. Calvinists point to passages in which the “called” are synonymous with Christians (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). Individuals given by God the Father to the Son will come to Jesus (John 6:37). 

Irresistible grace is an older term often used to describe this aspect of the call of God to salvation. Some Calvinists dislike the term because it conveys an impersonal, mechanical salvation. Timothy George, for example, prefers the term “overcoming grace” as a description of this Calvinistic understanding of grace. God pursues and woos the objects of His love like a lover. “God created human beings with free moral agency, and he does not violate this even in the supernatural work of regeneration,” said George. “Christ does not rudely bludgeon his way into the human heart. He does not abrogate our creaturely freedom. No, he beckons and woos, he pleads and pursues, he waits and wins.”

Calvinists understand the doctrine of effectual call as the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in salvation. Since the ministries of the Holy Spirit are internal, effectual graceful call to salvation is an internal call—in contrast to the external call of general salvation. The conversion of the businesswoman Lydia in Philippi illustrates the Calvinist understanding of grace. “The Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14 NASB). Paul preached to a group of women; that is, his preaching served as the general, external, gracious call to salvation. The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to the message. God’s act in opening her heart illustrates the effective, internal, gracious call to salvation.

When I discussed the Arminian understanding of grace, I concluded with the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can It Be?” I close this discussion with a hymn, “I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew,” that expresses the concept of God’s effective, gracious call to salvation:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew

He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking Me;

It was not I that found, O Savior true,

No, I was found of Thee.

Both Arminians and Calvinists sing praise hymns on account of God’s grace. I pray that both Arminians and Calvinists do “the work of an evangelist.” Further, I pray that both groups will sing together of God’s amazing grace!


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