A Serious Question for my Calvinist Friends


Been a long while since I’ve posted here–five months, to be exact–and this post isn’t a post full of statements, but rather an honest question to which I’d like feedback from my Calvinist friends (the more TULIP points, the better!).  I have asked this on several occasions, most recently this week of a new friend, and I have yet to get an answer that satisfies me.  Here goes:

How do you reconcile “unconditional election” with the goodness of God?  

Allow me to explain.  Calvinist theology postulates (and I agree) that man is totally depraved, unable to save himself, dependent solely upon the grace of God–so far, so good.  It then says that God has unconditionally elected some to salvation (and the only way one comes to God, of course, is by being one of the elect).  The corollary doctrine is the doctrine of reprobation, if I understand it correctly (and not running too much in those circles, please correct me if I’m wrong).  This means that God, in His sovereignty and with exhaustive foreknowledge, chose some to be saved, and others to suffer damnation.  The question, then, is how we see God as “good” in this scenario.  

Now, as I told my friend, it’s fair enough to say that I don’t understand God’s goodness fully, just like I don’t fully understand any of God’s attributes, ’cause I’m a very fallen (totally depraved!) dude.  I don’t fully grasp His love, for instance…but that being said, though my understanding of God’s love is very incomplete and faulty, my understanding of love looks a decent bit like what I see demonstrated as love on God’s part in His Word.  My understanding of God’s justice is faulty and incomplete, but I have some grasp of it.  But then when it comes to God’s goodness, and I consider what that seems to look like in an airtight, five-point Calvinist system, it looks a lot more like “badness” than goodness to me.  

Here’s an answer that is a non-starter: “it’s only by God’s grace that any of us are saved”.  True. No argument.  But that dodges the issue, because it doesn’t go deep enough or far enough back.  If you need more on why that answer doesn’t work (for this question, I mean), I can elaborate.

My friend’s response this week was effectively, if I understood him correctly, to consign this conundrum to the “mysteries of God”.  OK, I really appreciate his thoughts, but that isn’t enough for me.  I am committed to God through His only Son Jesus Christ.  I am committed to His Word.  I am committed to the things that Scripture says clearly about our God; this morning in church, we sang about the goodness of God in all circumstances.  I am also, by the way, committed to what the Scripture says when it speaks of God’s “elect”, but I am not committed to John Calvin or to a particular way of understanding what that means.  That said, I am sincerely open to a convincing argument on the subject.  

So…any takers?



  1. Jack Brooks on August 3, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    My thought is that we should not try to found any specific doctrine on a divine attribute only, that is, as an abstract principle. Here is what I mean: I could theoretically “prove” that God sends everyone to hell, and that there is no salvation for anyone, on the basis of God’s righteousness; then quote a lot of verses about God’s enmity toward sinners, like Psalm 5. But I would be in error. There is a verse somewhere in Hebrews that mentions “the goodness and severity of God”, which reveals that God shows both. Severity isn’t an attribute so much as it is an action, so the verse implies that God chooses to do one or the other. 1st John famously says that God is love, but it equally says that God is light (chapter 1?). I would prefer to study the issues of Calvinism verse by verse, as opposed to extrapolating from grand principles. E.g. Acts 13:48 does not say that the Gentiles believed because God appointed them to eternal life. Foreknowledge of faith is just as possible an interpretation as foreordination to faith. Another e.g.: the fact that God’s plan cannot fail =/= people cannot successfully resist the Holy Spirit’s drawing. Does that make sense?

  2. William Truax on August 3, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    What drove me to accept the concept of unconditional election was not a small view of God’s goodness, but the impossibility (for me) to continue to maintain a small definition of God’s omniscience in which he somehow creates people without foreknowledge of their eternal destiny. If we are to believe Scripture which clearly indicates that God knows the end from the beginning, then he must know the eternal destiny of every person before they are created. If that is true, then God does create some for glory and others for damnation. I cannot see any other alternative except for God simply rolling dice with his creation. “This one might make it. Maybe not, though. I guess we’ll find out if he dies before accepting Christ.”

  3. Bro. Steve on August 3, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    I’m curious why you concluded this is a problem unique to Calvinism. If you believe God had complete foreknowledge before creation about everybody’s final condition, and then He created the world, then you have the very same problem as the Calvinists do. And say this as one who is not a Calvinist. What you’re trying to reconcile is how God, who is good, could have created a universe in which He foreknew anyone would wind up in hell. The attributes you’re grappling with, then, are His omniscience and His goodness. As far as I’m aware, every approximately orthodox Christian denomination believes in both of these, and thus, has the very same problem to deal with.

  4. Chad R. Voller on August 3, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    While I’m not certain that I’m a Calvanist, I hope I’m still allowed to respond. 🙂

    These days I tend to ask more questions than provide answers, so I’ll just launch into the questions that come up for me on first pass through your post…

    – Why do these two ideas need to be reconciled for you? In other words, why must Byron Harvey be “satisfied?”
    – What if there is no satisfactory answer for you? Would that make it any less true, if indeed it is true?
    – Which is greater, God’s love or God’s glory?
    – What about unconditional election, as presented, seems to make the case that God is not good?

    • Byron on August 11, 2014 at 6:11 pm

      Beginning to answer a few of these. One, why “must” I be “satisfied”? In the grand sense, I don’t; to answer your second question, of course what is true is true, whether or not I understand or agree with it. But as I said, while I am partly persuaded by Calvinist theology, my salvation doesn’t depend on my accepting of any particular theological construct (don’t parse that too deeply, y’all; just go with it), so I’d like to hold to an understanding that takes into account the whole counsel of God as best I can, and this one issue is the hangup for me. To the third, God does everything for His own glory, including demonstrating His love (and His many other attributes). I’ll hold off on the last for now, since I’ll likely answer it in replies below.

      • Jack Brooks on August 11, 2014 at 6:30 pm

        Agree: The observation that God does everything to the glory of His own name is true for both Calvinism and Arminian systems. Calvinism has no special claim on the teleology of God’s glory.

  5. Byron on August 4, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    Not replying or commenting yet, but a little more fuel for the fire:


  6. William Truax on August 5, 2014 at 1:05 am

    Um….nothing there that makes a case for the free-will requirement that God does not know the eternal destiny of every individual before he/she is born.

  7. Laurie Anthony on August 5, 2014 at 1:20 am

    Byron, I’ve been talking with a group of Calvinists lately so you’re timing for this question is awesome. As so often happens, I had the same exact thought – how do you reconcile God’s goodness with unconditional election? According to what I’ve been hearing – unconditional election means God – for what reason no one knows, decided to create some people for destruction. These people would never have the chance to be saved, they are never drawn by God, they can’t respond to the gospel – they are predestined for hell. The people He created for salvation, on the other hand, will be drawn, and will respond – because God chose them.

    The answer I’ve gotten is we are all totally depraved, deserving of hell, no one seeks after God, therefore God is really doing something good by saving any of us. While I can’t really argue with that, the problem for me is, why did He choose the ones He is going to save, and not the ones He won’t? If He didn’t choose on the basis that because of foreknowledge He knew they would respond, and rejected those who He knew would not, then how can any of us really be responsible for our actions at all, since we were born sinners with no choice to respond to God or reject Him because He made that choice for us?

    If anyone could explain regeneration, and the role it plays in salvation that would be helpful to me.

    • William Truax on August 5, 2014 at 1:53 am

      Laurie – Your second paragraph is exactly what Paul addresses in Romans 9.

  8. William Truax on August 5, 2014 at 5:26 am

    Byron – I’ve realized that I’m not a good candidate for providing a substantive response to your original question – reconciling God’s goodness with the concept of Unconditional Election – because I don’t empathize with the need for that reconciliation. In my mind, perhaps due to my personality, I emphasize God’s omnipotence and his absolute and complete authority over all things, including time and space. For me, God being the absolute sovereign trumps all. Whether he is “good and loving” or “arbitrary and capricious” takes a distant second to his complete and utter authority. If God truly is “God” then he can do as he pleases and my judgement is not only irrelevant, but presumptive and impertinent.

    If we’re going to get into God being “fair” regarding the offer of salvation, it seems we should look at biblical examples of people who clearly were given special revelation and (apparently) no choice as to whether they would serve God or not. Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Jonah, John the Baptist, Paul, etc. are a few of those to whom God spoke directly and forcefully. There are a lot of people who would say, “If Christ were to knock me down, blind me and talk audibly to me, I’d believe in him, too. If he did that for one person, but not for me, isn’t that unfair?”

    And unless we believe in Universal Salvation, we have to deal with millions of lost people who die every day without ever having been provided the plan of salvation. I think we have to agree that there is no, “fair and equitable chance” for all mankind, at least not in any way we would reckon it.

    I think part of our problem is that we have received grace and mercy from our loving Heavenly Father and have trouble reconciling, “Why me?” We have a form of “inheritance guilt.” We’ve been made children of the King and feel guilty because others have not – at least not yet. I think that’s one reason we’re commanded to evangelize – so that we have some responsibility that accompanies the favor we have been shown. There are “Hyper-Calvinists” who believe that their theology removes the requirement to evangelize, but in this case Christ’s authoritative command trumps human logic based on the doctrine of election. “I do not have to explain myself to you and I don’t require you to understand it. I require you to obey.” For a military guy like me, that paradox is easy to swallow. As an aside, the modern missionary movement was started by hard-core Scottish Calvinist Presbyterians.

    OK…stream of consciousness time is over. Thanks for reading.

    • Byron on August 11, 2014 at 6:26 pm

      And I agree with many of those thoughts, Bill, but my main caveat would be that I/we aren’t merely appealing to some sense of “fairness”, but rather the Scriptural teaching that God is GOOD. We can take that to the bank just like we take His sovereignty, omniscience, etc., to the bank. And Laurie, yes, I’ve heard that same argument, and referenced it in my original post, that “God doesn’t have to save any of us”, which of course is dead-on true (He’s God; He’s not bound by my categories nor does He answer to me, as in Romans 9). But at the same time, Scripture says He is good. That’s my sticking point. What does “good” mean in the totality of a Calvinist system? That might be another way to answer it.

      Thought question, and I mean to do no violence to Romans 9 or commit any heresy here, but just go with me. God’s sovereignty certainly says He can do as He pleases, but suppose He created human beings with no opportunity for salvation for anyone. Every person created was born in sin, and no person had any way out, and the end was eternal suffering for all. Change the Bible’s story line from the story of His salvation through Christ to only the story of mankind’s helplessness and utter damnation, but the Bible still made the claim, “God is good”. What would we do with such a scenario?

      • Jack Brooks on August 11, 2014 at 6:35 pm

        The fact that God doesn’t owe salvation is irrelevant to the question, Is election unconditional. Arminianism does not teach that God owes salvation opportunities to sinners. That is both a rabbit-trail, and a straw man.

  9. Jack B on August 7, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    This issue is solved by inductively examining what each and every verse pertinent to the topic does, or does not say. It will never be proven by deductive logic from “big truths”, which is how I regard Byron’s question — and William’s reasoning. It doesn’t matter that God doesn’t owe anyone salvation. That is an irrelevancy that Calvinists have used for centuries, to derail the flow of debate into a winnable arena. What matters is whether or not any specific Bible verses actually teach unconditional election. Romans 9, for example, does not teach unconditional election anywhere in it. The Reformed interpretation of Romans 9 projects Augustinian assumptions into verses that only bear a superficial sympathy to Augustinianism, but do not in fact teach it.

  10. William Truax on August 7, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    Jack – I have to honestly ask, “Huh?” What drove me from Arminian theology was the very simple logical sequence below:
    1. Does God know the eternal destiny of every human before they are conceived?
    2. If “yes” then the effect is unconditional election – or universal salvation. If “no” then God is a minor player in a “crapshoot” with his own creation, with salvation guaranteed to no one, and Christ’s sacrifice potentially hollow and effective for no one.

    Your statement above does not address the critical point of the meaning and effect of divine omniscience. I rejected free-will theology because I could no longer parse divine omniscience to include willful divine ignorance of human destiny. I do not believe it is possible to have too high a view of divine sovereignty. Conversely I find that a low view of divine sovereignty is all too common.

    • Jack Brooks on August 9, 2014 at 6:08 pm

      I think you are making the same error that Byron might: extrapolating doctrine from a single starting point. God’s sovereignty should be described based on what all the data supplies. Otherwise you will drop into John Gill’s repeated fallacy: “This verse can’t mean this, because we alrewdy know xyz.”

  11. William Truax on August 9, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    Jack, you still have not provided any biblical evidence of what I would refer to as, “deliberate divine ignorance” of the fate of God’s creation. God allowing his creation to shape and determine its own destiny is more akin to deism than evangelical Christianity.

    Psalm 139; Jeremiah 1:5; Moses’ call; Samson’s conception, birth and life; John the Baptist’s conception, birth and ministry; Paul’s road to Damascus. All those passages describe direct work of the hand of God to fix the destinies of those individuals. The concept of “unconditional election” certainly seems to apply to them.

    • Jack Brooks on August 11, 2014 at 6:23 pm

      William, nothing in Christian non-Calvinism requires God to be ignorant. You are debating in a circle –as proof of Calvinism, you are citing a view of divine sovereignty that is based in Calvinism, or hyper-Calvinism. That’s invalid. God in His sovereighty decided to endow humans with the power to successfully say No to him.

    • Byron on August 11, 2014 at 6:30 pm

      Enjoying the debate and the issues raised here; I would argue, Bill, on a side note that I wouldn’t extrapolate too much from what I would call “special circumstances”. It is fair enough to say that Paul’s Damascus Road experience, et al, do illustrate instances of “irresistible grace” or “unconditional election”, if you will, but we would both agree that these are not anywhere approaching the norm.

  12. Byron on August 11, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    All the way back to Steve Davis’ comment here. I hear what you’re saying, Steve, because God knowing each man’s eternal destiny, and yet creating them, and God determining each man’s eternal destiny, and still creating them, both involve God creating those who would suffer His punishment. The Arminian answer–and I don’t say that I necessarily agree with it (that’s the whole point of my post, right?)–would I think see a difference in that there is a difference between foreknowing something and foreordaining it. I might know with absolute certainty that my child would prefer chocolate to broccoli, but it would be my child making the decision (imperfect analogy, but it mostly works, I think). Who is culpable in that scenario? Me, for allowing the child to make the choice that is less healthy and that I know he will make, or the child, who ultimately makes the choice? I think that’s how the Arminian position would parse this.

    • Jack B on August 12, 2014 at 12:21 pm

      In Calvinist theology, God is the ultimate unilateral cause of the reprobated unbeliever committing the sin of rejecting Christ, despite the existence of innumerable secondary causes. Once you say that there is only one cause in the universe, you end up with a lot of problems. God ordained that the sin of the fall should be committed. Adam sinned because God willed Adam should sin (nothing falls outside the boundaries of fore-ordination, and fore-ordination is irresistible). That means that the human race became evil as a result of God’s irresistible will. Then God chooses to withhold from these sinners, who became sinners because He willed them to, the only element that can change them (converting grace). God causes the reprobate to keep on committing the sin of rejecting Christ. He does this by means of His absolute control of secondary causation, plus His selective withholding of grace.

      • William Truax on August 13, 2014 at 5:04 pm

        Is this not exactly what Paul deals with in Romans 9, especially in v.19ff?

  13. William Truax on August 12, 2014 at 4:28 am

    Perhaps my final salvo after Byron’s machine gun responses…..

    1. Psalm 139 and Job 38-41 among others demonstrate to me that God knows the end from the beginning and thus knew my eternal destiny, and that of everyone else, before they were born.
    2. I agree that, from a human perspective, we have free-will. To the human mind belief in Christ certainly has the appearance of an individual choice. This is the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility being in harmony even though it is extremely hard to parse. Spurgeon famously responded to the question as to how to reconcile the two by stating, “I see no need to reconcile good friends.”
    3. The above statement (#2) notwithstanding, I would ask all the participants here to dig into their own conversion experience. Were you merely convinced intellectually of the lordship of Christ, or have you been captivated, mind, body and soul by Christ in such a way that, if you were to deny Christ, that denial would be the greatest lie you ever uttered because you are so absolutely convinced of his reign and authority over your life? I did not come to a “fork in the road.” I was pushed off a cliff. There was no option but to fall into the nail-scarred hands of my Savior. When I realized how compelled I was, I understood what it was to be a happy “victim” of Irresistible Grace. Can true conversion be any other way?
    4. Why is it important? Because the triumph of Irresistible Grace removes all vestige of any innate ability on my part to qualify for salvation. One of the things that troubled me for years was the fact that evangelicals always say, “You can’t ‘do’ anything to merit salvation. You just have to receive it.” Well, active receiving is “doing” something. There are two kinds of “receiving” that I know about in everyday life. The kind Lynn Swann did (that was just for you , Byron), and “receiving” a blow to the head. For years I thought I was Lynn Swann (actually Ozzy Newsome) until I realized that “getting saved” was not my own idea. When I was dead in my trespasses and sins, I was made alive in Christ Jesus. Faith that did not originate in me sprung to life and Christ renewed me. I can claim no part in the regenerative process except being happily carried along by the Holy Spirit.
    5. The Arminian view of infants/children and “age of accountability” always bothered me, too. TULIP solved that riddle as well. Probably for a completely separate discussion.

  14. Jack B on August 14, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    I should comment that you should read my criticisms as rebukes of hyper-Calvinism, and the bad habit of many of the Reformed to read everything in Scripture through a presupposed grid of the Westminster confession. Creeds should never be used as a hermeneutic device. You should notice that I haven’t said one word against unconditional election, which I believe in. But I believe that hyper-Calvinism is real Calvinism ugly little tag-along cousin, and we need to kick it to the curb constantly. To Byron’s question about divine goodness, though: God’s goodness is voluntary. That’s the principle point in Romans 9:15, God chooses to show mercy, He never shows mercy as an involuntary, uncontrollable psychological urge, like we would feel rescuing a puppy from a bully. God chooses to judge or chooses to show goodness. If He refrains from showing goodness, it isn’t a violation of His goodness, since he always has the right to do good or to inflict ill.

Leave a Comment