Q – I’ve been having discussions about Calvinism with a friend and he is very frustrated by the whole idea of Calvinism — it’s “unjust” and “unfair,” from his perspective, that God would only offer salvation to “some” and not “all.” I have to admit, I have struggled with this myself. I understand that all of humanity inherited a sin nature and we are all deserving of damnation. But, why are only some given the gift of life? The Bible says we are chosen for God’s own purposes — but that doesn’t really answer the question.
My friend asked me this: “Explain to me how this is just or loving: God leaves some people in the dark with no way to escape (except His grace, which He refuses to give them) and then punishes them for eternity because they are in darkness?”
I’m not quite sure how to answer that. Your input would be most welcome.
Jim – This line of questioning comes up frequently in discussions about Reformed Theology. Your friend’s argument is typical; it follows the most common line of criticism. But arguments based on fairness or human concepts of love are arguments based on emotion, not on facts.
The question is not: How can God be like this?
The proper question is: Does the Bible declare that this is what God is like?
We must learn to align our thinking about God with what is actually declared about Him in the Scripture. And if the Bible states plainly that God picks, chooses, or elects based on His own freedom of choice and good pleasure, then we must learn to worship Him as exactly that sort of God.
The apostle Paul expected that his theology would naturally lead to exactly the question your friend is asking. In fact, I have often argued that if you do not arrive at the question of fairness, you have yet to understand Paul’s argument in Romans 9. He knows that his teaching will drive folk to ask about the fairness of God’s sovereign right to be merciful to some while hardening others. So, let’s walk through a bit of Romans 9 and let the Scripture answer your question. Starting at Romans 9:9 we read:
For this is a word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Paul reached back into one of the most well-known events in Israel’s history. Just as God told Abraham that his firstborn son, Ishmael, would not receive the promised birthright blessings and inheritance, but “in Isaac shall thy seed be called,” so He decided in advance that the youngest of two twin boys would rule over his older brother. And while the twins were still in the womb, not having done any good or evil deeds, God already declared his love for one and rejection of the other.
Why? “In order that God’s purpose according to His choice (election) might stand.”
And what were the grounds on which God made this choice? “Not because of works, but because of Him that calls.” In other words, God did His choosing according to His own will and good pleasure.
At that point, Paul knew that some would argue that this sort of picking and choosing of one against another without giving the rejected person an opportunity was simply unfair. So, Paul immediately addressed the question of fairness:
What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
So, what are we going to say? Knowing that God chose one child over the other, though they had done neither good nor bad — is that unfair? Paul’s answer is a definite “no.” It’s not unfair. What it IS, is the way God has always been. After all, He told Moses that He would have mercy on whomever He would and He would have compassion on whom He would. That’s how He is and how He’s always worked. So, Paul continued:
So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
On what basis does God make His decisions? Well, what we know for sure is that God’s choice is not dependent on a man’s will or a man’s physical activity; neither his decision nor his work can cause God to be merciful toward him. And since it is neither a matter of a man’s will nor action, then it must be a matter of Sovereign decision-making. That’s as much as we are told. God does what He does. But we are not told what standard or principle God uses to determine His choice. Just as God told Moses “I AM” and expected that to be sufficient, He also says “I choose” and He expects us to accept the fact that He is the God who does things according to His own will. That answer may not be completely satisfactory to our sense of inquiry and desire to know the cause of God’s every action, but it’s all God has deigned to tell us.
Then Paul reached back to Moses’ dealings with Pharaoh and repeated the Scripture from Exodus that declares God activity of raising Pharaoh up to the position he held on Earth for the very purpose of showing His own power, resulting in His own name being declared in all the earth. And how did God accomplish His demonstration of power and glory? He hardened Pharaoh’s heart, resulting in numerous plagues throughout Egypt, culminating the death of all the firstborn. And from that event Paul draws the conclusion “God has mercy on whom He desires and He hardens whom He desires.”
Whether or not we like that fact is immaterial. God is not waiting for our agreement or approval. This is how He is and how He has always been. That being the case, Paul assumes that his readers will arrive at the following question (just as your friend did):
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?”
That’s an excellent question. Far too often people attempt to make God more “fair.” They struggle to make sense of Romans 9 and make it more palatable to human concepts of justice. And they say things like,” Explain to me how this is just or loving: God leaves some people in the dark with no way to escape (except His grace, which He refuses to give them) and then punishes them for eternity because they are in darkness?” But, that’s precisely the question Paul anticipated. And unless you arrive at that question, you still haven’t understood the thrust of Paul’s argument.
Why does God find fault, punish people, or leave them in the dark and then hold them responsible for their unbelief and sin when He simply did not give them the insight or faith to believe Him and be saved? How could He harden Pharaoh’s heart and then punish Pharaoh for his stubbornness? Why does He still find fault? For WHO resists the will of God? And if they are all doing what God willed they would do, then it’s simply unfair of God to hold them accountable for what He knew they were going to do!!!
On the surface, it’s a compelling and mind-boggling argument. Yet, that is exactly how God is described and Paul knew his theology was going to lead people to the very conundrum your friend arrived at. So how did Paul answer?
On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?
Paul resorts to God’s sovereignty and the fact that He has always, always been exactly this way. That’s the only God you find in history or in the Bible. The God who made everything does what He wants with what He has created. That’s the way it is and the bits of pottery He has made have no right to shake their fist at the Maker and argue with what He has made. The Sovereign simply is not swayed by the man who insists on arguing with Him. The Creator of Heaven and Earth does what He wants — and He always has. So he makes some vessels for honor and some for common use. Some are made to be trophies of His grace while others (like Pharaoh) were created so that God could demonstrate His justice and His wrath.
What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.
Look closely at Paul’s language. God is perfectly willing to show His wrath. That’s the part of God that is always reduced to nothingness when people argue that He must be completely and overwhelmingly “love.”
Yes, it’s true that God is love. But, love is not God.
God is infinitely holy and both his love and his justice serve His holy nature and character. So, though He’s willing to show His wrath and make His power known, He endured the “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” That’s chilling language, but it is Bible language. And it’s meant to tell us something about God, mankind, and God’s sovereign will. He has created some vessels for the purpose of showing His wrath. Again, that’s how He is and how He has always been.
Meanwhile, God has equally created “vessels of mercy” so that He could demonstrate the riches of His glory. We who have faith in the finished work of Christ are chosen from before the foundation of the world for this very purpose. And thank God for such grace.
So, I said all that to say this: Emotional arguments of fairness based on our limited understanding of who God is and how He acts add nothing to the pursuit of proper theology and understanding of the Bible. A truncated view of God that insists that all His actions must be tempered by an overarching love for all mankind simply fail to take all of the Biblical evidence into account. Trying to bring God down to our level of relationship leaves us scratching our heads and wondering how He could act so independently and willfully. Always remember that God never equates our thoughts with His or our ways with His.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa. 55:8-9)
Regardless of how much we may dislike or rebel against what the Bible says, it still describes God only one way. Our job is to get in line what it does say and adjust our thinking accordingly. Our like or dislike of it is ultimately immaterial. God is God and He is always going to act in accordance with His own will.
So, let’s answer your friend directly:
“Explain to me how this is just or loving …”
God is just in all that He does. Or in other words, whatever God does is just by virtue of whom it is that is acting. His holiness exceeds our grasp or comprehension. He is too holy not to do that which brings Him the greatest glory.
And just as we are capable of discriminating in our love for our own children or spouses in a way we do love all of mankind, God can love His own without being obligated to love every individual in the exact same way. Inasmuch as no human being deserves God’s love or mercy, the very fact that He loves anyone at all proves that “God is love.”
“God leaves some people in the dark with no way to escape (except His grace, which He refuses to give them) and then punishes them for eternity because they are in darkness?”
It simply does not matter whether we consider that just or loving. It only matters whether or not God actually acts that way. The whole of the Bible testifies to the fact that God does what He wants to do, when He wants to do it, with whomever He chooses to do it. If He takes the same lump of clay and makes some vessels for honor and some for wrath, that’s His business. And if we find ourselves on the merciful side of that equation, then our business is to worship and adore Him for the God He is and the justice and love that drew us to Him. What He does with everyone else is up to Him.
I hope that gives you something to chew on and hopefully gives you some new perspective on speaking with your friend. Remind him that his opinion is of no real consequence in the matter. I know that sounds a bit harsh. But, we simply cannot insist on holding God to human standards of fairness. He is going to be how He is going to be regardless of our opinion.
Yours for His sake,