As we have seen in our review of Doug Sayers’ book Chosen or Not?, the various doctrines often called “Calvinism” can be quite controversial. Critics have charged that the ideas of total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistible grace are unbiblical and an affront to human reason. How, one might be tempted to ask, can two groups of Christians, both claiming to respect the authority of Scripture, be so far apart in their interpretations? Can the Bible really be that difficult to understand?
At times it may seem so, but that does not mean that the Bible is incomprehensible. What is required to understand it is a humble and teachable attitude and a complete honesty with the text. Our aim must be to understand what a given biblical author is saying in the text, and in order to do that we must pay careful attention to his use of language, the context, and the flow of thought through the passage. Words have meaning, and sentences have syntax. It really is possible to communicate ideas through the medium of human language!
What, then, about the charge that the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” are really not taught in the Bible? We will not take up all five of them here, and we have already considered them elsewhere, but it would be worth our time to consider one particular passage of Scripture in which at least three of the “Five Points” appear, and that is Paul’s opening discussion in I Corinthians 1-3.
The church at Corinth is an interesting case study. In some ways it was a young, vibrant congregation; in other ways it was a pastoral nightmare. And one of the problems Paul had to confront was one that is familiar to American Christians today: a pronounced sectarian spirit. The Corinthians, it would seem, had been exposed to the ministries of a variety of gifted preachers, among them Cephas (Peter), Apollos, and Paul himself. The individual Corinthians each had his favorite, and before long distinct parties had grown up within the church, each identifying with one preacher or another.
This state of affairs drew a sharp rebuke from Paul, and he devoted the first three chapters of his epistle to addressing this issue. The gist of his argument is summed up in Chapter 3, verses 6 and 7: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (NKJV).
But what does he mean when he says that “God gives the increase”? The preacher preached the message; the sinner responded with his free will; what does God have to do with it?
Everything, as it turns out. Paul begins his discussion by describing his own ministry among the Corinthians. “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect” (1:17). “Not with the wisdom of words” – that is a strange claim for a preacher to make! You would think that preaching was all about pulpit eloquence!
But Paul goes on: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). Here we are struck by the irony of evangelism. The message is proclaimed, but it affects different listeners in radically different ways. To some, it is “foolishness”; to others, it is “the power of God.” How could their perceptions of the same thing be so totally different?
Paul then goes on to describe why the gospel is rejected by so many people: the Greeks, he says, are looking for wisdom; the Jews want to see miracles. But “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24).
“To those who are called” – what does that mean? It is at this point that we plunge into the heart of the controversy. For Paul goes on to explain two controversial doctrines which have come to be known to us as “unconditional election” and “effectual calling” (or, “irresistible grace,” as it is also known). “For you see your calling, brethren, that no many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” Here it is evident that Paul is using the term “called” in a special sense – here it is virtually synonymous with conversion. To be “called” is to be saved. Furthermore, it is God who does the calling – He calls the ones who are saved, suggesting that He is the active Agent in the process. Thus this is a calling that actually results in the salvation of those who are called. It is “effectual calling.”
Next: Unconditional Election