Today was a busy, grace-filled day. Tonight, as darkness settles onto our neighborhood, I feel tired but satisfied. This was truly the Lord’s Day.
This past week was not all easy. We had some difficult conversations with our dear church teammates. Yes, it is possible to hurt people you deeply love. I have done so; have you? I am thankful that, as recipients of God’s grace, we can each give the grace that we each so desperately need. Then yesterday was a difficult day for me. Emotionally drained, I found my mind did not want to focus on the writing assignments before me. Let’s just say it was not my most productive day (though I did enjoy some good times at the piano).
Today was a day that was better than I deserve. (Aren’t all?) Tomorrow will be another battle. I will need fresh grace. But today was a day where the grace was heaped onto our plates, impossible to miss, sweet to the taste. Let me recount a few of the sweetest morsels.
Today was our turn to host church. The spring Georgia weather has been amazing lately, so we swept the freshly-fallen tree blossoms off the concrete pad just over the stream, and gathered for church in our backyard.
The gathering spot was delightful, with birds and stream blending with our voices and sunlight dappling the sanctuary. The blend of friends who gathered was also delightful—if a little raucous at times. Our family of five was there. So was the Smucker family of five. Then about another dozen joined us. Our international student friend was here. So were several adults from a house just down our street—some for the worship time and some for the meal. And so were a whole passel of children from two different houses on our street. (That was the raucous part. The fact that our “sanctuary” was just next to the “gymnasium”—a trampoline—didn’t help. The day’s bouncing started about an hour before our stated “start time,” which didn’t ease setup. But I reminded my wife that Rich Mullins would have been delighted.) At one point during our morning worship Zonya looked around and counted 10 white, 11 black, and one Asian present. Not exactly representative of ratios in our neighborhood, but so much better than if we had each gone our separate ways today.
We sang with piano, we prayed “popcorn praises” (great for children), we read from the Gospels the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we sang a cappella (revealing a lovely singing voice brought by a first-time visiting neighbor), Steve shocked the children by making the “body” of one of his sons “disappear” from a card-table “tomb,” we sang some more, and we marveled over the 1 Corinthians 15 promise of our own resurrection. One person present expressed how glad he was to be celebrating his first Easter. Others learned to answer “Jesus rose from the dead” rather than “we look for Easter eggs” when asked “What is Easter all about?” Some had their hearts strengthened as they identified all too well with Peter while singing “He’s Alive!” (with guitar this time) and then sharing in the Lord’s Table.
Lunch was delicious (lovely ham, Dearest!), if a bit of a zoo, what with refilling several hundred cups of tea and lemonade and water—“No, I want tea and lemonade together, with ice”—for about a thousand demanding children who were fighting for turns on the trampoline (or ignoring turns completely) and riding bikes up and down the drive and along the street. But how lovely to include several neighbors whose children have often enjoyed our backyard, but who had not yet been inside our house!
Shortly after lunch several unfamiliar young men appeared out on the street (we were still in the backyard), calling something out to us and apparently looking for, or expecting, trouble. First they ran away, but the second time this happened several of us men wandered out front in their direction. We managed to calm some mutual fears, shake hands, exchange names, and send the hungry visitors off peacefully with plates of leftover lunch. More on this later.
As outdoor cleanup ended and various guests left, my international student friend and I stole off to the piano studio for a little, where we practiced our duet (Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 8) that we are preparing for my upcoming piano recital. He also shared pictures and videos of a “piano club” concert that happened in his home country yesterday—a special event that he helped plan months ago, but then ended up missing thanks to now being in school on the other side of the globe. I find it fascinating and delightful how an English literature major and a math major born poles apart can find such common ground in their shared enjoyment of music. I am already starting to dread the day when our friend will leave Atlanta for the next destination in his educational journey.
Then the house was quiet. Just our family. I settled onto the sofa to relax, and my two youngest girls settled with me—one on top and the other beside, reading us “a scary story—but not too scary” about Horton hearing a Who. (Because “a person’s a person, no matter how small,” including the little ones we help parent in our backyard while trying to share in the Lord’s Table, right?)
But we had not even finished the story when our oldest bounded in with news of an Easter egg hunt that the neighbor children were about to head off to. Well… Easter isn’t really about egg hunts, but we had already shared the real meaning of Easter with these children, so… And they had come to our house, and now if they seemed to be inviting us to join them in their fun…? So I took the girls to go see what was happening. Turns out our van was needed to help carry all the children (10 total) who wanted to go to a nearby park for the hunt. Time there brought more friendship-building conversation with adult neighbors while our children, like a bunch of Energizer Easter bunnies, expended yet more energy.
I’ll skip over the bit about helping my wife accomplish her project of building a birthday gift for one of our daughters to say that part way through that activity yet another neighbor called across the yards to invite our daughters to join her son with his bubble machine. Our oldest drove her bike through the bubbles a few times then headed in the opposite direction to spend more time with the older church-and-Easter-egg-hunt friends from earlier in the day. Our two youngest enjoyed the comparative quiet of chasing bubbles with only one young friend.
Meanwhile, Zonya and I headed a couple houses further down our street to visit yet another house. There was a big family party there, and one of the children from this morning’s church gathering had invited us to drop in there, since it was his house.
That was a strange moment for Zonya and me. It was only one year ago that Zonya and the girls first joined me in our new house. We had not even officially moved in yet, and we knew almost no neighbors. Now, one year later, we were leaving two of our daughters at one neighbor’s house, the other daughter was hanging out with other neighbor friends at another house, and we were walking childless to follow up on an invitation to a third house, all on our block.
Two parts of that little visit stand out.Two, our hostess neighbor insisted on loading our hands with delicious food from their party—chicken and ribs done on her backyard grill, baked beans, macaroni salad, and cake. Mmm. And one, several men mentioned that they had seen our interaction with the young “trouble-makers” on the street earlier that afternoon. It turns out the same young men had been called out to their party, too, prior to meeting us. I was roundly praised (“Are you a pastor?”) for not doing what one of them said he would have done if he hadn’t been wearing a cast, and for defusing the situation by sending them off with food. More on this later.
We returned to the bubble-bursting daughters and invited this neighbor and her son to accomplish the oft-mentioned goal of letting her son jump on our trampoline. This brought more neighbor conversation opportunities for my wife and a chance for me to do a little more trampoline-side Jesus-shaped child training and encouraging. Chances like this aren’t hard to find these days, for some reason.
As Zonya walked this neighbor home, they bumped into a neighbor who lives between us. (She grew up there and is truly a gracious person to have next door.) Turns out this neighbor, too, had witnessed the food giveaway that happened on the street in front of her house. Wow. And to think that it never once crossed my mind that anyone might be watching. What might have happened if I had blown it? God, help us to be faithful in the little opportunities to live like Jesus! (More on this later?)
By this time day was dying in the west, so we retreated into the house that God bought and enjoyed the supper provided by the grandma of one of our regular backyard bikers and jumpers.
If I’m counting correctly, we visited in the yards and/or houses of four households on our block today. People from two of those households showed up at our own place as we hosted church. Plus, we exchanged friendly greetings as we passed a couple more houses on our block. And gave food to several passers-by. Oh, and I forgot the lady biking past this morning who stopped in just as church was about to begin to see if I could fill her bike tire. Yet another opportunity to share names and invite a new friend to join us for church sometime.
If you’ve read this far, you may feel as tired as I do.
I thank God for all the dear people with whom we shared this day. We feel both welcome and useful among our neighbors. I thank God for placing us here in Atlanta, here in West Lake, and right here on this block. I thank God for a day full of opportunities to offer our voices and hands for Jesus. And I thank him for a day when his grace is as sweet as the strawberry shortcake my wife served us last week.
Please pray for us. Tomorrow will be another battle. I have battled discouragement from time to time and expect to face this giant again. My wife needs God’s grace in her heart and on her lips. Our whole church team needs your prayers. But Christ dealt Satan his deathblow on that first Easter weekend, right? Satan is a wounded lion, roaring in anger as he goes down. Christ has the upper hand. May his hand be strong in West Lake! And may every day be the Lord’s Day this week, in your heart and mine.
May your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
This is (yet another) blog post about The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young. The Canadian in me wants to apologize immediately and get back to smiling, but that wouldn’t be quite honest. So I’ll just say I wish posts like this never had to be written.
(Before you scroll on: I promise to end this post on a positive and constructive note! And I will need your help to make it even more positive.)
[Update: Actually, this post is more a review of the theology of the original author of The Shack than a review of the book itself. As I understand it, pastors Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings helped shape the manuscript of The Shack, so that Young’s theology was not so fully expressed there. (There have even been lawsuits about who all should be named as authors.) Please bear these facts in mind as you read the rest of my post.]
What I’m Not Saying and Why I’m Writing
As debates about The Shack have escalated to a near frenzy online in recent weeks, I have been trying for the most part to hold my tongue about Young. I don’t like conflict, especially between Christians. I don’t like putting myself in a place where I’ll almost certainly receive some criticism. I don’t think reviewing controversial books or evaluating complex topics (such as God’s gender) are usually done best in Facebook text bites. Doing it in blogs is hard enough. And I want this blog to usually focus on more foundational matters than the latest hot topic—Bible reading skills and theological understandings that prepare us to navigate multiple topics as they come along.
But “this website exists to build up the Church of Jesus Christ by helping her listen carefully to the Scriptures,” and it seems to me that too many of my fellow Christians are following someone who is neither building up the Church nor listening carefully to the Scriptures. So, I’d like to shine the light of the Scriptures on a few corners of The Shack.
Before I continue, though, please hear me when I say that I nearly tremble to share this post. I realize there are some readers who feel they have (and may indeed have) found great help in Young’s writings. Some of these readers, like Young, have experienced terrible abuse and great suffering of spirit. They have found solace in Young’s depiction of God’s great love. I tremble lest my words reopen wounds or sound like a callous diminution of God’s tender love. I tremble lest, in noting the imperfections of the arm upon which some are leaning, I am the occasion for someone falling without hope of any arm upon which to lean.
If, perhaps, I may be describing you, let me assure you: There are better books than this one, and God’s love is even richer than Young describes it to be, for it reaches even lower than he imagines.
I also tremble lest my words of caution drive some even more devotedly after Young.
But, imperfect as I am, and imperfect as this post will be, I will carry on.
I have some words of firm rebuke to say later, so I want to first clearly say several things I’m not saying:
I am most certainly not calling any fan of The Shack a heretic. Enjoying an imperfect book does not make someone a heretic. Even believing untruths about God does not automatically make one a heretic.
I am not denying that The Shack contains many beautiful truths, that many find it to be an engaging story, or even that God has used it to help some people learn more about himself.
I don’t agree with every criticism that is being leveled against The Shack or its author.
I’m not interested in attacking Young as a person, belittling the suffering he has experienced, or making statements about his standing before God.
I am not telling you whether you should or should not either read or watch The Shack. Sometime after the novel came out and controversy first swirled around it, I read it. I don’t regret doing so.
What did I think of it? I enjoyed maybe 80% of it. It was a rare “light” read for me (I usually read non-fiction biblical studies books), and much about the plot and characters was engaging. But I also read it with an eye open to test what it was teaching–for it was written with the intent to teach, right? I’m glad I read it, but my copy ended up full of sticky notes where I sensed that something didn’t seem to be lining up with Scripture. Here’s my copy:
What nudged me to write this post was a chance today to scan another book by Young. As I was servicing a Choice Books rack at a Walmart this morning, I noticed Young’s book Lies We Believe about God on a nearby rack. I had already heard of the book, but had never seen it.
Unlike The Shack, Lies We Believe about God is (or at least is intended to be) non-fiction. Here Young clearly states the set of beliefs he was trying to teach us through his earlier novel. (I understand the novel was first written for Young’s children, then later published for mass readership. But, as Young shows in his new book, The Shack was indeed intended to portray and teach theological truths.) This new book contains multiple short chapters, with each chapter title being a “lie” he aims to prove false.
I took time to scan parts of five or six chapters, and snapped photos of a few pages to help me share excerpts here. (A fuzzy “dumb phone” camera partially frustrated my purposes, but Amazon preview came to the rescue.) I’ll share some excerpts, then comment.
Problems with Young’s Theology:
Near the end of the chapter entitled “Sin Separates Us from God”—one of Young’s “lies”—we read this:
If separation is a lie, does it mean that no one has ever been separated from God? That is exactly what it means. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).
Jesus did not come to build a bridge back to God or to offer the possibility of getting unseparated. One of the multifaceted purposes of the incarnation of Jesus is that we who are lost in the delusion of separation can witness a human life who knows He is not.
There is “nothing” outside God. There is only God, and Creation is created “in” God; and according to John 1, Creation is specifically created “inside” Jesus, the Word who is God (see verses 3-4). (p. 232)
As I compare with Scripture, I see multiple problems with these paragraphs. Here are several:
Young is teaching universalism. (This will become explicit later.) Normally, universalism is the belief that God will ultimately save everyone, so that no one will spend eternity estranged from God. Young’s version of universalism is even more radical: He believes that already now no one is separated from God.
Young’s language about being “lost in the delusion of separation” sounds more like Hinduism than Christianity. And his solution sounds more like Hinduism’s enlightenment than Christianity’s salvation. [I originally compared Young’s thought to Bhuddism rather than Hinduism, but a reader suggested, correctly I think, that Hinduism is a closer comparison.]
Young’s biblical foundation is very shaky.
More on this last point. First, Young twists Scripture to make his point. Romans 8 is not denying that sin separates us from God. It is written about Christians who have already been freed from the penalty (Romans 3-5) and power (Romans 6-8) of sin, and it is assuring them that those who are already elect and justified cannot be separated from God’s love by any external threat. Romans is clear that apart from Christ every person is an “enemy” of God who needs to be “reconciled” to him (Rom. 5:10)—a reality only experienced by those who pursue righteousness by faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21-25; 9:30-32). It is the Spirit who bears witness that we are children of God, and “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9 ESV).
Young likewise uses John 1 in a suspect manner, both building theology on a questionable translation of a Greek preposition (“inside”) and also stretching a passage about the Son’s role as divine Creator to say something unsuggested in its original context—that if everything was created “inside” Christ/God then nothing can be estranged from God. We don’t have to read much further in John 1 to know Young’s interpretation is wrong, for we soon read that Jesus own people “did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (1 John 1:11-12 ESV). The clear message here is that (a) not all are children of God and (b) those who are, became such—they were not children of God prior to receiving Christ and believing in his name. This is not universalism!
Second, the excerpts above are the only scriptures that Young cites in his entire chapter on the “lie” that “sin separates us from God”! That is the only biblical evidence he provides as he attempts to overturn a standard Christian teaching. The rest of the chapter is just his own theological musings.
Here is only one of many other Bible passages that Young might have considered:
Behold, the Lord‘s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. (Is. 59:1-3 ESV)
In the same chapter Young discusses the definition of “sin”:
The Greek word often translated into English as “sin” is hamartia. A moralist will tell you that the word means “missing the mark” and then go on to explain that the mark is “moral perfection” or “right behavior” and once again we are back on the performance hamster wheel. But if the essence of God’s nature is relationship, then sin must be defined and understood as missing a relational reality, a distortion of the image of God in us.
Hamartia is made up of two parts: ha- (an aspirated alpha), which is a negation (like un- or dis-), and -martia, from the Greek word meros, which means “form, origin, or being.” The fundamental meaning is “negation of origin or being” or “formlessness.” Yes, it is about missing the mark, but the mark is not perfect moral behavior. The “mark” is the Truth of your being.
…Sin, then, is anything that negates or diminishes or misrepresents the truth of who you are, no matter how pretty or ugly that is. Behavior becomes either an authentic way of expressing the truth of your good creation or an effort to cover up (performance behavior) the shame of what you think of yourself (worthlessness).
And what does the truth of your being look like? You are made in the image of God, and the truth of your being looks like God.
You are patient.
You are kind.
You are good.
You are humble.
You are forgiving.
You are a truth teller.
You are… [many more]… pure of heart…
And so on.
These are all expressions of the truth of our being.
Difficult to believe, right?
I think that is the point. (pp. 229-230)
I see several problems with this passage. First, there are several problems with his discussion of the definition of hamartia:
He cites the definition a “moralist” might give to hamartia, but never cites any standard Greek dictionary. This sets up somewhat of a straw man argument, or at least misses the opportunity to check his understandings against what experienced Greek students have concluded. For example, Mounce notes that hamartia “typically refers to the transgression of the law” and that “thus, hamartia is used to denote our sin against God” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). Note Mounce’s observation that sin is not merely about missing some abstract “moral perfection” or “right behavior,” but about transgressing God’s law—thus making sin a relational matter (as Young claims) but a matter of our relationship to God (not to ourselves, as Young suggests).
Young commits what linguists call a “etymological fallacy” when he defines sin based on its word components. What does “butterfly” mean? Don’t try to define it by dividing it into “butter” and “fly”! True, many words won’t lead you quite so far astray if you divide them into parts to define them. But the dependable way to get a working definition for any word is to see how it is used in real life. Hence Mounce’s approach above, when he says that hamartia “is used to denote” such and such.
Young then makes a leap from his etymologically-derived definition to assume that “the mark is the Truth of your being.” Why not (assuming for the moment his definition) say that “the mark is the truth of God’s being”?
Young says that “the essence of God’s nature is relationship.” I don’t deny that relationship is essential to God’s nature. But I also recall that the God of the Bible never says “I am relationship.” Nor is he ever praised as “Relationship, relationship, relationship!” But there are many places where he declares “I am holy,” and multiple places where he is praised as “Holy, holy, holy.” Surely holiness is essential to God’s nature. Why does Young not consider this in his understanding of sin?
This thought flow leads to a definition of sin that doesn’t seem anything Iike the standard concept of sin in the Bible: “Sin, then, is anything that negates or diminishes or misrepresents the truth of who you are…” If I am reading Young correctly here, it seems that he believes sin is essentially inauthenticity. And if you understand yourself correctly, you will know you are good. So sin is to disbelieve one’s own goodness.
I’ll include one more extended excerpt from Young’s recent book, from a chapter about the “lie” that “You Need to Get Saved.” I’ll add bold font to some clauses and mostly let Young speak for himself:
So what is the Good News? What is the Gospel?
The Good News is not that Jesus has opened up the possibility of salvation and you have been invited to receive Jesus into your life. The Gospel is that Jesus has already included you into His life, into His relationship with God the Father, and into His anointing in the Holy Spirit. The Good News is that Jesus did this without your vote, and whether you believe it or not won’t make it any less or more true.
What or who saves me? Either God did in Jesus, or I save myself. If, in any way, I participate in the completed act of salvation accomplished in Jesus, then my part is what actually saves me. Saving faith is not our faith, but the faith of Jesus.
God does not wait for my choice and then “save me.” God has acted decisively and universally for all humankind. Now our daily choice is to either grow and participate in that reality or continue to live in the blindness of our own independence.
Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation?
That is exactly what I am saying!
This is real good news! It has been blowing people’s minds for centuries now. So much so that we often overcomplicate it and get it wrong. Here’s the truth: every person who has ever been conceived was included in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. When Jesus was lifted up, God “dragged” all human beings to Himself (John 12: 32). Jesus is the Savior of all humankind, especially believers (1 Timothy 4: 10). Further, every single human being is in Christ (John 1: 3), and Christ is in them, and Christ is in the Father (John 14: 20). When Christ—the Creator in whom the cosmos was created—died, we all died. When Christ rose, we rose (2 Corinthians 5)…
We don’t offer anyone what has already been given; we simply celebrate the Good News with each one: we have all been included. (pp. 117-120, emphasis added)
Young is clear enough that his words need little explanation here: He believes in universalism—that all people are already saved, apart from anything (including even faith) on their part.
Young says that this truth “has been blowing people’s minds for centuries now.” What he does not mention is that universalism has also been considered a heresy for centuries now.
Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy–according to all major branches of Christianity.
Olson suggests that not all forms of universalism are as dangerous as others. Which kinds are most dangerous?
I think universalism is a minor heresy SO LONG AS it does not interfere with evangelism… I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it? If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious.
Given Young’s redefinition of sin (and of God’s wrath in other parts of this book), I suggest that his version of universalism is no small heresy.
I do not know Young. I do not know his intentions. I do not aim to make a judgment call on his salvation. I sincerely hope he is my brother in Christ. Again, listen to Olson:
[Universalism] is unbiblical and illogical. However, that does not mean a person who holds it is not a Christian. I have never met a Christian who was one hundred percent theologically correct. Scratch hard enough and you’ll always find some heresy beneath the surface (if not on the surface). That’s true for me as much as for anyone else.
However, the unfortunate truth remains: Young’s books promote the heresy of universalism—a heresy that reaches near to the core of our understanding of the gospel. Many of us sensed such problems in The Shack; they are now evident to all with eyes to see in Lies We Believe About God.
In addition, our brief discussion of only a few pages of his recent book revealed the following problems:
Young radically redefines sin in unbiblical ways.
He does not follow standard lexical methods for defining biblical words.
He uses relatively little Scripture, takes it out of context when he does use it, and overlooks passages that contradiction his assertions.
Sadly, what Young does not seem to realize is that his attempts to emphasize God’s love (by promoting universalism and its supporting doctrines) actually produce an anemic vision of God’s love. By downplaying the horror of sin’s afront to God’s holiness, God’s offer of love to sinful humanity is also diminished.
I understand that people such as Young who have suffered terribly often struggle to feel God’s love. I do not want to belittle this struggle in any way. I, too, have tasted of it, though I will not compare myself with others. I do suggest, however, that the answer to our desperate sense of distance from God is not to deny that distance via a universalism that strips the cross of its awesome incongruity, but to acknowledge the immensity of the gulf that God has spanned at immeasurable cost on our behalf. In denying that gulf, Young unwittingly diminishes our vision of God’s love.
As I left Walmart and reflected on Young’s writings, one thought grew uppermost in my mind: “There are better books!”
With all the great Christian literature out there, why should The Shack float to the top?
I freely affirm that there are valid concerns that lead people to books such as The Shack. Many of us have experienced terrible injustices and abuses. Many of us have been hurt by our churches. Most of us have stood in urgent need of a fresh vision of God’s love and grace!
But why turn to The Shack as the best answer to these needs? Yes, Young writes with great authenticity (a virtue which is opposite of his definition of sin, after all). But many other writers have also written with authenticity. And authenticity is not the same thing as truth. Why do some of us seem to value authenticity more than truth? Without truth, there is no real life—no eternal life. Why not seek and promote books that speak healing and grace and love—and truth!
This is where I need your help. If you share any of my concerns about our need for fresh, healing visions of God’s love and grace, if you share any of my experience of being hurt (once or repeatedly) by the church, and if you also share any of my concerns about the false teachings found in Young’s writings, then please do us all a favor:
Share in the comments below the name of a book or two that you would suggest instead of The Shack.
Pointing out false teaching is unfortunately essential work at times. But merely pointing out the false does not bring life to anyone. Help us out! What books would you suggest to someone who is wrestling with suffering, abuse, pain, distance from God, hurt by the church, or other major heart tragedies? Which books have helped you?
Let me begin by listing several:
Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. Eugene Peterson suggested that The Shack could do for our generation what Pilgrim’s Progress did for Bunyan’s. Actually, Pilgrim’s Progress served many generations well. Why not read an updated version today?
Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, by Philip Yancey. This one was helpful to me in my early twenties. Yancey recounts his “horror story” about his church experience, then mini bios of many saints past and present whose lives renews his own faith.
Speaking of Yancey, he has written many good books on suffering and wrestling with God, as well as an influential book on grace: What’s So Amazing About Grace? [Note: I originally called this a “great” book, but I amended my endorsement after someone emailed me with a concern about the book. I confess I have not read this book, but shared it based on earlier positive feedback I’ve heard and my experience with Yancey’s other books.]
There are real theological differences, and then there are ways we just talk past each other. In this post I’d like to share two of my pet peeves with how Arminians and Calvinists sometimes define the terms of their debates. The differences are certainly real, and I don’t pretend to understand them in depth. But I’ve heard enough by now to be quite sure that the way we are using some terms probably isn’t helping anyone.
So, in the interests of pugnacity and peace (or at least the latter), let’s get started!
Since I’m more of an Arminian than a Calvinist—though I’ve benefited from listening to both and though I wish I had time to also explore molinism (such as in this book)—I’ll start closer to home and take Arminians to task first.
If you ask any well-trained Calvinist whether they believe this, they will certainly say “no.” As Craig Keener (an Arminian NT scholar) says, “‘Once-saved-always-saved’ as it is commonly taught in many churches is neither Calvinism nor Arminianism.” Similarly, I recall hearing Bill Mounce, a self-proclaimed 4-point Calvinist (I recall he doubts “irresistible grace”), strongly deny that he believes in “once saved, always saved.” He speaks passionately against the kind of gospel invitation that he heard as a boy—the kind where you are invited to come down the “sawdust trail” to the “altar” and “believe” and—in Mounce’s words—“have a moment of positive volition.” No repentance needed, and not even any clear specificity about what you are supposed to believe. And, if you respond, you are assured that you are eternally saved—no matter how grossly or freely you sin thereafter.
So what is the problem with using the term? The term “once saved, always saved” normally implies that there is no need for a Christian to live a holy life in order to be assured of salvation. But John Calvin didn’t believe this. Listen to Timothy George’s analysis:
In his commentary on John 10:28, Calvin declared:
…This is a remarkable passage, teaching us that the salvation of all the elect is as certain as God’s power is invincible… He who keeps what we have committed unto him is greater and more powerful than all; and so we have nothing to be afraid of, as if our life were in danger.
This is a rich and nuanced doctrine and cannot be reduced to the shorthand formula “once saved, always saved.” Calvin did not minimize the sin of apostasy, that is, a complete falling away and utter renunciation of the gospel. However, this sin could be committed only by one who had not received the “incorruptible seed” of the Spirit in the new birth. Such unbelievers might show evidence of the Christian life, and might even possess what Calvin called “temporary faith,” but in the end they would prove to be false saints… On the other hand, true believers might fall into sin, even gross sin, but, sustained by the Spirit, they would not totally or finally be lost. Those who took this teaching as an occasion for laxity were presuming on the grace of God and stood in jeopardy of divine judgment. (Theology of the Reformers, Kindle location 4941, bold added)
I am not convinced Calvin is right in every point (as summarized here by George), but clearly we are not doing him justice to claim he believed “once saved, always saved.”
So, what should we say Calvinists believe? Timothy George uses the term “indefectibility of faith” and the Dictionary of the Christian Church uses the term “indefectibility of grace” (pg. 268)—both implying that Christians will not defect (turn away from) from faith or grace. A more common term was made popular through the “Five Points of Calvinism” (TULIP) that attempt to summarize the conclusions of the Synod of Dort half a century after Calvin’s death (these are a summary of disagreements with Arminianism, not a summary of Calvin’s whole theology). This term is “perseverance of the saints,” and it is probably the best term to use if you want to describe what Calvinists actually believe.
They, whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved… Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein… (bold added)
This conundrum naturally raises the question of assurance of salvation—how can one really know whether they are saved or not? The Westminster Confession addresses this topic in the next chapter:
…Such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed… Therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness. (bold added)
This is not Arminianism, to be sure. But neither is it a flippant “once saved, always saved.” This more nuanced theological understanding explains why I have repeatedly heard multiple Calvinist pastors, theologians, and seminary teachers insist that a Christian has no right to be sure of their salvation unless there is evident fruit of holiness in their lives. Not perfection, certainly, and maybe not even the level of holiness expected in some Arminian or many Anabaptist churches. But definite evidence of the fruit of regeneration, nonetheless. Otherwise there is no assurance of salvation.
In summary, only bad Calvinists believe in “once saved, always saved,” just as only bad Arminians believe that they earn their salvation by their good works rather than relying on grace. If you don’t want to be accused of the latter, don’t accuse Calvinists of the former!
Which brings me to my pet peeve for Calvinists…
(2) Calvinists, stop implying that Arminians don’t believe in “Doctrines of Grace”!
“The Doctrines of Grace” is a term Calvinists often use to summarize their classic five points (see above). A quick survey on Amazon shows that this term is currently a favorite phrase among Calvinists choosing titles for their books. A Google search of the term leads to a host of more Calvinist resources, headed by a link to the website of John MacArthur, a staunch Calvinist publicist if ever there was one.
The problem with this term—I am speaking with some authority now as a non-Calvinist listener—is that it implies (to at least some listeners) that those who disagree with the “Five Points of Calvinism” do not believe in, rely on, or teach the grace of God. Arminians deny such a charge wholeheartedly!
To be certain, I don’t think most Calvinist intend to imply quite that, despite their belief that Arminians misunderstand how grace works. But, intentional or not, their ownership of the term “doctrines of grace” can tend to leave that impression. (I see some others agree with me that the term feels offensive and misleading. See, for example, here and here. Note: I do not intend to affirm all other aspects of these links.)
The problem here is that grace is a much more slippery subject than is often imagined—by most people, not just Calvinists. What exactly is grace? Who gets to define it? Can grace come with any conditions and still be grace? Can it be resisted and still be grace? Can it be potentially withdrawn and still be grace? How is God’s grace different from the grace that humans show? How is it the same? And is our modern conception of grace the same as how ancient Jews—including the apostles–thought of it?
Some of my thoughts here are triggered by an interview with the author of an important new book on grace. I am referring to John Barclay and his 2015 book Paul and the Gift, which has been described as “must reading for all interested in Paul, and in particular in his concept of grace.”That endorsement comes from Ben Witherington—a prominent Arminian NT scholar—and he has interviewed Barclay at length on his blog.
Here are some extended interview excerpts that underscore (a) the complexity of defining grace and (b) the fact that Calvinists most certainly aren’t alone in affirming grace:
JOHN: …Paul is not just a covenantal theologian with an eschatological or a radical social twist. He has a radical, even dangerous, view of God’s grace, but I was struggling to see how to articulate that. I realized that to understand what Paul means by ‘grace’ I had to understand how gifts worked in the ancient world, and the deeper I got into that (which is a fascinating subject in itself) the more I began to see that there are different kinds of ‘grace’ in the ancient world, including the ancient Jewish world…
I have tried to trace… how we have acquired the modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ with ‘no strings attached’, but I think it is increasingly recognized now that this is a very modern (indeed, modern Western) notion and not one that is shared in antiquity (or in most non-Western cultures)…
Paul radicalizes the incongruity of grace (grace given without regard to worth), and his understanding of the Christ-gift as an incongruous gift lies at the heart of his Gentile mission (and his own self-understanding). But this does not mean that God gives expecting nothing in return (what I call non-circular or unilateral grace): in fact Romans 6-8 expressly refutes that notion (of ‘cheap grace’) by saying that believers are ‘under grace’ (Rom 6.14). And on a human level, Paul does not think that gifts carry no obligations: see Romans 15.27 (on the Jerusalem collection as an obliged return gift), for example!…
I discuss Luther and Calvin at some length (after discussion of Augustine, on whom they both draw). I think Luther and Calvin were both absolutely right in emphasizing the incongruity of divine grace (given without regard for our merit or worth), but they also radicalized other aspects of Paul’s theology of gift (in Luther’s case, a clear move towards the gift as a unilateral, one-way movement) that go significantly beyond Paul. I also think that their (in their context necessary) emphasis on grace as the cure for sin, guilt and anxiety, left out another and very important social dimension of Paul’s theology of grace. Since God’s grace has no regard for human criteria of worth, it enables the construction of innovative, counter-cultural communities that sit loose to dominant cultural values… (Source for above quotes, bold added)
JOHN: I think are two questions here: i) should the gift be given without regard to the worth of the recipient and ii) should a gift elicit a return of some sort? The two can run together (a worthy recipient might be one more likely to express gratitude), but they are also seperable [sic]…. We have created notions of ‘altruism’ and ‘disinterest’ that are distinctly modern (making disinterest and interest mutually exclusive). It feels like that is Christian, and there are certainly Christian reasons for risky forms of giving that may not elicit a response, but the core Christian tradition is that even God’s giving wants a response from humans, even if it does not and cannot require it. Does God give to us ‘with no thought of return’? Does not God give to us, without regard to our worth, but lovingly wanting the return that fulfils our human potential, that is the return of thanksgiving (see Romans 1) and faith (see Romans 4)?
…Gift [grace] is a phenomenon that has at least these three facets. The six I have identified are: superabundance (the size of character of the gift); singularity (God’s character as giver and nothing-but-giver); priority (the timing of the gift before any initiative from the other side); incongruity (the mismatch between the gift and the worth of the recipient; efficacy (the ability of the gift to achieve the giver’s intentions); and non-circularity (gifts that escape any system of exchange or reciprocity)… The point of this analysis will become clear as the book proceeds. It helps to clarify the differences in the highly influential history of reception of Paul (e.g. the differences between Augustine and Pelagius, or between Luther and Calvin: they all believed in grace, but in significantly different ways)… (Source for above quotes, bold added)
BEN: On p. 575 you define ‘gift’ as follows: “Gift denotes the sphere of voluntary, personal relations, characterized by goodwill in the giving of benefit or favor, and eliciting some form of reciprocal return that is both voluntary and necessary for the continuation of the relationship.” I like this definition a lot, and I notice that the word ‘voluntary’ shows up twice in the definition. I would imagine however, that a uber-Calvinistic theologian (e.g. John Piper) would not be happy about that word in a definition of grace, if by voluntary you mean ‘the recipient of the gift could have done otherwise than respond positively’. In other words, a certain kind of theology of predestination, would say that the ‘gift’ and the relationship were predetermined from before the foundation of the universe…
JOHN: First, note that my definition is a definition of gift (the domain of human relations as analysed by anthropology and traced in human history) not a definition of grace, if by the latter we mean ‘the divine gift of grace, given ultimately and definitively in Christ’. However, it would be problematic for Paul, as for us, if our response to grace could not be considered in any sense ‘voluntary’ (i.e. truly willed). Note how much he emphasises in 2 Corinthians 8-9 that the Corinthians’ gift (‘charis’) to Jerusalem should be voluntary and not an extraction (2 Corinthians 9.5); otherwise in his eyes it would not be a gift. Now, ‘voluntary’ in Paul’s eyes does not mean ‘free of any external influence’ (see how much effort he puts into persuading them to make this voluntary gift!): he does not labour under our illusion that we can and should act as completely autonomous individuals. But he does expect that God’s work in us generates our own willing (Phil 2.12-13), as freed agents who could do otherwise (it is possible, in Paul’s eyes, to fall out of grace).
What you are touching on here is the tendency, in a line of interpretation from Augustine, through Calvin, to Jonathan Edwards, to ‘perfect’ (radicalise or absolutise) the efficacy of grace, to the point where it causes, constrains, or compels our own wills. This is to turn God’s agency/will and our agency/will into a zero sum game: the more of one, the less of the other. But God’s will is not on the same level as ours, working in the same causal nexus… To perfect the efficacy of grace in the way you describe is certainly not necessary, even if it is understandably attractive to some. (Source for above quotes, bold added)
Back to the “uber-Calvinistic theologian” John Piper. (Please understand I am using him only because he is a prominent Calvinist proponent, and I hasten to add that I have been greatly blessed by much of his teaching.) Here is Piper’s explanation of the term “doctrines of grace”:
Probably the most crucial kind of knowledge is the knowledge of what God is like in salvation. That is what the five points of Calvinism are about. Not the power and sovereignty of God in general, but his power and sovereignty in the way he saves people. That is why these points are sometimes called the doctrines of grace. To experience God fully, we need to know not just how he acts in general, but specifically how he saves us — how did he save me? (“What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism“, bold added)
Given this explanation, we can see that the “doctrines of grace” are really the “doctrines of how God saves people.” More accurately, they are the “Calvinist doctrines of how God saves people.”
That phrase is not nearly as snappy for book titles, I know, but it is much more accurate! After all, when we probe the finer points of exactly how God saves people, there are many complexities and mysteries, and there have been many different balances of understanding throughout church history. All orthodox Christian understandings, however, have centered on the reality that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. This is an understanding shared by Arminians as much as by Calvinists.
To deny our need for grace is to deny our need for Christ! Thus withholding the term “doctrines of grace” from Arminians is tantamount to denying that they are Christians at all.
To call one theological system but not the other “the doctrines of grace” is begging the question—assuming the answer before the discussion has begun. Instead, we should be debating this: What are the differences between the Arminian and Calvinist doctrines of grace? And which matches Scripture best?
In sum, it would be helpful if Calvinists would stop insinuating that Arminians are denying our dependence upon grace. Denial of grace is not a classic Arminian stance, just as universal human salvation by grace apart from any human response—at the other end of the spectrum—is not a classic Calvinist belief.
So there you have it: two pet peeves from me, one for Arminians and one for Calvinists. As my dad used to tell me and my brothers, let’s fight nice!