Jeff McSwain, Calvinism, Arminianism, and Karl Barth
Jeff McSwain is the founder of Reality Ministries of Durham, North Carolina. Jeff went on to earn his doctorate in 2015 at the University of St. Andrews.
In this interview, Jeff discusses the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism, and the Reformed view of Karl Barth.
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JMF: We want to talk today about Arminianism and Calvinism. It seems that you’re either an Arminian or a Calvinist, and never the twain shall meet. What is Arminianism, what is Calvinism, what are the strengths and weaknesses, and are there any alternatives?
JM: I’m glad we get to have a full session to solve all these problems about Arminian and Calvinist theology. This is something that’s been debated for many, many years. I believe that there is another option, even a more evangelical option, than Arminianism or Calvinism. When I say Calvinism I mean, specially five-point Calvinism, or what we could call Dortian Theology, that comes from the synod of Dort. I think that’s where the Tulip expression comes from, that many people are familiar with.
JMF: And could you rehearse that?
JM: The TULIP… Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and P – Perseverance of the Saints. We could spend a whole session talking about each one of those, which we don’t need to do now. But there is another type of Reformed theology aside from Dortian or five-point Calvinism, and that’s the reformulated Reformed position of Karl Barth – who, I feel, is most consistently reformed of all Calvinists. Most people don’t think of Karl Barth as a Calvinist, but we can talk a bit more about why he draws much of his program from John Calvin.
But to get back to the Arminian question, what is an Arminian? An Arminian is someone who wants to make a place for the integrity of the human response to the gospel. They chafe under any kind of program that might have to do with predestination, the kind that de-personalizes us, and in a robotic or deterministic way lashes us and involuntarily brings us into heaven or into any kind of decision.
JMF: A focus on freedom.
JM: A huge focus on freedom, but interestingly, one of the weaknesses of the Arminian program could be that there is a misunderstanding of the word “freedom.” Most people feel like freedom is a human-centered type of freedom, more of a libertarian type of freedom, where we are free to choose against God or free to choose God. That goes against the truth of how we’re made. Because to choose against God is actually an anti-truth move, therefore, it’s an anti-free move. It’s more of an enslaved move than it is a free one.
The idea of what freedom is, is something that Karl Barth hammers on continually in order to show us that freedom is actually a unidirectional freedom. It’s the Son who sets us free. And the Spirit of truth blowing in and through our sails is what gives us the freedom to choose God. Without the Holy Spirit, without his work in our lives, we are not free to choose God at all. But in and of ourselves, if we try to choose God, or if we try to choose against God, we have to chalk that up to being an anti-truth and an anti-free movement – not a free one.
JMF: So in five-point Calvinism there’s an effort to create a formula in which that freedom is taken care of. All the loopholes are covered and all the leaks are filled…
JM: Right, because for a five-point Calvinist it’s very difficult to give the human agency too much potency. That’s a dangerous thing to do, because it allows human beings to get outside of the economy of the sovereign God and be able to make a decision that creates the truth, which is something that no human being in actuality can do. Let me explain what I mean by that. To create the truth would mean to believe in a dualistic fashion that we are on one side of the ledger, unforgiven, unredeemed and separated from God. But then when a person decides, by his human response to the gospel, to believe in Jesus Christ, he moves himself from one side of the ledger to the other.
JMF: So that changes his decision and position toward God when he makes the confession of faith.
JM: Right. The human being is the agent who is able to make the decision to have faith in God and by that faith he is therefore now a forgiven child of God, now reconciled to the Lord, now redeemed, and now no longer separated from him – all those things that weren’t true before, are true after the existential moment occurs, after the Jeff-moment, or the Mike-moment, you might say. And so the “before” and “after” of the decision really changes the truth about who we are.
JMF: The problem there is that it puts on us the actual causing of our salvation to take place. It’s left to whether or not we make the decision and make it properly.
JM: That’s correct. It’s a question of ultimate truth and if there is ultimate truth, because that type of approach introduces this idea of relativity that the truth is not really true about me until I decide that it is. It’s also very easy from that paradigm to pull justification by faith away from justification by grace. We know that justification by faith is a corollary to justification by grace. Justification by faith doesn’t mean that I’m not justified until I have faith. It simply means that the justification that’s been wrought by Jesus Christ, which is purely of grace, is in play and is real, and is true even before my own faith occurs in that moment.
JMF: In both Arminianism and five-point Calvinism you’re left with the idea that you’re not saved, not saved, not saved – then you make a decision for Christ, and then you’re saved. In both concepts, even though they’re coming at it supposedly from different angles, they wind up in the same position of the sinner’s prayer is the point at which the change from “God doesn’t love you” to now “God does love you” because you did the sinner’s prayer, winds up being a linchpin in both cases.
JM: Right, which is ironic, because in five-point Calvinism those folks who adhere to that doctrine don’t really believe that those things did occur in the existential moment. They believe that these things were established in the finished work of Christ 2,000 years ago. However, they don’t want to give that away to everyone upfront because they believe in “Limited Atonement.” Therefore, they have to talk more about a person’s sinful condition before God, as being separated from God or un-reconciled to God, which is actually inconsistent with what they believe theologically, but they say that in practice when it comes to the proclamation of gospel truth in their minds, they say that, because they don’t know any other way to find out who the elect are.
Once they proclaim you are a sinner, therefore repent, and then they see people who do repent, then they can say, “Well actually, you were forgiven 2,000 years ago by the cross of Christ, actually you are already reconciled to God, and already redeemed by the finished work of Christ. But we couldn’t tell you that upfront because we didn’t know if you are one of the elect or not.” The “Limited Atonement” piece is really troublesome and causes an internal conflict for the passionate five-point Calvinist evangelist – because he does want people to know Jesus Christ, but he’s a little bit hamstrung because he can’t get the good news out there at the beginning. He can’t say, “You do belong to God, you are one of the elect, you are chosen by God,” until that person shows some kind of movement toward God, and then he can give them the goods.
The advantage of the Arminian program is that the Arminian doesn’t have that problem. In a totally consistent manner and in good conscience, he can stand up before a room full of people and say, “Jesus Christ died for every single one of you. And if you’re the only person alive in this world (as is often said), Jesus Christ loves you so much that he would have died just for you.” That’s something that an Arminian can say unabashedly. But the reason a Calvinist can’t say that is because he doesn’t believe that Christ really did die for all. The reason a Calvinist can’t say that in consistency with his own theology is because of the “Limited Atonement” part of his doctrine.
JMF: If you are a five-point Calvinist, how can you be sure that you are among the elect, because if you were among the elect, then you should be bringing forth fruits that are meet for repentance. Every time you fail in some way, then you have to kind of look over your shoulder and say, “Well, maybe I just think I’m elect and I’m going through the motions but I’m not really right.” How do I know for sure? The only evidence that there is, is godly behavior, a changed heart – so it comes back down to a lack of assurance based on whether or not you’re bringing forth fruit. And so, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time we’ve got a kernel of doubt about whether we really are. We can say, “I’m sure, I’m convinced, I know I am one of the elect.” But there’s really no way of proving it beyond any shadow of a doubt.
JM: That’s right, because [according to the five-point Calvinist] God, in his sovereignty, has chosen some people from all eternity to go to hell and some people from all eternity to go to heaven. Once that idea is introduced and Jesus Christ is lost in the equation, Jesus applies to the elect side of the ledger but not to the other side. It’s hard for those people to say, “Jesus Christ is God, and Jesus Christ himself decided from all eternity that some people would go to hell without a chance – that was his sovereign plan, but it is merciful that God would allow a few people to be saved and to go on to heaven.”
Once that idea is introduced and we begin to read that into the character of God, we really don’t know what he thinks about us at the deepest level. So we don’t know if we’re effectually called (as the terminology is used) or in-effectually called. We might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, in that paradigm.
JMF: That kind of language is actually used.
JM: It is, and when a person doesn’t behave the way a person who is elect is supposed to behave in line with the perseverance of the saints, many times their salvation is cast in doubt. Perhaps you are ineffectually called; you’re tasting it but you’re not really in it and therefore, you’re more predestined to go to hell than you were to go to heaven. You’re disqualified or maybe even disenfranchised from the church that you belong to. That kind of thing does happen.
With Arminianism, you’re not going to have a question about the nature of God as much as you do in Calvinism, and that’s one of its greatest strengths, is that God is love toward everyone. A Calvinist will say that God loves everyone, but it’s very difficult for him to really believe that, because it doesn’t make sense that God would love you but send you to hell without a chance. We know what love is. The Bible tells us, 1 John 3:16, “This is how we know what love is; Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Jesus and love and the sacrifice of the cross all go together, and you can’t force those apart and say, God loves everyone, but Jesus Christ does it apart from them in terms of redemption and in terms of his death on the cross.
That’s a very difficult line for a five-point Calvinist to take. If you’re consistent as a five-point Calvinist, ultimately what you have to say is that God doesn’t love everyone – he really loves those he died for, but he doesn’t love the reprobate and he may even hate the reprobate. “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” is a template that’s often given to be able to rationalize the idea that God loves some and hates others, when we know from Romans 9 through 11 that Paul is not trying to say that.
JMF: Let’s talk about that. What is Paul’s point with that statement?
JM: I think it’s basically the hyperbole of contrasts. God did choose Jacob over Esau – no doubt about it – and that was important for that time in order to usher in the Messianic line. He chose Abraham in order to bless the whole world. The beautiful thing about the big picture of Romans 9 through 11 is that he chose Jacob to keep the Messianic line intact in order to eventually save Esau as well.
God’s election is not one of excluding others. It is actually meant to always include others. In Romans 9, God says, I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy. And Paul says, in the next paragraph, “God will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy.” It talks about “what if some people are made unto destruction and others for life?” So all these words are used… but I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy. Two chapters later, we get the crescendo to it all in Romans 11:32, where he says, “God has given all men over to disobedience that he may have mercy upon all.” So it’s beautiful: I will have mercy upon who I will have mercy, so I will have mercy upon all.
JMF: Getting back to Calvinism and Arminianism – you mentioned an alternative in Karl Barth’s theology, and then as that is expounded in Thomas Torrance’s theology. Let’s talk about that.
JM: Getting back to the Arminian’s strength, the strength is that the Arminians can say, “God loves everyone, God is love, he loves everyone, he loves everyone equally, he died for every single person.”
Now the weakness. There was a time in my life where I did agree with the Arminian way of thinking – I thought of the cross more as a hypothetical – there wasn’t anything actually accomplished by the cross and by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I could say Jesus Christ died for every one of you, but it wasn’t true that they were forgiven or redeemed or reconciled to God until that person, in the Jeff-moment, made that decision. As I began to realize that, and began to understand why Karl Barth wanted to move away from that, I began to realize that it’s a great favor to us as human beings not to be thrown back upon ourselves in order to try to make this true or to make this real, or to make this actual, or effective.
JMF: Is my faith good enough? Did I repent properly?
JM: Right. I’m going to be going through that revolving door all of my life, just like the five-point Calvinist will be going around the revolving door wondering what God really thinks about him …
JMF: In both Calvinism and Arminianism, you wind up in the same spot.
JM: Right. Arminianism puts a lot of emphasis on “do,” whereas Calvinist theology puts a lot of emphasis on “done.” What Karl Barth wants to do is to take the best of those two things and say, “yes.”
Just like the Reformed perspective says, Jesus Christ and him crucified did effect reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness – but not just for the limited group of people out there. Not along the lines of limited atonement… but for all. And the word “ALL” is used constantly throughout the New Testament to talk about what Christ did for all.
The Arminian hasn’t given due credence to the past tense language of the New Testament, that these things have been accomplished in the finished work of Christ. Karl Barth wants to say, “Yes, they have been accomplished.” They’re not hypotheticals, they’re not “true if you make a decision” – they have been accomplished, they are actual, they are real, and yet this is not in a deterministic way that makes a person a robot – because God’s inmost being is about love, because God is love – one may resist the Holy Spirit, grieve the Holy Spirit and go against the reality of who Jesus Christ is and who he is in Christ.
This is thrown right out there for us in 2 Corinthians 5: “the love of Christ compels us, because we are convinced that one has died for all, therefore all died and he died for all, so that those who live may live not for themselves but for him who for their sakes died and was raised.” Here we have “Jesus Christ died for all.” Here we have the fact that “when he died, everybody died.” We know from Scripture, from this passage and for most (like 1 Corinthians 13 and from Romans 6), that you have to keep the unity of Christ’s death and resurrection together. Those who died with Christ rose with Christ. In Adam all die, in Christ all will be made alive – this is the fabric of the work of Jesus Christ.
Paul is saying, “It’s not a question of whether everybody died and rose with Christ.” The question is, “Are you going to live for yourself, or are you going to live for him who, for your sake, died and was raised?” There’s an objective truth, but there’s a subjective participation in the objective truth. It goes on to say, “We no longer, therefore, look at anyone from a human point of view. We used to look at Christ that way, but from now on we don’t, and anyone is in Christ is a new creation. The old is gone, the new is come.”
It doesn’t say, “You could become a new creation if you make a decision.” He is saying that because Jesus Christ has come and died and rose again, there is a new creation – everyone is a new creation. We no longer look at anyone from a worldly point of view. He goes on to say, “God has given us this ministry of reconciliation. God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and giving us this ministry of reconciliation. We beseech you, on behalf of God, be reconciled to God.”
Then he ends up with “do not receive the grace of our God in vain.” Today is the day of salvation, it’s here. That dimension is here and you’re in that dimension, do not buck that, do not kick against it. Do not fight against it. Be reconciled to God because you are reconciled to God. This puts the subject of participation together with the object of truth. You have been reconciled to God. You have been forgiven. The whole world has been reconciled to God and forgiven by Jesus Christ.
JMF: So if you reject that, you’re not rejecting an opportunity, you’re not rejecting a possibility. You’re rejecting the truth of what already is.
JM: Right, and in that passage it shows how one might reject those things. It gives the objective truth and it gives you an opportunity to “not receive the grace of the Lord in vain.” That would be subjective refusal – which is possible. It’s not a deterministic, robotic system. It is possible to receive the grace of God in vain, even though you’ve been included in the death and resurrection of Christ.
JMF: So the point is that you have received it. You can either receive it to good, or you can receive it in vain.
JM: You’ve been given this relationship. You were turned away from God in your sin and rebellion against him. God has come, he has assumed your sinful, fallen nature in Jesus Christ, and he has turned you back around and reconciled you to God, and that means that you’ve been given a face-to-face relationship with God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit – you are a part of this relationship, this is what reconciliation is.
Therefore as a person who’s included in that, you may submit to it or may fight against it. The subjective participation is to believe, not only that you’re included in this, but every person in the world is included. This gets past the “limited atonement” problem. If I don’t know everybody’s been included in this, I’m not really sure if I have been included in it. Because that goes back to… if just a few people are included, how do I know if I’m on the right side or the left side of the ledger? But to the extent that I know this includes everyone, I’d be assured that it includes me, too. But to the extent that I think it includes some people, I’ll be concerned and worried about that, and my assurance would be virtually nil, or it will go through this revolving door syndrome.
The assurance is there because I believe this happened for ALL people – that Christ not only did something for us, but he did something with us. Now here is the point that a lot of people get to, and Calvinists really struggle with Barth’s program, because it sounds like: If Christ has not only done something for us but he’s done something with us, then it sounds to me like I’ll still have to make a decision about whether or not I’m going to participate or not, and that decision is really back to an Arminian decision. It’s back to this question of, “There’s a new line in the sand, now the sand is not whether I’m forgiven or not forgiven, it’s not whether I’m reconciled to God or not. It’s whether I believe in that, or whether I don’t believe in that prior truth.”
That still feels like an Arminian problem to a Calvinist, because it’s like, “It’s still thrown back on you, because now you’ve got to believe it, you’re the one who’s got to believe it or not.” An Arminian can buy into the Barth program and really relish it with great intensity, and I know a lot of Arminians who have done that, because they feel like it still gives place for a subjective decision – do I believe or do I not believe? – and they can decide, “All this stuff is true, there’s one truth, it’s not relative to whether I believe it or not. That’s very refreshing, it’s all been done by Jesus Christ. Now for me, my free decision is related to whether I believe in it or not.”
An Arminian can stay right there, and that’s great. So in this next section of our discussion, let me just say, for you who are Calvinists and realize, “Wait a minute, that’s not good enough for me, because that belief still feels like it’s up to me; it still feels like that’s the critical moment in which all this stuff becomes true for me and lets me go to heaven.”
I would say, that’s a great place to be. I think everyone who’s a Calvinist who wants to give the first and last word to God, needs to go through this strait of wrestling with that question – because it does still seem to exalt the “do” over the “done.” But what Barth wants to do is always keep the “do” inside the “done.” He would say the epitome of anthropocentrism, the epitome of humanism, would be for us to objectify God and to say from a distance, “This is the situation now (as I just described it a minute ago), and now I’m going to decide if I believe it or not.”
Barth would say that Arminianism, at the end of the day, is humanistic. He’d say that Calvinists are right in that it’s not good enough just to stop there, he would say that it lands us in a place of semi-Pelagianism – where belief becomes a work. Barth will never do that. But how does he keep the “do” inside of the “done”? He does that by using the word “be.” As Paul says in this passage, “You’ve been reconciled to God, therefore we beseech you: BE reconciled to God.”
This is not universalism. Universalism is way too easy. If God wanted universalism to be the case, he would never have gone through the trouble of the cross, and allow human suffering. He could just have said, “I love you guys so much you’re all going to go to heaven.” Universalism is way too easy, it’s very linear and very simple. But in this passage, Karl Barth realizes the apostle Paul is a passionate evangelist. He’s not just some couch potato who thinks, “God’s going to bring everybody into heaven.” Rather, Paul is thinking, “I’ve got to get this message out there.” The love of Christ compels us – we beseech you on behalf of God, be reconciled to God. Be reconciled to God, because you are. Not because you’re not, but because you are.
This keeps the “do” inside the “done.” It says even Christ is the one who believes that you are reconciled to God. So instead of standing out here, aloof and looking at this whole situation of reconciliation as if it’s in your laboratory, and you as the almighty human being get to make a decision about this, we have to say, “Part of reconciliation is that Jesus Christ does everything from the human side. There is not one modicum of our independent humanity that can make a decision outside of God. We all live and move and have our being in him.”
Even our believing is a participatory event. Grace includes the human response, Barth would say. In doing that, he is able to say, “Jesus Christ does it all, even your believing, and even your believing in Jesus Christ does it all, even in your believing, and even your believing in your believing in your believing that Jesus Christ does it all … ad infinitum… you can never get outside of the brackets of grace – where God has represented in Christ, Jesus Christ has represented God to humanity and everything about humanity to God – you can’t get outside and quantify that and exalt your subject-self as being the one who gets to decide about God.
Instead of fighting to get ourselves outside of that equation, just recognize you’re inside of it. Don’t fight that, you’re inside. Submit to the ad infinitum. You can never get to a place where you pull your belief outside of what God has done or what God is doing to make a decision about it as if you’re quantifying God. That is actually religion. Instead, Jesus Christ has made this decision. Your decision is really more of a non-decision. The action step is really a non-action step. It’s important, it’s critical, but it’s actually to submit to the ad infinitum of saying, “My decision is not that important anymore, my decision is secondary to the decision that God has made for me and Jesus Christ – that God has said, ‘yes’ to me and he said ‘yes’ for me in Christ.”
I might submit to that ad infinitum and say, “I don’t have to worry so much… my decision is that I don’t have to worry about my decision, because I know Jesus Christ has done it all.” That is amazingly freeing, once that penny drops – it still makes decision important, but it wraps it all up into the “done,” and what is being done. Jesus Christ, as our representative high priest, takes everything from the human side, represents us to God and therefore he keeps the covenant of grace from both sides. We’re caught up in that, why fight to get outside of it, why not just repose on that dynamic of Trinitarian life that we’ve been given?
The whole point about decision, sometimes we make too big a deal out of that, and the reason is because we’re riddled in humanism, and we often go back to this verse: “What must I do to be saved? What must I do to be saved? What must I…” We’re so wrapped up in that, and what Paul says to the Philippian jailer is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Not “you’ll be saved if you believe in Jesus Christ.” He’s actually telling the jailer, “Jesus Christ has got you, he’s carrying you.” Just as best as you are able, surrender to that, knowing that you can never really surrender as an independent person but only as someone in participation with the surrender that Jesus Christ has made to God on your behalf.
I like that word “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s like Jesus Christ is the foundation for every human action to God. We can never get off that foundation. We can pretend that we are built on the sand, but we can never really get off that foundation and offer God anything as an independent agent.
That agency question is big for Calvinists and for Arminians alike, and it’s usually the last thing to go – our agency, our human agency is usually the last thing to go because we are so keen to self-justify, we’re so keen to make it happen. “What do I need to do, what do I need to do?”
Jesus is trying to get something through to us when he says, “If you want to find your life, you got to lose it.” When you lose your agency, you lose your claim to individual decision-making and making-it-happen, you get back your personhood and you get back your share in the Trinitarian persons and that great dance that’s going on between Father, Son and Spirit. Who, if they knew, would want to hold on to their individuality and be wrapped up in themselves (which is a very small package), if they really heard the gospel with ears to hear and could lose their individualism to become a person?
JMF: The real person that you already are, without losing your own identity.JM: You don’t become a drop in the cosmic sea where you become less personalized – it’s just the opposite in Jesus Christ. More Jesus means the more of us, not the less. That’s why T.F. Torrance calls them the personalizing person. So anytime we get into theologies that want to get us down the de-personalizing route, we know we’re going the wrong direction. Anytime we go down the road with theology that wants to take us to a humanistic route, one that is elevating the human subject self outside that of Jesus Christ, we need to be careful. Karl Barth gives us a way to move between those two – to keep the “do” within the “done” and to “be” what we are by the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.