Trying to Understand Calvinist Thought & Logic Related to the Will of God

This post came about from comments written by myself and two others elsewhere on this blog.  For the sake of clarity and to keep a post on a given topic, I’ve decided to bring those references and comments under a new post.

My previous post on “Calvinitus” was an attempt to show my struggle with Calvinist doctrines infusing themselves and otherwise coloring (maybe blinding?) my perception of God.  However, after recently watching an old movie about Lou Gehrig, Pride of the Yankees (1942), it occurred to me that perhaps Calvinists also struggle with the reality of their own doctrines – particularly unconditional election.

Most people probably associate Lou Gehrig with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”.  ALS is an insidious progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord for which there’s currently no cure.  I have no idea as to what Lou Gehrig’s religious beliefs were.  If I may, however, let’s assume Lou Gehrig was an ardent Calvinist.  There’s a scene from the movie, where Lou Gehrig learns that he has ALS, which goes something like this:

Lou: Give it to me straight, doc.  Is it three strikes?

Doc: Yes, Lou, I’m afraid so.

Lou: Well, I’ve learned something over my life.  You can’t change the call of the umpire.

Calvinists I know believe that God ordains all things.  That being true, then Lou Gehrig’s “Calvinist” example is one of humbling accepting God’s will when he’s diagnosed with ALS because of his realization that “you can’t change the call of [God]”.  Lou further exemplifies his submission to God’s will when he says during his retirement speech, “I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

It was interesting, then to find a story (here) where a Calvinist man goes to visit his grandfather in a hospital.  Also present at the hospital are his grandmother and a Eucharist minister.  The Calvinist man is upset that the Eucharist minister is offering his grandparents feel-good prayers, pseudo-repentance and communion.  The Calvinist man was struck by the wretchedness, hostility, false assurance and blasphemy of the Eucharist minister’s actions and his grandparents attitudes toward God.  The story continues that later, and without success, the Calvinist man tries to convey the gospel message to his grandfather.

It surprises me that Calvinists appear blinded by the logic inherent within their own doctrines.  According to the doctrines of total depravity and unconditional election, God determines who will be saved and conversely who will be eternally lost.  Therefore, why is this Calvinist man dismayed at his grandparents or the Eucharist minister?  God hasn’t elected them.  They’re toast.  The Calvinist man understands that no witnessing, no praying, nothing the Calvinist man could do is going to change what God has sovereignty decreed.  As such, I submit that the Calvinist man’s frustrations towards his grandparents and the Eucharist minister are misdirected.  Consider:

  • The Calvinist man believes God has predetermined the decisions his grandparents have made.
  • God, however, has not chosen to save the Calvinist man’s grandparents.
  • The Calvinist man is dismayed that his grandparents are not elect.
  • And, the Calvinist man realizes that because God is in control, there’s nothing he can do.
  • As such aren’t those feelings of loss and separation related to his grandparent’s eternal destiny directly attributable to God’s sovereignty in the matter?
  • The grief the Calvinist man displays would seem (to me at least) to indicate a desire for God to change the inevitable outcome.
  • Therefore, the Calvinist man is in reality opposed to God’s will in this matter.  And if we’re not in favor of some act or condition, then by definition we’re opposed to that very same thing.

What I don’t see from the Calvinist man in this story is the humility exhibited by Lou Gehrig.  Wouldn’t the Calvinist man, if he truly believes in his doctrines, say something to the effect of, “I thank God for his sovereignty and for having blessed me with the greatest grandparents on the face of the earth.  I hope and pray that God may change my grandparent’s attitudes toward himself.  But I willingly accept God’s sovereign will and know that even my grandparent’s eternal separation will bring glory to God if only through his perfect wrath.”

That’s just a story some might argue.  Fair enough – but I think it ties in well to an MSNBC news story (here) of a young Calvinist pastor, Matt Chandler, currently undergoing treatments for brain cancer.  After reading the story, here are the comments I made to my good friend and ardent Calvinist, Mike:

Is there not something incongruous between Matt’s statements versus his actions as related to Calvinist thought and logic regarding the will of God?

“Lord, you gave [me cancer] for a reason.”

[Matt] is praying that God will heal him.

Whatever happens, [Matt] says, is God’s will, and God has his reasons.

As I understand Matt’s statements, he’s as much saying that God ordained him to contract brain cancer.  However, according to Matt, that doesn’t mean waiting for fate to occur.  Rather, it means fighting for his life, and to that end, Matt is undergoing surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.  I hope this question doesn’t come across as belittling.  However, if Matt truly believes God gave him cancer, then why doesn’t Matt have the faith to accept the cancer along with the significant potential of him dying and leaving behind his wife and two young daughters?

From reading the article, I sense Matt believes that God could cure him without all the standard fare of cancer treatments?  Yet, Matt appears to have decided that it’s best to undergo all of the treatments.  Isn’t Matt in essence saying, “Dear Lord, I know that if it’s your will to cure me, I’ll be healed.  No if’s, ands, or or’s about it.  Now, please don’t be angry at my lack of faith – but just in case, I’ll start all these different treatment options because maybe, just maybe, it’s your will that I’ll be healed through one of them.  Okay?”

Honestly, this seems to be more of the thought process Gideon used.  In this case, Matt seems to be hedging his “faith-bet” by putting down sheepskins of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy in order to ensure that all the bases are covered – and all the options for God to use are available .  Is Matt showing his faith?  Or, is Matt showing his desire to live irrespective of what God may have ordained?

With regret, I say that this appears to be somewhat of a false-faith. All the Calvinists know I emphatically emphasize God’s sovereignty and his being in control of everything in our lives.  And yet, when confronting an obvious life-or-death situation such as cancer, I’ve NEVER known anyone who was willing to sit back, praise God for the cancer (or any other serious or life-altering disease) they contracted, and look forward to their death.  Granted, I’ve only known of a few people who’ve dealt with cancer and the like.  But irrespective of the situation or circumstance, no one I know (Calvinists or not) simply allows “God’s will” to occur.  Everyone employs some subtle theological argument that “maybe, just maybe I had better play it safe in case God might be leading in ‘this’ direction.”

By definition then (at least as I see it), this Calvinist pastor is fighting God’s will and in essence trying to wrest control of the end results from God (most likely his death from cancer) by undergoing treatments.  So, I’m curious as to what you think: is Matt is trying to take control away from and/or otherwise alter the sovereign will of God?


Author: Bob

I’m an upper Midwestern guy who has recently entered the "Buick stage" of life and decided to migrate to Florida. This blog is an attempt to rectify discordant aspects within my Christian faith ... or what often feels like my lack of Christian faith. Things which make life more enjoyable include strong black coffee, charcoal grilling anytime of the year, putz'ing at a table saw, playing chess, a good orthopedic surgeon and an occasional IPA. Please feel free to poke around and comment as you wish. I welcome discussion and the insights of others.

9 thoughts on “Trying to Understand Calvinist Thought & Logic Related to the Will of God”

  1. This comment is actually from Jeff (commenting on a previous post) that I thought was germaine to the discussion here. Jeff’s blog (The Lighthearted Calvinist) offers well written thoughts, opinions and commentary related to all things Calvinist. I highly recommend his site to those, myself included, who’re struggling with Calvinist doctrines.

    Some thoughts on the Chandler issue. Perhaps they are best put by John Robbins, who ran the Trinity Foundation until his death in 2008. When diagnosed with cancer, he wrote this:

    “God’s Will and Healing

    John W. Robbins

    Since I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic colon cancer in September 2005, some strangers, friends, and acquaintances have given me different opinions on the topic of God’s will and healing. All of the opinions are offered by sincere people, but most sincere people are sincerely wrong. Only one opinion is Biblical. This should not be surprising, for there is an indefinite number of ways to go wrong, but only one way to go right. There is only one right answer to the question, “How much is 2 plus 2?” and an infinite number of wrong answers. That is why the Bible in general and Jesus in particular stress the importance of finding the narrow way and repeatedly warn against the broad way.

    The many opinions on healing I have received distill to three. The first is that it is not God’s will that anyone – or at least any Christian – be sick. Being sick is being “outside God’s will.” By not getting well, a Christian is showing his rebellion against God’s will that everyone be well. In this opinion, every Christian who is sick for any length of time (I suppose they make exceptions for colds), is not “submitting to God’s will that he be well.”

    The second opinion seems to be the opposite. It is that a Christian must “submit himself to God’s will,” and if he is not getting better, God’s will is that he remain sick, and perhaps die from the affliction. He also is told to “submit himself to the will of God,” but to an opposite end, not to get well, but perhaps to die.

    The third opinion does not speak of “submitting to the will of God,” but tells us to seek and pray for the desires of our hearts. It certainly sounds like the least pious of the three opinions, doesn’t it? But it is the Biblical position. The Bible is not a very religious book, as men count religion.

    Let us examine each of these three opinions.

    Take the first opinion first: Is it God’s will that no Christian be sick or afflicted? Of course not. If it were not God’s will that some people are sometimes sick, no one would ever be sick, since nothing, not even the death of a sparrow or the fall of a hair from our heads, happens apart from God’s will. God causes both sickness and health in his and in all people. This is taught so clearly in the Bible that one must deliberately ignore and disbelieve scores of passages that teach it. Here are a few:

    “And I [God] will afflict the descendants of David because of this, but not forever” (1 Kings 11:39).

    “For you, O God, have tested us; you have refined us as silver is refined. You brought us into the net; you laid affliction on our backs. You have caused men to ride over our heads” (Psalm 66:1-12).

    “…when they pray toward this place and confess your name, and turn from their sin because you [God] afflict them….” (2 Chronicles 6:26).

    “And it shall come to pass, that as I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to throw down, to destroy, and to afflict, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:28).

    In the New Testament, Paul tells us that “For this reason, many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep, for if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged, but when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:30-32).

    These verses clearly show that it is God’s will to afflict even his own people at times, even to the point of killing them. From many more verses, too numerous to list here, it is clearly God’s will that whatever happens happen, for there is nothing outside God’s will. He is sovereign and omnipotent, and nothing can happen apart from his plan and will. It is logically and theologically impossible to be “outside God’s will.”

    The second opinion is that sickness or affliction that does not go away in a relatively short period of time (I suppose these people also make exceptions for colds) indicates that it is God’s will that the afflicted person remain sick, and perhaps even die from his affliction. This is made especially convincing if a medical professional pronounces the condition “incurable.”

    But there are many examples of suffering people in Scripture – commendable examples – that refute this notion as well. Take, for example, the woman who hemorrhaged for twelve years, spending all her money on physicians, none of whom could cure her. Did she submit to “God’s will” and resign herself to being sick and perhaps dying of her disease? Of course not. She did not confuse the inability of physicians to help her with the will of God. She kept seeking the desire of her heart, and this desire led her to Jesus, who cured her and who did not upbraid her for refusing for twelve years to “submit to God’s will for her life.” Nor does he scold her for being “outside the will of God” for twelve years.

    There are many similar examples – even cases where parents of dying and dead children sought help rather than submitting to the “will of God.” They sought the desire of their hearts, not even accepting imminent and present death as “God’s will” for their child. Were they wrong to do so? Were they also – like the sick allegedly outside the will of God – in rebellion to the will of God? Of course not. Christ never scolds any of these people for refusing to “submit to the will of God.”

    In both these erroneous opinions – (1) God’s will is that no Christian should be sick, and one is not submitting to God’s will if one is sick; and (2) in cases of extended illness, one should submit to the will of God by recognizing it is his will that you remain sick and perhaps die of this sickness – the same serious theological mistake is being made: The mistake is an error – a presumption – of knowledge: It presumes that we can know what the will of God for the future is by reading present circumstances, and therefore know how to “submit ourselves to the will of God.”

    The second opinion assumes that one’s present affliction indicates the ultimate outcome (which is false) – and that the Christian should submit to that anticipated outcome as if it were the “will of God.” The first opinion assumes, contrary to Scripture, that the will of God is that every Christian be well, and that those who are not well are “outside God’s will” and need to submit to it. In both cases – though they reach opposite conclusions, death and health – they share the presumption that one can know from present circumstances what the will of God is for the future. That simply is not true. Apart from divine propositional revelation, we cannot know what God’s will and plan for the future is.

    The third opinion is that one should pray for the desires of one’s heart, not guessing or presuming what the will of God for the future is. That is the rule followed by the “incurable” woman, by the parents of dying and dead children in Scripture, and by many others, including Jesus himself, who prayed that this cup would pass from him, if possible. What makes Christ’s case different, of course, is that, unlike us, who do not and cannot know the future, he could and did know the future – and still he prayed for the desires of his heart.

    The notion that we should “submit to the will of God” when we do not and cannot know the will of God is not a Christian idea at all, but a Muslim idea. Islam means “submission,” and it teaches the same error of presuming that the will of God can be known before God reveals it. In Christian theology, the proper verb is “obedience,” not submission, and it is obedience to his revealed commands, not submission to an unknown (and apart from revelation, unknowable – see Deuteronomy 29:29) will of God. Psalm 37:3-6 read: “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and feed on his faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the Lord, and he shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust also in him, and he shall bring it to pass. He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.”

    The Bible nowhere commands Christians to “submit to the will of God,” precisely because we do not know that will. The Bible commands us hundreds of times to obey God’s commands. We must never confuse our guesses about the future with “God’s will” and piously submit to those guesses – or more likely the guesses of clerics who think they know the future. God’s commands we know, because they are revealed to us in Scripture, but apart from revelation, we cannot know his will, and therefore we cannot “submit” to it, nor need we try to do so.”

    Paul, in Romans 10, prays for Israel’s salvation, in between telling why Jews AREN’T saved (Romans 9) and how prophetic hardening will ensure Jews won’t yet be saved (Romans 11). Were his prayers not “sincere?”

    Job gives us a good example in ch. 2 – “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” We rejoice over God and His goodness, but we also mourn evil. Jesus wept when Lazarus died. It’s clear He already knew Lazarus was dead but wept anyway. It’s the appropriate reaction. We are not fatalists as is Islam. We are not mere victims of “fate.” We are not to be impassive in the face of tragedy, evil, etc. – the living God certainly isn’t (and this does not deny His immutability or His eternal plan for all events in time and space) and we, being His image bearers, shouldn’t be, either.


  2. It appears that one issue we need to deal with is one’s assumptions of exactly what the Calvinist believes.

    Using the Mr. Gehrig example (I wonder if Wally Pipp was a Calvinist…) the Calvinist would say, along with Job – and please note what the Scripture says right after Job attributes good and evil FROM God – “In all this Job did not sin with his lips,” we need examine just what the Calvinist believes.

    Does the Calvinist believe that the boils/death of his children/loss of his wealth, as in Job’s life (and the blessing of a wife who says “Curse God and die.” (!)) is from God? Yes. The question then is – what is wrong or unbiblical about that? Can God use secondary causes – as He did with Satan – to afflict Job and do so without violating His goodness? Sure. If God did not “want” Job to have been so afflicted – would Job have been? No. But, that’s not the end of the story.

    Whether it be Job or Matt Chandler with his cancer – is the immediate affliction/issue the “end of the story?” We don’t know. God uses “means” to accomplish His purposes, doesn’t He? Doesn’t He command us to pray? We do not know if Matt Chandler will be healed. He may well be, though, either through the means of modern medicine or through the means of God’s direct intervention – are either of those non-biblical? Are either of those logically impossible or – even better – incompatible with Calvinism? They aren’t.

    It seems as well that there is an assumption that Calvinists know who is “elect” and who isn’t prior to the elect making a profession of faith. We do not know that. Paul thought he knew – in a sense – in Acts 18 when he was ready to bail out on Corinth and the Lord said, “Uhh, no. Stay here. I have many people in this city.” Paul stayed for 18 months.

    Asking God to intervene in time and space to effect an outcome is not incompatible with Calvinism. It IS incompatible with fatalism. Evangelizing the lost is the means God has ordained (primarily – for other means see Paul’s encounter in Acts 9 and Charles Colson’s account of a young girl in Communist Russia in the book, “The Body,” in the chapter “I Will Build My Church”) for bringing the elect to Himself (see Romans 10, for starters).

    Jesus had a funny way of evangelizing – see John 10. He evanglizes by telling a certain group of men they don’t believe because they are NOT of His sheep. He says the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd – the good Shepherd, in this case, whom He had just identified as Himself.

    Calvinists do not assume they know all aspects of the eternal decree of God – just those that have been revealed in the Scriptures. My parents are 80 and 78. Neither are Christians. Can I assume they are not of the elect? No. I don’t know that. Can they still believe? Sure. Will they? I don’t know. Do I keep evangelizing? Sure.

    After our son was killed in 2002 at 19, our youngest, who had really not professed faith, became very angry at God and became a vocal unbeliever (“IF God could have stopped Jon from dying, why didn’t He?” was his mantra). At that point, were we to assume our son was then not of the elect? No. We kept evangelizing and praying. It took six years but he finally bowed the knee to Christ. Was there any assurance that he would so? No. But he did. Only by the grace of God. And none of this is in opposition to the doctrines of Calvinism.

    I get needled quite a bit by my friends with whom I volunteer in the prisons – 95% of whom are not Calvinists. “If you believe in predestination, who do you evangelize?” is the common jab. My response is, “I evangelize BECAUSE I believe in predestination.” I know that evangelism will effect the exact result God has ordained for it. I know that our feeble preaching will bring those God has chosen to Himself. The non-Calvinist (nC) has no such assurance. The nC evangelizes, not knowing if it will “work,” only hoping that his audience may respond, but not knowing that those whom God desires to have as His children will ever become His children, because God has stepped aside and has no desire to effect any change in the nature of man that may violate man’s “free will” – and if that’s the case, I ask my nC brethren – “If that’s what YOU believe – that God is in the heavens wooing, beckoning, enticing men to Himself – but not actually acting or intervening in that man’s life to effect or cause him to come to Christ – why do YOU pray? You’re praying to a God who, by your own admission – won’t act until man acts. So why pray to that God?”

    Now, that may seem harsh, but it is the real issue.

    Asking God to intervene in time and space is nothing incompatible with Calvinism. The Scripture appears clear that God is not governing Creation by the seat of His pants, merely reacting to events as they occur, then trying to rearrange things to make sure His plan works out. His eternal plan involves billions upon billions of “free” choices made by men. Many, many choices made by men had to occur over history for events to be such that Christ would be crucified – military and political decision made over hundreds of years by Greek rulers, Alexander the Great, Roman emperors and so on. None of these were accidental or coincidental or by “chance.”

    One of the hardest things for me to swallow was the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty over all events – even our “free” decisions. I struggled with Romans 9 for a LONG time. I couldn’t believe the Bible said such things. But it did. Once I swallowed – HARD – everything else has gone down much easier.

    Ever read Sproul’s “Chosen By God?” It’s a very good popular-level treatment of predestination and also includes Sproul’s own struggles with it. It’s worth an hour of your time to read it.


  3. Well said, Jeff. I would also recommend to Bob and others wrestling with this the chapter titled “Election” in Ichabod Spender’s wonderful book “A Pastor’s Sketches.” It deals directly with this post.



  4. I appreciate the comment and the referral, Scott.

    Jeff – I’m way behind on responding to previous comments. Things sometimes just get ‘busy’ and of late I haven’t had the time to follow-up. Hopefully soon.

  5. “The notion that we should “submit to the will of God” when we do not and cannot know the will of God is not a Christian idea at all, but a Muslim idea.”

    Friesen tried to teach you that the “will of God” is not merely defined by “the revealed moral will of God.” we can and do know what the moral will of God is – Paul spends a couple of chapters saying “do this and don’t do that…” before concluding in eph5:17 “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.”

    the bible clearly teaches the sovereign will of God. but trying to anticipate the sovereign will of God (even for the supposedly good reason of “so you can submit to it”) is just not your responsibility:

    you want to be God. please put that aside.

    in your prior post you talked about “the “prodigal”…son [whom God hated from the beginning of time]” – despite knowing the whole story including the father’s loving restoration of his son. you simply can’t look at any situation and claim the authority to deduce what God intends to happen. if you meet an openly sinful man – don’t pretend that you are God and know his fate – simply pray for him and encourage him toward godliness. when you are hanging out with a friend from church- don’t pretend that you are God and know his fate – pray for him and encourage him toward godliness. if you get cancer, don’t pretend that you are God and know how things will turn out…God is free to heal and free not to heal – who are you to presume to know?…and so on…

    think about things “calvinistically.” (or simply “biblically” as calvinists would call it.) Recognize that God is God and you are not. the secret things of God are His and not yours. He knows and holds the future. Psa 115:3 Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.

    wondering how things might work in eternal terms from a temporal standpoint can be fun and interesting…accepting some of what the bible teaches will hurt your feelings and require you to put some part of your flesh to death…but it really looks like you are getting carried away and need to step back a little…

    He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

  6. Therefore, why is this Calvinist man dismayed at his grandparents or the Eucharist minister? God hasn’t elected them. They’re toast.

    I was saved, I am saved and I am being saved.Yes, but only GOD knows who they are.

  7. By definition then (at least as I see it), this Calvinist pastor is fighting God’s will and in essence trying to wrest control of the end results from God (most likely his death from cancer) by undergoing treatments.

    Let’s say that the Calvinist Pastor makes a complete recovery as a result of undergoing treatments; would his recovery be due to God’s will, his will (Calvinist Pastor) or the various treatments he was undergoing?

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