Recently I was asked a good question about Calvinism. Which of the five points are most difficult for you to believe?
Before giving my answer, let me give a quick summary of what is traditionally called the five points of Calvinism.
- Total Depravity: Humanity is absolutely alienated from God by virtue of our sin, in fact, we are slaves to sin. There is no island of righteousness in us that we might stand upon and commend ourselves to God. Before thinking about what we do (sin) we think in terms of what we are (depraved). And we have no ability to save ourselves.
- Unconditional Election: God chose his people before the foundation of the world. He does not choose (elect) people based upon some good they might do but in spite of our inability to be or do good. It is all of grace.
- Limited Atonement: All that Jesus accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection was for his people. His work was vicarious, substitutionary, and successful. Therefore, he did not die for (and therefore remove the wrath of God for) everyone who ever lived, but rather for his elect.
- Irresistible Grace: We might use the term “effectual” here to describe God’s grace. It simply means that God is sovereign and able to do what he sets out to do. None may stymie God in his sovereign work of salvation if he means to save them. When God calls a rebel to himself he overcomes their sinful resistance to his rule.
- Perseverance of the Saints: Those who have truly been born again by the grace of God will continue in the grace of God not fall away. They will persevere until the end.
I wonder which of these five are most difficult for you. I once heard R. C. Sproul say that the most difficult one was total depravity, because if you believe this then everything else falls into place. You may or may not agree with him. Most people I talk to have the most trouble with limited atonement. Perhaps this has to do with confusion stemming from the (unhelpful) language of the atonement being limited. (I prefer the word “definite” myself.)
As I think about the question I come back to a different point. And it may surprise you. For me the most difficult point of Calvinism is the fifth, perseverance of the saints. The reason for this stems from the fact that I live with myself 24 hours a day. I get the “check engine” alert, and when I pop the hood of my soul and take a look, I’m discouraged. I feel the weight of sin, a cold heart, lethargic disciplines, lukewarm devotion, embarrassing zeal, and a regrettable reflex of pride. This is what I feel and experience some days. But then I look on the trunk of the car and see the bumper sticker, perseverance of the saints. What? How? Like driving a clunker across the country, I have a hard time believing I can push this spiritual hooptie to the Celestial City.
As unsettling as this is, it is actually right where I need to be. Through the feeling of my own inadequacy I actually cry out to God for grace. I need help, Lord! How am I going to keep going? Then I remember how I got going in the first place. It was an act of God’s sovereign grace. It was God who caused me to be born again (1 Pet. 1:3). It is God who made me alive (Eph. 2:4). God himself will keep me (Jn. 10:28-29). It is God who justifies; who is there to condemn (Rom. 8:33-34)? It is God who will present me blameless with great joy before his throne (Jude 24-25).
In other words, I believe in the perseverance of the saints because I believe in the perseverance of God!
But we forget this, don’t we? In the day-to-day we forget about the perseverance of God and looking unto ourselves we get discouraged. I find the fifth point of Calvinism the most difficult to believe because my spiritual life is a grind. The “check engine” light is on and the fuel tank is low. But this is not the last word. God will persevere his people. The God who made us alive will keep us alive. God is able to complete his work (Rom. 8:29-30). There is sufficient grace in the divine reservoir to fuel our tanks and take us home! We should praise him for this.