My previous post “Why I Left the Christian Reformed Church” gained a significant amount of attention (over 2,000 views) – more than I anticipated. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is what it is. The number of “hits” on the post have dropped off, but, in the past few days, have spiked once again. I heard a rumor that the post is being discussed on a CRC pastors’ facebook group. Perhaps this partially explains the spike.
I suspect that the biggest objection to my previous post will be on that which is near and dear to Reformed folks (and something that is near and dear to me due to their formative influence) – the theology. Reformed pastors love a good theological discussion/debate/disagreement. Unfortunately, in my experience, the norm for critique in these discussions is a form of anti-thetical critique such that those who disagree with “us” have clearly not understood “our” position and the critique takes the form re-trenching previously held positions. I know this because I used to be one of the worst offenders in this regard.
I suspect that I’m taking heat for having not adequately understood Reformed theology, etc., etc. Perhaps. But then again, I studied Reformed theology at the Institute for Christian Studies, what some in CRC-circles consider to be the lunatic fringe.
More recently, I am a student at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. One of the papers I wrote last term was on Reformed theology. A number of people asked about it. Although I was (and still am somewhat) reluctant to share it, I did very well on the paper. So, I’m a little less reluctant to share it since my professor gave it his seal of approval.
I offer it here. In so doing I know that I will, in the eyes of some, confirm my theological ignorance of Reformed theology and therefore my theological reasons for living the CRC will be easily rejected. So be it.
Be forewarned, this is an academic paper, so it might be a bit dry. I also apologize for the footnotes – for some reason, clicking on the links will not jump down to the text of the notes, which means a great deal of back and forth scrolling (the footnotes are kind of important…)
So without further ado, here it is…
The doctrine of justification continues to be a matter of debate, both between Roman Catholics and Protestants and among Protestants themselves. Central to this debate is the importance of justification vis-à-vis Paul’s conception of the gospel. Represented by the theology of Herman Bavinck, Charles Hodge, and Louis Berkhof, the traditional Reformed understanding of justification is tightly bound to a questionable interpretation of the doctrine of election as double predestination, is framed in juridical terminology that does not follow the logic of Paul’s thought, and is rooted in an understanding of divine sovereignty that necessitates retributive justice against those whom God deems unrighteous. The Reformed understanding of justification and divine justice rests more on maintaining the internal logic of its own systematic theology than it does on the biblical witness concerning the centrality of justification in Paul’s thought, its relationship to other doctrines, and the restorative nature of divine justice. Therefore, the traditional Reformed understanding of justification is problematic, especially in terms of its soteriological and eschatological implications vis-à-vis divine justice.
The debate about justification among Protestants remains highly polarized between those who defend Reformation orthodoxy and those who use a different interpretative and theological framework. In order to understand the tension points of this debate, it is important to understand the theological foundations that shape the arguments of both sides. This paper will look at how Reformed theology understands justification in terms of the link between election/predestination, the righteousness of God, and the nature of divine justice followed by a brief sketch of some alternative interpretive and theological perspectives that unravel this tight relationship. Thus, the primary purpose of this paper is a theological summary and critique for the purposes of continuing the discussion rather than breaking new ground.
Part I – Justification is the Gospel: the Reformed Argument
The five points of Calvinism, also known as the ‘doctrines of grace’, are expounded in the Canons of Dordt and summarized by the acronym ‘T.U.L.I.P.’. Although Reformed theology has many branches, it remains rooted in this 17th century document. The Canons of Dordt directly shape the Reformed understanding of election, justification, and divine justice as further expounded by Herman Bavinck, Charles Hodge, and Louis Berkhof. Given that the reformulation of justification was one of the theological legacies of the Reformation, it is not surprising that those traditions in direct genealogical lineage would continue to assert both the uniqueness of the Protestant interpretation of the doctrine, particularly in distinction from the Roman Catholic understanding, and the centrality of justification. For many Reformed theologians, justification is the essence of the gospel. Along with other contemporary Reformed theologians, popular Reformed preacher John Piper maintains that justification is “the heart of the gospel” and occurs through the forensic imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner.
Many continue to be puzzled by the apparent arbitrariness and utter injustice of Reformed soteriology and confused by its use of circular reasoning, an incoherence Paul Schraeder memorably depicts in a scene from his 1979 film, Hardcore. Jake van Dorn, the staunch Dutch Reformed protagonist, makes a telling confession in trying to explain the tenets of Calvinism to a hooker in the Las Vegas airport: “I’ll admit it’s confusing when you look at it from the outside.” This rather convenient defense is used time and again by Calvinists responding to those who are unable to wrap their heads around the logic and its implications. Although the criticisms raised in this paper are nothing new to Calvinists, they are offered in the spirit of dialogue.
A. Chosen before I was Born: Election and Justification
Election is what the Reformed scholastics call the decretum absolutum, God’s absolute and unchangeable decree made from eternity. It remains one of the central doctrines in Reformed theology as is evidenced by its direct connection with other doctrines, particularly justification. If justification is the heart of the gospel message, then election is the core of Reformed soteriology. As the Canons of Dordt explain, God “decided to give the chosen ones to Christ to be saved… he decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them”. In other words, to be elect is to be justified. Thus, justification and election are correlative in Reformed theology, a fact Bavinck states directly: “It is the elect who are justified”.  Those who are justified are the elect; the elect are those who are justified. There is ultimately no distinction between them.
According to Louis Berkhof, election has a dual purpose: “the salvation of the elect” and “the glory of God”. Thus, predestination/election is always unto salvation. More importantly, election is meant to show God’s sovereignty. The inverse of election is that “some of the human race were not elected”. Those who were not elected are the reprobate. Similar to election, reprobation has a dual purpose: “to pass by some in the bestowal of regenerating and saving grace” and “to assign them dishonor and to the wrath of God for their sins”. Therefore, as Bavinck concludes, “Christ obtained salvation only for the elect”. However, this raises the question: why is Christ’s death and resurrection necessary in such a framework whereby salvation is the result of an eternal decree made prior to the creation of time? .
Because election and justification are two-sides of the soteriological coin, Bavinck claims that “justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls”. Justification is the greatest “of all God’s benefits given in the covenant of grace” because it means “the forgiveness of sins”. Moreover, the terms ‘justification’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’ are interchangeable. This means that God’s forgiveness is offered only to the elect. Only they are made righteous “on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, which is ours through faith”. However, faith is not a human work, but remains “the gift of God within time”. Therefore, God is the one who elects, justifies, forgives, and gives faith, and God is the one who reprobates, condemns, blames, and withholds faith. As Bavinck summarizes, “the elect cannot take the credit; the reprobate cannot blame God”.
Not only is the centrality of election/justification in Reformed soteriology established and God’s defining role in each, but so too are questions regarding the arbitrary nature of God’s election and the apparent limits of God’s forgiveness. The Reformed response is that God’s election is always just, despite any claims to the contrary. Election is a matter of God’s “hidden will” and therefore not subject to human speculation. Because God had reasons for choosing Abel over Cain and Jacob over Esau and his ways are higher than human ways, we are required to accept this selectivity as a mystery and inquire no further. Such is the scandalous nature of election, something at which we are supposed to marvel and tremble. Although it is meant to be a doctrine that provides comfort, the Reformed doctrine of election seems to raise more questions than anything else. Perhaps the absence of questions is a sign of one’s election?
Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin offers an interpretation of election that challenges the traditional Reformed view. According to Newbigin, the key to understanding the doctrine of election is that “the particular is chosen for the sake of the universal”. Therefore, election is the “choosing, calling, and sending one to be the bearer of blessing for all” since God “purposes the salvation of all” (71, 72). Newbigin’s primary concern in this chapter is to ensure that the church has a proper understanding of election so that it does not fall into “the illusion that [it has] a privileged position with God that insures them against disaster”. Election affirms the “corporate nature of salvation” and confirms that salvation is about “a shared participation in and shared responsibility for God’s created world”. Although election remains linked to salvation, the primarily purpose of election remains the corporate responsibility of the church to proclaim and participate in the ongoing story of God’s redemption. The church is therefore in a position to preach not the gospel of justification, but the good news that God, through Christ, has liberated and redeemed the cosmos. Thus, the gospel is, in effect, an emancipation proclamation that calls all of humanity to gratitude, not for individual election for a selected few, but for what God has done and is doing for his beloved creation. The elect are called to be “a royal priesthood and a holy nation”, mediators between God and people and ambassadors of God’s kingdom. With Christ as high priest, the church is a community of priests who are the righteous representatives of God. Therefore, we can conclude that justification is about empowering the elect to fulfill their calling.
B. God’s Law court: Justification as Acquittal
Reformed theology operates with a juridical/forensic understanding of justification by faith. Similar to election, justification “takes place once and for all” from “eternity” and both remain gifts from God. Therefore, a person is never justified “on account of faith” because faith remains “equivalent to…the merits of the righteousness of Christ”. Justification is a onetime declaration of righteousness where the elect are not declared “godly”, rather their “sins are expiated” and they have “a title founded in justice to eternal life”. Thus, in distinction from the ‘subjective’ understanding of justification held by the Roman Catholic Church, Reformed theologians emphasize the ‘objective’ nature of justification as “not an ethical but a forensic act”.
Because “the law of God is clear” that “the righteous must be acquitted and the unrighteous condemned” through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the elect receive “a verdict of acquittal” and the reprobate are condemned. This means that “the sins of those who believe are not counted against them”. Therefore, “justification applies to all sins, past, present, and future, and thus involves the removal of all guilt and of every penalty”. This forensic understanding of justification is exemplified by “Paul’s theocentric position” where “the law and the expectation of obedience are not set aside”. The “gift of grace” is thus: “God put Christ forward as a propitiatory sacrifice for our trespasses and Christ was raised for our justification”. As Bavinck later clarifies, “in justification, not only the merit of Christ’s passive obedience is imputed but also that of his active obedience. In that benefaction, believers receive forgiveness, exemption from punishment”. The assumption underlying this forensic understanding of justification is that it indicates moral perfection, an actual ontological state of righteousness that is only achieved through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness on the sinner thereby removing the guilt of sin and granting eternal life.
However, recent scholarship has strongly questioned the forensic understanding of justification, primarily since the language of justification is not nearly as central as Reformed interpreters make it out to be. Moreover, the traditional assumption about Paul’s language concerning the works of the law is not what Paul had in mind. In other words, while the Reformed emphasis on God as the sole author of salvation is correct, Paul is not arguing against so-called works righteousness. Rather, his argument concerns how Gentiles are included among the people of God. No longer does the Torah restrict God’s righteousness as extended to the Jews only; justification by faith means “liberty, and, most important of all, liberty from the law”. Therefore, for Paul this liberation is “one of the chief blessings of justification by faith”.
Consequently, not only is justification not central to Paul’s’ thinking, it has little to do with the issues assumed by the traditional Reformed view. Justification is but a subtheme in the larger issue of participation in Christ. Therefore, it is necessary to turn our focus onto this main theme because it offers an alternative to the juridical interpretation particularly since Paul’s “in Christ language is much more persuasive in his writings than his talk of God’s righteousness”. This “in Christ” language refers to a “quite profound sense of participation with others in a great and cosmic movement of God centred on Christ and effected through his Spirit”. Participation in Christ emphasizes the ongoing experience of sharing in his faithfulness through the acts of discipleship. Therefore, human faith is neither a matter of mere ‘belief’, nor something that God gives to the elect. Rather, faith is about the experienced reality of our restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Justification is not an appeasement of God’s righteous wrath, but it is part of what it means to be reconciled with God. Moreover, justification and, ultimately salvation, is about our participation in Christ’s eschatological victory over the powers and principalities, which liberates us from our bondage to sin.
While the Reformed emphasis on justification as entirely an act of God whereby he extends his grace to humans is commendable for its theocentric focus and avoidance of human-made salvation, it also raises an important question: if the elect are justified and forgiven because of the gift of faith, can the unrighteous reprobates justly be held accountable for their faithlessness when God is the sole author and originator of election, justification, and faith? Is it just for God to arbitrarily condemn them when their eternal fate was assigned before time?
C. The Righteous Retributive Justice of God: His Ways are not our Ways
The Canons of Dordt open with an explanation of “God’s right to condemn all people”. Following Romans 3:19 and 3:23, the Canons explain that “God would have done no one an injustice…to condemn [all of humanity] on account of their sin”. According to Bavinck, “the question is not whether there will or will not be righteousness or justice with respect to the law of God, but whether we earn that righteousness or receive it as a gift of grace”. In other words, God remains just in his election and in his condemnation because God remains sovereign over all things, including the salvation and damnation of humanity. Thus, the lynchpin of Reformed theology is the sovereignty of God, a doctrine that must be defended above all others. However, it is precisely the Reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty, particularly as it relates to divine justice, where the problematic elements of election and justification are most clearly evident in their implication of the retributive nature of God’s justice such that the elect are saved from eternity, but the reprobate are punished for their faithlessness, for a lack of faith which was never given to them to begin with.
According to Bavinck, “there is no conflict between God’s justice and his love. God’s justice and wrath are not opposed to grace but in a sense included in it”. Thus, Christianity ties “justice and love together at the cross”. God, “who is holy”, did not ignore “the demands of the law”, rather, “he put forward Christ as a means or sacrifice of atonement”. This reveals God’s righteousness “by which he equitably and justly vindicates the righteous and condemns the wicked”. It is precisely through the “expiatory sacrifice of Christ” where “both [God’s] justice and grace” are most clearly manifested. Bavinck concludes that God’s righteousness is “offered as a means of atonement” that “proves God is…able to bestow salvation on his own”. However, this requires that “although God’s wrath rests on the wicked already, the manifestation of that wrath in all its terror is reserved for the future”. In other words, “[God’s] justice manifests itself especially in giving every man his due, in treating him according to his desserts”.
Berkhof argues that “divine justice is originally and necessarily obliged to punish evil”, a punishment required for “the maintenance of right of justice”. Likewise, the Canons of Dordt explain that God’s justice “requires…that the sins we have committed…be punished.” Therefore, “we cannot escape these punishments unless satisfaction is given to God’s justice”. Although the elect and reprobate are both “equally guilty”, it is through Christ’s death that “God is merciful to the former and just to the later”. Consequently, reprobation is “that decree of God whereby He has determined to pass some men by with the operation of His special grace and to punish them for their sin to the manifestation of his justice”. This punishment “serves God’s justice” in two ways: “it redresses past violation” and “it seeks to prevent future ones”. Furthermore, punishment is “a powerful proof that only justice has the right to exist, that only God is good and great”.
The nature of God’s justice is always retributive since “retribution…is Scripture’s principle and standard of judgment”. Therefore, “punitive judgment cannot do without the element of retribution”. God’s wrath and vengeance are always just, as explained in Romans 1:18 and 12:19. Indeed, God’s wrath and vengeance are correlative and rooted in his righteous sovereignty. Therefore, Berkhof concludes:
“The fact that God favors some and passes by others does not warrant the charge that He is guilty of an injustice. We can speak of injustice only when one party has a claim on another. If God owed the forgiveness of sin and eternal life to all men, it would be an injustice if He saved only a limited number of them. But the sinner has absolutely no right or claim on the blessings which flow from divine election”.
Because all the attributes of God, including his righteous justice, are “ultimately grounded in his will as Creator and Lord of all”, God’s decrees and actions proceed from his “absolute freedom” and therefore God is free to do as God pleases. God can elect whom he wants and condemn who he wants, decrees and actions that are entirely based on God’s sovereign will. The election of some and the reprobation of others is all part of God’s “secret plan” rooted in the “sole decision of God’s will”. Therefore, we would do well to remember that “the reason of divine righteousness is higher than man’s standard can measure”. For Reformed theology, God is pure sovereign will, and this sovereignty is perfectly manifest in his justice. Whereas God’s mercy elects and justifies, God’s justice condemns the reprobate, those whom God chose for eternal punishment. Both election and reprobation are manifestations of God’s sovereign grace.
However, this understanding of divine retributive justice does not correspond with the biblical witness concerning God’s restorative justice. According to the traditional Reformed understanding, retributive violence is necessary in order to establish and maintain divine justice. While this emphasis on the divine prerogative of justice is certainly correct, it “does not entail that retribution is a divine imperative”. In other words, although vengeance belongs to God, “it does not follow that God must execute vengeance upon sinners or else fail to be God”. If God’ justice is most clearly displayed through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, then “God’s gracious action in Christ, through the cross, by which we are justified and reconciled, renounces retaliation for the God’s covenant loyalty and justice”. Therefore, the cross stands as a symbol of God; “retribution-transcending, sinner-redeeming, enemy-reconciling love, justice, and peace”. The cross is not an instrument to seal the eternal fate of the elect; it is a symbol of God’s justice, a life-giving justice that transforms the entire cosmos and liberates it from bondage to sin and death. God’s justice is fundamentally about what N.T. Wright calls “putting the world to rights”.
Reformed theology is correct in its assertion that we cannot presume to construct a logic of God’s wrath, or to understand it solely in terms of retribution. Vengeance belongs to God. However, this does not mean that God takes an eye for an eye, nor does it mean that God remains neutral or unmoved by injustice. Rather, the Bible gives us a clear picture of a God who cares about justice. God is not indifferent to evil. In passages such as Romans 1:18, God’s wrath is directed against “ungodliness and injustice”. His wrath is an expression of his pathos, his deep care and compassion for his creation. As Walter Brueggemann explains, “God bears the vengeance of God in order that ‘his’ creation can have compassion”. Because God has wrought vengeance “in his own person…grace has overcome”. This is the true meaning of the sovereignty of God’s grace.
Therefore, the justice of the cross anticipates the eschatological justice Christ brings with his return. God’s “creative justice” remains “quite different from the forms our earthly justice takes. What we call the Last Judgment is nothing other than the universal revelation of Jesus Christ, and the consummation of his redemptive work”. The goal of God’s judgment is not retributive punishment of the reprobate, but rather “the restoration of all things for the building up of God’s eternal kingdom”. The justice that Christ brings is one that takes the reality of sin and death seriously. His justice aims to give healing to the victims, right the wrong, and to transform the perpetrators, all through this love. Though this may offend our human sense of justice that often calls out for blood and retaliation, we must defer our sense of human justice and demand for retribution not by projecting them onto God’s justice, but by trusting that God’s justice is exactly what our broken world needs.
Because God did not leave his creation in a state of sin, decay, and death, we can no more expect that he will eternally condemn those whom he created in his own image. To do so is essentially a form of self-immolation, an unrepeatable act already performed on the Cross. Surely Christ’s death on the cross and descent into God-forsakenness was precisely so that no one would ever experience these things in eternity. God took the punishment himself so that none would perish. The triumph of God’s justice is Christ’s incarnation, his death on the cross, his resurrection, and his Parousia. The power of God’s justice is indeed “a power that reclaims and renews the whole creation, delivering it from the threat of nothingness…and rendering it transparent to his restorative presence”.
Ultimately, the Reformed conception of God as pure sovereign will is a divine embodiment of Nietzsche’s will-to-power. This reduces divine freedom to “a kind of ontic voluntarism, and theophany to mere legislation, such that creation and revelation could be imagined only as manifestations of the will of a god who is, at most, a supreme being among lesser beings”. In other words, although Calvinists claim that God’s ways are higher than human ways, the result is that God becomes a divine monad of sheer power whose actions and decrees remain completely arbitrary and tyrannical. Therefore, God cannot be absolutely free because God remains bound by the demands of his justice to punish those whom he deemed reprobate, a punishment that necessarily displays his absolute power. Thus, this God is an “omnipotent despot who not only ordains the destiny of souls, but in fact predestines the first sin, and so brings the whole drama of creation and redemption to pass (including the eternal perdition of the vast majority of human) as a display of his own dread sovereignty”.
Ultimately, this view of God cannot help but lead to nihilism because it engenders a profound hopelessness as the result of an anxious fixation with one’s status before God that will remain unconfirmed until the Second Coming of Christ. In spite of the argument that the Reformed doctrine of election is meant to bring comfort since one’s salvation cannot be lost, neither can it be fully confirmed on this side of eternity either, leading to an overwhelming and unhealthy fear of God. For many Christians, Christ becomes the object of attachment in order to shelter us from the abusive and vengeful Father. Moreover, the Reformed understanding of predestination is essentially a form of fatalism, albeit a divinely directed fatalism that leaves people with no real ethical responsibilities since human freedom is an illusion. As the orchestrator of all things temporal, the God posited by Calvinists is essentially the same as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, an indifferent deity interested in self-glorification.
Although Calvinists are quick to point out that we should not question God, this is a convenient strategy that equates their theology with divine fiat. Therefore, the questions I raise here are not meant to question God, but to question the Calvinist understanding of God. It remains unclear why the damnation of the majority of humans is necessary for the maintenance of divine justice. What kind of God would make his creation the object of his wrath such that he would eternally punish them for the sake of his own self-glorification and holiness? Surely, an omnipotent God is able to act freely. Moreover, if the defining attribute of God is love rather than power, as evidenced in his covenant faithfulness and in sending his Son, God will always act according to his character. This is not to suggest that the alternative to the Calvinist understanding of election is necessarily universalism, but to argue along with the Calvinists, that salvation belongs to God alone. However, the difference is that we must learn to live within the tension of the biblical witness between texts that speak of the real possibility of being cut off from Christ and those that speak of universal redemption.
Furthermore, because Calvinists hold that these decrees and actions are from eternity and remain unchangeable, the incarnation and atonement of Jesus Christ are superfluous. In the end, Jesus’ death was necessary not to save us from sin, but to save us from the Father. Jesus is reduced to a model of the righteous life for our earthly sojourn and someone who “fills in the gaps of our knowledge…concerning the means of salvation, but he tells us nothing of the nature of this salvation”. Rather, he “merely fulfills a divine decision regarding salvation that is made apart from him in eternity”. In other words, Jesus is “an afterthought, a mere instrument for the sake of accomplishing redemption of the elect”. However, if Christ is the self-revelation of God, then T.U.L.I.P. and the God it depicts is completely at odds with the God of love revealed in and through Jesus Christ.
Although one often hears Reformed theologians speak of the “sovereignty of grace”, it seems that a better phrase to describe their theology is the “grace of sovereignty”, a grace that is displayed in mercy to the elect and punishment of the reprobate. However, the need of Reformed theology to maintain God’s sovereignty is misplaced particularly since this is something that God is perfectly capable of doing. However, in Reformed theology, God is made into a tyrant in order to protect his sovereignty. Furthermore, if Christ is the clearest revelation of God, then it would seem that God is not interesting in maintaining his sovereignty and justice, but is willing to forsake them for the sake of saving and redeeming the cosmos (cf. Philippians 2). Contrary to the Calvinist conception of sovereignty as pure will-to-power, divine sovereignty is kenotic and cruciform.
The Reformed adage ‘ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda’ applies equally to the theology of the tradition as much as it does to its ecclesial practices. This paper sought to highlight the problematic relationship of election and justification vis-à-vis divine justice within Reformed theology and briefly sketch some alternative interpretations in order to unravel this tightly-bound set of doctrines. By unraveling this doctrinal set, it is possible to affirm the Reformed emphasis on God as the sole source of salvation and the divine judge who brings his justice. However, the nature of divine justice in traditional Reformed understanding cannot be considered just even within its own paradigm, precisely because the justice it suggests merely propagates the very problem that plagues the world. God cannot have the final word in a cosmos where evil and suffering continue to echo for an eternity in the fires of hell perpetuating an eternal form of deathless death. If Paul is correct in 1 Corinthians 15 that the last enemy to be destroyed is death, and that God will become all in all when all things are subjected to God, then the victory of the cross where all are made alive in Christ remains the source of divine justice and provides the shape of our hope in Christ.
 It is also important to note the theological overlap of atonement and justification since both deal with salvation and redemption. Thus, one’s understanding of the atonement will bear on one’s understanding of justification and vice-versa.
 To be clear, this polarization is for heuristic purposes. Just as within the Reformed tradition where there are subtle differences of interpretation, so too are differences within the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”. However, the internal differences notwithstanding, the Reformed tradition, as a whole, is essentially unified in terms of its understanding of justification.
 This acronym was later developed as a heuristic tool and mnemonic device as follows:
- Total Depravity – all humans have a propensity to evil and are incapable of good.
- Unconditional Election – God has chosen a certain number of people, the elect, to be saved. God chose the elect from the beginning of time.
- Limited Atonement – only the elect will be atoned for and therefore saved.
- Irresistible Grace – God’s grace cannot be rejected or denied
- Perseverance of the Saints – once elected by God, one will remain one of the elect
 Calvinist theologians will point to Augustine as the root of their theology. While Calvin was highly influenced by Augustine, an influence that continues to resonate in Reformed circles today, Calvin, and those who follow in his footsteps, remain thoroughly shaped by the Reformation. As a result, their reading of Augustine is through a Reformed lens. The Canons of Dordt, along with the various catechisms and documents composed in the years following the Reformation (for example, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confessions, etc.), are the articulation of a distinctly Reformed theology. Within confessional traditions, such as the one I was raised in (the Christian Reformed Church of North America), doctrinal adherence to the “Three Forms of Unity” (The Canons of Dordt, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Belgic Confession) is mandatory for all those holding church office (minister, elder, and deacon).
 Bavinck and Berkhof were chosen because they remain two of the most influential Reformed theologians in Dutch Reformed thinking; their books are required reading in some Reformed seminaries. Charles Hodge was chosen because although he represents a different branch of Reformed theology (the Presbyterian/Westminster branch), his thinking on justification is almost identical to that of Bavinck and Berkhof. This paper intentionally focuses on Calvinists rather than Calvin given the complexity and nature of Calvin’s thought. In the Institutes, Calvin is less interested in developing a systematic theology than he is in engaging a number of his contemporary interlocutors. Furthermore, the fact that the Institutes expanded and went through a number of editions over time is a testimony to the evolution in Calvin’s thinking and emphasizes the pastoral nature of the book (much like Paul’s letters). On the other hand, those who used Calvin’s work as a basis for their own theological systems are much more direct and consistent in their arguments. Therefore, a straightforward engagement with their work is possible.
 According to Scot McKnight, Piper goes so far as to equate justification with the gospel; cf. McKnight, King Jesus Gospel, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011, p.25ff. Although justification is a Pauline concept, John Piper, in answering the question “did Jesus preach Paul’s gospel”, says that, yes, “Jesus preached justification”. Apparently, justification is also part of Christ’s gospel.
 In distinction from Catholic understandings which emphasize impartation.
 Calvin had his detractors. Indeed, the Canons of Dordt were written in response to the teaching of Jacob Arminius.
 The film was written and directed by Paul Schraeder, someone who grew up in the Dutch Reformed tradition represented in the film. Thus, van Dorn’s explanation of his beliefs is no mere characterization, but represents the doctrinal content of Calvinism. I should add that my interest in the subject matter of this paper is as a former ‘insider’ in the stream of Calvinism represented by van Dorn. Even when I was ‘inside’, it was all very confusing, but one was not allowed to ask questions about the logic of the belief system. Now, as an ‘outsider’ looking in, I am in a place to ask these questions. Cf. Richard Mouw’s recent attempt to explain the five points of Calvinism with “gentleness and respect” in his Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004. While Mouw achieves this gentleness and respect in his explanation, the logic of Calvinism remains. Like all good apologists, Mouw winsomely defends his tradition. While Mouw certainly offers a kinder, gentler, Calvinism, in the end, he, like Jake van Dorn, remains an ‘insider’ and therefore ends up preaching to the choir. The audience of ‘outsiders’ will undoubtedly have the same reaction as the hooker to whom Jake van Dorn was explaining Calvinism: “I thought I was f***ed up!”
 For example, in engaging with Calvinists, the claim is often made that if one is not in full accordance with the Canons, that she has either misread them or is dealing with ‘straw men’. Apparently, the only way to fully understand the Canons is to fully agree with them.
 “The Canons of Dordt”, Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1988, p. 124.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Abridged in One Volume, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011, p. 561. The same applies for those who convert to Christianity, for they are among the elect: cf. Canons of Dordt, Article 11, p. 134. Thus, the point of evangelism is to help the elect self-identify as elect. However, if one is not elect, conversion is impossible. If the salvation of the elect is unalterable regardless of if one is aware of their election or not and if conversion is only possible for those who are elect to begin with, evangelism is an unnecessary activity. As a parishioner at a Reformed church once shared with me, “we don’t need to do evangelism because the doors of the church are always open. If someone is one of the elect, the will find their way to us”.
 The scriptural basis for this is Romans 8:30. Indeed, the rest of chapter 8 through to the end of chapter 11 serves as the biblical foundation for the Reformed doctrine of election. However, this raises the question of whether of not this serves to isolate this section from the rest of Romans, thus taking it out of the context of the argument of the entire letter and elevating it above the rest of the letter. Cf. Ephesians 1:4-6.
 As Berkhof explains, the second purpose is the “final aim” of election such that “even the salvation of men is subordinate to this”. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949 edition, p. 115. The order of Berkhof’s dogmatics is quite telling. Following his discussion of the doctrine of God, Berkhof immediately launches into the doctrine predestination. Even Calvin did not ascribe such a position to predestination in the Institutes.
 “The elect are justified by God so that they would glory in him and in nothing else”. Reformed Dogmatics, p. 561.
 Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1933, p 91.
 Berkhof defines the doctrine of reprobation as “that eternal decree of God whereby He had determined to pass some men by with the operations of his special grace, and to punish them for their sin, to the manifestation of his justice”. Systematic Theology, p. 115. Cf. “Predestination includes two parts, namely, election and reprobation, the predetermination of both the good and the wicked to their final end”. Berkhof, Manual, p. 11. Likewise with Hodge: “the death of Christ had a reference to his people, whose salvation it rendered certain, which it had not to others whom, for infinitely wise reason, God determined to leave to themselves”. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 2, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973 edition, p. 547.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 116. The “some” used by Berkhof is a bit of an understatement.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 529 (my emphasis). Moreover, Bavinck later explains, “the elect are justified by God so that they would glory in him and in nothing else” (p. 561). Although Reformed theologians often speak of the elect as a group, the focus remains on the individual. Election in this understanding is highly individualistic.
 The answer, according to T.U.L.I.P., has to do with the total depravity of man. However, as attested by the doctrine of ‘unconditional election’ and ‘the perseverance of the saints’, because election is a divine decree it remains in effect, the sinfulness of humans notwithstanding.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 563.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 533.
 Cf. p. 669 in Reformed Dogmatics.
 In his argument, Bavinck’s primary concern is to maintain that “it is always God and he alone who grants forgiveness”. Reformed Dogmatics, p. 555.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 556.
 Article 6, “The Canons of Dordt”, p. 123. Likewise, “faith…flows forth from election” (Article 9, p. 125). Cf. Article 7, p. 130.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 251. The logic of this claim, theocentric or otherwise, is simply mind-boggling. So too, the Canons of Dordt, “the decision of reprobation…does not at all make God the author of sin…but rather its fearful, irreproachable, just judge and avenger” (Article 15, p. 126). However, this seems to run counter to Calvin’s claim in the Institutes III, 23, 7 where, because of his perfect knowledge, God foreknew that the world would fall into sin. Moreover, not only did God know this, God willed and permitted it to be so (cf. III, 23, 8).
 Cf. Canons of Dordt, “Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than others…and so [God] decided to give the chosen ones to Christ to be saved…in other words, he decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them [and] to sanctify them” (Article 7, p. 124). While the argument rightly underlines God as the sole originator of salvation, the means by which this salvation is effected through arbitrary selection remains highly questionable, not because some humans are more deserving of salvation than others, but rather because all humans need salvation.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 211ff.
 Contrary to Wolterstorff’s conclusion that in Romans 9 Paul is “not talking about who God ultimately justifies’ he’s talking about the fact that God chooses certain people and certain persons for a special role in the story line of redemption. He’s not talking about divine strategy; he’s talking about divine tactics”, Justice in Love, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, pp. 267-8.
 It should be added that Newbigin was part of the Reformed tradition himself, serving in the United Reformed Church.
 The Open Secret, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995 ed., p. 68.
 This choosing is “in Christ” such that “there is no election apart from Christ” The Open Secret, p. 71. It is important to note Newbigin’s extended discussion on the nature of biblical universalism found on pp. 79-81, summarized as follows: “Salvation is making whole and therefore concerns the whole” but “this universalism also takes absolutely seriously the freedom and responsibility that God has given to every human being, and therefore it acknowledges the necessity of judgment and the possibility of rejection” (The Open Secret, p. 80, 81).
 The Open Secret, p. 73. No one, whether elect or not, has any claim on God because God retains his “sovereign freedom” (76). Cf. the discussion of God’s sovereignty as will-to-power in the conclusion of this paper.
 The Open Secret, p. 76, 77.
 Cf. Suzanne McDonald, Re-Imaging Election, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010 for a sustained reflection on election as representation.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 513, 517. Cf. the discussion on p. 517ff where Berkhof outlines his grounds for the doctrine of justification from eternity. Cf. Bavinck, pp. 566-567 where he discusses election as the eternal decree and justification as the outworking of this eternal declaration in time.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 520, 521. As Bavinck explains, “Faith is not the material or formal cause of justification; it is the very act of accepting Christ and his benefits” (567). However, as previously mentioned, faith remains a gift from God. Likewise, Berkhof: “faith is never represented [in Scripture] as the ground of our justification…faith then is equivalent to the contents of faith, that is, to the merits of the righteousness of Christ”. Systematic Theology, p. 521.
 Hodge, Systematic Theology, p. 142.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p.555. Cf. Hodge, Systematic Theology, p. 119ff. To be clear, Bavinck warns that “overemphasizing the objective forensic character of justification and tying it to election…opens the door to reducing faith to a passive vessel of the eternally imputed righteousness of Christ”, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 562. Bavinck wants to highlight the tension between the objectivity of divine initiative in salvation and the subjective human response. Drawing on Luther, Bavinck argues that the subjective element of justification is a process of responding to the divine gift of salvation through obedience in the life of faith (cf. discussion on pp. 553-570). However, the subjective human response cannot grant salvation. Thus, the objective declaration of God remains central.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 564, 565. Just as reprobation is the inverse of election, condemnation is the inverse of justification. Thus, Hodge explains: “In condemnation is it a judge who pronounces sentence on the guilty. In justification it is a judge who pronounces or declares the person arraigned free from guilt and entitled to be treated as righteous”. Systematic Theology, Volume 3, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973 edition, p. 122 (cf. also p. 548 of volume 2). The Reformed understanding of justification in juridical terms becomes clear. However, one must ask whether or not Hodges’ metaphor holds given that a in a court of law, a judge does not pronounce anyone “as righteous”. A judge may find a defendant ‘not guilty’; however, it must be remembered that innocence is a prerequisite in any courtroom, until evidence proves otherwise. This is not the case in the Calvinist courtroom where all stand guilty and are awaiting either justification or condemnation and the sentence, a verdict and sentence which were determined prior to the court case. The point is that the juridical metaphor favored by Reformed theologians does not hold because, like all solid metaphors, it requires a correspondence to reality. The connection in this metaphor is tenuous at best. Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that the language used in forensic understandings of justification are problematic because “acquitting and pardoning, declaring innocent and forgiving, are not only distinct but incompatible”. Justice in Love, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, p. 258. The title of this paper is influenced a chapter in Wolterstorff’s book entitled “What is Justification and is it Just?” (pp. 258-282).
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 565.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 514. So too Bavinck, “the forgiveness that is part of justification is nothing less than the complete acquittal of all the guilt and punishment of sin, not only of past and present but also of future sins”. Reformed Dogmatics, p. 568.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 555.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 565.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 716.
 In a nutshell, the ordo salus of Reformed theology is election-justification-sanctification-glorification, where election is the pre-temporal divine decree that selects those who will be justified, sanctified, and, when Christ returns, glorified. As Berkhof explains “glorification connects up immediately to justification. Being justified by faith, believers are heirs of life eternal”. Systematic Theology, p. 516.
 James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, p. 388.
 Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 389.
 Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 391.
 Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 404.
 As Kathryn Tanner notes: “what justification refers to in us is the fact of our unity with him, our incorporation within his own life, which brings about our being born again to a new identify with him”. Christ the Key, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 86. For two interesting interpretations of justification as a process of theosis, see Michael Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009 and Veli-Matti Karkkainen, One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 555.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 437.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 533.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 564. Cf. Berkhof where God’s righteousness is “closely related to the holiness of God”, Systematic Theology, p. 74.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 206.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 437, (my emphasis).
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 437 (my emphasis).
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 207.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 75.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 75, 76, (my emphasis).
 “Canons of Dordt”, Article 1, p. 130 (my emphasis). Cf. Answer 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “God requires that justice be satisfied. Therefore the claims of justice must be paid in full, either by ourselves or another”. Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions, p. 17. My emphasis. Apparently, Christ pays the claims of justice for the elect, but not for the reprobate who must pay for themselves.
 “Canons of Dordt”, Article 1, p. 130.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 251. Cf. Answer 11 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “God is merciful, but he is also just. His justice demands that sins, committed against his supreme majesty, be punished with supreme penalty – eternal punishment of body and soul”. Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions, p. 16.
 Berkhof, Manual of Doctrine, p. 91.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 380. However, it remains unclear how punishment of the reprobate is accomplished, especially since Bavinck neglects to give an explanation.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 383. Although Bavinck acknowledges that it is possible that eternal punishment is “inconsistent with the goodness and love of God”, he concludes that “if it is not inconsistent with the justice of God, it is not and cannot be inconsistent with his goodness either” because “if a thing is just, it is also good”. As a result, “goodness that nullifies justice is no longer true and real goodness. It is mere human weakness and wimpiness and…in no way corresponds to the true and living God who has revealed himself in Scripture as well as in nature”. Bavinck maintains that the doctrine of eternal punishment is the only valid biblical interpretation because it is the only interpretation that takes seriously “the integrity of the justice of God and the deeply sinful character of sin”. Reformed Dogmatics, p. 763. However, as we will see, Bavinck drastically overstates his case.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 381.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 383.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p.115. Cf. Bavinck, “God does not act arbitrarily or capriciously with his creatures but covenantally in grace with his people” (my emphasis). Reformed Dogmatics, p. 208. However, once again, the emphasis on God’s people, his elect, underscores the limited scope of justification and salvation. Thus, this argument fails to defend God from the charge of arbitrariness vis-à-vis the reprobate. Furthermore, the shape of the covenant in Genesis 9 indicates that humans do in fact have a claim on the promises of God. Indeed, the shape of all divine and human covenants in the Bible, particularly the Abrahamic covenants, indicates a right and claim on God through the covenantal relationship.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960, Book III, Chapter, 23, section 2, p. 949.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960, Book III, Chapter, 23, section 4, p. 951. Cf. Romans 9:20.
 Darrin Snyder Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012, p.415.
 Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, p. 415.
 Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, p. 73.
 Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, p. 73.
 Wright uses the phrase throughout his book Simply Christian, New York: HarperOne, 2010.
 One need only look to Jesus’ words regarding the lex talionis to sense God’s rejection of retributive justice.
 Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007, p. 77
 Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, p. 80.
 Moltmann, The Coming of God, p. 250. Therefore, the Last Judgment is truly part of the Gospel message, not in the sense of the gospel-at-gun-point, but the reality of God’s healing and renewing of all things. Cf. Moltmann, Son of Righteousness Arise! Minneapolis: Fortress Press, esp. chapter 13.
 Moltmann, The Coming of God, p. 251.
 The fact that everyone is both a victim and agent of sin underlines our bondage to the principalities and our need for liberation.
 Cf. Moltmann, The Crucified God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1974.
 However, hell on earth remains a present reality while we, along with creation (cf. Romans 8), await the Second Coming.
 Christopher Holmes, Ethics in the Presence of Christ, New York: T & T Clark, 2012, p. 63.
 David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, p. 133.
 Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 134. Cf. also his The Doors of the Sea, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, where Hart deconstructs Calvinist theodicy.
 As a former pastor in a Reformed church, I can speak to the nearly paralyzing uncertainty many Reformed folks live with in terms of ascertaining whether or not they and/or their loved ones are among the elect. Attending church becomes the primary way of gauging whether or not one is elect. The failure to attend church, regardless of whether one is involved in the life of the congregation, is often viewed as the cardinal sin. Even if one slept through and entire service, it would matter little, so long as they were physically in the church building. On the other hand, there are those who develop such a certainty regarding their election that they develop a smug sense of superiority to the point where, as one Reformed parishioner told me, “I am unconcerned about the spiritual state of my neighbor. That is entirely between them and God. I know I am one of God’s chosen and the only relationships I need to worry about are those with my fellow Christians”.
 Cf. David Congdon, “The Problem with Double Predestination and the Care for a Christocentric-Missional Universalism”, Testamentum Imperium, vol. 2, 2009, pp. 1-15 where he argues that the only two biblically and theologically viable views are double predestination and universalism. Cf. Moltmann, The Coming of God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996: “Universal salvation and a double outcome of judgment are therefore both well attested biblically. So the decision for the one or the other cannot be made on the ground of ‘scripture’”, p. 241.
 Congdon, “The Problem with Double Predestination and the Care for a Christocentric-Missional Universalism”, p. 6.