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Calvinists often object to the criticism that their doctrine teaches that God forces men to be saved against their will. From what I've read, Calvinism teaches that God changes a man's nature and desire so that it is the man's utmost will that he become saved. In this sense, it seems technically true that Calvinism does not teach that God saves men against their will. However, I'm wondering if this is just a semantic argument on the part of the Calvinist?

The doctrine of total depravity teaches that men (even elect men) despise God in their natural state. In order for a man to love God, he must first be supernaturally regenerated. But God-hating men do not desire to be regenerated. It is not their will that their will be changed. It is not their desire to desire God. Thus, even though salvation may not be forced, I don't understand how any Calvinist could claim that the act of regeneration is not a forceful act accomplished against the will of the recipient, which (at the moment immediately preceding regeneration) is inclined to hate God utterly.

Since regeneration leads inescapably to salvation (with some Calvinists even claiming that the two events occur at the same moment in time), it seems like a semantic argument to claim that God doesn't force men to be saved against their will. He may not force them to become saved, but if he forces them to become regenerate and regeneration leads inescapably to salvation, then are Calvinists simply dodging the issue when they claim that their doctrine does not teach that men are saved against their will? Am I correct in asserting that traditional Calvinist doctrine teaches that regeneration is forceful?

  • If you look at the word "force" I feel like a monergistic view of salvation (God alone saves, of his own power and will) is a pretty accurate description. People just often don't like using words with negative connotations to describe God's actions. This line of thinking also goes well with Bible's description of saints (born again believers) as being "Bought/Redeemed" being "slaves of Christ" etc. Good question! – L1R Jul 11 '18 at 23:16
  • Thanks for asking a carefully thought out question on a tricky issue! Hopefully you get a good answer :). – Nathaniel Jul 12 '18 at 1:42
  • I think your question hinges on the lack, in Calvinism, of a concept of prevenient ('coming-before') grace, which enables and excites the will toward seeking God and salvation in Christ, before it is acquired (read: freely accepted)—but does not force it. – Sola Gratia Jul 12 '18 at 16:16
  • Maybe the illustration is something like this : A man (who is impotent) doesn't know that he is impotent. So, there is no will at all in this man either a will to be cured or a will not to be cured. Only after someone else (God, in this case) "open the man's eye" that he is impotent (this is the regenerating part)- then the man realized that he is impotent which of course this will make the man wants to be cured. So then the man look for the doctor (God, in this case). This is not an answer from Calvinist as I myself is a non Christian, it's only in my imagination. – karma Jul 13 '18 at 18:59
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You are correct in your estimation of God's action. God does, indeed, "force" salvation. The Scripture (e.g. Paul's description of the moral condition of man in Romans 3) makes it clear that it could be no other way since unregenerate man is unable to willingly turn to God. The analogy that Jesus used in his explanation to Nicodemus of salvation (John 3) brings home this fact. He uses the metaphor of physical birth for the act of salvation. You did not ask to be born. Your will was not involved in the process of birth. Jesus indicates that the spirit moves where the spirit moves and that the recipient's will is not a participant in that process.

As you accurately point out, however, once regeneration has taken place, having eyes to see and ears to hear, the person who has been regenerated now makes a willing choice since they are no longer bound in slavery to sin.

Once given the inability, as described in Scripture, to willingly come to God, there is no other logical way for a person to be saved except for the monergistic work of God.

As you look throughout Scripture, you find that God chooses. That is his modus operandi. In Genesis 12, God chooses Abram rather than Abram choosing God.

Those who have and are teaching and preaching this "forcing of Salvation" are Alistair Begg, John Calvin, D. A. Carson, Jonathan Edwards, Sinclair Ferguson, Martin Luther, John Knox, John MacArthur, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, Charles H. Spurgeon, and Paul Washer.

And one final thought, would you "force" an intervention in the life of someone you loved if they were a drug addict and could not stop on their own?

  • Thanks for the answer! If you'd like to improve it, you might consider citing some Reformed theologians that agree with your analysis. – Nathaniel Jul 13 '18 at 11:47
  • Good answer. Theres lots of other scriptural illustrations to be used also. Think of us as "dead in our trespasses and sins" eph 2. compare with the corpses in Ezek 37:5. Did he "force" them to come to life? Yeah if thats the word you want to use ... He did it by his own power. Think of Genesis 1 & 2. Did God "Force" man to be created? lol! Its a creative act. He creates life where there was none. He does it by "force" if you prefer. Salvation is a completely NEW creature. – L1R Jul 13 '18 at 22:37
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    Thanks for your edit, but it's a bit unclear to me. I know all those authors accept the monergistic work of God in Salvation, but that doesn't automatically mean that they would be as comfortable as you are with using the language of God "forcing" people. Are you saying that they all are? – Nathaniel Jul 17 '18 at 18:24
  • I did not mean to imply that the ones specified would ordinarily use the term "force". Although they all would use the phrase "Irresistible Grace". – SysJames Jul 18 '18 at 19:40
  • I just listened to Alistair Begg preach on this subject,in which he pleads all to reject the notion of any compulsion for new believers to believe. Listen for yourself: TruthforLife.org, "Chain of Salvation, pt2" (Encore 2018" series). I'm too new to down-vote your answer, but I'm certainly wondering what else in your answer is misleading – AFL Aug 30 '18 at 2:21
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Summary:

Traditionally, Calvinist / Reformed Christians have not viewed the process of regeneration as God "forcing" a person to become a Christian, since although God alone is the initiator of the process, the person being regenerated cooperates with it, and also because the word "force" has a misleading negative connotation given that salvation is a restorative and liberating process, while "force" typically implies the application of constraints.

This is a mystery that can't be fully explained but relates to the overall mystery of how divine sovereignty and human responsibility relate.

Note: I noticed you appear to be asking two related questions. I've primarily answered the word about whether Calvinist would say people are "forced to be saved against their will", and why Calvinists would deny that.

I've not discussed as much your question of whether effectual calling forces people to be saved some because they naturally were opposed to God prior to receiving the call. In brief, I would say that God does go against the will of the unregenerate in that sense, but that the unregenerate were created in order to find their delight in God (see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q1) so this is a deliverance for them from bondage to sin and so it is not a cause for criticism that God elects to go against their wills, since otherwise none could be saved (cf. Rom. 2-3)

Below I mainly discuss the mode of effectual calling, and why calling it God forcing us to be saved is misleading despite His sovereignty.

Details:

Regarding human will in general, Calvinists do believe people have "natural liberty" of will (Matt. 17:12, Jas. 1:14, Dt. 30:19) so that they are not "forced" to do good or evil. (Westminster Confession of Faith 9.1). This is not viewed as conflicting with God's eternal decree of "whatsoever comes to pass (Eph. 1:11, Rom. 9:15,18)": despite being sovereign, God is "not the author of sin (Jas. 1:13), nor is violence offered to the will of the creature (Matt. 17:12)" [all Scripture references from Confession].

Calvinists are commonly known as not believing in free will since historically speaking in the Reformation era, free will meant the soul had the ability to seek God and profess saving faith without the prior act of God in regeneration. (See Luther's work on free will for example.) Calvinists do not believe people who are not Christian have free will in that sense, since they are "dead in transgressions and sins" until Christ makes them alive (Eph. 2:1, 4-6, 8-10).

However, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that the "effectual calling" (the Spirit's inner call on the soul the makes the outer Gospel call salvific), which "renew[s] the will and by [God's] almighty power, determine[es it] to what is good" is one whereby people come most freely, being made willing by His grace."

The Scripture references that the Westminster Confession uses for the people coming freely are Song of Solomon 1:4 (with the King understood as being Christ), Ps. 110:3, John 6:37, Rom. 6:16-16.

Of these, Ps. 110:3 is cited most often by Reformed writers in this context. In Hebrew, it can be translated either as "your people shall be made willing in the day of your power" or "your people shall offer themselves freely in the day of your power": the mystery of salvation is that both are true. Ps. 110 is used both by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and by the author of Hebrews as a Messianic Psalm (a Psalm about Jesus). In the context of 110:3 it refers to the beauty of the King/Messiah. Traditionally, Reformed writers have taken this to mean that God reveals Himself inwardly in conversion in His moral beauty as infinitely worthy, and that this spiritual sight of Christ is of the essence of effectual calling.

Though in Reformed theology, people are "totally depraved", in the sense that their wills apart from God will always tend toward evil (self-centeredness and doing good for the wrong motives being forms of evil), they do believe that people are still made in the image of God, and thus we have an innate desire for something good, even though we pervert this desire into worship of the creature not the Creator (cf. Rom. 1). As St. Augustine, the great defender of monergism (God's sovereignty in salvation) said, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You."

In effectual calling, God shows Himself, not your own self, not the creation, to be the only true source of rest, and the person who is being saved acknowledges the truth, since the "eyes of the heart have been opened" (Eph. 1:18). Their bondage to sin is taken away so they can freely serve Christ. The language of "forcing" is misleading here since people apart from Christ are the ones in bondage to sin, and God is restoring their wills in salvation to how they were originally created to be (though not perfectly until the Resurrection, WCF 10.5)

18th-century Reformed theologian Jonathan Edwards discusses at great length in his Religious Affections how salvation is based on a spiritual sight of the moral beauty and excellency of Christ. John Piper, who is highly influenced by Edwards, discusses this using the Eph. 1:18 and Room. 1 passages referenced above here: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-god-opens-the-eyes-of-the-heart.

Finally, John Calvin himself said regarding John 6:44, "God's drawing is not violent, so as to compel men by external force" (Commentary on the Gospels). Puritan theologian John Gill said God's drawing is an "act of power but not of force".

The distinction is important here since an act of force would suggest a violation of the human person, whereas salvation as described in the Bible is actually redemption of them from slavery to sin, restoration of the image of God (a new creation), and enlightenment to the truth.

As it says in 1 John, "We love because He first loved us." God's love is the precondition for ours, but, because it is love, coercive words like "force" are misleading at best.

It is true that some Reformed people have even used phrases like "holy rape" to describe salvation. (Or more poetically expressed, the words of John Donne's "Batter my heart Three-Personed God".) However, I believe that this is due to their trying to resolve the mystery of how divine sovereignty and human responsibility relate, rather than being faithful to the balance of the Scripture's teaching.

I believe my citations from the Westminster Confession, Gill, Calvin, and Piper show that most people in the Reformed tradition would not use the word "force" to describe effectual calling / regeneration, due to it's connotations. God is in control, but the person being saved is cooperating as God's grace acts upon him or her.

  • These are great quotes, but I'm not sure about the "cooperating" aspect of this – regeneration is a momentary act worked upon a dead, sinful heart, so in what sense could the heart be said to cooperate? After regeneration, sure, it cooperates in sanctification, but are there Reformed theologians you can quote who use this "cooperation" language in the context of the initial act of regeneration? – Nathaniel Jul 20 '18 at 14:02
  • Everything you've said about man cooperating with the salvation process can only possibly happen post-regeneration. But prior to regeneration, man despises God utterly according to the doctrine of total depravity. Therefore, my question is whether God must forcibly regenerate a man given that the man's will is always inclined to reject God prior to regeneration? The only logical answer seems to be 'yes'. Then, why do Calvinists balk when told that their doctrine teaches that God forces men to love him given that forceful regeneration is an absolute prerequisite for that love to be established? – pr871 Jul 20 '18 at 15:00
  • A crude example: a man desires for a particular woman to love him, but he knows that she hates him. So, he somehow manages to brainwash/hypnotize/bewitch her (against her will, obviously) so that her will is completely changed. Where once she despised him, now she deeply loves him. The man and the woman live happily ever after in a beautiful, loving relationship and the woman dies in a state of peace and happiness. How many people, if told this story, would say that the man did not force the woman to love him? How is the salvation process in Calvinism any different? – pr871 Jul 20 '18 at 15:03
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    @pr871: Your story of the man and woman reminds me of the Jessica Jones TV show. Obviously people would not say that was a good relationship. But our situation with God is precisely the opposite. We were made to live with and for God, but the Devil, the world, and ourselves have blinded us to that. In salvation, God opens our eyes to true reality, which is the freedom of how the world was meant to be. He does not brainwash us, which implies deception, but rather enables us to acknowledge the Truth we otherwise suppress in unrighteousness (cf. Rom. 1) – Evan Donovan Jul 20 '18 at 17:09
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    I don't think it is merely semantic. Words carry meanings, including their connotations, and analogies convey how we view God. God doesn't portray himself in the words of Scripture as a "brainwasher", so we shouldn't either. For Calvinism to be Biblical, it must submit itself to the language of Scripture, not simply logical deduction. That means paradox, in cases where the Bible warrants it. Otherwise, we are misrepresenting God. As per SE rules, this is my last comment. Thanks for the discussion. – Evan Donovan Jul 20 '18 at 20:30
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The word "force" is not usually employed by Reformed theologians when describing God's action in regeneration. We'll see why this might be in a moment, but first I'll give one counter example. B. B. Warfield was a leading Calvinist around the turn of the 20th century, and he wrote:

It is not true that "God forces salvation on no man." It would be truer to say that no man is saved on whom God does not force salvation,—though the language would not be exact.

It seems that Warfield's difficulty with the word "force" is that it seems to make too much of the dead soul's abilities:

It is not true that God's free gift of eternal life to His people is only an "offer": it is a "gift"—and what God gives He does not merely place at our disposal to be accepted or rejected as we may chance to choose, but "gives," makes ours, as He gave life to Lazarus and wholeness to the man with the withered hand. It was not in the power of Lazarus to reject,—it was not in his power to accept—the gift of life which Christ gave him; nor it is in the power of dead souls to reject life—or to "accept" it—when God "gives" it to them. (source)

The word regeneration, by definition, means "to be generated [made alive] again." We would not normally talk about God "forcing" a baby to become alive in his mother's womb. Nor would we normally say that God "forced" Lazarus out of the tomb (to use Warfield's example).

Why not? Because we recognize that unliving things/people don't have a "will" in the normal sense. And that's exactly the point: the "will" of a spiritually dead person is analogous to the "will" of a physical corpse. In order for either one to be made alive, God must act, unilaterally.

R. C. Sproul makes this point in his book Chosen by God by addressing a shortcoming he perceives in the frequently used evangelistic analogy of the "terminally ill patient":

The sinner is said to be gravely ill, on the very brink of death. He does not have it within his own power to cure himself of the disease. He is lying on his deathbed almost totally paralyzed. He cannot recover unless God provides the healing medicine. The man is so bad off that he cannot even stretch forth his arm to receive the medicine. He is almost comatose. God must not only offer the medicine but God must put it on a spoon and place it by the dying man's lips.

Unless God does all that, the man will surely perish. But though God does 99 percent of what is necessary, the man is still left with 1 percent. He must open his mouth to receive the medicine. This is the necessary exercise of free will that makes the difference between heaven and hell. The man who opens his mouth to receive the gracious gift of the medicine will be saved. The man who keeps his lips tightly clenched will perish.

This analogy almost does justice to the Bible and to Paul's teaching of the grace of regeneration. But not quite. The Bible does not speak of mortally ill sinners. According to Paul they are dead [Eph. 2]. There is not an ounce of spiritual life left in them. If they are to be made alive, God must do more than offer them medicine. Dead men will not open their mouths to receive anything. Their jaws are locked in death. Rigor mortis has set in. They must be raised from the dead. They must be new creations, crafted by Christ and reborn by his Spirit. (115)

So, to the Calvinist, does God "force" regeneration? Not in the usual sense of the word, because when we think of "forcing," we think of an active will being surpressed – not the "will" of a corpse. But the word is accurate insofar as it expresses that the sinner is a passive participant in his own regeneration – God acts upon the spiritual corpse without seeking its permission or requiring its cooperation.

  • I don't believe that your examples are consistent with traditional Calvinism, or if they are, Calvinism may not be consistent with itself. Your examples suggest that the unregenerate will is completely dead (ignorant/ambivalent) regarding God and thus incapable of responding to the Gospel. Calvinism does not teach that unregenerate man is incapable of responding to the Gospel but rather than unregenerate man is incapable of responding positively to the Gospel. Unregenerate men reject and despise God's Gospel. And this is where your examples become disingenuous... – pr871 Jul 31 '18 at 21:13
  • ...Does an unborn child reject and despise God who 'forces' the child to become alive? No. Did the deceased Lazarus reject and despise Jesus before Jesus resurrected him from the dead? No. So your examples conveniently leave out the important distinction that Calvinism teaches that unregenerate men do have a will regarding God and that will is inclined to utterly hate and reject him. Does the unregenerate man feel nothing towards God (corpse) or does the unregenerate man hate God? You can't have it both ways. – pr871 Jul 31 '18 at 21:13
  • @pr871 Good points. This is probably just a limitation of the analogy -- the combination of being spiritually dead but physically alive. But I'll see if I can find any Calvinists who deal with your objection. – Nathaniel Jul 31 '18 at 21:53
  • I considered up-voting your answer. However, while I recognize the Scriptural assertions of spiritual deadness, I suggest improving, by at least removing those analogies that suggest otherwise and contradict Scripture. Such are counterproductive.... as are the argumentative rhetorical questions. – AFL Aug 30 '18 at 3:15

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