"Please help me understand how God can be characterized as merciful,
just, and righteous within the Calvinist framework."
I will do my best, for I have studied Reformed/Calvinistic theology for some time now. I myself am Reformed, but I worship God and not theology, nor do I somehow worship or serve John Calvin.
Again, this may or may not satiate your inquiry into the whole Calvinistic schema. It might open a door or two of knowledge nuggets, but if you are still confused in the end, the best option from there is to seek a great many theological books from both sides of the debate. In other words, for every Calvinistic book you buy, buy an Arminian book alongside it, study both.
Let's Get started with some of the points you made:
"The argument that we all deserve God's wrath will not suffice because
— while I certainly agree that all have sinned and fallen short of the
glory of God, and that the wages of sin is death — if predestination
is true and we don't all have the opportunity to choose Jesus, then
God cannot be just."
To be quite blunt, according to Reformed thought, it's actually the opposite. Allow me to explain. In Reformed Theology, we understand that
1.) God doesn't owe us the giving up of His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for anyone at all. See (Romans 8:32, Romans 5:8, John 3:16-17).
We know that Adam sinned, and according to both Reformed and Historic Christianity, that Adam represented us as our Federal Head (Federalism), whereby when Adam sinned he imputed guilt, corruption, death and condemnation upon all his posterity.
A Reformed confession elegantly explains this truth, with scripture references:
- Our first parents, being seduced by the subtlety and temptation of Satan, sinned in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin God was
pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel, to permit, having
purposed to order it to his own glory.
a. Gen 3:13; 2 Cor 11:3. • b. Rom 11:32.
- By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in
all the faculties and parts of soul and body.
a. Gen 3:6-8; Eccl 7:29; Rom 3:23. • b. Gen 2:17; Eph 2:1. • c. Gen
6:5; Jer 17:9; Rom 3:10-19; Titus 1:15.
- They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to
all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.
a. Gen 1:27-28 and 2:16-17 and Acts 17:26 with Rom 5:12, 15-19 and 1
Cor 15:21-22; 1Cor 15:45, 49. • b. Gen 5:3; Job 14:4; 15:14; Psa 51:5.
- From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all
evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.
a. Rom 5:6; 7:18; 8:7; Col 1:21. • b. Gen 6:5; 8:21; Rom 3:10-12. • c.
Mat 15:19; Eph 2:2-3; James 1:14-15.
- This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and
mortified, yet both itself and all the motions thereof are truly and
a. Prov 20:9; Eccl 7:20; Rom 7:14, 17-18, 23; James 3:2; 1 John 1:8,
10. • b. Rom 7:5, 7-8, 25; Gal 5:17.
- Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature,
bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of
God and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all
miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.
a. 1 John 3:4. • b. Rom 2:15; 3:9, 19. • c. Eph 2:3. • d. Gal 3:10. •
e. Rom 6:23. • f. Eph 4:18. • g. Lam 3:39; Rom 8:20. • h. Mat 25:41; 2
So when Adam sinned and represented us before God on behalf of his choice, which God commanded Adam not to eat of the tree, God then judged both him and all who would be born after him. God gave the command to be fruitful and multiply before the fall even happened: Genesis 1:28
God can uphold His justice since Adam violated the command to not eat of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil(Genesis 2:15-17), God isn't making people sinners when He gives people breath and life, Adam made them the sinner, God gave them the life: See (Genesis 2:7, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
Some will immediately object and say, "No, you are making God the author of evil, you are saying God is making sinners!" My reply to that objection, is again... No, God made Man upright, but man has corrupted themselves, and since Adam represents his own seed, God merely works with the clay.
"Truly, this only I have found: That God made man upright, But they
have sought out many schemes.” Ecclesiastes 7:29
2.) God can be just even if He doesn't allow any of us to choose Jesus, at least according to Reformed thought.
Let this thought sink in real deeply:
"For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to
hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for
God did NOT spare the Angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell! God never provided redemption for the fallen Angels who sinned! See also: (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 20:10)
If God did not spare them, what makes you think He has an obligation to save any of us who are sinners? Let alone give us His only unique Son, Jesus, to suffer and die for us who are enemies of God by the connection of Adam's transgression? (See: Romans 5:6-10)
As soon as we think that God is either in a necessity to redeem us or obligated to redeem us, we fail to grasp Grace. Grace isn't justice.
A reformed thinker, R.C. Sproul said this:
"Justice is a word we hear every day. We use it in personal
relationships, in social conventions, with respect to legislation, and
to the verdicts rendered in court. As commonplace as the word is, it
has perplexed philosophers who seek an adequate definition of it.
Sometimes we link or equate justice with what is earned or deserved.
We speak of people getting their just deserts in terms of rewards or
punishments. But rewards are not always based upon merit. Suppose we
hold a beauty contest and declare that a prize will be awarded to the
person deemed most beautiful. If the "beauty" wins the prize, it is
not because there is something meritorious in being beautiful. Rather,
justice is served when the most beautiful contestant is rightfully
awarded the prize. If the judges vote for someone they do not deem the
most beautiful (for political reasons or because they are bribed) then
the outcome of the contest will be unjust.
For reasons such as the above, Aristotle defined justice as "giving a
person what is his or her due." What is "due" may be determined by
ethical obligation or by some prior agreement. If a person is punished
more severely than his crime deserves, the punishment is unjust. If a
person receives a lesser reward than she has earned, then the reward
is not just.
How then does mercy relate to justice? Mercy and justice are obviously
different things, though they are sometimes confused. Mercy occurs
when wrongdoers are given less punishment than deserved or greater
rewards than they earned.
God tempers His justice with mercy. His grace is essentially a kind of
mercy. God is gracious to us when He withholds the punishment we
deserve and when He rewards our obedience despite the fact that we owe
obedience to Him, and so we do not merit any reward. Mercy is always
voluntary with God. He is never obligated to be merciful. He reserves
the right to exercise His grace according to the good pleasure of His
will. For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have
mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion"
People often complain that because God does not distribute His grace
or mercy equally on all people, He is therefore not fair. We complain
that if God pardons one person He is therefore obligated to pardon
Yet, we see clearly in Scripture that God does not treat everyone
equally. He revealed Himself to Abraham in a way He did not to other
pagans in the ancient world. He graciously appeared to Paul in a way
He did not appear to Judas Iscariot.
Paul received grace from God; Judas Iscariot received justice. Mercy
and grace are forms of nonjustice, but they are not acts of injustice.
If Judas's punishment was more severe than he deserved, then he would
have something about which to complain. Paul received grace, but this
does not require that Judas also receive grace. If grace is required
from God, if God is obligated to be gracious, then we are no longer
speaking of grace, but of justice.
Biblically, justice is defined in terms of righteousness. When God is
just, He is doing what is right. Abraham asked God a rhetorical
question that can only have one obvious answer: "Shall not the Judge
of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25). Likewise, the apostle
Paul raised a similar rhetorical question: "What shall we say then? Is
there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!" (Romans 9:14).
Justice is giving what is due. Biblical justice is linked to
righteousness, to doing what is right. Injustice is outside the
category of justice and is a violation of justice. Mercy is also
outside the category of justice but is not a violation of justice."
Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, Pages 57-58, by R.C. Sproul
Furthermore let me kindly address what you said next:
"We were born into a sin nature. We cannot choose to not be born and
we cannot choose to not sin. We are incapable of being sinless. That
being the case, if we are born into sin AND we also do not have choice
in whether to repent and accept salvation through Jesus, then we must
admit that God himself is really sending some people to hell. Such
people cannot be said to be guilty. And God cannot be said to be
According to Reformed thought, being born with a sin nature is a just punishment from God, since Adam represented us perfectly. People sin because they want to, of course out of their own natures: See (Ephesians 2:1-3, John 3:18-20).
God views the human race as alienated from Himself, hence the reconciling work of Christ as mentioned throughout the New Testament:
This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no
longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of
their mind, 18 having their understanding darkened, being alienated
from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them,
because of the blindness of their heart; 19 who, being past feeling,
have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with
20 But you have not so learned Christ, Ephesians 4:17-20
God is actually just from the beginning, both Jesus and His apostle, Paul, mentioned there is no unrighteousness in God: See: (John 7:16-18, Romans 9:14)
If God is completely just and holy, then just because His ways are not our ways doesn't make it illogical or unjust for God to save certain people according to His will. In Ephesians 1, it mentions:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has
blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in
Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the
world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5
having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself,
according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the
glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved."
When Paul under the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit says "having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will..." (Eph 1:5)
The Spirit of God says through Paul that it's God's good pleasure, which is in accords with His will with respect to predestined salvation, there is nothing "evil, wicked or unrighteous" about it.
Addressing your next point:
"If sin warrants death, and one cannot choose to reject one's sinful
nature, and one also cannot choose the covering of that sin (Jesus),
how can one justly be damned to hell?"
To respond to this point we have to deal again with the Scriptures on this matter.
1.) God holds mankind responsible with what they do with His revelation, and such general revelation makes mankind without excuse for their rejection of God. (Romans 1:18-32)
2.) God holds mankind responsible for their despising of His goodness, which leads them to repentance. (Romans 2:1-16)
3.) Mankind actually chooses according to their own desires, namely, that they hate the light of God and they actually do desire anything but God. (John 3:18-20)
4.) Instead of mankind seeking after God, calling upon His name(Romans 10:13) to be saved, they stifle God out of their conscience(Romans 1:28), something they desire to do, by which God is not the author of such rejection.
5.) They are justly damned to Hell because of their internal knowledge of God and what they do with it, thus they are agents of their own destruction (Romans 1:18-22, Romans 3:1-26)
Doctrines in Reformed Theology about Unconditional Election and Limited atonement are things that might pop up into one's mind with respect to man's fallenness. Such doctrines, if true, would be God's response to what He foreknows and foreordains to happen to Mankind.
For example, God could have chosen universalism after His creation fell into sin, or God could have saved nobody, or God could save some, or God could leave the choice of salvation up to man's own choice.
Yet, the Reformed person asserts that God intended to only save some people.
Why does God do this, especially if it's true after all?
Answer: I don't have the mind of the Infinite and Eternal God, how could I possibly know what God is thinking or desiring out of His creation, let alone the Words He gave us in Scripture?
Any Christian, whether Arminian or Calvinistic, must adhere to the Scriptures for their authority on matters of Divine mysteries or doctrine.
For someone as myself who is an intellectual, I read and study many books to ascertain a broad knowledge of theological truth, while of course not neglecting the study of scripture itself.
There are plenty of good books out there that deal in depth with this subject, and there are plenty of books out there that oppose reformed doctrine as well.
If you are looking for some non-reformed books on the matter, I will provide links below for further study.
I will also provide Reformed links below for the same purpose:
NOTE to the OP who asked and to the community: This survey of information is meant to be a responsible Reformed answer to the seeker who said: "The implications of Calvinism are difficult to accept and I want to arrive at truth. I am a devout follower and I am seeking understanding." I have attempted this "greater understanding" in a nutshell, more could be said, hence why I linked the books for the OP to consider.
EDIT on 11/22/2022:
An additional and helpful reformed book:
Excusing Sinners and Blaming God (Princeton Theological Monograph)