Decoding Calvinism: Does Unconditional Election Include a Forced Change, a Freely Chosen Change, or Both?

There are many examples of confusing language regarding man’s free exercise of faith in Calvinism. Lewis Sperry Chafer responds to Arminians’ rejection of the term “sovereign grace” and their charge that such coerces or annuls the human will by saying, “No step can be taken in the accomplishment of His sovereign purpose which will even tend to coerce the human volition. He does awaken the mind of man to spiritual sanity and brings before him the desirability of salvation through Christ. If by His power, God creates new visions of the reality of sin and of the blessedness of Christ as Savior and under this enlightenment men choose to be saved, their wills are not coerced nor are they deprived of the action of any part of their own beings. It is the unreasoned objection of Arminians that the human will is annulled by sovereign election.”[1]

This is quite obviously intended to explicitly confirm that the salvific process according to Calvinism does not require man’s will to be forcibly changed in the outworking of the doctrine of unconditional election through irresistible grace (the efficacious call) in monergistic salvation in which man is completely passive, and the free exercise of faith. To further clarify and bolster the refutation against Arminians, he quotes Principal Cunningham who so deeply embeds the idea of compatible freedom in his answer that unless one is thoroughly familiar with the idea, it will most assuredly be unnoticed. I will quote him at length so that you may see the actual context of the particular statements that I address, and then I will comment on his defense against Arminians. In reference to the Arminians’ charge against Calvinists, Principal Cunningham says,

“They usually represent our doctrine as implying that men are forced to believe and to turn to God against their will….This is a misrepresentation. Calvinists hold no such opinion; and it cannot be shown that their doctrine requires them to hold it. Indeed, the full statement of their doctrine upon the subject excludes or contradicts it. Our Confession of Faith, after giving an account of effectual calling, which plainly implies that the grace of God in conversion is an exercise of omnipotence, and cannot be successfully resisted, adds, ‘Yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.’ That special operation of the Spirit, which cannot be overcome or frustrated, is just the renovation of the will itself, by which a power of willing what is spiritually good—a power which it has not of itself in its natural condition, and which it could not receive from any source but a divine and almighty agency—is communicated to it. In the exercise of this new power, men are able to co-operate with the Spirit of God, guiding and directing them; and they do this, and do it, not by constraint, but willingly,—being led, under the influence of the news concerning Christ, and the way of salvation which He has opened up to and impressed upon them, and the motives which these views suggest, to embrace Christ, and to choose that better part which shall never be taken away from them. In the commencement of the process, they are not actors at all; they are wholly passive,—the subjects of a divine operation. And from the time when they begin to act in the matter, or really to do anything, they act freely and voluntarily, guided by rational motives, derived from the truths which their eyes have been opened to see, and which, humanly speaking, might have sooner led them to turn to God, had not the moral impotency of their wills to anything spiritually good prevented this result. There is certainly nothing in all this to warrant the representation, that, upon Calvinistic principles, men are forced to repent and believe against their wills, or whether they will or not.[2]

Let me delve into this for a moment. Remember that according to compatibilism, one is considered to make a free choice when one chooses according to his own desires even though one cannot choose differently at that moment of decision given the same past or nature; thus, according to compatibilism, every decision is both determined and free. Now, with this understanding in mind, one is equipped to detect the otherwise undetectable compatible view of moral freedom ensconced in his response to the Arminians.

First, he argues that Arminians are wrong for accusing Calvinists of believing that men are “forced to believe and to turn to God against their will.” Provided that this is an accurate citation of some Arminians, Cunningham is technically correct because this is not what Calvinism or compatibilism teach.

Second, Cunningham says, “Our Confession of Faith, after giving an account of effectual calling, which plainly implies that the grace of God in conversion is an exercise of omnipotence, and cannot be successfully resisted,” adds “yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.” In this statement, he almost indiscernibly blends the effectual calling, which is irresistibly forced against man’s fallen nature (man’s fallen nature will never produce a desire to do anything but to freely resist God), and the result of that unwanted, monergistic, irresistible work of God that produces a new nature (emanating new desires) from which man freely chooses to believe in Christ.

Notice that the irresistible omnipotent act preceded man’s free choice to believe, which he describes as coming after the lost man is “made willing by His grace.” Although he meticulously avoids the term, this is clearly compatibilism. To wit, at the precise time of this omnipotent work, man is spiritually passive, and God monergistically does a work of grace in changing fallen man’s rebellious sinful nature that can only disbelieve, so that from the completion of this divine irresistible work, man receives a new nature emanating new desires from which man now can freely believe. Importantly, it is only after having been “made willing” that man transitions from being passive and incapable of believing or participating in any way to playing an active part in the process by freely believing. To engage the beliefs of Calvinism properly, this distinction must be recognized.

Third, the following statement says precisely what I have said in my explanation of his words, albeit far more concealedly of compatibilism. He says, “That special operation of the Spirit, which cannot be overcome or frustrated, is just the renovation of the will itself, by which a power of willing what is spiritually good—a power which it has not of itself in its natural condition, and which it could not receive from any source but a divine and almighty agency—is communicated to it.” (italics added) Observe the emphasis upon the irresistibility of this operation of the Spirit, which underscores again that given compatibilism, fallen man cannot choose to believe given his nature and past, and yet he is also incapable of successfully resisting this initial work of God (which is precisely the only thing he is capable of trying to do given his nature or past according to compatibilism).

He refers to this act of God as “the renovation of the will itself” which gives a “power of willing what is spiritually good.” Up until the “renovation” the individual could not act (except in rebellion against God), participate, or believe, but subsequent to the renovation comes a new power to will what is “spiritually good.” That is to say, the renovation (some use regeneration, quickening, etc.,) changes the person’s nature from which emanates new desires. From these new desires, he now not only can will the “spiritually good” (believe in Christ), but he will necessarily and inviolably only will himself to freely believe; to wit, he can no longer choose not to believe given this new past.

Fourth, in this next part he elaborates on this new power to choose “spiritual good,” i.e. exercise free choice to believe, but keep in mind that this ability, as he has sequenced, comes only after the forced “renovation.” He says, “In the exercise of this new power, men are able to co-operate with the Spirit of God, guiding and directing them; and they do this, and do it, not by constraint, but willingly,—being led, under the influence of the news concerning Christ, and the way of salvation which He has opened up to and impressed upon them, and the motives which these views suggest, to embrace Christ, and to choose that better part which shall never be taken away from them.” Therefore, once man’s nature has been changed in the forced renovation, then and only then, man is enabled to “co-operate with the Spirit of God.”

Accordingly, the Calvinists are correct in denying that they believe man is forced to believe in Christ because this free choice to believe is in fact what one does after the “renovation,” but notice that the renovation was not something that man freely chose or even actively participated in; actually, his only activity up to and at that point in the salvific process was rebellion. At the time of renovation—regeneration, quickening—man is only active in rebellion and resisting the omnipotent work of grace—irresistible grace or effectual calling— which he cannot succeed in resisting, and he is not cooperating spiritually or willfully in any sense because he is totally passive until after the renovation. Thus, this renovation is imposed upon man against the exercise of his free will, free choice, which can only act in rebellion, emanating from the desires of his fallen nature, and is therefore monergistic.[3]

Only subsequently, having been renovated, does his new nature emanate new desires enabling him to become a participant in the process by freely choosing to believe in Christ. Notably, and often elided in Calvinism’s explanations as is done here, subsequent to renovation the person is no more able to choose not to believe than he was able to choose to believe prior to God’s omnipotently imposed renovation. What is seen by examining Cunningham’s statements is that because of these encryptions, one has to be very precise in order to expose the actual meaning and determinism of Calvinism, thereby avoiding being summarily dismissed by Calvinists as misrepresenting their perspective.

Fifth, his summarization of his remarks is precisely according to compatibilism as is my explanation of the meaning of his comments. He states, “In the commencement of the process, they are not actors at all; they are wholly passive,—the subjects of a divine operation. And from the time when they begin to act in the matter, or really to do anything, they act freely and voluntarily, guided by rational motives, derived from the truths which their eyes have been opened to see, and which, humanly speaking, might have sooner led them to turn to God, had not the moral impotency of their wills to anything spiritually good prevented this result.” What his refutation of the Arminian charge does in the final analysis is only to point out an imprecision in their critique rather than liberating Calvinism from definite determinism.

As we look at this statement more closely we see at the “commencement” of the salvific process (up to and when the renovation happens), man is not “an actor” in the progression because he is “wholly passive” and this passivity continues until the “divine operation” is complete. Once the operation is complete and the “subject” has experienced the divine “renovation” (receives a new nature which emanates new desires), “they begin to act in the matter, or really do…anything, they act freely and voluntarily.” This is the component about which many are confused and, consequently, makes them imprecise in their evaluation of Calvinism, leaving them legitimately open to the charge of misrepresenting Calvinism. Compatibilism includes voluntariness (the person acts freely), but excludes origination (that the person can given the same past or nature originate a new sequence of events). This is precisely what is seen in his defense of Calvinism and entailed in compatibilism.

He concludes, “There is certainly nothing in all this to warrant the representation, that, upon Calvinistic principles, men are forced to repent and believe against their wills.” Once again, technically he is correct because the exercise of repentance and faith after the renovation is according to their new wills and desires. However, what is eloquently concealed in Cunningham’s correction of the Arminians is that the free choosing to repent is indeed a predetermined free choosing that emanates from God’s irresistible (although it was indeed resisted by the lost man every step of the way) renovation. That is to say, the free choice to repent and believe after the renovation was as inviolably necessary and irresistible as the free choice of the sinner to resist God prior to the renovation; in each state the individual did what he voluntarily chose to do, but he could not have originated a new sequence of events (chosen differently) other than the sequence that did in fact happen in the respective states of the continuum.

Therefore, Calvinism’s embracement of man being endowed with compatible freedom does in fact mean that every decision, from choosing to sin to accepting or rejecting Christ is a predetermined free choice based not merely upon God’s foreknowledge of what man will choose (libertarian freedom), but rather upon what God predetermined that man can only will to choose. The nature of compatibilism is that man, given the same past or nature, at the moral moment of decision, cannot will himself to choose differently than he does in fact choose. That is to say, while he does possess voluntariness, he does not possess the ability to originate a new sequence of events; such possibility is absolutely absent from compatibilism and Calvinism.

This determinism is necessarily based upon the nature of compatibilism, microscopic to the point that if it were true, every biblical portrait of man choosing between accessible options of good and evil, your choosing to read or not read this article, and even whether you agree or not, was inviolably determined by your past or nature, which was given by God; any sense of choosing between reading or not, agreeing or not is in fact a delusion—as is every sense of choosing between various seemingly accessible options.

Now to the question of this article, “Does Unconditional Election Include a Forced Change, a Freely Chosen Change, or Both? The answer is both. Accordingly, it is inaccurate to say that Calvinists believe man is forced to believe, but it is equally inaccurate for Calvinists to deny that they believe the elect are forced to freely believe. My prayer is that Calvinists would be more forthright in the conveyance of their compatibilist perspective on freedom, and do so accurately.

A precise understanding of the issue regarding our different perspectives concerning the moral freedom and nature of man brings us to the real issue, which is the person of God. This is where the genesiacal and cardinal disagreement between Extensivists and Calvinists exists from which others emerge.[4]


[1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 284.
[2] William Cunningham, Historical Theology, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1870), 413-414; as cited in Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 284–285.
[3] Any reliance upon the distinction between logical and chronological priority seems to a most inadequate liberator from this time and space descriptive chronology.
[4] I use this term specifically as a label for my own soteriological position, and at times, as here, more generally to include the various soteriological perspectives that reject Calvinism.