Calvinism’s View of the Origin of Sin and God’s Offer of Salvation

Calvinists believe that man is free to choose according to his greatest desire. For example, Jonathan Edwards believed in what he called “strength of motive.”[1] He said concerning such, “I suppose the will is always determined by the strongest motive.”[2] Therefore, Edwards argued that one freely chooses to act according to his “strongest motive.” Regarding the nature of free choice, he also said that it is “the ability to do what we will, or according to our pleasure.”[3]

Consequently, according to Edwards, man’s freedom to choose is determined by his nature and his desires. In other words, man is free to choose to do his greatest desire. Of course, this is the Calvinist view of free will as defined by compatibilism.[4] It is important to note two very important components of this view. First, the desire or nature from which the desire emanates is not chosen—i.e. a person’s past. Second, the unchosen desire is in fact determinative of what the free choice will be.

That is to say, the Calvinist believes man is free to choose according to his greatest desire but not contrarily. Therefore, his free choice is actually determined by his desire. For example, according to Edwards, sinful man will always freely choose to do his greatest desire, which is to sin. The greatest desire is a part of his nature. Fallen man will never choose to follow Christ without first having his nature changed to emanate new desires; this is the basis for the Calvinist position that regeneration precedes faith.[5]

This view of freedom also highlights the compatibilist’s inability to answer satisfactorily the question of what caused the first sin. Because if man chooses according to his greatest desire, and man chose to sin, then sin must have been his greatest desire. This leads to the disturbing question of where did the desire come from? Of course, it had to come from God since God created everything. Thus, according to Calvinism, God gave the desire, which unavoidably birthed the choice to sin, and this desire God called “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Therefore, God must have, in some very significant sense, desired for man to sin or else He would not have given him a nature or past emanating such desire (this desire being more than merely the desire to create, which all recognize), a disquieting reality. In the same way, when God desires people to be saved, He must choose to regenerate in order to give them a new nature with new desires so they will freely choose to exercise faith in Christ.

When the concept of compatibilism is applied to the first sin, the Calvinist conundrum is even more apparent because it results in Lucifer choosing to sin because of his nature or his greatest desire before sin existed. His choice could not have been from preexisting internal sin or a direct external temptation since both he and his environment were directly created by God, lest one posit God creating sin or tempting one to sin, which is impossible. Therefore, it seems inescapable that according to Calvinism, God gave Lucifer either an environment, nature, or past that would inviolably produce a desire to sin from which would come the free choice to sin, Calvinist demurring notwithstanding, a disquieting reality. For, if Calvinists respond that Lucifer (or man) could have chosen not to sin, then they are espousing libertarianism, and compatibilism becomes simply a later incongruent development of Calvinism.

Now, it is true that Calvinists are often clear and passionate about their denial that God caused sin, which I appreciate; further, they are correct to deny that Calvinism teaches that God directly caused sin, which is consistent with a compatibilist understanding of freedom. However, their answer to how this denial fits with compatibilism is inchoate and unconvincing and leads to the Calvinist retreat, “it is a mystery.” In other words, they do not usually want to implicate God in desiring, willing, or orchestrating sin, and rightfully so, but the logic of their system seems to inevitably lead to that inescapable reality. Further, you have some Calvinists who exacerbate the problem regarding God’s role in the first sin and sin in general by their avowals and beliefs regarding free choices, like Edwards and his contemporary protégés.

For example, R.C. Sproul Jr.’s comment that “every Bible-believing Christian must conclude at least that God in some sense desired that man would fall into sin…I am not accusing God of sinning; I am suggesting that he created sin.”[6] He further “describes God as ‘the Culprit’ that caused Eve to sin in the garden.”[7] Then there is Gordon Clark’s assessment, “As God cannot sin, so in the next place, God is not responsible for sin, even though he decrees it.”[8] Again, Clark in response to Arminians asseverates, “I wish very frankly and pointedly to assert that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do so …. In Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us that God works all things, not some things only, after the counsel of his own will.”[9] Contrary to Clark, Ephesians does not say that God wills—determinatively desires—everything, but rather that “he works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).

William G.T. Shedd, writing about God’s choice regarding the origin of sin and allowing sin to continue, says, “The permissive decree as related to the origin of sin presents a difficulty that does not exist in reference to the continuance of sin…. is an inscrutable mystery[10] (italics added). Of course, the origin of sin is a “difficulty” and “inscrutable mystery” only because of Calvinism’s compatibilist view of free will.

I would add to this, their limited meaning, understanding, of the nature and operation of foreknowledge with regard to salvation further influences their retreats to “it is a mystery.” Highlighting the connection of compatibilism and man’s sin and salvation is Calvin’s declaration, “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death”[11] (italics added). Notice that Calvin takes the distinction between those who go to heaven and those who go to hell back to the wish and purpose for which God created them. He goes on to say “that Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded access to life by a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment.[12] (italics added)

Again, the Calvinists’ inability to reconcile satisfactorily their view of free will, the origin of sin, God’s election of the saved, and reprobation of the damned with the scripturally revealed character of God forces them to retreat to an “incomprehensible judgment” i.e. “mystery.” Once more, Calvinism creates Calvinism’s mystery. Calvinist’s desire to make salvation monergistic creates a God that is disharmonious with God as presented in Scripture, and once again their understanding of salvation is seen to be inextricably connected to their view concerning the origin of sin. It goes without saying that I am denying the legitimacy of some Calvinists’ response that Calvinism is true even though it is impossible to understand how God is not, in some sense, implicated in at least desiring the origin of sin and mercilessly predetermining some to spend eternity in hell who could have gone to heaven had God desired that for them.

Calvin is unabashed in his defense of his views and says, “Many professing a desire to defend the Deity from an invidious charge admit the doctrine of election, but deny that any one is reprobated….This they do ignorantly, and childishly, since there could be no election without this opposite reprobation. God is said to set apart those whom he adopts for salvation. It were most absurd to say, that he admits others fortuitously, or that they by their industry acquire what election alone confers on a few. Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children.”[13]

I maintain that all Calvinists, arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, inevitably believe in double predestination, but most shy from the forthrightness of Calvin. They either believe that God actively predestined some to hell, as Calvin does, or He did so by choosing not to offer what would have surely delivered them from hell to heaven, i.e. selective regeneration. Calvin refers to this cold inescapable reality as “his incomprehensible counsel,” i.e. mystery.[14] This is a disquieting reality of Calvinism.

All of the euphemizing in the world will not purge Calvinism of the harsh reality that people are saved because God desired for them to be and people are in hell for the same reason. This is true even if some Calvinists continue to resist admitting it because according to Calvinism, if God pleased, not only could everyone have been saved, but they would in fact have been saved, which is disquieting reality. Calvinism asks us to believe that God chose eternal torment for the vast majority of His creation (Matthew 7:13–14). They want us to rejoice in a God who desires and chose for the vast majority of His creation to go to hell when He could have redeemed them.

I concede such understanding to indeed be God according to Calvinism, but utterly reject such a portrait being reflective of the Scripture. Where is the plethora of Scripture where God expresses His desire for the vast majority of His creation to perish in eternal torment and this with equal clarity and abundance of those Scriptures that declare His indefatigable, sacrificial love and desire that all repent and be saved? I suggest that they do not exist and for good reason.

Regarding human freedom, R.C. Sproul’s Calvinism once again sends him retreating to “it is a mystery.” He says, “Predestination seems to cast a shadow on the very heart of human freedom. If God has decided our destinies from all eternity (unconditionally), that strongly suggests that our free choices are but charades, empty exercises in predetermined placating. It is as though God wrote the script for us in concrete and we are merely carrying out his scenario.”[15] I must admit that, although I adamantly disagree with his Calvinism, I appreciate and admire such candor. He goes on to say, “It was certainly loving of God to predestine the salvation of His people, those the Bible calls the ‘elect or chosen ones.’ It is the non-elect that are the problem. If some people are not elected unto salvation then it would seem that God is not all that loving toward them. For them it seems that it would have been more loving of God not to have allowed them to be born. That may indeed be the case.[16] (italics added) This is what I mean when I argue elsewhere that God’s salvific love for the non-elect is virtually indistinguishable from indifference or hate. Various distinctions proffered by Calvinists that supposedly mitigate this reality are, eternally speaking, merely distinctions without a difference; how things play out eternally is what really matters.

Calvinists are very clear at times that sin entered into the world and that people spend eternity in hell because God made a voluntary decision for them to be there, which means that He could have chosen, if it pleased Him, for it to have been otherwise. Shedd says that permission to allow sin “is one that occurs by a voluntary decision of God, which he need not have made, had he so pleased. He might have decided not to permit sin; in which case it would not have entered the universe.”[17] Augustine, speaking of such permission, said, “And of course his permission is not unwilling but willing.”[18] Shedd then notes the similar remarks of Calvin who said, “God’s permission of sin is not involuntary, but voluntary.”[19]

Notice that they say nothing of God’s decision to disallow sin in the universe necessitating disallowing the existence of man or Lucifer, which understanding is harmonious with a compatible view of freedom. Consequently, according to a compatibilist perspective, God could have created Lucifer, Adam, and Eve with different natures, emanating different desires, and man could have and would have existed without sin. Once more, the ever-present calvinistically generated quandary that God in some measure must have desired man to sin, a disquieting reality. Again, Shedd seeks to exonerate God from sin by saying, “Nothing but the spontaneity of will can produce the sin; and God does not work in the will to cause evil spontaneity. The certainty of sin by a permissive decree, is an insoluble mystery for the finite mind.”[20] (my emphasis on insoluble mystery).

With regard to Socrates’ reference to God and sin in the Republic, Shedd’s belief that God must have desired sin to enter the lives of His creation is even more apparent. He says, “While evil in his [Socrates] view does not originate in God, and is punished by God, it is not, as in Revelation, under the absolute control of God, in such sense that it could be prevented by him. The power to prevent sin is implied in its permission. No one can be said to permit what he cannot prevent. Sin is preventable, by the exercise of a greater degree of that same spiritual efficiency by which the will was inclined to holiness in creation. God did not please to exert this degree in the instance of the fallen angels and man, and thus sin was possible.”[21] (italics added)

He does not require of God that angels and man would not have been created as moral beings in order to preclude sin, but only God choosing to grant “a greater degree of that same spiritual efficiency.” Therefore, once again, it seems unquestionable that according to Calvinism, God desired preventable sin. Even without such statements, this truth is entailed in a compatible view of moral freedom.

Shedd says, “The reason for the permission of sin was manifestation of certain divine attributes which could not have been manifested otherwise.”[22] Then he lists things like mercy, compassion, the suffering of Christ, justice, and holiness, all to the glory of God. Therefore, the inescapable truth of Calvinism is that God could have prevented sin, and while He may not have been the efficient cause—direct cause—He inescapably desired it, and therefore, it is. Additionally, reliance upon secondary, tertiary, quaternary, quinary, etc., causes fails to palliate or remove the fact that God by free choice is ultimately responsible for man’s choice to sin, which could have been different had such pleased Him. Therefore, He desired all the horrors of sin, rebellion against Him, untold ghastly violence, dreadful death, and the drowning sea of tears deluging the lives and homes of His creation; such desire is not satisfactorily explained by resorting to His permissive will because the activities of His permissive will are as deterministic in Calvinism as any other aspect of His will, given decretal theology and compatibilism.

In my next article, I will explore Extensivism’s perspective regarding the origin of sin and salvation. Whereas, Extensivists (including all non-Calvinists in this term) say that God never desires sin but always and only desires righteousness; concomitantly, He desires all of those who are lost to be saved and has provisioned accordingly.


[1] Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 143.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 11.
[4] Succinctly, compatibilism believes that determinism and moral responsibility are compatible; such compatibility is accomplished by defining moral freedom to exist when one chooses to do what he desires. This compatibility does nothing to lessen the deterministic nature of compatibilism any more than that found in raw determinism.
[5] Such change may be called renovation, quickening, or regeneration.
[6] David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, eds., Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2010), 148.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 292.
[9] Ibid.
[10] William G.T. Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed – A Defence of the Westminster Standards (New York: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1893) online at http://www.archive.org/stream/calvinismpuremix00shed#page/n5/mode/2up, 95.
[11] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997 reprint), Book 3, Chapter 21, page 206.
[12] Ibid., 210–211.
[13] Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, pages 225–226.
[14] Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, page 226.
[15] R.C Sproul, Chosen by God, 51, as quoted in George L. Bryson, The Five Points of Calvinism: Weighed And Found Wanting, (Costa Mesa, CA.: The Word for Today, 2002), 35-44.
[16] Sproul, Chosen by God, 51, as quoted in Bryson, The Five Points of Calvinism, 44.
[17] Ibid., 94.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., 95. Shedd sources this as Inst. 1:18:3. I cannot find it under that section in my copy of the Institutes.
[20] Ibid., 420.
[21] Ibid., 420–421.
[22] Ibid., 421.