Struggling with difficult doctrine

A very close friend of mine is struggling to understand the doctrine of election.  She doesn’t have trouble believing that God elects people to salvation.  (She made it through that doctrine and is resting in the assurance of her salvation).  The problem comes upon realizing that if God chooses some to be saved, then that must mean that he condemns those He does not choose.  Then the question becomes, how can God be good if he condemns some to Hell, and they had no choice in the matter?  It took me at least a year or two to work through these problems myself, so I feel for her.

These questions have been on my mind lately, so I thought it good to write about them.

Just as an aside, I’ve come to realize that the doctrines of irresistible grace, limited atonement, and unconditional election are problematic doctrines for people raised primarily in the developed west.  First, because we are raised to believe that we can do anything we want to do.  Second, because “the right to choose” is considered sacred, even if it doesn’t pertain to a woman’s “control over her own body.”  And, finally, because each of us is coddled and pampered into believing that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” that we’re basically “good,”  that everything we do is good if it seems so to us.

Don’t get me started on the many young Americans who are functionally illiterate; they cannot comprehend simple sentences, much less the Scriptures.  And the September 2010 survey by the L.A. Times that reveals that most “believers” do not understand the basics of their own faith?  Embarrassing.

But that last bit isn’t true of my friend.  So, I loaned her a few books that proved to be helpful to me.  I’m including some in this list that I have not read, but that look good to me.  You can click the covers and links for more information.

1. The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented by David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and Lance Quinn

This book is an excellent resource.  The defending of the doctrines isn’t all that exhaustive (or convincing to the very unconvincing), but the book lists for further study are worth it to me.

2. Suffering and the Sovereignty of God edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor

As I read more and sought to understand these truths, Karl and I would have some rather heated, hours-long discussions.  (He’s quite the formidable devil’s advocate.  One had best not start something with him unless she has a firm grasp of her argument.  He’s the kind of debater who can frame his argument in such a way that it is very difficult to refute him, even if he doesn’t know much about the subject.  But he’s so knowledgeable anyway, he is doubly dangerous.  His skill is good practice for me.)  Reading this book aloud to him was instrumental in helping him understand God’s sovereignty, though.  I distinctly recall, upon finishing a chapter (I don’t recall which), he effectively said, “That’s it.  It’s so clear; why do people argue about this?”  And that was that (for him).  He’s not like me: turning a thing over and over and over again, then picking and pealing and scraping my way to the bottom, then licking the bowl.  In a word, obsessive.  Talking to walls and beating dead horses are my specialty.

3. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin

I am currently reading this.  My goal when I started was to finish by year’s end.  I probably won’t make it as I am only mid-way.  But I can still recommend it.  It is quite readable.  I pray that God will grant me such a high view of Himself and humble view of myself as He did Calvin.

4 & 5. I have a couple of systematic theologies on which I heavily rely:

>Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem — most accessible.  Meditating on the attributes of God section is my favorite.

>A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith by Robert Reymond — the sections on salvation and covenant make my heart sing!

6 & 7.  I have not read these, but they look very good on this topic:

>The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther

>Perspectives on Election, Five Views by Chad Brand, Jack Cottrell, Clark Pinnock, Robert Reymond, Thomas Talbot, and Bruce Ware.  I think I’ll add this one to my wishlist.  Publisher description on Amazon:

Perspectives on Election presents in counterpoint form five basic common beliefs on the doctrine of spiritual election (for example, predestination) that have developed over the course of church history with a view toward determining which is most faithful to Scripture. Each chapter is written by a prominent person within each tradition, and each writer has the opportunity to respond to each differing view.

Despite the focus upon a topic that divides many people, editor Chad Brand says, “The goal of this book is to add clarity to the discussion and to further the discussion, insofar as it is possible, in an amiable manner.”

8. The Justification of God by John Piper

I think I read somewhere that it took Piper seven years to write.  By no means was it an easy read for me.  Despite the occasional word study (in which I pretentiously masquerade as an ancient languages scholar), I have zero background in Hebrew and Greek; therefore, I struggled to understand Piper’s argument, even though he is so careful to explain every single detail.  But it was a feast!  By God’s grace I persevered, and six months later, I could honestly exclaim with Paul, “Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’  ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’  For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be glory forever.  Amen” (Romans 11:33-36, ESV).

9. The Pleasures of God by John Piper  — Specifically, the appendix of which is pertinent to this post: “Are There Two Wills in God? Divine Election and God’s Desire for All to Be Saved”

I would encourage anyone to use a trustworthy version of the scriptures and start studying.  Even if you disagree with me and the authors in my list, study to understand why you believe what you say you believe.  I don’t claim to have all the answers; I do not think these authors claim to, either.  However, we cannot say that they have not spent themselves in the search to find them out.

Eventually, I was able to let it go.  By “let go,” I simply mean that these questions no longer keep me up at night in a terrible sense of doom and dread for the entire human race.  I learned much in the pursuit of some answers, and, as a result, found a place of rest for my mind, heart, and soul.  Ultimately, I believe God is sovereign; I believe He is good; and I believe He is justified in all He does for His own glory and pleasure.  “Can the clay say to the potter, ‘Why did you make me thus?'”  Indeed, this lump cannot.

11 Comments on “Struggling with difficult doctrine

  1. Excellent! Great list of books. I’ve read and own many supporting the reform position, but now just think the best way for someone to become reformed is to listen to sound preaching from men like Piper, Platt, MacArthur, etc.


  2. I love you Leslie! I’m sorry if I frustrate you, but at least you know where I’m coming from. Maybe one day I’ll be in your position helping someone out whose struggling the same as me.


  3. I was raised in an Arminian church, so I was not familiar with the doctrines of grace. The beginning for me was listening to John MacArthur on the radio. He was talking about the doctrine of election, and he was really making me mad. The problem was, he kept on bringing Scripture in to make his argument, so I couldn’t refute it. 🙂


    • Staci, your comment reminded me of something else KJ said:: “These matters usually don’t get settled in debates (especially online debates). They get settled when you get up from reading the Scripture and find yourself at peace with what it says. All the people that wanted to argue with me in college, I track them down now and every one of them has come to same understanding. But it did not come through hearing the opinion of others. It came through continued study and love of the Scriptures. I talked with one of those guys last week and he said, “It took me and [his wife] getting out of the college debating environment for God to teach the truth of what we had been arguing against.” So, I point everyone to the Scripture, and I do not care how you label yourself as long as you love the Word and are willing to submit yourself to it.”


  4. I also came to the reformed position through listening to Johm MacArthur around 1990 to 1991. From that point I started reading others who were reformed and what I consider to be a much greater understanding of Scripture emerged. I had many friends who went through the same thing at the same time I did.
    Back several years ago I became friends with a fellow who has become one of my best friends. He was a Christian and as our friendship grew we naturally started talking theology. He was adamantly and vehemently opposed to Calvinism. We watched the DVDs “Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism”. It was so amusing to watch him squirming and sweating as we watched it (we laugh about this today!). By the time we got done with both the DVDs he was a Calvinist and is so thankful for what he considers to be a better understanding of Scripture. For him, it’s not just been about gaining knowledge, it’s affected his life as far as understanding God’s sovereignty not only is salvation, but in all things. He went on to read Jerry Bridges book, “Is God Really In Control” and this further helped him.
    The Amazing Grace DVDs do a great job of answering all the questions and objections to Reformed Theology, so I reccomend them as helpful adjuncts to your wonderful list Leslie. R.C. Sprouls book, “What Is Reformed Theology” is the book that has been most helpful to my wife. She’s going to be writing a series of blog post based on this book.
    I think K.J. is so correct. Arguing get us nowhere most of the time.
    I think it’s beautiful for people to sit under the faithful preaching of pastors like MacArthur, Piper, Platt and become reformed unknowingly. That is what happened to many of the members of the churches MacArthur and Piper pastor and is what is currently going on at The Church of Brook Hill where my membership is. One day they hear someone say something about Calvinism or read a reformed document and say, hey I believe that, I must be a Calvinist myself. That’s a great way to become a Calvinist because it was borne out of understanding God’s Word like K.J. said.


    • Hey Michael! Thanks for your thoughtful comment and for including the resources that helped you. I listened to many hours of online sermons and lectures, too. I visited a lot. And, yes, Sproul’s book is another good one. I read most of it, but it came after I was already convinced that the reformed view is right, so I don’t remember it being instrumental in the revolution of my thinking.

      One of the things I appreciate about KJ is how he is faithful to bring the discussion back to what is most important. I’m not sure I know anyone who knows and loves God’s word as much as he.


  5. I know Michael already commented, but I wanted to chime in with my experience. I was raised LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod), but I don’t remember any teaching on election. As a matter of fact, when Michael & I visited my home church this past year, Pastor specifically said that he wasn’t going to touch the subject when he had the opportunity to do so in a sermon. It really didn’t take much convincing on Michael’s part. He explained the Doctrines of Grace, along with Scripture references. He told me to read Romans 9, & the doctrine of election was unmistakable. I always say that the DOG flow into each other; knowing that we are totally depraved & completely unworthy of salvation made election easier to understand. Once I realized that “there is none righteous, no not one”, I saw so clearly that we should all be damned & that it’s only a mercy from God that anyone is saved. We can’t question “why would God condemn an innocent person” because there are no innocent people. Bottom line, I just couldn’t argue with Scripture.


  6. I’ve been thinking more about this. One thing my pastor always says, when confronted with the question of the reality of hell and the fact that people we know and love will be there is that when we get to Heaven, our focus will not so much be on the fact that there are people who aren’t there, but we will instead be amazed that God was gracious enough to let anyone in. That always helps me process this.


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