A Different Kind of Calvinism: Let’s Talk Sovereignty and Maybe Jesus’ Humanity

When I left off explaining EC last time, I gave an unfortunately brief sketch of the EC view of human freedom. Human freedom, as opposed to libertarian free will, is grounded in God’s life of Triune love, given to us through Christ as the image of God in whom we were created. I left much unanswered, though, so here I plan to address two more topics: the relation of God’s sovereignty to human will, and a doctrine called “the vicarious humanity of Christ.” There’s a lot to say here., and this will be a bit longer than the previous posts, so let’s dive right in.

Does God Predetermine All Our Actions?

A defining trait of classical, TULIP Calvinism (TC, as usual) is the belief in divine determinism. This just means that God decides on His own everything that will ever happen, including all the choices people make. This does not mean there are no secondary causes, or that God forces people to do things against their will. It means that God even plans and decides what people want to do, and therefore also what they actually do. Here’s a quote from the Westminster Confessions, a very Calvinist document, updated somewhat freely to more modern language and formatting:

God—from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will—freely and unchangeably ordained everything that comes to pass. But He did so in a way that neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence done to the will of the created beings, nor is the liberty or factoring of second causes taken away. Instead these are established.

So like I said, TC believes God sets up absolutely everything that will ever happen. This includes every sin ever committed, every horrific death, every starving child, and every time someone rejects the Gospel and is damned. People sin because they want to, sure, but they want to because God set up their whole lives to control their wants and actions. People are condemned for their sin, but whence comes their sin? Naturally, EC does not work this way. Determining people to commit and experience evil is simply not what God does. How do we know that? Jesus. We can reject the idea that the God Jesus revealed who wept over Israel’s rebellion did so as a show, having actually planned their stubbornness. Jesus did not set up the Pharisees to oppose Him so that He could condemn them. There is no God behind the back of Jesus. On the other hand, we do not think that God is in no control. On the contrary, He works all things for good. He plans and directs all things, even while not causing them or being the one who chooses every single event. While He leaves room for humans and all creation to have an existence that is authentically independent of His controlling will, He also maintains the ability to make sure His good will wins over all the forces which try to oppose Him. How is this?

There is no God behind the back of Jesus.

Let us be clear: God has not revealed in Scripture the precise details of “how” He works things out the way He wants. We must recognize that there probably is not decent analogy for the relationship between the God who created and sustains all things from before time and His creation. This said, I do think there is a concept that might be useful for us. See, God sustains all things. The whole world exists by the power of His word, and in Him all things hold together. In Him we live and move and have our being. This means that everything that happens and everything we do requires God’s creative power to be real. I think this naturally leaves open the space for God to work “behind the scenes,” but not in some secret predestining of every action. Instead, God uses His place to do what He has told us in His word, namely to work all things out for good, to sum up all things in Christ, and to reconcile all things to Himself. Everything we do and everything that simply happens is taken by God and ordered into His singular purpose for the world: the union of heaven and earth, God and man, through Jesus. From His position as the sustainer of everything, God has the ability to work with, in, through, or even on occasion against the normal flow of things to bring it all to its proper conclusion. In this way He makes everything work toward His own truly good intention.

Sin is not God’s will, but neither does it thwart His will.

In this way, we do not have to agree with TC in saying that all things, even sin, are truly God’s will in an important way, but we also do not have to say that God is simply working with what He gets, like an outsider with no real control. I think this fits the Biblical picture of God’s work very well.

What the Heck Does “Vicarious Humanity” Mean?

Another thing I’ve mentioned in previous posts and said I would cover here is the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. So what on earth do those words mean? Well, to put it simply, Jesus was human for us. Of course, that Jesus was human for us seems obvious. But what does that really mean? The way many people see it, Jesus basically became human so that He could justly fulfill the Law given to humans and take the punishment humans deserved. If He were not human, He simply wouldn’t be legally eligible to be our Savior. The problem is that this misses what Jesus has done for us on an ontological (that is, pertaining to inner reality) level. Jesus did not merely fulfill an external legal role by being human. Instead, by becoming a human being, Jesus brought humanity and God together in Himself, in one person. Since Jesus was (and is!) both God and man, His actions were both those of God coming down to bless humanity and of humanity responding to God with obedience and faith. How Jesus’ vicarious humanity relates to us is that He lived the perfect human life, which is the basis for our life. Jesus trusted in the Father. Jesus obeyed the Law. Jesus loved His neighbor, did true good works, and lived in every respect a completely human and completely flawless life. We cannot do these things because of sin. Sin keeps us from trusting the Father, obeying the Law, loving our neighbor, doing truly good works, and living completely human and flawless lives. Yet Jesus does not let sin win. By the Holy Spirit, we get to participate in Jesus’ life.

Jesus did not merely fulfill an external legal role by being human.

This point is fundamental to how EC understands salvation. When we believe in Jesus, repent of our sins, get baptized, and live a life of holy love, we do not do them alone. As Paul said, it is I, yet not I but Christ in me. Your faith happens because the Holy Spirit has connected you to Jesus, who had perfect faith. So through the Spirit you can also have Jesus-based faith. When we repent, we are really living out Jesus’ life of turning away from sin, brought into us through the Holy Spirit. Because of this truth, we can be fully assured of our salvation. We do not need to live up to a certain level of faith or good works to know that we are saved. Even if our faith and works stink, Jesus’ are perfect, and His are the real things behind ours. Because the Holy Spirit is truly the Spirit of Jesus Christ, when we have Him were are so deeply connected to Jesus that the resurrection and salvation He won by His own perfection are brought into our own lives.

Even if our faith and works stink, Jesus’ are perfect, and His are the real things behind ours.

At this point, one might ask, “So am I not really important? Is Jesus the only one doing anything? Am I just an empty puppet for the Holy Spirit?” The answer to this is “By no means!” Jesus is not a puppet-master, but the giver of Life. When Jesus’ life comes to us through the Spirit, we become our true selves. Jesus is, to quote Thomas Torrance, a “personalizing Person.” He does not eliminate our personhood by living in us, but instead creates it! Jesus’ vicarious humanity means that He is the human who makes all of us truly human. So salvation is all of Christ, but that doesn’t mean nothing of us. “All of grace” becomes “all of man.”

Wrapping Up

I know this post was too long, and it covered a lot of pretty deep stuff. But I do hope it has been helpful and even edifying. When I began studying Evangelical Calvinism, I didn’t get a lot of what it was saying, but now it is so refreshing to my soul. I think I see Jesus more clearly, and more as love, than I did before, and I enjoy it. This is the end of my EC series, so I know there are questions I haven’t answered. I imagine for every question I did answer, you may now have five more. So if you have questions, please comment and I will address them in a final FAQ. You can also email me at [email protected] if you want to discuss anything more in depth. 

I'm 22. I'm married with a toddler and a newborn. love Jesus Christ. I grew up a Southern Baptist and now situate myself within Evangelical Calvinism (which isn't TULIP!). I also draw substantially from N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and Alastair Roberts. I go to the Baptist College of Florida. I'm also a bit nerdy.