Books Soteriology

Olson’s “No” to monergistic grace

In the seventh chapter of Against Calvinism, Roger Olson states his objections to the “high Calvinist” understanding of irresistible grace/monergism

Olson’s representation of the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible or effectual grace

Roger understands the fundamental motive of Calvinists in asserting the monergistic understanding of grace that is represented by the fourth point of TULIP: that “all glory for salvation be given to God alone” (157). In the writings of Calvin, Boettner, Steele and Thomas, Palmer, Sproul and Piper, Roger hears the conviction that:

  • humans are dead in sin unable to do anything spiritually good, including responding properly to the gospel, without God’s enabling grace
  • God gives elected sinners ears to hear and eyes to see the gospel, but withholds that effectual working from the reprobate
  • God gives elected sinners ears to hear and eyes to see the gospel, but withholds that effectual working from the reprobate
  • God gives elected sinners ears to hear and eyes to see the gospel, but withholds that effectual working from the reprobate
  • in this way, the sinner’s free agency is not violated, because God exerts no external compulsion when he imparts the principle of new life to those whom he saves; they come to Christ voluntarily, and their exercise of faith is necessary for salvation
  • this teaching of God’s effectual calling of the elect is found in John 6:44, Rom 8:30, Eph 2:8-9

 Olson’s objection to the doctrine of effectual calling is rooted in his concern for God’s reputation

As we have seen regularly throughout this book, Roger believes that “monergism actually injures God’s reputation by necessarily undermining God’s goodness and love” (163). Calvinism “portrays God as a respecter of persons because he chooses some to save irresistibly and others not to receive that crucial gift,” for no reason other than “God’s good pleasure” or “God’s glory” (166). In such teaching God is portrayed as “not good and not loving,” though Calvinists deny such to be the case (167).

Scripture passages in which Arminians see a contradiction of “irresistible grace” include:

  • Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, in Matthew 23 and Luke 13
  • Jesus’ indication, in Matthew 19:24, that is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a poor person
  • inclusive invitations for people to come to God (Mt 18:14, 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Pet 3:9, 1 Jn 2:2

Personal relationships require mutuality which entails freedom of will and the ability to resist, otherwise “a person’s acts are not really ‘acts’ at all but ‘events’” (167). “God cannot bring about our choice without it ceasing to be ours” (168), which is to say that compatibilism is fundamentally incoherent. This is unquestionably one of the most fundamental points of difference between monergists and synergists.

Olson’s alternative to effective calling

The Arminian alternative is a proposal that “God limits himself out of love so that his initiating, enabling grace is resistible. It is powerful and persuasive but not compelling in the determinative sense” (169). What Arminians insist upon, however, contrary to frequent Calvinist accusations, is that Arminian soteriology is not “a form of self-salvation and works righteousness akin to Roman Catholic theology” (170). In human experience, merely accepting a gift is never considered to be the “decisive factor” in the person’s possession of what has been given. On the contrary, Arminians give all the glory to God for salvation, because God’s prevening grace is the critical factor, not the human response (171).

Calvinism’s “Conundrums”

In his last chapter, Roger identifies a series of “profound conundrums that have no apparent solutions,” within Calvinism:

  • the combination of divine sovereignty and human responsibility (175-76)
  • “if divine determinism is true, nothing is really evil” (178)
  • “if Calvinism is true, nothing at all can possibly injure or lessen God’s glory” (177)
  • either God’s decision to select some people to save, and others to pass over, is either arbitrary or there is something about people that causes God to select them (178)
  • God is confessed as the standard of moral goodness but he “ordains, designs, controls, and renders certain the most egregious evil acts” (178)


In an appendix, Olson identifies two “Calvinist attempts to rescue God’s reputation” and he explains why he finds these inadequate. The attempts addressed are:

  • an appeal to secondary causes (181-83)
  • an appeal to middle knowledge (184-87)

A second appendix lists 11 claims made by Calvinists concerning the superiority of their theology to the Arminian construct, and then Roger points out why he finds these claims fallacious.

My concluding comments

Effectual calling

Years ago, when I read Bill Klein’s book (The New Chosen People) arguing for a corporate view of election, I found his work helpful and it increased my own appreciation for the extent to which Scripture speaks of God’s choosing of groups (covenant communities) to serve him in the world. I have explained previously why I still do not think that corporate election is the whole story. But I remarked to Bill, after reading his book, that what kept me Calvinist, at that time, was actually less what I heard in Scripture about God’s choice of individuals for salvation than it was the biblical teaching concerning effectual calling. I find this teaching to be much more extensive than Roger has cited in chapter 7.

In most of the biblical references to the calling of God to salvation, the call is seen to be effective because of an additional work of the Holy Spirit which is regeneration, in the narrow sense. This  call actually results in salvation or the inclusion of people among the “called” (Mt 22:9; Acts 2:39; Rom 8:30; 9:11; 1 Cor 1:9, 26; 7:20; Gal 1:6, 15; 2 Thess 2:13-14; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 1:9; Heb 3:1; 9:15; 1 Pet 2:9; 2 Pet 1:3; Jude 1; Rev 17:14; 19:9).

In each of these texts the ones whom God called infallibly came to faith and salvation, so that Paul usually uses the term “call” to refer to instances in which the preaching of the gospel is effective. That calling is plainly to salvation, not just service, and  all things do not work together for good to everyone who hears t gospel, only to those effectually called, “according to God’s purpose” (Rom 8:28). It is those “who are “called” who are justified (Rom 8:30). So Paul addresses the Christians in Rome as those “who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (1:6) and who are “called to be saints” (1:7). Christ is the power and wisdom of God to those whom God has “called,” and only the called are saved (1 Cor 1:22-24; cf. 1:26-27).

According to Peter, we are people belonging to God because he called us (1 Pet 2:9), and we should confirm our “calling and election,” by demonstrating the fruitfulness of God’s working in our behavior (2 Pet 1:10). Jude assures us that the “called” are loved by God and kept by Christ (Jude 1), and John informs us that the chosen and faithful followers of Christ are his “called” (Rev 17:14).

I understand why Roger is scandalized by God’s selectiveness in grace but I hear the teaching so strongly in Scripture that I cannot allow a feeling of scandal to cause me to ignore it. Meanwhile, I remain hopeful of the greatness of the company whom God has chosen as his own, and whom he effectively calls to himself, for their immense good and his glory.

The Appendices

It would be profitable to work through the last two appendices of Roger’s book, but much of that ground has been covered in earlier stages of the book, and I don’t want to make a career out of stating all of the additional thoughts that Roger stimulated as I read these concise summaries of his Arminian convictions. In the near future, I plan to read Michael Horton’s partner volume, For Calvinism. I recognize that neither of these books were written as a response to the other but, as I read Horton I will have Roger’s concerns in mind and I am keen to her how similar or different his response would be to my own. I do not plan to take anywhere near as much time in comment on Horton’s case for Calvinism as I have given to Roger’s objections, but I’ll pass along some of my key observations.

In under 200 pages, Roger has packed a powerful punch. He has read the work of Calvinist authors who have been particularly influential among the “young and restless” Reformed who cause Roger significant concern. To the “high” Calvinism represented by these men, Roger has offered a stirring (sometimes even shrill) protest. Reading it has often sharpened my understanding of the points in my own theology that are particularly objectionable to Arminians. Sometimes this has been painful (as when I am told that the God whom I worship is a “moral monster”), but it has generally been beneficial, and I am happy that this centuries old conversation between synergists and monergists continues among evangelicals, because the issues are of great importance. At the same time, I pray that the unity of the body of Christ will not be threatened by our keenly felt differences.

 Earlier posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3,  Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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