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The Power of God’s Mercy: An Orthodox Response to Spencer Boersma’s “The Impotence of Calvinism?” (1 of 2)


"The Impotence of Calvinism?" by Spencer Boersma

“The Impotence of Calvinism?” by Spencer Boersma

 Spencer Boersma posted “The Impotence of Calvinism?” on After Orthodoxy?  In it he presents a hypothetical conversation between a Young Man and his Calvinist pastor about his struggle to live a holy life and God’s preservation of the elect.

Here is a partial excerpt of the conversation.


YM: A Young Man turned to his pastor and said, “Pastor, why did I sin?”

P: “Because you did not obey God, son,” the Pastor replied.

YM: “But this time it was like I could not stop myself, no matter how hard I tried. Pastor, am I responsible for the sins that I do that are out of my control?”

P: “Why yes. After all, you did them. You are always in control. You never have an excuse.”

YM: “But Pastor, don’t you say in your sermons that God is sovereign. God is in control, not me?”

P: “Yes he is, always. So, you should ask him for the strength to obey.”

YM: “I did and he didn’t give me the strength this time…”

P: “…I don’t think that is what happened. He probably did provide and you did not act on that provision.”

YM: “Well, maybe. But if that is the case, why did he cause me not to act on it? Why did he not give me the strength to act on the strength that he gave?”

P: “What? No. No. No. You are confused. You do not understand. God does not cause you to sin. You do.”

YM: “But I thought you said he was sovereign over everything, that he causes all things?”

P: “Yes, but not that.”  


One troubling aspect about the dialogue is that the pastor is so busy debating theology with a member of his flock that he fails to practice the healing of souls.  It seems that the pastor is applying rigorous logic when mercy and compassion are what the Young Man so desperately needs.   The dialogue ends in both sides frustrated and at an impasse.  This pastoral impasse is rooted in a theological conundrum that lies at the heart of Reformed theology – its monergistic approach to salvation.  Boersma writes:

Of course, with our classical Calvinistic circles, this question cannot be answered without, as we see with the pastor, getting rather frustrated and upset. Even then, no helpful answer is really given that would comfort the young man in the despair of his sin. Does God love me as a disobedient sinner? Does [God] not love me enough to destroy the sins that have enslaved me? The answer, for the Calvinist, is left shrouded in terrifying mysticism, paralyzed the inability for the Calvinistic account of God to answer the question of whether or not God has truly elected a person to salvation (emphasis added).

Boersma closes with a quote from Isaiah 63:15-17 in which the prophet asks why God has hardened the hearts of the Israelites.  While this verse may bring some comfort to the troubled Young Man, it still does not address the theological roots of his problem.  Many Reformed pastors or theologians take a different tack counseling: “Do not concern or trouble yourself with God’s eternal decrees or election.  Your duty is to ‘trust and obey,’ to be faithful to ‘those things that have been revealed’ (Deuteronomy 29:29).”

In this blog posting I will: (1) discuss the Reformed perspective on the Christian life and (2) present the Orthodox perspective on the Christian life.  Then in the next blog posting I will describe the different approach an Orthodox priest might take to the Young Man’s predicament.


The Reformed Perspective – Christian Life as Imparted Grace to the Elect

John Calvin

John Calvin

The foregoing dialogue is really about the Reformed doctrine of the preservation (perseverance) of the saints.  The pastor faithfully and accurately reflected Calvin’s teaching on the Christian life.Calvin wrote:

For perseverance itself is indeed also a gift of God, which he does not bestow on all indiscriminately, but imparts to whom he pleases.  If one seeks the reason for the difference–why some steadfastly persevered, and others fail out of instability–none occurs to us other than that the Lord upholds the former, strengthening them by his own power, that they may not perish; while to the latter, that they may be examples of inconstancy, he does not impart the same power (Institutes 2.5.3; Calvin 1960:320, emphasis added).

According to Calvin, if one belongs to the elect one will have received divine grace (power) to resist sin, but for those not part of the elect God in his inscrutable wisdom has withheld his grace from them.  The element of our human response or struggle to live holy lives has no part in Calvin’s monergistic understanding of salvation.  Based on what Calvin wrote the Young Man has reason to be concerned about his salvation.

This has led to Reformed theologians devoting considerable energies to addressing this problem by asserting the possibility of the certainty of salvation.  The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches:

This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which arises also the certainty and infallibility thereof. (Chapter XVII.2; emphasis added.   See also Chapter XVIII and the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 80)

The Westminster divines underscored the divine decrees and the denial of human free will before addressing the assurance of salvation.  What I find problematic about the Reformed position on the assurance of salvation is the extreme language used.  The unqualified use of “certainty” and “infallibility” seems to imply that they have X-ray vision capable of discerning the inscrutable will of God.  The Orthodox position is that the eternal destiny of individuals is a mystery but that we put our confidence in God’s goodness and mercy.


The Orthodox Perspective — Christian Life as Struggle and Journey

prodigal-sonGod’s mercy is foundational for Orthodox spirituality.  God in his mercy will welcome back the repentant sinner.  In the Sunday Liturgy one hears repeatedly: “Lord have mercy!”  Orthodox Christians are en-couraged to cultivate a heart of repentance by saying repeatedly the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Consistent attendance at the Sunday Liturgy will give one a growing awareness that God is not so much the stern judge as He is the merciful father waiting for the prodigal to return home.

Orthodoxy understands the Christian life as one of struggle, even holy warfare against the world, flesh and devil.  Having been born to new life in Christ we are currently engaged in a daily struggle against the passions of the flesh, our fallen human nature.  The Christian life is a repeated cycle of us walking, our falling flat on our faces, and our getting up again, etc.  Therefore, an Orthodox Christian is not surprised by our falling into sin like the Young Man.  Orthodox Christians do not agonize over our salvation, nor do we inquire into our eternally decreed election.

This emphasis on divine mercy lays the foundation for the Orthodox teaching on synergy – we freely co-operate with God in our salvation.  This view lies somewhere between the extremes of Calvinism and Pelagianism.  Unlike the Pelagian heresy which assumed that man possessed the innate ability to live righteous lives, the Orthodox approach is that we need God’s grace given through the sacramental life of the Church.  And unlike Calvinism which assumes that we are totally depraved and incapable of doing good unless God acts on us, we have the capacity to respond to God’s invitation to enter into his kingdom.

We avail ourselves of God’s grace in the Mysteries (sacraments) of the Church.  The church services in combination with the spiritual disciplines prescribed by the Church comprise a therapeutic regimen designed to restore us to spiritual health.  Through them we learn to pray, to be still before God, to deny the passions of the flesh, to acquire wisdom, in short we attain “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).  This is not works righteousness but rather a synergistic process in which we are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ.

We begin our Christian life with a wounded heart but over time through our following the Orthodox way of life, our hearts become stronger, more rational, and purified.  Kallistos Ware wrote in The Orthodox Way:

The first stage, the practice of the virtues, begins with repentance.  The baptized Christian, by listening to his conscience and by exerting the power of his free will, struggles with God’s help to escape from enslavement to passionate impulses.  By fulfilling the commandments, by growing in his awareness of right and wrong and by developing his sense of ‘ought’, gradually he attains purity of heart…. (p. 141)

Over time our struggle to follow God’s commandments becomes easier as we become accustomed to doing God’s will and putting aside the passions of the flesh.  What was alien to our fallen nature becomes over time natural to our new nature in Christ.


Christian Discipleship and Eschatology

Orthodoxy views the Christian life as preparation for the inevitable encounter with Jesus Christ at the final judgment.  The Orthodox understanding that there is a connection between our spiritual condition and our eternal destiny was echoed by CS Lewis in his essay “Weight of Glory.”

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

Every day we make choices that lead us in one of two directions: towards God and his kingdom or away from God and into the darkness of hell.  Every year just before Great Lent commences the Orthodox Church celebrates the Sunday of the Last Judgment in which the parable of the sheep and the goats is read out loud (Matthew 25:31-46).  Unlike some Christian circles that devote considerable amount of time and energy into speculation about the end times, the Orthodox Church uses this parable to remind us that even the normal everyday acts of charity can have eternal consequences.

This preparation for the final judgment takes place not just on the Sunday of the Last Judgment but throughout the year.  Every Sunday in the Completion Litany Orthodox Christians pray:

That we may live out our lives in peace and repentance, let us ask of the Lord.

Following that, we pray for:

A Christian end to our lives, peaceful, free of shame and suffering, and for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask.

We prepare for the final judgment by living lives of peace, repentance, and piety.  Orthodox Christians also anticipate and prepare for the final judgment in the Morning Prayers.  An excerpt from one Morning Prayer often used by the Orthodox reads:

When I am being judged, do not allow the hand of the prince of this world to take hold of me, to throw me, a sinner, into the depths of hell, but stand by me and be a savior and mediator to me.  Have mercy, Lord, on my soul, defiled through the passions of this life, and receive her cleansed by penitence and confession, for you are blessed to the ages of ages.  Amen.  (Prayer of Saint Eustratios)

Our confidence is not in our good works but in the mercies of God.  In anticipation of the final judgment we trust Christ to protect us from Satan’s accusations, to heal our souls, and to purify our hearts through the sacrament of confession.

The words “theosis” or “deification” are often used to explain the Orthodox understanding of salvation.  What may strike inquiring Protestants as a bizarre concept is really another way of referring to becoming mature or perfect in Christ, that is, like Christ (II Peter 1:4, I John 3:2, Romans 8:29).  The promise of the Christian life is not just the forgiveness of sins but the restoration of the imago dei within us.  The Orthodox Church believes that our ongoing sanctification will culminate with our glorification at the Second Coming of Christ.


theology boxes by Naked Pastor

theology boxes by Naked Pastor

Theology Boxes We Live In

While the forensic understanding of salvation (the forgiveness of sins) can be found in both the Reformed and Orthodox traditions, the forensic paradigm is given pride of place in Reformed soteriology.  The prominence of the penal atonement theory is such that it overshadows other paradigms of salvation.  While Orthodoxy does accept the forensic understanding of salvation, it takes a broader and more inclusive approach.  In addition to salvation as the forgiveness of sins, Orthodoxy also stresses salvation as the healing of the soul, denying the passions of the flesh, and militant resistance to the Devil.

Medical Paradigm.  As a result of the Fall the human soul has become diseased and wounded.  In the ESV translation of Jeremiah 17:9 we read: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”  Jesus taught that the evil thoughts emerging from men’s hearts make them unclean (Mark 7:20-23).  David in Psalm 51 prayed: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”  Thus, our salvation requires the restoring of our disordered inner state to the integrity and wholeness that God intended for us.


Icon – Good Samaritan by Marice

Jesus often described salvation using medical terms.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.  (Mark 2:17)

Probably the best known example of the medical paradigm is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35).  In this story a certain traveler fell into the hands of robbers who beat him and left him half dead.  Later in the story the Good Samaritan came to the injured traveler, bandaged his wounds, poured oil and wine on the man’s wounds, then took him to an inn.  The traveler falling into the hands of robbers can be understood as humanity falling into the clutches of the Devil and his demons who ravaged his soul.  The Good Samaritan pouring oil and wine on the man’s wounds is a reference to the sacraments of baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist.  The inn is a reference to the church as a spiritual hospital.  This picture of humanity as the victims overcome by demons and rescued by God’s mercy is quite different from the legal paradigm which depicts humanity as guilty criminals standing before a stern judge.

Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos in Orthodox Spirituality noted that Protestants’ understanding of faith as theoretical acceptance of God’s revelation has resulted in the absence of the therapeutic approach (p. 28).  He finds a similar lack in the Roman Catholic tradition:

In deed we cannot find in all of Latin tradition the equivalent of Orthodoxy’s therapeutic method.  The nous [mind] is not spoken of; neither is it distinguished from reason.  The darkened nous is not treated as a malady and the illumination of the nous as its cure.  Some greatly publicised Latin texts are sentimental and go no further than sterile moralising (pp. 29-30).

Orthodoxy has a deeper understanding of salvation and the healing of our souls that I have not seen in Protestantism.  Metropolitan Nafpaktos wrote:

What is healed first and foremost is a person’s heart, which constitutes the centre of his entire being.  In other words, it is not just the visible signs of illness that are treated, but also the inner self, the heart.  When a person’s nous is sick, it is dispersed and scattered among created things through the senses, and is identified with the rational faculty.  This is why it must return to dwell within the heart, which is the work of Orthodox spirituality.  The Orthodox Church is referred to as a Hospital, a place of healing for the soul, for this reason (pp. 98-99).

The Orthodox Church, however, does not just stress the necessity of healing; it also outlines the means by which it can be achieved.  Because a person’s nous and heart are impure, he must pass successfully through the three stages of growth in the spiritual life: purification of the heart, illumination of the nous and deification.  Orthodoxy is not like philosophy.  It is more closely related to the applied sciences, particularly medicine (pp. 99).

The Strong Man Paradigm.  The Calvinist paradigm assumes that failure to keep God’s law is the result of willful disobedience, not inability.  To view sin as the condition of being willing but lacking the ability to keep God’s law – involuntary sin — is for Reformed Christians a contradiction of terms.  The Orthodox understanding of sin is broader and subtle going beyond just conscious and willful forms of sin.  Below is an excerpt from a pre-Communion prayer composed by John Chrysostom, a fourth century church father, which reflects a more complex understanding of sin:

Wherefore I pray thee: have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary or involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge or of ignorance; and make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thine immaculate Mysteries, unto remission of my sins unto life everlasting.  Amen.  (Emphasis added.)

Orthodoxy does not assume like Protestantism that one already has the ability, that what is needed is needed is right understanding which comes from Bible reading and attentive listening to the pastor’s sermon.  The Orthodox understanding of sin is that our will and soul have been weakened by the Fall.  Our disordered inner state has resulted in our wills lacking the unhindered ability to control our bodies and our desires.  Orthodox spirituality also takes into account the external reality of demonic forces.


Christus Victor

Orthodoxy recognizes that as a result of the Fall humanity has come under the dominion of Satan much like a young kid coming under the grip of the neighborhood bully.  Jesus taught:

In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man.  Then he can rob his house.  (Mark 3:27, NIV)

Here Jesus is describing himself as the hero who breaks into a neighborhood bully’s house and rescues all the stolen goods from the bully’s house.  When Adam and Eve listened to the Devil’s words and rejected God’s words they came under Satan’s domination.  The human race remained in bondage to the Devil until Christ defeated him on the Cross.  The Christus Victor motif is a prominent theme in the Orthodox celebration of Easter.  Where Orthodoxy celebrates Christ resurrection as the decisive defeat of the Death and the Devil, Western Christianity puts the emphasis on Christ’s suffering on the Cross to atone for our sins.  The principal problem in the Western paradigm is God’s wrath against sinners, not man as weakened wounded hostages in bondage to the Devil.

The Strong Man paradigm can be seen in the Orthodox approach to baptism in which one must renounce Satan three times then three times confess Jesus as Lord.  This act of renunciation and confession is critical for our salvation.  Christian conversion is not simply agreeing with some theological concepts which is characteristic of Protestantism, but faith as trust and submission to Christ.  Through baptism our citizenship in the kingdom of God is restored and we come under Christ’s lordship and blessing.


The Christian Life as Transformation by Divine Grace

The overpowering desire alluded to by the Young Man was probably his sexual desires.  Rather than view human sexuality in terms of behavior, Orthodoxy views human sexuality in terms of inner energies and thoughts that give rise to action.  In the modern spiritual classic The Mountain of Silence, Fr. Maximos tells Kyriacos Markides how a life devoted to prayer can transform our sexual drive.

“Woe to those monks and nuns,” Father Maximos went on after we stopped laughing, “who shovel into their subconscious their sexual passions.  In such a state they would tremble and sweat in the presence of the opposite sex.  There is no spirituality in that.  What happens, and what we aim at, is the transmutation of erotic energy from earthly attractions to God, the way human beings were in their primordial natural state.”

“Eros turns into agape,” I muttered.

“Right.  Such persons love all human being without distinction to their sex.  Such persons do not have much to do with what belongs to the after-the-Fall state of humanity.  Do you understand?  The love of God totally transforms human beings through Grace.  (from Mountain of Silence p. 144)

Fr. Maximos described how authentic spirituality takes us beyond external legal righteousness that plagued the Pharisees (see Matthew 5:20).

“…and that’s why the saints are truly liberated in their very being.  They are the freest people on earth.  Once they reach that state they can never be affected by the sins of the world.  They are not terrified by them.  They are not human beings fortified behind their prejudices and repressions.  You may go meet saints and tell them the most horrendous sins.  They will not be touched in their innermost core.  Persons who have repressed their passions will get angry, will get into the punishing mood.  If you tell them that you committed some sinful act, they will become very upset and judgmental.  They will become intolerant without a trace of compassion.  Do you know why?  Because they themselves are suffering.  They have a lot of repressed emotions and anger inside them, a lot of repressed logismoi [thoughts].  Such persons are moralistic and pious, but they are not saints.” (from Mountain of Silence p. 145)

The Reformed tradition understands sanctification primarily as being accomplished by the Word and Spirit indwelling the believer enabling them to have victory over sinful desires (Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XV, the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 75; see also the Second Helvetic Confession Chapter IX).  In comparing the Reformed tradition against the Orthodox tradition care must be taken not to reduce the Reformed doctrine of salvation to justification. The point I want to make is that Orthodoxy’s synergistic approach to salvation allows for a broader and more holistic approach to sanctification.



Part of Young Man’s problem was his theological box.  The Calvinist paradigm of salvation rests on God’s exclusive love for his elect, the total incapacity of fallen humanity, and God’s inscrutable election.  This has been consequential for the Calvinist approach to salvation and the Christian life.  Reformed spirituality is characterized by intellectual rigor and self discipline reflecting its monergistic premise than Orthodoxy’s synergistic approach to the healing of the soul through the sacramental life of the Church.  The Orthodox paradigm takes a broader and more holistic approach to the fallen human condition.  Orthodoxy emphasizes the fact that God genuinely loves ALL mankind.  God is ever merciful waiting for us to turn to him.  Orthodoxy assumes a genuine volitional repentance to be foundational to Christian spirituality.  It incorporates the purification of the heart and healing of the soul not often found in the Reformed tradition.  One striking difference is that the Orthodox Tradition possesses a well defined set of spiritual disciplines it applies to its members.  In comparison to the Reformed tradition of pastoral care and spiritual direction which is quite young and undeveloped, Orthodoxy draws on a far more ancient tradition of spiritual care.  In the next blog I will be describing this system of spiritual disciplines available to the Orthodox priest and its importance for our sanctification.

Robert Arakaki

Coming Soon: Part (2 of 2) – The Orthodox Pastor’s Tool Box for Pastoral Care


  1. Spencer Boersma

    Thanks for referencing my blog post, I am glad you found it stimulating.

    I should point out that my blog is entitled “After Orthodoxy” as a double entendre. I found myself constantly questioning the problems with my beliefs that I was raised and schooled in. Thus, I was constantly searching for something post-that-orthodoxy. However, it has lead me to read theologians in other traditions, some closer to home like Barth, Pannenberg, and Moltmann, and some further, such as theologians in the Orthodox tradition, such as D. B. Hart, Bulgakov, or Lossky. In this way, after orthodoxy means I am in pursuit after-this-orthodoxy.

    That is all to say that the conclusion you draw very much is what I was intuiting when I asked the final questions at the end of the post. I think I might track down some of those other books you reference.

    Thanks, I enjoyed your post.

    • robertar

      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! And thanks for explaining the story behind “After Orthodoxy,” I was wondering what you had in mind.


  2. David

    Hey Robert,

    You said, “The unqualified use of “certainty” and “infallibility” seems to imply that they have X-ray vision capable of discerning the inscrutable will of God.”

    I think you’ve missed the origin of the Reformed’s “certainty” and “infallibility”. It does NOT come from some “X-ray vision” but from a logical necessity within the system. IF God has indeed set His eternal love upon His Elect — He WILL give ALL His Elect the persevering power of the Holy Spirit to bring, “many sons to glory” — a host heavenly host “no man can number”. In this logical necessity of the Reformed system, lies the Certainty of God’s electing grace.

    Now the rub might come from the fact that no man/Pastor can know for a “certainty” if he or his wife/brother/child is one of those God has indeed elected to be given this “persevering power”. So the “certainty” in the system is not a personal knowledge to be “seen” by men…but an logical necessity by deduction. We might prove to be “stoney ground” believers who ultimately fall away (Demas? who traveled with Paul, but love this present world [2Tim 4:10]) like Judas.

    But devout Calvinists take comfort in the promises of God and His real (though Spiritual) sacramental blessing at Baptism and at the Eucharist…that these things with our zealously “working out” of our salvation — God will faithfully and mercifully bring us to glory. There is a sense here that the Calvinist can say with greater certainty than the Orthodox, that heaven will be populated with a faithful host no man can number, who love Christ sincerely to the end. His eternal decrees accompanied by His monergistic grace…guarantees it.

    But the Orthodox systems’ “Synergism” hypothetically allows for the possibility that no man, of his free will responds to the grace of God (or persevers to the end if he believes temporarially). Indeed, all men might freely scorn the grace of God and willingly choose Hell. What assurance in Orthodoxy is there that ANY man will “chose Life” — or that Heaven will full of that multitude no man can number, eternally praising God for His mercy in Christ Jesus? Seems there is a real “downside potential” in the Orthodox anthropology that scorns the notion of Man as merely an totally depraved automoton playing out God’s indiscriminate eternal decrees — but grants Man freewill. Hell might be full…and heaven completely empty.

    • Samn!

      This interest in certainty about people’s eternal fate seems to be a unique element of the Calvinist psychology, and not a healthy one!

      That said, the Orthodox do know that heaven is populated with a cloud of martyrs and saints.

      • robertar


        Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! Thanks for sharing your insight.


  3. Nicodemus


    You state well the certainty and logical necessity of the Reformed System. Thankfully, the Orthodox is not trapped in such a system! For example, we have no worries that Hell will be full while Heaven empty. This is because Orthodox theology rests upon History and Scripture. And both assure us of that “host, no man can number” ringing with praises to God on earth and in heaven. That the multitude of God’s mercies in time and history to humanity would overwhelm and persuade that heavenly host to freely and willingly “choose life and live” instead of the death and Hell, does not even qualify as a “mystery”!

    We already know from History (God’s narrative to us) and Scripture that Christ has defeated death and the Devil. There is no need for us to peer into God’s eternal decrees. Nor must we deny all humanity the image and likeness of God as totally depraved automatons. There is no need for the monergestic coercion of God to save or men, or eternally damn men, in a totally impersonal abstraction. No, Orthodoxy does not imagine humanity in the hands of and angry God – one who dangles mankind over the flames of Hell. (Jonathan Edwards’ sermon: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.sinners.html)

    No, there is an abundance of agreement in the oral narrative of History, Holy Tradition delivered once and for all to the saints (Jude 3), and throughout Scripture. God loves the world and mankind. Christ became incarnate in the womb of the virgin Mary to redeem humanity from Death and Hell. The Holy Spirit is given to the Church as a continuous Pentecost, to redeem all Creation. We grant that this might not match the decidedly impersonal abstract logic of your system. So yes, there are Divine Mysteries we cannot deduce by logical necessity. But then how, in the face of History and Scripture, can the Calvinist deduce the ‘mystery’ of an impersonal decree from a god who damns to eternal Hell those He Himself decrees to be there – yet at the same time be the Loving, Triune God of Scripture? No, the Calvinists’ god (and robotically programed-humanity) is far more an ‘irrational-mystery’ than anything found in Orthodoxy – or history, or Scripture.


    • Karen

      Well said. Thanks!

    • Raphael

      O Mystery, hidden from the world Through all the ages past—Even to the angel hosts unknown—Is manifest at last; And thou, Theotokos, hast given Incarnate God, from highest heaven

      God in His fullness wears our flesh, And from our sin and loss Redeemed us by His pain and death Upon the awful Cross. Save us, through Him who cast away The bands of death, we humbly pray.

  4. Canadian

    Both Calvinist’s and Orthodox are infallibly certain of “many” who will have eternal life testified to by both scripture and the saints. The hypothetical empty heaven scenario is a straw man.
    In Calvinism, assurance is logically given with one hand but personally taken with the other. Again WCF 18:3 says the assurance which is infallible does not belong to the essence of faith and a believer may or may not have it but must strive to get it. The Calvinist’s assurance is fallibly pursued synergistically there, and not by mere trust in Christ’s promises! This is because the promises cannot be infallibly personally applied due to the decree, hence no infallible assurance at all.
    St. Paul himself in 1 Cor 9:27 brings his body in subjection lest after preaching to others he might become reprobate, but he did not strive for the assurance of an unknown decree but to enter the narrow gate of Luke 13:24 and count everything as loss for the prize of communion with Christ.

  5. Jnorm

    David said
    “But the Orthodox systems’ “Synergism” hypothetically allows for the possibility that no man, of his free will responds to the grace of God (or persevers to the end if he believes temporarially). Indeed, all men might freely scorn the grace of God and willingly choose Hell. What assurance in Orthodoxy is there that ANY man will “chose Life” — or that Heaven will full of that multitude no man can number, eternally praising God for His mercy in Christ Jesus? Seems there is a real “downside potential” in the Orthodox anthropology that scorns the notion of Man as merely an totally depraved automoton playing out God’s indiscriminate eternal decrees — but grants Man freewill. Hell might be full…and heaven completely empty.”

    This argument might work with protestant free willers, but not us. For we have the examples of the Theotokos and the rest of the Saints (Old Testament kings, Patriarchs, prophets and our first parents included).

  6. Chris S

    Greetings brothers,

    Thanks for your blog here, I’ve enjoyed reading it on and off over the last year. Rodger, your posts are very informative and you write clearly and succinctly!

    There were a couple things that jumped out at me in what you wrote, and I was wondering if I could give you some fairly non polemic food for thought on a couple points. I would preface this with the reminder (mostly to myself) that it’s easy to read someone else’s blog and nitpick what they say. I hope this comes across in a spirit of “faith, hope, and love”.

    You mention that the forensic takes front seat in the reformed tradition; although it is not altogether absent in Orthodoxy. I would have to agree in part–that gradually there was a move towards heavier forensic emphases particularly in baptist denominations, and Presbyterian denominations influenced by American baptist theology. And yet Calvin’s heavy emphasis on union with Christ seems to overshadow his forensic doctrine. It is interesting that Calvin treats Sanctification before justification in the institutes–generally not repeated in the post reformation period.

    Also, you make a nebulous statement that Protestants believe they have free will to fight sin and that all a believer needs is right understanding through listening attentively to the pastors sermon. I would have loved to see here a better representation of the Reformed doctrine of sanctification. I feel you made a straw man here and probably could have gone deeper. I know you could have gone deeper because your posts are very well done!

    That having been said, I think you touch on an idea that I would love to develop more. It’s the question of what is theology and how does it relate to our walk in Christ? There is a danger in the reformed community that equates theological knowledge with logical propositions from Scripture. Here I must defer to Archimandrite Vasileios: “if God the Word had not assumed human nature, He would have left it in darkness, “for what is not assumed is not healed” And if our theology does not assume us, if it does not change our life, it will leave our life outside the taste of new creation, in the darkness of ignorance, and so outside the mystery of theology which is the manifestation of the struggle for and fact of salvation in Christ.” (From Hymn of Entry, p.23) I would love to hear you write about this relationship sometime.

    Glory to God!


    • robertar


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! You made a number of good points. The subject of the Reformed understanding of sanctification is an important and rather complex issue. It would be good if someone could direct us to a link that gives an in depth examination of the Reformed understanding of sanctification. I have tried to write postings that are accurate and fair to both sides. You are right that the Reformed tradition has neglected Calvin’s teaching on our union with Christ. But it did receive attention from the Mercersburg Theology and more recently from W. Bradford’s Littlejohn’s The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity.


  7. Anna

    As an Orthodox Christian from a Calvinist background, I found this post most disturbing (that is to say, as far as I read). Why create the ‘straw man’ of a cold, insensitive, confused, unloving pastor – who only discusses theory when a parishioner comes for help – for the beginning of your post?

    This is quite different from my life of experience of warm, loving, compassionate and bright Calvinist clergy (including my own Father, of Blessed Memory).

    Also, the rigid interpretation of the works of Calvin is far from the norm in modern Reformed Churches – I think in an entire lifetime of Calvinist living, I have only known perhaps 3 individuals who held this sort of rigid interpretation of Calvin’s Institutes.

    I have seen Protestants find some obscure statement by Tertullian and paint all Orthodox with that one statement – after all he is a Church Father. Likewise, it seems you’re finding individual statements from Calvin and painting all Calvinists with those statements – even though most Calvinists are Sola Scriptura and do not hold Calvin’s Institutes to be infallible.

    It is unfair to portray Calvinists in this way.

    I think it would be much more productive to discuss what is RIGHT about Orthodoxy (we would never run out of material!), instead of what we perceive to be wrong about someone else’s beliefs.

    • robertar


      Like you my experience with Reformed Christianity has been positive. My intention in citing Spencer Boersma’s hypothetical dialogue was to use it as a springboard for a discussion of the Reformed understanding of the perseverance of the saints. I am well aware that there exists a wide range of expressions of the Reformed faith. For the sake of bringing clarity to our understanding of Calvinism I have endeavored to present Calvin and the Westminster Confession in a fair and balanced manner. I am well aware that Reformed Christians hold Scripture as their supreme authority, but nonetheless Calvin and major documents like the Westminster Confession are very useful for ascertaining the historic Reformed teaching on a particular subject matter. I don’t think I resorted to a rigid interpretation of Calvin as you claimed I have done. I believed that I described accurately the historic theological core of the Reformed faith. You are welcome to prove me wrong.

      Regarding Tertullian, I need to point out that Orthodoxy does not consider him a church father. While we respect many of his statements, Tertullian is not considered a church father because towards the end of his life he succumbed to the Montanist heresy.

      And with respect to your closing exhortation that we should focus on what is right with Orthodoxy and not engage in a critique in the views of others, I bring to your attention that Irenaeus of Lyons in his classic Against the Heresies described in detail the beliefs of the Gnostics while also presenting the Christian faith. Likewise, Basil the Great in On the Holy Spirit and Athanasius the Great in Against the Arians described the teachings of their opponents in addition to describing and defending the orthodox position. I have tried to follow their methodology on the OrthodoxBridge. The key here is to present the other side’s position clearly. So likewise for this particular blog posting I have sought present the Reformed position on the perseverance of the saints fairly. If you believe that my presentation is in error or unfair you are welcome to present additional evidence from Calvin and the major Reformed confessions. I’m sure there are many Reformed pastors whose pastoral style is quite different from that presented by Boersma, but the question is how well their approach represents the historic Reformed doctrine and practice.

      Thank you for your frankness and your concern for fairness.


  8. Anna

    I have no interest in proving anyone wrong. In any case, my concern is more with the method and tone of your argument than with the actual facts or points of doctrine.

    (I also did not intend to discuss the actual standing of Tertullian – merely how one group can inaccurately portray the views of another by citing various people they see as “authorities” from the other group. Sorry for my lack of clarity there.)

    I’ve read St. Basil (in fact, I was thinking of him as I typed my post) – I do see his works as focusing more strongly on his own doctrine than on that of his opponents – even though he did vehemently and outspokenly disagree with their teachings. It is also worth noting that he came from a culture and a time much more outspoken than our own.

    I converted to Orthodoxy not because I DISliked my childhood Church but because I LIKED the Orthodox Church – that being said, I don’t wish to speak on behalf of Calvinist doctrine – only on behalf of Calvinist people. It’s the painting of a fictional Pastor and the implication that he is typical of a group that I found most disturbing.

    When I converted, my Priest encouraged me to see my conversion as a continuation of my life’s Spiritual journey – not a U-turn. I found a lot of wisdom and help in that guidance. I think it is much more beneficial to see Calvinists as our brothers and sisters, and to dialogue in that way, than to see them as our “opposite” as one person recently did elsewhere while citing your post.

    And, just to be clear, I’m also expressing no animosity toward YOU personally – merely encouraging a gentler dialogue, without sacrificing truth.

  9. David

    Well said Anna.
    I belive your loving heart and warm sensitivities toward your Reformed & Calvinistic heritage closely reflect mine, though I’m still there. Yet I also think you stand closer to Robert’s heart and intent for this blog than you might realize. While there are always going to be caricatures of sorts (the brief skit by Pastor Boersma above) that leave much out — I belive Robert has fallen all over himself to be fair and open to added elucidation. Yet again, I do thank you for your willingness to read and inteact. Perhaps you might offer Robert a post which more clearly and fairly lays out the Protestant view of Perseverence & Preservation of the Saint (or Sanctification) — with the Orthodox corrective, for our consideration. It is good for us all.
    in His tender mercies,

  10. Anna

    Thank you for your kind words, David.

    Actually, Robert’s summary at the end of the article here is quite beautiful! I really don’t think I can top that : )

    If you have been talking to him for a while, you may well be aware of a fuller picture of his ongoing attitude. I don’t doubt that he’s a lovely & loving person. And, I’m glad he has taken on this daunting task.

    The problem is that – with blogs- a single post can be shared elsewhere and read in isolation by those who know nothing else about the topic or the character of the blogger. Which is what happened here. A group was completely unfamiliar with Calvinism, and was discussing those Christians who took a cold, academic view of suffering. This post was being used to indicate that such behaviour was the norm for Calvinists. That Orthodoxy and Calvinism were “opposites.” Which is what disturbed me.

    Despite a childhood filled with jokes about Presbyterians being “God’s Frozen People” – those jokes were the furthest thing from the reality of what I experienced : )

    I think I’ll let you all get back to your discussion – and forgive me for interrupting.

    Thanks, -Anna

  11. David

    Well said sweet Anna…understand completely.

  12. RobW

    I know I’m two years behind on this article, but links led to links led to links … I just want to say, the way this article presents Reformed beliefs, and the way I’ve experienced them are very, very different. If the Reformed churches truly taught and lived the way this article represents them, I would not want to be Reformed either!

    By far the most egregious error is pointed out in the article itself, when it says “[i]n comparing the Reformed tradition against the Orthodox tradition care must be taken not to reduce the Reformed doctrine of salvation to justification.” Pretty much every reference to the Reformed view of “salvation” in this article is really a reference to the Reformed doctrine of justification and ignores anything about sanctification. For example, see the whole section on “The Reformed Perspective”, which is exclusively the Reformed perspective on justification and has no mention of sanctification. In fact, it implies there is no such thing, when it says “[t]he element of our human response or struggle to live holy lives has no part in Calvin’s monergistic understanding of salvation” – actually, there is a lot of response/struggle in Reformed theology, but it’s not part of justification, which comes first and is accomplished by God for us, it’s part of sanctification, which is the part that’s concerned with our response and our lives in Christ.

    • robertar

      Rob W,

      I’m glad someone is reading the article written two years ago! I reread the article and found it to be balanced in its coverage of justification and sanctification in the Reformed tradition. In the paragraph just before the conclusion I warned against reducing Reformed soteriology to justification and I referenced three major confessional documents on the doctrine of sanctification: the Westminster Confession, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Second Helvetic Confession.

      However, the main difference between the two traditions is not the prominence of sanctification in our salvation. The point of my article was that the main difference between the Reformed tradition and Orthodoxy is monergism — the Reformed belief that we are saved only by God’s grace and that our struggle in sanctification can only come about by God’s bestowal of grace on the elect. I noticed that in your comment you did not touch on the doctrine of monergism. Do you affirm the doctrine of monergism? That sanctification and the perseverance of the saints stems from God’s bestowing on the elect?


      • RobW

        Thank you for the response on such an old article :). I was mostly disappointed because I read your version of the Orthodox view of salvation, and recognized much of what you said in my own Reformed views, but when you squeezed sanctification into the last paragraph, of course none of that came through in the way you presented the Reformed view. Then again, the whole premise of the article was a pretty bad straw man view of a Reformed Pastor, so I wasn’t totally surprised (seriously, if your pastor talks to you that way when you go to him for counselling, get a new pastor!)

        As you suspect, yes I do subscribe to a monergistic view of election and justification (and yes, that’s where sanctification starts from). I view justification as being “made alive in Christ.” Once we’re alive, we start to walk with God (I guess you could call this a synergistic view of sanctification). So when you say The Christian life is a repeated cycle of us walking, our falling flat on our faces, and our getting up again, etc. Therefore, an Orthodox Christian is not surprised by our falling into sin like the Young Man.”, I say, you can remove the word Orthodox from the second sentence, because I completely agree!

        However, when you say “Calvinist paradigm assumes that failure to keep God’s law is the result of willful disobedience, not inability”, I disagree. I just say that the inability to keep God’s law is also a result of our (corporate, original) sin. Actually, reading that, maybe I agree, but I call it a false dichotomy – it is the result of willful disobedience, but not necessarily mine (see again, original sin). And again, the position you present as Orthodox (“The Orthodox understanding of sin is that our will and soul have been weakened by the Fall”) is actually totally Reformed as well – in fact, the doctrine of “total depravity” is just that – the total doesn’t mean what most people assume, it means that the will also was affected by the Fall (actually, killed outright, not just weakened, and brought back to life in Christ … but not necessarily to full strength, see again sanctification).

        Anyways, that’s a lot more than you were probably bargaining for :). I did appreciate the article, because I saw so much that I was like, yes, of course, that is Christianity as I understand it. I was just disappointed that you fell into the trap of comparing the breadth of Orthodox Christianity, for the most part, with one narrow part of “Calvinist” Christianity.

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