Calvinism’s Conundrum and the Saul problem: wrestling with the apostate king

David before King Saul
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Though I constantly preach and speak against Calvinism, I do so because of Scripture. The more I read the Word of God and study it, the more I am convinced that Calvinism is a fanciful theological theory with little basis in real life. The idea that God overpowers the will of man and forces him or her to do what God wants just doesn’t sit with real life. For, if God does override our wills, why is it that we still sin?

If God is so strong that He can break through the hardest of hearts, as Calvinists would say, why is it that God remains strong and sovereign but some hearts remain hardened toward Him? Calvinists would say “it’s because God doesn’t give His special grace to them,” or that God hardens their hearts out of His mere good pleasure – which is what John Calvin says in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

I’m going to get some serious flak because of my words here, but I’ve been reading on John Calvin for over the last 10 years (11, to be exact), and in my time reading Calvin’s Institutes, I have found him to be unconvincing with statements that seemingly fit his view while he overlooks several verses and passages of Scripture that don’t fit his view. Nothing could be truer of Calvinism’s own conundrum when it comes to King Saul, the Israelite king before David who loses his kingship, the Holy Spirit, and then receives an evil spirit in the Spirit’s place.

His death, relayed to him through awakening the soul of Samuel by means of a witch at Endor (in a seance, as many would think of it today), comes to pass in battle against the Philistines. God stops answering Saul and it is in the absence of God in Saul’s life that he goes to seek out the witch (a witch that should have never remained in the land because Saul was told by God to remove mediums and spiritists from the land).

I won’t get into too much detail on Saul’s life, but I want us to take a look at Calvin’s own view of Saul’s kingship, then some of the words regarding Saul in the Word of God. Finally, we’ll put it all together to see how we should think of Saul today.

First, none other than Calvinism’s most distinguished spokesman, John Calvin himself:

For which reason, we hesitate not, in common language, to say, that one is of a good, another of a vicious nature; though we cease not to hold that both are placed under the universal condition of human depravity. All we mean is that God has conferred on the one a special grace which he has not seen it meet to confer on the other. When he was pleased to set Saul over the kingdom, he made him as it were a new man. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Signalman Publishing, April 2008), Kindle Locations 5266-5274]. Italics mine.

Calvin says here that “God has conferred on one a special grace” which he has not given to another, but as I’ve said in my sermon on Cain, God tells Cain that He would accept his sacrifice “if he would do well,” if he would offer it in a right way with a right spirit in Genesis 4. God didn’t give special grace to Abel and pass by Cain; if He did, why does he attempt to reason with wicked Cain? Calvin cannot explain God’s pleasant words to Cain.

Well, let’s look at Saul. What we know is that the Lord chose Saul to be the first Israelite king:

15 Now the Lord had told Samuel in his ear the day before Saul came, saying, 16 “Tomorrow about this time I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him commander over My people Israel, that he may save My people from the hand of the Philistines; for I have looked upon My people, because their cry has come to Me.”

17 So when Samuel saw Saul, the Lord said to him, “There he is, the man of whom I spoke to you. This one shall reign over My people.”  (1 Samuel 9:15-17, NKJV)

1 Samuel 9:17 reveals that the Lord was pleased to set Saul over the kingdom, as Calvin says. Keep in mind that Calvin says that Saul was “a new man,” a regenerate man. Why does Calvin say this? He doesn’t say it merely because God selected Saul, but because Scripture says that Saul was regenerate. First, Samuel tells Saul that the Lord is with him:

Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him and said: “Is it not because the Lord has anointed you commander over His inheritance? (1 Samuel 10:1)

“The Lord has anointed you commander.” These words seal the deal, but there’s more to the text:

When you have departed from me today, you will find two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say to you, ‘The donkeys which you went to look for have been found. And now your father has ceased caring about the donkeys and is worrying about you, saying, “What shall I do about my son?”’ Then you shall go on forward from there and come to the terebinth tree of Tabor. There three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you, one carrying three young goats, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine. And they will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall receive from their hands. After that you shall come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is. And it will happen, when you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying. Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. And let it be, when these signs come to you, that you do as the occasion demands; for God is with you. You shall go down before me to Gilgal; and surely I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and make sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you and show you what you should do.”

So it was, when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, that God gave him another heart; and all those signs came to pass that day. 10 When they came there to the hill, there was a group of prophets to meet him; then the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them. (1 Samuel 10:2-10)

Samuel tells him to “do as the occasion demands; for God is with you.” It doesn’t get any clearer than this that Saul was a regenerate man, a saved man, God’s man. Samuel tells Saul that he would become “another man” (v.6), but in 1 Samuel 10:9 “God gave him another heart.” It doesn’t say that God gave him another will (contra Calvin), but that God gave Saul another heart. And yet, we find Saul disobeying the Lord twice: first, he refuses to wait for Samuel to offer the burnt offering, and the Lord takes the kingdom from Saul (see 1 Samuel 13:11-14). In the next rebellious action, Saul set up a monument for himself, then fought against the Amalekites and spared the life of King Agag and the best sheep and oxen while killing the rest of the Amalekites and destroying the worst of their possessions (see 1 Samuel 15:10-29). Notice that the Lord says in 1 Samuel 15 that

“I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” (1 Samuel 15:11)

The question one must ask is, “how can someone turn back from following God if he or she was never saved to begin with?” The statement from God doesn’t make sense if Saul never followed and obeyed the Lord.

And this brings us to what happens after the second rebellious act that is recorded in Scripture: the Holy Spirit’s departure from Saul:

14 But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him.” (1 Samuel 16:14)

What do we make of the Spirit’s departure from Saul’s life? But, “I thought God gave him another heart,” you say. Well, He did! Except, the new heart that God gave Saul wasn’t so regenerate that Saul couldn’t disobey Him.

Calvin responds to the Saul’s loss of the kingship by saying that God was righteous to judge Saul in such a manner:

The evil spirit that troubled Saul is said to be from the Lord (1 Sam. 16:14), to intimate that Saul’s madness was a just punishment from God” (Calvin, Institutes, Kindle Location 4221).

But how is it a just punishment from God when God sends an evil spirit to a man who was “regenerate” and “made anew”? How is it that Saul, a regenerate man who’d been given “another heart,” loses the Holy Spirit? How does the Holy Spirit depart from a man who had the assurance that “God is with you” in the beginning? These are questions that Calvin answers by saying “God’s judgment is just.” And yet, this begs the question, “Why is God’s judgment just?”

This is where Calvinism is seen for the fanciful theory that it is. The only way to explain why the Holy Spirit departs from Saul is to see that the “another heart” reference doesn’t rule out the possibility of disobedience and apostasy. Sin and human depravity remain; even when we are saved by God, we can still sin and fall far away from the Lord if we fail to heed the warnings of Scripture and the wooing of the Holy Spirit.

Saul loses the Holy Spirit because “he has turned back from following Me,” the Lord says in 1 Samuel 15:11. The Spirit departs from Saul because Saul forfeits his election by God (uh-oh! “Election” is another word onto which Calvinism hangs its salvation theory) as well as his salvation. And, in the end, the evil spirit from the Lord is God’s way of sending Saul to Hell before he actually arrives there.

Saul is Calvinism’s conundrum. Of all the passages Calvinism gathers together regarding regeneration in Ezekiel and Jeremiah, for instance, Calvinism cannot explain why Saul’s “heart of flesh” was able to re-develop into a “heart of stone” after the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in his life. Calvinism says that why some believe and others don’t is a mystery; they say that Saul’s loss of the Holy Spirit is a mystery. They say that Judas Iscariot’s “election” by God and then his betrayal of his Lord for money is also a mystery (unless you conclude that Judas was never saved and chosen only to hand Jesus over for crucifixion). There are an awful lot of mysteries in Calvinism, but the Bible doesn’t paint Saul’s loss of the Holy Spirit and his throwing away of his election by God and salvation as a mystery: in the Bible, Saul’s actions are simply those of a man who turns away from following God, who falls away from the faith.

Let’s go back to Calvin’s statement on how the elect cannot fall away in his commentary on Hebrews 6:4-6:

But here arises a new question, how can it be that he who has once made such a progress should afterwards fall away? For God, it may be said, calls none effectually but the elect, and Paul testifies that they are really his sons who are led by his Spirit (Romans 8:14) and he teaches us, that it is a sure pledge of adoption when Christ makes us partakers of his Spirit. The elect are also beyond the danger of finally falling away; for the Father who gave them to be preserved by Christ his Son is greater than all, and Christ promises to watch over them all so that none may perish. To all this I answer, That God indeed favors none but the elect alone with the Spirit of regeneration, and that by this they are distinguished from the reprobate… (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries on Hebrews 6:4-6, E4 Group, December 2013, Kindle Location 554593).

So, if Saul was called of God, chosen by God, then loses the Holy Spirit, is he not an elected regenerate who falls away from the faith? If he isn’t, then what else could he be? Calvin says that Saul was made “as if it were a new man,” that he was given God’s special regenerate grace, but Calvin can’t explain why Saul loses the Holy Spirit except to say that “God’s judgment is just.” God’s judgment is only just if the Lord can depart from the life of a regenerate person who apostatizes and turns back from Him.

I dare you to bring this up to a Calvinist. For all Calvinism’s talk of regeneration, and that “only unbelievers can sin in that way,” they sure do get silent when you mention Saul.

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