When we come to election, mercy alone everywhere appears; and, accordingly, in this the saying of Paul is truly realized, ‘So then, it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy,’ (Rom. 9:16); and that not as is commonly understood by those who share the result between the grace of God and the will and agency of man. For their exposition is, that the desire and endeavor of sinners are of no avail by themselves, unless accompanied by the grace of God, but that when aided by his blessing, they also do their part in procuring salvation. This cavil I prefer refuting in the words of Augustine rather than my own: ‘If all that the apostle meant is, that it is not alone of him that willeth, or of him that runneth, unless the Lord be present in mercy, we may retort and hold the converse, that it is not of mercy alone, unless willing and running be present.’ (August. Enchir. ad Laurent, c. 31). But if this is manifestly impious, let us have no doubt that the apostle attributes all to the mercy of the Lord, and leaves nothing to our wills or exertions. Such were the sentiments of that holy man (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Kindle Locations 17979-17985).
7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” (Acts 15:7-11, NKJV)
Calvinism teaches that in salvation, the only thing that matters is to whom God shows mercy. For Calvinism, God selects those He wants to save without regard to anything in them. God doesn’t even select believers based on faith in Calvinism (which is hard to fathom since these individuals are called “believers,” after all). In Calvin’s quote above, he utilizes the words of Romans 9:16 from the Apostle Paul to say that it isn’t about man being willing or about man running but God showing mercy. I would agree with him: if salvation came out of man simply willing himself to be saved, no man would need Jesus. If salvation came out of man “running” or physically exerting himself in the works of the Law and good deeds, then man wouldn’t need Jesus. Man needs divine mercy because he can do no meritorious work to earn him salvation or entrance into the kingdom of God. In the end, the only way any believer enters Heaven is due to the great mercy of our great God.
But the claim that salvation is up to God’s mercy has been pushed too far to say that God is not concerned about saving those who believe, or granting salvation to believers. In other words, Calvinism says that God is so concerned with saving specific individuals that He doesn’t care about their faith or the sincerity of their hearts. But, if Paul says in Romans 9:16 that it is about God showing mercy, and God says “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” to whom does God show mercy? Clearly, if God intends to show mercy on some, then He must have a requirement that can be known — otherwise, what’s the point of saying “I will have mercy on whomever I will,” only to leave man in mystery regarding God’s plan of salvation? To say “it’s all up to me,” then, would mean that God would leave man without any knowledge of the plan of salvation. This appears to be what Calvinism presents to Christians: the idea that however man is saved is all up to God, such that God doesn’t reveal to man how he or she can be saved. If this is the case, then all believing Christians past and present (and yes, even future) will not know they’re saved until they reach judgment. And there can be no assurance of salvation if there is no knowledge of the salvation process.
Calvin’s largest theological pet peeve was against his critics who believe that the grace of God combined with the will of man in salvation. “For their exposition is, that the desire and endeavor of sinners are of no avail by themselves, unless accompanied by the grace of God, but that when aided by his blessing, they also do their part in procuring salvation.” Calvin’s critics believed that salvation required divine grace alongside of some sort of human contribution to salvation, and Calvin disagreed. And yet, if Acts 15:7-11 has anything to offer, it shows us that humans do contribute in salvation (or have a role to play) and yet, God, who is sovereign, acknowledges the human contribution in His decision to save those who believe. Let’s look at Acts 15 now.
Acts 15:7-11 and Human Acknowledgement in Salvation
Acts 15:7-11 shows us dissension in the church at Jerusalem over the nature of salvation: that is, how mankind is saved. Certain individuals from Judea came preaching that one had to be circumcised in order to be saved. So Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem to get some clarity on the matter of salvation. When in Jerusalem, they report the conversion of the Gentiles, how the Gentiles have been saved. And even in Jerusalem, the believing Pharisees (yes, look at God; even some of the Pharisees believed!) still argued that “it is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).
So, in such a context where circumcision and keeping the law of Moses are considered to be the actions that determine whether one is saved or not (works salvation), what is one to do? Peter stands up and gives his testimony about how God has saved the Gentiles in the same way that he and the Jews had been saved: “7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”
Acts 15:8-9 are the keystone verses of this excerpt that serve the purposes of our discussion. In them, we find a few things. First, we see that “God…knows the heart,” a statement that flatly opposes Calvinism; for, if God knows the heart, then this implies that the heart of man, whether willing or unwilling, matters to God. You won’t find this message in Calvinism.
Next, we see that God “acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:8). In other words, God saw the sincere faith within the Gentiles and saved them by giving them the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, just as He did the Jews. So sincere faith matters to God, the heart matters to God, whether a heart is believing or unbelieving is important to God. God doesn’t just save without regard to man’s sincere faith, but rather, saves in accordance with man’s sincere faith and heartfelt belief. Why does God do this? God does this because, in His Sovereignty, God has chosen to save according to sincere belief. Calvinism will tell you that all that matters is whether or not God wants to save you; the human’s desire doesn’t matter. But Acts 15:8-9 trumps that idea.
What does it mean that “God acknowledged them?” The Greek word for “acknowledge” here is emarturesen, a word that means “to testify” or “bear witness.” So the Lord testified to their sincerity of heart, bore witness to their sincerity, confirmed it, by giving them salvation. The Holy Spirit is a sign that someone is saved, for no one is saved without Him (see Romans 8:9).
In verse 9, Peter says that God “purified their hearts by faith,” a reminder that faith is what cleanses the ungodly heart. Only faith in Jesus can make a person new, and only faith, since a person’s heart is unclean and ungodly prior to the moment of faith. Only after believing in Jesus does a person become a new creation in Christ, where the old has passed away and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Finally, there remains one point to which we must pay attention. In Acts 15:11, Peter refers to the salvation of the Gentiles as grace: “11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” Again, “the grace of the Lord Jesus” is how the Gentiles were saved, and Peter says the salvation of the Jews occurs the same way: “through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, the salvation process itself is a grace, and all believers are saved by the grace of God. But remember, humanity must believe in Jesus because, as Paul says it so well in Romans, “Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Romans 4:16). To believe on Jesus is a grace, not a work of human merit, as Calvin and modern-day Calvinists so egregiously believe. To identify human faith as a work of human merit is Calvin’s most egregious error.
As can be seen in Acts 15:8, God knowing the hearts of men and women, saved the Gentiles on account of the state of their hearts. He alone knows what’s inside a man. God alone knows whether an individual is sincere in believing or insincere. Only God can see those things; man looks on the outward appearance, whether or not a man looks contrite, but only God can see to the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
And God cares about the heart. If Calvinism says anything, it’ll tell you that God only cares about His desire to save or pass over (reprobate). And yet, Acts 15:7-11 poses problems for Calvinism because it suggests rather strongly that the sincere faith of an individual matters to God, that God saves on the basis of sincere faith within an individual. God is willing to save an individual who sincerely believes on Him. Humans have a contribution in their salvation, and God “acknowledges” them. The Sovereign God of the universe recognizes sincerity in the human heart, and grants salvation accordingly. He doesn’t have to do it, but He does. That’s our great God, and that’s the glorious plan of salvation He has established.
Now, if Calvinism is right, God doesn’t save based on sincere faith because God is the one who put that faith into the individual. In such a case, God saves based on what He put within the person, so it’s really God being pleased to approve of what He Himself approves. Do you see the redundancy and silliness in such a statement?
I’d rather believe Acts 15:7-11 and call Calvinism unbiblical than endorse such silly logic. Wouldn’t you?