Is salvation possible for all: Greg Koukl wants to have his Calvinism but not eat it

For the last few months I have listened to many of Greg Koukl’s “Stand to Reason” podcasts. I learn a great deal and am very grateful to him for his wide and often deep knowledge. And he’s a Calvinist, that is, he believes that God is free to do what he wants including choosing whom he wants to save while passing others by – where the reason for His choice has got absolutely nothing to do with any human contribution or cooperation. In a 2013 podcast (00.50), he tries to answer a caller’s (Sam) question: How can Jesus be the Savior of all and some at the same time? Here is the verbatim exchange – cut short by the predetermined commercials: (I italicise parts for discussion) Sam, a Calvinist, quotes 1 Timothy 4:10 and asks Koukl how from the Calvinist perspective can God be the saviour of all men: That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” Koukl – “If we built a highway in the wilderness and it was paid for by government money, and it was a public highway, would that be a highway for all men? Sure it is. But does everybody go there. Who takes advantage of it? The people that use it. It’s especially beneficial to them because they take advantage of the highway. In the case of Jesus it is clear that universalism is not the case, that everybody is not going to heaven – some are not. So when it says that he is the savior of all men, it cannot mean that he is effectively the savior of all men, but he is the one for all men from whom all salvation is possible. And if you take advantage of that, especially for believers, you’re on the road. I don’t know any other way to take that, Sam. Sam – The reason why I ask you that is because you and I are Calvinist and you prescribe to particular atonement. Koukl – Yes Sam – So in what sense is Jesus the savior of all men? Koukl – In the sense I described it. Sam – But the way you described it sounds like he provided a way for everybody to be saved, that everyone has the potential to be saved. But how can a person have the potential to be saved by Jesus if Jesus didn’t actually die for them? Koukl – Let me put it this way; it is a classic way of putting it. The cross is adequate for everyone but only effective or applied to those who fulfill the requirements. If you don’t fulfill the requirement for getting it, it isn’t effective for you. It is there for all men. It is adequate for everyone because Jesus’ work was not a quantitative thing but a qualitative thing. That was the reason why God became a man because it took the God-Man to do the whole job. It is adequate for everyone; it is only applied to those who satisfy the requirements, that is, faith in Jesus. And so he is the savior for the world, the only one who can rescue the world, and only faith in him saves. But everybody doesn’t exercise that faith. Why they don’t is a different discussion. We’re just trying to make sense of the phrase [ 1 Tim 4:10]. And I think that does the job.” Here is Koukl in my nutshell: Faith is adequate for everyone without exception (“all”) but it is only applied to those who “exercise” faith. Why everybody doesn’t exercise faith is not relevant to 1 Tim 4:10. But I think it is very relevant, maybe not in evangelism but certainly in a response to Sam’s theological question “It sounds like he provided a way for everybody to be saved, that everyone has the potential to be saved. But how can a person have the potential to be saved by Jesus if Jesus didn’t actually die for them?” Koukl gives the strong impression that faith – as the Arminian would say – is not a gift from God but man’s gift to God. Sam is right; Koukl does seem to be saying that Christ died for everybody on earth (Koukl’s “world”) and thus gave everybody the potential to be saved. As the Arminian would say, God (the Trinity) was not certain that he would save anybody until he foresaw that some (say 100 million out of 60 billion) would exercise their faith in Him through the Gospel. Even if the ratio was very small, there would still be at the end of time 10 000 times 10 000 souls in heaven. Worth taking the “risk,” as only an Arminian could say, in this case, C. S. Lewis: The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free. Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. … If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will – that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings- then we may take it it is worth paying.”

(C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity).

In Koukl’s very useful book “Tactics: A game plan for discussing your Christian convictions” describes how he would explain God’s offer of salvation. (My italics)

We know we’re guilty. That’s the problem. So God offers a solution: a pardon, free of charge. But clemency is on his terms, not ours. Jesus is God’s means of pardon. He personally paid the penalty in our place. He took the rap for our crimes. No one else did that. Only Jesus. Now we have a choice to make. Either we take the pardon and go free, or we turn it down and pay for our crimes ourselves.”

A Calvinist would have no problem telling a person, “Now, you have a choice to make,” for we read in Deuteronomy 31:11: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose  life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” Yet, the LORD said previously: “The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people (Deuteronomy 7:7). And we read in John 15:16: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained/appointed you [set you in place], that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain…”

For both the Arminian and the Calvinist, God’s freedom and, indeed, human freedom are involved in coming to Christ. The difference between the Arminian and the Calvinist position is that in the latter position, God has to first release the will from its bondage to the “flesh.” Arminians (named after Jacobus Arminius) believe they have the natural ability to come to faith in Christ. Human beings believe what they want to believe. Their hearts (desires) predetermine what they want. This predetermination is not from outside but from within, so inwardly determined. Their wills are prisoners of their hearts, which in its natural state does not receive the “things of the spirit.” This is what is meant by the “bondage of the will.” What does the natural man want? Not Christ: 1 Corinthians 2:14 “The natural man (born with a sin nature) receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” It’s a delusion to think if you improve your “naturals,” God is bound to give you “spirituals.” Only God can do that – and only to whom he will: John 5:21, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” (See If you improve your naturals, is God bound to give you spirituals? Fiddling with free will). How do Koukl’s descriptions of, as he describes it, exercising free choice tie in with his belief in “particular” redemption? Before try and answer, let us briefly examine “particular” atonement. The traditional term is “limited” atonement, that is, atonement/salvation/redemption/justification is limited to those on whom God exercises his mercy. In Calvinist understanding, everybody is under condemnation and deserves damnation. God’s mercy is dependent on nothing but God’s freedom to save some sinners and pass others by. It is true Arminianism generally also believes in a particular sort of redemption but only in the sense that not everybody is saved for the reason that they – being deadish, not really dead, in sin – did not exercise their free wills to give God the gift of faith in exchange for His gift of grace. The freedom to choose Christ before he has brought you to life (before you were born again) contradicts the following scriptures: John 1 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. Romans 9 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. In an earlier explanation (in 2011) of particular/limited atonement, Koukl explains clearly, off the cuff, it seems, in under four minutes the Calvinist position. I wonder why it didn’t go so well in his later explanation (in 2013) above. Here is the 2011 Koukl:

 “As a Calvinist how do i deal with God/s free choice of choosing some for salvation and not others. there’s a kind of ambiguity in the question because I’m not sure exactly what they mean by how i deal with it. How i deal with the unfairness of it, how do i deal with it emotionally? I don’t know what else it could be meaning. Let me take a shot a couple of these things. How do  ideal with the fairness of it. actually I don’t think  fairness enters into the equation. when you think about it, God’s act of forgiveness of any individual is grounded in grace. that means it is unmerited and not required. If God was obliged to forgive under certain circumstances then it wouldn’t be grace. Paul makes this very clear in Romans chapter 4 where he says if I earn it then it has got to be given and God owes it to us. But if it is not earned and God justifies those ungodly people who put their faith in Christ, well that’s an act of grace. That’s the way I see salvation: it is a sovereign act of grace; God has never owed anybody forgiveness. He did not have any plan of salvation for the fallen angels. He didn’t have to develop a plan of salvation for us either. He chose to do that according to his good will and his mercies. It’s like a supererogatory act, that is, an act beyond the call of duty. He didn’t have to do it, but when he does it, it is supererogatory to the extent that he dispenses grace. So when he acts mercifully towards people, he can do what he wants with his mercy. It’s got nothing to do with free choice. Not our free choice; not our freedom, it has to do with God’s freedom. Can God cancel debts against him? Sure he can; that’s his side of the ledger. There’s no problem there. So I don’t think that God is obliged to give everybody the same shake. If that were the case then grace wouldn’t be grace; it would be obligatory for God. So I don’t think there is a fairness problem because I don’t think the constant of fairness applies to the situation. Why is it that God gives sovereign grace to some people and not to others? That’s another question and I don’t have the foggiest idea. This is something that is not addressed in the scripture. Some people have speculated on it but I haven’t heard anything convincing. It’s just a mystery to us. God is the creator; he can choose as he wills according to his good pleasure. And if he chooses too save some and not others, that is perfectly within his purview. He is the sovereign after all; he can do what he likes with his own, and there is nothing unjust about punishing people who are guilty. And so for those who do not receive free grace, they end up receiving a judgement that is deserved by them. The unfairness is not that some people receive grace; it’s that some people do not receive the judgment they deserve. So all those who are saved are saved by an act of God’s grace that they didn’t deserve, and that when they get punished, are getting punished by an act of God’s justice that they did deserve.”

Now that Koukl  and Sam (and I) are sitting at the same table, eating the same cake, I hope they will allow me to elaborate and what all three of use believe.

If it is true that true believers in Christ are “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13 above), does this mean that they are zombies, puppets in the hands of God? Isn’t Koukl right that true believers “exercise” their faith? Of course believers exercise their faith; but only after it is given – God’s gift to man, not man’s gift to God. We are reminded of Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” All Calvinists hold that both grace and faith are gifts from God whereas the Arminian says grace (“prevenient” grace) is God’s gift to man, and faith is man’s gift to God. That is how they understand the two earlier verses in the chapter (Ephesians 2):

4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. So, for the Arminian, we are made alive to the possibility of exercising faith in Christ, that is, of giving God the gift of our faith. All this sounds very similar to what Koukl is saying. Granted, he did not have (provide?) enough time to elaborate, which might have shed more light on what he was saying. In this case, what he had already said was already so Arminian in its expression that what would be required not more light, but a different light; something like this – from Alan Kurschner. Here is his exegesis of 1 Timothy 4:10, which takes a few minutes to read or speak, shorter than the time that Koukl spent on his caller, Sam.

For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim 4:10). Here is Kurschner’s exegesis with which I conclude:

What does “all people” mean here for Paul? Does it mean all people without exception or distinction? And most importantly, how can God be the Savior of those who do not believe? Or is there some other element that has escaped our notice? A universalist reading should be ruled out since that would contradict Paul’s unambiguous teaching in his corpus that many will indeed perish eternally. Next, the Arminian interpretation reads too much into the statement, “Savior of all people,” with two assumptions: (1) that the term “Savior” here must mean “possible Savior” and (2) it denotes “every single person.” But if Christ died for all sins, then there is no legal basis for him to punish or condemn any sinner to perdition; thereby making the Arminian an inconsistent universalist. What basis is there to punish the same sin twice: on the cross and on the sinner. There is none.

In addition, the context here does not state what Paul means by “all people.” He could refer to every single person, or he could refer to all kinds of people. Earlier in this same epistle, in the similar context of salvation and all people, Paul makes it clear that he is referring to “all sorts of people,” not every single person who has ever lived on planet earth. (See my exegesis on 1 Timothy 2:4 here).

Some interpreters have suggested that God is “Savior of all people” in a physical-preserving sense — if you will, a “common grace Savior.” And then he is a spiritual Savior, especially of those who believe. This is an unlikely interpretation since there is nothing in this context where Paul defines “Savior” in these two different ways. Further, v. 8b provides a soteriological [salvation) context, “the present life and also for the life to come.” And in v. 10, the natural reading is that Paul uses the same meaning for “Savior” for humanity in general, and believers in particular.

The most plausible interpretation of this verse is what I call the Monotheistic-Exclusivism Interpretation. What Paul is saying is that God (and by extension Christ as Redeemer) is the only true Savior in the world, therefore humanity cannot find any other competing Savior outside of the living God. They have no other Savior to turn to. It is not by mistake that the phrase “living God,” a term that suggests monotheism, is connected with this verse. This phrase is often found in the context of polytheism (e.g. Acts 14:15; 1 Thess 1:9; Josh 3:10; 1 Sam 17:26, 36; 2 Kgs 19:4). Since there is only one God who is alive, there is only one Savior for humanity to embrace. Also, earlier in this same epistle Paul makes a similar exclusive statement that there is one medium of salvation for humanity: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Tim 2:5). Here Paul connects this with the truth of “one God” with only one mediator, anticipating what he says two chapters later.

In addition, this is similar to Jesus’ exclusive statement:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). And in the same vein, Peter proclaims: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). For all humanity, there is only one way, truth, life, Father, name, mediator, and Savior – especially to those who believe.

Finally, I want to conclude with another interpretation that is compelling. The term for “especially” is malista. George W. Knight III argues that this term here should be rendered, “that is,” thereby functioning as an explanation or further clarification of the preceding statement. The translation would be as follows: “who is the Savior of all people, that is, of those who believe.” So this interpretation does not view “those who believe” as a subset of “all people”; instead, “those who believe” identifies the “all people” (NIGTC, The Pastoral Epistles, 203–4).

I can’t resist the last word: What is distinctive about Calvinism? This: God so loved, and thus died for, the world, not Mars. He died for Jews and Gentiles, thus everybody –  without distinction, not without exception.                                                                                                                

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5 thoughts on “Is salvation possible for all: Greg Koukl wants to have his Calvinism but not eat it

  1. I’ve always wondered about Greg Koukl…he says he’s a Calvinist but my limited (no pun intended) reading/hearing him seems to reveal that Calvinism doesn’t necessarily shape his apologetics; in addition to him saying he’s a “Combo” of Presup and Classical, I just scratch my head.

    • SlimJim

      A pre-evidentialist?

      Koukl’s first take seems Arminian through and through, whereas his second is pure – Calvinism. Put together, it seems he struggles with the issue. I have great regard for Koukl.

        • To rub it gently home: a premillennial pre-evidentialist. I must stop this: non-Calvinists will have yet one more reason to ask – ring a bell – “What love is this?” (of Calvinists to be so horrible to a fellow Calvinist).

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