Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Olson's forked tongue

At the end of the chapter Smith says of God’s promises of blessing “All this belongs to those who are in Jesus Christ. It can be yours.” (p. 113) Wait. How can he say that? How can a Calvinist or any monergist who is not a universalist say “It [salvation] can be yours” without qualification? IF Smith were writing only to believers he would says “It is yours.” Clearly by saying “It can be yours” (italics added) he is not just talking (in this instance) to believers. However, how can a non-universalist monergist say to an unknown audience that salvation can be theirs without qualification?
Therein lies a deep inconsistency and a conundrum in Calvinism (except hyper-Calvinism). It is simply dishonest to say indiscriminately to a group of people that salvation can be theirs. There is no way to know that. If Christ died only for some, then there is no way to know that salvation can be theirs—when “theirs” refers to a mixed group such as readers of this book. (Again, in this particular instance, anyway, Smith cannot be thinking only of believing readers or else he would say salvation is theirs, not can be theirs. So at least in this sentence he is talking to a wider audience including people he does not think are all saved already.)
Many evangelical Calvinists do evangelize indiscriminately. I agree with the hyper-Calvinists who reject that. The gospel cannot be a “well-meant offer” to an unknown group of people, an audience that may include the non-elect. To say to such a group “Salvation can be yours” is misleading. It wouldn’t be wrong to say “Salvation may be yours.” But this is a case where “can” and “may” do not mean the same thing. (In proper English, of course, they usually aren’t the same thing.)
I would challenge members of The Gospel Coalition and all monergists to be honest and refrain from indiscriminate evangelism which is logically inconsistent with non-universalist monergism and even dishonest.

Talk about dishonesty: Olson pounces on a single phrase ("It can be yours") by a pastor, then acts as if that choice of words discredits Reformed evangelism in toto. He completely disregards nuanced formulations of the well-meant offer by Reformed philosophers and theologians like William Young, Paul Helm, and Roger Nicole.   


  1. Steve, I honestly don't see how Olson is being dishonest, at least not deliberately. I looked up "can" in the Bing dictionary and the very first definition says, "be able to: to have the ability, knowledge, or opportunity to do something". Someone who is not elect will never be able to attain salvation, so it is never a possibility, whether we know that person's status as elect or not. However, I am not sure if Olson is right in his critique of Calvinism itself here, but I think he is right that the phrase "can" all by itself is in error and needs qualification, whereas "may" would not. Is this a case where someone would imply simply an unknown possibility (in relative terms as opposed to absolute?). I could see that. Bing's second definition says, "be likely: to be likely to be true or to be the case" and the third says, "be allowed to: to be allowed to do something, either by legal or moral right or by permission". I take note however that according to Bing neither of these is the primary definition.

  2. I explained how he's being dishonest.

    i) For starters, if he were honest, he wouldn't make his argument hinge on the formulation of a pastor. Honest critics test their argument against the most sophisticated representatives of the opposing position. Generally speaking, that's not a pastor. If he were honest, Olson would study the opposing position as articulated the best Reformed philosophers and theologians.

    ii) Second, he seizes on one little phrase ("It could be yours"), as if that's the only way, or the best way, to state the Reformed position on evangelism and/or the well-meant offer. That's not a good faith effort to engage Calvinism.

    Reformed evangelism and/or the well-meant offer doesn't depend on that particular formulation, which is just one pastor's choice of words, in a popular writing.

  3. How does Olson escape his own objection here? If Calvinists cannot make an honest gospel offer because they don't know who is elect or not, then neither can he, because he doesn't know whether someone will believe or not, or whether they will persevere in the faith or not, even if they do choose to believe at a certain point.

    The same standard should be applied for all.

  4. Thank you, Steve. I think I understand now. I think that phrase "it could be yours" is definitely not the best way to express the Gospel offer. You make excellent points, but I am not sure if I entirely agree. However, I'm not a Calvinist, so I'll concede both of those points, as they are quite reasonable. I think August has a pretty good point, too.

  5. I have two thoughts:
    First, I have a hard time even seeing the problem. It seems to me that "can" here expresses theoretical possibility. "Can" is different from "will." If he knew that the person was elect he should say "It will be yours." If he knew the person was reprobate he should say, "It won't be yours." If he didn't know, then he expresses it in terms of possibility as either "It can be yours" or more formally "It could be yours."
    Second, He wants to know how that can be said without qualification. I want to know why it has to be qualified at all? When I first started preaching I was so nervous of people misunderstanding my point that I would qualify it several different ways because there were several different ways I could be misunderstood. I realized it really took away from the impact of the point I wanted to make by constantly having to qualify for those few who had hobby horses.