Chosen but Free? A Review of Norman Geisler’s Attack on the Doctrines of Grace (Part2)

September 24, 2013 | by James Harrison

…continued from Part 1


Further examples of logical leaps could be multiplied. Simply consider the following statement in which Geisler describes the capability of one who is “spiritually dead”.

“A spiritually dead person, then, is in need of spiritual life from God. But he does exist, and he can know and choose. His faculties that make up the image of God are not absent; they are simply incapable of initiating or attaining their own salvation. Like a drowning person, a fallen person can reach out and accept the lifeline even though he cannot make it to safety on his own.”

The problems in this statement should be obvious. First, Geisler once again builds another of his strawmen in his statement that the spiritually dead man “does exist”. Is there really someone who has denied the existence of spiritually dead men? Is there someone who has theorized that this world of unbelief is populated by phantoms, or figments of imagination? What actual meaning can such a statement have? But more important is Geisler’s description of this spiritually dead man. We need only examine the terminology which is presented and then ask, “Can a dead man do this?” Geisler says that a spiritually dead man can “know” spiritual things, can “choose” in a spiritual context. In what sense, then, we must ask, is he “dead”? Metaphors are used in order to convey meaning. What meaning is conveyed by the description of death, if we turn around and begin speaking of dead people “knowing” and “choosing”?

Furthermore, with no logical or exegetical warrant, Geisler takes it upon himself to change the metaphor of Scripture. No longer are we speaking of a dead person, but this metaphor of death is now equated with a new metaphor introduced not by Scripture, but by Geisler himself…that of drowning. A drowning man, Geisler tells us, can reach out and accept the lifeline. True enough. But can one who is already drowned do so? Geisler’s problem is that the scriptural metaphor does not fit his system, and so he must import a metaphor of his own.

A related logical leap takes place in the preceding chapter. In commenting upon a quote by the Puritan William Ames, and attempting to represent the Calvinistic view, he says,

“In fact, fallen human beings are so dead in sin that God must first regenerate them before they can even believe. Dead men do not believe anything; they are dead!”

“So” dead? Are there degrees of deadness? In the movie, The Princess Bride, the hero of the story, Westly, has been tortured to death by the evil Prince Humperdink. Having been found by his friends with no apparent signs of life, his body is carried to the home of Mad Max the Miracle Worker. Upon examination, Mad Max mutters, “Ehh. I’ve seen worse.” He then goes on to explain that there is a difference between being “mostly dead” and being “all dead”. “Mostly dead,” Max informs the friends, “is a little alive. All dead, well, with all dead there’s only one thing you can do…go through his pockets and look for loose change.”

It appears that Dr. Geisler’s view of spiritual death was learned from Mad Max the Miracle Worker. But when Scripture uses terminology like “death”, it is not referring to the Hollywood version. Either dead is dead or it is something other than dead. There is no such thing as being “so dead in sin,” as if one could be only “mostly dead.”

In spite of the of the problems found in CBF which have been presented thus far, that which causes the greatest degree of frustration for the reader concerns Dr. Geisler’s exegesis, or lack thereof.


When an author is dealing with a tradition that has produced such a super-abundance of exegetical material, one would think that exegesis of pertinent passages would be a priority. But if one were to assume such a thing, one would be terribly disappointed with CBF. Dr. Geisler is dealing with a position which has produced, for example, John Owen’s seven volume commentary on the book of Hebrews alone; Calvin’s Commentaries on virtually every book of the Bible, save Revelation; Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, a three volume commentary on the Psalms, and innumerable other volume’s by men such as Machen, Murray, Lloyd-Jones, and the host of Puritan divines.

In response to this wealth of exegetical treasure, we are provided with virtually nothing. At the most, texts which are central to the issue at hand are given one page, but the vast majority of texts do not rate even that much, but merely a paragraph or two. As the reader would expect, very little real exegesis takes place within those kinds of space restraints. The result is assertion after assertion, with virtually no serious attention given to either the text itself, or to Reformed explanations and exegesis.

A few examples will have to suffice.

John 6:37

In support of his contention that faith is “not a gift that God offers only to some” but rather “all are responsible to believe and ‘whoever’ decides to believe can believe” the reader is provided with a number of the usual passages used in support of this contention. After John 3:16 and 18, however, we read, “Whosoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37, italics, Geisler’s). Apparently, Dr. Geisler believes that nothing more needs to be said concerning he contention that this verse supports his proposition. But does it?

The first observation one might make concerning this verse is that Dr. Geisler has failed to quote it in its entirety. The first half of the verse actually denies Geisler’s premise. “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (italics, mine – JMH).

Secondly, a little digging would have demonstrated that the NIV errs in this rendering as there is no indefinite relative pronoun (whosoever) at this point, but rather reads as the NASB renders it, “the one who comes”, or “the one coming”. Who is “the one coming”? The context speaks for itself. It is the one “that the Father gives”. With no exegetical support whatsoever, Geisler attempts to turn this verse on its head, claiming for it a meaning in direct opposition to what it actually says.

John 12:39-40

On that very same page of CBF we are provided with another example of exegetical headstands. In these verses, John states,

For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, “He has blinded their eyes and He hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them.”

And yet, amazingly enough, Geisler moves from this clear passage to a completely different passage and states,

Jesus was speaking to hardhearted Jews who had seen many indisputable miracles (including the resurrection of Lazarus [John 11] and who had been called upon many times to believe before this point (cf. John 8:26), which reveals that they were able to do so;

Leaving aside the fact that the words spoken in these verses are not Jesus’, but John’s, the crucial issue remains the fact that in spite of the plain words of the passage that “they could not believe”, the conclusion that Geisler comes to is that “they were able to do so.” It seems that Geisler cannot shake his presuppositions. He assumes that if God commands something, that command necessitates the ability to obey. But we need not look far to see that this is not the case. The Mosaic Law was commanded. All Israel was obligated to obey. Did they? Obviously not. Could they? No. And yet they were commanded to do so, and held accountable for their failure. The people of God have been commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and strength. Have we? Can we? The answer is clear. And yet, because of his faulty premise, Geisler is unable to deal with the clear words of the text. They “could not” believe, and furthermore, this state of inability was brought about by the active work of God. “He” blinded them. “He” hardened them. Why? So that they would not see and be converted. And yet, once more, Geisler’s presuppositions force him to turn the text on its head.

It was their own stubborn unbelief that brought on their blindness. Jesus said to them, “I told you that you would die in your sins, if you do not believe that I am, you will indeed die in your sins.” (John 8:24). Thus, it was chosen and avoidable blindness.

John says that their blindness was the work of God. Geisler says that it was their own choice. Note that Geisler cannot demonstrate his point by addressing the text at hand. Instead, he must reach into a different context altogether, that of John 8. But even there he finds no help for we find no explanation in Jesus’ words of who it is that will or will not believe, nor any indication of ability to do so. We are give a plain statement of fact: If one does not believe that Christ is I AM, they will die in their sins. Every word of that is true, and yet not one word of that tells us whether or not His hearers are able to believe.

Romans 8:7-8

A perfect example of the lack of any real interaction with pertinent texts is found as we examine this crucial passage.

because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Each of us have, early on in our elementary school careers, learned the difference between “can” and “may”. Little Johnny raises his hand asks, “Can I go to the boys room?” To which his teacher dutifully replies, “I’m sure you can Johnny. But that’s not the question you meant to ask, is it?” Johnny, if he is bright, realizes what the teacher is getting at, and corrects himself, “I meant to ask, ‘May I go to the boys room?” Johnny was not asking about his physical capability concerning his journey to the boy’s room, he was seeking permission. But his question was one of ability. So is this verse one which speaks to ability, or rather, the lack of ability. “Those who are in the flesh,” we are told, “cannot please God.” They are unable.

But what does Geisler read in this text? We really don’t know, because he provides no exegesis whatsoever. What we have in reply to the plain meaning of the text are more assertions of his already declared position.

We are born with a bent to sin, but we still have a choice whether we will be its slaves.

Is that what the text says, even though it appears on its face to be saying the very opposite? Apparently not even Dr. Geisler believes so, for he provides not one shred of supporting evidence that would lead us to understand the text in any way other than what it actually says, namely, that the unregenerate are unable to please God. He simply, once again, offers his assertions, based on his presuppositions.

One would think that at least those passages which would seem, on their face, to support Geisler’s positions would be given detailed attention. But again, one would be wrong. Even in support of his own contentions, the most the reader finds is a few paragraphs with only the most cursory attempt at what one could call exegesis.

1 Timothy 2:3-4

The text of the passage is as follows,

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Geisler’s first comment upon the passage is this…

From the time of the later Augustine this text has been manhandled by extreme Calvinists.

If only Dr. Geisler would have handled the text at all. But he does not. All we find is this ridicule of Calvinists and two paragraphs informing us that Spurgeon, though an “extreme Calvinist” according to Geisler’s lights, agreed with Geisler concerning this passage. We find no independent exegesis of any kind, indeed, no exegesis whatsoever. Neither will one find any interaction with Calvinistic interpretations. If one did not know better, one would think that Calvinists had never offered a reasoned and coherent alternative to Geisler’s position. They have, of course, and that position is not difficult to defend.

The argument revolves around the meaning of the words “all men” in verse one. Was Paul speaking about each individual in the world? That is the assumption that Geisler and other Arminians make. But is that assumption warranted? Upon closer examination of the text, one may decide that his first assumption is not necessarily a true one.

Just prior to the verses that Geisler wishes to use, we find Paul’s admonition to pray for “all men.”

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men,

But who are “all men”? Are we really to believe that Paul was exhorting Timothy to pray for every specific individual in the entire world individually? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. What, then, is Paul saying? We are immediately given help in our understanding as we continue reading in verse two.

for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.

It becomes readily apparent then, that when Paul speaks of “all men” he is speaking not of every individual person, but rather all classes or all kinds of men, such as kings and those who are in authority. If time and space permitted, it would not be difficult to demonstrate the consistency of this meaning of “all men” elsewhere in the Scripture. Such examples could be found in Acts 21:28; 22:15; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; and throughout the book of Titus.

That being the case, when we finally arrive at verse four, and are told that God desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, we should not be surprised to note that the meaning “all sorts of men” is carried through from verse one to verse four and on into the following discussion of the atonement in verses five and six.

Several other lines of argument can be traced which demonstrate the falsity of Geisler’s assumptions at this point. They are arguments that unfortunately, Dr. Geisler has neglected to deal with. One wonders how Dr. Geisler can expect to convincingly prove his points when time and time again he refuses to deal substantially with opposing viewpoints. Assertion and ridicule are no substitute for sound exegesis and argumentation. Unfortunately, CBF largely consists of the former and is sorely lacking the latter.

2 Peter 3:9

This is arguably the most prominent of the Arminian proof texts. We read,

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

Throughout Geisler’s Appendix in which he presents the texts he feels are favorable to his position, he uses the term “plain meaning”. This is no exception. In the section subtitled, GOD DESIRES ALL TO BE SAVED, the reader will find two sub-headings. First, The plain meaning of 1 Peter 3:9 and then Implausible interpretation by extreme Calvinists. Surely statements such as this require the readers attention.

Geisler says,

…contrary to the unreasonable view of the extreme Calvinists, this does not mean “all classes of men,” namely, the elect from all nations. Words have limits to their meaning by context. And when “any,” “all men,” and the “whole world” (1 John 2:2) are taken to mean only “some” (unless used as figures of speech), then language has lost its meaning.

This statement of Geisler’s is in dire need of examination. Let’s take it line by line.

…contrary to the unreasonable view of the extreme Calvinists, this does not mean “all classes of men,” namely, the elect from all nations.

It behooves us to once again point out the fact that assertions and ridicule are not proof. We do not really know whether or not the Calvinistic view is unreasonable, because the Calvinistic view is never really interacted with. The most that we find in the two short paragraphs headed, Implausible interpretation by extreme Calvinists, are more assertions concerning what Calvinists believe and additional assertions that there is no basis for those interpretations. In the face of literally volumes of reformed exegesis and argumentation on this very issue, Geisler offers his readers 14 sentences. Is the Calvinistic view unreasonable? Maybe. But Geisler surely hasn’t proven it.

Words have limits to their meaning by context.

Dr. Geisler is absolutely correct. Word meanings are limited to their context. So let’s take a look at the context of 2 Peter 3:9 and see if we can determine the meaning of its words.

As we do this, we run across a number of interesting items that Dr. Geisler never sees fit to mention. For instance, as we examine the context, the first thing that the reader is made aware of is the fact that Peter’s primary subject matter is not salvation. Rather, Peter is speaking of the parousia…the second coming of Christ. That said, all we see in this passage, including his passing mention of repentance, must be seen in the light of what Peter is actually discussing, namely, the reason for delay in the return of Christ.

Another interesting aspect of Peter’s discussion has to do with those to whom his writing is addressed. Are we given any clue as to the nature of Peter’s audience? Yes, we are. The pronouns that Peter uses are extremely important. Peter refers to his readers in 3:1 as, “beloved.” They are continually referred to a “you” in verse 1 and 2, and then again in verses 8 and 9. But what about those verses in between? Those verses speak of the mockers who cast disdain at the idea of Christ’s return. How are the mockers referred to? The mockers are not part of the beloved. They are not referred to as “you”, but rather as “they”. This is a crucial part of the context of the passage and yet goes unmentioned by Dr. Geisler. Why is this crucial? Because it defines for us, in context, who the “you” is in verse 9 when Peter tells his readers, those who are “beloved”, those who are addressed as “you”, that the Lord is patient toward “you”, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. Unless one is willing to rip verse 9 from its contextual home, one has no grammatical choice but to see the “you” of verse 9 in harmony with the “you” of the remainder of the passage as referring not to every single individual in the world, but rather to a specific audience of those Peter refers to as “you” in opposition to “they”. Peter has already defined those he addresses as “you”. They are those to whom he writes his epistle. In 2 Peter 1:1-3 we read,

Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ: Grace and Peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.

Need we say more? Peter makes himself clear. The “you” in Chapter 3, including verse 9, can only be those same ones he addresses here in 1:1-3. Namely, those “who have received a faith of the same kind as ours.” The result is that those whom God is not wishing to perish cannot be proved from this passage to mean every individual in the world, indiscriminately. Rather, in this context, it must be confined to those already in view from 1:1, that is, those “who have received a faith of the same kind as ours,” or believers, or the elect.

Geisler is absolutely correct when he says that “Words have limits to their meaning by context.” Unfortunately, Geisler never examines the context in order to determine that meaning. If he did, he might have seen that in context, the “you” of 3:9 is a specific group, the elect, and that what Peter is saying is that God is patient, delaying His coming for the purpose of the ingathering of the elect.

Geisler also said,

And when “any,” “all men,” and the “whole world” (1 John 2:2) are taken to mean only “some” (unless used as figures of speech), then language has lost its meaning.

This is such a careless statement. Surely Dr. Geisler realizes that words have more than one legitimate meaning. One can open up any dictionary and find multiple meanings for virtually any word which one’s finger might rest upon. The Oxford American Dictionary provides nine different definitions for the word “world” alone.

Even Geisler’s acceptance of figures of speech begs the question, for who will then decide what is or is not a figure of speech as opposed to a definition. It appears that Geisler would like to say that to define “world” as “all kinds of men” or “all the nations” would be to impose a definition upon the term. But any dictionary will provide definitions such as the following:

1. the universe, all that exists.
2. earth with all its countries and peoples.
3. a heavenly body like it.
4. a section of the Earth, the western world.
5. a time or state or scene of human existence; this world, this mortal life.
6. the people or things belonging to a certain class or sphere of activity, the sporting world; the insect world.
7. everything, all people, felt that the world was against him
8. material things and occupations (contrasted with spiritual), renounced the world and became a nun.
9. a very great amount, it would do him a world of good; she is worlds better today.

Admittedly, one cannot argue the meaning of biblical terms from an English dictionary. But it can and should be pointed out that to portray the meaning of certain terms as inarguable, and self-evident, is to avoid the very issue in question. According to this dictionary, Geisler’s definition of “world” is only the seventh most common usage, while the Calvinistic interpretations come in at numbers two and six.

Despite the clear contextual evidence, and the legitimacy of less than all-inclusive definitions of terms like “all,” “you,” and “world,” Geisler asserts that the Calvinistic interpretation of this passage is unreasonable. Evidence for the assertion may have been helpful, but again, we find none. Instead, we find outrageous statements like the following,

Others offer an even less plausible suggestion: that “God does not will that any of us (the elect) perish.” As a firm believer in inerrancy, R.C. Sproul is aware of how dangerous it is to change the Word of God.

Not only does Geisler ignore the clear context of the passage, provide no real exegesis, and erroneously make a case for one definition over another, but he compounds his error by what can only be an intentional misrepresentation of another writer’s intentions. To accuse one who disagrees exegetically of changing the Word of God goes beyond the pale. It should be clear, even to those who only read what Geisler has provided of Sproul’s statement, that Sproul is in no way “changing” the Word of God. Rather, he is doing the job of the exegete. That is, he is interpreting the Word according to its grammar and context, something that Dr. Geisler has not bothered to attempt. This accusation is a common one for Dr. Geisler, for he throws the same charge at John Owen, as well.

Arguably, the best defense of extreme Calvinism on limited Atonement comes from John Owen. His response to this passage is a shocking retranslation to :”God so loved his elect throughout the world, that he gave His Son with this intention, that by him believers might be saved”! This needs no response, simply a sober reminder that God repeatedly exhorts us not to add to or subtract from His words (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18-19).

Well, Owen may need no response, but Geisler certainly does, for his misrepresentation is clearly unjust, and if Geisler has actually read Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ, from which this quote comes, there can be no excuse for these intentionally misleading statements. Owen never claimed that this statement is a “translation”. Quite the contrary. Like Sproul, Owen was exegeting the text. After ten full pages of closely reasoned argumentation, Owen concludes with the words that Geisler quotes. But wait. Something is missing in Geisler’s quotation. Let’s examine that quote in its context.

Secondly, I deny that the word here is distributive of the object of God’s love, but only declarative of his end and aim in giving Christ in the pursuit of that love, – to wit, that all believers might be saved. So that the sense is, “God so loved his elect…”

Any objective observer can see Geisler’s contention that Owen was “retranslating” the Scripture for what it is…another clear misrepresentation. There is no retranslating going on. Rather, Owen has painstakingly exegeted the passage, and concludes his exegesis by giving what he believes to be “the sense”, or interpretation of the text. It is unfortunate for all concerned that Dr. Geisler prefers to misrepresent Sproul and Owen rather than to deal substantially with their arguments. But that, alas, is what characterizes CBF from beginning to end.


To examine and respond to each inaccuracy found in CBF would require a book-length treatment many pages in excess of what Geisler has himself written. It has not been this author’s purpose to address Dr. Geisler point by point but rather to demonstrate the general problems which are found throughout CBF. Furthermore, we must all endeavor to pay heed to Paul’s commendation of the Berean Christians who tested all things by the Word of God. This is a responsibility that cannot be taken too seriously. Let us not be confused by the one who would take familiar terms and twist them into unrecognizability. Let us not be lulled into inattention by those who would distort the opinions of others in order to make their own viewpoints appear self-evident. Let us not be led blindly into the labyrinth of illogic without first examining the legitimacy of the premises which are offered. Let us not be dissuaded from our task of solid exegesis by those who would convince us that no difficult exegetical issues exist, or that there is no reasoned disagreement among men of keen intellect. Finally, let us not disarm our minds by laying down the process of critical thought at the mere mention of words such as “balanced” and “moderate”. Truth needs no adjective. Truth is truth. It is neither balanced, nor moderate. It simply is.

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