24 February 2010

Ordinary Means

by Frank Turk

God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure. (WCF, V.3)

I dropped the ball last week on Wednesday, forgetting to post something even though I had a couple of decent things in the hopper.

The one I want to post today is about the singular problem with Calvinism – which is, Calvinists.

Imagine you were talking with two friends: one’s a fellow reformed “Ø” and the other is a marginal believer or an unbeliever. As the conversation turns to something that happens in the real world – something like success at work, or your marriage (which can be good or bad), or how your church runs, or any number of things we live with all the time.

Your unbelieving friend is eventually going to say something like this:

“I really don’t know how to cope with this. I have no idea what I can do to make it right.”

Now, listen: if your Calvinists friend says, “well, it’s all up to a sovereign God anyway, so what ‘you do’ isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be – in fact it may not matter at all. It’s all in God’s hands,” immediately do something to shut his mouth.

Now: why shut his mouth? I mean – God is sovereign, right? God is in charge of the things going on in the universe. God is the creator and sustainer of all things. So when this fellow says, “well, SDG, whatever – it rains on the just and the unjust,” in response to some person’s plea for help, this person’s plea that he cannot control the universe and feels helpless because things are going poorly, it’s sort of “right” to say, “well, God is in control.”

Yes, BUT –

Part of the way God is in control of things is by His revelation of decrees (like the Law) and "good advice" (like the Proverbs). That is: part of the way God is in control of the Cosmos is that there are ordinary means for achieving ordinary parts of His sovereign will for all things.

For example: your marriage. There’s no question that it’s really impossible for two people to have a wholly-holy marriage apart from the sanctifying grace of God. Cannot happen.

BUT many people who are not even believers have a marriage that works insofar as it actually follows the purpose and guidance God has given for such a thing. That is, even if it is not spiritually profitable, it turns out to be materially profitable and emotionally profitable and relationally profitable.

This is because after the primary purpose of Scripture (that is: being about Christ; revealing him to us), there is another purpose of Scripture, that being as our tutor. It teaches us how people who believe this stuff live as if it is true. There are ordinary means, ordained by God – that is, the normal way things work. So, for example, if you train up a child in the way he should go, ordinarily when he grows old, he will not depart from them. Ordinarily, when you teach your children diligently what the law of the LORD is, it will go well for you. Ordinarily, If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.

And in all of this, we take refuge in a few things:

[1] That we obey not for the sake of what it ordinarily accomplishes, but because we believe that God is wiser than we are. We shouldn’t have to invent what it means to believe him over and over when he has already spelled it out. His sovereignty actually starts in the means and doesn’t just reside in the ends. He’s not God just because what he wanted to happen was finally accomplished: he’s God and sets forth for us all the works, too.

[2] That we obey knowing this is actually how God ordinarily accomplished his plan, trusting and actually placing our hope in him and not in the work. Sometimes the work looks completely foolish. Since we are fools anyway, we should be glad that God can use even that for His ends – and they are His means after all.

[3] The sovereignty of God gives us hope and does not put us in a place where we are humiliated or over-awed into inaction or despair. In fact: we need to see all the means God uses to instruct as the way He reveals that there is hope for those who believe Him.

It is utterly true that God may do as he pleases: God is free to work without, above, and against normal means, at his pleasure. But He is also not a capricious being. He is a savior to the weak, and a God who loves those who have hated him and even still today do hate him.

This is why He is great and we are not. And this is why it’s critical to believe in his sovereignty – not to believe that we are somehow merely pawns, but to know that in doing what the maker and sustainer of all things has prescribed, we demonstrate our love and trust in him.


WILLIAM said...

Because God has already determined the final score of the game does not mean we don't have to go out on the field. He gives us the playbook. If we join His team, trust Him and are obedient, we are sent into the game and run His plays. As we execute, the play may unfold through a thousand diffferent permutations and we must improvise and make decisions on how to proceed. God has coached us up on the skills and knowledge to make the play work. At the same time God can decide to make the ball bounce however He wants, cause the field conditions to change through rain/wind, change the players on the field, allow injury, etc. God ordains ordinary means for us to run His plays. If he chooses, He can even cause the miraculous to occur through us or around us at His will. God is sovereign, yet we are responsible.

DJP said...

Good wisdom and insight, Frank.

Chris Cole said...

Sorry, Frank, but I don't think this post meets your goals. First, you concede the false equation of "Calvinist" with "fatalist." There are some pseudocalvinist fatalists, of course, but their error is in their understanding, not primarily in their methodology. I also object to your equation of "ordinary means" with "means that ordinarily work." That isn't the meaning of the phrase. It refers to the intermediate causes through which God usually works, as opposed to His immediate work, commonly referred to as a miracle. For example, God usually heals the sick through the ordinary means of doctors and medicine, while He may work miraculously without such tools. Again, God usually converts a soul through the ordinary means of preaching, while He may do so through the direct, unassisted inner work of the Holy Spirit, as in the case of elect infants dying in infancy (WCF X:3). In other words, "ordinary means" are ordinary, not in their success rate, but rather in the recognizable cause to the known effect.

DJP said...

Where does Frank equate Calvinists with fatalists? Isn't his point that Calvinists talk like fatalists, and shouldn't? Have you ever read Frank before?

And if ordinary means are the means ordinarily used successfully... then we have yet another distinction without a difference.

Do you have some fault-quota to meet or something?

Frank Turk said...

Chris --

For the record, the inspiration for this post is interacting with fellow Calvinists who, frankly, are not really very informed Calvinists. They have the ultimacy of God down pat -- because that's the easy part, and because you can talk like an optimistic fatalist in many Calvinistic circles and still maintain your bona fides.

The Problem is that these folks, with honest-to-God good intentions, have missed the point entirely. They way they spell out "calvinism", it -is- fatalism because in their view, (for example) being a good husband is not a key component to having a good marriage: God's causation of the final product is the only meaningful cause.

That kind of advice is given with good intentions, but to the unbeliever, or worse to the immature Christian, that gets read as, "it doesn't matter what you do."

Let me say it plainly: it matters what we do. We are morally culpable for it, and we are also workmen in God's fields.

My post here is to say that those who miss this point are doing the wrong thing.

If you have something to add, this is your chance.

Eric said...


I appreciate what you have offered here. I don't think I have seen the fatalist attitude expressed as much as you might have, but where it arises, it must be quashed. When and if Calvinists engage in such dismissive fatalism they have embodied the strawman caricature that many like to paint of Calvinism. As always, we must seek for a proper balance in understanding and applying scripture and I believe you have made an effective call to achieve that goal in this area of understanding.

Tom Chantry said...

Good post.

...and because you can talk like an optimistic fatalist in many Calvinistic circles...

True as true can be, but don't leave out the pessimistic fatalists who also try to co-opt Calvinistic language to feed their own sad view of the universe.

I remember staying with a friend in a not-so-great city neighborhood once and talking with his clinically depressed roommate who pretty much never said anything except "God is sovereign." Only he said it in a dreary tone that left no doubt that he was convinced that the worst was always about to happen, but what do you do about it, because "God is sovereign."

"I parked my car out here on 97th Street. Do you think it will be OK?"

"God is sovereign."

"Oh. Would it be better if I pulled it around and parked on Elm?"

"God is sovereign."

Pretty much the same affect as you are talking about here, only absolutely no optimism at all.

PS: my word verification is "rolativ," as in "Don't worry, everything is a rolativ."

Frank Turk said...

Tom --

exactly. This is exactly right.

Brad Williams said...


Yay! Yay on you for saying that part about telling a dour-faced, functional hyper-calvinist, fatalistic ninny to close his mouth when he is giving the comfortless, unbiblical version of "God is sovereign" that Tom Chantry just nailed. Thanks.

I am especially embarrassed when Baptists act this way. The Lord knows that the only reason we have survived as a people is because of the sovereignty of God. And, of course, we have preached and pled with men to repent as if lives depended upon it. And they do depend on it.

And while we're at it, I'll just add that men ought to repent. They ought to live godly. They ought to pray. They ought to cry. They ought to fight injustice. They ought to break the jaws of the wicked and deliver the prey from his mouth. They ought to vindicate the cause of the righteous. And, they ought to live like the Master is coming up the walk to take an inventory of His stuff.

You got me going this morning. Thanks again.

Robert said...

I think that the real question we should ask ourselves when we are encountered by trials or difficult circumstances is how can we apply Sccripture and what is God's sovereign will in our circumstances. Maybe He is trying to drive us further into Scripture so that we will apply it in our lives. Maybe He is showing us that we need to be better at following the biblical model of being a good husband or wife or parent. Maybe He wants us to know that when we have faith in Him and obey Him, that we will come through a trial with stronger faith...or following the pattern from Romans 5, we know "that tribulation brings about perserverance; and perserverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us." (Romans 5:3-5)

I just always try to get people back into Scripture (relevant to the issue) in order to help get through tough times or make difficult decisions. Sometimes that just means that we pray and they make an informed decision. Sometimes that means that we live through tribulation and endure it with faith that God is working through it to refine us. To me, I always go back to what the Bible tells me...because that is the only place God talks to us in this day and age. And if we aren't reading all of Scripture to know how to balance and apply it to our lives, then we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

I surely can not find in Scripture where I am told to only trust God's sovereignty and not to act responsibly. Jesus did say "'From everyone who has been given much, much will be required'". (Luke 12:48) So we have the Bible...we need to read it and apply it. We have countless commentaries, sermons, and even blogs like this with which to inform and sharpen ourselves. So it would suffice to say that much is required of us. More than just saying "it is God's will."

Sir Brass said...

Sounds like a good counter to some hyper-calvinistic tendencies, Frank. One of the signs of someone maybe going a bit hyper-calvinistic is essentially a denial or ignoring of the fact that God uses means.

This is something I seem to run into or at least get reminded of from my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ at my church (which is Reformed Baptist.... we're calvinist by confession :D). There's been a few times when I've gotten a bit pessimistic and been soundly reminded, "Yes but, God uses means." I think it's our favorite "can-do" phrase: "Our Sovereign God is a God of means." or something like that :).

There's also been times when non-reformed folk (who know I'm a 5 point calvinist) and I have been talking about non-theological issues such as self defense and being armed. I am sometimes asked by the more astute ones, "Hey, you're a calvinist right? Well, why do you carry? Isn't your God sovereign enough to protect you?"

My usual reply is, "Of course He is. But He's also a God who uses means, and who said he only uses means such as police or others who would most likely arrive too late as well and NOT use the means strapped to my waist? I make my plans and trust the Lord with the results and His providence."

So, good post, Frank. The big thing that separates us from hyper-calvinist is that we are adamant in our belief that God is a God of means, not just with the Gospel, but with life in general. We generally call that 'providence.' The hyper-calvinist essentially denies the actual value of means in the overall outcome... very fatalistic of him, actually.

Frank Turk said...

The sub-text of Brass's words here is: "people matter to God."

People. I know it's shocking, but live like that.

Anonymous said...

Well said and good post-post discussion. I find it interesting that, historically speaking, the original Calvinist (John Calvin) was so active changing his world with the gospel (human means for God's glory). Indeed, our American revolution was called "The Parson's Rebellion" (or something like that) in England because of the number of Presbyterian (Calvinist) preachers in the ranks of the colonial army. God's sovereignty sets the boundaries; it does not create robots.

David said...

Hey, are you trying to say that sitting here reading and commenting on people's blogs isn't actively changing the world!?

Stefan said...


Thank you. A really good and very timely post.

"The one I want to post today is about the singular problem with Calvinism—which is, Calvinists."


God has used a number of—well, means—to lead me out of "cage stage" Calvinism, and learn that personal responsibility goes hand in hand with Divine sovereignty (something I need to relearn every day).

The main one has been serving in the prayer ministry at our church, and hearing elders and other mature believers who have been living, eating, and breathing the Doctrines of Grace longer than I've been alive, all the while praying for others, walking in Christ, and governing the church in a way that they implicitly trust God in everything, without ever quoting the WCF or Synod of Dordt chapter-and-verse.

...If that makes sense.

Stefan said...

By the way, the graphics you chose for this post seem to be quite apropo! "Ordinary means"—and picture of a mundane assortment of household cleansers, and a shoeshine chair.

Verification word: "fremen."

donsands said...

I think Tozer said God's sovereignty is like a great ship taking you from London to New York, and while you are on this ship you have many interactions with the rest of the passangers. Something like that.

To understand God is absolute sovereign in my life, and that there are no surprises to my Savior,brings me peace; genuine peace.

And yet when trials come, and even great heaviness of losing a loved one, or finding out a friend has cancer, I see Jesus as right there in the midst with His loving hands to comfort us, as He understands our sorrows, and our pain.
He also rejoices over us with singing, and even His love swells with joy for us when we trust and obey Him.

"Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep."

"No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
‘til He returns or calls me home"

Rachael Starke said...

I read this post and then headed off to Bible study, where I "found myself" catching up with an older lady who is severely visually impaired. We were talking about whether we would be going to our women's retreat weekend in a few weeks. I said probably, as I really needed some uninterrupted fellowship with God and other women. She said probably not, because she was scared to go on her own and didn't want to be a burden. And instead of saying "well, I'm sure God will work it all out", I "found myself" saying "Well then, let's go together and I'll be your helper. You're not a burden. You're family." So now we're going together, and I probably won't have quite as much time alone as I'd hoped because I'll be helping my friend.

Sometimes the ordinary means God wants to use in other people's lives for their benefit is us. And we pull the sovereignty card because we're just plain selfish and lazy.

mark pierson said...

This post of yours was so right-on! Coming away from it we should realize that we are to live in accordance with His Word as members of His local church, as spouses, as parents, as employees, as citizens, and so on. Results will come about as a result, however He decides they should; but our desire should be in the living for Him, His Word dwelling richly within our hearts.

Nicole K. said...

Truly inspirational and relevant post. Thank you.

Sandy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sandy said...

Good post, and true. Thanks. And look, I'm using ordinary means by posting a comment!

Sir Brass said...

Frank, you know, I didn't really think about it like that till you said it but yes that IS the sub-text :).

And, it also happens to be the thing that my mind always runs into a wall over. WHY? Why do I matter to the all holy, infinite, omnipotent God? My soul resonates with the hymn "How sweet and awful is the place" when it says,

"While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast
Each of us cry with thankful tongues,
"Lord, why was I a guest?"

Why was I made to hear thy voice
and enter while there's room,
When thousands make a wretched choice
And rather starve than come?"

However, as much as I can wonder WHY, I can't get away from the fact that the bible (and life itself agreeing with scripture as well) teaches that we pitiful men matter to God.

CR said...

Eric: snip snip I don't think I have seen the fatalist attitude expressed as much as you might have, snip snip

This is particularly true of recent converts (I mean recent converts of Christians to a more biblical calvinistic Christianity). It’s a reaction to the type of Christianity they once lived. They are suddenly awakened to the superficiality or to the wrongness they’ve been doing. Psychological pressure for decisions, etc. And we are creatures of extremes we swing from one extreme to another and it takes a bit of time to get to the proper balance which is somewhere in the middle. And so in a violent reaction to the wrongness of what they've been living in the one type of Christianity they swing right over to the other extreme.

But it isn't only that. The danger of the Calvinist is to become too theoretical. Calvinists are people who have come to really think about things. Calvinism, (i.e., bibilical Christianity) demands thought and study, you have to consider doctrine and consider things. This goes without saying. I mean Paul tells us to put on the belt of truth and the helmut of salvation - these armor pieces involve using your mind. And so as Calvinists we're always in danger of becoming intellectuals. So anyway some of these guys, they say, "I use to think that I had to do certain things to become a Christian or I had to do things to force people to become a Christian and I now know now know the sinner (unregenerate), can do nothing to save himself and he is completely helpless), you need irresistible grace" and so on and what some Calvinists tend to do is draw deductions from this, he says, "ah hah, this was all decided and determined, from eternity past, names written in the book of life, God knowing us before we were ever born" and so unconsciously he tends to draw this deduction: "not only should I not do what I did before ( e.g., evangelize earnestly, put away certain things, and put on certain things like working hard on your marriage, etc) but I don’t need to do it now." This is the unconscious thing that goes on in the minds of many young Calvinists. It’s obvious and natural that this kind of thing should be the temptation of this kind of person.

So, it really depends, Eric, what circles you're in if you're going to see it. Maybe it's not so much a problem if you're around converts from unregenerate directly to calvinistic biblical christianity. But if you're interacting with other Christians and they're being introduced to the doctrines of grace and they are new converts to Calvinism, it's more prevalent there.

Eric said...


That seems like an entirely plausible explanation. My church and greater community is not filled with a majority of people new to Calvinism, but rather includes mostly people from a long-standing reformed heritage. The concern that I observe in my greater reformed community (not so much my church, thankfully) is actually an anti-intellectualism, an apathy, a lack of desire to dig into and understand the great heritage that we have been given by God. Unfortunately the result has been the lack of doctrinal mooring from which to discern the times and trends. Of course, that is not an isolated phenomenon.

Frank Turk said...

Rachel --

That's a better post than my blog post.

I think I'm going to cry.

witness said...

When I read Rachel's comment, I cried. That is the beauty and love of Christ. And to think... He allows that to be placed in us... placed in us to be poured out for others. The words "so unworthy" come to mind.

Rachael Starke said...

I've been reading and benefiting from your "you, personally" writing for a while now. If I read it and didn't find opportunities to apply it from time to time, well, that would definitely be a reason to get out the Kleenex. :) When I said "we" are selfish and lazy, I'm sure you realize I was meaning me. Thus my particular need to do something about it. And apparently God agrees with me, given that He sovereignly orchestrated a perfect opportunity to do something about it.

Anonymous said...

Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?