Example 15 – Greg Koukl on How He Became a Christian

Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence

I submit to you that Calvinism amounts to a “Post-Arminian Conversion” theology.  That is to say that Calvinists must hear and respond to a non-Calvinist gospel message for them to be saved.  Many believers, after being converted through hearing the truly “good news” of God’s love for them and their salvation based in Christ’s death on their behalf to be received by faith, only then adopt Calvinism as a theological system.  But that system contradicts the content of the gospel message that they initially heard and by which they became saved. In that truly “good news” message they were assured of God’s love for them and assured that it is God’s will that they be saved through Christ’s death on their behalf. These are gospel tenets that Calvinism cannot provide the sinner with assurance and in truth. So Calvinists must have heard and responded to a non-Calvinist gospel message for them to have become saved.

I came across one of the clearest examples of this is from Greg Koukl on one of his “Stand to Reason” podcast titled “How Greg became a Christian.”[1]  “Stand to Reason” is an excellent apologetics radio ministry hosted by Greg Koukl who is a Calvinist.  In this podcast he shared his conversion testimony.  He states,

“Forty-two years ago I bowed my head in my apartment in West LA and asked Jesus to rescue me from myself and gave myself to him.  My brother was with me that night.  And he was the one, my brother Mark, who’s a pastor here in southern California, Culver City area, he was the one who really logged the time with me, and persisted with me, through all of my resistance there in 1973.  He actually became a believer a few years before.  I realized though that I don’t think I ever told the story on the air, so I thought I would just fill you in, and the reason is not self-aggrandizement.  I think there’s an application here for you, and a couple of them, and I thought it might be helpful to weigh in then with some past information to first of all thank my brother Mark for his perseverance, and it may also be an encouragement to you who have family members who don’t know the Lord – he was my younger brother – and he was the first of a family of seven to become a Christian, and pretty much everybody eventually followed in his footsteps through his influence.  And even my Dad who died …at 71 years old and became a Christian a year earlier…was a crusty old guy and a tough nut to crack…the point I am making is that he [Mark] was the first domino to fall and God used him really to have an impact on the rest of our lives.

Now the difficulty for me, and I think everybody who is resisting Christianity as an adult, I was an adult, I was resisting for a particular reason.  And everybody’s kind of got their thing that gets in the way.  And for me I thought I was too smart to be a Christian.  I thought all Christians were dumb or ugly.  And that’s why they went to church… They went to church because they let somebody else do their thinking for them – the preacher or the book – or maybe they couldn’t get social acceptance anywhere else so they came to church because they had to love each other – it was one of the rules.  There it was on the back wall “Love One Another.”  And I also was under the impression that I had tried this before.  Some of you know that I was raised Roman Catholic.  And it was largely a perfunctory religious experience for us – I mean we pursued for years, our whole life, my family.  But there was no spiritual reality to it, alright.  So when I was about seventeen in the mid to late sixties I was challenged about my own convictions there about Christianity.  “Do you really believe that stuff?” was the question somebody asked me.  And that was the first time I thought, “No, you know what, I actually don’t actually believe that stuff.”  And I jettisoned it then as a young adult and went my own way.  And of course this was a time when, you know, as a young man I was on the threshold of discovery, you know, discovering my manhood, my individuality, and there was also a time in our culture when there was tremendous upheaval.  And, what I wanted to do obviously, I mean this was a time in a young man’s life when he doesn’t want to think about religion or God or purity or virtue.  You know this just kinda messes with the game plan…I kinda broke free from the shackles of my upbringing, or what I thought was breaking free.  Well I did break free from those things, but it certainly didn’t bring me freedom.  Except for at first, I mean there is a tremendous sense of freedom when you realize you’re your own person, you can make your own rules, you can do your own thing, you can chart your own course in life, and for me that was very invigorating.  I was captain of my own life, I was master of my own faith, I didn’t want anything to do with the restrictive killjoy God of Christianity, I’d left that in the dust, and it did give me a wonderful sense of freedom which was consistent with the ethos of the age, I mean this was the sixties.”

Koukl goes on to say that a broken relationship caused him to look more carefully and realistically at his worldview.

“I wasn’t interested in God, I was interested in girls – that girl in particular.”  He states that “when that girl left me, my world fell apart.”  He continues, “In my worldview there was no personal God, there was no morality, there was no direction to life, there was no ultimate meaning, there was just, I guess I was somewhat existential.  There was whatever I wanted to do at the moment.  I made my own life, but now the chips are down and there was nothing for me to hang onto.  There was no one to turn to.”

Koukl describes what he felt at this time as “cosmic alienation” which he defines as “the idea that in the universe you are ultimately alone.”  He says, “That is the consequence of the view that I was holding.  And when the chips were down it didn’t feel so good.”

He then states,

“But now I’m on the West coast, my heart’s broken and my life’s a mess…My brother Mark was also living in Southern California…but boy he was relentless.  He kept laying it on to me about God and Jesus, and continued to persist.  Now I don’t recall any fancy apologetics or anything like that, but what I heard was the gospel.  And I had heard the bad news already being raised a Roman Catholic.  But I had never heard the good news.  I’d never heard the news that I could actually know that I was forgiven.  That was unheard of in my catholic upbringing.  You did the best you could and just hope you got it right so when you die you wake up in heaven or maybe purgatory…And that’s their good news.  That wasn’t good news to me.  I heard the good news that my brother communicated to me – that Jesus died for me, my sin.  That I put my faith in Jesus and his payment covered me, I could be forgiven.  That was new.  You mean I could know that I was going to heaven?  Absolutely.  Why?  Because I’m a good guy.  No.  Because Jesus is a good guy.  Man.  That got me thinkin’. But even so I was still resistant.”

Koukl then tells about thinking these things over and meeting other Christians and sincerely asking them questions.  He then relates a prayer he prayed to God saying that if Jesus is who his brother Mark says he is that “I guess I want to know about it.”  Koukl then relates, “…following that it was as if the hound of heaven was on my heals then, because it seemed that every time I turned around I was running into something or someone related to Christianity…”  He then tells about how he found a tract titled “Creator or Liar” in the bottom of his grocery bag.  He points out the tract stated that “many men say that Jesus was a liar, but you have to decide.  If he was who he claimed to be, your decision will determine where you spend eternity.”

Koukl says, “This tract really got my attention.  And for some reason I was impressed in my spirit with the gravity of the issue that I was facing.”  He says “that isn’t when I became a Christian” but it was “a huge step forward.”  He continues,

“And finally…September 28th 1973, Mark came to my apartment up from Long Beach and started to talk to me more about Jesus, and I said ‘Mark you don’t have to tell me any more because I’ve already decided I want to become a Christian’…and then I just prayed a simple prayer and became a follower of Jesus.”

He then states,

“Now what was significant about that is…it was a genuine statement of my desire to follow Jesus and my understanding was that I wasn’t just getting a ticket to heaven, this wasn’t just fire insurance.  I was handing my life over to Jesus.  I was changing course.  I was moving in a new direction.”

Koukl then reflects on how it is that he became a Christian without having all his questions answered beforehand.  He adds,

“Then how is it that I became a Christian when I had all these unanswered questions that were still unanswered when I gave my life to Christ?  And the answer is that the Holy Spirit drew me into himself, brought me to Jesus.  I was given to Jesus by the Father.  I don’t know how else to explain it.  And I wasn’t, you know, there initially, I didn’t develop Reformed theology, this didn’t come until later.  But as I look back this is exactly what happened – God drew me to him.”

Let’s reflect on this testimony and note some interesting dynamics that Koukl experienced.

First he mentions his resistance to Christianity.  He perceived this as his resistance.  Who was doing the resisting?  It was the person Greg Koukl of course.  This tells us at least that Greg Koukl had a will that continually resisted believing the message he was hearing.  The only point I want to raise here is that for Koukl to speak of “resistance” implies a will of his own that was involved in this matter.

            Secondly, now it was through his brother Mark’s persistent witness that Greg heard what he himself calls “the gospel.”  Let’s focus on the content of this “gospel” message as Mark gave it to him and Greg himself understood it.  It was “the news that I could actually know that I was forgiven.”  This is a crucial point.  It contains an epistemological aspect, “…that I could actually know” and a personal, existential aspect, “…that I was forgiven.”  Both of these have to do with gaining assurance of God’s love and salvation.  Note the epistemological assurance in the words “actually know.”  Greg could “actually know” God’s saving disposition towards him.  Note the personal aspect that as an individual, as an “I” he could know he was forgiven.  In contrast, he then speaks about how his experience in Roman Catholicism could not provide this assurance because it was based on his own efforts of doing his best and hoping that he “got it right” when it came time to die.  Note that he realizes “That wasn’t good news to me.”  He knows what defines “the good news” and what does not.  Here it is important to note that a salvation based upon his own good works is not “good news” and equally important is his realization that “the gospel” has to apply to him personally.  He has to know that he himself is included in the forgiveness that God has worked in Christ on the cross.

            Thirdly, note what he says next.  Koukl states, “I heard the good news…that Jesus died for me, my sin.”  Here Greg is emphatic about being assured that he is included in the saving work Jesus accomplished on the cross.  Jesus died for him.  The point here is that this is the content of the message he had to hear to become saved.

Although he says at this juncture he did not become a Christian but “was still resistant” (which reiterates the point mentioned above about the reality of his having an active will of his own in this matter), the point is that Greg was hearing the gospel message and that message had a certain particular content to it.  Our concern here is to determine whether or not that particular content remains coherent with the Calvinism he subsequently embraced as the full and final explanation as to why and how he became saved.  Will the gospel content he heard before he was a Calvinist be the same content found in his Calvinist soteriological doctrines (TULIP) which many Calvinists claim is the gospel message?  Even for Calvinists who don’t maintain that their soteriological “doctrines of grace” are not the gospel per se, nevertheless, they are the full and final explanation of why and how a person becomes a believer in Christ.  We can begin to see how important this is for deciding whether or not the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” reflect the true biblical gospel of “good news” or not.  That is, whether those doctrines are what sinners need to hear to be saved or whether they need to hear a message that is very different than the Calvinist soteriology offers.

Fourthly, in Koukl’s testimony we have the clear element of a faith response.  What was the message he heard and how did he perceive that he could appropriate that “good news” for himself?  It was that he had to respond to it in faith.  He says, “That I put my faith in Jesus and his payment covered me, I could be forgiven.  That was new.”  It seems that he understood this as something he himself had to do.  Recall the message of the tract he found.  It stated that “many men say that Jesus was a liar, but you have to decide.  If he was who he claimed to be, your decision will determine where you spend eternity.”  This is the complete opposite of the claims of Calvinist unconditional election.  Calvinists do not say that “your decision will determine where you spend eternity.”  On Calvinist predestination, your eternal destiny was already determined by God, not by you.  God has already determined where each of us will spend eternity.  But Koukl was being faced with a completely different message – it was a message of truly good news.  He knew that there was an element of his salvation that directly involved and rested on a decision that he had to make. His eternal destiny was not unalterably predetermined by God.

Note again Greg’s own description of the nature of his conversion.

“And finally…September 28th 1973, Mark came to my apartment up from Long Beach and started to talk to me more about Jesus, and I said ‘Mark you don’t have to tell me any more because I’ve already decided I want to become a Christian’…and then I just prayed a simple prayer and became a follower of Jesus.”

We see his own cognizance of the need for a decision when he says, “I’ve already decided I want to become a Christian.”  The necessity of a decision and faith response is coherent with the message as “good news.”  He describes his conversion as an intentional decision with respect to discipleship.  He says, “I was handing my life over to Jesus.  I was changing course.  I was moving in a new direction.”  He apparently did not view this need for a decision and the response of faith as “a work” as in his Roman Catholicism, that is, as him striving to earn his salvation on his own merits.  Rather, he understood faith as trusting in what Jesus did for him.  Recall that he says, “I heard the good news…that Jesus died for me, my sin.”  Now Koukl’s subsequent Calvinism is in direct conflict not only with this gospel content that he first heard with respect to the need to make a faith decision, but also with reality as he was experiencing it.  The Calvinist doctrine of “total inability” states that sinners can do nothing with respect to their salvation. They cannot even believe.  Faith has to be given by God and he only gives faith the elect.  But that is not how Koukl experienced his conversion.  He speaks of a decision that he made to believe and a decision he made to hand over his life to Jesus.

Fifthly, Koukl also adds, “You mean I could know that I was going to heaven?  Absolutely.  Why?  Because I’m a good guy.  No.  Because Jesus is a good guy.”  The assurance that he is included in God’s salvation plan is highlighted again.  The fact that the salvation Jesus accomplished was a salvation for Greg Koukl in particular is integral to Greg’s trusting, loving, and committed response to God and Jesus.  He had to know and understand that he was loved by God and included in Christ’s saving work. On that basis therefore, this salvation could be appropriated by him for himself simply by believing it and putting his complete trust in Jesus.  Note also how the focal point of his assurance is the historical person and work of Christ.  For Koukl to think that his salvation was ultimately rooted in a decision of God made in eternity past to save him in particular as opposed to some other sinner would be a very different message to hear and would lack many of these essential “good news” elements that Koukl testifies to hearing that brought him to faith in Christ.  We can being to see that Koukl’s subsequent embracing of Calvinism required him to presume his own unconditional election.  That he was unconditionally elected to salvation in eternity past by God, and that God alone was at work in what he experienced regarding his salvation, is by no means the necessary explanation of what Koukl experienced in his conversion.  Neither is it a sufficient explanation because the content of the “good news” he initially heard was antithetical to both the Calvinist doctrines of total inability and unconditional election.  If Koukl were to have heard this theology while an unbeliever it certainly could not be considered “good news” to him because it would put the assurance of his salvation beyond his knowing.  And we have seen what a crucial role assurance played in his conversion.  He needed to be assured of God’s love and Christ death on his behalf.  He needed to be assured that salvation and forgiveness applied to him.  He needed to be assured that he was included and not possibly excluded.  The Calvinist soteriological doctrines could have never provided him with this assurance.  As he stated, this whole Calvinist conception of his experience “didn’t come until later.”

Sixthly, therefore, we need to ask what is it about this testimony and experience of the Holy Spirit’s drawing Koukl to himself and to Jesus that necessitates a “grace” that is “irresistible” or a concept of “election” that is “unconditional?”  Even though Koukl testified that he had to make a faith decision and believe the “good news,” and that he handed his life over to Jesus, that he had to change his course, and even correctly understands this to be the work of the Holy Spirit, he nevertheless subsequently interprets the whole process as “effectual,” “irresistible” and a result of him being unconditionally chosen by God to be saved.  Koukl will presently say, of course, that his own will could not resist the will of God to save him, while explaining that the divine determination springs from God’s grace in that he was undeserving of this decision and action of God upon him.  And so it is for all sinners.  But all that explanation amounts to is an interpretation of the events that “didn’t come until later” and is inconsistent with the nature of the events as Koukl himself relays them.

It is important to note that Calvinism can only be an interpretation of Koukl’s experience, but it seems to me that he would have to be be imposing it upon his experience. And again, it is not the necessary interpretation of that experience.  Koukl can certainly lay the Calvinist theological and soteriological grids over his experience and interpret it accordingly.  But his experience could just as well be explained on the basis of a non-Calvinist soteriology.  And that is certainly consistent with the events themselves and with regard to the gospel content.  It is crucial to observe that Calvinism cannot be the interpretation of the objective content of the gospel message Koukl first heard.  The content of that message cannot be reinterpreted in Calvinist terms because that objective content is inconsistent with the Calvinist soteriological “doctrines of grace.”  This is a very important point.  The point is that the message Koukl heard – the message that brought him to faith in Christ and salvation – is incompatible with the Calvinism he subsequently embraced.  Therefore, what Koukl had to do in order to accept Calvinism is forfeit the “good news” of the gospel he first heard that brought him to belief in Christ and to receive salvation.  This means that Calvinists either do not realize they have forgotten the “good news” of their salvation or they choose to abandon it for reasons presented by Calvinists that persuade them otherwise.  And most importantly, this also means that Calvinism, or the Calvinist soteriology, doesn’t contain the “good news” of the gospel and therefore cannot be employed in the service of true “good news” evangelism.  Hence, Calvinism is a post-Arminian conversion soteriology and theology.  (Substitute whatever version of non-Calvinist theology for “Arminian” you prefer.  I think the point is clear.)

Koukl’s subsequent embrace of Calvinism conflicts with the “good news” content of the message he first heard.  If his latter Calvinism came prior to his conversion it would not be the same “good news” and would not produce the same result.  Recall the all important aspect of the assurances given to him in the gospel – that what he heard of the person and work of Christ surely applied to him.  That was what made the news “good” instead of just “news.”

Seventh.  What difference would it have made if Koukl had all his questions answered prior to his decision?  How does becoming a believer without having all your questions answered beforehand confirm that your becoming a believer must be the result of an “effectual call” and an “unconditional election?”  If Koukl did have all his questions answered what would have been the basis of his conversion?  Would it somehow have turned into a salvation based on apologetic data?  But the basis of salvation is not that you have all your questions answered.  The basis of salvation is precisely what Koukl testified to regarding the content of the message he heard that was “good news.”  That was what the Spirit used, along with his circumstances, to work in his heart, and it is unwarranted to interpret such a work of the Spirit as irresistible.  It is also unwarranted to conclude that because salvation is a work of the Spirit that this must entail an unconditional election.  The fact that Greg concludes that the Spirit drew him to the Father is no different than what the non-Calvinist would say is happening when the gospel is being presented to the sinner.  Of course it is the Spirit that draws sinners.  He draws them to Jesus.  It is a spiritual and supernatural event.  The Spirit honors the Son in the message of the true gospel.  And of course the Father gives those who come to him to Jesus because Jesus is designated as the savior of the world by the Father.  The persons of the triune God are working towards the same goal – the salvation of sinners – and we may look at that work from either side as we find in John’s gospel.  At times we get a glimpse from the Father’s vantage point and at other times from Jesus’ vantage point.  Jesus himself says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (Jn. 12:32)  In this the Father is glorified.

It fits the facts of Greg’s own conversion to think that the Spirit is certainly at work in the gospel message to draw the hearer to Christ, but also that the person themselves must respond in faith to Christ and God and that the nature of that response is genuinely theirs.  The Bible testifies to people resisting the Spirit and rejecting the “good news” proclaimed to them.  There is truly something of their own will in either response.  And God designed the way of salvation to be by the simplicity of the faith response so that salvation might be appropriated by any and all sinners. That simple faith is a willing response of reciprocal love to God just as continued unbelief is blameworthy a willing response of rejection of the salvation offered. This “willing” is not to be understood as merely instrumental, as when the Calvinist asserts, “It is they who believed because it is they who did what they desired to do” while also asserting that God determined their desires.  Such a “response” of course comes through them, but cannot be said to be truly of them – that is, originating in something we can honestly call themselves.  The incoherence of compatibilism gets us nowhere.  Using words like “voluntarily,” freely,” “willingly,” etc. while all the time maintaining that it is God who predetermined and causes every thought, desire, belief, attitude and action of every person throughout all history is certainly a duplicitous use of language.  It is disingenuous.

Furthermore, the Spirit’s work does not necessarily entail irresistibly compelling the sinner to believe, however personally, integrally, or gentlemanly the Spirit does so.  Of course, the sinner cannot believe without the Spirit’s work, but the point I am making is that the Spirit is always at work affirming and confirming all truth, especially the truth of the gospel, to the sinner’s mind and heart.

If the gospel is to be “good news,” then it must have a particular content.  But that content is incoherent with the Calvinist soteriological doctrines. And claims of one’s conversion experience being an “effectual call” or “irresistible grace” based in an “unconditional election” must be imported afterwards on some other grounds and from some other motive.  But the fact that Calvinism cannot be “good news” to sinners, and it is incompatible with the original gospel message the Calvinist first heard, along with the fact that Calvinism generates logical, moral and theological contradictions and incoherencies with other biblical truths, tells us it is not the biblical gospel message or a tenable theology for evangelical Christians.  This contradictory soteriological shift to Calvinism on the sinners part is hardly what one would expect given an accurate interpretation of Scripture regarding the gospel and soteriology.

The essential question we need to grapple with is what message did Greg Koukl hear as a sinner to become saved?  What message was truly “good news” to him?  Which theological understanding of salvation best accords with the message he heard and his conversion experience?  Is the Calvinist soteriological system he subsequently adopted consistent and coherent with his own testimony and the content of the gospel as ‘”good news?”  And finally, if this system does not cohere with his testimony, why has he adopted it? So we see that Greg Koukl’s testimony indicates that the “good news” has a certain content which assures the hearer of the salvific will of God for them.  The Spirit, as the Spirit of truth, is working in the hearer through that message, as far as it is the true gospel, to enable them to respond in repentance and faith in Jesus.  The Spirit is always present in the true gospel and he is at work in the mind and heart of sinners to enable a positive response to what they are hearing.  As sinners we do not respond in “the natural man” to the gospel message.  But being a “natural man” does not necessitate an unconditional election for one to respond to the gospel.  The message itself is precisely for fallen, sinful persons, which we all are.  The message speaks to sinners about a response they need to make and are able to make given the work of the Spirit through the message.  The Spirit is always at work in the gospel message, and in other ways, calling the sinner to repentance and faith.  The message and the Spirit work for the salvation of the sinner.  The reason any particular sinner is not saved is because they initially reject the gospel and continue to harden their hearts to the work of the Spirit and the gracious offer of salvation in Christ.  Greg Koukl’s testimony confirms this view of the gospel and salvation.  The five-point soteriological system of Calvinism, or some variation thereof, does not cohere with Greg Koukl’s own testimony as to the content of the gospel he first heard.  The point is that he places the Calvinist grid upon his experience afterwards – as he himself testified – as an explanation of why what happened to him happened as it did.  But I submit that we do not glean the truth of Calvinism from his experience nor can we logically glean it from the objective content of the gospel Koukl first heard, nor, I contend, we do not glean Calvinism from a proper exegesis of Scripture.

Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence / Table of Contents / Home

Go to Example 16 – Greg Koukl on Why Jesus Spoke in Parables

[1] Greg Koukl is the founder of the apologetics ministry Stand To Reason.  He is also the author of the excellent book Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) which provides essential insights on how to engage unbelievers in substantive conversation about God and other topics with the aim of nonoffensively challenging their atheistic and non-Christian worldviews.

               Greg Koukl, “How Greg Became a Christian.”  Oct. 2, 2015. Last accessed May 1, 2020.  http://www.str.org/podcasts/weekly-audio/how-greg-became-a-christian-october-2-2015#.Vj4BkjuFND8

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