21 Misunderstandings of Reformed Thinking

by Dr. Sam Storms (original source here)

There are a few things beside the native darkness and pride of the human heart that are a greater danger to the doctrines of grace than the widespread misunderstandings of those doctrines and their implications. The best solution to these misunderstandings is a study of the Reformed tradition itself and its clear statements about what the Bible does, and does not, teach regarding the doctrines of grace.

Before I addressed this important subject, I gave the conference four points of introduction. The first of those is the subject of this first post on those 21 misconceptions of Calvinism.

The Sources of These Misunderstandings

I distinguished three sources of misconceptions about Calvinism

The first was Arminian Misrepresentation. It is unquestionable that both today and in the past history of the church, Arminians have constantly repeated misrepresentations of the doctrines of grace. While these misrepresentations may have seemed to them the necessary implications of the views of their Calvinist opponents, they were made in many cases in spite of the clearest denials by the Reformed. It is unfair for anyone to charge their opponents with holding views that they deny even though they seem to be the logical implications of their positions. It is fair to point out that their views do lead to such implications. It is not fair to affirm that they hold or believe such implications when they explicitly deny them.

The second was Immature Reaction. Another source of various misunderstandings of the doctrines of grace comes from the over-reaction of immature Calvinists. In their new found vision of the absolute sovereignty of God and newly acquired revulsion to the widespread ignorance and denial of God’s sovereignty by professing Christians, it is easy for neophyte Calvinists to make all sorts of extremist statements and adopt all sorts of imbalanced views that time and calm consideration will show are filled with ill-considered assertions and careless implications. These statements are not the deliberate misrepresentations of Arminians or the calculated presumption of Hyper-Calvinists, but the enthusiastic overstatements of “Young Turks” or “Cage-stage” Calvinists.

The third was Hyper-Calvinist Presumption. But another and dangerous source of misunderstandings about Calvinism is the historical stream of real Hyper-Calvinism which developed in the centuries following the Reformation. Yes, there really is such a thing as Hyper-Calvinism! Of course, Hyper-Calvinism is not five point Calvinism. That is just Calvinism. Granted such Hyper-Calvinism scarcely exists anywhere any more. But its writings and its representatives do exist and pose a constant and, I fear, growing temptation to young, imbalanced Calvinists ready to embrace anything that appears to exalt a sovereign God. I warn you, then, that everything is not gold that glitters. Be careful of those who will tell you that the free and well-meant offer of the gospel, the doctrine of common grace, and duty-faith are Arminianism.

The Solution to These Misunderstandings

The root of each of these sources of misunderstanding is, I think, the same. It is rationalism. By that I mean the exaltation of human reason over the teaching of the Word of God. It is, of course, true that human reason is created by God and is a necessary tool in the interpretation of the Bible. This is undeniable. I concur with the Westminster Confession when it says:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture …

But we must never forget that our reason is limited in two respects. It is both finite and fallen. We must be, therefore, modest and careful in the deductions which we draw from Scripture, guarding always against allowing our human reason to purge from Scripture things which seem contradictory to our reason. We must be prepared, to put this in other words, to allow the divine wisdom of Scripture to correct our human wisdom and reason. We must not jump quickly to unnatural and forced interpretations to remove from Scripture things which are offensive to our reason.

My third point of introduction was …

The Substantiation of These Misunderstandings

The title of 21 Misunderstandings of Calvinism assumes that we have some authority for what historical Calvinism or Reformed thinking is. Only on the basis of some authoritative statement of Calvinism can I show or substantiate that certain views are misunderstandings of its teaching. In my message at RP 15 I used two such authoritative statements of Calvinism.

First, I will use the historic Calvinistic Baptist Confession of Faith, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. It is the confession that can claim more than any other to have shaped Reformed and Particular Baptist thought. It has the further advantage of being a revision of the Westminster Confession, the classic Reformation confession, and echoing most of its language and doctrinal sentiments.

Second, I will use the Canons of Dort. The Canons of Dort were the first, creedal, and systematic exposition of the doctrines of grace in the history of the church and were affirmed by an international synod of Reformed churches and theologians in 1618-19. I think these two documents are indisputably authoritative, historical affirmations of Calvinism. Continue reading

Five Big Myths About Calvinism

I speak for many when I say that I have not always embraced the doctrines of grace or what is commonly called Calvinism. Its actually unfortunate that a man’s name is associated with the doctrines that came out of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin was not the first to articulate these truths, but merely was the chief systematizer of such doctrines. There was actually nothing in Calvin that was not first seen in Luther, and much of Luther was first found in Augustine. Luther was an Augustinian monk, of course. We would also naturally affirm that there was nothing in any of these men that was not first found in Paul and Peter and John in the New Testament.

Even now, I have no desire to be a Calvinist in the Corinthian sense of the word – a follower of John Calvin, per say. Though I believe Calvin was a tremendous expositor of the Scriptures and had many great insights, I am not someone who believes he was in any way infallible. I am with Spurgeon who declared, “There is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answer – I wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, do I hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it.” (C. H. Spurgeon, a Defense of Calvinism)

In coming to understand these doctrines that are now so precious to me, I now realize that there were fortresses built in my mind to defend against the idea of God being Sovereign in the matter of salvation. Such was my total depravity! These fortresses were not made of stone and brick but of man made ideas concepts that I believed Scripture taught with clarity. These fortresses did not come down easily. In fact, I believe it is a work of Divine grace in the heart not only to regenerate His people, but also to open hearts and minds, even of His own people, to the truth of His Sovereignty in election.

There are many false concepts about Calvinism. Here are five that are very common:

1. CALVINISM DESTROYS EVANGELISM

I think some Calvinists do have an aversion for evangelism, and this is something that needs to be addressed whenever this tendency is seen, yet both historically and biblically, nothing could be further from the truth. It is quite easy to prove that the whole missions movement was started by Calvinists who believed Christ had His elect sheep in every tribe, tongue, people and nation. Romans 8 and 9 teaches election clearly, and Romans 10 tells us of the necessity of preaching the Gospel. How shall they (the elect) hear without a preacher? Romans 10 is in no way a contradiction to Romans 8 and 9.

Divine election is the only hope of evangelism. No one we speak to about Christ is beyond hope, for God may well have ordained from all eternity that our conversation or preaching is to be the very means by which He would achieve His ends – the gathering of one of His elect sheep into the fold! What a privilege to be used by God in this way.

Divine election should never undermine evangelism. In fact, the truth about election should cause us to continue to proclaim Christ, even when results may not come immediately. The concept of election should actually fuel our evangelism when mere human emotion wanes. We should remember that God has His elect sheep who will hear His voice and will follow Him when we preach the Gospel of Christ. So then faith comes by hearing and hearing the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).

Election is not a hindrance to evangelism. It simply explains to us why some believe the Gospel and why some do not. Jesus said to one group hearing Him “you do not believe because you are not My sheep” (John 10:26) and Luke explained the evangelistic results of the early church by declaring, “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48)

2. CALVINISM APPEALS TO THE PRIDE OF MAN

Sadly, some Calvinists do reek of pride and give off an air of being better than those around them, but such is a total betrayal of biblical Calvinism. If we recognize our total depravity or radical corruption, we understand that there was absolutely nothing in us that caused God to look down upon us to show us such favor. The only thing we can say in response to His electing grace is “Lord, why me?”

Romans 9:11-16 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad- in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call- 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

“God intentionally designed salvation so that no man can boast of it. He didn’t merely arrange it so that boasting would be discouraged or kept to a minimum – He planned it so that boasting would be absolutely excluded. Election does precisely that.” – Mark Webb

3. CALVINISM STUNTS HOLINESS

I have heard this mentioned a few times recently and just scratch my head in wonder about it. One great example are the Puritans, who were strong Calvinists and yet were driven by a desire for holiness. But some see this as a contradiction in terms. Where they get this, I do not know.

God Sovereignly elects some people to salvation but this in no way diminishes our responsibility to make sure that we who profess faith in Christ, actually possess the faith that saves. If you and I do have the real thing and not some fraudulent kind of substitute for the genuine faith that saves.. if we really have the real thing.. there will be evidence to show it. The Scripture, and true Calvinism, teaches us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith. I find this to be the biblical mandate rather than simply recalling a time when we raised a hand or walked an aisle, which is what most Christians have been taught. The call to holiness is a call all true Christians will heed for without it, no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14)

4. CALVINISM TEACHES THAT MEN ARE MERELY ROBOTS

Calvinists believes in man’s will. Man always chooses what he most desires at the moment of choice. You are choosing now to read this sentence when there are literally billions of other sentences out there waiting to be read.

Why do you read this sentence right now?

The answer is because at this very moment, this is your strongest desire. It is impossible for you to be reading something else – right now anyway. And this will be the case until a stronger desire for something else (like answering the phone or taking a shower, or going for a walk) rises up in your heart. The heart and the will are inseparably connected.

What we need is not ‘free will’ but wills made free. This is because by nature our hearts only want independence from Christ. We love darkness rather than light. Jesus said, “No man CAN come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44). Calvinists take these words seriously as well as Christ’s words in John 3 which tells that unless a man is first born again (or born from above) he cannot enter or even see the kingdom of God.

“If any man doth ascribe of salvation, even the very least, to the free will of man, he knows nothing of grace, and he has not learnt Jesus Christ aright.” – Martin Luther

George Whitefield, perhaps the greatest Evangelist in church history once declared, “I hope we shall catch fire from each other, and that there will be a holy emulation amongst us, who shall most debase man and exalt the Lord Jesus. Nothing but the doctrines of the Reformation can do this. All others leave free-will in man and make him, in part at least, a Saviour to himself. My soul, come not thou near the secret of those who teach such things . . . I know Christ is all in all. Man is nothing: he hath a free will to go to hell, but none to go to heaven, till God worketh in him to do of His good pleasure.” – Works, pp. 89-90

“If the final decision for the salvation of fallen sinners were left in the hands of fallen sinners, we would despair all hope that anyone would be saved.” – R. C. Sproul

“I do not come into this pulpit hoping that perhaps somebody will of his own free will return to Christ. My hope lies in another quarter. I hope that my Master will lay hold of some of them and say, ‘You are mine, and you shall be mine. I claim you for myself.’ My hope arises from the freeness of grace, and not from the freedom of the will. Free will carried many a soul to hell, but never a soul to heaven.” – Charles Haddon Spurgeon

5. CALVINISM DIMINISHES THE GOD OF LOVE

I think for many, this is the big one. They have a concept concerning the love of God that while very popular, is not particularly biblical. They believe (as I once did) that if God is love, he loves all people in just the same way. I believe God does love everyone in some sense, but He has a love for His Son which is greater than His love for demons, and a love for His sheep which is greater than His love for the goats. Husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. Christ gave Himself for the church in a way He did not for Walmart or McDonalds. No one would ever say about a husband “wow, look at the way this man loves his wife, and the great thing about his love for her is that he loves everyone else’s wife in just the same way.”

This is a truth that needs to be taught with great care because so many have false concepts stemming from being raised on inaccurate teaching about the love of God. We must be patient with such people when pointing them to the biblical texts. Some people think John 3:16 destroys divine election, but of course it does not. Yet a false concept brought to the Scripture text often confirms people in their opposition to what the Bible actually teaches.

However we interpret the words, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” I think if we believe the Bible, we all have to admit that in some sense, God had a greater love for Jacob than He did for Esau, or else words mean nothing.

John 17:23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

God, moved by love for His name and for us, sent His Son into the world to actually save elect sinners, not to merely try to do so. He went all the way in His love for us and did all the work in raising us from spiritual death by a work of supreme, matchless, measureless grace. Because salvation is of the Lord, all the glory for our salvation – absolutely all of it, goes to God alone. Calvinism affirms this.

“The doctrines of original sin, election, effectual calling, final perseverance, and all those great truths which are called Calvinism, though Calvin was not the author of them, but simply an able writer and preacher upon the subject, are, I believe, the essential doctrines of the Gospel that is in Jesus Christ. Now, I do not ask you whether you believe all this – it is possible you may not; but I believe you will before you enter heaven. I am persuaded, that as God may have washed your hearts, he will wash your brains before you enter heaven.” C. H. Spurgeon

The Historic Roots of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Movement

Tom_NettlesArticle entitled “Churches, even if it could not be at the Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. If no other means were available, he advised, “work at it yourself.” The fathers of the convention did this, Boyce claimed; “They familiarized themselves with the Bible, and Gill and Andrew Fuller, and they made good and effective preachers. God is able to raise up others like them.”1 The irony of Boyce’s appeal to the grassroots for support of theological education was this: the seminary would not interrupt, but would perpetuate, the work of pastoral ministry, preaching and theology consistent with the Gill/Fuller tradition.

But this is the very difficulty that we face at this moment in Southern Baptist history. God indeed is raising up others like them, that is, like the fathers. Whether self-educated or seminary-educated, Boyce and all his contemporaries viewed a Bible theology that reflected a blend of Gill and Fuller as normal and expected. Churches should have no other kind of pastor.

These are the ones that would maintain the spiritual and doctrinal health and fervor of the churches. Today, however, some Southern Baptists are warning the churches against them. This is a mammoth historical irony that many find difficult to appreciate.

The Charleston Association in its adoption of the 1689 Confession and in the preaching of such men as Oliver Hart, Richard Furman, Basil Manly, Sr., bequeathed the theology of the fathers to James P. Boyce. In his analysis of the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, Boyce wrote, “This doctrine is inseparably associated with the other doctrines of grace which we have found taught in God’s word. So true is this, that they are universally accepted, or rejected together. The perseverance of the saints is a part of every Calvinistic confession. . . . All the evidence, therefore, of the truth of the doctrines already examined, may be presented in favour of this which is a necessary inference from them. In like manner, all the independent proof of this doctrine confirms the separate doctrines, and the system of doctrine, with which it is associated.”2 Boyce’s conviction at this point challenges the contemporary position of many Baptists who still maintain a doctrine of perseverance but separate it from the rest of the biblical pattern, the doctrinal system, of which it is intrinsically a part. Those that have departed from the historic view, and the theologically consistent view, now warn churches against those that that are true-blue, dyed in the wool, 100 proof Southern Baptist.

They are faulted when they contend that, though of Reformed viewpoint, they don’t want to wear that label. That is not because they are less than sincere in that conviction or because they don’t believe it to undergird healthy church life both in evangelism and the sanctifying influences of truth. It’s because of the caricatures presented in the instructive documents given to pulpit committees. Even the ridiculous charge of bringing in infant baptism to a Baptist church has been made. It’s also because a marvelous array of biblical truths, to which there should be no objection, is vitally connected to the distinctives of Calvinism. Their power, in fact, flourishes in that doctrinal context.

If pulpit committees and churches would look below the façade of scare-tactic accusations and warnings being rolled out like taffy at the Mississippi State Fair, they would discover something healthy and very desirable in the men and the message preached by those against whom they are warned. No one wants a nasty confrontation between church and pastor that leads to a confused and often divided congregation and a battered pastor and his family. These are charitable warnings. Some congregations, however, might desire to consider why Baptists for so long guarded their confessional Calvinism with great care and endured many storms undergirded by that foundation. They might consider that opening themselves to embrace that which is truly “traditional” could elevate the sense of the divine presence of grace in their lives.

The twentieth-century slide into liberalism rode on the back of a growing indifference to the doctrines of grace, because the doctrines of grace are tied vitally to more biblical doctrines than just perseverance of the saints. The recovery of a fully salubrious evangelical preaching ministry depends largely on the degree to which the doctrines of grace are recovered and become the consciously propagated foundation of all gospel truth.

If a church, therefore, gets a Calvinist preacher, she will get a good thing. Several issues will be securely settled and the church will not have to wonder about the soundness of her preacher on these items of biblical truth and their soul-nurturing power. Calvinists have stood for more than just their distinguishing doctrines; they have held steadfastly to other doctrines that are essential for the health of Baptist churches in our day. Let’s look at a few of these.

1. A Calvinist firmly believes in the divine inspiration of Scriptures. A large number of cogent defenses of the inerrancy of Scripture have been written by Calvinists. Some would say that these are among the most profound ever produced in Christian literature. Calvinism provides a more consistent rationale for inerrancy than other theological systems. One of the most often repeated objections to the divine inspiration of Scripture is that its assumption of perfect divine control of the process runs roughshod over human freedom and does not give sufficient room to human finiteness or human sin. These were objections, concurrent with the decline of commitment to Calvinism, that landed many leading voices of twentieth-century denominational life in a position opposed to inerrancy and verbal inspiration. Virtually every defender of inerrancy has to discuss the relation between inspiration and each of these supposed difficulties. The Calvinist system poses no contradiction between the freeness of human personality, the limitations of human finiteness, and the mental darkness of human sin in their relation to verbal inspiration. God’s particular providence over all events includes every choice of every moral creature without diminishing the free moral agency of the creature. God in his sovereignty can gives words to a donkey as well as an unwilling prophet (Numbers 22:28-30, 38). Through the use of a variety of means, God works all things, including inspiration, “according to the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11).In the same way that God’s sovereignty brings about the fulfillment of his prophecies according to his decree with no violation of human freedom, and no limitation from human weakness or badness (Acts 2:23), so he inspired Scripture without suspending the individual personality traits of every biblical writer. If a church gets a Calvinist pastor, she can be sure that her pastor never will deny the full truthfulness of the Bible but will be tethered to the text as the word of God. He will have this conviction, not as an act of will unrelated to his theological system but as an intrinsic and coherent outflow of his view of God and man. Continue reading

5 Reasons I’m a Calvinist

fivepointArticle by Stephen Altrogge (original source cold-hearted person who only wants a select few people to get into heaven? An annoying guy who won’t stop rambling on about Romans 9? That awful, sterile, passionless church you used to go to?

I get it.

Calvinism doesn’t have a fantastic reputation, at least in some circles. Some people feel like it focuses more on theology than on loving people. Others have had really bad experiences with Calvinists. And some people think it runs counter to the beautiful free offer of grace found in the Bible.

But what if someone who is not a jerk (at least most of the time) could talk about Calvinism in a way that didn’t make you want to smash your computer?

That’s what I’m going to try to do in this post. I want to explain why I’m a Calvinist, why it brings me great joy, and why I think it’s profoundly biblical. If at the end you disagree with me, that’s okay. We can still be BFS (best friends sometimes).

I can’t answer all your objections in this post. I’m not intending to turn this into a furious, spittle-flying debate. Think of this as a pleasant conversation over a craft beer (or coffee if you’re a Baptist).

WHAT IS A CALVINIST?

Before we dive off the deep end, I should take a minute to define what I mean by Calvinism. A simple definition is this:

Calvinism is a series of doctrines that describes the state of humanity apart from God, how God saves people, and how God will ultimately bring those people to Glory.

A common acronym used to remember the doctrines of Calvinism is:

T – Total Depravity
U – Unconditional Election
L – Limited Atonement
I – Irresistible Grace
P – Perseverance of the Saints

I don’t like some of the phrases in the acronym and I think they can be confusing but it’s what most people use.

BECAUSE IT’S ALL OVER THE BIBLE

I am not a Calvinist because of John Calvin. In fact, if John Calvin never existed I would still be a Calvinist (except it wouldn’t be called “Calvinism”). I don’t have man-crush on Calvin, nor do I think he’s the greatest person since Jesus. I won’t name any of my kids “Calvin”.

Calvin simply took some biblical ideas and organized them. Actually, I prefer the term “Doctrines of Grace” rather than Calvinism. It better describes the doctrines. Plus it takes the focus off John Calvin who, just like everyone else, had some great strengths and wicked weaknesses.

I believe in the doctrines of grace because they run throughout the entire Bible, like a golden thread from Genesis to Revelation. In the Old Testament, we see that God unconditionally chose Israel to be his people.

Deuteronomy 7:6-7 says:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples…

This theme, of God choosing a people for himself, comes up again and again, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. God clearly chose Israel to be his people, and that choice was not based on anything they had done. It was an unconditional choice.

In 1 Peter 2:9-10, Peter uses this same language to reflect the way God continues to choose those who will be his people:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

This language is used repeatedly throughout the Bible. God chose a people for himself, not because of anything in them but because of his good, profound, wise purposes. Apart from God’s choice, we would never choose him, He always acts upon us first. Because God chooses us, he will also preserve us to the end (Philippians 1:8, Jude 24).

BECAUSE GOD GETS ALL THE GLORY

One thing that is abundantly clear in the Bible is that God is intent on getting all glory for himself. He absolutely will not allow anyone else to take credit for what he alone has accomplished.

God called the people of Israel for his glory alone. As Isaiah 43:6-7 (and many other verses) says:

I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.

We see this same thing again in Ephesians 1:5-6 speaking of God’s New Covenant people:

In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

God does all the choosing, he does all the saving, and he gets all the glory. I did not choose God, therefore I get zero credit for saving myself. He did it all and he gets all the praise, glory, and honor.

BECAUSE IT EXPLAINS ME AND THE WORLD SO WELL

When I look at myself and look at the world, I see people who are totally depraved. Totally depraved does not mean completely depraved.

Someone who is completely depraved does all evil all the time. Total depravity means that every facet of our being – our thinking, our actions, our bodies, our motives – have been distorted by sin.

As it says so clearly in Romans 3:12:

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.

I’m certainly not righteous. It takes me about two seconds to figure that out. And the more experience I have with people, the more I realize that no one is righteous. Every person and every thing is totally distorted by the presence of sin in the world.

I’m not a Calvinist because of my experience, but my experience certainly confirms what I see scattered broadly through the Bible. This world we live in is a damnable, wicked place.

BECAUSE I KNOW I COULDN’T HAVE CHOSEN GOD

Given what I know about the darkness in my own heart, I could not and would not have ever chosen God of my own initiative. It just wouldn’t have happened. I’m too stubborn. Too self-righteous. Too self-reliant. I’ve got a heart of stone. Continue reading

The Doctrines of Grace Series

Here’s my friend, Pastor Jeff Durbin is currently teaching a series on the doctrines of grace (with Dr. James White presenting message number 6):

Message 1: God’s Sovereignty:

Message 2: Total Depravity

Message 3: Unconditional Election

Message 4: Romans 9

Message 5: Limited Atonement

Did Jesus die to make people savable? Or did Christ die to actually exhaust the wrath of God (making a full-payment) in the place of His people? Did Jesus death on the cross purchase people and present a perfect atonement? Or was His death for sins something that could end up not being beneficial for some people?

Message 6: Irresistible Grace

Dr. James White, of Alpha and Omega Ministries (aomin.org): Is salvation ultimately dependent upon man or God? Who receives the glory for salvation? If God wills to save someone from their sin, are they able to thwart His purposes and refuse His power to raise the spiritually dead?

The Fine Points of Calvinism

sproul78Article by Dr. R. C. Sproul – originally published in Tabletalk magazine.

The late theologian Cornelius Van Til once made the observation that Calvinism is not to be identified with the so-called five points of Calvinism. Rather, Van Til concluded that the five points function as a pathway, or a bridge, to the entire structure of Reformed theology. Likewise, Charles Spurgeon argued that Calvinism is merely a nickname for biblical theology. These titans of the past understood that the essence of Reformed theology cannot be reduced to five particular points that arose as points of controversy centuries ago in Holland with the Remonstrants, who objected to five specific points of the system of doctrine found in historic Calvinism. Those five points have become associated with the acrostic TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.

It is the task of this article to approach the question of Reformed theology from the perspective of what is called in philosophy the via negativa. This method of approaching truth defines things in terms of what they are not; hence, it is called the “way of negation.” For example, when we speak of the nature of God, we say that He is infinite, which simply means that He is “not finite.” This is an example of the use of the way of negation. When we have a clear understanding of how to employ this method, the way of affirmation, its opposite, becomes manifest. As we look at what Reformed theology is not, it helps us to understand what it is.

We begin by saying that Reformed theology is not a chaotic set of disconnected ideas. Rather, Reformed theology is systematic. We live in a time when systems of thought are decried in a postmodern world, not only in the secular arena of ideas, but even within Christian seminaries. Historically, the principle of systematic theology has been this: The Bible, being the Word of God, reflects the coherence and unity of the God whose Word it is. To be sure, it would be a distortion to take a foreign system of thought and force it upon Scripture, making Scripture conform to it as if it were some kind of procrustean bed. That is not the goal of sound, systematic theology. Rather, true systematic theology seeks to understand the system of theology that is contained within the whole scope of sacred Scripture. It does not impose ideas upon the Bible; it listens to the ideas that are proclaimed by the Bible and understands them in a coherent way.

The next point we make by way of negation is that Reformed theology is not anthropocentric. That is to say, Reformed theology is not centered on human beings. The central focal point of Reformed theology is God, and it’s the doctrine of God that permeates the whole of the substance of Reformed thought. Thus Reformed theology, by way of affirmation, can be called theocentric.

Though it is not often helpful to speak about paradoxes in our understanding of truth, there is nevertheless one paradox I like to maintain. On the one hand, the doctrine of God proper, that is, the doctrine of the nature, attributes, and character of God, affirmed by various creeds of Reformation thought, has little that is different from other theologies and other expressions of faith found among Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, and the like. At the same time, and herein lies the paradox, the most distinctive dimension of Reformed theology is its doctrine of God. Though it sounds like I’m writing out of both sides of my pen, let me hasten to clarify this paradoxical assertion. After Reformed theology articulates its doctrine of the nature and character of God in the first principles of its system of doctrine, it does not thereafter forget its affirmations when it addresses other doctrines. Rather, our understanding of the character of God is primary and determinant with respect to our understanding of all other doctrines. That is to say, our understanding of salvation has as its control factor, right at the heart of it, our understanding of the character of God.

Reformed theology is not anti-catholic. This may seem strange since Reformed theology grows directly out of the Protestant movement of the sixteenth century, which movement was called “Protestant” because it involved a “protest” against the teaching and activity of Roman Catholicism. But the term catholic refers to catholic Christianity, the essence of which may be found in the ecumenical creeds of the first thousand years of church history, particularly the early creeds and church councils, such as the council of Nicea in the fourth century and the council of Chalcedon in the fifth century. That is to say, those creeds contain common articles of faith shared by all denominations that embrace orthodox Christianity, doctrines such as the Trinity and the atonement of Christ. The doctrines affirmed by all Christians are at the heart and core of Calvinism. Calvinism does not depart on a search for a new theology and reject the common base of theology that the whole church shares.

Reformed theology is not Roman Catholic in its understanding of justification. This is simply to say that Reformed theology is evangelical in the historical sense of the word. In this regard, Reformed theology stands strongly and firmly with Martin Luther and the magisterial Reformers in their articulation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It affirms the solas of the Reformation, which are the formal and material causes of the sixteenth-century Reformation. Those two principles are the doctrines of sola Scriptura and sola fide. Neither of these doctrines are explicitly declared in the five points of Calvinism; yet, in a sense, they become the foundation for the other characteristics of Reformed theology.

These introductory statements about what Reformed theology is not are given a much broader and deeper expression in my book What Is Reformed Theology?, which was written to help laypersons and Christian leaders understand the essence of Reformed theology. In this article I am giving the bare-bones approach to the doctrine, reminding readers that Reformed theology so far transcends the mere five points of Calvinism that it is an entire life and world view. It is covenantal. It is sacramental. It is committed to transforming culture. It is subordinate to the operation of God the Holy Spirit, and it has a rich framework for understanding the entirety of the council of God revealed in the Bible.

More Spurgeon Quotes on Calvinism

Spurgeon08I believe nothing merely because Calvin taught it, but because I have found his teaching in the Word of God.

The doctrines of original sin, election, effectual calling, final perseverance, and all those great truths which are called Calvinism, though Calvin was not the author of them, but simply an able writer and preacher upon the subject are, I believe, the essential doctrines of the Gospel that is in Jesus Christ. Now, I do not ask you whether you believe all this – it is possible you may not; but I believe you will before you enter heaven. I am persuaded, that as God may have washed your hearts, he will wash your brains before you enter heaven.

I believe the man who is not willing to submit to the electing love and sovereign grace of God, has great reason to question whether he is a Christian at all, for the spirit that kicks against that is the spirit of the devil, and the spirit of the unhumbled, unrenewed heart.

But, say others, God elected them on the foresight of their faith. Now, God gives faith, therefore he could not have elected them on account of faith, which he foresaw. There shall be twenty beggars in the street, and I determine to give one of them a shilling; but will any one say that I determined to give that one a shilling, that I elected him to have the shilling, because I foresaw that he would have it? That would be talking nonsense. In like manner to say that God elected men because he foresaw they would have faith, which is salvation in the germ, would be too absurd for us to listen to for a moment.

Our Arminian antagonists always leave the fallen angels out of the question: for it is not convenient to them to recollect this ancient instance of Election. They call it unjust, that God should choose one man and not another. By what reasoning can this be unjust when they will admit that it was righteous enough in God to choose one race, the race of men, and leave another race, the race of angels, to be sunk into misery on account of sin.

Some, who know no better, harp upon the foreknowledge of our repentance and faith, and say that, Election is according to the foreknowledge of God; a very scriptural statement, but they make a very unscriptural interpretation of it. Advancing by slow degrees, they next assert that God foreknew the faith and the good works of his people. Undoubtedly true, since he foreknew everything; but then comes their groundless inference, namely, that therefore the Lord chose his people because he foreknew them to be believers. It is undoubtedly true that foreknown excellencies are not the causes of election, since I have shown you that the Lord foreknew all our sin: and surely if there were enough virtue in our faith and goodness to constrain him to choose us, there would have been enough demerit in our bad works to have constrained him to reject us; so that if you make foreknowledge to operate in one way, you must also take it in the other, and you will soon perceive that it could not have been from anything good or bad in us that we were chosen, but according to the purpose of his own will, as it is written, I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

Recollect also that God himself did not foresee that there would be any love to him in us arising out of ourselves, for there never has been any, and there never will be; he only foresaw that we should believe because he gave us faith, he foresaw that we should repent because his Spirit would work repentance in us, he foresaw that we should love, because he wrought that love within us; and is there anything in the foresight that he means to give us such things that can account for his giving us such things? The case is self-evident – his foresight of what he means to do cannot be his reason for doing it.

There was nothing more in Abraham than in any one of us why God should have selected him, for whatever good was in Abraham God put it there. Now, if God put it there, the motive for his putting it there could not be the fact of his putting it there.

A controversialist once said, If I thought God had a chosen people, I should not preach. That is the very reason why I do preach. What would make him inactive is the mainspring of my earnestness. If the Lord had not a people to be saved, I should have little to cheer me in the ministry.

I believe that God will save his own elect, and I also believe that, if I do not preach the gospel, the blood of men will be laid at my door.

Our Saviour has bidden us to preach the gospel to every creature; he has not said, Preach it only to the elect; and though that might seem to be the most logical thing for us to do, yet, since he has not been pleased to stamp the elect in their foreheads, or to put any distinctive mark upon them, it would be an impossible task for us to perform; whereas, when we preach the gospel to every creature, the gospel makes its own division, and Christ’s sheep hear his voice, and follow him.

God neither chose them nor called them because they were holy, but He called them that they might be holy, and holiness is the beauty produced by His workmanship in them.

Grace does not choose a man and leave him as he is.

God’s Intention in the Atonement

allen Dr. James White responds:

Let’s think about Dr. Allen’s claim here: there is an obvious presupposition that needs to be exposed and challenged. First, not those who are not His sheep. The once-for-all (temporal, not distributive use) sacrifice perfects those for whom it is made. The Father gives a specific people to the Son, the Son’s death brings about the salvation of each and every one of them, without fail (John 6:39). So there is harmony and consistency between the intention and will of the Father in the salvation of the elect, and the work of the Son in being personally united to the elect so that His death is their death, His resurrection their resurrection. Of course, if such a harmony exists, there is no room for the centerpiece of the synergistic universe: the autonomous will of the creature, man. So this consistency, this harmony, must be denied.

Next, note the assertion “is not adequate to save those for whom it was not made.” See the poorly hidden assumption? Why would the atonement have an intention other than that which is consistent with the actions of each of the members of the Godhead in their work of redemption? Why would the atonement have a different scope and purpose than that redemptive will of the Father? (Which is why synergists must assert a universal *redemptive* will of the Father and deny the specificity of the elect). In other words, why would the Father make personal, effective provision through union with the Son for those who will remain justly under His wrath? The assumption here is that there is some kind of justice issue involved *in the extension of grace* and that if the Father does not make *equal salvific provision* for each and every person, He is unjust. So make sure to note what this means: grace cannot be free, cannot be specific, cannot actually save—this is the watchword of the synergist, whether Roman or non. james-white031

Allen is playing on the discussion of term “adequacy” in reference to the atonement, confusing, as almost all synergists and universal atonement advocates do, the fact that there is no inherent limitation upon the *efficacy* of the atonement with the reality that the atonement is purposeful and harmonious with the election of the Father and the application of the Spirit (harmonious action of the Triune God). The idea is to place in the mind of the reader the false suggestion that by making the atonement consistent with the decree of election and the application by the Spirit we are introducing a fundamental *flaw* or *weakness* or *limitation* in the atonement’s power, when in reality, just the opposite is the case. Once we realize what the atonement is (a true propitiatory sacrifice) and once we realize how the Son is doing the will of the Father in the salvation of the elect, we see not only the atonement’s great power and perfection, we also see the grave dangers that flow necessarily from the synergistic viewpoint that renders the atonement potential, impersonal, and theoretical.

The Five Points

Article by Stephen Rees (original source for example 1, 2, 3]. But the five points are not the starting point in understanding and worshipping God. Believers should be more interested in God himself than in what he does for us. God is worthy to be praised because of who he is: one God in three persons, ‘infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth’. If I were asked which is the most important doctrine for Christians to believe, I would say unhesitatingly, the doctrine of the Trinity: that doctrine underlies all other Christian doctrines, including the doctrines of salvation. I would prefer to hear believers praising God joyfully for the love that has existed eternally between the three persons, than for the mercy we have received from him. Isolating the five points from the whole biblical presentation of God’s being can be dangerous.

The 5 points: important and providential

And yet the five points are important. They do give us a clear and systematic overview of what the Bible says about God’s plan of salvation. And a number of you have said how helpful it’s been to hear the plan of salvation presented in this systematic way.

How did the five points come to be formulated in the first place? By a strange and wonderful providence of God. We only have that five-point outline because of the attempts of false teachers to undermine the teaching of God’s Word. By God’s overruling, their attacks on the truth led to this wonderfully clear summary of the Bible’s teaching on God’s plan of salvation.

Many people assume that it was Calvin who first listed out the five points (they’re often labelled ‘the five points of Calvinism’). But it was not Calvin who first drew up this 5-point presentation. I have mentioned several times over recent weeks that the five points were first drawn up at a great conference of preachers and theologians held in the Dutch city of Dort in 1618/19. That conference was called to answer a group of false teachers who were spreading their unbiblical ideas into the Reformed churches of the Netherlands. The false teachers drew up a list of five issues that they wanted discussed. The church leaders who had gathered took those issues one by one and answered them under five headings. And Bible-believing Christians have been using those headings ever since.

Arminius and his followers

We call the false teachers Arminians. They were followers of Jacobus Arminius, a Dutch minister who was appointed as professor of theology at Leiden University in 1603. As a minister in the Reformed church, Arminius had vowed to uphold the teaching of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism – these were the two documents that summarised the teaching of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. But Arminius had come to doubt what those documents teach about God’s plan of salvation. Those who listened to him preach began to suspect that secretly he had turned away from the teaching of the Bible and the churches. But he denied it. When he was invited to become professor at Leiden, again he vowed that he would be faithful to the Confession and the Catechism. He did not keep that vow. Rather he used his position to spread the false doctrines that he had come to believe. He did it in subtle ways, trying to hide just how far he had moved from the truths he had been appointed to teach. But through his influence, many of the students who listened to his lectures were persuaded to turn away from the teaching of the Bible, and of the reformed churches. Continue reading