by Grant Swart
It is with predictable regularity that Bible believing Christians are confronted with the question: “Are you a Calvinist?” More often than not, the question is posed rather as an accusatory punch than as a genuine inquiry. Those who pose the question have generally made up their minds beforehand, what the qualifications for a Calvinist ought to be and accordingly to label the Bible believer as a Calvinist.
After just a few short years, those who have upheld Sola Scriptura, become accustomed to (and frankly quite bored by) being labelled Calvinists, based on the fact that they have steadfastly opposed the authority of man-centered teaching by holding to the sole authority of Scripture and the Sovereignty of God.
If it is someone’s perception that it is those traits which make another a Calvinist, then it is probably a good thing for the believer to seek to be labelled as such, however, it remains simply that… someone’s misinformed perception.
Here are a few simple points:
(a) I am a Bible believing Christian, and I do not claim to be anything more, or less. I acknowledge the absolute Sovereignty of God in all matters, therefore I must regard those who have a synergistic understanding as necessarily being at odds with my faith. I did not make the decision to believe in the Sovereignty of God, neither did I come to the secure understanding of the faith that I have, or the trust I have in the Saviour, by way of anything I might have done in the past. If gaining the faith which has saved me, was in any way up to me, I would still be the unbeliever I always was. The God I serve did not choose me because He foresaw that I would believe, because I wouldn’t have. Neither could I ever have.
(b) I regard God to be the Sovereign Ruler of the universe—that, before He created anything, He determined the course of the universe: from the smallest sub-atomic particles to the greatest galaxies; from the course of natural events, such as weather and earthquakes, to the very actions and thoughts of men. This includes every thought and every action, from the womb to the grave, of every man who would ever live. These were not only foreseen or permitted by God, but also planned and purposed by Him.
(c) I believe that God, in His Providence, intervenes in His creation when and however He pleases. At times, He is pleased to allow secondary and contingent causes to take their course. At other times, He deliberately intervenes, sometimes in very subtle, inconspicuous ways, and sometimes in very overt, spectacular ways. By means of the faith which God instills in me I understand that God is both the Architect and Master of all things and that nothing takes God by surprise, or is outside the realm of His control.
If the three points above are partly definitive of what pertains to being a Calvinist, then I am perplexed by the fact that someone who claims to be a believer, would wish to oppose Calvinism. I also fail to see how, by implication, an adherence to biblical Christianity makes one a Calvinist rather than a Christian, simply because some of the things which John Calvin wrote about were in agreement with biblical doctrine.
All people,those who are of relatively sound mind, more than likely agree that electricity exists on earth. If you don’t agree, and are of sound mind, simply stick your finger into a live wall socket and I’m sure you’ll be persuaded to change your mind. Now, at around the time that John Calvin was writing about matters theological, a certain William Gilbert was making one of the first official studies of electricity. It was William Gilbert who first coined the word “electricus” from which we got the word “electricity”, of course. Today we do not refer to those who believe in the existence of electricity as Gilbertians or Gilbertists. No, even though electricity is real, we regard those who agree with William Gilbert as people. Is that an over-simplification? No more than calling Bible believing Christians, Calvinists.
The reason for the Reformers calling for Sola Scriptura, as an absolute neccessity to counter the false teachings of men, cannot be more clearly justified than by this issue. The mere allowance for the fact that there can be any number of variations on what God wants us to know, constitutes the existence of the false church and false gospels. There is one Word and there can be only one correct interpretation thereof. That is not to say that we may not or should not discuss it, we should simply accept our fallibility and seek forgiveness for our weaknesses.
No matter how determined the efforts are of those, who are bent on sticking labels on Bible believers, they cannot make the label stick onto the surface which refuses it by authority of the Word. The short article by Dr Paul M. Elliott which follows below makes the case against the un-Biblical efforts of those who attempt to apply man-made labels to Christ’s sheep.
(John 10:27-29) My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
Taking on a man-made label is problematic, and actually un-Biblical.
He’s Not in the Text
A very well-known Reformed preacher once delivered a powerful sermon on the first chapter of Ephesians and related passages. In this message he set forth what are often referred to as the doctrines of grace.
He began by setting forth the great doctrine that God by His free grace chose a people for Himself in Christ before the foundation of the world. He expounded the fact that these chosen ones of God are predestined to adoption as sons by His sovereign choosing.
He also preached the great fact that redemption is by God’s grace alone through faith alone, accomplished in full by the shed blood of Christ alone, apart from any human works or merit, because the totally depraved sinner has no such offering that is acceptable to God as a propitiation for his sins.
He went on to preach about the great work of God the Holy Spirit in applying the redemption accomplished by Christ to the elect of God by convicting them of sin, bringing those who are dead in trespasses and sins to spiritual life, giving them the gift of saving faith, and indwelling them as the down-payment of their ultimate and glorious redemption. He also preached the marvelous fact that this entire plan of God has as its ultimate goal the gathering together of all things in both Heaven and earth under the headship of Christ.
At the end of the service, a man came up to this preacher and said that he thought it was a wonderful message. “But,” he said, “in preaching such a message from such a text, why didn’t you mention Calvinism?” The pastor replied, “Because I did not find the words “Calvin” or “Calvinism” anywhere in the text.”
“I Am of Paul” - “I Am of Apollos”
Now, the pastor who gave this reply was a “Calvinist” in the sense that he taught with fervor God’s plan of salvation as stated above. But I believe that his answer to the man’s question applies a great truth in a very pointed way. Many people are anxious to wear labels, or to apply labels to others. But in the Word of God we find that Paul took the Corinthians to task for this:
Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)
For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:4-15)
There is just as great a danger in saying, “I am of Calvin” - “I am of Luther” - “I am of Wesley” - “I am of Arminius” - or in saying “I am of (fill in the blank with any name you wish)” as there is in saying “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos.”
The Problems of Labels
I am often asked the question, “Are you a Calvinist?” This is how I respond. The man who says, “I am a Calvinist” is saying, in effect, “I agree with Calvin’s positions all the way up and down the line.” I would submit that such an outlook is problematic indeed, for at least five reasons.
To begin with, I doubt there have ever been two human beings on earth who totally agreed in every detail of their theology. In the case of Calvin, it would take a literal lifetime of study to fully understand whether or not you agreed with the entire scope of his massive Institutes of the Christian Religion, his commentaries on many books of the Bible, and his other writings.
Secondly, to make the statement “I am a Calvinist” but to mean only “I generally agree with the teachings of Calvin” does a great disservice to those who hear you say, “I am a Calvinist.” They are left to speculate as to which parts of Calvin’s teachings you agree with fully, agree with partially, or disagree with completely.
Thirdly, to say “I am a Calvinist” effectively makes Calvin the standard. But the question that God asks us is not, “Do you agree with Calvin?” but rather, “Do you submit to My Word?” Scripture is the standard by which both we and Calvin and every other Christian, preacher or layperson, must and will be judged.
Fourthly, some men today are called Calvinists because they often invoke the name of Calvin, but in fact their theology is nothing like Calvin’s. Sometimes their theology is actually Roman Catholic at its core. They teach that man is justified before God by faith in Christ plus their own works, a heresy that Calvin opposed with such fervor that he frequently worked himself into ill health.
Finally, labels are often uncritically applied to an individual by others. Many would call me a Calvinist because I believe that the exposition of Ephesians chapter one that the prominent preacher gave above is the truth. Calvin certainly believed it as well. But that does not make me a Calvinist.
While I am on the same page with the great Reformer in vast areas of theology, I strongly disagree with him in a number of important areas. Let me offer two examples. In his Institutes, Calvin vigorously promoted the doctrine of infant baptism. I vigorously believe that Scripture proves Calvin entirely wrong on this. In hisCommentary on Romans, Calvin teaches that chapters 9-11 tell us that all the promises of God to ethnic Israel have been transferred to the Church. I disagree with Calvin’s interpretation of those chapters on exegetical grounds. I believe that Romans teaches us that God is not finished with ethnic Israel. I believe that Romans tells us of a coming day, after “the fullness of Gentiles has come in,” when a generation of those who are the physical seed of Abraham will be, in their entirety, the spiritual seed of Abraham as well - believers trusting in the shed blood of Christ for salvation, members of His one true and indivisible body for eternity.
I could say much more, but this is enough to demonstrate that the Biblical warning against man-made labels is of great practical importance.
The Label We Should Wear
This leaves a question that I am also sometimes asked: Is there a label that we should bear? There is only one, and that is the name of Christ.
For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family [of believers] in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
And they shall see His face; and His name shall be on their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no lamp nor light of the sun; for the Lord God gives them light: and they shall reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:4-5)
Is not that Name, which is above every name, label enough for every true saint of God?
- Dr. Paul M. Elliot
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