Are you a Calvinist? The problem with man-made labels

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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8 thoughts on “Are you a Calvinist? The problem with man-made labels

  1. Absolutely brilliant!!! After all there is only one name by which we are saved. ONE!! and it ain’t Calvin, Luther, or whomever. It is Jesus Christ.

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  2. Hi Mr. Swart, I was asked by your wife to post a critique of this blog here. I read it when she posted it in the forum discerning truth. There was in what seemed to me an application made of 1 Corinthians 1 to equate labels with the sin Paul was rebuking the church for.

    1 Corinthians 1:11 My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.

    This sets the context of the rebuke to that of division and quarreling. The labels as assigned by these brothers were the focus and point of division, however the labels in themselves I don’t think are the object of the rebuke because even those who bore the label “I am of Christ” were included in this rebuke.

    The whole point of the passage was that these brothers were seperated by the same argument that plagued the apostles when they argued over which of them was greater so that even those who said “I am of Christ” shared in the same son as those who said “I am of Paul”.

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    • Hi Brian

      Thank you for commenting here. I will make a few points in explaining the use of the verses in this regard.

      1) The cause of the quarrels was the application of and adherence to various labels and the explicit problems which that brought about. It is defined as such, because the quarrels could just as well have been about land disputes, livestock, family ties or any other societal issues. Quarrels over issues such as those, presented no need for Paul to address them, those quarrels were a part of everyday life, between families and neighbours, not related to issues of the faith.

      The problem which Paul needed to address was specific and related to the sectarianism being created by those who gave undue importance to being followers of people; and by the people claiming to be followers of those of whom he gave as examples, Apollos, Cephas and even himself. Christ’s inclusion in Paul’s rebuke was to provide contrast to the others in the same piece, not to be regarded as of equal standing with Apollos, Cephas or Paul. It cannot be accepted that Paul would have rebuked those who were saying “I am of Christ”, and have included them in such a rebuke. It would simply have been contrary to the Gospel he was preaching and neither would Paul have pushed the boundaries of his humble and limited apostolic authority to border on blasphemy.

      2) Notwithstanding one’s regard for what the focus of Paul’s rebuke was, his comment could not be construed as approving of the assigning of labels, for whatsoever reason. The adoption or assigning of labels among believers, other than that of Christian (follower of Christ), was soundly reprimanded.

      3) The followers of Apollos were in opposition to Paul, whom they despised and whom they regarded as mean and in weak in many aspects. Apollos was a more powerful and eloquent speaker and was physically of sounder presence. Paul was therefore using Apollos as inclusive in the problem, and as illustrative of the divisional nature of those who wished to labeled as followers of Apollos.

      4) The followers of Cephas (Peter) were likewise in opposition to both Paul and Apollos, whom they regarded as “junior” ministers. They regarded Peter as a more “senior” minister, Peter having been with Christ from the beginning, having been witness to His miracles and having heard His Gospel. As in the previous case, labeling oneself as a follower of Cephas was not being placed on an equitable level with Paul, Apollos and Christ, but also being used by Paul to illustrate serious division.

      5) Paul made it clear that no man should be regarded as father or master and that no label other than that of Christ should be applied to Christians. Not Paul, Apollos, Cephas and likewise, not Calvin, Augustine or Arminius.

      6) Another possibility, is that some were very arrogant and overly self-assured in the label which they chose for themselves, that of “followers” of Christ, but only for the reason of being in opposition to Paul, Apollos and Peter. They were for Christ, but without His ministers of the Word, and they regarded themselves as wiser than their teachers. Therefore these were also contrasted by Paul against those of other labels, not as equals, but as equally divisive.

      In summary then, I submit that the giving (and taking) of labels was the cause of quarrels surrounding issues of the Faith, monopolizing Truth and the Gospel, just as it continues to be today. Paul disapproved of it strongly. Paul did not give tacit approval to the practice, we should not do the same today. Division and quarrelling were the problem that needed Paul’s address, but without ridding themselves of the cause (labeling one another), the problem would not have been eradicated. Labels and the sin that they cause cannot be divorced, in other words. Paul addressed and reprimanded the people for assigning labels to each other, other than that of Christian, specifically because it countered being a follower of Christ, not in spite of it.

      Blessings!

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      • I must still disagree that the “cause” of division is labeling. Had these same brothers not labeled each other their disagreements just wouldn’t have a handy dandy reference. The labels in this instance was the manifestations of contention.

        Other labels we use without the root source being that of contention as I think I explained as well as I can already.

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  3. The only reason I call myself a Calvinist is because that way they will know about where I stand biblically. There are so many different ‘ist’ out there. We are Christian. It should be enough to just say that but with all the ‘different’ Christians out there, its really hard to tell what they believe. So with that said, that is the only reason I label myself a Calvinist.

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  4. I do not totally agree with the above stance. the Bible has truths and balancing truths. There is the doctrine of predestination and the foreknowledge of God, but there are just as many verses that state the responsibility of man and that he is created with an intellect and will to make choices for or against God. Man cannot save himself, on that we all agree, but man can research, seek truth, come to conclusions because he is also equipped with a conscience, an inner confirmantion on the side of truth. If only predestination is preached people are seen as robots pre-programmed for good or evil, yet if only the free will and choice of man is preached we fall into other troubles, people who are saved by grace become proud of their own efforts and look down on others. We should embrace the whole of truth and leave room for mystery, which Paul also does. The Bible uses the word mystery 22 times in the New Testament. Paul exclaims: who can understand and fathom the depths and reasons of God? Who was His advisor?

    When pure 5point Calvinism is proclaimed the warnings to mankind in the Bible seem only like formalism, the whole interaction and dynamics of God’s workings and teachings and wrestlings with mankind seems fake and not real, just going through the motions, God is a God of quality, intimate, longterm relationship. Relationship is dynamic. A man asks a woman to marry him, she has to make a decision, he does not force ther otherwise it is not love. I firmly believe God does not want a pre-programmed robot for a wife either, but one who submits willingly to Him and asks Him to forgive, wash, save and fill her with His goodness realizing she has nothing in herself to offer Him of any value.

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    • Lize

      Thank you again for another thoughtful comment.

      A man asks a woman to marry him, she has to make a decision, he does not force ther otherwise it is not love.

      Of course you are correct, however, there is a notable difference in God’s election of His bride. The biblical doctrines of grace do not suggest that God will force anyone into accepting His offer of salvation. All who come to Christ, do so willingly. No one will be dragged into an eternal relationship with God against their will. In the same way, no one who rejects God can say that they have been unfairly separated from God.

      We must remember that no one seeks God by their own will or strength. Were it not for what God does according to His Sovereign Will, no one would be saved, because no one deserves to be. No person can earn salvation by what they do, therefore all deserve to be eternally lost. It is therefore not because of what some do or don’t do that they are saved, but by the Grace of God alone.

      So, to return to your analogy, God will not save any of those who will not be saved, neither will He reject any of those who will be saved. In other words, God will not ask someone to marry Him, unless He knew what the answer would be. It is incorrect to assume that man has the power or right to disappoint an omniscient God, or to ruin God’s perfect plan.

      Here are two imperative passages in this regard:

      Jesus says: John 6:37-40 All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise Him up on the last day.”

      Paul says: Rom 3:9-12 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “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.”

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  5. Pingback: Are you a “Fundamentalist”? More problems with man-made labels | For the Love of His Truth

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