Why I Am a Calvinist, Part 1-4 of 8

by Phil Johnson – Grace to You

Why I Am a Calvinist, Part 1

. . and why every Christian is a Calvinist of sorts.  


Part I: Is Arminianism damnable heresy?

I love the doctrines of grace and don’t shy away from the label “Calvinist.” I believe in the sovereignty of God. I’m convinced Scripture teaches that God is completely sovereign not only in salvation (effectually calling and granting faith to those whom He chooses); but also in every detail of the outworking of Providence. “Whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Romans 8:30). And He makes “all things work together for good to those who love God, [i.e.,] to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Quite simply, He “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).

That’s what people commonly mean when they speak of “Calvinism.” When I accept that label, I am not pledging allegiance to the man John Calvin. I am not affirming everything he taught, and I’m not condoning everything he did. I’m convinced Calvin was a godly man and one of the finest biblical expositors and theological minds ever, but he wasn’t always right. As a matter of fact, my own convictions are baptistic, so I am by no means one of Calvin’s devoted followers. In other words, when I accept the label “Calvinist,” it’s only for convenience’s sake. I’m not saying “I am of Calvin” in the Corinthian sense.

Furthermore, I’m not one of those who wears Calvinism like a big chip on his shoulder, daring people to fight with me about it. It’s true that I can get feisty about certain points of doctrine—especially when someone attacks a principle that goes to the heart of the gospel, like substitutionary atonement, or original sin, or justification by faith and the principle of imputed righteousness. When one of those principles is challenged, I’m ready to fight. (And I also don’t mind beating up on whatever happens to be the latest evangelical fad.)

But Calvinism isn’t one of those issues I get worked up and angry about. I’ll discuss it with you, but if you are spoiling for a fight about it, you are likely to find me hard to provoke. I spent too many years as an Arminian myself to pretend that the truth on these issues is easy and obvious.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I do think the truth of God’s sovereignty is clear and ultimately inescapable in Scripture. But it is a difficult truth to come to grips with, so I am sympathetic with those who struggle with it. I’m Calvinistic enough to believe that God has ordained (at least for the time being) that some of my brethren should hold Arminian opinions.

Over the years I have probably written at least twice as much material trying to tone down angry hyper Calvinists as I have arguing with Arminians. That’s not because I think hyper Calvinism is a more serious error than Arminianism. As a matter of fact, I would say the two errors are strikingly similar. But I don’t hear very many voices of caution being raised against the dangers of hyper Calvinism, and there are armies of Calvinists out there already challenging the Arminians, so I’ve tried to speak out as much as possible against the tendencies of the hypers.

That’s why I’m probably a whole lot less militant than you might expect when it comes to attacking the errors of Arminianism. Besides, I have gotten much further answering Arminian objections with patient teaching and dispassionate, reasonable, biblical instruction—instead of angry arguments and instant anathemas.

Why not take a more passive, lenient, brotherly, approach to all theological disagreements? Because I firmly believe there are some theological errors that do deserve a firm and decisive anathema. That’s Paul’s point in Galatians 1:8-9; and it’s the same point the apostle John makes in 2 John, verses 7-11. When someone is teaching an error that fatally corrupts the truth of the gospel, “let him be anathema.”

But let me be plain here: Simple Arminianism doesn’t fall in that category. It’s not fair to pin the label of rank heresy on Arminianism, the way some of my more zealous Calvinist brethren seem prone to do. I’m talking about historic, evangelical Arminianism, of the classic and Wesleyan varieties — Arminianism, not Pelagianism, or open theism, or whatever heresy Clark Pinnock has invented this week — but true evangelical Arminianism. Arminianism is certainly wrong; and I would argue that it’s inconsistent with itself. But in my judgment, standard, garden variety Arminianism is not so fatally wrong that we need to consign our Arminian brethren to the eternal flames or even automatically refuse them fellowship in our pastors’ fraternals.

If you think I’m beginning to sound like an apologist for Arminianism, I’m definitely not that. I do think Arminianism is a profound error. Its tendencies can be truly sinister, and when it is allowed to go to seed, it does lead people into rank heresy. But what I’m saying here is that mere Arminianism itself isn’t damnable heresy. It’s just grossly inconsistent with the core gospel doctrines that Arminians themselves believe and affirm.

But as long as I’m sounding like a defender of Arminianism, let me also say this: There are plenty of ignorant and inconsistent Calvinists out there, too. With the rise of the Internet it’s easier than ever for self taught lay people to engage in theological dialogue and debate through internet forums. I think that’s mostly good, and I encourage it. But the Internet makes it easy for like minded but ignorant people to clump together and endlessly reinforce one another’s ignorance. And I fear that happens a lot.

Hyper Calvinists seem especially susceptible to that tendency, and there are nests of them here and there—especially on the Internet. And more and more frequently these days I encounter people, who have been influenced by extremism on the Internet, touting hyper Calvinist ideas and insisting that if someone is an Arminian, that person is not really a Christian at all. They equate Arminianism with sheer works salvation. They suggest that Arminianism implicitly denies the atonement. Or they insist that the God worshiped by Arminians is a totally different God from the God of Scripture.

That’s really over-the-top rhetoric—totally unnecessary—and rooted in historical ignorance. A couple of years ago, when I started my weblog, I mentioned that tendency in the first entry I posted, which was titled “Quick and Dirty Calvinism.” At the end of that post, I said this: My advice to young Calvinists is to learn theology from the historic mainstream Calvinist authors, not from blogs and discussion forums on the Internet. Some of the forums may be helpful because they direct you to more important resources. But if you think of the Internet as a surrogate for seminary, you run a very high risk of becoming unbalanced.

Read mainstream Calvinist authors, however, and you’ll have trouble finding even one who regarded Arminianism per se as damnable heresy. There’s a reason for that: It’s because while Arminianism is bafflingly inconsistent, it is not necessarily damnably erroneous. Most Arminians themselves—and I’m still speaking here of the classic and Wesleyan varieties, not Pelagianism masquerading as Arminianism—most Arminians themselves emphatically affirm gospel truth that is actually rooted in Calvinistic presuppositions.

This post is adapted from a transcript of a seminar from the 2007 Shepherds’ Conference, titled “Closet Calvinists.”

© 2008 by Phil Johnson
Executive Director
Grace to You

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Why I Am a Calvinist, Part 2

 . . and why every Christian is a Calvinist of sorts.


Part II: Spurgeon: “Calvinism IS the Gospel”

There are, these days, quite a few self-styled Calvinists who disagree with my assessment of Arminianism and insist that Arminianism entails an absolute denial of certain fundamental gospel truths. Those wishing to make that argument will invariably quote a famous statement by Spurgeon, taken from the chapter in his autobiography titled “ A Defence of Calvinism ” in which Spurgeon said this:

I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.

I absolutely agree with what Spurgeon says there, in the sense that he meant it. And the context of that statement explains clearly what he meant. He was pointing out that the principle at the heart of all gospel truth is the same principle that drives Calvinism: “Salvation is of the Lord.” Salvation is God’s work; it’s not something we do for ourselves. That’s the truth he was defending.

Spurgeon was not saying that we ought to use the five points of Calvinism the way Campus crusade people use the “Four Spiritual Laws.” He wasn’t saying that all you ever talk about is the doctrines of election and reprobation you are faithfully preaching the gospel and the whole counsel of God. Unfortunately, I think that’s what a lot of careless Calvinists think Spurgeon meant when he said “Calvinism is the gospel.”

But if you read Spurgeon’s whole article on Calvinism, he makes very clear what he meant. In fact at the beginning of that very same paragraph—as his preface to remarking that “Calvinism is the gospel”—he wrote this:

“Salvation is of the Lord.” [Jonah 2:9.] That is just an epitome of Calvinism; it is the sum and substance of it. If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, “He is one who says, Salvation is of the Lord.” I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this. It is the essence of the Bible. “He only is my rock and my salvation.” Tell me anything contrary to this truth, and it will be a heresy; tell me a heresy, and I shall find its essence here, that it has departed from this great, this fundamental, this rock truth, “God is my rock and my salvation.”

Did Spurgeon believe Arminianism was in error? Absolutely. So do I.

Did he believe it was damnable error? Absolutely not, and he made that clear, too.

At the peak of the Downgrade Controversy, some of Spurgeon’s critics accused him of being driven by a doctrinaire Calvinist agenda. It’s not really Modernism that Spurgeon hates, they said. It’s anything that departs from his old fashioned Calvinism. This whole controversy is a furtive campaign against Arminianism. That’s what really has Spurgeon bugged. He thinks modern Christians aren’t Calvinistic enough.

Spurgeon replied in The Sword and the Trowel with a paragraph that said this:

Certain antagonists have tried to represent the Down Grade controversy as a revival of the old feud between Calvinists and Arminians. It is nothing of the kind. Many evangelical Arminians are as earnestly on our side as men can be. We do not conceal our own Calvinism in the least; but this conflict is for truths which are common to all believers.

In another place, he was even more explicit:

We care far more for the central evangelical truths than we do for Calvinism as a system; but we believe that Calvinism has in it a conservative force which helps to hold men to the vital truth, and therefore we are sorry to see any quitting it who have once accepted it.

So he had a bone to pick with people who once affirmed the doctrines of grace and had now abandoned Calvinism in favor of new ideas that smacked of Socinianism. But he regarded evangelical Arminians as his true brethren and fellow soldiers—as long as they affirmed the doctrine of justification by faith, the principle of sola fide, the absolute authority of Scripture, the penal aspect of Christ’s atonement, and other essential gospel truths.

Speaking of Arminians in particular, he said:

Those who hold the eternal verities of salvation, and yet do not see all that we believe and embrace, are by no means the objects of our opposition: our warfare is with men who are giving up the atoning sacrifice, denying the inspiration of Holy Scripture, and casting slurs upon justification by faith. The present struggle is not a debate upon the question of Calvinism or Arminianism, but of the truth of God versus the inventions of men. All who believe the gospel should unite against that “modern thought” which is its deadly enemy.

So Spurgeon did not regard Arminians as hell bound heretics. He regarded them as brethren. Did he think they were in error? Yes? Were they guilty of gross inconsistency in their own theology? He would have answered emphatically, yes. Was their main error significant? Spurgeon did not shrink from referring to it as “heresy”—meaning unorthodox doctrine, heterodoxy, serious error. But he was very careful to make clear that he did not regard Arminianism per se as damnable heresy or utter apostasy from essential Christianity. Virtually all mainstream Calvinists from the time of the Synod of Dort until now would agree with him on every count.

For example, Gordon Clark, one of the highest of high Calvinists, said this with regard to whether Arminians are authentic Christians or not:

An Arminian may be a truly regenerate Christian; in fact, if he is truly an Arminian and not a Pelagian who happens to belong to an Arminian church, he must be a saved man. But he is not usually, and cannot consistently be assured of his salvation. The places in which his creed differs from our Confession confuse the mind, dilute the Gospel, and impair its proclamation.”

Which is to say that Arminianism is inherently inconsistent. Arminians technically affirm the fundamental, essential truths of the gospel. Then they try to build a theology on top of that which is totally inconsistent with the solid foundation they have affirmed.

I agree with that assessment of Arminianism. It’s an attempt to reconcile the sovereignty of God with human responsibility—and the Arminian method of reconciling those two truths involves a view of human free will that is inherently inconsistent with certain gospel truths every Arminian actually affirms.

In some posts yet to come, I will explain further why I believe that is the case.

© 2008 by Phil Johnson
Executive Director
Grace to You

____________________________________________________________________________________

Why I Am a Calvinist, Part 3

 . . and why every Christian is a Calvinist of sorts.

Part III: Some book recommendations

Before we go further in this series, let me recommend a handful of books. The first book I want to recommend is a new book by Roger Olson, who is himself an Arminian, and he has written a defense of Arminianism titled Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. You might be surprised to hear me recommend this book because I published a review of it on my weblog a few months ago, and the review wasn’t altogether positive. The review was written by my friend Gary Johnson, who is pastor of The Church Of The Redeemer in Mesa, Arizona. Gary’s mentor, by the way, was S. Lewis Johnson. And even though we are all three named Johnson, none of us are related. (Though I would be very happy to be related to either S. Lewis Johnson or Gary Johnson.) Anyway, Gary’s review was in several parts, and he titled it “Calvinists in the Hands of an Angry Arminian.” So it wasn’t a completely positive review, and I agree with practically all of Gary’s complaints about the book.

But I have to say that Olson’s book is the best book in defense of Arminianism I’ve ever read. Some readers might be aware that I didn’t have a very high opinion of Dave Hunt’s anti-Calvinistic screed. When I reviewed Hunt’s book in a Shepherds’ Conference seminar a few years ago, someone told me the only reason I hated the book was because I’m a Calvinist and Hunt stepped on my toes.

And I said, “No, it’s just a really bad book, written by a guy who has no clue what he is talking about.”

My friend challenged that: “Name one well-written book, written after 1950, either defending Arminianism or attacking Calvinism, written by someone who does know what he is talking about.”

I admit it; I was stumped. But now Roger Olson has bailed me out. If anyone ever asks me that question again, I can point to Olson’s book. It’s a good defense of Arminianism, and although I disagree with virtually all his conclusions, he pretty much knows what he is talking about, and he explains the differences between Arminianism, Pelagianism, and semi-pelagianism pretty well.

If you read that book, you’ll need to read at least three or four good Calvinist books to get the taste out of your mouth. So I’ll recommend three. Two are standard works that I routinely recommend every year. The first is a massive syllabus, written by Curt Daniel, called The History and Theology of Calvinism. These are notes Dr. Daniel wrote when he taught this material, and the tapes of his teaching are downloadable for free from the internet. Dr. Daniel is currently working on developing that material in book form, to be published by P&R.

The other standard work you must have is the book by David Steele, Curtis Thomas, Lance Quinn, titled The Five Points of Calvinism (also by P&R). It is an encyclopedic collection of key Scripture references and some wonderful essays explaining and defending Calvinism from the Bible.

And then one of my favorite books — hard to find for a long time but recently published in a quality edition by Audobon Press, The Great Invitation, by Erroll Hulse, subtitled “Examining the use of the altar call in evangelism.” The book deals with the question of altar calls, as the subtitle suggests, but it’s greatest value, I think, is that this is a classic example of the kind of warm-hearted, evangelistic, classic Calvinism that I appreciate, and it’s a great antidote to the ugly Calvinism I spoke about that you find in Internet forums. Erroll Hulse is a greatly respected British Reformed Baptist leader, and this is one of my all-time favorite books.

© 2008 by Phil Johnson
Executive Director
Grace to You

____________________________________________________________________________________

Why I Am a Calvinist, Part 4

. . and why every Christian is a Calvinist of sorts.

Part IV: One more recommendation, and an explanation of why this issue is important to me

Here’s a recommendation for your iPod: If you are someone who is resistant to Calvinism, or you don’t feel you fully understand enough about it, and you want a single, simple overview of the substance and the history of Calvinism, I gave a message to our college students almost two years ago titled “The Story of Calvinism,” where I did my best to cover all that ground in one shot. It’s on the internet with the rest of my sermons, and you can download it for free. The web address is TheGraceLifePulpit.com , and look for the title “The Story of Calvinism.”

In that message, I explained that I have not always been a Calvinist. I grew up in a family that had been Wesleyan Methodists for generations — and even after I became a Christian, it was several years before I finally came to the point where I could affirm the biblical doctrine of election without trying to explain it away.

One of the things that first got me thinking seriously about the sovereignty of God was an incident in a college Sunday School class, in a Southern Baptist Church, in Durant, OK, where I had a Sunday school teacher who hated Calvinism with a passion and wasted no opportunity to make an argument against the sovereignty of God. And his continual emphasis on the subject got me thinking about it a lot.

Then one Sunday, while this guy was taking prayer requests, a girl in the class raised her hand and asked, “Should we really be praying for our lost relatives? It seems like it’s a wasted effort to pray to God for their salvation if He can’t do any more than He has already done to save them.”

I vividly remember the look on the face of this Sunday School teacher. This was clearly a question that had never occurred to him. So he thought about it for a moment, and you could see the wheels in his head turning while he tried to think of a good reason to pray for the salvation of the lost. And finally, he said, “Well, yeah, I guess you’re right.” From that Sunday on, he never accepted any more prayer requests for people’s lost loved-ones.

That just didn’t seem quite right to me. I had just done a Bible study in Romans 10:1, where Paul says, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” Not only that, I began to wonder why we should pray about anything in the realm of human relationships if God never intrudes on the sanctity of human free will. You know: Why should I pray for God to move my English teacher to look favorably on my work when she graded my paper if she is ultimately sovereign over her own heart? Those were questions I couldn’t answer, and I really struggled with questions like that.

But the more I studied the Bible, the more it seemed to challenge my ideas about free will and the sovereignty of God. One by one over a period of more than 10 years, the doctrines of election, and God’s sovereignty, and the total depravity of sinners became more and more clear to me from Scripture.

Every time one of my arguments against Calvinist doctrines would fall, and I would embrace some doctrine that I was desperately trying to argue against, it never felt like I was undergoing any major paradigm shift. It was more like I was resolving a nagging conflict in my mind. Because I kept discovering that the major ideas underlying the doctrines of grace were truths that I had always affirmed: God is sovereign, Christ died for me, God loved me before I loved Him, He sought me and drew me and initiated my reconciliation while I was still His enemy. Those were truths I believed even when I was a rank Arminian. Embracing Calvinism was natural — and inevitable — because all I was doing was ridding my mind of wrong ideas and faulty assumptions about human free will and other notions like that, which are not even taught in the Bible — so that I could wholeheartedly affirm what I really believed anyway: That God is God, and He does all His good pleasure, and no one can make Him do otherwise, and He is in control and in charge no matter how much noise evildoers try to make. And not only is He in charge, He is working all things out for my good and His glory.

© 2008 by Phil Johnson
Executive Director
Grace to You

Copyright 2007, Grace to You. All rights reserved.  Used by permission.

Parts 5-8 of 8 following soon ………………….

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s