Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: April, 2018



One of the great scandals of the modern church, at least in America, is the sectarian rivalries that divide it.  The church is divided into warring camps, each taking great pains to disavow the theology of the others.  Lutheranism, Anglicanism, the Reformed Faith, Anabaptism, Dispensationalism and Pentecostalism are all seen as distinct species of religion, with barely anything in common.  Even the variety of Restoriationist movements (Plymouth Brethren, Church of Christ) display an extreme sectarian mentality.

And so it is that advocates of “the Reformed Faith” and the “Anabaptist Heritage” often eye each other with the deepest suspicion.  The one is thoroughly Calvinistic in theology; the other just as thoroughly Arminian.  Could both groups possibly be reading the same Bible?

They might both be surprised at what the Bible actually says.  For example, when we look at the writings of Paul in particular and try to describe him in modern terms, we find that he was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist” at the same time.


John Calvin

Consider Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  In the first half of the epistle Paul characteristically discusses doctrine; in the second, practice.  The one flows from the other.  There is no such thing as theology without practical implications; and there is no such thing as a Christian lifestyle that is not rooted in a Christian worldview.  The two go hand-in-hand.  And in Paul’s case the theology is thoroughly “Calvinistic,” if we can impose such an anachronistic term on a first century apostle.  He begins in Chapter One, verses 3-14 with a breathtaking overview of the plan of redemption, ascribing everything to God’s grace.  He mentions election and predestination, and repeatedly stressed that salvation was “according to the good pleasure of His will” (vv. 5,9; NKJV), and “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (vv. 6,12,14).  He then prays that the Ephesian believers will come to understand the greatness of God’s power toward them (1:19,20).

In Chapter Two he goes on to describe human depravity (2:1-3) and salvation by grace through faith (2:8-10).  He then goes on in Chapter Three to ascribe all to God’s eternal plan, which Paul describes as a mystery which has now been revealed.  He finally concludes the doctrinal section of the book with a benediction (3:20,21) in which he exalts the power of God and gives all glory to Him.  Thus the first half of the epistle is a veritable wellspring of Reformed theology.


Menno Simons

But in the second half of the epistle one would have thought that Paul had changed denominations.  He describes the church as a community of believers united to each other by a spiritual bond (4:1-16).  This, in turn, requires a life lived in non-conformity to the world (4:17-24), and the practice of brotherly love (4:2,3; 4:29-5:2).  It is, in fact, a thoroughly Anabaptist view of the church and the Christian life.

Significantly Paul begins the practical section of the epistle with the word “therefore.” The word signifies that what follows is the logical conclusion to what went before.  This means that the Anabaptist ethics that Paul described in the second half of the book follows logically from the Calvinistic theology of the first half.  Paul sums up his argument in 4:1: “I, therefore . ..beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”  The “calling” is the plan of redemption described in Chapters 1-3.  It is effectual calling, a calling which has the actual effect of drawing the sinner to Christ.  The gist of Paul’s argument is that the “calling” should result in the kind of changed life that he describes in Chapters 4-6.

And the one does logically flow from the other.  If the lost are totally depraved and in bondage to sin, and if the saved have been inwardly renewed by irresistible grace, the saved will live differently from the lost.  Salvation is a change which makes a real difference, and it is a change which results from something that God has done inside of us.  It is the result of God’s grace and power.

Paul was consistent with himself; his modern interpreters are not.  Today we tend to think of Calvinism and Anabaptism as two separate and distinct belief systems, mutually opposed to each other.  But this is largely because of the conflicts that arose during the Reformation.  But in the context of the First Century church they were not.  They are merely two different sides of the same New Testament Christianity.

The problem with Luther and Calvin is that, while they recovered the doctrine of justification by faith, they did so in the context of state churches.  What they could not see was that if we are justified by faith, then we must have faith in order to be saved.  Only believers are true Christians.  But if this is true then only a church which is made up of believers can function like a true Christian church.  The state cannot make someone a Christian; only the Holy Spirit can.  By trying to reform state churches Luther and Calvin missed the clear implications of their own theology.  On the doctrine of justification they were biblical and evangelical.  On their doctrine of the church they were medieval.

The problem with the Anabaptists is that they had a natural tendency to react against the magisterial Reformers who were persecuting them, and thus we have the divisions that are typical today.  But no such division existed in the First Century.  It was all one and the same Christianity.  Paul was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist”!




Abraham once asked God the pointed question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25; NKJV).  And indeed that is the central question of human existence.  God is indeed “the King of all the earth,” and He “reigns over the nations, / God sits on His holy throne” (Ps. 47:7,8).  Why, then, is there sin and evil in the world?

The immediate answer to the question, of course, is that we human beings are the ones who are doing the sinning.  So the real question should be, why do we sin?  Why do we do things that we ourselves believe to be wrong?  It is the human race that is fallen and corrupt, not God.  We are the direct cause of our own misery.  But as for God, “the Lord is righteous, / He loves righteousness . . .” (Ps. 11:7).

But if God is “a great King over all the earth” (Ps. 47:2), why does He not prevent evil?  Can He not stop it?  And if He can, why does He not?  The answer is that there is, in fact, a partial justice now, but there will be a final justice later.

First of all, we can see partial justice now.  David could say,

“For You have maintained my right and my cause;

You sat on the throne judging in righteousness.

You have rebuked the nations,

You have destroyed the wicked;

You have blotted out their name forever and ever.”

(Ps. 9:4,5)

Where are the Assyrian and Babylonian empires today?  Where is the Roman Empire?  Where is Hitler’s Third Reich?  They are all in the ashbin of history, brought to their inevitable ruin by their own decadence and recklessness.  In the end their wickedness destroyed them.

But even on a smaller scale we can see justice being carried out.  In God’s common grace the civil magistrate is “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:1-4).  When civil government works the way it is supposed to, law and order is maintained, criminals are punished, and neighborhoods are kept safe.

But even on a more personal level God works in the life of an individual believer to protect him, provide for him, and lead him along.  “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  This can be a hard thing at times for a believer to understand.  We certainly are not kept from trials and difficulties in this life.  But the verse does not say that “all things are good,” but rather that “all things work together for good.” By themselves many of the things that happen to us are bad: sickness, injury, joblessness, etc.   But God can use the bad things that happen to us for the ultimate good.  Even if we, as Christians, are called upon to suffer martyrdom, it advances God’s kingdom and promotes His glory, and we will receive a reward in the age to come.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith,” as the saying goes.  And thus David could say,

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord


(Ps. 23:6)

But it takes faith to believe that when we are in “the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4).

But God’s perfect, final justice will be revealed at the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment.  The apostle Paul describes “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will ‘render to each one according to his deeds’” (Rom. 2:5,6)  God has appointed a day, sometime in the future, when everyone outside of Christ will get exactly what he deserves – “indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, to every soul of man who does evil . . .” (vv. 8,9).

But there is a delay in God’s justice until history runs its course; first of all, to give everyone the opportunity to repent and believe – “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’ (II Peter 3:9); and secondly, to make sure that the wicked really do deserve the punishment they will receive – “But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5).

But this all raises an even more difficult and disturbing question: if God is just and punishes sin, what hope is there for us? – for we are all sinners.  The answer is not what some would imagine it to be – that God simply forgets and overlooks sin.  The sin is real and the guilt is real.  So rather than simply overlook sin, what God has done is to arrange to make an atonement for sin.  We have redemption through Christ Jesus, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood . . . to demonstrate at this time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25,26).  A “propitiation” (Greek hilasterion) is an atoning sacrifice that turns away the wrath of an offended Deity.  By sending forth His Son as a propitiation God can effectively punish sin and forgive it at the same time.  Thus His justice is upheld while He shows mercy to those who repent of their sins and believe on Christ.

The prospect of divine judgment is both sobering and comforting at the same time – sobering, because “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31); but comforting because we can know that evil will not ultimately prevail, and that righteousness will finally triumph.  We do not live in an amoral, unjust universe, where crime pays and “nice guys finish last.”

Seeing, then, that God is just, and will judge the world, how careful we should be to live righteous lives that please Him!  And if we do not know Christ as our Savior, how quick we should be to flee to Him for salvation!