Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: Calvinism



Interior, East Troupsburg Baptist Church, Troupsburg, NY

We have seen, in our last blog post, that salvation makes a difference.  A person who is saved should be different from what he was before, and he should be different from the unsaved world still around him.

But how should he be different?  What exactly is the difference?  Paul spends most of the rest of the epistle explaining what exactly that difference should be.

Interestingly he begins by discussing church unity and the attitude we should have in order to achieve that unity.  We are to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3; NKJV).

Here he calls for three basic traits that are necessary to preserve Christian unity: lowliness, gentleness and longsuffering.  The word “lowliness,” (literally, “lowliness of mind”) denotes that basic trait of humility that we should have when we think about ourselves in relation to everyone else in the church.  We are not necessarily better, smarter or more important than anyone else.  We are all brothers and sisters, members of the same family in the Lord, and we should treat each other with kindness and mutual respect.

Likewise a Christian ought to be known for his “gentleness.”  He is to be thoughtful and considerate of others.  He should be sensitive to their feelings and be unwilling to cause unnecessary hurt.

And then a Christian should be longsuffering.  The Greek word is often used to translate a Hebrew phrase in the Old Testament that means “slow to anger.”  It means restraining one’s anger in the face of provocation.  Tensions and conflicts will inevitably arise, but Christians need to be patient with each other, slow to anger and ready to forgive.

With these basic traits in mind, then, Christians are to be “bearing with one another in love.”  We come from different backgrounds and have different personalities.  We may irritate and annoy each other.  But we are called to “forbear one another in love,” to use the phrase in the old KJV.

All of this, Paul says, logically follows from the great doctrines of salvation contained in chapters 1-3.  Today we often associate that theology, with its strong emphasis on human depravity and salvation by grace alone, with “Calvinism,” although Calvin certainly did not write the Epistle to the Ephesians.  But today if someone is a “Calvinist,” if he truly understands the implications of his theology, he will be marked by humility, gentleness and patience.  He, above all others, should recognize that we were helpless, guilty, hell-deserving sinners, and that it was only through God’s grace that we were saved at all.  And that should make us truly humble and make us more forbearing of others.

Paul tells us that we are to endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  That is a foreign concept to most American evangelicals.  We are used to seeing a dizzying array of competing denominations which often seem to have little in common with each other.  And yet Paul says that we are to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  But what “unity”?

Paul goes on to tell us.  “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (vv. 4-6).

First of all, there is “one body.”  Here, of course, he is referring to the Christian church as a whole, which Paul had previously described as the body of Christ (1:22,23).  Everyone who is a born again Christian is a member of that body, regardless of whatever denominational title he may claim for himself.

Likewise there is “one Spirit.”  Everyone who has been born again has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of him.  But there is only one Holy Spirit, and we each share that same Spirit.  That means that there is an intimate connection between each and every genuine Christian believer.

Paul goes on to say that “you were called in one hope of your calling.”  The “calling,” it will be remembered, is how God drew us to Christ, and hence there exists among true Christians a common, shared experience of coming out of darkness into light.

Paul notes that there is one Lord – we do not serve several different Christs; and one faith – we all have an active trust in the same Savior.  But then Paul says “one baptism,” and here we run into a difficulty.  Some of us would maintain that what Paul has in mind here is believer’s baptism, in which an adult (or at least an adolescent) makes a conscious decision to publicly identify himself publicly with Christ.  But many churches practice infant baptism in which the person receiving the sacrament (to use their terminology) makes no such formal, public commitment.  Presumably though, when that person later seeks admission as a communicant member of that church he claims his baptism as his own.  To the extent, then, that we have each made a formal, public commitment of some sort, we share that in common as well.

And then Paul concludes by noting that there is “one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (v. 6 – the majority of Greek manuscripts, along with the Latin Vulgate, read “and in us all”).  Ultimately all genuine Christian believers share a spiritual union with God Himself.  He is our Father; we are under His authority; He works through us, and He lives within us all.

Thus what unites us as evangelical Christians is far more significant than our differences of opinion on secondary issues.  And what God clearly wants from us as His people is that we “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  May we all repent in dust and ashes.




Election & Predestination

Most Evangelicals today think that they understand the gospel – the word “evangelical,” after all, is derived from the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news” (euangelion). In our modern American self-help culture, however, we are naturally led to think in terms of individual freedom and self-initiative. Hence we like to think of salvation as an offer made by God to the human race, and we are free to accept it or reject it as we choose.

There is a sense in which that is true, of course. God does make the offer and we do have to decide and bear the consequences of our decision. But there is far more to salvation than just that. Salvation is fundamentally God’s work, and we are the passive beneficiaries. God saves us; we do not save ourselves.

This is brought out clearly in a passage at the beginning of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Having greeted the believers at Ephesus Paul then launches into an extended benediction – a kind of hymn of praise to God: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3; NKJV). The praise goes to God – “”Blessed be God.” Why? Because of what He has done for us: He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.”

Paul then goes on to elaborate, explaining what each person of the Trinity does in our salvation: the Father (vv. 4-6), the Son (vv. 7-12), and the Holy Spirit (vv. 13,14).

The role of the Father can be summed up in two words: election and predestination. Some people recoil at these two words. Doesn’t God want everyone to be saved? Doesn’t He give us a free choice? In a sense He does. But according to our text our salvation originates in God’s eternal decree.

Paul begins by saying that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (v. 4). The word “chose” (exelexato in the Greek) bears the clear and unmistakable meaning of selecting some persons or things from out of a larger group. Furthermore the verse says that God “chose us” – not just some general plan of salvation, but “us,” as individual human beings. And He did this “before the foundation of the world,” i.e., before we even existed to make any choices ourselves. In other words, the whole thrust and emphasis of the passage is that our individual salvation originates in the plan of God – he was the One who took the initiative, not we ourselves.

And what is the aim of God’s plan? “ . . .that we should be holy and without blame before Him.” But how can this be? We are by nature fallen sinners. God is perfectly holy and just. How then could we ever be seen by Him as “holy and without blame”? As Paul will go on to explain, it is through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

But God does not just have a plan; He executes it. “ . . .having predestinated us to adoption.” The word “predestine” means to determine beforehand. And in our case what God has predetermined is that we should receive adoption as sons. We are to be brought into a relationship with Him in which He is our Father and we are His children. And again God did not just settle on a plan or method; He predestined “us.” Thus some form of determinism is definitely in the picture, and it is a determinism that affects us as individuals.

All of this is done “according to the good pleasure of His will” (v. 5). God’s “will” is what He wishes or desires. The “good pleasure” is whatever pleases Him. Thus the determining factor in our election and predestination is what pleases and satisfies God. It is God’s will that ultimately determines what happens to us.

At this point all sorts of difficult questions arise. Why doesn’t God choose everyone for salvation? Why did He even allow sin to enter into the picture in the first place? Questions such as these may be impossible to answer, for they require us as finite human beings to probe the infinite mind of God. When Job and Paul were inclined to ask such questions the answer they got was “who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom. 9:20; cf. Job chapters 38-41). All we can go by is what has been pleased to reveal to us in Scripture. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law’ (Dt. 29:29).

But our text does give us a clue: God does all of this “to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved” (v. 6). What election and predestination do is to shine the spotlight on God’s grace. If we were all innocent bystanders, and God arbitrarily chose some of us for salvation and the rest for eternal punishment, the4n that would make God look like a cruel and arbitrary tyrant. But we are not innocent bystanders; we are guilty hell-deserving sinners. The non-elect simply get what they justly deserve. God metes out His perfect justice. The elect, on the other hand, get what they do not deserve — the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life. But they cannot take any credit for themselves for the gift that they receive. There just as hell-deserving as the rest. Their salvation is due entirely to God’s free, unmerited favor. The proper question to ask is “why me and not others?,” and the answer is certainly not anything in me that somehow makes me better than the others.

The condemnation of the non-elect serves to highlight the grace shown to the elect. The condemnation of the non-elect shows us what we all deserve. If all were saved we would no doubt take our salvation for granted, as though it were a kind of government entitlement program. But not all are saved. Some receive the punishment justly due them, thus highlighting God’s justice. The others receive a free gift they did not deserve, thus highlighting God’s grace.

What all of this should do for those of us who are saved is to move us to a profound sense of gratitude toward God for all that He has done for us, who were so undeserving of it.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,

That save a wretch like me . . .”

Two Books by Robert Wheeler

[Editor’s note: Not too long ago we reviewed a book by Doug Sayers entitled Chosen or Not? Today Doug returns the favor and in a guest blog post reviews two books by myself.]

In his two books, “The Road to Heaven” (RTH) and “America’s Deadliest Enemy” (ADE) Bob Wheeler demonstrates that he is not only a zealous reader of books (especially the Bible) but is a very capable author as well.

His first, The Road to Heaven (2004), is a careful and thorough explanation of the Christian experience/life as it ought to be lived. The second (2008) expands upon the giant potholes, wrong turns, and potentially fatal cliffs in, and along, the road to heaven. Bob’s style is straight forward and no nonsense. There isn’t much color commentary in his writing; he tends to be a little long on explanation and short on illustration. Bob reminds me of Sargent Joe Friday and his signature line in the old Dragnet TV series: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Bob should be commended for his ardent pursuit of the truth; as this is absolutely essential for anyone who wishes to write books about Jesus, who is The Truth.

If you follow Bob’s recommendation and read only a little bit each day you will find the biblical description of how to get on the road to heaven and even more instruction on how stay on it. Unlike most modern GPS systems and roadmap software, Bob not only gives sound directions but he also points out the many detours to avoid; he explains how to keep our “car” running smoothly and performing at its peak.

Occasionally this reader found himself wondering if the author believes that the Christian life is merely about obeying a long list of “we musts”, and not about justification by faith alone. But to be fair, this is the way the Bible reads, and it has been a point of controversy throughout the history of the Christian Church. There is no contradiction in the Bible about how one finds forgiveness (that is salvation). We are, as Luther put it, saved by faith alone but not a faith that is alone. Bob notes this in Chapter 10 of RTH where he writes: “But how do we know that Abraham had faith? The answer is, because he acted on the promise.” In this point, Bob shows himself to be in agreement with historical Protestant teaching and the strength of RTH is its fundamental biblical orthodoxy. You will be hard pressed to find points with which to argue in either book, if you are a student of Scripture. This fact rescues him from using the “editorial we” throughout the book, which I find distracting. One of the most basic principles of interpreting the Bible (and all literature) is to know exactly who is talking and who they are addressing. I don’t remember any places where Bob actually said “I” believe this is what we must do, or “I” believe this is wrong with the modern church. He claims to be speaking for a group of people who he fails to name.

Based on these two books, Bob would seem to be a Calvinist sympathizer but he carefully avoids the overtly Calvinistic teachings about salvation being “unconditional” and “irresistible” for some… and impossible for others. In chapter 7 of RTH, Bob does not suggest that Jesus only died for the particular sins of a predetermined elect, who must therefore eventually repent and believe the gospel. Like the Bible, he repeatedly stated that Jesus died for “us” and he did not qualify the term. At the end of the chapter, he even addresses any potential unbelieving readers and exhorts them to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness. The Apostle Paul does the same thing in his epistles. I think the author may be like many of us. We are sure that God is sovereign and salvation comes by grace through faith but the down and dirty details of historical Calvinism are still subject to question. Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists are quoted, in a favorable way, in both books.

Bob paints with a broad (and a little presumptive) brush. He is not happy with the “modern church.” Not at all. This is unmistakable in RTH and is the main point of ADE. Now, this might tempt you to assume that Bob is just another self-appointed / old school know it all / holier than thou / wannabe prophet who assumes that he is the only one left who has not bowed the knee to worldliness and consumerism. But don’t be too quick to judge him on this point. His indictment of the modern church is not without just cause. I will offer one quibble. Especially in RTH, he brings a lot of charges which, I think, he assumes, are self-evident to any, and all, who observe the modern American Church. Here is a sampling:

“We fear that one reason why so many church members fail to live the Christian life is that many of them have never really been saved in the first place.” P41

“The great scandal of modern Evangelicalism is the large number of professing believers who show no evidence of changed lives”. P45 (Note: It could be argued that the church has had this problem since its inception.)

“This is one reason why we see so few genuine conversions today: our modern preachers rarely discuss in the pulpit the law of God, and, as a result, few of their listeners are ever convicted of sin.” P53

In chapter 12 on the fear of the Lord, he writes: “This truth is at once basic to the biblical conception of true religion and at the same time widely misunderstood or even forgotten altogether by the modern church.”

On prayer: “…where the modern church is most apt to fail.” “Today, we scarcely pray at all.” P77

“The scandal of the modern church is its lack of holiness.” P143

I’ll stop there. Bob doesn’t think we do much right but it is not clear whether he considers himself, and/or his church, among the ranks of the diluted and lukewarm who “must” get their act together. Nevertheless, it really doesn’t matter whether, or not, he includes himself among the mass of the Christian double minded today, if his charges are valid (albeit thinly substantiated). His accusations would carry more weight if he would have brought in more statistics, or particular personal experiences, as proofs of his universal indictment. Notwithstanding, the books are a legitimate and urgent call to duty and should be viewed as such.

One of Bob’s main assertions, especially in ADE, is the toxic and contagious consumerism of our day that is fueled by the entertainment industry. I don’t think he is entirely blaming a free market economy, per se, for our malaise but he is convinced that it is a great enabler of our natural covetousness and lust. He bluntly says, “Hollywood is Wall Street’s whore.” P2 Here, on this point, Bob did offer some statistics that effectively illustrated and vindicated the charge. His remedy to this threat is plain, simple, and unpopular: “For many of us it is either Christ or TV. Which will it be? Which is really our God?”

Strong medicine for a serious ailment.

Again, it can be tempting with books like these to write them off as written by disillusioned wannabe prophets who enjoy bashing the church more than Tiger Woods enjoys knocking golf balls into orbit. But I don’t think that would be fair with these two. Let’s give Bob Wheeler the benefit of the doubt here and take heed to his words. If we neglect these biblical warnings then we run the risk of losing our joy, both in this life and the life to come.







Effectual Calling

    As we have seen in our review of Doug Sayers’ book Chosen or Not?, the various doctrines often called “Calvinism” can be quite controversial. Critics have charged that the ideas of total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistible grace are unbiblical and an affront to human reason. How, one might be tempted to ask, can two groups of Christians, both claiming to respect the authority of Scripture, be so far apart in their interpretations? Can the Bible really be that difficult to understand?

    At times it may seem so, but that does not mean that the Bible is incomprehensible. What is required to understand it is a humble and teachable attitude and a complete honesty with the text. Our aim must be to understand what a given biblical author is saying in the text, and in order to do that we must pay careful attention to his use of language, the context, and the flow of thought through the passage. Words have meaning, and sentences have syntax. It really is possible to communicate ideas through the medium of human language!

    What, then, about the charge that the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” are really not taught in the Bible? We will not take up all five of them here, and we have already considered them elsewhere, but it would be worth our time to consider one particular passage of Scripture in which at least three of the “Five Points” appear, and that is Paul’s opening discussion in I Corinthians 1-3.

    The church at Corinth is an interesting case study. In some ways it was a young, vibrant congregation; in other ways it was a pastoral nightmare. And one of the problems Paul had to confront was one that is familiar to American Christians today: a pronounced sectarian spirit. The Corinthians, it would seem, had been exposed to the ministries of a variety of gifted preachers, among them Cephas (Peter), Apollos, and Paul himself. The individual Corinthians each had his favorite, and before long distinct parties had grown up within the church, each identifying with one preacher or another.

    This state of affairs drew a sharp rebuke from Paul, and he devoted the first three chapters of his epistle to addressing this issue. The gist of his argument is summed up in Chapter 3, verses 6 and 7: “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” (NKJV).

    But what does he mean when he says that “God gives the increase”? The preacher preached the message; the sinner responded with his free will; what does God have to do with it?

    Everything, as it turns out. Paul begins his discussion by describing his own ministry among the Corinthians. “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect” (1:17). “Not with the wisdom of words” – that is a strange claim for a preacher to make! You would think that preaching was all about pulpit eloquence!

    But Paul goes on: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). Here we are struck by the irony of evangelism. The message is proclaimed, but it affects different listeners in radically different ways. To some, it is “foolishness”; to others, it is “the power of God.” How could their perceptions of the same thing be so totally different?

    Paul then goes on to describe why the gospel is rejected by so many people: the Greeks, he says, are looking for wisdom; the Jews want to see miracles. But “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24).

    “To those who are called” – what does that mean? It is at this point that we plunge into the heart of the controversy. For Paul goes on to explain two controversial doctrines which have come to be known to us as “unconditional election” and “effectual calling” (or, “irresistible grace,” as it is also known). “For you see your calling, brethren, that no many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” Here it is evident that Paul is using the term “called” in a special sense – here it is virtually synonymous with conversion. To be “called” is to be saved. Furthermore, it is God who does the calling – He calls the ones who are saved, suggesting that He is the active Agent in the process. Thus this is a calling that actually results in the salvation of those who are called. It is “effectual calling.”


Next: Unconditional Election



    In our last blog post we began our review of the book Chosen or Not? by Doug Sayers, and we noted that the author tries to use human logic (“evident reason,” as he calls it) to defeat the force of biblical passages that describe what God does in salvation. We might ask the question, what does he offer as an alternative to Calvinism? If the Bible does not teach Calvinism, as he maintains, what does it teach? When we turn to Doug’s own theology we see that his logical method leas to some startling conclusions of his own.

    First of all, he maintains that “common grace” gives every human being sufficient ability to repent and believe on his own, apart from any supernatural work on God’s part. “Our non-Calvinist will be teaching that an unbeliever is capable of choosing to repent and embrace the gospel without being acted on by extraordinary and irresistible outside force. He teaches that the ability to repent comes by virtue of the common grace that God gives to everyone” (p. 40). He draws this conclusion from Rom. 1:19,20, which describes God’s revelation of Himself in nature (“His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” – NKJV) and Rom. 2:14,15, which states that even Gentiles have a conscience and “by nature do the things of the law.” But that is very far from saying that mane are able to repent and believe. The texts, in fact, say quite plainly that men do the exact opposite. The “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18); and the conclusion that Paul draws from this part of his argument is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Paul then goes on to say that “sin reigned in death” (5:12-21), that even as a Jew “in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells” (7:5-24), and that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (8:7,8). It is very far from the rosy, optimistic picture that Doug paints of human potential!

    Doug thinks that it is outrageous to suppose that the guilt of Adam’s sin could be imputed to his posterity. But he takes the argument one step further. Because small children are essentially ignorant of the law, their own sins are not imputed to them either. “As a result of God’s curse on Adam, our first sins as small children are not really preventable. Thus it is reasonable (for most of us) to think that the guilt of these sins would not be imputed to us. . . ” (p. 126). “. . . it is reasonable to conclude that every child is born with original sin, but may be considered in a state of grace before God. Their sin as children is not imputed to their account” (p. 127).

    But then what about adults who have never heard the gospel? Doug extends the principle even further: “Jesus died to reconcile the whole world to God . . . This means that there is hope for those who never hear about Jesus . . . His righteousness will be imputed to them if they humbly trust the truth to which they have been exposed” (p. 250). Doug cites the example of the Old Testament saints in support of his thesis, as well as Paul’s statement the “sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:13).

    Doug is, of course, assuming his position on “common grace.” Supposedly there are people in the world who are capable of repenting and believing apart from any supernatural work of grace. Presumably this would include people in remote parts of the world or in closed countries that never have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. But the Bible paints a far different picture. The whole world lies in sin and darkness. People suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They willfully sin against knowledge. Therefore they are justly under God’s wrath and condemnation even if they never hear about Jesus. It is simply not true that there are multitudes throughout the world who want to believe but do not have the opportunity to do so. Typically they have to be awakened by convicting preaching before they want to do anything.

    We are told , “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); and Paul asks the very pointed question, “How shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). We are afraid that Doug has undermined the whole basis for missions.

    But then this leads Doug to a further conclusion. If infants are born in a state of grace, and no supernatural work of the Spirit is required to bring a sinner to Christ, what is the new birth? Doug denies that it is an instantaneous and miraculous change of heart that results in new life in Christ. “Saving faith is also best understood as the culmination of many choices. It is not something that we do once in a moment of time . . . that counts for all time” (p. 265). Citing Col. 2:13 (“And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses”), he argues that the new birth basically involves the removal of our guilt in the sight of God. Regeneration, then, is essentially the same as justification. “The imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the new birth are two ways of describing the same thing. They both describe our forgiveness” (p. 166).

    But the text in Colossians does not necessarily equate the two. It simply states that two occur together; and in the parallel passage in Eph. 2:1-10 the sinner’s spiritual and moral condition is very much in view. And as Doug himself notes, I John makes it clear that a spiritual change is clearly the result of the new birth.

    This, then, brings us to the problem that Doug addresses at the end of his book, the problem of assurance and eternal security. He tells us that Calvinism “engenders confusion and is prone to a dangerous presumption” (p. 404). Curiously, the example he cites, that of David Brainerd, is the very opposite of “dangerous presumption.” Brainerd went through a protracted period of spiritual struggle before he arrived at an assurance of salvation. It is a fairly typical Puritan conversion experience.

    Doug would have us to believe that “It seems that the poor young man went through all kinds of agony trying to decide if he was unconditionally elect and irresistibly converted” (p. 419). He then adds, “He was probably a believer long before he would dare let himself believe it.” “He was looking for his experience to line up with his flawed doctrines” (Ibid.)

    It is with keen anticipation, then, that we look to see what Doug has to offer as the alternative to the alleged “confusion” caused by Calvinism. And when we do we are astonished to find that his overall view of assurance is similar to the Calvinistic one. Like Calvinists Doug encourages us to look for evidence that our faith is real and genuine. “. . .saving faith is best proven by the humble confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, combined with a practice of loving obedience to His commandments” (p. 412). In other words, we must do pretty much what Brainerd did: he looked at his heart to see if the inward graces were present. It is hard to see how we would arrive at a different result.

    There are, however, some key differences between Doug’s view and the Calvinistic one. First of all, Doug does not want to tie assurance to a specific conversion experience. “We desperately need to get free from the notion that saving faith is merely done once, in a moment of time. We need to see that saving faith must be maintained until we die” (p. 411). Moreover, Doug would dismiss any notion of the inner testimony of the Spirit. He criticizes those who “are looking for divine revelation that goes beyond the biblical promise of God” (p. 410).

    But then there is also this critical difference: “saving faith must be maintained until we die,” and “It remains to be seen if we keep our faith” (p. 411). Obviously if faith is not the result of irresistible grace, then there is no irresistible grace that can keep us in the faith. “It is hard to believe that a finite and fallible sinner could have an ‘infallible’ knowledge regarding any future event, especially an event, which occurs, on the other side of the grave” (pp. 409-410). In other words, we will be saved only if we persevere to the end, and there is no guarantee that that will happen. It appears David Brainerd had good reason to worry! His “dangerous presumption” consisted in his ever concluding that he was saved at all! It is hard to see how assurance is possible at all under these criteria.

    We fear that the net effect of Doug’s theology is to minimize the role that God plays in our salvation. To hear Doug tell it, instead of actively saving us, God simply puts an offer on the table and leaves us to our own devices.

    In many ways Doug has his own unique way of presenting his case, and for this reason we have hesitated to identify his view with those of some of the vocal critics in the past.of Calvinism. (We’re not sure that some of them would have wanted to be identified with some of Doug’s positions!) But is certain key aspects Doug’s theology is much in line with the general trend in American evangelical thinking over the past two centuries, especially with the emphasis on human ability. And it can be argued that in the case of Evangelicalism generally the spiritual effects of this type of thinking have been catastrophic. We have lost our sense of God’s transcendence. We have ceased to pray. Our worship has become entertainment. Our lives are inconsistent with our profession. And is it not, at least in part, because we have come to rely on human means to promote an institutional church? We have lost our confidence in the sovereign power of God and have ceased to seek it. The results speak for themselves.



    Chosen or Not?

    Doug Sayers

    CrossBooks, 2012

    467 pp., h.c.


    In his book Chosen or Not? author and blog commenter Doug Sayers gives us a long, sustained indictment of Calvinism. It is a long, rambling philippic aimed at the theology associated with the name of the famous 16th Century reformer.

John Calvin

John Calvin

    Doug at one time was a deacon in a Reformed Baptist church. What apparently disenchanted him with Calvinism was an incident years ago when his then three year old son nearly drowned to death in an accident. That raised the question of what would have happened to the boy had he actually died. Where would he have gone? When a Calvinist friend refused to give an unequivocal answer to the question, Doug began to wonder. He surmised that under Calvinist theology God could have sent the boy to hell, even if he had not actually committed any sins of his own, on the premise that he was guilty in God’s sight of having committed Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. Doug was appalled, and he came to question the whole idea of predestination and original sin.

    As a result much of the focus of the book is taken up with some of the more difficult and controversial aspects of orthodox Calvinism – reprobation, the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity, and limited atonement. Doug raises many of the usual objections: Calvinism is fatalistic, it makes God out to be an arbitrary, unjust monster, it leaves the reprobate with no chance of salvation, it denies human responsibility. It could be argued, however, that Doug is reacting to a particularly extreme form of Calvinism known as “Supralapsarianism.” As even Doug notes, Calvin himself did not believe that Adam’s guilt was imputed to his posterity (Institutes, II.i.89), and it is not at all clear that he believed in limited atonement. We fear that Doug is, in effect, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

To his credit Doug does show a familiarity with the sources, and he quotes the Westminster Confession of Faith along with a number of mostly contemporary Calvinistic authors. The chief defect in the book is its weak exegesis. Doug reminds us at the outset that “. . . we should never let that which is clear in the Bible take a back seat to that which might be inferred from the Bible” (p. 48). Yet curiously, his argument relies heavily on human logic. We are frequently told that “it is reasonable to conclude,” “our natural sense of justice bears witness,” “It is reasonable to think,” “most people don’t think it would be right,” “It would be right (or fair) for God,” “It would also be reasonable (and fair) for God.” And all of this on just a single page (p. 127)! As Doug candidly admits, “Some philosophy is inescapable and both sides of our argument should be prepared to admit it . . . the question involves both Scripture and evident reason” (p. 9).

    Doug’s basic argument runs something like this: Suppose that “A” represents many of the doctrines associated with Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. And let’s say that “B” represents certain biblical texts that talk about God’s love for all mankind, the free offer of the gospel, and human accountability. To hear Doug tell it, if a Calvinist believes in “A” then he cannot possibly believe in “B.” And if the Bible teaches “B” then it cannot possibly teach “A.” Therefore, Calvinism and the Bible are irreconcilably opposed to each other.

    The weakness of this argument is that does not take into consideration the possibility that there could be paradoxes and antinomies in the Bible. For example, in Phil. 2:12 we read, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . . ” (NKJV). Here we have as clear a statement of human responsibility as we are likely to find anywhere in the Bible. The sentence contains an imperative verb (“work out”) giving a direct command and laying a responsibility on the readers to act. Is this not proof positive that Paul was not a fatalistic Calvinist? Yet in the very next verse we read, ” . . . for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (v. 13). Try as one might, it is exceedingly hard to make the word “works” mean anything else than “produce a result.” In this instance the text actually goes so far as to say that God “works in you . . . to will and to do.” In other words, God controls both our wills and our actions. Did Paul just contradict himself? We don’t think so. The confusion is likely to be in our minds, not his. Let us beware of trying to be more logical than the Bible! What we have here is the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, something that Doug insists is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.

    Unfortunately Doug’s logical method of reasoning leads to some regrettable conclusions. On the one hand, by maintaining that a Calvinist cannot possibly believe in “B,” he basically says that there is no real difference between a Calvinist and a Hyper-Calvinist (a Hyper-Calvinist is a person who really would deny “B”). In Doug’s view, a Calvinist is simply a “Hyper-Calvinist with a better presentation,” as he likes to say. And if a Calvinist tries to deny that he is really a Hyper-Calvinist, he is simply being dishonest. It is easy to see why a moderate Calvinist would resent the caricature.

    On the other hand Doug is faced with the considerable challenge of trying to show that the Bible really does not teach “A.” It basically involves trying to explain away the large amount of Scripture that describes what God does in salvation. The sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, and salvation by grace are all major themes of the Bible. The Scriptures tell us that God chooses us, redeems us, begets us, and keeps us. There are repeated references to the power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. And there are also passages that explicitly discuss predestination and election. It is hard to miss the point.

    It is not that Doug doesn’t try. A good example is his treatment of Rom. 8:28-30, which reads: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”

    Doug’s immediate concern in this passage is to try to show that the predestination involved is not a predestination of certain individuals unto salvation. Doug tries to tell us that “Paul is listing some of the terms and conditions of the deal, if you will” (p. 94). “This is a listing of God’s gracious provision for our salvation” (p. 95). God makes the provision, and we must act upon it by faith. The ones who are predestined are simply the ones whom God could foresee would believe. But Doug insists that “No reason is given here for any specific individual’s faith” (Ibid.).

    But the passage does not say that God merely created certain terms and conditions; it says that He does certain specific things to people that result in their salvation. The direct objects of the verbs are relative pronouns which all have the same antecedent: “whom He foreknew” (v. 29). This, in turn, refers back to “those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” in the preceding verse. Verses 29 and 30 are basically an explanation of the phrase “those who are the called according to His purpose” in verse 28.

    The usual anti-Calvinist explanation here is that when Paul said “whom He foreknew,” he meant that God could foresee who would believe, and then chose them. But that is reading something into the text that is not there. Paul is probably using the word “foreknow” in the same sense in which he uses it in 11:2, where it most definitely does not mean that God foresaw that the Israelites would obey. What is in view there is their disobedience. Moreover Doug’s interpretation weakens the verb “predestined,” of its force. There is no “destiny’ involved, according to him.

    Moreover, when we look at the various other actions described in verses 29 and 30 we notice that it says, among other things, that “whom He called, these He also justified” (v. 30). This “calling” results in justification; it has the actual effect of bringing the sinner to salvation. It is “effectual calling,” the very same irresistible grace that Doug says is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.

    Thus the passage does not say that God predestined a plan; it says that He predestined people. The passage is a beautiful expression of what God does to save us.

    We could multiply examples of Doug’s exegesis, but the pattern is clear. All too often human logic is enlisted to rob passages of their force and meaning. The net effect is to minimize the role that God plays in our salvation. Is this really a sound way to approach Scripture? We hardly think so.


Next: Doug’s own theology


George Whitefield preaching

George Whitefield preaching

    We recently had the occasion to read a remarkable sermon by George Whitefield entitled “The Method of Grace.” It is a fascinating example of evangelistic preaching and is well worth taking to heart today.

    Whitefield (1714-1770) was perhaps one of the most phenomenal preachers ever to preach in the English language. The famous 18th Century evangelist traveled extensively through England, Scotland and the American colonies, and was a leading figure of the Great Awakening of the 1740’s. He almost always drew huge crowds wherever he went. Untold thousands owed their conversions to the instrumentality of his preaching.

    The text for this particular sermon was Jeremiah 6:14, in which the prophet Jeremiah, speaking of the corrupt religious leaders of his day, said, “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Whitefield then began his sermon with this striking observation: “As God can send a nation or people no greater blessing than to give them faithful, sincere, and upright ministers, so the greatest curse that God can possibly send upon a people in this world, is to give them over to blind, unregenerate, carnal, lukewarm, and unskilled guides.” Such preachers, Whitefield said, were prone to curry favor with their audiences by giving them a false assurance – by papering over the real and serious spiritual problems that plague the nation. A faithful preacher, however, will tell his listeners the truth, so that they might achieve a genuine peace to their souls.

    Whitefield then proceeded to do exactly that. He began by stressing that true religion is an inward thing, “a work wrought in the soul by the power of the Spirit of God.” Then he pointed to the fact that we are guilty of having committed actual sins. But even more that that, we are sinners by nature. “If we look inwardly, we shall see enough of lusts, and man’s temper contrary to the temper of God. There is pride, malice, and revenge, in all our hearts . . .”

    Whitefield pointed out that sometimes, when people first come under the conviction of sin, their initial reaction is to try to do better, — to try to reform their lives outwardly through their own effort. But without a renewed heart a person may be doing many of the right things outwardly, but for the wrong reasons, and that hardly gains credit with God. “. . . nature cannot act above itself. It is impossible that a man who is unconverted can act for the glory of God; he cannot do anything in faith, and ‘whatever is not of faith is sin.'” Even the good works of Christians are tainted by impure motives. “. . .my repentance wants [i.e., needs] to be repented of . . . Our best duties are so many splendid sins.”

    He then pointed out that many people who were reared in a Christian environment may think that they are Christians, when in fact they are not. They have what is sometimes termed “a historical faith” – an attachment to the Christian religion mainly for social and cultural reasons – lack what Whitefield called “a true faith, wrought in the heart by the Spirit of God.”

    Here we can see one of the most striking differences between Whitefield’s preaching and what often passes for “evangelism” today. Whitefield began by laboring to convince his listeners that they were sinners. Then, and only then, did he proclaim the promise of forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. You have to get them lost before you can get them saved!

    Having described the lost condition of his unconverted listeners Whitefield then went on and came to the crux of the matter. In order to achieve genuine, lasting peace, “You must be enabled to lay hold upon the perfect righteousness, the all-sufficient righteousness, of the Lord Jesus Christ, you must lay hold by faith on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and then you shall have peace . . . Before we can even have peace with God, we must be justified by faith through our Lord Jesus Christ, we must be enabled to apply Christ to our hearts, we must have Christ brought home to our souls, so as his righteousness may be made our righteousness, so as his merits may be imputed to our souls.” Here we can see that two different things are involved in salvation. One is the act of “justification,” whereby Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” or charged to our account, and we are thereby counted righteous in the sight God. The other element of salvation is regeneration, or the New Birth, the work of the Holy Spirit in our souls, convicting us of sin, bringing us to faith in Christ, and imparting to us spiritual life. The former element does not happen without the latter.

    Whitefield ended his sermon with a heartfelt plea to sinners to flee to Christ for salvation. He warned them of the danger of hell. He cited his own personal experience as an unconverted person. And even though he was a staunch Calvinist he urged his listeners to act, although he did not issue an alter call or ask people to walk down an aisle.

    Whitefield’s sermon is a startling reminder of what is involved in a genuine conversion, and what evangelism is supposed to be like. What is at stake is eternity, and what is involved is the inward transformation of the soul by the power of the Holy Spirit. And what are needed are faithful preachers who will boldly tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. May God raise up such men in our time!