Previous article in this series: April 15, 2015, p. 317.
Since summarizing what it means to be Reformed is really summarizing what it means to be Christian, we are necessarily brief in this series of editorials. So far, we have said that to be Reformed is 1) to embrace the beautiful truth of God’s gracious covenant of friendship, and 2) that this covenant is to be understood Calvinistically. That is, the “doctrines of grace,” or the “Five Points of Calvinism,” and the “Five Solas” of the Reformation are the necessary and controlling biblical framework for understanding the covenant.
In this article, I want to point out the implications of this Calvinistic understanding of the covenant, and start with how Calvinism is misunderstood.
What Calvinism does not imply
Foes of Calvinism portray a very negative image of Calvinism. For them, some pretty ugly stuff tags along with being Calvinistic.1 What is some of that ugly stuff?
Calvinism is anti-missions.
This is an old charge, tied especially to Calvinism’s teaching of unconditional, double predestination and limited atonement. If you believe that God has chosen only some who will infallibly be saved, and rejected others who cannot be saved; and if Jesus has died only for these elect—so the charge goes— there is no sense in doing missions. It’s a theological Que sera, sera.
The charge is not legitimate; not historically; not theologically. Faithful Calvinists have always done missions. Calvinists are still busy doing missions, always striving to be more faithful, of course. Rather than hindering missions, Calvinism itself drives Calvinist missions. Exactly because they believe that God’s elect are in the world and in darkness, Calvinists send missionaries. And exactly because they believe that these elect are brought to saving faith by preaching, Calvinists want gospel-preaching central and primary in missions. That is, “word” may not take a backseat to “deeds” as the main tool in missions. Calvinists are not motivated by horror that some may go lost for whom Christ died—Arminianism; but by the eagerness to be used by God to gather His elect. It’s not the drive to save as many as possibly can be saved by appealing to their free wills—Arminianism; but the commitment to be what God wills believers to be—the witnesses whom the Holy Spirit uses irresistibly to draw His elect.
The fathers at Dordt were aware of the criticism that “Calvinism is fatalistic about salvation; Calvinism cannot urge churches to preach to all nations; Calvinism relegates preaching to an optional thing because God will surely save whom God elects.” So in every head of doctrine, the Canons confess conviction of the importance of promiscuous gospel preaching.2
If Calvinistic (Reformed) churches are missions-lazy, one of two things—and perhaps three—must be true. Either the churches misunderstand Calvinism, turning it into hyper-Calvinism or a kind of fatalism (“God doesn’t need our help to save His elect”), or the churches are Calvinists in their brains but not in their hearts. A third, albeit we pray remote, possibility is that they do not take seriously what they read in the Canons. Let all Reformed churches examine themselves here.
Calvinism is anti-personal responsibility.
The charge goes like this: If God is sovereign in salvation, drawing His elect in a way they cannot resist, and preserving them so that none of them can ever be lost, well, who will feel any responsibility to struggle toward godliness, to battle the old man, to be godly? After all, if we’re going to be saved we’re going to be saved. Or, the charge is that too much emphasis is put on God’s sovereignty and not enough on man’s responsibility. If, as Calvinists teach, man has no free will, how can he be responsible anyway?3 Or, the charge is based on what some think Calvinists say: “Since we are saved by grace without works, we must not emphasize works.” That is, Calvinists so strongly deny working for salvation that they forget about working after salvation.
Calvinism is not careless in the matter of man’s responsibility. In fact, we are convinced that Calvinism’s doctrines of grace promote personal responsibility more biblically and faithfully than any other system of doctrine. Arminianism motivates man by fear—fear that he may go lost, fear that God will reject him because he did not do enough, did not persevere. God gave him grace to be saved; now it is his responsibility to use that grace to become saved and to continue in salvation. If he does not, he will perish. Calvinism is altogether different. As the Heidelberg Catechism teaches, working responsibly comes after we know our gracious salvation, and because we know it. First, good works are inevitable for one united to Christ. Second, the doctrines of Calvinism promote personal responsibility and godly living most powerfully when they teach the motive for it. God’s salvation is pure grace, nothing deserved. God loves me, a fully corrupt and absolutely undeserving sinner. But He loves me. He always will. And that knowledge, not fear, is what drives a Christian to “responsible” and godly living. The mainspring of the Christian life is not fear, but gratitude for covenant-salvation given of mere grace.
If a Calvinistic or Reformed minister fails to preach godly living in obedience to all the commandments, fails to preach the imperatives of the gospel, fails to warn of wrath to come for impenitent sinners, fails to admonish believers unto new obedience—one of three things, and maybe all of them, are true. Either he has lost his balance, over-reacting to works-righteousness, thinking it weak to “preach works”; or he has not understood yet the weight and full significance of God’s call, “Be ye holy, for I am holy”; or, God forbid, the preacher has not personally tasted the gracious salvation that drives a saved sinner to say, “I am a friend of God and will give my life to serve my covenant Friend.” Let all Reformed preachers examine themselves in the light of Dordt’s concluding exhortation to “all their brethren in the gospel.” A practical antinomianism is as deadly as an antinomianism officially adopted. Perhaps more.
Calvinism is a religion for the head, but not for the heart, of doctrine not of love.
If this charge were true, it would be one of the most damning indictments of Calvinism possible. Since Reformed Christianity—and covenant theology—is about the great love and friendship of God, a Calvinism not about love is not Christianity. If it could be shown that Calvinism in some way minimizes God’s love or downplays it in order to make a louder sound of God’s sovereignty, Calvinism’s reputation would deservedly suffer.
This accusation is not new either. A century ago a Scottish Presbyterian criticized Calvin’s view of God’s sovereignty because in it “love is subordinated to sovereignty, instead of sovereignty to love.”4 In his Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, Roger E. Olson claims that the “true divide at the heart of the Calvinist-Arminian split is not predestination versus free will but the guiding picture of God: he is primarily viewed as either (1) majestic, powerful, and controlling or (2) loving, good, and merciful.”5
But a Calvinist refuses to be hung on the horns of that dilemma— viewing God either as majestic and controlling or loving and merciful. If an opponent of the Reformed faith would judge Calvinism honestly— by her creeds rather than by opinions of selected Reformed au thors—he would know better than to say what Olson claims. Read the creeds. See the starting point of the Heidelberg Catechism, with its language of love: faithful Savior, precious blood, not my own, heavenly Father, assurance of eternal life. Then study the Canons’ explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism, and notice the same starting point of this official statement of what it means to be Reformed. Immediately after showing that God would have done no injustice to man by leaving all men to perish, the fathers speak of the love of God! “But in this the love of God was manifested, that he sent his only begotten Son into the world, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Even the opening article of the Belgic Confession, whose approach is more systematic, concludes with the confession that the one and only God is “good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.” And if an Arminian wants to know about the Calvinist’s view of God’s power, majesty, and control (indeed, we emphasize them!) we would urge him to read our beautiful confession of them in Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism, and Article 13 of the Belgic Confession.
What Calvinism implies
But these accusations are also answered by a positive confession of what Calvinism means, and by the genuine life that Calvinists seek to live because of their Calvinism.
Humble and reverent worship.
The Calvinist’s life starts in the presence of His God and Father who loves him—the gracious God who saved him from the hell he deserves; the wise Father who cares for him in a fallen world; the merciful God who saved him, always the undeserving sinner. In the presence of this God, the worship of his lips has its source in the new heart that was given him, unasked, to replace his natural heart of stone. He casts his crown before God’s throne, giving praise to his covenant Friend-sovereign, “Not unto us, O Lord of heaven, but unto thee be glory given.” Nothing in his worship praises man, or calls attention to man, because God is to be praised in the assembly of the saints. Nothing in his worship is frivolous or petty, because the God whom he worships is the Sovereign of heaven and earth. Everything in his worship aims at that climactic final sola, To God Alone Be the Glory.
If one’s Calvinism does not show itself in an eagerness to worship in the presence of God, he must examine his Calvinism. If what bubbles out of a Calvinist is more of a “believe this doctrine, and if you don’t you must not be a Christian,” than a “believe this doctrine to the eternal comfort of your soul and join me in giving glory to our good God,” then his Calvinism is suspect. Genuine Calvinism, as genuine Christianity, loves and lives to give glory to God.
Because God is good, He promises never to leave or forsake His people. No one can pluck them out of His hand. Never.
Where the Arminians expressed uncertainty, and still do, Calvinists express confident faith. The fifth head of the Canons works so masterfully to express this doctrine of preservation, and our assurance of that wonder-work, that one never tires of reading it. I cannot express in words strong enough that Reformed believers ought to master the Canons of Dordt (the Rejection of Errors as well) to the great comfort of their souls and the honor of God.
If they do, and believe this truth heartily, this knowledge of preservation will be “the real source of… filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering, and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God.” Knowledge of this benefit is “an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works…” (Canons V:12). Assurance of preservation is “so far from…rendering believers carnally secure” (V:12) that in fact it is the real source of godliness. It does not produce in them “licentiousness, or a disregard to piety,” but it “renders them much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord.” (V:13).
Humble living among others.
Calvinists, whose Calvinism has reached their hearts, will live humbly toward others. If any adherent of Christianity should be humble, it should be the Calvinist. God chose him unconditionally. Nothing in him merits God’s love. Christ died for unworthy sinners, of whom he is chief, and will preserve him when he is least deserving of it. So it is impossible that his attitude toward others be condescending. He listens to His Lord who called him to love his enemies, bless them that curse him, do good to them that hate him, and pray for them which despitefully use him and persecute him (Matt. 5:44). As Paul did to unbelieving Agrippa, he expresses a sincere desire that these enemies become Christians ().
Let the fathers of Dordt guide us again: “…They, to whom so great and so gracious a blessing is communicated… are bound to acknowledge it with humble and grateful hearts, and…not curiously to pry into the severity and justice of God’s judgments displayed to others, to whom this grace is not given” (III/IV:7).
How much damage has been done to the cause of the true gospel by Calvinists living in pride over against non-Christians, or non- Reformed Christians! I am tempted to say, as much damage as the defectors to Arminianism who formerly professed Calvinism; but we let God be judge of that.
Calvinists, true to their theology, learn at the feet of the publican: “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” At the feet of the apostle of grace: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” And at the feet of Jesus Himself: “Learn of me.”
1 Roger E. Olson’s 2014 Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011) is one of these. There are others. Laurence Vance describes the baggage he believes comes with Calvinism: “Nothing will deaden a church or put a young man out of the ministry any more than an adherence to Calvinism. Nothing will foster pride and indifference as will an affection for Calvinism. Nothing will destroy holiness and spirituality as an attachment to Calvinism.” The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola, FL: Vance Publications, 1991, viii). These are charges very similar to those the Synod of Dordt addressed in their “Conclusions.”
2 See I:1-4, 16; II:5; III/IV:6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 17; V:7, 10, 14, 15; and note carefully how the Canons begin. It is a truism to say that this emphasis of the Canons is consistent with the teaching of the Reformed creeds that they intend to explain and expand upon—the Heidelberg (21:54; 25:65; 48:123) and the Belgic Confession (Arts. 2, 24, 31, 33, 35). But the fathers at Dordt made the point to emphasize what the Reformed faith confessed.
3 Roger E. Olson says, “I don’t give a flip about free will, except…to preserve human responsibility.” Against Calvinism, 23.
4 James Orr (1844-1913), quoted in Olson, Against Calvinism, 31.
5 Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006, 73.