Jeremy

John Calvin

John Calvin

Charles Spurgeon, and others after him, have confidently proclaimed that Calvinism is actually the gospel. When this is said, what is meant by “Calvinism,” of course, is the TULIP, aka the 5 points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. According to those who make this claim, one cannot preach the gospel truly and accurately unless these truths are also communicated. According to this unusual, innovative view, if you don’t talk about total depravity, unconditional election, and/or the other points of the TULIP when communicating the gospel, then you haven’t really preached the gospel.

At this time, I am reexamining these 5 points—in particular I have grave doubts about Limited Atonement—but even when I accepted them all without question, this kind of dogmatic statement never sat right with me. Nowhere in the New Testament (NT) is the TULIP ever equated to the gospel message. For example, in the accounts of gospel preaching that are recorded in the NT, the apostles never spent time explaining these doctrines of grace.

I can almost hear the objection that will immediately come from those who disagree: “You’re wrong! Paul explained Unconditional Election in great detail in Ephesians 1.” Yes, he did. There is just one problem with this objection, though: He explained these things to established churches, not to people on his missionary journeys to whom he first preached the gospel. There is a vast difference between these two activities. To preach the gospel to people who have never heard it is one thing; to provide pastoral counsel and instruction to those who are already Christians is quite another.

At one point I took an online course in systematic theology at a Reformed seminary. I distinctly recall Joel Beeke warning against interpreting the Scriptures to fit our system of theology. To illustrate this error, he recalled a time when a sermon was preached (either by him or someone he knew) on the basis of a biblical text, and afterward one of his listeners objected by saying something to this effect: “Too much free will in there.” The man who objected in this way was evaluating a statement about a biblical text on the basis of a theological system he held near and dear. In other words, he was subjecting the biblical text to a theological system, not the other way around.

Ever since hearing that, I have been mindful of avoiding that pitfall because it equates a man-made system with an indispensable message of the Bible, conflating the biblical text with the system. Any responsible Bible interpreter will think twice about doing such a thing.

Before anyone objects by saying that Calvinism is not man-made but is biblical, allow me to explain my meaning. I am not saying that all the doctrines are man-made but rather that the system is. Doctrine and system are not necessarily the same because the latter is a human attempt to interpret the former and consolidate it into a harmonious, consistent system of thought.

Now let’s look honestly at how Paul described the gospel:

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Corinthians 15:1–8, NKJV)

It’s vital to note that Paul makes it a point to say that he actually received the gospel he describes. This means that the description that immediately follows has divine origin. It is the true, authoritative gospel, and even a quick reading of the apostle’s description shows clearly that it does not even hint at the TULIP. These facts alone should give anyone who claims that Calvinism is the gospel serious misgivings.

If that is not enough, though, those who make this outrageous claim should turn to the following important warning by the apostle Paul:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8–9, NKJV)

When someone says that the doctrines of grace are the gospel, but those doctrines of grace are not even hinted at in a biblical, apostolic description of the gospel, one has to wonder if those who proclaim such dogmatic things are in danger of being accursed.

If you don’t understand the significance of the sarcasm in this meme, it’s time to brush up on church history:

If we test/verify everything by Scripture, how do we verify the list of 66 books using Scripture alone? To ask it another way: Since the table of contents in our Bible is not inspired, it must be what we, as Protestants, would call a man-made tradition that must be tested by the light of Scripture. But what purely Scriptural test can we perform on that table of contents to determine that the books listed there belong in the Bible? If we cannot verify it using Scripture alone but must go outside the Bible to verify it, aren’t we just accepting a “man-made tradition” as infallible without Scriptural proof?

Having said that, I will point out that in spite of this issue with sola Scriptura, I am not prepared to jettison it. The alternative to it is to head to Rome, but there one will find countless volumes of church teaching and canon law and, therefore, even more questions—not to mention a “gospel” that shifts the burden of salvation from Christ to the individual believer. The situation would not be much better if one went to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

annunciation2And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. (Luke 1:28, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition)

Although this translation renders the angel’s greeting in Luke 1:28 with the words, full of grace, the underlying Greek conveys a meaning that is perhaps quite different. In this passage, the underlying Greek is a single word: κεχαριτωμένη (kecharitwmenei), a perfect passive participle that means one having been favored. If the angel had really meant “full of grace,” then surely we would see the more precise phrase, πλήρης χάριτος (pleireis charitos) used in John 1:14 to describe Jesus:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full [πλήρης] of grace [χάριτος] and truth. (Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition)

It seems clear that the Greek text underlying the description of Mary indicates something entirely different. Since the word πλήρης (full) does not appear in that description of Mary, there is no indication that the author intended to describe Mary as being “full” of grace. We can definitely conclude from that text that she was favored. We can even conclude from the context that she was highly favored, since she was to be the mother of the Lord—truly a unique, special role—and that she should be honored. We can also conclude from the perfect tense that the favoring had begun at some point in the past and had continued to the present time (from the standpoint of the speaker).

Perhaps it’s true that Mary was “full of grace,” but I’m not so sure that it can be proven from Luke 1:28.

There seems to be no shortage of evangelistic methods that people devise and hold up as the most preferable technique. Some claim it is friendship evangelism, others say it is engaging others in question-and-answer dialogue, and still others insist it is showing love and doing service for others. It is likely that there are others as well. No matter what the method is, they are sometimes presented and/or embraced as a “silver bullet” solution, that is, the single solution that will work where all others have failed. Consequently, it is not unusual to hear their creators or defenders try to persuade others of their worth with arguments that tend to sound like this: “Here’s why our evangelism is usually ineffective, so do this method, and your evangelism will be effective.”

Unfortunately, what they don’t seem to realize is that no evangelism is ineffective if it includes proclaiming the gospel and is devoid of unnecessary offenses. What is ineffective is the human heart’s ability to respond favorably to that message about Christ.

As good as their intentions may be, these toolmakers of evangelism seem to miss another important fact: The Bible doesn’t give us various methods and procedures for evangelism; it speaks only of proclaiming the gospel message. In fact, if the Bible upholds any particular method of evangelism at all, it is the verbal proclamation of the good news. From the parable of the sower to Paul’s descriptions of his own ministry to recorded events in the book of Acts, Scripture consistently emphasizes one evangelistic method: proclamation. That is the “silver bullet” of evangelism. Consider these passages:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16, ESV, emphasis added)

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:18–25, ESV, emphasis added)

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5, ESV, emphasis added)

For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16b, ESV)

This is not to say that any of the aforementioned methods are wrong simply because they do not appear in Scripture. In fact, some of these approaches may be useful in certain situations. The problem happens when they are lifted up to the same level as gospel proclamation and seen as equal to it in efficacy, as though gospel proclamation were optional—just one method to choose out of many. Thus, it is wrong to see any one of them as the single, long-sought-after silver bullet that will slay sin and resistance to the gospel once and for all. These various techniques are specific tools to stow away in one’s evangelistic toolbox, not as one-size-fits-all techniques but as implements to be retrieved when a particular occasion requires them and as support for the verbal communication of the gospel.

In all our methods, tactics, techniques and procedures, we need always to keep at the forefront of our minds this biblical truth: The gospel message is the method. It is the gospel that has power (Romans 1:16, James 1:18), not the various methods that we devise. We must always remember that.

Many people contrast the portrayal of God in the New Testament with that of God in the Old Testament and conclude that they were two different deities. They feel that the God portrayed in the Old Testament was harsh, cruel, judgmental and quick to anger, whereas the God of the New Testament is fatherly, loving, tender and merciful. This is actually a false dichotomy. Ironically, it is in the very act which we rightly see as the greatest act of mercy—Jesus hanging on the cross and bleeding for our sins—that we see the same Old Testament holiness, severity and judgment. Christ’s self-sacrifice was the result of both unrelenting judgment and the tenderest compassion: God’s holiness and justice required that the full penalty due humanity for their sins be satisfied, and He gave up His own Son compassionately to accomplish that. Mercy and justice are both seen on Calvary’s cross, just as they are both seen in the Old Testament. God did not change between Malachi and Matthew.

One day that stern holiness of God will break out against sin forever. It will be the unleashing of a righteous hostility toward evil that will never end—like a massive flash fire that suddenly breaks out and whose fury never ceases. Christ’s shed blood on the cross, however, is a complete satisfaction and appeasement of that righteous anger toward sin. When God sees that blood applied to a believer in Jesus, He has no wrath whatsoever toward that person: “Whoever believes in him [Jesus Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18, ESV).

The God revealed in the Old Testament is exactly the same God revealed in the New: loving and merciful and kind, yet also fearful and terrifying in His wrath. He is not to be trifled with. Don’t make light of Jesus’ death and suffering on the cross. If you reject it, you have nothing to look forward to but an eternity of suffering God’s holiness breaking out against you in hell. Repent and come to Christ now!

Click here to see the video.

This has long been one of my favorite messages. Some people may want to come to Christ because they are genuinely concerned about their salvation but might have doubts about whether the gospel is meant for them. Ralph Erskine does a great job assuring such people that the word of salvation is truly meant for them.

It is probably too long to post here, so here is a link to a PDF of it: The Word of Salvation Sent to Sinners (by Ralph Erskine)

It is well worth taking the time to read it through.

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, … (1 Timothy 2:5, ESV)

It’s a common debate between Catholics and Protestants: The Protestant will quote the above verse to disprove the Roman Catholic teaching on Mary as co-mediatrix with Christ. The Catholic will respond by pointing to verse one of the same chapter, where Paul urges that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.” So all Christians, the Catholic says, are called to be mediators between God and men in some way. Why, then, can’t Mary be a co-mediatrix with Christ?

At first this seems like a reasonable response—until we see that the two kinds of mediation mentioned in this passage are entirely different. The one mentioned in v. 1 is a very limited mediation that all believers are commanded to do and consists only in prayer; the other is a mediation by Christ alone to bring about salvation. That this is such a mediation cannot be denied, since v. 6 describes Christ as the one “who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

The mediation that the Catholic Church attributes to Mary does not consist solely in prayer to God for people; it is much more than that. Section 62 of the document Lumen Gentium has this to say (emphasis added):

62. This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation.(15*) By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix.(16*) This, however, is to be so understood that it neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator.(17*)

Despite the disclaimer at the end of this paragraph, the boldfaced text above indicates that the Catholic Church clearly attributes to Mary a role that goes beyond mere intercession into the realm of “bring[ing] us the gifts of eternal salvation.” Moreover, her duty is called salvific, and she is said to care for Christians. In fact, the Catholic Church portrays Mary as holding an office that is remarkably like that of Christ’s, calling her Advocate and Mediatrix. Therefore, the Catholic implication that Mary’s mediation is like the limited mediation described in v. 1 falls flat.

So when Catholics respond to the Protestant’s use of the above verse by saying that Mary’s mediation is like the lesser form described in v. 1, they are really going against what Lumen Gentium says. In reality, according to official Catholic teaching, her level of mediation resembles Christ’s in striking respects.

There are people today who separate themselves from the local church and feel they are perfectly justified in doing so. The New Testament, however, has much to say about this, and when we look at relevant passages, we can see that doing so is a dire sin. The Scriptures know nothing of living the Christian life by oneself, in isolation from the body of Christ.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. (1 John 5:1)

If you don’t long for fellowship with other children of God, do you really love God?

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:10–11)

It is impossible to obey this passage’s command to use our gifts to serve one another if we are not plugged into a local body of believers and involved on a regular basis. Our spiritual gifts are given to us to “serve one another,” as the text plainly says, not to keep them to ourselves. If we don’t use our spiritual gifts to serve others, are we perhaps like the man in Jesus’ parable who buried his talent and hid it and produced no profit with it (Matthew 25:14–30)?

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1–6)

This text not only commands us to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, but it says to be eager to do so. That means we should go out of our way to maintain unity in the church. It is obvious that those who separate from the church are doing the opposite because they are contributing to disunity. Breaking off and separating—unless they have good biblical reason to do so—simply fractures the church further than it already is.

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, … (Eph. 4:7–11)

Continuing in Ephesians 4, we see another indication why separating from the church is sinful. Christ Himself gave gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. If we separate from the church, we cut ourselves off from those gifts and essentially say that we don’t need them. That is certainly contrary to God’s will. The gifts mentioned are absolutely vital to the church’s life, health and growth, and so cutting ourselves off from them will result inevitably in a decrease in our own spiritual health. Again, that is something contrary to God’s will.

… to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph. 4:12–14)

Here the apostle explains why the aforementioned gifts of men to the church are so vital to her health and growth. It is through them that God equips the saints for ministry, builds up the body of Christ, and brings the church to maturity for her protection from error. To separate oneself from the church, then, is to remove oneself from God’s divinely appointed means of spiritual growth and protection. Can that be anything less than dangerous, not to mention an affront to our wonderful Christ, who graciously provided those gifts?

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph. 4:15–16)

Notice that Paul here not only mentions growing up but specifically growing up into the head, Christ. He also mentions that Christ is the source of that growth. There is, then, no growing apart from being connected with the church, and particularly with those men whom Christ has given as gifts to the church.

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Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.