Questions about Calvinism

Q – Did you grow up Calvinistic?

Jim – No. I was completely unfamiliar with the whole Calvin/Arminian debate prior to attending the church in Franklin. I was having lunch with the pastor and telling him about the church in Los Angeles where I had served as an intern when he said, “It sounds like typical Arminianism.” That was the first time I had ever heard that word. He launched into an extended description of the differences between the two views and I just tried to keep up. The odd part was, having grown up Lutheran, I was vaguely familiar with the theological debates arising from the Reformation. But I had always thought of those differences in terms of Catholic/Protestant distinctives. I had never viewed them through the “God’s sovereignty versus man’s free will” lens.

As I began reading reformed writers I found their arguments to be compelling and consistently scriptural. It didn’t take long before I understood that the method of studying the Bible I had been handed was neither contextual nor completely honest. It was more like “hunt-and-peck until you find verses that support your preconceived conclusions.” It was actually fairly shocking to read Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” and discover how predestinarian he actually was. The Lutherans had never told me that.

Calvinism is just a nickname that we use to identify the theology that places proper emphasis on God’s sovereignty over man’s ability. But, even within Calvinistic circles there is no unanimity of thought on every topic. And, I think that is why it is incumbent on every church and every believer to hold every theological idea, no matter how attractive or how popular, up against the Bible and be willing to adjust our thinking anywhere and everywhere that our theology is in conflict with Scripture.

Of the two historic views, Arminianism and Calvinism, I certainly find Reformed/Calvinistic theology to be more biblically defensible. But, that’s not to say that I buy the entire system hook-line-and-sinker. The cry of the Reformation was “Always Reforming!” Unfortunately, it seems that much of Reformed theology became cemented in place a couple of hundred years ago and we could certainly use a modern Reformation.

Q – I have some concerns. Some of these concerns may not apply to Calvinism per se, but they seem to apply to some who claim to be Calvinists. Here’s a partial list followed by an amplification of the concerns:

1) Not under the law, but under grace
2) Evangelism/outreach
3) Pride
4) Spiritual warfare
5) Spiritual gifts

Jim – Okay, let’s go through your points one by one.

Q – 1) One of my concerns is that some Calvinists seem to believe that “Not under the law, but under grace” gives a free pass to do whatever they please, and that all is okay. From reading the GCA Q&A section, I was beginning to think that perhaps you also were of that same persuasion. I was encouraged to hear you teaching on mortifying the flesh.

As I read through the Sermon on the Mount, it seems to me that we as Christians are called to a higher level of the law; not the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law. I believe that the Pharisees were at fault for following the letter of the law, but they paid no attention to the spirit of the law. Colossians 3 has a list of “do’s and don’ts” for those that are risen with Christ. James 2 talks about “faith without works is dead.” How does all this fit into the “not under the law, but under grace” doctrine?

Jim – I cannot speak for all Calvinists; I can only speak for myself. I am more interested in being consistent with Scripture than with Calvin. It is undeniable that the apostle Paul argues adamantly in favor of our freedom in Christ Jesus. He draws multiple comparisons between “the law” as a means of salvation and the sufficiency of the finished work of Christ to accomplish what the law could not. Therefore, inasmuch as the covenant of law established by Moses at Mount Sinai was a covenant struck with Israel in particular and that Gentiles were never part of that covenant in the first place, I agree wholeheartedly with Paul’s conclusion that we are “not under the law, but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14)

However, Paul is also very clear in stating that our freedom from the law is not a license to sin. In that same context, he continued –

“What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.” (Rom 6:15-18)

So, both sides of that equation are true, regardless of how that fits or does not fit in a Calvinistic system. We are not under the law. The law simply could not accomplish Israel’s absolute redemption and perfection. So, the New Covenant of salvation by grace through faith was introduced. And that is the Covenant that we Gentile believers are under.

Meanwhile, although I understand what you mean by the phrase “spirit of the law,” we need to make sure that when we discuss biblical things we use biblical language. The Law of Moses was rigorous, didactic, and unbending. All it could do was condemn, pointing out human sinfulness. However, there were ministerial aspects of the Levitical system of worship. Certainly, proper judgment and appropriate mercy were intrinsic in the methods described for approaching God. But, the law was not essentially “spiritual.” Its purpose was to prove that all men were under judgment. Consequently, the law is always presented as standing in stark contrast to the salvation accomplished in Christ.

“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)

As for the Sermon on the Mount, I do believe that Christians are called to a higher level of behavior, attitude, and life. But, it is not a “higher level of the law.” That cannot be drawn from the text.

In every instance where Christ said, “You have heard it said …” during His sermon, He contrasted it with, “But, I say unto you …” It’s very common for people to assume that what Jesus was doing was elucidating deeper truths that were embedded in the Law of Moses that the Pharisees should have been able to understand if they had just looked deeply enough. But, that’s an impossible position to defend if you treat the text honestly. While it’s attractive to say that Jesus wanted the legalists to understand that “Thou shall not kill” really meant “If you hate your brother in your heart, you’re guilty as a murderer,” it’s impossible to conclude that Jesus equally expected the Pharisees to understand that “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” actually meant “Turn the other cheek.”

The way the text reads, Jesus was setting His standard and teaching above, but utterly separate from, the Law on which they had all been raised.

You’ve heard it said (in the law, which He would then quote) … but I say unto you ….

Jesus was the lawgiver predicted in Genesis. 49:10 and affirmed by Moses himself. And His higher, better law was not merely a re-institution of a more spiritual version of Moses; it was a completely distinct and separate law, based on a better, higher covenant that contained higher, better promises.

Now granted, the Pharisees were condemned by Jesus for things like meticulous tithing while neglecting judgment, mercy, and faith (Mat. 23:23), but that was not His point during the Sermon on the Mount. His new rules were far above anything Moses had elucidated and you could stare at the Law of Moses for the rest of you life and never pull from those words the conclusions Jesus is supposed to have revealed. They were not conclusions; they were contrasting statements of new rules given by the new lawgiver. Jesus was demonstrating His superiority over Moses, not rubber-stamping the Law.

All that being said, it is true and undeniable that Paul listed fleshly activity that Christians were to avoid and actively eliminate, by God’s power. But, that was a result of salvation, not the cause of salvation. The Law could never justify sinners. But, redeemed, justified people DO live in accordance with the expectations of their master because they ARE saved and have been justified.

And, that’s the big difference between law and grace.

So it’s true — we are “not under law, but under grace.” But, that does not mean that we are lawless. We are under the hand of the new, higher lawgiver, who has every right to lay His regulations and expectations at our doorstep and expect us to follow Him, empowered and enabled by His indwelling Spirit.

Q – 2) Another concern I have about Calvinism, is the attitude that since only the elect are going to heaven, and that since the elect were chosen before the beginning of time, then there is no need for evangelism or outreach. After all, what difference will it make? The elect have already been chosen. What is the use in trying to change anything? How does Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:” fit? I don’t have a problem with the “elect”, but I don’t believe things are in balance, when it leads to inaction on our part.

Jim – While every New Testament author propounded the same theology of God’s sovereignty in salvation, it is elucidated and expounded most fully by the Apostle Paul. He’s the guy who penned the remarkable statements in Ephesians 1-2, Romans 8-11, and the epistle to the Colossians. He made statements so stunning (and so opposed to the standard “Moses” teaching) that he was hated, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, imprisoned and ultimately beheaded. Yet, the New Testament also recounts his endless missionary journeys, his devotion to “winning the more to Christ,” and his passionate conviction that the gospel was to be spread as far as he himself could take it.

So, regardless of what some Calvinists may think, in order to be Biblically consistent we need to follow the Pauline example. We must teach the same doctrine that Paul taught and we must follow the same course of evangelistic outreach. That’s why GCA is on the web, sending out a steady stream of tapes, books, CD’s, etc. to anyone who wants them, usually free-of-charge. That’s why we’re always willing to engage people in discussion and give a ready answer for our faith, doing it with meekness and reverence.

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)

I do identify myself openly and unashamedly as a Calvinist. But, Christianity is not defined by Calvinism. Calvinism is a good system for understanding the fundamental doctrines of salvation. But, Christianity is larger than Calvinism.

Q – 3). Perhaps it is my imagination, but it seems that there is a certain pride among some Calvinists from being among the elect. I have noticed several Calvinists say things like, “I used to be this way, but now I am a Calvinist,” as if they were now elevated to a higher plane of understanding. In some ways this seems a bit like the Pharisee in Luke 18.10-14. This can also be said about various denominations as well, so I believe it is just a part of our human sinful nature.

Jim – Yep, it’s your imagination.

No, no … just kidding.

You’re actually quite right; but spiritual pride is not limited to Calvinists. Most of the people who argue against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation are quite arrogant in their conviction that their work, decision, or church-affiliation is going to save them. And they are adamantly opposed to the notion that Christ is sufficient, in and of Himself, to secure the eternal salvation of His elect people. That’s a dangerous pride.

Nevertheless, I do agree that there is a segment within the Reformed camp that is quite inclusive and prideful. I’ve dealt with them on-and-off through the years. And — not to put too fine a point on it — I hate it. There is more said in the Bible about pride than just about any other sin. Sins of the flesh are forgiven and forgivable. But, pride will always keep people at a distance from God. And pride is one of the hallmarks of this human flesh we all reside in. I know preachers who think that unless you belong to their church, dot every “i” they dot and cross every “t” they cross, then you’re on the express elevator to hell. That sort of pride makes people mean, vicious, and impossible to deal with. But again, it’s part of religion; not Calvinism exclusively.

Several years ago I heard a preacher at the Lexington conference teach about “preaching the truth in love.” His text was —

“That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” (Eph. 4:14-15)

He said, in essence, “It’s vitally important to teach the truth. But, truth without love is a form of cruelty.” And he was right. It’s not enough to just know the doctrines of the Christian faith if the proclamation and understanding of those doctrines does not lead to genuine Christian life, attitude, and behavior. The most fleshly man can comprehend philosophical notions or the in-and-outs of a system of theology. But, even if what he proclaims is true, if it is not inspired by love, directed toward love, and in the pursuit of advancing Christian charity and kindness, it’s just clanging cymbals and noisy gongs.

In my experience, the churches that “have it right” not only promote the gospel of grace, they also live graciously and exude the sort of contagious warmth and enthusiasm that makes you feel safe and accepted.

Q – 4). Here’s another one that may not be specifically Calvinist, but I have noticed a number of Calvinists that want to minimize the effect of spiritual battles in our lives. If there is a problem, it is because of our own sin (and I agree this is usually the case), or that person is not one of the elect, and there’s no hope for that person. I understand that Satan has been defeated, but as I read the Bible, he has not been thrown into the lake of fire just yet. How should we as Christians look at the spiritual armor mentioned in Ephesians? Is someone who claims to be a Christian, yet continues in sin with the knowledge that it is contrary to God’s Word, deceived into thinking he/she is one of the elect? Does it really matter since we are not under the law, but under grace?

Jim – I think I would go a bit further than you in your assessment of Satan’s current activity. Peter wrote – “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)

That’s not exactly an inactive foe. Whatever damage was done to his domain when Jesus died at Calvary, it was not a total defeat. That will not happen until, as you pointed out, he is thrown into the Lake of Fire and the smoke of his torment rises forever.

Christianity is a remarkably spiritual enterprise. I mean, we’re talking about the supernatural salvation of the ever-living, never-dying souls of men and women. It’s not something to trifle with. And it’s certainly much more than a merely physical undertaking.

Regardless of what other Calvinists (or Arminians, or Catholics, or Buddhists, or Muslims) may think, we are instructed to be wise to the wiles and tricks of the devil. He’s subtle. He’s crafty. He is the prince of the power of the air, the ruler of spiritual wickedness in high places. He’s the accuser of the brethren, who accuses them to the Father day and night. That’s very active-sounding language.

The New Testament writers were keenly aware of the evil that opposed their preaching, which is why Paul said that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood…”

So, how should we react to the spiritual armor Paul writes of? We’re to take it as gospel truth and make sure we are suitably protected.

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.” (Eph 6:12-18)

As for those who continue in sin while thinking they’re Christians, I cannot tell you whether they are deceived because they think they are among the elect. But, I can tell you that they are deceived if they think that they can mock God and get away with it. According to Romans 7, even Paul admitted that the struggle between the flesh and spirit is endless and pervasive. So, we fight the good fight. But, a person who is not engaged in the purposeful process of moving toward God and away from himself isn’t even in the game.

Does it matter because we’re not under law, but under grace? Yes. It matters because we are bought with a supremely high price and we are no longer our own. We are free from the law, but we are now bound to our new master, so that Paul would refer to himself as a bondslave of Jesus Christ. We put off the old man because we are constrained by His Spirit to lift after the new. That has nothing to do with being subservient to Moses’ Law. It has everything to do with being servant to the God who redeemed us.

Again, the difference is, we’re not trying to obligate God to save us by our works. That’s legalism. But, genuinely saved, redeemed, spirit-filled people will indeed do the works that attend genuine faith, as James wrote.

You know, people love to quote Ephesians 2:8. I even have a tie with that text written on it. But, in context, what Paul wrote was –

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-10)

So, it’s true that we’re not saved by our works and we have nothing to boast about. It’s all the activity of God’s sovereign, electing grace. BUT, what he called us to, and created us for, IS good works, which God Himself ordained that we should walk in. That’s about as plain and simple as I can make it.

Q – 5). There seems to be a feeling among Calvinists that the manifestational gifts of the spirit such as healing or prophecy (I will stay away from tongues), are no longer in effect. The basis for this seems to hinge on one verse — 1 Corinthians 13:10 “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”

I understand that Jesus is perfect, but I don’t see how this implies that the spiritual gifts no longer are around. When Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.” in John 14:12, was Jesus just speaking for the short time that he was left here on earth? If God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, why would His gifts be limited to a short time period?

Jim – I admit that I bought into the cessationist view for many years, really as a result of my Lutheran upbringing. The pastor I studied under in L.A. came out of the Assemblies of God and was opposed to all the abuses he’d seen in that organization, so he was equally convinced that the spiritual gifts had ceased when the apostolic age ceased. That view is made even more attractive when you see all the silly mumbo-jumbo going on at TBN. The TV studio I worked at in L.A. used to serve many TBN-affiliated ministries and I personally witnessed a steady stream of fakes and charlatans making up stuff on behalf of “christianity.” So, I was comfortable in the cessationist view because I never saw any evidence to the contrary.

A couple of years ago, Jeff Young challenged me to re-think my view. He gave me a book by D. A. Carson — a Reformed guy who Jeff knew I respected — about his own investigation into the critical texts concerning the ceasing of spiritual gifts. To make a long story short, I came to realize that the Bible never actually says that the spiritual gifts would cease altogether within the church. Certainly, Paul had to deal with the abuse of those gifts and he argued for their eventual replacement. But, nothing in the text says that they will end while the Church is still present on Earth. So, I had to begin rearranging my thinking (“Always Reforming!”).

By the way, I am not certain that Paul’s reference to “that which is perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 is a reference to Christ. After all, it was the coming of Christ — both bodily and then spiritually — that produced the gifts of the spirit. And Paul wrote after the resurrection, still speaking of the coming perfection as future –

“For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” (1 Cor. 13:9-10)

I think, more than likely, Paul was saying that there would be an eschatological end to the gifts. In other words, when Christ returns and sets up His kingdom, wherein dwells righteousness and all the nations flow to Him, then there will be no further need for individual gifts of the Spirit. We will all be, finally and wholly, one in Christ. That’s the perfection toward which all of Christianity is heading.

So, while I haven’t seen any evidence of really miraculous moves of the Spirit, I cannot discount the reality that God can indeed do whatever He wants whenever He wants to do it. I have never seen a church operate according to the rules that Paul lays out for proper use and orderly exercise of the gifts, but that does not mean that we need to throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. I am open to whatever move of God He chooses to exercise.

And, speaking quite personally and candidly, I am keenly aware of the spiritual element of preaching; especially the method of preaching to which I ascribe. If the Spirit of God is not present and active when I’m standing at the podium, all anybody comes away with is a big dose of Jim. And, that doesn’t do anybody any good. Only if the Holy Spirit, who inspired the words of Holy Writ, energizes those words when I speak them and opens the hearts of people to hear them can anything truly God-honoring be accomplished.

So, while I have never raised the dead, spoken in an unknown tongue, or been witness to a miraculous healing, the Bible does declare that the Spirit has indeed done all of those things. And, who am I to tell Him that He can no longer do it? I just want to be sure that what is done is genuinely the Spirit moving and not merely another exercise in spiritual one-up-man-ship.

Q – Well that is probably enough on the questions and concerns for the time being. May “The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”

Jim – Thanks very much. I enjoy this type of discussion. Iron sharpens iron.

Oh, and if my answers have served to muddy up the waters, rather than clarify things, say so. These exchanges are part and parcel of the process of “Always Reforming!’

Yours In Him,
Jim Mc.