Five Points: The Better to Stab You With

Reformation in the Church begins in the pulpit.  Once we recover our priorities in preaching, we will return to the basics of the gospel, and it is not possible to do this without addressing the issues that have been nicknamed Calvinism. Now, it is our solemn duty to preach Christ and not Calvin. But mark it down—if someone preaches Christ correctly, he will be accused of preaching Calvin. And as W.G.T. Shedd once said, “If they are going to hang you for a thief then you might as well steal something.”

So we must therefore answer the question posed by the serpent in Eden, which is, “Hath God said?” If God has not spoken on these things, we must remain silent ourselves. And if He has spoken, then there is no possible reason for attributing the invention of these doctrines to a certain Frenchman.

If it is on account of grace and the cross, then it is an honor to be slandered as a “Calvinist.” Christ said it was an honor when men speak evil of us, and it certainly is evil for the followers of Christ to be identified as the followers of a mere man, however godly that man was. But just because we rejoice in the slander ourselves, it is not necessary that we join in the slander. We are to rejoice in the slander; we are not to do our best to make the slander true. Christ did say to go the second mile, but I don’t think this is what He had in mind.

In contrast, if it is on account of an obnoxious and churlish presentation, then there is no honor at all in being called a “Calvinist.” Some who call themselves by this name do have a reputation for an approach which is not characterized by Christian charity. As John Newton pointed out, self-righteousness can feed on doctrines as well as works.

Should “Calvinists” seek unity of fellowship with Christians who differ with them on that issue? Absolutely. Why? Because election depends upon the good pleasure of the Father. And if He has bestowed His unmerited pleasure on Arminians (which He most certainly does), then it makes no sense for a Calvinist to magnify the prerogatives of divine sovereignty by telling God He is not allowed to fellowship with any Arminians, and that furthermore the Calvinist is going to try to set a good example for God through restricting his fellowship. Some view of divine sovereignty! Some Calvinism! Woe to the pot who strives with the Potter. Woe to the Calvinist who objects to the loose fellowship standards of God Almighty!

Is this to minimize the seriousness of the Arminian error? Not at all—it is a grievous error, and it leads to worse. Is it to minimize the truths contained in Calvinism? Not at all. As mentioned before, Calvinism is nothing more than a nickname for a thorough and right understanding of the gospel. The point is simply to say God’s grace is greater than all human error and sin. Even ours. And that grace is most apparent when Christians love one another.

But suppose an Arminian says that we cannot really love our brother if we say that he is mistaken about the gospel. We would paraphrase Paul and ask, “How are we an enemy simply because we speak the truth?” True Christians may be mistaken in their theology of the cross, our duty is therefore twofold. We must love all Christians as brothers, and we must graciously dissent from all such mistakes about the cross. And at other points of doctrine or practice, where God uses Arminians to correct us, our duty is to receive it humbly.

If an Arminian is elect and chosen, then his election is not imperiled thought his failure to understand the ninth chapter of Romans. Paul did not say, at the end of the eight chapter, that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ except for shoddy exegesis. And if a Calvinist is reprobate, then he cannot earn his way into the approval of God though a self-righteous mouthing of the doctrines of grace. Unsaved Calvinists are like Solomon’s beautiful woman without discretion—a gold ring in a pig’s snout. But when both share in a common election, their duty is to maintain a unity of love, and strive for a unity of mind which is only possible through diligent study and application of the Scriptures.

Now there are some who take the name “Calvinist,” not out of a fractious party spirit, but because they don’t want to seem uncharitable. “Mine is the biblical position. What’s yours?” But however well-intentioned, it is still not within our authority to act as though something revealed in the first century was invented in the sixteenth. Keeping the peace is not an absolute priority. And for those doctrinally-oriented Calvinists who are very concerned for the claims of truth, there is important instruction in the early chapters of Revelation. It is good to be concerned for thrush; the ancient Ephesian church was not rebuked for that, but rather for abandoning its first love. We must proclaim the truth, and we must love the brethren. If we sacrifice the truth for the sake of love, it is not really love; if we sacrifice love for the sake of truth, it is not really truth. The Bible requires unswerving allegiance to both.

So it is not possible to put the issue to one side even to keep peace between Christians. We are commanded to preach the gospel, and all presentations of the gospel must presuppose the truth of one position or the other. So there is no neutrality; there is no third way.

The Bible reveals truth; it does not conceal it. A Calvinist is simply one who believes the revealed truth about foreordination as it was revealed to us. He does not seek to mix the plain statements of Scripture with fallen reasoning or logical extrapolation. Therefore the label he uses must match what he is doing—the last thing a label should do is mislead. It would be helpful if we would avoid the label “Calvinist” in every honest way we can. But in no way are we seeking to minimize any biblical truths about the cross. Rather, we are trying to detach a human name from God’s truth. At the same time, the reader should know that whenever we refer to grace, faith, justification, the cross, election, etc., we are referring to what others call “Calvinism,” and what the Bible calls grace.

The Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace

Wisdom has built her house while most of us are still tinkering with Legos. We have a surplus of wise-guys and a shortage of wisdom. We would all do well to remember that it takes biblical wisdom both to guard us and to guide us. Discernment keeps the ship off of the rocks and directs us toward our God-given goals. This being so, we must remember that every facet of the ministry requires a great deal of wisdom. With all of our getting, we must grab a few fistfuls of that invaluable resource. This is certainly true when it comes to preaching.

A high view of Scripture would seem to indicate that everything in the Word of God is of equal importance. This view naturally translates to emphases on certain strange homiletical hobby horses in the pulpit. While honoring the Word in high form, this “high view” denies it in substance. When Jesus tells us that two commandments are the greatest commandments, He is saying by implication that some commandments are of lesser importance (Mk. 12:29).

When Paul comments on how he delivered to the Corinthians that which was of first importance (“first of all”), he intimates by this that some things are not of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3). And, of course, love is greater than faith and hope (I Cor. 13:13). Careful students of Scripture understand this. “At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar” (I Chr. 26:18). Such a passage from the Word of God is not as important as the following: “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15:13-14). Both are absolutely true and are God-breathed, but both are not equally important.

This is no disparagement of any portion of the Word; the Word contains such things in part to teach us our doctrinal priorities. David ate the shewbread because he was hungry, and God had it recorded because, in part, He wanted to exasperate tidy-minds (1 Sam. 21:6).

Now it would be nice to simply affirm the general principle, and have done with it. Unfortunately, this would be empty teaching—clouds without rain. There was once an old country preacher who used to preach on heaven constantly. When asked why he did so, he replied that he had preached on chicken-stealing once, but it had dampened the enthusiasm. In the same way, in order to keep peace in the church, those things which are truly important must be taught and insisted upon, while those issues of lesser importance must be discussed and named. Unless they are named, and named in particulars, we cannot repent of our foolish disputes.

In order to maintain the peace of Christ’s Church, we must not only know what is true, we must also know the relative importance of each truth. The Deity of Christ is important; head coverings for women are not as important. Justification by faith is very important; whether Pastor Jones ought to be be drinking Michelob is not. Of course, there is a sense in which drinking Michelob can be controversial. In modern evangelical circles, drinking Michelob is controversial because it is drinking beer. In more reformed circles, it is controversial because it is bad beer. But I digress. The doctrine of sola Scriptura is important; whether the church baptizes by immersion alone is of lesser importance. Election is important; wrangles over the color of the choir robes are not. Christians often quarrel, and part ways, over things which ought not separate them. Preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is important; whether it is lawful to keep the refrigerator plugged in on the Lord’s Day isn’t. The ministry of the pulpit must reflect these relative priorities.

The Bible contains a great deal about doctrinal priorities. Some of the most withering criticism leveled by our Lord was directed at religious meatheads who did not know that the altar was more important than the gold placed on it, and honoring parents was more important than contributing to the current pledge drive for the church’s new parking lot. He also had some rough things to say about people who forgot justice and mercy while tithing from every container in their spice rack. The Pharisees used to strain out a gnat while swallowing a camel. In the last two thousand years, the Church has perhaps advanced a little bit. Now we strain out a June bug while swallowing a camel.

In order to avoid this problem, we have to ask two questions about every doctrine we seek to present in the pulpit. The first concerns whether the teaching is true. Having established that something is true, it is crucial to determine the relative importance of that truth. Knowing what is important, and what is not important, is central to the ministry of the Word.

We must consequently know our Bibles, because sometimes doctrinal issues of the greatest moment can hang on apparently trivial matters. Paul faced down Peter at Antioch because the gospel was at stake in Peter’s avoidance of certain dinner companions. Other issues are apparently trivial because they are, well, trivial. When forbidden to destroy our brother in a dispute over vegetables, we sometimes obey and then seek to destroy him over some other food group. “Who are thou that judges another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth” (Rom. 14:4).

“Ah,” we say, “but our doctrinal hobby horse isn’t in view in Romans 14. The Greek indicates…” Whatever the secondary issue we use to harass our brother may be, we must guard our hearts. “But why dost thou judge thy brother? Or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Rom. 14:10). If these squabbles and disputes are going to follow us into the throne room of Christ, then our Greek had better be pretty good.

Of course this is not to say that we must have no convictions on secondary matters. No pastoral problems result from being fully convinced in our own minds. So how are we to determine what is of less importance, and what is only apparently unimportant? These sorts of disputes exist in Scripture, and so we must study these disputes to discover what they had in common and then apply to what we have found, by analogy, our own squabbles.

The Christian faith has a center. When Christians gravitate toward the periphery in order to conduct fights along the fence, it betrays a lack of love at the center, and perhaps reveals a desire to get over the fence entirely. As we seek to live together in the congregation of God’s saints, we must be mindful of what the Lord is seeking to perform in our midst and be jealous for the protection of it. “For meat detroyeth not the work of God” (Rom. 14:20).