Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What is Calvinism?

It is not always easy for me to explain the major differences between my beliefs and what is commonly accepted as Christianity. For the sake of brevity, I usually tell them that I believe in the doctrines known as Calvinism or specifically, "the doctrines of grace." The next question comes immediately, "What is Calvinism?" How can I answer that? Well, I shall endeavor to briefly do this here.

First, Calvinism is not many things. It is not a system of doctrines based purely upon the one man, John Calvin, who lived during the Protestant Reformation. Calvinists do not exalt Calvin above others. Calvinism got its name likely because John Calvin was one of the most prolific writers and expositors of Scripture and was considered one of the great leaders of the Reformation, among others like Martin Luther. Calvinism does not hinder evangelism. Some of the greatest evangelists we know of today are or were Calvinists. I can attest, personally, that since I have come to see these doctrines my love for the lost has increased ten-fold. Calvinism is not a cult. While most would not say this, some Christians do. The allegation is completely baseless, especially since there have been various times and places in history where the core beliefs of Calvinism existed as the majority, not the minority view. Along with this thread, Calvinism is not new. It was not an invention of John Calvin or any of those who followed in his footsteps. The core components of Calvinism were held by many great men throughout church history, and we believe, the apostles themselves.

What is Calvinism, then? Calvinism, simply put, is a systematized set of beliefs that have come about through careful study by men who have sought to take into account the whole of Scripture on matters of doctrine. That may seem smug, since every Christian believes what they believe is taught in Scripture, but this is meant simply to say that those who have labored to exposit the Scriptures and come to see the harmony of this teaching with Scripture have done so while embracing a very high view of the Scriptures. It was not enough to assume things based on what one would consider common knowledge. It was essential to let the Scriptures really speak. Does this mean Calvinists internet the Bible literally? No. It means that Calvinists seek, and have sought, to discover what the Bible is meant to say -what the writers intended to convey. If they meant something to be taken literally, then we should take it literally. If they meant something to be taken symbolically, then it should be taken symbolically.

Calvinism teaches that men are saved purely by the grace of God by the Person and work of Jesus Christ -His life, death, and resurrection; both his righteousness, and his sacrifice for our sins. Men are justified, according to Calvinism, through faith in Christ wholly on account of Christ. The reason for our acceptance is never, in any part at all, in our faith. This should be common to all evangelical and protestant beliefs today, since it is the basic message of the Gospel itself. However, unlike much of evangelical and protestant Christianity today, Calvinism stresses the Biblical teaching that God is the one who is totally free in salvation.

Calvinism recognizes and fully embraces one of the basic tenets of theism -that God is sovereign. Could God be God without being sovereign over what He created? Calvinists say, "no", and use Scripture as their proof. This is a difficult doctrine, and many fight against some of the things Calvinists say the Bible says. I believe there are two reasons for this. First of all, all men resist God's truth and to hear that the matter of things, including salvation, does not rest within our own hands (but purely in God's) is an offensive thing. It stings our human pride. I recall the first time I came face to face with the reality of God's sovereignty being the first and final cause of salvation, I immediately became angry and began to rebel against this teaching. It is human nature to do so, and it is only by God's grace that the heart is willing to accept it. Ironically, rather than disproving Calvinism, this fact only underscores the truth of the doctrines held. The second reason is that, usually in conjunction with the first, people do not take the time to consider what is being said and examine the Scriptures honestly. They would rather rail against Calvinism even in a misrepresented form. Many today who condemn the doctrines of Calvinism do so without understanding what they are -and it is evident from hearing their objections, which are usually not Scriptural in nature, but philosophical.

Calvinism is realistic and Biblical about man's problem. It is not just that man sins, it is that he is a sinner and does not love the things he should love. Yes, man chooses what he wills, but what he wills is tainted with sin. He is free to do what he likes, but, because of our inborn corruption, he is not free to like what he ought to like. Therefore, free will plays no part in us being converted, repenting, or believing in Christ. As Jesus said, "No one is able to come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day." (John 6:44)

Calvinism, in accepting the Biblical teaching on these former subjects, sees that the Son, Jesus Christ, who was sent to save will not fail to do so. No man stays the Lord's hand. Those whom God has sent the Son to save shall, inevitably and infallibly, be saved. God chose who shall be saved without any regard for anything in them, including forseen faith, and gave them to His Son. His son came, shed His blood for them, redeeming them, and the Holy spirit then comes to grant these ones faith and repentance and seals upon them this salvation which is wholly of the Lord. Jesus shall not lose a single one of all that the Father has given to them but shall "raise them up on the last day" (see John 6:37-40). Indeed, no one is able to pluck them out of His hand, and they shall all hear His voice and come to Him (John 10). In short, Calvinism believes we have a mighty and powerful God who does not fail in what He purposes.

Calvinism accepts things that may seem, at first, to be at odds, for the simple fact that they are both so clearly taught in Scripture. An example of this is man's inability versus man's responsibility. Many will assume that if man is responsible to do something that he must be able, but this is not the case according to the Bible. Men are responsible to obey God perfectly, to love Him, to turn to Him, to believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, yet it is clear that men do not have this ability in their natural state. The responsibility does not negate the inability. As the great "prince of preachers", Charles Spurgeon (who was a Calvinist), wrote, "How are these two to be reconciled? We reply that they do not want any reconciliation; they are two truths of Holy Scripture, and we leave them to reconcile themselves, they are friends, and friends do not need any reconciliation. "

Lastly, Calvinism is not perfect and it is not exhaustive. Calvinists hold to these doctrines because they see them pouring out of Scripture, yet they fully acknolwedge that it was purely by God's grace that they have come to see them at all and that there are still things that seem, at this present time, unanswerable and unsure. Given this, there is even much variation of belief on various topics amongst Calvinists. Therefore, Calvinism commands humility. While some who profess Calvinism can get caught up in arrogance, which is common to all men (not just Calvinists), the doctrines themselves prove the necessity of God's free, unadulterated mercy in saving us and even granting us any Scriptural wisdom at all. A man who is gripped by the truths of Calvinism is forced to admit that anything he has is his purely as a gift to one who not only has not earned His favor in any way at all, but conversely has earned nothing but disfavor and contempt from God.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Nature of the Promise

"Everyone who believes in Him shall be saved"

This is one of the most oft used phrases in the New Testament, especially in John's Gospel. Since this is true, and since we become so familiar with it, especially in the regularly quoted John 3:16, I hope to take another look at the promise contained within and how significant it is.

A few points regarding the promise:

1. It points to Christ
The promise directs our eyes elsewhere -specifically, to Christ. It is God's solemn testimony of the sufficiency and perfect Mediatorship of the Son. It says "He won't fail, He can't fail, He doesn't fail."It sends the miserable, broken, sullen sin-sick soul to Christ.

2. It is assuring
It points to Christ this without hesitation and without any room for unbelief. The promise assures the conscience. It says that we will find Him to be all that we need in a Savior and more. It reminds us, who already trust in the Lord Christ, that He is all that we need in a Savior and more.

3. It is descriptive
The promise describes the act of God in saving men. The elect of God are the only ones who are drawn by the Father to Christ, and this is absolutely necessary because all men under Adam are unable to come to Him otherwise. Thus, the words of the promise are descriptive of God's sovereign redemptive work toward His elect. It describes an eschatological circumstance for His people and how they are known. His people, the believing ones, are saved and shall be saved from condemnation at the end of the age.

4. It is specific
Who shall be saved? All the ones believing into Him. It speaks nothing about generalities, as some imagine. It tells us very plainly who the ones are that shall be saved.

As Calvin noted:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and
certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the
freely given promise of Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our
hearts through the Holy Spirit (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
(ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia; Westminster,
1960) 3.2.7. )

The promise here is a thing of gold. A promise from the Holy One to sinners. Let us get up from our slumber, yes, even over something this simple. And let our eyes be directed to Christ, our hearts assured, and our minds informed of this great salvation He has for us from even something as common as the promise of life in Christ to those who believe.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

What is Legalism?

There is a ton of confusion about legalism. I have written previous blog entries where I look back upon now and realize I was utterly confused on some things as well. I read a great article by John Piper that provoked some more thought on this topic. You can read it here:

I hope to take some of the things John Piper wrote and maybe simplify and expand upon the subject if I may. First, we must define what we are talking about!


Legalism usually is thought to mean when a church sets up rules outside of Scripture and forces them upon the congregation unBiblically. That is one definition, but the scope of this small post has to do with another form of legalism. This form is the kind that causes probably the most damange in the body of Christ. It is not something that belongs only to the cultists and the pagans. It finds itself in every corner of the common Christian church.

This kind of legalism is defined most simply as "moral goodness that is not done in faith". Some expansion upon this is required since "moral goodness" and "done in faith" are somewhat vague in themselves. Moral goodness refers to things that are morally upright. In this definition they are usually things that are perceptable, as well, which ties into our second key phrase in the definition. "Done in faith" means with an eye upon Christ, knowing that we are not righteous but are freed and accounted righteous before God solely by His righteousness. Doing a good deed in faith is doing it with no regard to its merit before God, before others, or before yourself. It is doing the good deed out of love and gratitude for Christ who alone has saved you by His goodness and perfection. So, legalism is doing that which is considered morally good with one eye upon ourselves. If they are things that are perceptable, it because the legalist wishes to appear moral before others or exalt themselves above others in their own hearts. Legalism means the one who does good is either doing the good out of fear of punishment or to glory in themselves. This is what we mean by doing moral deeds apart from faith.

Here is a Scriptural example of legalism: the Pharisees. They were very serious about the Law of God, being good, being moral, and showing others the "right path". The had rules about how to keep rules! But the basis of their system was pure legalism. It was about the Law and how it made them look and stand, not the Lawgiver Himself. They gloried in themselves, believing they were meriting God's favor, meriting the honor and approval of men, and being "all they can be".

"But isn't doing good a good thing?" Consider this: doing what we call "good" in a spirit of legalism is a slap in the face to God. It is defective, perverse, and un-good. It is re-asserting our independence from Him and seeking to bask in the glory of self. Piper, in that article, notes...

"The reason some Pharisees tithed and fasted was the same reason some German
university students take off their clothes and lie around naked in the park in
downtown Munich. The moral legalist is always the elder brother of the immoral
prodigal. They are blood brothers in God's sight because both reject the
sovereign mercy of God in Christ as a means to righteousness and use either
morality or immorality as a means of expressing their independence and
self-sufficiency and self-determination. And it is clear from the N.T. that both
will result in a tragic loss of eternal life."

I think that is dead-on and pretty insightful, actually.

So all of this begs the question... "What is legalism not?" For a Christian saved by grace to seek to obey God to the utmost out of love and affection and honor toward Him is never legalism. Exhorting a Christian to do good deeds and flee from sin is not legalism.

So aren't all of us legalists?

When it comes down to it we all have a tinge legalism it in varying degrees, yes. Our flesh, the "old man", is a dyed-in-the-wool legalist. So long as those who are Christ's battle the flesh, they will battle this. However, the point in this is not to make two lists: legalists on one, and "non-legalists" on the other. The point is identifying a real problem that is un-Biblical, seeing what things encourage it, what the effects are, and how to kill it. And one more thing to keep in mind... it is one thing to recognize something in ourselves that is wicked and to desire to put it to death, but it is quite another to encourage this wickedness and use the fact that all people struggle with it in some manner as an excuse for it.

The Fallout

There is a noticeable fallout from this type of thing within a church. Sometimes it is encouraged by the preaching, sometimes just by the attitude of some in the body, and sometimes both. It is recognizeable, though.

First, it can be recognized by a true lack of grace and compassion for sinners. Maybe there is some compassion for sinners who don't yet know the Lord -we tend to call this evangelism, but for Christians in the body there is none. If a Christian sins in a way that others find out about it, especially in something that is considered a "big sin" like adultery, people act as if they can never get over it -even when repentance is present. It is like their repentance is never genuine enough for the others to accept. Some even go out of their way to make an example of that person and condemn them before others.

Second, it can be recognized by a zeal for outward things and public display. Doing things that might be misconstrued as being bad by others -even when there is really no Scriptural mandate for it- are immediately shunned. You can never go and sit at a bar or a pool hall, for example. In contrast, the things that are hyped up are things where a good deal of public attention will be given to the good being performed.

Notice both of these things were also present with the Pharisees and Jesus condemned them severely for it. These are only signs of the third proble, though, which cannot be seen by itself: hardness of heart. This kind of legalism leads to hardness of heart, which in turn leads to these other things.

Killing it

So good, we know what it is, and its bad, but how do you kill it? The Word of God working by the Holy Spirit kills it. This is how Jesus dealt with it. For the broken sinner, He showed grace, but for the hardened legalist, like the Pharisee, he gave Law to shame them and expose their sin. This is seen beautifully in the story of the woman caught in adultery.

1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to
the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The
scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and
placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been
caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such
women. So what do you say?" 6 This they said to test him, that they might have
some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on
the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them,
"Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." 8
And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it,
they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left
alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her,
"Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" 11 She said, "No one, Lord."
And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more."
(John 8:1-11)

So how do you fight legalism? Ironically to some, by establishing the Law in its true and full force to kill pride and self-glorying, and establishing the Gospel of Christ for mercy for all those (even Christians) broken under their sin. In short, we kill it by Biblically establishing those bookends I have already talked about in another post.

You can read that post here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


In the Christian life, as described in the New Testament, one thing is remarkably absent: the notion of scorekeeping. There is no focus on performance or ability or even our inability. The focus is Christ and living for Him as ones who have been freed and adopted as sons. Yes, we, like Paul, have a real battle on our hands that is marked by inability to do the good we truly want to do. This is true. But overall the measuring of our deeds is absent. Why? Because we have died to the Law, and therefore, our living in Christian obedience has zero to do with keeping the Law to meet a standard of righteousness and has everything to do with striving toward holiness (which the Law codifies) out of love and gratitude. So it is that the Law and the Gospel serve as bookends. The Gospel, on one end, gives us our motivation for living in obedience: love and gratitude and honor for God and the Law he has written on our hearts. The Good News produces these things in us. The Perfect and Holy Law of God, on the opposite end, serves to kill that ever-encroaching flesh which likes to pride itself in doing good or view obedience in terms affecting a standing before God. The requirements of the Law remind us of the futilify of observing the Law for righteousness because the requirements are too pure, too lofty, too holy, too perfect for us to imagine capturing. Thus, that scorekeeper within us is killed once again by the Law, and we return to Christ and live by His righteousness that is ours through faith -always warring against the flesh, seeking good, and loving holiness despite our failures, knowing that we are freed from the condemnation due to them.

Failure to keep these bookends on either side, and to keep them distinct from each other, leads to disastrous consequences. I believe it leads to legalism and a religion of doubt, despair, and hardness of heart.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Just Things...

This entry is sort of different from my others in that it doesn't have a real topic or purpose. But oh well. I just wanted to get a few things off my chest that have been spinning around in my head. So here goes...

1. Theological hedges. I posted about this a while back, and I see it coming back to bite me often -especially lately. I came to a very simple conclusion: if I can't directly, and I mean directly through exegesis of Scripture, see that something is wrong, I will keep silent. Sometimes I feel like I go around looking for things to pick on and expose. Yes, there are literally countless problems in the "modern church", as I always call it, but sometimes I think it is very counterproductive to be one who only seeks to dig up the bad (and there is no shortage of that, amen?) So, if I really need to build my arguments 10-levels deep, and it cannot be directly and simply proven by Scripture, then chances are it is something that I am wasting my time with and only leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the saints -not to mention Christ.

2. With all my musings about moralism and the like, I can really fly off into areas that really have no profit value. What am I saying, Biblically, that can be said in one paragraph of text? Well, I think I have come up with a few things: a) whatever is done out of fear of punishment or pride is idolatry, and b) if the Law is replaced for an easier version and the requirements are lessened, then Christ is obscured and the whole Christian life is sent spinning off course. Anything I say should really be an expansion upon that. This is the beauty of trying to graciously and lovingly teach unheard of doctrines to others who, well, like all of us are in resistance to them even as Christians. It really starts to expose where you perhaps have an unhealthy dependence upon tradition. Sure, maybe the view you espouse is correct, but is it derived from Scripture in your conscience and could you simply defend it as such?

3. Thinking back about my own conversion -whenever that was (about 6-7 years ago)- I am seeing how it fits into my view upon conversion now. I guess its easy to forget some things, too. First of all, we Reformation types likes to stress that we were "crushed by the Law" and embraced Christ. I believe it is true still. I think, experientially, this can happen in a giant heap, but it can also happen over time -and does. I remember reading one writer who said something like, "and I praise God that He did not reveal to me the full depths of my sin completely that day... I could not have survived if He did." What do I remember? I remember seeing my sin, really, for the first time as being really ugly. It was shameful. I was shameful. I remember praying and praying, asking Christ to save me. There was a lot that I didn't know, but I remember one of the first things I was taught was that, essentially, "by works of the Law no man is justified." This was in direct contrast to what I thought and was actually a shock. It was in direct contrast to the Roman Catholicism I grew up with, too, and hated at that point. And lets be real, all of you Roman Catholic apologists, you may try to hide the fact that you believe in a Gospel that resides upon human merit and cooperation (works-righteousness), but the average layperson sees only that. Anyway, I began reading the Bible and was not sure what to do with all of those passages in Scripture that made me uncomfortable with myself. Was I supposed to emulate them? How? I usually tried to overlook them or somehow explain them away, but I couldn't. Looking back, I remember a few occasions where I really saw my inability, and it was a rude awakening. I was told, and believed, that I was unable to merit God's favor (heaven, as I knew it then). But coming to see it was something that happened at some point later. I did come to know my inability to control matters pretty early on. I remember praying for God's sovereign hand to take matters and do what He would with them. I remember praying that God would intervene and help me, because I knew I had no power to make things happen. So anyway, I really don't remember if there was such a dramatic instantaneous moment as I usually invision nowadays. Maybe that wasn't when I was converted. I don't know. The Lord was certainly at work. I guess I am saying that I don't want to have a narrow and formulaic view of conversion -only as narrow as Scripture teaches, and only as broad, as well.

4. I have a post in draft form dealing with the Christian life. Its really based on Romans 7, mostly. One thing that I see as being so important, for a little sneak peak, is the necessity of a living faith in Christ. Yes, conversion is a one-time thing, but faith is a life-time thing. It may be nearly extinguished at times, but it lasts til the end, by God's grace. I also notice that "believing" in Christ is, when I usually see it, a verb that indicates continuous action. Even John 3:16 says this. "all the ones believing in Him..." Also, in Galatians 2 Paul says how the life he "now lives" he lives by faith in the Son of God who loved him and died for him. Lastly, I believe this is the same faith -not a different faith. It is not as thought we believe upon Christ for justification, and then switch over once we are Christians to believe Christ will help us live the "victorious Christian life" -though it is Him who works in us to will and to do His good pleasure. Romans 7 ends with a picture of the true Christian life -blemishes and all. We don't do the things we want, even though we love the Law and agree it is good, and the things we want to do are the things we don't do. And we conclude that we, even as Christians, are "wretched" people. But the solution? It is Christ, and in Him there is "no condemnation". As it says in 1 Cor (chapter 15 I think) "in Adam all die, but in Christ all live". In Phil 3:9, Paul reminds us of the same sentiment where he says that his goal is to be found not having a righteousness of his own but the righteousness that is ours through faith. Point being: the Christian life is about living upon, continuously, the righteousness of Christ as our own righteousness. It is a constant reliance upon Him (for righteousness still!) that should not lessen, but only increase, as we grow in Christ.