Answering Hot Topics – Am I a Calvinist?
As you might imagine, I am often asked about this. Obviously, I have openly identifed myself with Calvinism in some regard, but when really pushed on this issue I don’t have any desire to publicly defend myself as a Calvinist. That’s not because I’m ashamed of what I believe or with whom it may associate me, nor am I trying to duck behind a facade and not answer tough questions. I really do have an aversion to many of these sorts of public theological labels.
Admittedly, I am probably inconsistent in my aversion. I don’t mind being called a Baptist, even though I abhor some of the caricatures, but I am not dogmatic in defending myself as an ardent Dispensationalist, though I would hold a number of its tenets.
Why I have an aversion to theological labels.
1. Labels tend to avoid biblical discussion. If I simply come out and publicly identify myself as a Calvinist or even a Dispensationalist, the conversation with many immediately ceases and we tend to go no further without any real biblical interaction over the issues. Or, association with a particular label often leads to a mere discussion of whose syllogism is most logical. Maybe that has its place, but not fundamentally. Why begin, not with “are you a . . . “ but with “how do you understand this biblical passage, or that doctrinal implication.” I have no interest in defending Calvinism per se. I have great interest in discussing biblical texts and how we come to certain conclusions about them.
2. Labels are usually associated with caricatures. I find that people have their own mental associations with theological labels – whether positive or negative, whether correctly or incorrectly defined. For example, when reading Dave Hunt’s book, What Love Is This, I could not identify myself with what he described as a Calvinist. In my estimation, he created a false image of a Calvinist, and proceeded then to poke holes in his self-made caricature. Nor when I read Norm Geisler’s book, Chosen But Free, was I not convinced of his re-defining more traditional Arminian belief into a modified Calvinism. He, like Hunt, tends not to interact with actual interpretive issues in the Bible, but the straw-man caricatures he made out of Calvinists. Don’t get me wrong. Calvinists can do the same as well. Some go so far as to even suggest that anyone in an Arminian camp is heretical and unworthy of gospel partnership. That is not my position or practice.
3. Labels tend to create unhelpful schisms within the congregation. As soon as the label is assigned the schisms begin, fragmenting the body of Christ (a local church) into various pro and con segments. I don’t view this as healthy (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Why not rather have open and frank discussions on difficult passages and their doctrinal implications. I think the church can more faithfully come together in unity when we discuss how we come to biblical conclusions, rather than which labeled camp do you associate with.
But now to the question at hand:
I suppose I am a Calvinist if . . .
If you define Calvinism as believing that man’s nature is so affected by the power of and slavery to sin, that he would never, in and of himself, have the spiritual ability to bring himself to Christ (Rom 3:10-19; Eph 2:1-3), so God, in his mercy, chose to apply his saving love upon those he marked from eternity past for redemption (Eph 1:4-11; 2:1-10; 2 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 1:9), actually accomplishing atonement for them on the cross and averting the wrath of God toward them through Jesus’ sacrifice (Eph 5:25-27), awakening a lost sinner’s heart to the beauty of Christ, the horrors of hell and the kindness of God in the gospel (2 Cor 4:3-6), God effecting a yearning for Christ in the sinner’s heart (Acts 16:14), and preserving the converted sinner until ultimate glorification (Rom 8:1, 28-39) – then yes, I would be probably be considered a Calvinist and don”™t care if you call me one. I come to those conclusions based on specific interpretations of a multitude of texts. But in the end, I would rather discuss each of the issues from the Scripture, than simply talk about what is and is not Calvinistic.
But I’m not really a Calvinist if . . .
If you think that a Calvinist assumes that because God elected certain ones to salvation then there is no need to avidly evangelize or pray for sinners to be converted, or one that believes that all Arminians are heretics, or that the death of Christ had no beneficial intention for even those who will not believe (1 Tim 4:10), or that all human responsibility is unnecessary because God is sovereign (Matt 4:17; Acts 17:30-31), that God does not use human means to bring about a person”™s conversion, or that God brings sinners to himself unwillingly, kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God – then no – I’m not a Calvinist. Nor do I hold to paedo-baptism, a church-state religion or a Presbyterian hierarchical structure of church government. Nope, in those ways, I’m not a Calvinist ““ if that is how you define Calvinism.
Am I an Arminian?
I don’t think that human will is so free that once saved, I am still free to reject Christ’s work on the cross and then become unsaved (Rom 8:31-39; John 10:27-29). I don’t believe that the human will can ultimately hold God’s will captive. I don’t think God chose people for salvation based upon what they would do (Eph 2:3-9; 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 3:5-7), I don’t think Christ’s crucifixion only made atonement for sin possible, but actual, I don’t think the work of the Holy Spirit is ineffective when he supernaturally draws someone to Christ. So, I’m probably not an Arminian.
But then again . . .
I do believe that humans are responsible to respond to the gospel. I believe that sinners will receive divine wrath for choosing not to embrace and follow the gospel. I avidly believe that Christians have an urgent responsibility to make the gospel known to all the nations of the world. I believe God uses means such as prayer, conversation, preaching, personal character, missionaries, etc., to bring about salvation in a person’s life. I think that the death of Christ is sufficient for all, provided to all (though not efficaciously applied to or appropriated by all), is publicly offered to all as the only solution to their sinful condition, and is what brings any present, temporary relief from God’s wrath on our sinful world. If that’s your understanding of Arminianism or some form of modified Calvinism, then maybe I’m that.
I believe all who will, may come and they will find Christ a ready and sufficient Savior (John 6:35, 47; Matt 11:28-30). I also believe those who do come, do so because the Father gave them to Christ in eternity past and effectively drew them to believe in the Savior (John 6:37, 44-45; Matt 11:27).
But again, I would rather talk about how we should understand particular texts and their theological implications than discuss whether I am or am not an Arminian, Calvinist, Dispensationalist, Covenantal, etc.
It is not my aim in ministry to be known as a Calvinist. I don’t find it as my life’s goal to defend Calvinism. I”™m not an evangelist for Calvinism. When I think of the initials J.C., I don”™t first think, John Calvin. I am not seeking to push a perceived Calvinist agenda. My happiness does not come in making everyone a Calvinist by name. I don’t want to pastor a church that wears Calvinism on its sleeve – or as a slogan on its web-site. I don’t have a compulsion to somehow work the 5 points into every sermon. I don’t agree with John Calvin on everything. I’m not at war with Arminians, and I don’t seek to only converse with, and partner only with 5 point Calvinists. Plenty of 5 pointers like to quibble with me on my views of certain texts. I don’t want to be known as an angry, arrogant, schismatic Calvinist (or Arminian for that matter).
I am also not ashamed to affirm my convictions that total depravity, unconditional election, actual atonement (particular redemption), effectual calling, and the perseverance of the saints are all biblically valid doctrines. I hold to them and believe they should spur greater confidence and urgency in missions and evangelism.
However, my aim in ministry is to be known as a Christian – bearing of the image of Jesus Christ in my character. My life’s aim is to make Christ and his gospel known, and I want to vigorously defend the integrity, sufficiency, and authority of the Bible and the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am seeking to push a Christ-centered, Great-Commission, soul-sanctifying, agenda through the local church. My happiness comes in seeing God glorified as people find their joy in his supremacy. I want to pastor a church that is known for our allegiance to Jesus and his word. I have a compulsion to open the Bible week after week and teach book-by-book, passage-by-passage, and let the text take us where it will. I want to be known as a Bible saturated man pursing Christ with my whole heart and seeking the salvation of my family, friends, neighbors, city, state, nation, and the world through the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Matt 28:18-20). I have every confidence that this disciple-making agenda will be successful because salvation is ultimately God”™s work and he has promised his very presence and authority to accompany it. I want to be known as a joyful, stable, unified follower of Jesus as revealed in the Bible. I would assume many Arminians and many Calvinists want this same thing. So, on that basis, I assume we can work well together for the kingdom of Christ.
My guess is that I won’t satisfy the most ardent Calvinist or avid Arminian. That’s reality. I am convinced that we can work well together for the glory of Christ as we fix our gaze on him, his word, and the mission of extending the gospel across our planet.
Here’s a sermon I preached a few years ago on the subject of election: ”Crucial Questions on Election”