Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Concerning Calvin...

Ok, guess it’s time for another email and answer. Pretty regularly I get a question about how Calvinistic I am (or our church is). At risk of making everyone mad (the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debates tend to polarize Christians), below is a recent question and my answer (in part). As usual, I used a faux name for the inquirer.

-----Original Message-----
From: email address withheld
Sent: Thursday, March 20, 2008 4:31 PM
To: Ellen Bright
Subject: RE: Doctrinal statement

Ellen, thank you very much! Would you mind forwarding a question to Chad regarding 3. About Jesus Christ?

My 2 questions are these: The (Providence Church) doctrinal statement under 3, sentence 2, reads that Jesus "offered Himself as the penal substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all people by dying on a cross"...

1. Are you saying that Jesus died for "all" elect sinners that God had predestined before the foundation of the world...or...all sinners (every single person on earth ever born, every single person who goes to heaven or to hell).

2. Do you teach that regeneration (being born again/born from above) precedes faith...or that faith precedes regeneration? Another way of saying it you teach that we are born again to be able to believe in Christ or do you teach that we believe in Christ to be able to be born again?

Thank you very much!

Very respectfully in Christ,


Hey Tom,

Ahh the ole’ debate. Fun isn’t it? Wish I had more time to engage you more completely—hope my short answer will suffice.

Solid, Bible-believing Christians can disagree about the L, and I (and perhaps even the U—as there are different definitions floating about of "Unconditional Election") of TULIP. As you saw in our doctrinal statement that Ellen sent you, we frequently quote Augustine who said that there are some matters on which we must have unity and some on which we can have liberty. We see that the finer points of Calvinism are some of those "liberty" matters. Everyone who joins our church must agree that all are born sinners and that all who receive Christ will persevere (T and P)—on these we clearly state our Calvinistic stance. On the others we allow room for different opinions.

Personally I believe (in short) that Christ’s saving work on the cross is general in potential and limited in application (applying only to those who believe—who were, of course, predestined by God—the elect, if you will.) But I believe that the intent of Christ’s death is not the main issue, but rather, what his death actually accomplished. To me the main issue of "Limited Atonement" is that Christ’s death means something different to the elect than it does to the non-elect. As John Piper wrote, "We do not deny that all men are the intended beneficiaries of the cross in some sense. 1 Timothy 4:10 says that Christ is ’the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.’ What we deny is that all men are intended as the beneficiaries of the death of Christ in the same way. All of God’s mercy toward unbelievers—from the rising sun (Matthew 5:45) to the worldwide preaching of the gospel (John 3:16)—is made possible because of the cross." Or you could say it like this: Jesus’ death accomplished much more for the elect than it did for the non-elect. Unlike some, I believe and proclaim that God loves all humanity and gave his life for the whole world, making his grace available to anyone who would believe—because that’s what the Bible teaches. Our doctrinal statement is not meant to be either a general OR limited atonement statement. And please remember: no human statement of beliefs is inerrant. This is why we say our true creed is the Bible (which is inerrant).

As to the-chicken-or-the-egg questions of which came first, faith or regeneration...if FORCED I will err on the side of God’s sovereignty. I am a Calvinist. However, I am quite comfortable with holding these "which came first" questions in tension. I am comfortable with a "neither came first" kind of answer when I consider the fact that God is unaffected by time nor is he bound by a time-line. He, while in eternal existence before the creation of time itself, both predestined and chose those who would be saved AND foreknew those who would by their own free will choose him. I see no contradiction when I consider his perfect providence and infinite wisdom. I know, I know...philosophical purists really don’t like that kind of answer. But I believe that God is far greater than what we pitiful humans can possibly comprehend intellectually. He is extra-dimensional in every way. How dare I try to make him fit in a box constructed of a man-made philosophical system? I choose (sorry) not to do that.

We have decided not to make these Calvinism/Arminianism philosophical banterings litmus tests for our church membership or Christian fellowship. 2-pointers are welcome (they must acknowledge God’s sovereignty) and 5-pointers are welcome (it mustn’t affect their commitment to evangelism). Again as Augustine said, "In some things...liberty. In all things...Charity." In my opinion it does not bring glory to God to be divisive about these non-essentials. There are hyper-Calvinists who can come off as condescending to those with whom they disagree. It’s fun stuff to talk about, it causes me to seek God’s heart in the pages of the Scriptures, but its not worth dividing over! We’ve lost people who thought I was too Arminian and some who thought I was too Calvinistic! Oh well. Spurgeon had the same problem (not that I am in any way worthy to be compared with Spurgeon!).



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