What It Means to Be Reformed (7) CALVINISTIC – Implications (2)
There is one more implication of Calvinism that deserves treatment on its own. Last time we saw that Calvinism’s doctrines of grace, genuinely embraced, will lead to humility—humble worship, humble assurance, and humble treatment of others. That is, proud worship, proud assurance, and haughty treatment of others may be traced back to a counterfeit Calvinism. We also saw that genuine Calvinism leads to those Christian graces of godly living, and not to what opponents of Calvinism charge.
Calvinism is also militant. In fact, militancy is not so much an implication of Calvinism as it is an essential aspect of it. If a Christian is a Calvinist, he is a warrior for truth. This does not surprise anyone who knows even a little bit about Calvinism.
To be militant is to be polemical.1 Polemics is the activity of exposing, opposing, resisting, and ultimately (by the power and grace of God) eliminating error—error of teaching, or error of conduct. Polemics is being militant.
Reformed Christians must be willing to fight for the truth of God—His name and reputation, His works, and centrally His work in Jesus Christ to save His covenant people. Answer the questions: How did God save His people? How today does He accomplish that wonder-work? Why does He save them? The answer to those questions is truth. And for that truth, Reformed Christians are willing to fight. Lies about God’s work must be exposed. Spades must be called spades. And if Pelagianism is again resurrected out of hell in 2015, we must be willing to call it so, to expose and eliminate it, just as our fathers did at Dordt 400 years ago.
Being Militant is being Reformed
Not pugnacious or contentious, the Reformers nevertheless were soldiers, “willing to endure hardships” for the gospel (II Tim. 2:3). If there is a truism in our definition of Reformed, it would be: “Reformed is militancy.” Militancy against the errors of Roman Catholicism is the origin of Reformed. Exposing Roman Catholic error, Calvin said, “I have gained some advantage if I have stripped these asses of their lion’s skin.”2 Luther’s humble but defiant, “Here I stand, I cannot and will not recant,” let loose the avalanche that created our wonderful Protestant and Reformed heritage.
The five solas themselves are more than a hint that the Reformation was militant. The fathers were not content to say, “Christ.” Everyone said “Christ.” But as soon as they said, “Christ alone!” the battle was joined, as they themselves knew it would be. Not permitted merely to say “grace,” they said “grace alone!” which became fighting words. It was easy to confess “salvation is by faith.” Roman Catholicism confessed that. But when the trumpet blasted, “Salvation by faith alone, without works!” the fathers had to soldier on, even to death.
With some reluctance, I must refrain from putting together a string of pearls from Reformers who expressed determination to be militant, because our determined purpose is to define “Reformed” from ecclesiastical documents rather than from individuals. When the Reformed churchmen assembled in synods and classes, their deliberations led them to declare the mandate to the churches: Be militant!
The Three Forms of Unity are themselves models of fighting for truth. In each creed of the three, truth is confessed over against error. False doctrines are exposed, and sometimes given fairly harsh monikers—like “gross errors,” “injurious errors,” “damnable errors.” Who today, writing in church magazines, will label errors “false doctrines” or “the lie,” much less these descriptors from the confessions? The Heidelberg Catechism, committed to living peaceably as much as possible (Rom. 12:18), nevertheless warns sharply about those who “boast of him in words, yet in deeds…deny Jesus the only deliverer and Savior.” It has sharp polemics in Lord’s Day 30—naming the popish mass an “accursed idolatry.” The Belgic Confession manifests the wisdom of a Reformed confession when its primary emphasis is the positive confession, “this we believe.” But the reader cannot miss its regular and emphatic interjections of the Reformation’s solas—in almost every article. Solas are polemical! Then, when militancy was needed most—when the Reformed faith itself was assaulted by the Remonstrants—the Canons of Dordt became intensely militant. To give but a few examples, they compare Arminianism to Pelagianism, a “destructive poison” and a “proud heresy” brought “again out of hell.” These Reformed fathers also spelled out carefully their “Rejection of Errors” after each head of doctrine. These rejections should not be omitted in the instruction given to the youth when they learn the five points of Calvinism in the Canons. The youth need to learn militancy.
The example of the Reformed creeds is strengthened by the mandate of the Reformed Church Order of Dordt. Professors of theology have the solemn duty to “vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors” (Art. 18). Every minister and every elder, by taking his office, commits “to ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings” (Art. 55). And, most powerfully, the Church Order obliges every officebearer to sign the unmistakably clear Formula of Subscription.3 The Formula calls for a kind of warfare against theological error that is better read directly than described here. Consistories could consider reading and studying the document once per year in their meetings. Simple honesty requires any man to study this document carefully before he accepts a nomination to church office.
The example of Presbyterian confessions is much the same. And as to Presbyterian mandate, when the Westminster divines gave their churches instructions for examining future ministers of the gospel, their Form of Church-Government requires inquiry into the man’s “ability to defend the orthodox doctrine…against all unsound and erroneous opinions…” and “his zeal and faithfulness in maintaining the truth of the gospel…against error and schism.”4
Calvinism is militant against…
The main purpose of calling attention to Calvinism’s militancy, however, is to show what Calvinism must oppose regarding the doctrines of grace. False doctrines have always dogged Calvinism’s confession of grace—particular, sovereign, irresistible grace. The false doctrine is some form of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, or Arminianism, which in the end are more or less subtle forms of the same error. They deny particular, sovereign, irresistible grace.
Calvinism is not friendly with those who are “revisionist Reformed,” a deceitful term used by those who want to appear Reformed, but are fatally compromising the doctrines of grace. Calvinism is a foe of those who, rather than openly adopt Arminianism, would instead “ameliorate Calvinism,” which is another way of describing a fatal compromise of the doctrines of Dordt. What these pseudo-Reformed are doing is akin to the fathers at Dordt, at the end of their six months of work (November to May), patting the Remonstrants’ backs, calling them “evangelical brothers,” and sending them away with a benevolent: “We’ll just agree to disagree, but we can expect to work together at future synods and especially on the mission field, because we both preach essentially the same evangelical gospel.”5
…Also against common grace and the well-meant offer
The PRC’s opposition to the doctrine of common grace and its concomitant “well-meant offer” is explained by her Calvinism. Her Calvinism compelled her to oppose the teaching that God’s grace and love were in some way common. Her Calvinism drove her to become militant when the doctrine of common grace asserted that natural man was not actually totally depraved, but only corrupt in every part of him—there was still some good in every part also. Her Calvinism explains her fierce opposition to the doctrine that God desires all men to be saved and that the preaching of the gospel must express that desire.
I trust that all young people in the PRC are taught that the five points of Calvinism stand behind her rejection of the well-meant gospel offer. This is how I taught them when I was in the pastorate:
First, the well-meant offer threatens the doctrine of Total Depravity, because the well-meant offer implies the ability of those to whom the offer comes to accept the offer. Accepting the offer is a good work, which good work an unsaved man cannot perform if total depravity is true. When it is claimed that grace (common grace?) and not their own natural ability, enables men to accept the offer, we ask: Why then do not all men who receive this common grace accept the offer? (For it is obvious that not all accept it.) The answer cannot be “the grace given them,” because others had the same grace and did not accept the offer. The only logical answer is: man’s own willingness to use that common grace. To teenagers in catechism it is not hard to understand that this is a compromise of total depravity (as well as a creative invention of another kind of grace that is resistible; see below.) Second, the well-meant offer threatens the doctrine of Unconditional Election. Unconditional election is the teaching that God chose, in love, and chose to love some and only some.6 Calvinism teaches God’s exclusive, loving choice of some, His determination in that love to save only some, His decree to give only those to Christ to be saved by Him. The well-meant offer of the gospel is an expression of the love of God for all who hear the gospel, the desire of God to save more than He gave to Jesus to be saved.
Third, it threatens the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Calvinism teaches that the death of Christ was an offering made for the elect alone—an offering intended for the elect alone.7 The well-meant offer of the gospel makes salvation available to all. Of course, Reformed men who teach the well-meant offer of the gospel attempt to maintain the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement, but the attempts all end in a quagmire of nuances and qualifications, in complicated explanations and appeals to distinctions that few can understand; and finally lead many of them to “revisionist Calvinism” which is not Calvinism.8
Fourth, the well-meant offer threatens the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. If grace is manifested in the well-meant offer of the gospel, then that grace is a resistible grace.9 The explanation by defenders of the “well-meant offer”? There are two kinds of grace—an irresistible saving grace and a resistible common grace. Then the young people must harmonize what cannot be harmonized: the fourth point of Calvinism that God’s saving grace is irresistible; and the preaching of the gospel of salvation as a grace that is resistible. I am thankful that I am not called to attempt that.10
…Militant against a conditional covenant
Calvinism also explains our opposition to a conditional covenant.11 Teaching the doctrine of an unconditional covenant is necessary to do justice to the biblical teaching of a completely gracious salvation. Grace from beginning to end is the only explanation of a man’s salvation. And, since having a covenant relationship with God is being God’s friend—and therefore, is being saved—being in the covenant is explained by nothing else than grace. It cannot be explained by a man fulfilling conditions.
Yes, faith is the only way to enjoy this covenant friendship—but faith, remember, that is the gracious gift of God to His elect alone. God provides faith graciously, to His elect. As the Canons say, faith is election’s fruit (Canons I:9). Thus, even the God-mandated way of covenant salvation is His own gift of grace, inseparably tied to the doctrine of election.
That is how we understand Calvinism. Unrevised. Un-“ameliorated.” Reformed.
1 In 2012, from the issues of June 1 through September 15, I wrote a series of SB editorials entitled “Polemics: Fighting Words.” There, I described carefully what polemics is. Here, the emphasis is more that being polemical, or militant, is an essential aspect of being Reformed and being Calvinist.
2 Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.19.37.
3 Arts. 53, 54; the Formula itself can be found on page 141 in the back of The Psalter, or at prca.org.
4 Found in paragraphs 2 and 6 under “The Rules for Examination are these.” Emphasis mine. Westminister Confession of Faith, Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1976, 413.
5 Disturbingly, Michael Horton’s friendly “Forward” in Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism (as well as Olson’s friendly “Forward” in Horton’s For Calvinism) shows nothing of the spirit of Dordt when the fathers summarily dismissed and deposed the Arminians in 1619. Horton’s claim that it would be “reckless” of him to accuse Olson of Pelagianism is obvious, but it begs the question of what a Reformed Christian must think of Pelagianism’s transmogrified offspring, Arminianism. It is also of a very different spirit than what most Dutch Reformed young people learned in generations past in the Christian High School’s “Ref-Doc” class when they read B.K. Kuiper’s description of it in his widely-used The Church in History. Read Kuiper’s clear denunciation of Arminianism in chapter 33, under the heading, “Departures from historic Protestantism.” (The Church in History was first published in 1951 by the National Union of Christian Schools, later called Christian Schools International.)
6 Deuteronomy 7:7, 8 not only teaches that election is unconditional, but shows the close connection between election and God’s love. His choosing is a choosing in love.
7 Since Dordt, it is common to distinguish between the sufficiency of the atonement, which the Canons describe as infinite and unlimited; and the efficiency of the atonement, which the Canons teaches is limited to God’s elect. But the “revisionist Reformed” are now using that sufficiency doctrine to teach that God’s intentions in the death of Christ extended beyond the elect. A clear reading of Canons II:8 shows the impossibility of this.
8 Roger E. Olson, self-described Arminian, says that “Limited Atonement” is the Achilles’ heel of Calvinists, because it “makes it impossible reasonably (!) to make a well-meant offer of the gospel of salvation to everyone indiscriminately.” (Against Calvinism, 137; also 60, 61) This educated Arminian cannot understand the nuances of the “well-meant offer” Calvinists.
9 Remember, the “well-meant offer” was presented as proof of the doctrine of common grace by the CRC Synod of 1924—the gospel offer was presented as proof of a common grace.
10 The reader will recognize the unmistakable similarity between “well-meant offer” theology and Arminian doctrine. The difference is the name given to this second kind of ‘grace.’ In Arminianism the grace is called “prevenient grace,” and among professed Calvinists it is called “common grace.”
11 And, our opposition to the conditional covenant’s recently adopted family member, the Federal Vision. Not everyone in the “conditional covenant” family is fond of the appearance of this “relative” doctrine— and declare it to be an illegitimate intruder in the family. The PRC have argued not only that the Federal Vision is essentially Arminianism, but also that it is a necessary offspring of conditional covenant theology. For a thorough treatment of the doctrine, see David J. Engelsma, Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2012.