There is a generally fair piece on the resurgence of interest in Calvin and in aspects of his theology among evangelicals by Daniel Burke of the Religious News Service. It is better than most pieces as Burke took the time to interview an actual Calvin scholar (Karin Maag at Calvin Theological Seminary/Meeter Center). He also talked to Colin Hansen about the YRR phenomenon. Nevertheless, there are parts of this piece that reveal the way the modern world views historic Christianity generally and Reformed theology specifically.
First, the author makes a passing reference to the “Calvinist belief that Jesus died only for an elect few and that humans can do nothing to earn their eternal reward….” The piece also quotes former SBC president Jerry Vines as saying that the doctrine of predestination
inhibits evangelism and missionary work…If Jesus died only for the elect, then what’s the point of trying to reach others….I do believe it is possible to be a five-point Calvinist and be evangelistic and missionary-minded…But their evangelism and missionary work is in spite of their Calvinism, and not because of it. That’s going to make some of them mad, but I do believe it.
Let’s address these in reverse.
1. That Vines says such things in public and on the record reveals not only a shocking lack of shame but it says a great deal about his impoverished education). Even if Vines is correct, that the doctrine that Christ died as a substitute for the elect is wrong (it isn’t), it just doesn’t follow that it necessarily inhibits evangelism and for one simple reason: We don’t know who the elect are! Vines’ comments assume that we think we know who are the elect. Not a single Reformed confession says anything like that. The Canons of Dort 2.5 say precisely the opposite:
Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.
Note well the clear teaching of the Reformed churches (in Europe and in Britain) was (and remains) that the promise is that “whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish….” Further, “this promise….ought to be declared and published all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction….” What is narrow about that? What else could the Synod have said to indicate that we believe in the evangelism and mission? What else could the Reformed churches have said to indicate that the gospel ought to go forth to everyone precisely because we have the great commission and because we trust a sovereign God to redeem those whom he knew and loved, in Christ, from all eternity (Eph 1; Rom 1) and for whom Christ died (John 3:16; John 10). We preach the gospel, we offer the gospel freely, openly, and “promiscuously and without distinction” because we’re confident that our sovereign God will redeem his people, whom he has known from eternity, in Christ. Thus we confess in Canons 2.7
But as many as truly believe, and are delivered and saved from sin and destruction through the death of Christ, are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God given them in Christ from everlasting, and not to any merit of their own.
This is nothing more or less than an application of the Protestant, evangelical doctrine of salvation sola gratia and sola fide to the question of the atonement.
Why is such a clear doctrine so hard to grasp? On Vines’ reasoning why should he remain a Protestant? After all he’s making the very same sort of argument made by the Romanist critics of the Reformation: “The Protestants have no true motive for striving to be sanctified since they are justified by grace alone, through faith alone.” Both arguments are premised on a gross misunderstanding of Reformed theology. Further, even if we are wrong about predestination it doesn’t follow that we deny the Great Commission to “go, therefore and make disciples.” The historical facts, which Vines must surely know, show that predestinarians and those who hold a personal, substitutionary atonement have been vigorous evangelists, missionaries, and church planters.
2. Not a single Reformed confession has ever indicated that Christ died only for a few. There is a great difference between saying that Christ died only for the elect and saying that he died for a few. In fact, most writers who’ve held these views have thought and taught that the catholic church, the church considered in its invisible aspect, composed of believers in all times and places, in heaven (the church triumphant) and on earth (the church militant) is a great, innumerable multitude.
Vines and the other critics may not realize it but we even use universalistic language from time to time. Consider Heidelberg Catechism Q. 37:
37. What do you understand by the word “suffered”?
That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race; in order that by His passion, as the only atoning sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness and eternal life.
Zacharias Ursinus, the major author of the catechism, explained this language by using the distinction between the “sufficiency” of the atonement (i.e., the inherent worth and power of Christ’s death) and the “efficiency” or the divine intent of the atonement, that Christ should actually expiate the sins of his people and turn away God’s wrath from them. Canons of Dort 2.3 says,
The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.
3. This gets us to the third problem: “That humans can do nothing to earn their eternal reward.” To quote Richard Nixon, “Let me be perfectly clear:” The doctrine of justification by unmerited divine favor alone, through faith receiving and resting in Christ alone, is not a distinctively Calvinist doctrine. It is the bedrock doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. It was and is confessed by the confessional Lutheran Churches in the Augsburg Confession and the Book of Concord. It is confessed by the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church. It is confessed by all the Reformed Churches in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and in the Westminster Standards.
Contrary to the recent claims made by N. T. Wright and to the claims made by some self-described members of the “Federal Vision” movement, the Reformed churches confess this doctrine heartily, stoutly, and clearly. This is exactly what we mean when we say, “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone” (sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo). We all confess that Christ obeyed the law for us and that his perfect righteousness (his obedient life and death) satisfied God’s righteous law for us, as our substitute, and all that he did for us is imputed to us and is the ground of our standing before God. It is as if we had done all that he did for us, “if only we accept this benefit with a believing heart” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 60).
For Reformed theology, God did not simply make salvation possible for those who will do their part. That was the Roman doctrine rejected by the Protestant Reformation on the basis that it it contradicts the Biblical teaching concerning grace. One of the great concerns of the Reformed churches about the Arminians was that their movement constituted a return to the Roman doctrine that we must “do our part” in order to be justified and saved.
The comment about Reformed theology teaching that Christ died for only a “few” implies that Reformed theology is inherently narrow, bigoted, and elitist. Of course it seems so to an age during which the foundational doctrines are the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of men, and human perfectibility. If Reformed theology is narrow, bigoted, and elitist for denying the modernist faith, what does that say about Vines and the other critics of Reformed theology? Are they affirming the modernist faith? Have they not read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism? Do they not realize that modernism and Christianity are two different religions?
These critics of Reformed theology would also appear to have a problem with more than just Reformed theology. Even classic Arminianism, however wrongheaded and implicitly rationalist it is, does not affirm the modernist credo. Surely Vines and the others know that? Are they dismissing Arminianism too as bigoted, narrow, and elitist? Are they re-defining Christianity in a radical way. Why should such a radical redefinition of Christianity be taken as the norm by which to judge Reformed theology?
In the year of Calvin’s 500th birthday perhaps Vines and others will take a moment and consider whether their representations of Calvin and Calvinism are doing justice to the 9th commandment? Calvin, his contemporaries, and his successors may have been profoundly wrong, but they did not teach and confessional Reformed Christians today do not confess the errors imputed to us in this article.