Calvinism and The Doctrines of Grace
While we covered, ever-so-briefly, the major points of John Calvin’s soteriology (his doctrine of salvation) in Sunday School, I promised that we would make available some other resources that might help to affirm the importance and nature of these points. They are included below.
However, before anyone is overly-concerned with getting these doctrines right, or even why they should affirm them, it is necessary to understand something of their importance. We must start with the reiteration that these 5-points are not the gospel. Neither their acceptance nor rejection puts anyone into or out of the Kingdom. Good men and women have erred on both sides of this issue historically, and will continue to do so until the Lord returns. Arminian theology, when done rightly and handled in a historical manner, is still a Christian theology. It is not necessarily a Pelagian theology of self-help and earned righteousness. It believes in grace, God’s sovereignty, and the power of the blood of Jesus Christ. We must hold to these facts.
On the other hand, we need to likewise stress that Calvinism1 does not necessarily entail the end of mankind’s responsibility toward God. It, when understood in light of Scripture and history, rightly holds to man’s need to respond to the message in faith, the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of the world, and even of zeal on the part of believers to secure these ends.
So, because Calvinism does not define orthodoxy and basic Christian belief, we do not hold to the Doctrines of Grace in our statement of faith. We understand that statement, The Baptist Faith & Message, 2000, to be a confession that is mandatory for all church membership. Therefore, what is outline in that document includes two basic layers of truth: what is needed for someone to be a Christian (or the most basic orthodoxy) and what is needed for Crossway Christian Church to maintain order among its members (or the most basic ecclesiology). If someone does not confess the Trinity, they cannot be a Christian, and therefore they are not qualified to be a member of Crossway. If someone does not hold to believer’s baptism (among other issues), then they would naturally bring an unhealthy disorder among the people, and would not be qualified as a member.2 Calvinism meets neither of these two necessary qualifications. If someone can believe in the gospel without Calvinism, and believe in the right ordering of the church without it, then they do not need to confess it in order to rightly be held as a member of our church, with all the rights, privileges, and requirements that attach to that membership.
Where, then, does Calvinism fit? Why even think it important? It is our contention that these basic points of soteriology are important because they are the logical and scriptural undergirdings of the gospel. That is, they make the most sense in light of what Scripture says about how the gospel works. The gospel works because God is fully sovereign over all aspects of salvation; this contention is the central brilliance of Calvinism.
Understanding the basis and theology of the gospel is an important part of believers working out their salvation with fear and trembling, as Paul instructs us to do. These 5-points magnify God’s kindness and grace, humble believers, and give hope and power to evangelism. Understanding how and why God has worked in the world speaks of his character, nature, and power. Because forming a right conception of God aids us to rightly form our lives in his image, the foundation of the gospel is of immense importance to us.
A very easy-to-access work on this comes from John Piper and Desiring God. The book, Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace, is helpful not only for explaining the 5-points of Calvinism, but also for demonstrating their practical importance for your everyday life. Below is a short introductory video by John Piper.
Of course, other books are available which cover individual topics in Calvinism (focusing on the nature of Predestination, or Limited Atonement, etc.). Not to mention more scholarly books on the subject, of which many of the best are written by Puritans. At its best, these 5-points of soteriology are placed within a wider frame of salvation and systematic theology. To that end, Calvin’s own Institutes is a treasure on its own, and obviously helpful to understand the 5-points. Abridged versions are available. If seeking a systematic theology, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is a typical introduction, and sound. My favorite, and I think the most helpful, is the Theology of Lordship series by John Frame (each work is also sold separately).
Another resource which I would happily recommend is this letter by John Newton. Newton, famous for the song Amazing Grace, sought to instruct a brother about to enter into controversy in public. We would all do well to meditate on his words before entering into any contentious issues.
1Calvinism is not a great name for the nature of these 5-points. Calvin’s theology was much broader, and deeper, than just these 5-points, including many aspects that Baptists would not uphold. The same problems follow the use of “reformed.” While using the title “Doctrines of Grace” seems to naturally limit the discussion to things that are associated with grace, which is good, I feel it is unnecessarily pejorative to those who would not agree with tenets of the 5-points (“why, no, I don’t believe in grace!” said no Christian ever). However, because Calvinism has historically been used to designate just these 5-points, I will continue to use that term, with some chagrin.
2The disorder that would be brought in is of several varieties. Believer’s baptism is the manner authorized by the NT through which confessions of faith are confirmed. To allow such confirmation through other means necessarily diminishes the importance of the NT practice, and undermines the authority that the Bible has placed on it (which undermines the Bible’s authority itself). Therefore, if a person was allowed into our membership who did not agree with the practice believer’s baptism alone, there would naturally be disorder about the qualifications for those who should, and should not be, allowed into membership (not to mention disorder over the authority of Scripture). This problem is extended into a number of other areas of our confession, including the nature of the Scriptures, the nature of the Church, and how the gospel impacts our lives in society. Disagreement on these basic issues will lead to disarray in the church, especially in what ways and manner the church is to pursue the ministry of the word in the world.