Saturday, October 13, 2007

Those ugly Calvinists.....

Calvinism has gotten a bad rap in Fundamentalism. Growing up in Fundamentalism, I "knew" the following about Calvinists:
  • They didn't believe in witnessing to unbelievers
  • They believed that if babies died, then the babies went to hell
  • They were unhappy
  • They hated pretty much everybody
  • All they cared to do was fight and argue about petty things
  • All they ever talked about was Calvinism
There were other things I "knew" about Calvinists as well, but you get the picture. As I got older I met some folks who were completely different than what my caricature of a Calvinist was. The day I discovered (through reading his sermons for myself) that Charles Spurgeon was a Calvinist, it felt like somebody had hit me in the stomach! I felt like I'd been duped! This guy was supposed to be one of the great heroes on our side, and now I find out that he's a stinkin' Calvinist?!?!? Of course the more I read for myself, the more I began to realize that most of the great theologians throughout history were, in fact, Calvinists. Men like Augustine, Calvin, Beza, Luther, Zwingli, Cromwell, Knox, Bunyan, Edwards, the Puritans...The list could go on. Nearly everybody that I had been brought up to admire as a hero of the faith turned out to be a Calvinist!

I felt betrayed, but determined to get to the root of all of this. What I soon discovered is that the gross caricature of Calvinism that had been painted for me was not a Calvinism that I could find anywhere. As a matter of fact, I've been unable to locate anyone who subscribes to Calvinism as I used to understand it. That Calvinism seems to only exist in the minds of people who aren't Calvinists, but I digress.

So, just what does a Calvinist believe regarding salvation anyway? I can't answer for all Calvinists, because we are all a tad different, I suppose; however, some of the basic elements are universally accepted, and that's what I intend to write about in this article.

It must first be understood that we believe that a man must repent and believe the Gospel in order to be saved. Peter says this in Acts 2 and Paul in Acts 16. One of the first systematic theologies I went through (in a small SBC church in southern Kansas) was taught by a former, well-known, IFB evangelist. He had left the IFB movement and joined the SBC sometime in the 80's. When he was teaching this class - with a decided Calvinistic bent - it surprised me when he made the following statement; "All who truly desire to be saved will be saved!" I thought to myself, "what a strange statement for a Calvinist to make". Later, I would learn what he meant by that and I would come to believe the same thing - even after embracing Calvinism.

So man must repent and believe the Gospel in order to be saved. My next statement may be startling to those of you reading this who have come to believe the demonized caricature of Calvinism as being the true face of Calvinistic thought.....I believe that these two things are the free acts of man. This is thoroughly Biblical, I think, and is supportable with Scripture. In his tract, "God's Part and Man's Part in Salvation", John G. Reisinger says the following:
Men, with their own mind, heart, and will must renounce sin and receive Christ. God never repented and believed for anyone - and He never will. Turning from sin and reaching out in faith to Christ are the acts of man, and every man who so responds to the gospel call does so because he honestly desires to do so. He wants to be forgiven and he can only be forgiven by repenting and believing. No one, including God, can turn from sin for us, we must do it. No one can trust Christ in our place, but we must personally, knowingly, and willingly trust Him in order to be saved.

Now someone may be thinking, "But isn't that what the Arminian teaches?" My friend, that is what the Bible teaches–and teaches it clearly and dogmatically. "But don't Calvinists deny all three of those points?" I am not talking about or trying to defend Calvinists since they come in a hundred varieties. If you know anyone that denies the above facts, then that person, regardless of what he labels himself, is denying the clear message of the Bible. I can only speak for myself, and I will not deny what God's Word so plainly teaches!

"But haven't you established the doctrine of free-will and disposed of election if you assent man must repent and believe and it is his own act?" No, we have neither proven free-will nor disproved election since it is impossible to do either. We have merely stated exactly what the Bible says a man must do in order to be saved. Let us now look at what the Scripture says a sinner is able to do and what he is not able to do.

At this point in the conversation,we come to a fork in the road so to speak. Thus far, I've not said anything with which my Arminian friends would take issue....but that's about to change!

There are several beautiful pictures of salvation painted in Scripture, but I'm going to use just two in order to illustrate the next point I hope to make. 1 Kings 17 records the account of the death and resurrection of the son of the widow of Zarephath. As you read this account, you find that this boy was unable to do anything. Try as he might, Elijah was unable to do anything for him, as well. It wasn't until God gave life back to that boy that he was able to "do" anything. I'll make my point a tad more clearly in a moment.

A second picture of salvation that we can see in Scripture is in Mark 5:1-20. The story of the Demoniac of Gadara. This man was out of control and completely uncontrollable. Try as they might, there was nothing that people could do to change him. Christ, in Mark 4:35, decides to head over to Gadara. There appears to be only two reasons for this trip. First, to reveal a bit of His Divine nature to the twelve by calming the storm and secondly, to save this man. This demon-possessed man is a beautiful illustration of what we are prior to salvation - wild, hell-bound, and unable to do anything in order to save ourselves.

Now to make my point, let me spell out clearly why I chose these two examples. Firstly, in the story of the dead lad in 1 Kings, we see a person completely unable to do anything for himself, which is a beautiful illustration of the human condition. Secondly, we see a man of God (Elijah) who is unable to do anything for the boy. He stretches himself out on the boy as if he could pass life from himself into the lad. He does this again and again, but it's not until God did something that the boy received life. All the efforts of Elijah were in vain had it not been for God showing mercy to this boy.

Similarly, the demon-possessed man in Mark 5 was not able to do anything but act like a maniac. Well meaning people had attempted to help him conform to some standards of decency by binding him with chains and clothing him, but he would simply break the chains and tear off the clothes and continue acting wildly. It wasn't until Christ chose to reach out to that man that he was truly changed. After his encounter with Christ we find this man sitting, clothed, in his right mind, and desiring to commune more and more with his Savior.

So here's the point: man left to himself is unable to do anything to save himself. At the point that God chooses to show mercy to a man that man is able to respond and, as seen in these illustrations, that man does respond. I'll point you again to the tract by John G. Reisinger regarding man's complete inability to respond without the moving of the Holy Spirit:

To believe and preach points one, two, and three, without also preaching number four is to grossly misrepresent the gospel of God's grace. It is to give a totally false picture of the sinner and his true need. It shows only half of the man's sin. It misses the most crucial point of a lost man's need, namely, his lack of power or ability to overcome his sinful nature and its effects. The gospel which is concocted out of this view is only a half gospel. It is at this point that modern evangelism so miserably fails. It confuses man's responsibility with his ability, and falsely assumes that a sinner has the moral ability to perform all that God has commanded. The cannot texts of scripture are either totally ignored or badly twisted by this perversion of the true gospel of God's saving grace.

Please note a few texts of Scripture that dogmatically state some things that a lost man cannot do:

Man cannot see - until he first be born again. John 3:3.

Man cannot understand - until he first be given a new nature. I Cor. 2:14.

Man cannot come - until he first be effectually called by the Holy Spirit. John 6:44,45.

We do not have space to go into all the cannots, but these three are sufficient to show that a sinner absolutely cannot (notice it is not will not) come to Christ until God first does something in that sinner's nature. That something is what the Bible calls regeneration, or the new birth, and it is the exclusive work of God the Holy Spirit. Man has no part whatever in regeneration.

So let me summarize what I've said thus far:
  1. Man must repent in order to be saved - this is an act of free will
  2. Man must believe the Gospel in order to be saved - this is also an act of free will
  3. Man's free will is under the bondage of sin
  4. Given the truth of point 3, we find that man is unable to repent without a miraculous work
That brings us to my final point - the miraculous work. We call it regeneration and it is not the same as salvation. Here's a great quote on this subject that I've carried around with me for years: "The root error of the Arminian's gospel of freewill is its failure to see that man's part, repentance and faith, are the fruits and effects of God's work and not the essential ingredient's supplied by the sinner as man's part of the deal. Every man who turns to Christ does so willingly, but that willingness is a direct result of the Father's election and the Holy Spirit's effectual calling. To say, "If you will believe, God will answer your faith with the New Birth," is to misunderstand man's true need and misrepresent God's essential work."

This is where the rubber meets the road in this discussion. Do you believe that a man left to himself is able to respond? Do you believe that a man left to himself will even desire God? What does Paul say in Romans 3:10-12? This is the crux of the whole matter, I think. Calvinism stresses the inherent and complete depravity of man, whereas Arminianism stresses something else. Arminianism would paint a picture of a man who can choose if man's nature was only somewhat altered at the fall rather than becoming helplessly and hopelessly depraved.

I've got more to say on this subject of regeneration, but it will have to wait for another time. Perhaps in my next article on the subject I will offer a side-by-side comparison of the two systems of thought.


Don Johnson said...

Hey, Ellis, your last point about what Arminian's believe show that you don't really know Arminianism at all. You are making a caricature, based on your own past impressions of something that you thought was Arminianism, just like the caricature you earlier believed about Calvinism.

I would suggest that you should study the Arminian view of the depravity of man before trying to describe it.

I say this not as an Arminian or as a Calvinist. A pox on both systems!


Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ellis Murphree said...

Perhaps I'm guilty of overstating my point, Don. Growing up in a fairly Arminian church, I think I likely have a better grasp on Arminianism than I do on Calvinism....

I've edited the offending comment - thanks for the correction. I hope I didn't offend you - you sound like you're looking for a fight!

Don Johnson said...

Sorry, no offense! Just pointing out that what you stated didn't represent an Arminian understanding. Strictly speaking, Arminians believe that the soul is as depraved as the Calvinists do, but get around it with the concept of prevenient grace. I find their solution to the problem unsatisfactory, and the Calvinist solution is no better.

But I am not looking for a fight! Carry on!

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ellis Murphree said...

The comment you made in your first reply - "A pox on both systems!" - still has me smiling...

I'm not sure that I agree with your analysis of the Arminian view of depravity; however, it may be simple symantics. I've always viewed depravity and total inability as being synonymous terms. If that's true, then I find it a bit misleading to say that they find the soul to be as depraved as do Calvinists. But as I say, it may all be symantics....

Marty Colborn said...


Where did you get that picture of me and my brother?