Preach Like Calvin

In April of 2010 I was scheduled to attend the ReFocus Canada conference at Willingdon Church in Burnaby, BC, but then, when my relationship with the church board (at that time) began to deteriorate, I had to cancel. Afterward, a friend shared with me one of the more memorable events at the conference. I’m not sure I have the details correct, but as I recall the story, Pastor John Neufeld was quoted as saying, “Pray like a Calvinist, but preach like an Arminian.” To which, if I’m not mistaken, Dr. Bruce Ware (of Southern Baptist Seminary) replied with a gentle rebuke that one should never preach like an Arminian.

My friend and I had a good conversation about the exchange between those two respected men. He wanted to understand what exactly was being said by both. I know John Neufeld well enough to know what he likely intended to communicate by saying, “Preach like an Arminian”; I have read enough of Dr. Ware’s writings to know pretty much where he stands on Calvinism / Arminianism. Here’s what I think in a nutshell:

Both men would likely agree that one should pray like a Calvinist. This is to have a high confidence in the sovereign power of God–that He is not only able to do whatever He decides to do in answer to our prayers, but that He is unswervingly committed to His own glory and as Romans 8 assures us, has decreed that “all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose”. When “our good” is to see God glorified, since that is also God’s ultimate purpose, we can be certain of success. A true Calvinist believes this wholeheartedly because he knows that God created the world, decreed human history exactly as it has unfolded (even before Adam’s “fall”), and from eternity planned out the perfect redemption of all things through His Son, Jesus Christ, for the glory of the Triune God. So to pray like a Calvinist not only calls for confidence in God’s plan, purpose and power, but also for humility to conform our own thinking, hopes and desires to love God’s glory more than anything else. When we pray then for the salvation of a loved-one, or for anyone at all, we really praying for at least two things: 1) that God would save that person in spite of himself or herself, since everything about salvation depends on God and not on our loved-one; 2) that the salvation of our loved-one is part of God’s greater plan to glorify His name.

What about preaching like an Arminian? I think what John meant to say is not that one should abandon the truth of the above concerning a Calvinistic confidence in God’s plan, power and purpose, but that good preaching should call for a heart response in the hearer. This seems at first like an Arminian thing to do because one might (wrongly) assume that a Calvinist would take a sort of fatalistic approach to the salvation of individuals: “If God has chosen whom to save, and if He is sovereign, there’s nothing any of us can do about that except wait and see.” If this were an example of Calvinistic thinking, it would be inconsistent for such a preacher to invite a response to the preaching of the Gospel. Because in that case a human response would be futile since (again, in that case,) it would be entirely up to God to save people: why ask for unsaved people to respond to the Gospel if the responsibility is all up to God anyway?

Two of the five points of classical Arminianism include “Free will & human ability” and “Conditional election”. A classical Arminian therefore believes that unsaved people have the ability to choose to love God and believe the Gospel and that God’s election of whom to save is based upon His looking into the future and observing who will choose to love and believe. A classical Calvinist, on the other hand, believes that since the Fall there is no ability on the part of the unsaved person to love God or to believe the Gospel (in the sense of relying on Jesus, not merely agreeing to the facts), and that God’s election is based solely on His sovereign will and plan. (The two corresponding points of Calvinism are “Total depravity” and “Unconditional election”.)

Now both Bruce Ware and John Neufeld are Calvinists. Both, I think, would agree that every aspect of salvation depends ultimately on God alone. But both would also want every calvinistic preacher of the Gospel to call for a response of faith–of trust in Jesus, His righteousness, sacrifice and resurrection–in every hearer who longs to be saved. That’s probably, in my humble opinion, all that Pastor Neufeld was trying to say. And this is in no way inconsistent with being a Calvinist. Though this seems to me to be often ignored about Calvin’s teaching, true Calvinism holds that though salvation ultimately, in every part of the process, depends on God alone, the effect of God’s saving work in individuals is new-found love for Jesus as He is revealed in the Gospel, and trust in His work on the cross for forgiveness of sins. And true Calvinists also believe that the Gospel, proclaimed in good preaching, has the power, through the Holy Spirit, to make hearers fall in love with Jesus and trust Him. It’s like Jesus calling Lazarus to come out of his tomb. No one would give Lazarus any credit for obediently meeting Jesus halfway. The dead can’t hear, much less obey. But there is power in the Word of Christ to impart life, turn hearts, and raise the dead.

This topic has been on my mind since, when in Quebec last week, I read a blog post at the Gospel Coalition site, entitled “How to Call for a Gospel Response Like a Calvinist” by Eric McKiddie. Eric does a good job of showing that it is biblical for a Calvinist to preach this way. But as I read his fine article I could almost hear my Arminian friends arguing that though it might be biblical it is certainly not what most people mean by “Calvinism“. And though it’s true that many would not likely associate winsome, Gospel-invitation with Calvinism, it is also true that this is because those same people misunderstand classical Calvinism. John Calvin himself should be allowed to settle what true Calvinism is.

Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion wrote:

The true knowledge of Christ consists in receving him as he is offered by the Father, namely, as invested with his Gospel. For, as he is appointed as the end of our faith, so we cannot directly tend toward him except under the guidance of the Gospel. Therein are certainly unfolded to us treasures of grace…
There is an inseparable relation between faith and the word, and that these can no more be disconnected from each other than rays of light from the sun. Hence in Isaiah the Lord explains, “Hear, and your soul shall live” (Isa 55:3). And John points to this same fountain of faith in the following words, “These are written that ye might believe” (john 20:31)…
…The word itself, whatever be the way in which it is conveyed to us, is a kind of mirror in which faith beholds God. In this, therefore, whether God uses the agency of man (e.g., a preacher), or works immediately by his own power, it is always by his word that he manifests himself to those whom he designs to draw to himself. Hence Paul designates faith as the obedience which is given to the Gospel (Rom 1:5)… (Institutes 3.2.6)

To those who are set as watchmen in the Church the Lord declares, “When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand” (Ezek. 3:18). What Paul says of himself is applicable to all pastors: “For though I preach the Gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel” (1 Cor. 4:16). In short, what the apostles did to the whole world, every pastor should do to the flock over which he is appointed. (Institutes 4.3.6)

…The grace of Jesus Christ… [is that] which the Lord is pleased to dispense by the word of the Gospel… That Christ is offered to us in the Gospel with all the abundance of heavenly blessings, with all his merits, all his righteousness, wisdom, and grace, without exception, Paul bears witness when he says, “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he has made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him,” (2 Cor. 5:20, 21). (Institutes 3.5.5)

In the last two paragraphs quoted above, Calvin is clear in his understanding that a) preachers must preach the Gospel as a “warning…to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life” and b) they must do so as ambassadors called to “beseech” and beg unbelievers “be ye reconciled to God”. So you could say, according to what many people seem to mean when they talk about “Calvinism”, that John Calvin himself believed pastors should preach like Arminians: calling for repentance, calling for people to choose to be reconciled to God and believe the Gospel. But of course that is absurd. I think the misunderstanding rises from the fact that there are a lot of people who get hung up on the Calvin / Arminius debate who really don’t know what true Calvinism is–as defined by what Calvin himself actually taught. If Calvinists are to preach like Calvin, we must preach the Gospel aiming for a response of love for God, trust in Jesus, and faith in His promise to save.