According to His Own Criteria, Is Erwin Lutzer’s Calvinist Soteriology Heretical?

Introduction

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer, pastor of the Moody Church in Chicago, emphatically states the following.

“There are many doctrines over which we can be charitable and simply say that we do not have to agree. But the Gospel is one that we need to agree on.” [1]

He also states that “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” is “the most important doctrine in the Bible” and it “is the most important doctrine that one could ever embrace or ever understand.”  I agree.  Lutzer makes it clear that the Gospel cannot be compromised because it is the essential message of Scripture.  Lutzer also begins this sermon by stating that “what you believe determines your eternal destiny.”  I also agree.  But what “gospel” are we talking about here?  What does “what you believe determines your eternal destiny” mean as spoken by a Calvinist like Lutzer?

Knowing that Lutzer is a Calvinist, and that he says that “the Gospel is one [doctrine] that we need to agree on,” caused me to reflect upon the differences between Lutzer’s Calvinist soteriology and “the gospel” message consistent with it as opposed to the non-Calvinist soteriological doctrines and “the gospel” message consistent with that position.  Those of you who are familiar with these different soteriologies know that there is no agreement here. In fact, the two soteriologies and their gospel content and messages are mutually exclusive.

Moreover, in this sermon Lutzer stressed the need for doctrinal discernment, antithetical thinking as opposed to doctrinal relativism, affirmed the law of non-contradiction and raised the issue of identifying heresy.  In it Lutzer rightly rejects theological and doctrinal relativism.  Therefore we should take him seriously and apply doctrinal discernment, antithetical thinking and the law of non-contradiction to the question of identifying which if any of these two soteriologies and “gospels” might be heretical.  In that these two soteriologies and gospel messages are incompatible, that is, mutually exclusive, they both cannot be what the Bible teaches about salvation and the gospel.  They both cannot be the truth of the gospel.  And yet Lutzer states that there can be no compromise on the gospel.  He is correct on this point, and will spend some time in Galatians 1 to secure the matter on the basis of Paul’s emphatic statements regarding the preservation of the truth of the gospel (Gal. 1 ff.).  We have to agree on what constitutes the truth of the gospel.  So, as mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospel messages, which one is not the teaching of Scripture?  Which one raises questions as to its faithfulness to Scripture and the biblical gospel message and therefore may fit into the category of heresy.

It seems to me that one’s soteriology is determinative of one’s gospel message.  The content of one’s doctrines of salvation have direct bearing upon the content of one’s gospel message. The doctrines of salvation provide the foundational elements for the message of salvation, which biblically defined should be “good news.”  Therefore, one’s doctrinal beliefs should be consistent with one’s gospel proclamation and vice versa. Now, Lutzer will provide what he calls “five necessary truths to understand the Gospel.”  They are:

  1. The Holiness of God
  2. The Deity of Christ
  3. The Lostness of Man
  4. Substitutionary Atonement
  5. Faith Alone

Of course these doctrinal or “necessary truths” reflect, for the most part, certain biblical truths related to salvation and the gospel, yet, as I will show, in explaining these doctrines Lutzer introduces elements of his Calvinist soteriology (i.e., the TULIP doctrines) which are mutually exclusive from the non-Calvinist’s soteriological doctrines and gospel message.  Now this raises the question as to whether or not the Calvinist or non-Calvinist has it right about salvation and the gospel.  And as Lutzer has rightly informed us, we must get the Gospel right and we must agree on what the biblical Gospel message actually is.  We cannot accept theological relativism on this issue.  The most important doctrine of Scripture is at stake.

Now we will see that certain definitions of the gospel that Lutzer offers us contain biblical gospel truth.  For instance Lutzer states,

“…it is through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice that we transfer our trust to Him, and by that means we are saved, and God credits to us His righteousness and His glory, and it becomes ours all because of a free gift because we have humbled ourselves and know that we can’t save ourselves. We have to cleave to that which Jesus Christ has done for us. That is the Gospel.”

I can agree with this statement of the Gospel.  But ask yourself “Does this definition coherently reflect Lutzer’s Calvinist soteriological doctrines?”  If the five doctrines he will be teaching us are the “five necessary truths to understand the Gospel” and they reflect the Calvinist soteriological doctrines, then those soteriological doctrines must be integrally related to the gospel, which again, biblically defined is “good news” for sinners.  So what expression of the gospel is consistent with Lutzer’s Calvinist soteriological doctrines?  The definition he gave above is more consistent with a non-Calvinist soteriology and gospel message.  We will see that the five doctrines or “necessary truths” Lutzer says we need to know to “understand the Gospel” contain aspects of Calvinist soteriology, but can his Calvinist soteriological doctrines support the gospel as he has defined it here?  Are his Calvinist soteriological doctrines consistent with the definition of the gospel he has given here? I think that this matter of consistency will be telling as to whether or not his soteriological doctrines are the teaching of Scripture and can be the foundation for a gospel of truly “good news.”

When I heard this sermon on the Bible Broadcasting Network it caused me to ask whether or not Lutzer’s Calvinist soteriology fit his own criteria for discerning false doctrines.  It caused me to ask whether his Calvinist soteriology was supportive of and consistent with the gospel biblically defined as “good news” and also with the definitions of the gospel Lutzer himself provided in this sermon.  Seeking to employ doctrinal discernment I listened closely to Lutzer’s sermon for expressions of his Calvinist soteriology and his definitions of the gospel and whether there was consistency between the two.  I also listened carefully for consistency between what he was preaching and his underlying Calvinist soteriology or his “doctrines of grace.”

If Lutzer is correct and we need to agree on the definition and content of the gospel message, and given that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies and “gospel” messages are mutually exclusive, then it seems highly likely that there is heresy in one or the other of these theologies and soteriologies.  This is a sobering and serious matter.  Is there heresy in one or the other (or both) of these mutually exclusive interpretations of Scripture?  Is heresy identifiable?  How would we know which is heresy and which is the biblical truth?

I will offer a definition of heresy later, but first let’s examine this sermon with our antithetical thinking and doctrinal discernment fully engaged, especially with regard to the gospel which as Lutzer says is “the most important doctrine in the Bible” and which cannot be compromised.

What You Believe Determines Your Eternal Destiny

Lutzer states,

“Somebody said to me, ‘I don’t care what you believe, I only care the way you live.’  That sounds so good and so pious. But the fact is my friend that what you believe determines your eternal destiny.  And what you believe determines you priorities here on earth.  And what you believe determines whether or not God brought about a change in your heart so he implanted some new desires within you that were not there when you were born.  What you believe is a matter of eternity.  Which leads us to the subject of discernment.”

Lutzer will say more about discernment later on, but let’s use our discernment from the start and examine what Lutzer has said here at the beginning of this sermon, especially in light of his Calvinist theological and soteriological beliefs.

Lutzer has just told us that what you believe determines your eternal destiny, your priorities here on earth and whether or not God brought about a change in your heart.  Let’s focus on the issue of eternal destiny, for comparatively speaking, that certainly is the most important issue.

Now what could Lutzer mean by “what you believe determines your eternal destiny?”  Does he mean what we all probably think he means when we hear or read those words, that is, that the person themselves has substantial freedom of the will such that they can either believe or not believe in Christ and therefore it is they themselves who determine their eternal destiny?  Or, consistent with his Calvinist determinism, does he mean those words simply as a statement of fact, that is, emphasizing that what you believe determines your eternal destiny, but not that you have anything to do with the beliefs you hold, rather it is God who determines your beliefs?  As a Calvinist, the latter is what Lutzer must mean to be consistent with his Calvinist theistic determinism.  But this latter meaning is quite convoluted and does not arise on the plain sense of the words.  Such an interpretation only arises, and must be what is meant, only when Calvinist determinism is imposed on the statement.  The statement does not naturally give rise to such an interpretation.

In contrast, the former meaning of “what you believe determines your eternal destiny” speaks of one’s eternal destiny as an open matter which is dependent upon the person’s genuinely free response to the biblical message of salvation.  The latter Calvinist meaning simply informs us that “what you believe” – with God irresistibly causing you to believe it – “determines your eternal destiny.”  It’s just theological information about the connection between belief and eternal destiny. The Calvinists universal divine causal determinism requires him to construe the words with the emphasis on what is believed, not that it is you who do the believing.  On Calvinism, that it is you who do the believing can only be meant in an instrumental sense.  Actually it is God who is causing you to believe or not believe for whatever his ultimate purposes might be.  On the non-Calvinist construal of the statement it is actually you who do the believing or, it is you who remain in unbelief via your own free will and thus it is you who determines your eternal destiny.  You either accept by faith the finished work of God’s salvation in Christ on your behalf or you reject it. Which do you see as the testimony of Scripture?  As mutually exclusive positions, both cannot be the testimony of Scripture.

So I submit that the statement, taken at face value for its plain meaning, includes the genuine freedom to believe or remain in unbelief; the genuine freedom to accept or reject Christ.  Again, taking these words at face value, there is the real matter of both what you believe, that is, the content of your belief (which is Lutzer’s point here and rightly so), and also that it is you who are believing it; that is, that you have control over what you believe and therefore you determine your eternal destiny, which is what Lutzer’s deterministic soteriological doctrines exclude.

One thing we do know about Lutzer is that he is a Calvinist.  He believes in a universal divine causal determinism.  He is a theistic determinist in both his theology and soteriology.  So if we are going to use our discernment here, as Lutzer says we must, and if we want to hold Lutzer to a standard of coherence between his words and his theology, which is only reasonable to do, then what he must mean by these words is that “what God determines you to believe determines your eternal destiny.”  That’s what his theology and soteriology teach.  That is what his theology and soteriology dictate these words must mean.  But Lutzer didn’t say “what God determines you to believe determines your eternal destiny.”  Why not?  I think it is because, as we will see, such a statement runs counter to the gospel message as truly “good news.”  In effect, Lutzer’s Calvinism annihilates the “good” in the “good news.”  It thereby shows itself to be no gospel at all.  Now, if that is the case, and the gospel cannot be compromised, and a compromise with respect to the gospel would surely amount to heresy, then things don’t look good for Lutzer and Calvinists.  So in order to avoid this problem, Lutzer must preserve the true gospel of “good news” by presenting a message inconsistent with his Calvinist soteriological doctrines.

But let’s continue.  Using our discernment we can begin to detect Lutzer’s Calvinist doctrines in the awkward statement that Lutzer obviously feels compelled to add in the quote above as well as in the “five necessary truths to understand the Gospel” Lutzer will give us below.  Lutzer adds the odd statement,

“And what you believe determines whether or not God brought about a change in your heart so he implanted some new desires within you that were not there when you were born.”

Here we detect the influence of the traditional Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election, effectual calling, irresistible grace and pre-faith regeneration, with a hint of total inability.  For the Calvinist, salvation is all of God, by which they mean, not only as the non-Calvinist also affirms, that God initiated the plan of salvation, worked it out historically in Christ’s life and death and completed the work so that nothing need be or can be added to it by us, but also that the sinner is totally passive with respect to their salvation and cannot even respond in faith unless God causes that faith in them.  And although Lutzer has already led us to think the opposite by his opening statements, what the Calvinist means by salvation being “all of God” is that the sinner cannot even believe the message of salvation when it is preached or taught to them.  Whatever happens in a sinner, even the response of faith, is all the work of God and depends upon whether they are among the unconditionally elect or not.  Again, the sinner is totally passive in their salvation experience.  Hence the awkward but apparently consistent statement, “what you believe determines whether or not God brought about a change in your heart.”  The believing becomes as an indication, end result or an evidence of “whether or not God brought about a change in your heart.”  Lutzer does not mean to say “what you believe will determine whether or not God will bring about a change in your heart.”  If he meant that he should have said that.  But rather there is this strange concept of believing determining whether or not God already brought about a change in one’s heart.  The past tense is odd.  This sounds like pre-faith regeneration which is based in unconditional election and requires an effectual call or irresistible grace not only for someone too be saved, but also to believe.  That is, God regenerates his elect first and then he causes them to believe.  This pre-faith regeneration is necessary because of the doctrine of total inability.  No sinner can believe in the message of salvation unless God does an effectual work in them.  And God only does this effectual work in those he has chosen for salvation.  So Lutzer’s meaning here, to be consistent with his Calvinism, must be, “What you believe serves as the evidence that God brought about a change in your heart, that is, that he has already regenerated you. You have already been born again and that is why you believe.”  On Calvinism, the sentence, “What you believe will determine whether or not God will bring about a change in your heart” really means, “What God has caused you to believe, presuming it is belief in Christ, is the evidence of God having regenerated you.”

It must be noted that on Lutzer’s universal divine causal determinism God also causes people not to be believe.  On a universal determinism like Calvinism, it is God alone who causes people to think, believe, desire and act as they do – whether for good or evil.  Therefore, God alone causes all events to take place as they do.  Hence, it is also correct to say, “What you refuse to believe about salvation – which God has caused you to refuse to believe – is the evidence of God having not chosen you for salvation or regenerated you.”

To this Lutzer adds, “…so he implanted some new desires within you.”  Again, God is doing all the work within his elect ones.  But then Lutzer adds talk about, “…[desires] that were not there when you were born.”  Here too it is strange to talk about “desires” that were not there when a person was born.  I don’t know that a new born baby has many “desires” except for food and sleep!  So if we want to be discerning, it seems that here Lutzer is making subtle, if not subliminal, reference to mankind’s sin nature and total inability with respect to God and spiritual things.  We are born sinners, and yet Lutzer will take this to mean that the sinner cannot even desire God, do anything good, and especially believe.  No one can believe, even upon hearing the “good news” of their salvation unless God has elected them to be saved. 

All that said, if we take what Lutzer has said thus far at face value, we can see the incoherence of his statement as compared to his theological determinism in which God himself determines all things.  So the incoherence is found in telling us “what you believe determines your eternal destiny” and Lutzer’s belief that God determines your eternal destiny.  Either you determine your eternal destiny by what you choose to believe or God determines your eternal destiny by what he causes you to believe (whether belief in Christ for salvation or belief against Christ and salvation).  But if we require Lutzer to be coherent with his own Calvinist determinism which maintains that “God determines what you and all persons will believe and therefore determines yours and everyone else’s eternal destiny,” then what he must mean here by “what you believe determines your eternal destiny” is more along the lines of “what you believe is evidence of what God has predetermined for your eternal destiny.”

Now, the most important matter here is whether or not Lutzer’s Calvinist deterministic soteriology accords with the Pauline / biblical gospel message of “good news.”

Recall the title of this sermon is “Judging False Doctrines.”  We have already seen an incoherence in Lutzer’s presentation and a lack of forthrightness and clarity of doctrinal explanation.  Lutzer is going to tell us how important doctrine is, encourage us to discern doctrinal error and show us how to do so. When Lutzer tells us, “But the fact is my friend that what you believe determines your eternal destiny” we take that as a real challenge to think about what we do believe and that we are responsible to alter our beliefs if necessary.  We take it to mean, “You ought to believe right and true things.  You ought to believe the gospel.  Your eternal destiny will be determined by what you choose to believe.”  But as we have seen, that is inconsistent with Lutzer’s Calvinist universal divine causal determinism.  So it is not encouraging that right from the start we find Lutzer speaking inconsistent with his own deterministic doctrinal beliefs.  He is not being forthright according to his own doctrinal beliefs.

Finally, note the irony here.  Lutzer disagreed with his interlocutor who made the claim that “I only care the way you live.”  But if Lutzer is going to affirm that what we believe also matters, and is indeed foundational and determinative of the way we live, then ought not Lutzer’s own words, that is, “the way [Lutzer] lives,” be consistent with what he believes?  Again, Lutzer is not only holding back his doctrinal beliefs here but speaking inconsistent with those doctrinal beliefs.

The Need for Discernment

Let’s return to the matter of discernment.  Lutzer states,

“What is discernment?  Discernment is the ability to distinguish between right and wrong – at its basic level that’s what it is – but it’s really also the ability to distinguish between right and that which is partially right.  And that’s the greater challenge.  There’s some people who say that we should do away with discernment – that the word heresy should not be in our vocabulary – just let people believe whatever they want to believe, everybody makes up his own religion and therefore everybody’s happy, just accepting ‘whatever,’ which is the basic word of the age.  And so you have a lot of people say as long as somebody gets healed in a service you should not question the faith healer or his theology.  Who are you to judge?  Or if somebody’s preaching to large crowds and saying good things they say who are you to judge?”

Lutzer makes very good points here.  But we are going to have to hold him to account with regard to his own standard; especially with respect to the identification of heresy.  More on this later.

He goes on to note the relativism in today’s culture where all kinds of ideas and lifestyles are promoted without any concern for discerning right from wrong or what is true from what is false.  He then states,

“The very same thing happens when it comes to doctrine.”

I agree.  This Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy is a case in point.  Elsewhere on this website I have written extensively about the lack of discernment and theological relativism in today’s American evangelical church with regard to its acceptance of the mutually exclusive Calvinist and non-Calvinist theologies and soteriologies.  I agree with Lutzer that this “Who are you to judge?” relativism is unacceptable, and yet it is exemplified in the thoughtless and uncritical acceptance of both the Calvinist and non-Calvinist theologies and soteriologies in our evangelical churches.

Therefore, it is interesting that Lutzer brings up the issue of heresy here.  I believe it is inevitable that Christians who think about this matter will be pressed to come to a verdict on which of these two mutually exclusive theologies and soteriologies is heretical. This issue is inescapable precisely because they are mutually exclusive.  Again, as mutually exclusive, both cannot be the teaching of Scripture.  Therefore we are faced with the question whether one or the other holds to and teaches heretical doctrines.  If so, which one – the Calvinist or the non-Calvinist doctrines?  Obviously, defining heresy will be important. I will offer a definition later, but in the meantime Lutzer goes on to give some examples.  In these examples he will also discuss interpretive principles that I will show critique Lutzer’s own Calvinist position.

The Heresy of Prosperity Teaching

Lutzer goes on to state two teachings that he considers heretical.  He says, “We live in an age when people, who purportedly believe the Bible, are teaching heresies.”  The first heresy is prosperity teaching.  It maintains that to follow God guarantees abundant wealth and prosperity.  He rightly points out that it is based on an erroneous principle of interpretation, that is, applying the promises of prosperity that God made to ancient Israel directly to ourselves in the church today without consideration of proper hermeneutical and interpretive principles.  It is bad interpretation to simply take promises made by God to Israel in one historical context and apply the “prosperity” element of them to ourselves today.  This lacks an appreciation for the nature of salvation history in which God acts in different ways at different times and in different circumstances to bring to pass his ultimate salvific goals.  Granted, there are things God has spoken to Israel in the Old Testament (e.g. the ten commandments) that are in themselves timeless and abiding truths, yet other matters were highly contextual to the purposes of God for Israel at that time.  It is not necessarily true that everything in Scripture is to be taken as prescriptive for all Christians at all times, but may be descriptive of what God was doing with Israel and / or certain Christians at certain times.  That does not mean some Scripture is void of meaning for us today. It does mean that we need to know what the text says and means in its original context and from this derive appropriate principles and only then make applications to our contemporary situations that are congruent and accurately reflect the principles the passage has bequeathed to us. From the whole of Scripture we derive the commands and principles as to what we are believe and by which we are to live.

Now it is interesting from a hermeneutical perspective how Lutzer assesses the error of these prosperity teachers. He states,

“So what these teachers have done is they have invented the doctrine of prosperity, applying it to today in ways that are not consistent with the rest of the Bible…”

Note what Lutzer concludes here.  That the doctrine and its application is “not consistent with the rest of the Bible.”  Here he enunciates the hermeneutical principle of consistency with what the Bible teaches elsewhere. But this raises and important question for Lutzer as a Calvinist.  That is, whether Lutzer’s deterministic Calvinist doctrines are consistent or inconsistent with “the rest of the Bible?”  Calvinists are notorious for claiming that we all have to live with the “tension” or “mystery” their deterministic doctrines create with human freedom and responsibility.  They say this problem is only an “apparent contradiction.” It is “beyond our human comprehension.” So, according to Lutzer’s own criteria of consistency, ask yourself whether the Calvinist doctrines are incoherent, inconsistent and even contradictory to other plain and clearly understood portions of Scripture.  Ask yourself whether or not they are “consistent with the rest of the Bible.” I contend that they are inconsistent and present real, not “apparent” contradictions.  I present reasoned evidences on this website to show that the Calvinist doctrines violate the principle of consistency or coherence given the witness of the Scriptures to a proper definition of the sovereignty of God with a contingent reality and libertarian human freedom.

Again Lutzer mentions the principle of consistency.

“The question is, “Is this what God has revealed? Is this consistent with the teachings of the Bible? Is this what God has promised?” And the answer is no, but this kind of nonsense flourishes.”

Yes it does, and Calvinism also suffers from this inconsistency with the full scope of the teachings of the Bible.

The Heresy of Love and Unity above All Else

Lutzer states a second bad principle of interpretation which has led to a heretical teaching.

“…the second was that love and unity were going to cancel all of the rest of the Bible that has to do with heresy and false teachings and a clear Gospel and everything. Under love and unity, we would now be able to say anything that we wanted to say, and nobody would say that you are wrong because that is being divisive. That is dividing the Body, so you just let all of these heresies flourish.”

Lutzer’s observation is correct here.  The second bad principle of interpretation is to so stress love and unity that both are placed above and against the search for and the acceptance of the truth in a matter.  Truth, by its very nature, makes distinctions and discriminates.  It therefore divides from what is false.  Hence to avoid being divisive in any way and at all costs is to embrace interpretive and doctrinal relativism.  To make love and unity paramount to the exclusion of a concern for sound thinking, honest dialogue and the proper interpretation of Scripture is to allow for false teachings and heresies to enter the church.  And as Lutzer points out, this can happen even with respect to the Gospel.  The question therefore still lingers.  Which of the two mutually exclusive soteriologies – Calvinist and non-Calvinist – is true?  Which one has the support of Scripture rightly interpreted?  We will return to this point below.

Lutzer goes on to talk about prophets in the church and those who see visions and have dreams and revelations claiming them to be from God.  And then states,

“And if you were to say, “Wait a moment; is this scriptural?” you know what they’d say to you? They’d say, “Well, wait a moment. The Bible says that God is going to do a new thing, and this is the new thing.”

Note that Lutzer observes an interpretive phenomenon at work here where the question “Wait a moment; is that scriptural?” is met with quoting a verse regardless of its context.  Lutzer is pointing out that a lot of false teachings come in by way of poor interpretive methods.  One of them is proof-texting irrespective of context.  By doing this one can justify almost any theological position or practice.  Lutzer then tells us the end result of this situation in the church.  He says that this practice “undercut the possibility of the church having any defense against error.”

He is correct.  Interpretive relativism short-circuits legitimate inquiry, discussion and valid argumentation. How do you defend against a subjective, purely relativistic type of interpretive approach?  You have to establish principles of interpretation rooted in responsible thinking that respects the rules of logic and sound reasoning.  This is Lutzer’s next point.

A Study in Doctrine and the Law of Non-Contradiction

Lutzer continues,

“Now, today we’re going to do a study in doctrine if you’re still going to be with me by the end, and we’re going to introduce what I would call antithetical thinking. That’s a big word. What does it mean? It simply means this, that if you affirm something as being true, its opposite is false. Now, we don’t have that in today’s society. You can affirm your truth. I can affirm my truth. And they can be totally contradictory, and yet we put a circle around it and we say all of it is true. (chuckles) Well, that’s not possible. Back in the days when I used to teach at a college I used to say that a contradiction is a charley horse between the ears. Not all these views can be true. The Bible is a very antithetical book.”

Now, Lutzer has said “that if you affirm something as being true, its opposite is false.”  In saying this he is affirming the law of non-contradiction.  If you claim something to be true, you cannot at the same time and in the same manner claim that its opposite is also true.  People intuitively know and accept the law of non-contradiction. That is why the congregation chuckled at the idea that all points of view and beliefs can be true.

So we take it as a sound hermeneutical principle that the law of non-contradiction holds in biblical interpretation too.  Contradictory interpretations cannot both be true.  Once again, you can anticipate the application of this law to our two mutually exclusive theologies and soteriologies.  Now, Lutzer plainly states,

“Now, you say, “Oh boy, so this is The Moody Church. You are dividing people. Doctrine divides.” And you are absolutely right. That’s what it’s supposed to do. That’s the whole purpose of doctrine, to divide. And as I mentioned in an earlier message, it is so much better to recognize that we are divided by truth than to be united in error. So, yes, it’s true that doctrine divides, but doctrine also unites.”

So only doctrinal truth should be the source of unity.  We should not accept doctrinal error in the cause of preventing division and preserving unity.  Therefore, there is a time at which doctrinal truth will cause division from what is doctrinally false, especially when it comes to the content of the gospel.  So what is the gospel?

What is the Gospel?

Lutzer continues by considering the most important doctrine in the Bible.  What doctrine must be preserved, even at the cost of division?  He says it is “the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  We certainly agree.  The most important doctrine in Scripture is the gospel message.  But what is the gospel?  Will Lutzer answer that question for us?  Will his answer be consistent with his Calvinist theology and soteriology?  Do Calvinists and non-Calvinists hold to different, opposing “gospel” messages?  If so, then given what Lutzer just affirmed about the law of non-contradiction they both cannot be true.  And if that is the case, if they are mutually exclusive, can we confidently say that one is heretical and the other scriptural?  Which “gospel” is what the Bible actually teaches?  Lutzer states,

“What we’d like to do in the next few moments is to look at the most important doctrine in all the Bible. You say, “Well, how do you know what it is?” Well, take your Bible and turn to the book of Galatians. Galatians is found, of course, in the New Testament. It’s written by the Apostle Paul who is greatly burdened. And what he does is he expounds the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the most important doctrine that one could ever embrace or ever understand. And we don’t divide over lesser issues, by the way. We can put up with a lot of differences. Not everybody has to agree. Not everybody has to see things the same way. There are many doctrines over which we can be charitable and simply say that we do not have to agree. But the Gospel is one that we need to agree on.”

It certainly seems that Lutzer is rightly understanding the issue at stake in Paul’s mind as he was writing Galatians.  Paul makes himself perfectly clear about the necessity to preserve the gospel as it was preached by him and accepted by the church in Galatia as well as in all the other churches Paul evangelized.  It can certainly be argued, therefore, that the gospel or the message of “good news” is the central and most important doctrinal issue and message in all of Scripture.  There are lesser issues upon which we can disagree, but according to Paul there is only one gospel, and that cannot be compromised.  Lutzer continues,

“Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 1, verse 6. He says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ, and are turning to a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the Gospel of Christ.” But now notice in verse 8: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a Gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned.” Wow! “As we have already said, so now I say again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel other than the one that you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.” Remember the translations that say, “Let him be accursed.” Wow! If an angel came and preached a different gospel, reject him.

Now, could you imagine? Let’s suppose that while I am preaching, or just after I’m preaching, or even just before I am preaching, what if an angel came down right out of the ceiling of Moody Church? Splendor! Glory! Looks so much better than anyone on the platform! I can assure you of that. (laughter) And let us suppose that this angel said, “I want you to know that God is interested in you being a good person. And if you’re a good person you’ll get to heaven.” Can you imagine? People would embrace it and they would say, “Of course this is true. An angel spoke it!” Paul says, “Let that angel be accursed, eternally damned!” Wow!”

Well, by now you should be grasping the profound implications of Paul’s warnings and Lutzer’s exposition of Galatians 1 for the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy.  Even though Lutzer is pointing out the falsity of a “gospel of “works,” we can make application to the two soteriologies – Calvinist and non-Calvinist – that do not preach or teach the same gospel message.  They are antithetical to each other.  They are incompatible.  So Paul’s and Lutzer’s passion for preserving the true gospel applies here too.  And if one’s soteriology is the foundation of one’s gospel message, and we have two different soteriologies here, we must ask which soteriology reflects the biblical teaching; which rightly reflects the biblical gospel?  After all, the title of Lutzer’s sermon is “Judging False Doctrines.”  So we may ask whether the Calvinist soteriological doctrines reflect and retain the gospel as the “good news” that was preached by Paul, or whether the non-Calvinist soteriology doctrines properly reflect Paul’s “good news” gospel message.  As Lutzer has pointed out, Paul himself has established that there is only one true gospel.  Therefore, given the importance of this message of “good news” and the incompatibility of the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies, the question as to which is the truth about the gospel needs to be answered.

Lutzer Helps Us Understand The Gospel

We know the biblical definition of the word “gospel” is “good news.”  Now Lutzer goes on to give us “five necessary truths to understand the Gospel.”  So we presume that these “necessary truths” will clarify and increase our understanding of the gospel as “good news.”  Therefore let us see if these “necessary truths support or undermine the gospel as “good news.”  Lutzer states,

“…we’re just going to give you some verses of Scripture for them. And then we’re going to engage in this antithetical thinking, because what we’re going to do is to affirm and we’re also going to deny, so this is an exercise in doctrinal discernment.”

Let’s engage with Lutzer in antithetical thinking and doctrinal discernment.

1. According to Lutzer, the first truth we need to know to understand the gospel is the holiness of God.  He states,

“First of all, the holiness of God! That means that God is separate. God is other. The Bible says, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts. The whole earth is perfect before him.” It says that God is so pure that He cannot regard, He cannot absorb, He cannot condone any evil. Why is that important? Well, if God weren’t holy, why then, of course, we would not need the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”

So Lutzer makes the point that “God is so pure that He cannot regard, He cannot absorb, He cannot condone any evil.”  Yet, Lutzer, as a Calvinist must also affirm that God brings about all the evil in the world.  This is included in his definition of “the sovereignty of God” as a universal divine causal determinism.  For the Calvinist, “divine sovereignty” means God’s complete and absolute control over all things in the sense that he predetermined and therefore causes all things to occur as he has predetermined. This exhaustive divine causal determinism is of course without remainder in any type of human libertarian freedom and therefore any human responsibility. Hence the Calvinist must affirm that God has predetermined and also brings about all the evil in the world.  And honest Calvinists do affirm this.  For instance, Calvinist John Piper stands in agreement with Calvinist Mark Talbot when Talbot states that,

“God…brings about all things in accordance with His will.   In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love Him; it is rather that He himself brings about these evil aspects for His glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and His people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11: James 1:2-4).  This includes – as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem – God’s having even brought about the Nazi’s brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child…”[2]

We take it that Lutzer would also be honest enough to affirm this statement if he wants to remain consistent with his theology.  But we can see that Lutzer’s Calvinist theistic determinism is inconsistent with his first truth about the gospel – the holiness of God.  Note that Lutzer’s Calvinist theology regarding God’s sovereignty is antithetical to the holiness of God.  Lutzer says God cannot regard, absorb or condone any evil, and yet he has decreed and causes all evil thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, desires and actions.  So if this is an exercise in doctrinal discernment and antithetical thinking, we see that Lutzer’s doctrine of the sovereignty of God as a theistic determinism is antithetical or incoherent with his doctrine of the holiness of God.

I agree with Lutzer that because God is holy we need the sinless life and perfect righteousness of Christ put to our account.  Lutzer states,

“God is holy! What does that mean? It excludes all possibility of people being able to access Him on their own, because the Bible would teach that all access to God has to be mediated because He is too holy to approach. That’s why when we come to God we come in the name of Jesus, and the sacrifice of Jesus, because we can’t get there on our own. How is a holy God going to make contact with sinful man unless there is some mediator between God and man who is qualified to bring man and God together, who is qualified to appease God’s holiness and His justice?

This is a fine statement of some important gospel truths.  But as true as this description is, we can also see that according to Lutzer’s own criteria of antithetical thinking and doctrinal discernment his “necessary truth” of the holiness of God in relation to his doctrine of divine sovereignty has not fared well in providing clarity and increasing our understanding of the gospel as “good news.”  He has presented us with a serious moral incoherence and conflict between his Calvinist theology and the holiness of God which he claimed would increase our understanding of “the Gospel.” I conclude that a correct explication of the holiness of God has increased our understanding of the gospel as “good news,” but as far as Lutzer’s Calvinist determinism has entered the picture it has diminished our understanding of the gospel as “good news.”

2. Lutzer’s second “necessary truth” that will help us to understand the gospel is the deity of Christ.

Here Lutzer encourages us to “test the spirits” and warns us about television preachers and following your feelings.  He rightly states that we “test the spirits” by the Word of God and that Bible tells us that Jesus is God.  This, therefore, is an exclusive claim.  Lutzer states,

“It excludes the Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe that Christ was a created being. It excludes all the New Agers who separate the historical Christ from the so-called cosmic Christ. It also excludes all those who belong to the Jesus Seminar who torture the Scriptures so that Jesus is made to appear as a mere man. Christ is God!”

We can agree with Lutzer here.  The deity of Christ is a foundational doctrine upon which the gospel message stands.  But note the fact that Christianity excludes those religions and spiritualties that are incompatible with it.  Likewise, the same reasoning applies within Christianity.  The Calvinist and non-Calvinist theologies are mutually exclusive.  Which therefore is the truth of Scripture?   

3. Lutzer’s third necessary truth that we need to know to understand the gospel is the lostness of man.

Here Lutzer begins to inject more of his Calvinist soteriology in the doctrine of “total inability” or “total depravity.”  He states,

“How bad off are we without Christ? The Scripture says in the book of Ephesians that we are dead in trespasses and sins, that is to say that we cannot respond to God. We are like people in a funeral home, laid out in a coffin. We might even desire God but we cannot find Him unless He comes to us and breathes life into us, and gives us the ability to believe and to see our sin, and to see the wonder and the beauty of Jesus. We were really bad off.”

Note his exposition of Ephesians 2:1 and 5 as “we cannot respond to God” and that “he gives us the ability to believe.”  Consistent with his Calvinism, I take Lutzer as saying that it is only in those individuals that God has elected to salvation that he works faith.  The sinner “cannot respond to God.”  The sinner cannot, in any sense described as acting upon the basis of his individual will or decision-making capacity, believe the message of the gospel when he hears it.  Therefore, on Calvinism God must cause the sinner to believe and he only does this in those he has predestined for salvation.  God does not merely open up the possibility for the sinner to believe, God actually causes the sinner to believe.  But we ought to use our doctrinal discernment here and think through whether this doctrine of “total inability” is consistent with the many scriptures that teach us about the nature of faith – that it is everywhere presumed to be the real and genuine response of the person themselves and the responsibility of the sinner to believe the gospel of their salvation. God has decreed that faith would be the means by which his salvation could be appropriated because it is the means that makes salvation open to and possible for all sinners.  Given the issue here, it is imperative to consider the impact that this Calvinist teaching on faith – that not all can believe – has on the gospel message as “good news” for sinners.  What would the content of the gospel as “good news” be given this Calvinist understanding of the nature of faith? Can sinners respond to God when God graciously offers them salvation by faith?  Is faith to be defined as a “work” based on Ephesians 2:1 and 5 and thereby excluded from the way salvation takes place?

            Lutzer will rightly contrast salvation by faith in Christ alone with the religions that teach salvation by “works” – by being good people and striving to do our very best.  These have nothing to do with the gospel.  But do sinners still have a response-ability with respect to God, especially when he brings them the “good news” of their salvation?  Is it the sinner themselves who ultimately accepts or rejects the gospel of their salvation?

            So, yes, the “lostness of man” or his sinfulness is a foundational truth in the gospel message, that’s why we need a savior. But it seems to me that the scriptures also makes it clear that this sinful condition does not preclude the sinner from believing, especially when God is calling them to do just that. God is either speaking truthfully to them or disingenuously. He cannot do the latter, therefore all those who hear the truth of the gospel may believe and be saved.  Even if we say that the Spirit is at work in the gospel to allow for the possibility of a faith response, Scripture does not teach us that their “response” was unconditional and therefore needed to be caused by God on the basis of their being predestined to salvation.  I submit to you that the Bible testifies that the message of the gospel as “good news” contains and allows for a point of decision to be made by the sinner which is genuinely their responsibility.  The sinner either accepts or rejects the “good news” of their salvation when it is proclaimed to them.  God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:1-6) .  He does not send anyone to hell.  People send themselves there by their persistent unbelief and rejection of the message of their salvation.

4. Lutzer’s fourth necessary truth regarding the gospel is the substitutionary atonement.

Lutzer states,

“That’s what we call it. It means that Jesus died for sinners. It says in 1 Peter 3:18 that Jesus Christ died for our sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. Do you know what that means? That means that there can be no other way to God. Oh, I know that that’s so unpopular today, that people don’t understand why that can’t be. It’s because Jesus Christ is the only one who can give us the righteousness that we need. Jesus is the only one who met the requirements of a holy God, and because we can’t access God on our own, we must come to God in the prescribed way. He is the only name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. There are no other options. Gurus aplenty! Prophets! Teachers! Here’s the path! Do this! But there’s nobody to scoop us out and take us to Almighty God! No other religion! You’ve heard this from me so many times, but I need to say it again. No other religion has a Savior. So the substitutionary atonement!”

We agree that the substitutionary atonement makes Christianity exclusive; we must come to God in the prescribed way.  But Lutzer’s Calvinism raises the question as to which sinners can come to God through Jesus Christ.  For whom is Christ’s atonement a substitution?  For all sinners, meaning that all can be saved, or only for those unconditionally elected to salvation?

            Note Lutzer’s definition of substitutionary atonement.  He says, “It means that Jesus died for sinners.”  Biblically, this is technically correct, Jesus died for “sinners.” But did Jesus die for all sinners or only some sinners?  This phraseology, “Jesus died for sinners,” is typical of Calvinists because it is vague enough for the Calvinist to avoid the qualification his doctrine of limited atonement requires.  Those who do believe in limited atonement (some Calvinists don’t), cannot honestly say “Christ died for all sinners” or “Christ died for all” or even “Christ died for you!”  The first two would not be true.  The third would be presumptuous and to those who are among the non-elect who hear it, it would be a lie.  As a Calvinist, Lutzer’s underlying belief is most likely that Jesus died only for a limited number of elect sinners.  And even if he believes the Bible teaches an unlimited atonement, as some Calvinists do, that changes nothing given his doctrine of unconditional election.  Christ can die for all, but so what!  Only the unconditionally elected will be saved.  So limited atonement is most likely what Lutzer would like to have veiled from us by the phrase “Jesus died for sinners.”  So we need to ask ourselves if Lutzer or any Calvinist were to speak honestly and consistently according to their Calvinist soteriological doctrines, would we still have a gospel of “good news?”

            Note what has been happening.  In the context of the Calvinist’s soteriological doctrines, the gospel message as “good news” for all who hear it is being eroded.  In light of the holiness of God its determinism makes God the author of evil and evil himself.  The possibility of the response of faith is removed by the doctrine of total inability.  Given the doctrine of unconditional election the assurance of God’s saving love is placed in doubt.  The salvific will of God with respect to you, me or anyone else has become an unknown as relegated to a unalterable decision of God made in eternity past as to whom he would save and whom he would not save.  And the doctrine of limited atonement strains the gospel to the breaking point, making it no longer “good news” for the sinner.  One cannot know the love of God for them as evidenced by the death of Christ if they cannot be assured that Christ died for them.  Therefore, what Lutzer has to do is subtly include, minimize or leave out altogether some of his “doctrines of grace” (i.e., TULIP doctrines) in order for his message to retain some semblance of “good news” for each and every sinner.  Perhaps we are beginning to see which theology and soteriology is biblically amiss, especially as it pertains to the gospel as “good news,” which is the doctrine that will be the watershed for distinguishing heresy from orthodoxy.

5. Lutzer’s fifth and last necessary truth that we need to know to understand the gospel is faith alone.

He states,

“Why is salvation given through faith alone? Why can there be no cooperation between us and God? Why is it not true to say that we do our best, and then God comes along and does His best? It’s because when we come to salvation there is nothing that we have to offer. As the song says, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” And so we don’t bring anything to the table except our great need. And the righteousness that we need from God is a righteousness of which we have none, so we make no contribution. We do not add to that righteousness and make it more righteous. We do not subtract from it. We simply receive it. That’s all that we can do because in our helplessness in our sin there is nothing else that we can do.”

Now for Lutzer, as a Calvinist, he is sure to point out that there can be “no cooperation between us and God” and that “we make no contribution” to our righteousness and salvation.  What the Calvinist mistakenly includes in this “cooperation” and “contribution” is faith.  If you could exercise faith, that is, if faith is not given to you as part and parcel of your unconditional election, then you would be “cooperating” with God and making a “contribution” to your salvation.  Recall that on Calvinism salvation is completely unconditional.  The sinner is completely passive in the whole process.  God effects it all.  When the Calvinist states that “salvation is all of God” they mean it in the absolute sense which includes the phenomenon of believing.  Note that in the section on the lostness of man, Lutzer made it clear that “we cannot respond to God.”  He says that we are “like people in a funeral home, laid out in a coffin. We might even desire God but we cannot find Him unless He comes to us and breathes life into us…”  This is the Calvinist interpretation of the references in Ephesians 2:1 and 5 to “dead in trespasses and sins” and “dead in our trespasses.”  For the Calvinist this removes from all people the ability to believe or exercise faith.  So how can a “dead” man believe?  He would have to be regenerated first.  Now this logically leads to the Calvinist idea of pre-faith regeneration.  God must first regenerate his elect ones and then they are caused to believe.  Regeneration precedes faith.  Faith evidences regeneration.  It is not that the sinner believes and is then regenerated or saved, which I contend is always the order in Scripture.  On Calvinism, the sinner must first be regenerated or saved, and only then do they believe.  Lutzer clearly affirms pre-faith regeneration because whereas we once were “dead” and had no ability to respond to God, he makes it clear that it is God who “gives us the ability to believe…”  This is evident in his closing prayer in which he states the following,

“Let’s pray. Our Father, today, we ask in the name of Jesus that you’ll make us discerning Christians in an age with so much confusion. Grant, oh God, hearts that are ready to respond to the truth. And for those who are here today who have never trusted Christ as Savior, may they even at this moment say, “Jesus, I’m a sinner and I accept your free offer of eternal life. I transfer my trust to Christ alone.”  Do that, Father, in their hearts. Create that faith and that desire we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Lutzer can play both sides of this matter with respect to faith.  First he prays “Grant, oh God, hearts that are ready to respond to the truth.”  Presumably, even if God needs to ready the heart, the sinner still must respond to the truth that they hear.  And he prays, “And for those who are here today who have never trusted Christ as Savior, may they even at this moment say, “Jesus, I’m a sinner and I accept your free offer of eternal life. I transfer my trust to Christ alone.”  He speaks of the need for the sinner to trust Christ as Savior and for the sinner to confess and accept the eternal life that is freely offered.  It is the sinner who transfers his trust to Christ alone.  Yet, on the other hand his Calvinist determinism comes through at the end of the prayer when he says, “Do that, Father, in their hearts. Create that faith and that desire…”  This is a reflection of the Calvinist believe that God ordains and brings about “whatsoever comes to pass.”  God determines every thought, desire, belief and action of all persons at all times.  For the Calvinist, this is what the sovereignty of God entails.  The rationale of Lutzer’s prayer in light of his theistic determinism is another problem that we cannot deal with here, but we do see the results of Lutzer’s theistic determinism.  God, according to what he has predetermined for all things and all people, causes their hearts (i.e., the elect) to be ready to respond, causes in them the desire to trust Christ and also creates faith in them.  I affirm Lutzer’s prayer to God that he would “make us discerning Christians in an age with so much confusion.”  Let us be discerning with Lutzer’s own theology and soteriology for the very gospel is at stake.

            Notice that inconsistent with what Lutzer has said previously, here in this section on “faith alone” he states that there is something we can do.  With respect to righteousness, he rightly points out that we cannot add to Christ’s righteousness, especially with our good works.  But he then says,

“We simply receive it. That’s all that we can do because in our helplessness in our sin there is nothing else that we can do.”

This is inconsistent with his doctrine of total inability.  It seems that the sinner is not as “dead” as Lutzer made him out to be previously.  The sinner can do something.  The sinner is called upon to receive Christ’s righteousness, that is, believe in Christ. “That’s all we can do…there is nothing else that we can do.” The sinner, in their “helplessness” and “in our sin” responds by receiving the righteousness of Christ; that is, by believing in Christ.  The sinner exercises faith in God and Christ for salvation.  I agree with Lutzer here and submit to you that this is the biblical testimony to the nature of faith and the order of salvation.  But this is in direct conflict with what Lutzer has said about man’s total inability and also the faith and desire to accept eternal life.  Faith needs to be created by God in the sinner – who we know has to be one of the elect predestined for salvation.  But the biblical witness to faith is that the sinner is called upon to do what God has decreed would be the way salvation is received – by the exercise of simple faith alone.  It is the sinner who must believe.  But this is contrary to what Lutzer has talked about previously, and in that it introduces a substantial element of human freedom of the will – not to contribute to salvation but simply to accept it by faith or reject it in stubborn pride – it is inconsistent with Lutzer’s soteriological determinism.  This “doing” or response of faith, as much as it is the genuine responsibility of the sinner themselves, is in contradiction to Lutzer’s and the Calvinist’s universal divine causal determinism.

Lutzer goes on to state,

“Perhaps you’ve never heard before as clearly as we hope you have heard it, that it is through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice that we transfer our trust to Him, and by that means we are saved, and God credits to us His righteousness and His glory, and it becomes ours all because of a free gift because we have humbled ourselves and know that we can’t save ourselves. We have to cleave to that which Jesus Christ has done for us. That is the Gospel.”

Yes, that is the gospel, but that is not Calvinist soteriological doctrine.  Lutzer is being inconsistent here with his own Calvinist universal divine causal determinism (i.e., his definition of God’s sovereignty) and his deterministic soteriological doctrines.  Not only should we recall that he has said, “What you believe determines your eternal destiny,” presupposing human freedom and responsibility, but here too, in like manner, he says that “we transfer our trust to Him,” “we have humbled ourselves” and that “we have to cleave to that which Jesus Christ has done for us.”  These statements obviously speak about what the sinner must do to be saved.  The transfer of trust, the humbling of ourselves and the cleaving to the work of Christ that he has done for us as the means by which we are saved are all statements that are inconsistent with his own deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty, a limited substitutionary atonement, the lostness of man defined as “total inability” and faith alone requiring pre-faith regeneration.  Note also that he talks about “that which Christ has done for us.”  Here is a universal “us” that includes all those hearing.  But such statements are simply false for the non-elect.  So Lutzer is not being forthright here and is speaking inconsistent with his Calvinist soteriological doctrines.  In all these aspects of “the gospel” Lutzer’s Calvinist doctrines have removed the sinner’s ability to respond to God and yet Lutzer now tells us that the sinner needs to respond to God in the ways he has mentioned.

            So Lutzer’s “gospel” is full of inconsistencies.  And we can see why.  Lutzer, along with all Calvinists, when it comes to evangelism and the proclamation of the gospel, must speak and write inconsistent with their underlying theological and soteriological “doctrines of grace” because if they were to speak consistent with those doctrines they would have no “good news” to bring to the unsaved that are hearing them.  If Lutzer and Calvinists were to speak, teach or preach consistent with their deterministic soteriology, the “good news” of the gospel would no longer be good news.  It would be reduced to merely the news that God has accomplished salvation only for some (we know not who), and therefore the very thing that is good in the “good news,” that is, the assurance that God loves all sinners and therefore the assurance that his provision of salvation in Christ is for all by faith alone, would evaporate in the dark unknowns of the premundane counsels and eternal decree of God.  On Calvinism the truly “good news” gospel message is no more.  It has been eliminated by its deterministic doctrines.  Therefore, is Calvinism and more particular, the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” (i.e., total inability, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the perseverance and preservation of the elect), a serious distortion of the “good news” that rises to the level of heresy?  Given all these evidences, it is hard to conclude otherwise.

In closing his sermon Lutzer continues,

“The Bible says that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. And it is power to you, my friend, if you believe today and return to Christ.”

There is the “good news!”  It has to be made universal and personal!  And as Lutzer has insisted that we exercise doctrinal discernment, let us do so.  By now you can see that this brief statement of the “good news” is inconsistent with Lutzer’s Calvinist soteriological doctrines.  But his problems go deeper.  Most importantly we have here the offer of salvation, not from Lutzer per se, but from God himself through the proclamation of Lutzer.  Salvation is spoken of as applicable to all sinners and appropriated by the sinner through their response of faith.  God applies the salvation he has fully accomplished in Christ for the sinner to the sinner upon the sinner’s believing the message of their salvation.  Now, in that God is a God of truth, these statements indicate that God genuinely wants all persons to believe and be saved.  There is no sub-text of unconditional election, limited atonement or pre-faith regeneration here.  It is the straightforward and simple “good news.”  As the apostle Paul put it to the Philippian jailer who asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:30-31)  That message – that “good news” – is the power of God to save those who believe.  God has accomplished salvation for all.  It is complete, full and free.  It only needs to be received by faith. Faith is the means by which the accomplished salvation is appropriated by the sinner to themselves.  Through that gospel God’s power comes to the sinner to save them when they believe. Faith comes prior to salvation, and faith is everywhere testified to in Scripture as being the responsibility of the sinner in the sense of the sinner being free to believe or remain in unbelief, to accept or reject the salvation being offered them in Christ.

The Question of Heresy

Recall Lutzer as saying,

“There’s some people who say that we should do away with discernment – that the word heresy should not be in our vocabulary – just let people believe whatever they want to believe…”

Now, Lutzer never defines heresy, he only provided the examples of prosperity teaching and love and unity above all else, but he has emphatically made the point through his exposition of Paul’s warnings and rebukes in Galatians 1, and through Lutzer’s own words, that any distortion of the gospel cannot be tolerated because the gospel is at the very heart of the biblical revelation.  I agree.  Lutzer is clear on this.  He states,

“What am I saying today? I’m saying that our greatest message that we must defend with our lives… Now, there are very few things I would die for, but I do know that one of them is that I trust I would be willing to die for the Gospel. There is nothing else except the Gospel.”

Of course there are differences among evangelical Christians on various matters of lesser importance.  On these we can show magnanimity.  But Lutzer, following the apostle Paul, is right.  The biblical gospel cannot be compromised.  So, have the Calvinist doctrines distorted, eroded and even annihilated the gospel in some of its essential elements as I have pointed out above and as biblically defined as “good news?”

The late R. C. Sproul, who was a staunch Calvinist, offers us a suitable and workable definition of heresy.  He states,

“But what do we mean by heresy? Is every theological error a heresy? In a broad sense, every departure from biblical truth may be regarded as a heresy. But in the currency of Christian thought, the term heresy has usually been reserved for gross and heinous distortions of biblical truth, for errors so grave that they threaten either the essence (esse) of the Christian faith or the well-being (bene esse) of the Christian church.”[3]

There is nothing more essential to the Christian faith and the Christian church than the gospel message.  Once we are convinced that due to its primary place in the biblical revelation and its importance to the matter of the salvation or a person’s eternal destiny, we can see that a “gross or heinous” distortion or error with respect to the gospel is worthy of the definition of heresy.

Now, the question before us becomes whether Calvinism, in its universal divine causal determinism and subsequent deterministic soteriology so distorts the gospel biblically defined as the “good news” along with the elements that are essential to it being good news (e.g., the assurance of God’s saving love for every individual, the assurance that God desires each of us to be saved, the assurance that he has made salvation possible for each and every person, that salvation is by faith alone so that any and all sinners may be saved, etc.), that it rises to the level of a “gross and heinous distortion” of biblical truth. As for evaluating whether a doctrine is heretical of not, ironically Lutzer relays this account of Martin Luther’s belief in infant baptism. 

“During the days of the Reformation, when Luther uncovered the Gospel, even though he was confused about such things as infant baptism, for example, he still believed that somehow it saved. But despite that contradiction, he did understand that salvation was through faith alone.”

Regarding infant baptism, note that Lutzer points out that Luther “believed that somehow it saved.”  That seems to have direct bearing upon the nature of salvation and therefore also the truth of the gospel.  Therefore, was Luther a heretic on this point?  It would seem so.  Yet Lutzer states that “Luther uncovered the Gospel” referring to justification by faith, and yet Luther also held to a deterministic version of the doctrine of predestination which also distorts the biblical gospel as truly “good news.”  So Luther’s theistic determinism takes back with one hand the “good news” of justification by faith alone that he offered on the other hand.  Luther uncovered an essential truth of the gospel, only to have other essential truths of the gospel be sacrificed on the altar of theistic determinism.  Due to his misunderstanding of the sovereignty of God, predestination and election, Luther also believed that salvation was only for those God has chosen and therefore those whom he would cause to believe.  For Luther, as with Calvin, sinners cannot believe due to their “total depravity” or “total inability.”  But as I have shown, this seriously distorts key aspects of the gospel that make that message “good news” for sinners.

Conclusions

So here are the five necessary truths that Lutzer gave us so that we could understand the Gospel.

  • The Holiness of God
  • The Deity of Christ
  • The Lostness of Man
  • Substitutionary Atonement
  • Faith Alone

Now, we were encouraged by Lutzer to be doctrinally discerning, embrace the law of non-contradiction and engage in antithetical thinking.  I have done my best to do so.  But in doing so I think it is clear that to the degree these “necessary truths” expressed Calvinist theology and soteriology they have not helped us to “understand the Gospel,” rather, they have distorted and eroded the gospel understood and defined biblically as “good news.”  Lutzer’s Calvinism is seriously problematic when it comes to supporting and proclaiming the “good news” to all sinners.  If my assessment of Lutzer’s sermon is even somewhat correct, we have seen that certain of the Calvinist theological and soteriological doctrines create contradictions and work together to erode the biblical gospel as “good news.”  Lutzer has also been inconsistent in his own statements and this raises questions as to the validity of his interpretations of Scripture and his Calvinist theology.  Indeed, we can now see that we need to ask the Calvinist “What is the message of “the gospel” that would be consistent with your soteriological doctrines?”  This question and its honest and accurate answer seems to drive home the point that there is no “good news” in the Calvinist soteriology.  The over-arching problem of Calvinism’s definition of God’s sovereignty as theistic determinism, the sinfulness of man as defined as a “total inability” to even believe in Christ, the substitutionary atonement being limited to certain individuals God predetermined to save while also predetermining that all others cannot be saved and that faith in God and Christ for salvation is not available for all but is only caused to occur in the elect, all conspire together to distort and degrade the “good news” that salvation can be found in Christ, whose death on the cross demonstrates God universal saving love (Rom. 5:8) and is therefore available for all to receive simply by believing in Christ and trusting in him for salvation. 

Hence, we are pressed to ask if Calvinism, which is a universal divine causal determinism, is a “gross and heinous distortion of biblical truth.”  Is Calvinism, with reference to the gospel as “good news” a heresy as R. C. Sproul defined it. I have sought to give evidence of Calvinism’s incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions.  I have sought to show that in the end it distorts the gospel message biblically defined as “good news” until it is reduced to merely “news” about salvation having been wrought by God for a limited number of chosen individuals.  It eliminates assurances of God’s love for each of us.  It obscures in dark mystery God’s salvific will and places in doubt whether or not God has accomplished salvation for all of us sinners in Christ’s death on our behalf.  It tells us that we cannot exercise faith but must wait for God to create faith in us.  Its mistaken understanding of God’s sovereignty as theistic determinism also impugns the character of God as not only being the author of evil, but also the cause of all evil doings.  It teaches us that God is ultimately indifferent to the salvation of the greater mass of humanity. If this is not a gross and heinous distortion of biblical truth I don’t know what is.

            Lutzer has stated five doctrines that bear upon the gospel, but he seems to have left us without “good news.”  He has given us five theological doctrines to help us understand the gospel, but it seems that those doctrines, as understood according to Calvin and Lutzer, have chipped away at all that is good in the “good news” – including God himself – and left us merely with the news of how salvation works according to Calvin.

            There were times that Lutzer did give us a message of good news – however brief or partial.  And his doctrinal expositions provided us with some sound biblical truth.  But it is as Lutzer told us,

“Discernment is the ability to distinguish between right and wrong – at its basic level that’s what it is – but it’s really also the ability to distinguish between right and that which is partially right.  And that’s the greater challenge.”

I have sought to seriously engage in that “greater challenge” of doctrinal discernment.  There is much that is right in this sermon, and yet we have detected, due to the influence of his Calvinist theology and soteriology, things that are only partially right when it comes to the gospel message.

            How have these Calvinist doctrines affected the gospel of “good news?”  Positively or negatively?  I have tried to show, that the Calvinist soteriological doctrines are antithetical to the most important elements of the gospel that make it good news.  Those doctrines expunge what is good out of the “good news.”

            It is also quite conspicuous that in this presentation of the “necessary truths to understand the Gospel” Lutzer does not provide an exposition of his Calvinist soteriological doctrines or “doctrines of grace,” which many Calvinists believe compose the biblical gospel.  One’s soteriology should be the basis for and be consistent with the gospel as “good news.” But it is very odd that these doctrines are not forthrightly and clearly taught in a message on the most important doctrine of the Bible – the gospel of Jesus Christ.  They should be taught in relation to the gospel, for after all, these doctrines are the full and final explanation as to how a person becomes saved.  The gospel message is, after all, about our salvation.  It is, after all, about our eternal destiny.  And the “doctrines of grace” are the full and final explanation as to how and why one person’s eternal destiny turns out to be heaven and another person’s turns out to be hell.

So why don’t Calvinists clearly expound their “doctrines of grace” as their salvation or “gospel” message?” Lutzer began by telling us that “what you believe determines your eternal destiny.”  But according to the “doctrines of grace” it is God and God alone who has unalterably determined your eternal destiny in heaven or hell.  You are in no way involved in your eternal destiny.  That has been predetermined by God alone.  So it seems that Lutzer has to suppress or “fudge” on his “doctrines of grace” if he wants to give us truly good news. What this is telling us is that these “doctrines of grace” cannot be put into the service of true gospel ministry and true “good news” evangelism.  Calvinism’s soteriological doctrines do not support or accord with the truly “good news” message of salvation for all.

So the heresy question that Lutzer himself introduced comes to the fore again.  We must ask, “If Calvinism is destructive of the “good news” or the gospel message; if it is a distortion of the gospel message such that the Calvinist doctrines cannot be spoken in support of a gospel proclamation of truly good news, then, if as Lutzer himself has rightly told us there can be no compromise on the gospel message, and the apostle Paul has made this emphatically clear in Galatians 1, I think we need to be honest and consistent and conclude that Lutzer’s Calvinist soteriological doctrines are heretical.  On Lutzer’s own criteria of doctrinal discernment, Lutzer’s presentation of these doctrinal truths, as far as they have introduced the elements of the Calvinist soteriological doctrines, have not only been inconsistent and contradictory in themselves, which indicates that they are misinterpretations of the relevant texts, but they have also wreaked havoc with the gospel as good news.  They have so distorted the biblical message that it can no longer be understood as good news.  As far as Lutzer has inserted his Calvinism into the “five necessary truths” we need to know to “understand the Gospel,” these five doctrines haven’t helped us understand the gospel at all, rather they have distorted the message biblically defined as “good news.”

            Therefore, do you think the words “what you believe determines your eternal destiny” mean what they say in the context of God given human freedom and responsibility which is everywhere testified to in Scripture, or do you think they can somehow be interpreted to mean your eternal destiny has already been determined by God in the context of a universal divine causal determinism?  Two mutually exclusive worldviews are at odds here and they each have direct bearing on the meaning and message of the gospel.  Hence, we run up against this matter of identifying and pronouncing certain teachings to be heresy.

            This is ultimately a worldview decision.  You must decide which worldview better accords with the Scriptural worldview and the “good news” of the biblical gospel.  Does the Bible testify to a God who sovereignly decreed to bestow on his human creatures an independent will and a substantial degree of freedom to exercise that will in personal moral responsibility and to decide for or against the offer of eternal life in Christ; to love God freely or to reject him freely, or does the Bible testify to a God who must predetermine all things – every thought, desire, belief and action of every human creature to either love him or despise him, to do good or do evil – in order to retain his sovereign control over his creation. But if you believe that this is really your decision and you must decide which worldview better accords with the Scriptural worldview then you must already believe the former view.  And I am not sure that the latter view can ever be consistently lived out, which for me, is another important evidence that speaks against that view being true.

            So, as I see it, the worldview you will embrace (or that God will cause you to embrace?), is so incompatible with the one you will reject, that you will be compelled to conclude that the one you have come to reject must be the heresy.  The heresy question forces itself upon us precisely because the most important biblical doctrine is at stake here – the gospel or “good news” of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  And we cannot retreat to love and unity above all here.  If we did we would be putting these above the gospel, and that, according to Lutzer, is a heresy in and of itself.  Recall that Lutzer warned us against how love and unity rises to the level of heresy. He said,

“…love and unity were going to cancel all of the rest of the Bible that has to do with heresy and false teachings and a clear Gospel and everything. Under love and unity, we would now be able to say anything that we wanted to say, and nobody would say that you are wrong because that is being divisive. That is dividing the Body, so you just let all of these heresies flourish.”

We cannot adopt a theological and soteriological relativism here in the cause of love and unity.  Rather, let us do what we can, indeed, what we must in the strength that God provides by his Spirit, to preserve and proclaim the truth of the Gospel.


[1] Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer, Sermon Series, Who Are You To Judge? – “Judging False Doctrine,” Sermon 03, Oct. 14, 2001, https://www.moodymedia.org/sermons/who-are-you-judge/judging-false-doctrine/

I recommend listening to the sermon, but for ease of composition I will be quoting from the sermon transcript also found at the above link.

               This sermon has recently been aired on BBN radio (the Bible Broadcasting Network) in three parts.  Part 1 on 8/19/2021, Part 2 on 8/20/2021 and Part 3 on 8/23/2021.  Lutzer’s program on BBN is called “Running to Win.”  To listen to this recent airing click here.

[2] Mark R. Talbot, All the Good That Is Ours in Christ: Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us, John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds.), Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 31-77.  As found in Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 77.

[3] R. C. Sproul, “None Dare Call It Heresy,” April 1, 1994. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/none-dare-call-it-heresy  Accessed 9/11/21.

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