By Stephen C. Marcy © 2012. Rev. 2018, 2020.
There was an interesting article in World magazine entitled “Reformed City.”  It was a report on the 2009 conference of The Gospel Coalition, “a network of pastors and theologians with a theologically Reformed underpinning.” The Coalition seeks to think through what it means for the gospel to be central to ministry, worship and missions. It then endeavors to promote the practical implications of gospel transformed ministry in evangelical churches and the lives of believers. The article mentions Time magazine’s description of The Gospel Coalition as the “new Calvinism.” Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan responded,
“We’re not defining it in a way that unnecessarily makes people feel excluded. There are just too many folks who we know are with us who may not use exactly the same terms or labels…Why should anybody have to label themselves to be part of this? It’s Reformed, and people who are traditionally Reformed recognize it as Reformed. And yet we’ve got people who say, ‘I’m not a Calvinist,’ but still sign on to it because it’s just what they see the Bible teaching.”
For me this statement and the article in general raised several questions and prompted my thinking on the relation between the Reformed Calvinist soteriological doctrines and the biblical gospel as “good news.” I thought it perplexing that someone can say, “I’m not a Calvinist,” yet also state with respect to the gospel, “it’s just what [I] see the Bible teaching.” I take it that they will either become a Calvinist soon, or they are just ignoring the authority of Scripture in that they feel free to reject what they say the Bible is teaching. If “I’m not a Calvinist” is said with reference to Calvinist soteriology or the gospel, how then, as part of a Reformed Calvinist gospel coalition can one also conclude “that’s what the Bible teaches?” It would appear that a primary concern of a gospel coalition, that is, to delineate with theological precision the biblical definition and content of the gospel, was being summarily dismissed. If soteriologically one is “not a Calvinist,” then with respect to the gospel they must be confessing that the Reformed understanding of the gospel and salvation is not what the Bible teaches. The following are some thoughts and reflections on this matter.
The Gospel and the “Gospel” Coalition
When I first heard about The Gospel Coalition I was excited about the prospect of influential pastors and teachers coming together for the purpose of clarifying the biblical definition of the gospel and to wrestle with how that gospel should inform and be applied to ministry, worship and missions. The “Conclusion” of The Gospel Coalition’s “Theological Vision for Ministry” states,
“What could lead to a growing movement of gospel-centered churches? The ultimate answer is that God must, for his own glory, send revival in response to the fervent, extraordinary, prevailing prayer of his people. But we believe there are also penultimate steps to take. There is great hope if we can unite on the nature of truth, how best to read the Bible, on our relationship to culture, on the content of the gospel…”
I do believe that most conservative evangelical Christians would agree that the gospel of “good news” is the central and most important message of the biblical revelation. The Coalition is seeking to restore the gospel message to its rightful place in the life of the church and the individual believer. What was also exciting to me is that they recognize this must include coming to a clearer understanding of the precise content of the gospel message. In that the gospel is the core of biblical revelation and has the deepest implications for every life, we should be seeking to know and proclaim its precise content as revealed in Scripture. The gospel is at the heart of God’s work in history and should be the core of the ministry of the Christian Church. And the gospel we witness to must be “good news.” This, after all, is what it means to be an “evangelical.” The word comes from the Greek, euangelion, which means “good news.” It is what makes the theology and ministry of the church distinctively “Christian.” To go wrong about the content and definition of the gospel is to go wrong about God, man, salvation, faith, grace and all matters of faith and life. Hence, the all-important question is “What is the gospel?”
The article continued with a report on the perspective of Kevin Bruursema, a pastor at New Life Community Church in Chicago, regarding Calvinism, the gospel and missions outreach. He was described as not identifying with “Calvinism” but “was increasingly willing to identify with the new missional strain of Reformed ministers.” This was curious to me. What is it that causes pastor Bruursema not to identify with “Calvinism?” I wondered if it had to do with Reformed Calvinist soteriology, that is, the Reformed Calvinist definition of “the gospel.” If so, this would be even more curious because although he is not able to identify with the soteriology of these “Reformed ministers” he nevertheless is able to identify with this “new missional strain.” This raised further question. What did pastor Bruursema mean by “missional strain?” Doesn’t that “missional strain” include a certain content to the gospel message? What is missions except bringing the gospel to others? What unique content does Calvinism lend to that “mission?” Was it Calvinist soteriology, that is, the Calvinist soteriology or “gospel” that pastor Bruursema could not “identify” with? Was pastor Bruursema therefore identifying with the “missional strain” but not the missional message? But how can this be? Can we dichotomize the gospel content from the practice of evangelical missions? That would be antithetical to the whole purpose of The Gospel Coalition which is to inform ministry and mission with the biblical gospel.
Pastor Keller’s and pastor Bruusema’s remarks are troubling, for they raise the question of how important the substance and content of the message of this “new missional strain” is to these pastors and The Gospel Coalition. So we are pressed to ask, “What is the content of the gospel message from within this Calvinist context?” It is important to note that Pastor Bruursema is convinced that “these people are bringing the gospel.” What then is it about Calvinism with which he cannot identify? He appreciates the new emphasis on outreach and missions yet could not identify with Calvinism. Why? In what way? The article mentions that Pastor Bruursema’s past experience among Calvinists was that “nobody was reaching anybody.” “Nobody was sharing the gospel.” He concluded that Calvinism “was for religious folk that didn’t really want to do the gospel.” But it appears that Calvinists are now “bringing the gospel” and pastor Bruursema is excited about that. Pastor Bruursema also commented that, “It’s redeemed my image of what Reformed theology is all about.” But this seems incoherent in that he does not identify with “Calvinism.”
So a deeper question persists. What “gospel” is being brought by The Gospel Coalition as a theologically Reformed movement? What is the precise content and substance of the gospel according to Reformed Calvinism? I assume that the content of the gospel message that one brings is important to Pastor Bruursema. It should be a critical concern for all that call themselves “evangelicals.”
Being familiar with Calvinism and their understanding of salvation I asked myself, “Could it be that Reformed Calvinists have made a shift in their soteriology?” Could this conference be the beginning of a fresh, in-depth examination of Calvinist soteriology in light of substantial challenges to its biblical validity? Was there really a “new Calvinism” in the works with respect to their doctrines of salvation and their definition of the gospel? The article did not indicate this and there are no signs on the horizon that this is the case.
I suspect the point of reporting Tim Keller’s remarks and pastor Bruursema’s experience of Calvinism was to highlight the inclusive nature of the Coalition and its goals. Bruursema exemplifies the willingness of some who do not share the Calvinist theological persuasion to work with them in what is perceived as common ground in other areas of worship and missions. Common interests revolving around practical ministry concerns may cause those of different theological beliefs to work together. This can be a good thing, and we should strive to do so. Yet, in that the gospel is the central concern here, I could not shake the persistent thought that it remains essential to delineate the substance and content of what is meant by “the gospel.” I remained curious as to whether the gospel that pastor Bruursema finds in the Reformed Calvinist context would be the same as his own. Yet, if what pastor Bruursema cannot identify with in Calvinism is precisely its soteriology, what then does he mean when he says, “these people are bringing the gospel?” What is the content of what he and The Gospel Coalition are bringing to others? Do they share a common definition of the gospel? If not, is the gospel really the concern of The Gospel Coalition? If the gospel is so important, isn’t defining it the most important task of the Coalition? Since the claim of the Coalition is to be a “gospel” coalition, and the theme for the 2009 national conference was “Entrusted with the Gospel,” I take it that defining the “gospel” should be its primary concern. How else will we know what gospel informed worship, ministry and missions are unless we know what gospel we are talking about? After all, “missions” is not missions without a message. And it is not Christian missions without a distinctively Christian, biblical gospel message. Therefore, what is the gospel?
In what follows I will attempt to examine the Reformed Calvinist soteriology in light of the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news.”
Two Mutually Exclusive Soteriologies and the Challenge of Defining “The Gospel”
Within Protestant evangelical Christianity there are, two very distinct ways in which the phenomenon of salvation is understood. Historically, and broadly speaking, these perspectives have been identified as Reformed Calvinism and Arminianism. These differing interpretations of Scripture have direct bearing upon how one defines “the gospel.” Believers and unbelievers alike have wrestled with the theological and personal implications of these perspectives for their own faith and life. I suspect that many unbelievers exposed to one or the other of these perspectives of God and salvation have had it affect their perceptions and attitudes towards God and the Christian faith, sometimes profoundly so. In that many Christians are familiar with the differences between these two theological perspectives, I will presume a working knowledge of those details for the sake of the discussion below. I only wish to point out that it appears that The Gospel Coalition is comprised mainly of Christian leaders from the Reformed Calvinist persuasion. The article in World magazine indicates that The Gospel Coalition is a Reformed movement. It does not exclude Christians of different convictions, but the article and their website would lead one to assume that most, if not all the members hold to the soteriological doctrines as found in the Reformed Calvinist tradition (i.e., TULIP – total inability, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the preservation and perseverance of the saints). I assume therefore that the major participants fundamentally agree on these soteriological doctrines.
I did not attend the conference so I can only speak from what I have read and gleaned from the Coalition’s website. Given that this is a “gospel” coalition, I want to challenge those who are interested in the goals and purposes of the Coalition, and indeed the members themselves, to ask whether the Reformed Calvinist soteriological doctrines reflect a biblically accurate and clear definition of the gospel as “good news.” Clearly the Calvinist understanding of salvation and the gospel is substantively different from that of the non-Calvinist, evangelical traditions. We should not take it for granted that differing definitions of the gospel do not matter. We should not be indifferent towards these differences as if they are simply irrelevant philosophical or well-worn theological debates with no practical implications upon life and ministry. Neither should we only be interested in ministry form and method without examining ministry substance and content. We should be interested in what is true. Therefore, we should not neglect theological self-examination and discussion simply because we believe our present understanding of the gospel to be correct.
The Gospel Coalition seemed to provide promise in this regard. Given that two mutually exclusive soteriologies and the definitions of the gospel that they entail exist in the evangelical church today, we should be seriously seeking to discern the true, biblical gospel message and whether our underlying theology is consistent with that message. Therefore I challenge Reformed Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike to carefully examine whether or not our definition and proclamation of the gospel is biblically, logically, and practically consistent with our soteriological and theological doctrines. Moreover, and more essentially, it is a challenge to examine whether one’s hermeneutic is adequate for discerning an accurate exegesis of the biblical texts by incorporating logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction in exegesis, interpretation and theological thought. This is a call not only to reexamine the old familiar lines of debate, but to examine new lines of hermeneutical thought that I believe have not been fully appreciated or pursued. It is a call for evangelical congregations to think more comprehensively, deeply, and cogently about whether the Reformed doctrines are coherent or incoherent in light of the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news” and what hermeneutical implications incoherence might have for determining the validity of one’s interpretations.
I concur with the Coalition’s observations and concerns about the loss of the centrality of the gospel in the American evangelical Church today. What God wants us to be about is the clear proclamation of his biblical gospel. It should inform every aspect of life and ministry. But not being of the Reformed Calvinist persuasion myself, yet having an interest and affinity for the purposes and goals of The Gospel Coalition, I became very curious to learn how these leaders, as Reformed Calvinists, would define the gospel. It is one thing to call for gospel centered ministry but quite another to clearly enunciate that gospel and to ask whether one’s underlying theology is coherent with one’s given explanation of the gospel and whether or not it accurately reflects what is clearly its biblical definition, that is, “good news.” For all of the Coalition’s astute observations and applications about the relationship of American culture, the Church, and the gospel that we find in their “Theological Vision for Ministry” and “Confessional Statement,” there is lacking a precise explication of the content and substance of a “gospel” that is consistent with their Reformed Calvinist soteriology. Perhaps the statement that comes closest to a clear definition of the gospel as “good news” is found in the “Theological Vision for Ministry” where we read,
“The gospel is the declaration that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has come to reconcile individuals by his grace and renew the whole world by and for his glory.”
Since the goal of the Coalition is to foster “a growing movement of gospel-centered churches” and there is hope that this can happen “if we can unite on…the content of the gospel…”, I suggest that a clearer delineation of the biblical gospel should be part of the Coalition’s agenda. This is the primary issue. We must strive to be clear about answering the question, “What is the biblical gospel?” I agree with the Coalition. There can be no distinctively Christian Church without the clear and powerful proclamation of the biblical gospel. For all that ails the evangelical Church in America today, and of course the universal sinful human condition that we see evidenced in the present turmoil in our nation, the gospel is the answer.
Therefore, in reflecting upon the “gospel” from within a Reformed Calvinist context, the following question arises. Does Reformed Calvinist soteriology reflect a gospel message that is consistent with the biblical definition of the gospel as the “good news” which is applicable to the problem of sin that lies within each and every individual? Given the purposes and goals of the Coalition, I believe it is essential for these Reformed leaders and pastors like Kevin Bruursema to reckon with this question. As a Gospel Coalition it seems an appropriate forum in which to do so.
Calvinism and the “Good News”
I wish to present below several reasons why Reformed Calvinism is highly problematic when it comes to preaching and teaching the gospel message in accord with its biblical definition as “good news.” Upon careful consideration I am compelled to conclude that given the Reformed Calvinist soteriological doctrines, the Calvinist’s practical explanations and presentations of “the gospel” are at times ambiguous and at times inconsistent with their own soteriology. Furthermore, their soteriology is inconsistent with the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news.” In addition, Reformed Calvinism is also epistemologically deficient, that is, it cannot provide the basis for the assurance of salvation.
There are a number of questions that need answering when speaking about “the gospel” from within the Reformed Calvinist theological tradition.
1) First, what is the precise content of the “gospel” message being preached to the hearers? What is the precise content of “the gospel” message that is to be proclaimed and taught to both the unbelieving and believing world? Can Reformed Calvinist soteriology provide a definition of “the gospel” that is in accord with the biblical meaning of the word as “good news?”
2) Secondly, is “the gospel” message that is actually preached by Reformed Calvinists consistent with their underlying Reformed Calvinist soteriology? Does what is preached and taught as “the gospel” remain theologically and logically consistent with their doctrinal beliefs?
3) Thirdly, in light of the Reformed Calvinist soteriological doctrines, can the hearer know that “the gospel” assuredly applies to them personally and individually?
4) Fourthly, must Reformed Calvinists presume their own election subsequent to hearing a non-Calvinist message of “good news” in which they were included? In other words, does one hear and believe a non-Calvinist gospel message by which they become saved, and only subsequent to believing that message they then, for whatever reasons, embrace Calvinism?
In light of these questions I would like to demonstrate the following:
1) The soteriological doctrines of Reformed Calvinism cannot provide a coherent and logical foundation for the content of the gospel biblically defined as “good news.”
2) The preaching and teaching of the gospel by Reformed Calvinists, if it is to be “good news,” must be inconsistent with their underlying soteriological doctrines. Reformed preachers and teachers proclaim a gospel that is inconsistent with their underlying Reformed Calvinist soteriology.
3) Consistent Reformed Calvinist soteriology is epistemologically deficient. It cannot provide the basis for knowledge of personal salvation. The Reformed Calvinist soteriology cannot provide a knowing assurance that the gospel is personally applicable to those hearing the message for the first time.
4) Upon embracing the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election subsequent to hearing the gospel and believing, an epistemological shift must occur from a definite knowing of the personal applicability of salvation to a subjective presumption of one’s unconditional election. Whereas the unbeliever can only come to believe if they are assured that what they heard in the gospel applies to them, when one embraces Calvinism subsequent to hearing and believing this “good news”, one must thereafter presume one’s own election as Calvinists understand it deterministically and embrace the idea that humanity is unalterably divided into two divinely predetermined groups – the elect and the non-elect. As such, the mysterious content of the soteriological doctrines of Reformed Calvinism conflict with the content of the message of the assurance of God’s goodness, mercy, justice and love and his kind disposition towards the hearer that opened the way for faith when they first heard the gospel. Hence, Calvinists subsequently have embraced a theology that is at odds with the content of the “good news” they first heard and were assured applied personally to them.
I shall attempt to explain these points more fully.
Calvinist Mark Dever’s “Gospel” Presentation
As of the original writing of this paper in January 2012, the Gospel Coalition website had a video presentation of Calvinist Mark Dever, pastor of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church, answering the question “What is the gospel?” In this video he stated the following,
“The gospel is the great news that we as Christians have. The gospel is the story that God is not going to leave this world in the mess that it’s currently in. God is going to, as it says in one place, make all things new. Now, that’s not necessarily good news to me unless I’m included in that. So how do I get included in that? Well, I have to come to understand who God is; that I have a creator. I have to come to understand what he is like, that he is holy and perfect, that he is loving and merciful, but that I have sinned against him, I have separated myself from him by my sin, and that in his love and mercy God could have simply allowed me an earthly life with some pleasures, and then let me fall forever under his judgment. But in his extraordinary, amazing, unparalleled love, the Son of God has come and taken on flesh. Jesus of Nazareth was fully God and fully man, and he lived the life I should have lived in perfect fellowship with God. And he died a death that I deserved because I haven’t lived a life in perfect fellowship with God. And then God raised him from the dead, vindicating all the claims that he had made about what his life and his death were about and were for. And he calls me now to repent and to turn from my sins and to trust in him as my savior, so that that which I deserve I will not get and that which he has deserved for me will be given to me. So I have faith in him, I trust him, and this is the good news, this is the gospel. And this is how I can participate in that recreation that God will be about that we read about at the end of the Bible that’s just so marvelous. And that’s great news and that’s the very center of what an evangelical church should be about and what every Christian’s life should be about.”
Pastor Dever’s explanation of the gospel, even if he is not a full “5 point Calvinist” himself, reveals what many see as logical inconsistencies between their soteriology and their “gospel” message. A short summary, taking Dever’s statements at “face value,” will suffice. I say at face value because even though he speaks in the first person singular about what he came to understand about God, Jesus and salvation and how he responded, we may take as applying to anyone hearing what he is telling us about “the gospel.” Why shouldn’t the truth he heard about Christ and presumed applied to him also apply to any and all sinners? We must take it this way otherwise he should have said, “So I have a faith that God produced in me after he regenerated and saved me; a regeneration and faith that tells me that I am one of his elect. I, as one of his elect, trust in him. And this is the good news, this is the gospel, that this may happen to you too if you are among the elect.” But this is not “good news.” Where has the “good news” gone? Now, these statements would be accurate according to Dever’s Calvinist soteriology, but note that Dever does not speak this way. He does not speak consistent with his Calvinist soteriology. And this is going to be a major part of the problem here.
In contrast to the exclusion and limitation that are inherent in his “doctrines of grace,” Dever leads us to believe salvation is inclusive, unlimited and that the gospel contains a good-faith offer to all sinners to come to Christ in faith and trust in order to be saved. What Dever says is “the gospel” presupposes the sinner’s ability to respond in faith and trust in God and Christ. If Dever responded in faith and trust in Christ and “this is the good news, this is the gospel,” then why can’t any other sinner respond to this good news? Why doesn’t this good news apply to them also?
Well, the reality is that given the Calvinist doctrine of predestination or unconditional election, this “good news” does not apply to certain individuals and therefore it may not apply to you. Only certain persons have been chosen by God to be saved. God has chosen those he would save before the world began apart from any conditions outside of himself. God has made this choice out of the “good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:5) and only those he has predestined to salvation can be saved. God merely willed that certain individuals would receive salvation and therefore all others cannot be saved.
But we can see how this doctrine places the knowledge of God’s salvific will for you, me or anyone else in doubt. It raises the question “Am I included?” And quite astonishingly, Dever affirms the problem his own soteriology labors under when he states, “Now, that’s not necessarily good news to me unless I’m included in that.” This is exactly right. So, it is crucial for the gospel to be “good news” that we know we are included in God’s salvation plan. And therefore, this raises the question as to whether Dever’s Calvinist soteriological doctrines can even support “the gospel” as “good news.” Rather, they seems to erode the gospel as “good news.”
Now, when Dever asked, “So how do I get included in that?” his answer was by responding in faith and trust in Christ. But despite Dever’s words, another Calvinist doctrine – total inability – maintains that no one can respond to God in faith unless God has chosen them to salvation and regenerates them first, which produces in them faith and trust in Christ. The elect sinner is totally passive in the process of their salvation, and regeneration occurs before faith. And yet Dever can say,
“And he calls me now to repent and to turn from my sins and to trust in him as my savior…”
This sounds as if anyone may “repent,” turn” and “trust” in Christ as their savior. We see here, as we have previously, that Dever speaks as though each person can be saved and that a person’s salvation is conditioned upon their response of faith in Christ presented in the gospel. But we know that is not the case. Certain people cannot believe. Not everyone can be saved. And yet Dever says,
“So I have faith in him, I trust him, and this is the good news, this is the gospel. And this is how I can participate in that recreation that God will be about…”
In addition, Calvinists believe in limited atonement, that is, Jesus died only for the elect, yet they speak of his substitutionary death on our behalf. Hence Dever says,
“Jesus of Nazareth was fully God and fully man, and he lived the life I should have lived in perfect fellowship with God. And he died a death that I deserved because I haven’t lived a life in perfect fellowship with God…so that that which I deserve I will not get and that which he has deserved for me will be given to me.”
So either Dever is narcissistically boasting about what God did for him as one of those who are unconditionally elected to salvation – something he must presume about himself – or he is meaning to tell all sinners that what God did in Christ as Dever describes it above, and as that “good news” certainly applies to Dever, also therefore also certainly applies to them. If God loves Dever, God loves you and me. If God desires to save Dever, then God desires to save you and me. If Dever can “get included in that” – what God is doing to clean up this mess – if he can be saved by coming to understand what God did in Christ and repenting, turning, believing and trusting in Christ to be saved, then any sinner can do so. They too can come to Christ, and if they come to Christ he will receive them.
We should note that Dever never brought his Calvinist “doctrines of grace” to bear upon the gospel message. This is remarkable in that these doctrines are all about salvation. They are the full and final explanation as to why one person is saved and another is not. The gospel is all about salvation and how a person becomes saved and what another person is not. But note that although they are called “doctrines of grace” there is no “good news” in them. They cannot be placed in the service of true evangelism which means the proclamation of “good news.” I submit that Dever’s explanation of the gospel is “good news” precisely because it included all sinners in a good-faith offer of salvation which the sinner can appropriate by faith in Christ’s work on their behalf. But this “good news” is contradictory to the “Reformed underpinnings” of The Gospel Coalition. This “gospel” is inconsistent with the Calvinist soteriological doctrines of God’s sovereign decree, total inability, unconditional election, predestination, limited atonement, effectual calling and irresistible grace.
Again, what is disturbing, and quite telling, is that there is no mention of these foundational Calvinistic “salvation” doctrines in Dever’s “gospel” message. Familiarity with Calvinism will tell you that this dichotomy of their soteriology from their message is not unusual for Calvinists. Dever’s presentation is a perfect example. But why such a dichotomy? I submit that it has to do with the incompatibility of the soteriology with the gospel biblically defined as “good news.”
Therefore, my contention in points 1 and 2 above is that these are real contradictions in word and thought and that a consistent Calvinism would not be “good news.” Points 3 and 4 highlight the epistemological problem, between the doctrines of Calvinism and the gospel as “good news,” that is, whether Calvinism can provide assurance that the gospel has personal application to the hearer. This is the issue Dever himself raises outright in his explanation of the gospel when he says,
“God is going to, as it says in one place, make all things new. Now, that’s not necessarily good news to me unless I’m included in that. So how do I get included in that?” (emphasis mine)
Dever raises a critical concern here – whether I am included or can be included in God’s saving work – which touches upon the several problems with Calvinist soteriology I mentioned above. Therefore, let us carefully examine this issue of “inclusion,” for if it is integral to the gospel being “good news,” then it is a significant problem for Calvinism and The Gospel Coalition and its “Theological Vision for Ministry.”
The Issue of Inclusion in God’s Saving Work
Calvinists believe that God has determined from before the creation of the world precisely which individuals will be saved and precisely which individuals will be damned. God has chosen, or elected, a limited number of persons to receive eternal life and all others to receive eternal judgment. This number is fixed. Each person’s eternal destiny cannot be changed and does not depend upon anything they do or do not do. It is not based in any way upon the person themselves. It is predetermined by God himself. God does everything to effect salvation in the elect. He determines their every thought, attitude, belief, desire and action (as a result of Calvinist determinism this applies to all persons everywhere throughout history). In that this is a decree made by God in eternity past, no one can know who is and who is not elect. Those who are chosen are unknown to us. It is a decision of God, known only to him, and made for reasons known only to him. His reasons for choosing one person for salvation over another are a mystery.
I agree wholeheartedly with Dever that the question of inclusion is a crucial one. Yet inherent within Calvinist soteriology is the reality of a fixed, eternal exclusion from salvation for a definite number of people. It should be reiterated that Calvinism makes clear doctrinal statements on these matters. I want to point out that these doctrines generate substantial epistemological and ontological problems in relation to the preaching and hearing of the gospel as “good news.” By epistemological and ontological I am referring to the issue of whether or not what we think we know or what we are told about our relationship to God (the epistemological concern) and God’s relationship to us is really what we think know and the way it actually is (the ontological concern). After all, the gospel is a message precisely about the present truth about our actual relationship to God. It is about what is actually true of us as sinners in relation to God and what is actually true regarding a saving relationship to God upon hearing the “good news” of God’s grace and salvation by faith in Christ. Hence the precise content of the gospel and what is proclaimed as the gospel is important with respect to whether it is true about the person hearing it. Therefore, the issue raised by Calvinist soteriology is whether it supports or undermines what we can know for sure about that relationship as it applies to ourselves and whether it is consistent with or conflicts with the gospel biblically defined as “good news.” In other words, is what we know about our relationship to God and God’s relationship to us through the “good news” of the gospel actually the way things really are between us and God or does a mysterious, hidden decree of God which has unchangeably fixed our eternal destinies lie behind and displace the content of this proclamation as “good news” to the hearer?
Given Calvinism, I submit that regarding the nature of our relationship to God, we cannot know it as assuredly a relationship that is one of good news, that is, that God has a positive, salvific love for us which has provided for our salvation. The reality is that it may be the case for any hearer of “the gospel” that God has predetermined them to eternal damnation. It may be the case that a person is actually not among the elect and therefore they simply cannot be saved. But then, this is no longer “good news” and therefore, not the gospel message. That means that the Calvinist’s soteriology as antithetical to the “good news” is not only not the gospel but is not a biblical soteriology.
On Calvinist soteriology, God is either kindly disposed towards you in salvation or has predestined you to eternal damnation. One or the other is the unalterable reality regarding your eternal destiny. And this is the very problem Dever consciously or subconsciously drew attention to in his definition of the gospel when he said,
“Now, that’s not necessarily good news to me unless I’m included in that. So how do I get included in that?”
Am I included in the “good news” of God’s salvation? Maybe. Maybe not. And the question, “So how do I get included in that?” is immaterial. You don’t “get included” if you are not included already by the decree of God. There is no going from one predetermined destiny to the other. So again, Dever is not being consistent with his deterministic soteriology. Rather, he is presenting a non-Calvinist gospel of “good news.” Therefore, Dever himself is acknowledging that there is no “good news” for me unless I know I can be included in God’s work of salvation.
This not knowing, or epistemological problem, should not be underestimated. The question of whether or not one can know that God’s salvation applies to them personally is essential for every individual’s sense of value, purpose and meaning as well as their psychological well-being. It is a defining element in the larger questions of life. What is the meaning and purpose of my life? Does God exist? What kind of God is actually there? What does God actually think of me? Is God kindly disposed towards me? Does God love and care about me personally? If things are “a mess,” how can I know “I’m included” in God’s solution? Did Christ die for me? By stating, “Now, that’s not necessarily good news to me unless I’m included in that. So how do I get included in that?” Dever is acknowledging the importance of whether or not I, or any hearer of the gospel, can know that salvation applies to me. And by implication he is acknowledging what the gospel must include for it to be “good news.” Whether any hearer of the gospel is included in God’s saving work, and that that they can actually take part in it, that is, whether or not it is a real possibility for them individually and personally to be saved, is integral to the message being “good news.” Anything less than this, or any doctrines that are antithetical to this assurance of the love of God and universal applicability of Christ’s cross and the good-faith offer of salvation to be appropriated by faith is not the biblical gospel for it would not be “good news.” Yet, given the underlying Reformed Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement which are by nature exclusive of the non-elect, how can I know that the message proclaimed is actually applicable to me and to the others who hear it? I submit that consistent Reformed Calvinism leaves the hearer with no present assurance that “I’m included” in God’s great salvation. Therefore, its doctrines contain no “good news.”
Therefore, you may presuppose you are among the unconditionally elect, but you cannot know this. You may look to your spiritual experience as “confirmation” that God has predestined you to salvation, but you cannot know for certain that it is his will to save you. You cannot know whether he desires to save or condemn you because you cannot know the secret will of God in this respect. Calvin himself places this uncertainty upon us when he writes,
“There is a general call by which God invites all equally to himself through the outward preaching of the word – even those to whom he holds it out as a savor of death [cf. 2 Cor. 2:16], and as the occasion of severer condemnation. The other kind of call is special, which he deigns for the most part to give to the believer alone…Yet sometimes he also causes those whom he illumines only for a time to partake of it; then he justly forsakes them on account of their ungratefulness and strikes them with an even greater blindness.”
If your confidence that you are among the unconditionally elect rests in your personal spiritual experience you may in the end find out that you were mistaken. Even with respect to the “special” call, you may be one of those who God “illumines only for a time to partake of it; then justly forsakes them…” The Westminster Confession states,
“Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved…” (emphasis mine)
Hence, Calvinism cannot provide what is in accord with the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news.” Therefore what is at stake in this controversy is nothing less than the core of the gospel message biblically defined.
Am I Included? To Know or Not to Know
Let’s look at this more closely. How can one know at the time they hear the message that they are personally included in a positive way in God’s salvation plan? How can one know at the time they hear the message that God loves them and Christ died for them? How can they know at the time they hear the message that God wants to save them and they can indeed be saved? The only sufficient answer seems to be that it must be proclaimed with assurance that such is the case with respect to them. It must be proclaimed to them that God’s salvation surely applies to them; that God loves them and Christ died for them and desires that they receive the salvation he now offers them. This is to say that the provision for salvation is an actual reality and a genuine possibility for them personally as far as God is concerned. Such content is essential for the gospel message to be “good news” to the hearer and therefore it is essential content for any gospel that claims to be the biblical gospel. But given the Reformed doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement, it is also a real possibility that this may not be the case with respect to hearer. It could be that they are not among the elect, that they cannot be saved and God never intended salvation for them. Provision for salvation is not an actual reality and a genuine possibility for this hearer as far a God is concerned. As such the gospel no longer remains a consistent and coherent message of “good news” to the hearer as God’s Word to them, for he has in the case of the non-elect decreed eternal damnation. Neither Christ nor the gospel is a message of hope or salvation for them particularly.
To say that they should not think about the possibility that they might not be elect or emphasize that they don’t know if they are elect or not, or suggest that election is like a “family secret” which only makes sense once you are in “the family” does not change the reality of their situation which has been predetermined by God. In fact this dilemma regarding an unconditional election simply confirms the point being made. The fact of the matter is that they are either elect or not elect, and our knowledge of the doctrine of election defined in this manner is a fact that has important implications upon the content of the gospel message. If the destinies of all men are fixed from before time and have nothing to do with any conditions other than God’s decision to save or to damn, that soteriological belief is incoherent with the “good news” message of hope and salvation. Therefore, with regard to God not leaving the world in “the mess that it’s currently in” and that God will “make all things new,” the question persists as to how one can know, as Dever puts it, “I’m included in that.” I can agree with Dever’s explanation of the gospel. Yet, given the Calvinist doctrines on how one comes to be included in salvation, his explanation is inconsistent and incomplete. For the Calvinist, the only way one comes to be included in salvation is by being chosen to it by God alone. Hence, one message doesn’t fit all. Calvinism’s soteriology doesn’t speak a univocal message with respect to the gospel as “good news.”
Therefore, the question Dever must answer is, “Upon what basis can anyone know “I’m included in that?” Dever says that it is on the basis of what Christ has done and one’s repentance and faith. He states,
“And he died a death that I deserved because I haven’t lived a life in perfect fellowship with God…so that that which I deserve I will not get and that which he has deserved for me will be given to me.” (emphasis mine)
“And he calls me now to repent and to turn from my sins and to trust in him as my savior…” (emphasis mine)
“So I have faith in him, I trust him, and this is the good news, this is the gospel. And this is how I can participate in that recreation that God will be about…” (emphasis mine)
Below I will touch upon the meaning these statements must have within a Calvinist theological context, but here I want to make an important point. If Dever, while a sinner, could claim these things for himself, and being ignorant of anyone’s elect status would then tell these truths to them, it follows that he is able to tell them to another person and another and another, and so on and so forth. Therefore, in essence, he is able to speak these gospel truths to all individuals. We can concluded therefore, if words have any meaning at all, that Dever would be acknowledging in practice that the saving love of God demonstrated in the death of Christ is a saving love for all persons such that it makes salvation a real possibility for all persons and that anyone can be saved when they repent and believe the “good news” as Dever himself has done. Dever therefore seems to confirm that the gospel is actually “good news” to all those who hear it. He certainly has made that application for himself. In practical witness he is acknowledging that for the gospel to actually be “good” news it must apply equally to all as a real possibility for them. But this conflicts with the underlying Reformed Calvinist theology of a sovereign decree, unconditional election and limited atonement. According to the Reformed Calvinist theological doctrines regarding salvation, not all those who hear the “good news” are destined for salvation. Salvation is not designed for all. It is not a real possibility for all who hear. Indeed, it is not intended by God for all and all cannot receive it. This is not ultimately because of their own willful hardness of heart and rejection of the “good news,” but because God himself has never intended to save them. Despite the salvation God wrought in the person and work of Christ, God himself withholds whatever provision and dynamic is necessary for their salvation to be realized. Indeed, regardless of God’s work of salvation in Christ for sinners, many are predetermined by God to eternal damnation, and unless Calvinists are prepared to claim that none of the non-elect ever hear the gospel, this is the destiny of many who do hear the “good news.” But this is incoherent. The sinner hears “good news” that doesn’t apply to them as good news. Despite hearing Dever’s “good news,” the fate of eternal damnation will surely happen to the non-elect, for God has decreed it. Therefore, although we do not know to whom God has assigned this fate, their lies in store for an untold number of people not “good news.” The “good” news they are hearing, has no truth correspondence to the predetermined reality of their existence; it is not applicable to them. The “good news” becomes null and void in their case. God is telling them a lie. Hence, there is an inconsistency between what Dever must proclaim for his gospel to be “good” news and his underlying theology. As it stands he not only is speaking a message contrary to the truth for the non-elect, but also, by giving the impression of the gospel’s universal applicability, he is speaking a message contrary to his theological beliefs and the character of God as a God of truth. I think that all Christians would agree that our soteriology should be consistent with our gospel message. Soteriology is foundation for the gospel message. Therefore, one’s soteriology, if it is t be considered as biblical, should lead to a message of truly “good news.” Therefore, I wish to point out here that if we are not to disregard the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news” it is incumbent upon the Calvinist to either change his practical message to be consistent with his soteriology or seriously consider that a biblically accurate soteriology should reflect the biblical definition and content of the gospel as “good news.”
The Inconsistency between Theology and Gospel Message
So why can’t Dever incorporate his foundational Calvinist doctrines of salvation in his presentation and definition of the gospel? Why wouldn’t he clearly state what he believes as a Calvinist are the biblical truths about salvation (i.e., TULIP)? Again, the answer is obvious. It would no longer be “good news.”
We cannot seem to escape the conclusion that given the Reformed scheme of salvation, one simply cannot know at the time that they hear the gospel message whether they are personally and assuredly included in God’s salvation plan as one of the elect. The only way Dever can make it “good news” is to do what he has done above. He must speak as if salvation can be real for all those hearing it in the sense in which it should be taken, that is, as “good” news. But to do so he must dismiss his underlying doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement. He must assure the hearer that salvation personally applies to them. But such assurances surely goes beyond his Calvinist doctrinal beliefs. Such assurance is incoherent and inconsistent with his Calvinism. If he is a Calvinist, Dever is not being theologically consistent with the content of his spoken “gospel” message. What he says practically and in reality to people must at some point radically depart with what he believes soteriologically. Calvinists will justify this preaching as “good news” to all by claiming that they do not know whom God has chosen. But this misses the point. God knows who they are and the preacher is a messenger for the Word of God. Not knowing to whom the message applies means that the preacher is telling people a message of “good news” to people as if it did apply to them, and that is disingenuous. It is to lie to the non-elect. Not knowing who the elect are does not change the fact that damnation is a fixed reality for many who are hearing of promises that do not apply to them. Furthermore, unless Dever is willing to state that the non-elect never hear the “good news,” most of us recognize that this reasoning is quite hollow and smacks of disingenuousness, if not outright mockery for the non-elect.
I am not saying, of course, that Dever or any other Reformed preacher or teacher does this with deceitful intent. But it is deliberate. They do recognize this problem in their soteriological position, yet they cannot formulate a sound biblical theology or explanation that can bring these problems to a satisfactory and plausible resolution. They are convinced that they are being faithful to what Scripture teaches. Those familiar with Reformed thought will recognize that they do strive to reason around these problems, but one wonders if they realize the full implications of their theology upon the gospel biblically defined as “good news.” I am attempting here to raise some of those implications. It is a subsequent question as to whether or not those implications cast doubt upon the validity of Calvinist soteriological interpretations and conclusions. I believe they do. Again, perhaps The Gospel Coalition itself holds promise with regard to enunciating a clearer definition of the gospel in light of such criticisms.
James Daane, in his book titled The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit, writes,
“Can election be preached? If the question refers to the election of Jesus, the answer is clearly affirmative. New Testament preaching is marked by its proclamation of God’s election of Jesus as the Christ. There is no inherent difficulty in preaching the election of Jesus. Again, if the question refers to the election of Israel or of the church, the answer must again be yes. There is no inherent difficulty in preaching the election of Israel or the church.
But can individual election be preached? Now the problem is a bit more difficult. We saw earlier how theologians have struggled with “the election of some men” and “a gospel that must be preached to all men,” and how certain Scottish theologians limited the preaching of the gospel to those whose election could be antecedently established. The Canons of Dort reflect something of this same difficulty in their caution that individual election must be preached “in due time and place.” The appropriate place is the church of God, but the “due time” is not further defined. The Canons seem to suggest that election be preached after a person has become a Christian, not, in other words, as part of missionary proclamation.
Dort’s word of caution, not unlike the position of the seventeenth-century Scottish theologians we mentioned, seems to imply that election can only be preached to the elect, and thus is a truth that explains why a person is a Christian. The preaching of election is more the proclamation of something that accounts for a man’s Christian existence than of something in which man is summoned to believe by the gospel. This explanatory function is an imposition placed on the doctrine of election by the rational, explanatory function that decretal theology accords the divine predestinating decree. In a decree whose distinctive feature is that it accounts for whatever happens, election is a principle of explanation rather than the good news. Naturally, that kind of doctrine of individual election does not form the content of the church’s proclamation. Insofar as election is regarded as explanation, it ceases to be proclamation. Authentic preaching, on the other hand, is exposition of the Word, not an explanation of it.
It is important to recognize that these difficulties characterize only the doctrine of individual election. No other doctrine of the Christian faith, rightly defined, is encumbered with these problems. No other doctrine that the gospel summons men to believe lingers in the background as an explanation of why men believe instead of something belonging to the faith. Individual election is the only doctrine that the church cannot freely call men to accept in faith, the only doctrine the church can preach only to the elect, the only doctrine that it must, with caution, preach only “in due time and place.”
The Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election cannot be put into the service of evangelism because it fails of a summons that can, with integrity, go out to all sinners to believe in Christ. It therefore, is contrary to the gospel message as “good news.” Hence, the Calvinist doctrines must be thought through more biblically and comprehensively for the sake of the accuracy and clarity of the gospel. The problem that unconditional election raises with evangelism and the preaching of the “good news,” along with the Calvinist’s insufficiency in addressing it, justifies our doubt as to whether this doctrine is an accurate interpretations of Scripture on the doctrine of election.
The points Daane raises here also have hermeneutic and apologetic implications. How are we to determine a legitimate interpretation of Scripture, especially when it involves such negative implications for the gospel message? Can interpretations that contain theological, practical, logical and moral incoherence be the result of an accurate, distinctively biblical hermeneutic? If so, on what grounds? Apologetically, is the resulting message really the “good news” that works with power in a sinner’s heart, or will it ultimately be void of saving power or lend to a rejection of God and a hardening, not because of stubborn pride to surrender to the true, biblical gospel, but because of irrationality and an erroneous portrayal of the nature and disposition of God to sinners? (Rom. 1:16) The implications for evangelism and an organization that claims to be a Gospel Coalition are profound.
What “Gospel” Does the “Calvinist” First Hear?
Let us examine the issue from a slightly different perspective. Let us consider the content of the message the Calvinist heard and responded to when he first heard the “good news.” Presuming Mark Dever is a Calvinist, I believe we are safe to assume that when he first heard the gospel, he heard it as if he was included in God’s salvation plan. He heard it as if the speaker knew that Dever was included and the speaker communicated to Dever that he could know and should count it as actually true that he was included. Something was said to Dever in both method and content that he clearly understood as “good news” that was personally applicable to him. An essential part of the “goodness” of that news was that it was assuredly applicable to him. It is as Dever pointed out, “Now, that’s not necessarily good news to me unless I’m included in that.” Yet Calvinists maintain that this is not the case for all people and that the proclaimer or witness does not know whether or not it is the case for the one hearing or being witnessed to. This of course relates to Dever’s question, “So, how do I get included in that?” For the Calvinist there is only one answer, “You can do nothing. You must be among the elect of God.” Calvinists state that only a limited number of people are predestined by God to salvation. The elect, and only the elect, will experience an “effectual call” along with “the gospel” call and be saved. So, from the start, only a limited number are “included in that.” So where has the gospel as “good news” gone?
Calvinists also hold that whether or not Dever was among the unconditionally elect when he first heard “the gospel” was not for anyone to attempt to discern or know. The problem here is that this includes Dever too! Neither could he know, at the point of hearing the gospel, whether he was “included” (elect) or not. Does it make a difference? Certainly. First it makes a difference with respect to the reality of his salvific status. He is either elect or not. He will either be saved or he will not. These are the only two fixed realties for all persons. Secondly, it makes a difference as to whether what he heard was the truth regarding his salvific status. Certainly it is unethical to lead people to believe something that you do not know for sure about them and may not be the truth about their predetermined eternal destiny. Thirdly, it makes a difference if Dever learns about the underlying Calvinist soteriological teachings before he hears “the gospel.” It makes a difference, not only if Dever has found out about “the family secret” sooner than a Calvinist would have preferred, but it becomes a matter of the truth and consistency of the message that Dever is hearing. What gospel is being preached to him? That God loves him, that Jesus died as a substitute for him to forgive his sins and that he may repent and believe and be saved? That would be “good news” for him, but that may not be the truth about him. He may not be included? Therefore it would not be the proclamation of truth to him. I submit that Dever had to be hearing the “good news” that he was included, which conflicts with the real possibility inherent within Calvinism that he was not included. He had to hear that God’s salvation was actually obtainable for him personally. Dever may believe there are certain means by which he may determine his own unconditional election subsequent to hearing the gospel, but that is not the point here. The point is that unconditional election, if it is a reality as Calvinists understand it, distorts the content of the gospel as “good news” because it removes the assurance that “I’m included” when one first hears it. It is inherently exclusive given its limited inclusivity. So Dever’s Calvinist doctrines have run contrary to what Dever has pointed out in his explanation of the gospel – that we are “included.”
The point is that God’s salvation had to be presented as assuredly applicable to Dever, contrary to the mystery and ambiguity inherent in the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement. Both the preacher and Dever had to have the sure knowledge that Dever was accepted by God in Christ for it to be “good news” to Dever. But if the preacher was a Calvinist, he therefore temporarily ignored his theology of unconditional election and presented a message of assurance of Dever’s acceptance by God, but that was something the preacher did not know was true about Dever. And if it were not true, then Dever as one of the non-elect, was given a false message, not merely by the preacher by God himself.
Note also that if the Reformed Calvinist doctrines are true, it seems obvious that “the doctrines of grace” could not be presented to Dever at first, for the doctrine that God has chosen some to salvation and not others, and we do not know who they are, must lead to the conclusion that it may be an actuality that Dever had not been chosen. It may indeed be an actuality that Dever had been excluded! That would not be “good news.” Hence, a doctrinal paradigm that leaves open the possibility that I may have been excluded by God himself from His salvation plan can never provide with assurance the opposite conclusion that I am certainly included by God himself in His salvation plan. There is a conflict between soteriology and “gospel” message. Inclusion or exclusion may be conditional upon factors other than God, but never upon God himself unconditionally fixing everyone’s eternal destiny, with some assigned to eternal damnation, while proclaiming God has certainly included you in his salvation plan. This is incoherent. The fact that God himself has fixed everyone’s eternal destiny, with many predestined by God to eternal punishment, cannot support the proclamation of the biblical gospel as a message of “good news.” This soteriological scheme cannot assure any of us that we “are included;” that we are among the elect. Hence, precisely because Calvinism cannot offer full assurance of the applicability of God’s salvation to all individuals it is incapable of providing a message that is coherent with the very meaning of the word “gospel.” The “gospel” means “good news.”
Unconditional Election: A Doctrine of Presumption
Calvinists hold to a theological scheme of salvation that cannot be reconciled with the practical proclamation of the “good news” as “good” to those hearing that proclamation. On Calvinism, “the gospel” is reduced to merely informing people of the Calvinist doctrine that God has unalterably predetermined everyone’s eternal destiny. Therefore, I contend that Calvinists can only gain the assurance, security or comfort of salvation on the basis of presuming their own election after they have heard the gospel. That God has fixed everyone’s eternal destiny is precisely what Calvinists believe. But there is a logical, theological and practical disconnect inherent within Calvinism because it appears that Dever never questioned the applicability of the gospel to himself when he first heard it. But why not? Because contrary to Calvinism, God’s work of salvation was presented and received as definitely applicable to him at that point. That was an essential part of what Dever had to hear and what he had to believe. Dever certainly claims as much with regard to himself when he states, “God could have simply allowed me an earthly life with some pleasures, and then let me fall forever under his judgment. But in his extraordinary, amazing, unparalleled love, the Son of God has come…” Somehow Dever is convinced that God’s eternal judgment is not going to be his lot. On what basis? Because of what “the Son of God has come” to do. And what “the Son of God has come to do” Dever assuredly believes was done for him personally. So, as far as Dever is concerned, he is already “included” in God’s work of salvation. Dever heard that God’s work of salvation was on his behalf. Dever seems to know that he “is included” and can “participate” in that “recreation God will be about…” But how does he know this? Not on the basis of his Calvinist soteriology but on the basis of an unlimited atonement and the condition of faith. It was on the basis of a very different message than the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” that Dever was assured that he was included.
But now he has embraced Reformed Calvinism. Having done so he must now, and can only now after the fact of responding to a different message, presume or assume that he is among those unconditionally elected to receive salvation. However he might now be “making his calling and election sure,” the content of the gospel message leading to his own conversion was incoherent with his present Calvinist soteriological doctrines in that he had to know for sure that he was included and accepted by God when he first heard the “good news.” It was a “good news” message that his Calvinist soteriology cannot provide. It would not have been “good news” to have heard that some are chosen by God and others destined to damnation. It would not have been good news” to have heard that you have nothing whatsoever to do with where you will spend eternity, that you cannot believe unless God regenerates you first, that God’s choice of who is to be saved and who is not is unalterable and was made for reasons unknown us.
Should Dever have been told that since he is open to spiritual things and has an interest in Christianity or even desires salvation that he must be among the elect? Why shouldn’t he have been told this if that is the practical outworking of these Calvinist “doctrines of grace?” Calvinists seek to hide their soteriological doctrines from the unconverted and new believers. But the secret is out. The gospel message is either a univocal message of life and hope or a despairing, duplicitous confusion. It is a necessity, if it is to be “good news,” that the gospel be something other than the Calvinist scheme of salvation. The gospel was good news to Dever precisely because what he heard was antithetical to his present Calvinism. Dever states as much by saying, “And he [God] calls me now to repent and to turn from my sins and to trust him as my savior, so that that which I deserve I will not get and that which he [Jesus] deserved for me will be given to me. So I have faith in him, I trust him, and this is the good news, this is the gospel.” We take this to mean that Dever was given the impression that God’s salvation applied to him and that he could appropriate it to himself by faith. We take these words to mean that Dever, as a sinner, appropriated by faith the salvation that was an objective reality wrought by God on his behalf “in Christ.” He heard the “good news” of salvation that every sinner needs to reckon with by believing or remaining in unbelief. Note also that Dever says, “…that which he [Jesus] deserved for me…” What Dever is ultimately confirming is an unlimited atonement. He is affirming substitutionary atonement. Dever speaks and acts as if Christ died for him and what God has already done on Dever’s behalf becomes his through Dever’s faith and trust in Jesus. If he knows this to be true for himself and he speaks it to others, if his words are to be true and sincere to them, then Christ also died for them as he did for Dever. Based upon Dever’s own experience and practical witness we are logically and morally required to embrace an unlimited atonement.
Therefore I conclude that the content of what Dever first heard is vastly different than his Calvinist soteriology and it is only subsequent to his conversion that he has learned of and embraced Calvinist soteriology. He has embraced it for certain reasons. He may find in it an attractive expression of God’s sovereignty as his absolute control over a chaotic world, an explanation for his own conversion experience or a paradigm of comfort for a troubled existence. But it could have no applicability with respect to the content of the gospel as “good news” that he first had to hear to become saved. My point is that the Calvinist theology he has learned subsequent to his conversion is incoherent and contradicts the “good news” he first heard and presently still applies to himself and what he must proclaim to others. He cannot, and indeed Calvinists do not, preach and teach a gospel in accord with their Calvinist doctrinal beliefs. It would not be the gospel. It would not be “good news.” This is precisely what makes it suspect as an accurate reflection of biblical truth. In that he is now a Calvinist, Dever now presumes that he is among the elect as Calvinists understand election. He assumes that he is among those that were predestined to salvation. He still does not know it. If he says he does, it must be upon some other basis (manifest evidences?) subsequent to his hearing a gospel inconsistent with his present theology. But such a theological stance dramatically changes the grounds, focal point and the content of the gospel witness and preaching as “good news.”
Salvation “In Christ” or Mystery: The Christological Insufficiency of Calvinism
For the Calvinist who believes that the sovereignty of God consists in a single, eternal decree by which he ordained “whatsoever comes to pass,” each individual’s salvation is ultimately a function of God’s predetermined decision to save them or not to save them. God’s sovereign decision is the determining factor with respect to anyone’s salvation. Therefore it cannot be said that it is God’s design that all sinners may find salvation in Jesus Christ, but only that Christ implements the salvific will of God for those he predetermined to save. Salvation is not in Christ in the sense that through his person and work any and all sinners may find that salvation is made available to them and they may come to receive that gift of eternal life which God’s love has wrought in and through Jesus. On Calvinism, eternal salvation is not available in Christ. Sinners don’t look to Christ to know the salvific will of God for them. That is only found in an inaccessible, unknowable, premundane decree of God. There is no existential reality or actual possibility of salvation “in Christ,” but salvation is ultimately dependent upon the mysterious decision of God regarding each individual, that is, to save them or not to save them. Therefore, according to Calvinism, the focus of salvation has shifted from the proclamation of the historical Jesus in whom salvation is made existentially present and obtainable to the sinner for them to appropriate by faith, to the dark and mysterious eternal decree of God in unconditional election. The Calvinist therefore must presume his own election and then attempt to discern God’s salvific decision in eternity past with respect to himself. It appears that consistent Calvinism diminishes the conviction to proclaim the biblical call to exercise faith in Christ precisely because it does not know whether it is a reality that Christ actually died for all those hearing that call. And for the Calvinist “ignorance is bliss.” But if they do proclaim it as if salvation is a reality for all who hear, they must disregard the moral problem of the truth value or disingenuousness of their proclamation with respect to the non-elect. And again, they would preaching inconsistent with their “doctrines of grace.”
In contradiction to the doctrine of limited atonement and unconditional election, Christ has a claim upon each and every sinner’s faith and life precisely because his death actually applies to each and every person as a sinner. It was for each and every sinner that he died. God has not excluded any of us from his “purpose of election,” that is, the accomplishment of a salvation characterized by God’s gracious work alone “in Christ” for all sinners, to be appropriated simply by faith alone. This is the meaning of “he chose us in him.” (Eph. 1:4) Through God’s elective decisions he historically demonstrates the nature of his saving will and work for sinners to be centered “in Christ.” It is not that election should be defined as the predestination of a limited number to salvation to the exclusion of all others, but election is the historical method and demonstration of a divine eternal plan and purpose that salvation would be established on God’s terms alone – in Christ, by faith – to include both Jew and Gentile, that is, all mankind, in its saving scope. As such, certain individuals, the nation of Israel and New Testament believers are all called “elect” in that they participate in God’s plans and purposes of salvation, yet in different degrees and capacities. Most importantly, any concept of election that is true to Scripture must incorporate the biblical dynamic of faith which would be superfluous if faith is part and parcel of a predestined salvation. Therefore the gospel certainly is, and can only be “good news” to all who hear because it is a gift of God to be received by faith. The Calvinist understandings of sovereignty, unconditional election, predestination and limited atonement erode this sure foundation which supports both the claim of God upon every life, and the hope and possibility of salvation for every sinner. There are other interpretations of sovereignty, election and predestination that are soundly biblical yet do not generate the logical, moral, and epistemological difficulties inherent in the Calvinist interpretations. Therefore this controversy is ultimately a question of proper hermeneutics, that is, whether incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory interpretations can ever be deemed accurate.
This is a serious matter both theologically and practically. Calvinism presents a serious epistemological problem regarding our knowledge and assurance of God’s relationship to us. It is akin to faith in faith (“I hope God will save me”) given the mysterious decree of God with respect to my being chosen, or faith in Christ who demonstrates God’s love for me in his death on the cross (Rom. 5:8). It is akin to presumption regarding a sovereign decree of God to save a limited number that may or may not “include” me, or the assurance that God’s work of salvation “in Christ” most definitely “includes” me. The point is that even if the Calvinist claims that he can know his election afterward by his experiences, this could not be the content of the message of the gospel he first heard. Upon first hearing the gospel he certainly lacks experiences or evidences. Are we to simply wait upon God and watch for evidences to confirm whether or not he was kindly disposed towards us by having elected us to salvation, or, are we to be assured of our salvation on the basis of the gospel message which calls all sinners to rest by faith in Christ’s work on their behalf as the evidence of God’s present love and provision for their salvation? If it is the later, this is inconsistent with Calvinism. The former contains no sure “good news” and only an unbiblical “I hope God will save me.” Are we to test to see if God was kindly disposed to us by electing us to receive salvation or are we to know that “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” and we are to put our faith and trust in Christ because this reconciliation assuredly applies to us? Surely the latter is the gospel message and the former is incoherent with that message of “good news.”
These are two very different views that are essentially mutually exclusive. I contend that knowing God’s kind disposition and love as an actual reality that applies to oneself is the only sufficient foundation for faith, and depending upon our response to that love of God “in Christ” we can either experience all the blessings of salvation or reject them for ourselves. I am included in God’s saving work and it is God’s desire that I receive that salvation by faith. This is God’s “good news” for sinners and what all people need to hear. To suppress the implications of the doctrine of unconditional election by labeling it a “mystery” or conceal it until a later stage of Christian faith and have to subsequently presume that God has chosen you to be saved are all biblically unwarranted and betray the fact that an unconditional election understood solely in absolute predestinarian salvific terms is a misapprehension of the fullness of a biblical understanding of election. The only objective basis for the assurance of God’s kind disposition to each of us as individuals, which is Christ himself as the expression of God’s love, stands in direct conflict with the real possibility that an evil destiny has been decreed by that same God for an untold number which may include you and me. An eternal, unalterable, unknowable unconditional election has negated God’s revelation of himself and his will towards us in Jesus Christ. What Dever now believes, conflicts with the message of “good news” that he first heard when the gospel was proclaimed to him, that is, the “good news” that he now proclaims to all. Hence, Dever’s own explanation of the gospel above is not consistent with his Calvinist soteriology and it is neither a full or accurate expression of it.
Therefore, the content of the gospel as “good news” rests upon an assurance of salvation as grounded in the true applicability of Christ’s death on my behalf as an expression of God’s love for me, not in the mystery of election and a limited atonement. To give such assurance Christ must have died for all and all are included in God’s salvation plan. Therefore, I submit that for these reasons, and others just as substantial, the biblical themes of election and predestination must mean something other than what Calvinists propose they mean. This “other” gospel is what every Calvinist has heard, but it is not what Calvinists believe soteriologically. They must violate their doctrines of limited atonement, election and predestination to know, not just presume, “I’m included.”
Let’s dig a little deeper from a Calvinist viewpoint into the explanation Dever gives of how he “gets included” in salvation.
What Does Dever Mean?: A Real Possibility for All Sinners or Simply Information about the Elect
So how do I get included in God’s work of salvation? First Dever states,
“Well, I have to come to understand who God is; that I have a creator. I have to come to understand what he is like…”
Do we take this as him proposing that the unsaved need some fundamental reorientation towards the basic truths of the existence of God, his work as creator and his attributes and that they actually are able and are responsible for either receiving or rejecting those truths? But what about Dever’s universal divine causal determinism which eliminates any real contingency, potentiality, possibility and human freedom? Would the statement make any sense if there were not a genuine possibility for the person themselves to actually accept or reject what they hear? In other words, is there conditionality involved in the sense that God has not determined their response based upon whether or not he has predestined them to salvation? Or, thinking more strictly along the lines of Dever’s Calvinist theology, is Dever saying that God grants the elect the initial stirrings of the soul about himself and that God will irresistible draw the elect to himself and therefore “I have to come to understand” is not something “I have to do” but an indication of what God will do in me if I am elect? Do his words speak of a necessity with real potential for all or are they simply informing us of an evidence that is observed in the elect? That is, “I have to come to understand, if I am one of God’s elect, who God is,…” Given his Calvinist soteriological doctrines he would have to mean the latter. If he means to speak of the evidence of election, which would be consistent with his Calvinism, he ought to be more explicit. He certainly could be.
“But in his extraordinary, amazing, unparalleled love, the Son of God has come and taken on flesh.”
Dever goes on to speak of the “extraordinary, amazing, unparalleled love” of God that sent the Son of God who has “taken on flesh.” Once again, the thing to note is that Dever has taken this “extraordinary, amazing, unparalleled love” of God as surely applicable to himself. But given his Calvinist soteriological doctrines, how does Dever know at the time he is hearing of this“extraordinary, amazing, unparalleled love” of God that this message applies to him personally? How does he know God loves him? Is it not the case that the way he knows this love applies to him is the same way others would know it applies to them? If he is assured on the basis of these soteriological truths or message of “good news,” then all others should also be assured on that basis. Why should he be assured and they not be assured? On what basis is he assured and others not? He has no secret knowledge into his or their election. But if others should be assured along with Dever, then there actually is no discrimination with respect to whom God loves, desires to save and will save. If there is no distinction at the time of the proclamation of the gospel, then there can be no doubt that the love of God is an actual reality for each and every hearer of the “good news.” If this is so, it is the same as saying that God has designed and intends salvation for us all. If it’s good enough for Dever, it’s good enough for everyone. But note that is contrary to the Calvinist “doctrines of grace.” Hence, Calvinism fails as a biblical reflection of the gospel message as “good news.” It is incompatible with the biblical gospel as “good news.”
Dever goes on to say,
“And he [God] calls me now to repent and to turn from my sins and to trust in him as my savior, so that that which I deserve I will not get and that which he has deserved for me will be given to me. So I have faith in him, I trust him, and this is the good news, this is the gospel. And this is how I can participate in that recreation that God will be about that we read about at the end of the Bible that’s just so marvelous. And that’s great news…”
The transaction of salvation seems to be dependent upon the call of God for Dever to act – to repent, to turn, to trust. Of course there can be no salvation without God’s initial action in purposing, planning, accomplishing and offering salvation. That is the sense in which salvation is “all of God.” And upon the basis of the content of the gospel, the Spirit of God is present to enable, but not irresistibly determine, a response of faith which is the only appropriate response to this God wrought salvation plan. That is what it means to be saved by grace through faith; to now know of and believe in the salvation in Christ which is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). It would be a serious misinterpretation of the biblical nature of faith to construe it as a human contribution to one’s salvation and therefore must be designated as part of an unconditional election only to be realized in the elect by an “effectual call.” Rather, the whole of what God has done for the salvation of sinners is according to his own design and purposes – including the response of faith. It is a salvation completely apart from the finite comprehension or possibilities of sinful mankind, therefore God has designed it to be received by faith alone. This work of salvation in Christ, to be received by faith, is God’s grace to sinners. And the fact that Dever can respond in repentance and trust (by faith) in Christ as “my savior” is God’s intention and therefore essential to the biblical “good news.”
But the nature of the divine saving love, which God designed to be received by faith, implies that Dever may not respond to God’s saving work. And Dever is confirming the need for this personal response – “So I have faith in him, I trust him, and this is the good news, this is the gospel.” The response of faith enables one to “participate” in God’s salvation. We therefore have an open, conditional situation requiring a response, not a closed, unconditional election. God has made a way for the “participation” of all sinners in salvation by designing a salvation which is by faith alone. Dever can hardly be only describing events in the life of the predestined when he says, “So I have faith in him, I trust him, and this is the good news, this is the gospel.” Is Dever simply informing us of the spiritual phenomena that occur in the elect? He would then mean to say that because he happens to be a person in whom it appears God has granted faith and trust, that this is good news for Dever. It’s good news that on the basis of the evidences of faith and trust Dever is one of the elect. This is what his words must mean from within a consistent Calvinist position. But how do I know Jesus died for me? Is it because that the evidence that I am among the elect is that I have faith and trust in him? But this is certainly to stand the gospel on its head, looking at it and defining it from the evidential hindsight required by presupposing the truth of Calvinist soteriological perspective. It eliminates the conditional elements of the gospel message calling for personal response. It is to strain the natural meaning of the words and I do not think Dever would say that is his intended meaning. But if he is not saying this, then Dever obviously means to confirm that a response from the hearer of the gospel is needed and possible and that their response is not predetermined by God. Dever means to speak of what he has done with what he has heard, which implies that in and of itself the gospel was “good news” to him apart from his response or subsequent evidences. The “good news” is “good” in and of itself. Therefore, the human response of faith and trust, having to receive what God has already provided on behalf of all sinners, confirms an element of conditionality as to the application of God’s salvation to the individual. Therefore one’s eternal destiny is not fixed by God. This of course speaks against definitions of election as unconditional and the Calvinist understanding of predestination.
Here we are faced with other critical theological implications. Is this call to repentance and trust “good news” because God has made a way for Dever to receive the salvation God has provided for him and is being offered to him? It seems that his words must mean this. It is obviously not the case that this is “good news” to him because he has learned that he is among the elect. That is an impossibility. No one is privy to that knowledge. Only God knows whom he has chosen. So, this cannot be known by Dever at this point. Neither would it be presented to him as such at this point. God’s sovereign decree to save some, along with election, predestination, limited atonement, etc. are not preached as the gospel, for as we have established above it would not be the biblical “good” news. So what gospel did Dever hear? What did he hear that caused Dever to know that the gospel is not just “good news” for a limited elect, but that it is “good news” for him?
The implications of the Calvinist understanding of election are not irrelevant here. For if the Calvinist doctrines do not, and indeed cannot, apply prior to hearing the “good news,” neither can they coherently apply subsequent to hearing the “good news.”  If they are proposed as the reality behind and the explanation for the salvation event, then they should be able to be communicated as the content of “the gospel” message to the unsaved. But if they are not able to be spoken in the evangelistic context, neither would they be the explanation of the salvation event subsequent to that event. “Good news” needs to be spoken in witnessing to the unbeliever for them to be saved. Therefore it is that “good news” that remains the gospel and a soteriology cannot be adopted afterward that is in conflict with that initial saving “good news.” Calvinism becomes incompatible and incoherent with the content of the gospel as “good” news. It simply becomes “news” until somehow one presumes it applies to themselves. It is just “news” until they presume that God decided to be kindly disposed towards them in his decree of election. But this is something Calvinists decide for themselves after becoming Calvinists, not upon hearing the gospel, because the message of a deterministic decree and unconditional election is antithetical to the gospel as “good news.” This is something that they deliberately choose to believe about themselves, not that it has a sufficient epistemological basis in the work of God on their behalf.
God’s Salvific Design and Intention for All “In Christ” and A Practical Application
From within a Calvinist context, without presuming one’s election, one exists in a kind of an agnostic uncertainty about their spiritual situation, salvation and eternal destiny. The “doctrines of grace” seems to me to result in an impersonal conception of God and one’s relationship to God. Therefore, it is a biblical, epistemological and psychological necessity that the prior message of God’s love and saving intent be one of universality and inclusivity. This is not to say that all persons in the end will be saved, but that as far as God is concerned, all fall within his saving design and intentions. This design and intention is his grace to all men. It is God’s grace that has brought about salvation for mankind “in Christ” to be received by faith. This is the biblical meaning of salvation by grace through faith. It encompasses us as individual persons because of the unchanging nature of God and how that nature expresses itself to sinners. And being that we are all sinners, God’s salvation applies to us all. Biblically speaking, when that salvation is offered to us the analogy of a gift is used to point out that we are to receive it personally and individually. Therefore it is by his grace that we are saved. Grace reveals itself in the act of providing and offering a gift someone undeserving of it. Salvation is called “a gift of God.” It must be received and can be received by anyone God has designed it to be received by faith. It must be to me “good” news. Therefore I am already included. I know God loves me because Christ died for me. I can accept that gift or reject it. If I reject it, God remains faithful in all that he has accomplished on my behalf and only in this sense does his message of salvation include judgment. It is the judgment, not of his rejection of me, but my rejection of him. He has provided for the forgiveness of my sin. I either accept that forgiveness or harden my heart against God’s grace, thereby remaining in condemnation. Even Calvinists are compelled to this conclusion, for when they explain the gospel they explain it in this fashion, as Dever has above when he states, “And he died a death that I deserved…. And he calls me now to repent and to turn from my sins and to trust in him as my savior, so that that which I deserve I will not get and that which he has deserved for me will be given to me. So I have faith in him, I trust him, and this is the good news, this is the gospel.” Calvinists do not explain the gospel as consistent with or informed by what they believe soteriologically because they can see that their soteriology is not logically, morally and personally consistent with “good news.” They realize that it must have personal applicability and potentiality. The all-sufficient foundation, the expression of God’s love in its application and the present applicability to any and all individuals of the gospel is found “in Christ.” It cannot be found or known within an unknown decree of God made in eternity past that unconditionally fixed each person’s eternal destiny. If you want to know God’s disposition towards you, you need only look to Christ. That is where salvation is actually found. What you see is a completely and utterly positive divine disposition towards you. It is as the old children’s song states, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
The Gospel Principle and Calvinist Inconsistency
The Gospel Coalition’s own statements confirm the essence of what I have been arguing for above. Let’s look at one practical application which requires the gospel to be understood as all of us assuredly being “included” or “accepted” in Christ which is contrary to Calvinist soteriology. It has to do with our obedience to God as stated in the Coalition’s “Theological Vision for Ministry,” section IV. There we read,
“This gospel fills Christians with humility and hope, meekness and boldness, in a unique way. The biblical gospel differs markedly from traditional religions as well as secularism. Religions operate on the principle: “I obey, therefore I am accepted,” but the gospel principle is: “I am accepted through Christ, therefore I obey.”
The contrast here of “traditional religions” with the “biblical gospel” highlights the motivation for obedience in light of one’s status of acceptance before God. The issue raised here is the necessity of knowing and being assured of one’s acceptance and “inclusion” by God in his work of salvation through Christ in order for an individual to respond positively to him. Positive response and obedience to God is rooted in knowing that God is kindly disposed to me and has accepted me “in Christ.” According to the Coalition that is “the gospel principle.” It is the knowledge that “I am accepted through Christ.” From this principle not only Christian obedience follows, but it is essential for initial salvation. If it is “the gospel principle” then it should be preached as the gospel.
This has profound practical implications for those hearing the gospel for the first time. Note that the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” do not contain the essential “gospel principle” that the Coalition has rightly identified here, which is one’s actual and assured “acceptance” or “inclusion” in God’s salvation. The Calvinist soteriological doctrines are contrary to this “gospel principle.” The Gospel Coalition is affirming that for there to be a gospel of “good news” that leads to a response of faith and obedience to God, there must be the assurance that “I am accepted through Christ.” But this affirmation is incoherent with their Calvinist soteriological doctrines. Can you really respond obediently to a God that may have assigned you to an eternity in hell? Can Calvinist soteriology guarantee that that is not the case for those to whom they preach “the gospel principle” that “I am accepted through Christ?” Do they preach that message when they “do evangelism?” Even Martin Luther acknowledged that one’s response to God is based upon what one assuredly knows of God’s loving disposition to them. A positive response to God requires assuredly knowing that “I’m included.” Luther penned these words of a hymn,
“All this for us thy love hath done; by this to thee our love is won…”
Luther is confessing the point I have argued above. If we cannot assuredly know that God’s love and acceptance apply to us, how can our love for God be won? If we cannot know God loves us, how can we love him in return?
Furthermore, who is “us?” What is the scope of this pronoun as Luther uses it here and as it is found in the relevant passages of Scripture? Can it mean anything other than “all of us?” I submit that Reformed Calvinism falls short of supplying the assurance of “acceptance” in God’s love and “inclusion” in God’s salvation plan that is an essential element of the Christian gospel and the only context in which persons can positively respond to God.
Calvinism Eviscerates the Gospel
Prominent Calvinist preacher and teacher John MacArthur confirms the point I have made above. In critiquing the victimhood mentality so prevalent in our society today, MacArthur stresses that sinners tend to want to pass off responsibility for the mess their lives are in onto someone or something else. They claim they are abused and helpless victims of past history, their present time, the forces around them and the convergence of many circumstances. Their attitudes, beliefs, desires and actions along with all the trouble and distress they experience are not their responsibility but the result of forces outside of their control.
MacArthur comments on this victim mentality and the “victim’s” responses given their knowledge of the Calvinist doctrines of God’s eternal decree and sovereignty which are a universal divine causal determinism. God both predetermined and causes all things that happen. That being the case, these “victims” conclude that God must be “behind my life’s mess.” They come to the conclusion that they are victims of God himself. Are they right of wrong? MacArthur relays the “victim’s” complaint.
“Someone has messed up my life. And ultimately it has to be God. It has to be God. And if you’re a Christian and you tell me the Christian God is the creator of everything, and the sovereign over everything, and the Christian God is the one who is in charge of every life and all of history, then the God that you call the true and living and sovereign God is the God who is behind my life’s mess. So I’m not only a victim of all the people who have abused me, but I’m a victim of the God who’s supposed to be in control of everything and let me be abused like this, and then you tell that person that they should go to that same God and find salvation? You just created an impossible situation. Why would anybody go to the God that they believe has put them in the mess they’re in to get them back out of it?”
Precisely. But this is just what Calvinists teach about why things are the way they are for all people everywhere at all times. MacArthur has walked right into an indictment of his own theology here. “The Christian God” the objector has in mind is obviously “the Calvinist God.” The point is that when a person comes to think of God and his relationship to us in terms of the theistic determinism inherent in Calvinism, when they come to believe that God has not merely “let me be abused like this” but predetermined and caused “me to be abused like this,” the Calvinist certainly has “created an impossible situation.” And MacArthur needs to answer his own questions – “…and then you tell that person that they should go to that same God and find salvation? Why would anybody go to the God that they believe has put them in the mess they’re in to get them back out of it?” Precisely! And the point is made. It is impossible for a person to respond to this kind of God in love and trust. As MacArthur so cogently points out, given his theistic determinism people really are victims of “the Calvinist God.” But this determinism only confuses the loving nature of God’s true relationship to us all. Only the assurances of God’s love and salvific will for all sinners foster in us the ability to respond positively in love for and trust in “the Christian God.” Calvinism creates and impossible situation in which the sinner cannot love God in return.
The way we perceive the nature of God and his disposition towards us, and the assurance of that relationship has important implications for an unbeliever’s response to the gospel, the full surrender of the believer’s life for service to Christ, the giving of our time and resources to the work of ministry, etc. Perhaps the spiritual fervor or apathy of the American evangelical church today is rooted in the church’s failure to preach a gospel that is truly “good news.” I submit that on Calvinism, the “victim’s” came to the proper logical conclusions about God and his relationship to them. He has indeed predetermined and caused their life’s mess which a truth that makes it incoherent to be told to go to that same God for salvation. Even MacArthur admits that this is an impossible situation for certain “victims.” He is effect stating that God is the answer for the problems God himself causes. Ultimately, on Calvinist determinism, it is God who causes sin and evil in the world, that is, he causes people to do evil and to sin. But then he comes to redeem and forgive people of the evil and sin he caused them to do. A very strange theology indeed! And what MacArthur’s words above show us is that people can see through it for what it is – an untenable theology. Even MacArthur had to admit this. He admits that his Calvinism has “just created an impossible situation. Why would anybody go to the God that they believe has put them in the mess they’re in to get them back out of it?”
Note also that before MacArthur found himself trapped by where his own theology lead him, his critique of the “victimhood mentality” was that these victims were passing off attitudes and actions for which they were responsible, onto other people and events. Much of “the mess” they find themselves in is their responsibility. But how can MacArthur meaningfully speak about a person being responsible for their actions within his universal divine causal determinism which tells us that God is the cause of everyone’s every thought, attitude, desire, belief and action?
I have tried to show that Reformed Calvinist soteriology cannot be a coherent and consistent theological foundation for a biblical definition of the gospel as “good news,” nor does it provide a reliable epistemology at the point of preaching and hearing the gospel. That is, it is theologically incapable of providing the hearer of the gospel with a knowing assurance that the gospel is indeed “good news” for them personally. It is a theology in conflict with a proper definition and proclamation of “good news” and is also inconsistent with the conversion experience of Calvinists themselves given the content of the gospel message they first heard. They must presume their own election subsequent to hearing and responding to the gospel they heard; a gospel which could only be “good news” outside and apart from their present Calvinist soteriological system.
It is doubtful that a theological scheme that conflicts logically and morally with the gospel as “good news” can be a biblically valid theological position. As such, Calvinism has the odd distinction of being a soteriology that can only be embraced after hearing the gospel as “good news.” It is a human spiritual and psychological imperative that each of us be assured that we fall within the saving design and intentions of God. Ultimate issues of the meaning and purpose of our lives are at stake here. Also at stake is knowledge of our eternal destinies. Knowing and proclaiming the true biblical gospel has very practical implications for both the unbeliever’s and the believer’s response to God in love, faith, worship, giving and service.
I submit that the proliferation of Calvinism within our evangelical churches is having negative effects on the gospel. Although unwittingly, even Calvinist John MacArthur came to realize this. Distortions of the gospel abound. Biblical accuracy and clarity as to the content of the gospel is essential to the revival, sustenance and effectiveness of the ministry of the Evangelical Church. The gospel is not about techniques but the Spirit empowered proclamation of the “good news” of God’s love and salvation in Christ by which the Spirit works in the hearts of the sinners who hear it. It provides for the distinctly spiritual and supernatural work of God in the life of the sinner and “saint” alike. Therefore, it is worthy of consideration that if Paul maintained that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), that only the biblically faithful gospel message is the one the Spirit, as the Spirit of truth, will affirm. And if Paul states that there is no other gospel than the one he preached (Gal. 1:7) and warns that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8), then it would seem to be incumbent upon the Evangelical Church, in light of its acceptance of two mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospels, to delineate precisely the content of that gospel Paul preached. We should be ready and able to define and defend the gospel as the “good news” that it truly is.
The Gospel Coalition has stated that defining and defending the gospel is one of its goals. That is an admirable goal. But I think I have provided a substantive critique that shows that the Calvinist soteriological “doctrines of grace” are incompatible with the gospel as “good news.” The Gospel Coalition, as a Calvinist movement that holds to these doctrines, does not proclaim a biblical gospel of truly “good news,” at least when they are being consistent with their underlying soteriological doctrines. There is no “good news” in Calvinist soteriology. Therefore, I submit that the Coalition’s highest priority needs to be reckoning with the content of the gospel message that accords with the biblical definition of the word, which is, “good news.”
The “Conclusion” of The Gospel Coalition’s “Theological Vision for Ministry” states,
“What could lead to a growing movement of gospel-centered churches? The ultimate answer is that God must, for his own glory, send revival in response to the fervent, extraordinary, prevailing prayer of his people. But we believe there are also penultimate steps to take. There is great hope if we can unite on the nature of truth, how best to read the Bible, on our relationship to culture, on the content of the gospel…”
The leaders of The Gospel Coalition owe it to future conference attendees and all those who identify as “evangelical” according to the biblical definition of the term who may sympathize with the Coalition’s purposes and goals, to articulate the content of the gospel that is coherent with a message of “good news” and with their Calvinist soteriological doctrines. If this cannot be done, as I have argued above that it cannot, then the Calvinist will have to go back to the text and reckon with where they have misinterpreted it. This incoherence, and any other inconsistencies and contradictions in their theology must be taken as indications of misinterpretation. Any hermeneutic that accepts and normalizes interpretive incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction is not a sound biblical hermeneutic. It is an unacceptable hermeneutic of incoherence.
Therefore, the issues of “the nature of truth” and “how best to read the Bible” are special concerns for the Calvinist. There is no doubt that Calvinist determinism generates interpretive incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions. And as Calvinists have rationalized their logical and moral difficulties, they have also convinced evangelical Christians to accept their teachings as legitimate alternative interpretations of the controversial texts (e.g., Rom. 9, Eph. 1, Jn. 6, et al). They have embraced Calvinism as a legitimate biblical soteriology. But the Calvinist cannot adequately address the logical and moral difficulties created by their universal divine causal determinism. And the nature of truth and being truthful, genuine and forthright along with the role of reason in the interpretive task must be on the agenda. That is, Calvinists must decide whether interpretations that lead to logical and moral incoherence, inconsistency or contradictions can ever be valid interpretations of the text. Is a hermeneutic of incoherence a legitimate, sound, evangelical hermeneutic? This issue has to be addressed if there is to be any hope of a resolution to the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy.
Evangelical scholars, pastors and leaders must cease denying this problem of the gospel within the church. Residing within evangelical Christianity today are two mutually exclusive soteriological perspectives with their incompatible gospel messages. And by adopting an intellectual and interpretive relativism the church is able to ignore this fact and accept these two incompatible “gospels.” But a requirement of this acceptance is the suppression of reason and the result is the erosion of the true gospel of “good news.” The gospel is a stake in this controversy. Therefore, perhaps organizations like The Gospel Coalition who claim a desire to unite “on the content of the gospel,” will begin to responsibly interpret Scripture by bringing their logical and moral reasoning to bear on the task and begin to speak a gospel message that is coherent with their soteriology. The Calvinist needs to rethink their hermeneutic and adopt one that requires coherence among textual interpretations and between one’s soteriology and gospel message.
We must be biblically accurate in defining the gospel for the sake of each individual’s relationship with God, knowledge of their salvation and eternal destiny, worship in Spirit and in truth, integrity in thought and speech, the preservation of the true Christian message as “good news,” and its forthright, lucid, world-wide proclamation in the power of the Holy Spirit which will lead to the salvation of lost sinners and the biblically authentic expression of the glory of God “in Christ Jesus.”
But as it stands presently, it is a sad commentary on the contemporary Christian Evangelical Church that for so long a time from the death and resurrection of Jesus, and so long a time possessing the divine revelation in Scripture, we still need to inquire into the central message of that Scripture. We still need to ask and answer the question, “What is the Gospel?”
 Mark Bergin, “Reformed ‘City’”, World Magazine, June 20, 2009, 60. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://world.wng.org/2009/06/reformed_city
 The Gospel Coalition, “About Us,” “Foundational Documents,” “Theological Vision for Ministry,” last paragraph. .https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents/#theological-vision-for-ministry Accessed August 22, 2020.
 The Gospel Coalition, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org Accessed August 22, 2020.
 The Gospel Coalition, “About,” “Foundational Documents,” “Theological Vision for Ministry,” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents/#theological-vision-for-ministry See section II.3.3. Accessed August 22, 2020.
 Ibid. “Conclusion,” Last paragraph.
 This section, “Am I Included: Is the Gospel Coalition a Coalition with “Good news?” was originally a separate paper I wrote in January of 2012. Here revisions and expansions are added as of November 2018 and August 2020.
 You can still view this video on YouTube. Mark Dever, “What is the Gospel?” Accessed August 20, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHr_bd7c5RU
 I recommend reading the The Gospel Coalition’s foundational documents with an eye for evaluating the consistency between these Reformed Calvinist doctrines of salvation and their descriptions of ministry especially as it pertains to a definition of the gospel. These documents can be accessed on their website at http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents See especially their “Confessional Statement” section 5-7, the “Preamble” and the “Theological Vision for Ministry” Sects. I.1; II.2; II.3.3; IV; V.3-5 and the “Conclusion.”
 John Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.8
 G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Phillipsburg: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978), “Of Effectual Calling,” x.iv, p. 93. In the chapter “Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation” the confession speaks about “such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in a state of grace…” I take being “in a state of grace” here to mean “among the unconditionally elect.” I would agree that “such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him” have the assurance of salvation. But rather than introduce “a state of grace” or unconditional election as what we are trying to discern, I would speak of “…may in this life be certainly assured of the grace of God in Christ and therefore their salvation.” “Grace” here is not unconditional election or an effectual call, but the promise of salvation when one has faith in Christ’s work on their behalf. Salvation is grounded in the work of Christ on my behalf and obtained by believing that message of God’s love and grace to me. Salvation is therefore accessible “in Christ.” It is not effectually and irresistibly worked on the basis of one’s unconditional election. The Confession speaks in these terms when it talks about the “infallible assurance of faith, founded upon divine truth of the promises of salvation.” But it then turns awkward and vague when it adds “the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made…” Ultimately the appropriation of salvation requires faith and the assurance of that salvation is found in the promise of God to save those who believe.
 See Philip G. Ryken, The Message of Salvation, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.68. Also, for an example of the essential problematic of the locus of salvation being “in Christ” or in a decision of God in eternity past and the circular reasoning that results from the Calvinist understanding of the doctrine of election see Ryken’s attempt to answer the question, “How can you be sure you are among God’s elect?” in this section of his book.
 Calvin of course was very clear on this point. He writes, “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.” – John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. p. 926.
Also, the classic expression of predestination is found in The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 3, “Of God’s Eternal Decree.” It is an essential tenet in what it means to be a “Reformed Calvinist.” The Confession states,
“III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.
IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it can not be either increased or diminished.”
 The problematic Calvinist definition of God’s sovereignty and election result in their tendency to hide these doctrines from the unsaved, and both the content and practical experience reveal that they certainly cannot be preached in the service of evangelism and the gospel. Also, here the Calvinist faces a theological predicament. The content of the biblical gospel is “good news.” If, for the non-elect, it is not serving a purpose towards salvation according to its content, it must serve some other purpose for them. Therefore Calvinists claim that for the non-elect the gospel serves to confirm the sinner in their sin and reveal the righteous judgment of God upon them. The problem I am pointing out is that this is not the biblical content of the gospel whatsoever. It would appear that quite creative interpretive liberties are needed to preserve the theological scheme. The Calvinist understanding of unconditional election forces us into a theological labyrinth from which there is no exit. This is an indication that something has gone biblically awry.
 Calvinists hold sincerely to the conclusion that the Bible presents God’s sovereignty and election in conflict with human free will and the gospel issues raised here. I respect and do not doubt the sincerity of that conviction. I would concur that if we take the authority of the Word seriously, the conviction that “I believe that is what the Bible teaches” is the best reason to hold to the Calvinist understandings of these doctrines. But even as “Sola Scriptura” was a pillar of the Reformation, there still remains the question of proper interpretation of that Scripture.
There is also the Reformation conviction that the Church is to be continuously “reformed” by the Word of God. Therefore, the interpretation of the Word of God, or the discipline of hermeneutics, is a crucial issue in this controversy. Given the antithetical nature of the Calvinist form of these doctrines to the biblical “good news” and the overwhelming biblical witness to substantial human free-will which is in direct contradiction with universal divine causal determinism, there is obviously another alternative to concluding that this conflict is an incomprehensible mystery inherent in Scripture. That alternative is that in the development and formulation of the Reformed Calvinist conceptions of God’s sovereignty and unconditional election they have unwittingly strayed from the path of biblical fidelity. And the Calvinist has adopted a hermeneutic of incoherence in which inconsistent and contradictory interpretations are acceptable. But this only indicates that their exposition of the Word of God is either incomplete, flawed or both. Not wholly so, but significantly so. God’s revelation was given to be understood, not to remain an incomprehensible mystery, especially when it comes to our eternal destinies. I suggest this in the light of a preponderance of exegetical and theological evidence that works toward a better resolution to the substantial logical, moral, epistemological and theological incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions generated by the Calvinist understanding of these doctrines.
In other “Papers” and my writings found in the “Table of Contents” I pursue this matter of interpretive incoherence and the place and weight the Calvinist’s logical and moral problems have on discerning the validity, or invalidity as the case may be, of their interpretations and why Calvinists seem little concerned about them in relation to their theological conclusions.
 See Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, eds., Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995.)
 When election is regarded strictly as explanation, the same fate befalls it as befell common grace, limited atonement, and reprobation. As explanations, they are unpreachable.
 Canons of Dort, I, 15. The Westminster Confession speaks of the “high mystery of predestination” and urges that it “be handled with special prudence and care” (III,8). Why it is a high mystery that calls for special handling is not indicated. Yet it is clear that behind these assertions of both Dort and Westminster lies the dark possibility of one’s non-election, the kind of secret and mystery that adheres to no other Christian doctrine. See James Daane, The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 177, 178.
 Again, not only is there a conflict between soteriology and “gospel” message but there is also a lack of correspondence between message and ontological reality. Here we touch upon the issue of truth and whether God’s Word and therefore God himself is properly reflected in Calvinist soteriology as the God of Truth. The relationship between the Calvinist scheme of soteriology and the message of the gospel as “good news” in light of the correspondence theory of truth deserves further inquiry. I have suggested that the gospel, as heard by the non-elect, has no corresponding truth in reality. The “good news” although spoken as true to the non-elect is not true in their situation. Thus it is a false word to them. It is to tell a lie to them. This is a violation of what makes something true – the correspondence of the statement with the reality to which that statement refers.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines the correspondence theory of truth as “…the view that truth is correspondence to a fact… But the label is usually applied much more broadly to any view explicitly embracing the idea that truth consists in a relation to reality, i.e., that truth is a relational property involving a characteristic relation (to be specified) to some portion of reality (to be specified).”
“The correspondence theory is often traced back to Aristotle’s well-known definition of truth (Metaphysics 1011b25): ‘To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true…’”
“The metaphysical version presented by Thomas Aquinas is the best known: “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus” (Truth is the equation of thing and intellect), which he restates as: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality” – he tends to use “conformitas” and “adaequatio”, but also uses “correspondentia”, giving the latter a more generic sense (De Veritate, Q.1, A.1-3; cf. Summa Theologiae, Q.16)… Aquinas’ balanced formula “equation of thing and intellect” is intended to leave room for the idea that “true” can be applied not only to thoughts and judgments but also to things or persons (e.g., a true friend). Aquinas explains that a thought is said to be true because it conforms to reality, whereas a thing or person is said to be true because it conforms to a thought (a friend is true insofar as, and because, he conforms to our, or God’s, conception of what a friend ought to be). Medieval theologians regarded both, judgment-truth as well as thing/person-truth, as somehow flowing from, or grounded in, the deepest truth which, according to the Bible, is God: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14, 6).”
Calvinist soteriology, with regard to ontological reality, the gospel message and epistemology certainly seems incoherent with the idea of God as the God of Truth. The “good news” stated as God’s Word to the non-elect, having no correspondence in ontological reality, amounts to a lie.
 For an excellent treatment as to why the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election cannot be preached in the service of the gospel and the insurmountable problems of defining the sovereignty of God in terms of a single, eternal decree that ordains “whatsoever comes to pass” see James Daane, The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973.)
 As noted above many Calvinists are very reticent to expose unbelievers or new believers to their understanding of the doctrine of predestination or unconditional election. But this also raises suspicion about its biblical validity. How is it that a biblical doctrine, biblically expounded, should be kept secret and not be part of the Christian message explained to anyone at any time? Should not this doctrine as well all others serve the central message of the Scripture which is the message of “good news?” Why should the biblical doctrine of predestination or unconditional election be so threatening in the context of gospel preaching and witnessing? Is it really in the mind and plan of God to take with one hand what he has just offered with the other? It is so threatening because it is antithetical to the gospel as “good news.”
Yet, interestingly, Luther sees “the impossibility of understanding” election as essential for faith, although a substantive critique reveals that Luther’s object of faith here is misdirected and the nature of God misrepresented. The following statement also highlights what I have been stressing above about the importance of clarifying the precise content of the gospel message as “good news.” Luther writes,
“Thus God conceals his eternal mercy and loving kindness beneath eternal wrath, His righteousness beneath unrighteousness. Now, the highest degree of faith is to believe that He is merciful, though He saves so few and damns so many; to believe that he is just, though of his own will He makes us perforce proper subjects for damnation, and seems, (in Erasmus’ words) ‘to delight in the torments of poor wretches and to be a fitter object for hate than for love.’ If I could by any means understand how this same God, who makes such a show of wrath and unrighteousness, can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith. But as it is, the impossibility of understanding makes room for the exercise of faith when these things are preached and published.” – Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, trans, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, (Revell, 1957), 101.
 2 Pet. 1:10 reads, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” It is worth noting for hermeneutical considerations how Calvinists interpret this verse in light of 2 Pet. 3:9 where Peter states that the Lord is “…not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Kenneth O. Gangel writes the commentary on 2 Peter in The Bible Knowledge Commentary edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck to which the contributors are all Dallas Seminary faculty members. It certainly appears that Gangel takes a Reformed Calvinist view of 2 Pet. 1:10. Gangel states, “Calling” refers to God’s efficacious work in salvation (cf. Rom 1:7; 8:30; 1 Cor. 1:9), and “election” is God’s work of choosing some sinners (by His grace, not their merits) to be saved (Rom. 8:33: 11:5; Eph. 1:4; Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 1:1). Election, of course, precedes calling. A believer shows by his godly life and his growth in the virtues mentioned in 2 Peter 1:5-7 that he is one of God’s chosen.” (867) I take this to be the standard Reformed Calvinist understanding of their doctrines of an effectual call and unconditional election. Yet regarding 2 Pet. 3:9 Gangel writes, “The second reason the Lord’s return seems so long in coming is that God wants as many people to be saved as possible…The words not wanting anyone to perish…describe God’s wishes or desires; He longs that all would be saved (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4) but knows that many reject Him.” (876) Note the contradictory interpretations here. Two incoherent concepts are being proposed as the proper interpretation of Peter’s thoughts on the matter of salvation. Now, Gangel simply dismisses this incoherence. Is this approach of ignoring the contradiction or incoherence among your interpretive conclusions indicative of a sound, biblical hermeneutic? If so, how so? If not, what does this indicate about the validity of Gangel’s interpretive conclusions?
 Calvinists also shy away from “calling” people “to faith” due to the misconception that any “exercise of faith” on the part of the sinner would, according to their doctrine of total depravity or inability, amount to a meritorious work contributing to one’s salvation.
 Here we are touching upon the two sides of the doctrine of reconciliation. On one hand we have God’s objective accomplishment of our reconciliation to himself as in Rom 5:10, “…while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son…” and 2 Cor. 5: 18, 19, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself…that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them….” On the other hand we have the call for us to be reconciled to God as in 2 Cor. 5:20, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (ESV)
 2 Cor. 5:14, 15 “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (ESV)
 These have to do with the biblical definitions of faith and grace and issues of logic, morality and the character of God.
 This is why the popular attempt to “explain” individual election by the analogy of heaven’s gate which reads upon entering, “Whosoever will may come” yet once inside looking back reads, “Elect from the foundation of the world” is unsatisfactory. The statements as Calvinists understand them lack ontological correspondence with reality and therefore truth-value. If “Whosoever will may come” (a gospel of universal inclusivity) applies before one reaches heaven’s gate, then “Elect from the foundation of the world” (a gospel of limitation and exclusivity) does not suddenly become an ontological reality with the passage of time or at one’s death, and “Whosoever will may come” does not suddenly become an ontological unreality with the passage of time or at one’s death.
 See Romans 3-5.
 This is certainly Paul’s emphasis in Eph.1:1-14. It is also probable that in this context Paul has in mind a distinction between Jewish Christians and Gentile believers. This distinction seems to be confirmed by the shift from “we” to “you” in verses 12 and 13.
 I am reminded of the essay by C. S. Lewis titled, The Weight of Glory. In it Lewis reflects upon our spiritual longings and the importance of our knowing what God thinks of us. He writes,
“In the end that Face which is the delight or terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised. I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how he thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive the examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”
Lewis continues, “We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory meant good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.
Perhaps it seems rather crude to describe glory as the fact of being “noticed” by God. But this is almost the language of the New Testament. St. Paul promises to those who love God not as we would expect, that they will know Him, but that they will be known by Him (1 Cor. viii. 3). It is a strange promise. Does not God know all things at all times? But it is dreadfully re-echoed in another passage of the New Testament. There we are warned that it may happen to any one of us to appear at last before the face of God and hear only the appalling words: “I never knew you. Depart from Me.” In some sense, as dark to the intellect as it is unendurable to the feelings, we can be both banished from the presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all. We can be left utterly and absolutely outside – repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored. On the other hand, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged. We walk every day on the razor edge between these two incredible possibilities. Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing, to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.” – C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 10-12.
 Gal. 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (ESV) Also, 1 John 4:19 “We love because he first loved us.”
 Martin Luther, 1535 (Gelobet seist du Jesu Christ); translated from German to English by an unknown author in the Sabbath Hymn Book (Andover, Massachusetts: 1858).
 See Rom 5:8; Gal. 1:4; 1 Thess. 5:10.
 John MacArthur, “Social Justice and the Gospel, Part 2,” Sept. 2, 2018. Accessed August, 22, 2020. https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/81-22/social-justice-and-the-gospel-part-2 (17:25 – 18:57)
2 thoughts on “Am I Included? : Is the Gospel Coalition a Coalition With “Good News?””
Thank you for articulating a difficulty I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’m from a Reformed background and have been Calvinist-by-default, having been told by people I trust that this soteriology is what the Bible teaches. I can attest from personal experience (with the caveat that I am no expert in the theology) that just as Calvinism fails to “provide a reliable epistemology at the point of preaching and hearing the gospel”, it also cannot give a melancholy believer who is doubting their salvation an objective basis for knowing that God loves them and has good intentions towards them.
“From within a Calvinist context, without presuming one’s election, one exists in a kind of an agnostic uncertainty about their spiritual situation, salvation and eternal destiny.” Indeed. As an OCD-prone thinker who would need a perhaps unrealistic level of certainty to presume my own election, what am I supposed to fall back on to *know* God’s posture towards me? Says the Calvinist, as you put it: “You may look to your spiritual experience as ‘confirmation’ that God has predestined you to salvation, but you cannot know for certain that it is his will to save you.”
So if I want to say, along with Paul, that Jesus “loved me and gave himself for me,” is the epistemological foundation for that statement found by looking inward, seeing God’s work in my life, and being reasonably certain that I’m one of the elect? Is that how Paul knew? Or is it just objectively true that Jesus loves me and died for me, no matter what? What a relief that would be.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” How does one “believe in the Lord Jesus” if it’s impossible to know whether or not he actually provided an atonement for you? Whether or not God actually has good intentions towards you? I wonder if, implicit in the Biblical gospel calls is “Jesus loved you and gave himself for you” and the apostles took it for granted that their hearers would take it that way.
Of course, to “believe in the Lord Jesus” could mean to simply trust him personally, regardless of what atonement mechanics or theology might be. That’s basically where I’ve lived, but in the questions and fears and confusion generated by my understanding of Calvinism it feels like I’m just holding on to him in the dark. “If you want to know God’s disposition towards you, you need only look to Christ. That is where salvation is actually found. What you see is a completely and utterly positive divine disposition towards you. It is as the old children’s song states, ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'” Again, what a relief that would be.
If Calvinism is true after all, so be it, God is God and he is good no matter what. But if the truth is a different, more accurate soteriology, please pray along with me that God will keep leading me in that direction and give me a firm place to stand.
Hi Jesse, It certainly seems that you have come to understand the crucial epistemological problem of Calvinism. You have articulated it well. And you hit the nail on the head when you asked, “…is it just objectively true that Jesus loves me and died for me, no matter what?” and recognized, “What a relief that would be.” Yes, that objective love of God in Christ (Rom. 5:8ff.) is what makes the gospel message “good news.” I think you also see that the “atonement mechanics or theology” of Calvinism is inconsistent with the plain meaning of the majority of the biblical witness to the nature of faith and the apostolic understanding and preaching of the gospel. And that means you are coming to see whether Calvinism is true or not. God is leading you in the direction of truth because you are asking yourself how to know what is true and what is false when it comes to understanding Scripture, God and his ways. Well, I submit that when a theology creates interpretive inconsistencies, incoherencies and contradictions within and among the texts and teachings of Scripture, that is a sure indication that there is a misinterpretation somewhere. Interpretations that generate such problems cannot be true. Calvinism generates such inconsistencies, incoherencies and contradictions. Hence, it cannot be true. Moreover, it requires that you ignore these problems. It requires the suppression of reason. But a good hermeneutic will deal with such problems and find interpretations that are consistent, coherent and non-contradictory. This is the major difference between a Calvinist and non-Calvinist hermeneutic. The non-Calvinist takes consistency, coherence and non-contradiction on board in his hermeneutic. The Calvinist does not. I will pray that God will keep leading you in the direction of what’s true and give you “a firm place to stand.” I would encourage you to read some of the introductory books from the bibliography on this site. Also, I think reading little by little through my writings in the “Table of Contents” would be helpful. You might find Chapter 4 – “Why the Calvinist Views of Sovereignty and Salvation are Certainly False” helpful. Also read Chapters 9 and 10 on “Reason as Problematic for Calvinist Interpretation” and “The Calvinist’s Suppression of Logical Reasoning, Moral Intuition and Common Sense.” I think as you press on in gaining knowledge on this issue you will begin to clearly understand the problematic nature of Calvinism and why it cannot be the biblical truth on the nature of God and salvation. Thanks for reading on my site and let me know if you have further comments or questions. Sincerely, Steve