Example 19 – J. D. Greear’s Gospel Inconsistency


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


Calvinist J. D. Greear is pastor of the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC and President of the Southern Baptist Convention.  I call him a Calvinist for reasons I will document below, but I first want to examine a book he has written on the topic of the gospel to see if what he says about this central biblical message is consistent with his Calvinist soteriology.

He has written a book titled Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.  In it he defines the gospel as follows:

“The gospel is the announcement that God has reconciled us to Himself by sending His Son Jesus to die as a substitute for our sins, and that all who repent and believe have eternal life in Him.”[1]

And,

“The gospel is that Christ has suffered the full wrath of God for my sin.  Jesus Christ traded places with me, living the perfect life I should have lived, and dying the death I had been condemned to die…When I receive that grace in repentance and faith, full acceptance becomes mine.  He lived in my place, and died in my place, and then offered to me a gift.  Theologians call that “gift righteousness”…Christ’s salvation is 100 percent complete, and 100 percent the possession of those who have received it in repentance and faith.”[2]

These are fine summary statements of the gospel as “good news” that I find I can agree with.

In contrast to this good news, Greear also recounts his experience with legalistic Christian religion.  This legalism amounts to a works-oriented approach to Christianity and stresses keeping certain rules as an indication of spirituality and the way to please God, earn his acceptance and defines what it means to serve him.  Greear says,

“I first put faith in Christ when I was in high school.  My conversion, as far as I can tell, was sincere.  I understood that Christ had paid the full penalty for my sin, and I surrendered to do whatever God wanted me to do.  I got a big list of stuff to start and stop doing.”[3]

And,

“Oh, I had the facts down.  I knew He had taken the penalty for my sin.  I also knew that he was the universe’s most satisfying possession.  But if my head knew that truth, my heart didn’t feel it.  I was motivated to walk with God primarily to stay out of hell.”[4]

This legalism led to constant feelings of guilt and having less love for God.  Greear recounts,

“But this religion of so-called grace often felt more to me like drudgery than delight. No matter how many rules I kept and how disciplined my life was, I walked around with an ever-present sense of guilt.  In the deepest part of my heart, I knew – knew – God was not really pleased with me, because there was always something I could be doing better…I was tired, and while I would never admit it, I was starting to hate God.

He was a merciless taskmaster always standing over me yelling, “NOT ENOUGH!  I want MORE!”  He was always there, waving damnation in my face, saying, “If you want My approval, there’s something else you must do.”  His constant demands were driving me insane.  The more I strived to walk in his ways, the less love I felt for him.  The more closely my feet followed him, the more my heart ran away.”[5] 

Greear’s testimony shows how fast and forcefully legalism can enter into the Christian’s life, overwhelming the good news of God’s grace to him in Christ that Greear heard when he first believed.  It also shows how detrimental legalism can be to a vital faith that lives out of the freedom and joy of the gospel message.  I am glad Greear and many others are moving away from the “Christian” sub-culture of legalism.  Greear continues.

“Recently, however, I discovered something that has changed everything.  The gospel.  I know that sounds strange for an evangelical pastor who is leading a growing megachurch to say, but it is true.

It’s not that I didn’t understand or believe the gospel before.  I did.  But the truth of the gospel hadn’t moved from my mind to my heart.”[6]

Previous to this discovery Greear already understood and believed the gospel.  So I take it that “the truth of the gospel” he mentions here is in accord with what he always believed the gospel to be.  It is just that it went from his mind to his heart.  I take it then that Greear discovered the implications of the gospel as gracious in contrast to the harshness of the legalism he experienced.  Legalism associated “the gospel” with following rules and disciplining one’s life to earn God’s approval.  In light of this legalism we can understand how Greear would describe his rediscovery of the biblical foundations of salvation as “good news” or “the gospel.”  He states,

“The point is that to produce real love in your heart for God takes something beyond spiritual gifts, greater doctrinal knowledge, audacious faith, and even radical obedience.  Something entirely different.  Radically different.

That’s where the gospel comes in.  The gospel, and the gospel alone, has the power to produce love for God in the heart.”[7]

This is an important point.  It has direct bearing upon the content of the “gospel” Greear is thinking of when he speaks of its “power to produce love for God in the heart.”  Greear adds,

“The gospel has done in my heart what religion never could.  I believe it can do the same for you.  That’s what this book is about.”[8]

So what is this “truth of the gospel” that Greear “rediscovered” [9] and freed him from the drudgery, guilt and futility of legalism?  What is this message of “the gospel” that changed Greear’s life and has universal scope and applicability for Greear says it “can do the same for you?”  The following quotes, which elaborate on the definitions given above, reveal the answer.

“Thus, if you are not where you should be spiritually, the answer is not simply to get busier for Jesus.  It is not just to get more radical in your devotion to God.  It’s not only to seek greater spiritual gifts or even to learn more about the Bible.  It is to make your home in God’s love given to you as a gift in Christ.”[10]

 “Focus on Jesus’ acceptance of you, given to you as a gift.”[11]

“He told me to abide in Him – in his acceptance of me, given to me freely as a gift…His acceptance of us is the same regardless of the amount of spiritual fruit we have produced.”[12]

“You concentrate on Jesus.  You rest in His love and acceptance, given to you not because of what you have earned, but because of what He has earned for you.”[13]

“Martin Luther said in his Lectures on Romans that true spiritual progress was “always to begin again.”  He said we must daily “embrace the love and kindness of God…and daily exercise our faith therein; entertaining no doubt of God’s love and kindness.”[14]

“The gospel turns religion upside down.  The gospel assures us of God’s acceptance, given to us as a gift earned by Christ’s worthiness, not ours.  In response to that gift, we are moved to obey.  Love for Him grows in response to His love for us.”[15]

“The gospel shows me that God’s presence and approval are the greatest treasure in the universe.  The gospel reveals God’s mercy toward me…”[16]

“The cross is the measure of his compassion, and the resurrection the measure of his power.”[17]

“God motivates us from acceptance, not toward it.”[18]

“Preach the gospel to yourself.  You must tell yourself that because of Jesus you have the absolute approval of the only One whose opinion matters.”[19]

“Worry springs from not being convinced of a sovereign God’s absolute love for you.”[20]

“Jesus looked at [Zacchaeus]…and gave him an invitation of acceptance and intimacy…Zacchaeus tasted of God’s grace.”[21]

“The gospel sets us free from the threat of condemnation…”[22]

Love and acceptance are two words repeated over and over here.  Other words Greear uses to describe the gospel are “freely,” “gift,” “compassion,” “kindness,” “mercy,” “grace” and “approval.”  So Greear explains that the gospel is truly life changing precisely because its message assures us that both God and Jesus love and accept us, and that this love and acceptance are not earned through our efforts but are a gift given to us.[23]  It is the difference between the frustration and anger produced by a religion of works and the love for God and experience of freedom and joy that is produced by knowing God loves each one of us which is demonstrated in the salvation that is by grace through faith in Christ.  Divine mercy, grace, approval, compassion, acceptance and love for you and me demonstrated in the person and work of Christ are at the heart of the gospel.

So Greear’s gospel message contains at least two important truths.  The first is its explicit inclusivity.  Greear states that “God has reconciled us to himself by sending His Son Jesus to die as a substitute for our sins…”[24]  He quotes Luther who adjures us all to “embrace the love and kindness of God…and daily exercise our faith therein; entertaining no doubt of God’s love and kindness.”[25]  “The gospel assures us of God’s acceptance… Love for Him grows in response to His love for us.”[26]

So it is clear that Greear is telling us that God’s love and acceptance of us is a reality even prior to us hearing the gospel.  It is the assurance of this fact that motivates a response of love for God from the individual when they hear this message.  “God motivates us from acceptance, not toward it.”[27]  “…because of Jesus you have the absolute approval of the only One whose opinion matters.”[28]  Greear talks of “a sovereign God’s absolute love for you.”[29]  “Before Christianity tells you to do anything, it calls you to sit in wonder and amazement at what God has done for you.”[30]  Grace and non-condemnation are also essential to his gospel.  These are what motivate a response of love from us for God.

Moreover, Greear is assured that he too is included in God’s saving work.  He writes, “The gospel is that Christ has suffered the full wrath of God for my sin… Jesus Christ traded places with me… He lived in my place, and died in my place, and then offered to me a gift…”[31]  The gospel reveals God’s mercy toward me…”[32]  And finally Greear gives assurance to everyone that what the gospel has done in his heart can be done for each of us.  He states, “I believe it can do the same for you.” [33]  The clear implication here is that Greear truly believes that God both desires the salvation of all and has made a way for all to be saved.

The second truth implies a condition to be met to appropriate this salvation.  Greear states that, “…all who repent and believe have eternal life in Him.”[34]  And with regard to himself, “When I receive that grace in repentance and faith, full acceptance becomes mine.”  And salvation belongs to “those who have received it in repentance and faith.”[35]  And he speaks of this salvation as a “gift” which implies it is to be received. “He…died in my place, and then offered to me a gift…”[36]  The clear implication is that the individual must do something – repent and believe, that is, receive the “gift” – for this gospel to work in the person’s heart as Greear assured us it can.

In short, it is essential that we know that God loves us in that he both desires and has made a way by which we can be saved by faith in Christ.  The demonstration of God’s love and acceptance in the death of Christ on the cross applies to everyone.  Greear maintains that the divine love and acceptance which is grounded in God’s gracious work in Christ is the gospel message.  Therefore, that is the message the unsaved individual must hear.  It is also the truth the Christian must continually live out of so that he may serve God aright, that is, from a genuine love and gratefulness to God for his love, mercy and grace granted to him in Christ to be received by faith.  Greear writes, 

 “We are changed not by being told what we need to do for God, but by hearing the news about what God has done for us.”[37]

The several points Greear makes in defining and describing the gospel are relevant to our evaluation of Calvinist soteriology.  Greear is emphasizing what is essential to the gospel, that is, the content without which it would not be “good news” for any of us.  Those essential elements are its inclusivity, its applicability to all and its possibility for all.  The former assures us of God’s saving disposition for each one of us.  Greear rightly stated that this is necessary if we are to respond to God in love and grateful service.  “The gospel assures us of God’s acceptance, given to us as a gift earned by Christ’s worthiness, not ours.  In response to that gift, we are moved to obey.  Love for Him grows in response to His love for us.”[38]

The point is that we must come to know something to be objectively true regarding how God thinks and relates to each one of us personally and individually in order for us to respond positively to God.  That objective truth must be that God loves each of us, desires that we be saved and makes it possible that we may be saved.  All these divine works, dispositions and dynamics that are necessary for the gospel to be “good news” are expressed in John 3:16-18 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Whosoever believes in him is not condemned, but whosoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

We should make an observation at this point.  That is, that the nature and content of what Greear has said thus far is not coherent with Calvinist soteriology.  Greear has been emphasizing a gospel that is certainly more in accord with a non-Calvinist soteriology.  Indeed, in his definitions and various explanations of the gospel Greear never mentions the Calvinist soteriological “doctrines of grace.”  Why?  Earlier in his book Greear asks,

“So how then do we compel true, heart-centered change, both in ourselves and others?  We tell the story of grace…The grace of God extended to us at the cross should blow our minds.”[39]

Here, grace is contained in the gospel story, and as such, all those who hear it are “extended” that grace.  They are hearing “good news” that really does apply to them individually.

But there are many people in the world who have not heard this “good news.”  Greear proceeds to tell of the affect this fact had on him.

“In Romans, Paul lays out a case why faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation, how people have to hear about Jesus in order to put faith in him, and how we are the only ones they can hear it from…Paul concludes, our only hope is an underserved “second chance,” and that comes by hearing the gospel…The reality of whole nations of people perishing, having never heard about Jesus, gripped my soul…Statistics overwhelm  But when we are confronted with the death of an individual, we feel compassion, because we see in that person a reflection of ourselves…2.25 billion…people created in God’s image.  As the weightiness of 2.25 billion people lost without God pressed in on my soul, I felt like I was suffocating.  I just sat there, speechless.”[40]

His non-Calvinist gospel and theology is also evident in this passage.

“Imagine you are walking by a railroad track and you came upon a young child lying on the tracks, hurt, and unable to move.  You hear the train coming in the distance.  If you pick the child up, you will rescue him: if you do not, he will die.  What do you do?  Do you get down on your knees, pray and ask God what His will is, and wait for a warm, fuzzy feeling confirming that it is His will that you rescue the child?  Of course not.  You know what God’s will is.  Save the child.  In relation to the unreached people groups of the world, we know what God’s will is: “The Lord is not…willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9 NKJV).  People talk about “finding” God’s will.  It is not really “lost.”  His will is that people hear about Jesus and become saved…confronted by that reality I had three options: 1. I could deny it…2. I could ignore it…3. I could embrace it.”[41]

From these statements it is clear that Greear believes each person needs to hear the gospel to be saved.  And equally important, that as they hear they may positively respond to it and be saved.  In other words, contrary to Calvinism, God has not willed that only some people be saved with the corollary that all others cannot be saved.  Indeed, Greear leads us to think that it is God’s will that everyone who hears the gospel may believe it and be saved.  “You know what God’s will is.  Save the child.  In relation to the unreached people groups of the world, we know what God’s will is: “The Lord is not…willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9 NKJV).”  The “good news” of the gospel is clear.

Therefore, regarding a person’s eternal destiny, there is no mystery as to God’s salvific will for every person.  He desires that they be saved.  That is either a true statement about God and individual’s and the nature of salvation, or it is not.  It would be contradictory to say “In relation to the unreached people groups of the world, we know what God’s will is: “The Lord is not…willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9 NKJV)” and also say “God has willed that only certain persons he has elected should be saved and only these will certainly come to repentance and salvation.  God has willed that all others not repent and be saved.  They cannot and will not come to repentance and belief.  God has created them for the very purpose of showing his wrath and therefore they will perish.”  The point is that Greear is saying that God hasn’t predestined certain individual’s to salvation which stands in contradiction to the Calvinist doctrine that God has predetermined certain individuals to salvation.

In passing, Greear even mentions the fact that these lost people are made in the image of God, as we all are.  This is a theological truth that supports the conclusion that God desires that all be saved and that he has made a way for all to be saved.  Precisely because we are all made in God’s image, it is plausible to conclude that God has a special love and concern for each and every human being.  But Greear offers no further explanation on this point.

Moreover, it appears that Greear has more compassion for the lost than God does.  On Calvinism God created billions of people for the very purpose of assigning them to an eternal existence separated from him.

Note also that he concludes the paragraph by affirming that he had “three options” to choose from. He states, “1. I could deny it…2. I could ignore it…3. I could embrace it.”  This is another affirmation of an understanding of Christian anthropology that speaks of real potentiality and possibility over and against a premundane exhaustive divine decree that predetermined all that is to occur.  Greear is thinking from the context of and affirming free will.  But given Calvinist determinism, Greear’s “options” were not really options in the sense that each one was open to him as a real choice.  Inconsistent with Calvinism, Greear is saying that he himself is the author of his action and whatever choice he makes he could have done otherwise.  Again, this is in contradiction with Calvinist theistic determinism.

So, according to Greear, the gospel is “good news” that is more in accord with a non-Calvinist soteriology.  The gospel is the story of God’s love and acceptance we need to tell to every person so that they may be saved by receiving the gift of salvation by faith.  As Greear has stressed, the gospel message assures every person that they are included in God’s saving love, acceptance, mercy and grace found in Christ.  It proclaims God’s will that they be saved by responding to the gospel in repentance and faith.  This love and acceptance is the gospel of salvation and is God’s gift to all sinners, offered to all sinner and to be received by faith.

Greear on Ephesians 1

Now, suppose we were to find out that Greear is a Calvinist!  I think we would be quite surprised and baffled!  We would be bewildered because it would be obvious to us that the gospel he described above is incoherent and inconsistent with the Calvinist soteriological doctrines of total inability, unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace or effectual calling.  The Calvinist soteriology would remove the “good new” from the gospel as Greear so clearly laid it out above.

From what he wrote above Greear certainly gave us no indication that he is a Calvinist.  But I am convinced Greear is a Calvinist from what he writes elsewhere in this book, along with what he preached in a sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14.[42]  Let’s examine this data to see what it tells us about Calvinism, the gospel, hermeneutics, interpretation, and how evangelical preachers think about these issues.

Greear begins the Ephesians 1 sermon by saying,

“Today is going to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever taught you, but also the most important.  We’re going to talk about the fact that God has chosen you for all eternity to be His child, and the rich blessing that that fact is supposed to bring into your life…And it’s going to be difficult for some of you, because this biblical teaching raises all kinds of questions. “Why did God choose me?  Why didn’t he choose everybody?  Doesn’t the Bible teach freewill?” And these are great questions.” (p. 1)

Greear’s Calvinist presuppositions on Ephesians 1 become clear when he states, “…it’s going to be difficult for some of you, because this biblical teaching raises all kinds of questions. “Why did God choose me?  Why didn’t he choose everybody?  Doesn’t the Bible teach freewill?””  These questions arise only because Greear presupposes a Calvinist interpretation of the text.  Both existential and theological incoherencies that his Calvinist interpretation will generate surface here at the beginning.  Greear continues,

“God says that if we are saved it’s because God chose us and drew us to Himself.  But we also know that God loves all men and desires all to be saved and that whosoever will may come. And sometimes we just have to say, “I’m not sure how they work out.  But I’ll believe they are both true because both are revealed.” (p. 1)

So regarding the belief that God has chosen certain individuals for salvation and yet also believing “that God loves all men and desires all to be saved” Greear asserts “they are both true because both are revealed.”  But we should ask “Are both revealed?”  Greear is presupposing the Calvinist interpretation of Ephesians 1 is correct.  And from what he has said the text teaches us – that God is exclusive in choosing only certain people for salvation and yet God is inclusive in that he desires all people to be saved and whosever will may come – why should we not think that Greear has landed us in a real contradiction?   And if he has, why should we accept his interpretation of Ephesians 1?  Does the Bible contradict itself?  If what Greear just proposed is a real contradiction then doesn’t this have hermeneutical significance?

Greear’s Calvinist interpretation is generating identifiable and acute incoherence on several fronts.  But rather than question his interpretation, his default response is to propose that we affirm “I’m not sure how they work out” and also affirm “both are revealed.”  These are typical responses to the logical problem the Calvinist interpretation raises.  But note that the response is question begging.  Is this really what the text means?  And to say, “I’m not sure how they work out” is a premature “flight to mystery.”  We need to think more carefully about whether the nature and number of the logical and moral problems the Calvinist interpretation creates are sure signs of a misinterpretation of the text.  That is, if Greear’s interpretations lead to a real contradiction, and we assume that Greear and al good interpreter’s would not have Scripture contradict itself, then we can say with confidence contrary to Greear’s instruction that they are not “both true” and they are not both “revealed” in Scripture.  The point is that if a sound hermeneutic maintains that the laws of logic are inviolable in interpretation, and it is important for our interpretations to demonstrate coherence, consistency and non-contradiction, then we can discern which interpretations valid and which are not.

If we jettison the deliverances of the canons of reason along with our moral intuitions and follow along with Greear’s solution that “I’m not sure how they work out.  But I’ll believe they are both true because both are revealed” then we can never know if they are “both true” or if both are “revealed.”   Our logical and moral reasoning provide the ability to discern what is true from false as well as what is “revealed.”  Once we accept the suppression of our reason in the statements, “I’m not sure how they work out” and “But I’ll believe they are both true,” then we have also forfeited our capacity to discern the truth of the claim that “both are revealed.”    The suppression of reason Greear encourages us to accept here when he suggests we ignore the contradiction his interpretation presents to us, leaves us without the cognitive resource needed to discern whether or not Greear’s claim that “both are revealed” is actually the case.  The logical and moral reasoning that enables us to interpret well has been set aside.  We are left with no basis upon which we could know that what Greear is telling us is the correct interpretation of this passage.  If we do not suppress our reasoning faculties then we do have good reason to not concede to saying “I’m not sure how they work out.”  In fact, we would have to conclude that it is obvious that they do not work.  And that’s a fact that we can use to being to get at an accurate interpretation of the text.  In other words, we can discern a contradiction when we see one.  Therefore, given the contradictory nature of the propositions, neither should we accept the assertion that “both are revealed in Scripture.”  If we do not accept the suppression of reason here we need not and should not accept Greear’s conclusion that “sometimes we just have to say, “I’m not sure how they work out.  But I’ll believe they are both true because both are revealed.”

Hence, if Greear’s exposition of Ephesians 1 can be critiqued point by point – an exegetical exercise that requires the full engagement of our reasoning and moral faculties – and as a result a more coherent account of this section of Scripture can be given,[43]  then there is no intellectual or exegetical warrant for us to think the Calvinist interpretation of Ephesian 1 is correct.  If a more coherent exegesis of this text, and other Calvinist pillar texts (e.g., Rom. 9, Jn. 6), can be provided, that exegesis would be the more credible interpretation of Paul’s mind and intent.  It would reflect the truer meaning of the passage in context.  For the principle of context consists in the coherence among an author’s thoughts in those contexts – both in the immediate literary context and the broader canonical context.  Why would we believe Greear’s incoherent exegesis over a more coherent exegesis of the text that better incorporates the exegetical and grammatical data along with the Jew-Gentile historical context in a philosophically sound and theologically harmonious way?

Greear states,

“God says that if we are saved it’s because God chose us and drew us to Himself.” (p. 1)

“…the Bible teaches that God chose me before the foundation of the world…” (p. 2)

            In this context, with the way Greear is approaching this section of Scripture, we can safely say that what he means to communicate here is straight-forward Calvinism.  Given Greear’s logical struggles with this text this indicates that he is presupposing the Calvinist interpretations of election and predestination.   Therefore, the above statements are obviously referring to the doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace, yet Greear emphatically states,

“I can say without hesitation that the choice is entirely yours right now.  Jesus said, “Whosoever will may come.”  If you will, you may come!  Whether or not you are chosen is entirely in your court.  The irony is, you have the opportunity to choose right now whether or not you are predestined…” (p. 11)

Here we have a clear contradiction, let alone, as I think even an informed Calvinist would agree, a real confusion as to the meaning of predestination as they understand it.  The blatant contradiction is that the choice is entirely God’s (i.e., unconditional election, predestination), and the choice is entirely yours.  And the confusion, given how a Calvinist defines predestination, comes to full expression when Greear says “…you have the opportunity to choose right now whether or not you are predestined.”  This statement is incoherent with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination as was made clear in chapter 3 and elsewhere.[44]  It is also the approach Calvinist Pastor Erwin Lutzer took as documented in examples 9 and 10 above.

Note what is going on here.  Greear is teaching Calvinist unconditional election or predestination to salvation.  God chose before he created anything which particular individuals he would save.  This entails that all others who are not among the elect cannot and will not be saved.  And yet Greear states that “Whether you are chosen is entirely in your court.  The irony is, you have the opportunity to choose right now whether or not you are predestined…”  This is not irony.  It’s confusion.  And the confusion is compounded by everything Greear said about the gospel as “good news” in his book as I documented above that is antithetical to his teaching here.  It is a clear affirmation that consistency and coherence in thought and word are not important to Greear.  Logical and moral coherence do not play a role in the Calvinists interpretive or hermeneutical framework.

What this also confirms is that the Reformed “doctrines of grace” cannot be preached or taught as coherent with the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news.”  Greear is bending over backwards to avoid the negative implications of his Calvinist understanding of this text regarding election and predestination – even to the point where logical coherence can be cavalierly dismissed.  Surely Greear can see the contradiction in what he is presenting.  But we have already seen that Greear is able to suppress his reason and would have others do so when he encouraged his people to say, “I’m not sure how they work out.  But I’ll believe they are both true because both are revealed.”  And that is what he is doing here.  This is what it takes to become a Calvinist and remain a Calvinist.  

It is required by the biblical definition of the word “gospel” to be “good news.”  Greear knows this “good news,” for he wrote about it in his book.  But here he devolves into a theology and soteriology that has no good news in it.  First, Calvinism is a universal divine causal determinism.  That, in and of itself, places it in direct contradiction with the biblical worldview which depicts reality and the God/man relationship as contingent in nature, stressing human freedom and responsibility.  Biblical divine sovereignty is not divine determinism.  Secondly, therefore, soteriologically Calvinism amounts to mere news about God having predetermined the salvation of certain individuals known only to God on an unconditional basis while assigning all others to perdition.  No one can believe in Christ unless that faith is given to them by God and it is only given to the ones he has chosen to save.  God works irresistibly in the elect.  All others are preordained to eternal death.  Everyone’s eternal destiny has nothing to do with the person.  It has been predetermined by God.  God does not love all persons and many Calvinists say that Jesus did not die for all persons but only for the elect.  Thirdly, therefore, the “doctrines of grace” (i.e., TULIP), are never proclaimed as the “good news” of the gospel because they do not contain good news.  They cannot be put into the service of a truly evangelical (which means “good news”) gospel ministry.  They are never proclaimed by Calvinists themselves as the “good news” of the gospel.  The “news” evangelicals proclaim also needs to be “good” for those hearing it.  Greear knows this.  Therefore, in his book on the gospel, for the most part, he speaks a non-Calvinist message of “good news” avoiding his Calvinist soteriology and here defaults to a non-Calvinist view of human freedom and responsibility when he says, “Whether you are chosen is entirely in your court” and “you have the opportunity to choose right now whether or not you are predestined.”  But when he does this, he is incoherent with his Calvinist soteriological doctrines. It is confused mix of Calvinist determinism and non-Calvinist libertarian free will.  I submit that this confusion along with Greear’s suppression of reason, flight to mystery and theological vacillation is very significant as to discerning the credibility and therefore the validity of his interpretation of Ephesians 1.

This is a very serious matter intellectually, exegetically, theologically and hermeneutically.  It’s troubling to think that Greear’s exhortations to “turn off your objections and just listen” will cause many Christians to forfeit using their minds to evaluate what Greear is saying by putting aside clear thinking and accepting this astoundingly naive statement about reading the biblical text and the need for interpretation.

“I’m going to teach the Scriptures to you just as they are written (there’s not going to be a whole lot of opinion or interpretation); I’m just going to show you what they say.” (p. 1)

This is a seriously disturbing statement. “There’s not going to be a whole lot of interpretation.”  Without interpretation Greear is “just going to show us what they [the Scriptures] say.”  How does he propose to do that?  Simply by reading the passage?  Because someone knows how to read, does that mean they properly understand the meaning of what they are reading?  Granted most of Scripture is straight forward and should be read as such, but it is both naïve and misleading to make the claim that  “I’m going to teach the Scriptures to you just as they are written (there’s not going to be a whole lot of opinion or interpretation); I’m just going to show you what they say.”  Can someone “teach” another person what the text says without interpreting it?  Can Greear “show you what they [the Scriptures] say” without being involved in interpretation?  If Greear was to do what he said he would do, he should have just read that text and dismissed the service.

In fact, in contradiction to what he has just said, Greear does proceed to interpret the passage, and he does so in accord with the Calvinist interpretation of the text.  There certainly are other interpretations of Ephesians 1.  Might one of those be truer to the meaning of the words of this text “just as they are written” and show to us “what they say?”  How can we know?

Back to Greear’s Book: Gospel and Calvinist Soteriological Incoherence

Returning now to Greear’s book, we saw that he expounded a non-Calvinist message throughout.

But now knowing him to be a Calvinist, questions arise as to whether the gospel he has been expounding is coherent with his underlying Calvinist soteriology and definition of God’s sovereignty.  Despite the non-Calvinist nature of the gospel he presented in the majority of his book, in three interesting passages we see him struggling to inject his Calvinist soteriology to perhaps maintain a semblance of what is his soteriological conviction.[45]  Hence, the issue that surfaces is the veracity of Greear’s words to all readers of his book and whether or not those words are coherent with his Calvinist soteriology.  Veracity and coherence in preaching is the issue here. 

In what follows Greear’s Calvinist beliefs become evident, yet they are inconsistent with what he has said throughout most of his book about the gospel.  Elements of the gospel that he has clearly laid out at the beginning of his book are now inconsistently pitted against a soteriology that for some reason he feels compelled to retain as the proper interpretation of scriptures like Ephesians 1.  It is clear that what Greear has been teaching in his book about the gospel is incoherent with what he now says about salvation and sovereignty at the end of his book and in his Ephesians 1 sermon.

In chapters 9 and 10[46] Greear reveals his Calvinism amidst his discussion of how a person becomes saved, how God cares for the lost and what our Christian responsibility is in missions and witnessing to the unsaved.   Note first that Greear presents a non-Calvinist view of missions in the following statements.  It certainly is not coherent with Calvinist determinism or a TULIP soteriology.

“…the breakdown in the system of sending, going, preaching, hearing, and believing isn’t with any failure on God’s part to “send.”  It’s with our “going.”  When we present ourselves to God as willing goers, rest assured that He’ll be a willing sender…Are we willing to let our dreams die so that God can use us in His Kingdom?”[47]

“People in the world who do not know Christ are headed for…destruction.”[48]

“The plain teaching in Romans [is] that people are lost until they hear about Jesus and believe in Him.”[49]

“We are to believe in God’s tenderness and generosity for lost people…There is no shortage in God’s willingness or ability to save.  The shortage is in our unbelief that He is compassionate and powerful as the gospel says He is.”[50]

“The gospel reveals to us how willing God is to save.”[51]

Contrary to deterministic sovereignty and unconditional election, Greear previously told us that “whole nations of people” will perish if they do not hear about Jesus.  Indeed, Greear has stated that, “Paul concludes, our only hope is an underserved “second chance,” and that comes by hearing the gospel…”[52]  Here he says, “People in the world who do not know Christ are headed for…destruction.”  Contrary to unconditional election and irresistible grace this implies that whether or not they experience this “destruction” is an open question dependent upon how they respond to the gospel.

Again, we have here the non-deterministic language of contingency, possibility and potentiality.  Incoherent with an all-encompassing divine decree, Greear talks about “the breakdown in the system” and affirms real contingency in the nature of our presenting ourselves to God as “willing” goers to be sent by God and challenges us to “let our dreams die so that God can use us…”  In clear contradiction to unconditional election Greear clearly states that “There is no shortage in God’s willingness or ability to save.”  Incoherent with total inability Greear affirms that the shortage is “our unbelief.”

The point is that these statements indicate that our wills are not irresistibly moved to a single course of action predetermined solely by God’s will and that a sinner’s salvation is an open question dependent upon their willingness to believe in Christ.  There is no affirmation of an eternal divine decree, unconditional election or irresistible grace.

And it is at this point that Greear begins to struggle with the implications of these non-Calvinist views with his underlying Calvinism.  He continues,

“Here is a weighty thought to consider as I close this chapter:  If God really is as willing and able to save as the gospel indicates He is, and the key reason He doesn’t pour out that power is because you and I never ask Him to, doesn’t that make us responsible, in part for, the blood of millions who might have been saved, but weren’t, because we never asked.

I know that the Bible teaches that God is sovereign and God will save all He has determined to, and not one will be lost (John 6:37, 39).  But the Bible also teaches us that He has placed His power at our disposal, to be released by faith.  He will hold us accountable if we fail to access it.”[53] (Italics mine)

Let’s carefully attend to what Greear has written.  He speaks of people who “might have been saved, but weren’t” and yet, in accord with the Calvinist definition of sovereignty and predestination, Greear states, “…God is sovereign and God will save all He has determined to, and not one will be lost…”  This is a clear contradiction.  It makes no sense to say that there are people who might have been saved but weren’t, while also saying that every person who is predestined by God to be saved will unfailingly be saved – not one will be lost.  On Calvinist predestination it is incoherent to say there are people who might have been saved but weren’t.

Let’s put it more clearly to highlight the contradiction.  Greear has stated,

  1. God will save all He has determined to save, not one will be lost.
  2. There exist people who might have been saved, but were not saved.

            In context Greear is attempting to juggle both Calvinist determinism and non-Calvinist human freedom and responsibility.  But this is impossible.  What Greear does not mean is that people might have been saved but were not saved because God did not predetermined that they be saved.  That is, not having been chosen they could never be saved.  Greear is saying that God is “willing and able to save as the gospel indicates,” and therefore people “might have been saved” if we had only asked him to “pour out” his “power.”  But because we never asked that makes “us responsible, in part for, the blood of millions who might have been saved, but weren’t, because we never asked.”  This makes their salvation contingent upon what we do or don’t so.  But given the Calvinist soteriological doctrine that “God is sovereign and God will save all He has determined to, and not one will be lost (John 6:37, 39),” it makes no sense to say they might have been saved based upon some human contingency.

            Greear’s extended Calvinist theological/soteriological thought would be as follows:

  1. God has a tenderness and generosity for lost people.
  2. God is willing to save.
  3. God is able to save.
  4. God is sovereign, meaning that He predetermined which persons will be saved.
  5. Each one of these persons will unfailingly be saved.
  6. All others will not be saved.
  7. The power of God [that saves people] is at our disposal.
  8. That power is released by faith.
  9. We may fail to access it by never asking him to pour out his power.
  10. We will be held responsible and accountable if we fail to access it.
  11. There are millions of persons who might have been saved but were not saved.

Note that 4 and 5 contradict 11.

Now, two questions arise.  The first is why we should think that this is not a real, logical contradiction.  And secondly, if it is, why would it not be hermeneutically significant?  The Calvinist must answer these questions.

Also, 4, 5 and 6 are inconsistent with 1, 2 and 3.  If God is tender and generous to the lost, and God is willing and able to save, and he determines who will be saved, why does he not save every individual, especially given Greear’s definitions of the gospel and constant emphasis on God’s love and acceptance of us?  Contrary to Calvinism, Greear’s gospel is explicitly inclusive and contained the condition of repentance and faith, which Greear never qualified as being only something God works in the elect.  According to Greear, and inconsistent with his Calvinism, every hearer of the gospel is called and may believe and be saved.

So, if God is willing and able to save, why doesn’t he do so for all?  Why hasn’t he predetermined that all people be saved?  Well, the answer seems to be that Greear also presupposes human freedom of the will on both the sending and the receiving ends of missions.  He claims that God “has placed his power at our disposal, to be released by faith.”  Greear is somewhat unclear here, but let’s take him as saying that the faith response of the sinner hearing the gospel releases God’s power to save them.  We agree.  People believe to the saving of their souls.  God gives salvation to those who freely believe.  God does not saved people on the basis of unconditional election and then give them the faith to believe.  That is putting the cart before the horse.  So Greear seems to affirm human freedom to believe and not unconditional election.

On the other hand, if Greear means to say that God “has placed his power at our disposal” for evangelism, “to be released by faith,” that is, our faith to go and give the gospel to the people of the world, and we can decide to use this power or not, and therefore “He will hold us accountable if we fail to access it,” then Greear is still affirming human freedom and contingency even while also stating that “God is sovereign and God will save all He has determined to, and not one will be lost (John 6:37, 39).”  If we decide not to use God’s power, people will not be saved that might have been saved.  But this is incoherent with the predestination and irresistible grace of numbers 4, 5 and 6.  But suppose we obey God and go and preach the gospel to the lost.  Surely we must ask why it is that many who hear are still not saved.  It seems that the most plausible explanation, given 1, 2 and 3 is that those people willfully reject the salvation offered them in the gospel.  If the gospel is truly “good news” to them, then the fact that they remain unsaved is an act of their will contrary to what God wills and is able to do for them.  But this is incoherent again with 4 and 5. 

So the point is that Greear is attempting to hold to two mutually exclusive soteriologies which entail two mutually exclusive gospel messages, one of which (Calvinism) is not a gospel message at all because it has no “good news” for the sinner.  In attempting to synthesize both soteriologies he only creates intellectual and soteriological confusion.

Furthermore, Greear’s last quote above contains a footnote after the first paragraph in which Greear writes,

“2. The Bible teaches two complementary, not contradictory, truths.  On the one hand, God is completely sovereign over all who will be saved, and not one is lost (John 6:37, 44), and even if we do not play our role in preaching salvation to them, God will raise up someone else to do it in our place (Esther 4:14-16).  The complementary truth is that if we do not go, those who might have been saved won’t be saved because they won’t have a chance to hear (Rom. 10:14-17), and we will be guilty of their blood (Ezek. 33:1-10 [sic]; Acts 20:26-27).  For us to be “blood guilty” means that had we done our duty, their life might have been saved.  We must believe and hold both in tension.”[54]

This footnote is revealing of the confusion and contradictory result of attempting to hold to these two mutually exclusive soteriologies.  First it confirms once again that Greear embraces Calvinism.  Secondly, it is an attempt to provide an explanation for the “weighty thought” that millions might have been saved, but weren’t, because we never asked God to pour out his power to save.[55]  Thirdly, we see a Calvinist acknowledging the problematic nature of his theology.  Fourthly, and most interestingly, via his denial that he has a contradiction on his hands by labeling it a “tension,” he implicitly supports the observation that this problem is a real contradiction.  The Calvinist does not seem to be able to escape his first impression that what he has said strikes him too, as it does most people, as a contradiction.  Fifthly, the denial of any contradiction is merely asserted without support while, without good intellectual reasons or convincing exegetical support, we are adjured to “believe both” and accept it as a “tension.”  This is the suppression of reason and a flawed hermeneutic.

Furthermore, merely to claim the “Bible teaches both” is question begging.  How we can know that the Calvinist’s exegesis (or any other exegesis) is what the text means to say is the very issue we are seeking to reckon with.  But the Calvinist must deflect the reader or hearer from making these observations and asking these hard questions.  This is precisely what Greear does.  He merely asserts them to be “complementary truths, not contradictory, truths.”  He tells us “we must believe and hold both in tension.”

We can add the following to the above statements.

12) Complementary Truth #1

a. “God is completely sovereign over all who will be saved, and not one is lost…”

[Calvinist predestination or unconditional election.]

b. “…even if we do not play our role in preaching to these people, God will raise up someone else to do it in our place.”

[Because people need to “hear” to be saved.]

13) Complementary Truth #2

a. “…if we do not go, those who might have been saved won’t be saved because they won’t have a chance to hear.”

[In contradiction to 1a and b]

b. “We will be guilty of their blood…because their life might have been saved.”

[Also in contradiction to 1a and b]

[Greear recognizes the contradiction so he concludes with…]

14) Conclusion

Therefore, “we must believe and hold both in tension.”

So according to Greear, God predestines who is saved and not one can be lost, yet also, there are those who might have been saved but will be lost.  Also, if we refuse to go to the lost, those who might have been saved will remain lost because they won’t have a chance to hear, yet also, God will send someone so that those God determined to save will be saved and none of those God predestined to be saved will be lost.  The incoherencies and contradictions are obvious.

I see no reason why we should not think that the “complementary truths” Greear wants us to hold in “tension” are real contradictions and on that basis are to be rejected as biblically accurate.  I see no reason for this precisely because I presuppose my reason functions well-enough in its God-given capacity to inform me of such things, and, I also presuppose that the Bible does not contradict itself.  Detecting a contradiction is not all that difficult here.  Detecting the influence of his Calvinist presuppositions here is not all that difficult either, and we can see that the determinism of his unconditional election or predestination has thrown reason off its rails.  We are left with being told “we must believe and hold both in tension.”  Furthermore, if they were “complimentary truths” why would they be need to be held in “tension?”  Just declaring them “complimentary truths” does not make them so.

So, in that these are contradictory theological propositions we should reject Greear’s advice to believe them.  We need not “hold both in tension” because being a violation of reason there is no reason to do so.  Hence, the problem is not that we all must somehow swallow the contradiction, rather, what all this is telling us is that there is a problem with Greear’s Calvinist’s exegesis.  The problem is with the Calvinist’s interpretation of the text.  And although they claim that their interpretation is the result of a thorough exegesis of the relevant texts, we may question whether such exegesis is sound if in the end it must dismiss the deliberations of philosophical reflection and moral intuition.  We agree that exegesis is essential for discerning the meaning of a text, but there is good exegesis, not so good exegesis and downright bad exegesis.  And one way we can distinguish between these is when the exegesis or the cumulative exegetical claims begin to construct a theological system rife with logical and moral problems.  The Calvinists propensity to claim exegetical support for their position while divorcing exegesis from the substantive input of the principles of logic and our moral intuitions is a short-sighted understanding of exegesis.  The deliberations and deliverances of philosophical reflection and our moral intuitions are key to good interpretation.  They are part of a sound, responsible hermeneutic.  The Calvinist may supply an exegesis of a text that results in affirming their Calvinism, but can that exegesis hold the weight of philosophical and moral scrutiny in addition to that of an alternate exegesis that explains the text without running into inconsistency, incoherence and contradictions.

Calvinists make a point out of stating that philosophical and moral problems are the main reasons non-Calvinists give for objecting to Calvinism while Calvinists claim they have the high ground of exegesis in support of their Calvinism.  But this betrays several misconceptions about what constitutes good exegesis.

First, Calvinists express a somewhat cavalier dismissal of the philosophical and moral problems inherent in their Calvinism.  They do not see these problems as significant with regard to the accuracy of their textual exegesis.  They feel free to divorce logical and moral reflection from the exegetical and interpretive process.  This is a flawed hermeneutic.  Greear give us is a clear example of this above.  It is hard to think that the logical and moral problems Greear ran into as a result of embracing Calvinist determinism tell us nothing about the exegetical validity of the Calvinist interpretations.

Secondly, we must also note that their dismissal of these problems serves to insulate Calvinism from substantive critique.  Calvinists have a vested interest in distancing their exegesis from philosophical and moral reflection and critique.  Given a hermeneutic of coherence, the probative force of logical thinking along with the scrutiny of our moral intuitions would expose Calvinism as unbiblical.  But once one accepts Calvinism them they “must believe and hold both in tension.”  They must accept a hermeneutic of incoherence and adopt a flawed perspective on the role of reason in exegesis.

Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell rightly observe that, “While logical consistency may not be a sufficient condition to show that a theology is true, it is a necessary condition.”[56]  Walls and Dongell also point out the following regarding Calvinist attempts to dismiss the contradictions inherent in their theology due to their doctrine of unconditional election.

“Calvinists who believe election is unconditional in this sense do not serve anyone well by obscuring this claim with confusion, ambiguity or inconsistency.  Nor does it serve the cause of clear thinking and truth to confuse contradiction with mystery or to suggest that it is a mark of superior piety to be unworried about logical consistency. While the truth about God is beyond our full comprehension it doesn’t contain contradiction.  Calvinists can’t eliminate the contradictions in their theology by fleeing into mystery or appealing to notions like antinomy.  To the contrary the contradictions we have identified are a telltale sign that something is profoundly awry at the heart of Reformed theology.”[57]

The identification of the philosophical problems inherent in Calvinism is enough to deem Calvinism a flawed exegesis of Scripture regarding the controverted texts.  But alternative exegeses of the relevant texts are also available.  And if these coherently account for the historical-grammatical data, expound a consistent flow of thought of the author in the immediate context and incorporate the theological truths affirmed by the broader canonical context without contradictions among them, then such interpretations present formidable challenges to a Calvinism that does not enjoy such philosophical and exegetical support.  These issues cannot be ignored.  They are integral to what it means to interpret the Bible responsibly.  As such, on both intellectual and exegetical grounds we have sufficient warrant to reject Calvinist soteriology.  We can confidently conclude that Greear’s Calvinism is not what the Bible teaches.  And since the deliberations of reason, logical reflection and moral intuition are essential to the grammatical-historical method of exegesis, his theology remains exegetically unjustified.  Hence, I see no good reason why we should “believe both.”

Note what we have run up against here.  Our thinking has reached a point where our reason has discerned a violation of logical thought, not a limitation of it.  We have not run up against a “mystery” to stand in awe of or a “tension” to be believed, rather, we have run up against what reason is suited for and able to identify as a contradiction.  It is not merely that we simply cannot go any further in our thinking towards unraveling this problem.  That would be the mark of a genuine biblical “mystery.”  The difference is that a genuine biblical mystery leaves us with a mere limitation in knowledge, not two knowledge claims or propositions that come to us as contradictory.  Reason accepts the former and rejects the latter.  Reason cannot abide the Calvinist propositions precisely because they are not a “mystery” but a contradiction.

Note also that at this point no reasoning can reach further into the issue unless the principles of logic are acknowledged and allowed to validate what reason has concluded by her use of those principles.  We must also follow reason back out of this intellectual cul-de-sac towards another solution as reason continues to employ the canons of logic in search of a coherent interpretation.  For example, the Calvinist position is akin to someone asserting that a square circle or a married bachelor are a “tension” or a “mystery” to us, that is, claiming they are complementary, not contradictory.  But this is unacceptable to logic and would amount to a mere assertions.  We would have to bend over backwards intellectually to accept these propositions.  This is precisely what the Calvinist requires of us – the suppression of our reasoning faculties.  Rather than accept these assertions of complementarity, “tension” or “mystery,” we should conclude that this person has misunderstood the nature and definition of a square or a circle or both, or has misinterpreted the words “married” or “bachelor” or both.  How is it that we know with assurance that a square circle or married bachelor are contradictory combinations of words, yet the Calvinist claims his propositions cannot be contradictory?  The Calvinist will say it is because these propositions are given to us in God’s inspired Scripture and the nature of the concepts contained there are such that due to the limitations of our minds to comprehend the “things of God” they can “appear” to us as contradictory but they really are not?  Is this a plausible answer?  I don’t think so for the following reasons: 1) due to the same limitations of human reason, the Calvinist interpretations could be mistaken, 2) the laws of logic proceed from God’s very nature, 3) although we are fallen creatures reason accurately serves us in all other endeavors, 4) given number 2, inspiration does not lead to contradiction, merely limitation of knowledge which is genuine, biblical mystery, 4) an explanation as to why this is not a real contradiction is required, 5) contradiction can be identified, 6) to claim “apparent” contradiction on the basis of inspiration is question-begging.  It presupposes the truth of the Calvinist interpretations which is the thing in question.

The fact that the Calvinist claims they have found both determinism and human freedom and responsibility to be true from Scripture only raises the issue of whether or not they have rightly interpreted the Scripture on this matter.

J. D. Greear on a Gospel-Centered Church 

All this is especially pertinent in light of the question Greear raises next in his book which is, “What does a gospel-centered church look like?”[58]  He answers,

“1. In a gospel-centered church, preaching the message of the gospel is the priority.  The gospel is an announcement, not about what we are to do for God, but about what He has done for us.

Gospel, in Greek, was not an exclusively religious word.  It simply meant “good news.”  When a Greek King would win a battle, he would send a “gospel carrier” around Greece to announce that he had won the battle, was in control again, and the people were free.  When that announcement was made, the people were expected to believe it and live accordingly.

The gospel is an announcement that Jesus is Lord and that He has won the battle for our salvation.  We are to respond in repentance and faith (Mark 1:15).  The gospel is not good advice about how to live; it is good news about what God has done.

Jesus told His disciples to “be His witnesses,” which meant they were to tell everyone, faithfully, the story of what He had done for the world.”[59]

Greear, again, being inconsistent with his own Calvinism, affirms a non-Calvinist gospel.  It is “good news,” that is, it is universal in scope.  It is done “for us” and “the people” and “the world.”  Jesus won the battle for “our salvation.”  The disciples were to “tell everyone” the “good news.” There is no word about predestination or of a limited number of unconditionally elect individuals to which this “good news” of salvation applies.  He states “the people were expected to believe it.”  There is no mention of total inability or the gift of faith or the need of pre-faith regeneration.  Greear’s Calvinist soteriology is conspicuously absent in a discussion about the gospel if it is to be truly “good news” for all sinners.

Greear then explains that many “various traditions substitute something else for the gospel as their primary means of spiritual growth.”[60]  He assesses the following types of churches – charismatic, seeker-sensitive, fundamentalist, “younger” churches, “prosperity gospel”, discipleship-focused, emergent and “Reformed” churches.  What he says about the Reformed churches is instructive for us.  He writes,

At many “Reformed” churches, the particulars of Reformed theology overshadow the cross.  The assumption seems to be that if you can master the particulars of the TULIP, and are devoted to 1, 2, and 3 John (John Calvin, John Piper, and John MacArthur), then you are spiritually acceptable and everything will be alright in your life.  Right doctrine is, of course, essential, but no “doctrinal flower” can transform your heart.  Only the beauty of Jesus transforms the heart.  I know some will say, “But the five points of Calvinism are the essence of the gospel!”  Perhaps.  But if you emphasize conformity to your version of the five points more than you do simple worship of the Christ of the cross, you have replaced adoration with information.  Right information is essential, but I have seen far too many people who are more excited about TULIP than they were in awe of the cross.  I have also seen many people who don’t take my exact stance on the five points who are passionately in love with Jesus and positively overwhelmed at his grace.”[61]

We take it that Greear is a Calvinist (of one sort or another) from what he has said above.  We agree with his point that any theology can become mere information and an end in itself.  If this happens the nature of the Christian experience and one’s relationship to God can become impersonal and the Spirit’s working in a Christian’s life diminished.  But this assessment, coming from a Calvinist, raises doubts about the nature and effectiveness of “the particulars of Reformed theology” (TULIP) to produce what Greear has emphasized throughout his book.  It also raises the question as to why, as a Calvinist, Greear has not brought in any of the Calvinist soteriological doctrines and directly related them to his discussion of the gospel.[62]

Greear states that the particulars of Reformed theology can overshadow the cross.  How so?  Why this dichotomy between the 5 points of Calvinism and the cross?  Don’t the 5 points glorify God and exalt the work of Christ and point people to the cross?  What does he mean by this?  I thought that getting the gospel right was key to our response of love to God, awe in his presence and freedom to obey and serve him out of love rather than law.  If TULIP is the gospel as many Calvinists claim, are they then not essential doctrines for achieving what Greear has been talking about in his book which he describes here as transformation of the heart, coming to know the beauty of Jesus, simple worship of the Christ of the cross and coming to be in awe of the cross?  Would not those doctrines be essential to accomplishing this in the unsaved and saved alike?  How would they serve to overshadow the cross?  And if the Calvinist claims that TULIP is not the gospel, then what is it?  How can one’s soteriological doctrines not be essential to and definitive of their gospel message?

Greear has been talking about the gospel being the motivation for salvation and living the Christian life.  It seems that Greear thinks that some form of TULIP is “right doctrine” although he also denies that they are the gospel.  On his website he states,

 “Often Calvinists will say that Calvinism is the essence of the Gospel (see Piper, Sproul, Spurgeon, etc). Unfortunately, that statement often gets translated to mean that the particulars of the “5 points” are the essence of the Gospel, which they clearly are not.”[63]

This clear statement that the “5 points” are not the gospel is baffling. What then are “the 5 points” (or the 4 points” as the case may be)?  What place do these doctrines play in relation to “the good news?”  Is the gospel something other than these doctrines?  If so, what would the content of that gospel be for the Calvinist?  Would “the gospel” be consistent or inconsistent with these doctrines?  What role do the Calvinist soteriological doctrines play in the life of the believer if not to teach them about the nature and dynamics of salvation?  After all, these “doctrines of grace” are the full and final word as to why and how a person becomes saved.  Therefore, they do explain the way of salvation.  Can such doctrines have nothing to do with the gospel?  Why is that?  They certainly are explicitly soteriological.  Shouldn’t one’s soteriology encompass the gospel message?  If they are not teaching the gospel, what are they teaching?  Do they serve the gospel ministry as biblical soteriological teachings?  Why does Greear distance himself from them here?  I believe he does so because he sees that there is no “good news” in the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” and he wants to reserve for himself the necessity of preaching a gospel that is “good news,” albeit inconsistent with his Calvinist soteriology.  On Greear’s blog for which the above quote is taken, he is evasive of the question, “Pastor J. D., Are You a Calvinist?” 

Greear’s rejection of the 5 points as the gospel raises the following questions.  Are Greear’s Calvinist doctrines even able to instill the realization of divine love, acceptance, grace and compassion that Greear said were essential to the gospel in his book?  It does not seems so.  Greear, although a Calvinist, backtracks from his Calvinism when pressed about whether he is a Calvinist and whether TULIP is the essence of the gospel or not (a point he himself raised in his blog).  His response to this latter issue is inconsistent.  In his book he says “Perhaps.”  But on his blogpost he says “they are clearly not.”  Of course a person can change his position, but it is curious as to why the Calvinist would not relate his soteriological doctrines to the gospel message.

As to the blog question, “Pastor J. D., Are You a Calvinist?” Greear’s answers are evasive, confusing, a mischaracterization of the non-Calvinist view of preaching and an example of the suppression of reason that can accept two mutually exclusive positions.  His first paragraph sets the tone.  He writes,

“I get this question about once a week. To be honest, I’m actually grateful that I get it, because I hope I preach in such a way that makes people wonder—that is to say, I wrestle with the glory of God and the awesomeness of the gospel to such an extent that would imply to some that I’m a Calvinist, and then I plead for people to come to Jesus in a way that suggests I think it’s all up to me, which would imply that I am not a Calvinist.”[64]

 This is a safe response that plays both sides which is characteristic of rest of the blog.  Greear, although a Calvinist, is non-committal here.  Is he or isn’t he a Calvinist?  Why doesn’t he identify with and defend his own Calvinist soteriology?  Aren’t the 5 or 4 points what the Bible teaches and what Greear believes about salvation?  How are they, if not the precise gospel message, at least complementary to the gospel message for a Calvinist?  They are, after all, what the Calvinist believes about the nature and dynamics of salvation.  Is there another gospel content the Calvinist also believes and teaches?  If so, what is that message?  Would it be consistent with the Calvinist’s “doctrines of grace,” no matter how many or few points they affirm?  It seems not.  It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the Calvinist has to become a non-Calvinist when it comes to any “good news” to be proclaimed.  I think Greear is respresentative of a new breed of clandestine Calvinists.  They have embraced Calvinism for whatever reasons, but they know deep down inside that this Calvinism is antithetical to the “good news” of the gospel they so long to preach.  But in preaching this “good news” they would be betraying their Calvinist “doctrines of grace.”  They therefore vacillate between the two positions, modifying, hedging or carefully choosing their terms to suggest belief in one or the other or both positions as the occasion demands and coming up with rationalizations to support their vacillations. 

If the particulars of Calvinist soteriology are biblical truth, then they just are the Calvinist’s gospel, as some Calvinists will assert.  As such, Calvinists should present these doctrines as what people need to hear to be saved and live in the light of God’s love and acceptance.  As these “particulars of Reformed theology” provide people with the knowledge of God’s love and acceptance they are what will free Christians from the legalism that binds them – the point Greear has been driving home throughout his book.  But note that Greear never mentions his Calvinist particulars anywhere in the book in the service of his message of the “good news” of God’s love and acceptance.  In fact, in the previous quote above he sets up certain gospel dichotomies with his Reformed soteriology.  He contrasts “right doctrine,” a reference to his TULIP doctrines, with the transformation of the heart.  In contrast to “the Reformed particulars” there is “the beauty of Jesus.”  “Only the beauty of Jesus transforms the heart.”  What is this “beauty of Jesus?”  How is “the beauty of Jesus” different from “the particulars of Reformed theology?”  If “right doctrine” and “right information” are “essential” why are “the Reformed particulars” at odds with the “simple worship of the Christ of the cross?”  Wouldn’t excitement about TULIP produce “this simple worship” and “awe of the cross?”  After all, this is what the Calvinist claims it does.

Granted, one can be consumed with “the particulars of TULIP” merely as an intellectual exercise.  Greear is right to warn theologians of this danger no matter what their tradition.  But that is a matter for each Christian to deal with and the error of merely intellectualizing one’s spiritual life would not diminish the fact that “the particulars of TULIP” are the biblical teaching, if that is truly what they are, and as such they still need to be at the forefront of gospel teaching, preaching and missions.  But they are conspicuously absent in Greear’s book about the gospel.  Greear never mentions his Calvinist particulars anywhere in the book in the service of his message of the “good news” of God’s love and acceptance because Greear’s Calvinist doctrines don’t provide for a message of salvation which includes God’s love and acceptance for all.  This message is not “good news” for many.  It therefore cannot can be preached with honesty and genuineness to all for it is not applicable to all.

Therefore, we must also ask Greear, as a Calvinist, whether he believes that only those predestined to salvation will experience the salvation and Christian life he describes in his book.  The language Greear has used throughout surely taught that this salvation is inclusive and a possibility for all.  Now, on Calvinism, there is no inclusivity as far as individual sinners are concerned and the possibility of salvation is left in doubt.  That is, any individual’s situation before God may not be the same as another’s situation.  Recall Calvin’s definition of predestination.

“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.”[65]

So God does not have the same saving disposition or saving work on behalf of us all as Greear has led us to believe.  On Calvinism it remains a possibility that you or I or anyone else may not be predestined to salvation and therefore will not and cannot be saved.  Indeed, surely God does not love, show grace, have compassion on, or accept those who are not predestined to eternal life.

Greear’s difficulty is that his TULIP does not teach the divine love and acceptance he has talked about when speaking about the gospel.  Indeed, for the non-elect the situation is bleak.  For them there is no good news.

We can make the following summary observations:

  1. Greear presupposed that the gospel applied to him when he first believed.  Recall that he writes, “I understood that Christ had paid the full penalty for my sin…”[66]  And also, “I knew He had taken the penalty for my sin.”[67]  Note that this is something he assuredly knew about God’s relationship to him.  It was on that basis that he became a Christian.  The point being that one must hear a universally inclusive non-Calvinist gospel to be saved.  Therefore, Calvinism is a “post non-Calvinist conversion theology.”  People only become Calvinists after they hear and believe the good news.  Also, in contrast to the assurance Greear had that what God had done was done for him, a subjective, personal experience is the only thing a Calvinist can point to so as to provide some indication that they are among the elect.  But spiritual experience is no indication of election, especially in that the Holy Spirit may work in the non-elect for a time and then be withdrawn from them.       
  2. Greear assures others that God loves them and has also accepted them in Christ.  Throughout the book Greear has assured us – the readers – of God’s love and acceptance, implying that all of us are included in God’s salvation in Christ.
  3. Greear believes that salvation in Christ depends on a believing response from the hearer.  The sinner must repent and believe to be saved.[68]
  4. Greear states that people will not be saved that could have been saved if we do not take the gospel to them.
  5. Yet Greear also speaks about God being “sovereign in salvation” and those to whom we do not go God will send someone so that they will be saved.  This is incoherent with #4 above.
  6. Greear speaks of his “three options,” our willingness or unwillingness to do God’s will, our obedience or disobedience, repentance and faith, which all presuppose genuine human freedom.
  7. Greear stressed God’s acceptance of us based on the work of Christ.  Who does God accept?  Who is included in God’s acceptance?  If it is given as a gift, may all receive it or just to some predestined to it receive it?  As he says, “…because of Jesus you have the absolute approval of the only One whose opinion matters.” [69]  On Calvinism, what is God’s opinion of me, you, and any others?  We do not know.
  8. We know the love and grace of God to us because of an objective historical event – the cross.  That is, as the Son of God, Christ’s historical, objective, public death on a cross demonstrates God’s disposition of love and mercy to all persons who hear about that event.  It is the good news to them.  Greear writes, “…Jesus gave us the clearest and most complete picture of the glory of God.  In the cross we see the magnanimity of God’s grace…He rescued us out of the jaws of death by substituting Himself in our place…He did that for you because you are a treasure to him…Believing the gospel is not only the way we become Christians, it is the power that enables us to do, every moment of every day, the very things Jesus commands us to do.”[70]
  9. The gospel has the power to produce love of God in the heart. [71]

It is not at all evident how the Reformed definition of sovereignty and the Calvinist soteriological doctrines are coherent with what Greear has stated in this book about God’s love, mercy grace, and acceptance to all persons which are certainly key elements of the biblical gospel which means “good news.”   Yet Greear affirms Calvinism.  Therefore, for all that he has affirmed about the gospel as “good news” and Calvinist sovereignty and predestination, in the end, Greear is what I would call a confused, inconsistent Calvinist.  His Calvinism is present but plays an insignificant role in his practical ministry, especially with regard to evangelism, because there is no “good news” in Calvinist soteriology.  Calvinism ultimately cannot be put into the service of the gospel as “good news.”


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[1] J. D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2011), 5.

[2] Ibid. 46-47.

[3] Ibid. 1.

[4] Ibid. 4.

[5] Ibid. 3.

[6] Ibid. 4.

[7] Ibid. 18.

[8] Ibid. 5.

[9] Ibid,. 4.

[10] Ibid. 19.

[11] Ibid. 13.

[12] Ibid. 14.

[13] Ibid. 14.

[14] Ibid. 22-23.

[15] Ibid. 36.

[16] Ibid. 39-40.

[17] Ibid. 172.

[18] Ibid. 54.

[19] Ibid. 54.

[20] Ibid. 56.

[21] Ibid. 62-63.

[22] Ibid. 99.

[23] What strikes me as odd and out of sorts with the biblical description is Greear’s phraseology when he refers to God’s love and acceptance.  Except in one place (p. 46), as far as I can tell, he always speaks of these as “given to you as a gift”, never “offered to you as a gift.”  One wonders if Greear, as a Calvinist, is intentionally avoiding the word “offer” when he speaks about God’s love and acceptance as an attempt to be consistent with his doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace.  We may also question whether Scripture refers to love and acceptance as a “gift,” but a charitable reading here will take his statements in the context of his main concern which is to counter legalism.  In that context his choice of words may serve to contrast a works oriented mindset with the concept of being given a gift which requires no work, just the reception of the gift. Earned divine acceptance is being contrasted with divine acceptance given freely as in the nature of a gift.  We can take it that Greear’s one use of the word “offered” confirms this sense of meaning.  Regardless, from the statements quoted above, I take it that Greear is certainly not saying that God loves and accepts only a predetermined number of elect individuals.  But this is the problem.  Greear, as a Calvinist, believes in the predestination of some to life and all others to eternal damnation (either passively by passing them by or actively by divine decree), so the problem of inconsistency with his Calvinist theology and soteriology comes to the fore.  What he says is inconsistent with what he believes theologically.

               See J. D. Greear, “Ephesians: Mystery & Clarity, Mystery #1: We Are Chosen.  Ephesians 1:3-14.”  January 24, 2010.  Accessed May 1, 2020.   https://www.summitrdu.com/message/mystery-1-we-are-chosen-ephesians-13-14/

               Apart from the disingenuousness of their approach, whether the Calvinist can dismiss this inconsistency as insignificant for determining a valid interpretation of the text is the issue at hand.

[24] J. D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2011), 5.  (Emphasis mine)

[25] Ibid. 22-23.  (Emphasis mine)

[26] Ibid. 36.  (Emphasis mine)

[27] Ibid. 54.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid. 56.

[30] Ibid. 106.

[31] Ibid. 46-47.  Here we have the use of the word “offered.” (Emphasis mine)

[32] Ibid. 39-40.  (Emphasis mine)

[33] Ibid. 5.  (Emphasis mine)

[34] Ibid.  (Emphasis mine)

[35] Ibid. 46-47.  (Emphasis mine)

[36] Ibid. 46-47.  (Emphasis mine)

[37] Ibid. 64.

[38] Ibid. 36.

[39] Ibid. 67.

[40] Ibid. 146-147.

[41] Ibid. 147-148.

[42] See J. D. Greear, “Ephesians: Mystery & Clarity, Mystery #1: We Are Chosen.  Ephesians 1:3-14.”  January 24, 2010.  Accessed May 1, 2020.   https://www.summitrdu.com/message/mystery-1-we-are-chosen-ephesians-13-14/                 The transcript of the sermon is also available at this link.  The numbers after the quotes refer to the page number in the transcript.

[43] See for instance, A Chadwick Thornhill, The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 218-228.  Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2002), 66-71.  Jack W. Cottrell, “The Classical Arminian View of Election,” Ch. 3 in Perspectives on Election: 5 Views, Chad Owen Brand, ed., (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 70-134.  H. H. Rowley, The Biblical Doctrine of Election (London: Lutterworth Press, 1950), et al.

[44] Recall that Calvin defines predestination as follows. “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, ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 926.

[45] In answer to the question “Pastor J. D., Are You a Calvinist?” Greear writes, “We should think deeply about election, as with all great biblical truths, and form deep convictions about it. Everything in the Bible is important, especially things that relate to salvation and evangelism. I have my own convictions. But we must learn to be comfortable with certain scriptural tensions, and live with grace and freedom in some places God has not bestowed clarity to the degree we’d prefer”  Greear writes, “I keep saying I’m no ‘doctrinal relativist,’ so let me explain what I mean by that. Certain doctrines are clear enough and important enough that we simply must draw clear lines regarding who is “in” and who is “out.” By this I mean doctrines like “the Trinity,” “penal substitution,” “salvation by grace through faith,” the “bodily resurrection of Jesus,” “biblical inerrancy,” and the like. Even though each of these points has been disputed in the history of the church, I believe these things are clear enough and important enough that we have to limit our ministry fellowship to those with whom we see eye to eye regarding them. The finer points of Calvinism simply do not go into that list for me. If we agree on the essentials of the gospel, I think we can have deep, meaningful ministry alignment. (And what are those essentials as it relates to Calvinism? See here).”  This is a link back to the evasive and ambiguous article in which he does not answer the question.

               See J. D. Greear, “Pastor J. D., Are You a Calvinist?” Oct. 26, 2012.  Accessed June 20, 2018.  .https://jdgreear.com/blog/pastor-j-d-are-you-a-calvinist/ 

               On his blog Greear also writes, “The gospel—not the 5 points of Calvinism—is the center of our faith. If you believe in the loftiness of God’s glory, that salvation belongs only to God, and that God is sovereign over the world, and that he that has begun a good work in you will see it through, then you and I can stand in alignment, even if we parse some of the particulars differently.”  But in the “parsing of the particulars” we arrive at mutually exclusive gospel messages.  In the “parsing of the particulars” we can see that the Calvinist “particulars” are not the gospel.  Greear claims that his 5 points of Calvinism are not the gospel.  So what is Greear’s gospel?  And is it inconsistent with his 5 points of Calvinism?  And why isn’t his soteriology, his 5 points of Calvinism, not relevant to the gospel?  Why doesn’t it inform his gospel?  And again, what does he do when his Calvinist “doctrines of grace” contradict the gospel message as he explained it in his book which was truly “good news.”

               Note that Greear says, “The gospel—not the 5 points of Calvinism—is the center of our faith.”  What “gospel” is Greear talking about?  What gospel is the center of his faith if not the doctrinal points of his Calvinist soteriology which, for the Calvinist, provide the full and final explanation of why and how a person becomes saved?  What could be more pertinent to the gospel message than one’s explanation as to why and how a person becomes saved?  That just is gospel evangelism.  Can Greear really not see that the 5 points of Calvinism must constitute “the gospel” for the Calvinist?  The 5 points are the Calvinist’s soteriology, and the gospel of salvation is defined by one’s soteriology.  So, again, what gospel is Greear referring to?

               Given his sermon on Ephesians 1 we wonder how “deeply” Greear has thought about election as a “great biblical truth” and what “deep conviction” he has formed about it?  Is he willing to put aside his doctrine of unconditional election so he can stand “in alignment” with non-Calvinists?

               What’s the difference between “the finer points of Calvinism” and Calvinism itself?  Why don’t the less finer or major points of Calvinism make it into the important doctrines list where clear lines need to be drawn between who is “in” and who is “out?”  Aren’t they his “convictions”?  Can convictions be sacrificed for the sake of standing in “alignment?”  Do these major points of Calvinism constitute the gospel?  If not, why not?

               Moreover, what “particulars” do Calvinists “parse differently” from non-Calvinists?  Does he really not see that it is precisely at the points of Calvinist soteriology that the fundamental differences between the non-Calvinist gospel and the Calvinist gospel lies?  Can both be the true biblical gospel?  Which contains the “good news?”  Does he not see that two mutually exclusive soteriologies lead to two mutually exclusive gospels and being that both cannot be the truth of Scripture on the matter that therefore the gospel is at stake here?  Does he not see the differences are inseparably linked to his Calvinist soteriology and the non-Calvinists objections to it?

               See J. D. Greear, “Don’t Be A Fundamentalist (Calvinist or Otherwise),” September 11, 2014.  Accessed June 20, 2018.  https://jdgreear.com/blog/dont-be-a-fundamentalist-calvinist-or-otherwise/

[46] Chapter 9 “Urgent Mission” and Chapter 10 “Expect Great Things”

[47] J. D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2011), 151.

[48] Ibid. 159.

[49] Ibid. 148.

[50] Ibid. 170.

[51] Ibid. 174.

[52] Ibid. 146.

[53] Ibid. 173.

[54] Ibid. 263.

[55] Ibid. 173.

[56] Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 156.

[57] Ibid. 185.

[58] J. D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2011), 221.

[59] Ibid. 222.

[60] Ibid. 224.

[61] Ibid. 226.

[62] One exception was his mention “total depravity.”  But he defines it as follows: “The gospel reawakens us to the beauty of God and overwhelms us with mercy.  Our behavior changes because we change.  Until that happens, all religious changes will be superficial.  Even if you force yourself to act right, your heart will be going the other direction.  This is the doctrine of total depravity.” (37)  He adds, “Total depravity refers to the sins behind which are “deeper sins that usually go unnoticed.” (37)  They are the sins that come “as instinctively to me as breathing.” (39)  And, “I am an idolater.  That is my depravity.” (39)  Greear then states, “What religion is unable to do, God does for us in the gospel…The gospel shows me that God’s presence and approval are the greatest treasure in the universe.  The gospel reveals God’s mercy toward me…” (39-40)  The question we are attempting to answer is whether or not the Calvinist soteriology is coherent with what Greear has been calling the gospel – the knowledge that God is present and that we have his approval and that he is merciful towards us – and whether Greear, as a Calvinist, mentions his soteriological doctrines when discussing the gospel and salvation.  I have to conclude that the Calvinist soteriology is not coherent with the gospel presented here and that Greear disposes of his Calvinist soteriology in this discussion.

[63] J. D. Greear, “Pastor J. D., Are You a Calvinist?” Oct. 26, 2012.  Accessed June 20, 2018.  .https://jdgreear.com/blog/pastor-j-d-are-you-a-calvinist/

[64] Ibid.

[65] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 926.

[66] J. D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2011), 1.

[67] Ibid. 4.

[68] In his account of a man named Mahmud who had a dream of a “heavenly man” who gave him” a copy of the gospel,” Greear gives an odd description of his own subsequent witness to Mahmud. Greear writes, “For the next two hours I explained the gospel to him…When I explained to him how Jesus had taken his sin on the cross, he said with tears streaming down his face, “Allah…the Creator God, dying in my place?  Can this be true?  Oh Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar” (What Muslims say when they give praise to God – meaning, literally, God is the greatest!).”  Greear then recounts, “It was obvious he had believed, so I asked him if he would like to place his faith in Jesus.” (105)  Now, this seems strange given the evidence of Mahmud’s belief in the gospel that Greear had shared with him for two hours.  What could Greear mean here by “I asked him if he would like to place his faith in Jesus”?  Isn’t that essential to the gospel message?  What had Mahmud “obviously believed” if not the testimony about Jesus?              Anyway, note that contrary to Calvinist unconditional election, Greear assured Mahmud that he was included in the saving work of Christ.

               Also, inconsistent with the “effectual call” or “irresistible grace” Greear invited him to “place his faith in Jesus” which implies the dynamic of the human will with the divine initiative and presence of the Spirit in the content of the gospel also involves a genuinely free act of the Mahmud’s will.

[69] J. D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2011), 54.

[70] Ibid. 101-103.

[71] Ibid. 18.

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