Example 20 – Greg Gilbert’s Book “What is the Gospel?” and Theological Inconsistency


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


Calvinist Greg Gilbert is pastor of the Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.  Pastor Gilbert affirms the church’s statement of faith which contains the following Calvinist doctrines.

“Concerning Election

We believe that Election is God’s eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life,…”[1]

“Concerning Regeneration

We believe that, in order to be saved, sinners must be regenerated, or born again; that regeneration is a change of heart, wrought by the Holy Spirit, who quickens the dead in trespasses and sins, spiritually and savingly enlightening their minds to understand the Word of God, and renewing their whole nature so that they voluntarily love and practice holiness; that it is a work of God’s free and special grace alone; and that its proper evidence appears in the holy fruits of repentance and faith, and newness of life.”

“Concerning Repentance and Faith

We believe that Repentance and Faith are sacred duties, and also inseparable graces, wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God…”

There are five distinctively Calvinist soteriological doctrines in these sections.  The first is the doctrine of unconditional election, in which God alone, from eternity past, chose which particular persons would be saved, along with the corollary, which particular persons would not be saved.  This choice is unconditional in that nothing other than God, not the person themselves or any other thing apart from God, determines the salvation of these elect individuals.  The unconditional nature of this election is confirmed by the other doctrines taught in these sections of the statement of faith.

The second doctrine is pre-faith regeneration.  The non-Calvinist has no problem with “We believe that, in order to be saved, sinners must be regenerated, or born again; that regeneration is a change of heart, wrought by the Holy Spirit,…”, but we would need more clarity to understand what exactly is meant by “who quickens the dead in trespasses and sins” because Calvinists believe that “dead” means that no one is able to respond to the gospel message and call by repenting of their sin and putting their faith and trust in Christ.  This “deadness” of the sinner relates to the third Calvinist doctrine of total inability.  Repentance and faith are not something the sinner is responsible to do in and of themselves in response to the gospel.  Repentance and faith are the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the elect.  “Repentance and Faith are…wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God…”  Therefore, regeneration needs to occur first before a sinner, who is totally unable to do so, can repent and believe.  God regenerates only those predestined by him to salvation, and this regeneration evidences itself in repentance and faith.  Therefore, only the elect will be “quickened” by the Holy Spirit” and respond accordingly.  These elect individuals do not believe in order to be regenerated and be born-again, but rather they are regenerated or born-again in order to repent and believe.  Repentance and faith are the “proper evidence” of “a work of God’s free and special grace,” that is, his work in the one’s he alone has predestined to salvation. 

Therefore, the fourth doctrine is irresistible grace.  This doctrine logically follows from the salvific determinism entailed by unconditional election.  Those predestined or elected to salvation will most definitely be saved.  There is no resistance to God’s work in their lives.  The Holy Spirit works irresistibly upon the elect so that they cannot but be saved.  They cannot resist the Spirit’s saving work in them.  The phrase “savingly enlightening their minds…” in addition to “it is a work of God’s free and special grace alone” is the doctrine of “irresistible grace.”  “Free” here means that God is not determined by anything outside of himself as to why he does what he does.  “Special grace” here refers to God’s deciding who will be saved.

This “irresistible grace” is very similar to the fifth doctrine of the effectual call.  The gospel message contains a general call to repentance and faith that goes out to all, but according to Calvinists there is a special call which works effectually only in the elect, that is, it inevitably works salvation in those chosen by God to be saved.  All others remain “dead in trespasses and sins” and cannot believe the gospel message.

And yet, the Statement of Faith also the includes the following section,

“Concerning the Freeness of Salvation

We believe that the blessings of salvation are made free to all by the gospel; that it is the immediate duty of all to accept them by cordial, penitent, and obedient faith; and that nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner on earth, but his own inherent depravity and voluntary rejection of the gospel; which rejection involves him in an aggravated condemnation.”

Now, it seems to me that this section, understood according to the plain meaning of the words, is contradictory to the previous sections, especially in relation to the doctrine of unconditional election.  “The blessings of salvation are made free to all by the gospel.”  How so?  We should ask what is the precise content of “the gospel” that is being referred to?  “It is the immediate duty of all to accept them [the blessings of salvation] by cordial, penitent, and obedient faith.”  But not all can accept them.  Only the elect will be caused to accept them by pre-faith regeneration and an “irresistible grace.”  How does it make sense therefore to talk of an “immediate duty” for all to accept those “blessings of salvation?”  All cannot accept those “blessings of salvation” because only particular individuals have been predestined to accept those “blessings of salvation.”  How does it make sense to say that “nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner on earth, but his own…voluntary rejection of the gospel” when the “greatest sinner on earth,” or the least sinner on earth for that matter, has nothing to do with their salvation.  They don’t accept it or reject it.  They are only acted upon by God who causes them to accept it or reject it.  Only if one is among the elect is salvation worked in them, and that irresistibly.  We cannot talk of “acceptance” or “rejection” in any meaningful sense of the words because these presuppose libertarian freedom and are contradictory to determinism.  And if one is among the non-elect it makes no sense to speak of them voluntarily rejecting the gospel.  They cannot be saved at all because salvation is not a matter of voluntarily acceptance of the gospel.  The salvation or damnation of each person has been unalterably predetermined by God alone.  Talk of “salvation being made free to all,” the “duty” for all to “accept” and exercise “obedient faith,” and that “nothing prevents” the salvation of a sinner except their “own voluntary rejection of the gospel,” and that an “aggravated condemnation” results from such “rejection” are all incoherent with the Calvinist soteriological doctrines laid out in the previous sections.  So here we have incoherence and contradiction both exemplified and codified in this Calvinistic statement of faith.

What Is the Gospel?

Pastor Gilbert’s church also identifies with the 9Marks ministry movement[2] which, as far as I can tell, is comprised of Calvinist churches and pastors.  The 9Marks ministry was founded by Calvinist pastor Mark Dever of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church.  Dever wrote a book titled “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church”[3] that seeks to help “local churches grow in life and vitality as they organize their life around God’s Word.”[4]  The 9Marks ministry has produced a series of books to examine pastor Dever’s nine marks of a healthy church in greater detail.  One of those marks is “a biblical understanding of the gospel.”[5] Pastor Gilbert has written the book in the series titled, What is the Gospel?[6]

Now, this is the question I have been putting to Calvinists to see whether their definitions of the gospel are coherent with their Calvinist soteriology.  Therefore, Calvinist books that directly address and answer the question “What is the Gospel?” are important as a source of information on this issue.  We saw that the Calvinist soteriology in the above statement of faith and the section “Concerning the Freeness of Salvation” seems to contain two mutually exclusive perspectives that have direct bearing on our question “What is the gospel?”  D. A. Carson writes the foreword of Gilbert’s book. Carson admits that there are mutually exclusive gospels in the evangelical church today.

“Today the question most likely to light a fuse is…What is the gospel?  One might usefully add that question’s first cousin, What is evangelicalism?

That these questions engender mutually exclusive answers, often dogmatically defended with only a minimum of reflection on the Bible, is, quite frankly, alarming, because the issues are so fundamental.  When “evangelicals” hold highly disparate opinions about what the “evangel” is (that is, the “the gospel,” for that is what “evangel” means), then one must conclude that either evangelicalism as a movement is a diverse phenomenon with no agreed gospel and no sense of responsibility to “contend for the faith” that the Lord has “once for all entrusted” to us, his people (Jude 3 NIV), or that many people call themselves “evangelicals” who do not have any legitimate right to do so because they have left the “evangel,” the gospel, behind.”[7]

So what are these mutually exclusive gospels Carson is talking about?  What are these “disparate opinions about what the ‘evangel’ is?”  Which of these mutually exclusive and highly disparate gospels has the legitimate right to call themselves “evangelicals?”  Which of these has left the “evangel” behind?

Gilbert mentions the various definitions of the gospel he has gleaned from evangelicals.  Some, although biblically accurate at points, leave out other important elements that are essential to the gospel message or overemphasize others.  For instance, when the sole emphasis is on God’s love to the exclusion of sin and judgment.  Others stray further into positive thinking, Jesus as merely our example of how to live in love and compassion, degrees of legalism and “good works” and the fight for social justice and economic equity (i.e., the “social gospel”).  Gilbert writes,

               “Listen to evangelical preaching, read evangelical books, log on to evangelical websites, and you’ll find one description after another of the gospel, many of them mutually exclusive.”[8]

Carson and Gilbert’s recognition of mutual exclusivity and highly disparate opinions is interesting for several reasons.  First of all it tells us that the laws of logic are in play in discerning the truth of the gospel.  The implication is that mutually exclusive gospels cannot all be true.  Secondly, if logic tells us that two mutually exclusive gospels cannot all be true, then surely we must include here the mutually exclusive gospels of the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies.  Surely Carson and Gilbert should have this controversy in mind here.  Whatever other gospel’s Gilbert and Carson are referring to, their concerns about mutual exclusivity and highly disparate opinions certainly are applicable to the Calvinist and non-Calvinist definitions of the gospel.  Indeed, Carson’s observations on the mutual exclusivity of the answers given in Gilbert’s gospel survey have him concerned that we have a serious problem on our hands regarding a “sense of responsibility” to “contend for the faith” that the Lord has “once for all entrusted” to us his people (Jude 3 NIV).  Carson is also concerned that many people call themselves “evangelicals” who do not have any legitimate right to do so because they have left the “evangel,” the gospel, behind.”  Therefore, by acknowledging that two mutually exclusive gospels cannot both be the truth in answer to the question “What is the gospel?,” Carson is applying philosophical categories to this issue, and is therefore affirming that logical reflection is indeed essential to evaluate one’s exegetical and interpretive claims.  According to Carson, coherence, consistency, non-contradiction, etc. are indispensable for discerning the biblical accuracy of our soteriological and theological belief claims.

If one’s soteriology is the source for one’s definition of the gospel and the two cannot be divorced from each other, presumably then, not only would Carson and Gilbert be concerned about the mutual exclusivity of the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies, but they would also be concerned about the mutually exclusive propositions in the statement of faith that Gilbert and the Third Avenue Baptist church affirms.  Or, does mutual exclusivity, incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction get a pass when found in a Calvinist statement of faith?  Is it simply not as crucial a problem there for some reason?  Is it that mutual exclusivity and inconsistency in a Calvinist statement of faith is acceptable on the grounds that it reflects the teaching of Scripture?[9]  But how does this not indict Scripture in a contradictions and inconsistency?[10]  And if Scripture cannot be indicted in such, then wouldn’t the problem lie in the Calvinist’s interpretation of Scripture?

Gilbert’s book What is the Gospel? is written by a Calvinist pastor for the predominantly Calvinist 9Marks ministry organization.  So I ask myself what answer would I expect to get to this question from within this theological context.  Since one’s soteriology should inform the content of one’s gospel message, I would expect a definition of the gospel consistent with Calvinist soteriology.  Therefore I am curious as to what answer Pastor Gilbert gives to the question he has raised.  Will his answer be consistent with his fundamental Calvinist soteriological doctrines?  Why wouldn’t it be?  What message will Gilbert, as a Calvinist, explicate and proclaim if he is to remain consistent with his soteriology?  If the Calvinist’s “gospel” content is not consistent with his soteriology, why is that?  And does coherence and consistency matter?  Moreover, if the Calvinist can leave his soteriology at the door when evangelizing, then what purpose does his soteriology have?

We have already seen that Gilbert’s statement of faith contains contradictory and inconsistent doctrinal propositions.  Will such incoherence be commonly accepted in dealing with the subject of the gospel?  Will Gilbert lean on the statements in the section “Concerning the Freeness of Salvation” and act as if the other Calvinist sections that have direct bearing on matters of salvation are irrelevant?  Will any of his Calvinist soteriological doctrines be reflected in his definition of the gospel or will they simply be ignored?  After all I agree with Gilbert when he says,

“There would be nothing healthy at all in Christians who couldn’t care less how we define and understand the gospel.  On the other hand, I think the energy generated by discussion about the gospel points to a general fog of confusion that swirls around it these days.  When you come right down to it, Christians just don’t agree on what the gospel is – even Christians who call themselves evangelical.”[11]

So why the “fog of confusion?”  Why can’t Christians agree on so basic a biblical truth as “the gospel?”  The reasons are many, but mere confusion is one thing, contradiction is another.  And my thesis is that the Calvinist “gospel” is wrong from the start because the Calvinist’s hermeneutic doesn’t take logical and moral reasoning on board in determining the validity of a proposed interpretation of a text.   

So how, as a Calvinist, does Gilbert answer the question “What is the Gospel?”  He begins by rightly stating the source of our definition must come from the Bible.  The Bible must be our sole authority.[12]  He goes on to review Romans 1-4 and talk about our accountability before God, our sin and rebellion against God, and “that God’s solution to humanity’s sin is the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[13]  He writes,

“…there is a way for human beings to be counted righteous before God…declared innocent…justified.”[14]

And,

“…sinners may be saved from the condemnation our sins deserve.”[15]

One would think that this “good news” – that there is “a way for human beings to be counted righteous before God,” “declared innocent,” “justified” and that “sinners may be saved from the condemnation our sins deserve” refers to all of us, for all of us are “sinners” and “human beings.”  Moreover, it is salvation from the condemnation “our sins deserve.”  So I think the clear implication of these statements are that God’s saving work “through Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection” is universal in scope.  It applies to all of us.  And this may be the way Gilbert wants us to take it.  But the obvious question is, “How is this coherent with his Calvinist “doctrines of grace?””  As a Calvinist, Gilbert affirms the doctrine of unconditional election.  He believes that only certain particular sinners will be saved.  They are those God has predestined to salvation.  Only these “sinners” or “human beings” can and will be saved, all others cannot and will not be saved.  This raises a question about how Gilbert, as a Calvinist, understands these verses in Romans 1 -4.  Does he read them in a generic sense in that God has made a way for “human beings” and “sinners” as a category of creature to be “counted righteous” with the further qualification that from this category of “human beings” and “sinners” there are a limited number of elect ones God has chosen to save to the exclusion of all others, being left unsaid here?  This is what he must mean, but we are left wondering whether you, me or whoever else is included in, or excluded from, this saving work.

Now, he may be the type of Calvinist that also affirms unlimited atonement.  But this would, of course, be no advance out of the problem Gilbert faces due to his doctrine of unconditional election.  To boast the Bible teaches unlimited or universal atonement while believing in unconditional election only heightens the incoherence of his position and nullifies the inclusivity of that unlimited atonement.  So we are still left with the questions, “Am I included in God’s salvation plan?  “Am I one of the elect?”

Gilbert continues,

“But there’s one more question Paul answers.  Exactly how is that good news for me?  How do I become included in this promised salvation?”[16]

Here Gilbert airs a major problem for his Calvinism.  Again, given the exclusivity of unconditional election, how do I know I am included as one of the elect?  How do I know what God thinks of me in relation to his salvific will?  Did he will and predetermine that I, you or any others we know and love be saved or be damned?

The use of the word “included” requires comment.  If the previous descriptions of the promised salvation were universal in scope, then all “human beings” or “sinners” were included in that saving work.  Gilbert states, “Through Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection – because of his blood and his life – sinners may be saved from the condemnation our sins deserve.”  Again, it seems that Paul and Gilbert are affirming that the work of salvation has already included everyone – “sinners” and “human beings.”  We are all included in that work.  But again, this is in direct contradiction to Gilbert’s doctrine of unconditional election.

Note again that some Calvinists (Gilbert too?), will affirm unlimited atonement.  That Christ died for all.  That is what Gilbert could have in mind here.  But as I mentioned above, the Calvinist still has the problem of the incoherence of unlimited atonement with their doctrine of unconditional election, for what meaning could Christ’s death for all, including the non-elect, have when God has excluded the non-elect from salvation?[17]  The Calvinist wants to affirm inclusion on the one hand (atonement) and exclusion on the other (salvation).  Given Gilbert’s view (and Paul’s too) of unlimited atonement, in one sense the question is not whether or not we are included in Christ’s saving work, if the atonement is unlimited then we are included as far as Christ’s death is concerned.  The crucial question is whether Christ’s saving work on our behalf can be appropriated by any and all sinners.  So, despite unlimited atonement, it is the doctrine of unconditional election that still raises the question “Am I Included?”  When non-Calvinists put this question to Calvinists, the question refers to their doctrine of unconditional election or predestination which includes some in salvation and excludes all others.  The question “Am I Included?” is always present and always pertinent.  Indeed, it is central to the gospel and whether it is being proclaimed as “good news” or not.

Let’s go back to the quote “…sinners may be saved from the condemnation our sins deserve.”  If Gilbert wants to be consistent with his unconditional election, the “may” in this sentence must be taken as a wish or hope, as in “subject to God having chosen them, sinners may be saved.”  The idea would be that out of all sinners, you may be one that is predestined to salvation.  The point is that the Calvinist should speak consistent with his soteriological doctrines.  If the above sentence needs to be qualified so it is coherent with his Calvinist doctrines, he ought to do so.  For a Calvinist to speak in such ambiguous terms as to leave the impression that all sinners have the possibility of being saved, is not only inconsistent with his “doctrines of grace,” it is disingenuous.

If we abandon unconditional election, the meaning and sense of the phrase becomes “good news.”  We have a “may” of possibility, as in “all sinners may be saved by believing and trusting in Christ’s work on their behalf.”  That you or I or anyone else may be saved is reason to rejoice!  I think we can see that the Calvinist’s unconditional election version of “the gospel” leaves us with the anxiety of doubtful news but the latter libertarian free will, universal scope version of the gospel provides us with the hope that comes from the truly good news that salvation is for all sinners because God loves them all and Jesus died for them all.

So on unconditional election it wouldn’t make sense to ask “how do I become included in this predestined salvation?  You don’t become included in a predestined salvation.  You just are either included or excluded.  The gulf is fixed.  In fact, it wouldn’t make sense to ask anything at all about your salvation as far as you are concerned because you have nothing to do with your salvation.

But putting aside unconditional election, the sinner may legitimately ask “how do I appropriate to myself or receive this promised salvation.  I’m told that God’s desires that all persons be saved and has done what is necessary for that to become a reality in my life by faith.  All I have to do is trust in Christ who died for me?”  Yes, salvation can be yours by simply believing in the good news you have heard.  God leaves it up to the individual sinner to either accept or reject his salvation.  That is both loving and just.

Gilbert continues,

“Finally, Paul tells his readers how they themselves can be included in this salvation.  That’s what he writes about through the end of [Romans] chapter 3 and on into chapter 4.  The salvation God has provided comes “through faith in Jesus Christ,” and it is “for all who believe” (3:22.  So how does this salvation become good news for me and not just for someone else?  How do I come to be included in it?  By believing in Jesus Christ.  By trusting him and no other to save me.  “To the one who does not work but believed in him who justifies the ungodly, “Paul explains, “his faith is counted as righteousness” (4:5).”[18]

If, in Gilbert’s mind, these statements are coherent with his deterministic Calvinist soteriological “doctrines of grace,” then he needs to explain how.[19]  Gilbert is exegeting Paul as teaching his readers, including us today, how we “can be included in this salvation.”  The answer Paul gives, which Gilbert affirms is “by believing in Jesus Christ.”  But this implies that any and all people can believe and be saved.  Gilbert describes salvation as contingent upon some condition the sinner must do – believe and trust in Christ.  But we have seen that on Calvinism all are not included in salvation.  All cannot be saved.  God has elected who will be saved and that unconditionally.  To understand salvation as contingent upon the sinner believing, not merely as the result of God’s irresistible work in them causing them to believe, but actually them believing as a decision they make that is opened to them and enabled by the work of the Spirit in the gospel, is not the teaching of Calvinist soteriology.  Furthermore, if Gilbert is affirming that the sinner must do something to be saved, and affirming that in a meaningful way, then he is also being incoherent with his doctrine of “total inability.”  There is nothing a person can do with respect to their salvation – not even believe.

That Gilbert does not explain or does not care that there is a serious incoherence between his unconditional election and his “Pauline” answer as to how one comes to be included in salvation, leads me to conclude that he is either disingenuously hiding from us some underlying meanings in his answers – “By believing in Jesus Christ.  By trusting him and no other to save me” – or, he is just being flat-out incoherent and that doesn’t matter to him.  Either way the situation is not good for Gilbert and Calvinists.  They end up being “clandestine” or incoherent.  So we take Gilbert as meaning that any and all sinners can believe in Jesus Christ and be saved which is contrary to his Calvinist soteriology.  Therefore, so far we have no gospel message that is consistent with or an expression of the Calvinist soteriological doctrines.

Gilbert goes on to identify four issues that his reading of the New Testament reveals that are at the heart of the gospel.  They are,

“We are accountable to the God who created us.  We have sinned against that God and will be judged.  But God has acted in Jesus Christ to save us, and we take hold of that salvation by repentance from sin and faith in Jesus.”[20]

We should note several points of incoherence between this biblical description of the gospel and the Calvinist doctrines as deterministic, i.e., the doctrine of the eternal decree by which God has preordained “whatsoever comes to pass,”[21] unconditional election or predestination of only certain persons to salvation, irresistible grace or the effectual call which guarantees the “response” of the elect to this gospel, and pre-faith regeneration in which the elect person must be regenerated before they believe.

We should first note that “accountability” is rendered meaningless in a world in which God has predetermined all the thoughts, attitudes, desires and actions of every person throughout all time (i.e., the doctrines of the eternal decree and unconditional election).  There are no grounds upon which a person can be held accountable for things done that were ultimately not of their doing, which includes one’s rejection of Christ and salvation.  We are all preordained and caused by God to do what we do – both the good and the evil.  In any sort of deterministic world the concept of accountability becomes nonsense.

Secondly, it is the same for the aspects of sin and judgment which Gilbert states are essential to the gospel.  But a person cannot be justly judged for sins that God preordained and effectively caused them to do.  Even if Gilbert’s Calvinism allows for the freedom of “divine permission,” he still runs into the wall of theistic determinism in his doctrine of unconditional election.

Thirdly, he states that “God has acted in Jesus Christ to save us…”  Here again, reading Gilbert in the plain sense of his words, we have a statement indicating the universal scope of salvation.  The “us” in the statement implies that salvation is for all persons.  But this gospel truth is in contradiction with the exclusivity of salvation taught in Gilbert’s Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election.  What Gilbert should say is that “God has acted in Jesus Christ to save only the elect.”  That would be consistent with his soteriology.

And lastly, Gilbert states that “we take hold of that salvation by repentance from sin and faith in Jesus.”  Again, the “we” is misleading in that it is naturally to be taken as universal.  And the acts of repentance and faith are depicted as something “we” must do to “take hold of that salvation.”  That is contrary to “total inability.”  Also, there is no word about irresistible grace or pre-faith regeneration.

Moreover, this highlights the distinction I made above between already being “included” in the saving work of Christ and the need to appropriate that work to oneself by repentance and faith.  God has worked salvation apart from us.  Having that saving work apply to us is something we must do through humble repentance and faith – both of which, when properly conceived, could never be considered to be meritorious works.  

If Gilbert’s definition of the gospel is biblically accurate, then we have to conclude that Gilbert’s Calvinist soteriological doctrines are incoherent and contradictory to that gospel.  As such, two things follow.  The first is that the Calvinist doctrines are not the biblical gospel.  The second is that as contradictory to the biblical gospel they are not even biblical teaching.

Gilbert rightly quotes 1 Cor. 15:1-5 in support of his gospel summary.  It is pertinent to note that Paul in that section talks about the gospel he preached, that the Corinthians received, in which they stand and by which they are being saved.  And Paul then adds the contingent element, “…if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.” (v. 2)  As one who holds to unconditional election Gilbert would have to deal with the contingency in this statement with respect to salvation, that is, it seems to contradict his doctrine of unconditional election.

Gilbert again reiterates the core truths of the gospel. 

“First the bad news: God is your Judge, and you have sinned against him.  And then the gospel: but Jesus has died so that sinners may be forgiven of their sins if they will repent and believe in him.”[22]

As stated, this of course refers to all sinners and therefore every person.  But we have to watch out for the Calvinist’s linguistic, semantic subtleties.  What does Gilbert mean by “Jesus has died so that sinners may be forgiven?”  This impersonal, generic description can mean “Jesus has died so that all sinners may be forgiven,” or it could mean “Jesus has died so that all elect sinners may be forgiven.”  The latter is what Gilbert must mean.  So why doesn’t he say so?  He doesn’t clarify according to his Calvinist “doctrines of grace” because he knows that if he does so the gospel as “good news” would be gone!  There would be no more “good news!”

Therefore, Calvinists employ ambiguity to hold their deterministic “doctrines of grace” at a distance so as to preserve the gospel as “good news.”  They can make it seem like they are speaking about the good news of salvation for all sinners while at the same time read into the words what their own doctrines demand.  But this is disingenuous and just confirms that there is no “good news” in the Calvinist soteriological doctrines.  They cannot forthrightly tell of their doctrines and still have “good news” in the end.

Again, if Gilbert wanted to be clear, he could have said “Jesus died so that all elect sinners may be forgiven…”  The point is that we are left with a certain impression from his original description that salvation is universal and available to all through their repentance and faith.  If the Calvinist responds, “Well we state it that way because that is the way the Bible puts it,” then they ought to consider that the Bible teaches something contrary to their “total inability” and the exclusivity of their” unconditional election” and therefore they may have misinterpreted the text in these respects.

Gilbert goes on throughout the book to incorporate other biblical theological truths that have bearing upon the gospel message but do not support his Calvinist soteriology.  Regarding the doctrines of creation and being made in the image of God he writes,

“Whatever else you think about the story of creation, the implications of this claim  – that God created the world, and especially that God created you – are enormous…it means that everything in the universe has a purpose – including human beings.  We are not the result of random chance and genetic mutations, gene reassortments, and chromosomal accidents.  We are created!  Every one of us is the result of an idea, a plan, and an action of God himself.  And that brings both meaning and responsibility to human life (Gen. 1:26-28).”[23]

Yet, on Calvinism, the “purpose” of many of those human beings – the “meaning” of their existence – is that they should spend eternity in hell by God’s eternal decree, presumably to show forth his wrath in them while showing forth his grace in the elect and all for his own glory.  The reprobate are “the result of an idea, a plan, and an action of God himself.”  Given the reality of the reprobate, it is hard to relate to the excitement that Gilbert intends to communicate when he says “that God created the world, and especially that God created you…”  His Calvinism is just not pulling any theological weight with respect to the gospel as “good news.”

Also, again we run up against the incoherence of the concept of responsibility in a deterministic universe.  Again, it’s hard to grasp how a person can be held responsible for thoughts and actions they are divinely predestined and caused to think and do.

And yet, Gilbert writes,

“When God wants to tell us his name and show us his glory – which is really to show us his very heart – what does he say?  That he is loving and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”[24]

Gilbert stresses, and rightly so, that even though God is loving, good, compassionate and forgiving, he is not soft on sin and judgment.  The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (Ex. 34:6-7) and yet “does not leave the guilty unpunished.”  Gilbert points out that God is also a God of righteousness and justice and,

“That’s why the idea of God as an unscrupulous janitor is finally so unsatisfying.  It makes God out to be unjust and unrighteous.  It makes him a god who simply hides sin – or even hides from sin – rather than confronting it and destroying it.  It makes him a moral coward.

And who wants a God like that?  It’s always interesting to watch what happens when people who insist that God would never judge them come face to face with undeniable evil.  Confronted with some truly horrific evil, then they want a God of justice – and they want him now.  They want God to overlook their own sin, but not the terrorist’s. “Forgive me,” they say, “but don’t you dare forgive him!”[25]

Now this is interesting in light of Gilbert’s Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election.  Gilbert seems to be implying that it would be wrong for us to think that we may reserve God’s forgiveness for ourselves but that it shouldn’t apply to others.  Therefore the further implication is that we should not think of God’s forgiveness as discriminating between one person and another.  It does not exclude certain persons and include others.  But inconsistent with this, the idea of discrimination and exclusion is at the very heart of unconditional election.  Gilbert continues,

“You see, nobody wants a God who declines to deal with evil.  They just want a God who declines to deal with their evil.

Scripture tells us, however, that because he is perfectly just and righteous, God will deal decisively with all evil.  Habakkuk 1:13 says,

               Your eyes are too pure to look on evil:

                              You cannot tolerate wrong. (NIV)

To do so would be to renounce the very foundation of his throne.  Even more, it would be to renounce his very Self, and that God cannot do.”[26]

So if God will deal decisively with all evil, and Gilbert has just argued that God doesn’t discriminate between whose sins God forgives, and moreover all this is of the nature of God’s very Self, and to renounce his very Self he cannot do, then we have warrant to think that God will also deal decisively with everyone’s sin and evil and thereby make provision for all to obtain it.  Therefore if it is God’s nature to be loving, compassionate and forgiving to all, then it seems reasonable to think it is also God’s nature be righteous and just to all.  But that would require God’s judgment and punishment upon us for our sins.  This “impenetrable contradiction,” as Gilbert calls it, is “resolved by the death of Jesus on the cross.”[27]  Therefore, it seems we can conclude that this impenetrable contradiction” is penetrable and no contradiction after all, for what God has done to satisfy his righteousness and justice for one sinner, his love has done it for all sinners.  The “impenetrable contradiction” is “resolved by the death of Jesus on the cross.” God’s righteous judgment upon sin and his love for all sinners is demonstrated in the cross of Christ.  Contrary to Calvinist unconditional election, if God has done it for one sinner, he has done it for all.

Furthermore, on Calvinist determinism God would be the author and doer of evil.  But Gilbert observes that God is perfectly just and righteous.  And Scripture says, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil: You cannot tolerate wrong.” So Gilbert is correct when he concludes that “To do so would be to renounce the very foundation of his throne.  Even more, it would be to renounce his very Self, and that God cannot do.”  So God could not have predetermined “all things” as the Calvinist maintains.  Some other, more biblical, perspectives on the divine decree and God’s sovereignty are needed.

Moreover, Gilbert states,

“We Christians have done a bang-up job convincing the world that God loves them.  But if we’re going to understand how glorious and life-given the gospel of Jesus Christ is, we have to understand that this loving and compassionate God is also holy and righteous, and that he is determined never to overlook, ignore, or tolerate sin…which of course is the bad news.”[28]

So Gilbert states that God loves the world.  Here again we have a statement, unqualified by any of the Calvinist soteriological doctrines that would seem to be inconsistent with it, that leads us to believe Gilbert means to say that God loves each and every person.  Yet the world also needs to know about sin and God’s justice and punishment of sin.  That too is essential to the biblical gospel message.  But the “good news” is that our sin problem is solved in Christ.  So from the bad news of our helpless and hopeless predicament of sin, the loving and just God resolves the problem “by the death of Jesus on the cross.”  That’s the “good news,” or, the gospel.

In certain places when referring to those Jesus came to save he refers to “his people” (according to Matt. 1:21)[29] or “God’s people.”[30] Calvinists will use this phrase in an exclusive sense with reference to the unconditionally elect.   But Gilbert quotes Isaiah 53.

“Surely he has borne our griefs

               And carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

               smitten by God and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions:

               he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

               and with his stripes we are healed.  (Isa. 53:4-5)

And then he writes,

“Do you see the significance of this?  Ultimately, it means that I’m the one who should have died, not Jesus.  I should have been punished, not he.  And yet he took my place.  He died for me… His death, my life.” [31]

Gilbert just takes it as a given that what Christ did on the cross was done for him.  And rightly so.  But on Calvinism this is not a given.  On Calvinism we must conclude that Gilbert is presupposing that he is among the elect.  But how does he know he has been chosen by God to be saved?  Can he know this?

Gilbert goes on to talk about the resurrection of Jesus and quotes Rom. 8:33-34 which reads, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  Who is to condemn?  Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (ESV)  He then states,

“But this raises one more question, doesn’t it?  Just who are “his people”?”[32]

Gilbert answers,

“Mark tells us that Jesus began his ministry by preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  That command – repent and believe – is what God requires of us in response to the good news of Jesus.

…Faith and repentance.  This is what marks out those who are Christ’s people, or “Christians.”  In other words, a Christian is one who turns away from his sin and trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ – and nothing else – to save him from sin and the coming judgment.”[33]

Note that Gilbert has given us no insight or answer according to the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election, or any of his other “doctrines of grace.”  We know nothing of their relevance to the gospel nor how they apply to the gospel as “good news.”

In contrast to unconditional election, here Gilbert, following Scripture, puts a condition upon becoming one of “God’s people.”  They are those who repent and believe.  Note that it is not possible or relevant that those who do repent and believe know that they have also been “unconditionally elected” by God, that is, predestined to be saved before the creation of the world.  That is something they would presume for themselves.  Indeed, they would have to the good news of a non-Calvinist gospel first to be saved.  It would only be afterwards that, for whatever reasons, they would adopt Calvinism which is antithetical to the “good news” they heard when they first believed.

It needs only to be pointed out here that the issue of election in Scripture is a designation rooted in God’s dealing with his chosen (“elect”) people Israel in the Old Testament which is a designation, as Gilbert states, that is now given to those who believe in Christ.  There need be no implication of an unconditional election to salvation.

Gilbert gives a fuller definition and description of faith,

“The gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to…put our faith in Jesus, rely on him, and trust him to do what he has promised to do.

…Faith means admitting that [good works] are woefully insufficient, and trusting Christ alone…Faith means acknowledging that your heart is not good at all, and trusting Christ alone.  To put it another way, it means jumping off the edge of the pool and saying, “Jesus, if you don’t catch me, I’m done.  I’ve no other hope, no other savior.  Save me, Jesus, or I die. That is faith.” [34]

Contrary to the Calvinist teaching of pre-faith regeneration, Gilbert speaks of faith as something that precedes regeneration and salvation.  Contrary to the Calvinist view that faith must be given to the elect as a gift lest their believing be meritorious, Gilbert presents it as something the sinner must do in and of themselves.  Faith is the sinner’s response to the gospel and brings about the appropriation of Christ’s work of salvation on his behalf to himself, or, otherwise described as entrance into the kingdom.  God designed the receiving and application to the sinner of his saving work to be by faith – a faith that is a willed decision that comes from the sinner themselves.

Gilbert is emphatic when he states,

“…inclusion in the kingdom of God depends entirely on one’s response to the King.  Jesus could not have been clearer about this.  Over and over, he makes a person’s response to him and his message the single determining factor in whether that person would be included in his kingdom.”[35]

We take these words to mean that it is the person themselves who determines their eternal destiny.  In contradiction to this, the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election makes the decision of God as to who will and who will not be saved “the single determining factor in whether that person will be included in his kingdom.”  On Calvinism, it is not upon any condition, such as whether a person responds or does not respond, that a person is saved or not.  It is solely upon the will of God to save or not to save.  Certainly, those persons whom God has predestined to save will “respond to him and his message,” and they will do so irresistibly, but that response is not “the single determining factor” as to whether that person is included among the saved.  Such a “response” is brought about by God in them which depends wholly upon whether or not God has chosen them to salvation.  Whether or not one has been chosen by God for salvation is “the single determining factor in whether that person would be included in his kingdom.”  On the Calvinist view there is no sense in which the person themselves is “responsible” for whether they are included in the kingdom and salvation.

And again Gilbert writes,

“Time after time, Jesus says that God will draw a bright line through the middle of humanity, separating the saved from the unsaved.  And the one thing that will make the difference between the two is how they responded to King Jesus.”[36]

Therefore, each person’s eternal destiny is an open question during their lifetime.  It is up to them as to where they will spend eternity.  They either accept Christ as King or reject him.  Calvinist unconditional election has no coherent place within this biblical framework.

Gilbert now turns to a crucial element of the gospel without which he says it is not “good news” – the displacement of the Cross as the center.  But in dealing with this issue he levels a devastating critique of his own Calvinism.  He writes,

“Indeed I believe one of the greatest dangers the body of Christ faces today is the temptation to rethink and rearticulate the gospel in a way that makes its center something other than the death of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners.” (102)

I have already indicated how Calvinism, with respect to the sinner’s knowledge of God’s love and salvific will for them, reorients the sinner’s attention away from the cross to the decision of God in eternity past.  The doctrine of unconditional election or predestination “disorients” the sinner regarding the assurance of God’s desire to save them in particular and his provision of salvation for them in particular which can be found at the cross of Christ.  Unconditional election places a shadow of doubt upon whether they may be among the elect and thereby be saved or among the non-elect and thereby not be saved.  Salvation, rather than being assured on the basis of God’s message of grace, love and salvation in the cross and obtainable on the basis of looking to and believing the message of the cross, becomes a mere possibility based upon an unknowable decision of God to save them or deny them salvation.  Only those chosen by God, who are unknown to any of us and known only to God, will be saved.  “The death of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners” is no longer central to salvation in the sense that salvation can be found there by these sinners.  There is no access to salvation at the cross for anyone.  Salvation ultimately depends upon the God’s decision to save or to damn.

In contrast, in the biblical gospel God involves the sinner as a responsible creature, that is, a creature that is able to respond to God, regarding their eternal destiny.  God has planned and accomplished salvation for us all as undeserving sinners.  This is the meaning of saving grace.  God has designed this saving work to be applied to individual sinners upon the condition of faith.  Salvation is appropriated by a personal and individual response of faith to the gospel message.  Therefore, the preaching of the Cross is not a message about how God from eternity past decided to save certain individuals and only those individuals apart from any conditions external to himself but solely on the basis of his will, with the rationale for such a choice, along with who is chosen, remaining a mystery to us.  In this scheme the Cross, as the assurance of salvation for all and the place at which all can come for salvation, is displaced by predestination.  What matters is whether or not you are predestined by God to salvation.  That is the ultimate factor with respect to everyone’s eternal destiny.  The Cross does not carry within it any message that provides you with a knowledge of God’s salvific love and will to save you in particular.  Therefore, your salvation is not found there.  You must look to the decision of God made in eternity past as to your eternal destiny.  The cross merely implements the salvation of those God has chosen, but the cross does not function as that to which any sinner may look to and find salvation.  The cross does not necessarily have anything to do with you as an individual or where you can find salvation or be assured of God’s love or secure your eternal destiny.  All these matters reside within the mind, will and decision of God.  A decision that is inaccessible to us.

 But when the Cross stands as the center of history and Christian soteriology it communicates that the salvation God has accomplished can actually be found there.  And if that is the case then any and all sinner who look to the cross can be saved.  There is no impediment of an unconditional election between the sinner and the cross.  The mystery, not of who is predestined to salvation, but how one can be saved and be made right with God by faith, is disclosed at the cross.  As an historical act and public display, the cross is the demonstration of God’s love and therefore all those who come to the cross can find salvation.  As the demonstration of God’s love to all sinners, it is the demonstration that God desires or wills the salvation of all sinners.  In the cross is messaged God’s desire that whosoever wants to may come and find salvation there.  All they need to do is trust in Christ’s work on their behalf.  It is the point where God and man meet.  God’s grace has provided salvation.  Sinners need look no further than the cross to find it.  But they need to look.  The birth and death of Christ brings salvation into this world and into the present existential moment for the sinner, confronting him with the truth of his situation and the gracious remedy worked out by God in Christ who is being offered to the sinner for their salvation.  The Cross is not the veiled implementation of a salvation effective for some and not others by virtue of an unknown salvific decree of God as to who and who will not be saved.  It is the present historical reality showing forth God’s love to each sinner, assuring him that he wants them to be saved and has made it possible for them to be saved by responding to him in faith.  In this manner God respects his own image in his human creature by allowing him to decide to love God or remain in his lost condition.  God will not irresistibly and subliminally work faith and salvation in some persons based on an unknown disposition or trait in God that discriminates between one sinner and another.  Gilbert told us that both love and justice were of the very nature of God and he cannot violate his nature.  Therefore, when the sinner is pointed to the cross they know the love of God for them and are assured that the salvation accomplished there, with God as just and the justifier, applies to them and may be appropriated by them by believing.  To know of the cross is to know of your salvation.  As long as the cross is held up before a sinful world, sinful men can look to it to be saved.  It is the nature of the cross to be seen by all, therefore its message goes out to all.  And if all can look to the cross, then all can be saved.  That is God’s plan and purpose in the cross.

Therefore, any claim that “the death of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners” is the center of Calvinist soteriology can only be said in a veiled, ambiguous, non-distinct and impersonal way, for the center of Calvinist soteriology is predestination, that is, the decision of God made in eternity past as to who would be saved and who would not be saved.  The cross is the means by which that decision is brought to fruition, but it is the divine willing as to who would be saved and who would not be saved that is the determining factor in every person’s eternal destiny.

We can see how on Calvinism the cross loses its centrality with respect to being the place where all sinners learn of the positive salvific will of God for them and where they can find salvation.  The cross is christologically deficient because the cross is meaningless to all the non-elect.  Calvinism is christologically deficient because the cross is not central in the sense that it is where salvation can be effectuated, that is, where the sinner can be assured of God’s love and find salvation.  It is merely the means through which divine salvific predeterminations are realized.  This is a deficient view of the cross.

This difference is crucial.  When the cross is in the center as positively described above, its message becomes “good news” for all sinners because salvation for all is actually found there.  The cross is sufficient to save those who put their trust in Christ.  It is not subject to the interference of a premundane decree of God to save a limited number of elect persons who are unknown to us.  This is how the gospel message remains good news to sinners.  In contrast, it is a real possibility that you may be one of the non-elect predestined to eternal damnation and you can do nothing about it.  Therefore, the cross means nothing for you.  But what makes the “good news” good is the assurance that you, me and everyone else are included in that saving work of Christ on the cross.  Salvation is found there directly.  But this “good news” that God has provided an accessible point of assurance of salvation by faith is something that Calvinism has removed by its doctrine of a premundane divine unconditional election to salvation of a limited number of persons.  Calvinist soteriology, when represented consistently, has no “good news” within it.  What makes the gospel “good news” is the prospect that you, me and anyone else can be saved because it is the cross that tells us that as a knowable fact.  It is the cross that tells us that God loves us and has accomplished our salvation.  It is the cross that has made it such that anyone who looks to the cross and believes will be saved.  All the sinner needs to do is look and live..

Interestingly, Gilbert agrees that it is essential to the gospel as good news that we know we are included in God’s salvation in Christ.  But Gilbert is also a Calvinist who believes in unconditional election.  Therefore his soteriology cannot provide this assurance of inclusion.  He is inconsistent here as I will demonstrate with his final quotes.

Warning about other biblical truths that can be substituted for the gospel but are not the gospel (e.g., “Jesus is Lord,” the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation scheme, and Cultural Transformation), he writes,

“For the news to be good and not simply terrifying, it would have to include a way for your rebellion to be forgiven, a way for you to be reconciled to this One who has been made Lord.  That’s exactly what we see in the New Testament – not just the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, but that this Lord Jesus has been crucified so that sinners may be forgiven and brought into the joy of his coming kingdom.  Apart from that, the declaration that “Jesus is Lord” is nothing but a death sentence.”[37]  

So we see Gilbert affirming that “For the news to be good…it would have to include a way for your rebellion to be forgiven, a way for you to be reconciled…”  The “you” here must refer to all individuals.  There is no qualification or limitation here, and to impose such a qualification would defeat his very point.  Therefore, that salvation is for all sinners and can be obtained by any and all sinners is absolutely essential for the gospel to be “good news.”  Therefore, any teaching that places in doubt or removes the assurance that you can be “forgiven” and “reconciled to this One who has been made Lord” is not the “good news” of the gospel.

But the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election does just this.  Unconditional election imposes a qualification and limitation on the “you.”  It removes the personal “you” that Gilbert is stressing is important for the gospel.  Calvinists know they cannot sincerely provide assurance to each and every sinner at this personal level so they will simply use the term “sinners.”  They will say, “Christ died for sinners.”  This is true whether you are a Calvinist or non-Calvinist.  But said like this and left at that it certainly implies universality.  We are all of sinners.  So the most logical meaning here is that “Christ died for all.”  So if you are a Calvinist saying this, you are not being clear enough.  To say, “this Lord Jesus has been crucified so that sinners may be forgiven” does not say enough to communicate your doctrine of unconditional election.  And perhaps Calvinists don’t want to be specific.  Given unconditional election the personal and universal “you” is completely removed and replaced by the impersonal and ambiguous “sinners.”  But in that Gilbert and other Calvinist don’t tell us precisely that “Christ died for elect sinners” or that that “this Lord Jesus has been crucified so that the predestined sinners may be forgiven” is disingenuous.  Gilbert most likely doing this when he says “…this Lord Jesus has been crucified so that those who have been predestined to salvation may be forgiven…”  The ambiguous wording “so that sinners may be forgiven” would be perfectly true and acceptable to either a Calvinist or non-Calvinist.  But it is not the way the Calvinist should speak when talking about for whom the crucifixion provided forgiveness if they want to be clear about what they believe soteriologically.  If they want to hide their doctrine of unconditional election that speak ambiguously, not with soteriological precision.

Given the sense of salvation as universal that Gilbert seems to be emphasizing here, it is not likely Gilbert is hiding his soteriology, but I cannot help conclude that he is being inconsistent with his own soteriology.  When Calvinists write statements like the one above and the one’s below, we don’t know how to take them.  They may want to conceal their unconditional election while giving a nod to universal inclusion.  But we do know that such nods expressing universalist sentiments are incompatible with their doctrine of unconditional election.  So if Gilbert really means to be telling us that any and all sinners may be saved and are included in God’s saving work in Christ he could have made that clear by saying, “…this Lord Jesus has been crucified so that you may be forgiven…”  This would have more clearly retained the point of personal assurance that he emphasizing here.  

But nevertheless, Gilbert’s unconditional election defeats his own point that the gospel, if it is to be “good news,” must be able to assure you that there is a way for you to be forgiven and reconciled to God.[38]  Unconditional election removes that assurance because it is a real possibility that you may not be among the elect and therefore there is no way for your rebellion to be forgiven or for you to be reconciled.  Unconditional election is counter to the assurance each of us needs that God is kindly disposed towards us and has made a way for us to be forgiven and reconciled to him.  Thus, unconditional election works against the gospel as “good news.”

Recall above that Gilbert presumed that the crucifixion provided forgiveness and reconciliation for him personally, and therefore he must realize that if he can presume this as true for him, everyone and anyone else should be able to presume it for themselves.  So the Calvinist’s unconditional election becomes a non-issue.  Only it must be pointed out that on unconditional election one’s forgiveness and reconciliation to God remains a presumption.  On a non-Calvinist soteriology these are objectively and knowingly assured.    

In speaking about those who are inclined to view the creation-fall-redemption-consummation biblical paradigm as the gospel, Gilbert writes,

“…the fact that God is remaking the world is not good news unless you can be included in that.”[39]

“If we say merely that God is redeeming a people and remaking the world, but do not say how he is doing so (through the death and resurrection of Jesus) and how a person can be included in that redemption (through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus), then we have not proclaimed the good news.  We have simply told the narrative of the Bible in broad outline and left sinners with their faces pressed against the window, looking in.”[40]

Note the point once again.  The gospel (from the aspect of consummation here) is not “good news” unless “you,” which implies everyone, “can be included in that.”  This implies that for the gospel to be good news no one can be excluded by God from his “way” of forgiveness, reconciliation or the final consummation of all things.  So in order for the gospel to be more than just mere news, in order for it to be good news, it must also proclaim the inclusion of all sinners in the way of salvation.  It must involve a personal message of invitation, a personal call to faith, a personal assurance that salvation is for them and they can receive it.  They must know that they can come in from outside the “window” into what God has for them on the “inside.”  But the Calvinist soteriological doctrines, especially unconditional election, can’t do this.  They leave sinners “with their faces pressed against the window, looking in” wondering about whether they are among the elect.  And unless that are among the elect they can be invited in but cannot believe so that they may enter in.  God does not grant them the faith so that they may be saved although he invites them to believe in Christ and be saved.  All unconditional election can do is leave the sinner wondering whether they were predestined to salvation or not.

That is why unconditional election is a post-non-Calvinist-conversion-soteriology.  The sinner cannot take it into consideration in hearing the message of salvation.  It is only after a person hears or interprets what he is hearing if it is left ambiguous as the truly “good news” that they are loved by God and included in Christ’s death on the cross and can believe and be saved that they, for whatever reasons, become a Calvinist.  But before they became a Calvinist, the Calvinist had to have heard a gospel message in which they knew they were included in God’s saving work and could respond to it.  He heard an invitation and perceived that he could either choose to respond in faith and be saved, or reject the invitation and remain in unbelief and condemnation.

Conclusions

Gilbert’s book seeks to answer the question “What is the Gospel?”  I have attempted to confirm that Gilbert is a Calvinist.  He therefore believes the Calvinist soteriological “doctrines of grace.”  These doctrines just are the content of the Calvinists “gospel.”  But Gilbert’s Calvinist soteriology is nowhere to be found in this book about the gospel.  As a Calvinist, he never brings his Calvinist “doctrines of grace” to bear upon his question “What is the Gospel?”  Gilbert never qualifies, clarifies or defines the gospel in terms of any of his Calvinist soteriological “doctrines of grace.”  In fact, his answers to his question “What is the Gospel?” are incoherent with his Calvinist soteriology.  As a Calvinist he answers his own question by explicating a non-Calvinist soteriological response and gospel message.  This is baffling and makes me ask what evangelistic purpose does his Calvinist soteriology serve?  Do his Calvinist “doctrines of grace” really hold a message that can be proclaimed in the service of evangelism and the “good news?”  If so where in this book about the gospel are they?

I submit that Gilbert’s silence regarding his own Calvinist soteriology on the matter of the gospel stems from the fact that these doctrines cannot be proclaimed as “good news.” What must be observed is that what he says about the gospel, if it is to be “good news” is incoherent with his Calvinist soteriological doctrines, especially that of unconditional election.  He pointed out that for the news to be good there must be an assurance of personal, individual inclusion in God’s saving work that is universal.  That is, it includes all sinners.  This is in contradiction with his Calvinist soteriology, especially the doctrine of unconditional election.

Certainly Gilbert’s critiques of the simplistic, superficial, erroneous and mutually exclusive gospels within Evangelicalism need to be exposed and countered.  And I don’t think that any evangelical would take substantial issue with the gospel as laid out here.  Gilbert does a good job of this in this book.  But as a Calvinist he leaves the glaring mutual exclusivity of the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies and the gospel messages unaddressed.  He speaks as if his Calvinist soteriology is compatible with the gospel as “good news,” and he does this by speaking ambiguously so that the words can be taken in a universal sense but also in accord with the Calvinist “doctrines of grace.”  He would be reading his soteriology into his words without telling us he is doing so.  So he is making us think that he may even be expressing a universalist salvation in his words – that all of us as sinners are all included in God’s salvation – but as s Calvinist he is not meaning this at all.  He is not telling us precisely what he means by his words.  This is disingenuous.  Hence, in the end, on a book about “the gospel” he leaves the soteriological and “gospel” inconsistency between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist positions unaddressed.

My main thesis about Calvinist interpretive incoherence is confirmed in this book.  The incoherence between Gilbert’s gospel and his Calvinist “doctrines of grace” does not matter to Gilbert.  It is another instance of a Calvinist simply ignoring their problem of incoherence. This is a serious issue and a contributing factor to the confusion over the gospel that Carson and Gilbert observe plaques the church today.  Two mutually exclusive soteriologies and the “gospels” that arise from them exist in the evangelical church today.  But Gilbert’s own exposition on this question of the definition of the gospel has shown that crucial elements that are inconsistent with Calvinist soteriology and more in accord with a non-Calvinist soteriology must be presented for the news to be good news.  The denial and dismissal of this problem is what keeps the controversy alive in Evangelicalism.  And to take the ambiguous approach so that the “doctrines of grace” don’t need to be expressed directly but can be “read into” the words as need be is disingenuous.

Which Christians have the right to call themselves “evangelicals?”  Those who hold to soteriological and theological doctrines that offer truly good news.  Evangelicals are those who hold to a soteriology that is consistent with a message that is truly good news.  They are those whose soteriology is coherent with their gospel proclamation and the scriptural meaning of the word “gospel” as good news.

Gilbert, as far as the gospel as he explains it in this book, can be considered an evangelical.  He stressed the elements that make the gospel “good news.”  But those elements are inconsistent with his Calvinist soteriological doctrines.  Therefore, as far as Gilbert is a Calvinist, he is not an evangelical because there is no “good news” to proclaim that is consistent with the Calvinist “doctrines of grace.”  That is why he has kept his “doctrines of grace” ambiguous throughout. Throughout this book, what Gilbert says about the gospel having to be “good news” is not consistent with nor does it reflect his Calvinist soteriology.  So, as a Calvinist writing on the gospel, and explaining it as inconsistent with Calvinist soteriology, we are left baffled as to why he does not care about this.  Gilbert should address this inconsistency so there is no misunderstanding about whether or not Calvinism is the gospel.  And if not, how a Calvinist soteriology can serve the cause of evangelism as bringing sinners news that is truly good.


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence / Table of Contents / Home


[1] See “The Statement of Faith of Third Avenue Baptist Church (.pdf)”  https://www.thirdavenue.org/beliefs  Accessed May 1, 2020.

[2] 9Marks, https://www.9marks.org/about/ Accessed May 1, 2020.

[3] Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000).

[4] Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 11.

[5] Ibid. 11.

[6] Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010).

[7] D. A. Carson in the Foreword of Greg D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 13-14.

[8] Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 18.

[9] The view that the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy is a non-essential issue and of secondary importance is the view most evangelicals today accept as legitimate.  Many evangelicals have embraced the assertion of “mystery” in this regard and have bought into the soteriological and theological relativism pervasive in evangelical churches today.  That is, they have unwittingly accepted that two mutually exclusive soteriologies can both be true.  For whatever reasons this has occurred, it is an intellectually irresponsible position to live with or promote.

[10] I know Calvinists claim that their statements of faith are summary reflections of biblical teaching.  I don’t doubt they sincerely believe that.  But if they do, and non-Calvinists are correct in their observations about Calvinism, such reflections of the teaching of Scripture indict the Scripture in incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.  As such, these statements of faith also demonstrate that Calvinists do not value logical and moral coherence in their interpretation of Scripture.  To claim that an incoherent statement of faith is a reflection of biblical teaching is to claim either that the Bible is incoherent or, if that is not acceptable, and no Calvinist will admit that it is, then on that same basis of the rejection of incoherence in Scripture, the Calvinist must admit that he has misinterpreted Scripture.  To claim “the Bible teaches both” is just again to indict Scripture in a contradiction.  And if contradiction is not acceptable in Scripture it should not be acceptable in interpretations that claim to be accurate reflection of that Scripture.  Ignoring the fact of incoherence and contradiction in their position by fleeing to “mystery” is ad hoc and does nothing to address the problem.  We also hope that Calvinists are not to the point of “customizing” their statements of faith with sections like “Concerning the Freeness of Salvation” to cover all their soteriological bases and thereby ease their consciences when preaching and teaching the gospel that is truly “good news” but inconsistent with their soteriology.  They want to be Calvinists with a non-Calvinist gospel message.  If Calvinists believe that the non-Calvinist gospel is the teaching of Scripture, then we are back to indicting Scripture in a contradiction.  The upshot of all this is that soteriological and theological incoherence has no hermeneutical significance for the Calvinist.  That is both troubling and a source of the confusion Carson and Gilbert are lamenting here.

[11] Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 17.

[12] Gilbert notes other options that are offered by which we obtain authoritative truth.  One of these is reason.  He states, “Others have said that we know truth through the use of reason.  Building our knowledge from the ground up – A leads to B leads to C leads to D – will bring us to a true understanding of ourselves, the world and God.” (25)  He is skeptical of reason in this regard, and his point is well taken if he is referring to a rationalism that a priori rejects the supernatural, denies the possibility or need of divine revelation and therefore also rejects that there is a God and therefore holds that belief in God is irrational.

               Rationalism is incompatible with the Christian view of Scripture as authoritative revelation, but the Christian view of Scripture as authoritative revelation is not incompatible with human reason. Rejecting rationalism is very different than rejecting the deliverances of reason as in the a priori truths of logic that have bearing upon coming to know the truth amidst mutually exclusive soteriological and theological claims.  And that is the arena we are concerned with here.

               Therefore I always have an eye out for when the Calvinist will use a critique of rationalism to dismiss the use of reason and logic, let alone our moral intuitions, as given to us by God as made in his image for the proper function of discerning truth from error, including good exegesis and interpretation from bad exegesis and interpretation.  True, we get our definition of the gospel from the Bible, but why then the different definitions when both Calvinists and non-Calvinists go to the Bible as their authority?  The different definitions arise because the Bible needs to be interpreted and the interpretive principles employed by the Calvinist are different than those of the non-Calvinist with respect to philosophical reflection and moral intuition.  The fact of the matter is that there is good exegesis and not so good exegesis, and good exegesis takes on board coherence, consistency and non-contradiction as essential for determining the validity of a proposed interpretation.  The issue is not whether we go to the Bible or not for our definition of the gospel, the issue is whether or not the hermeneutic with which we do our interpreting deems logical and moral coherence as essential to good exegesis and interpretation.  The issues is not whether we go to the Bible or reason for our revelation; that is a false dichotomy. The issue is whether reason is going a significant role in our hermeneutic.

               I submit that the Calvinist will disparage “human reason” to allow him to justify the incoherence in his interpretations as “beyond our comprehension.”  But he ought not to presuppose that to mere have an exegesis and interpretation of Scripture means that that exegesis and interpretation is correct.   We would not know his interpretations, or any interpretations, are correct without the use of our reasoning faculties.  He is therefore presuming, probably on the basis that he has done an exegesis of the text – as if doing exegesis doesn’t involve reason – that his exegesis is definitive of the meaning of the text.  Since the Bible and the Bible alone – not reason – is our sole authority, once the Calvinist has exegeted the text then reason cannot trump that exegesis.  If he has come to believe that his exegesis holds priority over “reason” or is in no need of philosophical or moral reflection or the application of clear thinking regarding the coherence or incoherence of his interpretations, then there is nothing more we can say.  We can close up shop and go home, for nothing could ever be resolved.  Any inconsistency or incoherence in his interpretations can be declared a “mystery” that is beyond our reasoning capacities to understanding.  But this is question-begging.

               It needs to be firmly stated for the sake of rational assessment and communication that we do know what is true with respect to proposed interpretations of the authoritative Scripture via the use of the canons of reason or laws of logic.  Gilbert is wrong when he says, “Reason, as any freshman philosopher will tell you, leaves us flailing about in skepticism.  (Try to prove, for example, that you’re not just a figment of someone else’s imagination, or that your five senses really are reliable.)” (25)  I cannot address the problems with these statements here.  But to the point at hand, suffice it to say that we hope that Gilbert will certainly agree that once we have A, and learn that A = B and B = C, then we can know that A = C is a true and valid conclusion.  We hope he would also agree that A is not non-A.  And if he agrees to that law of non-contradiction then he should also agree that he has misinterpreted the Bible when he states the Bible teaches that God has eternally chosen certain individuals to be saved and only those individual can be saved and that God irresistibly works salvation only in those individuals, while also stating that “the blessings of salvation are made free to all by the gospel; that it is the immediate duty of all to accept them by cordial, penitent, and obedient faith; and that nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner on earth, but his own inherent depravity and voluntary rejection of the gospel; which rejection involves him in an aggravated condemnation.”  Now, we either need Gilbert to decipher the words used here as a Calvinist understands them, or if we just take the worlds at face value for what they plainly say, we are certainly justified in concluding that his soteriology is incoherent and contradictory.  The question you need to ask yourself is whether or not this incoherence tells us anything with regard to the biblical truth of the Calvinist soteriology?

[13] Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 30.

[14] Ibid. 30.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] This is an interesting example of how incoherence still holds no sway in the exegetical and interpretive process for the Calvinist.  Being convinced exegetically that Jesus died for all, yet still holding to unconditional election that renders that unlimited atonement meaningless, should send the exegete back to the Bible in search of where and how they are misinterpreting the text.

               This also shows how one’s original exegesis can wrong and how exegesis, although foundational to a proper understanding of the text, is not as sure as Schreiner and Ware make it out to be when they distance it from philosophical reflection and moral intuition.  Exegesis does not perform its function properly apart from scrutiny from logic and morality.  Good exegesis exhibits logical consistency and moral sensibility.  For those Calvinists who once stood sure on a limited atonement platform, what the once thought was a sure exegesis they now see to be a wrong exegesis.

[18] Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 31.

[19] Calvinist soteriology is “deterministic” on the basis of the doctrine of unconditional election.  But it seems that Gilbert’s Third Avenue Baptist Church Statement of Faith seeks to avoid the charge of determinism with respect to “all things” or “whatsoever comes to pass.  It deviates from the typical Calvinist statements regarding God’s eternal divine decree.  In the section “Concerning Divine Providence” we read that “…God, from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any way to be the author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.” (Emphasis mine). The inclusion of “or permits” eliminates the theistic determinism that characterizes other Reformed Calvinistic statements of faith.  In fact, such statements make God is the author of evil and evil himself regardless of their protests to the contrary.  Anyway, unfortunately the section “Concerning Election” restores that determinism with respect to each individual’s salvation with its doctrine of unconditional election.  This doctrine certainly does “destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures” with respect to their salvation and eternal destinies.

               But to place everyone’s salvation and eternal destiny under a theistic determinism and yet provide for human freedom in a statement of “permission” in many other life situations is no consolation because one’s eternal destiny far outweighs any freedom they may be granted in this life.  If a person is among the non-elect and cannot have eternal life then what ultimate meaning, value or purpose does any “permission” to act as a self-determining free moral agent amount to in this earthly life?  Such freedom is meaningless.  And if God has bestowed on humans a truly independent will apart from his will, and thereby permits things to occur that he has not willed or determined, then why does he not permit people free will with respect to their eternal salvation?  Why can’t salvation be conditioned upon the individual’s free belief and trust in Christ?

[20] Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 32.

[21] Again, this direct statement of theistic determinism is not found in Gilbert’s Third Avenue Baptist Church Statement of Faith, but it is typical of statements found in Calvinistic confessions like the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Second London Baptist Confession (1689).  I include mentioning the incoherence of this universal divine causal determinism because it also applies to the situation created by unconditional election.  Calvinists will maintain that person’s will be held accountable for rejecting Christ.  But the determinism of the situation as unconditional raises the same critique of incoherence.  Given a doctrine of unconditional election, how can a person be held accountable for rejecting Christ when that person was predestined to eternal damnation by God for reasons known only to God himself?  Therefore the same critique of incoherence with responsibility, accountability, culpability and even praiseworthiness apply wherever determinism is found.

[22] Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 36.

[23] Ibid. 41.

[24] Ibid. 43.

[25] Ibid. 44.

[26] Ibid. 44-45.

[27] Ibid. 43.

[28] Ibid. 45.

[29] Ibid. 66, 67, 68.

[30] Ibid. 67.

[31] Ibid. 68.

[32] Ibid. 70.

[33] Ibid. 72-72

[34] Ibid. 75, 79.

[35] Ibid. 93.

[36] Ibid. 94.

[37] Ibid. 105.

[38] Recall above that Gilbert presumed that the crucifixion provided forgiveness and reconciliation for him personally, and therefore he must realize that if he can presume this as true for him, everyone and anyone else should be able to presume it for themselves.  So the Calvinist’s unconditional election becomes a non-issue.  Only it must be pointed out that on unconditional election one’s forgiveness and reconciliation to God remains a presumption.  On a non-Calvinist soteriology these are assured. 

[39] Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Gospel? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 106.

[40] Ibid. 107.

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