Example 26 – Ryken v. Ryken: Calvinist Inconsistency In Light of Billy Graham’s Gospel


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


Dr. Philip Ryken, former senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia is now president of Wheaton College.  He believes that Calvinism is the biblical gospel and longs for it to be the pervasive soteriology in the evangelical church.  He writes,

               “We long for the evangelical church to rediscover a theology of grace.  Reformed theology is the system of doctrine that seeks to give God all the glory for his grace in the gospel.  Thus its recovery furthers the greatest goals and the highest of all purposes: the glory of God.”[1]

Dr. Ryken also writes,

               “It is impossible to be jealous for God’s glory without having an equal passion for correct doctrine, because doctrine is what preserves the graciousness of the gospel.  It was said of George Whitefield: “He knew errors in the great truths of the Gospel are not indifferent, but dreadful and fatal; he knew it was not candour and charity to say that errors in judgment are not hurtful, but the greatest unmercifulness and cruelty; therefore he often reproved such sharply.  Whitefield knew all this because he knew the New Testament, in which there is a constant concern for sound doctrine.  From the time of the apostles, the church has been in constant danger of succumbing to the counterfeit grace of a false gospel.  Thus it has always been necessary to teach sovereign grace, as well as to refute all those who oppose it.  As Whitefield rightly understood, defending the doctrines of grace is not simply a matter of duty but also a matter of charity.  The New Testament that preaches the good news about Jesus Christ is the same New Testament that teaches how to defend this gospel against error.  And it does both of these things – preaching the gospel of grace and teaching the doctrines of grace – out of a love for the lost souls of humanity.”[2]

Note that Dr. Ryken insists, as do non-Calvinists, that correct doctrine is essential, but he also states that Calvinism reflects “the system of doctrine that seeks to give God all the glory for his grace in the gospel.”  He also perceives anything but “sovereign grace” (a euphemism for Calvinism or TULIP), as “the counterfeit grace of a false gospel.”  In other words, Calvinism is the biblical gospel and all others are false gospels.  Therefore Calvinists are intent upon both disseminating Calvinism and refuting non-Calvinists.

Dr. Ryken has certainly laid down a challenge to those who do not agree that his “sovereign grace” is biblical grace or accurately expresses God’s love and universal provision of salvation as found in the gospel message as is consistent with its biblical definition as “good news.”  Dr. Ryken agrees with Whitefield that “errors in the great truths of the Gospel are not indifferent, but dreadful and fatal.”  Non-Calvinists would also agree with Whitefield on this point.  Dr. Ryken is also compelled “to refute all those who oppose” his doctrines of “sovereign grace.”  And he ought to refute them if “the truth of the gospel” is at stake and there are “errors in judgment” that if treated indifferently through “candour and charity” will only prove to be “the greatest unmercifulness and cruelty.”  Again, non-Calvinists would agree.

But it is clear that Calvinist soteriology is incompatible with the various non-Calvinist soteriologies (e.g., Arminianism, Molinism, Traditionalism, Provisionism, etc.).  These non-Calvinist soteriologies are mutually exclusive with Calvinist soteriology.  Therefore, whatever constitutes “the gospel” in Calvinism is incompatible with the non-Calvinist gospel message.  So in which soteriology and which gospel do these “errors in judgment” reside?  Whose doctrines actually preserve “the graciousness of the gospel?”  Ryken’s answer is clear.  Calvinism is “the good news about Jesus Christ” and “correct doctrine.”  Indeed, he makes a strong assertion that has implications for evangelism.  He states,

“The doctrines of grace thus require the sinner to accept God’s sovereignty in salvation.”[3]

It seems that Dr. Ryken would preach the “doctrines of grace” as his “gospel” message to sinners, and that message would require them “to accept God’s sovereignty in salvation.”  This means that they would have to believe that God has predetermined that certain particular individuals will be saved and all others will not.  This is the doctrine of unconditional election or predestination.  Ryken’s evangelism would consist, at least in part, of telling sinners about the “doctrines of grace” which would logically require that they accept “God’s sovereignty in salvation,” that is, the doctrine of unconditional election.   Anything other than these “doctrines of grace” he calls “the counterfeit grace of a false gospel.” 

So Dr. Ryken takes a strong stance against all non-Calvinist gospels and soteriologies.  But does he consistently hold to his claims about how “it has always been necessary to teach sovereign grace” so as not to succumb to “the counterfeit grace of a false gospel?”  Can Dr. Ryken practically adhere to his own uncompromising stance regarding the necessity to “refute all those who oppose it?”  With all due respect to Dr. Ryken, I submit that the following accounts indicate that he does not.

As an alumnus of Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater, I received an email from Dr. Ryken informing me of Dr. Graham’s death.[4]  In it Dr. Ryken writes,

Billy Graham preached the gospel to 215 million people in live audiences in 185 countries and territories at more than 400 crusades, missions, and evangelistic rallies. His influence for the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ is beyond human measure…Renowned for his humility, transparency, simplicity and integrity, Billy Graham proved faithful to the end as a “prophet with honor.”…Through the years he went out of the way to encourage each of Wheaton’s presidents. It was because of his love for Wheaton that the Billy Graham Center is one of the most prominent buildings on our campus.

I was just starting high school when the Graham Center was dedicated and Billy Graham preached to a huge crowd on Wheaton’s front campus. I was there that day, sitting on a picnic blanket and listening to Dr. Graham preach the gospel he loved to proclaim—the good news of forgiveness for sin and the free gift of eternal life through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like countless others who heard Billy Graham preach, I re-committed my life to Christ.” (Emphases mine)

Now, one thing is certain – Billy Graham did not preach the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” or the TULIP soteriology as his gospel message.  Anyone who has attended or watched a Billy Graham crusade or read his books knows that contrary to Calvinist “total inability” his gospel explicitly stated the sinner’s responsibility to believe his message and he directly called on them to make a personal decision for Christ.  Contrary to Calvinist “unconditional election” his gospel clearly proclaimed that God loves every sinner in a way that did not exclude anyone from salvation.  Dr. Graham preached a salvation that is universal in scope.  He believed that all who heard him were included in God’s saving work in Christ.  He presented God as making a bona fide offer of salvation to all who hear; inviting them to believe, come forward and give their life to Christ.  Contrary to Calvinist “limited atonement” he believed Jesus died for every individual.  And contrary to Calvinist “irresistible grace” he believed people could resist the Holy Spirit, harden their hearts and reject the message of God’s saving love in Christ.  His belief in human freedom regarding the exercise of faith was explicit.  One believes and is then regenerated, not vice versa as in Calvinism.

Billy Graham’s Message of “Good News”

Dr. Graham clearly states the following about choice, decision and our wills in relation to God’s will.

“Our families cannot choose Christ for us.  Our friends cannot do it.  God is a great God, but even he can’t make the decision for us…we have to make our own choice.”[5]

“[The] love of God that reaches to wherever a man is, can be entirely rejected.  God will not force Himself upon anyone against his will.  It is your part to believe.  It is your part to receive.  Nobody else can do it for you.”[6]

“The greatest barrier to knowing God’s will is simply that we want to run our own lives.  Our problem is that a battle is going on in our hearts – a battle between our wills and God’s will?”

He wrote about freedom of choice as the way God made us.

“[God] created us free to choose how we would live…but leaves us free to pursue our own ends with tragic, natural consequences.”[7]

“Part of human makeup which distinguishes man from other creatures is his ability to reason and make moral decisions.  Man is a free moral agent.”[8]

He also referred to “free choice” as a “gift.”[9]  He spoke of how the Bible teaches the moral responsibility that is entailed in human freedom.  Reality cannot be coherently viewed as a universal divine causal determinism.

“The Bible clearly teaches that when we turn our backs on God and choose to disregard His moral laws there are inevitable consequences.  Furthermore it is not God who is to blame for the consequences, but the person who has broken His law.”[10]

“God holds every man accountable for his rejection of Christ.”[11]

Dr. Graham wrote about the scope, purpose, message and dynamic of the cross of Christ.  There is no “limited atonement.”  God’s love is limitless.

“The heart of the Christian Gospel with its incarnation and atonement is in the cross and resurrection.  Jesus was born to die.”[12]

“God undertook the most dramatic rescue operation in cosmic history.  He determined to save the human race from self-destruction, and He sent His Son Jesus Christ to salvage and redeem them.  The work of man’s redemption was accomplished at the cross.”[13]

“Two thousand years ago God invited a morally corrupt world to the foot of the cross.  There God held your sins and mine to the flames until every last vestige of our guilt was consumed.”[14]

“The cross shows the seriousness of sin – but it also shows us the immeasurable love of God.”[15]

“Though the cross repels, it also attracts.  It possesses a magnetic quality.”[16]

“The cross is the suffering love of God bearing the guilt of man’s sin, which alone is able to melt the sinner’s heart and bring him to repentance for salvation.  “For he hath made him to be sin for us” [2 Corinthians 5:21 KJV].”[17]

“There is no limit to God.  There is no limit to His wisdom.  There is no limit to His power.  There is no limit to His love.  There is no limit to His mercy.”[18]

Dr. Graham taught that the salvation was for every individual.  There is no “unconditional election” or Calvinist “predestination” at work in salvation.  “Whosoever will” may come.  God accomplished salvation for every sinner on the cross.  That salvation is appropriated by the decision we make in this life upon hearing the gospel message.  That decision determines one’s eternal destiny.  There is no “total inability” when it comes deciding to accept or reject salvation.  Dr. Graham states,

“We are living in an age of grace, in which God promises that “whosoever will” may come and receive His Son.  But this period of grace will not go on indefinitely.  We are even now living on borrowed time.”[19]

“Jesus does not allow us to be neutral about him.  Jesus demands that we decide about him.”[20]

“Men and women do make decisions wherever the Gospel is proclaimed; whether publically or privately, some say yes, some say no, and some procrastinate.  No one ever hears the Gospel proclaimed without making some kind of decision!”[21]

“The most important decision you will ever make is the decision you make about eternity.”[22]

 “When we are called before God and His throne of judgment, it will be too late to reverse our decision.  It is during our lifetime here on earth that we decide our eternal destiny.”[23]

“Jesus taught that there is an eternal destiny for each individual – either heaven or hell (John 5:25-29).  The eternal destiny of each individual depends on a decision made in this life (Luke 16:19-31)…”[24]

“What you do with Christ here and now decides where you will spend eternity.”[25]

It is not God who has decided or predestined where you will spend eternity.  You decide that for yourself depending upon your response to Christ.  What God has decided is that believers will spend eternity in heaven and unbelievers will spend eternity in hell.  Therefore, there is no “total inability” or “irresistible grace.”  The sinner’s decision for Christ is linked with and is the expression of their faith, which is a non-meritorious act on their part.

“Faith in Christ is voluntary.  A person cannot be coerced, bribed, or tricked into trusting Jesus.  God will not force His way into your life.  The Holy Spirit will do everything possible to disturb you, draw you, love you – but finally it is your personal decision.”[26]

“Faith literally means “to give up, surrender, or commit.”  Faith is complete confidence.”[27]

“God – the Bible’s Author – loves you and wants you to be His child through faith in Jesus Christ.”[28]

There is a clear contrast between the content of Dr. Graham’s message of “good news” and the determinism and exclusivism of Calvinism.  Dr. Graham’s message is “good news” because the scope of the saving work of the cross is universal.  There is no doubt that you are included in God’s saving work in Christ and that you can be saved.  The purpose of the cross is no less than the salvation of mankind.  The message of the cross is no less than God’s saving love for all persons.  The dynamic of the message of the cross repels but also attracts and enables the sinner to respond positively to the love of God and the salvation offered to him.  By virtue of the content of the message as an invitation to receive the accomplished salvation, the Spirit is at work in the message of the cross enabling a positive decision of faith.  Faith, not being meritorious or a “work,” is the condition God has placed on receiving salvation.  It is the means by which anyone may respond to the invitation and receive God’s gift of salvation.  Given this work of the Spirt, if the sinner remains unsaved it is because they have willfully rejected the gift of salvation offered to them in the gospel.

Dr. Graham taught that each person decides their own eternal destiny.  It was a sovereign act of God to bestow upon his human creatures reason and freedom of the will.  It was also a sovereign act of God that salvation would be by his grace and love demonstrated to us in Christ’s death on the cross, and as a public manifestation of that love it is therefore accessible to all by a means that eliminates any distinctions of works righteousness, merit, privilege, social status, wealth, etc. – through faith.  Dr. Graham’s gospel was a message of “good news” which has its foundation in the biblical truth of God’s love for all in Christ that is appropriated by simple faith.  And the greatest thing we can do to love others is to tell them this true message of “good news.”  Dr. Graham states,

“I am convinced the greatest act of love we can perform for people is to tell them about God’s love for them in Christ.”[29]

This is why this issue is of utmost importance.  Not only do eternal destinies lie in the balance, but the evangelical church’s ministry is defined by the gospel as “good news.”  It is good news when we can “tell people about God’s love for them in Christ.”  But that requires a soteriology that is coherent with a universal statement of God’s love.  Such a soteriology is not short on sin and the wrath of God.  These are essential truths of the gospel message.  But it is a soteriology that knows that it is a truth of Scripture, and therefore it can be declared with assurance to any and all persons that “God loves you.”  As I see it, for this assurance of God’s love to be given to people while maintaining a Calvinist soteriology would be disingenuous and intellectually dishonest.  We need to speak consistent with our foundational soteriology.  We must get the gospel right.  To love others is to give them the true gospel message of God’s love for them in Christ.

The point is that it is clear that Dr. Graham’s gospel content is in direct contradiction to Dr. Ryken’s Calvinist “doctrines of grace.”  So, which message is the truth of the gospel, Dr. Graham’s or Dr. Ryken’s?

Again, with all due respect to Dr. Ryken, I don’t see how his own conclusions about the church being “in constant danger of succumbing to the counterfeit grace of a false gospel” and how “errors in the great truths of the Gospel are not indifferent, but dreadful and fatal” and that there is a necessity “to teach sovereign grace, as well as to refute all those who oppose it” and that we must “defend the Gospel against error,” would not apply to Dr. Graham’s message and ministry.  On Dr. Ryken’s stated Calvinist views he must conclude that Dr. Graham preached “the counterfeit grace of a false gospel.”  If Calvinism is the gospel, then according to Dr. Ryken, Billy Graham did not preach the gospel.  He did not teach “sound doctrine” and preached a “false gospel.”

But how then can we understand Dr. Ryken’s email which affirms and honors Dr. Graham’s ministry and message?  Perhaps Dr. Graham’s strong association with Wheaton College presented a dilemma for Dr. Ryken on Graham’s passing.  He needed to honor the man, but what was he to do with his message?  This is where I am left perplexed.  Dr. Ryken concurs with Whitefield that with regard to doctrine and the gospel such “candour and charity” will only prove to be “the greatest unmercifulness and cruelty.”  Dr. Ryken made it clear that “It is impossible to be jealous for God’s glory without having an equal passion for correct doctrine, because doctrine is what preserves the graciousness of the gospel.”  But Dr. Ryken sacrifices his passion for correct doctrine and zeal for God’s glory when he affirms Dr. Graham as having “preached the gospel” and was “a prophet with honor.”

If Dr. Ryken is to be consistent with his own claims and beliefs, he should not only avoid affirming Dr. Graham’s “false gospel,” but oppose it.  By affirming Dr. Graham’s “false gospel” Dr. Ryken is complicit in “the greatest unmercifulness and cruelty.”  Furthermore, since Billy Graham did not preach the Calvinist “doctrines of grace,” according to Dr. Ryken he failed to preserve “the graciousness of the gospel” and seems to have misunderstood the gospel and misconceived what it is to have a “love for the lost souls of humanity.”

It is troubling that in relation to Dr. Graham’s ministry Dr. Ryken can make statements that are so very inconsistent with his own Calvinist beliefs.  It also seems that he failed of his stated responsibility to defend the gospel against “dreadful and fatal” errors by opposing “the counterfeit grace of a false gospel.”  Perhaps I am misperceiving something here.  If so, I would like to know.  I just don’t see how in light of the strength of Dr. Ryken’s convictions about the biblical truth of the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” and his statements regarding the falsity of any “gospels” other than those doctrines, he can affirm Billy Graham’s message and ministry.

Dr. Ryken and the Billy Graham Center Dedication

In addition, Dr. Ryken’s email mentions the 1980 dedication of the Billy Graham Center (BGC) at Wheaton College at which Dr. Graham gave the dedication address.[30]  Dr. Graham thanked God for Wheaton’s 120 year history of “faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  He spoke of “the vision for touching the world for Christ and his Kingdom in the generations to come” having gradually taken shape in the construction of the BGC.  It is “the vision of training leadership to carry the torch of the gospel to the world’s millions.”  One of its emphases would be “on the training of men and women who can proclaim the gospel.”  Dr. Graham then added that “this is one of the great vacuums in theological training today.”  The Center’s purpose is to “serve every church and organization in preaching and teaching the gospel to the world.”  Now, we know what Dr. Graham means by “the gospel.”  We also know what Dr. Ryken means by “the gospel.”  But Dr. Ryken’s Calvinist “gospel” is incompatible with the gospel Billy Graham preached.  Therefore, this raises the question, “What gospel are we talking about?”

In attempting to decide where to build the Billy Graham Center, the leaders of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association asked, “What institution could best carry out the vision that we had?”  One option was Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY.  But Wheaton College was chosen because as Dr. Graham stated Wheaton “had a long history of unswerving dedication to the theological concepts we hold, to the world vision we hold, and to the academic excellence we believe in, and to the social concerns that we have.”  In that address Dr. Graham delineated the doctrines that the BGC was to hold as foundational beliefs in perpetuity: that the Bible is the infallible Word of God; man’s troubles began in the garden of Eden when man disobeyed God; the virgin birth of Jesus Christ; the vicarious atonement of Christ on the cross; the bodily resurrection; the personal return of Christ; and that “we believe men and women need to repent of their sins and receive Christ as their savior in order to enter the kingdom of God, and are called to follow Christ as Lord in the fellowship of other believers.”

And then sternly and emphatically Dr. Graham stated,

“If the leaders in a future generation take any other path – take any other path – may they be as the apostle Paul said to the Galatians – accursed – because Ichabod will be written on this place.”

In light of the claims of Calvinism, Dr. Graham’s warning raises several pressing questions.  What is the precise content of the gospel message preached by the apostle Paul?  Was it the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” or was it more in accord with the message Dr. Graham preached?  Have the leaders of Wheaton College taken “any other path” than the one summarized above in the statements “man’s troubles began in the garden of Eden when man disobeyed God” and “we believe men and women need to repent of their sins and receive Christ as their savior in order to enter the kingdom of God?”  Through his preaching we know what Billy Graham meant by those words.  Have the leaders of Wheaton College taken “any other path” than the gospel “path” Billy Graham laid out in this address and in his preaching for approximately 60 years?

Contrary to Calvinist theology and soteriology, we may take these statements as meaning that reality is non-deterministic, that Christ died for all men and women, and the one’s salvation is conditioned upon a person’s response of faith to that “good news.”  Even if Calvinists contend that these statements are consistent with their soteriological doctrines,[31] we still obviously have two very different paths being taken with respect to the gospel message.  Therefore, does it matter what gospel is preached? 

The point I am stressing is that the way Billy Graham understood the gospel is incompatible with how Dr. Ryken and other Calvinists understand the gospel.  They are mutually exclusive gospels, and as such, they both cannot be true.

Calvinist Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, shows this same disingenuousness at the death of Dr. Graham when he writes,

“Billy Graham’s simple gospel message came down to human sin, and the fact that every single human being is a sinner and that our plight is absolutely impossible, except for the fact that God in Christ made atonement for our sins.

… He pointed repeatedly to the historical truths of the crucifixion and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.  He pointed to justification by faith and the promise of the gospel, that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.  He heralded the truth that if we profess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead, we shall be saved.  He firmly believed that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. That was the gospel he preached in the beginning, that was the gospel he preached in the end. And that means that yesterday morning when Billy Graham drew his final breath in his 99th year, he died confident in the promises he had for so long preached.  Many people will honor Billy Graham in the coming months. But I’m confident that Billy Graham would say the real way to honor him is to preach the gospel he preached, starting here, starting now.”[32]

Billy Graham would say that, but Dr. Mohler would not be able to do that.  He would not be able to “preach the gospel [Billy Graham] preached” – at least not with consistency and forthrightness.  Neither would Dr. Ryken.  Billy Graham preached a gospel message incompatible with Dr. Mohler’s and Dr. Ryken’s Calvinist soteriology.  Can Dr. Mohler, as a Calvinist, honestly say “the real way to honor him is to preach the gospel he preached?”  Aren’t Dr. Mohler’s “doctrines of grace” his firm conviction about what constitutes biblical soteriology?  If so, isn’t it disingenuous to affirm preaching the gospel Dr. Graham preached, unless Dr. Mohler is just meaning “that would be the way to honor Billy Graham, but it would be to preach a false gospel because it would not be to preach the biblical gospel of the “doctrines of grace.”  Either way, isn’t Mohler being disingenuous here?

What is conspicuously missing here is the “doctrines of grace” that Dr. Mohler, Dr. Ryken and all Calvinists would say are the full and final explanation, or, the sum and substance of why and how a person becomes saved.  Surely one’s soteriological doctrines are the foundation of one’s “gospel” message.  What did Dr. Mohler mean by the explanation of the gospel he gave above?  Was Mohler’s description of Dr. Graham’s gospel ambiguous enough so that Dr. Mohler as a Calvinist could affirm it and also state that it was the gospel Billy Graham preached?  Was it the whole gospel Billy Graham preached or were certain aspects left out by Mohler so he could both affirm Dr. Graham’s gospel message and hold to his own Calvinism?  What is meant by, “all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  For the Calvinist there must be a subtext to that statement.  It must mean “all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved; and only the elect will call upon the name of the Lord, and that by an irresistible grace and effectual call.”  But that twists the simple, plain meaning of the words that salvation is universal, inclusive and possible for all if they will “call upon his name of the Lord” to something reflecting the Calvinist a priori deterministic presuppositions about the nature of God’s eternal decree, sovereignty and election as unconditional. Sure Dr. Graham preached “the truth that if we profess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead, we shall be saved.”  But he did not believe the “if” was dependent upon being predestined to salvation and was referring to an irresistible “grace” that God causes to occur only in those he chose for salvation.  Sure Dr. Graham “firmly believed that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.”  But he did not believe that the Word of Christ first regenerates the unconditionally elect so that they might exhibit faith.

I wonder if Mohler would say that the gospel Billy Graham preached is the same as the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” Mohler affirms.  And if not, would that matter?  I wonder if Mohler would affirm, in its entirety, the gospel that Dr. Graham preached.  I don’t see how he could and remain coherent in thought and word with his own Calvinist soteriology.   My question to you is this, “Doesn’t coherence between one’s soteriology and gospel message matter?”

Now, the theological basics that Dr. Mohler points out are what Dr. Graham believed and preached.  But the description is generic enough to accommodate a Calvinist soteriology depending how one defines the terms and phrases.  So, in this sense, the Calvinist should distance himself from the gospel Dr. Graham preached with respect to the elements I pointed out above that distinguish Dr. Graham’s message as truly “good news” in contrast to Ryken’s and Mohler’s Calvinist “doctrines of grace.”  Mohler’s theological version is biblically accurate as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.  There is a difference between merely having soteriological doctrines and having soteriological doctrines that logically and morally support a message that is of the nature of “good news.”  Without the ability to assure all sinners of the love God has for them in Christ, that God desires that they be saved and that he has made it possible for all who hear this good news to appropriate that salvation to themselves by faith such that none are excluded, then we don’t have the biblical “good news” and Mohler is just giving us theological “news.”  That is the difference between a Calvinist soteriology and a soteriology that issues forth in a consistent proclamation of the love God has for every human being and the provision of salvation he has made for them in Christ.  Dr. Graham’s gospel is “good news” precisely because it is fundamentally antithetical to Mohler’s deterministic soteriology of total inability, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace.

For instance, Dr. Graham preached God’s universal love for all sinners, not the limited love of a God of “unconditional election.”  Dr. Graham preached that Christ’s death atoned for the sins of every individual and therefore all can be saved, not a “limited atonement.”  Dr. Graham believed in human freedom and responsibility, not theistic determinism.  Dr. Graham believed in free will, not of the compatibilist kind were God determines your desires and you act out of those desires, but of the libertarian kind of responsible rational and moral agency.  Dr. Graham placed responsibility to believe and culpability for unbelief on the hearers themselves and taught that persons could resist the Holy Spirit’s work in them upon hearing the offer of salvation.  He did not believe in “irresistible grace” or an “effectual call” that is different than the universal call to be saved that goes forth in the gospel.

What made Dr. Graham’s gospel good news and not merely soteriological doctrinal “news,” is that he could genuinely proclaim that salvation in Christ assuredly applied to all who heard it.  He could with all sincerity and honesty state, “God loves you!,” “Jesus died for you!” and “You can and must be born again!”  “Come to Christ by faith and be saved!”  In contrast to unconditional election and limited atonement that teach God only loves a certain limited number of chosen individuals and Christ died only for them, Dr. Graham proclaimed that God loves all individuals and Christ died for all.  Therefore, salvation is for all and all can be saved by repentance and faith in Christ.  That this universal salvific will of God can be proclaimed with assurance is essential to the “good news” being good.   That’s what makes it good news.  Dr. Graham challenged and invited people to make a decision to come and put their faith in Christ so that they may be saved.  Faith preceded regeneration and salvation.  One did not need to be regenerated so that they would believe as taught in the Calvinist doctrine of “pre-faith regeneration” based on the doctrine of “total inability.”  Dr. Graham’s gospel gave all people hope and a reason to trust in God because he loved them and provided for their salvation in contrast to the exclusion and doubt that are inherent in Calvinist soteriology.   

Again, Mohler’s depiction of Dr. Graham’s gospel is theologically accurate as far as it goes, but it doesn’t mention the substantive differences between Mohler’s Calvinist soteriology as compared to Dr. Graham’s gospel message.  Mohler’s theological version of the “gospel” is something a Calvinist and non-Calvinist could affirm.  But the specific connotation of conditionals like “if we profess…” and the meaning of words like “faith” and questions like “for whose sins did Christ atone” and who can “call upon the name of the Lord” and be saved and why they do so, are defined and answered very differently by the Calvinist and non-Calvinist.  There are details not mentioned here that make Dr. Graham’s gospel message incompatible with Mohler’s soteriology.  The point is that even if Dr. Graham would be honored by Dr. Mohler’s description, it nevertheless does not speak of the incompatibility of Dr. Graham’s message with Dr. Mohler’s Calvinist soteriology.

The point therefore, once again, is that Mohler and Ryken, as Calvinists, by affirming Billy Graham’s ministry and message are affirming a ministry and message that is antithetical to their own Calvinist soteriology.  I believe we should take up Mohler’s exhortation to preach the gospel Billy Graham preached “starting here, starting now.”  But that exhortation is baffling coming from a Calvinist.  That gospel would not be coherent with the “doctrines of grace” that Ryken and Mohler hold to as Calvinists.

It seems to me therefore, that as Calvinists, they are being disingenuous.  By a tactic of omissions or importing Calvinist meanings into their words and phrases without the reader being told what these meanings are, they are presenting themselves as affirming what they do not believe, that is, Billy Graham’s non-Calvinist soteriology and the “good news” message that is consistent with it.[33]  To play both sides as the occasion demands certainly seems to be to be duplicitous.

We have here an essential theological and ethical matter.  It is important to understand that hypocrisy, inconsistency and contradiction do not reflect the faithfulness of God.  Philosopher and theologian Gordon R. Lewis explains.

“God is faithful and true.  Because God is faithful and true (Rev. 19:11), his judgments (Rev. 19:2) and his words in human language are faithful and true (Rev. 21:5; 22:6).  There is no lack of fidelity in God’s person, thought, or promise.  God is not hypocritical and inconsistent.

…No contrast can be drawn between what God is in himself and what God is in relation to those who trust him.  God does not contradict his promises in his works or in other teaching by dialectic, or paradox, or mere complementarity.

…Because God is faithful and consistent, we ought to be faithful and consistent.  Jesus said, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37).  Paul exhibited this logical authenticity in his teaching about God.  “As surely as God is faithful,” he said, “our message to you is not ‘Yes’ and ‘No’” (2 Cor. 1:18).  Those who imagine that talk about God in human language must affirm and deny the same thing at the same time and in the same respect (in dialectic or paradox) have a different view of the relation between the divine mind and the godly person’s mind than did Paul.  Because God is faithful, we must be faithful in our message about him.

…Knowing the connection between personal and conceptual faithfulness in God, we know that the idea that faithful persons ought not to contradict themselves did not originate with Aristotle.  He may have formulated the law of noncontradiction in a way that has been quoted ever since, but the ultimate source of the challenge to human fidelity in person and word is rooted in God himself.  The universal demand for intellectual honesty reflects in the human heart the ultimate integrity in the Creator’s heart.”[34]

I would ask the reader whether or not you think these issues are significant.  If not, why not?  If they are, then what should be done about this situation?

This soteriological and gospel controversy has profound implications for Christian intellectual, hermeneutical and exegetical credibility, theological integrity and evangelistic mission.  The existence and affirmation of two incompatible gospels is deleterious to personal and ecclesiastical credibility.  It would be correct for unbelievers to conclude that Christians cannot even come to a consensus as to the central message of their Scriptures.  The existence and affirmation of two incompatible gospels forces a pretension of unity that cannot stand minimal intellectual or theological scrutiny.  It causes us to suppress the double-mindedness that it takes to walk two incompatible paths simultaneously.  It ignores what it means for the church to be truly “evangelical” according to the biblical definition of the word – “good news.” 

Returning to Dr. Ryken’s quote, he says that he “listened to Dr. Graham preach the gospel he loved to proclaim” and by it was spiritually moved to recommit his life to Christ.  This raises other questions.  First, I would be curious to know what was the specific content of the gospel message Dr. Ryken heard when he first believed.  And secondly, what was the content of the message when he recommitted his life to Christ at the BGC dedication.  He says it was “the good news of forgiveness for sin and the free gift of eternal life through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Dr. Ryken obviously took these as truths that applied to him personally.  And as much as the non-Calvinist is glad a young Philip Ryken understood that these “good news” truths applied to himself , surely Dr. Ryken’s application of them to himself was a presumption on his part in light of the Calvinist doctrines of predestination, unconditional election and limited atonement he would subsequently come to embrace.

It would not be hard to imagine what a difference it would have made if the young Phillip Ryken heard the “doctrines of grace” as the “gospel” message.  On the preaching of these doctrines Phillip Ryken would have had to confront the fact of the real possibility that he is not among the elect and therefore cannot be saved.  He would have heard and had to accept the fact that there is nothing he could do or must do to be saved.  He would have been told that he could not exercise faith.  He would have heard that he would have to wait for God to do a saving work in him lest he do some work to merit and contribute to his own salvation.  He would have heard that salvation is “all of God” and it could very well be that Phillip Ryken is not among those predestined to salvation.  It is a real possibility that he is not one of the elect.  Where is the “good news” in this message?

Therefore, anyone hearing the “doctrines of grace” as “the gospel” can only presume that they apply to them in a positive way, that is, that they are one of the unconditionally elect.  They could never know that they are among the unconditionally elect.  That is just a fact according to Calvinist soteriology.  What the person believes or feels about their salvific status doesn’t matter.  It is the ontological reality of their either being elect or non-elect that is determinate here and upon which everything rests.  And if one is to judge their election by their personal experience, this is to transfer any objective accessibility of salvation as rooted in Christ’s work on the cross, to one’s subjective, personal experience.  In other words, you either know you are saved because you believe in what Christ has done on your behalf in his death on the cross or you believe you are elect because your personal experience allows you to presume so. 

Therefore, how is Dr. Ryken’s testimony coherent with his present Calvinist “doctrines of grace?”  How did Dr. Ryken understand these words at that time and how does he understand these words now in light of his present Calvinism?  Why did Dr. Ryken “convert” to Calvinism if he was saved and recommitted his life to Christ under Dr. Graham’s non-Calvinist gospel message?  It seems that Dr. Ryken’s Calvinism is a post-non-Calvinist-conversion-theology.  That is, a person only becomes saved by hearing the “good news” that God’s love and saving work in Christ assuredly applies to them.  They need to know that they are included.  Only afterwards do they embrace Calvinism (for whatever reasons), which is antithetical to what they first heard in that it limits God’s love and saving work in Christ only to an exclusive group of elect individuals who remain unknown to anyone.   Therefore, the convert to Calvinism can only presume that they themselves are among that group.

Furthermore, Dr. Ryken’s claim is that his “doctrines of grace” are God’s “good news” for sinners and those doctrines are motivated by “a love for the lost souls of humanity.”  Presumably then, because these Calvinist doctrines are the gospel of God, this love is consistent with and reflects God’s love for the lost souls of humanity.  But is this so?  Is Calvinist soteriology consistent with “a love for the lost souls of humanity?”  Dr. Ryken ought to be more precise here and say his “doctrines of grace are motivated by “a love for some of the lost souls of humanity.”  Recall Calvin’s definition of predestination – a doctrine that Ryken equates with the gospel message.

“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.”[35]

It is indeed very difficult to see how this doctrine is coherent with a loving God, let alone “a love for the lost souls of humanity.”  All of humanity are lost souls.  Does God love all these “lost souls of humanity?”  Not on Calvinism – unless, that is, the Calvinist would like to defend the idea that God loves those non-elect persons he has predestined to eternal damnation from before they were even born.

So it is important to note that Dr. Ryken could have been more doctrinally accurate here, but he chooses not to be.  Why is that?  I think it is because he knows that to the degree he speaks faithful to his “doctrines of grace” is the degree to which the truly good news becomes distorted, diminished and ultimately lost.   Recall that Dr. Ryken has said that “correct doctrine…is what preserves the graciousness of the gospel.”  Dr. Ryken would have to explain how his “doctrines of grace” contain truly good news – which is the meaning of “the gospel” – for those in need of salvation.  Unless Dr. Ryken can explain how it can be considered loving for God to foreordain certain persons to eternal damnation and separation from himself, we would have to conclude that this controversy also has an ethical and moral component that bears upon one’s integrity of thought and speech.  The Calvinist cannot just say “God loves you” and “Jesus died for you,” talk about salvation as a “free gift,” call all people to believe and to come to Christ to be saved, while knowing the whole time that there are many for whom these statements and invitations do not apply.  All this has direct bearing upon the ethical forthrightness of the preacher, the sincerity and honesty of the message, the nature of God and what it means for God himself to “love the lost souls of humanity.”

Let’s return to Dr. Ryken’s email.  He goes on to say,

“Now the Lord has taken Billy Graham to heaven.  It is where he belongs, and where in recent years he has been ready to go.  When I met with Dr. Graham during my first year as president of Wheaton College, he spoke freely and openly about his hope to be with Jesus soon.  In his 1997 autobiography, Just As I Am, Dr. Graham wrote,

               ‘I don’t know the future, but I do know this: the best is yet to be!  Heaven awaits us, and that will be far more glorious than anything we can ever imagine.  As the Bible says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2).  This is the hope of every believer.  It is my hope, and I pray that it will be your hope as well.  I know that soon my life will be over.  I thank God for it, and for all He has given me in this life.  But I look forward to Heaven…Most of all, I look forward to seeing Christ and bowing before Him in praise and gratitude for all He has done for us, and for using me on this earth by His grace – just as I am.” [36]

One cannot help but notice that Dr. Graham’s testimony about his hope for the future is in stark contrast to the hopelessness of a Calvinist named Martha Alexander Hazel.  I found her testimony in an obituary section of a newspaper.  It reads,

“I was born in Presbyterian Hospital in January 1919…My father…had been born the son of a Presbyterian preacher. …I am proud of my heritage, the Presbyterian faith I’ve practiced these many years… As a convicted Calvinist, moving beyond my long life on this earth, I am confident that my predestined fate is in God’s hands and that He knows best.  Amen.” [37]

When Dr. Graham says, “It is my hope, and I pray that it will be your hope as well” he didn’t mean “I hope both you and I are among those God has unconditionally predestined to salvation.”  Rather, he prays for the salvation of individuals because he knows that what Christ has done he has done for him and all sinners, and therefore, by putting their faith and trust in Christ, they can know that they have salvation and eternal life.  That is the hope of the Christian.  It is hope “in Christ,” not in an unknown decision God made before he created the world regarding each individual’s eternal destiny – their “predestined fate” – as Martha Hazel put it.  The salvation found “in Christ” and offered to all stands in glaring contrast to Martha Hazel’s “I hope so” salvation.  Dr. Graham’s gospel message, and the hope that is inherent in it, is very different than the dark, unknown Calvinist “hope” embraced by Martha Hazel.

Dr. Ryken concludes his email by affirming that Dr. Billy Graham was “one of the church’s most effective evangelists.”[38]  Yet he preached a message that is antithetical to the Calvinism that Dr. Ryken maintains is the biblical gospel.  This highlights the acute nature of this problem not only theologically but ethically.  Again, with all due respect, I submit that the incoherence created by Dr. Ryken’s soteriology with his statements in this email are troubling and cannot be cavalierly dismissed.  They point out the Calvinist’s inability to hold fast to their Calvinism in situations that call for the preaching of truly good news.  I contend that in practical evangelistic ministry the Calvinist’s soteriological doctrines must remain hidden behind the scenes and as subtexts in much of their writings because they do not convey “good news.”

If Calvinism is the gospel, Dr. Ryken is in a tough position eulogizing Dr. Graham whose life cannot be separated from the gospel message he preached.  What gospel message did Dr. Graham preach?  It was not Dr. Ryken’s “sovereign grace.”  As such, according to Dr. Ryken’s own words, he was duty-bound to oppose “the counterfeit grace of a false gospel” preached by Dr. Graham.

So it is very telling that when Dr. Ryken is required to remain consistent with his claims that the Calvinist doctrines of “sovereign grace” are the gospel, he cannot do so.  Like most Calvinists, when they are outside the systematic theology classroom they either inconsistently preach a non-Calvinist gospel or at least implicitly suggest and affirm it as Dr. Ryken does here.  Again, I submit that Calvinists are inconsistent in this precisely because they themselves know that there is no “good news” to be found in their “doctrines of grace.”  In the end, Dr. Ryken is found to be affirming what he has called “the counterfeit grace of a false gospel” because that is the gospel message that contains truly “good news.”  But given that he has said in no uncertain terms that any other message than his “doctrines of grace” is a “false gospel,” he is also inconsistent in failing to point out and oppose non-Calvinist gospels as just that – false.   Calvinism, due to its theistic determinism, is vulnerable to serious inconsistencies and contradictions.[39]

As an alumnus of Wheaton College this issue is genuinely and deeply troubling to me with respect to the theological and soteriological direction of the college and graduate school.  Another alumni email I received from Wheaton stated that,

“This is one of the most strategic times in history to support Wheaton.  Why?  Because as President Philip Ryken recently said: “Now, more than ever, Wheaton College is positioned to serve as an increasingly vital base of operations for the global dissemination of the gospel.””[40]

If that is the case, and I hope it is, then we must ask, “What gospel is Dr. Ryken talking about?”  There are two incompatible gospels in evangelicalism today.  Which one will Wheaton disseminate?  Which underlying soteriology will this “gospel” message reflect?  The Calvinist or non-Calvinist soteriology?  Will it be a message consistent with that underlying soteriology or inconsistent with it?  Will it be the soteriology of Dr. Graham and the gospel message consistent with that soteriology, or will it be the soteriology Dr. Ryken and the gospel message consistent with that soteriology?  But what would be the precise content of a message of “good news” that is consistent with Dr. Ryken’s Calvinist soteriology?  We know what constitutes Dr. Graham’s message of “good news,”  but what is the content of Dr. Ryken’s “good news” message?  What “good news” is consistent with Dr. Ryken’s Calvinist soteriology?  Which is the true biblical gospel message?  As mutually exclusive, they both cannot be the biblical gospel.

We should admit that this state of affairs is unacceptable both intellectually and hermeneutically unless we are willing to maintain that God’s Word is either inherently contradictory or so obscure on the matter of our salvation that it cannot be understood as a univocal message.  We should also confess that the Christian church that supposedly identifies itself as “evangelical” cannot even exegete Scripture so as to arrive at the truth of the gospel.  It cannot come to a consensus on its “evangel” – that message of “good news” that is the core of biblical revelation.  Does God desire that his gospel exist in a state of confusion?  From my non-Calvinist point of view, I would say he does not.  From the Calvinist point of view, that is just the way God has ordained it to be.  But how is this coherent with what we believe God to be as the author of peace and order, not disharmony and confusion?  What does it say about any assurance that we can know God correctly for who he is?

We should consider that two mutually exclusive gospels cannot both be the biblical truth on the matter.  We need to wrestle with the essential hermeneutical problem that perpetuates not being able to come to a consensus on what constitutes the biblical truth of the gospel.  The process of delineating a proper hermeneutic of coherence, applying it to the text, and gleaning the content of the biblical gospel message can be an example to the world of honest self-reflection, the pursuit of the truth and a demonstration of the love believers can have for each other as they are able to work together in search of that truth.  Institutionalizing disingenuousness and incoherence, remaining in denial that there is a real problem here or that the resolution to this long-standing controversy cannot be attained, are all unacceptable for the mature, thinking Christian.

The Wheaton Challenge

But perhaps I am wrong in this matter.  Perhaps the many scholars and other Christians who have made similar observations about Calvinism are incorrect.  Perhaps Calvinism is the accurate biblical expression of the “good news.”  Perhaps Calvinists are correct and Dr. Graham did not preach the gospel after all.  Well, here is one way we may find out.

In 1980 the Billy Graham Center (BGC) at Wheaton College was dedicated to serve as a vital base of operations for the “global dissemination of the gospel.”[41]  And Dr. Graham communicated that our concern should always be that the BGC would “be an instrument that he [God] could use to further his kingdom throughout the world.”[42]  The Billy Graham Center stands as a monument to the gospel.

Therefore, I would lay the following challenge before the leadership of Wheaton College.  That they allow the BGC to fulfill the purpose for which it exists and to which it was dedicated and become that vital base of operations for the clarification of the biblical gospel message.  Billy Graham wrote,

“When most major Protestant denominations have their annual councils, assemblies, or convocations, they make pronouncements on matters having to do with…any number of social and political issues.  Very rarely are any resolutions passed that have to do with the redemptive witness of the Gospel.”[43]

This controversy confirms that the gospel is at stake and therefore an essential step for the BGC to serve its purpose as a vital base of operations for the global dissemination of the gospel is for us to determine just what that gospel is.  Given these two mutually exclusive soteriologies, the claims of the gospels that arise from them need to be clarified.  Given that two disparate soteriological and gospel interpretations cannot both be true, it is imperative that there be further focused interdisciplinary research and discussion on this matter.

I believe that we have reaches a point in the debate that the issues have been sufficiently vetted to understand whether one soteriology is more biblically plausible than the other.  It is time for a series of conferences to come to a resolution as to the precise content and message of the biblical gospel that is exegetically, hermeneutical, morally, intellectually, philosophically and theologically sound.  It is not unrealistic that fellow Christians be able to speak the truth in love.  It is not unrealistic for mature and informed Christians to be able to present their respective arguments without quarrelling and unnecessary division.  Yes, love is essential in this matter, yet the truth must also be discerned.  This we have not done. 

I have argued that the presence of these mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospel messages indicates that the hermeneutical enterprise has been left unattended by evangelicals with respect to its logical and moral coherence.  The church is in denial of this fact.  It is accommodating intellectual indifference on this matter.  The question of what constitutes proper interpretation is of critical importance in light of claims to have properly exegeted the texts but with incompatible results.  The hermeneutical question here is vitally and inextricably linked to possessing and understanding an authoritative divine revelation.  If we have been given divine revelation in written form, it is therefore incumbent upon us to be continually engaged in the investigation, mutual recognition, reiteration and application of sound, hermeneutical principles to the interpretation of that text.  This is not just a matter of each side bandying about contradictory interpretive conclusions, but rather requiring an account of how one came to those conclusions and whether it is necessary that they exhibit logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  It is not enough for the non-Calvinist to point out the incoherence, inconsistencies and contradictions within Calvinism or the rational incoherence of its theistic determinism, problems that Calvinists themselves admit to, but by dichotomizing exegesis from the deliberations and deliverances of philosophical and moral reasoning, nevertheless stand upon their exegesis and ultimately flee to mystery to deal with the logical and moral incoherence of that exegesis.

What this indicates is that the crux of the matter is a hermeneutical issue.  It involves whether or not logical and moral coherence are necessary in interpretation and indicative of the validity of a proposed interpretation.  There are two different hermeneutics at play here.  A hermeneutic of coherence (non-Calvinist) and a hermeneutic of incoherence (Calvinist).  I submit that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction in exegetical results and interpretive claims must be included in what is considered to be a proper and sound hermeneutic.  It will not do to flee to mystery if one’s soteriology and theology contains real inconsistencies and contradictions.  Without a hermeneutic of coherence we cannot come to the truth of the meaning of the text.  The affirmations and denials of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics[44] is clear on this matter.  Dr. Norman Geisler added the explanatory comments to the document.

WE AFFIRM  the unity, harmony and consistency of Scripture… (Article XVII)

“The Denial warns against the assumption that an understanding of one passage can lead the interpreter to reject the teaching of another passage. One passage may help him better comprehend another but it will never contradict another.”

WE AFFIRM  that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere,… (Article XX)

“What is in view here is not so much the nature of truth (which is treated in Article VI), but the consistency and coherence of truth.

This is directed at those views which consider truth paradoxical or contradictory. This article declares that a proper hermeneutics avoids contradictions, since God never affirms as true two propositions, one of which is logically the opposite of the other.”

            At the core of divine revelation is the gospel message.  A gospel in a state of confusion reflects a confused hermeneutic.  A sound evangelical hermeneutic cannot accept textual exegesis and interpretations that result in incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.  We need to adopt of hermeneutic of coherence and reject a hermeneutic of incoherence.  Most Calvinists believe their “doctrines of grace” are the biblical gospel.  Non-Calvinists disagree because they point out the logical and moral difficulties that Calvinism raises with other biblical texts and doctrines.   Non-Calvinists also believe that the biblical gospel as “good news” cannot be coherently reconciled with the Calvinist “doctrines of grace.”  Therefore what is causing this confusion must be identified and the message of salvation clarified so that the truth can be proclaimed and that the Spirit of Truth may be actively working through the gospel proclamation for the salvation of sinners.

            In his book, Interpreting the Bible, Professor A. Berkeley Mickelsen also recognizes what is at stake in this controversy.

               “The impelling motive for learning to interpret the scriptures correctly is the necessity to understand clearly for ourselves exactly what we are trying to communicate to others.  The need to communicate all of the gospel message is urgent: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16); but double is the woe to one who, though he claims to be preaching the gospel, does in fact not do so because he has misinterpreted the written record that presents the gospel.  It is my earnest desire that every reader of this book shall proclaim the truth of God with new urgency, and with greater understanding.”[45]

In addition to Mickelsen’s book, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College may just be the place where “the truth of God” will be proclaimed “with new urgency, and with greater understanding,” and where the gospel will be clarified “for Christ and His Kingdom.”

All biblical truths are important.  But some are extremely important.  The gospel is arguably the most important.  If some Christians insist that it is the doctrine of God takes precedence, then I respond that even as to the doctrine of God this controversy has far-reaching implications.  Calvinist soteriology carries with it a very different conception of the character of God, his will and his ways than does a non-Calvinist soteriology.  So when there is confusion and conflict both as to the character of God and the most important message the Christian has to bring to the world – the message of the good news of salvation – then surely this is worthy of our utmost attention and sustained efforts.  At stake here are issues involving God’s character, knowledge of his salvific will, ethical and moral concerns, along with the content of the gospel and the knowledge and assurance of our eternal destinies.  These are hardly insignificant matters.  The existence of two incompatible gospels has crucial hermeneutical ramifications that Christians need to come to terms with.

What this controversy reduces to is deciding whether or not logical coherence and fundamental principles of reason and morality are indispensable hermeneutical principles and reliable indicators of valid interpretations.  How each answers this question is what divides the Calvinist from the non-Calvinist.

Professor Mickelsen mentions the growing interest after World War II in what he calls “the theological science of hermeneutics.”  He writes,

               “This serious interest in hermeneutics has helped to show why Christian differ with each other.  Different principles and procedures yield different results, and even the same basic principles may be applied differently.  Such an understanding of differences, however, is necessary to helping others and to being helped by them in one’s own interpretive endeavors.

               The same serious interest in interpretation has also brought into focus agreements among various interpreters.  When interpreters from various groups have worked together to unfold the meaning of a passage, agreement on many significant conclusions has been reached.  Thus hermeneutics is a potent unifying force in the Christian church.”[46]

What has been convincingly demonstrated throughout the centuries of this debate, and even more intensely today, is that Calvinists ultimately dismiss logical and moral coherence in their interpretive process in contrast with a non-Calvinist hermeneutic that maintains that logically and morally coherent, consistent and non-contradictory interpretations are the more plausible and therefore the more accurate interpretations.  It is this hermeneutical divide that is at the heart of this controversy.  Our failure to address it allows the controversy to continue.  The importance of these matters cannot be underestimated because these issues, which dictate doctrine, which in turn influence patterns of thought and action, ultimately have very practical implications for the discovery of the truth, the message of “good news” for sinners, the mission of the church, evangelism and a life of hope and joy in Christ.

If “sovereign grace” is biblical truth then those who take the authority of Scripture seriously need to believe it.  If Arminianism, Traditionalism, Provisionism or Molinism are more biblically accurate then we need to believe accordingly.  But how will we know which of these is biblical truth?  That is a hermeneutical question.  That should be the question put to the scholars, pastors and laypersons in a series of evangelical conferences on this topic.  Will Wheaton rise to address this need?

If “sovereign grace” is found to be incoherent with “the good news about Jesus Christ,” if the “gospel of grace” and “doctrines of grace” are found to be inconsistent with matters of “duty,” human freedom, personal responsibility and “love for the lost souls of humanity” along with the biblical definitions of grace and faith, then this should matter to us.  If Calvinism is found to be a universal divine causal determinism and as such cannot be rationally or morally sustained, this should matter to all of us as to the validity of such an exegesis and interpretation of Scripture.  In contrast, if coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are deemed to be indispensable to sound exegesis and interpretation, and the non-Calvinist position better reflects these qualities, then shouldn’t we think that the non-Calvinist’s exegesis and interpretations are the more biblically accurate interpretations?  Hopefully we can see that this hermeneutical issue cannot be ignored any longer.

On Calvinism, it would be correct to think that God has unalterably ordained that there would be these two incompatible gospels in his church.  How Calvinists approach this is up to each of them.  They may have little interest in attempting to alter what God has decreed.  Perhaps Calvinists will deem this idea futile or unnecessary due to the eternal decree of God that determines all things.  I can only hope that historical precedent would win out.  Reformed Calvinists of course are not lacking in or averse to synods, councils, etc.  There is also the Calvinist principle of “the use of means” and “secondary causes.”  Although these too would be subject to critique, perhaps these would carry the day and make such a conference at Wheaton a reality in the hope that God would use it to clarify his will in this matter.

Ultimately non-Calvinists just have a hard time understanding how Calvinists do not think that coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are bedrock hermeneutical principles of biblical interpretation.  For example, we might ask why Dr. Ryken and Whitefield, on their Calvinist view of divine sovereignty, are troubled about the possibility of the church succumbing to a “constant danger” and having the potential for “error” from which the church needs to defend itself.  The concerns Ryken and Whitefield express over “the danger of succumbing to the counterfeit grace of a false gospel” seem to me to be incoherent with their theology of universal divine causal determinism.  For on their definition of divine sovereignty, it is God himself that has ordained any false gospel’s that might arise and whether we succumb to them or end up resisting them.  Is this, or is this not, incoherent?  If it is incoherent, shouldn’t this fact be hermeneutically significant in determining the validity of the Calvinist exegetical interpretations and the theology constructed upon them?  If it is not incoherent, then how so?  The discussion needs to be had at this hermeneutical level.

What we think the hermeneutical implications are of the logical and moral problems that are a result of Calvinist theistic determinism is the matter at hand.  All perspectives need to be carefully examined for the purpose of coming to a hermeneutical resolution.  If we are going to be intellectually and spiritually responsible Christians we need to address this matter.  Recall Dr. Graham’s observation.  

“When most major Protestant denominations have their annual councils, assemblies, or convocations, they make pronouncements on matters having to do with…any number of social and political issues.  Very rarely are any resolutions passed that have to do with the redemptive witness of the Gospel.”

As Dr. Graham has encouraged us to do, let us affirm the redemptive witness of the Gospel by coming to a resolution on the question “What is the biblical Gospel?”  Only when this question is resolved will evangelicals be able with unity of purpose and the blessing of God and the Spirit to proclaim the “good news” to the whole world to the saving of souls.


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


[1] Philip Graham Ryken, What is a True Calvinist? (Phillipsburg: Puritan & Reformed, 2003), 29.

[2] Ibid. 29.

[3] Phillip Graham Ryken, What is a True Calvinist? Basics of the Reformed Faith Series, (Phillipsburg: Puritan and Reformed Publishing, 2003), 18.

[4] Email to alumni from Dr. Ryken, President of Wheaton College, Wednesday, February 21, 2018, 11:16 AM.

[5] Billy Graham, Day by Day (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide, 1965), December 11.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 45.

[6] Billy Graham, Day by Day (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide, 1965), March 24.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 227.

[7] Billy Graham, Day by Day (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide, 1965), December 13.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 45.

[8] Graham, Till Armageddon, 50.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 105.

[9] Billy Graham, Peace with God (Waco, TX: Word, 1953), 49. From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 44.

[10] Billy Graham, Answers to Life’s Problems (Waco, TX: Word, 1960), 265.   Billy Graham, Day by Day (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide, 1965), December 11.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 45.

[11] Graham, Till Armageddon, 23.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 150.

[12] Graham, World Aflame, 118. From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 92.

[13] Graham, World Aflame, xvi.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 92.

[14] Graham, Peace with God, 118.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 93.

[15] Billy Graham, Wisdom for Each Day (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 105. From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 91.

[16] Graham, Till Armageddon, 68.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 93.

[17] Graham, World Aflame, 118.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 92.

[18] Billy Graham, Day by Day (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide, 1965), November 8.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 148.

[19] Billy Graham, Day by Day (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide, 1965), March 23.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 160.

[20] Breakfast with Billy Graham: 100 Daily Readings (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1996), 120.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 104.

[21] Billy Graham, The Holy Spirit (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978), 182.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 104.

[22] Billy Graham, Answers to Life’s Problems (Waco, TX. Word, 1960), 236.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 105.

[23] Billy Graham, Till Armageddon (Waco, TX. Word, 1981), 23.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 105.

[24] Billy Graham, A Biblical Standard for Evangelists (Minneapolis: World Wide, 1984), 58.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 126.

[25] Billy Graham, Calling Youth to Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1947), 127.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 125..

[26] Billy Graham, How to Be Born Again (Waco, TX: Word, 1977), 162.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 133.

[27] Billy Graham, Peace with God (Waco, TX: Word, 1953), 160. From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 133.

[28] Billy Graham, Answers to Life’s Problems (Waco, TX. Word, 1960), 287.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 136.

[29] Russ Busby, Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador (San Diego: Tehabi Books, 1999), 129.  From Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 226.

[30] Dr. Billy Graham, The Billy Graham Center dedication address. Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, 1980.  http://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/BGCdedication.htm  Accessed 2/27/2018.

[31] It is very difficult to see how they can be consistent with a Calvinist soteriology because both of these foundational doctrinal beliefs about the universal applicability of salvation and the condition of faith presuppose libertarian freedom not the universal divine causal determinism of Calvinism.  Calvinists will end up redefining terms like “sovereign,” “grace,” “all” and “world,” along with providing elaborate explanations to avoid logical and moral incoherence and inconsistency (e.g., compatibilism, “two wills in God”).  But the bottom line is their rejection of logical and moral coherence as hermeneutically significant for determining validity of one’s interpretations.  Calvinists dismiss coherence and consistency as essential to interpretive validity.  Non-Calvinists do not.

[32] Albert Mohler, “The Preacher: Billy Graham and American Evangelicalism.”  Feb. 22, 2018.  Last accessed May 18, 2018.  https://albertmohler.com/2018/02/22/preacher-billy-graham-american-evangelicalism/ 

[33] Mohler writes, “The message of Scripture is that Christ died as a substitute for us, bearing our guilt and absorbing God’s wrath so that we might receive his righteousness. Without that message, we lose the evangel of evangelism.”  But we are left asking, “Who is the “us,” “our” and “we” Mohler is referring to?  The answer must be “the elect.”  But my point is that Mohler will not make that clear to us.  Why not?

               And also, “Evangelism demands that we press the authority of Scripture and the claims of Christ on sinners as we invite them to the free gift of salvation provided through Christ’s atoning work.”  We should ask, “What are these “claims of Christ on sinners?”  We should also ask, “What is meant by the “free gift of salvation?” And what are the implications of salvation being “a gift?”  Also, “what does Mohler mean by “invite them to the free gift”?  Why not, “invite them to take of the free gift of salvation?”  If these statements have any submeanings – something Calvinists often do with their statements – nevertheless, taken at face value these statements certainly imply a universal divine salvific will which is incoherent with limited atonement and unconditional election of Calvinism.  Also implied is the ability to receive the “free gift” of salvation by faith which is contrary to the Calvinist doctrine of “total inability.”

               See Albert Mohler, “Keeping the Evangel in Evangelism: Why Evangelicalism Can’t Abandon the Old, Old Story.” April 19, 2018.  Accessed April 30, 2020.  https://albertmohler.com/2018/04/19/keeping-evangel-evangelism-evangelicalism-cant-abandon-old-old-story/ 

[34] Gordon R. Lewis, “God, Attributes of,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 495.

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

[36] Email to alumni from Dr. Ryken, President of Wheaton College, Wednesday, February 21, 2018, 11:16 AM.

[37] The obituary of Martha Alexander Hazel, The Charlotte Observer, June 2, 2017, p.12A.

[38] Email to alumni from Dr. Ryken, President of Wheaton College, Wednesday, February 21, 2018, 11:16 AM.

[39] We see this same theological and soteriological inconsistency in Wheaton’s recently instituted “Christ-Centered Diversity Commitment.”  See https://www.wheaton.edu//life-at-wheaton/kingdom-diversity/diversity-commitment/

               The Calvinist theology and soteriology of Dr. Ryken and many others on Wheaton’s campus is inconsistent with the principles the commitment enunciates and seeks to implement.  The commitment states, “…we believe that making a commitment to diversity, inclusion, justice, and unity is central to fulfilling the Great Commission, the Greatest Commandments, and our College Mission. We strive to cultivate a grace-filled, Christ-Centered academic community where all members are recognized, loved, and respected [Matthew 22:37-40 and 28:19-20; Revelation 7:9-10].”

               But the fact of the matter is that in its doctrines of predestination and unconditional election, Calvinism teaches exclusion rather than inclusion.  It is anything but “grace-filled” in that it defines God’s “grace” as him having chosen some to be saved over others based on nothing but his own will.  God does not “recognize” all people.  The commitment affirms that “all members of the body of Christ” are “uniquely, fearfully, and wonderfully made in the image of God,” and the drafters of course are affirming this not with respect to people being in the body of Christ but by virtue of their first being human beings.  All persons, believers and unbelievers alike, have worth, value and dignity because they are made in God’s image.  But on Calvinism, the fact that all men and women, no matter their “ethnicity, sex, marital status, socio-economic status,” and no matter their “nation, tribe, people, or language” are made in the image of God, has no bearing upon their election or reprobation in God’s estimation.  According to the Calvinist, there is a multitude of individuals made in God’s image whom God has not predestined to salvation and therefore does not want to save and who never can be saved.  Although the commitment enjoins us to love each other no matter our differences, there is a host of people that, for reasons unknown, are not loved by God.  They have been rejected by him from before the creation of the world.  Indeed, inequality, rejection and indifference are inherent within Calvinist teaching.  Calvin himself 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.

And yet in the diversity commitment we read about,

               “Inclusion: To create a campus climate where all faculty, staff, students, and alumni are included as full participants who feel welcomed, respected, valued, and supported [James 2:1-4; Romans 15:7].”

               But on Calvinism God does not “include,” “welcome” or “value” all individuals.  How is a theology that is antithetical to the values of inclusion, “recognition,” grace, justice and unity as stated in the commitment supposed to support that commitment?  Calvinism is a theology of exclusion.  How then does it provides insufficient grounds for belief in and the implementation of these values in the Wheaton community and broader culture?  To believe in Calvinism while attempting to achieve values that are antithetical to it, must be, rather than a unifying factor, an intellectually and spiritually disequilibrating fact; a nagging awareness of theological inconsistency.  It would seem that the community must suppress the fact that within it there is present a theology in which God himself excludes many from salvation and is unloving in predetermining their reprobation and damnation.  Calvinists can muster up an epistemological profession for the values in this commitment, but they find no ontological foundation in their Calvinist theology for those values.  It seems to me that if the integration of faith and learning, let alone living, is to occur, then to hold to a faith that is mutually exclusive to the values and ideals that Wheaton is attempting to realize is to ignore this integration and adopt a spiritually, psychologically and intellectually impossible way to live.  And although Calvinists are quick to defend God’s justice in unconditionally election, we can see that to exclude someone from their greatest need and greatest good – eternal salvation – for no known reason, is arbitrary, and as such, unjust.  To believe in Calvinism is to believe that many people are excluded from “the kingdom of God” for reasons only God knows.  Such a soteriology is bound to expunge the gospel as the good news for all sinners that it truly is.

               And need I point out that the very problems that the diversity commitment is seeking to remedy – injustice, distrust, oppression, exclusion, sexism, racism, selfish ambition, division, etc. – have been preordained to occur by God himself.  The Calvinist cannot ignore the self-referential absurdity that their determinism produces and the impugning of the character of God that lies at the heart of their theology.  All sinful and evil thoughts, desires and actions are ordained and caused by God.  God then comes in Christ to redeem the sin he ordained to occur while holding the sinner responsible for what he has caused them to do.  He judges those who have rejected his offer of salvation and not believed in Christ even though it is God himself who has predetermined that they not be saved and therefore never could believe and be saved.

               If the motto “For Christ and his kingdom” is to guide Wheaton’s path forward, that is, that Jesus is the center of everything they do at Wheaton, then Wheaton needs to adopt a theology and soteriology that is not only logically and morally coherent, but gospel-centered, which means proclaiming a message that is truly “good news.”  A universal divine causal determinism (Calvinism) cannot provide the community with the “good news” it needs to hear and live by in order to bring about the transformation of heart and mind needed to achieve the ideals as stated in this commitment.  And although these values are seen as integral to fulfilling “the great commission,” I submit that the “great commission” has at its core the bringing of the “good news” to all nations.  But I also submit that Calvinism has no “good news” to bring to sinners in need of salvation, unless, that is, it wants to speak inconsistent with its soteriological “doctrines of grace.”

               Wheaton, like the evangelical church, is at a cross-roads.  It will either insist that it be characterized by a universal divine causal determinism that is incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory given sound philosophical and moral reasoning, and therefore cannot be an accurate interpretation of the biblical revelation, or it will go back to the text employing a hermeneutic of coherence so as to come to the truth of the gospel as the truly “good news” that it is and as was preached for 60 years to all nations by Wheaton’s best known alumnus – Dr. Billy Graham.  It’s time to make a decision.

[40] Email from Wheaton College [wheaton.fund@wheaton.edu], Tues., December 27, 2011, 4:03 AM.

[41] Email from Wheaton College [wheaton.fund@wheaton.edu], Tues., December 27, /2011, 4:03 AM

[42] Billy Graham Center dedication. http://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/BGCdedication.htm  Last accessed February 27, 2018

[43] Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 157.  From Billy Graham, World Aflame, (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 180.

[44] Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, with commentary by Norman L. Geisler, http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago2.html  Last accessed 4/30/2020.

[45] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), vii – viii.

[46] Ibid. vii.

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