Example 4 – Practical Ministry: Ecclesial Incoherence, Impact Prayer Cards and the Sanctity of Life

Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence

It is my experience that Calvinists repeatedly prove themselves inconsistent in their teaching and preaching.  Their sermons, writings, teachings, discussions, or practical living ultimately cannot coherently and consistently incorporate their theology and soteriology into the broader biblical witness or their practical lives and ministries.

The vast majority of the sermons and teachings of Calvinist pastors and teachers presuppose a non-Calvinist theology.  Even when dealing with the more “Calvinistic” texts like Ephesians 1 and Romans 9, they will equivocate on the Reformed theological fundamentals.  Calvinists often speak as if they were non-Calvinists.  Therefore, when they do present the Calvinist interpretations of texts such as Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 they will be found contradicting what they otherwise have preached apart from these specific texts.  Calvinists will of course claim they are teaching the Bible as it presents itself. But if that is true, then the Bible presents itself as incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory; a conclusion that the Calvinist would of course reject and yet does not concern him when preaching or teaching.  Many Calvinists contend that Scripture teaches both a deterministic sovereignty and unconditional election along with genuine human freedom and responsibility.  But this transfer to Scripture of these incoherencies and contradictions inherent in Calvinism only implicates the Scripture in incoherence and contradiction.  Therefore, for all practical purposes Calvinists must simply ignore their theistic determinism and live, preach and teach the majority of the time within the context of a non-Calvinist understanding of libertarian human freedom and responsibility. Calvinism, therefore, not only places Scripture at odds with itself, it is also unlivable. It cannot with consistency make sense of how we think and function as human beings. And this is a sure sign of a flawed theology.

Hence, the intractable problems Calvinism generates are usually avoided or summarily dismissed by stating “the Bible teaches both,” they’re an “antinomy,” a “mystery” or “incomprehensible” and “beyond sinful human reason to understand.”  Where there is some consideration given to these difficulties they are usually not dealt with in any depth, except in the scholarly literature.

Calvinist soteriology certainly cannot be preached as consistent with the gospel as “good news.”  With respect to “the world-wide proclamation of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,”[1] Calvinism is a doctrinal paradigm that is deficient as a foundational theology for spreading the gospel biblically defined as “good news.”  Therefore certainly with respect to evangelism Calvinists downplay their Calvinism.  This is the expedient approach to maintaining a theology that cannot be employed in Christian evangelism. But is avoiding the problematic nature of Calvinism intellectually and spiritually responsible?  Is it distinctively biblical?  Is it distinctively Christian?  I don’t think so.

Yet, the Calvinist will not take these problems as a sign that they may have misinterpreted the Bible in their definitions of sovereignty, election, and predestination.  But perhaps the Bible does not present itself in the contradictory manner in which they claim it does.  Therefore we cannot be indifferent to the warning signs of incoherence and contradiction.

To avoid this problem of contradiction and incoherence Calvinists not only change their message to a non-Calvinist message while engaged in practical ministry as I will demonstrate below, they also often downplay their Calvinism in their ecclesial documents and church life.  Even in a church’s constitution and membership documents, theological and intellectual incoherence is summarily dismissed by Calvinists. 

Calvary Church:  Doctrinal and Ecclesial Inconsistency and the Bible Teaches Both

Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina[2] provides an example of how Calvinist theology is downplayed in the ecclesial setting.  The Calvary Church constitution reads, “We, the members of Calvary Presbyterian Church, an unaffiliated Presbyterian Church…”  It also states, “The name of this church shall be Calvary Presbyterian Church.  It shall carry on its ministry under the name of Calvary Church.”  Yet, the membership class materials state, “Calvary Church is an independent, non-denominational church…”  This is both curious and confusing and causes one to wonder precisely where the church’s theological “sentiments” lay and how the leadership can rationally justify what seems a blatant contradiction between the constitution and the membership class materials.  I always thought “Presbyterian” was a denomination. The church is either Presbyterian or non-denominational.  It cannot be both.

Dr. Munro, the senior pastor, explains this denominational discrepancy as a matter of “historical record [rather] than an indication of our theology” since the congregational roots of the church lay in Presbyterianism.[3]  As a documentation of the historical roots of the church this is understandable, but is this reference to Presbyterianism in the constitution also an expression of the desire to maintain a form of Calvinism as the predominant theology of the church?  The label “Presbyterian” certainly suggests the embrace of Calvinist theology and not the Presbyterian form of government because there is no hierarchical Presbytery governing the church.[4]  It is “unaffiliated” and “independent.”  Although Dr. Munro stated that it is “not an indication of our theology” he went on to explain that,

 “…where the majority of the leaders (and probably congregation) would depart from the five points of Calvinism is in that we do not believe in ‘limited atonement.’  We do strongly believe in God’s sovereign election, but do not believe that Christ dies only for the sins of the elect…We do believe in election and eternal security, but we also believe in the capacity of men and women to choose.  The interaction between God’s election and human responsibility is a difficult one to reconcile in the human mind.  What is clear is that Scripture affirms both, and therefore we should accept both even though the reconciliation of these two doctrines may be difficult for us!  I don’t like putting labels on others or myself but I am a moderate Calvinist.”[5]

Apart from the claim that “what is clear is that Scripture affirms both,” the truth of which is precisely the issue at hand, it is clear, after all, that “Presbyterian” is indicative of Calvary’s theology as Calvinistic.  If it is not “Presbyterian” in government, how else might it be “Presbyterian” except in theology?  Although the Articles of Faith and church membership materials do not teach or require one to give assent to the five points of Calvinism per se, as Dr. Munro pointed out above, the majority of the leadership and probably the congregation would call themselves “moderate Calvinists,” holding to all but the “L” in TULIP.

It is important to note that the membership class materials mention the doctrine of election in its Calvinist understanding.  In the section titled “Reasons for the Eternal Security of the Believer” the first reason given states, “Election – God does not justify and regenerate the non-elect (Rom. 8:28-30; Acts 13:48; Eph. 1:4).”[6]  This clearly refers to the doctrine of unconditional election or predestination. But this understanding of the doctrine of election is inconsistent with the teachings in the section on “Salvation by Grace through Faith” in which it is stated that “God is merciful –therefore, He doesn’t want to punish us” and he is “…not wishing for any to perish…” (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).”  This section also states that “Christ died on the cross…to pay the penalty for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)”, that “He became sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21)” and that “Faith is the means of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9)” which includes the personal dynamics of “assent” and “trust.”[7]

Although the majority of Calvary’s leadership and congregation believe the Scripture teaches that Christ died for all (and rightly so), their Calvinist doctrines, especially unconditional election, still present substantial logical and moral difficulties with what was said above in the section of “Salvation by Grace through Faith.” Unconditional election also presents an ironic problem for those who want to hold to eternal security.  An unconditional election, based upon an unknowable decision of God in eternity past, can provide no knowledge that one is among the elect and therefore no assurance of eternal salvation.  Furthermore, unconditional election would seem to nullify any benefit of an unlimited atonement.  Trying to squeeze some “good news” out of their Calvinism, and of course believing the Bible teaches unlimited atonement, they reject the Calvinist tenet of limited atonement.  But this makes no substantive difference while still holding to the other four points of Calvinism, especially that of unconditional election.  If unlimited atonement is believed to be what the Bible teaches, the problem remains as to what difference it makes soteriologically and how this coheres with unconditional election.  They interpret the texts that speak of the universality of the atonement in a non-Calvinist sense, but this only makes their position more confusing.  They may find comfort in telling people “Jesus died for you,” but this is both disingenuous and vacuous in light of their doctrine of unconditional election. Jesus died for you. So what? You may not be one of the elect. Therefore, although Jesus died for you, you will not be saved. Jesus’ death on your behalf holds no comfort or assurance that you can be saved. I suspect these “moderate Calvinists” think it eases the incoherence inherent in their theology in that they can now proclaim “in good conscience” that “Jesus died for you” and defining that as “good news.” That “Jesus died for you” certainly is part of the the true gospel. But what the Calvinist gives with one had he takes with the other.  Perhaps embracing an unlimited atonement eases the insincerity of offering salvation to all persons while knowing that among them surely sit many of the non-elect whom God does not want to save and will not save.  But is this position biblically and intellectually satisfactory?  I don’t think so.  The incoherence of the system is not resolved by unlimited atonement.  Severe logical, moral and epistemological incoherence still remains.  Again, what Calvinists give with the one hand with unlimited atonement, they take with the other by their doctrine of unconditional election.  When a sinner is told that “Jesus died for you” it is perfectly reasonable to think that includes “therefore you can be saved.” To believe and speak this way while holding to unconditional election is disingenuous.  As far as soteriology is concerned, one can only conclude that the position of Calvary Church is that of “moderate Calvinism,” but it still suffers the substantial incoherencies of a “strict five-point Calvinism.”

Note the hermeneutical implications here. We can see that inherent in the Reformed Calvinist mode of thought is the acceptance of interpretive and doctrinal incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction accompanied by a disregard of the implications of these for determining the validity of their exegesis and interpretations. For the Calvinist, rational incoherence and inconsistency are dispensable as part of a sound hermeneutic and determiners of the validity of their theological interpretations and propositions.

Practical Implications: Impact Prayer, Evangelism and Moderate Calvinism

For two years I attended Calvary Church in Charlotte, NC.[8]  In the fall of 2010 we were given “Impact Prayer” cards for our church-wide emphasis on witnessing and evangelism.  These cards were to serve as aids to prayer and evangelism. The gospel message on these cards was the subject of the teaching on evangelism for several Sunday’s in our Adult Bible Fellowship classes church-wide.  Their encouragement to pray and evangelize is in accord with the Philosophy of Ministry statement of Calvary Church which includes “the world-wide proclamation of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,” also described as “the Gospel of the grace of God.”[9]

Several of the points on the card were of interest to me in light of the “moderate Calvinist” theological position of the church leadership and much of the congregation.  One point, I believe, is of critical importance for the evangelistic task of the church today.  It was the prayer to “expand my knowledge so I will be ready to define and defend the Gospel.”  I found this prayer to define the Gospel of special interest given the moderate Calvinist theological context at Calvary Church and the mutually exclusive Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies and gospel content that can be found in our evangelical churches in general.  The mutual exclusivity of these soteriologies and the gospels entailed by them raises the question, “What Gospel are we to defend?”

As evangelical Christians we assume that we all know the content and message of the Gospel.  But I would submit that the need to define the Gospel is especially important given the dichotomy between the content of the gospel proclaimed in personal witness and from the pulpit and the gospel that would be consistent with one’s underlying soteriology, especially that of moderate Calvinism.  The “good news” that a Calvinist will proclaim in public evangelism and preaching is very different than what they believe soteriologically regarding their “doctrines of grace” or TUUIP (with the modification made by “moderate Calvinists” to an unlimited instead of limited atonement).  It is my observation that Calvinists proclaim a non-Calvinist salvation message that presupposes libertarian human freedom which is in conflict with their deterministic soteriological doctrines. Two very different definitions of “the Gospel” are presented depending upon whether the Calvinist is engaged in practical evangelism and the weekly preaching of the Word as compared to when the Calvinist expounds upon their Calvinist soteriological doctrines.  The content of the Gospel spoken and proclaimed is inconsistent with the “Gospel” as it is expounded soteriologically by Calvinists.  I therefore contend that the Calvinist soteriology cannot support the biblical Gospel defined and proclaimed as “good news.”

So the “Impact Prayer” card has touched upon a very important issue worthy of our attention.  And if we are really praying to that end – to “expand my knowledge so I will be ready to define and defend the Gospel” – it seems that we must be willing to grapple not only with the fact that there are two mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospel messages in the evangelical church today, but with the fact of the incoherence between the Calvinist soteriological doctrines and what they preach and teach as the message of the gospel, which again, is more in accord to a non-Calvinist gospel message. Essentially, the Calvinist’s practical evangelistic message amounts to the non-Calvinist’s message that is truly “good news.” Calvinist’s cannot preach their soteriology if they want to proclaim truly “good news.”  There is no “good news” in the Calvinist’s “doctrines of grace” evidenced by the fact that most Calvinists do not proclaim their TULIP (or TUUIP as is the case with “moderate” Calvinist), as the gospel message.

As evangelicals, a label derived from the Greek word euangelion, which means “good news,” we need to be asking what is the precise content and message of the biblical gospel and whether a moderate Calvinist theology is consistent with the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news.”

Impact Prayer: The Plan of Salvation and Evangelism

During those evangelism classes we learned that the plan of salvation and evangelism consists of questions and truths such as these:

1) What does God require for a person to go to heaven?

2) God’s promise is that he loves you (Jn. 3:16).

3) Jesus died for you (1 Pet. 3:18).

4) God requires you to confess and believe (Rom. 10:9).  Repent and believe the gospel (Mk. 1:15) and “you will be saved!”

These points indicate that each and every person is loved by God as demonstrated in Christ having died for us all while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8).  There is the call for everyone to “repent and believe the gospel.”  Evidently therefore, the scope of God’s saving work is universal; it applies to everyone.  Salvation is presented to all as an invitation; a gracious offer to be received as a gift (Rom. 5:15, 17).  The person is challenged to confess, repent and believe this message, which implies that they may accept or reject it. These are the things that God requires for a person to be saved and go to heaven.  As such, salvation has been provided for all, and yet it conditioned as to its appropriation to oneself upon believing that “good news.” (Jn. 1:7, 12; 3:18; 8:24; 12:36, 48; 20:31)  Therefore, salvation is presented as a real possibility for every sinner on the basis of faith.

Accordingly, in witnessing to others, most Calvinists will likely tell a person they are a sinner, and their sin separates them from God (Rom. 3:23).  They will also tell the person that “God loves you” and “Jesus died for you to take away your sins.”  They will say “you must believe this good news” and “you can have eternal life through faith in Christ.”  They encourage people to “repent and accept Christ as their personal savior and receive the salvation God offers them in Christ.”  It is emphatically stated that “You can have your sins washed away!  Yes, you!”  And yet, if you were to ask Calvinists what they believe about the nature of salvation according to their soteriological doctrines, they will affirm the doctrine of unconditional election.  That is, God has predetermined who would be saved before he created the world on the basis of nothing other than the “good pleasure” of his own will (Eph. 1:5).  Although the “moderate Calvinist” will say that the atonement is unlimited, yet each person’s ultimate eternal destiny as saved or damned is divinely predetermined and cannot be altered.  Salvation is not available to all sinners.  Not all may believe and be saved.  The number of the elect is fixed.  God works saving faith only in those whom he has chosen  All others are predestined to eternal damnation.  A person cannot believe if they are not among the elect.  It is God alone who provides an “effectual call” based upon the “general call” of the gospel and causes only the elect to believe.  This effectual call produces the regeneration which precedes faith, and God regenerates only those he has predestined to salvation.  Regeneration is the cause of faith.  Only the elect are given faith.

Now, on Calvinism, we can see what the answer to the very first question must be. “What does God require for a person to go to heaven?” The answer must be “Nothing! The person must be among the elect who are chosen to salvation by God himself.”  Heaven is outside the realm of possibility for many, and there can be no other answer to this question except that God requires nothing with respect to the person, only that they are predestined to salvation and heaven by God himself.  Therefore, the answer to the question cannot involve point 4 above in the ordinary sense in which we take it; that is as a conditional promise that definitely applies to any person.  In other words, that it is you who can and needs to repent and believe the gospel so that you will be saved.  So we are baffled as to what the words “God requires you…” mean given the Calvinist worldview of universal divine casual determinism. We are also left with a serious incoherence as to how it is that God requires the non-elect to repent and believe when God never intended them to receive salvation nor will he regenerate or work faith in them.  Indeed, according to unconditional election or predestination, God does not love certain people or desire that they be saved. Therefore, points 2 and 3 cannot apply to the non-elect in any meaningful way.  On Calvinism, number 2 is a lie to the non-elect.  And if number 3 is true, it is meaningless to the non-elect.

We can see that the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election or predestination has transformed what was defined as “the plan of salvation” and the “good news” into something confusing, dark, and mysterious.  What does God require for a person to go to heaven?  The question and the answers given in the “plan of salvation” imply that it is certainly a real possibility that anyone may go to heaven depending upon their faith response to the “good news.”  The “good news” was the assurance of God’s love for you expressed in the death of Christ for you.  And there was a call for you to repent and believe.  There was no exclusion by virtue of Calvinistic unconditional election or predestination.  The “good news” is inclusive.  It is the “good news” precisely because it includes you. But this is all turned on its head by the Calvinist’s soteriological “doctrines of grace.” Where has the “good news” gone?

So, according to Calvinism, the question, “What does God require for a person to go to heaven?”, is only a kind of academic or theoretical concern to the hearer.  For the choice of God to save or not to save is absolutely unconditional with respect to the person themselves.  God “requires” nothing that the person is responsible to give – even faith.  If anything is “required,” the Calvinist would consider that “a work” contributing to salvation.  Even faith is understood by the Calvinist in this way.  Therefore, faith must be the work of God and hence only happens in those God has chosen to save.  It is not something any sinner can exercise upon hearing the gospel.  So number 4 is also incoherent with Calvinism.

In reality the situation for each of us is predetermined, closed and settled.  Therefore it is a real possibility that any one of us could be among the non-elect and our destiny unalterably predetermined for damnation.  Where then has the gospel, which biblically defined means “good news”, gone?  How can the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election be preached as compatible with the gospel biblically defined as “good news?”  I submit that it cannot.  So given the Calvinist beliefs of Calvary Church, how is this prayer card consistent with those beliefs?  How is evangelism according to the plan of salvation outlined on this card consistent with Calvinist soteriology?  It is not.  And such inconsistency is a problem that should not have been ignored by the church leadership or the congregants.

Note that in the “plan of salvation” it is stated that salvation is conditioned upon something the person actually does or does not do (Jn. 3:18).  The reality put before them regarding their eternal destiny is presented as an open situation which involves their will.  The promise of God’s love demonstrated in the fact that Jesus died for them speaks of God’s accomplished salvation on their behalf.  It speaks of God’s desire that they be saved.  It indicates the universal nature of salvation not of a limited, fixed number of persons predestined by God alone to be saved.  But this is a very different gospel message than that presented in Calvinist soteriology.

Therefore I submit that the point on the “Impact Prayer” card about defining the gospel is crucial for the evangelical church today.  The very heart of the gospel, and therefore the very purpose and power of the ministry and mission of the Church as evangelical, is at stake (Rom. 1:16,17).  Yet, given two mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospel messages, this defining the gospel is something that Calvary Church had no interest in doing. But this is both soteriologically and intellectually irresponsible. The same holds for the evangelical Church in general. It also has no interest in defining, let alone defending the gospel.

The theological premise of the card as “Impact Prayer” also raises serious questions for Calvinist soteriology.  In praying for others the card stated that we are to request of God that He “begin to work in their lives and pull them toward [Himself]” along with “open[ing] their eyes to the emptiness of life without [Him].”  We are requesting that God act in certain ways in response to our prayer so that our prayer will have an impact upon them.  But given a predetermined salvation, such prayers can have no impact on those who are not elect and they do not change the predetermined salvation of the elect.  A person is either elect or they are not, and nothing, not even prayer, can change one’s salvific status. All is fixed by God himself. So given the universal divine causal determinism of Calvinism prayer changes nothing. God will not act in a salvific way on behalf of the non-elect.  Also, one’s election did not depend upon the prayer of another because election is unconditional.  Therefore, there is no real sense with which we can use the word “impact” for the non-elect, and even for the elect.  Repentance and belief cannot be the experience of anyone but those God has chosen to save and in whom he causes them to occur.  Given Calvinist determinism, prayer does not change things.

We should note here that ignorance of a person’s elect or non-elect status does not change the reality of their predetermined destiny.  Calvinists will often say, well we do not know who the elect and non-elect are. So what? The Calvinist’s epistemological ignorance of who is and who is not among the elect doesn’t alter one wit the ontological salvific status of any person. And we need to be able to speak in relation to a person’s ontological salvific status when speaking about their relationship to God and salvation. Therefore, claiming ignorance of one’s ontological salvific status certainly does not justify telling all persons about salvation as if they applied to them all. The ignorance born of the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and unconditional election does have bearing upon the veracity of what we say to persons as to our “message of salvation.”  Ignorance of who is elect and who is not does not mitigate the problem before us of the truth correspondence between what we say and what God has determined to be true about any particular person’s eternal destiny.  Surely it is disingenuous to present indiscriminately to people something as true regarding God’s disposition and salvific will for them (points 2-4 in the Plan of Salvation) when such may not be true for them.  The Calvinist’s words ought to correspond with the truth of a person’s predetermined salvific status.  But this is impossible.  They themselves admit that they do not know who is elect and who is not. It is something the Calvinist does not know and cannot know. Therefore he is speaking a falsehood to many who are not among the elect.  Ignorance cannot be used as an excuse here to project a universal, inclusive salvation message that is inconsistent with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination or unconditional election.   Therefore, the Reformed Calvinist soteriology is exclusive and limited and their “gospel” message ought to be coherent with that soteriology.  But then, again, where has the “good news” gone?

The “Impact Prayer” card lists other perplexing requests of God given the Calvinist theological and soteriological doctrines.  Speaking about God, one request is to “remove any confusion about You and the life You offer” and to “open their hearts to Your love and truth.”  These prayers raise the question of precisely what is God’s disposition to the one we are witnessing to and praying for.  Does God really love them?  Did Jesus die for themCan they repent and believe?  Given the doctrine of unconditional election all these divine actions and dispositions may actually not be a reality for them.  They may truly be among the non-elect and as such these divine dispositions and our corresponding words of witness do not apply to them.  Indeed, these same questions can be asked of ourselves.  Does God really love me?  Did Jesus die for meEven though I have repented and believed, am I among the elect?  Is repentance and belief a sure sign of being unconditionally elected to salvation?  What is God’s ultimate disposition towards me?  How do I know it?[10] So rather then removing any confusion about God and the life he offers, Calvinism only creates confusion in these respects. It places in doubt God’s love for the individual.

So we can see the incongruity between the content of Calvinist soteriology and the content of the gospel witness.  On the Calvinist soteriology, the two must be dichotomized.  Indeed, as the “Impact Prayer” card states, “any confusion about You and the life You offer” needs to be “removed.”  Yes, I agree.  It appears to me that this task is imperative, for there is definitely much confusion about God and the life he offers when we consider the deterministic Calvinist soteriological doctrines in contrast to the gospel message that is truly “good news.”  So how is this confusion going to be removed?  We must indeed “be ready to define… the gospel.”  But that will take honest dialogue about the criteria of valid interpretation, openness to questioning one’s traditional theology, and serious, continual interaction with the biblical text.  Presently it does not appear that the evangelical church is prepared to devote time or effort to any of these tasks.  It has fully embraced a theological and soteriological relativism.  But I have to ask, “What is the precise content of the gospel message?”  What are the implications of a Calvinist soteriology on the content of the gospel?  Is it a sufficient theology and soteriology to support and advance the proclamation of the gospel as “good news?”  I think not.

Impact Prayer: God’s Sovereignty and Petitionary Prayer

The Calvinist conception of God’s sovereignty also conflicts with many points on the “Impact Prayer” card.  Calvinists believe that God’s sovereignty means that all things are preordained by God to occur as they do from before the foundation of the world.  It is not that God foreknows the genuinely free choices of people, but that he actually has predetermined according to and by his own will all that occurs in minutest detail, including all human actions.  This sovereign predetermination of everything allows God to both foreknow and control all things.  He foreknows all things because he has predetermined all things.

God’s sovereignty conceived as his absolute predetermination of all things, even every person’s “choices” and eternal destiny, raises the question of how it is that anything will be different either now or in the future even though we are praying for certain things to occur, especially the salvation of others. Everyone’s eternal destiny in heaven or hell has already been predetermined.  How does prayer affect the outcome, one way or another, in a predetermined world?  It may be said that it is the means by which God accomplishes his predetermined plan, yet this could not be referring to any genuinely free action on the part of those who pray, for the problem still remains that in a predetermined world the praying would also be predetermined and really doesn’t change anything.  That is, no real change issuing from the actions of human persons, e.g., prayer, is possible, otherwise the world would not be predetermined and, according to the Calvinist, God would not be sovereign.

The main point here is that it is incoherent to state that by the “means” of human free will God brings about his exhaustive predetermination of all things.  The two propositions or concepts are incompatible.  Once we speak of an exhaustive predetermination of all things we have rendered incoherent any talk about human freedom as the “means” by which determinism is made actual. This would only be to say that God predetermines all “free will” decisions, even the decisions to pray and what is prayed for.  Therefore the “impact” that prayer is supposed to have is already in God’s predetermined plan of history.  I fail to see how Calvinist sovereignty can be loosed from the problems of its theistic determinism simply by asserting that God uses “means” or “second causes” to accomplish his predetermined ends. This is simply because these “means” and “second causes” are also predetermined.  Any coherent difference between means and ends or means as secondary causes vanishes.

Note also, that the Calvinist is attempting relieve his determinism by virtue of explanations that are of a contingent nature – “second causes” or “God uses means” refer to things like warning, persuading, deliberations, decisions, choices, etc.  The many ways in which we do things in life that are of a contingent nature the Calvinist employs to support his determinism.  He wants to tell us that because God uses “second causes” and “means” that liberty and contingency are maintained despite his determinism.  Determinism does no violence to liberty or contingency of “second causes.”  But merely to assert something doesn’t make it so.  Liberty and contingency stand in contradiction to determinism.  The two are logically incompatible.  So, again, these “second causes” and “means” do not rescue the Calvinist from the logical and moral incoherence their determinism creates.  I discuss these issues more fully in Chapter 8 – Calvinist Attempts to Justify Sovereignty as Theistic Determinism.

The card’s title, “Impact Prayer,” is therefore problematic given a Calvinist theological worldview.  On the basis of Calvinism we must conclude that God is not involved in any real dynamic, personal way with us.  Prayers are just “part and parcel” of all that is predetermined.  “Impact Prayer” implies that our prayers can effect a change that otherwise would not occur if we had not prayed at all.  But this sense of real possibility – that something may actually occur or actually not occur depending upon what we pray for or fail to pray for, depending upon whether we obey or disobey God’s word – is incoherent in a world that has been exhaustively predetermined.  Prayer implies the realities of contingency, potentiality, and possibility; things that cannot meaningfully be part of a deterministic world.  In that it is a “prayer” card for evangelistic purposes, the requests listed are petitionary prayers, that is, prayers for God to do various things in the lives of others with regard to their salvation.  They are requests of God for him to act in specific ways.  This raises questions on the nature of prayer and the precise nature of God’s salvific relation to his human creatures.

This brings me to my next example.  One of Pastor Munro’s sermons on “The Sanctity and Dignity of Life”[11] also confirmed this need to clearly define and defend the Gospel.

Moderate Calvinism and the Sanctity and Dignity of Human Life

The biblical teaching that man is created in the image of God, which essentially and universally invests the lives of all persons with sanctity and dignity creates problems for the Calvinist doctrines of God’s sovereignty and unconditional election.  Dr. John Munro’s sermon on this topic highlighted the serious incoherence his Calvinist doctrines create with the sanctity and dignity of life as grounded in man being made in the image of God.[12]  The sermon was excellent, but by expounding the sanctity and dignity of human life Dr. Munro also stated the case against his own key Calvinist doctrines of deterministic sovereignty and unconditional election.  Points made in the sermon on the issue of abortion and the imperative of love raised the following questions and theological problems.

1. Were the 50 million babies aborted since Roe v. Wade the predetermined plan and purpose of God for them?

            Psalm 139:16 is often construed in a deterministic fashion; that all the minutest details of our lives are predetermined by God; that our lives unfold exactly according to a predetermined divine plan.  If it is said that our lives and destinies are predetermined by God as required by Calvinism, then those babies are aborted because God has preordained it.  Note that this requires that God also predetermined for the doctors and nurses to think, believe, desire and act as they did to carry out and assist in the murder of 50 million human beings.

Dr. Munro stated that “abortion is an attack on the sovereignty of God.”  He didn’t say that abortion is an attack on the image of God, but “the sovereignty of God.”  What could this mean?  It would seem that because each person is created in God’s image and each life is sacred and vested with dignity, their violent murder by abortion was not God’s “sovereign” will or design for any of these children.  Men have taken it into their own hands to deprive those babies what is otherwise the sovereign design and will of God for them – life!; and life lived safely and abundantly in the saving knowledge of God and their savior the Lord Jesus Christ!  But how can God’s sovereignty be equated with His predetermination of all things by his own will, and yet also be “attacked” by acts which as an “attack on the sovereignty of God” we presume He must not have willed?  Moreover, why would Dr. Munro preach against these acts if he did not ultimately believe they are not the will, plan or purpose of God? Hence, in preaching against these acts he is being inconsistent with his own doctrine of divine sovereignty which requires that God predetermined and causes such heinous acts.

On the basis of their definition of “sovereignty,” consistent Calvinists would have to admit that 50 million abortions are the result of God’s sovereignty, that is, a confirmation and the fulfillment of the will of God.  They are God willed, God ordained, and therefore somehow caused to come about by God himself.  It is hard to escape the conclusion therefore that God is responsible for the horror of abortion and also evil himself.  Hence the Calvinist creates for himself a unique “problem of evil” due to his own deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty.

2. Are all these aborted babies, and all those who die in infancy, in heaven with God?  Do they have eternal salvation?

            For most of us, our moral sense requires us to conclude, “Of course!”  What then of Calvinist predestination, unconditional election and limited atonement?[13]  In this sermon the point was made that those who die in infancy go to be with God in heaven. Therefore, are all babies then among “the elect?”  If this is so, when does a baby who does grow to adulthood become one of the non-elect?  Sometime during their life?  What then of “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world,” which must mean before we were even conceived or born? (Eph. 1:4).  What then of Calvin’s definition of predestination which states,

“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.”[14]

The conclusion that abortion is “an attack on the sovereignty of God” and that it is not his will for those babies to be aborted, and that all those who die in infancy are taken to heaven, contradicts the pre-temporal, unconditional election to salvation doctrine of Calvinism.  According to a consistent Calvinist soteriology, only elect babies are saved and have eternal life and non-elect babies remain in condemnation and suffer eternal damnation.

3. The sermon touched upon the fact that God commands us to love everyone.

            The basis of this command is that God created man in his own image.  Therefore God’s love extends to every person because His image makes their life sacred and invests it with dignity.  It was therefore preached that none of us is excluded from God’s love.  How is it then consistent with this universal divine love to claim that this same God created a certain number of individuals for the express purpose of eternal damnation, torment and punishment in hell?  How is God’s love extended to the reprobate, that is, those he has not elected to save but rather determined to separate from himself for all eternity?  What definition of “love” is this?  Furthermore, how is it that God decided whom He would save and whom He would condemn?  Hence, we see the severe logical, ethical and moral problems inherent in Calvinism.

4. Dr. Munro also insightfully pointed out how abortion reveals our warped cultural priorities and inconsistency.

            Pastor Munro pointed out our culture’s inconsistency in protecting the unborn, evidenced by warnings to pregnant women not to smoke, drink alcohol, take certain drugs, etc., while we yet legalize, promote and allow for the common practice of abortion.   But if we are baffled by this inconsistency, how much more inconsistent is the theological claim that God loves and cares for each and every individual yet predestines many to an eternity in hell? Pastor Munro’s Calvinism causes equally egregious inconsistencies between his preaching that God loves each and every one of these unborn children and hates abortion, for it is his theology of universal divine causal determinism that has God as the ultimate agent causing these abortions. God is morally responsible for their occurrence. In that Pastor Munro’s deterministic Calvinist doctrines of sovereignty, unconditional election and reprobation have God predetermining and causing each and every one of these murdered human beings and determining their eternal destiny in heaven or hell, these doctrines are in direct conflict with his preaching on the sanctity and dignity of every human life as created in God’s image and his love, care and salvation of each and every one of these precious human lives.

            The point to note here is that Dr. Munro’s underlying theology was not informing the content of his preaching.  Indeed, it could not do so because his underlying theology is incoherent with the biblical truths he was preaching.  This is an example of how Reformed Calvinist soteriology and theology cannot inform or be incorporated into the preaching of the Word and especially the proclamation of the gospel as “good news” without introducing incoherence, inconsistency, and contradiction.  There is biblical theology and soteriology.  There is also practical witness, ministry, and preaching.  The former should inform the later.  Hence, the later should accurately reflect the former.  The two should be coherent.  In most of the preaching of Reformed Calvinists, their fundamental doctrines and their message preached exist in a dichotomous, inconsistent relationship.  The love, compassion and mercy of God that offers salvation to all persons, along with the libertarian human freedom and responsibility that marks their evangelism, ministry, and preaching, is incoherent with their deterministic sovereignty and unconditional election.        

Some Practical Implications: Doctrinal and Theological Indifference

A possible result of not pursuing truth in these matters, especially as they relate to the content of the gospel, is that Christians simply discount theology and doctrine as irrelevant.  Most Christians lean on the “good news” that they heard when they first heard the gospel (as they should), and simply dismiss or at best hold Calvinism in abeyance.  Unbelievers who are first introduced to the Calvinist view of God, may be left perplexed, or recognizing the incoherence, inconsistency and contradictions in Calvinism dismiss Christianity altogether.  This is why Calvinists generally avoid communicating their “doctrines of grace” to the very young, especially in the context of evangelism.  Even Calvin knew that young people need to hear that “God is ‘almighty and altogether good,’ and that each of us ‘should be assured that He loves us and wishes to be our Father and Savior.’”[15]  Ultimately, if our salvation is so mysterious and our destinies unalterably fixed, or even more baffling, if the Scripture affirms that our actions and destinies are fixed by God and yet I’m still morally responsible and have the freedom to accept or reject the gospel, people get the message that such a theology is at best incomprehensible and at worst a mockery.  The message communicated is that it is futile to attempt to understand the God of the Bible, salvation or life itself with theological consistency.  The incoherence that exists within the Calvinist position itself and in conflict with a non-Calvinist theology and soteriology can have a negative effect on one’s appreciation of Christian doctrine and theology.  Is it any wonder that the study of theology and doctrine is generally absent in evangelical churches today?  Sure, Calvinists, in general, are more receptive of theology and doctrine, and they are to be commended for this.  But much of this centers in their promoting their doctrines of divine sovereignty and “doctrines of grace.”  And as I have argued, their hermeneutic of incoherence promotes theological and soteriological confusion and may hinder faith in God and Christ for those who take logical and moral consistency seriously, or it may foster a superficial faith in that due to its incoherencies, inconsistencies and contradictions it avoids the hard questions of the integration of doctrine with practical life and ministry.  The deeper hermeneutical and interpretive questions we might ask about the controversial texts or the philosophical and moral issues we might want to raise in light of the Calvinist’s interpretive, intellectual and moral incoherence, are stifled and passed over as a mystery.  Ultimately this may negatively impact one’s perceptions of God and the gospel and set individuals and the church adrift onto a sea of theological and spiritual apathy and unwittingly foster a superficial, contentless, subjective “Christian” experience.  But such problems can by no means be put only at Calvinism’s doorstep.  The Calvinist’s critiques of thoughtless and superficial non-Calvinist theologies and soteriologies are also warranted.

Go to Example 5 – D. A. Carson’s Bad Advice to Young Reformed Preachers

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

[1] “Beliefs,” “Philosophy of Ministry,” para. 2, Calvary Church, Last accessed May 1, 2020, .https://www.calvarychurch.com/beliefs 

[2] Calvary Church, https://www.calvarychurch.com/

[3] Dr. John Munro, email correspondence of March 11, 2009.

[4] The use of the term “session” is descriptive of the pastor and elders as a governing body.  “Governance & Elections,” Calvary Church, Last accessed May 1, 2020, https://www.calvarychurch.com/governance 

[5] Dr. John Munro, email correspondence of March 11, 2009.

[6] See the Calvary Church Membership Class materials, p. 17.  This doctrine of election is mentioned in the Calvary Church membership materials.  The very first reason given for the eternal security of the believer is the doctrine of election.  I take it that this refers to the doctrine of unconditional election as defined in Calvinism.  The materials state that, “God does not justify and regenerate the non-elect.”

[7] See the Calvary Church Membership Class materials, pp. 15, 16.

[8] Calvary Church, www.calvarychurch.com

[9] “Beliefs,” “Philosophy of Ministry,” paragraphs 2 & 9, Calvary Church, Last accessed May 1, 2020.  https://www.calvarychurch.com/beliefs

[10] I deal with these questions and the content and personal application of the Gospel in my paper, “Am I Included? : Is the Gospel Coalition a Coalition With “Good News?”

[11] John Munro, “The Sanctity and Dignity of Life,” sermon spreached at Calvary Church on Sunday morning, January 24, 2010.

[12] Ps. 139:16 “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (NIV)  The ESV reads, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.”

[13] Calvin himself could not consistently apply his doctrine of predestination in this respect.  John T. McNeill in his book, The History and Character of Calvinism, describes Calvin’s sentiments and hesitation to teach his doctrine of predestination to children.  McNeill writes, “Double predestination is a doctrine not to be rashly proclaimed.  Calvin avoids it in his catechism for children, which teaches very simply that God is ‘almighty and altogether good,’ and that each of us ‘should be assured that He loves us and wishes to be our Father and Savior.’ –  John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 211.  “Rashly” or not, it appears rather that it is a doctrine that cannot at all be proclaimed as consistent with the gospel as “good news.”

Generally speaking, the doctrine of election as understood by Calvinists as unconditional is a doctrine to be avoided.  Despite Calvin’s assurances of God’s love and the disingenuous statement that He “wishes to be our Father and Savior,” inherent in such a doctrine there is ultimately no “good news” or assurance of salvation to be found.  Furthermore, we can see that unconditional election and the gospel are certainly not preached with theological consistency by Calvinist preachers.  Contrast this with the perspective of Karl Barth who sees that the doctrine of election is able to ground and support the gospel as “good news” when he says, “The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best…” – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2, The Doctrine of God, (London: T&T Clark, 2004), p. 3.  In that the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election cannot support the proclamation of the gospel as “good news,” we ought to investigate the real possibility that it is a gross misunderstanding of the biblical concept of election.

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

[15] See footnote 713.

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