Two Incompatible Gospels: A Serious Matter for the "Evangelical" Church


Stephen C. Marcy © October 2018 (Revised Aug. 2019 and Jan. 2020)


There are two very different “gospels” in Protestant “evangelical” Christian churches today.  There are the Reformed Calvinist and the non-Calvinist soteriologies along with the gospel message that accords with each.  It is my contention that these two positions hold to mutually exclusive soteriologies, and given that the content of the gospel is derived from one’s soteriology, they therefore also present – when consistent – mutually exclusive definitions and presentations of the gospel.  As such, the implications for Christian interpretation, doctrine, faith, and ministry are profound.  Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists realize this.  But the general attitude and approach to this problem is to deny, suppress or restrict it for fear of division.

For example, Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute, while denying aspects of Calvinism, states that,

“…these issues concern in-house debates over which Christians should not divide.  CRI employs Calvinists and non-Calvinists and does not take an official position for or against Calvinism.”[1]

Labeling these differences about the content of the gospel an “in-house debate” is a common response to this matter.  It seems an attempt to deflect, minimize or contain the problem.  But to respond that “these issues concern in-house debates over which Christians should not divide” is to ignore the mutual exclusivity of the logical and moral issues inherent in the “debate” – issues that intellectual integrity demands thinking Christians eventually take a position on.  Moreover, it is not an “in-house debate.”  As Hanegraaff well knows, unbelievers who are investigating and assessing Christianity become aware of these differences.  If they are thinking logically, as we hope they are, it would be right for them to conclude that on the essential matter of salvation and the gospel, evangelical Christians are divided between two mutually exclusive views.  They must therefore be asking whether the truth can even be known on this subject, and if so, why Christians haven’t found it, and if they have, why they can’t agree on it.  It is astonishing and troubling to think that Christians themselves do not even agree on what constitutes the core message of their faith – the message of “good news,” that is, the gospel message.

In addition, many “outsiders” may not know that there are at least these two different understandings of God, man, the gospel and salvation.  Many unbelievers equate Christianity to Calvinism.  In light of the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” they may think of God and salvation only in those terms and naturally come to certain questions and doubts about the nature of God’s salvific relationship to them and whether or not they are included in God’s saving work in Christ Jesus.  As a result, unbelievers may be left confused about the possibility of salvation and their eternal destiny.  And if they are seriously contemplating Calvinism as the Christian message and the truth they are to believe, they may find it intellectually, morally and personally difficult to embrace its theistic determinism.  They may find themselves unable to respond positively or lovingly to a God whose salvific will for them remains an unknown, and think of God as having assigned a multitude of persons to eternal damnation for reasons unknown to them or anyone else except that it “glorifies God.”  Hence, this is not merely an “in-house debate.”  The very gospel as “good news” is at stake.

It is certainly the prerogative of CRI to employ both Calvinists and non-Calvinists as is the case.  Also, doing whatever is within our power to preserve Christian love and fellowship with those with whom we disagree is a wise word in this regard.  But in my opinion, the statement that CRI “does not take an official position for or against Calvinism” is both hermeneutically untenable and intellectually irresponsible.  Given that these are two mutually exclusive soteriologies, it lacks as a responsible approach to the search for biblical truth, that is, unless one wants to argue that Scripture may contradict itself.  This is especially pertinent in light of CRI’s own motto which is, “…because Truth matters.”  In effect, this stance communicates that we cannot discern the truth about the message that is at the heart of the biblical revelation, or, if can discern it, then we are in denial about there being two mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospel in what we label the “evangelical” church.  This stance shies away from acknowledging that these are two incompatible soteriologies and gospel messages.  And if this fact is acknowledged, CRI takes a posture of indifference by not addressing the inconsistency and taking a stand on what they have concluded is the biblical teaching on this matter.  Ultimately, this is to foster and accept soteriological relativism.

When we are dealing with the vast differences evident between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies, intellectual honesty requires acknowledging the fact that they are mutually exclusive positions and that when each is being consistent with their respective soteriologies they speak two incompatible gospel messages.  Hence, this also requires acknowledging that this is ultimately a hermeneutical issue involving why it is that those exegeting the same Scriptures can come up with diametrically opposed interpretations.

All this has bearing upon the issue of truth.  Two contradictory soteriologies can’t both be true.  Two incompatible gospels can’t both be the true biblical gospel.  And if “truth matters,” and whenever we read and interpret Scripture we are engaged in seeking truth, serious intellectual, hermeneutical and doctrinal matters are at stake here.  But this issue is too often cavalierly dismissed as an unsubstantial, “secondary” or “non-essential” difference among Christians.

In this respect, to “not take an official position for or against Calvinism” is intellectually and hermeneutically irresponsible.  In fact, as much as evangelical Christians rightly must divide from those who adopt heretical positions on the trinity, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, etc., I submit that these cherished doctrines are divinely revealed to the degree necessary so as to ultimately serve the essential message of the Bible – “the gospel of God.”  In other words, if we rightly insist that these other clearly revealed doctrines are of such fundamental importance that they cannot be compromised, and they are revealed to us in the purpose and service of the gospel, then surely the gospel itself is among those essential doctrines where sufficient clarity can and must be achieved and no compromise tolerated (see Gal. 1 -3).  Surely the gospel message is a fundamental doctrine of Scripture.  As regards biblical truth, contrary gospels cannot be tolerated lest the gospel and the power of the gospel for salvation be suppressed, distorted, and diminished in the Christian church and its ministry of evangelism.  As CRI cannot embrace the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons due to their interpretive distortions of Scripture and additions to it, one wonders why CRI cannot “take an official position for or against Calvinism.”

Furthermore, why wouldn’t the same stance apply to non-Calvinist soteriologies?  Does CRI maintain that it “does not take an official position for or against non-Calvinist soteriologies?”  If so, what soteriology and gospel are we left with?  What soteriology and gospel does CRI teach?  What soteriology and gospel does CRI give to those who ask them for an explanation of the “good news?”  Do they not say anything?  Of course not.  Therefore, wouldn’t the gospel they teach be the gospel they should “take an official position” on?  Why wouldn’t this be the case?  Does it have a soteriology and gospel message that it defends biblically?  If not, why not?  If so, what is it?

This raises important and persistent questions, not limited to an organization such as CRI “where truth matters,” but for the evangelical church where truth should matter.[2]  It is troubling as well as intriguing as to why Christians cannot discern the biblical truth on what is arguably the most fundamental teaching of Scripture.  Is the gospel really so interpretively obscure, biblically ambiguous and intellectually elusive that we cannot achieve accuracy and assurance as to its precise content?  Do the matters of consistency and coherence along with the cannons of reason (e.g., the law of non-contradiction), become null and void simply because we are dealing with interpretations of a divinely inspired text?   Can the biblical text teach both of two mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospels? [3]  Can the fact that it speaks about the will and ways of God which are “not our ways” be used to sideline clear thinking in our interpretation of the text?  It is curious as to why many Christian ministries, churches, pastors and teachers cannot come to a conclusion on this matter.  Of course, some on both sides have, and they give reasons for their Calvinist and non-Calvinist positions.  So what perpetuates denial of this controversy and indifference to the fact that these are mutually exclusive interpretations on soteriology and the gospel and the profound implications that flow from that fact?

I submit that it is because at the deeper level of hermeneutics there are different intellectual and moral commitments and expectations.  The fundamental cause of the controversy, and what perpetuates it, is a hermeneutical divide.  That is, I contend that the Calvinist does not consider logical and moral coherence as an indispensable element in their hermeneutic and a reliable indicator of the validity of an exegesis or interpretation of a biblical text, whereas, the non-Calvinist does.  The non-Calvinist is convinced that logical and moral coherence are essential and indispensable elements in a sound hermeneutic and a reliable indicator of the validity of a textual exegesis or interpretation.  Each places differing weight on logical and moral coherence for discerning the validity of their exegesis.  The only way you can come to embrace Calvinist theology with its understanding of sovereignty as a theistic determinism is to dismiss the following principle from your hermeneutic, that is, that a proper interpretation of Scripture must be marked by inter-contextual logical and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  I submit that a sound hermeneutic considers these indispensable for biblical exegesis and reliable evidences of a valid interpretation.  I call this difference between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist exegetical methodologies the hermeneutical divide.

Thus the principles of interpretation (i.e., hermeneutics) at the root of this controversy need fresh assessment and input from philosophy, moral intutition and apologetics to establish both intellectual and interpretive credibility by rejecting inconsistency in one’s interpretive results and avoiding the theological straight-jacket of thoughtless traditionalism.

Furthermore, this issue raises the question of what degree of distortion of the content of the gospel message can be tolerated and still be the biblical gospel message over which “Christians should not divide.”  Surely when they are mutually exclusive, as in this controversy, the matter cannot be ignored.  How can it be that mutual exclusivity on this matter has become a “non-essential?”  These questions must be seriously asked and addressed.  This is especially true for a church that calls itself “evangelical,” which means “good news.”  An evangelical church is to be about proclaiming “good news.”

But many churches have opted for an approach that embraces a soteriological and gospel relativism.  Although they say they encourage discussion and dialogue on doctrinal differences, I would contend that practically speaking they simply don’t know how this can be achieved, and that in a productive manner.  For fear of division and the sake of preserving “unity” they end up sidelining sound reasoning and a complete and clear expression and proclamation of the gospel.  They promote accommodation at the expense of the search for “the truth of the gospel.”  Theological, soteriological and gospel relativism have reached epidemic proportions in contemporary evangelical Christianity with the effect of distorting the content or eroding the presence and proclamation of the gospel as “good news.”

The Soteriological and Gospel Relativism of the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA)

I submit that this soteriological and gospel relativism is reflected in the “Theological Definitions and Positions”[4] (TDP) of the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA).  In answer to the question, “Is the EFCA Arminian/Wesleyan (Lutheran) or Calvinist/Reformed regarding the doctrine of salvation?” the EFCA’s response is,

“The framers of our 1950 EFCA Statement of Faith wanted to create a statement that was consistent with both Arminian/Wesleyan and Calvinist/Reformed views of salvation, but which required or endorsed neither.  The same is true in our 2008 Statement of Faith in which we state “He [the Holy Spirit] regenerates sinners” (Article 6).

“What this means regarding the doctrine of salvation is the EFCA allows Arminian/Wesleyan, Calvinist/Reformed and Lutheran views of soteriology.  The fact of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is essential.  Both regeneration (the Spirit’s work) and faith (our response) are essential for salvation, and our Statement of Faith affirms both without giving logical priority to either.  Whether regeneration precedes faith (Calvinism) or faith precedes regeneration (Arminianism), we have placed in a secondary category.  On a doctrine related to this question, we also allow both perspectives of the possibility of apostasy (one can fall away and lose one’s salvation) and the perseverance of the saints (eternal security).”

“…In the EFCA this theological doctrine [salvation] falls into the category of the “significance of silence,” or that area in which we affirm “unity in the essentials, dialogue in the differences,” without division.”[5]

What is this “significance of silence?”  The document states,

“In the EFCA we allow beliefs within certain acceptable theological parameters on a number of doctrinal issues.  We focus on the essential truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ as articulated in doctrine while allowing differing views/understandings of the position to be acceptable.  For example, this is true regarding the issue of the age of the universe, time and mode of baptism, whether faith precedes regeneration or regeneration precedes faith (the Arminian and Calvinist discussion).

We refer to these theological differences as the “significance of silence” and believe “this expression does not mean that we will not discuss and debate these issues but simply that we will not divide over them (Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America, 24, n. 18).

Here is the definition/explanation in Evangelical Convictions, (24-25):

“Once [the early Free Church leaders] began to put in writing what was commonly believed among them, they were silent on those doctrines which through the centuries had divided Christians of equal dedication, Biblical knowledge, spiritual maturity and love for Christ.’  This ‘significance of silence’ reflected our strong concern for Evangelical unity in the gospel.

Because many misunderstand this expression today, another way to refer to this commitment is “unity in essentials, dialogue in differences.” It is helpful to spell out what this means and what it does not mean.

What it does mean – we affirm the following truths and commitments:

~ the gospel is central and essential to who we are as the people of God and what we believe

~ we are committed to the essentials of the gospel in principle and practice, in belief and behavior, in orthodoxy and orthopraxy

~ we acknowledge there are differences in theological views, what we would consider non-essentials, but they are secondary and ought not to distract from or prevent our shared commitment to the gospel and ministry of the gospel

~ we are committed to the essentials of the gospel of Jesus Christ and we acknowledge differences, although we do not believe these differences are absolute, either as it relates to unity or purity (doctrine)

~ from the foundation of the essentials we will engage in robust dialogue regarding the differences, without dividing

What it does not mean – we clarify the misunderstandings:

~ the notion that this commitment means we cannot embrace and teach our view strongly and with conviction

~ we must remain quiet and passive so that we are not allowed to talk about theological views or the differences that exist between views

~ this is a lowest-common-denominator theology that values unity at the expense of doctrine

~ one cannot affirm a position but must meld them all together (in which everyone feels theologically compromised)

~ we expect that the local church will reflect in practice what we state in principle, viz. the church will be equally represented by each view, overlooking the reality that the “big tent” is reflective of our denomination, not each local church, or because of this liberty we do not have to allow a voice from the other perspective to be heard.”

Several observations are in order here.

First, as mutually exclusive soteriologies, the very first sentence here just is a statement endorsing soteriological and gospel relativism.  We must ask, “What does one have to do “to create a statement that was consistent with both Arminian/Wesleyan and Calvinist/Reformed views of salvation, but which required or endorsed neither?”  It seems to me that to create a statement that was “consistent” with two views that are inconsistent with each other would have to be so soteriologically “generic” that it would end up saying little or nothing substantive about the gospel.[6]  It would lack significant gospel content because it would not clearly delineate the Calvinist or non-Calvinist soteriology in enough detail.  When the content of either soteriology is the very thing one is intentionally seeking to avoid, and perhaps one or the other of these soteriologies is the biblical truth, then in effect the biblical gospel is being obscured.  Hence you couldn’t glean enough substance from such a statement to know what constitutes “the truth of the gospel.”  The statement may use some minimal biblical soteriological terms, but on closer examination it is vacuous of gospel truth.  And this is what is happening here and in many other statements of faith in Evangelicalism.  And if one or the other soteriology is true, that truth is being suppressed.

            It is interesting to note that the accommodation, as far as I can tell, is always to the Calvinist soteriology.  What other soteriology would cast doubt on the gospel as “good news” and require such accommodation?  But if Calvinism is something other than “good news,” then the result is the elimination of the gospel message itself.  The content of the gospel as “good news” is lost because the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” cannot be put into the service of gospel evangelism.  I would argue that there is no “good news” in the Calvinist soteriological doctrines of “sovereign grace” (TULIP).  Hence these statements of faith are being constructed in a minimalist fashion to accommodate a soteriology that has no “good news.”  The statements are therefore “bare bones” soteriologies that are devoid of the truths that make the gospel “good news.” [7]

Second, the EFCA Statement of Faith (SOF)[8] – the purpose of which is to give us the substance of EFCA beliefs – if taken at face value appears to affirm a non-Calvinist soteriology in the sense that it certainly does not clearly express any of the essential Calvinist soteriological doctrines (i.e., unconditional election, limited atonement, or irresistible grace).  So even though the EFCA has tried to accommodate both views, it has landed on a non-Calvinist expression of salvation in the only two sentences that deal with the gospel.  And the fact that there are only two sentences given to the gospel and salvation indicates the minimizing effect of their attempt to endorse neither position.  In section 10 “Response and Eternal Destiny” we read,

“We believe that God commands everyone everywhere to believe the gospel by turning to Him in repentance and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ.”[9]

The Calvinist can affirm this, but only by interpreting it as saying God’s “command,” although it goes out to everyone everywhere, is only effectual in the elect.  “God commands everyone everywhere to believe,” but only the elect will believe.  And here we run up against the moral problem of incoherence and the disingenuousness of God commanding from the non-elect something they cannot do unless God has predestined them to salvation and performs that work in them.  And section 5. “The Work of Christ” states,

“We believe that Jesus Christ, as our representative and substitute, shed His blood on the cross as the perfect, all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins.”[10]

Who is the “our” for which Jesus Christ is “representative and substitute” and “shed his blood on the cross as the perfect, all sufficient sacrifice?”  Is this a reference to each and every person or only the limited number of the unconditionally elect?  The plain meaning of “our” would seem to be everyone.  It certainly refers to everyone who reads this statement.  So, taken at face value, it seems that the Calvinist should have some difficulty with these statements.  But if the statements are designed to not require nor endorse either soteriology then either side can interpret them in light of their a priori positions.  So, again, in that the two soteriologies that are being accommodated are mutual exclusive, the statements are not very helpful for discerning the truth of the gospel.

I think it is significant that there are only two sentences in the EFCA Statement of Faith (SOF) on soteriology.  To achieve this soteriological accommodation, statements have to be pared down to the bare minimums, thereby sacrificing soteriological precision because no one view can be expressed in clear and certain terms.  The point is that we are left asking what is “the gospel” that is to be believed?  Does God command everyone everywhere to believe the gospel with the desire and possibility that everyone everywhere can actually be saved, or is this “command” the “means” by which an “effectual call” goes out to “everyone everywhere” so that all “the elect” and only the “elect” will experience the “irresistible grace” and “gift of faith” and thus be saved?  Does “regeneration by the Holy Spirit” precede faith, or does regeneration occur upon believing the gospel?  Does “by turning to Him in repentance and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ” mean to communicate the possibility that can be actualized by “everyone everywhere” who hears the gospel, or merely descriptive of the work God unilaterally and unconditionally performs in the elect alone, wherever they are found?  Is the gospel a dynamic proclamation through which the Spirit is at work in everyone who hears, expressing the necessity and responsibility of the sinner to respond to God’s command in repentance and receive by faith what is being offered through the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ, or merely static information about what “God commands” as the means of regenerating only those predestined to salvation so that they will believe?  It is in the meaning of words and therefore clearly explicating those words where the substance of this issue lies.  And the clear explication of words and thoughts according to a conviction that they are what Scripture teaches on soteriology and the gospel is the purpose of a good statement of faith.[11] 

For instance, the TDP states, “The fact of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is essential.”  But these Reformation tenets would have to be defined further for them to be soteriologically meaningful.  Calvinists and non-Calvinists define them in ways incompatible with each other.  What is grace?  What is faith?  What does it mean that salvation is “in Christ alone?”  Sure these words and phrases mean something to the Calvinist and non-Calvinist, but the point is that what they mean to one is inconsistent or mutually exclusive with what they mean to the other.  So just to say these Reformation tenets are “essential” says nothing much as far as the gospel is concerned.

So what purpose does this “Statement of Faith” have?  What is the “essential” “fact” here?  Is it really “essential” or is it so “minimal” that it says nothing substantial?  Is it so “essential” and accommodating of mutual exclusive views that it fails to provide us with what is true about salvation and the gospel?  So even after reading the Statement, the question remains, “What is the truth of the gospel?”

Third, therefore, these types of “Statements of Faith” are an exercise in eisegesis.  Calvinist EFCA pastors, teachers and laypersons along with non-Calvinist EFCA pastors, teachers and laypersons are all encouraged to read into the statements their own meanings.  This is hardly the way of reading and interpreting texts that we want to foster among our congregations.  It’s the “whatever it means to you is just fine” approach to handling the biblical text.  Perhaps the minimalist construction of this “statement of faith” which requires that one read one’s own meaning into it is symptomatic of the interpretive relativism that marks the “what does it mean to you?” Bible “study” method prevalent in the church today.  Or, on the other hand, perhaps it is a contributing factor to such interpretive relativism.  It’s probably both.

Fourth, this gospel ambiguity is the way the EFCA seeks to preserve unity and avoid division.  They seek to maintain “unity in essentials, dialogue in differences.”  But the problem here is that they also claim “the gospel is central and essential to who we are as the people of God and what we believe.”  But which gospel?  In their thinking and policy they have forfeited what gives substance and clarity to “the gospel.”  They claim, “We focus on the essential truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ as articulated in doctrine…”  If that is the case, then which of the two mutually exclusive “gospels” do they believe?  Which one is “essential?”  Which one is “articulated in doctrine?”  Where is this articulation?  They go on to say that they maintain this gospel “…while allowing differing understandings of the position to be acceptable.”   This is just to give lip service to the “gospel.”  This is the way the word is used in Evangelicalism today, that is, without concern for being clear about what we mean by it.  It is bandied about by pastors, teachers, Christians and Christian ministries without clearly defining it.  Both the Calvinist and Arminian positions are “within certain acceptable theological parameters.”  But how can two mutually exclusive soteriologies and the mutually exclusive gospels doctrinally derived from them both be “within certain acceptable theological parameters?”  What are these “acceptable theological parameters?”  Acceptable in what respect?  Interpretively?  Morally?  Logically?  Calvinism is rife with logical and moral difficulties.  Honest Calvinists will themselves acknowledge this.  But can logical reflection and moral intuition be divorced from interpretation and still be considered a sound hermeneutic?

The TDP says,

“Whether regeneration precedes faith (Calvinism) or faith precedes regeneration (Arminianism), we have placed in a secondary category.  On a doctrine related to this question, we also allow both perspectives of the possibility of apostasy (one can fall away and lose one’s salvation) and the perseverance of the saints (eternal security).”

In assigning contradictory propositions related to the gospel to “a secondary category” they are jettisoning logical reasoning from their hermeneutic.  If both are not false then one or the other is nearer the truth.  Each mutually exclusive view is claiming to be the truth about soteriology and the gospel.  Does the EFCA actually believe that contradictory views can both be true?  At what price unity?  Is this ultimately a matter of truth or unity?  Can there be unity without discerning the truth?  Do they believe we should never divide over matters of truth?

Calvinism and Arminianism just are two contradictory gospels.  Therefore the EFCA is confused and conflicted in that it claims that the gospel is both “central” and “essential” to what they believe and also “secondary” and “non-essential” to what they believe.  They state,

“we acknowledge there are differences in theological views, what we would consider non-essentials, but they are secondary and ought not to distract from or prevent our shared commitment to the gospel and ministry of the gospel.”

But their “central” and “essential” tenant – the gospel – is left ambiguous in relation to these two contrary soteriologies.  These differences, as incompatible, cannot both be “central and essential to who we are as the people of God and what we believe.”  That makes no sense.  So what soteriology and gospel are they talking about when they state their “commitment to the gospel and ministry of the gospel?”  The statement certainly distinguishes it as “Christian” compared to other religions, but that only highlights the problem.  What makes this Christianity evangelical with respect to the gospel and salvation given that there are two mutually exclusive positions vying for the place of biblical Christian soteriology?  How can they treat the Calvinist/Arminian differences as to salvation as a non-essential when these entail contrary gospel messages while also claiming that the gospel is central to who they are, what they believe and to their ministry?  How can they maintain that this message is both a non-essential and an essential?  These two soteriologies cannot be declared “non-essential” or “placed in a secondary category” and at the same time claim that “the gospel is central and essential to who we are as the people of God and what we believe.”  The gospel cannot be nonessential and essential at the same time.  Again, that’s nonsense.  So what gospel are they talking about by a “shared commitment to the gospel?”  This stance is indeed perplexing.  Hence, the gospel as “good news” is at stake here.[12]

Fifth, in light of the incoherence of their SOF I have to surmise that the EFCA has concluded that they cannot know the truth of the gospel from Scripture.  The Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies produce vastly different “gospels” because they handle the interpretation of Scripture in a significantly different ways.  Within the two different soteriologies the terms sovereignty, human freedom, grace, faith, call, regeneration, etc., have divergent or incompatible meanings with important gospel implications.  The position each holds on faith and regeneration and apostasy and eternal security are two examples the EFCA assigns as non-essential beliefs.  But these have mutually exclusive meanings within the two positions.

This raises a curious question for the EFCA, that is, why can’t they determine which of these two mutually exclusive views – precisely because they are mutually exclusive – is the biblical soteriology and gospel message?  Surely Scripture does not contradict itself.  Even though “the significance of silence…does not mean that we will not discuss and debate these issues,” it seems that we have to conclude that the EFCA cannot even determine whether the Calvinist or non-Calvinist soteriology is the better interpretation of the Scripture on these matters.  But why not?  Because once they accommodate the Calvinist soteriology they are making a statement about their hermeneutic, that is, that rational and moral coherence are not essential for determining exegetical validity.  If it did take rational and moral coherence as essential to a sound hermeneutic, it would land on a non-Calvinist soteriology and gospel as a conviction as to the biblical teaching on these matters.

It is interesting to note how this division in soteriological doctrines and gospel content is addressed.  These are not considered a primary doctrinal concern but are relegated to “a secondary category.”  Yet, the EFCA claims, “We focus on the essential truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ as articulated in doctrine…”  So what doctrine are they referring to?  If both the Arminian and Calvinist soteriological doctrinal positions have direct bearing upon and are mutually exclusive as to the essential content of the gospel, then what could the EFCA mean by “the essential truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ as articulated in doctrine…?”  How can two mutually exclusive articulations of soteriological doctrines, and the gospel entailed by those doctrines, be considered “acceptable?”  What could they mean by their “strong concern for Evangelical unity in the gospel?”  And what would that gospel truth be “as articulated in doctrine?”  The EFCA should take a more precise and substantive position on the gospel if they want to speak of “the essential truth of the gospel as articulated in doctrine.”

What is this “essential truth of the gospel?”  The answer seems to be,

“The fact of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is essential.  Both regeneration (the Spirit’s work) and faith (our response) are essential for salvation, and our Statement of Faith affirms both without giving logical priority to either.”[13]

But, as already pointed out above, this kind of response is unconvincing, not very helpful and hermeneutically and intellectually unacceptable.  Calvinists and non-Calvinists have their own definitions for these terms that are incompatible with each other.  As the non-Calvinist scholar David Allen observes, we must face the fact that the Calvinist and non-Calvinist are using the same dictionary but with different definitions.  The point is that good philosophical and logical thinking requires that mutually exclusive views on the gospel cannot both be true.

David Allen gives an example of this with regard to the debate over the extent of the atonement. He shows how an historian can draw certain legitimate conclusions about one’s positions when examining two mutually exclusive propositions.  He writes,

“Confusion often exists in the debate when we fail to note the difference between someone who actually affirms or rejects something and someone who does not mention a specific position.  For example, suppose there are two people who affirm Position A (PA). Person 1 (P1) makes no reference to the existence of Position B (PB).  Person 2 (P2) acknowledges both PA and PB and argues for the truth of PA.  The historian would be wise to posit only that P1 did not affirm or advocate PB.  The historian would still be accurate to suggest that P1 rejected PB by implication or implicitly, since PA and PB are mutually exclusive.  The historian would be on solid ground to say that P2 explicitly rejected PB. Furthermore, if it can be established that P1 clearly affirmed PA and never mentions PB, the historian is on solid ground to conclude that P1 would reject PB since it is mutually exclusive with PA.  These principles will become vital in the analysis of historical theology on this subject.”[14]

The point is that one or the other of mutually exclusive propositions must be rejected.  That principle is vital in both the hermeneutical analysis and determining the validity of interpretations on this subject.   It is also important to note that as a theologian and historian Allen is employing logical reasoning to get at the truth of a matter.  This logical reasoning places us “on solid ground” in thinking that one should reject one or the other (or both) of two mutually exclusive positions.  This should go without saying, but sadly this “hermeneutical divide” as I describe it above, is the fundamental issue in this controversy.  But the importance of logical reasoning is precisely what the EFCA statement does not recognize.  They state,

“…we do not believe these differences are absolute, either as it relates to unity or purity (doctrine).”

What then would be a criteria upon which such differences could be declared to be “absolute?”  Evidently mutual exclusivity based upon logical reasoning is not enough.  These propositions are both declared to be legitimate doctrines gleaned from Scripture despite their mutual exclusivity.  This is just to forfeit sound reasoning as essential to biblical interpretation.  It is to maintain that coherence is dispensable to biblical hermeneutics.  In contrast to this relativism, an alternate view would state that the search for, and the establishment of the truth requires believing these differences to be absolute precisely because they are contradictory to each other.

We cannot maintain intellectual and hermeneutical integrity if we turn a blind eye to the fact that two mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospels are being deemed “acceptable” as biblical doctrine.  Therefore the resolution of this controversy is a matter of acknowledging that the application of clear thinking to the interpretive task is indispensable.  And there is much evidence that Christian philosophers and historians are better at this than some Christian theologians.  Presupposing that both soteriologies are not false, the TDP does not seem to be able to acknowledge that one or the other of two mutually exclusive views must be closer to the truth of the gospel.  They do not realize or simply will not acknowledge that the gospel is at stake in the difference between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies, therefore they label them as “secondary,” “non-essential” or a “minor point” of doctrine while also incoherently claiming it to be “central” and “essential” to what they believe.  But as I observed above, those very “secondary” “non-essentials” involve the content of the gospel itself.  But if the very content of the gospel as contained in the Calvinist or non-Calvinist soteriologies is left in abeyance as “a difference in theological views” that is deemed a “non-essential,” then what gospel are they talking about when they state “the gospel is central and essential to who we are as the people of God and what we believe?”  What gospel are they referring to when they state, “We are committed to the essentials of the gospel in principle and practice, in belief and behavior, in orthodoxy and orthopraxy,” or when they refer to “our shared commitment to the gospel and ministry of the gospel?”  If the gospel is such a “central and essential” doctrinal belief in the EFCA, how can it also be a “non-essential?”  Labeling it “non-essential” will not make this problem go away.

This raises a related practical ministry question.  What is the content of the gospel they proclaim in “practice?”  Wouldn’t their gospel “orthopraxy” be their gospel “orthodoxy,” that is, what they hold to in “belief” and in “principle?”  Shouldn’t there be consistency between orthodoxy and orthopraxy?  Of course there should be.  And this is a major part of the problem.  Many pastors and teachers are speaking inconsistent with their underlying soteriology or obfuscating on their underlying soteriological beliefs.  This happens especially when Calvinism is the basic orthodoxy or heavily influencing the pastor or teacher.  Their orthopraxy does not cohere with their orthodoxy.  But if there should be consistency between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, then what is the precise content of these with regard to the gospel message?  As mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospels it cannot be both the Calvinist gospel and the non-Calvinist gospel.  Indeed, the truth of the gospel is at stake.

Sixth, so a willful decision was made to declare that these substantive soteriological differences will be “placed in a secondary category” in relation to other theological issues.  Why would they do this?  The EFCA’s Evangelical Convictions states,

“Once [the early Free Church leaders] began to put in writing what was commonly believed among them, they were silent on those doctrines which through the centuries had divided Christians of equal dedication, Biblical knowledge, spiritual maturity and love for Christ.”

  The first reason seems to me to involve a struggle as to how to understand the historical reality of the division in the Christian church over soteriology.  The early Free Church leaders seem to have wrestled with how it could be that “Christians of equal dedication, Biblical knowledge, spiritual maturity and love for Christ” could be so divided about salvation and the gospel.  They seem to have concluded that if these Christians were so dedicated, mature, knowledgeable and godly, the differences that existed between them must not have been of practical spiritual significance and therefore not of essential importance.  Seeking a way to understand this phenomenon of differences and division, it appears that the Free Church leaders concluded that these must not be substantive in the sense that they deal with any essential biblical doctrinal matter.  Whatever divided the “Arminian/Wesleyan and Calvinist/Reformed views of salvation” were not matters essential to salvation or the gospel. 

Hence, ecclesial unity was the second reason and subsequent step in marginalizing these soteriological and gospel differences as “non-essential.”  They seem to not see this as an issue of truth to be discerned but division to be accepted, or avoided, as the case may be.  Therefore the way to deal with this phenomenon was through what they called “the significance of silence.”  This has reference to these differences, but it embodies the commitment that “we will not divide over them.”  They came to terms with this division in their own minds through marginalizing the differences by adjuring “silence” or toleration regarding them.  Hence they categorized them as “non-essential.”  But it seems to me that this was to embark upon a solution, not on the basis of biblical authority resting on sound hermeneutical principles, interpretive methodology and exegetical practice, but on a preoccupation with ecclesial unity.  It seems to me it was a solution that put the practical expediencies of unity above the interpretive evidence born of a hermeneutic of coherence.  The fact and fear of division took precedence over the biblical search for soteriological and gospel truth.  And it seems to me that in this process we are losing both.  They would avoid division, even at the cost of embracing incompatible soteriologies and gospels.  Their “significance of silence” position, while it “does not mean that we will not discuss and debate these issues,” does mean “that we will not divide over them.”  They state, “From the foundation of the essentials we will engage in robust dialogue regarding the differences, without dividing.”  But the gospel and its particular content was sacrificed on the altar of unity and non-division and ended up a “non-essential” issue in a “secondary category.”  This resolve to maintain unity seems to be as firm a commitment as their commitment “to the essentials of the gospel in principle and practice, in belief and behavior, in orthodoxy and orthopraxy.”  But one’s commitment to unity may require division when the truth of that gospel, that is, its “orthodoxy,” is distorted, confused, compromised or denied.  One’s commitment to unity may require division when the truth of the gospel is at stake.  And again, the mutual exclusivity of these two soteriologies is telling us that the gospel is at stake here.  And if “we will not divide” is raised to an ecclesial non-negotiable, then what is the point of discussing and debating soteriology if ultimately one will not incorporate logical reasoning in their hermeneutic, exegetical practices and interpretive framework?  We are back again at the hermeneutical divide.

This is not to say that discussion and debate should not be raised again and again on an already accepted doctrinal belief.  New knowledge or new insights may come to bear upon a text which alters our understanding of it.  This should cause us to rethink our presently held beliefs.  Such a process will only serve to either confirm our positions as biblical truth or show them up as having gone amiss.  In fact, this is precisely what is needed in this controversy.  Rethinking our beliefs is certainly necessary when those beliefs are found to be incoherent with each other or other clearly delineated biblical doctrines.  But it must be rethinking, which presupposes we employ our rational faculties and moral intuitions.

And let’s not miss this point.  If incoherence will not drive us to reassess our theological and soteriological positions, nothing will.  When a position is found to be incoherent, especially in soteriological and gospel matters, there seem to be three ways this is addressed.  The first is to simply ignore it.  The second is to try to “explain” it by “incomprehensibility” or “mystery.”  The third, and most reasonable one, is to just face the fact that something is seriously wrong in one’s exegesis and interpretations.  The conviction that logical coherence is essential to hermeneutics is what divides the non-Calvinist from the Calvinist.  Again, that is the hermeneutical divide.

Here we have an instance of ignoring the implications of logical reasoning upon a “statement of faith.”  Moreover, the EFCA doesn’t see the incompatibility of Calvinism with many of their other doctrinal distinctives.  (e.g., Point #4 of the “EFCA Distinctives” where it warns against the abuse of Christian liberty and talks about accountability, responsibility and obedience.  These are incompatible with Calvinist theistic determinism.)  To assert that such differences are merely “secondary” or “non-essential” is to put one’s head in the sand, both intellectually and theologically.  Such neutrality is neither a spiritual virtue nor is it an intellectually responsible option for the Christian.  The “significance of silence” mindset not only teaches Christians to be silent but unthinking.

Seventh, the “significance of silence” is detrimental to Christian thinking, dialogue over differences and the search for the truth.  It has caused confusion as to which of these two mutually exclusive soteriologies is the biblical truth and permits disingenuousness in preaching and teaching.

Soteriological and Gospel Relativism: Practical Test Cases in Teaching and Preaching

Even though the EFCA encourages dialogue and discussion on these differences, there will be no progress here for fear of being the cause of even a hint of division.  Remember, the foundational rule here is “we will not divide.”  Therefore, Christians will “remain quiet and passive” for fear of causing disunity.  They will not “talk about theological views or the differences that exist between views” due to the fear of raising a controversial topic or expressing a controversial view.  And there is no point in raising the matter if the Bible class or church is not a place that cherishes truth and is capable to handle the search for the truth of the gospel.  Most teachers and preachers just do not have the interest, temperament or preparation to discuss theological differences.  Traditionalism holds absolute sway.

And so much for being churches where we “allow a voice from the other perspective to be heard.”  While attending a team taught Sunday Bible class on Romans at the Church at Charlotte (EFCA),[15] early on in the class I shared some scholarly non-Calvinist materials with one of the teachers with the intent that he would share it with the other instructors in the hope that they may find it useful in presenting the non-Calvinist view on Paul’s thought in Romans 9.  Throughout the months of our study, and even when we reached chapter 9, I received no feedback on the materials.  When in chapter 9 the Calvinist interpretation was presented.  This resulted in the typical contradiction between unconditional election and human responsibility which we were told are both the teaching of Scripture.  When I asked the teacher whether or not this contradiction was problematic to his thinking and perhaps hermeneutically significant, he responded “No, I don’t think so.”

Another of the teachers gave us three options regarding soteriology – Calvinism, semi-Pelagianism and Pelagianism.  When I commented to a friend that I was surprised that the Arminian view (or any other non-Calvinist view), was not even considered (Arminianism was deemed to be semi-Pelagianism), that teacher approached me to get together to discuss the issue.  That was admirable.  In the meantime I gave him Austin Fischer’s book Young Restless, No Longer Reformed as a brief, readable and very insightful treatment of the problems with Calvinism.  So we met.  When I asked whether he had read any of my materials or the book he responded “No.  I don’t have to read your materials.”  For him, Calvinism was the truth of the matter and any other view was unacceptable as either semi-Pelagian or Pelagian.  The case was closed.  The discussion was fruitless.  When I sent a follow-up email on a question he asked me regarding my understanding of Romans 9:22, 23 and referred him to the materials I had already gave him from Cranfield’s commentary and others by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell there was no response.

In another instance, I emailed the pastor of that church, Jim Kallam, regarding a sermon he gave on Ephesians 1[16] requesting clarity on his views on the doctrines of election and predestination.  I wrote,

“Pastor Kallam,

I listened again on-line to last Sunday’s sermon “The Plan All Along” on Eph. 1:3-10.  I appreciated your emphasis on this passage being an exuberant doxology, that it was written for the encouragement of first-century believers and us today and that it is “truth to live by” not to fight over.  Yet I want to ask what your position is with respect to the important themes of election and predestination that are in the passage.  Do you understand Paul’s words more in accord with the Calvinist interpretation, that is, that God has unconditionally elected and predestined before the creation of the world a limited number of persons to salvation?  Some things you said in the sermon gave me that impression so I just need some clarity here as to your position on these issues.  It seems that if this is truth we are to live by, it is important to be clear on what Paul truly intends for us to know and believe about these important words and themes in his theology.

I do think most people at some point become aware that Calvinism generates substantial logical, moral, theological, and practical ministry contradictions and incoherencies, especially with regard to the definition and proclamation of the gospel.  No doubt you have grappled with these problems yourself.  Believing that a “fight” is not at all necessary or inevitable, I submit that Christians and the evangelical church can and should engage in productive discussion on the issues of election, predestination, free will, etc., to get at the truth.  In this regard, I just wanted to ask whether or not you think the presence of such acute difficulties can serve to determine the biblical truth or falsity of such a position?

If the Calvinist persuasion is not your position, could you briefly explain what you do believe Paul is communicating regarding these themes in this passage.  Thanks so much.

Sincerely,

Steve Marcy

A “Regular Attender””[17]

 I received no response.  I thought these questions were in the spirit of the EFCA statements about “unity in essentials, dialogue in differences.”  I even suggested that there be discussion about these matters to get at the truth.  But instead of “the significance of silence” that promotes “dialogue in differences” there was just “the silence of insignificance.” 

Despite the fact that point 6 of the “EFCA Distinctives” states, “Strong pastoral leadership coupled with discerning and well-equipped Christian lay people can produce spiritual growth as well as significant church growth,” there does not seem to be an interest in pastoral engagement or equipping Christian lay people on the Calvinist/non-Calvinist debate.  This communicates that although there is much talk about the gospel, what we actually mean by it is not important.

In another example, after researching the statement of faith (“Our Beliefs”) of the New Charlotte Church which is merging with the Church at Charlotte (which is now called New City Church), I posed a direct question to its pastor, Dr. Chris Payne, as to whether or not he took a Calvinist or non-Calvinist view on passages such as Eph. 1 and Rom. 9.  I made my inquiry via the church’s website which stated,


               “If you have any questions or would like to discuss any beliefs in depth, we invite you to have a conversation with us.”[18]

Below this there was a button that said “Contact Us.”  I thought this invitation encouraging and promising, especially as an invitation to an “in-depth” discussion.  Here were my questions. 

“I have some theological questions I would like to address to Dr. Chris Payne.  I would like clarification on point #5 “Salvation” in your statement of beliefs.  Do you understand salvation, and Paul’s teaching in passages such as Eph. 1 and Rom. 9, more in accord with the Calvinist interpretation, that is, that God has unconditionally elected and predestined before the creation of the world a limited number of particular individuals to salvation and only those persons can be saved, or, more in accord with a non-Calvinist interpretation of these passages?  Also, could you briefly state your understanding of the nature of divine sovereignty.  And finally, what do you believe is the content of the gospel message.

Thanks so much.

Sincerely,

Steve”[19]

I thought these questions were reasonable and could be answered in a way that would clearly indicate whether Dr. Payne was a Calvinist or non-Calvinist, which was obviously what I wanted to know.  I thought the question as to whether or not he understood Eph. 1 and Rom. 9 as teaching the Calvinist or non-Calvinist position could be answered clearly and briefly.  If the questions on sovereignty or the gospel would engender some further explanation I thought that those were still appropriate especially because, as stated above, the website encouraged questions or discussion of beliefs in depth.”  It was encouraging to even receive a response.  Here is that response,

Hey Steve, Thanks for your note…please call me Chris.

“I probably can’t give the time that each of these questions may deserve, but let me just say this and hopefully it will be helpful to you.

I fully affirm the statement of faith, as [sic] its written by the Evangelical Free Church.

1. The Gospel is this: Through the person and the work of Jesus Christ, God has fully accomplished salvation for us.  

2. I believe that Jesus died for “all.” I believe [sic] that’s its God’s desire that no one should perish without first receiving salvation through Jesus Christ alone. I believe that God is all-powerful, and intimately aware and involved in our daily lives; He is sovereign over His creation. I believe that the Holy Spirit is working to draw all men to Jesus. I believe that [sic] its our (the Church) calling to faithfully proclaim and demonstrate the good news of Jesus (Salvation by grace through faith) until Jesus returns or we go to be with Him.

3. I know there is so much more to be said on any one of these questions, but I do hope this helps clarify my positions and practices.”[20]

So much for the invitation to “discuss any beliefs in depth.”  I politely responded,

“Hey Chris,

Thanks so much for your prompt response.  It was informative and much appreciated.

Have a great week!

Sincerely,

Steve”[21]

Charitably dismissing the baffling statement, “I believe [sic] that’s its God’s desire that no one should perish without first receiving salvation through Jesus Christ alone,” Pastor Payne’s response was informative, but only in the sense that I concluded he took the minimalist and evasive route as to whether or not he is a Calvinist.  I think my questions were direct enough, and could have been answered briefly but to the point to indicate whether or not he is a Calvinist.  But I don’t find an answer to that in his response.

So to get further clarity here I researched a sermon he preached on Ephesians 1:3-14.  I provide the extended context so you can see the inconsistency and the confusion Dr. Payne evidences over the doctrines of election and predestination as related to the gospel and salvation.  In this sermon, (emphasis mine), Dr. Payne says,

“When listened to, when read and applied, Ephesians is quite simply a bombshell.  It is a bombshell of the gospel.  Exploding God’s love and grace onto a world that desperately, desperately needs to understand it.  The message of Ephesians that Paul desperately wants to send to you is all about the gospel – who you are and how to live – and in that order specifically.  The message is ordered around who first and then what and how.  And that’s specific and intentional for the apostle Paul…The word apostle in the Greek means “messenger.”  Paul has a message to give.  This is very significant.  He didn’t invent it.  He didn’t come up with it.  It’s not his.  He is a messenger, a conduit, and so are we guys. We are a message attesting to the truth of God.  What’s the truth of God?  What is the message?  First of all it’s who we are and secondly it’s how to live.  Again, in that order.  And when we reverse those things, things get really weird and complicated.  And part of the problem with religion today is that people put how to live first and who we are second.  And when that happens you basically kick Christianity and the gospel to a self-help program.  You make it six ways to live a better life.  You make the message of the gospel about how to live your life better for you instead who you simply are because of who God is.  Now listen to this.  Every eye on me please.  The way you find out who you really are is by finding out who God really is. There’s no other way.  This is what we see from the apostle Paul.  He wants to teach the church, he wants to teach us about who we are.  And how does he do that?  By teaching us who God is.  In other words, theology comes before anthropology.  And if we put anthropology above theology things get weird, because we make ourselves the crown of creation.  We make ourselves God himself, which is our temptation from day one.  That we can be God.  That anthropology comes before theology.  And what Paul wants to say here right off the bat is “you get to know who Jesus is and your life will be forever changed.”  When you know what we just sang, that he’s a good, good Father, and that’s who He is, and we’re loved by Him, and that’s who we are, guys, that’s the gospel 101.  That’s the truth of God.  And if you miss that truth – everybody lean into this – if you miss that, nothing else will make sense.  And in fact, you can become dangerous with a bunch of theology and facts about the Bible, but you’ve missed the essence of who you really are because of who God is.  This is why it’s so difficult to reach religious people.  Jesus had that problem.  The people that wanted to kill Jesus were religious people, because they thought they had it all figured out.  But they missed this one simple thing – Jesus!  And we can do the same thing.  We can come to church, we can act the part, we can study theology, we can do all kinds of things and miss this simple truth – “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Period.  End of sentence.  Everything builds from there.  That is what Paul wants his church to know…And the only way you will find yourself, know who you are, is by knowing who God is.  And when you understand that God is a loving God, who cares for you and has a plan of salvation for you, that wants to bring you back home, then you begin to understand who you are….

…And this simple message of who we are and how we’re meant to live is called – salvation.  You’ve heard that phrase before.  The message, the plan of salvation is simply who God is, who you are, and now how to live.  That’s what salvation is.  And guess what guys – lean into this – it was all God’s plan from the beginning.  We didn’t come up with it.  We would have messed it up, just like we have messed up every other thing.  This was God’s doing.  Surprise.  God was in on your salvation – this plan of who you are and how you live – from the very beginning.  Even before you were born it was his master plan.  God’s master plan – salvation.  To unite you to himself and then to unite you to the church – to other people – for all of us to live united.  Hence the title of this series.

We all make mistakes in life right?  But we don’t have to spend the rest of our lives paying for those mistakes.  That’s the message of the gospel.  That’s the message of the book of Ephesians.  And Paul is going to be busy describing that and unfolding that and unpacking that, first with who God is and then who we are then how to live.  And it’s all a blessing to Paul…He wants you to understand that this is good news, that this is encouragement….God’s master plan – your salvation – don’t miss that.  God’s master plan – you – and redeeming you back to himself…

Look at it for yourself.  Ephesians chapter 1 verses 3 through 6.  We see the work of the Father through something we call election…When did God choose to save you?  Before the foundations of the world.  Before you personally had ever made your first mistake…Before you even made your first mistake, God already had a plan to save you.  He’s a good, good Father.  The Father was working in election, in his plan, predestined all people that they should be in salvation with him.  Now this is a point of conflict for many theologians, of who is the elect and who’s this – I don’t know.  But here’s what we do know.  For those who are in Christ – you’re elect.  And here’s what we know as a church – for those of us who are elect, who are in Christ – we preach the gospel.  That’s what we do.  We’re in sales.  God’s in management.  Ok?  That’s how it works.

But here’s what I want you to hear today first and foremost.  It’s that God the Father was working to bring you back home.  God was working in the past.  What was the past?  Yesterday when you first made your mistake?  When was it guys?  Before the foundations of the world God was at work.  The Father himself orchestrating a plan of salvation to bring you home….And just like the Father predestined and set up this whole plan in the past, the Son, Jesus Christ, is now working in the present moment to bring people – men, women and children – into a right relationship with himself…

Let’s review very quickly.  All the Trinity is involved in this plan of salvation.  What does the Father do?  The Father elects us before the foundations of the world, orchestrates the plan and the motion.  What does the Son do?  The Son comes to redeem us through the work of the cross.  What does the Holy Spirit do?   The Holy Spirit seals us and guarantees us until we acquire our inheritance.  Where?  In the kingdom of God…It cannot be revoked.  Some of you came out of theologies and places in the church where you believed or you were taught that you could lose your salvation.  And here’s my question for that when you read Ephesians 1.  What did you ever do to gain it?  If you didn’t work to get it, then how can you work to lose it?  We’ll talk about that more next time chapter 2.[22]

It is not my purpose to be polemical or overly critical of Dr. Payne here or of Pastor Kallam for that matter.  My main purpose is to show the state of theological thinking as it relates to soteriology and the gospel in the evangelical church today.  After all, if we come to listen to the sermon each Sunday, and are often encouraged to be intellectually, spiritually and textually engaged, we cannot be blamed for questioning and assessing what we hear.

Note first that Dr. Payne seems conflicted on the doctrine of election.  Some of his statements are directly Calvinistic, as when he says, “When did God choose to save you?  Before the foundations of the world” and “The Father elects us before the foundations of the world.”  Other statements are unclear like, “The Father was working in election, in his plan, predestined all people that they should be in salvation with him.”  Is he saying all people are predestined to salvation?  Other statements are confusing.  “Now this is a point of conflict for many theologians, of who is the elect and who’s this – I don’t know.  But here’s what we do know.  For those who are in Christ – you’re elect.”  At first he says he doesn’t know who the elect are, presumably referring to Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election which creates the “conflict” for theologians, but then he states, “But here’s what we do know.  For those who are in Christ – you’re elect.”  This could accord with a non-Calvinist view.  But Calvinists will also say that you can test if you are among the unconditionally elect by believing (e.g., Erwin Lutzer).  To be believing in Christ is a proof of your unconditional election.  Well which one is it?  Also, his statement, “for those of us who are elect, who are in Christ” is more in accord with a non-Calvinist understanding that the term “elect” as used by Paul designates those that are “in Christ,” that is, those who have freely received him by faith.  Indeed, most of what he says here is consonant with a non-Calvinist gospel.  So why doesn’t Dr. Payne clearly state what he believes about the gospel when it comes to the language of election and predestination, which on my count was mentioned only twice, once in the confusing sentence that seems to say God predestined everyone to salvation and then in reference to God having “set up this whole plan in the past…”  It appears that Dr. Payne has an aversion to the doctrines of election and predestination which is typical of pastors and teachers today.  He would have avoided these altogether if he could, but Ephesians 1 just wouldn’t let him.  But he did not give it the attention it deserved in an exposition of the text, let alone that the attention he did give it was confusing.

This may be evidence of the absolute sway that Calvinism still holds over the minds of today’s evangelical pastors and teachers, and that they sense the personal and intellectual struggle the Calvinist understanding of these doctrines creates.  Or, it may be that Dr. Payne is trying to please both groups of Christians in his congregation.  But this accommodation only results in ignoring or distorting the Scriptures and confusing the gospel as I think this sermon shows.  It seems obvious that Dr. Payne has not formulated a biblical conviction on the meaning of election and predestination – either one way or the other.  My point is that this vacillation on these doctrines is all too common and reveals a soteriology and gospel confusion that is apparently rooted in the Calvinist interpretations of these relevant passages.  His confusion betrays a struggle in the minds of the preachers or teachers to deal with what they see as the only interpretation of such texts.  This is precisely why we need to honestly reckon with these doctrines of election and predestination and come to biblically based convictions as to their meaning.  And once this is done it would be disingenuous to pretend that both are valid or you do not have a conviction on it.  It would be mere “people pleasing” or peer pressure or hypocrisy to not state your conviction on these doctrines when they come up in a text like Ephesians 1.  If you haven’t come to a conviction or you simple don’t know what the text could mean, just say so.  That’s ok too.  But as pastors and teachers charged with teaching and preaching the whole counsel of God and the gospel, you just can’t ignore the text. We need to find out what Paul means to communicate in this text.  We can see how we need to come to grips with this matter for the sake of the gospel. 

Dr. Payne states, “…we preach the gospel.  That’s what we do.  We’re in sales.  God’s in management.  Ok?  That’s how it works.”  But what gospel do we preach?  Surely he must realize that how one understands the doctrine of election is integral to one’s understanding and definition of the gospel – that what you are “selling” is grounded in and depends upon how you perceive God’s “management” of salvation.  When he states, “…for those of us who are elect, who are in Christ – we preach the gospel,” he does not appreciate the logical and moral implications of unconditional election for defining that gospel.  “The gospel” is a nebulous term.  His use of the term “gospel” is ambiguous enough so that he remains unclear on the matter of election.  He does not directly address election or predestination in any depth, yet they are essential themes in Ephesians 1.  He skips over it as a “conflict” that is unimportant to the interpretation of Ephesians or the content of the gospel.  It is a conflict “for many theologians” as if we need not bother ourselves with it and it has little or no value for the Christians in the pew.  Dr. Payne could not have skipped over this aspect of the passage faster than he did.  And his treatment of these doctrines lacked any depth.  I got the impression he didn’t want to do any hard thinking on these doctrines.  He certainly didn’t facilitate others to do any thinking on the matter either, otherwise he would have explained the different views and expressed his own conviction and how it was warranted from the text. 

As to who the elect are he exclaims he does not know.  This implies that he has the Calvinist view of election as unconditional in mind.  Given unconditional election, Calvinists plea ignorance as to who the elect are when confronted with the issue of the insincerity of the gospel offer in their preaching.  This issue springs from the fact that the non-elect may very well be hearing about God’s love and saving work in Christ along with the offer to believe and be saved, yet all this “good news” simply does not apply to them.  They are not true for them.  They cannot be saved.  But that Dr. Payne, or the Calvinist, does not know who are the elect misses the point.  God knows who they are, and Dr. Payne is speaking God’s word in the gospel, and because this matter bears upon the character of God (that “first thought” about God that Dr. Payne, quoting A. W. Tozer stressed was so important) and the content of the gospel message along with who can and cannot be saved and how, this matter needs to be addressed and resolved.  If Dr. Payne is going to emphasize the gospel, then he has to explain how his understanding of election as unconditional relates to the gospel.  It cannot simply be dismissed as “a conflict for many theologians.”  And as much as Dr. Payne attempts to avoid this “conflict” we see he cannot by how he ends up in a confusion.  He says he does not know who the elect are, again, implying a Calvinist understanding of unconditional election, and yet he goes on to make a pronouncement as to who the “the elect” are.  He states, “…here’s what we do know.  For those who are in Christ – you’re elect.”  But it’s precisely what we don’t know given Calvinist election that is the problem.  So he doesn’t know who the elect are which is consistent with Calvinist unconditional election, but then he states he does know who the elect are, they are those who are “in Christ.”  Well how does one become “in Christ?”  By believing.  Again, to say that those who are in Christ are elect is more consistent with a non-Calvinist view of election.  The difference is this election is not defined as unconditional or the deterministic reason for one’s becoming saved.

So which view does Dr. Payne hold to?  As mutually exclusive views it cannot be both.  So we are still left wondering about what he means by “elect.”   He seems to be playing both sides of the issue and therefore we are left with a doctrine of election that confusing and irrelevant. 

In light of what certainly appears to be a Calvinist bent on the doctrines of election and predestination, he seems confused about “salvation” too, because much of what he says in the sermon accords with a non-Calvinist view of salvation and the gospel.  He says,

“When you know what we just sang, that he’s a good, good Father, and that’s who He is, and we’re loved by Him, and that’s who we are, guys, that’s the gospel 101.  That’s the truth of God.” 

“…we can do all kinds of things and miss this simple truth – “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Period.  End of sentence.”

“…when you understand that God is a loving God, who cares for you and has a plan of salvation for you, that wants to bring you back home, then you begin to understand who you are….

…And this simple message of who we are and how we’re meant to live is called – salvation.”

Given these clearly non-Calvinist descriptions of the gospel and salvation why can’t Dr. Payne explain what he means by “the elect,” especially when his question, “When did God choose to save you?” certainly implies Calvinist unconditional election which is incoherent with the above statements.  When he speaks like this it certainly does seem that Dr. Payne is a non-Calvinist but then again he asks, “What does the Father do?” and answers, “The Father elects us before the foundations of the world…”  That’s Calvinist soteriology pure and simple.  Furthermore, we are left wondering how a person comes to be “in Christ?”  Why can’t he explain this?

Moreover, and most importantly, as someone charged with expounding the text and teaching the whole word of God to the people, we wonder what Dr. Payne thinks Paul meant by the phrases “he chose us in him…” (1:4) or “in love he predestined us…” (1:4-5) and “having been predestined” (1:11)?  It won’t do just to skip over these theological themes, especially when the motto of the New Charlotte Church reads, “Scripture is Truth, and it is our job to bring the Truth to the people.”[23]

Unconditional election is incoherent with other statements Dr. Payne has made about God and salvation throughout this sermon, such as, God is loving and good, that “Jesus loves me” and I know this because “the Bible tells me so,” and that the gospel is “good news.”  From what Dr. Payne has said, and also more telling from what he has not said, we might suspect that he is an inconsistent, confused Calvinist.

The non-Calvinist would agree that those who are “in Christ” are considered in the New Testament to be “the elect.”  For Paul the “elect” is a historically and theologically weighty and nuanced term that has its roots in the Old Testament context as applied to “the people of God.”  In the New Testament context the “people of God” now include the believing Jews and Gentiles who are “in Christ” by faith.  They have put their trust in the work of Christ on their behalf to deal with their sin.  The Old Testament as well as the New Testament affirms that God’s saving intentions are universal in scope and therefore there exists a well-meant gospel offer that applies to every individual.  Anyone can believe and be saved.  And yes, the gracious, loving plan of salvation “in Christ” was in the mind of God from before creation.  But the application of this theologically loaded term to believers is very different than understanding “the elect” as only certain particular individuals who have been predestined by God to salvation for reasons unknown to us while all others who are not predestined simply cannot be saved.

One can see that each of these soteriologies has vastly different ramifications upon the gospel as “good news.” Those who are of a Calvinist bent but do not want to “come out” on the issue, either because they are having trouble with their own beliefs or they do not want to offend others who are not Calvinists and cause disunity and division, usually ignore the matter altogether or touch upon it in a cursory and confused manner.  This deprives believers of appreciating the meaning and ministry of these doctrines in their lives.  It also sends the gospel into confusion.  

Dr. Payne states, “And here’s what we know as a church – for those of us who are elect, who are in Christ – we preach the gospel.”  But again, what is the content of this preaching that makes it “the gospel,” that is, “good news?”  Does it remain “good news” in the context of Calvinist soteriology or the “doctrines of grace?”  Dr. Payne has described the gospel and salvation as follows:

“Ephesians is quite simply a bombshell.  It is a bombshell of the gospel.  Exploding God’s love and grace onto a world that desperately, desperately needs to understand it.”

“…who you are and how to live – and in that order specifically.”

“We are a message attesting to the truth of God.  What’s the truth of God?  What is the message?  First of all it’s who we are and secondly it’s how to live.  Again, in that order.”

“…who you simply are because of who God is.”

“…he’s a good, good Father, and that’s who He is, and we’re loved by Him, and that’s who we are, guys, that’s the gospel 101.  That’s the truth of God.”

“And this simple message of who we are and how we’re meant to live is called – salvation.  You’ve heard that phrase before.  The message, the plan of salvation is simply who God is, who you are, and now how to live.  That’s what salvation is.”

“We all make mistakes in life right?  But we don’t have to spend the rest of our lives paying for those mistakes.  That’s the message of the gospel.”

Some of these statements contain kernels of the gospel message but many of these descriptions are vague and minimalist “explanations” of the gospel and salvation – if they can even be called explanations.  What does Dr. Payne mean by “who we are and how we are meant to live is called salvation?”  Granted, who we are “in Christ” Paul describes as being blessed with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (v. 3) and includes being chosen in Christ to be holy and blameless (v. 4), destined for adoption as his children (v. 5), along with the grace that was freely bestowed and lavished upon us in the Beloved (vss. 6-8) and the redemption, forgiveness of trespasses (v. 7), and that God made known to us the mystery of his will that he set forth in Christ (v. 9) along with the inheritance (v. 11) having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will (v.11) so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might live for the praise of his glory (v. 12).  And verse 13.  “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”  An exposition of these many truths is missing in Dr. Payne’s treatment of this text.  Why?  I suspect it is because he wants to avoid dealing with the controversial doctrines of election and predestination.  Therefore he talks around the issue.  He employs the nebulous phraseology “who God is” and “who we are.”  What is meant by these?  I suspect that this may be a kind of “short-hand” for unconditional election and predestination.  “Who God is” as the one who chose us unconditionally.  “Who we are” as the one’s predestined to salvation.

If “this simple message of who we are and how we’re meant to live” is called “salvation”, then what is the nature of that salvation given the concepts of election and predestination that Paul includes in this chapter?  Does “who we are” refer to being unconditionally elected to salvation?   Does “we’re loved by Him, and that’s who we are” mean that there are certain people predestined to salvation while others are passed over and have not been chosen and predestined to salvation?  Who does the “who” in the phrase “who we are” refer to?  The elect?  How did they come to be among the “we” in “who we are?”  By being predestined by God to salvation?  Who does “We’re loved by him” refer to?  Only a predestined number of elect people or all people?  Why is this “the gospel?”  Is this Dr. Payne’s way of expressing a predestinarian interpretation of this text? 

Does God love every person?  Does he desire that all people be saved?  Has he made a way by which anyone may be saved?  If he is a “good, good Father” does he have genuine good in mind for each sinner?  Is salvation available for all sinners?  What is the nature of faith?   For whom did Jesus die?   If the gospel is “who we are” then who are we with respect to election and predestination?  These are all questions raised by the Calvinist interpretation of Ephesians 1 but not addressed by Dr. Payne. 

The point is that if Dr. Payne does ultimately take a Calvinist view on this matter, which I think is likely, he is not telling us outright, and yet this is “the bombshell of the gospel.”  It is a message of “God’s love and grace.”  Yet how “God’s love and grace” cohere with unconditional election and predestination to salvation is left ambiguous even when election and predestination are so prominent in this chapter.  Calvinists can talk about “God’s love and grace” albeit assigning meanings to these words that accord with their own theology.

Perhaps because Dr. Payne’s understanding of election is along Calvinist lines he is therefore reticent to answer these very pertinent questions.  Perhaps he shies away from these matters because he senses that his definitions of election as unconditional and predestination as deterministic are not coherent with his own statements and how most of us understand the love and grace of God.

He mentions the repeated phrase in chapter 1, “to the praise of his glory.”  Dr. Payne says,

“When the writers of the confession set down and tried to summarize in words the purpose for life, here’s how they described it ‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’…The purpose of this plan of salvation…is for the glory of God.  Your salvation, the way you live your life in Christ, gives the most glory to God and the most good for other people.  Do hear that.  When you know who you are in Jesus and when you’re able to live that out with other people, God receives the most glory and other people in your life receive the most good.” [24] 

I hear echoes of John Piper in these words.  Note that Dr. Payne refers to question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a standard of Calvinist teaching.  It contains contradictions and inconsistencies due to the theistic determinism introduced in the answer to question 7 which is “What are the decrees of God?”  The answer given is, “The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.”  Although the catechism mentions “the gospel” twice in questions 31 and 86 it does not define it.  Does Dr. Payne subscribe to this catechism’s teaching on the decrees of God and salvation?  The following suggests he does.

“For those of you who do not know Jesus, for those of you who are right on the edge who are checking out Christianity, wondering what it means to be a Christian, what if because of reading this book, what if, what if you could remember and know how much God loves you?  What if you could know this for those of you who are not Christians, but who are listening in and who want to understand and want to know, what if you could know this by reading the book of Ephesians, by listening to it, by taking about it, that you could know how much God loves you and that he’s already been looking for you.  That before you even realized you were lost God was already busy trying to find you and bring you back home.  What if you could simply say…’I’m lost, I’m lost’ but because of this truth I know how to get home, I know how to be found.

…For those of you who are Christians in here who are Christ-followers, you understand what it means to be in a relationship with God by grace through faith.  You know that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit has worked his plan into your life for salvation….What if you knew that you’re chosen according to Ephesians 1?  What if Christian you knew you were predestined according to Ephesians 1?  What if you knew that you were accepted…What if you knew today that God accepted you?…What if you knew that you were assured of salvation?” [25]

Granted the “what if’s” are a rhetorical device to encourage us to continue in our reading and study of Ephesians, but I find it very strange to speak about the application to the hearers of the truths found in Ephesians, especially as relating to the gospel, with the question “what if you could…?”  What does Dr. Payne convey to those “who do not know Jesus” by asking “What if you could know this?” or “What if you could simply say ‘I’m lost, I’m lost’ but because of this truth I know how to get home, I know how to be found?”  These “what if’s” are consistent with a Calvinist understanding of unconditional election and irresistible grace or the effectual call.  “What if” I am elect and “what if” I am not elect is all we are left with on Calvinism.  “What if…you could know how much God loves you and that he’s already been looking for you?”  Well, on Calvinism you can only know that if God has predestined you to salvation and causes you to know it.  By virtue of the question form it certainly seems Dr. Payne is conveying that you may be able to know God loves you or may not be able to know God loves you.  On Calvinism God’s salvific will, love and salvation in Christ becomes a question of “if you know” not “you may certainly know.”  This “if” theology is strange, yet to the Calvinist mind I can see this as a way to avoid the insincerity of speaking about God’s love and acceptance and the assurance of salvation to the non-elect.[26]  The point is that this odd way of speaking in terms of these questions suggests that the gospel truths are unsure to the speaker because he is not sure they apply to all listening.  This is a serious evangelistic matter.  It evidences that the clear and forthright proclamation of the gospel as “good news” is being eroded by the growing influence of Calvinist soteriology in the evangelical church.

Given the non-Calvinist perspective there is no vacillation, no equivocation, no doubt about to whom these gospel truths apply.  They apply to all.  It is very peculiar to pose these type of questions to the listeners when Dr. Payne could be surely offering the unsaved the gospel from Ephesians.  Rather than posing a question as to whom these statements apply and what the unsaved may or may not be able to do, he should be assuring them of what they can and should do – believe and be saved.  That is how the gospel as “good news” is to be presented.  That is precisely what makes it “good news.”  Why not say “because of the cross you know that God loves you and wants to save you from your sinful and lost condition, giving you purpose and joy in this life and life eternal.  Believe in the work of Christ on your behalf; he has redeemed you, therefore be reconciled to God and receive his forgiveness.  Come and be saved!”  If Dr. Payne really believed there was “good news” here that he could proclaim to all, then why doesn’t he proclaim it and proclaim it as if it applies to all?

My suspicion is that the “what if’s” convey a different sense that accords with Calvinist unconditional election and predestination.  But these doctrines only serve to suppress the freedom to proclaim the “good news” with honesty and integrity.  The “what if’s” express one’s ignorance of who the elect are and the reticence of stating things that may not be true of all those hearing.  For how one interprets election and predestination in this first chapter of Ephesians will determine how they define the gospel and what may be said in truth to all those gathered.  As Calvin 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.”[27]

The Westminster Confession tells us how God works in those he predestined to life by an “effectual call.”

“X.2. This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from any thing at all foreseen in man; who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.”[28]  (Emphasis mine)

If one believes these teachings then one’s preaching ought to consistently and coherently reflect these teachings.  Therefore, on the Calvinist interpretation of Ephesians 1, the most one can say is “what if God will use Ephesians as the means of your effectual calling as one of the elect?  Wouldn’t that be exciting?”  The point here is that Dr. Payne does not make statements about what can certainly happen in the lives of both the unsaved and the saved by reading Ephesians.  He merely asks questions about what might happen, and it is reasonable to suppose on the basis of the content of his sermon, that this is a result of his Calvinist tendencies. 

So I have to conclude that Dr. Payne is a surreptitious Calvinist, a type of Calvinist that seems to be growing in number these days.  When asked about their position they will either not provide an answer or they “beat around the bush” for the reasons suggested above.  It is like David Allen says, “It’s like nailing Jell-O to the wall with some of these guys.”  But when you listen carefully and learn to detect “Calvinist-speak,” sooner or later you will be able to discern which theological position the speaker holds, even if it is only a confused soteriology.

Ken Schmidt – Unity in the Gospel, Defending the Gospel: What Unity? Which Gospel?

Despite the EFCA’s claims about “unity in essentials, dialogue in differences” and that “from the foundation of the essentials we will engage in robust dialogue regarding the differences, without dividing,” realistically it seems that the evangelical church does not want to take a stand on the matter and is averse to dialogue about these soteriological differences.  They are less interested in getting at the truth and more interested in just getting along.  So most Christians just keep their soteriological beliefs a secret.  This creates a theological and soteriological void in our evangelical teaching and preaching. Yet these differences are essential because they are about the definition and content of the gospel message.  Any evangelical church or evangelical Christian, precisely because they are evangelical, must have an opinion about the “evangel.”  A minimalist or evasive approach will not do.  Why will this not do?  Because Paul exhorts the church to unity, but that unity must first and foremost be a unity in the truth of the gospel.  The content of the gospel is something Paul himself would not compromise.[29]

Ken Schmidt, when he was a pastor at the Church at Charlotte’s South Park Campus, gave a sermon on Romans 16:17-20 at the New Charlotte Church in which he stated,

“…what Paul is doing in this book here is he is explaining the gospel to them.  He is saying ‘this is what we have in common Rome – the gospel – the truth that God who created everything, but Satan caused Adam and Eve to rebel, God made things right again by sending his Son Jesus Christ, truly God, truly man, to die on the cross for our sins, to be raised from the dead, and we are trusting in that work and in that resurrection.’  Paul says, ‘I believe the same gospel you believe.  That is why I want you to listen to me.  That’s why we should partner together.’  So throughout the entirety of the book to Romans it is an explanation of the gospel.  And that’s the thread that’s going to run throughout this entire book…Paul is talking about what unites him to this church he has never met, and friends, in a sense you don’t know me and I don’t know you, but what unites us is this gospel.”[30]

We can agree that Romans is an explanation of the gospel, and perhaps the Church at Charlotte and the New Charlotte Church are in substantial agreement on soteriology and the gospel message.  But with respect to what we label “the evangelical church” as a whole with the present division that exists between Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies and their gospel implications, we are refusing to acknowledge that the evangelical church is not united in the gospel.  Certainly the gospel should unite us.  But presently the gospel is not what unites us.  It is what divides us.  And this unrealistic presumption of unity is a contributing factor to the continued disunity.  Until we face the fact that there is a problem, the problem cannot be solved.  It will not go away by ignoring it and pretending it isn’t there.

What is the problem?  It is that there are two mutually exclusive gospels in the evangelical church today, and this fact is, for the most part, completely ignored.  Many pastors and teachers who call themselves evangelical, simply will not acknowledge this fact and address it head on.  Most Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike would rather pretend there is unity.  Others in a new breed of Calvinism, to their credit, are aggressively promoting Calvinism as the biblical truth on sovereignty and salvation.  They take a clear stand on these matters.  Other Calvinist preachers and teachers take the tact of hiding or suppressing their Calvinism in favor of having a more subtle influence.  And when it comes to the gospel they feel free to preach and teach a message that is inconsistent with their Calvinist “doctrines of grace.”  This gives the impression that “evangelicals” are unified on soteriology and the gospel.  But these Calvinists preach a gospel inconsistent with their soteriological doctrines that only serves to conceal their underlying “doctrines of grace.”  The more consistent Calvinist ultimately claims that the gospel just is their 5 or 4 points of Calvinism.  Thus they preach their soteriology, which I contend is incompatible with the “good news.”

What this boils down to is whether or not one values coherence in their interpretation of the biblical texts.  For instance, if Pastor Schmidt is correct and the entirety of the book of Romans is an explanation of the gospel, then non-Calvinists insist that Romans 9 be interpreted coherently with chapters 10 and 11 and Paul’s previous arguments, theology and soteriology in chapters 1 -8.  But, this logical and moral coherence is not essential for the Calvinist.  Romans 9, interpreted as theistic determinism, stands in contradiction with what Paul states in chapters 10 and 11 and his previous arguments in chapters 1 through 8.  But the Calvinist insists on interpreting chapter 9 as teaching unconditional election of certain individuals to salvation, and they do so despite the incoherence and contradictions this interpretation creates with chapters 10 and 11.  Therefore, until the issue of coherence in interpretation is dealt with there can be no resolution to this debate.

Pastor Schmidt continues,

 “…Paul is absolutely passionate about the community the gospel brings about…But then in verse 17 there is a shift in tone.  He says, ‘I appeal to you brothers to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles.’  Paul is continuing to highlight the importance and his passion for the unity that the gospel brings by saying watch out for those who cause divisions.  He says there are people who are coming into the fellowship that are gonna cause divisions, they’re gonna cause disunity.  Watch out for them…Carefully note inside of the body of Christ if there are a group of people that are persuading you to break the community up by a couple of different ways.

Well how are they doing that?  This is what we are called to watch out for church. Look at verse 17.  He says ‘Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles.’…Remember Paul has been passionate about the unity the gospel brings…that word skandalon always refers to something that causes people to reject the work of the cross.  Whether they think that the cross is silliness or they think that the cross is unnecessary.  Paul says watch out for those people.” [31]

Pastor Schmidt then provides two examples of divisions – legalism (adding to the gospel) or licentiousness (“come as you are and stay as you are”).  But there is another division Schmidt fails to recognize.  It is a division over the very content and message of the gospel itself.  The division between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies.  So which gospel would Paul fight for and defend?  Schmidt continues,

“We need to be passionate about the gospel.  And let me just say a word about this. So often we get so nervous about things that are important but are non-essential.  I wanna call us to do this.  When we’re watching out for people that might cause a disunity in the gospel, the thing that we need to know is the gospel.  And we need to know what is important.  There’s a man by the name of Al Mohler.  He has something that he calls theological triage…Theological triage says there are things that are so important that these are of the first order that we must know and believe and this is what we passionately defend.  We defend things like the deity of Christ.  We defend the doctrine of the trinity.  We defend the inerrancy of Scripture.  Now we can defend and have conversations about what we call second tier beliefs like mode of baptism.  But there are good people that disagree with us that love Jesus and are loved by Jesus that have a different understanding of baptism.  That’s a second tier…The third tier is the one like the timing of the second coming of Christ…Those first tier doctrines, those are the ones that matter.  And here’s what I’d like us to be.  I’d love for us to be known as a people who passionately fight for the gospel, not who fight people.”[32]

Interestingly he mentions the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler who is a staunch Calvinist.  But although Schmidt states that “we need to be passionate about the gospel” and be “watching out for people that might be causing disunity in the gospel” and that “we need to know the gospel” and “passionately fight for the gospel,” Schmidt says nothing about the incompatibility of Mohler’s soteriology and “gospel” with the non-Calvinist’s soteriology and gospel.  Also note that Schmidt rightly places the gospel as a “first order” belief, and yet he makes no distinction between Mohler’s Calvinist “gospel” which is mutually exclusive with the non-Calvinist gospel that also exists in the “evangelical” church.  Schmidt continues,

“I would call you New Charlotte to be a church that is known for fighting for the gospel.  Not that you’re fighting people, but you’re fighting for the gospel.  You see to be passionate for the gospel means we fight for the gospel, we don’t fight others.[33]

I agree with Pastor Schmidt.  The gospel is a first order belief and needs to be fought for and defended.  Such a defense is not a personal matter.  I am not “fighting” with Pastor Schmidt or the other pastors mentioned above.  And again I want to be clear that my use of the sermons of Dr. Payne, Pastor Kalam and Pastor Schmidt are for the purpose of pointing to the soteriological issue at stake and not an attack on their persons.  As those who would be concerned about the truth of the gospel, they would obviously agree with this purpose.  The point here is that, given the two mutually exclusive soteriologies of Calvinism and non-Calvinism, which gospel are we to fight for?  To fight for the gospel involves an honest intellectually and hermeneutically responsible assessment of each of these soteriologies to see which is consistent with itself, with other Scriptures and the gospel as “good news.”

When the rubber meets the road on these issues at the level of practical ministry, and those of us who attend church and are listening to sermons like these, we are asking these relevant questions (or at least should be) and making these theological observations.  We are being exhorted to fight for and defend the gospel.  So which gospel are we going to fight for and defend?  Calvinist or non-Calvinist?  Perhaps Pastor Schmidt gives us an indication of where he stands in this matter when he states,

“When we trust in the voice of God that says you are no longer condemned rather than that voice of shame that says I know what you did last night, the site you when to last night, I know the thing that you said to your husband or your wife, or the way you lost it with your kids, or this, or that, when we listen to the voice of God that says this, ‘I love you in Jesus Christ and there is nothing, absolutely nothing that you can do to that can make me love you more, but also there is absolutely nothing that you can do that would make me love you less.’  When we believe that voice, rather than the cacophony of voices that want to get us to doubt that love, that dynamic, powerful love of Jesus Christ, we are part of the crushing of Satan.

So New Charlotte, God has given us this amazing gift.  It’s the gift of the gospel.  It’s what unites us.  It’s why we can call people brothers and sisters, go across churches in Charlotte and churches in North Carolina and the United States and in the world.  It’s the reason we can call one another brothers and sisters.  Together we are beautiful.  And together as we passionately fight for the gospel we are gonna cause people to see that this Jesus is King of everything and he’s good…the King, Jesus, who loves us and gave his life for us.”[34]

Given what Pastor Schmidt has just said I would conclude that he is not a Calvinist.  But also what he has just said raises the question of which theology and soteriology is prone to get us to “doubt that love,” that is, “the voice of God that says this, ‘I love you in Jesus Christ and there is nothing, absolutely nothing that you can do to that can make me love you more, but also there is absolutely nothing that you can do that would make me love you less.’”  This clearly talks about God’s love for all of us.  So, which soteriology is prone to “get us to doubt that love, that dynamic, powerful love of Jesus Christ?”  It certainly seems to me that on Calvinism, with its understanding of the doctrines of predestination and election as unconditional, one may be prone to doubt God’s love for them.  Indeed, it is a fact that on Calvinism God does not love certain individuals.  God does not love the non-elect.  God does not love everybody.  The message that is prone to cause one to doubt the love of God for them certainly would not be a non-Calvinist soteriology that teaches the universal love and salvific will of God.  To be passionate about the gospel, or to fight for the gospel, at least the one Pastor Schmidt is referring to, must mean therefore that we reject Calvinism.  Calvinism is incoherent with the definition of the “good news” Pastor has provided above.

Ken Schmidt’s sermon title is, “The Gospel Unites Us…”  But the truth of the matter is that the gospel does not unite us because the non-Calvinist and Calvinist soteriologies present two mutually exclusive gospels.  There is no unity in the gospel.  The full sermon title is “The Gospel Unites Us: Now What?”  That is a good question – “Now What?”  Let’s try to answer it.

Two Mutually Exclusive Gospels: The Way Ahead

What must be done first is to admit that two mutually exclusive gospels cannot both be the biblical “good news.”  Secondly, the minister who believes we need to fight for and defend the gospel needs to delineate which gospel we should fight for and defend.  He should also point out why other “gospels” that are in and among us are not the true gospel.  If we insist on stressing that we are to fight and defend the gospel and not people, then we ought to be addressing the fact of the two mutually exclusive gospels.  We ought to be able to discuss and come to a resolution on this matter in our churches.  When teaching and preaching on the relevant texts there should be meaningful, substantive treatment and discussion of these issues.  The instruction should lead us to see why it is that one view is the more faithful interpretation of the relevant passages.  These relevant texts should certainly not just be ignored. Third, there should be serious thought given to an evangelical conference or symposium in which the matters that are preventing a resolution to this controversy are aired, confronted and movement made towards its resolution.  This is what I for one am calling for and am convinced must be done.  But as I have sought to demonstrate, I submit that there will be no resolution unless the Calvinist hermeneutic includes as essential to proper interpretation logical and moral coherence.  This thesis and any others could be made known and subjected to scholarly critique at such a conference.

This is why this “significance of silence” approach of the EFCA and other denominations is unacceptable for the Christian who is in search of the truth of the gospel.  This approach amounts to theological relativism and an abandonment of the search for the biblical truth of the gospel for the sake of unity and accommodating theological traditions.  But such “unity” is false.  It is a “unity” that is reducing statements of faith with regard to salvation and the gospel to bare minimums.  It is a “unity” that is ignoring whole swathes of the biblical text, robbing Christians of the spiritual strength and practical encouragement they would otherwise provide.   This theological relativism is sapping the church of the powerful truth of the life-changing gospel because it relegates the gospel to a non-essential, secondary issue by an unthinking acceptance of two mutually exclusive soteriologies.  This confuses people as to what the biblical gospel message really is.  It is eroding the clear communication and effectiveness of the gospel as the “good news” that it is.

Yes, the word “gospel” is bandied about in every evangelical statement of faith, sermon, Bible study and Christian ministry.  But when you inquire about what is the precise content of that gospel, the evangelical church – pastors, teachers, and laypeople – become silent.  As far as the power of the preaching of the gospel is concerned, it has been abandoned because of the confusion that exists and the inordinate concern about preserving the “spectrum” of traditional beliefs.  Passages like Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 are treated lightly or just skipped over for the sake of unity.  It is unity at the cost of interpretive and intellectual integrity and the truth of the gospel message.  This intellectual and interpretive indifference and denial is one reason why the evangelical church cannot get at the truth in this matter. 

This theological indifference is especially prevalent among church leaders.  The times I have respectfully emailed the pastors of the churches I have attended inquiring as to whether they hold to a Calvinist or non-Calvinist soteriology, it has been my experience to receive one of four responses.  The first is to simply be ignored.  The second is to give a minimalist response.  The third is to get a response that evades the question, that is, “the Bible teaches both” or “we cannot comprehend this matter with our finite minds.”  The fourth is to state a position.  This I can respect no matter what the position is.  At least a straightforward answer has clarity and conviction.  Yet the one Calvinist pastor that was willing to enter into extended discussion of these matters didn’t think his interpretations of various texts needed to be coherent.  When I objected, “You can’t do that.  That doesn’t make sense.”  His response was “Sure I can.”  His Calvinist theistic determinism held absolute sway regardless of its negative logical and moral hermeneutical implications.  To take such a position of indifference to the logical and moral implications of his interpretations is truly astonishing and evidences the hermeneutical divide between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.  I contend that it is this hermeneutical issue that needs to be resolved.

The differences involve the very nature of God as loving, just, gracious and compassionate.  They involve the extent of the atonement, whether any sinner can be saved, and how salvation is personally appropriated.  They involve the most important question of one’s existence which is whether I can know for sure that God loves me and I am included in God’s saving purposes in Christ.  They involve theological and psychological issues fundamental to being human – being created in God’s image, the nature of personhood, the assurance of hope, meaning and purpose in life.  In other words, they involve gospel truths.  The Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies provide very different answers and conclusions on these matters.  Which soteriology provides truly “good news” in addressing these issues?  It is hard to see how Calvinism does.  Therefore, I concur with the conclusions of the contributors to the book Grace Unlimited, a biblical refutation of Calvinist doctrines, when they state,

“We delight in our Lord’s word: “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matt. 18:14).  We reject all forms of theology which deny this truth and posit a secret abyss in God’s mind where he is not gracious.  We consent to Paul’s judgment that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” and to Peter’s conviction that God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Pet. 3:9).  If it seems controversial to assert this conviction boldly and unashamedly, then it ought at least to be admitted that here is a truth far more deserving of controversy than many which are debated.  On it hangs, we believe, the validity of the universal offer of the gospel, and the possibility of Christian assurance.  If we do not know that God loves all sinners, we do not know that he loves us, and we do not know that he loves those to whom we take the gospel.”[35]

These scholars saw that the issues involved in this debate are profound.[36]  They come into play on almost every page of Scripture.  They are inherent in every sermon, bible study, Sunday school class, traditional hymn and contemporary worship song that we sing.  You can hardly read a chapter of the Bible without running up against these crucial concerns.  The content of the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, forces upon us certain underlying philosophical and theological presuppositions without which the biblical revelation makes no sense – the reality of genuine contingency, human freedom and responsibility, the nature of God as personal, active, and immanent, the quality of historical reality as dynamic, the presence of evil in the universe which God will judge, conquer and bring about his victorious reign, etc.  All these have direct bearing upon this controversy, forcing us to face it head on and deal with it with intellectual and interpretive integrity.  I submit that Reformed Calvinism, with its deterministic definition of God’s decree and sovereignty, along with its doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement, and an effectual call runs rationally, morally, epistemologically, and theologically counter to these biblical themes and concepts.  As such, I submit it is an unbiblical soteriology.

It seems that evangelicals have become conditioned to overlook the fact that there are two mutually exclusive soteriological views in the church today.  The truth of the gospel is being dismissed or compromised for the sake of “harmony among the brethren.”  This is certainly not a call for disunity.  Indeed, it is a call to unity.  But truth is foundational to any meaningful unity.  Therefore it is also a call for civil discussion of a problem that cannot be ignored without being hypocritical.  Evangelicals are in denial that two incompatible gospels are being taught and preached in the evangelical church today.  They seem intellectually indifferent to this violation of the fundamental laws of reason and their moral intuitions.  The contemporary evangelical church is, for the most part, a-rational and a-moral on this issue.  A spirit of neutrality and non-confrontation prevails because we have not learned the value of in-depth, honest discussion, debate and argument.  Not argument as in a quarrel, but as in a reasoned presentation of a position.  Perhaps a concern over “dividing the brethren” is one cause among others of the anti-intellectualism that marks evangelicalism today.   Superficiality is one way to preserve unity.  But unity at the cost of the life of the mind and truth should be unacceptable to any biblical, thinking Christian.  And there is no way to get at the truth of the Word of God except by the use of reason.

If you cannot present arguments for a position you cannot even do theology, at least the kind of theology that will get us to the truth on opposing views.  The result is that evangelical churches have abandoned doing biblical, systematic and historical theology.  Instruction in these is almost non-existent in evangelical churches today, let alone the teaching of philosophy, which is essentially the practice of clear thinking.  Apologetics, which also trains the mind to clearly defend the faith, is absent in our evangelical churches.  The existence of these mutually exclusive soteriologies and gospels is clear evidence that the evangelical church has embraced theological relativism.  But if we put aside this relativism and doctrinal apathy and attend to our soteriology on the basis of a sound hermeneutic of coherence, we will become acutely aware of the troubling logical, moral, and practical implications of Calvinism.  We will become aware that there is a crisis of the gospel that needs to be reckoned with as there are two incompatible gospels in the contemporary “evangelical” church.  

Galatians 1: Is Calvinist Soteriology “A Gospel Contrary” To The One Paul Preached?

Why is this an issue that cannot simply be ignored?  Because preserving the truth of the gospel was the highest priority for the apostle Paul.  He gave his life to teaching, preaching and defending the one true gospel and would not allow it to be perverted.  Paul warns the group of churches in Galatia about “turning to a different gospel” (1:6).  He adds, “not that there is another one,” and emphatically states, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now we say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (1:8, 9).  And to those who preached a gospel contrary to Paul’s he also stated, “…to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (2:5).  So much for unity at any cost!  The key emphasis of all divine revelation and Christian truth has its focus in the divine personage and saving work of Christ.  Therefore, the purpose and meaning of this revelation of salvation hinges upon the biblical accuracy of the gospel message.

This passage in Galatians demands that we ask what was the content and definition of the gospel message Paul preached to the Galatian churches?  What was the gospel they received?  What did the apostle Paul and the other writers of the New Testament understand by “the gospel?”

This passage also demands that we reckon with the fact that two incompatible “gospels” that are being preached today.  As such both cannot be the gospel Paul preached.  Therefore, Paul’s sobering ultimatum and zeal to preserve the truth of the gospel must apply to us today.  In that the preservation of the truth of the gospel is precisely Paul’s concern in this first chapter of Galatians and an apostolic curse lays upon those teaching a false gospel, it is incumbent upon us to come to grips with this controversy.    We are forced to acknowledge that these “gospels” are mutually exclusive and therefore they both cannot be the biblical gospel Paul preached.  We are also forced to ask how we are to resolve this matter of utmost importance for the sake of the church as “evangelical” and the cause of true evangelism done in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We must, once and for all, answer the question, “What is the truth of the gospel?”

This passage also tells us that this is not a non-essential issue as many on both sides have claimed.  I honestly cannot understand the refusal to acknowledge the mutual exclusivity of these soteriologies and gospels and how this can be considered a non-essential or secondary matter.

What then should we do if we indeed have two incompatible gospels being taught in the evangelical church today?  It would seem that one most likely better represents Paul’s gospel, that is, “the one we preached to you,” and the other is one that is likely to be “contrary to the one you received.”[37]  If according to Paul in Galatians there is “no other gospel,” that is, there is “only one true gospel,” surely the truth of the gospel cannot have been left to us by Paul as a confusion, mystery or contradiction.

If that is the case, then what is at stake here is nothing less than defining the precise content of the biblical gospel and therefore its coherent, effective proclamation in Holy Spirit power.  The truth of the gospel is at stake.

Conclusions

I would hope my critique of these pastor’s sermons and soteriological thinking would be viewed as rigorous towards a valid and important point, not personally harsh or exacting.  My emphasis is on where the evangelical church and our evangelical leadership is headed with respect to the content of their soteriology and gospel message.  I am concerned about the transparency of our leadership as to their positions and the implications of Calvinist soteriology upon the gospel message.  My goal is to raise awareness as to the presence of two incompatible gospels in the evangelical church today.  By fostering clear thinking and the life of the mind among believers, I desire to make clear the implications of the influence of Calvinism on our teaching and preaching.

Some of this influence is happening unwittingly.  Calvinism’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty and glory is unobjectionable to any Christian.  But “the devil is in the details” so to speak, and being that our theological and soteriological vocabulary is for the most part the same most Christians take it for granted that we mean the same things by our terms, but we do not.  When you get right down to it the Calvinist means very different things than the non-Calvinist.  Moreover, much of the Calvinist “push” certainly is intentional.  Its internet presence is especially strong.  It comes through the works of influential people like John Piper, John McArthur, R. C. Sproul, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, and organizations like The Gospel Coalition and Reforming America, let alone the several Calvinist colleges and seminaries that are having profound effects on the thinking of young people and future pastors.  All these claim to be “evangelical gospel” ministries.  But what “evangel” and what “gospel” are we talking about?  This is a question that can no longer be ignored.  As I see it, the gospel is at stake here and we are responsible to guard the biblical gospel message from error and distortion.

It seems to me that not only the EFCA but other denominations, evangelical churches and Christian organizations in general are intentionally deciding to ignore the mutual exclusivity or contradictory nature of the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies.  They also would rather ignore that this has direct bearing upon the content of the gospel message.  The EFCA is embracing a contradiction.  First they claim that two contradictory gospels are both acceptable.  And in addition they claim they “are committed to the essentials of the gospel in principle and practice, in belief and behavior, in orthodoxy and orthopraxy” and yet have declared the differences between Calvinist gospel and the non-Calvinist gospel as “non-essential” and “secondary” matters.  Therefore, to which “gospel” are they committed?  It cannot be both.

In adopting “the significance of silence” they are promoting the erosion of clear thinking about the substance of the gospel and fostering a soteriological relativism.  Even though the two soteriologies are logically incompatible, by their “significance of silence” they foster the conclusion that “You can believe your version of soteriology and the gospel and I’ll believe mine, and although they are mutually exclusive, that’s OK.”  This position fails to acknowledge the gravity of both the rational and hermeneutical problem here.  Therefore, to claim that “one of those things we agree on is the gospel,”[38]  certainly seems to ignore the facts of the matter and amounts to soteriological and gospel relativism.

To attempt to deal with these contradictory gospels, some pastors and teachers go as far as to state “the Bible teaches both.”  In essence, that is what the EFCA stance reduces to.  They teach that two mutually exclusive gospels are accurate reflections of biblical teaching.  Akin to this is to conclude that we cannot know what the Scriptures actually teach about the gospel.  This is the tack the EFCA has adopted.  They recognize these as “differences” but refuse to acknowledge them as contradictory.   Therefore, we cannot know with precision what the biblical teaching is on the gospel.

If all soteriologies are created equal, and given this approach I don’t see why they wouldn’t be, this causes confusion about the gospel.  In doing this we are teaching Christians not to think clearly, and ultimately to perceive theology and hermeneutics to be little more than the study of contradictory propositions or things that are incomprehensible mysteries and thus a waste of time and effort.  Christians become indifferent about theology and interpretation, concluding that this particular controversy just amounts to the intellectual ramblings of theologians and is not worth thinking about.  As Dr. Payne stated, “It’s just “a point of conflict for many the theologians.”  But it is not.  We cannot ignore the fact that it is also a point of conflict for all thinking unbelievers and believers, and that the church has a responsibility to address the serious questions raised in this controversy.  And as admirable as it is that the EFCA welcomes discussion and dialogue on theological and soteriological differences, the accounts I have documented here reveal that EFCA churches, and most evangelical churches, are more likely to hold to this policy in theory and not in practice.  Thus theology is brushed aside and deemed not worth engaging with in any depth because it is viewed as a controversial discipline.  The disciplines of hermeneutics, theology and philosophy are divorced from “practical Christian living” and “devotion.”  “Serving” is pitted against “thinking” in a false dichotomy.  “Practical” Christian ministry and service is divorced from its theological underpinnings and devolves into self-help programs, a “social gospel” or fundamentalist legalism.  The life of the mind becomes unimportant.  What the Bible means to me is what’s most important.  Whether what is being taught in adult Bible classes is coherent and faithful to the text is not a primary concern.  Entertainment along with the personality or showmanship of the preacher takes precedence over biblical substance and accuracy.  My fear is that this mindset promotes intellectual and theological indifference where people simply absorb what they are told with little to no substantive thoughtful reflection or discussion.  Although the EFCA says they welcome such dialogue and discussion, I venture to say that it does not happen.  Contradictory versions of the gospel are put aside for “gospel renewal” and interdenominational unity.  The larger “ministry cause” takes precedence over the substance of the message itself.  Soon, there will be nothing left of the gospel as “good news.”  It will reduce to a social movement consisting of “good people” doing “good deeds.”  But I can hear the objections.  “In all that we do we are sure not to forget the gospel; we tell people about Jesus.  We give the gospel to people.  That is our purpose.”  But the objection just begs the question as to what is the content and message of “the gospel” you give.  It is either the Calvinist “doctrines of grace,” or something inconsistent with them as in the non-Calvinist message of “good news.” 

            Given this “significance of silence” approach, the worst case scenario may be that it causes believers and unbelievers to distance themselves from the church because it is showing itself to be intellectually disingenuous.  Once they get a glimpse that the church has a credibility problem by accepting contradictory views on what is at the very heart of biblical revelation – the gospel – they will find it hard to endure.  They cannot and should not turn off their intellects and buy into the “Bible teaches both,” “it’s incomprehensible” or “it’s a mystery” so you just have to “take it by faith” advice.  But there will be many who will turn off their intellects and blindly follow their leadership, some of whom have celebrity status and are bent on dumbing-down the Scripture rather than fostering careful thinking and interpretive skills.  Indeed, Calvinist D. A. Carson writes,

               “The objective truth of the gospel, Paul insists, enjoys an antecedent authority; if even an apostle tampers with that, he is to be reckoned anathema (Gal. 1:8-9).  So an authoritative gospel must be passed on.”[39]

            Not inconsistent with the submission we need to have for the godly leadership in our churches, it is appropriate to inquire into their soteriological position so as to know and possibly address the matter of the preservation or restoration of the gospel as good news in our evangelical churches.  D. A. Carson also writes,

               “Whereas Christians are encouraged to support and submit to spiritual leadership (e.g., Heb. 13:17), such encouragement must not be considered a blank check; churches are responsible for and have authority to discipline false teachers and must recognize an antecedent commitment not to a pastor but to the truth of the gospel.”[40]

Carson continues,

               “…the church is not at liberty to ignore or countermand or contravene the authority of the gospel itself, now at last inscripturated, without sooner or later calling into question its own status as a church.”[41]

The gospel is at stake in this controversy.  That is why these differences need to be discussed in the light of the root cause of the division, that is, whether rational and moral coherence are essential to a sound, evangelical hermeneutic or not.

The Hermeneutical Divide

What does a careful examination of the gospel in today’s church tell us?  It indicates that there is a hermeneutical divide between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.  Again, simply put, Calvinists do not take logical coherence and moral intuitions on board as essential for discerning the validity of one’s exegesis and interpretation of the biblical text.  Non-Calvinists do.  Rather than see interpretive incoherence and contradiction as indicators that something is amiss in one’s interpretation, Calvinists dismiss these and “explain” them away by fleeing to “mystery,” “tension,” “antinomy,” incomprehensibility,” or that “the Bible teaches both.”  The Calvinist hermeneutic accepts the presence of interpretive incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.  The non-Calvinist does not.  In the presence of these the non-Calvinist goes back to the text to seek to understand it in a coherent way that is faithful to the text by being careful to maintain the grammatical-historical method of interpretation with a special emphasis on context.  For the non-Calvinist, philosophical reflections and moral intuitions are an integral part of hermeneutics.

When it becomes an established position not to divide over a “difference” when that difference involves logical inconsistency, incoherence and contradiction, then it is a foregone conclusion that you could never resolve such a difference because the rational bedrock needed for doing so is being ignored. There is nothing to tether an interpretation such that its validity can be determined.  You would never come to see those differences in any other way than as “non-essential” because you have jettisoned the intellectual tools that were granted to us by God to serve the very purpose of knowing what is true from what is false.  In fact, because the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies are mutually exclusive propositions, you would have to intentionally disregard the logical, moral and hermeneutical implications of the controversy to declare them “non-essential” or place them in “a secondary category.”  When two incompatible gospels are involved, a resolute aversion to division becomes a denial of the gospel “in principle and practice, in belief and behavior, in orthodoxy and orthopraxy.”  To claim a commitment to “the gospel” in the context of accepting logically incompatible gospels is incoherent.  Rationality would inevitably demand division on the basis of the truth of one or the other.  To do otherwise is willful ignorance.  A commitment to “we will not divide” – albeit out of good motives – becomes intellectually and interpretively irresponsible and unacceptable.  To declare both soteriologies “acceptable” is to abandon sound reasoning along with biblical inspiration and authority so as to grasp at the spurious, frail reed of ecclesial “unity.”  Rather than accepting the resolution, “we will not divide over [these differences]”, the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy requires the resolution “together we will discern the truth from among these differences.” Sadly, it seems that the evangelical church does not even have the intellectual integrity to take the first step towards discerning the truth here, which is to face the fact that there are two incompatible gospels in the church and that this should not be.  Presently, evangelicals are in a state of denial of this fact.  If the fact that the essentials of the gospel are wrapped up in this controversy is not going to be faced head-on, then the gospel is not as essential as is claimed and the search for the truth of the gospel has been abandoned.  Without resolving to define the gospel with more precision, all talk about how the gospel is essential to ministry or the central purpose for a ministry’s existence is at best to continue to propagate the present ambiguity and confusion and at worst disingenuous and hypocritical.  The word “gospel” will just continue to be bandied about without concern for its biblical meaning and content.  Therefore, the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy will never be resolved unless the hermeneutical divide that is at the root of this controversy is given the attention it deserves.


[1] Email response of Oct. 28, 2011 from the CRI research consultant Warren Nozaki to the following questions posed to Hank Hanegraaff: “1) Do you believe that the Reformed Calvinist soteriological doctrines (i.e., unconditional election, limited atonement, etc.) are logically, morally and epistemologically coherent with the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news?”  If so, why?  If not, why not?  2) Are logical, moral, epistemological, and biblical coherence and consistency essential to a sound, biblical hermeneutic and reliable indicators of the validity of one’s interpretations?”

               Mr. Nozaki confirmed that “predestination is a biblical concept” but that “Hank Hanegraaff does not believe in the doctrine known as the “bondage of the will,”…that we cannot therefore choose Christ apart from God first regenerating us.  Hank believes in libertarian freedom, which entails that people possess the ability to choose one option as well as choose against that option…he [Hank] affirms eternal security; however, his view of the will is more consistent with the Arminian position.”  Nozaki then went on to quote Mr. Hanegraaf in his book Resurrection where he supports his view of libertarian freedom with the doctrine of hell and the nature of divine love.  Mr. Nozaki then stated, “Hank, even though denying aspects of Calvinism, is quick to add that these issues concern in-house debates over which Christians should not divide.  CRI employs Calvinists and non-Calvinists and does not take an official position for or against Calvinism.”

               Note that the essential points of my questions were not directly addressed.  I learned that Hank is committed to libertarian freedom and therefore still wonder why the dichotomy between his position and the Calvinist position does not profoundly affect his view about the biblical truth of Calvinism and therefore why CRI has no “official position for or against Calvinism.”  It appears that there is more concern for unity and not being divisive than for identifying and proclaiming the truth.  CRI’s motto is “…because Truth matters.”  If “Truth” really matters it is hard to understand Hank’s reluctance to take a stand given what is at stake in the Calvinist view with respect to the truth of the gospel.  Besides, the “divide” already exists, and the differences can only be resolved on the basis of enunciating the biblical truth and justifying it as biblical truth on the basis of a hermeneutic of coherence.

[2] See my “Open Letter to the NCCA 2019 – Why Truth Still Matters.”

[3] Dr. Richard Land, President of Southern Evangelical Seminary, would answer in the negative.  He affirms a hermeneutic marked by congruence, non-contradiction, non-confusion and genuineness and truth in delivery.  He writes that the, “…Word of God does not contradict itself,” and that “Christians must always seek an ever deepening and widening grasp of a totality of doctrine that is as congruent with as much of scriptural revelation as possible.  What understanding of a doctrine of election is in accord with the entire body of revealed Scripture – not just with certain proof texts?”  He also states, “We must seek a conceptual understanding of each doctrine of the faith, including election, that allows us to preach on every passage of Scripture without contradiction, confusion, or hesitancy, and without ignoring some “problem” passages in favor of others more easily harmonized with our particular doctrinal model.” – Richard Land, “Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation from a “Eternal Now” Perspective” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, eds., David L. Allen & Steve W. Lemke, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 45-46, 51.

[4] https://www.efca.org/resources/document/theological-definitions-positions  Last accessed Nov. 8, 2018.  See also https://www.efca.org/resources/document/efca-distinctives  Last accessed Nov. 8, 2018.

See also “Evangelical Convictions” of the EFCA.

[5] Ibid.  Third question.  Second, third and fifth paragraphs.  Last accessed Aug. 8, 2018.

[6] Either that, or you will have a Calvinist statement of salvation that will present the gospel as truly “good news” as a non-Calvinist would state it, but such a statement only ends up being grossly inconsistent and contradictory with their underlying Calvinist soteriology.  The most extreme example of this I have run across is on the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) website.  They are a member of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).  Their statement about “God’s Plan of Salvation” is completely inconsistent with the Westminster Confession of Faith that they hold to “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” http://www.pcaac.org/resources/wcf/  Compare the soteriology in the Westminster Confession of Faith with the soteriology and gospel message in “God’s Plan of Salvation.”  http://www.pcaac.org/what-we-believe/the-good-news/   The inconsistencies are shocking.  Except for two references to “His people,” a phrase Calvinists use to refer to the unconditionally elect (“God instead set in motion His plan to save His people from sin and judgment…” and “God’s plan is to save His people from their sins…”), none of what is said in “God’s Plan of Salvation” is coherent with the soteriological doctrines in the Westminster Confession.

               This appears to me to be an example of the extreme degree of logical denial and duplicity a denomination can fall into in this matter of salvation and the gospel.  This denial and acceptance of incoherence (they call it “mystery”) is inherent in what it means to think as a Calvinist.  It results from the Calvinist’s theistic determinism held fast by traditionalism over a hermeneutic of coherence that takes philosophical reflection (principles of reason) and moral intuition (moral common sense) on board.  There is a willful denial of the incoherence between the two documents which ruins the credibility of the PCA as duplicitous in this regard.  Such denial is becoming common place in many evangelical churches today.  Those who simply ignore this also diminish the credibility of Christianity and the evangelical church.  Both documents can be accessed at https://pcanet.org/about-the-pca-2-2-2/  Last accessed 10/14/2018.

[7] The Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is an example of this.  It reads as follows:

We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.

We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.

We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.

We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.

We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.

We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

               Note that in regard to salvation and the gospel as “good news” the statement is vacuous.  There is nothing here about the gospel of salvation as “good news” because there is no mention of the applicability of this salvation to every person and how it is appropriated by the sinner to themselves.  That is, it lacks the assurance that this salvation can be appropriated by each and every person by faith in Christ.  These have been removed for the sake of denominational accommodation, unity and non-division (most likely in deference to Calvinism), but the result is to have extracted the “good news” which is the essence of the gospel.  –  NAE Statement of Faith, http://www.nae.net/statement-of-faith/  Last accessed 10/14/2018.

[8] https://www.efca.org/resources/document/efca-statement-faith  Last accessed 10/24/2018.

[9] https://www.efca.org/resources/document/efca-statement-faith  Last accessed Aug. 1, 2018.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Examples of substantive statements of faith would be those Calvinist statements like the Westminster Confession or London Baptist Confession.  Albeit inconsistent in themselves, they state their soteriology clearly.  Another is The Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.  Although I would take issue with the approach in the third paragraph for the reasons given above, we should note that for the Traditionalist (non-Calvinist) a hermeneutic of coherence is essential for discerning the validity of one’s exegesis and interpretation of the biblical texts.  Consistency is a concern.  The preamble states, “We believe that most Southern Baptists, regardless of how they have described their personal understanding of the doctrine of salvation, will find the following statement consistent with what the Bible teaches.” (Emphasis mine)  The statement is to be commended for the clarity achieved by contrasting the two positions.  http://connect316.net/the-statement/  Last accessed 10/24/2018.

[12] In 2005 the EFCA Spiritual Heritage Committee determined that the gospel, the evangel, will be used as the organizing principle (Mark 1:15) around which they consider making revisions to the Statement of Faith.  See Greg Strand, EFCA Statement of Faith: Introduction, https://www.efca.org/sites/default/files/resources/docs/2013/04/sof-proposed-revision-introduction.pdf  p. 13.  Also, “…we desired to draft a SOF that reflects who we are, Evangelicals who center on the gospel, which meant that the SOF was going to focus on the essentials of the faith, not specific and unique identity markers or [sic] distinctive.  We believed that our key distinctive is that we were gospel people, focused on the gospel and [sic] his is what united us together in the Free Church.” Footnote 2, p. 14.  Last accessed Aug 1, 2018.

               The claim to be “Evangelicals who center on the gospel” and “gospel people, focused on the gospel” while accepting two mutually exclusive views of soteriology and hence the gospel, while also declaring these as non-essential, is confused, endorses soteriological relativism, and renders soteriology and the gospel so void of substantive content as to become almost meaningless.

[13] https://www.efca.org/resources/document/theological-definitions-positions  Third paragraph.  Last accessed Aug. 1, 2018.

[14] David L. Allen, The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical View, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), xviii – xix.

[15] https://www.churchatcharlotte.org/

[16] See Jim Kallam on Eph. 1:3-10, Nov. 1, 2015 “The Church” Series – “The Plan All Along” and on Eph.1:11-14, Nov. 8, 2015 “The Church” Series – “On Display”  www.churchatcharlotte.org

[17] Email of 11/7/2015.  The reference to not needing to “fight” over this issue was from what he said in his sermon.  I was agreeing with this point.  In the spirit of the EFCA’s “Evangelical Convictions…” dialogue and discussion, not quarrelling are what is needed.

[18] http://newcharlotte.org/our-beliefs  Last accessed 8/24/2018.

[19] Message sent through website July 29, 2018.

[20] Email correspondence of July 30, 2018

[21] Email correspondence of July 30, 2018

[22] Dr. Chris Payne, “Be United, Ephesians 1:3-14”, http://newcharlotte.org/sermons/be-united/ephesians-13-14  Time 21:27 – 36:25

[23] http://newcharlotte.org/our-beliefs  Last accessed 8/24/2018.

[24] 37:18 – 38:17

[25] 40:34 –

[26] Jim Kallam, former pastor of the Church at Charlotte, also does a similar thing in his “For the Gospel” sermon given as part of the “Unified Sermon Series” of the “ForCLT” network.  There are oddities in the presentation that could be taken as a Calvinists attempt to avoid the problem of insincerity in offering the gospel to the non-elect. The question, “Can I invite you in on the greatest story the world will ever hear?” is very strange in light of the gospel being an imperative for each sinner.  Another oddly worded phrase is the conditional statement, “If you’ve been let in on what God did through Jesus, if that’s become a part of your story.”  What is meant by “let in on?”  It has the connotation of being “let in on” something secret as someone more special than others. The gospel is not a secret for a limited number of special people as in Calvinism.  What is meant by “if that’s become part of your story?”  It’s as if the gospel may or may not have become part of a person’s “story” based on whether or not one is elect and apart from the person’s response to it.  Again, hints of Calvinism. What’s one’s “story?”  How does “what God did through Jesus” become part of one’s “story?”  In contrast to all this, we should assure all people of God’s love in Christ and call all people to salvation in Christ.  We can, on biblical grounds, state that once people have heard the gospel, they either accepted Christ as their personal savior or continue to reject him to their own condemnation.  – Jim Kallam, “For the Gospel” sermon, (Unified Sermon Series),  https://s3.amazonaws.com/cac-podcasts/9-9-18+SouthPark.mp3  See also www.chruchatcharlotte.org

               See the following website for more information on the “ForCLT Unified Sermon Series.” https://forcharlotte.org/resources/unified-sermon-series/

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

[28] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), X.2, p. 88.

[29] See Galatians 1

[30] Ken Schmidt, “The Gospel Unites Us: Now What?”  Part 3 from the series “Staycation.” http://newcharlotte.org/sermons/staycation/the-gospel-unites-us-now-what   July 22, 2018.  Time 7:27 – 8:35

[31] Ken Schmidt, 9:39 – 12:37

[32] Ken Schmidt, 15:32 – 17:20

[33] Ken Schmidt, 18:24 – 18:39

[34] Ken Schmidt, 35:00 – 36:34

[35] Clark H. Pinnock, “Introduction,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 11.

[36] They are, what is the nature of God’s sovereignty?  Has God predetermined “whatsoever comes to pass?”  Is there such a thing as genuine human freedom of thought, belief, desire, will, decision, and action?  What is the biblical meaning of human freedom, predestination and election?  Has God predetermined who would be saved and who would not?  Does election refer to God’s choice of which sinners he would save unconditionally?  Did Christ die for all people or only for the elect?  What is God’s disposition, salvific or otherwise, towards me?  Does God love me?  How can I know?  Can all sinners believe the gospel and be saved?  What is the nature of faith?  Is it morally significant and logically acceptable to maintain that if a sinner cannot believe and be saved because they are not among the unconditionally elected, yet they are genuinely and sincerely called to believe by God and will be held responsible by God for their rejection and unbelief?  What is the precise content of the gospel message?  How can I know I am saved?  Et al.

[37] Gal. 1:8,9.

[38] Jim Kallam, “For the Gospel” sermon, (Unified Sermon Series),  https://s3.amazonaws.com/cac-podcasts/9-9-18+SouthPark.mp3  (0:51 – 1:07)  See also www.chruchatcharlotte.org  and  https://forcharlotte.org/resources/unified-sermon-series/

See also my paper “Agreement on the Gospel? : An Assessment of the Claim of the “ForCLT” Unified Sermon Series”, Nov. 9, 2018.

[39] D. A. Carson, “Church, Authority in the,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 249.

[40] D. A. Carson, “Church, Authority in the,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 251.

[41] D. A. Carson, “Church, Authority in the,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 251.

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