A Perspective on the Historical Development of “Calvinism”

There is much to be said about Calvinism among American Evangelicals today. In my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, there has been no small amount of concern about the recent resurgence of Calvinistic theology and people claiming to be Calvinists.

In this brief essay, I merely want to offer a fast-paced perspective of how some of the foundational doctrines of Calvinism developed and were articulated throughout church history. This is obviously not an exhaustive report or historical volume. I simply want to offer the average reader an opportunity to gain an introductory perspective of how we arrived here in American Evangelicalism.

John Calvin did not invent “Calvinism”

The five doctrines, known as the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “TULIP,” or “the Doctrines of Grace,” were not articulated as “five points” until sometime in the 1800s. John Calvin was born in 1509 and he died in 1564. As a matter of fact, the doctrines in focus in the “Five Points of Calvinism” were only collected in a group when students of a Dutch theologian, named Jacobus Arminius, protested these doctrines in a town called Dort, in the Netherlands (1618-19). Arminius was born in 1560, so he was 4 years old when Calvin died, and his students never met Calvin at all.

I will say more about the “Five Points of Calvinism” in a bit, and I will even give a brief overview of the acrostic “TULIP,” but before I do, let me show you that these doctrines were already in focus way back in the early church. In fact, the “T” in TULIP (standing for Total Depravity) can at least be traced back to a theological debate among churchmen in the fourth-century.

Augustine vs. Pelagius on Total Depravity[1]

Late in the fourth-century (like 398-99 AD), a North-African bishop by the name of Augustine wrote the longest prayer known to man. It was a 300+ page autobiography, emphasizing his own conversion to Christ from paganism, which was entirely written as a prayer. It was a best-selling book at that time, and you can still find it in print today because Christians have recognized Augustine’s tremendous biblical insight and humble honesty.

In this book, Augustine wrote,

My whole hope is in Your exceedingly great mercy and that alone. You command self-control from us, but I am sure that no one can have self-control unless You give it to him. Grant what You command and command what You will (or in some translations: whatever pleases You).”

Essentially, Augustine was claiming that fallen humans (i.e. sinful humans after Genesis 3) cannot do anything genuinely good unless or until God enables them to do so. This claim is basic to the doctrine known as “Total Depravity.”

Total Depravitydoes not mean that fallen humans are as bad as they could be… as though a sinner could not possibly be any worse than he or she already is. We all know that we could be much worse than we are right now. Instead, Total Depravityis the doctrinal understanding that fallen humans are affected by sin in such a way so that no part of the person is left untouched by sin (our body, our minds, and our will or desires).

Augustine’s view of fallen humanity was built upon biblical descriptions of the sinful corruption of fallen humans.

For example, Romans 3:10-12says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Or Ephesians 2:1-3speaks of the deadness of man’s soul and the corruption of his desires. The Apostle Paul wrote to Christians, saying, “you were [once] dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Pelagius, an ascetic monk and theologian who lived during the same time period as Augustine, read Augustine’s book and didn’t like that particular part of Augustine’s prayer.

Pelagius said, “How can God hold humans responsible for not doing what they cannot do? Man is either utterly free to obey the commands of God, or God’s commands are unjust… God is unjust.”

Pelagius argued that even fallen humans must be able to obey God’s commands without God’s help (i.e. without God’s gracious and active intervention). Whatever sinful corruption humans suffer after the fall of Adam, Pelagius argued, these effects have not taken away man’s ability to do genuine good and obey God’s commands.

Unlike Augustine, Pelagius does not have any surviving works today, so historians don’t know very much about him. His students were the ones who picked up his cause against Augustine’s doctrines of man’s depravity and God’s sovereignty, and the doctrinal dispute came to a head at the Council of Ephesusin 431 AD. That gathering of Christian pastors and theologians declared Pelagianism an officialheresy– a doctrine that is outside of the umbrella of Christianity (an unbiblical teaching of a First-Level doctrine).

On a side note: Southern Baptists have historically agreed with Augustine and the Council of Ephesus on this matter. The Baptist Faith and Message states, “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” Therefore, anyone who disagrees with Augustine or John Calvin on the nature of fallen humans must also admit that they disagree with Southern Baptists.

Though Pelagianism was outed as an official heresy in 431 AD, a similar doctrinal teaching emerged among Christians only about 100 years later (called Semi-Pelagianism). In this modified view, Semi-Pelagians claimed that fallen humans do not have the ability to do genuinely good things, but they argued that there was a general distribution of God’s grace among all humans, which brought every person back to a neutral position from which they could choose to do good or evil (this is known as “prevenient grace”).

In 529 AD, Semi-Pelagianism was also condemned as a heresy at the Council of Orange(in southern France). For the next 1,000 years, Augustine’s view of natural man’s inability to choose genuine good (Total Depravity) was the standard of orthodox Christian doctrine in Western Christianity. And yet, Semi-Pelagianism remained a constant doctrinal rival to the orthodox view, sometimes gaining and sometimes losing ground. In fact, the doctrine of “prevenient grace” was a dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestants during the Reformation.

Protestant Reformers vs. Roman Catholic Church on “Monergism”

During the Protestant Reformation, this millennium-old doctrinal dispute came to the fore again. This time theological terms were coined to describe the work of regeneration (This is the biblical term associated with the concept of being “born again”). The argument was set something like this: If fallen humans are in fact unable to do genuine good unless or until God enables them to do so(i.e. Total Depravity), then God must be the one who acts alone upon dead sinners to make them spiritually alive and desirous of genuine good.

Of course, this kind of reasoning was not invented by mere philosophy. This argumentation is directly drawn from Scripture. Consider Ephesians 2:1-8.

1 You were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

The doctrinal divide between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church is best summed up in two words: Monergismand Synergism.

Monergism literally means “one unit working.” Monergism, in our theological discussion, declares “God alone works to regenerate the sinner.” In other words, regeneration is an act or work of God’s grace, to which the sinner responds with faith and repentance… one has faith because he/she is born again… one is not born again because of faith.

The Protestant Reformers argued that fallen humans can do nothing to save themselves or even to make themselves savable. Salvation (particularly regeneration) is by the grace of God alone, and the sinner is merely a passive beneficiary of this miraculous divine work.

Synergism literally means “units working together.” Synergism, in our theological discussion, declares “God and the sinner cooperate in the work of regeneration.” In other words, regeneration is the cooperative work of both God and the sinner… one is born again partly because he/she has faith and partly because God graciously works spiritual life in them.

The Roman Catholic Church argued that fallen humans are indeed sinful, but God distributes “prevenient grace” to all people everywhere, which brings humans to something of a neutral state in their desire for good and evil. The sinner cooperates with this “prevenient grace” in order to prepare himself/herself (by doing genuine good) to receive God’s saving grace. In this way the Roman Catholic Church brought Semi-Pelagianism back from the heresy trashcan.

On a side note: If you are wondering where Southern Baptists land on this issue, we may look again to the Baptist Faith and Message, which says, “As soon as they [i.e. humans] are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God [i.e. God’s commands].” The Baptist Faith and Message goes on to say, “Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit [i.e. brought about by the Holy Spirit] through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note that the Baptist Faith and Message says that ‘repentance’ and ‘faith’ are how the sinner ‘responds’ to the gracious work of regeneration. In other words, regeneration is the act of God alone, which precedes faith… This is a clear affirmation of Monergism. So, again we find that those who disagree with John Calvin (also a Monergist) are in disagreement with Southern Baptists as well.

Before there was such a thing as a Southern Baptist, and even before John Calvin was a theologian, Protestant Reformers were Monergists. Peter Waldo (born 1140), John Wycliffe (born in 1330), Jan Hus (born 1369), Martin Luther (born 1483), Ulrich Zwingli (born in 1484), Thomas Cranmer (born 1489), William Farel (born 1489), Martin Bucer (born 1491), and William Tyndale (born in 1494) were all Monergists. John Calvin wasn’t born until 1509, and Martin Luther published his masterful book (Bondage of the Will), describing the inability of man’s will and the necessity of God’s monergistic work, when John Calvin was only 16 years old.

The reason for citing all of this is, once again, to say that John Calvin did not invent what is known today as “Calvinism.” The “Five Points of Calvinism” or “TULIP,” as we shall see, is the summary of doctrines that have deep roots in Christian history. But, Christians have been looking to the Bible a long time for answers to all kinds of questions. Many of the questions that center on salvation are at the heart of Christian doctrine.

The Five Points of Calvinism

As I mentioned earlier, what often goes under the heading of “Calvinism” today was not the invention of John Calvin. In fact, anyone who has read Calvin’s writings would know that Calvin would be horrified to learn that Christians have used his name to label any doctrine. Calvin was a bookish introvert, who almost never spoke or wrote about himself. His life’s work was given to studying, preaching, and teaching the Bible. Many Christian theologians today think that Calvin was the best Christian mind up to that point in history (the 1500s), but Calvin wanted nothing of any celebrity status. At Calvin’s request, his body was buried in a mass unmarked grave when he died, because he did not want any fuss made about his burial place.

So where did the so-called “Five Points” come from? When did the TULIPs bloom? Well, simply put, it is not clear exactly when the acrostic “TULIP” was fist formulated.

As I said before, it was sometime in the 1800s when TULIP was first used to describe the “Five Points of Calvinism.” But before then, there was a statement that came out from a council of churchmen in the Netherlands, which articulated the doctrines in summary form. It is important to remember, however, the “Five Points” stated at this gathering were only in response to “five disagreements” that an outside group raised in dispute.

Synod of Dort: The Origins of TULIP

Jacobus Arminius was a Dutch theologian (1560-1609) who lived a generation after John Calvin. Arminius thought highly of Calvin, saying, “Next to the study of the Scriptures… I exhort my students to read Calvin’s Commentaries carefully and thoroughly… for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture.” However, Arminius disagreed with some of Calvin’s theology. Arminius believed that God elected to save some sinners because God knew these sinners would respond positively to the gospel in the future. Arminius also believed that sinners could restrain the renewing power of the Holy Spirit and that Christians could lose their salvation if they did not persevere.

Calvin and Arminius never met (Calvin died when Arminius was 4 years old), but Arminius’s followers (known as the “Remonstrance”) organized their opposition to some of Calvin’s doctrines about 50 years after Calvin died. It all came to a head at the Synod of Dort(1618-19).[2]

The Remonstrance were 42 ministers, influenced by Arminius’ writings against some of Calvin’s theology. They petitioned the state to ask for theological allowance since Semi-Pelagianism was already classified as a heresy 1,000 years earlier. At that time in history, most Reformers were magisterial (meaning they still operated inside of a church structure that was connected to the civil magistrate). Religious freedom as we know it in America today isn’t really a thing until very recently in human history.

The Five Articles of the Remonstranceare:

Conditional Predestination: God predestines some sinners for salvation, and this predestination is conditionally based on God’s foreknowledge about each person’s anticipated faith or unbelief.

Universal Atonement: Christ died for all humans, and God intended His sacrifice for all humans, but only those sinners who accept this atoning work will be saved.

Saving Faith or Serious Depravity: Sinful and Fallen humanity is unable to attain saving faith, unless he is regenerated and renewed by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Resistible Grace: The grace of God is effective, but it is resistible, so man must cooperate with God’s grace to bring about personal salvation.

Uncertainty of Perseverance: Although God’s grace is abundant, the sinner can lose that grace and become lost even after he has been saved.

The Synod of Dort ended with a judgment against Arminianism, which declared that Arminianism was a heresy alongside Semi-Pelagianism. With this judgment, the Synod produced several “canons” or statements about the doctrine of salvation, some of which became the origins of the “Five Points of Calvinism.” These five statements are commonly listed today in short form with the acrostic TULIP.

A Summary of TULIP

Regrettably, many who call themselves “Calvinists” today are merely intending to say that they affirm somewhere between 3 and 5 of the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Calvin is so much more than these isolated points. Calvin’s commentaries on various books of the Bible are a treasure to any Christian who desires to understand the depth of Scripture. Calvin’s life-long work, the “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” are a touchstone for almost every systematic theology book written in the last 500 years. I have personally found Calvin’s “Little Book on the Christian Life” to be one of the most praise-inspiring books I have ever read.

Now, don’t forget that Calvin was a sinful human just like everyone else. I am not saying that he was perfect, or that anyone should try to follow him above or even beside Christ. I am saying that Calvin was a hero of the Christian Faith, and we are fools to disregard or disparage someone like Calvin – especially if we haven’t even read anything he actually said for himself.

Another regrettable reality, when it comes to “Calvinism” today, is that the acrostic “TULIP” provides us with some less-than-helpful phrases. The flower is easy to remember, but its theological precision is quite lacking.

Here are the Five Points of Calvinismor TULIP:

Total Depravity: Fallen humans, since Adam, are affected by sin in every aspect of who they are – their bodies, minds, and wills/desires; and they are incapable of naturally doing anything genuinely good (Rom. 3:10-18).

Unconditional Election: God elects some sinners unto salvation, whereby they become beneficiaries of God’s blessings, not because of any condition in them, but according to the riches of God’s gracious grace and the purposes of His divine will (Eph. 1:3-6).

Limited Atonement: Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross is priceless, sufficient to cover all sin and all sinners, but Christ’s work was intentionally for those who believe and not for anyone else (Jn. 10:14-16).

Irresistible Grace: God alone causes sinners to be born again (Monergism), through the proclamation of the gospel and powerful work of His Holy Spirit. All who are born again possess new hearts with which they respond in loving affection for God, trusting and repenting by His grace (Eph. 2:1-10).

Perseverance of the Saints: All sinners whom God has elected unto Himself, those for whom Christ has died, those God has made spiritually alive, will grow in personal holiness in this life and will persevere unto glory (Rom. 8:28-39).

Not every Christian will immediately agree with these five points of Calvinism, and many Calvinists have even found some disagreement with some of these points. The object of this essay is not to convince anyone to be a Calvinist, or even to explain what Calvinism is. I have simply endeavored to give an introduction to the historical development of some of the central doctrines of Calvinism.

[1]See a very helpful breakdown of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism here: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/semi-pelagian.html

[2]See a great historical and theological explanation of the Synod of Dort here: https://tabletalkmagazine.com/article/2018/06/the-synod-of-dort/

Is ‘Ave Maria’ really a Christmas song?

If you are like me, then you probably love this time of year for many reasons. I especially love Christmas decorations, meals, and music. It is marvelous to hear “Joy to the world, the Lord has come… Let earth receive her king!” being announced as a proclamation everywhere, even if most listeners don’t notice the strong Messianic themes of such a song.

However, not all Christmas songs are so glorious. Some are just silly, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman, and yet others are insidious. Now, I don’t mean to be an alarmist, nor do I intend to nit-pick all theologically inaccurate Christmas music, but I want to toss out a friendly reminder that Christians ought to be choosy about what they embrace as Christ-honoring carols.

Listen to whatever music you like, and enjoy the jingling bells of Christmas, but don’t assume that every Christmas song is a tribute to the Christ who ought to be the central focus of Christmas.

Take ‘Ave Maria,’ for example. This song has a beautiful arrangement. Who isn’t amazed by the range and pitch of this incredible music? I am especially impressed with Andrea Bocelli’s rendition… What a voice!

But, Christians should be more interested in the content, the lyrics, of a song than others. Christianity is a religion of content, substance, truth, and historical and theological propositions. Christians believe that Jesus really was born of the virgin Mary, that this God-man lived to die, and that Jesus conquered death forevermore for all those who would believe, trust and follow Him. Christians believe (as the Scriptures teach) that Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and sinful people, and Christians seek grace from God through Christ alone for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

The song Ave Maria speaks of a different mediator and hope-giver in the hour of death, however. See the lyrics below, the Latin on the left and English on the right.

Ave Maria

Gratia plena

Maria, gratia plena

Maria, gratia plena

Ave, ave dominus

Dominus tecum

Benedicta tu in mulieribus

Et benedictus

Et benedictus fructus ventris         

Ventris tuae, Jesus

Ave Maria

Ave Maria

Mater Dei

Ora pro nobis peccatoribus

Ora pro nobis, Ora, ora pro nobis peccatoribus

Nunc et in hora mortis

Et in hora mortis nostrae

Et in hora mortis nostrae

Et in hora mortis nostrae

Ave Maria

Hail, Mary

Full of grace.

Mary full of grace

Mary full of grace

Blessed are you among women

Hail, hail, the Lord

The Lord is with you

And blessed

And blessed is the fruit of your womb

Your womb, Jesus

Hail, Mary

Hail, Mary

Mother of God

Pray for us sinners

Pray for us, pray, pray for us sinners

Now and at the hour of death

And at the hour of death

And at the hour of death

And at the hour of death

Hail, Mary

This song of prayer and admiration for Mary is a mixture of Scriptural truth (blessings upon Mary and her role in giving birth to Jesus) and terrible falsehood (Mary as intercessor and hope in the hour of one’s death).

Mary cannot save or rescue or even intercede for you. She cannot do these things even for herself. Mary, like all other humans, is a guilty sinner before God apart from the person and work of Christ on her behalf. Don’t sing to Mary; don’t pray to Mary; and certainly, don’t place your hope for grace in Mary.

If you are a sinner in need of grace, then the Christmas story has much hope to offer you. God has sent Jesus Christ into the world to live and die and conquer death for guilty sinners. This message of the gospel is what Christmas is all about, and I recommend that you give every moment you are able to the investigation of the singularly spectacular hero of Christmas – Jesus Christ.

What is a Pastor supposed to do?

The ministry of the word of God is the sum and substance of the work of every pastor. While many pastors and churches may argue that some other task can (or even should) supersede the pastoral preaching and teaching and modeling of God’s word, none can do so on the basis of Scripture. Therein, it seems to me, lies the problem.

In our day, it appears there are generally three distinct categories on a spectrum of pastoral ministry philosophy.

Pastoral Ministry Philosophy

One idea is that a pastor is much like a self-improvement coach, whose main job is to motivate, inspire, and encourage spiritually-minded underachievers. Pastors who apply this philosophy are usually fond of highlighting personal potential and using the language of pop-psychology, and they are often quite reassuring and positive. These pastors seem to value mutual affirmation and inclusivity.

Another conceptual sketch of the pastoral role is akin to an organizational CEO. In this model of pastoral ministry, the pastor is the visionary leader with an innovative and effective strategy, which can skillfully assimilate attendees through pathways that can be noticeably illustrated on a structural flowchart. These pastors often value pragmatic efficiency and results.

The third general category of pastoral ministry philosophy perceives the ultimate responsibility of the pastor to be centered upon thinking about, teaching, and living according to the Bible. Pastors who understand themselves to be ministers of God’s word are compelled to spend time reading and thinking about the Bible. These pastors also talk about the Bible when they are with others, and they make time to help other people read and think about the Bible.

The three categories I have described here are distinct from one another, but they are not separate. In fact, you’ll probably notice all three (to greater and lesser degrees) in just about any pastor you measure. Pastors should, in a sense, be like a sports coach, urging their hearer on towards personal growth and action. Pastors must also, like a business executive, manage much in a local congregation. However, a pastor’s responsibility to a local church is first-and-foremost the ministry of the word of God.

A Ministry of the Word

In Acts chapter 6, we see this idea emphasized in the division of labor among pastors/elders and deacons (though these office titles are not specifically stated there). There was a dispute about how to best administrate the distribution of resources to needy people among a congregation. The pastors/elders refused to be distracted from their primary responsibility to pray and minister the word of God, so they appointed godly men to serve in the needed administrative task. This shows a division of labor, but it does not sufficiently explain what the pastoral ministry of the word is. For an explanation of such a weighty responsibility, let’s look at a powerful charge from one minister of the word to another.

The Apostle Paul said to his younger disciple and friend,

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:1–2).

I cannot think of a stronger charge. In this sobering and inspiring charge, we can account for the “why” and the “how” of a word-centered pastoral ministry.

How?

Pastors are to be ministers of the word of God by preaching and by readily reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with complete patience and teaching. This is an all-of-life description with emphases on patience and preparedness, and a special attention to preaching. I understand preaching to be a kind of teaching accompanied by a call to repentance, faith, and reformation.

Why?

Pastors are to be ministers of the word of God because Christ is present, Christ is the judge now and forevermore, and Christ is coming with the fullness of His kingdom. It is Christ’s words that judge; His words are the blessing of life and the curse of death (Jn. 5:28-29). Christ is present in His words, and all His judgments are based on His words (Jn. 14:23-24).

In the end, the words of Christ alone will last (1 Pet. 1:22-25), and this compels the minister of God’s word to speak with boldness and confidence (2 Tim. 2:15) as a shepherd of God’s sheep who is destined to meet his glorious King face to face (2 Cor. 4:1-6).

May God raise up many godly men to pastor with such a perspective and conviction.

Who has authority in a Local Church?

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands.

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands. Just think about parental authority over children.

At the moment, to my knowledge, only exceptionally aloof social academics are arguing for children to be removed from all parental authority. Anyone who has ever tried to enjoy dinner at a restaurant with my family is glad to see me and/or my wife exercising authority over our unruly toddler, who would love nothing more than to wreak havoc in the world.

When parents express godly and righteous authority over their children, they demonstrate the character and nature of God (albeit imperfectly).  This is exactly what is to be done in the context of a local church as well.

If pastors/elders and fellow church members are passive and aloof towards sin in the congregation, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders and fellow church members are loving disciplinarians, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders waver or become vague in their description of the actual content and implications of the gospel, then the members will think precision is unachievable and/or unimportant.

There are three ways I would like to emphasize the mutual responsibility of pastors/elders and church members in the exercise of authority in the context of a local church. After these, I would like to articulate a distinct responsibility for those who lead as pastors/elders among a local church.

Delegated Pastoral Authority

First, pastoral authority is a delegated authority, derived from God’s word and the pastor/elder’s fidelity to preaching and teaching Scripture (2 Tim. 4:1-2). The authority any pastor or group of pastors wields does not emanate from the origin of the person or the office. Rather, the authority springs from and is inextricably tethered to God’s word.

It is as though the pastors or elders can give no authoritative command that is not accompanied by a biblical citation. Of course, many pastoral decisions will have to be based on biblical principle and wise prudence, but these should come as recommendations and not commands.

Vital Congregational Authority

Second, the local congregation is responsible to hold pastors/elders accountable in their teaching (2 Tim. 4:3-4). While congregations may be tempted to acquire preachers and leaders who will lead according to the desires of the congregation, the membership of the church is best served by those leaders who lead to please God and not men. Therefore, the congregation has an authoritative responsibility to acquire and encourage godly, faithful, biblically-courageous leadership.

This responsibility towards maintaining suitable leadership stems from the congregational authority to bring members in and put members out of the local church family. Baptism is the communal and public initiation of any person who becomes a disciple of Christ (Matt. 28:19), and this is the ceremony by which a local congregation affirms and covenants to mutual discipleship with an individual believer.

As time goes by, the congregation bears the responsibility of holding one another accountable to Christ’s commands, and even taking disciplinary action against those who refuse to submit to Christ (Matt. 18:15-20). This is not, however, an authority given to any individual member or any group among the membership. Rather, this authority of bringing members in and putting members out of the local church family is to be exercised “when [they] are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4-5).

Authoritative Leadership

Third, pastors/elders are to shepherd a local church family by providing oversight and leading by example (1 Pet. 5:1-5). Pastoring among a church family is no dictatorship, and neither is it a pure democracy, where leaders simply implement popular opinion.

Pastors/elders are to oversee, which connotes management, administration, and leadership. Pastors/elders are also to exemplify spiritual maturity, which indicates accessibility, familiarity, and personal care. By affectionate oversight and patient modeling, pastors/elders are to authoritatively lead among a local church.

Enjoying Good Authority

Fourth and finally, church members are called to obey their pastors/elders, and these leaders are warned that they will give an account to Christ for how their shepherd those under their care (Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28). This idea, especially as it is conveyed in Hebrews 13:17, is quite potent for pastors/elders and church members alike. It clearly distinguishes the authoritative responsibility of pastors/elders, and it powerfully encourages church members to enjoy the benefits of godly leadership. Indeed, godly leadership should be enjoyed and appreciated among the church family.

Summarizing Local Church Authority

In summary, I might say that pastors/elders and their respective congregations are mutually responsible to wield delegated authority.

The congregation’s authority seems to primarily focus on the inclusion and exclusion of members (encompassing the inclusion and exclusion of pastors/elders). Interwoven in this congregational authority is the authority to judge not only the “who” of the church family but also the “what” of the confession that binds the church family together. In this way, the local church guards the purity of the content of what is taught and what is believed among the members, fulfilling the New Testament characteristic of being the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Furthermore, this general “in and out” authority of the congregation is tightly linked to the authority of the pastors/elders, who are responsible to teach and train the congregation according to all of Christ’s commands. The pastoral teaching and training are to be done patiently and in an all-of-life fashion (1 Tim. 4:6-16), but always pointing the hearer back to God’s word as the fountainhead of truth and basis of all good authority.

May God grant that many local churches would experience and embrace this biblical concept of good and right authority.

God’s Sovereignty & Human Responsibility in Evangelism

From very early in Christian history, Christians have wrestled with the Scriptures and with each other over how to understand God’s sovereignty in relation to man’s responsibility. The subject is all-encompassing. Just consider the question, “If God is sovereign, then does man have meaningful freedom to think, speak, or act?”

But the purpose of this brief essay is to focus more narrowly on a specific area of interest, namely the activity of evangelism. More directly, I shall try to answer the question, “What is a proper understanding of the relationship between divine sovereignty and the task of personal evangelism?” In short, I will argue that God’s sovereignty and personal evangelistic activity are both essential to evangelism.

Theologically I am a compatibilist, which means I affirm the compatibility of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility (including real human volition). I believe God is sovereign over whatsoever comes to pass and man is truly and rightly responsible for all he thinks, says, and does.

I do not understand these doctrines as opposed to each other, or incompatible. Rather, I see numerous passages in Scripture that either assume or argue positively for both of these truths side-by-side (see Isaiah 10:5-19; Acts 2:22-24; Acts 4:24-28). With J.I. Packer, I affirm the antinomyand not the incongruity of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Packer writes, 

“What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding; think of the two principles as not rival alternatives but, in some way that at present you do not grasp, complementary to each other… Use each within the limits of its own sphere of reference… teach yourself to think of reality in a way that provides for their peaceful coexistence, remembering that reality itself has proved actually to contain them both.”[1]

And yet, as I said above, this essay is not focusing on such a panoramic vista as is displayed in the vast subject of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Instead, I am focusing on a narrow view, writing from the compatibilist theological position in order to answer a particular question of application.

In the following content, I will argue that God’s sovereignty and personal evangelistic activity are both essential to evangelism in this world. First, I will define evangelism, recognizing that such a term may not always be readily understood. Second, I will demonstrate the necessity of God’s sovereignty in evangelism. Third, I will argue for the necessity of personal evangelistic activity in the task of evangelism. And finally, I will conclude with a call to confident and humble evangelistic activity in the world.

Defining Evangelism

J.I. Packer defines evangelism by saying, “evangelism is just preaching the gospel, the evangel. It is a work of communication in which Christians make themselves the mouthpieces for God’s message of mercy to sinners.”[2] Packer argues that evangelism must never be defined in terms of the “effect achieved,” and, therefore, his definition is quite precise and limited.

Will Metzger agrees with Packer’s warning about confusing the results with our own human responsibility, but Metzger provides an expanded definition of evangelism. Metzger says, “Our task is to faithfully present the gospel message by our lives (what we do) and our lips (what we say).”[3]

I like both of these definitions, especially within the context each author respectively articulated them. But I like Mack Stiles’ definition of evangelism even better than these. Stiles writes, “Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).”[4]

With Packer, the message is rightfully central; and with Metzger, the life and conduct of the messenger are given appropriate weight. Yet with Stiles, the goal or aim of the messenger is affirmed without placing undue responsibility upon the messenger for any result. Of course, God’s glory is always the greatest aim, but this does not obliterate all other aims in evangelism, such as the lesser-but-fitting desire to see the hearer converted.

In my view, the evangelist should humbly understand that God alone can produce spiritual life, and this should keep him or her from thinking evangelistic efforts which do not result in conversion are insignificant.  But the evangelist’s chief end (God’s glory) should not dispel his or her ambition to persuade the hearer. 

If I might be so bold as to rearticulate a definition of evangelism by amalgamating these three, I think evangelism is teaching the gospel, the evangel, as an extension of living a life of love and obedience to Christ with the aim to persuade our hearer to believe and live as we do. This is not to say that evangelism only occurs when the hearer believes and lives as a Christian, but it is to say that conversion is indeed the aim of evangelism. Because of this target, God’s sovereignty is essential to evangelism.

God’s Sovereignty

God’s sovereignty is essential to evangelism because fallen, unregenerate humans are utterly incapable of believing the gospel and loving the God who saves. The special focus here is upon God’s sovereign act of regenerating spiritually-dead sinners. The need for such a divine action, initiated by God Himself, is indisputable when one considers the natural state of fallen, unregenerate humans.

Simply put, if God did not sovereignly and independently initiate an effectively saving relationship with at least some sinners, then no sinner would ever be saved… even if every person on earth heard and understood the gospel.

After Genesis 3, all humans bear the mark of their universal forebear, Adam. That first human’s sin brought a curse upon all creation and especially upon all humans. Not only are all people born guilty, bearing the imputed guilt of that first sin (Rom. 5:12), all humans are also born with a natural inclination towards sin and disobedience. Many passages affirm this reality, but one quintessential text on the matter is found in Ephesians 2. The Apostle Paul wrote,

“you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1–3).

In this passage, we may read of the biblical understanding of human volition, especially in regard to the unregenerate man’s propensity, desire, and affection. Here the metaphor is “death,” but not physical, since “death” is something in the passage that defines people who are physically alive. In verses 2-3, there are at least two ways in which the Apostle Paul explains the form and substance of death, i.e. spiritualdeath(v1). It is portrayed as (1) following a worldly course and a powerful prince; and (2) living in fleshly passions and carrying out fleshly desires. 

Following a worldly course and a powerful prince. A “worldly course” and a “powerful prince” are both examples of language not uncommon to Scripture generally or the Apostle Paul specifically. In fact, Paul uses similar language in Galatians and Colossians. To the Galatian Christians, Paul wrote of their having been “enslaved to the elementary principles of this world” (Gal. 4:3). To the saints in Colossae, he wrote of their “deliverance from the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). The imagery is clear: devilish dominion enslaves all those who are spiritually dead, and these zombies walk according to the dark course or path of their evil prince. This imagery may be unenjoyable to our eyes, but it is not difficult to observe. 

Living in fleshly passions and carrying out desires. These “passions” and “desires” are also frequently found in the biblical text. Paul says that Christians are to renounce “worldly passions” (Titus 2:12), and Peter says Christians are to resist conformity to the “passions” that accompany a “former ignorance” that characterizes unregenerate humanity (1 Peter 1:14). Jesus made a scathing remark against fallen humans, summarizing all of this, when He said, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). In each case, “passions” and “desires” refer to lustful cravings and preferences of the will. When such cravings are qualified by the term “fleshly,” it always conveys the idea of immoral desire.

According to Scripture, fallen man is not in sinful bondage unwillingly, but he gladly wears his chains and even pursues heavier and lengthier ones. If a fallen, unregenerate human is to believe the gospel and love the God who saves, then it must be because of some divine intervention that produces and provokes such faith and love within the person.

This is, in fact, what the Scriptures affirm God does in regenerating sinners (Jn. 3:3-8; Titus 3:4-5). God sovereignly saves sinners, gifting faith to them, and recreating them in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:8-10). God’s sovereignty is essential to evangelism because the aim of evangelism is conversion, and such ambition is absurd without the independent regenerating activity of the sovereign God.

Personal Evangelistic Activity

Personal evangelistic activity is essential to evangelism because God regenerates sinners through the declaration and reception of His word. I believe my argument for the essential element of God’s sovereignty in evangelism requires a greater defense than the essential element of personal evangelistic activity. One reason for this is that our modern western culture is loathed to even consider the possibility that anyone but ourselves could be autonomous.

Indeed, the Scriptures confront us on this foundational point, unambiguously announcing that God alone is truly autonomous. And yet, we are right to also understand a personal responsibility for every human everywhere.

As the Westminster divines put it, all humans are responsible to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Since no human does this (Rom 3:10-18), and an increased awareness of moral propriety only compounds human guilt (Rom. 3:19-20), the reality is that humans are in desperate need of a rescuer. Unless or until God graciously intervenes, humans are under God’s condemnation with no hope in themselves for escape. In other words, humans are naturally guilty, not naturally neutral or innocent.

The beauty of the gospel is that God has actually done something comprehensive and profound to rescue sinners from His own wrath. Namely, God has sent His own Son into the world (Jn. 3:16-18) as a perfectly obedient representative for all who love and trust Him (Rom. 5:15-19) and as a propitiatory sacrifice who suffered under the punishment they deserve (Rom. 3:21-26).

However, all the benefits Jesus Christ earned in this gospel only come to those who are made aware of it and believe it. Therefore, it is necessary for the gospel message to be proclaimed by those who know it to those who do not.

The Scripture succinctly states this very fact. The Apostle Paul wrote, 

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:13-14)

In this brief passage, we see the promise of salvation to all who believe and the essential element of preaching and receiving the gospel. In other words, the evangelist must preach (speak, proclaim, assert) the gospel (the message about the Lord Jesus Christ) in order for anyone to receive the blessings of salvation by believing (trusting, clinging to, and following Jesus).

This passage from Romans 10 logically works backward from “calling on” Christ to the essential starting point of “preaching” the message of Christ. Therefore, personal evangelistic activity is essential to evangelism because God regenerates sinners through the declaration and reception of His word.

Call to Action

The core doctrines of Christianity undergird every assertion in this essay. God holds all people everywhere responsible for their disobedience, and yet God has done everything necessary for sinners to be transferred from their status of guilty rebels to adopted and beloved children of God. Though this work is already accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ, God relates to humans through His word, and none can be saved from their sin and guilt apart from receiving and believing God’s word – namely the gospel.

And yet, simply receiving God’s word is insufficient to cause belief. Through teaching the gospel, God miraculously (according to His good pleasure) causes spiritual life in some of the recipients, which effectively results in true conversion of their heart and life.

God’s sovereignty and personal evangelistic activity are both essential to evangelism. In God’s wisdom and grace, He has ordained that His people play a part in the expansion of His kingdom in the world by proclaiming the regal and merciful message of the gospel. And in God’s lovingkindness, He sometimes grants spiritual life to the recipients of this supremely gracious message.

These realities compel me toward evangelism because I know that I must tell others about Jesus in order for them to believe in Him, and I am eager to see God work the powerful work that only He can by regenerating dead sinners through ordinary means. May God help more Christians be humbled and emboldened by these marvelous truths.


[1]J. I. Packer. (Kindle Location 155). 

[2]J.I. Packer. (Kindle Location 335).

[3]Metzger, Will (p. 56). Explanation added.

[4]Stiles, J. Mack. (p. 27). 


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Metzger, Will. Tell the Truth: The Whole Gospel Wholly by Grace Communicated Truthfully and Lovingly: An Evangelism Training Manual for Group and Individual Use. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012. Kindle Edition.

Packer, J. I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012. Kindle Edition.

Stiles, J. Mack. Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. Kindle Edition.

“Going Public” by Bobby Jamieson

Jamieson’s writing style and authorial posture make this book an enjoyable read for anyone interested in studying a biblical argument for the historic Baptist view of believer’s baptism and the relationship of Christian baptism to church membership.

I found this book to be a likable, direct argument for believer’s baptism as the theological and public signal of someone becoming a Christian. Jamieson’s repeated obeisance to Paedobaptist comrades throughout the book makes him hard to disregard as a rabid sectarian of sorts. He simply and amiably asserts the biblical explanation and defense for believer’s baptism. He then works through the logical implications of this doctrine is such as way so as to present believer’s baptism as essential to the structure of church membership.

Quoting Robert Stein, Jamieson describes “faith going public” by pointing to five “integrally related components” of conversion. “Repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration… and baptism by representatives of the Christian community.”[1] This last phrase carries quite a bit of freight, but this is the basic idea Jamieson explicates throughout the book.

Baptism is integrally related to conversion (necessarily post-dating punctiliar conversion and serving as the public oath-sign), it is the affirmation of Christian representatives, and it is normally carried out in the context of formal Christian communities (i.e. local churches). Jamieson’s book attempts (I think successfully so) to unpack this freight and examine the substance of it.

Baptism, Jamieson argues, is the initiating oath-sign of the New Covenant. It is the formal and public commitment of the new believer to associate him or herself with Christ and Christ’s people. Baptism is also the passport of the kingdom of Christ on earth. It is the affirmation of the new believer by those Christians who are already part of Christ’s visible kingdom on earth.

Jamieson also argues that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the effective signs of what and who a local church is, thereby making church membership structurally visible. All of this collectively forms the basis for arguing the logical implication that baptism (i.e. believer’s baptism) is necessary for church membership. Anyone who neglects this necessary ordinance (even for reasons of conscience and/or conviction) cannot avoid the charge of inconsistency and, ultimately, theological error.

Honestly, I found this book to be a refreshing articulation of what I have been trying to practice among my own church family. It is hard for me to interact very critically with it. I thought Jamieson did a good job of laying out his case, and I believe he also stayed within the boundaries of Scripture and suitable deductions from the diligent and faithful study of it.

I also thought that Jamieson’s book would be quite accessible to the unstudied Christian. I think most Christians would be able to understand the overall argument of this book, and I think the bite-sized chapters and sections would not be too difficult to swallow and digest.

If I might make one negative comment about this book, it would be related to the compliment I gave it above. While the chapters and sections were arranged in a simple and easy-to-follow fashion, I think there was a little too much redundant content. Each chapter began by “putting his cards on the table” with lengthy introductions that essentially presented the chapter’s content in brief. Jamieson offered the reader an option to omit an entire chapter so as to avoid too much repetition, but I wonder if this doesn’t merely make my point that the re-packaged content could have simply been omitted in the final publication.

Overall, I think this book was great. I unreservedly commend it to the reading list of every Christian and curious non-Christian. This book will help the reader better understand the biblical importance of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership.

[1]Jamieson, 38.

Theological Triage: A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

Theological Triage is a phrase coined by Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The phrase joins two concepts: one, diagnosing a medical emergency, and the other, the field of theology. Theological Triage is the art of categorizing theological questions or topics in such a way so as to give priority to some doctrines over others.

In short, all doctrine is important because it is God’s truth articulated, but not all doctrine is equally important.

Some doctrines are essential to the Christian faith, some are essential to doing life together among a local church family, and some are not worth dividing over at all. Furthermore, some doctrines are worth dying for, but not all doctrines should kill or divide us.

I would like to offer 4 categories or “levels” for us to use in our Theological Triage, and my hope is that we will be able to discuss theology without either leaving our convictions or our friendships behind.

First-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians. Some First-Level doctrines are the Triunity of God (Is God one or three or both?), the true divinity and true humanity of Christ (How do we understand Christ as the unique God-man?), the substitutionary atonement of Christ upon the cross (How did Christ substitute Himself under God’s penalty for sinners?), and the exclusivity of Christ as Savior (Is there any way for someone to be saved apart from personal trust in Jesus Christ?). Many of these First-Level doctrines are contained in the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicaean Creed.

These First-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like cooperative evangelistic efforts (Will we participate in an “evangelistic” event with this other group or church? Will we endorse/recommend a parachurch ministry? Will we be associated with a person, group, or activity?). These doctrines also include or exclude certain guest preachers (Will we welcome this or that guest preacher on a Sunday? Will this or that preacher be affirmed as an officiant of a wedding or funeral service in our church building?).

Again, these First-Level doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians… These are the doctrines for which Christians must be willing to die.

Second-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide one local church from another. Some Second-Level doctrines include the authority of Scripture (Are the Scriptures the final court of arbitration when we have a difference of opinion?), believer’s baptism (What does baptism mean and who should be baptized?), church membership (What does membership mean and how is membership to be practiced?), and the Lord’s Supper (What does the Lord’s Supper mean and who should participate?).

These Second-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like our local church pastors (Whose pastoral leadership will you follow?), our local church membership (What church will you join? And, who will you welcome into your church membership?), and our church planting partnerships (Will we offer our local church support for a denomination, or association, or particular church planting effort?).

Again, these Second-Level doctrines divide one local church from another… These are the doctrines over which Christians may join or leave a church.

Third-Level Doctrines

These doctrines vary among Christians (especially in their application) without necessarily dividing Christians or local churches. Some Third-Level doctrines include the details of our eschatology (When will Jesus return? What is the millennium? Who is the anti-Christ?), the intermediate state of the soul (What exactly is existence like between death and final resurrection?), and eternal rewards and punishments (Will there be any difference in the degree to which Christians are rewarded in glory and the lost are punished in judgment?).

These Third-Level doctrines do not have to build any fences or divide any Christian brotherhood, but they may provide areas of fruitful discussion and sanctifying application for Christians in fellowship together. If Christian brothers and sisters are willing and able to discuss these Third-Level doctrines in a loving and patient manner, then these discussions may produce spiritual growth and provide a marvelous occasion for exercising biblical exegesis, faithful living, and humble wisdom.

Again, these doctrines vary among Christians… and I (for one) welcome the kind of spiritual growth and sharpening that careful theological dialogue produces among Christian brothers and sisters. I also pray that Christians will become better able to benefit from dialogues over Third-Level doctrines and the applications thereof.

Fourth-Level Doctrines

These things have no clear imperative from Scripture; they are matters of Christian conscience. These matters are sometimes called “adiaphora,” which literally means “indifferent things” or spiritually neutral things. These Fourth-Level doctrines are the wise, biblically principled grounds from which we make decisions about where to go to school, what job we should take, what party we should attend, what coffee we should drink, or how long we should let our hair grow.

These Fourth-Level doctrines must not build fences, otherwise, we will be attempting to bind the consciences of fellow Christians on matters in which God has left freedom. In fact, dogmatic Fourth-Level doctrines are the very definition of legalism. We ought to give one another grace and charity where God gives us liberty.

I am convinced that we must learn the sensible art of theological triage.

A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

For the sake of our personal spiritual development and for the sake of our church families, we must learn to distinguish those things (those doctrines) that are essential from the non-essential. We must distinguish those vitally important doctrines from the essential ones and the lesser important ones.

For the sake of the gospel, Christians must be able to know the basis of their distinct relationships with other Christians generally, with fellow church members specifically, and with their non-Christian neighbors in the world around them.

Furthermore, we should remember that intellectual and spiritual growth is a process, and where we are now is not where we may always be. By God’s grace, we shall all grow in time.