The March 26, 1997 issue of The Baptist Standard contains an article titled, “Doctrines Lead to ‘Dunghill’ Prof Warns” (p. 12). The article is a blatant condemnation of the Reformed, or Calvinistic viewpoint on salvation. Dr. Estep laments the current growth in a Calvinistic viewpoint among Southern Baptists, a growth that I have personally done everything in my power to encourage.
We should first insist that dialogue and debate is a healthy thing. I wish these issues were being discussed even more openly than they are. Since I am convinced the “doctrines of grace” are biblical, consistent, and compelling, I can only rejoice when people are exposed to these truths. I have seen so many lives changed by these great truths, that I long to see many other believers come to understand the truth about the sovereignty of God, the inability of man, and the power of His grace.
There are many statements in the article that call for attention and response. But none more than the final section titled “Problems with Calvinism.” Here, sadly, we encounter blatant misrepresentation of the Calvinistic position. And it is this very shallow, very inaccurate representation of the Reformed doctrines of grace that call forth this response. Nothing is accomplished when one misrepresents the opposition. “Straw man” argumentation only confuses, it does not help. And yet this is what we find under “Problems with Calvinism.” Let’s look at what is said.
- “First, it is a system of theology without biblical support.”
Such a statement boggles the mind. Certainly Dr. Estep has every right to say that Calvinism is inconsistent with the fullness of biblical revelation, but to assert it is “without biblical support” is to ignore a veritable mountain of evidence to the contrary. One must realize that what is being said here is that Luther (who said more about predestination and election than Calvin did), Calvin, Beza, the Westminster Divines, the Baptist ministers who formed the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (whose obvious and life-long Calvinism Estep attempts to mute elsewhere in his article), Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, James Boice (who is likewise decried elsewhere in Estep’s article), and many others, somehow managed to write extensive Systematic Theologies and shelves full of theological and biblical works, all the time not realizing that they had no biblical support for their system!
The reality of the matter is that when the Arminian system (which, seemingly, is the “Baptist” viewpoint from Dr. Estep’s position) is forced to engage in serious biblical debate against the Calvinistic one, it invariably loses such a contest. Indeed, it has been my experience that many Arminians don’t like the Reformed viewpoint simply because it is too logical! That is, I have often had people say, “That sounds like it is based too much on logic and consistency for me.” The fact of the matter is, the Arminian is hard pressed to walk, verse-by-verse, through such Reformed minefields as Romans 8 and 9, Ephesians 1, and John 6:35-45. I would very much like to invite Dr. Estep to such an adventure: a written explanation of a passage like John 6:35-45, presenting, from the text of Scripture, the validity of the viewpoint expressed by both sides of the debate.
- “It assumes to know more about God and the eternal decrees upon which it is based than God has chosen to reveal in scripture or in Christ. To say God created some people for damnation and others for salvation is to deny that all have been created in the image of God.”
Calvinists strongly believe in sola scriptura, the sufficiency of Scripture to function as the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church. A tenet that cannot be established by clear biblical exegesis should be something a Reformed believer would not bind upon someone’s conscience. It is for this very reason that I must strongly assert that it is not a matter of the Reformed position intruding something into an area where God has remained silent: it is the Arminian position that refuses to affirm, and deal with, the plain statements of Scripture regarding election and grace. I would point out that Dr. Estep’s objection here is little different than the objections Paul himself raised, and answered, in Romans 9:14 and 9:19. For some reason, the Holy Spirit did not feel Paul was going beyond what was fitting in making such blatant and clear assertions as “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (9:16) and “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (9:18).
As to what Dr. Estep means when he says that the recognition of God’s electing grace denies that men are created in the image of God, I cannot say. Reformed theologians affirm the imago Dei in all men, even in those who are justly condemned for their own sins and who are not graciously redeemed. There is no logical connection between the just condemnation of sinners and the idea that they are not created in the image of God. This is a red herring.
- “It also reflects upon both God’s holiness and His justice, as portrayed in the Bible.”
That is does, and in a glorious fashion! The Calvinistic position takes seriously God’s holiness, insisting that only a fully propitiatory sacrifice can avail to remove God’s wrath. It affirms the power and sovereignty of God, and refuses to portray Him as the mere servant of man, hoping and wishing to save, but incapable of bringing this about without the actions of man as an aid. The serious problems, upon deep reflection, are encountered in the Arminian system, which leaves us with no serious means of dealing with evil—outside of seeing it as purposeless, random disorder, outside the ultimate control of God.
- “Further, Calvinism appears to deny John 3:16, John 1:12, Romans 1:16, Romans 10:9-10, Ephesians 2:8-10, and numerous other passages of scripture that indicate, as Baptist confessions have consistently stated, that salvation comes to those who respond to God’s grace in faith.”
This section is truly amazing to the Calvinist, and frustrating, as well. Surely Dr. Estep must know that the passages he cites are well known to Calvinists, and that the volumes and volumes of commentaries produced by Reformed believers not only embrace, but take quite seriously, everything they say. No Calvinist would ever deny that “salvation comes to those who respond to God’s grace in faith.” To even intimate otherwise is to either show a very deep misunderstanding of the Calvinistic position (which, while hoping this is the case, seems difficult in light of Dr. Estep’s position as “Distinguished Professor of Church History Emeritus”) or crass misrepresentation. In either case, it seems that the desire is to portray the Calvinists as not believing in salvation by grace through faith. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Salvation comes only to those who respond to God’s grace in faith. All affirm this. The question is, is this “response” autonomous, and outside God’s sovereign decree, or not? The Calvinist points to the simple facts that 1) grace accomplishes what it is intended to accomplish, and is not a mere “aid” that tries to get people to respond (as in Roman Catholicism); 2) faith itself—divine, saving faith—is a gift of God given to His elect (a truth presented in one of the passages cited by Dr. Estep!), and is the result of regeneration, not its cause (John 3:3, 5; 1 John 5:1). If Dr. Estep wishes to provide a telling criticism of the Reformed position, he needs to interact with the best his opponents have to offer.
Calvinists believe in John 3:16: they simply point out that in light of the words of the Lord Jesus in John 6:44 and elsewhere, no man is able to come to Christ outside of the drawing of the Father. Hence, when John 3:16 says “whosoever will,” we heartily agree: and go on to assert that only those who are divinely enabled (John 6:65) and raised to spiritual life “will” to believe! John 1:12, likewise, does not even begin to deny the reality of God’s electing grace of man’s deadness in sin, and is, in fact, followed by an assertion of God’s sovereignty in salvation in the very next verse, where the Scriptures state, “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” The reason for the divine birth is plainly stated to be the action of God, not the will of man.
In the same way, Calvinists believe Romans 1:16: the gospel is the power of God for all those who believe. All of the elect, for whom Paul suffered all things (2 Timothy 2:10), will believe: “all that the Father gives Me will come to Me” is how Jesus said it (John 6:37). In fact, I would submit that the Calvinist has much more “claim” to this passage than the Arminian: we believe the gospel is powerful and is able to accomplish, without human addition or assistance, the salvation of all of the elect. In the Arminian viewpoint, the gospel is presented to millions who are lost—and yet, the intention of God was that the gospel might save these millions. It fails in its task a large portion of the time. But in the Reformed viewpoint, the gospel will always, in God’s time, accomplish the redemption of God’s elect. It never fails, for as Paul says, it is the very power of God.
Romans 10:9-10, again, is a passage every Reformed person would embrace. The question is not the role of belief and confession, but the inability of man, outside of electing grace, to do either. Until Dr. Estep takes into consideration these fundamental issues, his criticisms will accomplish little.
Of all the passages cited, Ephesians 2:8-10—one of the very “charter” passages of Reformed belief—amazed me the most. The passage is Calvinistic to the core (or, more accurately, Calvinism has drunk deeply at such biblical wells). Paul asserts that we have been, and continue to be, saved by the instrumentality of grace, and that through faith. But he goes on to assert that the entirety of salvation (grace and faith) is a gift of God, and not the result of anything man may do. Then Paul goes on to assert that Christians do good works because God has foreordained that they do so! Is this merely an assertion that God suggests good works to believers, or the plain assertion that even the good works we do are part of God’s eternal decree? All glory, honor, and praise, belong to God for salvation, for even the good works we do are part of His own decree and plan!
- “Second, Calvinism’s God resembles Allah, the god of Islam, more than the God of grace and redeeming love revealed in Jesus Christ.”
It’s hard to know how to respond to such a statement! We who glorify God’s grace, and ascribe to it the totality of our salvation, do not worship a God of grace? We who believe God’s redeeming love sent Christ to the cross to actually redeem His elect people, do not believe in a God of redeeming love? Such a statement, quite honestly, is nothing more than rhetoric without substance, and is far below the level of dialogue that should be followed when issues such as this are addressed.
- “Third, Calvinism robs the individual of responsibility for his/her own conduct, making a person into a puppet on a string or a robot programmed from birth to death with no will of his/her own.”
Again, in light of the extensive refutations of such grandiose and inaccurate accusations found in almost every Reformed work that addresses soteriology, how can Dr. Estep make such statements? How can he ignore monumental works like that of Jonathan Edwards on the nature and function of the will? How can he dismiss chapter after chapter of Calvin’s Institutes, or the many sermons of Spurgeon debunking such rhetoric? Is Dr. Estep unaware of these sources? Then he should not seek to address such an issue. If he’s aware of them, how can he ignore them? Such is hardly worthy of a Christian scholar.
It is quite true that the Reformed position views man as a creature—under the control and sovereignty of the almighty God. But such is plainly the teaching of Scripture itself. Nowhere will you find the following words spoken of man: “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psalm 135:6). Nor will you ever hear men saying, “I act and who can reverse it?” (Isaiah 43:13). Instead, the Scriptures affirm, “Many plans are in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the LORD will stand” (Proverbs 19:21).
As to the allegation that man is merely a “puppet on a string,” I responded to this assertion a number of years ago in a book titled God’s Sovereign Grace:
- Q: The Calvinistic view of God makes man nothing but a puppet or a robot.A: While this is often claimed, I have found few who have thought through their question. What is really being said is that a sovereign God cannot produce living, responsible beings (like man). Unless man himself is autonomous, that is, absolutely free to determine his own destiny, then he is not free, but is simply a puppet or a robot. But why is this? Why can God not remain sovereign and create man in His image? There are many things that God is that we are not—God is eternal, we are not; God is omniscient, we are not; so, if God is sovereign, why must we be autonomous?The Bible tells us that God loves us, and has sent His Son to die in our place. We have been united with Christ, and we have a relationship with God through Him. Christ does not die for puppets. His blood was not shed for robots. Automatons do not enter into personal relationships. What we really see in this question is a common, human assertion: if God’s truth cannot be easily understood by the human mind, then it must not be true. Is it necessary that God reveal how He could create us as responsible beings and yet remain the sole sovereign of the universe?
Next, Dr. Estep indicates that Calvinism has been marked by “intolerance and a haughty spirit,” and he speaks of “this Calvinistic blight.” Surely Dr. Estep realizes that every movement at some time or another, has had its “intolerant” proponents. There are intolerant Southern Baptists—such hardly means the entire denomination should be rejected because of their bad example. The question is, does Calvinism necessarily lead to intolerance and a haughty spirit? To substantiate such an accusation would require one to believe that extolling and glorifying the grace of God, and recognizing one’s own total inability and weakness, leads inexorably to pride. Such hardly makes sense.
Dr. Estep’s fifth point is as follows:
- Fifth, logically, Calvinism is anti-missionary. The Great Commission is meaningless if every person is programmed for salvation or damnation, for evangelism and missionary efforts are exercises in futility.
If I might quote again from God’s Sovereign Grace:
- Q: If God has already chosen who will be saved, why share the gospel, since they will be saved whether we are involved in evangelism or not?A: This is probably the most common objection that is voiced against the doctrine of election. There is a clear answer, but before getting to that, we should note that the question is not a proper one; that is, our questions should be based upon the teaching of the word of God, not what we can or cannot necessarily understand. Even if we did not have an answer to the question, would this necessarily mean that Ephesians 1:11 does not teach what it obviously teaches?But, we do have an answer anyway. First, we evangelize to glorify God. We do not go out to “save” anybody, since we are incapable of doing that in the first place. We share the gospel because by so doing, we bring glory to God. If that is all the reason we had, it would be sufficient.
But there is more. We know that God has given us a great privilege to be used by Him in His work in this world. He has given to us a blessing to be able to share the gospel with men. God has decreed both the ends and the means. He has decreed to use men in sharing the gospel with His elect. Why has He done so? I do not know. I only know that His Word reveals that it is so. God has not seen fit to give us knowledge of who is, and who is not, His elect. Therefore, we share the gospel with all men, and trust God to honor the proclamation of His message by drawing the elect unto Himself. We can share boldly with all men, knowing that God is powerful to save, and as long as we seek to glorify Him, He will care for us and bless us with His Spirit.
Finally, Dr. Estep concludes his article by saying,
- If the Calvinizing of Southern Baptists continues unabated, we are in danger of becoming “a perfect dunghill” in American society, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Fuller.
That all depends upon how one defines a “dunghill,” I propose. If it is the purpose of the Church to glorify God by proclaiming His truth, we dare not care what the American society, or any other, thinks of that truth. The Gospel is ours to proclaim, not to edit. If we seek friendship with our society, we will definitely not embrace the Reformed perspective. But if we seek consistency in our exegesis and our theology, we will proclaim the truth, even when it is offensive to natural men.
In conclusion, it is disappointing in the extreme that the discussion of this issue should be so often marked by rhetoric, rather than by substantive exegetical debate. I invite Dr. Estep to provide us with a meaningful critique of the real Calvinistic position, based upon Scripture. Such would provide a helpful service to all who are concerned about God’s truth.