“We care far more for the central evangelical truths than we do for Calvinism as a system; but we believe that Calvinism has in it a conservative force which helps to hold men to the vital truth, and therefore we are sorry to see any quitting it who have once accepted it” (“The Downgrade Controversy” by C. H. Spurgeon).
Some time ago I purchased two DVD’s from Caryl Productions entitled “Wide is the Gate” volumes 1 and 2. They expose the New Age and Emerging Church Movements using various Christians who have been involved with them and who are therefore considered to be authorities. Much of what they say seems to be OK, but I was particularly interested in the section on “Reformed Theology” on Volume 1 because that is my theological and Christian background. I was shocked at the way Calvinism was misrepresented by them, their key “witness” being a woman named Brenda Nickel who spent fourteen years in Reformed churches.
Throughout this article, I quote John Calvin and various Reformed documents in order to clarify or illustrate what I’m saying, not as an authority which ends doctrinal argument. I also quote from them because the opponents of Calvinism on the DVD have not once quoted from any Reformed Confessions or from John Calvin, which is unchristian, unscholarly, and unfair, considering they are trashing and claiming various errors for Calvinism.
Calvinism Misunderstood and Misrepresented
The criticisms of Calvinism on the DVD are in the areas of Eschatology, Free Will, and Evangelism. Unfortunately, there is also an attempt to associate Calvinism with the Emerging Church, and Calvinism with Lutheranism. This is disappointing and thoroughly misleading and, in my view, detracts from the integrity of the speakers, and distracts from the real issues.
Unfortunately, much of what people today think they know about Calvin is probably gained indirectly from a vengeful converted monk (he later returned to the Catholic Church) who vilified Calvin in print. “But Calvin’s theological certitude withstood many challenges and conflicts, including the trial of Jerome Bolsec, a former Catholic monk who had become a Protestant physician. Bolsec vigorously countered Calvin’s doctrine of predestination – the very underpinning of his clerical and civil authority. (Bolsec was banished and later wrote a slanderous and historically destructive biography of Calvin.) In 1553, as public support for Calvin again ebbed lower, his supporters were once again galvanised by the arrest, trial, and execution of Miguel Servetus, the infamous author of a book that discounted the more universally accepted and fundamental doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus had been arrested when he travelled to Geneva, and was later burned at the stake, though Calvin appealed for a more humane execution” (Preface to “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” p. xiv).
But even the online Catholic Encyclopedia says of Bolsec’s biographies of Calvin and Beza, “These works are violent in tone, and find little favour with protestant writers. Their historical statements cannot always be relied on”. CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Jerome-Hermes Bolsec (newadvent.org)
Brenda says or implies that Calvinism teaches baptismal regeneration; she also says it teaches that the Eucharist is salvific. The DVD accompanies this by showing a film clip of Lutheranism’s High-Church Catholic worship, calling it “Reformed”, and implies that Luther and Calvin had the same theology. But the truth is that their theologies were very different in several respects, Calvin making a more thorough break from Catholic theology and practice than did Luther. Calvin’s ecclesiology was Presbyterian and based firmly in scripture, while the Lutheran Church is closer to Anglo-Catholicism in its polity and practice. And Luther’s view of the sacraments was very close to Rome’s, while Calvin’s view was definitely and clearly Protestant.
But in her 14 years as a Calvinist Brenda only had to look at the Confessions of Faith of any Reformed church and her wrong understanding would have been corrected. For example:
The Larger Catechism (Calvinist and Presbyterian)
“Q. 162 What is a sacrament?
A. A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ in His Church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of His mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion with one another; and to distinguish them from those that are without”
“Q. 165 What is baptism?
A. Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into Himself, of remission of sins by His blood, and regeneration by His Spirit, of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s”
There is not even a hint of regeneration as a result of being baptized with water in this statement. Rather, baptism is specifically stated to be a sign and a seal of the benefits of salvation already received through faith and given through the grace of God.
“Q. 168 What is the Lord’s Supper?
A. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to the appointment of Jesus Christ, His death is showed forth; and they that worthily communicate feed upon His body and blood, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace; have their union and communion with Him confirmed; testify and renew their thankfulness, and engagement to God, and their mutual love and fellowship each with the other, as members of the same mystical body”
In this statement there is no hint of any kind of regeneration given or salvific activity by God, or in the believer, or in the elements of bread and wine themselves; rather, it is clear that those who partake of the Supper are believers, and therefore regenerate already; and that only those who are
regenerate can receive the benefits of participating in it.
“…a sacrament is…an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith. We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of faith toward him” (Institutes Book 4, Chapter 14:1).
“…baptism testifies that we are washed and purified; the Supper of the Eucharist that we are redeemed. Ablution is figured by water, satisfaction by blood. Both are found in Christ, who, as John says, ‘came by water and blood,’ that is, to purify and redeem. Of this the Spirit of God is also a witness. No, there are three witnesses in one, water, Spirit, and blood” (Institutes, Book 4, Chapter 14, 22).
God is God – He Calls the Shots!
Free will in fallen man is the sacred cow of all non-Calvinists; it is non-negotiable with them, and this was made clear in the DVD, in which Pastor Chris Quintana asks if man has the ability to accept or reject God. He believes that according to Calvinism, God sends people to heaven or hell based on his own sovereign will. He thus denies that God acts according to his sovereign will, doing with sinners as he pleases, and (Chris) hands the sovereignty to fallen humanity. But let him take up that view with God; and let me show you the Truth.
To start with, the bible says the choice is not with man but with God: “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout the earth. Therefore he hath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom 9:14-18).
There is simply no way around this passage other than to understand and accept that the eternal destiny of every human being is in the hands of God. Verse 16 specifically rules out the ability of every person from creation until the return of Jesus to choose to become a saved Christian. And verse 17 shows that God even raises up individuals (e.g. Pharaoh) to glorify him by their destruction.
But Paul (and the Holy Spirit) forestalls resistance to God’s sovereignty by challenging his readers with their weakness and insignificance, saying: “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” (Rom 9:19-20).
God does not explain himself in this matter – he simply states the truth that he is in control of his creation. “….all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan 4:34-35).
The truth is that all mankind is already destined for hell because they are born in sin (Ps 51:5; Rom 3:9-12; Eph 2:1-3) and are enemies of God (Rom 3:18; Col 3:6); and they will not turn to God. However – and this is the greatness of God’s free grace – God, in mercy to the lost, exercises his sovereign will in choosing some of them to receive the free (to them) gift of salvation and life through Jesus Christ. Because mankind is dead in trespasses and sins and is totally unable to come to God, if any sinner is to be saved, God must reach down from heaven and rescue them by doing everything necessary for their salvation – not merely providing the means and leaving it up to man to choose whether he will accept the precious gift, but stepping into their lives and making them willing. That’s why Paul writes “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy”(Rom 9:16). God doesn’t send anybody to hell or heaven based on his own sovereign will, but on the basis of whether they receive or reject the gospel. This is the clear teaching of scripture and therefore of Calvinism. Calvinism is the only theology that shows how predestination and the gospel combine and harmonise in the salvation of sinners.
How the Gospel and Predestination Work Together in Salvation
If it’s true that only those can come to God whom he has chosen to do so, what’s the point of preaching the gospel? The bible answers this question: “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God (ekloge: choosing out, selecting, choice [by God]). For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Ghost….” (1 Thess 1:4-5). See also Eph 1:3-6.
Again, it is clearly stated that we are excluded from life and heaven by unbelief: “And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (Heb 3:18-19).
When the gospel is preached, the invitation to come to Christ is genuine. When the elect hear it they are made willing and they come to Jesus (Acts 16:14). They acknowledge their sin, repent, are born again and receive the Holy Spirit. They receive Christ and his gift of eternal life by faith and they commit their lives to him and rejoice that he has shown them mercy. As Paul states: “…for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15). And so the gospel is the means by which the elect are brought in to the kingdom. They’re not saved, and their election is meaningless, until they respond in faith and repentance to the gospel.
Unregenerate Sinners are Unable to Turn to Christ
However, when reprobates hear the gospel, they reject it because God has not made them willing (Rom 9:18-21). In their natural state, they reject Christ because they want to, they choose to – that is the limit of their free will; unless God first opens their heart, they will never come to him. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). And Jesus said, when speaking to Nicodemus, “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved” (John 3:19-20). Unless God does something to and in unbelievers they will never turn to him because by nature they are hostile to God. Those who reject the gospel do so because they choose to, and God will justly hold them accountable for it. They act in accordance with their fallen nature and they would feel violated if their will was overridden; as Paul writes, “…they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thess 2:10). Jesus told us: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me;and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (Jn 6:37; see also Jn 6:39-40 and 44, 65).
Motivation for Evangelism
When people accuse Calvinists of not preaching the gospel or taking it to the lost, they only reveal their ignorance. There is a corrupt form of Calvinism, known as Hyper-Calvinism, which does not preach the gospel to the lost because they believe that God will bring the elect to salvation in his own time and way. In this, they are just like some Dispensational Premillennialists who refuse to preach the gospel to the Jews because they are already God’s people. But genuine Calvinists understand correctly the relationship between the gospel and predestination, as I showed above.
John Calvin: Church planter and trainer of missionaries
In the 1550’s, while Calvin was at Geneva he received many refugees fleeing Catholic persecution; while they were there, sitting under his preaching and pastoral care, many of them began feeling burdened for their homeland and wanted to take the gospel to them. So Calvin taught them theology and how to preach, and he assessed their moral character before sending them out. And once they were involved with their work he prayed for them constantly and corresponded with them frequently to support, advise, and encourage them as much as he could.
By 1559 the church at Geneva had planted 100 churches in France and by 1562 there were more than 2000 churches there. Some of these churches were so successful that they had to conduct three services every Sunday to cater for the many thousands who attended them. He also sent missionaries to Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, the Rhineland, and even Brazil. Calvin’s heart was for the preaching of the gospel and during the last ten years of his life, missions were his “absolute preoccupation”. For example, in a sermon on 2 Timothy 1:8-9, Calvin said “If the gospel be not preached, Jesus Christ is, as it were, buried. Therefore, let us stand as witnesses, and do him this honor, when we see all the world so far out of the way; and remain steadfast in this wholesome doctrine….let us here observe that St Paul condemns our unthankfulness, if we be so unthankful to God, as not to bear witness of his gospel; seeing he hath called us to it”.
William Carey: Father of modern missions
It is well known that the man who began the modern missionary movement was a Baptist Christian named William Carey. However, it doesn’t seem to be as well known, or at least acknowledged, that Carey was a Calvinist in the Particular Baptist (Hyper-Calvinist) churches; and he and some of his true Calvinist friends founded the Baptist Missionary Society in order to take the gospel to the heathen. So the first modern missionary and the first mission society and the impetus for all missions since then came, humanly speaking, from within Calvinism. Obviously, these Calvinists understood the essential link between predestination and the gospel.
Compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses….
Ever since William Carey there has been a stream of Calvinist missionaries. In fact, many of the most famous and well known missionaries were Calvinists. For example:
- John Eliot – first missionary to the American (Algonquian speaking) Indians (1600’s).
- David Brainerd – missionary to the Mohawk Indians in 1700’s.
- Jonathan Edwards preached during the First Great Awakening and he recorded what God was doing during that revival. His sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” caused many to turn to Christ. He was a missionary to the Housatonic American Indians.
- William Tennent, founder of the Log College, a theological training college where many preachers were trained; these men preached during the First Great Awakening.
- Samuel Davies preached the gospel to the slaves in Virginia, and many hundreds were saved.
- Robert Moffatt took the gospel to “darkest Africa”
- David Livingstone also took the gospel to Africa
- Robert Morrison, missionary to China
- Peter Parker, missionary to China
- Adoniram Judson, missionary to Burma, bible translator, and church planter
- John G. Paton, missionary to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu)
- Charles Simeon, Church of England minister and founder of the Church Missionary Society.
- Henry Martyn, missionary to India and Persia
- Samuel Zwemer, missionary to Bahrain, Egypt, Arabia and Asia Minor – known as “The Apostle to Islam”
This is only a partial list. The real reason for lack of evangelistic zeal in some Christians and churches is not wrong doctrine, as some perceive it, but fear, weakness, worldliness, and lack of the Holy Spirit; this is the case in both Calvinistic and Arminian churches.
Another accusation that Brenda Nickel and Paul Wilkinson make against Calvinism is that it teaches what they term “Replacement Theology” i.e. that Old Testament Israel has been replaced by the New Testament Church, thus spiritualising the promises and prophecies given to Israel. But the apostles themselves spiritualised the prophecies and promises to Israel. For example, see John 18:36; Acts 15:14-17; Romans 2:25-29; 9:8; Galatians 4:19-31; Philippians 3:3; 1 Peter 2:9-10, to mention just a few.
It is true that the prevailing view (but not exclusively) of eschatology within Calvinism is Amillennial. Of the Chiliasts, an early form of Premillennialism, Calvin wrote “….shortly after the chiliasts arose, who limited the reign of Christ to a thousand years. This fiction is too puerile to need or to deserve refutation. Nor do they receive any countenance from the Apocalypse, from which they extracted a gloss for their error (Rev 20:4), the thousand years there mentioned refer not to the eternal blessedness of the church, but only to the various troubles which await the church militant in this world” (Institutes Book 3, Chapter 25, 5).
Eschatological Views in the Early Church
The doctrine of a premillennial return of Christ (also known as ‘chiliasm’ or ‘millenarianism’) was not held universally, nor regarded as orthodox doctrine by all in the early centuries of the Christian church, as Brenda and others insist. The Church historian Eusebius writes about the views of an early Christian named Papias (70-155 AD). Papias wrote of himself that he received the truths of Christianity from those who were acquainted with the apostles. Eusebius (263-339) was one of those who did not hold a premillennial view; he says of Papias, that “he set down other things as coming to him from unwritten tradition, amongst these some strange parables and instructions of the Saviour, and some other things of a more fabulous nature. Amongst these he says that there will be a millennium after the resurrection from the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on this earth” (“Ante-Nicene Fathers” vol 1, “Fragments of Papias” p 154, Hendrickson Publ).
And Justin Martyr (100-165 CE), in his dialogue with a Jew named Trypho, admitted that while he himself held to a millenarian view, not every Christian did. To Trypho, Justin replied, “I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise’” (“Ante-Nicene Fathers” vol 1, “Dialogue with Trypho”, Justin Martyr, p 239, Hendrickson Pub.).
But the form of Millennialism held in the early Church was quite different to the Dispensational Premillennialism held by Brenda and others on the DVD. In Chiliasm, there was no rapture, no Great Tribulation, and no restored national Israel in a thousand reign of Christ on earth. The Israel of Chiliasm was a spiritual Israel i.e. all who confessed Christ as Saviour, regardless of ethnic or national origin. The Israel of Chiliasm was the Church that Jesus was building (Matt 16:18; Eph 2:13-22 cf 3:10, 21).
Brenda’s and Caryl Productions’ Dispensationalism is a false gospel because it has a restored national Israel reigning with Christ for a thousand years, with a fully restored Levitical priesthood complete with temple, altar and sacrifices. And in order to implement this, Christ’s work on the cross and his unique priesthood (Heb ch 7) is shoved aside, and the New Covenant (Heb 8:6) replaced by the temporary and faulty Old Covenant (Heb 8:8-9), and God’s people put back under Mosaic law (Heb 8:10-13). Such a doctrine is utterly blasphemous. They would dethrone God and nullify Christ’s finished work on the cross just so they can promote their own false gospel (Gal 1:7-9).
Calvinism, which is so confidently and ignorantly rejected and vilified by Brenda had been the life, soul, and energy of the churches in England, Europe, and the USA. As lethargy set in, people began to accept Arminianism (the central doctrine, along with Dispensational Premillennialism, of those on the DVD), and this led to apostasy and corruption of the Church and the denial of the deity of Christ and efficacy of the gospel.
It should be obvious by now that Brenda’s repeated claim that Calvinism via Augustinianism is just restored Roman Catholicism is ridiculous. In contrast to her, Spurgeon so eloquently put it, “The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach today, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox’s gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again” (A Defence of Calvinism” by C. H. Spurgeon).