What is Reformed Theology? Part 7 – A Doctrinal Look

To end our examination of Reformed Theology from a doctrinal perspective, I hope to explain how those who are Reformed understand the intent of the atonement.  In other words, I will be explaining how the Reformers answered the question, “What did God the Father intend to accomplish through the atonement of Christ?”  A perceptive thinker will realize that the answer to this question is inextricably linked to the nature and the effect of the atonement which was the subject of my last post.  So, in discussing the intent of the atonement today, I will tie in what the Reformers believe about the nature and the effect of the atonement as well.

The Intent of the Atonement:

There are four substantial positions that Christians have taken on the intent of the atonement in the history of the church.  I want to briefly outline each of them to clarify what the Reformed position is.

  1. Universalism:  Christ died with the intention of atoning for each individual person without exception according to the Father’s will such that the outcome of his work effectively saved each individual without exception since the Spirit applies salvation to all.  The intent and the outcome are the same.
  2. Arminian/Roman Catholic:  Christ died with the intention of atoning for each individual, but not every individual is actually saved.  The cross did not directly satisfy God’s wrath for each individual, for a person must actualize the atonement through their faith in Jesus (and in the case of Roman Catholics, their works of obedience in participating in the sacraments as well) so that the Spirit can then apply salvation to them.  The intent and the outcome are different.
  3. Definite/Limited Atonement (the Reformed view):  Christ died with the intention of atoning for the elect only as the Father decreed, and each individual who has been chosen by God to be part of the elect is saved because the Spirit applies it to them.  The intent and the outcome are the same.
  4. Hypothetical Universalism/Amyraldianism:  Christ died with the intention of atoning for each individual, but God the Father knew beforehand that not everyone would trust Christ and thus he decreed only a certain number to be saved by the Holy Spirit applying salvation to those decreed by the Father.  The intent and the outcome are different.

The implications of what is at stake in these differing positions is clear.  Two positions suggest that the persons of the Trinity act incongruously with one another.  Both View 2 and View 4 argue that God the Father sends Christ to die for each and every individual, but the Son does not actually accomplish salvation for all (his work is sufficient but provisional), and the Spirit does not apply salvation to all.

Therefore, we must return again to what has been said about the nature of the atonement.  I have argued the Reformed position which insists that penal substitution lies at the very heart of the work of Christ.  If this is the case, the biblical teaching that Christ died as a substitute requires that we adopt either universalism (View 1) or definite/limited atonement (View 2).  Provisional atonement is inconsistent with the idea that Christ satisfied God’s wrath on the cross, for if he did satisfy God’s wrath in our place as our substitute, then it would be unjust for anyone to be punished for their sin even if they never believe in Christ.  That would be double punishment.  God’s wrath was either actually satisfied or it wasn’t.  Provisional satisfaction makes no biblical sense.

The Arminian/Roman Catholic and Amyraldian positions (Views 2 and 4) require a person to argue that Christ’s work on the cross did not actually accomplish anything on its own.  They require a person’s faith to actualize his work on the cross.  This is a deficient view of the atonement as has hopefully been made clear in the previous post.  Furthermore, Views 2 and 4 ignore the fact that faith itself is a gift that Christ purchased on the cross.  It is not a purely human activity independent of God’s grace.  We have already seen that a sinner cannot believe in Christ apart from the new birth, and the new birth is applied to us because Jesus has purchased it on the cross.  If he purchased it for all, then all will receive it.  If he purchased it for some, then only some receive it.

It is impossible to argue that the bible teaches penal substitution while also arguing for the provisional atonement of Arminianism/Roman Catholicism and Amyraldianism.  In fact, in the history of American Christianity, the denial of penal substitution has come from from those that had rejected Reformed theology long beforehand because of the offensive nature of its teaching on sin and salvation.  Rejecting penal substitution was the logical next step!

So, we must embrace Universalism or the Reformed view, and I find it very difficult to read the bible and ignore all the passages that speak of those who will endure the pains of hell.  Universalism can only be embraced by those who simply refuse to accept the difficult doctrine of hell.

The Great Puritan John Owen argued in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ against the Arminian, Roman Catholic, and Amyraldian positions well, saying something like this (my paraphrase):

God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men.  If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved.  If the second (this is what we affirm), then Christ died in the place of the elect paying for all their sins.  If the first, why then are not all saved from their sins?  You will say, ‘It is because of their unbelief.’  But, isn’t unbelief a sin?  If it is, then hasn’t Christ died for unbelief as well such that everyone, believer or not, must be saved?

I don’t know any Christian who argues that unbelief is not a sin.  Unbelief is sin, and if Christ actually died for every sin of every individual, then unbelievers are saved.  When we look at what the bible teaches about election, faith, sin, and the nature of the atonement, we can come to no other conclusion than the Reformed view of definite/limited atonement.

One charge that is often raised to the argumentation above is that no Scripture has yet been cited.  This is merely an exercise in logic.  I mentioned in my third post on Reformed theology (found here) that I wanted to avoid creating a logical system based on verses pulled out of context.  Theology should be derived first from a sound grasp of the biblical storyline that culminates in Christ rather than developing a logical system of categories supported by proof-texts and/or rational extrapolation.  So, the charge that the doctrine of definite atonement is nothing more than a logical extrapolation from the other issues mentioned in my posts on Reformed Theology is a charge I take seriously.

In response to this charge, I think it is important that we see two things.  First, the biblical concepts of redemption, reconciliation, atonement, and propitiation that develop progressively in Scripture beginning with the Exodus and ending with Christ support definite atonement.  All of these concepts describe not a potential but an actual effect.  Christ actually set people free, not just potentially.  A ransom was a specific price paid to redeem or buy a specific person or people out of slavery, to buy back a first-born son, or to pay down a debt.  Christ actually brought us back into a relationship with God even though we were enemies.  Christ actually satisfied God’s wrath, not just potentially.

Second, there are many passages that teach us that Christ died for the elect only and others that suggest, imply, or assume this.

Biblical Support for the Doctrine of Definite Atonement:

First, let me cite a few passages that I think do teach definite atonement although that conclusion is not logically necessary.  I’ll explain what I mean by that below.

Ephesians 5:25-27  Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Matthew 1:21  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew 20:28  The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Now these are just a few examples of many passages that speak of redemption as something God accomplished for a limited group: the church, his people, and many.  However, I see how these verses, on their own, do not convince people .  It is true that just because these verses say that Jesus died for a specific group does not logically require that we say he did not die for others.  For example, if I am talking to a Christian who is struggling with guilt over a specific sin, and I say to them, “Christ died for you,” this does not mean that I am suggesting that he only died for that person, but that that person is included in the group for whom Christ died.

So, on their own, these verses do not prove View 3.  However, in light of other considerations, I think that it becomes clear that these passages are in fact saying that Christ died for a specific group, the elect.  To those other considerations, we now turn.

John 10 is a beautiful discourse by Jesus where he explains his mission in the language of shepherding.  God as shepherd is a huge Old Testament theme.  Throughout the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis, God shepherds his people, eventually establishing under-shepherds to rule, lead, nourish, guide, and protect his people with his word.  When Jesus comes on the scene, he declares himself to be the True, Supreme, and Great Shepherd.  In John 10, he explains that he has come for his sheep who know his voice and follow him.  The language of election is all over the passage, picking up from John 6 where Jesus explains that the Father has given him specific people that he is to keep and ultimate raise up on the last day (John 6.37-39, 44, 65).  Speaking to the Jews, including the religious leaders of the day, Jesus explains that the reason many of them are not following his teaching is because they do not belong to his flock.  He contrasts those who hear his teaching and follow him with those who do not.  He contrasts himself with the religious leaders, who attempt to steal away his sheep, calling them thieves and robbers.

Thus, Jesus explains that Israel is made up of two groups of sheep with two leaders.  Jesus’ flock is filled with sheep from Israel and from elsewhere (Jn. 10.16) who hear him and know him and thus follow him.  And there is another group of sheep who do not hear God when they hear Jesus speak who are led by thieves and robbers who attempt to steal sheep away from Jesus’ flock.  The good news is, those the Father gave to Jesus will hear the voice of Jesus since he calls them by name  and they follow (Jn. 10.3-5), and none will be lost.

Thus, when Jesus says in verse 11, “I am the Good Shepherd.  The good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” and in verses 14-15, “I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep,” he is clearly talking about his own sheep in contrast to the sheep that do not belong to him.  Again, Jesus says in verse 10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”  Finally, in verses 27-28, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

This language is all over the book of John, which is why John 13.1 says in reference to Jesus preparing for his ‘hour’ which refers to his suffering on the cross: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.”  Again, this is why Jesus prays for his disciples only in John 17.1-2, 9:

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you,  since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him…I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.

There are other passages that I could cite that I believe make it clear that Jesus died specifically to save the elect and not for all.  This is not to say that Jesus’ death was somehow not powerful enough to do so, for it certainly could have paid for all the sin of each individual if that was God’s intent.  The doctrine of definite atonement also should not be understood to deny that salvation can be offered to any person.  Surely, anyone who repents can trust that Christ died for their sin.  Their repentance is in fact one of the benefits of Christ’s work on the cross.  (Sidenote:  We are morally obligated to repent because we have wronged God regardless of whether or not he offers forgiveness for our sin.  However, God does mercifully offer forgiveness to all who repent.)

Biblical Passages often cited that seemingly deny definite atonement:

As soon as someone makes the case for definite atonement, Christians quote two or three passages:

1 Timothy 2:3-6  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior,  who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,  who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

1 Timothy 4:10  For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

2 Peter 3:9  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Let me attempt to explain why these verses cannot be understood to contradict definite atonement by commenting on them in reverse order.

2 Peter 3.9 is not talking about the salvation of each and every individual in the world but of the elect.  Peter’s point is that God has delayed the coming of Jesus, not because he cares nothing about the suffering believers are going through,  but until the full number of the elect has repented and believed.  This is made clear when one studies the whole book and sees the focus Peter places on the elect who are the recipients of the great promises of God.

I Timothy 4.10 is by far the easiest to address, though I imagine many doubters are least likely to agree with my answer.  I believe the translation is not a good one.  The word ‘especially’ is better translated, ‘that is.’  In other words, Paul is saying that the living God is the Savior of all people, that is, of all who believe.  Paul uses the same Greek word in chapter 5 verse 17 in the same way when he explains that elders are worthy of double honor, that is, those who labor in preaching and teaching.  All Christians are worthy of honor, but elders, whose job it is to preach and teach, are worthy of double honor, which verse 18 tells us is financial compensation.

I Timothy 2.3-6 is the most difficult of the three because one must take the passage, verses 1-7, as a whole to see the point.  When one looks at all 7 verses however, it becomes clear that the word ‘all’ is being used to describe different types of people.  Thus, it is helpful to read ‘all types’ at each use of ‘all’ in the passage.  This is clear when one sees that Paul is urging Timothy and the Church in Ephesus to pray for all types of people, even kings and rulers in authority, which are not the type of people the Christians at that time would like very much since they were persecuting the Church.  They were to pray for government officials because God even cares about saving that type of person, rich or poor, powerful or not, Jew or Gentile, because God is the God over mankind.  He is not a local deity, a national god, or a god of a certain class or profession (as the Greek gods were).  God is the one true and living God over all people everywhere, and thus, Christians should pray for all types of people that God might save people from every realm of the world.

Needless to say, I don’t think these passages overturn the abundance of biblical support for the doctrine of definite atonement.

Summary of the Doctrinal Teaching of Reformed Theology:

Reformed Theology teaches that salvation is by God and for his glory.  Every aspect of salvation is a gift from God, beginning with election, including the new birth and faith, and ending with our glorification.  God determined before the foundation of the world to save a people for himself out of condemnation and judgment justly deserved because of sin.  He then sent his Son into the world to die, taking their penalty in their place, so that he could justify all those who believe in him because of the work of the Spirit in them.

Salvation is by grace.  We contribute nothing to our salvation, and we receive it because of God’s work in us.  There is absolutely no ground for boasting whatsoever by those who believe.  We only choose God because of his work for us and in us, and our choice could be no other.

If you have received this grace and understand what God has done for you, even if these are difficult doctrines to accept, you can do nothing but praise God.  All good theology must lead us to worship, and so I pray that you will say with me:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”  Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”  For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.  (Romans 11.33-36)

What is Reformed Theology? Part 6 – A Doctrinal Look

Why is it that we can be blessed with the new birth, justification, adoption, and sanctification?  Up until this point, I have been posting on what Reformed Theology teaches about the application of salvation.  In other words, I have been trying to explain how it is that God applies salvation to us.  I have argued thus far that the bible teaches that salvation is from God and by God.  He accomplishes it and he applies it.  It is not something that we participate in with God as if he meets us half way or even 99% of the way and we contribute the final 1%.  God elects, effectively calls giving new life, justifies, sanctifies, adopts, and glorifies.  Yes, we must place our faith in Christ, but this is evidence of God’s work in us not our part of the process.

But in my next two posts, I hope to explain how it is possible for God to bless us, his people, in these ways.  We will discuss the work of Christ on the cross.  Therefore, we will be focusing on the atonement and asking, ‘What exactly did Christ do on the cross with respect to the salvation of individuals?’  Before I say anything more, I want to be clear up front that there is a lot about the work of Christ that we will not be discussing.  I have just finished reading an excellent book on the work of Christ as a refresher for this post.  The Work of Christ by Robert Letham is an amazing book that discusses not only the atonement but the work of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, unpacking the individual and corporate dimensions of his work throughout his ministry, on the cross, and into eternity.  So, these two posts will attempt to explain in brief, the nature, the effect, and the intent of the atonement.

The Nature of the Atonement:

At the very heart of the biblical teaching of the nature of the atonement is the doctrine of penal substitution.  By this, I mean that Jesus Christ endured punishment upon the cross in our place.

We have broken God’s law to worship him as the creator and to love him and his creation, and thus he has prescribed a necessary penalty that we must endure which is death and exclusion from fellowship with him forever.

However, Christ willingly submitted himself to the just penalty for sin, though he was innocent, in our place as our substitute so that we would not have to bear it ourselves.

Paul teaches us this doctrine when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5.21:

For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Paul is not saying that Jesus became sinful, but rather, that he was treated legally as a sinner even though he himself was not a sinner.  He was treated guilty by bearing our punishment in our place so that we might be treated as innocent and righteous before God.

Peter says the same thing in I Peter 3.18:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God

Again, we can see the idea of suffering a penalty in our place, the righteous one, Jesus, for the unrighteous sinners.

Once again, Paul says in Galatians 3.13:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”-

Jesus was cursed for us, receiving the penalty that God the Father prescribed to those who broke his law.

Before moving on from this teaching, it is important to respond to a common objection to this doctrine.  There are many today who reject the assertion that this doctrine lies at the very heart of the gospel.  Many argue that historically, this has not been understood as the nature of the atonement by the church.  Other theories of the atonement have been set forth.

It is true that other theories of the atonement have been set forth throughout church history.  Space will not allow me to fully explain each, but these definitions will have to do:

  1. The recapitulation theory:  Christ’s whole life was a life of obedience.  Christ united himself with our humanity in order to perfectly live as Adam was supposed to, crushing our enemy the devil on the cross.
  2. The ransom theory:  The devil held humanity in his power, and thus God paid the devil a debt of Christ’s blood to purchase humanity back for himself.  His resurrection demonstrates his victory over the devil.
  3. The satisfaction/vicarious sacrifice theory:  This is another way of talking about the penal substitution view, but it has had some slight variations over the course of history.  It argues that Christ’s death satisfied the debt owed to God, but at times, people added the idea that it is not only a legal debt but a debt of honor.
  4. The moral influence theory:  Christ’s death was simply an example to us, a display of God’s love such that we are changed to become like God in our love.  Thus, there is no objective effect to Christ’s death, but a subjective one in us.
  5. The governmental theory:  This view assumes that the idea of God punishing sin is unfit for God, and thus understands the atonement as simply a prudential act of God intended to convince us that sin is a serious matter.

None of these theories however can be understood to be at the center of the work of Christ (for Scripture does not teach this), for while many of them do in fact teach us of some of the effects of the atonement, or explain some dimension of the atonement, none of them can work without the wrath of God being satisfied.  The bible consistently teaches that God’s wrath is the main obstacle that must be dealt with by Christ.

Thus, we must understand that Christ’s atonement for sin upon the cross could only be accomplished if we are united with Christ through faith.  In other words, the main objection to penal substitution is that it seems unjust that an innocent party should suffer for someone else and the guilty should go free.  This objection is easily dealt with when one realizes that the guilty do not in fact go free since the guilty are united to Christ and thus experience the penalty IN CHRIST.  Christ is our substitute and our representative head.  The human race is divided between those who are in Adam and those who are in Christ (see Romans 5.12-21).  Letham says it well in his book on page 136:

It is in the context of a real and vital union between him and us, which is at least as real and vital as that between us and Adam.  Hence, we his people do indeed receive our just deserts for our misdemeanours [sic] inasmuch as Christ, having united himself to us in his incarnation, fully discharges the debt we owe.

A second objection to this doctrine of penal substitution deals with the concern people have about what this means about God.  Some argue that this God is not very nice.  Like a child abuser, God seems petty, vindictive, and maliciously violent for pouring out his wrath on his own Son.  However, this objection fails to account for the texts where Jesus explains that he himself lays his life down willingly.  Rather than seeing the cross as a disgusting act of hatred, we must see it as a beautiful example of God’s love.  God’s love is a holy love.  That means that his love does not come without justice.  Again, Letham says on page 138:

The atonement stems from the love of God and, since God’s love is just love and his justice is loving justice, the cross is a demonstration par excellence of that love in a way that is commensurate with his justice.

So, to summarize, the bible teaches that at the very heart of the atonement is penal substation.  This doctrine is spelled out by describing Christ’s work on the cross as:

  1. a propitiation – a sacrifice satisfying God’s wrath (Rom. 3.21-26)
  2. expiation for sin – the removal of guilt, which goes hand in hand with propitiation (2 Cor. 5.21)
  3. an act of reconciliation – Christ’s blood eliminated God’s enmity toward us (Rom. 5.10-11)
  4. a ransom payment achieving redemption – Christ’s blood purchasing us from the curse inflicted by God, not the devil, and from slavery to sin (I Pet. 1.17-18)

All four of these concepts are tied up with penal substitution.  Yes, Christ died and was raised victorious over the devil, the curse, and sin, but this is only possible because he has shed his blood in our place.

The Effect of the Atonement:

Much of what I have said has already touched on the effect of the atonement.  Because Christ has satisfied the wrath of God, those who believe in Christ have their guilt removed, are reconciled to God, and are purchased so that they belong to God.

In other words, because Christ died on the cross for our sin in our place, we are justified, reconciled, and adopted.

  1. Justification is a legal term.  It means that we are declared to be in right standing with God by God because of what Jesus has done in satisfying God’s wrath as a propitiation.
  2. Reconciliation is a relational term.  It means we no longer are God’s enemies, but have peace with God.
  3. Adoption is a familial term.  It means that we belong to God, are part of his family, and are treated as children with an inheritance.

My next post will deal with the intent of the atonement.  While many Protestants would agree with what I have discussed thus far in this post, many have not understood the connections between these biblical ideas and what the bible teaches about God’s intention in the work of Christ on the cross.

What is Reformed Theology? Part 5 – A Doctrinal Look

My last few posts have sought to explain the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of sin and election.  Thus far, I have attempted to show that the bible teaches that because we are enslaved by sin, we are unable to choose to follow Christ.  As a result of our spiritual deadness and slavery to sin, there is no hope for mankind to be saved unless God first set his love upon some, not because of anything about those people or because of any decision they made, but as a free decision on God’s part to bring glory to himself by showing mercy.

This raises two important and related questions that those in the Reformed tradition believe the bible answers.  First, can anyone resist this sovereign choice and work of God in such a way that a person God has chosen is not actually saved through faith?  Second, can anyone fall away who has been chosen by God in such a way that they continue in unbelief and unrepentance throughout their life after initially believing?  Reformed Theology argues that the bible answers both these questions with a negative.

The best way I can think to answer these questions is by examining further the doctrine of regeneration that was briefly mentioned in my last post.  Because we are spiritually dead, we must be born again, given new life from God by the Spirit, in order to exercise faith.  And faith, is evidence of the new birth.

The first thing we must deal with is how God brings about the new birth.  The bible is clear that God calls us and makes us new through this calling by his word.  A great example of this is found in John 11 where Jesus calls Lazarus up from the grave.  Lazarus was dead, but by the power of Jesus’ words, Lazarus is raised from the dead.  Lazarus could not resist this call for he was dead one moment and alive another.  He could only have remained in the grave alive, but even then, the power of Jesus’ call effectively raised him from the dead and compelled him out of the grave into fellowship with Jesus.

This is exactly how the new birth happens in the elect.  God sets his love upon some from eternity past, and then he calls them through the preaching of his word to make them new.  This is also clear in John 6.  After feeding the 5,000, Jesus began to teach the crowds who had marveled at his power.  There were many who were impressed by Jesus, until he taught them further.  They liked him for his power, but they didn’t like the difficult things he taught, for one, that their works could not commend them to God but rather, eternal life comes through faith (Jn. 6.29 & 60).  As Jesus explained that he is the true bread of life, he says:  “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”  This is a clear statement concerning election (the Father gives some to the Son), and perseverance of the elect (whoever comes I will never cast out).  Thus, none of the elect are lost.  But, just after saying this, he also explains in verses 44-45 that only those whom the Father calls can believe in Jesus and all that are called believe and persevere in faith:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.  And I will raise him up on the last day.  It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard from and learned from the Father comes to me.

The first statement makes it clear that no one can believe in Jesus apart from God drawing them.  The last statement makes it clear that everyone the Father draws will in fact believe in Jesus (thus no one can resist this calling).  The second statement makes it clear that everyone who believes in Jesus will persevere in faith throughout their lives and be raised up on the last day.  And the third statement explains how a person is born again: they are taught by God when they hear the good news and are quickened to life by the Spirit.  Jesus uses a quote from Is.54.13 to explain that only God can teach them who Jesus is, and anyone who learns from the Father will come to Jesus.  This verse reference is a typological application of the passage. In the same way the holy faithful remnant was taught by God in exile to repent and believe to be restored, so too the true Israel, the messianic community will repent and believe in Jesus as a result of the Father’s teaching.   This is what theologians call the effectual calling where God by his Spirit, through the preaching of the gospel, quickens the elect and gives them new life so that they respond to the gospel in faith.

Before I go much further, I need to distinguish between a general call of God and this effective call mentioned above.  It is true that when anyone preaches the gospel, God is calling people to believe in Jesus.  God’s word is God speaking now, and thus, when we preach the gospel to elect and non-elect alike, God is appealing to people to trust in Christ.  However, no one will respond and be saved unless God works by his Spirit to bring a person to life through the new birth.  Thus, in a general call, God often speaks effectively to some.  So, it is good and right for us to offer salvation to anyone we meet by preaching the word and calling men and women to faith and repentance.  But, we must always know that the effectiveness of this preaching and invitation is dependent upon God’s free choice to work through it to draw men and women to himself.

This distinction between a general call and an effective call is important when we read the bible.  Most of the time, when we see the word ‘calling’ in the New Testament, it is being used to refer to the calling believers have received when they were born again through the washing of God’s word.  Take Romans 8.30 for instance:  “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”  Here we see the doctrine of election, effectual calling, and perseverance all connected together.  God chooses some, every single one he chooses he calls effectively, and every single one he calls effectively is justified through faith and perseveres to the end and is thus glorified at the return of Christ.  None are lost.  Christ purchased the elect with his own blood and we can be confident that “he who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 1.6).

At the risk of beating a dead horse, we should also look at I Peter 1.23, which explains this effectual calling and its relationship to the doctrine of perseverance in a different way.  Peter says: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”  The new birth comes about through the word of God which is imperishable.  The life that comes in the new birth is the very life of Jesus.  We are united to Christ through faith as an effect of the new birth, and thus the life we receive through faith will not perish, but endure because Jesus has eternal life.  None who are truly born again can fall away.

Now, if you have followed what the bible says thus far on these issues, you will probably have some questions as to how these teachings relate to two things.  First, how do we deal with the passages of scripture that seem to suggest that a person can fall away and lose their salvation?  Second, how do we deal with the real life situations where people who have been living within the life of the church, partaking in the sacraments, and exhibiting signs of Christian character, but who eventually walk away from the faith or embrace false doctrine?

First, it is true that there are a number of passages that appear to suggest that a person can be saved but then lose their salvation.  Hebrews 6.4-6 says:

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

And again in Hebrews 10.26-27:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

At first glance, both of these verses seem to imply that there are some people who are truly born again who continue in sin to such a degree that they lose salvation and will not be saved.  However, this is not the case.  The author of Hebrews argues throughout the letter that continuance in faith, repentance, and obedience is a test of the reality of the person’s faith.  The author is actually stating a practical fact, that those who have lived life among the covenant community and experienced privileges of walking among Christians and hearing the preaching of God’s word along with the visible demonstration of the gospel in baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the most difficult persons of all to reclaim for the faith if they walk away from God.  The point is, that those who experience the covenant community and reject God by continuing in unrepentant sin are people who will be convinced by nothing else to turn back to God.  Thus, these people are not actually true believers.

This first answer help us to deal with the second issue of the real life situations where people walk away from God after demonstrating general Christian faith.  I John 2.19 explains what is going on with those who are part of the visible church for a time but then leave: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”  We must not assume that just because a person prayed a prayer of repentance at some point in their life they are saved.  Those with true faith do not continue to walk in unbelief and unrepentance.  Many people appear to be Christians for a time, but eventually show themselves to be unregenerate.  So we must take the warning passages seriously, and trust that those who are born again will respond to the warnings with repentance and faith.

I have often heard Christians say that God is love and that love never forces itself on anyone.  Others say that God never forces us to do anything because that isn’t love.  Probably most often, I have heard people say that God doesn’t force anyone to love him because love cannot be forced.  While these ideas may seem true at first glance, this is not what the bible teaches about love.  Rather, that is an Enlightenment Romanticized notion of love that has filtered down into popular culture through Hollywood.  The bible clearly teaches that God’s love doesn’t just force itself upon us, but it totally changes who we are.  Apart from the new birth which God affects through the Holy Spirit, no one would ever love or choose God.  God does not force us to love him against our will in one sense.  It is not as if in our hearts we hate God but somehow he controls us so that we love him with a conflicted psyche.  Rather, he loves us against our unregenerate will by giving us a new will and a new everything altogether.  He loves us against our will so that we will be a new creation that does love him!  Real love is to give someone what they need, not necessarily what they want.  Real love doesn’t give a drug addict his drugs since that is what he wants.  Real love takes that drug addict against his will and throws him into detox!  Parents who know how to love their children do not give them everything they want, but rather teach them what they should want.  These are both analogies that do not quite get to the dramatic change that comes about in the new birth, but they do show us that we must grow up and let go of the Hollywood love that so many of us try to impose upon God.

Our final look at the doctrinal teaching of Reformed Theology will come in my next two posts.  It is there that I will explain how all of these benefits can be given to us in the first place.  We will examine the nature and scope of the atonement.

What is Reformed Theology? Part 4: A Doctrinal Look

In my last post, I set out to explain the Reformed understanding of the biblical doctrine of sin.  I concluded that the bible teaches that each individual is pervasively corrupted such that we are enslaved to sin, unable to choose, trust, seek, or love God, and thus each person is under God’s holy wrath.

This is the condition in which humanity finds itself.  If this is the case, how than can a person be saved?  Reformed theology argues that salvation is by God’s initiative from start to finish.  Man cannot work to God, freeing himself of his debt, not only because the debt is too great to pay, but because in this sinful condition, no person will even truly seek God.

Therefore, God in his mercy chose, before the foundation of the world, to save for Himself a people from fallen humanity.  To understand this free choice of God, we must understand God’s governance over creation first.

We must understand that God has already ordained or decreed how history will play out from the moment of creation through eternity future.  Everything that takes place happens because God has willed it.

Isaiah 46:8-11  8 “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors,  9 remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,  10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’  11 calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

Most people have no problem with that until they think about the implications this has when we consider that the Fall of Adam and all subsequent sin is ordained by God.  This is the biggest tension in Reformed Theology: if God controls, ordains, or predetermines history, then how is it that God is not guilty of committing sin?  Reformed theologians admit that no one fully understands God and his ways.  There is mystery in our study of Scripture.  The key is to make sure that we understand where the mystery is and where it isn’t.  For the best quick explanation of this issue, I encourage you to read John Frame’s four part explanation here, here, here, and here.  Simply put, the bible teaches that God is good and cannot do evil, but that he has ordained all things such that nothing happens apart from his ultimate direction.

Non-Reformed theologians also believe that we cannot fully understand God’s ways, but they wrongly believe that the mystery we cannot understand is how free-will and God’s sovereignty fit together.  I have already shown in my last post that free-will does not exist.  We are not able to freely choose God because we are slaves to sin.  Plus, as I have briefly mentioned here, God ordains everything in history, including human decisions.  For instance, Proverbs 21:1  says, ‘The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.’  The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart would be another example of God’s control over human decisions.  A supreme example can be found in John 12 where John summarizes Jesus ministry as a ministry where Jesus had largely been rejected by the Jews.  John explains in terms of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry that God had hardened their hearts and blinded their eyes so that the could not and would not believe and be healed.  Thus, the popular notion of ‘free-will’ is not a biblical idea, and thus not the proper place to argue that there is mystery.

So, my point thus far is simply to affirm that God ordains history, the end from the beginning to display his own glory.  God’s main purpose, the end which he serves, is to enjoy himself through the display of his own glory.  Thus, he ordained that he would create the universe with mankind as its head.  He ordained that mankind would fall, and he set his love upon some of that fallen humanity in order to save them.  This final statement brings us to the issue of predestination.

In John 3, Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he must be born again.  In the Gospel of John, this is said a few different ways: born again, born from above, or born of God.  Jesus’ point to Nicodemus was that he is corrupted to his very core and God will not allow corruption into renewed creation.  So, Nicodemus needs to be changed at his very core, in his heart, to be a new creation.  Jesus then explained this statement in Old Testament terms from Ezekiel 36: ‘unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’  Ezekiel 36 is one of the places where the prophets spoke of a future greater covenant where God would wash Israel from her iniquity and put his Spirit in their hearts.  Jesus explained that this is what Nicodemus needs.  However, in an odd turn of events, Jesus proceeded to tell Nicodemus that he cannot make himself be born again.  He explained that being born of the Spirit is out of his control, for the Spirit is like the wind, which moves as it wishes.  You cannot tell where it is going and where it comes from.  Jesus’ point: the Spirit who brings new life works on us as he determines, not as we determine.

This means that we do not believe in Jesus and then become born again, rather, we are born again that we may believe.  Again, because we are slaves of sin and corrupted, we won’t ever believe in Jesus in our flesh.  Unless we are born of God, by his initiative, we cannot trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.  So then, if we cannot choose to be born again, how is it that so many have come to believe in Jesus?  The answer is that God has chosen in eternity past to save some by uniting us to Christ:

Ephesians 1:4  he chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.

Everything we have in salvation, we have because God unites us to Christ through faith.  Regeneration (being born again), justification, adoption, and sanctification all come to us because we are in Christ through faith.  God initiates salvation from start to finish.  He applies salvation to us through the Spirit beginning with the new birth which gives us faith, and ending with glorification on the last day.

How does God choose who he will save?  He chooses according to his own perfect plan in all wisdom, not because of anything we have done or would do, so that no one can boast, but for his own glory.  Romans 9.1-24 argues this very clearly.  I am not going to put the whole text in the post, so follow along as I walk through it in your own bible. Paul writes Romans 9-11 to answer an objection that he sees coming.  He has spent 8 chapters explaining justification by faith alone and the benefits we have in Christ once we have believed.  He ends chapter 8 with a long celebration that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  The objection Paul sees coming is this: didn’t God make a bunch of promises to Israel?  And didn’t most of the Jews reject Jesus?  How can we trust what you have said Paul, if God seems to have changed his promises?

Paul answers by explaining, 1) that God is free to choose people from within Israel and outside of Israel, 2) that Israel is guilty for rejecting God’s word, and 3) that God will and has used the rejection of Jesus by Israel to save Gentiles who will then in turn lead many Jews to saving faith in Jesus.  We will focus in on the first response found in Romans 9 because it is here that Paul most clearly outlines the doctrine of election or predestination.

Paul argues that not everyone who belonged to ethnic Israel belonged to the true Israel (v.6-7).  In other words, not everyone who is a Jew is a recipient of the promises.  He uses Abraham’s offspring as an example.  Ishmael was a son of Abraham, but only those in Isaac’s line were to receive the promise (v.8-10).  Some might object to this and argue that the reason Ishmael didn’t receive the promises was because he had a different mother than Isaac.  So, Paul uses another example, Jacob and Esau.  In this case, not only do they have the same mother, but they were twins born right next to one another.  However, God showed his freedom in election by choosing Jacob the younger over Esau the older.  Not only this, but Paul shows that God chose Jacob before they were even born and had the ability to do good or bad so that his purposes in election might stand (v.11-12).  The point is clear: God is free to narrow his election to some within Israel and free to extend election beyond Israel to the Gentiles.  This freedom to choose who will receive the promised blessings of God does not depend on human will or behavior but on God’s free choice.

Paul anticipates another concern in verse 14: ‘Is there injustice on God’s part?’  This is our natural response to the doctrine of election.  We immediately believe this to be unfair.  Paul simply responds to this by arguing that God is free to show mercy on whomever he desires (v.15).  Election does not depend on the will of man, but on God’s free choice (v.16).  The very character of mercy is that it is freely given.  It makes no sense to talk about everyone deserving mercy.  Mercy is undeserved, and so God can show it to whomever he wills, and he has chosen to show it to some and to enforce what is just on others.  This is a key point.  It is not as if God chooses from eternity some to be saved and others to be condemned.  His choice to show mercy is not the same as his choice to overlook others.  In other words, justice is by definition, something that is universal and even handed.  All humanity deserves God’s just wrath.  All humanity stands under God’s wrath, and it is only because he has chosen to show mercy that any are saved at all.  Thus, when he hardens some, like Pharaoh or the many Jews who did not believe him during his ministry (John 12.36-43), he is merely furthering or confirming what is already true about the sinner (v.17-18).  This is why Paul can argue that we have no right to question God for finding fault with those who do not believe (v.19).  God is the creator, and he has the right to create a universe where things play out this way so that he might display his glory in both mercy and justice (v.21-24).

Some people say they believe in God’s sovereignty and in election but do not mean the same thing the bible means when it talks about these concepts.  It is common today for people to think of election as God’s action of looking into the future to see who would choose him with their own free-will, and thus, because he is powerful, he sovereignly and mysteriously works out history in a certain way to ensure those who would have chose him do choose him without overriding people’s free-will.  This understanding of election makes God’s choice dependent upon  man’s decision, which Paul explicitly states is not the reason he elects (Romans 9.16).  Furthermore, as I have shown, no one would ever choose God because we are enslaved to sin.

To summarize, Reformed Theology argues that the bible teaches that we must be born of God in order to be saved, that we cannot believe in Jesus unless we are born of God, that God determines who will be born of God, and that this determination occurred apart from any human decision or work.  God chooses who he will save in Christ, and he applies this salvation by his Spirit beginning with regeneration and ending with glorification, all of which comes by his initiative and sovereign work.  My next post will attempt to explain the effectiveness of God’s grace, or, the irresistability of God’s grace.

What is Reformed Theology? Part 3: A Doctrinal Look

Whenever Christians talk about doctrine, methodology always plays a factor in how we support our understanding of biblical teaching.  It has been common for Christians to pull out verses from a part of Scripture, to abstract the verses from their context by applying the verses universally without considering the flow of the argument in which the verses preside, and to create a logical system of doctrine based on these propositions.  I hope to avoid this approach as I believe the Reformers did.

Our methodology needs to be a redemptive historical approach, or as many call it today, a Biblical Theology approach.  Biblical Theology is the method that seeks to allow Scripture to dictate the organization of theology and the concerns we raise by following the redemptive and historic progression of the unified biblical story centered on Christ.  This methodology is primary whenever we study doctrine because it ensures that when we quote verses in an attempt to understand a specific biblical teaching, we are less likely to pull verses out of context to fit our logical system.  So, while we are engaging in systematic theology here (that is, we are asking the bible a question about a certain topic), I want to be careful to first ensure that I am reading the bible in such a way that I submit to Scripture’s own development and concern.

The Effects of Sin on Mankind:

The bible teaches that when Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, sin and death entered the world.  As the representative head of mankind, Adam brought corruption and guilt upon mankind.  Every person, save Jesus, has been born into the state of sin such that all mankind shares a sin nature and therefore guilt before God deserving his judgment.  Along with the whole Old Testament, Paul makes this point clear in Romans 5.12-21, which can be summarized by verse 12:

Romans 5:12 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned-

We learn more about what this means from some other passages.  First, we learn that we are spiritually dead, that is, we can do nothing spiritual, nothing that God delights in, nothing that brings us into good favor with God, and nothing that even seeks God.  Second, we learn that we are under God’s judgment.

Ephesians 2:1-3 And 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.

Here, Paul explains that we are spiritually dead, and yet we are able to walk around and make decisions every day, but that these decisions always are towards evil, following the devil, acting like a child of disobedience, and living by the passions of the flesh (the flesh being the sinful corrupted nature that always rebels against God and seeks pleasure in idols rather than in God).  Paul’s final statement, ‘[you] were by nature children of wrath,’ describes humans before regeneration as those who are under the wrath of God.  So far, I doubt any Christian has any concern with what I have just pointed out.  Jesus’ words are a bit more shocking in John 8.34:

John 8:34 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.

Jesus uses a metaphor to explain the effects of sin on us.  If we commit a sin, this indicates that we are enslaved by sin, only able to sin because we must obey our master.  We are not free to do good in our sinful flesh.  We are constrained/enslaved by sin.  We do not have the power in us to, at any point, choose good or evil, faith or unbelief.  We can however, do what we want, and what we want is evil.  Paul says this in another way in Romans 8.7-8:

Romans 8:7-8 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Paul consistently contrasts the flesh (again, the sinful corrupted nature that rebels against God and seeks pleasure in idols rather than God) with the Spirit.  Every person is either living according to the desires of the flesh or by the Spirit.  The Spirit always drives us to love and serve God while the flesh drives us to live self-righteously attempting to justify ourselves through our works.  Paul is very clear in this passage that those who live in the flesh, that is, those who have not been born again and do not have the Spirit, never submit to God and cannot ever please God.

Let me flush out the implications of these verses.  People who hold to Reformed Theology believe that the bible teaches that before a person is born again, they are not able to love, choose, commit themselves to, seek, or obey God.  This is the doctrine of Total Inability.  Paul says this also in Romans 3.10-12:

Romans 3:10-12 “None is righteous, no, not one;  11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.  12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

And Jesus says in John 6.44:

John 6:44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

We will talk about John 6.44 more later, but notice that these verses argue that no one seeks God, not even one, and that no one is able to repent and believe in Christ to come to God unless God draws them.  This might seem untrue to many at first glance because it appears that many people do seek God.  We must interpret our experience by Scripture, and so these verses teach us that people who seem to seek God are either not really seeking God but some sort of religious experience apart from submission to God or they are seeking God because the Spirit of God is working in their life to draw them to God.  The point is, in our flesh, no one chooses, understands, seeks, loves, or submits to God.

The second implication of these verses is that sin has affected us pervasively.  The doctrine of Pervasive Depravity says that sin has not just affected our minds (‘no one understands’), bodies, and desires, but also the will.  The will is a tricky concept.  Many think of the will as some independent faculty that can at any time assert freedom to choose between options.  However, the bible teaches otherwise.  The bible clearly teaches that we are slaves to sin such that we can only choose sin all the time.  This does not mean that non-believers can never do good, but that even when they do good, they do so not out of love for God or as a response to grace, but for some evil motive.  The will is nothing more than our always doing what we think is best, but we never think it best to submit to God in the flesh.  Thus, we are free to do what we want, but what we want is never to love and honor God, apart from the new birth.  We are pervasively corrupted.

Martin Luther taught these doctrines because he believed the Roman Catholic Church had lost sight of the effects of sin.  Catholics had come to have an elevated sense of man’s ability to choose God and to lovingly serve him, and thus they developed a theory of justification that required sinful people to cooperate with God rather than being totally dependent upon God.  Luther wrote in The Bondage of the Will:

[A] man without the Spirit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of his neck and dragged into it, like a thief…being dragged off against his will to punishment; but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily.  And this willingness of volition is something which he cannot in his own strength eliminate, restrain or alter.  He goes on willing and desiring to do evil; and if external pressure forces him to act otherwise, nevertheless his will within remains averse to so doing and chafes under such constraint and opposition.

Now, if you understand what I have been saying, then you will see that if this is the case, there is no hope for mankind.  Apart from God’s gracious work in us on his own initiative, we are stuck in hatred for God, unable to repent and trust in him.  We cannot choose to follow God one day for even our will is bent and corrupted to choose rebellion all the time.

Now, early on in the church, a British monk named Pelagius disagreed with the Church’s teaching on this doctrine, and he argued that Adam did in fact sin, but that this had no impact on us other than serving as a bad example to follow.  He argued that we do not inherit a sinful corrupt nature from Adam’s transgression and we definitely do not share in his guilt.  The great theologian Augustine of Hippo refuted this teaching and argued convincingly from Scripture that fallen man is “not able not to sin.”  The Church condemned Pelagius’ teaching, but it continued to be held throughout the history of the Church.

Today, many people unknowingly believe this false teaching.  Those who argue that ‘God cannot hold me responsible for my sin if I can only sin,’ unknowingly hold to the same theology Pelagius did.  To argue that we can only be held guilty before God if we have the ability to do good and to choose and love God is to forget that God owes salvation to no one.  Salvation is a merciful work of God.  God is not required by justice to show mercy and forgive.  He is required by his holy character which is just to punish sin.  Therefore, he is completely just in punishing sinners and never working to save them.  We are responsible for sin because we do what we want to do, which is rebel against God.

Today, many who disagree with Reformed Theology do not agree with Pelagius’ exact theology, but they do essentially argue that mankind was not as bad off as the Reformers had made it sound.  While agreeing with Total Inability and Pervasive Depravity, they have invented a new solution to the problem that ensures humans the ability to transcend the flesh and to choose God.  Many have called this Prevenient Grace.  They argue that it is true that mankind cannot choose God because of sin, but that God has graciously given each individual person the ability to transcend their sinful corruption.  Essentially, this position holds to Pelagius’ view of human freedom (we are not in bondage so that we cannot choose God) with the qualifier that this ability is a gift of God’s grace, but the position rejects Pelagius’ unbiblical view that we do not have a sinful nature.

While Prevenient Grace is a nice slide of hand, there is no solid biblical support for this view.  This doctrine is invented by philosophical necessity to complete a logical system imposed on the biblical text.  I do not have space to treat the defenses offered for the false doctrine of Prevenient Grace, but if anyone would like to lend support to it in a comment, I would be happy to interact on that issue.

So, to summarize, Reformed Theology teaches that each individual is enslaved to sin, unable to choose, trust, or love God.  Those in the flesh are under God’s wrath, dead in their trespasses, and pervasively corrupted by sin.  I will post again soon with some better news.

What is Reformed Theology? Part 2: Another Historical Look

My last post discussed the origins of Reformed Theology, but we also need to understand the historical backdrop for dominant articulation of Reformed Theology today.  That is what I hope to briefly discuss in this post.

The Reformation spread as Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) became famous for their writings.  Calvin became especially famous for his theology when he began publishing The Institutes of Christian Religion (1559 in Latin & 1560 in French) which was a sort of biblical and pastoral theology handbook.  Even before the publication of the Institutes, the brilliance of Calvin along with his pastoral reputation led many people to flock to Geneva, Switzerland to be trained as pastors under his teaching.  His influence spread all over Europe as these men left Geneva to pastor in their own countries.  Scotland, France, Belgium, Holland, and England were all permeated with church planting pastors trained by the great Reformer.

Theodore Beza (1519-1605) led the Geneva Academy started by Calvin once Calvin became ill and then died in 1564.  Beza and Calvin worked together in Geneva while Calvin was pastoring there, and Beza had traveled Europe to spread and defend the Evangelical cause.  However, once he settled in Geneva as Calvin’s successor, his theological method, which differed from Calvin’s, took hold and gave way to a much more philosophical approach, a return to the Scholasticism which Luther and Calvin had rejected.  Calvin had always remained a pastoral and biblical theologian, meaning he allowed the biblical text to shape the questions he asked and the answers he felt able to give.  Beza’s philosophical approach tended to indulge in speculations far beyond what is clearly taught from Scripture, and this led to opposition.

A professor at the University of Leyden in Holland named Jacob (Jacobus) Arminius (1560-1609) began to challenge the theology of those who had followed in Calvin’s steps, particularly Theodore Beza.  By 1610, after Arminius had died, his followers raised 5 objections to the Dutch confessions adopted by the state (for the state and church were united at this time) which were influenced heavily by Calvin and Beza.  These objections were called The 5 Articles of Remonstrance.  An international team of theologians were gathered to consider these objections, and in 1618-1619, the Synod of Dort (also Dordt) took place.  It is here that the famous 5 Points of Calvinism were articulated to respond to the Remonstrants.

Now, all of this is important because many people take issue with the 5 points of Calvinism because it appears to be a rather stunted theology.  No one thinks a Christian’s theology should be summarized in these simple 5 points.  But, this objection fails to understand the historical backdrop of this articulation of the theology.  The 5 points are not meant to summarize Calvin’s theology or the theology of the bible but to respond specifically to the 5 objections raised by Arminuis’ followers on those 5 aspects of Calvin’s theology.

It must be noted that all the men involved in the debate were very bright and intelligent men.  The Arminians (those who followed Arminuis’ teaching) aptly and succinctly honed in on the main issues of disagreement which history has shown are in fact significant disagreements about the character and purposes of God.

To summarize their objections, the Arminians argued that the sovereignty of God’s grace was in some way limited by the freedom of human choice because of God’s universal love.  In some ways, this objection was a return to the Roman Catholic view that God and man participate in salvation, even though salvation is by grace alone.

Therefore, the Arminians argued these 5 points, which I have summarized:

  1. The will is not enslaved to sin to such a degree that it is not capable of believing in Christ prior to regeneration.  However, this capability to choose God is not entirely apart from God’s grace.
  2. The ultimate reason a person believes in God is because of their choice not God’s.
  3. Christ’s work on the cross made salvation possible for all people but not actual for anyone in particular.
  4. God graciously works through the Holy Spirit on every human heart, but each person can resist this work so that the Holy Spirit cannot impart new life unless the sinner willingly receives it.
  5. It is not abundantly clear whether or not a person who believes in Christ can ever fall away from God’s grace by ceasing to believe.

As I begin to explain Reformed Theology doctrinally in my next several posts, I will attempt to address these objections.  As you hopefully can tell, these questions are not peripheral, but deal with the very character of God, the work of Christ, and the application of salvation to us.  These issues have extreme importance in the life of the believer and in the life of the local church.