Today’s Completing The Thought (CTT) post is a reaction to some comments I read in social media a few weeks ago. At two separate times in two different threads from two different people came the comment “When you say Calvinism, I hear Gospel”. Both threads were calling Calvinism into question, so there is a sense of defensiveness at play here, but we are going to address this statement here today. The short answer is, “you understand neither Calvinism nor the Gospel”.
Let’s begin with a definition of Calvinism from the folks at CARM:
Calvinism is a theological system of Christian interpretation initiated by John Calvin. It emphasizes predestination and salvation. The five points of Calvinism were developed in response to the Arminian position (See Arminianism). Calvinism teaches:
1) Total depravity: that man is touched by sin in all parts of his being: body, soul, mind, and emotions;
2) Unconditional Election: that God’s favor to Man is completely by God’s free choice and has nothing to do with Man. It is completely undeserved by Man and is not based on anything God sees in man (Eph. 1:1-11);
3) Limited atonement: that Christ did not bear the sins of every individual who ever lived but instead only bore the sins of those who were elected into salvation (John 10:11, 15);
4) Irresistible grace: that God’s call to someone for salvation cannot be resisted;
5) Perseverance of the saints: that it is not possible to lose one’s salvation (John 10:27-28).
It is a system of Christian interpretation of Scriptures. It isn’t “the Gospel”. It directly affects how one reads the Gospel and probably heavily impacts how one preaches the Gospel, but Calvinism is not “the Gospel”. Calvinism is a framework that elevates the sovereignty of God above all of His other attributes. It’s goal was to guard Christians against the works-based salvation of the Roman Catholic Church as well as some of other doctrines that were sliding into open-theism.
To demonstrate how Calvinism is a framework of interpretation, let us look at John 3:16.
John 3:16-18 (ESV) “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
The non-Calvinists read this verse as indicating that the atonement was for all and that anyone who believes in Jesus will be granted eternal life. They use this verse as a call or a plea for all to believe in Him so that you can have eternal life.
The Calvinist sees this verse not as an open call to belief, but a reflection of the separation from those who will believe (due to unconditional election, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) in Him from those who will not believe. Also, that God’s giving of His Son was not for those who are unconditionally reprobate (unbelieving); rather, this gift of atonement was limited only to those who were pre-destined to believe in Christ.
Same verse, different frameworks of interpretation. Now, to determine which one is “better” depends on how you matrix passages and how far you go to resolve mysteries. The point of this post isn’t to promote or refute Calvinism… the point of this post is to keep the concepts of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” and “Calvinism” separate. John Calvin wasn’t an Apostle of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (ESV) | The Resurrection of Christ
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Ephesians 2:1-10 (ESV) | By Grace Through Faith
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 3:1-12 (ESV) | The Mystery of the Gospel Revealed
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
These are clear passages for answering the question of “What is the Gospel?”, but there are many more passages we can look to in the New Testament. I stuck with Paul’s writing primarily because of what we see him write to the Galatians.
Galatians 1:6-9 (ESV) | No Other Gospel
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
The gospel we are to preach is the Gospel of Jesus Christ recorded in Holy Scriptures.
If you are a Christian, you are my brother or sister in the Body of Christ, whether you are Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal or non-denominational. The primary concern I have is of your understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in light of our sin. There are Christians who reject Calvin, just as there are Christians who can see no other framework of Biblical interpretation outside of Calvin. I think it is important to engage one another in the scriptures to sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron, but let us not err in confusing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with our own frameworks. I urge you not to make the mistake of empty boasting such as what we’ve addressed today. There are both Calvinists and non-Calvinists who remain faithful to the Preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The litmus is the Gospel they preach.
In Christ Jesus,