Friday, July 6, 2012

When Not To Be Divisive

There's a lot of heat out there in the evangelical world right now over the centuries old debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. So much could be said about this and how foolish would I be to think that I could resolve the conflict. If you want to hear a strong case for each side of the debate then I recommend Robert Shanks's book Life In The Son for the Arminian case and John Macarthur's teaching series The Doctrines Of Grace for an overview of Calvinistic theology.

My post today is intended to be of a more conciliatory nature. The assaults on the Gospel in this present day demand that true believers don't end up shooting at the wrong targets. Consider the following conversation (paraphrased by John Piper) that occurred in the 18th century between Calvinist Charles Simeon and Arminian John Wesley. The conversation is instructive about how we should deal with people we disagree with, and about how sometimes moderates from both sides of a theological debate are closer than we realise.

Charles Simeon - Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?

John Wesley - Yes, I do indeed.

Charles Simeon - And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?

John Wesley - Yes, solely through Christ.

Charles Simeon - But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?

John Wesley - No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.

Charles Simeon - Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?

John Wesley - No.

Charles Simeon - What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?

John Wesley - Yes, altogether.

Charles Simeon - And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?

John Wesley - Yes, I have no hope but in Him.

Charles Simeon - Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.

Now this conciliatory approach in no way suggests compromising the Gospel. The Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. The good news is that the Holy Just, Righteous, and Loving God created man. Man rebelled and all of humanity has the sin nature. People are radically depraved and exceedingly sinful. They hate God and are deserving of His wrath and eternal condemnation. God's character demands that he must judge and punish all sin to meet the requirements of His justice. But to demonstrate His great love He sent His Son, fully God/fully man to fulfill the requirements of His law and then die under the punishment of God's Holy Wrath in the place of sinners. That the sins of the sinner would be imputed to Christ's account, and the rightoeusness of Christ would be imputed to the sinner's account. God now calls on all men everywhere to repent from sin and put their trust in Christ that they might be saved from the wrath to come. This is the major theme woven throughout the whole of Scripture - God's plan of redemption and being glorified by saving sinners. Many Arminians and Calvinists would preach this Gospel side by side.

I have been mailed by the odd angry Arminian and the odd hyper Calvinist only to hear them rail about the twisting of Scripture in the "opposing camp". But church history is littered with genuine Christian scholars who practised sound hermeneutical principles and yet arrived at different conclusions on difficult points of theology. Good theology involves harmonizing all of God's Word and that has proven difficult throughout church history on the issue of Calvinism v Arminianism. God speaks of predestining every soul and knows all the names written in the Lamb's book of life, yet He takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked desiring that he would repent. Repentance is a gift from God and yet God holds all men accountable to repent of their wickedness. These truths coexist in Scripture. We should be comforted in the knowledge that God can resolve what is beyond our grasp. All who are saved see the scarlet thread of redemption woven through the entirity of Scripture, but to scale the heights of God's election and man's responsibility is to search out the unsearchable - we all look into this glass darkly. There are tensions in Scripture that are beyond human understanding and different scholars throughout church history have developed theology that attempts to reconcile these tensions. We need to have the grace to recognize that no two people agree on every single point of doctrine and that we can live and serve God within that tension.

There are doctrines that are so important salvation depends on them (these are life and death and must be fought at all costs).

There are doctrines that cause us to fellowship at different local churches but we still extend the hand of fellowship to our genuinely born again brothers who differ on these doctrines.

There are also doctrines which we can differ on but still attend the same fellowship and sit down and lovingly reason from the Scriptures.

Please be big enough to do that for the sake of Christ's great Name and the furtherance of His glorious Gospel.


Anonymous said...

my church is getting ready to show the NOOMA dvds and I researched it and found a study that you did on them. Thank you for sharing. I am completely heart broken, but a little wiser. Thank you.

Matt said...

Very refreshing, thanks for posting this Cameron. I often think that the two sides are closer together than they think, when both sides are orthodox in their confession. Both acknowledge God's sovereignty and both acknowledge man's sinfulness, Christ's redemption, the 5 Solas, etc. The tension between the sovereignty of God in salvation and the responsibility of man, the order of salvation, and many things are a mystery in the Scripture to some degree.

Randy said...

One of your best posts ever. Thanks for pointing out what I am so afraid we are missing over and over in the growing contention in the SBC. I'm firmly non-Calvinist, but I am a fan of you and your blog. I have always been a fan of John MacArthur and have benefited greatly from his sermons and books, despite knowing of his Calvinistic theology. One of my most trusted friends and mentors is a Calvinist. Indeed, we can sheathe our daggers and save them for the true enemy. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Calvinists are completely wrong. but even non-C's have it wrong when they talk about the sin nature. that concept is the brain child of the pagan philosopher and corrupter of the chruch Augustine.

Read romans chapter 5:12-21, carefully.