Michael Horton: Reformed Theology Vs. Hyper-Calvinism

Before the average believer today learns what Reformed theology (i.e., Calvinism) actually is, he first usually has to learn what it’s not. Often, detractors define Reformed theology not according to what it actually teaches, but according to where they think its logic naturally leads. Even more tragically, some hyper-Calvinists have followed the same course. Either way, “Calvinism” ends up being defined by extreme positions that it does not in fact hold as scriptural. The charges leveled against Reformed theology, of which hyper-Calvinism is actually guilty, received a definitive response at the international Synod of Dort (1618–1619), along with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

Is God the Author of Sin?

The God of Israel “is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32:4–5). In fact, James seems to have real people in mind when he cautions, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Sin and evil have their origin not in God or creation, but in the personal will and action of creatures.

Scripture sets forth two guardrails here: On one hand, God “works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:15); on the other, God does not — in fact, cannot — do evil. We catch a glimpse of these two guardrails at once in several passages, most notably in Genesis 45 and Acts 2. In the former, Joseph recognizes that while the intention of his brothers in selling him into slavery was evil, God meant it for good, so that many people could be saved during this famine (vv. 4–8). We read in the same breath in Acts 2:23 that “lawless men” are blamed for the crucifixion, and yet Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God….” The challenge is to affirm what Scripture teaches without venturing any further. We know from Scripture that both are true, but not how. Perhaps the most succinct statement of this point is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (chap. 3.1): “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;” — there’s one guardrail — “yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creature; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established,” and with that, the second guardrail. The same point is made in the Belgic Confession of Faith (Article 13), adding that whatever God has left to His own secret judgment is not for us to probe any further.

Is the Gospel for Everyone?

Isn’t it a bit of false advertising to say on one hand that God has already determined who will be saved and on the other hand to insist that the good news of the Gospel be sincerely and indiscriminately proclaimed to everyone?

But didn’t Christ die for the elect alone? The Canons of Dort pick up on a phrase that was often found in the medieval textbooks (“sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect only”) when it affirms that Christ’s death “is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world” (Second Head, Article 3). Therefore, we hold out to the world “the promise of the gospel … to all persons … without distinction ….” Although many do not embrace it, this “is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves” (Second Head, Articles 5–6).

Here once again we are faced with mystery — and the two guardrails that keep us from careening off the cliff in speculation. God loves the world and calls everyone in the world to Christ outwardlythrough the Gospel, and yet God loves the elect with a saving purpose and calls them by His Spiritinwardly through the same Gospel (John 6:63–64; 10:3–5, 11, 14–18, 25–30; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28–30; 2 Tim. 1:9). Both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists ignore crucial passages of Scripture, resolving the mystery in favor of the either-or: either election or the free offer of the Gospel.

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Albert N. Martin: The Practical Implications of Calvinism

Albert Martin is the Senior Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, Essex Fells, New Jersey. This material is the substance of an address which was transcribed with minor revisions from the tape.

The Experience of God

B. B. Warfield describes Calvinism as ‘that sight of the majesty of God that pervades all of life and all of experience’. In particular as it relates to the doctrine of salvation its glad confession is summarized in those three pregnant words, God saves sinners. Now whenever we are confronted with great doctrinal statements in Holy Scripture, God does not leave us merely with the statement of doctrine. The end of God’s truth set before the minds of God’s people is that, understanding it, they might know its effect in their own personal experience. So the grand doctrinal themes of Ephesians, chapters 1, 2 and 3 are followed by the application of those doctrines to practical life and experience in Ephesians, chapters 4, 5 and 6. The end for which God gave his truth was not so much the instruction of our minds as the transformation of our lives. But a person cannot come directly to the life and experience, he must come immediately through the mind. And so God’s truth is addressed to the understanding and the Spirit of God operates in the understanding as the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge. He does not illuminate the mind simply that the file drawers of the mental study may be crammed full of information. The end for which God instructs the mind is that he might transform the life.

What, then, are the personal implications of Calvinistic thought and truth both in the life of the individual and in the ministry exercised by the individual? By personal implications I mean the implications of your own relationship to God without any conscious reference to the ministry.

Now, these things cannot be separated in an absolute sense, for as has been well said, ‘The life of a minister is the life of his ministry’. You cannot separate what you are from what you do; you cannot separate the effect of truth upon your own relationship to God personally from the effect of truth through you ministerially. For the sake of bringing the principles into sharp focus I am separating them, but in no way do I want to give the impression that these two are in rigid categories.

I ask then, What are the implications of Calvinistic thought, this vision of the majesty of God and of the saving truth of Scripture as it relates to us as individuals? In answer let us go back to that general principle which B. B. Warfield calls the ‘formative principle of Calvinism’. I quote Warfield’s words:

It lies then, let me repeat, in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the poignant realization which inevitably accompanies this apprehension, of the relation sustained to God by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. The Calvinist is the man who has seen God, and who, having seen God in His glory, is filled on the one hand with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God’s sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand, with adoring wonder that nevertheless this God is a God who receives sinners. He who believes in God without reserve and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling and willing — in the entire compass of his life activities, intellectual, moral and spiritual — throughout all his individual social and religious relations, is, by force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.1

Notice that when B. B. Warfield defines Calvinism and the Calvinist he used words of a strongly experimental nature. The words ‘apprehension’ and ‘realisation’ deal primarily with the understanding, though they go beyond that, but when we come to words such as ‘seen God’, ‘filled on the one hand with a sense of his own unworthiness’, ‘adoring wonder’, ‘thinking, feeling and willing’, these are words of experience. Warfield is really saying that no person is a Calvinist, no person is truly Biblical in his thinking of God, no man is truly religious, no man is truly evangelical until these concepts have been burned into the nerve fibres of his experience. In other words, Warfield would say that an academic Calvinist is a misnomer, as much as to speak of ‘a living corpse’ is a misnomer. When the soul and the body are separate death has taken place, and Warfield would teach us that when the soul of Calvinistic thought is dead or absent, all that remains is a carcase, a stench in the nostrils of God, and so often a stench in the church when found in a minister.

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Joel Beeke: The Calvinist’s Ultimate Concern

If we had to reduce Calvinism to one concept, we might be safest to echo Warfield, who said that to be Reformed means to be theocentric. The primary interest of Reformed theology is the triune God, for the transcendent-immanent, fatherly God in Jesus Christ is God Himself. Calvinists are people whose theology is dominated by the idea of God. As Mason Pressly says: “Just as the Methodist places in the foreground the idea of the salvation of sinners; the Baptist, the mystery of regeneration; the Lutheran, justification by faith; the Moravian, the wounds of Christ; the Greek Catholic, the mysticism of the Holy Spirit; and the Romanist, the catholicity of the church, so the Calvinist is always placing in the foreground the thought of God.”

To be Reformed is to stress the comprehensive, sovereign, fatherly lordship of God over everything: every area of creation, every creature’s endeavors, and every aspect of the believer’s life. The ruling motif in Calvinism is, “In the beginning God…” (Gen. 1:1).

In His relation to us, God has only rights and powers; He binds Himself to duties sovereignly and graciously only by way of covenant. In covenant, He assumes the duties and responsibilities of being a God unto us, but that does not detract from His being the first cause and the last end of all things. The universe is ruled not by chance or fate, but by the complete, sovereign rule of God. We exist for one purpose: to give Him glory. We have only duties to God, no rights. Any attempt to challenge this truth is doomed. Romans 9:20b asks, “Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” God enacts His laws for every part of our lives and demands unconditional obedience. We are called to serve Him with body and soul, in worship and daily work, every second of every day.

To be Reformed, then, is to be concerned with the complete character of the Creator-creature relationship. It is to view all of life coram Deo, that is, lived before the face of God. As Warfield wrote:

The Calvinist is the man who sees God: God in nature, God in history, God in grace. Everywhere he sees God in His mighty stepping, everywhere he feels the working of His mighty arm, the throbbing of His mighty heart. The Calvinist is the man who sees God behind all phenomena and in all that occurs recognizes the hand of God, working out His will. [The Calvinist] makes the attitude of the soul to God in prayer its permanent attitude in all its life activities; [he] casts himself on the grace of God alone, excluding every trace of dependence on self from the whole work of his salvation.

The doctrine of God—a fatherly, sovereign God in Christ Jesus—is therefore the center of Reformed theology. R. C. Sproul puts it this way: “How we understand the nature and character of God himself influences how we understand the nature of man, who bears God’s image; the nature of Christ, who works to satisfy the Father; the nature of salvation, which is effected by God; the nature of ethics, the norms of which are based on God’s character; and a myriad of other theological considerations, all drawing on our understanding of God.” So Calvinists define all doctrine in a God-centered way. Sin is horrible because it is an affront to God. Salvation is wonderful because it brings glory to God. Heaven is glorious because it is the place where God is all in all. Hell is infernal because it is where God manifests His righteous wrath. God is central to all of those truths.

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