The March 26, 1997 issue of The
Baptist Standard contains an article titled, "Doctrines
Lead to Dunghill Prof Warns" (p. 12). The
article is a blatant condemnation of the Reformed, or Calvinistic
viewpoint on salvation. Dr. Estep laments the current growth in a
Calvinistic viewpoint among Southern Baptists, a growth that I
have personally done everything in my power to encourage.
We should first insist that
dialogue and debate is a healthy thing. I wish these issues were
being discussed even more openly than they are. Since I am
convinced the "doctrines of grace" are biblical,
consistent, and compelling, I can only rejoice when people are
exposed to these truths. I have seen so many lives changed by
these great truths, that I long to see many other believers come
to understand the truth about the sovereignty of God, the
inability of man, and the power of His grace.
There are many statements in the
article that call for attention and response. But none more than
the final section titled "Problems with Calvinism."
Here, sadly, we encounter blatant misrepresentation of the
Calvinistic position. And it is this very shallow, very
inaccurate representation of the Reformed doctrines of grace that
call forth this response. Nothing is accomplished when one
misrepresents the opposition. "Straw man" argumentation
only confuses, it does not help. And yet this is what we find
under "Problems with Calvinism." Lets look at
what is said.
"First, it is a system
of theology without biblical support."
Such a statement boggles the mind.
Certainly Dr. Estep has every right to say that Calvinism is inconsistent
with the fullness of biblical revelation, but to assert it is
"without biblical support" is to ignore a veritable mountain
of evidence to the contrary. One must realize that what is being
said here is that Luther (who said more about predestination and
election than Calvin did), Calvin, Beza, the Westminster Divines,
the Baptist ministers who formed the 1689 Baptist Confession of
Faith, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (whose obvious and life-long
Calvinism Estep attempts to mute elsewhere in his article),
Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, James Boice
(who is likewise decried elsewhere in Esteps article), and
many others, somehow managed to write extensive Systematic
Theologies and shelves full of theological and biblical works,
all the time not realizing that they had no biblical support
for their system!
The reality of the matter is that
when the Arminian system (which, seemingly, is the
"Baptist" viewpoint from Dr. Esteps position) is
forced to engage in serious biblical debate against the
Calvinistic one, it invariably loses such a contest.
Indeed, it has been my experience that many Arminians dont
like the Reformed viewpoint simply because it is too logical!
That is, I have often had people say, "That sounds like it
is based too much on logic and consistency for me." The fact
of the matter is, the Arminian is hard pressed to walk,
verse-by-verse, through such Reformed minefields as Romans 8 and
9, Ephesians 1, and John 6:35-45. I would very much like to
invite Dr. Estep to such an adventure: a written explanation of a
passage like John 6:35-45, presenting, from the text of
Scripture, the validity of the viewpoint expressed by both sides
of the debate.
"It assumes to know more
about God and the eternal decrees upon which it is based
than God has chosen to reveal in scripture or in Christ.
To say God created some people for damnation and others
for salvation is to deny that all have been created in
the image of God."
Calvinists strongly believe in sola
scriptura, the sufficiency of Scripture to function as the
sole infallible rule of faith for the Church. A tenet that cannot
be established by clear biblical exegesis should be
something a Reformed believer would not bind upon someones
conscience. It is for this very reason that I must strongly
assert that it is not a matter of the Reformed position intruding
something into an area where God has remained silent: it is the
Arminian position that refuses to affirm, and deal with, the
plain statements of Scripture regarding election and grace. I
would point out that Dr. Esteps objection here is little
different than the objections Paul himself raised, and answered,
in Romans 9:14 and 9:19. For some reason, the Holy Spirit did not
feel Paul was going beyond what was fitting in making such
blatant and clear assertions as "So then it does not depend
on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has
mercy" (9:16) and "So then He has mercy on whom He
desires, and He hardens whom He desires" (9:18).
As to what Dr. Estep means when he
says that the recognition of Gods electing grace denies
that men are created in the image of God, I cannot say. Reformed
theologians affirm the imago Dei in all men, even in those
who are justly condemned for their own sins and who are not
graciously redeemed. There is no logical connection between the
just condemnation of sinners and the idea that they are not
created in the image of God. This is a red herring.
"It also reflects upon
both Gods holiness and His justice, as portrayed in
That is does, and in a glorious
fashion! The Calvinistic position takes seriously Gods
holiness, insisting that only a fully propitiatory
sacrifice can avail to remove Gods wrath. It affirms the
power and sovereignty of God, and refuses to portray Him as the
mere servant of man, hoping and wishing to save, but incapable of
bringing this about without the actions of man as an aid. The
serious problems, upon deep reflection, are encountered in the
Arminian system, which leaves us with no serious means of dealing
with eviloutside of seeing it as purposeless, random
disorder, outside the ultimate control of God.
appears to deny John 3:16, John 1:12, Romans 1:16, Romans
10:9-10, Ephesians 2:8-10, and numerous other passages of
scripture that indicate, as Baptist confessions have
consistently stated, that salvation comes to those who
respond to Gods grace in faith."
This section is truly amazing to
the Calvinist, and frustrating, as well. Surely Dr. Estep must
know that the passages he cites are well known to
Calvinists, and that the volumes and volumes of commentaries
produced by Reformed believers not only embrace, but take quite
seriously, everything they say. No Calvinist would ever deny that
"salvation comes to those who respond to Gods grace in
faith." To even intimate otherwise is to either show a very
deep misunderstanding of the Calvinistic position (which, while
hoping this is the case, seems difficult in light of Dr.
Esteps position as "Distinguished Professor of Church
History Emeritus") or crass misrepresentation. In either
case, it seems that the desire is to portray the Calvinists as
not believing in salvation by grace through faith. Nothing could
be further from the truth.
Salvation comes only to those who
respond to Gods grace in faith. All affirm this. The
question is, is this "response" autonomous, and outside
Gods sovereign decree, or not? The Calvinist points to the
simple facts that 1) grace accomplishes what it is intended to
accomplish, and is not a mere "aid" that tries
to get people to respond (as in Roman Catholicism); 2) faith
itselfdivine, saving faithis a gift of God
given to His elect (a truth presented in one of the passages
cited by Dr. Estep!), and is the result of regeneration,
not its cause (John 3:3, 5; 1 John 5:1). If Dr. Estep wishes to
provide a telling criticism of the Reformed position, he needs to
interact with the best his opponents have to offer.
Calvinists believe in John 3:16:
they simply point out that in light of the words of the Lord
Jesus in John 6:44 and elsewhere, no man is able to come
to Christ outside of the drawing of the Father. Hence, when John
3:16 says "whosoever will," we heartily agree: and go
on to assert that only those who are divinely enabled (John 6:65)
and raised to spiritual life "will" to believe! John
1:12, likewise, does not even begin to deny the reality of
Gods electing grace of mans deadness in sin, and is,
in fact, followed by an assertion of Gods sovereignty in
salvation in the very next verse, where the Scriptures state,
"who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh
nor of the will of man, but of God." The reason for the
divine birth is plainly stated to be the action of God, not
the will of man.
In the same way, Calvinists
believe Romans 1:16: the gospel is the power of God for all those
who believe. All of the elect, for whom Paul suffered all things
(2 Timothy 2:10), will believe: "all that the Father gives
Me will come to Me" is how Jesus said it (John 6:37). In
fact, I would submit that the Calvinist has much more
"claim" to this passage than the Arminian: we believe
the gospel is powerful and is able to accomplish, without
human addition or assistance, the salvation of all of the
elect. In the Arminian viewpoint, the gospel is presented to
millions who are lostand yet, the intention of God
was that the gospel might save these millions. It fails in its
task a large portion of the time. But in the Reformed viewpoint,
the gospel will always, in Gods time, accomplish the
redemption of Gods elect. It never fails, for as
Paul says, it is the very power of God.
Romans 10:9-10, again, is a
passage every Reformed person would embrace. The question is not
the role of belief and confession, but the inability of man,
outside of electing grace, to do either. Until Dr. Estep
takes into consideration these fundamental issues, his criticisms
will accomplish little.
Of all the passages cited,
Ephesians 2:8-10one of the very "charter"
passages of Reformed beliefamazed me the most. The passage
is Calvinistic to the core (or, more accurately, Calvinism has
drunk deeply at such biblical wells). Paul asserts that we have
been, and continue to be, saved by the instrumentality of grace,
and that through faith. But he goes on to assert that the entirety
of salvation (grace and faith) is a gift of God, and not
the result of anything man may do. Then Paul goes on to assert
that Christians do good works because God has foreordained
that they do so! Is this merely an assertion that God suggests
good works to believers, or the plain assertion that even the
good works we do are part of Gods eternal decree? All
glory, honor, and praise, belong to God for salvation, for even
the good works we do are part of His own decree and plan!
Calvinisms God resembles Allah, the god of Islam,
more than the God of grace and redeeming love revealed in
Its hard to know how to
respond to such a statement! We who glorify Gods grace, and
ascribe to it the totality of our salvation, do not
worship a God of grace? We who believe Gods redeeming love
sent Christ to the cross to actually redeem His elect
people, do not believe in a God of redeeming love? Such a
statement, quite honestly, is nothing more than rhetoric without
substance, and is far below the level of dialogue that should be
followed when issues such as this are addressed.
"Third, Calvinism robs
the individual of responsibility for his/her own conduct,
making a person into a puppet on a string or a robot
programmed from birth to death with no will of his/her
Again, in light of the extensive
refutations of such grandiose and inaccurate accusations found in
almost every Reformed work that addresses soteriology, how
can Dr. Estep make such statements? How can he ignore monumental
works like that of Jonathan Edwards on the nature and function of
the will? How can he dismiss chapter after chapter of
Calvins Institutes, or the many sermons of Spurgeon
debunking such rhetoric? Is Dr. Estep unaware of these sources?
Then he should not seek to address such an issue. If hes
aware of them, how can he ignore them? Such is hardly worthy of a
It is quite true that the Reformed
position views man as a creatureunder the control and
sovereignty of the almighty God. But such is plainly the teaching
of Scripture itself. Nowhere will you find the following words
spoken of man: "Whatever the LORD pleases, He
does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps"
(Psalm 135:6). Nor will you ever hear men saying, "I act and
who can reverse it?" (Isaiah 43:13). Instead, the Scriptures
affirm, "Many plans are in a man's heart, But the counsel of
the LORD will stand" (Proverbs 19:21).
As to the allegation that man is
merely a "puppet on a string," I responded to this
assertion a number of years ago in a book titled Gods
Q: The Calvinistic view of
God makes man nothing but a puppet or a robot.
A: While this is often claimed, I
have found few who have thought through their question.
What is really being said is that a sovereign God cannot
produce living, responsible beings (like man). Unless man
himself is autonomous, that is, absolutely free to
determine his own destiny, then he is not free, but is
simply a puppet or a robot. But why is this? Why can God
not remain sovereign and create man in His image? There
are many things that God is that we are not---God is
eternal, we are not; God is omniscient, we are not; so,
if God is sovereign, why must we be autonomous?
The Bible tells us that
God loves us, and has sent His Son to die in our place.
We have been united with Christ, and we have a
relationship with God through Him. Christ does not die
for puppets. His blood was not shed for robots.
Automatons do not enter into personal relationships. What
we really see in this question is a common, human
assertion: if God's truth cannot be easily understood by
the human mind, then it must not be true. Is it necessary
that God reveal how He could create us as responsible
beings and yet remain the sole sovereign of the universe?
Next, Dr. Estep indicates that
Calvinism has been marked by "intolerance and a haughty
spirit," and he speaks of "this Calvinistic
blight." Surely Dr. Estep realizes that every
movement at some time or another, has had its
"intolerant" proponents. There are intolerant Southern
Baptistssuch hardly means the entire denomination should be
rejected because of their bad example. The question is, does
Calvinism necessarily lead to intolerance and a haughty
spirit? To substantiate such an accusation would require one to
believe that extolling and glorifying the grace of God, and
recognizing ones own total inability and weakness, leads
inexorably to pride. Such hardly makes sense.
Dr. Esteps fifth point is as
Fifth, logically, Calvinism
is anti-missionary. The Great Commission is meaningless
if every person is programmed for salvation or damnation,
for evangelism and missionary efforts are exercises in
If I might quote again from Gods
Q: If God has already chosen
who will be saved, why share the gospel, since they will
be saved whether we are involved in evangelism or not?
A: This is probably the most common
objection that is voiced against the doctrine of
election. There is a clear answer, but before getting to
that, we should note that the question is not a proper
one; that is, our questions should be based upon the
teaching of the word of God, not what we can or cannot
necessarily understand. Even if we did not have an answer
to the question, would this necessarily mean that
Ephesians 1:11 does not teach what it obviously teaches?
But, we do have an answer
anyway. First, we evangelize to glorify God. We do not go
out to "save" anybody, since we are incapable
of doing that in the first place. We share the gospel
because by so doing, we bring glory to God. If that is
all the reason we had, it would be sufficient.
But there is more. We know
that God has given us a great privilege to be used
by Him in His work in this world. He has given to us a
blessing to be able to share the gospel with men. God has
decreed both the ends and the means. He has
decreed to use men in sharing the gospel with His elect.
Why has He done so? I do not know. I only know that His
Word reveals that it is so. God has not seen fit to give
us knowledge of who is, and who is not, His elect.
Therefore, we share the gospel with all men, and
trust God to honor the proclamation of His message by
drawing the elect unto Himself. We can share boldly with
all men, knowing that God is powerful to save, and as
long as we seek to glorify Him, He will care for us and
bless us with His Spirit.
Finally, Dr. Estep concludes his
article by saying,
If the Calvinizing of
Southern Baptists continues unabated, we are in danger of
becoming "a perfect dunghill" in American
society, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Fuller.
That all depends upon how one
defines a "dunghill," I propose. If it is the purpose
of the Church to glorify God by proclaiming His truth, we dare
not care what the American society, or any other, thinks of that
truth. The Gospel is ours to proclaim, not to edit. If we seek
friendship with our society, we will definitely not embrace the
Reformed perspective. But if we seek consistency in our exegesis
and our theology, we will proclaim the truth, even when it is
offensive to natural men.
In conclusion, it is disappointing
in the extreme that the discussion of this issue should be so
often marked by rhetoric, rather than by substantive exegetical
debate. I invite Dr. Estep to provide us with a meaningful
critique of the real Calvinistic position, based upon
Scripture. Such would provide a helpful service to all who are
concerned about Gods truth.