The "Dark Side" of Calvinism According to an Arminian (II)
In the Foreword to George Bryson’s book, Pastor Chuck Smith (Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, CA) promises that Bryson will shine the light of “Scripture and scripturally based reasoning upon some very important and disturbing problems with the distinctive doctrines of Reformed Theology.” We’ll have to wait and see if Bryson delivers on Smith’s promise.
Smith then cites a passage from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion to make his point. Here is what Smith cites Calvin as saying: “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life if foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.”
As I read this citation, I cannot help but wonder what the major problem with this is. God has a divine will and works according to a divine plan. What is wrong with that? That God, being God, chooses that all are not created in an equal condition seems like a divine prerogative as well. If you object, however, to what Calvin wrote as Smith does, it would seem that even in a Foreword you might feel compelled to give just a few scriptures that point out how unbiblical Calvin’s words are. That is to say, if Smith and Bryson are going to accuse Calvin of the manipulation of God and/or his revelation, they should be prepared to give us some overwhelming evidence to support their positions. If it’s really that bad, there ought to be a large number of relevant texts from which to choose.
Yet, from Smith’s stance on the subject, he can simply declare that Calvin’s statement constitutes an unscriptural and radical nature. While Smith also believes that Calvinists are prone to “accent the less negative features of Calvinism,” he goes on to state—in an unsubstantiated manner—that “even the best of what Calvin taught about salvation logically leads to the worst of what Calvinism teaches.” At this point you have to wonder how much of Calvin Smith has actually read or understood.
In short, you have to wonder if Smith is truly a theologian. Understand me properly: I’m not questioning whether Pastor Smith went to seminary. I don’t know for certain, but one can only hope that he did. What I’m talking about, however, is any pastor, having gone to seminary or not, encouraging the serious study of theology, in the sense that theology is the study of God. David Wells has argued that many ministers in Smith’s generation “coopted theology and removed it from the soul of the church.” Is it the case that Smith and Bryson are guilty of telling their congregations that they shouldn’t study theology? A number of modern evangelical churches have certainly gone down that path with disastrous results. The insidious nature of this approach is not immediately discernible, but corrodes the individual and corporate life of any local congregation.
For Smith to make such an unsubstantiated statement about such a fine theologian and exegete as Calvin says more about Smith than it does about Calvin. Does Smith encourage theology from the pulpit or does he ridicule and disparage it? If he encourages good theology, why would he be so critical of such a biblical theologian? Calvin has been known historically as the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Even those who tend to disagree with him admit that he was an outstanding exegete of Scripture.
I raise this point precisely because some modern pastors tend to downplay good theology both in private conversations and from the pulpit. In fact, a significant number of them are leaving off true, expository preaching all together and opting for topical sermons that have little or nothing to do with Scripture. Citing statistics from Pulpit Digest and Preaching magazines, Wells documents—now there’s a novel idea!—that more than 50% of the sermons surveyed were either those in which neither the content nor the organization arose from the biblical passage but what was said was at least identifiable as being Christian or those in which neither the content nor the organization arose from a biblical passage and in which the content was not discernibly or obviously Christian. What this amounts to is this: less than half of the sermons in the modern Church are explicitly biblical and “a significant number are not discernibly Christian at all.”
As bad as this is, what is even more unnerving are the findings regarding the orientation of the sermons in the modern Church. The survey revealed that less than 20% of the sermons “were grounded in or related in any way to the nature, character, and will of God.” So if modern pastors are not preaching about the nature, character, and will of God is it because they don’t know it themselves or because they have co-opted theology and removed it from the soul of the Church? Either answer is untenable, but probably reasonably accurate.
In addition, Wells goes on to point out that “The overwhelming proportion of the sermons analyzed—more than 80 percent—were anthropocentric.” For those of you like me who still believe that the sixth grade was the best three years of your life, anthropocentric means “man-centered.” Rather than centering, concentrating, focusing on God, the sermons focused on man. “Contemporary sermons are reserving the center for the issues that engage us in the course of life, or, more specifically, for the self. It is around this surrogate center that God and his world are made to spin.”
For the life of me, I simply cannot fathom how or why Smith would make such an unguarded and downright silly statement about Calvin and his doctrine of salvation. As if that is not bad enough, however, Smith proceeds to make an equally ludicrous statement when he writes, “The doctrinal distinctive of Reformed Theology cannot be reconciled with what we know about God from His holy Word.” What might that be? Well, Smith is only too glad to tell us: “Scripture has taught me to believe that God is loving and absolutely just.” Folks, if that is all you learned in seminary, you need to go and get a refund because you got cheated.
If you spent big bucks and three or more years of your life studying theology and all you came away with regarding the nature and character of God is that he is loving and absolutely just, then you really did get conned and wasted your time. Smith wonders aloud if he would be lying to a non-elect man if he offered him eternal life based on what Christ did for him on the cross? Did you catch the way he worded that?
In the first place, how would Smith—or anyone for that matter—know that they were talking to a “non-elect” man? Would Smith or Bryson explain to me how in the world you go about knowing for certain that the person you’re talking to is non-elect? What are the biblical criteria?
In the second place, Smith reveals his non-Arminian Arminianism when he tells us that his evangelistic method entails telling people—perhaps even someone who is non-elect—that Jesus died for them on the cross. Why can’t something about repentance be said like John the Baptizer, our Savior, and his disciples taught us (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 26:20).
Smith finds it unconscionable that “If Calvinism is true, and I affirm to a man that Jesus loves him and died on the cross to redeem him from his sins, I may be offering him nothing more than a false hope.” I realize that modern evangelicalism is enthralled with the notion of telling every sinner that Christ died on the cross for him or her, but that is not the biblical message. I also understand texts like John 3:16 are distorted out of recognition to support this false type of evangelism, but for thinking people this just doesn’t work.
Pastor Smith wants to know: “Why are we commanded to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15)?” The short answer is: because God commands us to. He does not give us privy to who is elect and who isn’t. And we cannot look at the outside of man because if we did we’d never consider someone like Saul of Tarsus as a candidate for evangelism. God commands us to proclaim the gospel. That is our task. What’s the problem? Moreover, the best manuscripts we have do not include Mark 16:9ff., but that is not a problem for me here. The point is that God has revealed to us that our task is to proclaim the gospel to those with whom we come into contact. There are revealed things that we are to carry out and there are also secret things that belong to God (Deut. 29:29). God has revealed that predestination/foreordination is true; he has hidden from us who will receive the gospel and who will not. Why? Because he’s God. That ought to be enough for us.
One of the most egregious accusations from Smith is that for Reformed Christians to make a well-meant offer of the gospel is tantamount to lying. He writes, “Assuming Calvinism is true, if I urge men to receive Jesus as their Lord that they might be saved, would this not be nothing more than a cruel tease for many of those to whom I speak (Acts 2:36-39)? Why would the God of all truth, who speaks so sternly against lying, send His servants out to promote such a lie?” This really is unacceptable. Not that it is a slur against me and others who embrace the doctrines of salvation by grace, but in the sense that it is a horrible distortion of Scripture and a slap at God.
We have been commanded to go and to present the gospel (Matt. 28:19-20). When, according to Acts 8:1-4 a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, we read that “those who were scattered went about preaching the word (v. 4). That was their task so they did it. It was not a cruel tease but a well-meant presentation of the gospel. That is the ordinary means that God has ordained for people—all people—to hear the gospel. Scripture is plain that we present the gospel and that God’s Word never returns to him empty; without accomplishing the purpose for which he sent it (Isa. 55:11). I really take offence that Smith would accuse those in the Reformed tradition center of lying by making a well-meant offer of salvation to the lost! That is really over the top!
Since Smith has cited Acts 2, there’s another interesting text there that he conveniently omitted. It is found in Acts 2:23. Here is how it reads: “…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Emphasis mine). Why would Smith want to avoid citing such a text if he is concerned with giving a fair and balanced critique of Calvinism’s “dark side”? Fairness requires us to look at the entire context and not a mere sub-section that suits our purposes.
Smith—and Bryson—both disagree with Calvinism—which is fine; it’s a free country—but they really should avoid setting up straw men and then easily knocking them over. For example, within the context of the Acts 2:36-39 citation Smith writes, “If it is impossible for men to choose because they have been pre-ordained by God to be saved or lost, is it not rather cruel and deceitful to hold out the offer of the gospel to them if it is impossible for them to accept it?” Smith acts as if you and I really have inside information as to who are God’s elect and who aren’t. It is neither cruel nor deceitful if this is the means that God has ordained—and it is—for people to hear the gospel. A wise pastor would be very careful of accusing God of being cruel or deceitful. You see, Smith is not 100% certain that his view is the correct one. If he is wrong—and I believe that he is—he has just edged up to the precipice of blasphemy.
The Reformed have acknowledged for centuries that God’s creatures, created in his image, make choices. If Smith were a theologian, he would know this. If he does know it but refuses to make it known to Bryson’s readers, he’s merely disingenuous. In arguing against the musings of Jacob Arminius and Episcopius, the Synod of Dordtrecht said the following in the Canons of Dort (Chapter III/IV, article 12):
This conversion is that regeneration, new creation, resurrection from the dead, making alive, so highly spoken of in the Scriptures, which God works in us without us. But this regeneration is by no means brought about only by outward preaching, by moral persuasion, or by such a mode of operation that, after God has done his part, it remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not regenerated, converted or not converted. It is, however, clearly a supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvelous, and inexpressible work. According to Scripture, inspired by the Author of this work, regeneration is not inferior in power to creation or the resurrection of the death. Hence all those in whose hearts God works in this amazing way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectually regenerated and do actually believe. Therefore the will so renewed is not only acted upon and moved by God but, acted upon by God, the will itself also acts. Hence also man himself is rightly said to believe and repent through the grace he has received.
How in the world can anyone justifiably assert that human beings do not make choices and that those choices are real? The only way that presenting the gospel to non-believers would be cruel and deceitful would be for you and me to be omniscient. Since we aren’t, the summary of regeneration given by the pastors and professors at Dordtrecht makes perfectly good sense.
Finally, Smith closes the Foreword with yet another unsubstantiated slur: “Perhaps this explains why so many Calvinists are spending so much time and energy trying to win the already saved to Calvinism. What this means is that Calvinists want other Christians to believe their convoluted theology, which if fully understood, destroys the gospel to every creature.”
Personally, I know quite a few Calvinists, yet I do not know one that is actively going out attempting to “steal sheep.” Do both Calvinist and Arminians attempt to persuade others that their position is the correct biblical one? Without a doubt. In fact, that is precisely what both Smith and Bryson are trying to do in this book. Each believes the other is wrong and presents reasons—hopefully biblical reasons—why this is so. I do, however, take issue with the comment that the doctrines of grace are “convoluted.” If one understands the covenant everything falls into place and there is nothing convoluted about it. On the other hand, since both Smith and Bryson are Dispensationalists, given their penchant for diagrams about the Second Coming of Christ and the questions about pre-, mid-, or post-tribulation that are raised and endlessly debated by Dispensationalists, I don’t think I’d accuse anyone of having a “convoluted” theology.
Moreover, I take serious issue with the statement that the doctrines of grace destroy the gospel. Quite the contrary is truly the case. They rather establish it and are a great encouragement to proclaim the gospel message. If God grants me the privilege of proclaiming the good news to lost sinners I’m blessed. Knowing that God knows who his people are and who aren’t (2 Tim. 2:19) I don’t have to fret about making that presentation. I simply do my best to give a clear and coherent presentation of the gospel and then put my head on my pillow and rest, knowing that God’s Spirit will do his work.
Next we’ll examine the Introduction to this book where George Bryson sets forth “The Case Against Calvinism.”
 Bryson, TDSC, 7.
 While Smith cites from Henry Beveridge’s edition of the Institutes, I will cite from Ford Battles’ edition, although the results are clearly the same. The Battles’ edition is the edition of choice.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, (John T. McNeill [ed.] & Ford Lewis Battles [trans.]), (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 19674), p. 926.
 Bryson, TDSC, 7.
 Ibid. Italics mine—RG.
 David Wells, No Place for Truth, Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 251.
 Ibid., 251-252.
 Ibid., 252.
 Bryson, TDSC, 7.
 Ibid., 8.
 Canons of Dort, Chapter III/IV, Article 12, “The Divine Character of Regeneration.” Italics mine—RG.
 Smith, “Foreword” in Bryson, TDSC, 9.