Sunday, June 17, 2012

Why Does Calvinism Matter? - Part 7: The Gospel

Other Posts in this Series:

So far in this series, I've tried to show how Calvinism informs the rest of theology, that it greatly impacts the rest of life, and has more implications than we might expect when we first think about it. But none of that really gets at just how important Calvinism is.  Calvinism is most important because it supports the gospel.

I would never want to say that Calvinism is the gospel or that the gospel is Calvinism. The two are not the same. Speaking of the gospel, Paul said, “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” (1 Cor 15:3-4).  The gospel is that God overcomes the curse and power of sin through Jesus and His saving work. Anyone who comes to Christ in faith will be saved, which means you do not have to believe Calvinism to believe the gospel. In Christ, God redeems sinners, Calvinists and non-Calvinists. Everyone who sees his great need of salvation and looks to Christ for rescue will be saved.

Still, even though Calvinism is not the gospel, I submit that it supports the gospel. Consider an engagement ring and its diamond. You may marvel at the qualities of the diamond without noticing much else about the ring. But the prongs underneath, which are much less beautiful in themselves, support that lovely diamond. I would suggest that Calvinism and the gospel have this same kind of relationship. Just like the prongs on an engagement ring support the diamond, Calvinism's doctrine of salvation supports the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ so that its great beauty is supported. In the following post, I want to try to show you how Calvinism supports the gospel.

First, Calvinism shows that God's purpose in the gospel is unconditionally and absolutely gracious. Calvinism's doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement (or definite atonement) are about God's unconditional and absolute grace. God does not draw a line in the sand and say, “I'll only love you enough to save you, if you cross this line.” Rather, He loves us so much that He crosses the line Himself and saves us. He sets His love on us in election and then He actually redeems us through the death of His beloved Son.

In unconditional election, God is like an adoptive parent who chooses a child, not because the child is better behaved, smarter, or better looking than other children, but only because he set his love on this child in an adoptive way.

God told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7:6-8, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set His love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you.” Similarly, God loves us, not because we are lovely, but because He loves us. He chooses us, not because we are choice, but because He loves us, freely and unconditionally, and there is no cause of His love to be sought behind His own purpose of grace.

Ephesians 1:4-5 also speaks of God's unconditional electing love, which supports the gospel, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.  In love He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of His will."  Ephesians 1 discusses these truths in relationship to "the gospel of your salvation" (Eph 1:13).

1 Corinthians 1:27-29 shows that God's election isn't based on anything good or valuable in those He chooses: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”  Unconditional election supports the gospel because it shows how God's gracious purpose in the gospel is free and unconditional.

In definite atonement, Christ completely accomplishes our redemption. He doesn't meet us part way and require us to make up the difference. The great English Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, provided a helpful analogy for definite atonement. He said that some say the cross of Christ is like a wide bridge that goes half way across a river. Everyone in the world is on that wide bridge, but when they get half way across, the bridge simply stops.  It doesn't carry them all the way to safety.  The bridge doesn't actually save anyone.  But Calvinists say that the atonement is much more gracious than that. For Calvinists, the atonement is like a narrow bridge that goes all the way across. All of God's chosen people get on the bridge and cross completely over to safety. 

Beyond merely making salvation possible, the Bible says that Christ actually saves His people. Matthew 1:21 says, “She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus [which means salvation], for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus doesn't merely hope to save His people or give them an opportunity to be saved. This says He “will save” His people! Galatians 1:3-4 says that Jesus Christ “gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:3-4). Christ did not merely make our deliverance possible or available. Rather, He died for our sins actually to deliver us! So many other texts teach the same thing. Christ's death actually secures and accomplishes salvation. 1 Timothy 1:5 says “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” He “gave Himself for us to redeem us” (Titus 2:14).  Christ's atonement absolutely and completely saves.

The doctrines of unconditional election and definite atonement show that the gospel is unconditionally and absolutely gracious. The effectiveness of the gospel is not dependent on the whims of fallen and sinful men but upon God's unconditional decree and Christ's absolute work.

Second, Calvinism shows just how badly men need the gospel. Some argue that a lost person is like a man drowning in a pool. The drowning man is desperate for help; so, Christ graciously throws him a life preserver. The drowning man may then choose whether to take the life preserver and save his life or stubbornly refuse and drown.

But Calvinism argues that we're in far worse shape than the man drowning in a pool. The Bible says, “And you were dead” (Eph 2:1), not drowning, not sick, not in need of someone to give us a chance. Dead. The biblical picture is that lost men have already drowned and are lying dead and lifeless at the bottom of the pool. For us to be saved, Christ must dive down, bring us up to the surface and raise us from the dead. When we come to life, we realize He's already holding on to us.  We take hold of Him as a reflex, and we begin to thank Him for saving us. Colossians 2:13 says, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.” We were dead, but God made us alive.

The Bible says there is nothing we can do to save ourselves or rouse ourselves to take hold of Christ. This is Calvinism's doctrine of total inability. Job 14:4 says, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.” Isaiah 64:7 says, “There is no one who calls upon Your Name, who rouses himself to take hold of You.” Jeremiah 13:23 rhetorically asks, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” Speaking of lost people, John 6:64 says, “No one can come to Me.” Romans 3:11 says, “No one seeks for God.”

Our neediness glorifies the greatness of Christ's salvation in the gospel. The less we need Christ, the less He rescues us. But the more we need Christ, the more He must act to rescue us. Calvinism's doctrine of total inability glorifies the gospel of Christ's great rescue.

Third, Calvinism shows that the gospel is effectively powerful and loving. Calvinism's doctrines of irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints put the effective power of the gospel on display. Some argue that God behaves like a gentleman who always asks for our permission before acting.

But the God of the Bible is far too loving to leave us to ourselves.

Imagine a family that decided to go to the mountains for a much needed vacation. While they were there, they decided to take a hike up to the edge of a rock cliff for a beautiful view. When they got up to the top, the man's little daughter started to run toward the edge of the cliff. With loving firmness in his voice, the father yelled, “Stop running, or you'll fall off the cliff!” The man's daughter turned, looked at him, shrugged, and just kept right on running. The father then dove for his child and snatched her by the arm, pulled her away from the cliff's edge, and saved her from certain death. Now, was this loving or unloving? Did this father wrongly override his child's freedom? Should the father have simply let his daughter foolishly use her free will to kill herself?

The Bible teaches that God our Father loves us so much that He doesn't leave our salvation to us. He snatches us from the bowels of hell by the great and all-powerful work of the Holy Spirit, who applies the work of Christ to save us and keep us forever. God's gospel love is most powerful.

But God's powerful love in the gospel goes further than the father's love for his child in the example above. God does not forcibly pull us into salvation against our wills. Rather, He powerfully and lovingly changes our desires, makes us want Him, so that we come to Him most freely and willingly for salvation. This is Calvinism's doctrine of irresistible or effectual grace. Once God saves us, He continues to cause us to believe, to love Christ, and to become more and more like Him. He keeps us saved by His great power and will not let us want to leave Him forever, though we do sometimes wander for a time. This is Calvinism's doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

Scripture is clear about these things. Acts 14:48 says, “And as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” God gives the gift of saving faith to all He has chosen for salvation. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). John 6:37 says, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me, I will never cast out.” Verse 39 says, “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day.” Philippians 1:6 says, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” God begins the work of salvation and He finishes it. 1 Peter 1:3-5 says, “He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” God caused us to be born again (irresistible grace) and then He keeps us by His power (perseverance of the saints).  These Calvinistic doctrines teach us about the great and effective power of the gospel.

So, I hope you see how Calvinism holds up the gospel and shows off its beauty.  Calvinism is not the gospel, but it provides vital adjectives to the gospel.

1. In the gospel, Christ doesn't merely purpose to be gracious. He purposes to be unconditionally and absolutely gracious.  (Unconditional Election and Definite Atonement)

2. In the gospel, Christ doesn't merely save sinners. He saves totally helpless sinners. (Total Inability)

3. In the gospel, Christ isn't merely powerful and loving. He is effectively powerful and loving. (Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints)

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