A Kinder, Gentler Calvinism

photo by Scott W. Smith

     I think I heard a snort from someone who read this title just now. The mood of many in the Reformed camp is anything but kinder and gentler as they wrestle with the seeming mudslide of lukewarm evangelicalism which, they contend, has lost the holiness of God in a man-centered Gospel. Our evangelical churches, they say, are overrun with preachers and parishioners who think the acronym TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints) is a colorful bulb grown by the Dutch. What we need, they insist, is a lean, mean Calvin machine, barring no holds and taking no prisoners. Kinder and gentler should be saved for the clean-up operation after a new Reformation has occurred.

     I marvel at that spirit -- perhaps because I once participated in it. Being ready to give a reason for the hope that is within one can quickly become justification for swinging one's theological machete at the slightest sniff of any teaching that gives unconverted man the power to choose God. When I was young, some of my Calvinist colleagues landed in quiet churches that quickly became noisy battle grounds reputedly over theology. Unfortunately, some of my friends were turned out of those churches after relatively short stays, but they left feeling vindicated by their ouster. They seemed to believe that their dismissals were a sign that they were faithful to the truth -they were being banished by the heretics.

     But the reason for their meltdowns wasn't really over protecting the truth. It seems in most cases -- maybe in all -- that the churches were looking for pastors whose theology made them love the truth enough to love the theological sinners who comprised the congregation. Diatribes about the depravity of man and the wrath of God were not the apex of biblical theology or good pastoral practice. They still aren't.

     I consider myself blessed to have been confronted early on in my first pastorate. An elder commented to me after what I thought was a particularly good sermon on sin, "Son, don't you know any good news?" He made me mad. He made me real mad. Mumbling to myself for weeks thereafter, I privately reviewed my sermons. He was right. The love of God shed abroad in Jesus Christ was in short supply. I was unwittingly dispensing Total Depravity without much Amazing Grace. I needed new models, someone theologically correct, unyielding of the truth, yet full of the Good News. I didn't have to look far.

     With my attitude adjustment, I saw the Lord Jesus and the Apostles teaching vital truth without compromise but practicing the touch of love. That's why sinners listened. That's why you listen. There really is good news. The Great Sovereign God has so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. Our job is to go into the highways and byways and compel sinners to come in faith to Jesus, knowing that as many as are ordained for eternal life will come.

     And they respond to the simple telling of the Good News about Jesus. This means that you can start with any of the petals of TULIP and lead directly to Jesus crucified for sinners, even real sinners with whom you are speaking face to face. This means if your TULIP doesn't lead directly to Jesus crucified for sinners, you missed the point.

     I recently heard a Presbyterian preacher's approach to evangelism heavily criticized because he didn't begin with the Law, but instead with the great love of God. I reflected that Charles Spurgeon had taught that honey attracts more flies than vinegar. Surely a faithful Calvinist doesn't have to open every evangelism effort with the wrath of God revealed from heaven. A kinder lead-in like "Heaven is a free gift" seems faithful to Scripture, too. A faithful presentation of Christ Jesus crucified can even begin with,

I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now, what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17:22,23).

     Obviously, the Bad News about God's wrath is what makes the Good News about Jesus good. But I am finding many people who are afraid to tell people that Christ came into the world to save sinners, like the sinner to whom they are speaking face to face. They don't want to risk offending the sovereignty of God by telling men who are dead in their sins that dead men are commanded everywhere to repent and believe the Good News.

     But they are forgetting a most important point: it is by the preaching of the Good News about Jesus that dead men come to life. It is by the face-to-face pressing of the claims of Christ to men who are dead in sins that the power of the Gospel to save is unleashed. Furthermore, telling men and women, boys and girls that they are personally responsible to receive Jesus as Lord and trust in Him alone for their salvation must be done because God has ordained that in begging (2 Corinthians 5:20) men and women to be reconciled to God through the death of His Son, faith is created in them by the Holy Spirit.

     A man distressed by my allegiance to Reformed theology recently gave me a book titled The Other Side of Calvinism (Laurence M. Vance, Vance Publications, 1991), a misguided nuclear attack on Calvinistic understanding and practice of theology. Vance passionately writes,

Nothing will deaden a church or put a young man out of the ministry any more than an adherence to Calvinism. Nothing will foster pride and indifference as will an affection for Calvinism. Nothing will destroy holiness and spirituality as an attachment to Calvinism. There is no greater violator of every hermeneutical, contextual, analytical, and exegetical interpretation of Scripture than Calvinism (pg. viii).

     Again he writes, "The doctrines of Calvinism will deaden and kill anything: prayer, faith, zeal, holiness" (pg.15). The entire book is a bitter tirade that should be read by all good Calvinists. He moves far beyond intellectual debate with brothers in the Lord. He's downright nasty. But it makes me ask, "What has been this man's experience with Calvinists that evokes the scathing hostility oozing from this book?"

     What disturbs me most is not that he accuses Reformed people of being mean-spirited, heretical dispensers of unholy, devilish lies. What disturbs me most is not that Reformed theologians are accused of sick interpretation of Scripture and, therefore, are false witnesses of God. What disturbs me most is that he never accuses Calvinists of being great lovers of sinners. Is there evidence to support such an accusation if someone were bold enough to make it?

     You may say, "Telling them the Truth is the highest form of love," and I will agree, but add "Beloved, let us not love in word only, but in word and in deed." How you tell the truth and how you practice the truth make the difference. Deeds of real love accompanying vital evangelism are often woefully missing from Reformed students of the Bible. Kinder, gentler Calvinism driven by demonstrative love seems to be a rare commodity. It ought not to be. Calvinism, above other understandings of the Bible, rests on the only true foundation for preaching about the loving God who has sovereignly guaranteed the success of the Gospel.

     The observation made of the early church was "Behold how they love one another." John, the Apostle of Love, gives clear criteria for determining true disciples of Jesus, finally boiling it down to I John 3:23, "And this is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us." Surely John missed a good opportunity to state clearly and succinctly the Five Points of Calvinism as the criteria of true discipleship!

     Even Paul's letter to the Romans, the master systematic presentation of election and predestination, calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification of believers, folds the practical outcome of God's revelation into the immutable truths that "love is the fulfillment of the law,"(Romans 13:10) and "clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christů."(13:14). Who should be surprised? Correct theology believed correctly always leads to the sanctification of the believer, which, simply put, is the practice of love. We are never more like God than when we love. Does your Calvinism show itself in love for God and love for man? Has it freed you to love sinners?

     It is so much easier to be lost in the beauty, the faithfulness, the cohesiveness, the clarity of sound Reformed theology than to be lost in the practice of love, which is, after all, the great aim of orthodox theology. Galatians 5:6b says, "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." This is a stunning statement. Yes, we must earnestly contend for the faith that was once and for all entrusted to the saints. But to contend is quite different from to be contentious, which Webster's dictionary defines as "exhibiting an often perverse and wearisome tendency to quarrels and disputes." The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

     The Reformers personally paid a great price to rediscover the foundations of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and we have an obligation to preserve it and pass it on intact. But passing it on requires more than sterile repetition of Calvinism's Five Points, the Westminster Confession of Faith, or the Heidelberg Catechism. This precious faith must also find loving expression simultaneously in the free offer of the Gospel (sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect), and in care for the poor, the cripple, the lame, the blind, the victims of war and disease, widows, orphans, and others. Lovers of Reformed theology must be lovers of fallen men, women, and children. The main issue is not the content of Calvinism, but the attitude and practice of its messengers. We need a kinder, gentler Calvinism because truth fueled by love is the most liberating force known to man.

James McGuire

   Dr. James McGuire is Senior Pastor of Ward Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Northville, Michigan, and moderator of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. An RTS alumnus, he also holds degrees from Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, and McCormick Theological Seminary. He served as the founding pastor of Lakeside Presbyterian Church from 1973-1995. He is married to the former Lucy Whitsett and has three sons.

Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 2
© 2000 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.


Last updated 7-24-2000.