Is Predestination Central in Calvinism?

There’s much more to Reformed theology than the doctrines of grace (TULIP).  Similarly, there’s more to the doctrines of grace than predestination.  This needs to be said and repeated since some say that the central dogma of Calvinism is predestination, that predestination is at the core of the doctrines of grace.  Michael Horton gave some helpful points to refute this error:

  1. Calvin was not the first Calvinist.  The standard medieval view affirmed unconditional election and reprobation and held that Christ’s redemptive work at the cross is ‘sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect alone.’  …On even the most controversial aspects of predestination, Calvin’s view can scarcely be distinguished from that of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, and Gregory of Rimini.  …In fact, some of Luther’s strong comments in ‘The Bondage of the Will’ make Calvin moderate by comparison.
  2. Calvin was not the only shaper of the Reformed tradition.  Although his formative influence is justly recognized, he regarded himself as a student of Luther.  The Strasbourg Reformer Martin Bucer also left a decisive imprint on Calvin, as on a whole generation, including Archbishop Thomas Cramner.  …Heinrich Bullinger, John Knox, Jan Laski, Girolamo Zanchi, and Peter Martyr Vermigli were also among the many contemporaries of Calvin who shaped Reformed teaching, not to mention the following generations of leaders who refined and consolidated the gains of the sixteenth century.
  3. It is interesting that John Calvin never identified predestination or election as a central dogma.  He spoke of the doctrine of justification as ‘the primary article of the Christian religion,’ ‘the main hinge on which religion turns,’ the principal article of the whole doctrine of salvation and the foundation of all religion.’  Obviously he considered predestination an important doctrine.  But he was not only unoriginal in his formulation; he did not raise it to the level of a central dogma.  As B.B. Warfield has pointed out, Calvin’s emphasis on God’s fatherly love and benevolence in Christ is more pervasive than his emphasis on God’s sovereign power and authority.

“None of this is to diminish the obvious importance of election in Reformed theology, but it does serve to dissuade us from regarding it as a central dogma or as a uniquely Calvinistic tenent. …The truth is, there isn’t a central dogma in Calvinism, although it is certainly God-centered – and, more specifically, Christ-centered, since it is only in the Son that God’s saving purposes and action in history are most clearly revealed. …With Melanchthon and Bullinger leading the way, covenant theology emerged as the very warp and woof of Reformed theology.  Even this is not a central dogma, however, but more like the architectural framework.”

Michael Horton, For Calvinism, pp 28-30.

Shane Lems

Motives at Work in Sexual Sin (Powlison)

Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken by [Powlison, David] Last week I mentioned David Powlison’s forthcoming book, Making All Things New.  Today I want to highlight part of it that is quite helpful in thinking of the nuts and bolts of sexual sin, whether it be adultery, pornography, homosexuality, or lust (and so on).  Below are various motives at work in sexual sin, which I’ve edited for length.  These motives are helpful for those who are fighting lust and other sexual sins:

  1. Angry desires for revenge.  Sexual acting out can be a way to express anger.  I once counseled a couple who had committed backlash adulteries.  They had a big fight, and the man angrily went out and hired a prostitute.  In retaliatory anger, the women went out and seduced her husband’s best friend.  The erotic pleasure wasn’t necessarily the driving force; anger was.  Though it’s rarely that dramatic, anger frequently plays a role in immorality.  A teenager finds sex a convenient way to rebel against and to hurt morally upright parents.  A man cruises down the internet after he and his wife exchange words….
  2. Longings to feel loved, approved, affirmed, or valued through romantic attention.  Consider the situation of a lonely and unattractive teenage girl who doesn’t necessarily enjoy sex.  Why does she sleep around?  It’s not because she longs for erotic pleasure.  She sleeps around in order to feed her consuming desire to have someone care for her romantically and pay attention to her.  It makes her feel loved.  She is enslaved by the desire to get attention and affirmation.  This is an extreme case, perhaps, but many people become sexually active at a young age because they feel pressure to be acceptable, they don’t want to be rejected, and they desire attention.  Sexual behavior can be an instrument in the hands of non-sexual cravings.
  3. Thrilling desires for the power and excitement of the chase.  Some people enjoy the sense of power and control over another person’s sexual response.  The flirt, the tease, the seducer are not motivated solely by sexual desires.  Deeper evil desires are at work than just sex – the thrill and rush that comes with being able to manipulate the romantic-erotic arousal of another.
  4. Anxious desire for money to meet basic survival needs.  Sex makes lots of money for lots of people.  The desire for money is greater than the desire for sex in this case.  One difficult example is the case of a single mother who was in desperate need of money.  Her sleazy landlord offered her free rent in return for sexual favors.  (Thankfully, this woman refused and her church family ended up helping her financially.)
  5. Distorted messianic desire to help another person.  Sometimes people play the rescuer-savior and they sleep with someone because they feel sorry for that person’s loneliness, rejection, and abandonment.  It is a sexual sin, but it is fueled by a warped desire to be helpful, admired, and to “save” a person.
  6. Desires for relief and rest amid the pressures of life.  Sexual sin often serves as an escape valve for other problems.  Consider a man who faces extreme pressures in the workplace.  He and his team pull a few all nighters to get an important project done.  They make it and he goes home completely exhausted.  But he finds no relief in having the project done.  So he revels in pornography and forgets his troubles.  Lust is at work, but there’s more to it.  He is looking for rest, and he sinfully finds it in erotic pleasure.
  7. Indifference, cynicism, ‘Who cares?’, ‘What’s the use?‘.  A single student – a Christian – once confessed that she slept with a co-worker.  She was working late and was tired after a long shift.  She had no accountability that night and was somewhat attracted to her co-worker.  He invited her over, and with a “what does it matter?” attitude, she accepted and sinned by sleeping with him.  This is the sin of acedia – sloth, giving up, spiritual laziness, not caring, saying ‘whatever.”

There are, of course, other reasons why people fall into sexual sins.  The point Powlison was making is that “sexual sin is symptomatic.  It expresses that deeper war for the heart’s loyalty.  We’ve looked at a handful of different ways the deeper war operates.  There are other dynamics, too!  But I hope this primes the pump so you learn to recognize more of what’s going on inside when red-letter sins make an appearance.”

The above-edited quotes are found in  David Powlison, Making All Things New, p. 80-87.

Shane Lems

Self-Absorbed in Worship? (Boice)

 We’ve all heard the contemporary praise song that says “I will” more than a few times.   Phrases like “I will celebrate,” “I will sing to God,” “I will praise God,” are sung and repeated many times in the same song.   Here are James Montgomery Boice’s comments on such a song:

The chorus seems to be praising God – it claims to be praising him – but that is the one thing it does not actually do.  As [Marva] Dawn points out, ‘The verbs say ‘I will,’ but in this song I don’t, because although God is mentioned as the recipient of my praise and signing, the song never says a single thing about or to God.

What is the song about then? If we look at it carefully, the answer is clear.  With all the repeats, ‘I’ is the subject twenty-eight times.  Not God, but ‘I’ myself,  And not even myself along with other members of the covenant community, just ‘I’.  ‘With that kind of focus,’ says Dawn, ‘we might suppose that all the “hallelujahs” are praising how good I am…at celebrating and singing.’  What is this but narcissism, an absorption with ourselves which is only a pitiful, sad characteristic of our culture?  If we are self-absorbed in our worship services, as we seem to be, it can only mean that we are worldly in our worship, and not spiritual as we ignorantly suppose.

The praise songs of the Psalter do not fall into this trap, which is one reason why they are such good models for our worship and why they should be used in worship more often than they are.  Think of just the last five psalms, as an example.  They are a kind of praise climax to the Psalter, showing us what it means to praise God….

J. M. Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace, p. 181.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Comfort on the Deathbed (Or: A Pastor’s Most Important Resource)

Simon Goulart was a Reformed theologian and pastor from France who served in Geneva in the middle of the 16th century.  His preaching and teaching were solidly biblical, clearly doctrinal, and very applicable.  One example of this is his biblical comfort he gave to Christians on their deathbed.  Scott Manetsch gives a good summary of Goulart’s pastoral care:

As Christians approach death, Goulart recognizes, they are frequently tempted to doubt God’s promised salvation and despair of their future hope.  In this spiritual drama, Satan is especially active.  Goulart’s discourse ‘Remedies Against Satan’s Temptations in our Final Hour’ enumerates the stinging accusations and doubts that Satan launches against God’s children as they struggle on their deathbeds.  The voice of Satan accuses: ‘You are a miserable sinner, worthy of damnation.’  ‘Your sins are too great to be forgiven.’  ‘How do you know that the promise of the gospel pertains to you?’  ‘Are you certain that your repentance and faith are genuine?’  ‘How do you know that you are among God’s elect?’  In response to each of these attacks, Goulart provides the faithful Christian a ready answer, drawn from the pages of Scripture.

For example, when Satan questions the believer’s election, the Christian responds: ‘All true believers are sheep of Jesus Christ, elected in him to eternal life.  Psalm 23 says that ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’  And Psalm 100 says ‘Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.’  So too, Jesus Christ says in John 10, ‘My sheep hear my voice.’  I have heard this voice and heeded it.  Thus, I am one of the sheep of this Great Shepherd, who has given his life to bring me into his sheepfold, having rescued me from your jaws, O roaring lion.’

Clearly, Goulart believed that God’s Word was to serve as the pastor’s most important resource in caring for Christians on their deathbeds.  Scripture is like a ‘pharmacy’ for wounded souls, he asserted.  It offers a ‘secure harbor for agitated consciences.’

The above quotes were taken from Scott Matnetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, p 297-298.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Only Six Verses That Mention Homosexuality? (Powlison)

Here’s a paragraph I appreciated from David Powlison’s forthcoming book, Making All Things New.

“I’ve heard arguments against the biblical sexual ethic that say, ‘There are only six Bible verses that mention homosexuality,’ and then proponents wiggle the definition of homosexuality to exclude modern forms.  This is mere trivializing of Scripture.  Narrowing Scripture’s relevance to a verse count or the specific form of ancient practices neither establishes nor disestablishes right and wrong regarding sexual acts.  God teaches us by identifying the main principle, giving us representative examples, and then expecting us to put in the effort to understand the ‘things like these’ (Gal. 5:21) that are also obviously wrong” (p.38).

David Powlison, Making All Things New, forthcoming.

Shane Lems

Our Foundation of Grace (Owen)

In one part of his exposition of Psalm 130, John Owen discussed receiving forgiveness and being assured of it.  One of his “rules” was this: “Mix not foundation and building-work together.”  By this Owen meant that the Christian’s foundation of forgiveness and acceptance with God is not by works, but by grace alone and found in Christ alone.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Our foundation in dealing with God is Christ alone, mere grace and pardon in him.  Our building is by holiness and obedience, as the fruits of that faith by which we have received the atonement.

And great mistakes there are in this matter, which bring great entanglements on the souls of men. Some are all their days laying the foundation, and are never able to build upon it any comfort to themselves or usefulness to others; and the reason is, because they are mixing with the foundation stones that are fit only for the building. They will be bringing their obedience, duties, mortification of sin, and the like, to the foundation. These are precious stones to build with, but unmeet to be first laid, to bear upon them the whole weight of the building.

The foundation is to be laid, as was said, in mere grace, mercy, and pardon in the blood of Christ. This the soul is to accept of and to rest in as mere grace, without the consideration of any thing in itself, but that it is sinful and obnoxious unto ruin. This it finds a difficulty in, and would gladly have something of its own to mix with it. It cannot tell how to fix these foundation-stones without some cement of its own endeavors and duty; and because these things will not mix, they spend a fruitless labor about it all their days.

But if the foundation be of grace, it is not at all of works; for “otherwise grace is no more grace. ” If any thing of our own be mixed with grace in this matter, it utterly destroys the nature of grace; which if it be not alone, it does not exist at all….

This, then, is the soul to do who would come to peace and settlement.  Let it let go of all former endeavors, if it has been engaged unto any of that kind, and let it alone receive, admit of, and adhere to, mere grace, mercy, and pardon, with a full sense that in itself it has nothing for which it should have an interest in them, but that all is of mere grace through Jesus Christ: ‘Other foundation can no man lay.’ Depart not hence until this work be well over. Cease not from an earnest endeavor with your own heart to acquiesce in this righteousness of God, and to bring your souls unto a comfortable persuasion that “God for Christ’s sake hath freely forgiven you all your sins. “

This is a great reminder of that biblical truth that we are justified, forgiven, and accepted by God only through Christ and only because of God’s grace (Rom 3-4, Gal 2-3, Eph 2, etc.).  Our justification, forgiveness, and acceptance are not in any way dependent upon our works, deeds, or merits.  As we begin to grow in understanding of this foundational truth, our assurance also grows and we learn more about what it means to give God all the glory.

The above quote is found in John Owen’s exposition of Psalm 130, chapter 13, rule 7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Women of the Reformation (VanDoodewaard)

The Protestant Reformation wasn’t simply a male movement.  Many Christian women were also heavily involved in the Reformation.  In fact, a new book called Reformation Women gives readers a glimpse into the lives of 12 various women God used to help bring the church back to a clearer understanding of the gospel.  In just over 120 pages this book is a great introduction to the lives of some very solid Christian women who were a blessing to many people in 16th century Europe.

I have to admit that at first I thought this book would be quite repetitive.  I was guessing that each woman’s life would sound similar: they were married to a Reformed husband and they did a few things to help out.  However, this book isn’t repetitive at all.  These women had lives that were quite different.  For example, Anna Adlischweiler spent much of her youth in a convent since her family was very poor.  After Anna heard Ulrich Zwingli preach, she was converted and later married Henry Bullinger.  Marguerite de Navarre’s story is not at all the same.  She was part of a noble family.  Her brother Francois was the king of France.  Marguerite used her position to help the cause of the Reformation in France.  These are just two examples of two very different accounts of Reformation women.  And it is true: these women were quite brave, bold, and full of faith!

I appreciated this book because it was well-written, easy to follow, and very interesting.  The introduction and conclusion are very helpful in that they give reasons why it’s important to learn about women of the Reformation and lists several things we can learn from them.  I’ll be recommending this book when people ask if I have any ideas for a women’s book club at church.  But this book isn’t just for women!  It’s for anyone who wants to learn about Reformation history and be edified and encouraged in the faith at the same time.

Rebecca VanDoodewaard, Reformation Women (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).

(This book was provided to me for review by “Cross Focused Reviews”; I was not compelled to write a positive review.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI