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

Freedom of the Will? (Horton)

The Bible teaches that the human heart is deceitful above all things and that everyone who sins is a slave to sin (Jer. 17:9; John 8:34).  It teaches that apart from grace, a person is dead in sin (Eph. 2:1).  These texts and others like them are where Reformed theology gets the doctrines of total depravity and bondage of the will.  That is, apart from grace we are depraved in every part (extensively): heart, mind, body, and soul.  Apart from grace, it is impossible for a sinner to come to faith in Christ since he is dead in sin.  Yet every human still has a will and ability to choose to some extent. Michael Horton describes this topic well:

“Before the fall, humankind had the natural and moral ability to obey God with complete fidelity and freedom of will.  After the fall, we still have the natural but no longer the moral liberty to do so.  When it comes to our fallen condition, we all have the natural ability to think, will, feel, and do what we should.  None of our faculties have been lost.  We have all of the ‘equipment’ necessary for loving God and our neighbors.  Nevertheless, the fall has rendered us morally incapable of using these gifts in a way that could restore us to God’s favor.  I could choose to dedicate myself to becoming a marathon runner, but I cannot choose to dedicate myself to God apart from his grace.”

“Even in our rebellion, we are exercising the very faculties that God created good, yet we are employing them in a perverse way.  …The fall has not taken away our ability to will in the least, but only the moral ability to will that which is acceptable to God.  It’s not a question of whether we choose, but what we choose.  …If we are bound by sin, then it is not a natural ability that we have lost but a moral ability.  We can only choose sin and death – and we really do choose it (John 8:44) – until God liberates us from this bondage. …It is not that the will that is rendered inactive by sin, but that it is bound by sin until grace restores it in a one-sided, unilateral, and unassisted divine act.”

Michael Horton, For Calvinism, p. 45.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI

God’s Sovereign Providence – and His Means (Horton)

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way God is sovereign, and he is providentially in control of everything that comes to pass. He’s not surprised when things happen, nor is he unsure of the future, since all things happen according to his plan (Ps. 33.11, Prov. 19.21, Is. 46.10).  At the same time, he uses means and instruments to accomplish his purposes (cf. Is. 44.28).  I appreciate how Michael Horton said it in The Christian Faith:

“Ironically, many today who would not affirm a classic Christian notion of divine sovereignty in salvation nevertheless often speak as if God does all things in their daily lives directly, without any instrumental means or ‘secondary causes.’  If one attributes a remarkable recovery from an illness to the skill of the physicians, well-meaning Christians are sometimes inclined to reply, ‘Yes, but God was the one who healed her.’  In more extreme cases, some believers even excuse their laziness and lack of wisdom or preparation by appealing to God’s sovereignty.  ‘Just pray about it’; ‘If God wants it to happen, it will happen.'”

“To be sure, the truth of God’s providence is meant to assure believers that ultimately our times are in God’s hands, but God does not fulfill all of his purposes directly.  In fact, it is his ordinary course to employ means, whether human beings or weather patterns, social upheavals, animal migrations, various vocations, and a host of other factors over which he has control.  We are comforted by the truth that God works all things – even adversity – into his plan for our salvation.  God provides, but we are commanded to pray for our daily bread and to labor in our callings.”

Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 361.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

On Christian Fads (or: Faddish Christianity)

I’ve been in the ministry for almost ten years.  While I have kept a journal to record events and thoughts, I haven’t written down the various Christian fads that have come and gone in the past ten years.  It is easy to see, however, that Christian fads are like other fads: they are cool and trendy for a short while, then people quickly move on to the next best thing (think how quickly Pokemon Go came and went!).  Our fad-loving culture is a consuming culture.  Sadly, Christian fads leave people discontent, restless, and can lead to spiritual burn-out.  Michael Horton understands this and addresses it well in his 2014 book Ordinary.  In the second part of this book, called “Ordinary and Content,” Horton utilizes three familiar words – reduce, reuse, and recycle – to keep Christians from the harmful effects of fads:

We need to reduce the distractions and voracious consumption.  Many things that we do as ‘something more’ aren’t bad in themselves.  Yet collectively they contribute to a whirling buzz of confusion that keeps us from fixing our eyes on Christ and his kingdom and his ordinary means of grace.  We never move on from the gospel to something else.

We also need to reuse the resources that God has given us from the past.  Forms that frame the public service – common prayer, praise, and confession – are ways of thoughtfully drawing on Scripture so that Christ’s word dwells in all of us richly.  A trellis does not make a vine grow, but it does make it grow in the right direction.

We also need to recycle.  This involves two moves: returning to the sources and adapting them to our time and place.  Recycling should not be equivalent to simply repeating slogans and formulas.  We need to exercise discernment as we evaluate older forms and practices, but we do not have to invent everything ourselves.  Older forms, songs, and prayers are not better because they are old, but because they are family treasures in the attic.  We need to ensure that our forms actually communicate with people in our time and place, but we do not have to change everything with each generation.

God even recycles ministers.  They come and go, but the ministry is the gift that keeps on giving.

Michael Horton, Ordinary, p. 177-8 (the above quotes have been edited for length).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Worship: What If The Problem Is Me?

Many churches bend over backwards to make their services an exciting and entertaining event.  I don’t have to make a list of worship innovations – most readers are familiar with them.  Basically, in order to fight boredom and to be on the cutting edge of worship experience, churches go all out in thier services.

But as Michael Horton notes well, being bored in worship isn’t the end of the world.  It’s not necessarily a horrible evil.  Horton says,

It is okay to be bored sometimes: ‘no pain, no gain.’  …If we don’t do anything that sometimes bores us, we will miss out on some of the most important things in life!  …Although we like to be entertained, we know that our parents, siblings, or children will render us disillusioned if we thought for one moment that they existed to keep us occupied.  And yet, few of us would suggest that the family institution needs to be radically altered in order to make it more interesting….

“Too often we are impatient with progress and we have come to expect worship to be exciting, so if it isn’t, we are disappointed.  The fault must lie with the service and not with us.  Perhaps we need a new sound system, a new choir, a new pastor.  Radical moves may be necessary, because I’m losing my interest.  But what if the problem is with me?  And what if, by virtue of our continuing struggle with sin and the fact that we do not yet behold God face-to-face, excitement in worship is the excitement rather than the rule?  Many of the most exciting things in life are the ephemeral, bubbles that delight only to disappear when captured, while many of the most enduring and ennobling ventures are driven along by quite ordinary habits – commitments – of mind and body.”

“The most valuable things in life must be won by active struggling, not by passive stimulation.  Whether due to the weaknesses of our finitude or our own sinful hearts (‘prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love’), our boredom must be acknowledged as a real struggle and yet as a doomed foe because we will not surrender the gold for the glitter.”

Michael Horton, A Better Way, 234.

Shane Lems

Original Sin: An Essential Doctrine or Not?

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way Yesterday I mentioned a new Genesis commentary that rejected the doctrine of original sin.  A question then arises: Is the doctrine of original sin essential to Christian theology or not?  To be sure, this doctrine is in all the major (and even minor) Protestant confessions of faith.  Original sin is a crucial doctrine in the history and substance of Christian theology.  I like how Michael Horton defines and defends this doctrine:

“‘Original sin’ is the term that the Western church has employed to refer to our collective human guilt and corruption.  No doctrine is more crucial to our anthropology and soteriology, and yet no doctrine has been more relentlessly criticized ever since it was articulated.”

Horton explains that Protestant liberalism, Pelagianism, and to some extent Barth and Brunner denied or muddled the doctrine of original sin.  He continues,

“Repeated attempts to dismiss the doctrine of original sin as a peculiarity of Calvin or Luther, Augustine or Paul fail to take seriously the fact that the same assumptions are articulated in the Psalms (Ps 51:5, 10; 143:2), the prophets (Is. 64:6; Jer 17:9) and in the Gospels (Jn 1:13; 3:6; 5:42; 6:44; 8:34; 15:4-5) and catholic epistles (Jas 3:2; 1Jn 1:8; 10; 5:12).  The doctrine of original sin may be seen to arise as a result of two principal sources: the covenant itself as the biblical paradigm for relating divine-human relations and the narrative of the fall from an original state of integrity.”

On top of this, Jewish literature spoke of human sin deriving from Adam (IV Ezra 3:7, Sifre Deut. 323, 2 Esdras 3:10, 21-22, 26).  Horton says that in Biblical and Jewish thinking the concept of human solidarity is a basic worldview tenet (despite the fact that it may be foreign to our modern worldview).

“At this point, everything turns on what kind of credit we give to the historical narrative and whether we are wiling to speak, as not only Genesis 3 but subsequent Scripture does, of the human condition before and after the fall.  Whatever one’s conclusions concerning the process of human origins, Christian theology stands or falls with a historical Adam and a historical fall.”

“A covenantal account of original sin focuses on the representative, federal, covenantal structure of human existence before God. …We are not only guilty for Adam’s sin; we are guilty as sinners in Adam… [see Joshua 7 for an example of solidarity].  In Paul’s treatment in Romans 5, ‘sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…’ (v 12).  In other words, every human being was present representatively, federally, and covenantally in Adam.  Our own personal acts of sin flow from this corrupt nature and add to our original guilt.”

“…Sin is first a condition that is simultaneously judicial and moral, legal and relational.  Accordingly, we sin because we are sinners rather than vice versa.”

Later Horton talks about the two Adams teaching in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  “Under Adam’s headship, the whole race is guilty and corrupt; under Christ’s headship many are justified and made alive” (p. 636).

More could be said, of course.  The point is that original sin is not only a biblical doctrine that has to do with origins and human sinfulness, it also has to do with salvation from sin.  In Adam, those whom he represented died.  In Christ, those whom he represents live.

The above quotes (except the last one) are found in chapter 13 of Michael Horton’s Christian Theology.

Shane Lems

Misunderstanding the Law: Antinomianism and Legalism

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way In, The Christian Faith, Mike Horton has some helpful notes that help steer Christians clear of both antinomianism and legalism.  Here are a few parts of a longer section:

In many respects, antinomianism and legalism share the same misunderstandings of the law.  Like human laws, God’s laws are not abstract principles for living but are stipulations in a covenant.  God’s law functions differently depending on the type of covenant.  In a covenant of law, the principle is, ‘Do this and you shall live; break it and you shall die.’  The basis of blessings and curses is personal fulfillment of the covenant’s terms.  However, in the covenant of grace, the basis is the personal fulfillment of the law by our representative head and his bearing of the covenant curses on the cross.  In this exchange – our sins imputed to Christ and his righteousness imputed to us – we are pronounced just according to the fullest letter and spirit of God’s law.  No longer capable of condemning us in God’s courtroom, the law directs our steps in the way of faith-filled gratitude.  Antinomianism and legalism seem to assume that the only function of the law- even in relation to believers – is that of condemning those who fail to keep it.  Neither recognizes sufficiently the completely new relationship that the believer has to God’s law.”

“Now written on our heart and not merely on our conscience, the law is cherished by believers.  They long to keep it, not as a way of attaining life but as a way of living the life that they have been given by grace alone.”

The entire discussion is on pages 673ff in The Christian Faith.  (FYI, if you’re interested in a detailed outline of this book, here is one I put together).

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi