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The practical implications of Calvinism

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Date May 18, 2002


What, then, are the personal implications of Calvinistic thought and truth both in the life of the individual and in the ministry exercised by the individual ?

by Al Martin

B. B. Warfield describes Calvinism as ‘that sight of the majesty of God that pervades all of life and all of experience’. In particular as it relates to the doctrine of salvation its glad confession is summarized in those three pregnant words, God saves sinners. Now whenever we are confronted with great doctrinal statements in Holy Scripture, God does not leave us merely with the statement of doctrine. The end of God’s truth set before the minds of God’s people is that, understanding it, they might know its effect in their own personal experience. So the grand doctrinal themes of Ephesians, chapters 1, 2 and 3 are followed by the application of those doctrines to practical life and experience in Ephesians, chapters 4, 5 and 6. The end for which God gave his truth was not so much the instruction of our minds as the transformation of our lives. But a person cannot come directly to the life and experience, he must come mediately through the mind. And so God’s truth is addressed to the understanding and the Spirit of God operates in the understanding as the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge. He does not illuminate the mind simply that the file drawers of the mental study may be crammed full of information. The end for which God instructs the mind is that he might transform the life.

What, then, are the personal implications of Calvinistic thought and truth both in the life of the individual and in the ministry exercised by the individual ? By personal implications I mean the implications of your own relationship to God without any conscious reference to the ministry.

Now, these things cannot be separated in an absolute sense, for as has been well said, ‘The life of a minister is the life of his ministry’. You cannot separate what you are from what you do; you cannot separate the effect of truth upon your own relationship to God personally from the effect of truth through you ministerially. For the sake of bringing the principles into sharp focus I am separating them, but in no way do I want to give the impression that these two are in rigid categories.

I ask then, What are the implications of Calvinistic thought, this vision of the majesty of God and of the saving truth of Scripture as it relates to us as individuals? In answer let us go back to that general principle which B. B. Warfield calls the ‘formative principle of Calvinism’. I quote Warfield’s words: ‘

It lies then, let me repeat, in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the poignant realisation which inevitably accompanies this apprehension, of the relation sustained to God by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. The Calvinist is the man who has seen God, and who, having seen God in His glory, is filled on the one hand with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God’s sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand, with adoring wonder that nevertheless this God is a God who receives sinners. He who believes in God without reserve and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling and willing – in the entire compass of his life activities, intellectual, moral and spiritual – throughout all his individual social and religious relations, is, by force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.

Notice that when B. B. Warfield defines Calvinism and the Calvinist he used words of a strongly experimental nature. The words ‘apprehension’ and ‘realisation’ deal primarily with the understanding, though they go beyond that, but when we come to words such as ‘seen God’, ‘filled on the one hand with a sense of his own unworthiness’, ‘adoring Wonder’, ‘thinking, feeling and willing’, these are words of experience. Warfield is really saying that no person is a Calvinist, no person is truly Biblical in his thinking of God, no man is truly religious, no man is truly evangelical until these concepts have been burned into the nerve fibres of his experience. In other words, Warfield would say that an academic Calvinist is a misnomer, as much as to speak of “a living corpse’ is a misnomer. When the soul and the body are separate death has taken place, and Warfield would teach us that when the soul of Calvinistic thought is dead or absent, all that remains is a carcase, a stench in the nostrils of God, and so often a stench in the church when found in a minister.

With this sort of background as to the personal implications, I want us next to consider a passage of Scripture, in which we have a historical account of how God makes a Calvinist. Turn to Isaiah, Chapter 6.

‘In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne. Isaiah, who knew king Uzziah well, and had seen him upon his throne, says that in the year that that king died he saw the true King. He mentions that again at the end of verse 5: for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. And he saw him essentially as an enthroned king:

In the year that King Uzziah died
I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne,
high and lifted up;
and the train of his robe filled the temple.
Above him stood the seraphim.
Each had six wings:
with two he covered his face,
and with two he covered his feet,
and with two he flew.
And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds
shook at the voice of him who called,
and the house was filled with smoke.

And I said:
“Woe is me! For I am lost;
for I am a man of unclean lips,
and I dwell in the midst
of a people of unclean lips;
for my eyes have seen
the King “” the Lord of Hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me,
having in his hand a burning coal
that he had taken with tongs from the alter.
And he touched my mouth…

The sensitive tissues of the lips; a coal so hot that the seraph could not take it barehanded but had to take it with tongs. It sears the lips of the prophet. Then follow the words of comfort,

“Behold, this has touched your lips;
your guilt is taken away,
and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
“Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?”
Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”
And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.'”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste.”

Here is the record of how God makes a Calvinist, how God brought a man to a vision of the majesty of God that so affected him that his life was never the same again. The first thing that struck him in this vision was this sight of God as the high and the lofty One, seated upon a throne, so that whatever else is introduced into the vision “” the holiness of God, the grace of God, the forgiveness of God “” it is the shining forth of God from a position of enthronement:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne,
high and lifted up.

So we may say rightly that it was sovereign holiness as well as a holy sovereignty that was exercised. It was sovereign grace as well as a gracious sovereignty. And this display of the Lord as the King brought with it several distinct results in the life of the prophet.

In the first place, it brought a deep experimental acquaintance with his own sinfulness. ‘Woe is me! I am undone. I’ve been shocked. I’ve gone to pieces. I’ve fallen apart’. Now who was he ? Was he some hippie yanked off the streets who had been holding up little four-lettered words to those who did not like his interests ? Was he some kind of student who had been running around under the guise of the so-called insights of new morality giving bent to his animal passions ? No, this was Isaiah, from all indication in the record of Scripture a holy man, a man of God, what would be termed a dedicated Christian. But he had yet to have a sight and vision of the Lord that shattered him and shook him and exposed the inherent corruption of his own heart and life.

And I submit that God never makes Calvinists by displaying to them his glory and his majesty without bringing with it this commensurate exposure of sin in the light of his sovereignty and his holiness. It brought with it also a deep insight into the state of his own generation, for note that in his own confession he not only says, ‘I am a man of unclean lips’ but ‘I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips’. In the record of the state of the people as found for example in Isaiah 58, we find that they were extremely religious; they came daily to the temple and offered sacrifices. Read Isaiah 1, and you will find the prophet’s contemporaries bringing their sacrifices and keeping their feast days. Yet God said, ‘I am sick and tired of the whole thing. Bring no more vain oblations, . . . When you make many prayers I will not hear’. And if you and I had been standing there as onlookers we would have said that religion in Israel was in a pretty good state. But when this man had a sight and sense of the majesty of God, it brought with it not only an insight into his own sinfulness, but also into the state of his own generation.

Next it brought an experimental acquaintance with grace and forgiveness. As Isaiah feels his uncleanness, his undoneness in the presence of the Lord, the seraph takes a live coal from off the altar of sacrifice, a coal which becomes the symbol of the basis upon which God forgives sinners. It touches the lips of the prophet, and though there is inner pain, there is also that wonderful word of grace, your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. Here is a man who has been brought to the sight of his own sin in such a way that he wonders how it can be that such a person as he is can dwell in the presence of such a One as the Lord is. It is that person to whom the word of forgiveness is a humbling, overpowering, captivating word. The reason why grace is so little appreciated in our days is that the transcendent majesty and sovereignty and holiness of God are so little appreciated, and we do not see much more than a half step between God and our sinful selves. But Isaiah saw as it were an infinite chasm, and when the Lord sovereignly extended mercy across that chasm and touched him, he became a man who then evidenced the fruit of grace.

Thirdly, it tells us of a man who was brought to utter resignation before God. Having been purged, Isaiah next tells us, “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Note the prophet’s reaction. Having seen the Lord in his sovereignty and holiness, and himself in his uncleanness, and having heard the word of grace and forgiveness, what can a man do when this Lord speaks and he hears His voice, but say, ‘Here am I. There is nothing here of the missionary telling tear-jerking stories about human sin and human need, in the attempt to wrench young people from their seat of complacency and rebellion to the revealed will of God and to get them to crank out an Here am I. This was just the reflex action of a man who had seen the Lord and heard his voice, and he says,

‘Here am I, Lord, send me. And then, as it were, the Lord tests the depths of that confession and we find an utter resignation to the will and ways of the Lord, no matter how strange they seem, for it is immediately made clear to the prophet that he is to have a ministry primarily of judgment:

“Go, and say to this people:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.
Make the heart of this people dull…'”

“Isaiah, I am commissioning you to a ministry of hardening and of judgment.” Now what does the prophet do? Does the prophet recoil and say, “O Lord, that isn’t fair. Do not call me to such a work as that.” No, no! He simply says, How long, O Lord? In other words, “Lord, it is your perfect right to send me on a ministry which will be primarily a ministry of hardening and judgment. You are God. You are on the throne. I am the creature before the throne. You are holy. I am sinful. What can I do but be held captive by the expression of your will, no matter what the implications may be?”

This is how God makes a man a Calvinist. In one way or another he gives him such a sight of his own majesty and sovereignty and holiness as the high and the lofty One, that it brings with it a deep, experimental acquaintance with human sinfulness personally and in terms of our own generation. It brings experimental acquaintance with the grace of God, an intimate acquaintance with the voice of God, an utter resignation to the will and the ways of God.

I say by way of application, do not talk about being a Calvinist simply because your itch for logical consistency has been relieved by Calvinism’s theological system.

Have you seen God ?
Have you been brought near to Him ?
That is the issue.

I remind you of the words of B. B. Warfield:

A Calvinist is a man who has seen God.

The expression, a proud Calvinist, is a misnomer. If a Calvinist is a man who has seen God as He is high and lifted up, enthroned, then he is a man who has been brought to brokenness before that throne as was Isaiah. A carnal Calvinist? Another misnomer! The enthroned One is the holy One, and He dwells in conscious communion with those who are rightly related to Him as the enthroned One and as the holy One. These two things are brought together beautifully in Isaiah 57.15 where the prophet says: ‘

For thus says the the One
who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity,
whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is
of a contrite and lowly spirit.

What is contrition? It is the reaction of a sinner in the presence of a holy God; and, what is humility? It is the reaction of a subject in the presence of a sovereign. Isaiah never forgot this vision, and he says, “This great God dwells in that high and holy place, with him also that is of a humble and a contrite spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”

If your understanding of Calvinistic thinking has led you to the place where you can, as it were, boast in your liberty and use it as an occasion for licence, then you have never become a biblical Calvinist. God makes Calvinists today the same way he made them in Isaiah’s day.

I submit that a man has no right to speak of being a Calvinist because he can repeat like a parrot phrases brought to him in the great heritage of Reformed literature. He must ask himself, Has the Holy Spirit brought me to this profound sense of God that has worked in me at least in some measure the grace of humility. Has God endowed me with gifts and abilities? If so, what have I that I did not receive? Who makes me to differ ? If God has endowed me with gifts and abilities whether intellectual or otherwise, I acknowledge that I have those because a Sovereign upon a throne was pleased to dispense them to me, and the only difference between me and that poor retarded child that moves the pity of my heart, is that He was pleased to make me different. “Who maketh thee to differ?” The man who stands in the presence of a God upon the throne, and who has had this sight and sense of the majesty of God, recognizes that all that he has, has been given. Humility is not diffidence. Humility is that disposition of honest
recognition: He is God, I am but a creature. All that I have comes from him and must be rendered to him in praise, and in honour. It will bring with it the submission that we see in Isaiah. He sits upon a throne; I have no rights to assert, but I have the unspeakable privilege of knowing and doing his will. Was not that the reflex action of Isaiah? The Lord is upon the throne; I am the creature. What else can I do but say, “Here am I?”

Oh, the unspeakable delight of knowing and doing the will of God! It brings not only humility and submission, but true contrition, for I see then that all sin has been basically a violent anarchist spirit exerted against the throne-rights of God. Have I failed to love Him with the whole heart? Then this has been anarchy. He demands and is worthy of my undivided affection. Have I failed to love my neighbour as myself and given expression to this sin in a disrespect for parents, a disrespect for the rights and life of others, the purity and sanctity of others, the reputation of others ? Go through the Ten Commandments, and learn that any breach of them is at its core violent anarchy against the throne-rights of God. All pride “” what is it but an attempt to share the glory that belongs to the throne, and to the God upon that throne, and to say in reality, “O God, please let me sneak into the picture and get glory ?” Is not that pride ? “” a wicked attempt to share the praise of the enthroned God!

And so this sight of God cannot help but produce humility, submission, contrition, and on the brighter side, it cannot help but produce gratitude, that in the exercise of His sovereign rights I should be blessed of God with sanity, with soundness of body, clearness of mind, and, above all, that I should be blessed with grace, confidence that God is on His throne, that nothing past, present or future has ever made that throne twitter one-thousandth of an inch. Jehovah reigneth! let the earth tremble. Confidence, unshakable confidence, joy, regardless of what transpires in the sphere that I can see! All is well where He sits.

Has God made you a Calvinist? I am not asking whether you have read a book by Boettner, or Kuyper or Warfield and become a Calvinist. I am asking, Has God given you a vision of himself ? Did He shatter you? and bring you to that place by his grace of humility, submission, contrition, gratitude, confidence and joy? That is what makes a Calvinist. If we know this we will want to say,

My God, how wonderful Thou art,
Thy majesty how bright!
How beautiful Thy mercy-seat,
In depths of burning light!

O how I fear Thee, living God,
With deepest, tenderest fears,
And worship Thee with trembling hope
And penitential tears!

How beautiful, how beautiful
The sight of Thee must be,
Thine endless wisdom, boundless power,
And awful purity!


Al Martin is a pastor at Trinity Baptist Church, Montville, New Jersey. He has exercised a world-wide ministry through his impassioned preaching. Many of his sermons are available in Real Audio through the Trinity Book Service.

This article is adapted from the booklet The Practical Implications of Calvinism, published by Banner of Truth

©1979 The Banner of Truth Trust. All rights reserved. No part of this web publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided by USA copyright law.

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