A New Look at the Five Points of Calvinism
There are two words of Moses, one a command and the other a promise; ‘Circumcise, then, your heart,’ in Deuteronomy 10:16, and ‘the Lord your God will circumcise your heart,’ in Deuteronomy 30:6.
The remarkable recovery of Augustinian theology which championed the sovereignty of God; the doctrine of original sin; justification by faith alone, through grace alone, through Christ alone burst on the spiritually dead European continent in October, 1517 when Martin Luther, who recently had come to understand the glory of justification by faith alone, put forth his protest over false teaching in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. He nailed to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany his ninety-five points of debate. Due to the recent invention of the printing press Luther’s writings immediately took hold of Europe and brought forth the Reformation. A few years later John Calvin in Geneva further developed the Reformation, Augustinian theology of Luther. By 1610, however, Jacob Arminius, a Reformed pastor in Holland was charged with heresy by the Synod of Dort. The Remonstrants, who followed Arminius (he died before he could face a heresy trial), popularized his opposition to Calvinism by listing the five points with which they strongly disagreed – known by the acrostic TULIP (total inability, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). From 1517 until around 1800 the predominant theological position in Protestantism was the five solas of the Reformation (sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, sola scriptura, and soli Deo Gloria) and the five points of Calvinism. However since that time, until very recently, the Arminian theological position which vehemently denies the five points of Calvinism has held sway in Protestantism.
Calvinism, however, is making a huge comeback. TIME magazine recently listed Calvinism as one of the ten most significant developments today,1 and books like Young, Restless, and Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists by Collin Hansen are reporting the same phenomenon. I am thankful for this shift in the thinking of so many Christians, but we must resist the temptation merely to consider this in an academic fashion. The last thing we need are for people to be ‘Reformed and mad about it,’ to be falling into theological pride and snobbery, doing the very opposite of what these glorious doctrines of grace are meant to elicit – namely profound humility, awe, reverence, holiness, and zeal for Christ and his kingdom.
So, how should we move forward in this day of renewed interest in the five solas and five points? May I suggest a new look at the five points of Calvinism?2 We see this so beautifully illustrated in the texts listed above. Moses tells the Israelites, as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, that they are to circumcise their own hearts, that they are no longer to stiffen their necks against God. However later Moses tells them that God will circumcise their hearts. We constantly find God demanding that we do things we simply cannot do. Paul tells us that no one seeks for God, no one understands (Rom. 3:10ff), while Isaiah says, ‘Seek the Lord while he may be found,’ (Isa. 55:6). Jesus tells us that no one will come to him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). Peter commands us to repent but we cannot do so (Acts 2:38). Ezekiel commands that we make for ourselves new hearts (Ezek. 18:31) but he also says that God will take away the heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26).
We are to come to the place where we say, ‘I must.’ I must believe. I must seek God. I must repent. I must love my wife. I must submit to my husband. I must love my enemies. I must submit to the governing authorities over me. I must speak to others about Jesus. I must rejoice at all times. I must put away all grumbling and disputing. I must put off the old man and I must put on the new man. I must perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord.
But Jesus says, ‘Apart from me, you can do nothing,’ (John 15:5), so the second point is ‘I cannot.’ Can we jettison the modern notion that we can do anything we put our minds to do! You cannot take a breath without the sustaining grace of God, and this is true of anyone, believer or non-believer. In your flesh dwells no good thing. Your flesh and indwelling sin constantly wage war on your soul, mind, and heart. You are capable of the most heinous evil. You must, but you cannot.
And this leads to the third new point of Calvinism – I weep. The very fact that we find such stubbornness and unwillingness of people to believe the gospel ought to evoke literal and figurative weeping. Calvin, Luther, Knox, Edwards, Whitefield, Brainerd, and Spurgeon were men of vibrant, experiential Calvinism that moved them to great passion and compassion in proclaiming Jesus and living for him. Theirs was not a dry, cold, academic theological system. They loved people and earnestly desired to lift up Jesus to the lost. Those who saw Robert Murray M’Cheyne enter the pulpit to preach at Dundee, Scotland often wept at his presence. They saw the glow of Christ on his face as he stood to preach the unfathomable riches of Christ, knowing that he had just come from God’s presence.
And because we weep, we then make use of the fourth new point of Calvinism – I cast. I must. I cannot. I weep. Therefore I cast myself on Christ, calling upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit to empower, embolden, and thrust me out to the world to proclaim the glory of God in the face of Jesus. William Romaine, a contemporary of Whitefield in London, was a Calvinistic preacher who was utterly consumed with the love of Christ. He loved to say, ‘Our Jesus is almighty to save us. He can teach the ignorant, wash the filthy, pardon the guilty, set in and keep in, the way of life and salvation.’3 He learned the necessity of casting himself upon Christ for grace in everything he did.
I must. I cannot. I weep. I cast. And then I shine. Isaiah, in speaking of the coming glory of Christ said, ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come. And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,’ (Isa. 60:1). The Aaronic benediction says, ‘The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine on you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance on you, and give you peace (Num. 6:24-26). Asaph said, ‘O God, restore us, and cause thy face to shine upon us, and we will be saved (Psa. 80:3).
This is practical Calvinism and may God grant us a double portion of the true Calvinistic spirit where we decrease and Christ increases, where people are able to see that in spite of our sin and constant failures, we serve a Christ who is mighty to save and sanctify!
- ‘Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now,’ TIME magazine, March 12, 2009.
- These five terms did not originate with me. I am indebted to Henry Krabbendam for them.
- An Iron Pillar: The Life and Times of William Romaine, by Tim Shenton, page 330.
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