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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bill Johnston's Anti-Calvinist Remarks

In a post dated July 3 2006 in the Conversations In Calvinism blog, J. Matthew Cleary offered an example of what he referred to as "anti-Calvinism," which can be described as an antagonistic attitude or spirit of animosity toward Calvinism. There is certainly no denying this phenomenon; Dave Hunt, D. A. Waite, Ergun Caner, David Cloud and their ilk provide ample evidence of this egregious enmity in their published works, both online and in print, never mind the abundance of evidence provided by laymen on relevant message boards and such. I have certainly encountered it myself, any time I dare utter a word about the extent of man's sinful condition, the doctrines of grace or, especially, the nature and extent of Christ's atoning work on the cross. "The single most shameful fact in this," Cleary rightly comments, "is that the typical anti-Calvinist is a professing Christian" who, despite their profession of Christ, "will drop every standard of holiness, civility, and honesty" when addressing their fellow brothers in Christ. It is curious (although historically consistent) that the gospel of Christ and its related subjects arouse such heated tensions and create such sharp divisions. Yet Christ foretold that this should happen.

Nevertheless, the point of this brief article is an offering of what my response might have been toward some of the remarks reportedly made by one Bill Johnston. (I am responding to select remarks, not all of them. Cleary's response to Johnston was quite adequate and I would direct visitors there.)
No, you chose to believe God is unjust by providing salvation for some, but not for others. You've been lied to, pal!
It would seem Johnston feels that God is unjust if he provides salvation for some but not for others. You know, he is nearly right. But he seems to have it precisely backwards. God is not unjust because he provides salvation for some but not others. More accurately, God is unjust by providing salvation for some... period. If the whole world is fallen and enslaved to sin, and if therefore God would be just in condemning the whole world for its manifest sin, then the fact that God saves anyone at all is unjust! And this unjustice has a name: it is called mercy. Indeed we choose to believe that God is unspeakably merciful by providing salvation for some, when no one at all deserves it. To get what we deserve is just; ergo, our condemnation is a result of God being just. To get what we don't deserve is mercy; ergo, our salvation is a result of God being merciful—incredibly, awesomely, unutterably merciful.

It should be further noted that the gospel message is not—and has never been—that salvation is something that God makes possible. The mercy of God, to his glorious praise, is revealed in this: that salvation is something that God makes actual. To put the matter succinctly: God does not offer salvation; He saves. Period. Jesus said, "And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day." And elsewhere he says, "For you granted [your Son] authority over all people, that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him." And again Jesus says, "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand."
But, I don't suppose you guys witness to anyone, since you don't know who is chosen and who isn't, right?
Cleary's response was adequate, a response I can only echo: We witness to everyone precisely because we do not know who is chosen and who isn't. But more than this, we witness to everyone because it is the Father's will and we love to do the will of the Father. The fact that we can serve as instruments in God's purposes and stewards of his blessings is at once both deeply humbling and incredibly exciting. We do it because it is the will of the Father. We do it because we love to, and we love to because we love him. We do it because the gospel of Christ is good news, the best news in the whole world, news which enflames our hearts with overflowing love and joy and we just cannot keep quiet about it. We do it out of profound love for God and Jesus Christ our Savior. The message of the gospel is our deepest conviction and greatest vocation.
That's always funny to me! Are there any in your group that have been chosen to go to hell?
I do not know who Johnston is referring to here by the term "your group." If this term refers to the elect, then his comment is nonsensical and blasphemous: it maligns God's most holy name to accuse him of being contradictory, to say that he would choose for salvation those he chose for damnation. Johnston forgets himself here; the character of God is most holy ground, upon which Johnston recklessly treads with shameful irreverence. Unless this term refers to Calvinists, in which case I would echo the statement Jerry Bridges once made: "There are thousands of professing Christians who think they have been justified, who think their sins are forgiven and that they are on their way to heaven, who show no evidence of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in their lives." This is just as true for Presbyterians as it is for Methodists, just as true for Reformed Baptists as it is for Roman Catholics. Not all Calvinists are necessarily of the elect. Nor are all the elect necessarily Calvinists; there very well may be some atheists who are of the elect but, obviously, not yet regenerate. Is it possible that some self-professed Calvinists could find themselves condemned to the fires of hell? Certainly, just as some self-professed Baptists could, or those of any other sect.

The Arminian typically has a problem with the idea that God could 'choose' to send anyone to hell, like Johnston who feels it is repulsive nonsense to say that "God created some people to go to hell," that therefore "it is God's will for some folks to burn forever." What the Arminian doesn't realize is that his own particular view carries the very same conclusion! They usually feel that God, from his transcendent frame of reference, looks upon the human theater and elects for salvation those he knows will believe in Christ. (We shall ignore the inherent problems that plague this view.) What the Arminian often fails to realize is that this means God also knows who will not believe in Christ—and allows for their existence anyway knowing full well that they will end up suffering the fires of hell! As Cleary so poignantly asked, "Can Bill explain why God created men who [he knew] had no hope of salvation?"

Since Johnston has a tendency to characterize Calvinism as an 'elitist' mindset, I'm going to close this article with a question asked by another Arminian regarding that same sentiment. It is hoped that the response I offered to such concerns will obviate any future condescending pejoratives.

- - -
Let's pretend for a moment that I am a Calvinist. If only a few elite are saved (according to my beliefs), isn't it gosh-darn convenient that I'm one of them? If I assume that there is a special elite branch of humanity—God's chosen people—how do I know that I am one of them? Is there some way to know if I am really one of God's chosen, or does joining the denomination known as "Calvinism" presuppose it?
In one sense your questions are rather difficult to address, mostly due to the proliferation of supercilious strawmen, gratuitous invectives, and distorted caricatures regarding the theology of the Protestant Reformation. There is very little in your posts that would be at all recognizable to those who adhere to the theology of the Reformers; I myself can scarcely identify with anything you've described.

First of all, there are no "elite" that are saved. As demonstrated in Scriptures, and affirmed in Reformed theology, all mankind share in the same common misery of sin and death, equally involved in ruin and who by nature are "neither better nor more deserving than others"; wherefore "God would have done no injustice by leaving them all to perish and delivering them over to condemnation on account of sin." There can be no elite when "all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto." (Unlike so many theological views today, Reformed theology continues to reject the heresy of Pelagius; cf. The Canons of the Council of Orange.) Out of this collective population of sinners, God chose to redeem many "to redemption in Christ," determining by the good pleasure of his will "to give [them] to Christ to be saved by Him," who was appointed as their "Mediator and Head . . . and the foundation of salvation," for the praise of the riches of His glorious grace. God's choice "was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended"; rather, it was out of God's "mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will." (All quotations were excerpted from The Canons of Dort, the historic document of the Dutch Reformers from which the mnemonic TULIP was eventually derived, and therefore accurately represents the Reformed position on these issues.)

There is, therefore, no "elite" among men recognized in Reformed theology, despite the persistent gross caricatures of its detractors. The only elite is God Most High, who alone is to be praised; those who are redeemed among men are a product of God's choice based upon God's unchangeable purpose, out of God's mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of God's own will. From start to finish, salvation is of God. No facet of salvation—election, faith, justification, sanctification, etc—is a result of any intrinsic quality in man himself; rather, every facet of salvation is founded upon and wrought by the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. There is nothing naturally inherent in man himself that would move God to redeem him, "for all have sinned" and Scriptures are quite clear with respect to how God feels about sin. It is for this reason—a reason we have scarcely examined—that the Son of God had to come into the world to endure and accomplish all that he did. Ergo, there is none among men that are "elite."
Humans have a tendency to create a community where they can proclaim themselves better than everybody else.
To this I could only respond by saying: The only humans that do this are those who try to derive identity and meaning in relation to their peers. The Christian finds his identity and meaning in God, as the imago Dei—God is their source of life in all its dimensions, he is their ultimate source of identity insofar as they are created in God's image and are his children, he is their ultimate point of meaning insofar as the chief and highest end of man is to glorify God. Christians are not concerned about whether they are better than everybody else because God already informs the identity and meaning of their lives, freeing them to live charitably toward their fellow man, loving their neighbour, showing no favouritism, overall taking very seriously their stewardship duties toward the environment, their fellow man, and even their own personal lives.
If I assume that there is a special elite branch of humanity—God's chosen people—how do I know that I am one of them?
I think a responsible study of Scriptures will reveal that a Christian is never concerned about that sort of thing, because a Christian doesn't concern himself with salvation for what he'll get out of it; that is, he's not in it for the rewards. A Christian has a proper view of himself before God: utter and complete humility and a sense of undeservedness that results in deep repentance, profoundly humble thanksgiving, and never-ending praise for the glory of God and the unspeakable richness of his grace and the joy to be found therein. A Christian is fully convinced of God's justice and rendered awe-struck at God's mercy, recognizing that Christ Jesus alone is his refuge and the foundation of his salvation, that of himself he can offer God no worthy thing; that is, a Christian beats his breast and cries out, "Have mercy on me, a sinner!" I have personally said to others that even if I found out that, for some unique reason, I am not going to heaven, I would still continue ministering to others, teaching them about God and salvation, spreading the good news of the gospel, because I am fully convinced of my sin and fully convinced of God's justice. I don't think I deserve a damn thing; no one but Christ alone does. Therefore in Christ alone rests all my hope and all my faith. If I should discover that I will not be going to heaven, I will bow my head and confess to God, "You are wholly just." Am I one of the elect? I'm not concerned about it. My concern is for God's glory, not for any personal gains.

Since election is necessarily the sole jurisdiction of God, having taken place from eternity, antecedent to creation, who is and is not numbered among the elect is not our concern, for it is neither under our jurisdiction nor under our control. And this abdication of any concern about the identity of the elect is an expression of supreme faith and trust in the mercy, grace, and justice of God. Christians trust God absolutely, they praise him and give all glory to him alone. Christians do not question him, they do not audit his choices as though his purposes are subject to a higher court. And they certainly do not hold his purposes and choices accountable to man. If you want Christ in your life, pursue him with all your heart. If you truly want to follow his Word, then seek after it like a man starving for bread. If you want to be saved, cast yourself at the feet of the Lamb and cry out, "Have mercy on me, a sinner!" Pursue God through Christ Jesus our Savior like there is nothing more important in your life or all of the universe, because there really is nothing more important than that. And trust God's choices, absolutely and completely, never thinking to question his righteousness. Trust him to have made the best decision, for he is God and God is good.