In "The Waning Authority of Christ in the Churches", AW Tozer wrote, "The Lordship of Jesus is not quite forgotten among Christians, but it has been relegated to the hymnal where all responsibility toward it may be comfortably discharged in a glow of pleasant religious emotion."
We evangelicals also know how to avoid the sharp point of obedience by means of fine and intricate explanations. These are tailor-made for the flesh. They excuse disobedience, comfort carnality and make the words of Christ of none effect. And the essence of it all is that Christ simply could not have meant what He said. His teachings are accepted even theoretically only after they have been weakened by interpretation.
While every Christian needs to be cautious of this danger—and Tozer was addressing the evangelical church at large—possibly the worst result that I see in the life of Calvinists is the tendency to pay little attention to our Lord Jesus' words and life, and when we do venture into the Gospel accounts, to refuse to take Him at His word.
My challenge to you
We will examine what I think are the causes below, but first, here is my challenge: Spend some time in the Gospels, and focus on the Lord Jesus.
Pastor Bruxy Cavey said about his own journey away from Calvinism (MP3 link, at 46:26):
For me, actually just staring into Jesus made the shift; studying his life. I went through a season in my life... I just started reading commentaries; first century background studies; so that I could understand Jesus better. And the more I started to understand Jesus, the more I realized that this system of thinking was not sufficient to help me say, “This is what Jesus was expressing”. Jesus then, I would say, got me to rethink everything.
It has been just over a year now since I left Calvinism, and looking back, I can’t help but believe this was part of my story too. It was meditating on the Lord Jesus, and His words like:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:44-48 ESVUK)
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36 ESVUK)
which the Holy Spirit continually placed on my conscience, that forced me to rethink everything.
I am convinced that focusing on the Lord Jesus is the best response to Calvinism: spend some time—real time—focusing on the Lord Jesus and meditating on His life and words.
Now, what causes Calvinists to treat the Lord’s words this way?
I think one of the causes of this is the Calvinist understanding of Election which places the Lord Jesus at the peripheral, rather than the centre; He is seen as a means to an end rather than the All in All.
Arminius thought, “the Calvinistic idea of election to faith rather than in view of faith or in view of one’s union with Christ [...] involves God settling his elective love on people without regard to Christ’s work or one’s participation in it.” (Pinson on Arminius, link). In his “Declaration of Sentiments”, Arminius wrote:
This doctrine is highly dishonorable to Jesus Christ our Savior. For,
1. It entirely excludes him from that decree of Predestination which predestinates the end: and it affirms, that men were predestinated to be saved, before Christ was predestinated to save them; and thus it argues, that he is not the foundation of election.
2. It denies, that Christ is the meritorious cause, that again obtained for us the salvation which we had lost, by placing him as only a subordinate cause of that salvation which had been already foreordained, and thus only a minister and instrument to apply that salvation unto us. This indeed is in evident congruity with the opinion which states "that God has absolutely willed the salvation of certain men, by the first and supreme decree which he passed, and on which all his other decrees depend and are consequent." If this be true, it was therefore impossible for the salvation of such men to have been lost, and therefore unnecessary for it to be repaired and in some sort regained afresh, and discovered, by the merit of Christ, who was fore-ordained a Savior for them alone.
Something else that needs to be pointed out here is how Christocentric (Christ centered) this is. God’s purpose in this decree is Jesus and that those who are saved are saved “in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ”. We are saved within the body of Christ, we are saved because Christ loves us and wants us saved, and we are saved only through the power of Christ, not our own. Christ, as opposed to eternal decrees, is the center of salvation–the crux, if you will, upon which salvation rests.
Take Ephesians 1, for example. It seems to me that most Calvinists would be just as happy (or maybe happier?) if the words, “in Him”, “in Christ”, and “through Christ”, were not in the text at all (after all, the Calvinist may reason, these words only confuse Arminians into believing election is Corporate and Christocentric!). But Paul ties each line to the Lord Jesus, and makes it absolutely clear that we are only blessed (v3&6), only chosen (v4), only predestined and adopted (v 5), only redeemed (v7), only know the mystery of His will (v 8), only obtain an inheritance, and were only sealed with the Holy Spirit (v 13) “in Him”, “in Christ” and “through Christ”.
Pastor Keith Coward, writing about his journey out of Calvinism, said:
I decided to shore up my confidence [in Calvinism] by reading some Reformed writers. But my plan backfired: I began with a small booklet about election; the author opened by stating his case from Eph 1:4 – a verse that I had studied when teaching through Ephesians the previous year. I had been struck by the parallels between Deut 4:37; 7:6-11 and this text: In the former, God says that he chose the Israelites to be his holy people because he loved them for the sake of their fathers; in the latter, Paul says that God chose “us” to be holy in Christ, which may easily mean “for the sake of Christ”. Election was a corporate, vocational, conditional concept for Israel; perhaps it was the same thing for Christians (see 1 Pet 2:9-10). Whatever the case, I knew that there was a lot of room to interpret Eph 1:4 differently than this author did. He was building his case for election on a verse that I knew could not bear that weight, and I began to wonder what would happen to other classic proof texts if examined more carefully, without Calvinistic presuppositions.
The Calvinist understanding of election has God choosing individuals without regard to Christ; the Lord Jesus, in this scheme, is no more than an afterthought. Is it any wonder, then, that Calvinists so rarely meditate on Jesus and His words? The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, places Jesus our Saviour at the centre, and Arminius and Arminians follow his lead.
Can this be seen in Calvinist Leaders? James White, a case study
Admittedly I use James White as the example because he is an easy target; there have been two instances in the last year which have already made their rounds on social media. Although James White is just one individual, he is a prominent Calvinist, and—especially given that, in the first instance below, he led the crowd to laugh at the words of our Lord—perhaps his, and his audience’s, example of lack of knowledge of Jesus' own words can serve as a picture of New Calvinism generally.
Example 1: the Flowers-White debate.
At one point in the debate between Leighton Flowers and James White, Flowers made the remark that we should humble ourselves like a child (summarizing the Lord Jesus' statement in Matthew 18:4). Not realizing (I assume) that this was the Lord’s own words, James White responded sarcastically, “I think I just heard Professor Flowers say that a child is humble?” leading the audience to laugh, not at Flowers, but at the words of our Lord Jesus!
Again, I don’t believe it was deliberate; I believe James White, like most Calvinists I have known (and was a part of), does not sufficiently study and meditate on the words of the Lord Jesus. Still, it is surprising that any Christian leader of Dr White’s prominence could hear our Lord Jesus’ own words and mock them, not knowing their true source. (Given this incident, Dr White and his audience might also want to consider the Lord’s words in Mark 8:38/Luke 9:26; if your theology makes you ashamed of the words of our Lord Jesus, to the point that you can unwittingly mock them for not fitting into your theological framework, it is time to rethink your theology!).
Example 2: James White responds to a sermon by James McCarthy.
Another example comes from back in January. James McCarthy, author of John Calvin Goes to Berkley, stated in a sermon, “God doesn’t love you strictly because of yourself; He loves you because of His Son. Didn’t the Lord Jesus teach that...what did He say? The Father loves you why? Because you have loved Me.”
On his radio program, James White responded, “I’m trying to figure out where that reference was. The Father has loved you because you have loved Me? …I couldn’t find that one. I would like to know what text is being paraphrased at that point, because that would make the Father’s love of us, dependent upon something we’re doing, and I think something was misstated there. I’m not sure.”
Notice that James White’s own words are nearly a direct quote of the passage he does not think exists! Jesus said, “In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father.” (John 16:26-27 ESVUK).
It is clear that James White is unfamiliar with the words of the Lord Jesus. Yet our Lord said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 ESVUK), and:
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me. (John 14:23-24 ESVUK).
NT Wright, "Look at Jesus":
Dr NT Wright, when asked what he would say to his children on his death bed, offered a similar challenge to the one I have presented above. Here is his response:
AW Tozer asked once, “Does God get only the tattered bits of your time, yet you say you are a follower of the Lamb? Do not fool yourself.” (The Crucified Life). We could even more seriously ask, “In your life and theology, are the words of the Lamb no more than 'not quite forgotten', yet you say you submit to the Lordship of Jesus? Do not fool yourself!”
*A note to regular readers: I will likely not be posting regularly again for a few months as I have a very heavy semester. I also apologize if you comment and it takes a few days before it gets through moderation or before I respond.