Gospel = Total Depravity, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace?

Gospel = Total Depravity, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace? September 22, 2018

My friend, the ecumenical Reformed Presbyterian (OPC) “Pilgrimsarbour” started discussing and defending three of the five points of the famous Calvinist acronym “TULIP”. After that it was off to the dog races (but an enjoyable dog race it has been . . .). His words will be in blue.

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Calvinism requires belief in things such as Total Depravity and Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace and Calvinists too often virtually equate the gospel with the five points of TULIP, or regard the five points as essential components of the gospel (if not identical), when in fact they have nothing directly to do with the biblical gospel.
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Even James White, the Reformed Baptist bishop and vociferous defender of historic Calvinism, (minus the infant baptism of Calvin and sacraments) observed (1-28-07): “is TULIP co-extensive with the gospel? No, TULIP refers to a portion of the gospel, not to its whole.” But the celebrated Calvinist icon Charles Spurgeon was a lot more sweeping in his analysis: “there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what is nowadays called Calvinism. . . . Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else” (more on that below).
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To the following points about the gospel which you raised, I cite a few relevant Scripture texts. Please keep in mind that this response is an abbreviation. I did not want to get into a full-blown argument citing the multiple texts involved in the issue. As it is, my answers are for the general readership here who necessarily are at different levels of knowledge regarding Reformed doctrine and are not meant to convey that I think you are unaware of these things.

1) Total Depravity (Radical Corruption). You say this is not part of the gospel. However, Paul was adamant regarding it: 

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were — by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:1-7 ESV).

Is Paul talking about something here that is not a part of the gospel? If so, why does he write it to Ephesus? Or, more simply, perhaps you and I have differing ideas of what “dead” means. 

Catholics agree that man can do nothing whatever to earn salvation; it is all God’s grace. We agree with you on sola gratia. And this is what Ephesians 2:1-7 teaches.

We believe in “total inability.” But total depravity is a position that goes far beyond this, and teaches things that are not only not part of the gospel, but not part of the Bible, either.

Total Depravity holds that (fallen) man can do no good thing whatsoever, even apart from the question of salvation. This isn’t biblical.
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2) Limited Atonement (Particular Redemption). The atonement, for the non-Reformed, is said to be efficacious for every human being who ever lived. Of course it is.

For the Reformed, it is God’s saving power granted to His people. 

It is that, too. Apples and oranges . . .

The one limits its power by saying that it only enables man to save himself as he appropriates what is offered; 

Not at all. The Arminian and Catholic positions hold that man cannot save himself (contra Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism), but because he has free will, he has to accept God’s entirely free, unmerited gift of salvation. According to your thinking, the prisoner who is pardoned by the governor “saves himself” by accepting the pardon, rather than the governor “saving” him by setting him free. The act of accepting the pardon is not the most essential part of the transaction, but it is necessary.

There is a distinction between “saving oneself” and “accepting the saving that someone else does.” We don’t say, e.g., that a drowning man “saves himself” when he grabs onto a life preserver that someone tosses him. In a sense he participates in his “salvation,” I agree, but the main person who “saved” him was his rescuer.

the other limits the objects of His saving power to His chosen ones, the Church, whom He actually saves. 

But that is nothing more than a truism; circular reasoning: God saves (by His power) those who are saved (the elect, the eschatologically saved). Of course! What Christian would doubt that?

Is Christ a real Saviour, or merely a potential Saviour? 

He is a real savior because He saves (another truism). He is a “potential savior” of those who are unsaved, but they can resist the free gift. All of God’s gifts have to be appropriated by man. We are not robots.

Christ died for His Church: 

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:25-27 ESV).

Sure; but this assumes that the Church (the elect, as a Calvinist would see it) is all He died for. The text doesn’t say that. I could just as easily say “He died for John Calvin” or “He died for Martin Luther.” Saying one would not rule out the other. The elect are the ones who have appropriated God’s free gift of salvation. It doesn’t follow that He is not potentially the Savior of all men.

If Christ died for every human being in the whole world, why are any at all lost? 

Because they choose to be, just as the person who is committing suicide refuses the aid of the rescue worker sent to save him, and jumps off the ledge or slits his wrist or blows his brains out.

Were the ones who “accepted” Him inherently more intelligent, more moral, more humble in themselves than their neighbours were? Why is one saved and another not?

Ultimately, we can’t answer that with total satisfaction. But we are stuck with the biblical paradox:

1) God saves all who are saved;

2) Man has free will.

I don’t think we will ever totally comprehend it. But we know that God, in His merciful, loving nature would not be so unjust as to condemn a person eternally to hell, where he has no choice or say whatever in his eternal destiny. God gives everyone enough grace to be saved if they will simply accept it.

None of this is directly part of the gospel, in any event, since it deals with the mechanics of whois saved, and why, and etc., whereas the biblical gospel (i.e., good news; not — strictly speaking — good theology or right speculations and conclusions on all the jots and tittles) is the message that salvation flows from Jesus Christ and His death on the cross as our Savior and Redeemer.

3) Irresistible Grace (Effectual Calling). Merely means that the grace of regeneration is invincible. Although the sinner can and does resist God’s grace, that grace which enables him to embrace the saving work of Christ cannot be thwarted by those who are the objects of God’s electing favour. 

This is (logically reduced) merely another circular truism: “God’s grace isn’t thwarted by those who are saved.” Obviously not! But that’s not what is being disputed. It is, rather, whether anyone is able to resist God’s grace. To me, it is virtually self-evident from both the biblical data and experience and common sense, that they surely can do so.

We are quickened, we are saved, we are raised up in Him (Ephesians 2). It is effectual because it actually accomplishes that for which it was intended. 

In the case of the elect, of course. But the reprobate resist God’s grace that is able to save them, if only they would cease their foolish rebellion.

This is not the call to the ear, but to the heart. One can resist the grace as it comes to the ear, but one cannot resist the call to the heart which only the Holy Spirit can bring. The objects of His effectual calling are predestined, called, justified and glorified: 

30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:30 ESV).

We agree with predestination of the saved (Catholic Thomists and Molinists differ on the details of that and how free will ties in: I am a Molinist: or more specifically, a Congruist).

Again, that is not the debate; the debate is whether those who are saved have resisted salvation with their free will, or if God predestined them to hell. All Catholics deny the latter (a corollary of limited atonement).

5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. 7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day” (Romans 11:5-8 ESV).

The hardening is not without their own free will. This is the language of providence: God is in control of all things, but it is not in such a way that we become robots and have no say in our own salvation or damnation.

I have a paper that delve into the questioning of “hardening” and how biblical language simultaneously asserts both free will and God’s providence: exactly as in the Catholic position: not the Reformed one that denies human free will. [see also a second paper on the same topic: a dialogue with a Calvinist]

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:11-12 ESV).

We don’t disagree with predestination of the elect, so this is neither here nor there in our debate.

13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 ESV).

Ditto.

It would be sufficient for me now if I could get a Catholic to say that, at the very least, he understands, though does not agree with me, regarding from where these Reformed doctrines come when reading the Scriptures. 

I understand the entire rationale and have for many years, and I would even agree that the motivation of Reformed self-understanding is to uphold God’s majesty and sovereignty. I reject it on the basis of having false (i.e., unbiblical) premises, and based on the limitation of inability to accept biblical “both/and” paradox and mystery. The Calvinist solution leads to God’s mercy and justice being limited in ways that do violence to Scripture. I think the Catholic (and also Arminian) solutions are far more true to all of the Bible and what it teaches.

I would consider that a veritable coup!

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think I understand the doctrines as well as most Calvinists do. That won’t stop many Protestants from denying that I do, however, just as they do in the case of sola Scriptura.

I’m delighted to be able to discuss the issues without rancor. It’s a pleasure and a privilege, so hats off to you.

As to the gospel question (how this relates); again, it is not part of the biblical gospel, because irresistible grace is speculation upon the mechanics and “whys” of the question rather than what the gospel states: that God saves by His grace, and all who are saved are saved because of that (a thing Catholics agree with Protestants 100% on: if only the latter could figure that out).

I don’t mean to get into a big thing here either, but I just wanted to clarify one thing.

Total Depravity holds that (fallen) man can do no good thing whatsoever, even apart from the question of salvation. This isn’t biblical, as I think I have demonstrated in several papers.

I should have said “unregenerate man” there. My bad. I had in mind the guy who isn’t following the Lord; is not any sort of professed Christian; is not “justified” or “saved” (in the Protestant sense).

No. It does not mean this. But the emphasis is on the inclination of the fallen human heart which is inclined to evil continually (Gen. 6:5, cf. Romans 3:10-18; 7:18).

Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology, one-volume abridgement, edited by Edward N. Gross, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1988):

[Original sin is] the loss or absence of original righteousness and consequent entire moral depravity of our nature, including or manifesting itself in an aversion from all spiritual good and from God as well as an inclination to all evil. . . . it renders the soul spiritually dead, so that the natural or unrenewed man is entirely unable of himself to do anything good in the sight of God. (pp. 296-297)

this corruption is of such a nature that before regeneration fallen men are “utterly indisposed, disabled, and opposed to all good.” (p. 297)

By total depravity is not meant that all men are equally wicked, nor that any man is as thoroughly corrupt as it is possible for a man to be, nor that men are destitute of all moral virtues . . . the Scriptural doctrine of total depravity, which includes the entire absence of holiness . . . There is common to all men a total alienation of the soul from God so that no unrenewed man either understands or seeks after God . . . They are destitute of any principle of spiritual life . . . (pp. 298-299)

. . . a state of spiritual death implying the entire absence of any true holiness. (p. 300)

Hodge cites the example of Job, saying “I abhor myself” (Job 42:6), as an example of “the entire sinfulness of men” and “depravity” (p. 299) but neglects to mention what God Himself said of Job: “there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8; cf. 1:1).

The Reformed understanding is that the good works he does perform are so riddled with error, pride and sin that they carry with them no efficacy for himself, nor are they genuinely pleasing to God. 

The unregenerate can perform no good works, or any spiritual good at all, according to Reformed teaching. Regenerate man, on the other hand, can certainly do things that please God.

This is not to say that a sinner’s good works are not relatively beneficial to others, perhaps in many respects, as following their natural consequences. But they avail him nothing in the end.

They are only “good” in a relative sense, not an essential, inherent sense, according to Calvinism. Luther’s view in The Bondage of the Will, was even more extreme than Calvin’s.

I’m glad you don’t call it “utter depravity,” which some Catholics I have spoken with do.

I refer to it by the standard terminology. “Utter lack of spiritual good” would be a literally accurate description of the Reformed view of the (acts and intentions of the) unregenerate, though.

Reformed theology knows nothing of an “utter depravity” in which every human being is a bad as is humanly possible.

I agree. But what is believed is untrue and unbiblical (nothing personal!).

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The following remarks were directed towards another questioner, on a specific point (I included it, as related material):

I don’t know anyone, including myself, who isn’t riddled with sin and pride. In a more sober and introspective moment, if you examine your life very carefully and ask God to help you in this, you’ll begin to see it in your own life as well. But it seems to me that you have a somewhat light view of sin, that it is not really all that bad. I have given the verses to indicate how heinous and pervasive sin is. You should take a look at Isaiah 6. Or better yet, take a look at the cross. I don’t think you’ll be able to maintain that sin is not a very, very big deal which infects everything we do. I don’t think Dave denies this, if I’m not mistaken, having spent many hours in (what I consider to be) fruitful discussion with him on related matters. 

I admit that “Total Depravity” as the T in the TULIP acrostic is problematic. That is why I prefer the term “Radical Corruption,” which more accurately, I think, states the case. “Total Depravity” is subject to all sorts of misunderstandings, as you have demonstrated here. Again, to be totally depraved means that there is no aspect of our being that is not subject to the taint of sin, so that even our best works have a mixture of good and bad in them. I don’t see how you can deny this. No one is perfect, is he? We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. The doctrine does not mean that every human being is as wicked as they possibly can be; it is not UTTER depravity. No. God’s restraining power prevents that, though we sometimes wish He would restrain more according to His purpose and plan. 

As far as pleasing God with good works, we have to adopt His definition of what good is: 

And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God (Luke 18:19).

Now by the human definition of good, all kinds of human beings do all kinds of good things all of the time, relative to our own varying definitions of good. But that is not what the doctrine is speaking to. 

So often believers fall into the trap of comparing themselves with other people and think in terms of relative “goodness” when compared with them. But that is not the standard. The standard for goodness is God Himself, which is perfection. No one can attain it, hence our need for the active obedience of Christ, but I know Catholics don’t believe this, which I don’t care to take off onto another rabbit trail at this point.

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John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Beveridge online translation):

It cannot be doubted that when Adam lost his first estate he became alienated from God. Wherefore, although we grant that the image of God was not utterly effaced and destroyed in him, it was, however, so corrupted, that any thing which remains is fearful deformity . . . (I, 15:4)

Next comes the other point—viz. that this perversity in us never ceases, but constantly produces new fruits, in other words, those works of the flesh which we formerly described; just as a lighted furnace sends forth sparks and flames, or a fountain without ceasing pours out water. Hence, those who have defined original sin as the want of the original righteousness which we ought to have had, though they substantially comprehend the whole case, do not significantly enough express its power and energy. For our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle. Those who term it concupiscence use a word not very inappropriate, provided it were added (this, however, many will by no means concede), that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly, that the whole man is in himself nothing else than concupiscence. (II, 1:8)

Here I only wished briefly to observe, that the whole man, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, is so deluged, as it were, that no part remains exempt from sin, and, therefore, everything which proceeds from him is imputed as sin. Thus Paul says, that all carnal thoughts and affections are enmity against God, and consequently death (Rom. 8:7). (II, 1:9)

But as those endued with the greatest talents were always impelled by the greatest ambitions (a stain which defiles all virtues and makes them lose all favour in the sight of God), so we cannot set any value on anything that seems praiseworthy in ungodly men. . . . The virtues which deceive us by an empty show may have their praise in civil society and the common intercourse of life, but before the judgment-seat of God they will be of no value to establish a claim of righteousness. (II, 3:4)

. . . the will, deprived of liberty, is led or dragged by necessity to evil . . . if the free will of God in doing good is not impeded, because he necessarily must do good; if the devil, who can do nothing but evil, nevertheless sins voluntarily; can it be said that man sins less voluntarily because he is under a necessity of sinning? (II, 3:5)

None of this can be substantiated from the Bible, which teaches that even unregenerate men are capable of doing “good.”

For Calvin, everything has to be black-and-white with no greys at all. Whatever the unregenerate man does, it has to be for a bad motivation. It cannot possibly be a spiritually good thing, or an act intrinsically good. It’s always soiled, corrupted, and perverted (my own motives have been characterized this way again and again — I think for this very reason: the false premise — by online anti-Catholic Calvinists: even to the extent of saying I was damned and that no one should even pray for me).

And that simply doesn’t line up with Scripture or the reality of the human experience or what we can verify even within our own lives before regeneration (and/or Christian commitment and discipleship) occurred.

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There are plenty of examples of Reformed Protestants equating the gospel with TULIP (or coming very close to doing that). In a few seconds on Google I could easily locate some. For example:

There are two views concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ. First, there is what we call Calvinism. Then, there are varying degrees of unbelief.

The essential doctrines concerning salvation, which the Puritans and all good Christians cling to, are summed up in the acronym T.U.L.I.P. (C. Matthew McMahonA Puritan’s Mind“T.U.L.I.P.”; RPCGA denomination)

Here’s a classic equation of Calvinism (hence, TULIP) with the gospel, by the famous preacher and Calvinist icon Charles Spurgeon:

I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what is nowadays called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel…unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the Cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called. (Autobiography 1, p. 168)

James Montgomery Boice wrote:

the gospel is not really the gospel unless it is a gospel of grace, . . . the gospel stands or falls with the doctrines of grace. (The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel, co-author Philip Graham Ryken, Crossway Books, 2002, p. 18)

Then on the same page he goes on to argue that the doctrines of grace are (y’all guessed it!) TULIP. Therefore, without TULIP there is no gospel. It is gutted. This is exactly what I have argued: Calvinism equates TULIP with the gospel: something the Bible doesn’t do (even if we grant that the five doctrines of TULIP are all true).

Richard J. Mouw:

I believe that TULIP, properly understood, captures something very central to the gospel. (p. 14)

TULIP captures some very important elements of the story of salvation’s plan. (p. 15) (Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004)

J. I. Packer:

But in fact the purpose of this phraseology, as we shall see, is to safeguard the central affirmation of the gospel — that Christ is a redeemer who really does redeem. . . . The real negations are those of Arminianism, which denies that election, redemption and calling are saving acts of God. Calvinism negates these negations in order to assert the positive content of the gospel . . . (A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, Crossway Books, 1994, pp. 129-130)

It seems to me that one could argue, roughly, following Spurgeon:

1) Gospel = Calvinism.

2) The Gospel pronounces the Good News of salvation and is (propositionally) essential to man being saved.

3) Doctrinal Calvinism is, therefore, essential to man being saved.

4) Ergo, to be saved, one must believe in TULIP, a central tenet of Calvinist belief.

The guy from A Puritan’s Mind website wrote: “The essential doctrines concerning salvation, . . . are summed up in the acronym T.U.L.I.P.” He used the terminology “concerning salvation” rather than “gospel.”

Interestingly, McMahon’s views have been refuted by another five-point Calvinist, Reformed Baptist pastor Phillip M. Way. He wrote:

What I am setting out to accomplish is to reveal though an examination of the writings of C. Matthew McMahon that he has begun to teach that one must believe the doctrines of grace in order to be saved.

That is, in his own words, I will demonstrate that Matt has published a number of works that insist that if one is not holding to all five points of the doctrines of grace (TULIP), then that person is not saved, has believed a false gospel, is not a believer in Jesus Christ, and is not going to heaven when they die.

I will show that Matt has replaced the content of the gospel, which is the Person of Jesus Christ, with a formulation of systematic doctrine that he requires one to believe in order to be converted.

It is his view that a sinner must understand and embrace the five points in order to be saved. Trusting Christ is not enough. Simple child like faith is not enough. Jesus is not enough. In the view presented, one must be a Calvinist in order to be converted.

In love for and out of duty to Christ and His Church, and in Christian love for Matt, I offer the opportunity for Matt to recant this position and embrace the truth, namely that the content of the gospel in the Person of Jesus Christ and that one need not understand or embrace all Five Points of Calvinism in order to be saved. . . .

I stated in the thread on his article that I feared that he was indeed presenting the case that unless one embraced the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) in full then they could not be saved. And again, I was not alone in assessing this from the article. . . .

Matt, if you believe that a person must hear, understand, and embrace the doctrines of grace in toto in order to be saved or as proof of their salvation as they mature in Christ, then you have in fact denied the gospel of Jesus Christ. Coming to faith and maturity in Jesus Christ is not synonymous with embracing TULIP.

James Montgomery Boice wrote: “the gospel is not really the gospel unless it is a gospel of grace, . . . the gospel stands or falls with the doctrines of grace.” Then he equates these doctrines with TULIP. So that amounts to saying that the gospel is a gospel of TULIP. To the extent that the gospel saves, then, one might say (as an outcome of this sort of thinking) that TULIP saves.

Again, this is very close to requiring TULIP for salvation: just a hair’s breadth away. J. I. Packer holds, in effect (following his own stated logic), “Calvinism [asserts TULIP] in order to assert the positive content of the gospel”.

These kinds of statements are very close (if not identical) to saying that TULIP is essential for salvation. I am willing to concede the general point, in charity to Calvinists as a whole, but at the same time I think one can see that there is a prominent motif (in many eminent, influential Calvinists) of closely aligning TULIP to the gospel, and hence, indirectly (but closely, given the nature and purpose of the gospel) to salvation itself.

But Bishop James White would (I think) relegate such thinking to the despised category of “hyper-Calvinism.” In his article, “A Letter to a Hyper Calvinist” (8 February 2005) he wrote:

Hyper-Calvinism is an offense to God, and it is an offense to any serious Calvinist. Yes, yes, I know, there are disagreements over just what hyper-Calvinism involves. Some have attempted to paint me as a hyper simply because I hold to a strong view, a modified supralapsarian view, in fact. But you really don’t have a lot of question about a real hyper-Calvinist when you meet one (and you won’t meet them witnessing to Mormons or JW’s or preaching on the duty of men to repent and calling men to Christ): the really hard-core, nasty, graceless ones will call you an unbeliever if you dare say “good morning” to an Arminian. I.e., they ask you a simple question: “Can an Arminian be saved? Are Arminians Christians?” If you say, “Yes, Arminians can be saved” they will tell you, “then you are not saved, either.”

On a normally quiet e-mail list called TULIP a hyper showed up to start spitting at me when Chris Arnzen posted an announcement about the debate on Long Island with Bill Rutland. It is odd: many of my Reformed brethren have commented that, in personal conversation, in our online community, in other forums, I can be very patient in trying to help a non-Reformed believer come to understand the doctrines of grace. But I have zero patience with hypers. Call it a personal flaw (I have many of them), but I just can’t stand hypers—they should know better. Part of it, of course, is the fact that I am constantly having to refute those who oppose Calvinism by painting me as a hyper, but part of it is just the incredible attitude of a real hyper. The Arminian, 99% of the time, is simply ignorant of the issues. The hyper isn’t.

. . . they are still Christians, because perfection of knowledge and belief is NOT the standard of salvation: Christ is the standard of salvation, and the error you hypers make that will haunt you as you answer for it before God is that you demand of Christ that as Shepherd He only have perfect sheep—He cannot sanctify them and cause them to grow in His grace and knowledge—that passage means nothing in your system. You are like the Pharisees of old who were confident of their standing before God because of what they knew and did. Read Matthew 23 sometime, and look into your own heart.


In another post (6 June 2006), White opined:

I am not a hyper-Calvinist. R.C. Sproul is not a hyper-Calvinist. John Piper is not a hyper-Calvinist. To believe in all “five points” is not to be a hyper-Calvinist. To believe God’s choice of election is eternal in nature is not to be a hyper Calvinist. The term “hyper-Calvinism” has a meaning in and of itself, and it is irresponsible to think any one person, or group of people, has the right to redefine language itself so as to violate all standards of truth, honesty, and integrity. . . . If you believe God elected from eternity to glorify Himself by saving an undeserving people in Christ Jesus apart from any merit on their part, while revealing His justice and wrath in the just punishment of others who loved their sin and hated Him, and He did so freely, without any external compulsion, you are a hyper-Calvinist. Never mind that was the viewpoint of men like Spurgeon who wrote against hyper-Calvinism.

In “Hyper Calvinism Revisited” (21 February 2005), White makes more true criticisms (minus the anti-Catholic falsehoods):

I noted a while back the response of a hyper-Calvinist to the announcement of the topic of the tenth in the Great Debate Series on Long Island, “Can a Non-Christian Enter Heaven?” Despite my lengthy history of apologetic interaction with Rome, my consistent affirmation of the fact that Rome does not possess the gospel of Jesus Christ, and my defense of Reformed soteriology against the likes of Norman Geisler, George Bryson, and Dave Hunt, hyper-Calvinists have chosen to use this opportunity to make sure everyone understands: it is not enough for you to believe in the Five Points: unless you 1) confess you were not a Christian until you understood and believed all Five Points, and 2) are willing to condemn to the fires of hell itself every person who does not understand and believe all five points in totality, you are not a Christian either (evidently that makes seven points you must believe). So, the theme out of the hyper camp is that both the debaters June 9th, Bill Rutland, the Roman Catholic, and James White, the Calvinist, are unregenerate, lost men! You can believe all Five Points, but, if you don’t believe their “Extra Two,” you are as lost as a Roman Catholic who affirms every element of Rome’s false teaching.

I think this is excellent analysis, for the most part. But the difficulty that folks like White and Way (those who consider themselves more “balanced” and nuanced, informed Calvinists) will run into is interpreting the statements above from very prominent people like Packer, Mouw, Spurgeon, and Boice. These appear to me (at least at first examination) to be not far from the sort of equation of TULIP and the gospel and salvation that White and Way condemn in what they would regard as hyper-Calvinists.

In other words, the problem runs deep, and can’t be confined solely to fringe wackos: a phenomenon that every institution has to deal with. Packer, Mouw, Spurgeon, and Boice are more sophisticated and infinitely more irenic than the guys White is replying to above, but in many ways, several of their opinions regarding the place of TULIP are quite similar.

In fact, James White has serious internal logical difficulties of his own, that are not unlike the above. Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin demonstrated in his article, “Fatally Flawed Thinking” (This Rock, July 1993), that White’s position logically reduces to one in which any person who denied Limited Atonement could not be a Christian; hence, not saved. So we are back to the scenario of TULIP (one part of it, in this case), being essential to the nature of being a Christian, which in turn (for White), is being saved (and hence, at the same time, part of the gospel of salvation). It’s a subtle argument, but brilliant and well worth making the effort to understand (bracketed comments are his own: I believe they are “footnotes” added to the original article):

White declares this belief in his most popular anti-Catholic book, The Fatal Flaw: “[A]ll who hold to biblical authority . . . refuse to the Catholic system the name ‘Christian,’ for one cannot truly own Christ as Savior and Lord when one denies the complete efficacy and power of his atoning blood!”[James White, The Fatal Flaw (Southbridge, Massachusetts: Crowne Publications, 1990), 151. . . .

Catholics deny the complete efficacy and power of Christ’s blood, White argues, because they believe in purgatory, the sacrifice of the Mass, and indulgences. He says these are means of atonement outside of Christ’s atonement, and their existence implies Christ’s blood was not sufficient for us. This is what White identifies as Catholicism’s “fatal flaw.” “Here then is the fatal flaw of Romanism: The Church of Rome teaches a gospel that is devoid of the all-sufficient and finished work of Jesus Christ and therefore declares that there are ways of expiation, atonement, [and] forgiveness that are outside of and distinct from the atonement of Jesus Christ.”[White, 156.] . . .

To show the Mass, purgatory, and indulgences add to what Christ has done for us, he appeals to a particular Calvinist doctrine called “limited atonement.” . . . Since few Christians believe in the doctrine of limited atonement, the potential of White’s book is diminished. Only five-point Calvinists will accept one of its key premises, [In personal correspondence with me, White states he does not care that he has limited the potential of the book, saying, “It is not my desire to write a ‘popular’ book that would find a wide audience. . . . Instead, I desire simply to present God’s truth, even if that truth is not popular in my culture at this time in history.” He adds, “the Reformed understanding of the atonement is the only view that can properly address the Roman Catholic concept of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice.” This is an implicit admission his argument against the Mass will not work properly without limited atonement.] and only they are likely to accept fully its overall argument.

Furthermore, White’s use of limited atonement also limits the number who count as Christians. He wishes to exclude only Catholics and possibly Eastern Orthodox from the family of Christians, but his argument requires him to exclude many more people if he applies it consistently. It requires him to deny the name Christian to anyone who is not a five-point Calvinist.

White says Catholics are not Christians because “one cannot truly own Christ as Savior and Lord when one denies the complete efficacy and power of his atoning blood!” [White, 151.] By the complete efficacy and power of Christ’s blood White has in mind the standard Calvinist view that the atonement automatically saves all those for whom it is offered, so men do not need to add anything such as faith or love to it to be saved. . . . If men do need to add something, Christ’s blood does not have complete efficacy and power.

This is where limited atonement comes in. White reasons that if Christ’s atonement automatically saves those for whom it is offered, and if it is offered for all men, then all men receive final salvation. But the existence of hell indicates not everyone will be saved, so the atonement must not be for everyone. It must be limited, offered for some people, but not for all.

Most Protestants deny this and claim the atonement was made for everyone. Since most Protestants also believe some people will be lost, five-point Calvinists claim they must say the atonement is not sufficient in and of itself, that it does not automatically save those for whom it is offered, and if a person says the atonement does not automatically save those for whom it is offered, then, according to five-point Calvinism, he is denying the complete efficacy and power of Christ’s blood. [This is the standard charge five-point Calvinists make against those who disagree with them and yet believe in hell.]

White says such people “cannot truly own Christ as Savior and Lord” and therefore must be refused the name “Christian.” It turns out that anyone who denies limited atonement and believes in hell must not be a Christian. Almost all traditional Protestants [Everyone except five-point Calvinists.] deny limited atonement, so almost all traditional Protestants must not be Christians.

That White does not say that only five-point Calvinists are Christians shows he is employing a double-standard. He has failed to think through the implications of his argument. [In correspondence with me White tries to avoid the conclusion that Protestants who deny limited atonement are not Christians by arguing that they do not add such things as the Mass, purgatory, and indulgences to the atonement. This argument does not work because it does not matter what one adds to the atonement. If one adds anything then, according to five-point Calvinism, one is denying the complete efficacy and power of the atonement. If rejecting limited atonement means something must be added to Christ’s work, as five-point Calvinists claim, then those who reject limited atonement do not count as Christians on White’s definition. If his argument works against Catholics, it works against anyone who, in White’s sense, “denies the complete efficacy and power of his atoning blood,” Protestants included.]

White has other similar problems that are his own, as a Reformed Baptist, but not applicable to more orthodox Calvinists (who believe in infant baptism and true sacraments). In a paper of mine from 2003, I demonstrated that from his own extreme words (in our first postal debate of 1995), stating that sacraments are antithetical to grace (“If you feel a communion that replaces the grace of God with sacraments, mediators, and merit, can be properly called ‘Christian,’ then please go ahead and use the phrase”), it follows that Martin Luther and St. Augustine (both firm adherents of sacramentalism) are not Christians.

It also follows that John Calvin would not be, either. White follows the Anabaptist tradition in this regard, and both Luther and Calvin advocated capital punishment for Anabaptists. White could quite possibly have been executed in either Saxony or Geneva, for believing what he does about baptism, and would have been regarded as a seditious revolutionary heretic and danger even to civil society. Calvin and Luther held even more hostility towards Protestant “fanatics” and “enthusiasts” than they did towards the Catholic Church.

Calvinism proper is incoherent and self-contradictory enough. But Reformed Baptist Calvinism is an even more incoherent, inconsistent version of an already troubled, biblically-challenged view. So White’s own difficulties are multiplied (and, I would contend, are insurmountable).

The internal incoherence and inconsistency of Calvinism leads to absurd conclusions like this. Thus, Calvinism can be shown to be, in some respects, and/or in some circles, anti-[non-Calvinist] Protestant as well as (often) anti-Catholic.

Tremendous hostility and never-ending tension have existed between Calvinists and Arminians, for 400 years, with very strong charges being levied on both sides. The Synod of Dort (1618-1619) was, historically the origin of TULIP, and it decreed that the Arminians were heretics.

Calvinist Michael S. Horton wrote in his article, “Evangelical Arminians: Option or Oxymoron?”:

One can readily see how a shift from a God-centered message of human sinfulness and divine grace to a human-centered message of human potential and relative divine impotence could create a more secularized outlook. . . . the evangelicals who faced this challenge of Arminianism universally regarded it as a heretical departure from the Christian faith.

The orthodox Protestants were not over-reacting, therefore, when they regarded the Arminian denials as no different from the positions of Trent, which had declared the evangelicals “anathema.” It would have been bigoted for them, therefore, to regard Trent’s position as unorthodox if they were unwilling to say the same of a similar “Protestant” deviation.

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(originally 4-6-10)

Photo credit: The Sermon of St Stephen (1514), by Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1526) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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