For and Against Calvinism 11

Michael Horton’s question in his new book, For Calvinism, is to sketch and argue for Calvinism, including how Calvinism understands the Christian life.

Horton shows how Calvinism is neither antinomian nor legalistic, and it has been accused of both and it should not be. For Calvinism the Christian life is a downward movement from God to us and out into the world. It’s a work of grace, and sanctification is to be kept separate from justification; to be sure, the latter leads to the former but they are not to be confused.

Furthermore, for Horton there is an emphasis on the Christian life as ecclesially shaped and not just individualistically, and here he pushes against populist evangelicalism (rightly, I think). Election does not minimize godliness; justification leads to sanctification. The means of grace are the Word, baptism, Lord’s Supper, church membership … the Word flows into the home and into individuals, the home into the community.

Horton’s sketch says good and admirable things about the Christian life if one restricts one’s evidence to post-Jesus New Testament and to Reformed teachings, and much of what he says I’d agree with. It’s what he doesn’t cover that concerns me most. There is insufficient attention to the teachings of Jesus and to the Holy Spirit, to love, to self-denial and the cost of discipleship, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the fruit and gifts of the Spirit, and to the Lord’s Prayer.

OK, for our Calvinist readers, if you were asked to sketch the Christian life according to Calvinism, What would be your top three points? [Other than, it’s all of grace; got that. Other than, it’s for the glory of God; got that, too.]

But, against Horton, I would want to argue that the Christian life includes the Gospels and not just Paul’s letters; and the church begins with Jesus (or Pentecost, or Abraham), not with nails on the door of the church in Wittenberg; and Jesus taught us how to live, he didn’t just die and rise for us.

This is the first chp in this book where I though Michael’s polemical edge got the best of the chp: it is a combination of a diatribe against populist evangelicalism and Keswick higher life Arminian theories of the second blessing. I’d like to have seen much more focus on how Calvinists frame the Christian life and a whole lot less on what’s wrong with other views.

"Just realized that this bog is only one part of her response. There is so ..."

Thanks To Deborah Haarsma
"Yes you're right, approx 2.5 billion years ago. Btw I was referring to when the ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)
"Thanks! I got the books in the other comment and will work through them."

Thanks To Deborah Haarsma

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • As a long time taker of all things Reformed, it is at this level that I find it most disappointing. Their view of the Christian life post-conversion has little drama or imagination, the kind Eugene Peterson so wonderfully describes, Presbyterian though he be. Answers are pretty simple (it’s always about justification) and their ability to respond to the complexities of Christ following seems shriveled to me. It is not for no reason that the art of spiritual direction finds little place in the reformed culture. I don’t think reformed theology has to be this way, but it certainly is its trajectory. There is an inherent distrust of the soul as a critical tool in discerning, listening to, feeling the divine presence. I find that the reformed culture always wants me to go up and never to go in, inside that place where I walk with, listen to and wonder at Christ. I had a large taste of the Keswick movement as a young man. Aside from some of the craziness, there was was much good. The drama inside was not something to be afraid of.

  • Robin


    I don’t like the apparent juxtaposition of Calvinist tenets (election, justification, word, baptism, etc.) and biblical tenets (Jesus and the Holy Spirit, love, self-denial, cost of discipleship, Sermon on the Mount, fruit and gifts of the Spirit, the Lord’s Prayer). I think this juxtaposition is unnatural and unnecessary.

    For Calvinists, most of the latter things flow out of the former things (speaking broadly). The key thing is that grace (justification, election, etc.) are essential, and the other things are the outworkings of that grace. I can deny myself because of grace, the fruit of the holy spirit is evident because of grace, I pray the Lord’s prayer sincerely because of grace, my life is being patterned after the sermon on the mount because of grace.

    This is a very different perspective than my Catholic family (and some pentecostals I have known) who think that if they do things (attend mass, take communion, perform penance, etc.) and they live righteously enough (have enough bible studies, spend enough time in prayer, give enough money to the church) that after they have done their part, God will give them grace.

    I tend to think about it like I do the law in this country. We talk about the constitution all the time, not because case law is unimportant or trivial, but because the constitution gives us the framework to understand case law properly. The big issues that Horton (and other Calvinists) talk about give us the right frame of reference, so that when we start to talk about practical things like fasting, the cost of discipleship, acts of mercy and justice, or evangelism they aren’t whittled down to a mere exercise in works righteousness. They are understood properly as the fruit that accompanies justification and works that please God but don’t determine our status with him.

  • John W Frye

    I don’t like the juxtaposition of the spiritual disciplines and “works righteousness.” You imply that only Calvinism is the right Constitution for these case law activities. I firmly disagree. Sensitive souls within Calvinism smell a rat–it’s all of God’s grace and the threat of “works righteousness” paralyzes the human will. Calvinism creates a huge passivity in believers if not paranoia. I speak as a pastor in a heavily Reformed (burned over) area of the USA.

  • I agree with Robin.

    At its most basic level – Calvinism is about God’s initiation.

    I pastor a young church that works to Trojan Horse in Reformed doctrine instead of beating people over the head with overt Calvinism. For our people that may have been previously turned off to Reformed theology, they are finding their hearts warmed to the idea that it is God who makes the first move.

    In Southern evangelicalism (our context) there has been such an emphasis on what you do. To proclaim that your doing can only be made possible because God first “did” in your place… is breathtaking… amazing… electrifying.

    As Paul said… “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

    Praise Christ for God’s initiating grace!

  • Also – let me say that Calvinism is much broader than the doctrine of election.

    Calvin gives us the robust (and Biblical) story of redemption that includes the beauty and goodness of creation, God’s work in his world through common grace, and the idea that every nook & cranny of our lives and the entire cosmos comes under the rule of the Lordship of Christ.

  • Robin

    John Frye,

    I’m not saying that calvinism is the only lens through which these things can be viewed correctly, but I am saying that a lens is required, and the lens that my Catholic family uses and the lens that some of my pentecostal friends have used (of the E.W. Kenyon variety) have used has been absolutely deadly. I have one friend, Jenna, who has been inflicted with severe seizures since she was in elementary school and she is convinced that the only reason she has them is because she isn’t Godly enough. So she has both constant medical issues and a consistent belief that her medical issues are a direct result of God’s displeasure.

    My main point. BIG OLD LETTERS MAIN POINT. Is that because framing issues get discussed most frequently, doesn’t mean that no-framing issues are unimportant. Take the Westminster Standards for example. Scot above juxtaposed grace and the Lord’s prayer. If people want to talk about the Westminster Standards the issue that will be discussed most frequently are the doctrinal points made in the first parts of the documents (because those are foundational and they are the most contested points of the documents) But in both the shorter and larger catechism a full third of the documents are dedicated to the clauses of the Lord’s prayer and another third to the ten commandments.

    I think the juxtaposition Scot asserts is certainly present in internet discussions but not in real world calvinism, even the neocalvinism which draws Scot’s ire. One of the first “neocalvinist” sermons I ever heard was John Piper’s “Doing missions when dying is gain”…there is no way anyone can tell me that calvinists don’t deal with issues like the cost of discipleship after hearing that sermon.

  • Robin

    Things my (catholic) mom believes because she doesn’t have a framework of grace through which to understand the scriptures (She is a lector, she distributes communion, and she is in charge of instruction of children at the church).

    If she misses a mass and then dies without having confessed it, she will go to hell
    If she attends mass, God loves her more
    If she takes communion, God loves her more
    If she prays, God loves her more
    If she gives to the church, God loves her more
    God won’t forgive her sins unless she confesses them to a priest

    These are the big issues because she doesn’t really read the bible and see all the other things discussed in scripture. For a protestant who is familiar with the entire NT but who lacks a gracious framework, the burden would be much heavier, as it was for me, and as it is for my wife who struggles with that issue. She is a calvinist (theologicall) who grew up in a non-calvinist household and cannot shake the nagging feeling that God is constantly displeased with her if she doesn’t have a quiet time that day.

    Works-righteousness is perfectly understandable and natural and incredibly difficult to get rid of, that is why calvinists talk about framing issues.

  • John W Frye

    So, wouldn’t you think that Horton would speak for you and the many Calvinists you know about these things in *For Calvinism*? Why does Scot lament that Horton doesn’t even address these vital aspects of *the Christian life*?

  • Robin

    For the record I came to Christ through a campus ministry (Campus Outreach) that leaned Calvinistic, but placed a huge emphasis on the spiritual disciplines, especially evangelism. Since I came from a Catholic background it was refreshingly gracious, despite the emphasis on spiritual disciplines, and I flourished.

    My wife came to Christ in a Calvinistic church and then got involved with the campus ministry. She still views her involvement with the ministry as detrimental to her spiritual health because the intense focus on spiritual disciplines was the first time she ever felt the need to perform activities regularly in order to meet the expectations of her peers/leaders/God.

    The same ministry with the same emphases had profoundly different impacts on the two of us because of who we are and what our histories were. My wife needs, still, to constantly be reminded about grace so she doesn’t slip into condemnation. I don’t. I understand that part, I need the spiritual disciplines to keep me from passivity.

  • Robin

    John (6),

    I think it is a different perspective about what we mean by “essential”.

    If I said tell me about the essential aspects of the U.S. government you might tell me that we have 3 branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial) that are in charge of making laws, enforcing laws, and adjudicating laws, and we have a bill of rights that protects the rights of the citizens.

    I could then say “How in the world would you think that is an accurate description of the essential aspects of the U.S. government, you didn’t even talk about the income tax and how it provides X% of all federal revenues, you didn’t talk about Social Security and how it is the largest expenditure in the budget, and you didn’t even pretend to discuss the military and how we spend more money of military expenditures than the rest of the world combined…how could you pretend to talk about the essential aspects of the US government without discussing those things.”

    I think Horton is talking about the branches of government and framework and Scot wants details on the revenues and expenditures.

  • T


    I empathize with you re: your mother and wife. I think the tendency to constantly worry about one’s status with God is tragic and common. I don’t tend to think that the Calvinist framing of things (and the emphasis on such) is the best way to deal with that tendency, but I more than understand the desire to shut down legalism.

    My main beef with the emphasis on the Calvinist framing (it may be Scot’s as well, based on this post) is that the Calvinist areas of emphasis just don’t match up well at all with the NT’s areas of emphasis. For example, Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom, teaching about it, and inviting folks to enter as his disciples, which he “frames” in very distinct ways. The contrast between Jesus’ ‘framing’ of the message and the calvinist one is so stark that Piper is an exception to even attempt to say that Jesus is giving the same gospel (double predestination) as the calvinist reading of Paul. Lutheran framings contrast even more strongly, though not too much. Ultimately the Law/Gospel hermeneutic ends up splicing Jesus and the gospels into part gospel (consolation, forgiveness, justification) and part Law, which supposedly has limited usefulness to the Christian, even if it is the teachings of Jesus himself.

    Again, I sympathize with the desire to head off legalism, but I also believe that Jesus didn’t lead people into legalism, despite not using the calvinist framing or points of emphasis.

  • PaulE

    I’m really interested to know, Scot – how do you see the Lord’s Prayer as a key part of a Christian life? I hold to a high view of God’s sovereignty, and everything else in Horton’s list and your own I feel is an important part of my life in Christ. But I got to that item in your list and I paused and wondered how the Lord’s Prayer works into any of it. Certainly it is not something I think about often. If you talk about this in one of your books, I’d be grateful, even, just for a pointer. Thanks.

  • T

    Oops; I mean double imputation in #11. 😀

  • DRT

    Robin, I appreciate your arguments but feel you are trying to make a two wrongs equal a right approach. Just because some Catholics are worried about confessing mortal sins so they can go to heaven does not make the Calvinist approach right.

  • “OK, for our Calvinist readers, if you were asked to sketch the Christian life according to Calvinism, What would be your top three points? [Other than, it’s all of grace; got that. Other than, it’s for the glory of God; got that, too.]”

    1. Theo-centric vision of the creation.
    2. Exegetically sharpened theology. (The result of Calvin’s voluminous exegesis went into his institutes)
    3. Divine Prerogative.

  • Tom

    PaulE (12),

    Our church just finished a series on The Lord’s Prayer and we used material from John Smed in Vancouver, BC to explore the kingdom priorities of the prayer Jesus gave us. In a brief synopsis, here are some things to think about as your pray…

    “Our Father in heaven”…via the Gospel I am an adopted son of a loving Abba, dad in who is available 24/7, loves to hear from me, and whose presence I can experience each and every day.

    “Hallowed be your name”…my Father in heaven is truly awesome! As I contemplate his holiness, as revealed in creation and Scripture, I am led, more and more, to offer my entire life as a living sacrifice of praise and worship.

    “Your kingdom come”…I should urgently, but winsomely share the Good News that the King is reigning now and will soon come again and the kingdom is open to all who bow to Him as Lord.

    “Your will be done on earth as in heaven”…it’s not about me, it’s about living a life of compassion and justice…I should be the hands, feet, mouth, and ears of the King whenever I can.

    “Give us this day our daily bread”…I come to my Father in heaven as a beggar, completely dependent on His grace, and this leads me to be more generous and to lead a life of simplicity.

    “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”…the way my Father has forgiven me means I must forgive anyone, for anything, always. This is impossible until “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

    “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the Evil one”…there is a spiritual war going, the Enemy is real and cunning…I must be wary of the roaring lion on the prowl (1Peter 5), I must be in the Word daily, and in a community of believers.

  • DRT

    PaulE#12, re: The Lord’s Prayer, combined with the post the other day on religious experience, I meditate pretty much daily on each verse. The trouble is that I seldom get past the verse I start on. The more I engage it as a spirtual practice the deeper I go. I love it.

  • Scot McKnight

    PaulE, Jesus taught us to pray that prayer daily, and so I take it to be a fundamental orientation of our heart and mind and life.

    Father… holy God… kingdom… (here now)… God’s will … daily bread… forgiveness. temptation… etc… These are central to the Christian life.

    On the Lord’s Prayer, I have a chp in Jesus Creed.

    Overall, Calvinism reframes too much for me. I want to think and talk and live with the emphases of Jesus, Paul and Peter etc..

  • Calvinism is a broad label that can call forth mistaken associations. For example, to say Horton’s and Piper’s religion are both Calvinism is incorrect. Piper, who is hard-pressed to find something more important to tell us than the agreement God has made with us for our “final salvation,” believes that our salvation is in our hands, moment-by-moment, to possibly lose. He once told a high-school group, speaking about lust, that “their eternal destiny was stake in what they did with their thoughts and the intentions of their imagination.” (FG, p. 330). Horton is trying to get us to recognize that our final salvation because of our initial salvation: “no one finds God, God finds us.” (CF, p. 51).

  • PaulE

    Thanks Tom, DRT, and Scot for your thoughts on the Lord’s Prayer. Reading your explanations, I do see it as an important part of Christian life; and I certainly try to allow the patterns of the Lord’s Prayer to transform my own prayers and thus my heart, my mind, my life. I just have an aversion to praying verbatim prayers, precisely because it’s easy for me to pray them without my heart and mind being engaged.

  • Nathan

    @ #5 and others:

    To be fair, Calvin didn’t give us that story or even be the first to articulate it. The Apostles, the witness of Scripture, and the Fathers gave us that story.

    A careful reading of the breadth of the Fathers, pre-Nicea and beyond, give me everything I need for narrative flow of God’s action in history, the beauty of Creation, and God’s new creative act in Christ to redeem, etc. etc.

    This is why I can’t ever “sign on” to the modern Calvinist system. It can’t give me anything good that I don’t already have. And I remain pleasantly free from it’s baggage and it’s disputable privileging of one attribute of God over and against all others.

    Thus the irony is that while it trumpets the primacy of God, it actually doesn’t fully account for the radical otherness and trans-categorical character of God being “Holy”. Instead it confines God’s magisterial Holiness into an essentially juridical, moral-ethical notion and nothing more. And the Faith is so much more.

  • Horton has an article published today on the uniqueness of Christianity as presentable to a postmodern mind,