Part 6 of Response to The Gospel as Center: Chapter 6, “The Plan” by Colin S. Smith
So, I continue my response to chapters in the book The Gospel as Center by members of The Gospel Coalition. Chapter 6 is by Colin S. Smith, pastor of Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Illinois. I perused the church’s web site and was unable to find anything there that clearly identified Smith or the Church as Calvinist.
For those of you who do not know, the Evangelical Free Church of America (my maternal grandparents’ denomination and my brothers’ denomination) is rooted in Scandinavian Pietism. Over the years it has evolved, but it is generally considered a model of mainstream evangelical Christianity. It is certainly not Calvinist. I remember when I was growing up I asked my grandparents and uncles and aunts (some of who also belonged to the EFCA) what the “Free” in the denomination’s name meant. (Many members simply called it the “Free Church” for short.) They told me it meant members were “free” to believe different things about secondary doctrinal matters such as predestination and free will. Of course, since then, I’ve come to realize that “free” in the denomination’s name originally meant “free from the state”—as in “not state church.” However, many members have traditionally touted the EFCA as an evangelical denomination where one could be “free” of dogmatism about secondary matters of doctrine. The EFCA probably had few Calvinists in the beginning as its founders were from the Lutheran tradition. However, over the years, Calvinism has been embraced by many EFCA pastors and lay people. The denomination’s seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has been dominated by Calvinists (at least in the theology area) for at least a couple decades. HOWEVER, nothing about the denomination requires one to believe in monergism to be fully accepted and even be a leader in the denomination.
Colin Smith’s chapter is entitled “The Plan” and is, for the most part, simply a narrative summary of the Bible’s story of creation and redemption. There are strong hints of Calvinism in the chapter. For example: “But God is sovereign. He fulfills his own plan in his own time by his own power, and no one can stop him. God knows exactly what he is doing at every point in history in every nation of the world and through every event in your life.” (p. 90) This sounds like an expression of meticulous providence, although I think a Christian who does not believe in divine determinism could probably affirm it with certain qualification.
Smith is careful to talk about God’s promise to bless through Abraham “people from all nations,” not all nations. (p. 95) In his section on “Regeneration: You Have New Life,” Smith talks about regeneration as an act of the Holy Spirit that precedes faith and repentance. That is, of course, distinctive to Calvinism. There is a strong clue that Smith is a monergist. Then he asks “But why have you believed when others have not? Why did you come to faith when you did and not before or after? God took the initiative in regenerating you. God opened your eyes to see the glory of Christ. The Holy Spirit hovered over the dark chaos of your life and made you a new creation in Christ.” (p. 107) He never answers the “Why you?” question.
I think the gospel is expressed in a nutshell very well on p. 109: “If God justified only the righteous, how could we have any hope? The good news [gospel] is that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). As faith unites us to Jesus Christ, the power of his atoning sacrifice becomes ours. We are freed from the fear of condemnation due to our sin and guilt and brought into his marvelous love.” What more must the gospel include?
If the strong hints of divine determinism and monergism were removed from this chapter it would constitute a very fine summary of the theodrama of God revealed in Scripture. I ask again, as with other chapters, does Smith think one must accept monergism to believe in the gospel?
At the end of the chapter Smith says of God’s promises of blessing “All this belongs to those who are in Jesus Christ. It can be yours.” (p. 113) Wait. How can he say that? How can a Calvinist or any monergist who is not a universalist say “It [salvation] can be yours” without qualification? IF Smith were writing only to believers he would says “It is yours.” Clearly by saying “It can be yours” (italics added) he is not just talking (in this instance) to believers. However, how can a non-universalist monergist say to an unknown audience that salvation can be theirs without qualification?
Therein lies a deep inconsistency and a conundrum in Calvinism (except hyper-Calvinism). It is simply dishonest to say indiscriminately to a group of people that salvation can be theirs. There is no way to know that. If Christ died only for some, then there is no way to know that salvation can be theirs—when “theirs” refers to a mixed group such as readers of this book. (Again, in this particular instance, anyway, Smith cannot be thinking only of believing readers or else he would say salvation is theirs, not can be theirs. So at least in this sentence he is talking to a wider audience including people he does not think are all saved already.)
Many evangelical Calvinists do evangelize indiscriminately. I agree with the hyper-Calvinists who reject that. The gospel cannot be a “well-meant offer” to an unknown group of people, an audience that may include the non-elect. To say to such a group “Salvation can be yours” is misleading. It wouldn’t be wrong to say “Salvation may be yours.” But this is a case where “can” and “may” do not mean the same thing. (In proper English, of course, they usually aren’t the same thing.)
I would challenge members of The Gospel Coalition and all monergists to be honest and refrain from indiscriminate evangelism which is logically inconsistent with non-universalist monergism and even dishonest.