Part 6 of Response to The Gospel as Center: Chapter 6 “The Plan”

Part 6 of Response to The Gospel as Center: Chapter 6 “The Plan” April 4, 2012

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.

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  • David Rogers

    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.

    Indiscriminate evangelism is one of the good things about many Calvinists. It is a glorious inconsistency. It is hypocrisy to good effect. There may be some eventual blowback by their inconsistency but proclaiming the Gospel in an “Arminian” way will be good for the audience despite the Calvinist’s intellectual illogical dishonesty.

  • James Petticrew

    I was taught homiletics by a Calvinist, a protege of Dr Martin Lloyd Jones, I rather naughtily asked why how we could preach the Gospel with integrity if not everyone could respond and yet we were making a universal appeal. “because we are command to” was the short answer and there was no further explanation.

    Later in the course someone preached on predestination and our lecturer told us that it was a doctrine for the faithful not the unconverted and we should avoid preaching it on Sunday evenings, which in Scotland at the time was when non christian visitors came to church, you preached to the saints in the morning and sinners in the evening.

    • rogereolson

      That seems a little gnostic to me–as if there’s an esoteric side to the gospel we don’t want the unconverted (or untutored Christians) to know about. It reminds me of Luther who excoriated Erasmus for arguing there are some doctrines it’s better not to preach or teach to those who are unprepared for them. Then, later in life, Luther (in Table Talk) said preachers should not preach predestination as it just gives rise to quarrels.

      • James Petticrew

        That’s how I felt, it was like “secret knowledge” for insiders, I felt then and feel now that it makes a preacher appear dishonest in preaching the Gospel to take the Calvinist perspective. It leads to preachers saying, “for God so loved that the whoever believes … .etc” all the time knowing that will tell people that do respond later that that is not actually theologically true in their view despite what they preached. It just doesn’t have integrity to me.

        • James Petticrew

          Well just noticed from another post that the author of the chapter was probably part of the church where my homiletics lecturer was pastor, interesting!

  • I respectfully disagree. As a monergist, I have not qualms about saying, “if you repent and believe you can be saved.”

    Let’s deconstruct this statement:
    1. If you are not among the elect then you cannot truly repent and believe.
    2. If you are among the elect then you will repent and believe.
    Result: If you can repent and believe then you are among the elect. Therefore not only can you be saved but you will be saved.

    When you quote Colin Smith as saying “All this belongs to those who are in Jesus Christ. It can be yours” you are leaving out the remainder of the paragraph in which Smith tells us HOW “it can be yours.” The full context of this statement is:

    “All this belongs to those who are in Jesus Christ. It can be yours. The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off. Repent. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. By believing you will have life in his name (John 20:31).”

    This is not inconsistent with monergism. The language does not reflect an uncertainty regarding election… it reflects the uncertainty in the evangelist as to just whom will respond to the gospel call. The limiting factor is not God’s purpose in election but the finite knowledge of the evangelist. So the evangelist can, in good conscience call all men to faith and repentance. All those who CAN respond affirmatively by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ not only CAN experience all that comes from life abiding in Christ but they WILL experience it.

    Synergists stating that monergists can’t be consistent if they state that “you can be saved” make the same mistake as a monergist claiming that it is inconsistent for synergists to pray, “Lord, THY will be done.” The mistake is in not allowing each others theological systems to be evaluated within their own theological frameworks.

    Both the Hypercalvinist and the Pelagian make the mistake of being consistent with a philosophical system instead of being consistent with scripture. Calvinists reject Hypercalvinism and Arminians reject Pelagianism because we recognize the need to be consistent with Scripture as being preemptive. So while the charge can be made that Hypercalvinism is “consistent Calvinism” the equal, and just a fallacious, charge could be leveled that Pelagianism is “consistent Arminianism.”

    So if the charge is levied that my evangelism is inconsistent with how an Arminian understands Calvinism, I’m not nearly as prone to rethink my position as I would if the charge were made that my evangelism were inconsistent with Scripture.

    The admonishment of challenging “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” is troubling. Even if you believe that monergists are being inconsistent by engaging in “indiscriminate evangelism” why would you take such offense to the Gospel being preached?

    • rogereolson

      Well, we disagree completely about whether Pelagianism is consistent Arminianism. I reject that view; it is not. So, here’s my argument to you. Your indiscriminate evangelism is consistent with Scripture but inconsistent with your theology. Is that okay with you? I hope not. Whatever is inconsistent with your theology should also be inconsistent with Scripture and vice versa. I stand by my statement that indiscriminate evangelism is inconsistent with consistent Calvinism and I am confident that many Reformed folks agree with me. And they are not all hyper-Calvinists who reject evangelism altogether.

      • Thanks for the reply Professor.
        Actually, you and I are in agreement that Pelagianism is NOT consistent Arminanism. What I said is that it is EQUALLY fallacious to call Hypercalvinism “consistent” Calvinism as it is to call Pelagianism “consistent” Arminianism. That is where we are in disagreement… that Hypercalvinism is consistent Calvinism.
        And no… I don’t find my theology to be inconsistent with scripture… my point is that Calvinism, if viewed through Arminian “glasses” appears inconsistent with scripture. That is not the fault of Calvinism but of refusing to allow Calvinists the to define their own theology and instead defining it within an Arminian intellectual framework.

        • rogereolson

          For years leading Calvinist theologians have attacked Arminianism as inconsistent. I think turn about is fair play–when I really do think I see inconsistency in their theology and practice.

      • Robert

        Hello Roger,

        You wrote in regards to Patrick:

        “So, here’s my argument to you. Your indiscriminate evangelism is consistent with Scripture but inconsistent with your theology. Is that okay with you? I hope not. Whatever is inconsistent with your theology should also be inconsistent with Scripture and vice versa. I stand by my statement that indiscriminate evangelism is inconsistent with consistent Calvinism and I am confident that many Reformed folks agree with me.”

        Indiscriminate evangelism is consistent with Scripture because God says that He desires that all be saved and He provides Jesus as an atonement for the world (i.e. all people).

        Consistent Calvinism says that God decided beforehand who would be saved (the elect) and who would be damned (the “reprobates”).

        If Patrick is consistent with Scripture he will then openly proclaim that God desires for all to be saved (unless he reinterprets scripture so that it really does not mean what it seems to say, a common method of evading the plain meaning of scripture used by theological determinists). But Patrick as a monergist and consistent Calvinist cannot say **honesty** that God desires for all to be saved (because according to consistent Calvinism God desires for some to be saved and some to be damned, the reprobates are created to be reprobates so that they can fulfill their purpose which is to allow God to display his wrath upon them). So his better tack is to argue something like: well we don’t know who is and who is not elect in this world, God commands us to evangelize the world, so we are commanded to evangelize indiscriminately and if we are obedient we will do so. By arguing in this way, a Calvinist can engage in indiscriminate evangelism.

        The only problem and it is easily dealt with, by means of carefully chosen words. Is that while engaging in his indiscriminate evangelism, he needs to be careful not to say that: (1) God really wants everybody saved or that (2) everybody could be saved. He cannot say the first phrase in good conscience and honestly, because it is not true according to consistent Calvinism where some are chosen for damnation before the world is created. He cannot say the second phrase in good conscience and honestly, because it also is not true, because if some are chosen for damnation (the reprobates) then it is impossible for them to be saved.

        There is no possibility that a reprobate person could be saved in this actual world (recall the calvinist will claim that if God had created a different possible world, one in which the person in question had been chosen to be elect, then he would be elect and not reprobate).

        So individual salvation in consistent Calvinism comes down ****not to the love of God for individuals****, but to which particular possible world God decided to create and actualize as world history. God’s love or hate for indivuduals is conditioned upon which particular possible world God creates (in some God chooses to love you as you are elect, in some God chooses to hate you as you are reprobate, unfortunately in this scheme the same individual could be elect in some world histories and reprobate in other world histories).

        Assuming that Patrick’s consistent Calvinism is true. Say that in this actual world Patrick is chosen to be elect (so God chooses to love Patrick and save him). If God had chosen another possible fully determined world in which Patrick was reprobate (God would choose instead to hate Patrick and damn him). So the love or hate of God in consistent Calvinism is not primarily in regards to individuals, but in regard to ***which possible fully determined world God chose to be the actual world*** and decided to create.

        Say in possible worlds 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 . . . Patrick is chosen beforehand to be elect and loved and saved by God. Say in possible worlds 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, . . . Patrick is chosen to be reprobate and hated and damned by God. This would mean that the love or hate of God for individuals is not based upon a love or hate for that individual, but upon which possible world God decides upon. In some, (here the odd numbered worlds), Patrick gets lucky and is elect. In some, (here the even numbered worlds), Patrick gets very unlucky and is reprobate. So election to salvation or reprobation from our perspective (since we have nothing to do with it, it is not our decision) is purely a matter of luck. It all then depends upon which particular world God decides to actualize. You just better hope that you get lucky and are elect in the actual world that God has chosen to actualize. And even if you are lucky and get to be elect, God in many other possible worlds could have just as easily have chosen for you to be a reprobate. Of course we should not let the unbelievers we are evangelizing know that, that knowledge comes only after we believe they are elect and incorporated into the fold (then they can take it)! 🙂


    • Steve Dal

      1. If you are not among the elect then you cannot truly repent and believe.
      2. If you are among the elect then you will repent and believe.
      Result: If you can repent and believe then you are among the elect. Therefore not only can you be saved but you will be saved.
      You’ve succeeded in saying nothing. The issue is that as soon as you join a ‘club’ be it Calvinist or Arminian you are tied to absurdities at some point because you are trying to rationalise an eternal transcendant being. Namely, God.
      As usual you raise many more questions than you could ever hope to answer which is precisely how this blog keeps going. I’m up for it but realise you will never get to the bottom of it all. The best we can hope to do here is to hilite the inconsistencies in the arguments. Yours will have many.

      • rogereolson

        What absurdities is Arminianism tied to? Or by “absurdities” do you mean mysteries? If so, then I accept that.

        • BrianW

          Dr. Olson.

          What would you describe are the mysteries to Arminianism?

          • rogereolson

            I have gone over that many times. I make to claim that Arminianism is perfect in terms of explaining everything. That would make it an ideology. It’s just a better explanation than known alternatives. Every theology has problems; you choose the one that has the problems you can live with. I don’t know how God foreknows future free (in the sense of power of contrary choice) decisions. Nor do I understand exactly how to explain libertarian free will. There are mysteries there. But I do not think these constitute contradictions or absurdities. They are simply beyond our comprehension. The only alternative belief system is divine determinism which makes God a moral monster. I can much more easily accept the mysteries of Arminianism than the one great mystery of divine determinism–how God can be “good” and the determiner of all that happens including sin and evil.

          • Robert

            Hello Brian,

            You made the claim that there are “absurdities” with what you call the Arminian “club”.

            Since you made this claim could you provide actual examples of your claim?


        • Steve Dal

          Arminianism declares that works of human effort cannot cause or contribute to salvation. In the light of scripture that is an absurdity and has more to do with protestant traditions than any objective assessment of scripture itself. Also I would say that Arminianism declares that salvation can be lost and is conditional upon continued faith. This would appear to be a contradiction in the light of the first point. That is, if, by the lack of faith (and therefore by implication, effort or deeds) one can lose their salvation then the opposite would apply. Namely that by faith (that is, deeds)one can secure one’s salvation. Again I would point to James 2. The context is that works is faith and this kind of faith (one that is sunergei with works) secures salvation.
          I simply do not see the necessity to be a ‘card carrying’ anything whether that be Calvinist or Arminian or anything else. It constricts the flow of objective discussion because each time a response from either a Calvinist or Arminian is given, it is contextualised by those opposite. In fact if you look at the entirety of Protestantism it is contextualised by Catholicism. Rather than a balanced view of scritpture and a free response, Protestants have polemicised the discussion in order to hilite their points. Faith alone ( which is nowhere in the Bible) is a good example.
          I would grant that Calvinism reaches for more absurdities than Arminianism. But neither are without them.

          • rogereolson

            Well, of course, I disagree that Arminianism itself (as opposed to people who call themselves Arminians) “declares” what you say in your first sentence. We’ve discussed that at great length here and, apparently, you’re not convinced, so I’ll just let it go. But as for the second paragraph–eventually, if lots of people adopt your point of view, it will be given a name and then will be another movement with “card carrying” members (as much as there are “card carrying” Arminians or Calvinists).

          • Steve Dal

            You don’t need to give anything a name. The whole reason names are given is to assist people who need them. It is the issue that is critical.
            Secondly, you have raised another important point. And it follows on from my first point regarding names. Just exactly what is Arminianism and Calvinism. I enjoy asking people this question. Someone decalres themselves to be Arminian. I ask them to describe what they mean and invariably I get all kinds of different answers depending on who I am talking to. I am sure you have your defintion and are convinced of it. Its just that others would differ. Hence my point. Why bother with the name. Simply leave out the fact you are Calvinist or Arminian and discuss whatever issue we are looking at on its merits or otherwise.
            You know, ‘some say I am of Paul some say I am of Apollos……..Let it go.

          • rogereolson

            Ah, but I grew up Arminian and when I hear the soteriology I grew up with and still cherish being named and misrepresented I have to correct those doing the misrepresenting. I really don’t think we will ever be able to avoid labels. To me, that’s a kingdom thing and it’s not yet. As for who is really defines Arminianism, well, history decides it. That’s how I deal with labels. It’s not what “most people think” but what was said by the leading Arminians of the past three to four centuries including especially Arminius himself.

  • I shall watch this post with interest, because I used to know Colin in the mid-1980s here in the UK. He was the pastor of Enfield Evangelical Free Church and I was involved in the local Youth For Christ centre. His upbringing was at an independent Baptist church in Edinburgh. I recall a conversation we had once in his study where we recognised that different Christians have varying understandings of providence. Within that and all the conversations I ever had with him, he was always warm towards me with my Arminian roots as a Methodist. If Colin is a Calvinist (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is) then he was always of the generous-minded sort.

    I appreciate that doesn’t take your fundamental point towards Calvinists about evangelism very far forward (except the incidental testimony to Colin’s past involvement with an explicitly evangelistic organisation, YFC) but I shall watch this thread with personal interest!

    • rogereolson

      What I would like to hear from him and other members of The Gospel Coalition is whether they believe monergism is part and parcel of the gospel such that people who are not monergists cannot be truly, authentically evangelical in the theological (not just the sociological) sense. I have stated before many times that I consider my Calvinist brothers and sisters truly, authentically and fully evangelical without defect. It is only those who insist that Calvinism is necessary for authentic evangelical faith with whom I have a quarrel. I strongly disagree with my Calvinist brothers and sisters about secondary matters of soteriology and about the nature of God’s providence, but to me that does not preclude me considering them fully, truly, authentically evangelical. I would like to know what The Gospel Coalition people think about us who are Arminians of the heart.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Would it be too naughty to reflect that us guys tend to like clubs with initiation rites, hidden symbols, secrete codes, invented languages, and no girls allowed signs? Could this basic macho weakness stay with us into adulthood? (that one’s for free). Could some churchy guys have a dollop of this mindset spill over into their theology, without even noticing it’s natural source? 

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    A QUOTE: “However, how can a non-universalist monergist say to an unknown audience that salvation can be theirs without qualification?”

    By way of clarification, I have never heard even a universalist say that salvation may be obtained “without qualification.” What a universalist will say is that ultimately (whether in this life or the next) “…at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on the earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11 NAS). In other words, all humanity will finally recognize the Savior and submit to his Lordship. Thus, at last, God will be fully justified and glorified.

    • rogereolson

      You misunderstood my “without qualification.” It doesn’t modify “salvation” but “be theirs.” The qualification I think a non-universalist monergist must make is “unless you are not elect.”

  • tim e

    Roger, this is a comment i made on Jesus Creed blog as Scot is talking about the book as well..

    This may be a bit cynical of the soterions, but in the xmas issue of xianity today, Michael Horton did a piece on the gospel and says (subtly) the big problem is God’s wrath. I see mostly in the gospel coalition a focus on wrath as the real underlying issue in their gospel. It does not appear that Jesus came to save us from the devil, the world and ourselves…all I hear is Jesus came to save us from the Father’s wrath. This taints everything. What kind of a gospel is that?

    • Bryce S

      What kind of gospel is that? Sir, that is the essence of the gospel. The problem in scripture is that anyone who justifies the wicked is an abomination before God. (Proverbs 15:17) God’s eyes are “too pure to look upon evil.” Therefore, the certain response of God towards our sin is wrath. The gospel then is that “having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”(Romans 5:1) Why do we need peace with God? It is because of our sin the wrath of God abides on us. So, if God is just then he cannot forgive our sin, he must punish us. That is why Jesus Christ came into the world, namely, to save sinners. We see that clearly pointed out in Romans 5:9: “Much more then, having been now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” This is the gospel sir, peace with God. For we were enemies but now we have been reconciled to God by the death of His Son. Sin Taints everything, not the wrath of God.

      As for the issue of the inconsistencies of the Calvinists I have to say I do not agree. The problem is that salvation is not offered without qualification. Salvation is offered to those who repent and believe. That is what he said. This is the promise, that should you repent and believe you will receive salvation. It is not inconsistent to offer that freely to anyone because salvation will come to those who repent and believe. If I tell someone who is not elect that they can obtain salvation if they repent and believe it is the truth. The fact that we do not know if they are elect or not does not change that. The issue is we don’t know who the elect are.

      • rogereolson

        You miss my point entirely. I objected to the author’s claim to an unknown group of people (readers of his chapter) that salvation “can be yours.” He did not add the qualifiers you state as that would make his offer consistent with Calvinism. You are simply giving the standard, cliched response to the challenge to Calvinist indiscriminate evangelism without even taking into account that, in this particular instance, it does not resolve the problem. I would not note any inconsistency IF the author had said salvation “can be yours IF you repent and believe.” (I still thank can and usually is misleading to people untutored in Calvinism, but it isn’t absolutely inconsistent with Calvinist doctrine.) The inconsistency lies in the Calvinist author’s blanket statement to an unknown group of people that salvation “can be yours.” He might have been assuming some qualifications to that, but he doesn’t say them. That leaves his offer less than fully transparent.