What Is a “Complete Gospel?”
Recently a well-known and influential Calvinist pastor-theologian posted a sermon or essay on his web site asking whether Arminianism preaches a “complete gospel.” His answer was, of course, that it does not. Only Calvinism does (so he implied).
I’d like to note two things about this before answering the question “What is a ‘complete gospel’?”
First, “Arminianism” does not “preach” anything; neither does “Calvinism.” These are theologies, not people. Perhaps the Calvinist pastor-theologian meant “Do Arminians preach a complete gospel?” But, of course, the answer to that would depend on the Arminians in question. Arminians, like Calvinists, are a diverse bunch.
Second, this essay or sermon is just one example of why I continue, in spite of often harsh accusations of being on a crusade against Calvinism (if no Calvinists), to speak out publically about Arminianism and Calvinism. Some people are simply not aware of what I am aware of—that many of the leading neo-Calvinist evangelical pastors and theologians “out there” (mostly in America) are on a crusade against Arminianism. They have been for years. Even in sermons, essays, podcasts, articles and books that don’t contain the word “Arminianism” or “Arminian” in the title they spend time criticizing Arminianism as (in varying words) an “incomplete gospel” at best.
The pastor-theologian in question, author of “Does Arminianism preach a complete gospel?,” is very knowledgeable about Arminianism. I happen to know from his own mouth that he was once an Arminian. He is an extremely intelligent and well-read biblical scholar and theologian. Yet, to my way of thinking, anyway, as someone who has studied Arminian theology and written articles and books about it, he does not always represent true Arminianism, classical, historical Arminianism “of the heart” fairly.
What is a “complete gospel?” And there lies the heart of the disagreement between evangelical Calvinists and evangelical Arminians (“Arminians of the heart”).
As I explained in great detail, with numerous quotations from Arminian theologians from Arminius himself to contemporary evangelical Arminians, true, historical, classical Arminianism does contain a complete gospel and true, historical, classical Arminians of the heart have always and do still preach a complete gospel.
The complete gospel is communicated in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast.” Every true, classical, historical Arminian of the heart (evangelical Arminian) believes and preaches this just as fervently and faithfully as any Calvinist does.
The problem begins to appear when Calvinists (and some Lutherans) begin to pack a systematic theology, that of Calvin, Edwards and Hodge, into that passage saying that it requires monergism. It simply does not.
Here is where neo-Calvinism becomes fundamentalism—when a whole systematic theology is identified with “complete gospel.”
My main complaint about neo-Calvinism (as opposed to the more generous Calvinism of most evangelicals of my generation—including my close relatives in the Christian Reformed Church!) is that it is rife with fundamentalism. It packs a systematic theology, represented by the acrostic “T.U.L.I.P.”, into “the gospel” such that anyone who does not embrace its monergistic soteriology is preaching or believing an “incomplete gospel.”
“The gospel” should be (and is!) simple enough to put on a three-by-five card!
All true, historical, classical Arminians, Arminians of the heart, whole heartily affirm that salvation is a free gift of God that cannot be earned or merited. Preaching that it must be freely accepted “by faith” (trust in Christ Jesus) and that it can be freely rejected, does nothing to lessen the completeness of the “by grace through faith” heart of the gospel—Calvinist objections notwithstanding. To claim that a gift freely received that could have been rejected is less than a free gift is simply silly. To claim that a person who receives a free gift that he or she could have rejected is morally able to boast about that is simply silly. Under no other circumstances would any Calvinist say that a person who freely receives a free gift he or she could genuinely have rejected has a right to boast about having somehow merited it.
My stock question to monergists who make this argument—that libertarian free will used to accept a gift implies the gift was less than “free” and that the person receiving it has a right to boast about at least partially meriting it—is this: If you give a person who is about to become homeless a thousand dollars to pay their rent with no strings attached and that person accepts it and then boasts about meriting it would you agree that he or she has a right to boast and that, because he or she freely accepted it such that he or she could have rejected it, it was less than a free gift? Rarely do they honestly admit that they would and that it was. Occasionally a very stubborn Calvinist interlocutor will grit his or her teeth and say “yes.” I don’t believe the person.
Classical Arminianism of the heart, evangelical Arminianism, preaches (assuming for the moment with the Calvinist pastor-theologian that a theology can “preach”) a complete gospel. Saying that it does not is divisive among evangelicals and has contributed to the demise of the late, great evangelical consensus movement (“big tent evangelicalism”). In fact, I would say it is one of the main reason for its demise.
When I was growing up in the bosom of that movement Calvinists and Arminians held to their particularities without pointing accusing fingers at each other—saying the other preached an “incomplete gospel.” We preached the same gospel and explained it within our congregations and denominations differently. Calvinism and Arminianism, we agreed, were two different Protestant traditions containing two different explanations of the one gospel that united us—over against secularists, theological liberals, Roman Catholics (although we came to know that some Catholics believed the gospel), extreme fundamentalists, and “the cults.” We reached across the lines of our denominational and traditional theological differences and cooperated whole heartedly without feeling any need to, and even astutely avoiding, accusing each other of preaching “incomplete gospels.”
Having spent most of my life in the bosom of that “consensus evangelical coalition” and being a student of it (author of The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology and numerous articles about evangelicalism and evangelical theology), I have good reason to believe that its demise came about in two main steps. First, some leading evangelical leaders began in the late 1970s to argue that biblical inerrancy is required for authentic evangelical faith. Second, some (many of them the same) began in the 1990s to argue that monergism is required for authentic evangelical faith.
Previously, many evangelicals, especially those in the Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Anabaptist traditions, embraced neither biblical inerrancy nor monergism. They were and are authentically evangelical because they hold firmly to biblical authority and salvation by grace through faith alone.
One person whose name I will mention who I regard as a leading culprit in the demise of what I call consensus evangelicalism is my own seminary professor James Montgomery Boice, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia and publisher of Eternity magazine, radio preacher and Bible commentator, author of numerous books of theology and organizer par excellence. I was Boice’s student in 1979 when he took a sabbatical from his pulpit to teach at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls (now Sioux Falls Seminary). I took his class on homiletics and received the letter grade “A” on the sermons I wrote for him. (I still have them and now, when I look back on them, I’m not convinced I deserved that grade!) Boice was a kind, gentle person in class and one-on-one. But, in my opinion, among evangelicals his influence was divisive—around those two issues I identified: biblical inerrancy and monergism. I will never forget how shocked I was to read in one of his books (Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?) that Arminians cannot give all the glory to God! He was, of course, one of the organizers of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. As publisher of Eternity, a broad-based, “big tent” evangelical publication, he helped put an end to it. What emerged in its place was Modern Reformation whose first issue was devoted to attacking Arminianism as an incomplete gospel.
Boice was not alone, of course, in bearing responsibility for the demise of “big tent evangelicalism.” Many others, all promoters of biblical inerrancy (as more than just biblical authority) and monergism as essential doctrines for authentic evangelical faith, contributed to its demise. My animus, if that’s the right word for it, against neo-Calvinist leaders is not that they are Calvinists. I disagree with Calvinism, but I expect them to disagree with Arminianism—mainly within their own churches and institutions that are confessionally Reformed. My animus is aimed at those neo-Calvinists who claim within diverse evangelical contexts that Arminianism is an “incomplete gospel,” “on the precipice of heresy,” “dishonoring to God,” and “humanistic theology.”
(For the sake of Boice’s friends, loved ones, and admirers, let me say that I experienced him as a teacher as generous, kind (if firm in his opinions), and scholarly. I am not impugning his character at all, in the least. But I do believe he stood at the center of a movement within evangelicalism to narrow it down to those who believed in biblical inerrancy and monergistic salvation.)