According to some sources, Calvinism is making a comeback. We asked three leaders and preachers if they are concerned. Although all three preach or have preached in the Greater Indianapolis area, each of them has national influence and input. Russ Blowers has been retired for several years from his lifelong ministry at East 91st Street Christian Church. John Caldwell ministers with Kingsway Christian Church in Avon, Indiana. Howard Brammer preaches at Traders Point Christian Church, Indianapolis. Below are some of their comments.
CS: Should we care about Calvinism in the Christian churches?
JC: The Restoration Movement has done a great job of emphasizing the freewill of man and man’s responsibilities. On the other hand, I think we’ve done a very poor job of preaching and teaching on the sovereignty of God.
Too often the response to one misunderstanding of Scripture is another misunderstanding of Scripture. As in baptismal regeneration on one hand and no baptism on the other—the truth is in between. You have perseverance of the saints or once saved, always saved on one hand and no assurance of salvation on the other. And the truth is in between. The same is true with the free will of man on the one hand and the sovereignty of God on the other.
We’ve been guilty of being on one end of that pendulum swing with our emphasis on freewill, but there are many Scriptures on the sovereignty of God.
HB: One time (C.H.) Spurgeon was asked, “How do you reconcile the freewill of man with the sovereignty of God?” He said, “You don’t reconcile them because they’re not enemies.” He’s saying we just have to let it be. The sovereignty is certainly a fact, just as much as freewill.
JC: They’re not mutually exclusive even though you can’t explain this and don’t fully understand it. I don’t understand eternity, but I believe in eternity. I can’t explain the trinity, but I accept the trinity. So it is with freewill and sovereignty of God.
We cannot totally reconcile in our finite mind the sovereignty of God and the freewill of man. They can’t be explained; they have to be accepted.
CS: Do you believe that young preachers or other leaders in our churches reading Calvinist writers are being attracted to Calvinism?
RB: It’s no concern of mine that some preachers are reading R.C. Sproul and John Piper and Rick Warren and John MacArthur. The reason I do not fear Calvinism is that most of us believe in prevenient grace, that God does initiate salvation. A lost person doesn’t hear the gospel and on the basis of logic alone say, “OK, I believe that.” The Spirit of God is working through the Word to convict us. And so I have no problem with that.
But I do have a problem with TULIP Calvinism, which is a complex theological system that I believe has contributed to the diminution of evangelism.
HB: I talked with a professor from one of our colleges who said they have so many kids enrolling today from Calvinistic church backgrounds. So I think we need aggressively to teach the freewill of man and check the rise of Calvinism.
JC: My opinion is we’re in better shape than ever because finally I see the two coming together. I believe we’ve been wrong in ignoring the sovereignty of God, or at least not giving it its due.
RB: I think we’re on track when we say that God, in his sovereignty, gives us freewill. I can say yes or no to Jesus Christ. I think the guys that would go totally Calvinist are going to pull away anyway. I don’t think there’s a lot of that. There may be some, but I still think it’s methodological rather than theological.
HB: Richard Mouw at Fuller (Theological Seminary) says he allows for a certain degree of messiness in his theology. I think we have to have that. This thing’s been going on for 1,600 years. I don’t think we’re going to solve it.
If we benefit from the Calvinist, this is because of the Calvinist’s emphasis on the glory of God, which results in our worship of God. That’s why John Piper is so big.
The attraction to Piper is not that he’s a Calvinist; you probably don’t know that about him at first. I think the attraction is his emphasis on the glory of God. People are attracted to his focus on the glory of God because we are worshipers. But once you start listening to him, then by osmosis perhaps we begin to buy into the Calvinistic teachings as well.
Piper emphasizes the presence of God—encountering God. But the basis of that is the sovereignty and glory. I think we minimize that. We don’t talk much about the holiness of God because we think we’re in this together with him and we can work it out.
RB: That’s part of our American background and the influence of John Knox. Rational—you just think it through and it will happen.
JC: That’s a Restoration Movement thing. We grew out of a rational approach.
RB: We have evolved—very positively evolved. We’re a free people and we can learn from others.
My fear is not that our young preachers are all becoming TULIP Calvinists; it’s that they’re buying into the methodology/system where baptism is placed on the back burner and the Lord’s Supper is reduced to a nice thing to do at 8:00 but not at 9:15. The danger is to dumb down the biblical things.
CS: What about the distinctiveness of Christian churches in the religious world as opposed to the evangelical world in general? In the Christian Standard issue on evangelicalism several years ago, we noted that we were not historically in the evangelical camp. But today it seems difficult to distinguish our churches from evangelical America in practice if not in doctrine. Do you think that’s true and do you think that trend is escalating? Does this matter?
JC: It seems to me that in the church of today the polarization is now between those who believe the Bible and those who don’t. And I think there’s a greater emphasis on where we agree than where we disagree in the greater evangelical world (whether we’re in it or next to it), and personally I think that’s a good thing. I think the influence of the megachurch outside our movement is overwhelmingly a good thing because it causes us to talk to one another and pray with one another. We find out we agree on most things. Most of those people are certainly not five-point Calvinists by any means. I think the Restoration Movement has had a significant impact in the greater evangelical world. I talk to people all the time, pastors from other groups. When you talk about what the Restoration Movement stands for, they’re very excited about that.
HB: Talk about the unity in the body of Christ, why would we not want to be identified with the evangelical world? If indeed evangelical means they preach the Bible only, that’s the source of their authority, why would we not be more of a friend to them than not? I look at us as evangelical. I don’t know why I wouldn’t call myself that. Basically, that means we believe the Bible.
RB: And you could be evangelical without being “an Evangelical” (capital E), which is a movement. There are some things I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. I don’t see how you can read the New Testament and minimize the place of the sacraments. There’s a mystery to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They’re such an essential part of the whole gospel.
Evangelicalism often says, “You get saved and if you get around to baptism, that’s great. But it has absolutely nothing to do with salvation.” When I read the New Testament, I gain an even higher view of baptism. I don’t think there’s any magic in the water, but it’s there and both Jesus and Paul emphasize it. And the Lord’s Supper is such an integral part of all worship. You can have banjos and drums and everything else and even a gospel message, but if the central part of worship, the Lord’s Supper, is missing, a lot is missing because Christ is missing.
But I’m not really worried about five-point Calvinism taking over the next generation. What I am concerned about is that young preachers today are so pragmatic they buy into any new idea that comes down the line in order to get more people packed in. They’re going to burn out.
JC: This whole thing comes back to our original discussion. We have pragmatics versus the sovereignty of God. In his sovereignty, God raises up certain churches. Maybe God raises up Bob Russell because he knows Bob Russell can handle it. And he also knows that the guy down the road, given that same measure of success in the eyes of the world—it would all go to his own head. He would take all the credit and it would be his downfall. The sovereignty of God enters into some of what we’re talking about in a way that we’ve been slow to acknowledge. I love the title on Bob’s book: When God Builds a Church. It’s a great title because it gives the credit to the right person.