The Charge of Antinomianism (4): Hyper-Calvinism?

Antinomianism is a real heresy that denies the necessity of good works in the life of the justified Christian. It is also a false and slanderous charge against the gospel of grace raised by those who hate that doctrine. Practically ignoring real antinomianism in the church world and its real root in the idea of God’s universal grace, Mark Jones in his book Antinomianism attempts to list certain theological characteristics of antinomians by means of which they can be sniffed out. This list is problematic. It involves the condemnation as antinomian the doctrine of the unconditional covenant of grace taught in the Reformed creeds. While making this charge against the doctrines of grace, he also compares antinomianism and hyper-Calvinism. Understanding this comparison goes miles to understanding his charge of antinomianism and reveals that charge and the whole book in which it is made as a thinly veiled attack on the truth of grace.

Mark Jones characterizes antinomians as those who “make Christ totally responsible, not only for our imputed righteousness, but also for our imparted righteousness.”[1] He is criticizing the thought trumpeted by all the great reformers, including Luther and Calvin, that Christ is our justification (imputed righteousness) and our sanctification (imparted righteousness). He is criticizing the thought included in Lord’s Day 6 on the basis of scripture that the Mediator is “our Lord Jesus Christ, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” By faith we are made one with Christ and receive the whole Christ and all his benefits, and he is responsible for our justification and sanctification. How a Reformed man could possibly object to this is mystifying. But Jones will not let such things get in the way of his pursuit of the scabbed antinomian sheep fouling the flock.

Against this Reformed view he makes the supposedly devastating charge: “this view obliterates human responsibility to the point that antinomianism ends us becoming a form of hyper-Calvinism.”[2] He speaks later of “how similar antinomian theology is to hyper-Calvinism.”[3]

What Mark Jones believes to be the dreaded error of hyper-Calvinism he explains in the book, A Puritan Theology. Throughout that book he never misses an opportunity to slander denial of the well-meant gospel offer with the name hyper-Calvinism. He does not actually get around to explaining his understanding of hyper-Calvinism until late in the book. He says that the hyper-Calvinist believes “that God does not sincerely offer grace unconditionally to every hearer of the gospel.”[4]

He should know that this is not historic hyper-Calvinism. Real hyper-Calvinism taught that the church could only preach to the elect. Mark Jones’ version is the loaded redefinition of hyper-Calvinism that is bandied about by proponents of the well-meant gospel offer in order to dismiss with a name a doctrine with which they violently disagree—the particular call of the gospel—namely, that in the promiscuous preaching of the gospel God intends the salvation of only his elect people and does not offer Christ or grace to all hearers of the gospel with a sincere desire that all of them be saved. Who else in the world today except the Protestant Reformed Churches and her sisters denies the well-meant gospel offer? It is well known that this is the standard charge by which all her careful and history-long criticism of the well-meant gospel offer is dismissed without actually engaging in a debate about it. Who else does Jones have in view? And if the Protestant Reformed Churches are hyper-Calvinists for their rejection of the well-meant gospel offer, why might not their faithful maintenance of the truth of grace in the creeds, especially the unconditional covenant, be dismissed as antinomian as well?

Jones’ definition of hyper-Calvinism, though false, is revelatory about his view of antinomianism, since he makes them basically the same. By all his talk about conditions in salvation and by revealing that he believes in a universal offer of grace, he shows what he means by responsibility. When he speaks about man’s responsibility in salvation, he does not mean that in salvation God treats man as a rational creature, so that man is responsible for his rejection of the gospel, even though God reprobated him. By responsibility he does not mean that when God works faith in a man that man actually believes and repents as the fruit and effect of God’s work. When Jones uses responsibility he means man’s response to God’s universally offered grace, upon which response the offer depends as the condition of his salvation.

This understanding of responsibility must also inform everything he says about conditions in salvation and in the covenant, including faith and works. When Mark Jones speaks of faith as a condition in the covenant, he does not mean what so many in the old days meant when they referred to faith as a condition, namely, that God works faith in his elect as the necessary means of their salvation. When he speaks of faith as a condition, he means man’s response in the covenant to universally offered grace, by which man distinguishes himself from others in the covenant who are equally furnished with grace and upon which response the covenant depends. For Jones, faith is man’s contribution to his salvation, without which there is no salvation. The same thing must be said of his view of works as a condition. It is man’s response by grace to grace and that upon which his salvation really depends in some sense.

By these terms he means what the proponents of the well-meant offer mean when they speak about conditions and responsibility: God offers grace to all hearers of the gospel, and man must respond to that offered grace in faith and so distinguish himself from others who are equally furnished with grace in the preaching. For Jones the supposed hyper-Calvinist—who denies the well-meant offer—and the supposed antinomian—who denies conditions in the covenant and salvation—are the same. For him they both deny a universal offer of grace, a grace made effectual by an act of the sinner and without which the grace of God fails to save the sinner. He sees the “antinomianism” of the unconditional covenant and the “hyper-Calvinism” of the particular call of the gospel as one and the same false doctrine.

By these definitions he makes the denial of conditions in the covenant and in salvation the new antinomianism. The definitions are false, as false as the definition of hyper-Calvinism as the denial of a well-meant offer. The charge of antinomianism against the unconditional covenant is false and slanderous, as false as the slander that to deny the well-meant offer is hyper-Calvinism. The charge is nothing more than a naked attempt to make the doctrine of the unconditional covenant and unconditional salvation suspicious in the eyes of the churches. By this charge he would induce the suspicion that where unconditional salvation and the unconditional covenant are taught there lurks the reality of antinomianism.

This attack on the unconditional covenant and salvation has a background.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, Antinomianism, 29.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Ibid., 84.

[4] Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, 963.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (1): A False Charge

The Charge of Antinomianism (2): A Novel Definition

The Charge of Antinomianism (3): Against an Unconditional Covenant

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Next article in series: Denying Justification by Faith Alone

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Election GOVERNS Sanctification and...the Covenant?

Christopher Gordon believes that the “sanctification debate” within Reformed circles may have become Arminian (for his article click here). He explains that this move towards an Arminian view of sanctification is a response to what some in Reformed circles believe is “an over emphasis on justification and a narrow definition of the gospel” that leads to “antinomianism.” Gordon writes, “Many explicitly fear that the word gospel is being defined too narrowly. So when people communicate that all they need is the gospel, worry is expressed that maybe this does not include sanctification too.” This had led some to re-emphasize sanctification and “the necessity of good works for salvation.” In today’s climate of tolerance Gordon’s response to the emphasis on “the necessity of good works for salvation” is bold.

In the first place Gordon has the audacity to suggest some in the Reformed camp are guilty of Arminianism! He writes, “I question…how Arminian our current debate has become in the Reformed world with regard to sanctification.” Arminianism is a heresy that was excommunicated from the Reformed camp in 1618-1619 by the Great Synod of Dordt. By raising the specter of Arminianism Gordon is suggesting that there are people within the Reformed camp who need to repent or be excommunicated from the camp. Maybe in time Gordon will have the audacity to move from suggesting to actually charging people with Arminianism.

In the second place Gordon’s response is bold because he responds to those who are worried that an “overemphasis on grace” will lead to antinomianism by appealing to the doctrine of election! Gordon quotes Canons 1.9 in full and parts of 1.7 and 1.8. These articles in the Canons explain that God’s decree of election “was before any of the fruits we experience, including sanctification, both in order and in time.” So Gordon argues it is not a question for Reformed people whether those who are justified by grace alone will also be sanctified. He writes, “The Lord remains Lord even over our sanctification, its degrees, measures, and our ‘good works’ that he prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10). The intended end was always determined before the means were given! We should be clear in this sanctification debate, Christ completes the work he began in us (Phil. 1:6).”

Gordon knows that this appeal to the doctrine of election will likely lead some in the Reformed camp to cry those dreaded words, “hyper-Calvinism.” Twice he speaks of the fact some fear that that pointing to election as the fountain of all the benefits of salvation will lead to “hyper-Calvinism.” Gordon does not define what he means by hyper-Calvinism, but he seems to have in mind the belief that salvation by grace alone means that justified sinners are free to live careless lives. In other words hyper-Calvinism is the same as antinomianism. To his credit Gordon does not retreat in the face of the charge of hyper-Calvinism. He maintains that salvation is all God’s gift of grace that has its source in eternal election and is therefore not dependent on man in any way. (He even makes mention of the Canons teaching on reprobation in 1.16, although he does not really explain the doctrine and its relevance to the “sanctification debate”).

If Gordon thinks he has effectively explained his position so that he will not be charged with hyper-Calvinism he is mistaken. Just as teaching that salvation is by God’s grace alone inevitably attracts the charge of antinomianism, so also, teaching that election is the source of all the benefits of salvation inevitably will lead to the charge of hyper-Calvinism. There may have been a time in the history of Reformed churches when the charge of hyper-Calvinism was legitimately applied to those who abused the doctrines of grace—to those who abused the doctrine of election, for example, to teach that the gospel is to be preached only to the elect. But now the charge of hyper-Calvinism is made against those who merely teach the doctrine of election, not because they abuse it. Gordon may soon be charged by men within the Reformed camp with allowing election to govern, yea even dominate, sanctification. He may even face the absurd charge that because he has allowed election to govern sanctification that he has virtually made election and sanctification synonymous! In the face of such charges will Gordon maintain his position that election governs sanctification?

Here are some other important questions for Gordon. Does he recognize that the so-called “sanctification debate” is intimately connected to the current debate about the doctrine of the covenant of grace swirling in Reformed Churches? Does he recognize that Arminianism is not only being injected into the doctrines of justification and sanctification but also into the doctrine of the covenant? He writes, “Maybe what this sanctification debate needs to recover is a robust appreciation again for the Reformed doctrine of Predestination.” Would he agree that this statement would be equally true if the word “sanctification” were replaced with the word “covenant”? Would he agree that the Canons teach that the decree of election is also the source of the covenant of grace (if you connect 1.9 to 2.8)? Would he agree that just as it is wrong to charge those who teach that election governs sanctification with hyper-Calvinism that it is equally wrong to make that charge against those who teach that election governs the covenant?

By these questions I do not mean to antagonize Rev. Gordon. I appreciate his article. My only criticism is that he should be less hesitant to identify and condemn the Arminianism that has spread as a leaven throughout the Reformed lump. But if Gordon wants to get at the source of the Arminian infection he will have to examine how Arminianism has latched on to the doctrine of the covenant within Reformed circles.

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Our blog writer is Rev. Clayton Spronk, pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, MI. If there is a topic you'd like Rev. Spronk to address, please contact us

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The False Charge of Hyper-Calvinism

Earlier this week I received notice that Phil Johnson (known for his popular website devoted to Charles Spurgeon and for his close association with John MacArthur) accuses the Protestant Reformed Churches and Herman Hoeksema of bad theology for rejecting “the free offer of the gospel.” Johnson has created three webpages with links to websites that promote what he considers bad theology. One page is entitled “Bad theology,” the second “Really bad theology,” and the third “Really, really bad theology.” On the “Bad theology” page Johnson provides a link to the PRCA website (unfortunately the link he uses is no longer active) and to Hoeksema’s book Whosever Will (fortunately this link still works). Johnson’s main criticism is that Hoeksema and the PRCA reject the free offer of the gospel and are therefore guilty of hyper-Calvinism.

Under the link to the PRCA website he writes:

There are some helpful, even excellent, resources linked here. I deliberated long and hard about whether to put this in the "Helpful Resources" category. The problem is that the PRC holds to an extreme Calvinism that denies God's common grace and the free offer of the gospel. This is a form of hyper-Calvinism, and is fraught with many dangerous ramifications. I could not with good conscience give it a thumbs up. Not a few people have written to ask how I could class a denomination that adheres to the Three Forms of Unity in this category. But the PRC's most distinctive feature—its utter denial of the gospel's free offer—is, after all, bad theology.

Under the link to Whosoever Will he writes:

These are Herman Hoeksema's writings on grace and the gospel call. His perspective on these issues amounts to a kind of hyper-Calvinism. He denies that the gospel invitation includes a bona fide offer of salvation to anyone but the elect. Hoeksema was brilliant, and a good writer. In fact, there is enough of real value here that I originally placed it in the "helpful" category. But the more I see of the fruits of this kind of thinking, the more convinced I am that it deserves to be plainly labeled as bad theology.

In a full response to Johnson’s charge of hyper-Calvinism against Hoeksema and the PRCA I would take the time to demonstrate that the charge is false because it is based on wrong definition of what hyper-Calvinism is. And I would take the time to demonstrate that Johnson should be more concerned about the fruit of accepting the free offer rather than rejecting it. But I have committed myself to keeping these posts shorter and limit myself to explaining that although we may be a bit indignant that this false charge of hyper-Calvinism is still lodged against us despite our efforts to demonstrate it is not true, we must expect this charge and should even be encouraged by it.

Why should we expect and even be encouraged by the charge of hyper-Calvinism? I’ll answer that with some help from Prof. Engelsma’s recently republished book (with many fine improvements!) on this subject entitled Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel. In this book Professor Engelsma explains that hyper-Calvinism is a serious error and a real threat to the church. But he explains that hyper-Calvinism is not a threat to a church that accepts the free-offer of the gospel. The church that believes God loves everyone in the preaching cannot be accused of hyper-Calvinism and is not in danger of adopting the error. If we were not charged with hyper-Calvinism, false though the charge is, it would possibly be a sign that we have accepted the Arminian error of universal and resistible grace in the preaching of the gospel. But Prof. Englesma writes, “[Hyper-Calvinism] is a danger exactly to the church that embraces the truth of sovereign, particular grace with believing heart by the mighty Spirit of Christ” (p. 8).

We must take the error of hyper-Calvinism seriously and make sure that we do not slip into it. But if we examine ourselves and find that we have not fallen into the real error of hyper-Calvinism then we may rejoice. Then we know that the false charge of hyper-Calvinism is only an indication that our theological opponents insist on making this accusation on the ground that we reject the well-meant offer. Rejecting the well-meant offer does not mean that we are hyper-Calvinist. It means that we reject universal and resistible grace in the preaching and continue to maintain the biblical and Reformed truth of sovereign particular grace. So to be charged with hyper-Calvinism by those who hold to an Arminian doctrine of the gospel call is only a sign that we continue to hold to the Reformed gospel of sovereign, particular grace.

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This article was written by Rev. Clayton Spronk, pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, MI. Rev. Spronk will be blogging for us several times each week. If there is a topic you'd like to Rev. Spronk to address, please contact us. 

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Hyper-Calvinist! (2)

by: Rev. Martyn McGeown
(published in the British Reformed Journal)
 *** Read the first article in this series here.

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In our last editorial, we began to examine Phillip R. Johnson’s definition of hyper-Calvinism in his influential on-line article, “A Primer on Hyper- Calvinism.” We distinguished between a serious call (the Latin term serio in Canons III/IV:8) and a gospel “offer.” We noted that it is the Arminian—and not the Calvinist—who defines serious (serio) as “a sincere and completely unhypocritical intention and will to save all” who hear the gospel.1

Johnson’s next line of attack is to suggest that “all five varieties of hyper- Calvinism undermine evangelism or twist the gospel message.”2 Johnson is aware that many of those whom he labels hyper-Calvinists do evangelize, so he accuses them of preaching a truncated gospel:

Many modern hyper-Calvinists salve themselves by thinking their view cannot really be hyper-Calvinism because, after all, they believe in proclaiming the gospel to all. However, the “gospel” they proclaim is a truncated soteriology with an undue emphasis on God’s decree as it pertains to the reprobate. One hyper-Calvinist, reacting to my comments about this subject on an e-mail list, declared, “The message of the gospel is that God saves those who are His and damns those who are not.” Thus the good news about Christ’s death and resurrection is supplanted by a message about election and reprobation—usually with an inordinate stress on reprobation.

First, I would strongly urge Johnson not to be unduly influenced by theological arguments on the internet. All kinds of kooks (many of whom have no ecclesiastical home) love to spend their time as the Athenians of old “in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). It would be unwise to label a group of people as hyper-Calvinists because of the expressed opinion of some unstable soul, who may not be under—or worse, refuses to submit himself to—proper ecclesiastical oversight. Extremism thrives in unsupervised on-line domains.

Second, and more importantly, I do not think I have ever read any theologian— and especially not an ordained minister—who defines the gospel the way in which this cyber-theologian supposedly does. And, more to the point, the BRF and the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) have never expressed such an absurd opinion.

Moreover, Johnson seems to be presupposing that the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection is “good news” to all men. It emphatically is not. The gospel is only good news to those who believe it, that is, to the elect. Paul defines the gospel in I Corinthians 15:3-4: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried and that the rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”

The Bible never defines the gospel as the good news that God loves everyone, that Christ died for everyone, that God desires to save everyone and that eternal life is available for everyone, if they will only accept it. That is Arminianism, not the gospel!

The danger Johnson sees in hyper-Calvinist “evangelism” is a failure to preach the gospel call.

This first variety of hyper-Calvinism denies the general, external call, and insists that the gospel should be preached in a way that proclaims the facts about Christ’s work and God’s electing grace—without calling for any kind of response. This is the worst form of hyper-Calvinism in vogue today. I’d class it as an extremely serious error, more dangerous than the worst variety of Arminianism. At least the Arminian preaches enough of the gospel for the elect to hear it and be saved. The hyper-Calvinist who denies the gospel call doesn’t even believe in calling sinners to Christ. He almost fears to whisper the gospel summons to other believers, lest anyone accuse him of violating divine sovereignty.

Johnson’s attitude is astounding. He would prefer to have Arminianism than lose his precious gospel “offer.” Hyper-Calvinism is heresy, but so is Arminianism. Johnson reminds me of a man I met once in the liberal Presbyterian church. He said that he could never join a church which denies that God loves, and wants to save, everybody. I asked him if the fact that his church allowed a host of serious errors (higher criticism in the seminary, women in church office, Arminianism, theistic evolution, etc.) perturbed him. He admitted that it did, but that at least he could have the gospel “offer.” Straining at gnats and swallowing camels (Matt. 23:24)!

Paul was not one who did not mind what people preached, as long as the “gospel call” was uttered. He tells the Philippians that there were some preaching Christ with wrong motives (“of envy and strife,” “of contention, not sincerely,” “in pretence;” Phil. 1:15-16, 18), but that he rejoiced because Christ was preached (v. 18). Certainly, Paul preferred preachers to do their work with the right motivation, but what Paul did not tolerate was a changing of the message itself (Gal. 1:6-9).

There are preachers who are hyper-Calvinists—although they are few and far between, and their number is almost negligible in comparison to the huge influence of Arminianism in most of the church world. Nevertheless, remember that this article is not written to defend hyper-Calvinists (who are, indeed, heterodox in their doctrine of salvation), but to defend the BRF and the PRC against the charge of hyper-Calvinism. I remind the reader of Johnson’s accusation: “The best known American hyper-Calvinists are the Protestant Reformed Churches.”

Offer/Invitation Versus Command

To understand the issues correctly we must distinguish between the gospel call (which Johnson advocates and which we do not deny) and the offer (which Johnson advocates and which we do deny). Quite simply, the gospel call is a command. A command is something very different from an offer, even if sometimes an offer or an invitation is couched in the language of a command, that is, in the imperative mood (“Come!” “Take,” etc.). Johnson writes, “The whole thrust of the gospel, properly presented, is to convey an offer (in the sense of a tender, a proffer, or a proposal) of divine peace and mercy to all who come under its hearing.”

But that is not what the gospel call is!

What is the gospel? The gospel is good news, announced to sinners by heralds sent by Jesus Christ. The gospel is not a declaration of what man must do. The gospel is not even a declaration of what God would like to do for man. The gospel is a declaration of what God has done.

The gospel cannot be offered. What God has done cannot be offered, as if one were trying to sell something. When I offer you something, I give it with the expectation, hope and desire that you will receive it. “Would you like a cup of tea?” “You are invited to my birthday party.” These are offers—in the sense of a tender, a proffer or a proposal. But the gospel is never an offer. God does not tender, proffer or propose something. In the gospel call, God commands. Therefore, the Bible does not use offer language but serious command language. God never comes to sinners with an offer: “Would you like salvation. It is available for you if you would like it, but if you would rather not, that is fine too.” That is the way in which I offer a cup of tea to a guest in my home. Nothing serious is at stake, if my guest declines my offer of tea.

A much better illustration is that of a summons to a court room. The bailiff of the court comes with a document from the judge. The document is not an offer: “You are cordially invited to attend my court room. I would love it if you could attend, but if it is inconvenient to you, there is no urgency to come.” The summons says, “Come!” And the bailiff has the power of arrest, should you refuse to come, and you will go to jail for contempt of court, if you fail to appear at the time appointed.

The classic passage on the gospel call as a command is the “Parable of the Wedding Feast” in Matthew 22. Many have misinterpreted this parable to teach a sincere and gracious invitation to the reprobate to receive and enjoy salvation. However, the word “invite” is inappropriate. Throughout the parable, Jesus uses the Greek verb “call” (kaleo):

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son. And sent forth his servants to call [kaleo] them that were bidden [i.e., called, kaleo] to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden [i.e., called, kaleo], Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage (vv. 2-4).

Many of the called refuse to come, and the king destroys them in verse 7. Then Jesus adds, “Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden [i.e., called, kaleo] were not worthy” (v. 8). After the wedding feast is filled with guests—who were not only called, but “gathered” (v. 10)—Jesus concludes, “For many are called [kaleo], but few are chosen” (v. 14).

The first important lesson from this parable is that both the external preaching, which comes to both elect and reprobate, and the internal call of the Holy Spirit, which is given only to the elect, are referred to as a “call” in Scripture (vv. 3, 14). God calls both the elect and the reprobate, but in different senses. The call of Matthew 22:14 is not the same, therefore, as the call of Romans 8:30 (“whom he called, them he also justified”). Some who are externally “called” (kaleo) are not justified and glorified, and therefore we could say that they are not elect. Thus the hyper-Calvinist, who denies that God externally “calls” the reprobate, is proved to be in error. This text is the basis for the classic Calvinist and Reformed distinction between the external call and the internal call.

Second, the word kaleo proves to us that the gospel comes as a command to all who hear, not as a gracious invitation. If I invite you to my birthday party, that is a gracious invitation, which you are free to accept or reject without any serious consequences. When God, the King in Matthew 22, calls men and women to the wedding feast of His Son, Jesus Christ, He is greatly displeased when they refuse. Moreover, we read that He destroys those who do not come (v. 7). That cannot seriously be understood as a gracious invitation to them.

Canons of Dordt II:5 explains the relationship between the gospel and the call:

Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.

Notice the careful wording here. God does not promise in the gospel to save sinners, if they will believe. God promises to save all believers. God does not promise to save the reprobate. But then how do the elect, the true recipients of the promise, hear the promise? Through the preaching! The promise is preached to all and sundry, but the promise applies only to believers. The command must be addressed to all hearers, and that call must go far and wide, but a command implies neither the intention of God nor the ability of man. A command only teaches us what our duty is. God does not promise anything to the reprobate. Indeed, and this element is lacking in Johnson and other modern Calvinists, the gospel call serves to harden the reprobate and to leave them without excuse (Isa. 6:9-10). Does God, then, “offer” something and later rescind His offer when the reprobate refuse to accept it?

to be continued (DV)  

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1 “The Opinions of the Remonstrants” in Peter Y. De Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 1968), pp. 226-227.

2 Remember that Johnson’s proposed definition has five parts: “A hyper-Calvinist is someone who either #1 Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear OR #2 Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner OR #3 Denies that the gospel makes any ‘offer’ of Christ, salvation or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal) OR #4 Denies that there is such a thing as ‘common grace’ OR #5 Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.” All quotations are from Johnson’s online article, “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism” (www.spurgeon.org/~phil/articles/hypercal.htm).

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Hyper-Calvinist! (1)

Editorial: Hyper-Calvinist! (1)

by: Rev. Martyn McGeown

(published in the British Reformed Journal)

Introduction

Recently, brethren have brought to my attention Phillip R. Johnson’s “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism.”1 They were offended that he called the Protes­tant Reformed Churches (PRC) hyper-Calvinists: “The best known American hyper-Calvinists are the Protestant Reformed Churches.” My initial reaction was to ignore such accusations—I prefer to answer exegetical arguments, and Johnson’s “Primer” does not offer any such arguments. I imagine he does do exegesis, just not in this article. Exegesis is much more than listing texts. Ex­egesis requires that one dig out of the text its meaning and demonstrate that the text proves what one claims. However, since Johnson is influential, and since he directly attacks the PRC, and since younger, inexperienced brethren may not know how to answer him, I offer this response in a series of editorials.

One paragraph of Johnson’s “Primer” which particularly grieved me was his dismissal of Prof. Engelsma’s book, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel:

The most articulate advocate of the PRC position is David Engelsma, whose book Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel is an interesting but in my view terribly misleading study of the question of whether PRC theology properly qualifies as hyper-Calvinism. Engelsma does some selective quoting and interpretive gymnastics in order to argue that his view is mainstream Reformed theology. But a careful reading of his sources shows that he often quotes out of context, or ends a quote just before a qualifying statement that would totally negate the point he thinks he has made. Still, for those interested in these issues, I recommend his book, with a caution to read it very critically and with careful discernment.

Johnson makes serious charges against Engelsma. However, he makes no attempt to substantiate his allegation of “selective quoting.” With this in mind, I recently re-read Engelsma’s book. I carefully read all the sources in context, and I e-mailed Johnson to furnish me with some examples of his allegation. Thus far, Johnson—a busy man, no doubt—has not responded. Johnson also fails to mention that John Gerstner, who wrote the Foreword to Engelsma’s book, went on record that Engelsma “carefully defines and convincingly avoids ‘hyper-Calvinism’ himself and clears his denomination, the Protestant Reformed Churches, of so teaching.”2

One might wonder, Who is this Phil Johnson, and what qualifies him to write “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism”? According to his online biography, Johnson is executive director of Grace To You, the ministry of John MacArthur, a Cal­vinistic, Baptist, dispensationalist. One assumes that Johnson is either wholly, or almost, in agreement with MacArthur. If this is true, we have a Baptist dispensationalist writing a primer on hyper-Calvinism!3 Johnson identifies himself thus: “a five-point Calvinist, affirming without reservation the Canons of the Synod of Dordt.” Since he, the BRF and the PRC affirm the Canons—and PRC office-bearers (although probably not Johnson) are bound to them by the “Formula of Subscription”—we should find some common ground.

Before Johnson gives his own definition of hyper-Calvinism—a five-point definition, which, if true, would make the PRC and BRF three-point hyper- Calvinists—he quotes a dictionary. Apparently, whoever writes the theological dictionaries rules the theological landscape! However, theological dictionaries do not determine theology. The creeds do! They—not theological dictionar­ies—were officially adopted by the church. The article is by the Anglican Peter Toon in the New Dictionary of Theology.4 The main features of its definition of hyper-Calvinism are (1) an overemphasis on God’s sovereignty with a minimiz­ing of the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners, (2) an undermining of the universal duty of sinners to believe in the Lord Jesus and (3) the denial of the word “offer” with respect to the preaching of the gospel. This definition is too broad—it includes real hyper-Calvinism (a denial of duty faith) but it muddies the waters by including some theological positions which are not definitive of hyper-Calvinism (avoidance of the word “offer,” an “overemphasis” on God’s sovereignty, etc.).5 Moreover, Johnson defines “offer” as “the sincere proposal of divine mercy to sinners in general.”

Another aspect of hyper-Calvinism, which Johnson rejects, and of which the PRC and BRF are certainly not guilty, is a morbid introspection in the search to know one’s election. The PRC, and especially Engelsma himself, have been very critical of that error. We encourage and enjoy a healthy assurance of sal­vation (see Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 1, 7; Canons I:12-13, 16; R:7; III/IV:13; V:9-13; R:5-6). Hyper-Calvinist churches and denominations “tend to become either barren and inert, or militant and elitist,” adds Johnson—a charge Arminians have made against Reformed churches for centuries, and a charge of which the PRC, by the grace of God, is innocent. By God’s covenant faithfulness, the PRC are lively and vibrant, lovers of the truth, faithful and generous. Godly homes and marriages with large families, a solid seminary, good Christian schools and zealous mission work testify to this. Calvinism for the PRC and the BRF is not “cold, lifeless dogma,” but truth which lives in our hearts and which is our unspeakable consolation in life and in death (Westminster Confession 3:8; Belgic Confession 13). Thus we abhor Armini­anism and hyper-Calvinism (as well as other heresies repugnant to the truth as summarized in the Reformed confessions).

Johnson then proceeds to a brief analysis of “common but not quite precise definitions” of hyper-Calvinism—a denial that God uses the means of preach­ing, fatalism, supralapsarianism and double predestination. Johnson is correct that not all supralapsarians or double-predestinarians are hyper-Calvinists. Indeed, we add that those who deny reprobation are not true Calvinists, but are hypo-Calvinists who fall short of Calvinism (Canons I:15, 18; R:8).

“Some critics,” adds Johnson, “unthinkingly slap the label ‘hyper’ on any variety of Calvinism that is higher than the view they hold to.” This approach, Johnson warns, “lacks integrity and only serves to confuse people.” Did Johnson examine himself before he wrote those words, and before he called the PRC the “best known American hyper-Calvinists”?

Johnson’s Definition

Johnson’s proposed definition of hyper-Calvinism has five parts:

A hyper-Calvinist is someone who either

#1 Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear OR

#2 Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner OR

#3 Denies that the gospel makes any “offer” of Christ, salvation or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal) OR

#4 Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace” OR

#5 Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect

Denial #1 is ambiguous—what does “applies to all who hear” mean? Only #2 is genuine, historic hyper-Calvinism. Only #2 is condemned by the confessions. Denials #3-5 are not hyper-Calvinism. Johnson may not like or agree with denials #3-5, but that does not give him the right to label them as “hyper-Calvinism.” Is Johnson not, to use his own words, “slapping the label ‘hyper’ on any variety of Calvinism that is higher than the view he holds to”?

We propose to examine the issues of the gospel offer (#3), the gospel call (#1-2) and common grace (#4-5) to see where this charge of hyper-Calvinism may legitimately be laid. This will require several editorials in the next few issues.

The Gospel Offer or Serious Call?

In order to determine whether a denial of the gospel offer is hyper-Calvinism (#3), we look at the Canons of Dordt, which are the official, creedal definition of Calvinism. In 1924, when the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) adopted the Three Points of Common Grace, it appealed to Canons III/IV:8. We quote from Articles 8-10:

Article 8: As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. For God hath most earnestly and truly shown in His Word what is pleasing to Him, namely, that those who are called should come to Him. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest to as many as shall come to Him and believe on Him.

Article 9: It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ of­fered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted...

Article 10: But that others who are called by the gospel obey the call and are converted is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will...

These articles were written in response to the Remonstrants or the Armin­ians, who submitted their “Opinions” to the Synod. The issue here is God’s seriousness—if the gospel only comes to some, and if God grants faith to only some who hear the gospel, is God really serious in the call of the gospel through the preaching? The Arminians contended that, if God did not intend to give salvation to all, and if Christ did not purchase salvation for all, and if sinners do not have the ability to choose salvation, then God must be hypocritical, insincere and unserious in the preaching, by promising something He does not have and which He does not intend to give.

The “Opinions of the Remonstrants” are very enlightening about what the Arminians understood by the offer of the gospel:

Whomever God calls to salvation, He calls seriously, that is, with a sincere and completely unhypocritical intention and will to save; nor do we assent to the opinions of those who hold that God calls certain ones externally whom He does not will to call internally, that is, as truly converted, even before the grace of calling has been rejected.

There is not in God a secret will which so contradicts the will of the same revealed in the Word that according to it (that is, the secret will) He does not will the conversion and salvation of the greatest part of those whom He seriously calls and invites by the Word of the Gospel and by His revealed will; and we do not here, as some say, acknowledge in God a holy simulation, or a double person.6

Notice that it is the Remonstrants (Arminians)—and not the Calvinists at Dordt—who teach that God has a “sincere and completely unhypocritical intention and will to save” all who hear the gospel. Arminians believe that God desires the salvation of all men without exception. Johnson would have us believe that only hyper-Calvinists deny God’s desire to save all men.

That background greatly clarifies the meaning of the Canons. The key is the Latin word serio. Three times the word serio is used in Canons III/IV:8, translated by various adverbs in our official English version: “unfeignedly [serio] called,” “earnestly [serio] shown” and “seriously [serio] promises.”

What serio does not mean is what the Arminians taught—“whomever God calls to salvation, He calls seriously, that is, with a sincere and completely unhypocritical intention and will to save.” Modern compromised Calvinists, however, such as Johnson himself, do define the gospel call (or offer) that way, as God’s desire to save all or, in Johnson’s words, “the sincere proposal of divine mercy to sinners in general.” Are we to imagine God as a young, lovesick man, earnestly proposing marriage to a beautiful young lady, a proposal rejected by the majority of sinners who hear it as a “sincere proposal of divine mercy”? A disappointed suitor indeed! How could Christ propose to any sinners who are not part of His divinely ordained bride? And how does that differ from the typical Arminian message of Jesus knocking on the sinner’s heart?

About serio (unfeignedly, earnestly and seriously) we can make several observations. First, God is pleased with faith and repentance (“that those who are called should come to Him,” Canons III/IV:8). The good pleasure here is not God’s eternal decree, that which He is pleased to ordain. God is not pleased to ordain that all should repent and believe, for He has not decreed to give all men faith (Eph. 1:11; 2:8; Phil. 1:29). Rather, God’s good pleasure is that which is pleasing in His sight, or that in which He delights, or it is that which He approves in His creatures, and therefore that which He commands in His creatures (such as obedience to the law, faith and repentance). Second, God is serious, in earnest, about this. God is not indifferent to sin and unbelief. God does not say that He does not care whether people believe or not. Will God send preachers but remain indifferent as to whether sinners believe in Jesus? Will God remain unconcerned if sinners despise His Son in unbelief? Of course not! God is so serious about this that He threatens eternal damnation upon those who refuse to believe and to repent!

But the word serio certainly does not mean that God earnestly desires the salvation of all hearers. It cannot mean that, because God did not elect all to salvation (in fact, He reprobated many of those who in time hear the gospel); Christ did not die for all men (in fact, God has nothing to offer the reprobate who hear the gospel); and the Holy Spirit does not work graciously in the hearts of all hearers to regenerate them and work faith in them (in fact, the Spirit hardens many who hear the gospel).7 Since the Triune God does nothing for the salvation of the reprobate—He neither elects, nor redeems, nor regener­ates them—how could He, then, in the preaching of the gospel desire (even seriously, ardently and passionately desire) the salvation of the same reprobate?

Such is the confusion of the modern “Calvinist.” Such was not the confusion of Dordt, and a rejection of that confusion does not make one a hyper-Calvinist, Johnson’s “Primer” notwithstanding.

to be continued (DV)

 

Footnotes:

1 Phil Johnson, “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism” (www.spurgeon.org/~phil//articles/hypercal. htm). As an illustration of how accessible this article is, google “hyper-Calvinism.”

2 John H. Gerstner in David J. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Grandville, MI: RFPA, repr. 1993), p. vii.

3 Phil Johnson, “Who is Phillip R. Johnson?” (www.spurgeon.org/~phil/bio.htm).

4 Peter Toon, “Hyper-Calvinism,” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright (eds.), New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1988), pp. 324-325. However, Toon is a hypo-Calvinist (see his Born Again: A Biblical and Theological Study of Regeneration [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987]) and even in his dictionary article he speaks of “the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them” (p. 324), contrary to the truth of particular atonement! The same dictionary notes that Au­gustine (p. 636) and Gottschalk (p. 259) denied that God desires to save the reprobate, yet they are not called hyper-Calvinists! Not only did the New Dictionary of Theology publish a hypo-Calvinist author and article defining hyper-Calvinism, but it has N. T. Wright promot ing New Perspective on Paul ideas in his treatments of “Justification” (pp. 359-361) and “Righteousness” (pp. 590-592), over against Reformed teaching on this article of a standing or falling church.

5 We need not fear an over-emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Writes Engelsma, “Had Toon charged Hoeksema with an exclusive emphasis on the sovereignty of God, so that he denied or minimized the responsibility of man, we would have to take Toon’s charge seriously. Since the charge is that of ‘excessive’ emphasis, we can ignore it. For it is impossible to emphasize the sovereignty of God excessively, especially as regards the sovereignty of grace. Stand before the incarnation, the cross, and the wonder of regeneration, and try to de-emphasize sovereign grace. The ‘charge’ that a theologian excessively emphasizes sovereign grace is in fact the highest praise that one can give that theologian, praise that identifies him as a faithful servant of the gospel of the grace of God in Christ Jesus … Not in an emphasis on God’s sovereignty but in a denial of man’s responsibility must the characteristic flaw of hyper-Calvinism be located” (Hyper-Calvinism, p. 200).

6 Peter Y. De Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Fel­lowship Inc., 1968), pp. 226-227; italics mine.

7 John Piper, another modern “Calvinist,” understands this, which is why he argues that Christ died for all men in some sense, in order to make it possible for God to make a bona fide “offer” of salvation to all men, a scheme which has no basis in Scripture and which certainly falls foul of the Canons of Dordt (especially II:8-9; R:2-4).

 

 

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