Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The enormity of this book cannot be overstated. I’m not just talking about its size, although at nearly 1800 pages in total, it is rather large. Rather, the impact this book has had on Western thought, in general, and theology (particularly in the Protestant and Reformed tradition) in particular, is enormous. It is a book often alluded to, often cited, and often referenced. The format and organisation of modern systematic theology is heavily influenced by Calvin’s magnum opus.
Ultimately, this work does function as a systematic theology (although, interestingly, there is no section of eschatology). Calvin starts with the knowledge of God, the foundation of Calvin’s theology, and works all the way through his theological thought in a logical order, until he finishes with the relationship between Church and state – the final practical out working of Calvin’s theology into society. As a guide, Calvin uses the Apostle’s Creed to work out his thought.
The Institutes is arranged into 4 books. The first book is entitled Of the Knowledge of God the Creator. The book is split into two main sections: knowledge of God, and knowledge of man in relation to God. Calvin’s position is that the knowledge of God is not to be found in man or in the frame of this world, but in Scripture, whereby His highest revelation to us is His Triune nature. In relation to man, in the second section, Calvin considers the general government of human behaviour. Although God uses the wicked as instruments for His divine plan, He Himself is pure and free of any taint of sin.
The subject of second book is The Knowledge of God the Redeemer and looks at the person and work of Christ. First, through the lens of the law, and second through the lens of the Gospel. It is interesting to note the early development of the law/gospel distinction that is so prevalent in later Reformed theology.
Calvin first considers the reason for our redemption by looking at the fall of Adam, original sin, free will, and all the consequences this has on the human condition. Calvin advocates a high view of the depravity of man as a consequence of Adam’s sin, following in the footsteps of Augustine. His lengthy rebuttal of the concept of free will (as defined in the Roman Catholic sense) is incisive. After outlining, through the fall, the need for a saviour, Calvin enters into a discourse on the act of redemption itself.
He starts with the Law. Showing how the Law cannot save, but points to hope in salvation in its fulfilment, including an exposition of the ten commandments. Yet what was hidden in the Law is made manifest in the Gospel through Jesus Christ. Calvin shows in what way Christ is the fulfilment of the Law as our saviour, principally by considering Christ’s three offices as a mediator between God and man: prophet, priest, and king.
If book 2 is primarily about the God the Son, then book three is primarily about God the Holy Spirit. Whilst books 1 & 2 contained discussions on the objective work of God as both creator and redeemer, book 3 looks at the subjective work God to the individual believer; God as sanctifier. The book has three sections, encapsulated in its title: The Mode of Obtaining the Grace of Christ, the Benefits it Confers, and the Effects Resulting From It. Ultimately, this is Calvin’s main treatise on faith.
The mode of obtaining the grace of Christ is by faith; a special work of the Holy Spirit of God in the believer. Its benefits and effect are seen in our repentance and subsequent justification. The principal exercise of faith, Calvin argues, is prayer, which he treats in this section. He also goes on to look at the distinction between common grace (that which is given to all mankind) and special grace (that which is given to the elect only). From this distinction, Calvin propounds his doctrine of divine election.
Though his views on election is what Calvin is most known for, the subject takes up relatively little room (4 chapters, out of 25 in book 3) in this mammoth work, and is given no special status. Election is not a starting point for Calvin (it comes at the end of book 3, about 980 pages into the work) but is simply one among many orthodox teachings in the Institutes.
The (abbreviated) title of book 4 is: The External Means. This is the focus of the communion of the saints and is divided into three parts: the Church, the sacraments, and civil government.
Calvin explains the Biblical marks of a Church, its rule and government (such as different offices in the Church – presbyter, elder, and deacon), and the power of the Church in doctrine, law, and jurisdiction. He then specifically focuses in on the sacraments, and what is meant by baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Calvin we see an almost full Covenant Theology in comparing the sacraments in the Old Testament with the sacraments in the New. Finally, Calvin finishes off the Institutes with a discussion on civil government, and the Church’s relationship to it.
It is easy to think of Calvin’s work as a book that only academics should be interested in (or weird non – academic nerds like me, I suppose), but Calvin did not write the Institutes for an academic use. He writes like a pastor. And, as all pastors should, he has two voices: one for the sheep, and one for the wolves. One thing I was not expecting in the Institutes was the amount of times Calvin defended his position against that of the Roman Catholics, or attacks the Roman Catholic position. Calvin, growing up and writing in a Roman Catholic world, was writing for those who would come up against Roman Catholic teaching all the time. He equipped them to reject the Roman Catholic position and also defend the Reformed, Protestant one. Yet it isn’t just the Papists that get the voice to the wolves. Anabaptists, “sophists”, “Schoolmen”, and individual heretics (such as Osiander, Servetus etc.) all get the treatment. Some of these views may be of little interest to the contemporary reader, but a great number are very similar to arguments one might hear today.
Yet, Calvin also has his voice to the sheep, too. He gives great encouragement to struggling Christians and offers many reasons to put hope in Christ, and to see the beauty of the Christian faith. Calvin was a pastor and it show in his work.
Finally, Calvin never sets up his system of Christian doctrine as a new invention. He is always quoting not only the Scripture to prove his point, but also early Church fathers, as well as medaeival theologians. He interacts most often with Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, Peter Lombard, and even Popes Leo, Gregory, and Innocent, among many others. Calvin is always keen to impress upon readers that the Reformation was just that – a Reformation, and not a Reinvention or even a Novel Invention. He also frequently interacts with ancient philosophical writers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, especially in book 1. The real genius of Calvin’s work, in my opinion, is how he is able to succinctly articulate profound Biblical truths within the framework of the theology and piety that the historic Church (minus Roman corruption) had already established.
Quite simply, this is a phenomenal achievement of theological thought. So much can be gleaned from reading the Institutes – I managed to fill out 4 books worth of notes and reflections, as well as 270 highlighted quotations. I would highly recommend a read through the Institutes; it is a wonderfully beneficial exercise.
You can download H. H. Beveridge’s 1845 English translation of the Institutes in three different e-reader formats entirely for free here (courtesy of Monergism).
A couple of months ago during the Coronavirus pandemic I had a conversation with the Pastor of my church. Among other things, we spoke of salvation and of the so – called “5 Points of Calvinism”. Like almost every other Calvinist I have ever read or heard speak on the subject, I have issues with the “5 Points” and their English acronym “TULIP”.
For starters, “Calvinism” was a historical pejorative used initially by Lutherans, and then later by Arminians, against the established Reformed view of theology. It has nothing substantially to do with the man John Calvin at all, who would not understand, or appreciate, the term. Moreover, “Calvinism” in the original sense, was a whole system of theology: from epistemology to eschatology. Calvinism never had “5 Points”, but simply five answers to the five objections of Arminianism as put forth in the Canons of Dordt.
This inaccuracy notwithstanding, the “5 Points of Calvinism” have shifted from the precise and confessional document of the Canons of Dordt to a 20th Century English slogan under the acronym TULIP. So successful has this been that when you talk about the “5 Points of Calvinism”, people will often think of TULIP, rather than the Canons of Dordt. The problem is that TULIP as an acronym is problematic. Whilst it may be serviceable for what it is, the words used to fit difficult theology into a pronounceable English acronym often do more harm than good. TULIP stands for:
Perseverance of the saints
Many people have an aversion to Calvinism because of some of the misleading terminology expressed in the five points. The caricature to which Calvinism is often subject is usually founded the language used in TULIP. For example, “irresistible grace” seems to give an impression that God drags people, kicking and screaming, against their will. Similarly, “limited atonement” is interpreted to mean that some people who are seeking salvation in Christ are refused it.
In our conversation, my Pastor challenged me to come up with a better summary that better emphasised the centrality of God’s grace in salvation. After all, an alternative (and much superior) nickname for the 5 points of Calvinism is the “Doctrines of Grace”, due to how God’s grace is the true foundation of what they teach. This is my attempt to explain the 5 Points of Grace.
The first of the five points of grace confronts the reality of our sinful human nature. We are not sinners because we sin. Rather, we sin because we are sinners. Our corrupt nature, inherited from Adam (Romans 5:12) is the cause, and not the result, of the sins we commit. The Bible makes it clear that we are born in this condition when it calls us “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), and that the “intention of man’s heart is evil from His youth” (Genesis 8:21). This condition extends to the heart of every human, as the Psalmist says
“They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.” (Psalm 14:3)
Yet not only do we have a sinful nature that affects us and keeps us from perfection, the Biblical reality is that it has corrupted us to the very heart. That is not to say that we are as bad or as evil as we could possibly be. God extends to us common grace by way of laws that restrict the evil in men’s hearts, as well as moral consciences. God, by His mercy and grace, restrains all of us – believer or no. He could leave us to our depraved hearts and desires that the Bible says are “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9), since we are slaves to our sinful nature (Romans 6:20), but out of His grace upholds us even in our sin.
The effect this has on us as people is that we reject God. We “loved the darkness rather than the light because [our] works were evil” (John 3:19) and are, in our nature, hostile to God. As Paul explains succinctly
“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:7 – 8)
Since we, due to our sinful humanity cannot please God, there is no way for us to come to Him of our own accord. We are, therefore, dependent upon God’s grace for salvation. Not only do we need God to help us, we need God to save us. We are dependent upon His grace to act first to reconcile us to Himself. Without His grace, we remain dead. With His grace, we are regenerated; born again. Only then, as people with new hearts and desires, may we come to the Father. Jesus was clear on this point when He said
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44)
When God regenerates us, transforming our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), we have the spiritual ability to put our faith in Christ. He has no obligation to give us new life. God is free to leave us in our sin. It is only through the free grace of God that He choses to change our hearts our corrupt nature begins its restoration.
A consequence of our corrupt nature is that we are, by birth, children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). That is, since our very natures are slaves to sin, God’s judgement rests upon all of us. Yet, God does not leave everyone in that state of condemnation. Out of His free grace, He adopts a people in His family as co – heirs of Christ (Romans 8:17).
It is a human temptation, as old as the church itself, to believe that we have made ourselves worthy of God’s adoption. Whether that means that we have to be a particular type of person, or have attained some level of obedience to God’s law, it amounts to the same central idea. It is our natural tendency to think that we have to earn God’s adopting love. It is the very reasoning that Paul often combats in his epistles, and no clearer does he rebut it than in Ephesians
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:4 – 9)
God uses the image of adoption for a reason. Adopted children do not earn the acceptance of their adopting parents. There are no works they must be able to perform beforehand. The adoption is based only on the free gracious provision of the adopting parents.
Our adoption as children of God is not based upon anything that we do, or anything that we are. The is no condition we must first meet. He has no obligation to adopt us as His children. We have done nothing to deserve the adoption as a co – heir with Christ; in fact, our thoughts and actions have left us in greater condemnation. Yet by God’s free grace, He sets His love upon us, in eternity past, to be united to Him by the sacrifice of Christ.
We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:10), as underserving and wretched as we are, and has chosen out of the overflowing of His grace to look upon us as holy, forgiven sons and daughters.
The incarnate Son of God has many names given to Him in Scripture. From Old Testament titles such as “Prince of Peace” and “Son of Man” to other titles in the New Testament, such as “Christ” and “Lord”. However, the most common name He is given is the name “Jesus”. As we are told in the Bible, the name Jesus means “God saves” and He was named Jesus because “He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
There is no doubt from that Gospels (not to mention the prophecies of the Old Testament) that this was Jesus’s main purpose is His incarnation on Earth 2000 years ago. He came to save His people from their sins. This tells us two things about God’s grace for the salvation of His people.
First, is that He came to save a specific people. “He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, emphasis mine). Jesus has a people He can call His own. Nobody is saved accidentally or randomly. No Christian is adopted into God’s covenant family mistakenly. God’s grace in seeking to save the lost (Luke 19:10) was, and is, purposeful. His plan of salvation is for a particular purpose, for a particular people. Out of His mere grace, we, as a Church, have the right to call Christ our own, just as He calls us His own.
The New Testament frequently references the Church as Christ’s bride. The marriage relationship was made and designed to point to the reality of Christ and His Church. It is an illustration of our relationship with Jesus. So, just as all married people have one wife, or husband, to whom they are married, so too Christ has one people, the Church. Just as a man or woman knows whom they will marry and has set their love upon them before they consummate the marriage in the wedding ceremony, so too does Christ know His people, the Church, before our Heavenly wedding in glory. There is no guesswork or uncertainty. God, out of nothing but grace, has given us confidence and surety, that we have been chosen as His from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and that Christ has set His gracious love upon us, before we even knew Him (1 John 4:10,19)!
Secondly, God’s grace in saving us will be effective. “He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, emphasis mine). Not only are we told that God has assured us that we are saved as a specific people for Christ, but that our salvation is secured as a certainty. In other words, God has not merely made it possible for us to be saved in Christ’s Church; He has actually and really delivered us! God’s grace is an effectual grace. It has not left the job of our salvation unfinished so that we have to make the finishing touches ourselves by our own efforts (including faith that we exercise). Our justification before God was complete on the cross. Whilst we may not experience it until later in time, Christ has already achieved our salvation!
Let Paul explain more fully from the book of Romans,
“[B]ut God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.” (Romans 5:8-10)
Paul shows us here that God saved us while we were yet sinners. Before we had even exercised faith in Him, our salvation was already secure! The language of reconciliation is in the past tense. ‘We were reconciled by the death of His Son’ (v. 10, emphasis). It is not conditional in us in any sense; God’s grace is effective in truly saving us by the blood of Christ.
The first point in this summary of the 5 points of grace established that grace was necessary for our salvation. We are dependent upon God’s grace in order for us to have our natures changed from one that rejects and hates God, to one that is spiritually able to respond to Him and appropriate the benefits of Christ’s blood. The point to be made here, building on the last two points, is that grace is not only necessary, but it is sufficient. That is, not only do we all need grace, but grace is all we need.
We’ve already seen how the Bible shows that man’s nature is corrupt and cannot please or accept God. We are naturally hostile to God. Any effort ours will only serve to further our separation and hostility. In order to come to God for forgiveness and reconciliation, God must be the one initiate a change in our nature and regenerate our hearts. But not simply is God the initiator of our regeneration, He is the author and finisher. He does it all. There is no further work or act that contributes to our regeneration except the Spirit of God who regenerates us by His grace.
The work of the Spirit in the regeneration of man encompasses a complete renovation. Consider what the Bible says that the Holy Spirit does in us, out of grace:
- A New Birth
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12 – 13)
“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5 – 8)
2. A New Heart
“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)
“‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. ‘I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
3. A New Creation
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15)
4. A Resurrection
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5a)
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:13)
God’s work in the renewal of our nature is comprehensive. In all the above Scripture quotations, God is identified as the one working our regeneration. The stress is always upon what He does in us; we contribute nothing. All can be summed up by Paul’s pithy summary in Titus,
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)
The exercise of faith in the experience of the believer, therefore, is reactionary of what the Spirit has done already for us. He draws us to the Father (John 6:44), He convinces and convicts us of our sin (John 16:8), He teaches us of Christ by His Word (Romans 10:17), regenerates and renews us, making us able to accept and trust in Christ and His work for us. It is entirely of His all-powerful and sufficient grace!
As Christians, we are involved in a spiritual battle. Though are natures are renewed by the Holy Spirit, that does not mean that we are free from sin in our life. Paul grieves over his continued sin in Romans 7, saying
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15 – 19)
Although this is our experience as believers, it is only temporary. God has not only secured our salvation from the penalty of sin (justification), He will one day deliver us from the presence of sin (glorification). God has promised us that as surely as we are justified before Him, so too will we be glorified in Heaven. The spiritual battle in which we are engaged will be successful. We cannot lose. God has secured our salvation and will not allow us to be defeated. The grace that He gives in salvation is victorious over sin, death, and the Devil.
A true believer will never be finally lost. Eternal life is our possession now, even if it is not our reality now (John 6:47). God’s grace not only saves us, but it keeps us. He is not only patient and gracious to us when we were rebellious sinners, but He extends that mercy and grace to us as believers, too. Though we may sin, and sin seriously, God will not cast us away. The Holy Spirit that dwells within us is God’s promise to keep us. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he says
“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 1:21 – 22)
The word translated as ‘guarantee’ in the ESV is also translated ‘deposit’, ‘down – payment’, or sometimes ‘earnest’. The image that Paul is using is that of real estate, and other significant financial transactions. Buying a house, for example, often requires a deposit that acts as a guarantee from those which wish the purchase the house. They pay part of the final price immediately to signify their committal to buy the property later. Moreover, if they pull out on their commitment, their deposit is forfeited. It marks a point of ‘no return’ for the buyers.
Paul uses this image of the Spirit of God. He is our deposit, or guarantee, given to us. The gift of the Spirit is the immediate gift He has given us as a sign that He is committed on our complete salvation from sin in eternity. We have a foretaste of that final glorification, even though it is not yet a full reality. Furthermore, the Spirit as our deposit guarantees that God will keep us. As a deposit, the Spirit is making a promise for our final salvation. If that promise is broken, God forfeits His Holy Spirit. For this to happen, there would be rift in the Trinity; God would cease to be God.
In other words, what God is saying us in giving the Holy Spirit as a seal and guarantee is that for God to abandon you and renege on His promise of salvation, He would cease to be God. That is a sure a promise and guarantee that could exist.
Although, at times our spiritual battle seems to be going poorly and sin is threatening to overwhelm us, God has guaranteed our victory. Nothing can possibly remove us from His hand,
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38 – 39)
He came to save us, and He will not let us go. He is a good shepherd who will not abandon His sheep. Even as redeemed people, we do not deserve with unending patience and mercy that God shows us in keep us in love. It is only by His all-conquering grace will we win final victory over sin.
Whilst this summary of the 5 points of grace is neither comprehensive, nor perfect, they serve to point to the reality that salvation is the Lord’s. He has won it for us, and we may boast in none of it.
“The doctrines of grace stand or fall together, and together they point to one central truth: salvation is all of grace because it is all of God; and because it is all of God, it is all for His glory”James Montgomery Boice
In the theological discipline of soteriology (the study of salvation), there are several different ways in which we can break down commonly held positions over the centuries. One of the sharpest, and most useful, distinctions that can be made is that of synergism and monergism. This overarching distinction seeks to consider the roles of man and God in salvation. All soteriological positions can be placed into three categories based on this distinction.
A brief look at the lexical roots of these words reveals the heart of this position. Monergism is composed of a prefix, root, and suffix. The prefix ‘mono’ means ‘one, only, or singular’. The root ‘erg’ is from an antiquated unit of energy, which is the work done by a force over some distance, derived for the Greek ‘ergon’. The suffix ‘ism’ is well known, and means ‘an action, state, condition, or teaching’. Combing these parts of the word, we see that ‘monergism’ is the teaching of one work. Similarly, breaking down ‘anthropocentric’ into two parts ‘anthropos’ (man; human beings) and ‘centric’ (being at the centre) reveals that we are talking about human beings being the one working party in salvation.
In anthropocentric mongerism, man is the only active party in salvation. Theologically speaking, therefore, man does not need God in order to be saved. This view has a more common name: Pelagianism. Pelagianism is named of the after the Welsh monk, Pelagius, who took argument with a statement from Augustine of Hippo in the 4rd century, and argued for anthropocentric mongerism. Pelagius took issue with Augustine’s statement “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.” It was the first part of that statement that so troubled Pelagius. For him, man had a complete capacity to do whatever good work that God commanded of him, without God’s help. Humanity wasn’t sinful, inherently.
Under this Pelagian framework, God’s Law that He has given is able to fulfilled by man, independent of God’s help. Therefore, the promise of salvation from this world and the promise of eternal life is not a matter of redemption from sin but simply achieving the potential inherent to humanity.
To be fair to Pelagius, he did believe that God did give grace to those that failed, like Adam, to obey God’s command, but he did not believe that grace to be necessary for humans to enter in to eternal life.
Conversely to mongerism, where salvation is attained by the working of one party alone, synergists hold that there is a form of co – operation between God and man. Contrary to Pelagianism, synergism teaches that there has been a fundamental corruption of man’s nature since the fall. Adam’s sin, to a greater or lesser extent, has been passed down to every subsequent human being born of a man and a woman. This is the original sin of humanity.
Therefore, the Pelagian idea that man can simply earn his way to eternal life with God by perfect obedience to His Law is now rendered impossible since man is, by nature, sinful, and is therefore going to be imperfect. Every individual falls short of God’s standard of perfection.
For eternal life, then, God must intervene with grace extended to the sinner. In other words, God’s grace is necessary for salvation.
There are more variations of the synergistic position that would be possible to adequately express, but the most commonly held forms are: Arminianism, Molinism, as well as the (official) soteriological positions of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
This synergistic position also broadly goes under the name of semi – Pelagianism. Although distinct from Pelagianism, syngergism does still maintain that there is some faculty of the sinner to turn himself toward God as an active effort of his or her will. Man is co – operating with God’s grace but man is still involved in the process of salvation. Synergism covers a broad spectrum of views as to the ‘share’ of involvement in salvation that God and man respectively contribute. For example, Roman Catholic theology is much more heavily reliant on man, by his works, keeping himself in a ‘state of grace’ which he or she may lose upon committing a mortal sin and must re – earn the way back into that state of grace according to the sacrament of penance. Conversely, on the other side of the spectrum, Evangelical Arminians boast almost exclusively in God’s saving grace but only assent to man having to accept, receive, and exercise faith in order to be saved. This exercise of faith and acceptance is the work on man, but is the only work necessary – God does all of the rest.
Fundamentally, however, both ends of the spectrum are synergistic and express salvation, to one extent or another, as a form of co – operation between man and God.
Despite sharing the title of ‘mongerism’ with the Pelagian notion of anthropocentric mongerism, this soteriological position is the precise antithesis of Pelagianism. The only thing this position has in common with Pelagianism is that it teaches one worker in salvation. The difference is that one worker is God rather than man. The prefix ‘Theo’ is dervied from ‘Theos’ meaning ‘God’. So, this position is God – centred monergism.
The starting point for this position is similar to that of the synergistic position – man is fallen in Adam’s sin and possess a fundamentally corrupt nature. However, the extent of that corruption is the point of contrast between the two positions. Whilst synergism was semi – Pelagian in that it retained some notion of man being able to exercise his will to come to God, the theocentric monergistic position can be called anti – Pelagian in that it wholly rejects the idea that man can exercise his will to come to God. The corruption of human nature is radical – it cuts to the very core of man’s being. As a result, every action is tainted with sin our natural state is that of enmity with God. Ten times out of ten we will always choose that which is displeasing to God.
Whilst some Arminians on one side of the syngeristic spectrum claim that God does almost everything in the salvation of man, and the sinner must simply exercise faith and accept God’s grace, the monergist rejects this as it rests on the assumption that man has the moral capacity to exercise such faith. Conversely, the monergist says that in their natural state, man cannot exercise any good work, faith or otherwise, and therefore God must first change the nature of the sinner before faith can be exercised.
In other words, the synergist will say that the sinner exercises faith and then is born again, or regenerated. The monergist says that the sinner must be born again before he is able to exercise faith.
Therefore, monergism sees the grace of God not only as necessary for the salvation of sinners, but sufficient as nothing else contributes. The exercise of faith on the part of the believer, in this system, is nothing more than a gift already given by God.
There is a range of beliefs within this position, though not nearly as wide as the synergistic spectrum: Calvinism (both infralapsarian and supralapsarian varieties) and Hyper – Calvinism fall into this category.
The difference between the Calvinist and the Hyper – Calvinist viewpoint is that Hyper – Calvinists will deem it only appropriate to attempt to convert a non – believer to the Christian faith until they see signs of regeneration in them first. Calvinism, on the other hand, maintains that the Gospel is to be proclaimed to everybody, indiscriminately, yet it is ultimately up to God to chose who to to regenerate and give the gift of faith to. In other words, in Calvinism, God decrees the ends as well as the means of salvation, whereas Hyper – Calvinists see only the final end of salvation (or not) as decreed by God.
Personally, I hold to the Calvinistic view of soteriology. I think it clear that the Bible teaches that man is corrupt in his nature to the extent that we cannot come to him by our own free will (Ps. 14, Rom 3:23; 6:20, Eph 2:3 etc). Man cannot, therefore, exercise any good work, as his is incapable of doing so. Even faith must be a gift from God (Eph 2:8 – 9) and we can only accept that faith if our hearts of stone are first changed, by God’s grace, into hearts of flesh. Unfortunately, the synergistic position ultimately puts man as the foundation of his own salvation and therefore deserves some of the glory, though, in the words of Jonah:
“Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9)
The Protestant Reformation is one of the most important events in history. Far from being a relic of the distant past, the theology of the Reformation continues to have profound impact on the lives of many today. Whilst all Protestant churches owe their foundational beliefs to the Reformation, Reformed theology remains largely untouched and, sometimes, wilfully ignored by modern Christians. Indeed, until I was 21, my knowledge of Christian thought was extremely narrow; almost as if there were advanced parts of Christianity to which I was not privy, because studying theology was to be done by ‘those in ministry’. The theological food I was being served in my youth was filling, in that it answered my questions, yet it was bland and unenjoyable. I was satisfied, to an extent, with the answers to difficult questions, but I did not enjoy them – there was no richness or delight to be found. For example, I figured that the best Christians really had to explain the Trinity was “The Trinity is like how water, ice, and steam are the same substance but appear can appear in three different forms” or “Well, it’s not 1+1+1 = 3 but 1×1×1 = 1” or some other, similar response. “If that’s all there is to eat,” I surmised “then I’ll eat it, bland and unintelligible as it is and not complain.” However, years on, having meandered my way entirely accidentally to come to Reformed theology, I am no longer on a spiritual diet that is the equivalent of crackers and tofu but a luxurious gourmet all-you-can-eat buffet, full of rare filet mignon, spicy chicken jalfrezi, and warm apple crumble. Here are 9 things I’ve learned from Reformed theology.
My view of salvation was that it was a state that I had entered into upon making a choice to follow Jesus. We are fully able to make that choice, any one of us, and God is doing His best to save everyone, but we just need to accept His help. Once we choose to take God up on His offer, then we are saved. Jesus died for everyone, and everyone’s sins are paid for, you just need to ‘invite Him into your heart’.
But the Bible never talks about salvation like this. God is always the initiator. If He doesn’t begin His saving work in me, then there is no hope of me being saved! Once I found out that the Bible teaches that we hate God in our natural state (John 3:19-20 etc.) and refuse to come to Him, it became clear that God must first change my heart before I can choose Him. God must destroy our natural heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh before we can come to Christ. In fact, the imagery that the Bible uses is even more stark; we must be brought from spiritual death to spiritual life. God is not waiting for us to accept Him because we can’t; we’re spiritually dead! I was as active in my salvation as Lazarus was in raising himself from the tomb.
Predestination and Free Will
I used to just want the idea, and seemingly inherent contradiction, of predestination and free will to just go away. I wanted to pretend that terms ‘predestination’ and ‘election’ are never ever mentioned in the Bible (they are) and people who mention these terms are using a dodgy translation (they’re not). However, I needed to have at least some answer to this question of predestination. Romans 8 has always been a favourite chapter of mine…except maybe verses 29 and 30 because they had predestination in them so I could have no idea what they meant. So, I settled myself with what is the equivalent of bland theological junk food with phrases like “It’s 100% free will and 100% predestination, simultaneously. It’s just a paradox.” or, similarly, “They are like two parallel lines that meet at infinity” and other such phrases. I was satisfied with this until I read Romans 9 for the first time properly. My nonsensical phrases blew away like chaff in the wind, and my intellectual cowardice had been exposed. I wasn’t solving the problem of predestination and free will by holding to irreconcilable contradictions, I was fleeing from it.
I began to give some serious thought to this issue, and the only way I could ever get these two ideas to reconcile was to change the meaning of either one. Either, we’re not as autonomous as we think we are, or Paul meant something different than what I was assuming election and predestination meant. However, Reformed writers made me realise that nowhere does the Bible even presuppose and assume free will like I was doing. I was warping and bending the text to protect this idea of free will I had to defend at all cost.
It isn’t that we have no will, but that our will is not free – it’s a will in bondage to sin! The concept of a human will in which we are equally free to choose both good and bad is not a Christian idea; it is a pagan concept. We only choose the darkness because we love it; we want to sin so we do and we never want to choose God, so we don’t. Once I understood that, election made sense to me. How can I come to choose God unless He chose me first? I will never choose Him by myself if I am slave to sin. The Reformed faith teaches that because we are slaves to sin, we fully deserve God’s wrath and He is therefore under no obligation to save any of us. Out of His sovereignty, He chooses to display mercy to some, and gives justice to others; in neither instance is there injustice with God. Those who are the elect of God were chosen before the foundations of the world; a people set apart to display God’s grace and His mercy, just as Israel was chosen out of the nations. At the same time, God passes over others, repaying them justice and wrath as their deeds and unbelief deserve. This predestining of some unto salvation is nothing to do with anything God sees in the person, as the Bible maintains it is a gift from God.
It began to strike me as odd how people in the Church would pray for unbelievers. Phrases like “change their hearts” and “reveal Yourself to them” and “draw them close to You” are often used, in all different churches that have very differing views on how salvation comes about.
But I came to see that only Reformed theology was consistent with our prayers. If God is doing what He can to save people, what is the point of asking Him to do anything else? If God couldn’t override the free will of people, then what else could He do? But if God is the one that does all of the saving, without our input, then this makes sense! Since salvation is of the Lord, and He is the one who chooses only then can we pray that God would soften the hearts of those who are hostile to Him. I now know that I can pray for God to drastically intervene in someone’s life and for the Holy Spirit to convict them of their sin and turn, in repentance and faith, to Him because that is their only hope!
It must be simply stated that my view of the Trinity was very confused when I was a much younger Christian. No-one seemed to have provided a meaningful explanation of what we as Christians believed about the Trinity, and this was all mixed up with heretical analogies about water and fire and three-leafed clovers. The objection that the Trinity was contradictory because it’s 3 gods and yet 1 god seemed difficult for me to refute. Moreover, the person of Jesus seemed to me to be very well explained. He was the obvious one. In fact, if you were to talk to me at, say, 17, you might get the impression that I knew and loved this Jesus (almost as much as I loved myself) but be utterly ignorant that I believed in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unless directly asked. It is not that I didn’t believe in the Trinity, but because my knowledge of who the Son is so vastly outweighed my consideration of the other two persons, I couldn’t say anything meaningful. Perhaps, especially in light of some Christian festivals I attended, I could say something about how the Holy Spirit made people speak in nonsense languages and violently shake on the ground, but I couldn’t find much of that in the Bible.
Yet, in the Reformed faith, I have found something truly trinitarian. Not just in name, but in core belief. Firstly, I now understand that the Trinity isn’t some inherent contradiction, but that in the Godhead there exists, and always has existed, one divine being in three united yet distinct, co-eternal and co-equal persons. The Father is neither created nor begotten, the Son begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son, each with equal glory yet they have distinct workings. In salvation, for example, the decree of election flows from the will of the Father as He bequeaths the elect to His Son, who purchases their redemption by His obedience on earth as a man when He lived, died, and rose again, and who with the Father sends the Spirit, to work in the lives of men and women, convicting them in their sin, and leading them to the truth. This is the trinitarian gospel and we can give thanks and praise to each person of the Trinity for their work in our salvation!
A great failing of the churches or parachurch activities I’d been involved in is that sin was always minimised to as to make it, not acceptable, but less offensive to ‘sensitive ears’. Words were even used that would make our sin appear almost harmless or accidental. Phrases like “Jesus takes our messiness” or “God can forgive your mistakes” were prevalent in how I formed the concept of wrongdoing against God.
This strategy was abysmally insufficient to help me understand how serious sinning against a holy God is. A mistake is missing your exit on the motorway, or spelling ‘accommodation’ with only one ‘m’. Sin is the breaking of God’s holy law; it is treason in the presence of the King. I would come to think things like “I really didn’t sin much today” whereas I now realise that I don’t think I have ever kept the commandment to love the Lord with my heart, soul, and mind. I constantly fail to love my neighbour as myself. I am often envious of others, constantly selfish, and devote myself to the idols of my life almost unceasingly. In fact, I am chief of all sinners (Paul only said that he was the worst of all sinners in 1 Tim 1:15 because he hadn’t met me yet) and before I realised this truth, I had no real urgency in killing my sin. As the Puritan writer John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you”. I only wanted some of the bigger ‘mistakes’ I had made to be taken care of by God, instead of realising that I need to constantly repentant of all of my evils that are utterly repugnant to the Lord and start putting my old ways to death so I can serve Him!
Quaint phrases and good ideas that ‘sounded right’ would often dominate my Christian thought. This is evident in my thoughts about free will that I have mentioned before and in other areas I am no different. It is amazing to me how much rubbish I manage to pick up out of the ether; things I have just assumed about Christianity because they ‘seemed about right’. But, because I did not understand the Bible’s true authority on my life my mantra became “I like to think of God as…” or “I don’t think God would…”.
Now, I can see that I was just creating a god in my own image. As Christians, we ought to be able to provide a justification for our beliefs in Scripture. The Bible is not just “Best Instructions Before Leaving Earth”, like it is some sort of manual but it is the Holy Word of God and should be the foundation of our entire worldview. It’s standards are absolute and its decrees and decisions final. The Bible is inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. That means that no matter what I think God might be like, or how I think He might want me to act, if there does not exist a sound Scriptural reasoning for my convictions, then I am wrong. The truth is not found in my feelings and emotions, but in His Word. With this comes the obligation of discernment; testing the concepts of man, however good they sound, against the Word of God.
Creed, Catechism, and Confession
To be frank, I had never been told what a catechism was, nor had I heard of confessions of faith, and the two creeds that I did know were just things recited at communion services as part of the liturgy. I don’t think I had even heard that the denomination that I grew up in, the Church of England, had a doctrinal confession until I was around 20. In fact, the Christianity to which I held was almost entirely devoid of historical truth and the idea of setting out specific beliefs to which I hold, and building on men of great faith who had gone before, was entirely foreign.
Whilst I am still new, in general, to catechesis and confessionalism, I can now appreciate their importance in keeping the body of believers within doctrinal boundaries. Without confessional Christianity, we are wandering blindly in the dark. Perhaps we will find our way eventually, but more than likely we will go astray and will be ignorant of the monsters that lie in the shadows. The creeds and confessions exist to give a sound guide by which we may navigate the faith, whilst catechesis serves to help us remember these truths and teach them to others. Whilst all these resources are not infallible or inspired like Scripture, they are incredibly useful for examining, strengthening, and defending the Christian faith.
My view of the sacraments was, one might say, loose. Other than necessary components for the Christian life because the Lord commanded these rituals in memory of Him, I wasn’t really sure why we baptised or distributed the bread and wine at communion. Also, why did people care what the ‘proper’ way to administer these sacraments was? Isn’t it just personal preference? What if I wanted to have communion with crisps and apple juice, what was the difference, ultimately?
In other words, my view of these sacraments was so low it could have dropped though the floor. While Reformed theology has never come to a unanimous consensus to how we should administer these sacraments, it is evident to me that these parts of our Christian life are vitally important and our disagreements matter, even if they should not divide us. These are the signs and seals of the covenant of grace that God Himself made with man. Our baptism should be treasured because it should be an outward mark of our remission sin and our union with Christ, as true believers. At the Lord’s table, we should come and examine ourselves in the light of the cross, remembering all that Christ did for us when He shed His blood and broke His body and to spiritually receive and feed upon Him. In fact, so important are these means of grace towards us that the Bible says that, if we “eat and drink without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself.” (1 Cor 11:29). These sacraments should be guarded and treasured in the hearts of every believer and we should praise God every time we witness a baptism or partake of the Lord’s Supper for His grace in giving us these signs and seals of His marvellous promises!
With a lot of modern church worship, especially those that strive to follow in the footsteps of the large megachurches around the world, the focus is very much on developing a feeling within the congregation – specifically in times of song. Some would go so far as to say it is emotionally manipulative but I think a more accurate term is emotionally driven. In fact, a lot of singing in praise felt more like a concert or performance than anything else. However, I was entirely comfortable with this frame of corporate worship as an immature Christian and I did not think much of it.
I never understood, for a long time, that there really exists correct and incorrect ways of worshipping God. Biblically, there does exists a category of worship that we can define as ‘unacceptable’ – just ask Nadab and Abihu. However, largely speaking, although the manner in which we worship was something I was challenged about first, it is the content of the worship that I continue to struggle with. The Reformed faith places such an emphasis not only on the Scriptures but in sound theology that a lot (not all, but a lot) of the modern praise songs come across as repetitive, shallow, and self-focused. It’s too much about us; too much about how our faith makes us feel, and worship should not be based on our feelings. It’s not a question of style, but about content. As the modern church, we have slowly embraced an affective principle of worship, rather than a regulative or even normative principle.
Finally, I now realise how important the ‘corporate’ is in our corporate worship. A quick look at Colossians 3:16 shows us “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Our singing in praise should be from the gospel, for one another, and to the Lord. When was the last time a song at church taught you something that made you go away and study the concept after church, or ask your minister? When was the last time a song at church admonished you? There is a sense in which we must teach and admonish our brothers and sisters in the church, week by week, in the things of the gospel through our songs. This is just one of the many reasons why the Reformed faith considers the regular attendance of a local congregation of such vital importance. If I am gaining the same spiritual benefit by listening to hymns on my own and singing praise with my church family, then there is something wrong with how I view worship.
In essence, what the Reformed faith has taught me is how valuable the five points of the Reformation are, and how to live by them. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) – that the Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith and has unique authority in Christian lives. Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) – that God saves us by nothing but pure grace. Sola Fide (Faith Alone) – that this grace in us is manifested in our faith, that gives us union with Christ, and the only basis for our salvation. Solus Christus (Christ Alone) – that this faith must be placed in the person and work Jesus Christ alone. Soli Deo Gloria (The Glory of God Alone) – that all we are, and all we do, is to bring glory to the God who saved us!