Last night I taught on Soteriology (the theology of salvation) at my local church’s leadership training meeting. I gave about a 50 minute survey on some of the primary aspects of Biblical Soteriology, and as could be expected, many comments were made regarding Calvinism and Arminianism both in the teaching and in the Q & A which followed. After the meeting was over, a dear brother expressed sentiments about our session. He was convinced that the doctrine of Salvation had been convoluted by our focus on the differences between the two Soteriological views. This was the flavor of his concern: “I’m not so sure that talking about Calvinism and Arminianism is necessary or helpful. We should just talk about salvation according to the Bible.”
At face value this sounds like a noble desire. But I don’t believe we’ve been afforded that luxury as church leaders in the 21st century. Of course, Scripture alone is authoritative, and we don’t preach Calvin or anyone else… “we preach Christ.” That said, for centuries men have understood major aspects of the salvation Christ gives in different ways, and they were working with Scripture when they did it. The same is true today, so I’m writing this article to offer a few thoughts about it.
I’d like to share why I’m convinced of point #1 below, then 7 reasons why I’m convinced of the 2nd point. Here are the two points:
1. Biblical Soteriological clarity matters.
2. Understanding Calvinism and Arminianism is important for the church today, especially its leaders.
BIBLICAL SOTERIOLOGICAL CLARITY MATTERS
First, clarity about the Doctrine of Salvation matters because the Scriptures have much to say about the message of Gospel-salvation, the purpose of salvation, and the way salvation takes place.
To be brief on this point, let us consider two passages. We could consider hundreds of passages, but these will suffice.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” -1 Tim. 3.14-17
In this exhortation, Paul exhorts Timothy to “continue” in what he has learned and “firmly believed”; namely, that which he has learned from those who taught him “the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Christian faith is not untethered from “the sacred writings,” as if blindly reaching out “in our hearts” and believing whatever comes to mind will do us any good at all. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom.10.17) It comes by becoming “acquainted with the sacred writings;” by coming to understand specific, glorious, Biblical truths. Timothy had come to “learn” and “firmly believe” the Scriptures. He did not to have flimsy or whimsical thoughts about eternal matters, and that’s because he didn’t fabricate his doctrine. It came from “the sacred writings.”
It is a tragic thing to find, as we sometimes do in our day, professing believers who don’t “firmly believe” anything. They wish to cater to this relativistic age and are unwilling to search the Scriptures for anchors of faith. But the Scriptures have much to say to us, and they are sufficient to make us “wise for salvation” when “united with faith.” (Heb. 4.2) “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete…” These Scriptures establish and inform our faith, and faith in the truth of Scripture protects, keeps, and matures us. By faith and Scripture we are equipped for “every good work.” “All Scripture” matters for “every good work.” The two cannot be separated.
One more verse from the next chapter of 1 Timothy:
“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” -1 Tim. 4.16
Paul charges Timothy to “keep a close watch” on himself and on “the teaching,” or “the doctrine.” By persisting in this holy watch, he is told that he will “save” both himself and his hearers. This certainly applies to the Doctrine of Salvation as it may be discovered in the Scriptures. Biblical Soteriology is a vital piece of the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20.27), and the teaching regarding salvation should only be entrusted to faithful men who have proven themselves able to revere and handle the word of truth rightly. (2 Tim. 2.2) All Scriptural truth matters, so yes, Biblical Soteriology matters.
We could cite many other portions of Scripture to drive this point home, but this much is sufficient to establish the truth that all the doctrines “breathed-out” by God in Scripture are infinitely important, including the Bible’s doctrine regarding Salvation.
All true believers should agree with what I’ve written up to this point. If they don’t yet, they should, and if they have the Spirit of God, I trust they eventually will. But does an understanding of Calvinism and Arminianism really matter? Does it not cloud the conversation to think about the two views, and should we not simply stick to what we see in the Bible? That is what we will consider for the rest of this article.
DOES UNDERSTANDING CALVINISM AND ARMINIANISM MATTER?
Having established that all doctrine matters, including the doctrine of salvation, let us now think about the question my brother raised last night.
Here are 7 reasons why understanding Calvinism and Arminianism matters for the ongoing upbuilding of the Church.
1. It matters because the Bible has specific things to say about Soteriology, and the two views help us to think through specific passages that are pertinent to salvation. The fact that faithful men of God on both sides of the issue (take Whitefield and Wesley, for instance) have interpreted Soteriological passages differently for hundreds of years should tip us off to the need to consider them. In point of fact, many of the arguments raised in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate go back much further than the 16th century. Discussions about many of the same points have been had at great length during previous periods of church history, the Biblical ‘tennis match’ between Augustine and Pelagius being one prevalent example. Certainly, most of the questions raised in these debates are actually addressed in the Bible itself. Calvinism and Arminianism are not islands unto themselves. After all, while neither Calvin nor Arminius are authoritative as Scripture is, they were in fact laboring to grasp and teach the Scriptures. They certainly made mistakes on certain points, but haven’t we also? It would be naive to say that they have nothing to teach us.
2. A great many professing believers, perhaps a majority, have never seriously studied the many Bible passages which pertain to Soteriology, even many who would consider themselves Calvinists or Arminians. Many have been raised with one view or the other being prominent in their churches, and it would do them well to understand why Calvinists and Arminians interpret Scripture the way that they do, rather than identifying rather blindly with one camp or the other. Other professing believers have simply neglected the pertinent passages altogether and treated Soteriological specifics in an agnostic way, as if no clarity regarding details of salvation is available to us at all. This should not be.
3. The subjects covered in the Calvinist/Arminian discussion are largely Biblical subjects: Election, Predestination, Sin/Depravity, Regeneration, Atonement, Sanctification, Perseverance, and topics like these. Here is a certain fact: The Calvinist/Arminian debate wouldn’t exist if men didn’t care to understand what the Scriptures actually mean; what Jesus really meant in John 1.9-13, 3.1-21, 6.35-40… what Luke really meant in Acts 2.22-24, 13.48… what Paul really meant in Ephesians 1-2 and Romans 8-9… what Peter really meant in 2 Peter 3.9… what John meant in 1 John 2.2, etc. In my experience, many (most?) believers who claim that the Calvinist/Arminian conversation is superfluous or unnecessary haven’t really understood the conversation itself, and can not tell you what they actually believe the Bible says about Soteriological subjects. I’ve heard people say things like, “I’m not into that ‘election’ stuff. I just love Jesus.” The problem, of course, is that the Bible itself is the book that introduces the theme of election to its readers. That’s why faithful leaders have studied and discussed it over the years. It may be evidence of pride to say that the Calvinist/Arminian conversation doesn’t matter, especially if we can’t “rightly handle the word of truth” with regard to the Biblical subjects and passages being discussed. If you don’t like Calvin’s understanding of Predestination, for instance, but have no idea what the Bible means by Predestination, you’re not prepared- at least in this area- to teach others. Perhaps some of the teachers you’ve avoided may be able to help you. Have you considered that? The paramount issue is studying, obeying and delighting in Scripture itself, but reading from the works of past and present teachers (especially good ones) is beneficial to our own study and teaching of Scripture.
4. The way that the vast majority of believers understand the Biblical subjects exampled in point 3 (above) is usually somewhere close to either the Calvinist or Arminian arguments. Many claim to be “in the middle somewhere,” but when you get down to the nitty gritty with specific Scriptures, they haven’t much to say about the actual truths themselves. Most believers find, once they really give time to the Scriptures, that they understand Soteriology with some proximity to one or the other side of the historic argument. To say, “Both Calvinists and Arminians are wrong altogether!” smacks of pride, ignorance, and an unwillingness to live in a teachable way. It’s also a convenient and terrible way to relate to the many faithful believers who have studied the Scriptures along these lines. One can certainly have differences on certain points of either view (or both views), but it isn’t healthy to neglect the larger points emphasized in each of them. Pulling the “mystery card” may work for a few categories of theology, but the mystery card is often an excuse for our unwillingness to study the Scriptures with the kind of care they deserve. Too often it is just that- a low view of massive portions of the Bible. It’s important to be able to discuss these matters, especially if we’re not new believers. With regard to the Atonement, election, predestination, and all matters pertaining to salvation, mature believers should be able to teach them from the Bible, even if aspects of these subjects fall into the category of the “secret things” which “belong to the Lord.” (Deut. 29.29) To be sure, the Biblical truths discussed in Soteriology are not all “secret things.” Most of them are disclosed- not concealed- in the Scriptures, and are therefore “the things that are revealed” which “belong to us and to our children forever.” (also Deut. 29.29) It will not do to avoid the primary themes involved in the conversation, even if one wouldn’t claim the title of Calvinist or Arminian.
5. Since Calvinists and Arminians have for hundreds of years debated the meaning of specific Biblical passages (sometimes healthily, sometimes unhealthily), there are many in the Body of Christ who see themselves as being identified with one view or the other, and they are our brothers and sisters. If we are to lead the Church faithfully, if we are to fellowship in truth with all the saints, if we are to make disciples, we should understand these views so that we can better relate to those who hold them as precious, as well as those who are seeking to understand them. We also need to be equipped to challenge any excesses with the sure word of Scripture. We should know that it makes it difficult for members of the church to respect their leaders and teachers if those leaders and teachers have studied matters like these less than they have, especially if their leaders and teachers write these matters off as unimportant altogether. If you’re a leader in the Body of Christ but have nothing to say about the Biblical subjects covered in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, many of your people won’t trust you when you say, “The debate is unimportant. We should just focus on Biblical salvation.” They will wonder what you mean by “Biblical salvation,” and if all you say is, “Christ died to save us” (central marvelous truth!), they will have many lingering questions about the many Scriptures which speak of further Soteriological matters. They will wonder if you think your interpretation of Scripture is superior to thousands of faithful teachers and preachers, both past and present, who have sought to understand and teach “the whole counsel of God.” Without being able to teach clearly on these matters, they will find it unnecessarily difficult to trust your leadership, and they will not be totally unjustified in doing so. We’ve been charged to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1.3), and that includes Biblical Soteriology.
6. It’s important to understand Calvinism and Arminianism if we would promote the unity of the Body. If we don’t really understand the two views, we run the risk of subjecting ourselves and our people to the caricaturing of one another, to unnecessary divisions, and to theological and spiritual immaturity. Calvinists and Arminians often misunderstand and belittle one another. They need mature believers to teach them how to fellowship over the Scriptures without devouring one another. They need to help the saints not angrily quote John 3.16 or John 1.13 at one another, as if the one with the opposing view had never read it before; as if every relevant verse in the Bible hadn’t been explained and worked through hundreds of times over by brothers and sisters on both sides of the issue for hundreds of years! But if you don’t understand what they’re debating and why it’s important, you won’t be able to steer them in the right direction, nor to identify how they’re misunderstanding each other or misunderstanding the Scriptures. Understanding the main points of discussion between the two views (and the Soteriological Bible passages being discussed) isn’t all that we need if we would teach God’s people, but it is very important, as I hope I’ve shown here.
7. It is vital for all Christians, and especially those leading the Church, to have clear convictions on matters of Orthodoxy, as well as matters of 2nd and 3rd level importance. Many of the issues discussed in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate are matters of Orthodoxy, and slippage into hyper-Calvinism or hyper-Arminianism can bring about destructive doctrine and actions in the lives of our people.
Surely shepherding the flock of God demands our attention to these matters, among many others. One doesn’t need to identify as a Calvinist or Arminian to be a faithful leader in the Body of Christ, but he should be privy to the relevant arguments. He should have clear conviction regarding the Biblical themes and passages that the two views have debated over the centuries, and he should trust the Lord who inspired these themes to be unfolded in “the sacred writings.” Only by leaning harder into Scripture, prayer and study, and by doing it together as the Church, will “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Eph. 4.13-14)
What is true of an elder/overseer should be true of all mature believers:
“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” -Titus 1.9
May we all, like Timothy, become increasingly “acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make” us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.“
To God “be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Eph. 3.21)