Many people claim that John Calvin was against missions and that those who call themselves Calvinists or ascribe to the 5-points of Calvinism are anti-missional in their thinking. Is that true? Does the belief in a robust God who saves spiritually dead sinners create cold hearts who resist any work of gospel missions among the neighborhoods and the nations?
Over the past several years, the population of men and women who embrace the doctrines often called Calvinism has drastically increased within the evangelical church—notably so within the Southern Baptist Convention. This has caused many to question their beliefs, examine their positions, and in some cases, to take up the sword and fight. The common charge is that anyone who’s a Calvinist is also a hyper-Calvinist—someone who opposes the spread of the gospel. First of all, there must be a distinction between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism (just as there must be a distinction between the First Baptist Church in your local community and Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas). Calvinism is not hyper-Calvinism and before we label someone a heretic, we must understand that vocabulary choices matter.
John Calvin’s Missionary Zeal
Did John Calvin teach people to hide the gospel under a basket (Matt. 5:14-16)? The very moment that you stop listening to horrible sermons, inaccurate lectures in Bible college and seminary settings, and stop reading historically and intellectually dishonest blogs in the Internet, you will actually discover something rather refreshing about this often hated figure from church history. John Calvin was not only a man with a passion for preaching the Bible, he was also a zealous hearted, missions focused preacher.
As Calvin’s preaching thundered from his pulpit in Geneva, he was preparing men to go and lead churches in France. He organized, trained, developed, and sent out hundreds of these zealous hearted missionaries who proclaimed the good news of the gospel. These missionaries stood upon the firm foundation of a robust sovereign grace. As these men were convinced of God’s sovereignty in salvation, such knowledge became the fuel in the furnace of their hearts as they went out to plant churches and preach the gospel. By 1562, Calvin (with the aid of other surrounding cities) had planted over 2,000 churches in France. Some of the missionaries who were sent out from Calvin’s church died as martyrs. Does this sound like a hyper-Calvinist to you?
The hyper-Calvinist rejects any effort to proclaim the gospel to the non-elect. Rather than preaching the gospel indiscriminately and allowing God to bring sinners to faith, the hyper-Calvinist resists any attempt to offer the gospel to those who aren’t the elect of God. Does this sound like the ministry of John Calvin? Edward Panosian writes the following:
From that city [Geneva], hundreds of missionaries, evangelists, and pastors traveled to all corners of the continent preaching the gospel. Their efforts, sometimes sealed with a martyr’s blood but always crowned with success, thrilled Calvin. 
Harry R. Leader points out that “Calvin’s beloved France, through his ministry, was invaded by more than thirteen hundred Geneva-trained missionaries.”  Why would someone who rejected the idea that we need to send out missionaries to preach the gospel actually send out hundreds of trained missionaries to preach the gospel?
I’ve read about (never met an actual hyper-Calvinist other than the Westboro group) people who were hyper-Calvinistic in their theology, and they would never send missionaries out to spread the good news of Christ. They would consider it a waste of time and effort. One such figure from church history was named John Ryland, and he rebuked William Carey for inquiring about “using means” to reach unbelievers (it should be noted that it was William Carey, the Calvinist, who was trying to organize a missions effort).
The Missions Preaching of John Calvin
No hyper-Calvinist would preach with a missionary zeal as was consistently evident in the preaching ministry of Calvin. In a sermon titled, “The Call to Witness” Calvin preached from 2 Timothy 1:8-9. He made this powerful statement:
If the gospel be not preached, Jesus Christ is, as it were, buried. Therefore, let us stand as witnesses, and do him this honor, when we see all the world so far out of the way; and remain steadfast in this wholesome doctrine. . . . Let us here observe that St. Paul condemns our unthankfulness, if we be so unfaithful to God, as not to bear witness of his gospel; seeing he hath called us to it.
The preaching ministry of a hyper-Calvinist is cold, lifeless, and without passion for the lost world. That doesn’t describe the preaching of John Calvin. For instance, in a sermon on Isaiah 12:5, he said the following:
[Isaiah] shows that it is our duty to proclaim the goodness of God to every nation. While we exhort and encourage others, we must not at the same time sit down in indolence, but it is proper that we set an example before others; for nothing can be more absurd than to see lazy and slothful men who are exciting other men to praise God.
John Calvin was not only a faithful expositor of God’s Word and a defender of the true faith, he was also a zealous proclaimer of the faith. He preached with trumpet zeal and passionately pointed people to Jesus Christ. In a letter to five missionaries who had been arrested and were facing death, John Calvin wrote a letter to them on May 15th, 1553. Here is what he said:
Since it pleases him [i.e. God] to employ you to the death in maintaining his quarrel [with the world], he will strengthen your hands in the fight, and will not suffer a single drop of your blood to be spent in vain. And though the fruit may not all at once appear, yet in time it shall spring up more abundantly than we can express. But as he hath vouchsafed you this privilege, that your bonds have been renowned, and that the noise of them has been everywhere spread abroad, it must needs be, in despite of Satan, that your death should resound far more powerfully, so that the name of our Lord be magnified thereby. For my part, I have no doubt, if it please this kind Father to take you unto himself, that he has preserved you hitherto, in order that your long-continued imprisonment might serve as a preparation for the better awakening of those whom be has determined to edify by your end. For let enemies do their utmost, they never shall be able to bury out of sight that light which God has made to shine in you, in order to be contemplated from afar. 
Hyper-Calvinists are heretics who oppose the open preaching of the gospel and never engage in missions. Whatever your opinion of John Calvin is, let’s be sure to make this clear point—he was no hyper-Calvinist. The towering figure of Geneva who labored in his expository preaching, trained missionaries, and prepared them to die well—was no heretic. We must be careful to learn church history from accurate records and to use vocabulary carefully.
If the missionary preaching of John Calvin’s ministry is what it means to be a Calvinist, may the Lord raise up many more.
- Edward Panosian, “John Calvin: The Theologian” in Faith of Our Fathers, ed. James Cardinal Gibbons, (New York: Aeterna Press, 2015), 109.
- Harry R. Leader, “The Churchman of the Reformation” in John Calvin: A Heart for Doctrine and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons, (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2008), 68.
- Letter 318 [in Jules Bonnet, ed., Letters of John Calvin, tr. Mr. Constable (1858 ed.; repr. New York: Lenox Hill Pub. & Dist. Co., 1972), II, 406].
Last week, I was interviewed by Chris Arnzen on his radio show, Iron Sharpens Iron, on the subject of hyper-Calvinism. It caused me to think about this subject and the importance of using vocabulary properly. As the father of a type 1 diabetic, I spend much of my time explaining to people in random conversations that type 1 diabetes (T1D) is not the same thing as type 2 diabetes (T2D). Therefore, let me begin by clearly stating this point—Calvinism is not hyper-Calvinism. When I engage in conversation with people who want to discuss Calvinism, I’m happy to do so, but I want to be sure that we’re using the same dictionary.
What is Calvinism?
Calvinism is a system of theology that seeks to systemize the teachings of Scripture on the subject of salvation. What is the relationship between the absolute sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man? This is the central issue of Calvinism. It takes the name of the Reformer John Calvin, who was a passionate preacher of Scripture in the Sixteenth Century in Geneva, Switzerland. During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers were seeking to unleash the true gospel from the intense strangle hold of the Roman Catholic Church. It was through this period of time that the Bible was being printed in the common language of the people and was simultaneously being proclaimed expositionally.
A group of followers of Jacobus Arminius who studied under Theodore Beza (a disciple of John Calvin) drafted a document known as the Remonstrance. It was a detailed refutation of the sovereignty of God in salvation. It elevated the free will of man above the sovereign initiative and power of God. These people were known as Arminians. Their doctrine would eventually become known as Arminianism.
An official meeting, known as the Synod of Dordt, was held in 1619 in order to respond to the submission of the Arminians in their Remonstrance. The overall conclusion was that the Remonstrance was incorrect and that the biblical view of salvation teaches that God is the author and finisher of saving grace. The “five points” of Calvinism came as an answer to the unscriptural five points authored by the Arminians in 1610 me eventually were organized with an acronym T.U.L.I.P. To explain the key teachings.
Historical Timeline Surrounding the Doctrines Known as “Calvinism”
440 Bishop Leo of Rome becomes “Bishop of Bishops.” Asserts Primacy of Rome over the Church; Dark Ages Begin.
1382 John Wycliffe translates Bible.
1384 John Wycliffe martyred by Rome.
1439 (Approximate) Printing press invented.
1517 Luther Nails 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church Door; The Reformation begins (Post Tenebras Lux).
1522 Luther’s New Testament.
1526 Tyndale’s New Testament.
1536 William Tyndale Martyred by Rome; Institutes of the Christian Religion (John Calvin).
1553 Bloody Mary becomes queen of England and restores power to the RCC. During
Mary’s reign, more than 300 Protestants are burned. John Rogers (publisher of the Matthew’s Bible) is the first to be burned at the stake. Many Protestants flee from England to Geneva.
1559 Calvin opens his college in Geneva. Within five years the college would have over 1500 students.
1560 The Geneva Bible is printed. It was the first Bible with verse references and sold over one million copies between 1560 and 1640. John Foxe publishes Foxe’s book of Martyrs.
1561 Belgic Confession (Guido de Bres).
1563 Heidelberg Catechism (Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus).
1564 John Calvin Dies.
1571 The Synod of Emden (birth of the Dutch Reformed Church).
1609 Jacobus Arminius dies.
1610 Remonstrance (Arminians or Remonstrants led by Johannes Uytenbogaert).
1611 Counter-Remonstrance (led by Pieter Platevoet).
1618 Opening of the Synod of Dort & Opinions of the Remonstrants.
1619 Synod Dismisses the Arminians & Adopts the Canons (AKA – 5-Points of Calvinism).
The system known as Calvinism is really five counter points to Arminianism. Years later, Wesley adopted the Arminian position and thus the Methodist movement was born. Although there are certain exceptions, historically, Baptists and Presbyterians have been more Calvinistic and opposed to the doctrines of Arminianism while the Methodists and groups such as the Assemblies of God have embraced the doctrines known as Arminianism. Today, Calvinism is sometimes known by titles such as Reformed theology and the doctrines of grace.
What is Hyper-Calvinism?
Hyper-Calvinism is not a term used for those who are overly passionate about Calvinism. That’s actually what we refer to as “cage stage Calvinism.” When understood properly, hyper-Calvinism is a technical term for an extreme and unbiblical view that rejects any need for Christians to engage in missions and evangelism. Simply put, hyper-Calvinists forbid the preaching of the gospel and the offer of salvation to the non-elect. Such people believe that God has chosen people in Christ in eternity past and will bring about His results without the help of His people. Hyper-Calvinism is heresy and must be rejected.
To illustrate the views of hyper-Calvinism, consider what happened during a pastors’ meeting years ago. A man named William Carey wanted to organize an effort to get the gospel to what he called heathen nations. Carey stood up and addressed the crowd by requesting that they discuss “the duty of Christians to attempt to spread the gospel among the heathen nations.” Mr. Ryland, and older minister, exclaimed loudly, “Sit down, young man! When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.” Carey did not stop. His allegiance was to Christ – not Mr. Ryland. Carey went to India and proclaimed the good news of Christ.
Carey would write a book titled – An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of Heathens. He would argue his case that we should use means to reach heathens – contrary to what Mr. Ryland – the elder minister said in his meeting as he scolded the young Carey for bringing up the subject.
William Carey, in his Enquiry, wrote: “It seems as if many thought the commission was sufficiently put in execution by what the apostles and others have done; that we have enough to do to attend to the salvation of our own countrymen; and that, if God intends the salvation of the heathen, he will some way or other bring them to the gospel, or the gospel to them. It is thus that multitudes sit at ease, and give themselves no concern about the far greater part of their fellow sinners, who to this day, are lost in ignorance and idolatry.”
It must be pointed out that William Carey was a Calvinist. Although William Carey had only a grammar school education – he would shake the world with the gospel. Carey once preached a sermon where he stated – “Expect Great Things – Attempt Great Things.” It was later added – “Expect Great Things From God – Attempt Great Things For God.” That’s exactly what he did as he proclaimed the true gospel of King Jesus. India would never be the same. The world would never be the same. The way the church viewed missions would never be the same – because of this Christ-exalting Calvinist that has become known to us as the “father of modern missions.”
What’s the Difference?
The difference between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism is the distance between heaven and hell. Calvinism is full of life and passion for God and desires to make God’s glory shine among the nations. Hyper-Calvinism is lifeless heresy that damns people to hell, kills evangelism, and ruins churches. Take a good look at the missionary movement of church history and you will see Calvinists leading the charge. Men like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Charles Spurgeon were all Calvinists. Many people overlook the missionary heart of John Calvin himself. He trained and sent out many missionaries who passionately preached the truth. Many of these men were martyred for their faith.
The next time you’re talking to someone with type 1 diabetes, just remember—it’s not the same thing as type 2 diabetes. Also, the next time you’re talking to a Calvinist, remember, Calvinism is not hyper-Calvinism. To call faithful Calvinistic Christians hyper-Calvinists is to consign a massive number of people from church history to the flames of hell (including people like Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, Martin Luther, Andrew Fuller, Adoniram Judson, and George Whitefield). What’s the difference between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism? Calvinism proclaims the true gospel while hyper-Calvinism proclaims no gospel at all.
Iron Sharpens Iron Radio show – Tuesday (11-15-16)
First of all, the New Calvinism isn’t all that new. This is a movement that’s relatively young in terms of church history, but it’s not a new movement in recent years. In 2008, Collin Hansen published a book titled: Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists and in doing so, coined the phrase Young, Restless, Reformed. In the following year, Time Magazine published a series of articles beneath the umbrella of “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” The third article in the series was written by David Van Biema titled, “The New Calvinism.” In his article, Biema writes:
Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin’s 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism’s buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism’s latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time’s dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.
In terms of the movement – the New Calvinism is very fluid and difficult to fully define. It’s hard to get your hands around the entire movement, especially since the group is no longer explicitly young and not completely restless. Although a difficult task, it is my goal to provide a working definition of the New Calvinism that goes beyond the mere descriptive cliché that’s often thrown around in blogs, books, and sermons.
Where Did the New Calvinism Come From?
Mark Dever asked a very important question in an article titled “Where’d All These Calvinists Come From?” where he documented the resurgence of Calvinism in our present day. Mark Dever provided a list of reasons why a growing resurgence on Reformed doctrine seems to be taking place especially among those born in the 1970s and 1980s. His list included the following:
- C.H. Spurgeon
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
- Banner of Truth Trust
- Evangelism Explosion
- The Inerrancy Controversy
- The Presbyterian Church in America
- J.I. Packer
- R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur
- John Piper
- The Rise of Secularism and Decline of Christian Nominalism
Mark Dever writes, “Reformed theology, on the other hand, teaches about a god who is GOD. The kind of objections that seem to motivate Arminianism are disallowed by the very presuppositions Calvinism understands the Bible to teach about God. This God is sovereign and exercises His sovereignty. This God is centered on Himself. And this God is understood to be morally good in being so Self-centered. In fact, it would be evil, wrong, deceptive for Him to be centered on anything other than His own glory. There is no apology about this.”
In a unique manner, Tim Challies has provided a helpful (although in need of an update) infographic where he has charted the resurgence of Reformed doctrine in our modern evangelical culture. According to his infographic that begins with John Piper’s book Desiring God in 1986 and moves through the inaugural CROSS Conference in 2014. Tim Challies points out writings, conferences, cultural issues, media advancements, music and ministries that have led to the rise of the New Calvinism. Make no mistake, technology has been a massive catalyst to the uprising of Calvinistic soteriology and Tim Challies’ blog has been a driving force within this category.
Before there was a Charles Spurgeon and a John Piper, there were others such as the Puritans and the Reformers who stood valiantly to defend the doctrines of grace beneath the looming and dangerous power of the Roman Catholic Church. Where did John Calvin get his Calvinism? As Charles Spurgeon once said in his “A Defense of Calvinism” – “It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.” In other words, Calvinism comes from the pure doctrines of Scripture and as the church is moved to the Word of God with confidence, she becomes convinced of the pure teachings of Scripture; a big God, a glorious salvation, and all of this is by God’s initiative and for His glory. If the Bible is inerrant – the doctrines of grace as taught in the Bible must be embraced as truth.
Toward a Definition of the New Calvinism
The New Calvinism movement presupposes a Calvinistic doctrine which is often used interchangeably with Reformed doctrine. Calvinism remains the definitive term associated with the teachings of the Reformation. Although John Calvin never organized and named a theology after himself, his name remains synonymous with the doctrines of grace. To be Reformed means to embrace the doctrines known as Calvinism, at minimum, on the doctrine of salvation.
R.C. Sproul writes, “The late theologian Cornelius Van Til once made the observation that Calvinism is not to be identified with the so-called five points of Calvinism. Rather, Van Til concluded that the five points function as a pathway, or a bridge, to the entire structure of Reformed theology.” It’s important to realize that there is much more to Reformed doctrine than merely the doctrine of soteriology, although that is the basic foundational level.
To be Reformed is to be something different than Roman Catholic. In terms of family debate, to be Reformed is to be something different than Arminian. The core focus of this debate is upon the doctrine of salvation. Exactly how does a big God save wretched sinners? This is the key question that ultimately determines what end of the spectrum you land upon.
The movement known as the New Calvinism is constantly changing and morphing like the weather in – well, most cities. Just when you think you’ve got a grasp on it, something will happen to make you question yourself such as John Piper’s invitation to Rick Warren to join him at a Desiring God National Conference where he claimed to believe the doctrine of Unconditional Election.  Jeremy Walker is helpful as he writes in his book titled, The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment:
Any survey and assessment of this order is admittedly like a snapshot of a recently discovered animal: just when you think you have captured the essence of the creature it moves again and you discover something new. As such, a final or conclusive assessment is not immediately possible. 
Therefore, New Calvinism as a movement can be defined as an eclectic and at times edgy group of multi-ethnic, multi-denominational, and age-diverse Reformed people from all parts of the world who are hungry for a big sovereign God. These people are Christ-exalting, Spirit-driven, missions-motivated, and Bible-believing Christians who are seeking to know God, worship God, serve God, and bring glory to God. For quite some time, this movement was known as the Young, Restless, and Reformed. The New Calvinism movement remains young in terms of a movement, but the people who make up the movement are not necessarily young. Today there are many older people who have come to be identified among this movement.
Is this movement always Christ-exalting, Spirit-driven, missions-motivated, and Bible-believing? The clear answer is – no. All movements have problems over time, sin that enters the camp, and issues that must be faced. The New Calvinism movement is no exception. Is the New Calvinism movement a true Reformation? I genuinely hope so, but only time will tell. In some ways it would be better to strive for historic Calvinism as opposed to the edgy, and at times sketchy, New Calvinism of our modern evangelical culture. At times the movement needs more balance and maturity.
The New Calvinism remains very youthful. Will men, women, boys, and girls remain steadfast and immovable regarding the pure doctrines of grace and the inerrancy of the Bible? Will this movement endure through the approaching tsunami of persecution on Christianity? Time will tell the truth, but for now, we must be excited to see both the young and aged coming to embrace the truths of the doctrines of grace.
- John Piper invited Rick Warren to participate in the 2010 DG National Conference. In an interview, Rick Warren claimed to believe the doctrine of Unconditional Election.
- Jeremy Walker, The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment, (Faverdale North Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2013), 117. NOTE: This is a Kindle Edition.
Today is the final post in the series on the subject of Limited Atonement – the “L” in the acronym of TULIP. The acronym serves as an overview of the teachings of Calvinism. The subject of the atonement often becomes the catalyst for passionate debate in the evangelical community. As a Baptist, I have witnessed divisive rhetoric in blogs, state Baptist newspapers, and in private meetings over this issue. Some people have gone as far as labeling Calvinism as heresy.
It is not my desire to stoke old fires or create new hot debates over this issue, but I do believe it’s important to shine light on the fact that much of the negative rhetoric stems from the popular myths about Calvinism – in particular – limited atonement.
The series at a glance:
Myth #4 – A limited atonement contradicts 2 Peter 3:9 and hinders evangelism and world missions
As we have already demonstrated in this series, the teachings of limited atonement claims that when Jesus died on the cross, His death was specifically designed to atone for the sins of every person who would call upon the name of the Lord for salvation throughout time (past, present, and future). In short, Jesus’ death was designed to pay for the sins of all of God’s elect – those chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1). According to limited atonement, the death of Jesus provided an actual atonement rather than a potential atonement. Jesus’ death was not generic in nature. It was designed to save His people, so when He said, “It is finished” as He died, He was making a statement about the full payment of the atonement. Wayne Grudem defines the atonement as follows, “The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569).
2 Peter 3:9 – The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
Many people who reject limited atonement do so based upon 2 Peter 3:9. They claim that this verse in 2 Peter teaches that God doesn’t want anyone to perish and desires all people to repent. That is what the text says. Most Calvinists would agree with that on a surface level. But, as all good students of the Bible know, we must always read the Bible and interpret it within its proper context.
There are several important facts to consider when reading 2 Peter 3:9. First, no person should ever pick one random verse in the middle of a book of the Bible without considering the surrounding context and purpose of the specific passage. As we consider 2 Peter 3:9, we must look back at the first part of the letter. 2 Peter 1:1 reads, “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” It is clear from the first verse of this epistle, Peter is addressing his letter to fellow Christians.
Secondly, in 2 Peter 3:9, the phrase, “but is patient to you” should not be overlooked or ignored. This phrase connects the verse back to the first verse of the epistle – “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 3:9 speaks of the Lord’s delay in the second coming as a merciful act (see Romans 11:25) that fulfills God’s intended plan of saving His people. While some false teachers were suggesting that the second coming of Christ was not going to happen, Peter illustrates that the seeming delay is God’s design in order to bring in the full number of Gentile converts and all of God’s sheep. We must be cautious not to position 2 Peter 3:9 against John 10:16, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Regarding the idea that a limited atonement hinders evangelism and world missions, that’s simply not true. The father of modern missions was William Carey. He was a 5-point Calvinist. During a meeting of ministers, a Mr. Ryland called upon the young ministers to propose a subject for them to talk about. William Carey stood up and offered the suggested topic: “The duty of Christians to attempt to spread the gospel among the heathen nations.” Mr. Ryland exclaimed with a loud voice, “Sit down, young man! When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.” This would not extinguish this Calvinistic missionary’s zeal. His heart was set a blaze by God for the nations!
William Carey left for India in 1793. Carey once said, “I am going down into the pit; you hold the ropes.” It would be a long two years later until he received his second pack of letters from England. As he opened the letters with much anticipation, one of them criticized him for “engaging in affairs of trade.” Carey was forced to work in order to earn a living for his family as well as continue the mission work. Nevertheless, Carey remained steadfast. It would take seven years before he would see the first convert in his gospel mission. Although the landscape was difficult, the task dangerous, and the encouragement was low, this man with merely a grammar school education would be used of God to shake the world with the gospel. On Carey’s grave in India would be recorded these words – “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, on thy kind arms I fall.” 2 Peter 3:9 was imprinted upon the soul of William Carey. He was a 5-point Calvinist. I think it would be wise to say that limited atonement did not slow down or cool off this faithful preacher of the gospel.
With men like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Charles Spurgeon, the idea that limited atonement hinders world missions and local evangelism is simply not true. It’s a popular myth. It’s a scape goat tactic employed by those who are looking for excuses in the decline among their circles of churches. Whatever the cause of the decline, rest assured – limited atonement is not to blame. Perhaps it’s limited interest in real evangelism and world missions? Until Jesus does return, and we are assured that He will, let those of us who have received an equal standing by the grace of God in Christ Jesus work together to take the good news to our neighborhoods and the nations.
William Carey once said, “Expect great things from God: attempt great things for God.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ligonier – Various Resources
Tim Challies – The “L” in TULIP
John MacArthur – Q&A 2010 Shepherds’ Conference
John Piper – What We Believe About The Five Points Of Calvinism
Wayne Grudem – Systematic Theology
This week I am writing on the subject of Limited Atonement – the “L” in the acronym of TULIP. As you may already know, the acronym is a basic overview of the teachings of Calvinism. The subject of limited atonement is quite controversial and is often debated with a great deal of passion and emotional mudslinging from both sides of the sovereign grace fence. It is not my desire to create another place for such a debate, but it is my desire to look at this subject from the popular myths that exist today regarding limited atonement.
The flow of this series this week is as follows:
Myth #3 – The claim that Jesus’ death was not for the entire world denies John 3:16
Perhaps the most famous verse in all of the Bible is John 3:16. William Hendrickson calls John 3:16 – “The golden text.” As we look at the text, it’s quite clear as to why it is the most well known verse in the history of the world. In John 3:16, we see the profound love of God in contrast to the promised judgment of God all packaged up in one verse. It’s a powerful verse indeed. Often when Bible translators start a work of translation, they will begin with John 3:16 as a starting point in their mission work. Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the gospel in miniature.” John 3:16 is also a very popular verse that people cling to in their opposition to limited atonement.
For instance, the longtime Southern Baptist leader Adrian Rogers once said, “There are some people who will tell you that Jesus only died for the elect. But that’s not what the Gospel of John says. It says that the only reason men are not saved is not because Jesus did not die for them, but because they didn’t believe in Him” (Faith: What it is and how to have it: Romans 10:17-21). In the Arminian circles of the evangelical world, it’s a common thing to see people holding on to “whoever” or as the King James translates it, “whosoever” in John 3:16 as their proof that Jesus died for the whole wide world. What exactly did John intend us to know as he wrote John 3:16?
John 3:16 – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)
First, we must note that this text is taken from a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Jesus was instructing a gifted teacher who had come to him after nightfall to ask Jesus about His teachings. It was at that moment that Jesus spoke those very famous words, “You must be born again.” Jesus went on to talk about the wind blowing where it wishes and He then relates it to the Spirit of God’s involvement in salvation. It becomes clear at that point that Jesus is speaking of the sovereignty of God in the workings of grace.
As Jesus continued to teach and explain, He made the statement that we know as John 3:16. As we read it, we should be encouraged to see that God has loved the world. We should be humbled to see that God loved the world by giving His Son. The manner in which He gave His Son is quite humbling indeed. We should be fearful as we read about unbelievers perishing. The wrath of God is a terrifying reality. As the verse ends, it leaves us with this faithful promise of eternal life for those who believe. In short, John 3:16 is one of the most power packed verses in the Bible. But, for the purpose of this discussion, does it teach “unlimited” or a “limited” atonement?
Look at the breakdown of the verse:
- Love: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…
- Purpose: that whoever believes in him should not perish…
- End Result: but have eternal life.
Wayne Grudem defines the atonement as follows, “The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569). It seems clear that those who believe (whoever) had been covered by Jesus’ blood. Those who perish are those who do not believe. The fact that they perish denotes the reality that they have not been covered by the atonement of Jesus’ death. If they had, they would not have perished. Likewise, if they had been covered by the atoning death of Jesus, they would have believed the gospel and been numbered among the “whoever” believes mentioned in John 3:16.
The use of the word “world” in this text does not force the improper meaning that Jesus actually gave His atoning death so that the whole of humanity would have their sins atoned for. This is not only incorrect, it’s impossible! When you stop and consider the reality that not one single person in hell today has had their sins atoned for, it should bring you to the realization that John 3:16 must have a different meaning than a universal atonement. The atonement is limited to believers only.
God did love the world. Just as the context implies, as in the days when a plague of serpents had been sent to the complaining rebellious Israelites, Moses prayed and then raised up a brazen serpent on a pole. Everyone who looked upon that serpent would live. Jesus said, in like manner must the Son of Man be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Not so that everyone may have eternal life. Everyone who believes is the key. Eternal life is limited to believers only. Jesus’ atonement is limited to believes only.
Do you recall the day when you first looked upon Jesus as your Savior – slain on a cruel cross for your sin? The great Charles Spurgeon was saved at 16 after wandering into a small Methodist chapel where approximately 15 people sat to hear an untrained layperson preach the gospel from Isaiah 45:22 one snowy Sunday morning. Spurgeon recalls:
I saw at once the way of salvation . . . Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, Look! what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun.
God is love and He has demonstrated His love to the entire world by sending His Son to die on Calvary’s cross. There is no mistaking His love. However, we must be careful not to apply Jesus’ atonement to the entire world in a universal sense. We must avoid universalism. We must teach a biblical gospel that saves sinners – all sinners who repent and believe. Who are the elect of God who will believe in my city? I have no idea! However, I know that Jesus has died for them and I must go and lift up Christ and call all people to repent and believe the good news. You must do the same thing in your town. We must labor together and trust that as we plant and water, it will be God who gives the increase. Whosoever will – let him come to Christ! As he comes in faith, Jesus’ blood will be sufficient to save.
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Ligonier – Various Resources
Tim Challies – The “L” in TULIP
John MacArthur – Q&A 2010 Shepherds’ Conference
John Piper – What We Believe About The Five Points Of Calvinism
Wayne Grudem – Systematic Theology
Tim Challies has provided a helpful infographic to explain the rise of Calvinistic teaching in our present day. View it here.