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Some Differences Between Calvinists and Arminians on the Intent and Extent of Christ’s Atonement

If the small group Bible study you’re attending is ever in need of some scintillating conversation, bring up the intent and extent of Christ’s atonement. In my experience, the next five or six hours should be filled with lots of interesting discussion. And if you’re in tight quarters at a theologically literate dinner party and could use some “me” time, declare that you hold to limited atonement. This should provide you with all the elbow room you need.

For those not aware, “limited atonement” is the view that Christ died for the elect alone. More precisely, proponents of this position hold that Christ propitiated the wrath of God for those God predestined to save from all eternity.[1]

Mentioning limited atonement spawns a visceral reaction by those who believe the position depreciates the value of Christ’s sacrifice. Before drawing this conclusion, however, it’s important for theological students and informed laypeople to slow down, take a deep breath, and listen intently to the entirety of the Scriptural witness.

My goal in this post is not to give my position, but rather to lay out some of the differences between Calvinists and Arminians regarding the nature and extent of the atonement.

First, know that the central disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians is over the design of the atonement. In short, Calvinists and Arminians answer the question “What did God intend to accomplish in Christ’s death?” differently.

The Covenant of Redemption
Calvinists argue that God the Father sent the Son to earth on a specific mission—namely, to provide atonement for those whom the Father had given him. They find support for this in passages like John 17, where Jesus speaks of “giving eternal life to all whom you [the Father] have given him” (v. 3). Later he says, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world” (v. 6). In v. 9 Jesus prays for these people, and not for the world. Furthermore, Jesus says he consecrates himself for their sake (v. 19).

That Jesus doesn’t have some random work to accomplish is made explicit in verse 4 where he declares, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work you gave me to do” (v. 4, emphasis mine). Moreover, in John 10 Jesus says he lays down his life “for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). In John 15:13 he indicates that he lays down his life “for his friends.”

Earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus announced, “All that the Father gives me, will come to me . . . And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me” (Jn. 6:37, 39, emphasis mine). In a portion of Scripture highlighting the believer’s security in Christ, Jesus says, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:29).

Taken together, these texts (to say nothing of Romans 8 and Ephesians 1) give the impression that Jesus didn’t come to earth on an undefined mission. Rather, it seems clear that from all eternity the Father gave His Son a work to accomplish.[2] All this stands in stark contrast to the Arminian position.

Lee Gatiss frames the differences between Calvinists and Arminians regarding the nature and extent of the atonement this way:

The Calvinist Conception of the Atonement: Personal, intentional, and effective.

The Arminian Conception of the Atonement: Impersonal, random, and ineffective.[3]

The Undivided Work of the Triune God[4]
In addition to the passages cited above, throughout church history theologians have noted that the Persons of the Trinity are united in the work of redemption. However, if Christ’s death extends further than the Father’s electing purpose and the Spirit’s effecting power, then it seems that the three Persons of the Godhead are at odds with one another.[5] Thus, the question arises: Is it really the case that the Father elects some and that the Spirit regenerates some, while Christ provides atonement for every human being that has ever lived, is currently living, and will live in the future? More importantly, can one prove such a position exegetically? Calvinists answer in the negative.

In light of the passages from the gospel of John cited above, Ryan McGraw concludes, “God is triune, and the atonement is a unified Trinitarian act in purpose, production, and perfection.”[6]

While Arminians may disagree with McGraw’s conclusion, I hope they can at least see where their Calvinist brothers and sisters are coming from. Far from placing a theological construct over the text of Scripture, their deductions are drawn from the lips of Jesus and the witness of the apostles.

Secondly, know that both Arminians and Calvinists limit the atonement. This may come as a surprise to Arminian readers, but the Remonstrants (the Arminian party in the Netherlands) affirmed the limited nature of the atonement. What they denied, however, was that God the Father only intended to save the elect. As Kevin DeYoung summarizes, “the Remonstrants championed an atonement that allowed for the potential salvation of everyone but actually secured the salvation of none.”[7] These words once again bring the major disagreement between the two camps into sharper focus—namely, the design of the atonement.

Before my Arminian friends balk at the idea of limiting the atonement, consider the Puritan theologian John Owen’s (1616–1683) observations. As he thought about the atonement, Owen said we have three options:

  1. Jesus died for all the sins of all people.
  2. Jesus died for some of the sins of all people.
  3. Jesus died for all of the sins of some people.

Most evangelicals want to affirm the first position—that is, they want to say that Jesus died for all the sins of all people. At the same time, however, they also want to make clear that they are not universalists—that is, they do not believe that everyone is going to heaven when they die.

But this raises a question that most Christians have not adequately thought through: What about unbelief? Is unbelief a sin? Given that Jesus came declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15), we can safely say that refusal to believe in Christ is a sin. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 16:22 Paul says, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” Additionally, in 2 Thessalonians 1:8, Paul notes that at his second coming, Christ will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Since these three verses indicate that unbelief is a sin which will condemn people, we rightly conclude that unbelief is a sin.

In light of the above, if we say that Jesus died for all the sins of all people—including the sin of unbelief—then logically we would have to affirm universalism (before you scream “not so!” at your screen, keep reading). But this is exactly what evangelicals repudiate. They insist that unbelievers will spend eternity in hell for their unbelief. If that’s the case, then why would we say that Christ propitiated the wrath of God on their behalf?

The typical Arminian response is, “Well, I believe Christ died for all, but people must actually accept Christ if his work on the cross is to apply to their account.” But notice how this changes the nature of Christ’s work on the cross. The Arminian conception of the atonement is such that the work of Christ is insufficient in and of itself to accomplish anything. Rather, its effectiveness depends upon a self-generated response of faith on the part of an unbeliever. (I say “self-generated” because most Arminians also deny effectual calling.)[8]

Pressing this point further reveals a massive difference between Calvinists and Arminians regarding the atonement: The Calvinist denies that “God’s saving purpose in the death of His Son was a mere ineffectual wish, depending for its fulfillment on man’s willingness to believe, so that for all God could do Christ might have died and none been saved at all.” Rather, the Calvinist maintains that “the intended effects of His self-offering do in fact follow, just because the cross was what it was. Its saving power does not depend on faith being added to it; its saving power is such that faith flows from it.[9]

Additionally, the Arminian conception of the atonement raises another significant question. Since an entailment of the Arminian understanding is that Christ’s sacrifice didn’t actually guarantee the salvation of anyone, it’s difficult to see how they can hold to penal substitution.[10] Remember, in the Arminian scheme God the Father didn’t intend only to save the elect, and Christ didn’t actually die for anyone in particular. Therefore, how can they insist that Christ lived a vicarious life and died a vicarious death on behalf of specific people? Theologian Robert Letham gets to the heart of the issue:

“[I]f we wish to maintain that Christ died for all without exception while rejecting universalism, we will have no alternative but to redefine the nature of the atonement. Christ’s death will then have secured the salvation of no-one in particular. It will simply be a provisional suffering, dependent for its effect on a believing response by the sinner. . . . It seems impossible theologically to hold to the penal substitutionary nature of the atonement and at the same time maintain that Christ died provisionally for all without exception.”[11]

All this leads to my final point.

Thirdly, know that the “world” passages prove too much for the Arminian. In my reading of Arminian authors, they reject limited atonement because of the “world” passages found in the Bible. For example, they cite 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” (emphasis mine). They look to 1 John 2:1–2: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (emphasis mine). Additionally, they quote 1 Timothy 2:4, which says that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (emphasis mine, also see 2 Pet. 3:9).

First, careful readers should note that John 3:16 is actually irrelevant to the discussion. The verse says nothing about the extent of the atonement; rather, it simply states a fact—namely, that everyone who repents of his or her sin will receive eternal life. Calvinists believe this wholeheartedly. John 3:16 serves as the basis for the free offer of the gospel. However, as Lee Gatiss notes, one should not equate “God so loved the world” with “God sent Jesus because he intended to save the whole world.”[12]

In truth, 1 John 2:2 is more difficult for the Calvinist because it specifically says that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. But Arminians shouldn’t be so quick to raise their voices as they cite this verse with verve. After all, it’s not like they’re the only ones who have some work to do reconciling this passage with other biblical texts. Don’t forget: Universalists appeal to this text to prove universalism—the view that everyone, no matter what they believe, will eventually be saved. For this reason, I’m suggesting that the “world” passages of the Bible prove too much, if left unqualified.

Still, what do we do with 1 John 2:2? Calvinists typically say that when one properly understands the context of 1 John, along with placing the text within the entirety of the biblical witness, his point in saying that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world means that Christ is the Savior of all kinds of people—Jews and Gentiles. Christ is the Savior of all without distinction, not all without exception.

Furthermore, the Bible also discloses the particularity of Christ’s atonement. For instance, Ephesians 5:25 asserts that Christ gave himself for the church. Acts 20:28 specifies that he purchased the church with his own blood. Revelation 5:9 says that Christ purchased people from every tribe, people, language, and nation.

We’re Almost Done
Admittedly, we could keep going, and my Arminian friends could respond with several passages of their own to counter my arguments. But my goal isn’t to answer every objection and refute every opposing claim. The point is to understand each other and perceive the differences between Calvinists and Arminians.

As is obvious from this post, these are massive differences. They are fundamental, not incidental.

Why care about this pastorally? Briefly, because who God is matters and what he sets out to accomplish in redemption is momentous. We dare not take it lightly, think about it incorrectly, or contemplate it wrongly.

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[1] I am slightly modifying the definition found in Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 18.

[2] For more on this point see Donald Macleod, “The Work of Christ,” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 351–352.

[3]Less Gatiss, For Us and for Our Salvation: ‘Limited Atonement’ in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry (London: The Latimer Trust, 2012), 14.

[4] For a helpful overview see Kyle Claunch, “What God Hath Done Together: Defending the Historic Doctrine of the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56:4 (2013): 781–800. On why this is especially important when considering penal substitution, see Keith E. Johnson, “Penal Substitution as an Undivided Work of the Triune God,” Trinity Journal 36 (2015): 51–67.

[5] I am indebted to Ryan McGraw for some of this language. See his article “For Whom Did Christ Die?” Tabletalk 43:4 (April 2019): 24. This also illustrates why the so-called “five points” stand or fall together. Matthew Barrett shows how this relates to the effectual call: “The efficacious nature of grace also reveals the particularity of God’s choice” (see his “The Bondage and Liberation of the Will,” in Reformation Theology, 492).

[6] McGraw, “For Whom Did Christ Die?” 25.

[7] Kevin DeYoung, Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400-Year-Old Confession Teaches us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 57.

[8] I realize that not all Arminians agree on this point. Some Arminians are actually more semi-Pelagian in their thinking.

[9] J. I. Packer, Introductory Essay to John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, PA: The
Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 9–10, emphasis mine.

[10] In making this point, I am not suggesting that penal substitution is the only way the Bible portrays what Christ accomplished in the atonement. Since I won’t go into detail on this point, I happily direct interested readers to Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 174–226.

[11] Robert Letham, The Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), 230.

[12] Gatiss, For Us and for Our Salvation, 48, 50. That said, it is true in one sense that God will renew the whole world and reconcile the whole world (the cosmos) to himself (2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 1:10). Cosmic restoration is part of God’s plan for the world. Still, the Bible gives no hope to those who reject Christ (2 Thess. 1:7–8; Heb. 9:27).

A (Very) Brief Theology of How People Change

In his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus instructs his disciples on how renewal comes to a person’s life. He tells Nicodemus that he will be “lifted up,” and that the life of the age to come will invade the present life of anyone who looks to him in faith.[1] Nevertheless, while Christians believe God can change lives, they still grapple with how this takes place. Without intending to be comprehensive, in what follows I will briefly sketch what the Bible teaches regarding how people change.

In short, biblical change is a process, beginning with regeneration. Following this supernatural act, transformation involves attending to the means of grace (prayer, Scripture, and sacraments), as well as ongoing repentance, disciplined reflection, redemptive relationships, understanding one’s new identity in Christ, and what a number of new writers refer to as “rehabituation.”

First, change begins with regeneration. Regeneration refers to the supernatural work of God, whereby he grants spiritual life to spiritually dead sinners (Ezek. 36:25–26; Eph. 2:1–3). In this act God renovates the heart—“the core of a person’s being, by implanting a new principle of desire, purpose, and action.”[2] Such a heart renovation is necessitated by the fact that, according to the Bible, the human heart is desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9), full of evil (Mk. 7:21–23), loves darkness rather than light (Jn. 3:19), does not seek God (Rom. 3:10–12), is a slave to sin (Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:16–20), cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), and cannot submit to God (Rom. 8:9).[3] Clearly, human beings need more than simply self-improvement; what is needed is resurrection life. Thankfully, this is exactly what God promises to give—resurrection life by virtue of our union with Christ.[4] God’s work of regeneration, then, is what brings desire for change, upending our fallen notions of happiness, reordering our loves so that we love him supremely and everything else properly.[5]

Second, as one embarks on a journey of obedience, one must avail themselves to the “means of grace.” Simply stated, the means of grace are those spiritual “resources” God gives to his people to assist them in their walk with him.[6] Traditionally, the means of grace are identified as God’s Word, prayer, and the sacraments, but can also encompass “providences,” that is, various trials and hardships that come into one’s life.[7] As we sit under God’s Word in church and digest it in our personal lives, God remakes us in his Son’s image. As we speak to him in prayer, voicing our supplications and laments, we grow in closer communion with him. As we experience the confirmation of his promises made to us in the sacraments, our consciousness of salvation is strengthened, and we enjoy a preview of the supper we long to celebrate with our risen King (Isa. 25:6–9).[8] These are formative and shaping moments in our earthly pilgrimage.[9]

In addition to the means of grace enumerated above, several other practices are crucial for effecting change in a believer’s life. While not often mentioned, disciplined reflection is necessary if one is to enjoy transformation. By “disciplined,” I mean that one must discipline himself/herself to set aside time for reflection. By “reflection” I mean self-examination. Far from being an exercise in narcissistic navel-gazing, self-knowledge is a prerequisite for spiritual growth.[10] We must know ourselves well enough in order to trace our acts of disobedience back to the wrong thinking patterns that gave birth to the sinful action in the first place. This enables us to break free from the idols that grip our hearts.

Sin, Richard Lovelace noted, is rooted in “an organic network of compulsive attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors deeply rooted in our alienation from God.”[11] Sustained reflection is needed for growth because we must learn why we do what we do and say what we say. We must look our sin squarely in the face and confess the heart attitudes behind them to God. Sadly, many Christians prefer to hide, remaining fiercely committed to self-protection. God, however, invites us to “come out of hiding.” “He loves us,” Stephen Seamands writes, “naked, vulnerable and fragile as we are.”[12] God’s love must be received in an “undefended state—in the vulnerability of a ‘Just as I Am’ encounter.”[13] We need to see our sin in all its horror, ugliness, and reprehensibility, and then feel Jesus place both hands on the side of our head, look us in the eyes, and say, “I forgive you, I don’t reject you, I love you, I want you.” This kind of “stubborn love” brings lasting change: “When we are truly known, particularly in the darkness and shadows of our lives, by a love which does not reject, we are cemented to God.”[14] Sustained reflection that takes us into the dark places in our hearts, causing us to see ourselves for who we really are, is absolutely essential to our growth.

Next, biblical transformation involves redemptive relationships. By “redemptive relationships” I am referring broadly to the role of the church, as well as small groups or accountability groups. In contrast to the rife individualism in our culture, the Bible presents a robust ecclesiology. God’s covenant promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 establishes the fact that God’s design is to have an international body of believers who willingly, lovingly, and joyfully submit to Jesus as Lord.[15] God’s agenda, therefore, is for a person’s discipleship to take place in a community of believers. This means that the biblical portrait of discipleship is at odds with any notion that suggests that one’s spirituality is not linked to the visible church.[16] The New Testament epistles make plain that one’s union with Christ is thoroughly ecclesiological in nature.[17]

While this may sound burdensome to contemporary believers, God’s purpose is that his people come alongside one another to bear one another’s burdens, encourage each other, and hold each other accountable—in short, become change agents in each other’s lives.[18] No wonder, then, that Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” The ancient sage’s advice makes sense because we need others. We resist other people getting into the details of our lives, viewing them as nosy. In the context of a genuinely loving relationship, however, our hearts are softened, and knowledge of the other person’s care for us makes their unpleasant comments acceptable.[19] In sum, relationships play an integral role in our sanctification because it is only in the context of relationships that we experience the joy of being known, forgiven, and still wanted.[20]

Another important element in the ongoing change of a believer is repentance. In announcing the arrival of his kingdom, Jesus called people to repent (Mark 1:14–15), and as Martin Luther stated in his ninety-five theses, when Jesus uttered these words, “he willed the whole life of the faithful to be an act of repentance.”[21] Although a believer’s sins have been completely forgiven when he or she initially turned away from their sins and trusted in Christ (Eph. 1:7), the Bible makes clear that believers continue to sin (1 Jn. 1:8). Nevertheless, the Bible also discloses that a believer is one who hates and makes war on their residual sin (Rom. 7:15–16, 24; 8:13; 1 Jn. 3:9). For these reasons, ongoing repentance is a key component in a believer’s continual growth. In short, repentance involves, 1) a sense of shame, 2) humility, and 3) sorrow and regret.[22]

In ongoing repentance a believer is not “re-justified,” but rather experiences cleansing and washing. Naming specific sinful actions and attitudes and agreeing with God that they are wrong is a powerful—and painful!—experience, but one that brings a great sense of release. The action evidences a broken will, which in turn opens the floodgates of heaven, and allows one to enjoy God’s smile and grace.[23]

Another central element involved in transforming a believer’s life is the issue of one’s identity. The Good News is so good because it declares that a believer is no longer identified by his or her past sins, but is instead defined by what Christ accomplished. In Paul’s words, our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). His crucifixion is our crucifixion (Gal. 2:20), his death is our death (Rom. 6:8; Col. 3:3), his resurrection is our resurrection (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). Our identity is framed by our union with Christ.[24]

For this reason, Ivor Davidson rightly notes that Paul’s declaration, “You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19), “is a declaration not of infringement but of emancipation.”[25] Thus, each day a believer must fill his or her mind with gospel realities: You are accepted, you are delivered, you are not alone, you have authority.[26] Revel in the truths found in Hebrews 2:11, Ephesians 2:6, and Colossians 3:1, highlighting the fact that it is indicatives and not subjunctives that describe our standing before God.[27]

Finally, in the process of changing, a believer should expect difficulty. After all, believers are in a spiritual battle. In light of this, recent writers have emphasized the importance of “rehabitutation.”[28] Simply put, the word refers to the process of change within a believer. While God is able to bring dramatic change in a moment, more often than not God brings about change gradually. Our habits and loves are disordered, and the process of sanctification involves retraining our habits, loves, and desires—in short, “rehabituation.” Overcoming sinful actions, therefore, “is more like a weightwatchers program than listening to books on tape.”[29]

Taken together, living out the elements listed above, while daunting, can effectuate transformation in a believer’s life. God will use these means and activities to restore his image in us as well as cultivate Christ’s character in us.[30]

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[1] See further Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Lifting Up the Son of Man and God’s Love for the World: John 3:16 in Its Historical, Literary, and Theological Contexts,” in Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century. Essays in Honor of D. A. Carson on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, eds. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Robert W. Yarbrough (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 151.

[2] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christians Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993), 157. While I will not defend it here, Scripture teaches that regeneration is monergistic and precedes faith. See, e.g., Matthew M. Barrett, “The Scriptural Affirmation of Monergism,” in Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, eds. Matthew M. Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2013), 120–187. See esp. 147–187, as well as Mark A. Snoeberger, “The Logical Priority of Regeneration to Saving Faith in a Theological Ordo Salutis,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 7 (Fall 2002): 49–93.

[3] While Christians affirm the reality of the noetic effects of sin (i.e., that the fall effects the way we think), we also believe that because human beings are created in the image of God, he has endowed us with the ability to think, reason, communicate, and comprehend what is written or spoken. See, e.g., John Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method?” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, eds. Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 62–92. Nevertheless we also believe that “Sin creates a moral deficiency within us by which we are indisposed to truth” (R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 51)

[4] See further Lane G. Tipton, “Union with Christ and Justification,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphant (Ross-shire: Great Britain, 2007), 23–49.

[5] David K. Naugle, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 1–29.

[6] The word “resources” is taken from John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the LORD: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 261.

[7] See, e.g., Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988), 71–72. The role of the church in sanctification will be discussed later in the paper.

[8] Brandon C. Jones, Waters of Promise: Finding Meaning in Believer Baptism (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 7, 135; Russell Moore, “Baptist View: Christ’s Presence as Memorial,” in Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, eds. John H. Armstrong and Paul E. Engle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 30–44.

[9] Debra Dean Murphy, “Worship as Catechesis: Knowledge, Desire, and Formation,” Theology Today 58:3 (2001): 321–332.

[10] Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1980), 82.

[11] Ibid., 88.

[12] Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005), 128.

[13] David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 24.

[14] C. Frederick Barbee & Paul F. M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 57. The phrase “stubborn love” comes from David Hansen, The Power of Loving Your Church: Leading through Acceptance and Grace (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998), 55. In context, Hansen is explaining the meaning of the Hebrew word hesed.

[15] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, New Studies in Biblical Theology 23 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 83–84.

[16] The most recent statistics suggest that this is what many Americans believe. See, e.g., “Among Unchurched Americans,” Facts & Trends 63:2 (Spring 2017): 15.

[17] Brannon Ellis, “Covenantal Union and Communion: Union with Christ as the Covenant of Grace,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 92.

[18] David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (Winston-Salem, NC: Punch Press, 2005), 99.

[19] Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (New York: Viking, 2015), 349.

[20] Sharon A. Hersh, The Last Addiction: Why Self-Help Is Not Enough (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2008), 33.

[21] Martin Luther, “The Ninety-Five Theses,” in Documents of the Christian Church, eds. Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder, new ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 206.

[22] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 68.

[23] On what a broken will looks like, see Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Brokenness: The Heart God Revives (Chicago: Moody, 2005), 51.

[24] Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 63.

[ 25] Ivor J. Davidson, “Gospel Holiness: Some Dogmatic Reflections,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 210.

[26] Richard Lovelace calls these the four platforms Christians must stand on. See his Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 210.

[27] Davidson, “Gospel Holiness,” 202.

[28] See, e.g., James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), 53–54; Steven L. Porter, “The Gradual Nature of Sanctification: Σάρξ as Habituated, Relational Resistance to the Spirit,” Themelios 39:3 (2014): 470–483.

[29] Smith, You Are What You Love, 65.

[30] Language borrowed from Derek Tidball, “Holiness: Restoring God’s Image: Colossians 3:5–17,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 26, 31.

Has Christian Apologetics Failed?

Sometime ago Esther O’Reilly from Patheos asked a thought-provoking question: “Has Christian Apologetics Failed?” O’Reilly asks the question in light of the Jordan Peterson phenomenon—a discussion into which I have no desire to enter. Rather, the question itself sparked my thinking about apologetics.

In my judgment, the only way one would think that apologetics had failed is if one invested it with more power than is biblically justified, while simultaneously failing to appreciate the human condition.

Let me explain.

Although I firmly believe Christians should give reasons for the hope that lies within them (1 Pet. 3:15), my interest in apologetics has waned considerably over the years. In sharp contrast to my time in college, I can’t remember the last time I watched a debate or read a book on apologetics.

As a student in Bible College, apologetic methodology was all the rage. Students asked each other questions like, “Are you a classical apologist?” “Do you hold to evidentialism or fideism?” “Are you a presuppositionalist?”

Of course, one does not have to choose a particular methodology. Truthfully, it all depends on the person to whom you’re speaking. That said, I tend to favor presuppositionalism because I think it rightly diagnosis the human heart, properly showcasing the chasm between believers and unbelievers both morally and intellectually.

Here’s why I say that:

Presuppositionalism holds that human beings are not neutral. Therefore, when we engage in any kind of biblical-theological discussion with non-Christians, we’re not talking with disinterested individuals, which means we shouldn’t think it’s a matter of simply presenting evidence. Please understand: Because God uses means to draw people to himself I believe we should present evidence. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think the people to whom we present evidence are objective and unbiased in their assessment of our evidence.

Note how Paul describes the fallen mind of human beings: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God” (Rom. 8:7). A mind “set on the flesh,” describes a mind uninvaded by the Spirit of God. Additionally, in 1 Cor. 2:14 Paul writes “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” In short, those devoid of the Spirit do not accept the things of the Spirit. Still, to fully appreciate Paul’s words requires a longer gaze. Paul does not simply say that believers are unwilling to accept the things of the Spirit. Don’t make him say something he is not saying. He specifically says unbelievers cannot understand spiritual things. In sum, an unbeliever’s problem is greater than simply refusing to acknowledge God. No, their thinking is futile, their minds are darkened, and their hearts are hard (Eph. 4:17–18). That’s what we’re up against.

Note the larger argument Paul makes in 1 Cor. 2:6–16. In this text (along with the broader section of 1:18–3:23 more generally) Paul contrasts the wisdom of God with the wisdom of this age. He discloses that this age is characterized by unbelief and rebellion against God—an unbelief and rebellion that manifests itself both morally and intellectually.

In his insightful article on this passage, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. demonstrates that believers and unbelievers inhabit two different worlds epistemologically.[1] In one particularly memorable section of the article, he notes:

“With the gospel (and its implications) as the point of reference, there is no point of contact epistemologically between believers and unbelievers, however understood—whether by empirical observation or by rational reflection and speculation (‘Jews require signs, Greeks seek wisdom,’ 1:22—the exclusion intended is universal). The notion of such common ground or capacity, rational or otherwise, that can be used to build toward the gospel, or otherwise prepare and dispose unbelievers to accept its truth, is not only not present in this passage; it is alien to it, jarringly so.”[2]

The “wisdom” believers possess is eschatological—it is of the aeon to come, according to Paul. Entrance into this eschatological age comes by way of regeneration. Hence, it’s not an overstatement to say that regeneration catapults one into a new world.[3] True, unbelievers may profit from reading the Bible; they may intellectually comprehend verbal presentations of the gospel. Still, we can’t forget Paul’s words in Rom. 1:18ff. They suppress the truth in unrighteousness; their thinking is futile; their hearts are darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools. “Human beings are foolish,” Tom Schreiner notes, “not in the sense that they are intellectually deficient but in their rejection of God’s lordship over their lives” (see Schreiner’s notes from The ESV Study Bible). In other words, rejecting God’s revelation and his authority in one’s life has certain repercussions.

After all, we live in God’s world, not a world of our own making. Rejecting the truth doesn’t make one wiser; it makes one foolish. If Scripture is not our epistemological norm, then we’re left either swimming in a sea of subjectivism or on the prowl for another form of rationalism. Everyone has a first principle; everyone chooses not to question something.

So, has apologetics failed? You can’t say something’s failed unless you know what it was intended to accomplish in the first place. Therefore, I don’t think we would say it’s failed if we noted its inherent limits at the start, while also taking the human condition into full account. The human condition is such that fallen humanity needs not only argumentation; it needs regeneration.

For my theology on how people change, go here.

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[1] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Some Epistemological Reflections on 1 Cor 2:6–16,” Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995): 103–124.

[2] Ibid., 111.

[3] I noticed recently that this is how theologian Charles Hodge (1797–1878) described the matter. See his Systematic Theology, abridged edition, ed. Edward N. Gross (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 440.

Advice from John Chrysostom for Those Considering Pastoral Ministry

“For anyone who is about to enter upon this walk of life needs to explore it all thoroughly beforehand and only then to undertake this ministry. And why? Because if he studies the difficulties beforehand he will at any rate have the advantage of not being taken by surprise when they crop up” ~ John Chrysostom (AD 347–407)[1]

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Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan provide a biblically informed definition of ministry: “Pastoral ministry is a local campaign in the broader war between the living God and the principalities and powers of the air.”[2] In short, ministry is war, which means it never has been nor ever will be easy.

Reflections on the challenges of pastoral ministry have been the subject of many a blogpost. As a novice, I have no business adding my voice to the fray.

I know someone who does, however—John Chrysostom. Reading through his Six Books on the Priesthood recently made me think his insights might be helpful to those prayerfully considering seminary or pastoral ministry. In what follows, I’ll show you what Chrysostom says and then add my novice-y comments. Fair warning: You should give more weight to Chrysostom’s words than you should mine.

Here we go:

Guard against ambition. While aspiring to the office of overseer is “noble” (1 Tim. 3:1), Chrysostom insists that aspiring pastors must purify their souls from ambition (80). When a man with an unhealthy craving for the pastoral office finally enters the pastorate, he might cling to the office too tightly, leading him to turn a blind eye to the sinful patterns at work in his congregation. According to Chrysostom, a pastor must be so satisfied in God that he doesn’t need the approval of his congregation and is therefore willing to accept their dismissal: “I think a man must rid his mind of ambition with all possible care, and not for a moment let it be governed by it, in order that he may always act with freedom. For if he does not want to achieve fame in this position of authority, he will not dread its loss either. And if he does not fear this, he can always act with the freedom which befits Christian men” (81).

A few comments: There’s a fine line here. We should have goals and ambitions. But ambition is a double-edged sword. It’s both a gift and a curse. Given that fallen human beings are complex creatures whose motives are rarely, if ever, entirely pure, it’s possible that our ambitions and drive to succeed are rooted in feelings of inadequacy and a desire to prove ourselves to others or ourselves. It’s quite possible that our “gospel ambition,” or our desire for ministerial success stem from our competitive nature rather than a devout longing to glorify God—that it’s all one big project of self-validation, nothing more than a quest to reinforce our self-importance. Kyrie eleison.

Learn self-control. While all Christians are called to practice self-control, pastors need an extra dose of restraint in both their actions and words—and it’s the latter that Chrysostom harps on, especially controlling one’s temper: “. . . so a man who cannot control his temper while alone or in the company of a few others, but is easily thrown down into a passion, is like a wild beast baited by crowds all around, when he is entrusted with the rule of an entire congregation. He cannot live at peace himself and spreads evils galore among the people committed to his charge. . . . Nothing muddies the purity of the mind and the perspicacity of the wits as much as an ungovernable temper that fluctuates violently” (83–84).

A few comments: He who restrains his speech is wise (Prov. 17:27). He who gives full vent to his temper is a fool (Prov. 29:11). He without self-control is like a city without walls (Prov. 25:28). Pastors must control their tongues. Their words must be gracious, gentle, loving, and appropriately timed (Prov. 16:24; 15:23; Eph. 4:29). At the same time, however, they can’t give way to fear. We must confront error—both doctrinal and moral (see Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians), we must deal with church bullies, we must address sin in the congregation. Cowering in fear is not allowed; it must be resisted. Through it all, pastors must cultivate forbearance, “the source of all human blessings, which guides the soul to anchorage and escorts it into a fair haven” (95).

Prepare for criticism. You knew this one was coming. Some say pastors should simply get over it and move on. But just because criticism is inescapable doesn’t make living through it any easier. Still, it’s helpful to know that it’s nothing new. Even during Chrysostom’s time, dealing with criticism was something pastors dealt with. In this vein, then, Chrysostom warns pastors to prepare for “merciless critics” (101); to prepare to be “assailed with . . . accusations” (89). Consequently, they must learn to “bear the mischief of the mob” (102). But there’s more: Because pastoral ministry is like a “fish bowl” experience, you will not be able to hide your faults and imperfections. Indeed, even the most trivial will be noticed (85). Inasmuch as the vocation of a pastor places one in the public eye, your inadequacies will be exposed for all to see. Far from being able to cloak your private faults, Chrysostom noted that pastoral ministry entails exposing the nakedness of your soul (85). In short, you can’t hide who you are.

A few comments: While I suppose no one enjoys criticism, some deal with it better than others. Some can hear it and move on quickly. For others it’s the equivalent of having needles stuck in their eyes. Either way, prepare for it because it will happen. And know that you need to prepare to receive it from two different kinds of people. Some will approach you out of love and truly desire to help. Others, unfortunately, will offer their words in outbursts of anger, and with the intention to hurt. Some genuinely want to inflict pain and tear you down. As someone who has received both, I can tell you that the loving kind is easier to receive than the hurtful kind.

Either way, here’s what I do: 1) Listen to all criticism and respond with grace, love, and humility. 2) Consider the source. Is this person spiritually mature? Do they exhibit the fruit of the Spirit? Does this person truly know you? Is the purpose to build you up? 3) Report their criticism to your inner circle, to the people who truly know you and love you. Ask them if they think there is any credibility to the criticism you’re receiving. 4) Pray. Open yourself up to God and ask him what he would have you do. Ask him to help you grow and develop. Beg him to give you a love for the person or people who brought the criticism, especially those who spoke them in a cruel and mean-spirited way.

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[1] John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neville (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 94.

[2] Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015), 38.

 

The Soul in Paraphrase: Discursive Thoughts on Prayer

Note: The language of “the soul in paraphrase” comes from the Poet George Herbert (1593–1633). He used it as a way to shed light on all the complex feelings and emotions that overwhelm a person who pours out his heart to God.

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Hesitance overwhelms the one who ventures to write on prayer. I am certainly not an expert. Consider these some random thoughts from one who needs as much help as he can get.

Prayer is sacred. It is that holy moment when beautifully complex image bearers cast their burdens on to their triune Creator (Ps. 55:22). Life in an overwhelming and often dehumanizing world compels us to seek refuge in the One who is “merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod. 34:6). We bring our prayers to God, pouring out our hearts before him, “as children unburden their troubles to their parents” (Calvin, Institutes, 3. 20. 12).

In prayer we declare war on the enemy. Prayer propels one into the heart of spiritual warfare and places one in the crosshairs of the Enemy’s fiery darts. Prayer is hard because life is war. Nevertheless, we will not cower in fear. We will not give up: “The righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1). We are victorious.

In prayer we speak to and spend time with the One we love. “God is the cause of loving God,” as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) memorably put it.[1] Because we love God, we pray to him. Prayer is the reflex of the Spirit-invaded heart. In the act of regeneration, God not only grants us faith (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29) and repentance (2 Tim. 2:25), he also implants within his people a craving to commune with him whom our soul loves (Song 3:4). Consequently, with heartfelt devotion we cry, “Abba! Father! (Rom. 8:15). And when words fail us, his Spirit intercedes for us (Rom. 8:26). We pour out our hearts to him (Ps. 62:8), especially in dark hours (Ps. 34:7). We make our requests known to him (Phil. 4:6–7). As the Father’s adopted children, we humbly and happily make our requests in the Son’s name.

We must frequently call to mind the purpose of prayer. The purpose of prayer isn’t to commandeer things from God but to commune with God. Prayer is not a “domestic intercom” through which we seek to “call upstairs for more comforts in the den”; it is, rather, “a wartime walkie talkie for the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief.”[2]

Prayer requires discipline. Failing to prioritize prayer necessarily entails prioritizing something else in its place. Since our feelings and emotions fluctuate throughout our lives, we must resist the notion that we should wait until we feel like praying to begin praying. More often than not, we don’t feel like praying because we haven’t started praying. Prayerlessness is its own punishment, as someone wisely noted.

To stir yourself up to pray, meditate on the wonder of the Father’s grace and mercy, the perfections of Christ in his distinct offices of prophet, priest, and king, and the sublime work of the Holy Spirit in drawing us to himself.

Low before him with our praises we fall,
Of whom and in whom and through whom are all;
Of whom, the Father; and in whom, the Son;
And through whom, the Spirit, with them ever One

~ Peter Abelard, “O What Their Joy” (trans. John Mason Neale)

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[1] “On Loving God,” in Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, ed. Emilie Griffin, trans. G. R. Evans (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), 72.

[2] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 65.