Christians in Chattanooga and around the world are debating a controversy that has marked the life of the church since the day of Christ. And that is the extent and nature of the sovereignty of God.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press in Saturday’s edition devotes a bottom corner of Page A1 to a Nashville-datelined story about the strengthening of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC convenes in Houston for two days beginning Tuesday. Chattanooga ministers who are members of that loose congregationalist body are already in that city.
The aspect of God’s sovereignty that causes the most division is God’s authority to choose His people as individuals. Does God have authority to elect His own citizens and delineate whom He shall redeem? Or are the names on that roll put there by sinners themselves who invite Christ into their hearts and partake by their good work in the joys of salvation? The common term that describes God’s gracious salvation of a particular individual is predestination.
The notion of God’s electing power is exhaustive in scripture. In Ephesians, chapter 1, Paul uses the word predestinate twice, saying that God “having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will. He says God’s people have “obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (verses 5 and 11). He uses the word twice in Romans, chapter 8. In many other places in scripture is found the power of God not just to foreknow events, but to bring them about by an eternal decree.
The high view of the sovereignty of God in all things invariably makes Christians more involved in the outworking of God’s commandments. The best writers on subjects such as Christianity and culture, the arts, law, economics, and other fields are in the reformed camp, which alone in Christendom has produced systematic theology.
The implications of Calvinism are increasingly important as we consider the drawing to a close of the era of the nation-state, with its absolutism, its totalitarianism, its surveillance PRISMs, its wars of adventure in places such as Syria and its crippling inflation.
If we believe authorities such as J.H. Merle D’Aubigne, the preeminent historian of the Reformation, the reformed position is most hostile to state absolutism. But the adherents of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) generally yield to it. The growth of reformed theology is increasingly important in the U.S. as Christianity comes under attack from radical humanists and Muslim-oriented statists such as President Obama. The reformed perspective is the most zealous for God’s prerogatives, and most amply accounts for Christ’s reign today. Calvinism is the source of Western political liberty that defies monarchs; Calvinism encourages innovation, capital creation, education, literacy and invention, according to a whole range of authors. The bigotry in the political and media establishment is aimed at Christianity’s most articulate and self-consistent defenders. That is to say, at those 30 percent of SBC ministers who in a survey in 2012 identify with John Calvin.
A graduate comes to reformed faith in Chattanooga
A lifetime Baptist, Brice Edenfield, 18, recently graduated from Ooltewah high school and hopes to study philosophy. I occasionally sit with Brice at lunch at Brainerd Hills Presbyterian church, where we worship on the Lord’s Day. We usually talk about books and theology.
Mr. Edenfield left the Arminian Baptist church for many reasons, one of them being that baptistic thinking takes no interest in many compelling questions that pertain to the world beyond the state of any one person’s heart.
“When I was in the Baptist church, it tended to be that the entire emphasis was only upon salvation,” Mr. Edenfield says. “I kept hearing the same message week after week, and eventually started questioning why, as a Christian, I needed to continue attending church if I wasn’t learning anything. So eventually, God in His providence led me to study His scripture to come to a more biblical understanding about what to do for my sanctification, which was mostly an ignored concept in the Baptist church.
“Sanctification is growing in holiness in obedience to God’s law so that you can show love towards him. So, through God’s providence, I continued on to study church government and soteriology [the doctrine of salvation] and even God’s law and how it’s applicable to our lives today. Because, within the Baptist church, all they focus on is salvation.” This “sole emphasis” distorted Mr. Edenfield’s view of the relationship between God and man. “They didn’t focus on anything else, really. It was salvation of souls on Sunday and salvation of souls outside of church.”
Mr. Edenfield compared scripture with doctrines of various church. Roman Catholicism appeals to the flesh, he says, and is perverse because it “denies salvation through faith alone,” a key doctrine rediscovered during the Reformation. He studied the Eastern Orthodox Church, which struck him as entirely disinterested in propositional truths in doctrine. The Anglican church makes the king a pope. In Methodism, he saw Arminianism, which he had come to reject. Mr. Edenfield had come to reject the high view of man in that teaching, convinced by Romans 9 “and seeing that you are not saved by human will or exertion, but it is wholly by the grace of God.” He read how God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and He gives mercy upon those He choses to have mercy. Before arriving at the Presbyterian church, he worshiped as a reformed Baptist, indicating he needed time to understand its teaching on infant baptism.
“God is wholly in control of everything that happens, from the speck of dust that falls onto a blade of grass, over to *** a car breaking down on the interstate — because, with Him being sovereign, he would have to be in control of everything. If He wasn’t in control of everything, He wouldn’t be God.”
Reformed people, yes, care about souls of lost
I mention the accusation commonly made against the reformed church that its adherents disbelieve in the duty to evangelize and propagate faith in Christ.
“No, God may use you as a means for the salvation of other people,” Mr. Edenfield says, warmly. “You may be, in a sense, the tool He uses for the conversion of that sinner. So, to say that you’re going to no longer evangelize because they are already predestined and already set, that’s more or less — in the small picture, you could say that people aren’t going to be saved through you being the means. But, on the other hand, in the big picture of it, God had already planned *** for you not to be the means *** to convert other people through God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s working within you.”
So, a Calvinist cares about winning other souls to Christ? Mr. Edenfield says no reformed person can save another soul. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit that accomplishes that work. The reformed believe in evangelism, he says. A Christian worldview propels God’s people into every area of life, from banking and farming to education, and the work of Christian reformation in each area is testimony of God’s purposes in them, Mr. Edenfield indicates. God doesn’t save a nation or a people in one fell swoop, but by degrees, by steps, in all the domains, eventually. Thus, Mr. Edenfield suggests, a reformed Christian has a multiplicity of areas from which he testifies of God’s saving power. A person who claps limits on God’s sovereignty lacks these grounds, and his scope of appeal is much narrower.
With each area of life that an Arminian Baptist yields to the world, he denies God another way by which He might obtain glory and honor.
Mr. Edenfield explains that baptistic Christianity’s focus on individuals’ salvation keeps God’s people outside fields such as economics, where they should be busily defending the free market, charity, private initiative and economic liberty. “But within the reformed belief, you want to be in accordance with God’s law in all that you do, so that you can obey Christ to show him love, because love is obedience to Christ.”
I ask if obedience is important in the reformed camp. Yes, because the law of God matters to Calvinists. “In the reformed camp, obedience is love toward God. In the Arminian camp it’s only an emotion that we normally have, such as lust, happy, and all kinds of other things. It’s just another emotion. It’s not anything that you have to prompt yourself to do. It’s not anything you have to obey. It’s rather something that happens because you choose God.”