One of my favorite promises in Scripture is “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” What a remarkable invitation! What my heart needs, and what all our churches need, is more of God’s grace. Daily grace. Sanctifying grace. Renewing grace.
And that grace is ours for the taking, like a wrapped gift under the Christmas tree with our name on it, if we would humble ourselves. It couldn’t get any easier, right?
But not so fast.
Why? Because it’s so hard to be humble.
I know I need grace, and God promises to give me grace if I would humble myself, yet I claw and fight against the very grace I want and need because I’m so proud and self-sufficient that I don’t think I really need it. “Wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24).
We all, to one degree or another, have a problem with pride. Jesus called it a log issue. While we major in other people’s specks, we’re blind to the log protruding from our own eye.
This is what happens when we are so busy pointing out everybody else’s failures: our need for grace evaporates, God’s love no longer amazes, and we find identity in what we’re not instead of whose we are. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11) subtly becomes our rally cry and the posture of our heart.
But if we are too get the grace that we so desperately need, the grace that fuels and sustains and empowers us to a life of Christ-exalting worship, service, and witness, then it’s paramount that we take a good and hard look into the mirror of our own self-righteousness.
To that end, this series has been my attempt to identify some of our corporate logs; that is, the chief sins, weaknesses, and shortcomings of conservative Reformed churches that we are either ignorant about or unwilling to admit.
So far I have diagnosed the following six: legalism, familiarism, conservatism, elitism, tribalism, and retreatism. We come, lastly, to the seventh –ism, known as hyper-Calvinism.
Hyper-Calvinism: Its Diagnosis
Before I attempt to define what hyper-Calvinism is, it may be helpful to know what it’s not.
Hyper-Calvinism is not what we call people who are really passionate about being Reformed. Those are what we called “cage phase” people in seminary: new to the Reformed faith from a wilderness of theological and ecclesiastical confusion, often fundamentalism or Arminianism. The kind of folks whose newfound purpose was not only to show why they’re right, but also why everyone else is wrong.
Yet that is not what we mean by hyper-Calvinism.
While not all hyper-Calvinists agree on every matter, there is a thread that connects these adherents as a theological movement, and it is this common thread that I want to focus my attention on in the remainder of this article.
Much more could be written and has been written about the beliefs of hyper-Calvinism, but for the sake of this article and for this series, my concern is with its tragic tendency to sever the urgency for gospel preaching and evangelism all in the name of Divine sovereignty.
To quote Josh Buice, “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.”
To illustrate using a historical example, an exchange took place in the nineteenth century between a young missionary by the name of William Carey, and that of an older minister and hyper-Calvinist, Mr. Ryland. When Carey stood up to discuss “the duty of Christians to attempt to spread the gospel among the heathen nations,” Mr. Ryland responded by loudly exclaiming, “Sit down, young man! When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.”
In the mind of the hyper-Calvinist, Divine sovereignty swallows human responsibility. In other words, evangelism becomes pointless because God will save his elect no matter what.
But there is more, and it’s deeper than perhaps we realize. This isn’t just an issue that affects the church’s commission, but it gets to the heart of who God is. In this view, we may not, in fact we cannot, preach the gospel as an invitation to the sinner to come to Christ.
In other words, we cannot tell a person, “God loves you, and he demonstrated his love for you by sending his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for your sins. If you trust in him today, your sins will be forgiven and you will be justified.” Why? Because God loves only the elect, and here’s the logic: if the person to whom you are speaking is not elect, then God doesn’t really love him. To suggest that God does love him is possibly to make God a liar.
But as Michael Horton shows in “Reformed Theology vs. Hyper-Calvinism,” “Here once again we are faced with mystery—and the two guardrails that keep us from careening off the cliff of speculation. God loves the world and calls everyone in the world to Christ outwardly through the Gospel, and yet God loves the elect with a saving purpose and calls them by His Spirit inwardly through the same Gospel (John 6:63–64; 10:3–5, 11, 14–18, 25–30; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28–30; 2 Tim. 1:9).”
In other words, historic and confessional Reformed theology protects us from the error of hyper-Calvinism by affirming both God’s sovereignty and particular redemption on the one hand and the free offer of the gospel to everyone on the other.
Hyper-Calvinism: Its Symptoms
What are some of the symptoms of hyper-Calvinism? How, where, and when does it show up in our churches?
The first and most prominent is when our churches fail to preach the gospel as an urgent call to everybody who believes. This happens when we assume the gospel, or when we assume that nobody in our churches needs the gospel since they’re already elect (which points to another problem: thinking that only unbelievers need the gospel, but that’s for another article).
A related symptom is when our gospel preaching is constantly footnoted with an explanation of election. This happens, for example, when the preacher calls for belief in Christ yet then feels compelled to begin a five-minute diatribe on how nobody can come to God unless the Spirit draws them.
To be sure, that is true. Wonderfully and beautifully and graciously true! “You did not choose me, but I chose you” said Jesus (John 15:16). Yet Christ also said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Period. No qualifications, no doctrine of election footnote. A true, sincere, earnest invitation to come find rest in him.
Can we say that to people? Jesus did! When is the last time our sermons included a personal, passionate plea to come to Christ, without any excursus on election? Just straight up, come to Jesus now while it’s the day of salvation?
As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:20–21, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might bemuse the righteousness of God.”
Another symptom of hyper-Calvinism is the absence of evangelism and outreach. Could it be that one of the reasons we as Reformed churches struggle to evangelize our neighbors and communities is because deep down inside we’ve bought the narrative that says God will save his people without us, so why even try? In fact, why get in the way?
Yet, as Geoff Thomas writes, “When Calvinism ceases to be evangelistic it is a cerebral, chilling, and unattractive religious system.”
Historically, the Reformed faith has produced some of the most ardent and zealous missionaries the world has ever known. As J. I. Packer taught in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, it is precisely because God is sovereign that we have the confidence to be the ambassadors we’re called to be. Conversions don’t depend on us, our charisma, or how well we package the presentation. We preach Christ; God opens blind eyes. But we do preach Christ.
Hyper-Calvinism: Its Treatment
It shouldn’t be any surprise to you that I’m going to conclude this series as I have all the others, by argument that the best treatment for the disease of hyper-Calvinism is the gospel itself. Nothing more and nothing less than the pure, sweet, biblical announcement of the perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners.
God is sovereign. He chooses his people. We believe in unconditional election, irresistible grace, and particular redemption. But we also must affirm that we are called to preach this gospel to anyone and everyone, indiscriminately.
We don’t know who the elect are, so we are commanded to tell them all. And we can really say, sincerely and truly, “Christ died for your sins; believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!”
The well-being of our churches depends on it. Our testimony depends on it. What this world needs is not a system of doctrine that cuts the heart out of the gospel we preach, but a message that offers the whole Christ to the whole person.
Praise God that he 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” (2 Pet. 3:9).
May our conservative Reformed churches show the world that to be Reformed is to preach the good news of Christ for sinners. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16–17).
Rev. Michael J. Schout
is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI.
He welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.