Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on July 12 2009.
One of the benefits of being a television preacher is that you receive feedback not only from your own church members, but from viewers in your television audience. Most of the responses I’ve received through the years have been very gracious. And a few are quite memorable.
Like the fellow who called to critique the way I used scripture in a sermon. He was concerned that I quoted some but not all of John 3:16 —he felt not quoting the verse in its entirety was an abuse of scripture. But even more problematic to him was that I didn’t use the King James Version of scripture. As far as he was concerned, the KJV was the version of scripture closest to the heart of God and the words of Jesus, and no good Baptist should use anything else.
What he may not have realized is that those good Puritans who sailed to America 400 years ago would not agree with his assessment of the King James Version. In 1553, after Mary Tudor assumed the English throne, she reinstated Catholicism as the state religion and persecuted Protestants, prompting the British to nickname their queen “Bloody Mary.” Many of those persecuted Protestants fled to Europe, especially to Geneva, Switzerland to become a part of a church led by a Protestant leader named John Calvin. There a committee of these Protestant refugees produced an English version of the Bible called the Geneva Bible that was filled with anti-Catholic, pro-Protestant commentary that insisted, among other things, that the Pope was the Antichrist.
The Geneva Bible infuriated Catholic royalty in England, and in time King James would authorize a new version of scripture that would be published in 1611. And while many Baptists in the American South would eventually swear by the King James Version, it was actually the Calvinist Geneva Bible that sailed across the Atlantic with the pilgrims on the Mayflower and Arbella, and the theology of John Calvin that shaped the world-view of those pilgrims who founded our country.
And that’s just one of many reasons why we should care about John Calvin who would have celebrated his 500th birthday on July 10 had he still been alive. Actually, it’s not just the religious press that is pausing to pay its respects to this French theologian. No less than USA Today, PoliticsDaily.com, and our own Winston-Salem Journal have publishedarticles about this man who has far more to do with American faith and values than most of us realize.
John Calvin was born in France on July 10, 1509. Calvin was a brilliant young man—most would say a “genius”—and early in his life he intended to be a Catholic priest. But later he decided to go into law. After he read the writings of Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther, Calvin had a significant conversion experience, changing from Catholic to Protestant.
A dynamic speaker and prolific writer, Calvin soon got himself into hot water with Catholic officials for teaching Protestant doctrine. So he was forced into exile, and settled initially in Basel, Switzerland, where at age 26, he began writing his Institutes of the Christian Religion. This major systematic theology, which begins with God the creator and ends with reflections on civil government, stands as one of the most important expressions of Reformation thought. He finished it at age 27 (incredible!). And I remember well struggling to read these volumes as a twenty-something seminary student.
Protestants in Geneva were so impressed by Calvin’s Institutes that they invited him to locate there and help establish the “Reform” movement. Calvin’s workload was staggering: he pastored a church and preached in it daily, wrote commentaries on every book of the Bible, authored dozens of Christian pamphlets, trained and sent out missionaries, and influenced nearby schools and civil government.
No wonder Calvin suffered from chronic migraine headaches!
But there may be more to Calvin’s headaches than his workload. This week as I boned up on Calvin for this sermon I realized what a bundle of contradictions he was and still is. For example, when he started his church in Geneva, he introduced a revolutionary church constitution based on the democratic principles of division of powers. But, he retained the ultimate say.
Over time Calvin drew up an extensive catalog of austere rules of morality not just for his church members but all the citizens of Geneva. These ranged from bans on swearing, gambling, fornication, and dancing (even at weddings). Unexcused absence from worship was penalized. And adultery and homosexuality could draw severe sentences, even death. Later, Karl Barth, one the 20th century’s most influential reformed theologians, observed that none of us would liked to have lived in Calvin’s Geneva.
On the other hand, Calvin biographer Bruce Gordon of Yale Divinity School notes that Calvin believed the fruits of this world—good friends, good food, and yes, good sex between husbands and wives—were to be enjoyed. Calvin was especially fond of fine wine and gourmet dinners with friends. Calvin once wrote, “The fine things of life point to a gracious God.”
Many observes give John Calvin credit for generating the so-called “Protestant ethic” of hard work and thrift (and, we might add, his approval of banks charging moderate interest rates on loans) that formed the foundation of American capitalism. And yet, it was this same Calvin who also insisted that Christian community mandated we help the poor among us.
Emory Law School’s John Witte, Jr. argues that Calvin’s writings also provided the seedbed of American constitutionalism, popular sovereignty, federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, church and state, and more. Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw observes in his fascinating book, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, that Calvin believed humility was the cardinal Christian virtue which explains why Calvin chose to be buried in an unmarked grave.
But many critics of Calvin note that he didn’t seem either humble or even-handed when he presided over the trial of a Spanish theologian named Michael Servetus who claimed not to believe in the Trinity. Calvin not only convicted Servetus of heresy, but ordered him to be burned at the stake. And similar critics observe that the New England Puritans exiled the first American Baptist, Roger Williams, and executed other supposed “heretics” because of their Calvinist world-view.
But nothing about John Calvin was as controversial then or now as his theological views about predestination and the sovereignty of God. These ideas and the related doctrine of prevenient grace have kicked up so much dust and created so many debates and divisions lasting to this day that they demand another look from us as we celebrate Calvin’s 500th birthday.
(By the way, in case you’re still not convinced John Calvin is a relevant topic, check out the news coverage of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention held just a few days ago. The hottest controversy by far was over Calvinism, with key SBC leaders openly clashing over predestination and its potentially chilling impact on evangelism, and some predicting that Calvinism will eventually split the SBC.)
In his Institutes, Calvin argues that we get right with God not because of anything we do, but entirely (and I do mean entirely) because of what God does for us. God is Lord over all creation, and nothing is outside his control—including our salvation. God decides what happens in the course of history, and whom he will chose for his kingdom, and nothing we do can influence his preordained plan.
Our lives are all about God’s plan, not our plans. When Rick Warren begins his best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, with that now-famous line, “It’s not about you,” he’s taking a line right out of Calvin’s Institutes. And, Calvin says, our salvation is all about God’s grace, not our works. Our salvation is not about what we do in response to a hymn of invitation. It was arranged long before we were born.
Where does Calvin get these ideas that make many a Baptist uncomfortable? From scriptures like Ephesians 1, where the Apostle Paul writes, (God) chose us in (Christ) before the creation of this world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
In case we’re not getting the point, Paul makes it a different way in the same passage—In (Christ) we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.
Okay, this is some pretty heavy stuff. What does it mean? Look in a dictionary, and it will tell you to predestine literally means “to determine beforehand.” So when Paul says human history and salvation are “predestined,” what does he mean?
Here’s where Calvin becomes so important—and controversial. Calvin and his followers developed a five-point system of thought that fleshed out the ideas of God’s sovereignty and predestination. Today, this five-point system of thought is known by the acronym “TULIP”, which stands for the following five ideas:
1) Total depravity
2) Unconditional election
3) Limited atonement
4) Irresistible grace
5) Perseverance of the saints.
Time won’t allow for a thorough treatment of these five points of Calvinism. So here’s a Reader’s Digest version, complements of Richard Mouw , “‘Total depravity’ offers a picture of the human condition as a helpless one. We have gotten ourselves into a mess—‘In Adam’s fall we sinned all”—as the old slogan goes—and we are totally incapable of getting ourselves out by our own efforts. If we are to be delivered from our desperate condition, then it will have to be because God takes the initiative—thus ‘unconditional election.’ And God has indeed made the crucial move; he sent his Son into the world to atone for the sins of those whom—here is ‘limited atonement’—God had beforehand chosen to eternal life. ‘Irresistible grace’ says God draws his chosen ones irresistibly to himself. And ‘perseverance of the saints’ means once his chosen children enter into genuine fellowship with him, God will never abandon them.”
It’s impossible to overstate how controversial these five points of Calvinistic theology are. In fact, you could say it’s impossible to tiptoe around or through this “TULIP!” What makes this all the more confusing and frustrating is that there are many variations of Calvinism. For example, not all Calvinists interpret these five points the same way. “Hyper-Calvinists” insist on a limited, predetermined atonement that eliminates any need for evangelism. Softer “evangelical Calvinists” like the 19th Century British Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon push for a more expansive atonement that calls for preaching to any and all who will hear the gospel.
And if you are not already thoroughly confused, followers of Dutch theologian Joseph Arminius muddy the water still more. Arminians whole-heartedly agree with Calvin that we are incapable of saving ourselves. We don’t choose God. God chooses us. However, say Arminians, for God’s choice to finally make a difference, we must respond to God’s grace. In other words, God makes the first move (prevenient grace) but he can’t save us by himself. At some point, we have to cooperate (cooperative grace) with God by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. Even though God chooses us to be his own, we have the freedom to resist his grace and say, “No. I’d rather be in Hell.”
Arminians acknowledge those passages of scripture like Ephesians 1 that speak of a God who plans everything and preselects everyone from the beginning. But Arminians argue that the weight of scripture comes down on the side of a God who loves everybody, and wants everybody to be in the Kingdom. John 3:16-17 puts it this way: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Arminians agree that God is sovereign, and in charge of the universe. But that does not mean that God micromanages the details of history, and exercises meticulous control over every event. Why? Because God created us to be free moral agents, so free that we can thwart his well-conceived plans. Adam and Eve exercised that terrible gift of freedom, and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since.
Just for the record, throughout our history Baptists have subscribed to both Calvinist and Arminian schools of thought. And I suppose I have too. I know it’s all about God, not me. And I know without God’s grace I’d be a goner. But I also believe my choices matter in the scheme of things.
At the end of the day, I don’t claim to understand God’s ways. But this much I know—no system of thought, not even one developed 500 years ago by a genius like John Calvin—will save you. Only a relationship with a Savior who lived 2000 years ago, and lives today will do that.
At the end of the day, a relationship with Jesus is all we’ll have. And at the end of the day, a relationship with Jesus is all we’ll need.