“Are you a Calvinist?” asked the interim pastor who was guiding the pastoral search committee considering me. “If you’re a Calvinist, then this candidacy is over now.”
How would you answer that question? As a seven-point Calvinist I answered, “What do you mean by Calvinist?” He replied, “By Calvinist, I mean you only share the gospel with the elect and you don’t need to pray for people’s salvation because it’s already determined.” Based on that definition, I replied, “No, I am not a Calvinist.” Four months later, I was installed as their pastor.
Men desire the pastorate because they want to teach and equip the saints in sound doctrine (Eph 4:11–16). Pastors desire to train their members to disciple others to obey all of Christ’s commands (Matt 28:20). They teach the truth in order to take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:3–5). Consequently, we pastors face a choice on whether to push our Calvinistic doctrine hard or hold back. Biblical and theological illiteracy burdens us. Our hearers assume either personal free will independent of God’s sovereignty or an overbearing exercise of God’s will that obliterates human responsibility. Too many know nothing of human will compatible with God’s unchanging decrees.
Will our people correctly connect the theological dots? What if they’re steeped in Arminianism? More importantly, will they have the sturdy rock of God’s wisdom, power and goodness amid terrible suffering? Or will they be swept away by one of the incessant winds of false doctrine? Supposing they embrace Calvinism, what if they grow in pride regarding their theological knowledge? Pastors are tempted to worry about these dangers, and to grow impatient about the state of their people’s theological understanding.
Personally, I’ve felt the pull to overreact impatiently and zealously by putting my people in their theological place. By grace, I’ve refrained from quick replies and asked clarifying questions instead. In seeking to wisely shepherd my church, many have been moved, without even knowing it, to a sound sense, conviction and commitment regarding God’s sovereign freedom.
But here’s the question: How do we do this? At the risk of sounding too simple: Preach the Bible, not Calvinism. Of course, if Calvinism is true, then as you preach the Bible you will preach Calvinism. My point is more specific: Do not aim to preach your system with its terminology. Aim to preach the Bible itself.
But, you might say, if Calvinism is true, then why shouldn’t I preach it? Three reasons: the content, the function and the goal of preaching.
1. Because of the content of preaching.
Preach the Bible instead of Calvinism because the Bible’s words are God-breathed, not our theological formulations. Paul tells us “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16, cf. 2 Pet 1:21). The words written down in Scripture are God’s words. Do we trust God’s sovereign choice of words over our clever and even necessary theologizing about his sovereignty?
Charles Simeon serves as a good example of a preacher who aimed to be biblical. Though he believed in unconditional election he resolved “to endeavor to give to every portion of the word of God its full and proper force, without considering what scheme it favors, or whose system it is likely to advance” (Charles Simeon: Pastor of a Generation, Moule, Loc. 1066). If you’re a Calvinist because it’s biblical, then exult in and humble yourself before the Bible.
In considering the theological tension Calvinist preachers feel to nuance some biblical passages, Simeon wrote:
But the author [Simeon] would not wish one of them altered; he finds as much satisfaction in one class of passages as another; and employs the one, he believes, as freely as the other. Where the inspired Writers speak in unqualified terms, he thinks himself at liberty to do the same; judging that they needed no instruction from him how to propagate the truth. He is content to sit as a learner at the feet of the holy Apostles and has no ambition to teach them how they ought to have spoken. (Moule, Kindle Loc. 1062–1070)
Because the Bible’s words are God’s words, ground your members in those words. Trust your big God more than your articulation of big God theology. Explain and exult in the theology textually rooted and framed because the Bible’s words are sufficient to shape Calvinistic thinking. For example, D.A. Carson comments on Acts 13:48,
After the detailed account of Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch, we are told that many Gentiles “honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (13:48). An excellent exercise is to discover all the ways Acts, or even the entire New Testament, speaks of conversion and of converts—and then to use all of those locutions in our own speech. For our ways of talking about such matters both reflect and shape the way we think of such matters. There is no biblical passage that speaks of “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior” (though the notion itself is not entirely wrong). So why do many adopt this expression, and never speak in the terms of verse 48? (For the Love of God, vol. 1).
Let the Bible’s words “reflect and shape” the way our people think about salvation and sovereignty. After almost two years, I preached an overview sermon on Exodus about God’s supremacy. I read aloud every verse that spoke of (1) Pharaoh hardening his heart, (2) Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, and (3) God hardening his heart. Then I asked my self-professing anti-Calvinist church, “Who was ultimately responsible in Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, God or Pharaoh?” To my surprise, they all shouted back, “God!” They meant it. I thanked God that they embraced his ultimacy in hardening Pharaoh’s heart, regardless of what they did with the label “Calvinist.”