Q&A Are Calvinists Heading Back to Rome?
By: Brenda Nickel
Recently we received a question from a reader who is confused about Calvinists who can argue against Roman Catholics on the one hand, yet other Calvinists seem to be moving toward Roman Catholicism on the other. This person writes about Michael Gendron, a former Roman Catholic, who I, Caryl, have personally asked about his position concerning Calvinism. Michael rejects this affiliation yet appears to teach its tenets in many of his lectures. It seems to be a confusing position and several others over the years have asked me for clarification. I approached Brenda Nickel, a former Calvinist for her Biblical insight.
Q: Caryl, I believe Mike Gendron to be a sound biblical teacher with a love for Catholics who are so deceived and I noticed you interviewed him on Wide is the Gate (Volume One) - having just read your newsletter article about Rick Warren and Calvinism, it brought to mind -- and I may be wrong - that Mike is a Calvinist, is he not? Your article seems to suggest that Calvinists are in danger of being led to Rome, and yet Mike speaks out against Rome and reaches out to those deceived by it. Please excuse my ignorance - I find this whole Calvinism, Arminianism, and all the other "isms" so confusing. I would really appreciate your response regarding Mike, I highly respect him. Thanks Caryl, God Bless you for sounding the alarm and for your boldness and courage.
Brenda writes: This reader's inquiry highlights an interesting aspect of Calvinism; not all Calvinists agree, making the various trends within Calvinism difficult to sift through. Our reader is rightly confused about how some Calvinists, while exposing the errors of Roman Catholicism, may unwittingly be part of the movement where some within it are heading back toward Romanism. As with any "ism" there are fractures and splinters within its community. Complicating this issue is some Calvinists don't identify themselves as Calvinist. If some Calvinists are moving toward Roman Catholicism, why aren't all Calvinists doing so? Don't all Calvinists believe the same tenets? What are the criteria which determine whether one is a Calvinist or not? Are some Calvinists heading back to Rome?
Would it surprise you to learn that many Calvinists don't even consider themselves to be a Calvinist? Some reject the label claiming they aren't following the man John Calvin, nor have they learned doctrine from him, but instead they insist they follow Christ and His truth. Many have never even read John Calvin's seminal work, "The Institutes of the Christian Religion" and cite this lack of exposure to Calvin as proof they aren't Calvinists. They claim to follow only Biblical teachings and therefore label themselves "Biblicists" rather than Calvinists. They firmly believe they learned the "finer" and "deeper" points of salvation through the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.
Such "Biblicists" know they are not to follow men as Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 1:12, "Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ." Even while claiming they don't follow men, they ardently study and cite the works of Calvinists such as Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Lloyd-Jones, John Piper, John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul and others. It's worth noting that while they refuse to identify with John Calvin, they prefer and seek out fellowship with Calvinists of like mind while arguing with those of a different mind. "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3). If they claim not to follow John Calvin and reject the moniker "Calvinist," then what defines a Calvinist?
Debates have gone on for centuries over this issue, but that doesn't mean it can't be resolved. It just means the two sides can't come to terms because they are diametrically opposed to one another. The bottom line distinction between who is and who isn't a Calvinist is how one defines the character of God. Does God's love show favoritism? Do His judgments display partiality? Is God faithful to keep His promises? Therefore, the character of God determines the gospel He offers to lost humanity. If God truly loves all men, then He will truly offer salvation to all men. If God truly loves only some men, then He will truly offer salvation only to some men. If God is just, He judges men for their choices not His. If God is faithful, then His Words can be trusted. Does God choose some for heaven and others for hell by not choosing them?
At the heart of this debate is the nature of God's sovereignty. Is His sovereignty exaggerated in mysteriously predetermining who will be saved, or does God sovereignly give man the ability, responsibility and choice to believe? If He sovereignly preselects who will be granted salvation, then he must also sovereignly orchestrate the "elects'" receiving of salvation. If God has given men the responsibility to believe, then men must search out and believe truth before God gifts them with grace for salvation. Ask yourself if you believe God sovereignly elects apart from the condition of faith being met, or if He sovereignly elects after the condition of faith is met. Does God bring the elect to faith without man's involvement, or does God give men the ability to make the free will choice their eternity hangs on?
It's really quite simple to sort through these issues when one keeps the true character of God in mind. Jesus is the Word become flesh (Jn 1:14) and therefore communicates His character through His Word. Any alterations in the meaning of the Word results in changing our understanding of His character. We are always answering this unspoken question through our interpretation of truth, "But whom say ye that I am?" (Mk 8:29). However, Calvinist teachers, who can't change the actual words of scripture, come alongside us to change the intended meaning of scripture and thereby change the nature of God and the gospel He offers. Ask yourself if God reconciled Himself to the whole world through the cross (2 Cor 5:18; Eph 2:16; Col 1:20-21) or just to those He preselected? Does God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son for all men everywhere (Jn 3:16) or to only some men? Did Jesus propitiate the sins of the whole world or just the sins of the elect (1 Jn 2:2)? Did Jesus purchase the false teachers by paying for their sins or not (2 Pet 2:1)?
Therefore, the real question in determining who is and who isn't a Calvinist is asking if they follow a God whose character moves Him to preselect only some for salvation? If so, then they are aligning with the god that John Calvin followed. This is why anyone who believes in sovereign election is a Calvinist whether they like the term or not. The god and gospel of Calvinism stands in stark contrast to the God and Gospel of the Bible. As believers, priests of God (1 Pet 2:9), we must make a strong distinction between the holy and the profane, just as the Old Testament priests were commanded to do, "And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean" (Eze 44:23).
Even though Calvinism is the gospel of Reformed theology for reasons beyond the scope of this article, many Dispensationalists hold to it as well. Reformed theology teaches the church began in the Old Testament, is under The Law, is the recipient of the Abrahamic promises given to Israel, and is "spiritually" in the Kingdom Now. Dispensationalism teaches the church began at Pentecost, is under grace rather than Law, the church is grafted into Israel to partake of the Abrahamic promises, and the kingdom is yet future for the children of God. Interesting that the Roman Catholic Church believes it is the kingdom of God on earth and it is working hard to bring the whole world under its authority in order to prepare for Christ's return.
So are some Calvinists heading back to Rome? The short answer is that some powerful and influential Reformed Calvinists are heading in that direction through the promotion of Federal Vision theology read here and the New Perspective on Paul read here. John Piper gave Federal Visionist Doug Wilson a platform of acceptance when Piper invited him to speak at his 2009 National Conference, introducing his followers to this teacher. Since Piper has the hearts of so many Calvinists, this is cause for concern. Federal Vision is gaining a serious foothold at Knox Seminary of James Kennedy fame. Federal Vision theology teaches strict adherence to the Law, are generally Kingdom Now, teach a two-tiered "election" first to the church and later to salvation if one perseveres, views baptism as conferring the benefits of union with Christ, and rejects the reality of Christ's righteousness in salvation. Federal Vision's view of obedience for salvation, along with its view of baptism is much more in line with Roman Catholicism than with the Bible.
If Federal Vision were not concern enough, there is also the New Perspective on Paul that is promoted by Anglican N. T. Wright and accepted by some within Calvinism. It teaches that Paul wasn't arguing in the first century against the works-based salvation of the Judaizers, but rather against the mistreatment of the Gentiles by Jewish leaders. These conclusions loosen salvation by faith to promote salvation by a strengthened Lordship salvation gospel. Finally, this teaching says that justification isn't individually realized, but rather Paul was expressing it as membership in the covenant community.
Keep in mind that Reformed Calvinists trumpet loud and long they aren't Roman Catholic in the least citing Martin Luther's clarion cry that the "just shall live by faith." Then consider that Lordship salvation sounds very similar to Roman Catholicisms teaching where one cannot be sure of salvation unless a lifetime of obedience is produced to secure that salvation. Yet Calvinists accuse non-Calvinists of being Roman Catholic when exercising the choice to believe from the heart, calling personal faith a work. Any "working" for salvation is considered to be "Catholic" by Reformed Calvinists. Interesting that Jesus accepts this "work" of faith in John 6:29, "Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent."
Calvinism, from its inception, is a body of thought born by the Roman Catholic doctor of Catholicism; Augustine of Hippo. Many refer to Calvinism as Augustinianism. Some may refuse the label "Calvinist" yet fully believe its tenets that stem from sovereign election. Many reject identifying with more committed Reformed Calvinists because of their theology and eschatology (end times views). It seems the Calvinists who are moving toward Romanism are those inside the Reformed camp rather than within Dispensationalism. Any move toward defining baptism as creating union with Christ, or redefining justification as identifying with the covenant community of God, is just another step toward Roman Catholicism. Christians need to be on guard against the philosophies of men moving people one step closer toward bridge building (ecumenicism) with Rome, which will deceive many into thinking the differences between Christianity and Roman Catholicism are merely non-essentials. We need to stay vigilant to protect the true Gospel of Christ given by God to prove His love toward all men that while sinners, Christ died for them, the ungodly!
"Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy,
we faint not; But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty,
not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully;
but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves
to every man's conscience in the sight of God."