The Depravity Question

A Worldview Perspective on 'the New Calvinism'

A debate is mounting over the increasing interest in theology among young Evangelicals—and how it has motivated many to embrace the doctrines historically known as Calvinism.

This sharpening exchange is drawing harsh words and battle lines within churches and even denominations. But while genuine disagreements in some areas are a given, a closer examination reveals that the “New Calvinism,” more than anything else, is drawing attention back to an old truth of the Christian worldview—and counteracting the growth of an equally ancient heresy.

Deeply divisive

The treatment that resurgent Calvinism is receiving from its opponents leaves no question about their views. Recently, the Kentucky Baptist Association denied membership to Pleasant Valley Community Church in Owensboro on the grounds that it was too “Calvinistic in nature.” This incident might be called a scale-model of the current conflict within American Evangelicalism over the “New Calvinism.”

The 104-9 vote to exclude this small church came in the wake of comments by Frank Page, CEO of the Southern Baptist Church’s Executive Committee, calling the return of Calvinism in America’s largest Evangelical denomination a “top challenge.”NewCalvinism

“It is deeply divisive in many situations and is disconcerting in others,” writes Page, who terms Calvinism a “man-made” doctrine in his booklet Trouble with the TULIP. “At some point we are going to see the challenges which are ensuing from this divide become even more problematic for us.”

Roger Olson, another prominent Baptist and author of Against Calvinism, concurred with Page’s comments in even more ominous tones, suggesting that Baptists who embrace Calvinism because of its historical roots in their denomination might as well re-embrace racism and slavery.

“[Calvinism],” he says, “makes assertions about God that necessarily, logically imply that God is less than perfectly good in the highest sense of goodness. . . . In spite of [Calvinists’] best efforts to avoid it, the ‘good and necessary consequence’ of their soteriology . . . is that God is morally ambiguous if not a moral monster.”

Popular author and campus evangelist Mark Cahill goes even further, attacking Calvinism’s view of man’s fallen nature and salvation as “another gospel.”

“When [a Calvinist] talks about the ‘total depravity of man,’” writes Cahill in his widely circulated manifesto against Reformed Theology, “typically what that person means is that man is so dead in his sins that there is no way that he can believe what Jesus Christ has done for him without God first enabling him to do so.”

Cahill, a self-confessed layman, argues that “man is separated from God by his sins, but that in no way means that he cannot repent and believe. People can choose. Calvinism teaches that one must be regenerated first before he or she can believe. The only problem is that you will never find that in the Bible.”

The Death Grip

Disagreeing with the tenets of Calvinism is one thing. But a broad swath of today’s Evangelical leaders apparently count the Doctrines of Grace among the worst errors of history, with men like Cahill comparing them to Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witness movement, and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell identifying them as heresy.

Aside from the fact that this places many of the figures most admired by anti-Calvinist Evangelicals (John Bunyan, the Pilgrims, Charles Spurgeon, Francis Schaffer, and more) into the “heretic” camp, it poses an even deeper problem for those who specifically object to Calvinism’s doctrine of human sinfulness. Whatever figures like Cahill mean when they insist that man is not “so dead” as to be incapable of choosing to love Christ, they would do well to realize that their views stand against not only those of John Calvin, but of virtually every leader and creed in Western Christianity.

In fact, while their views may be unorthodox, they’re not new. Around 1,600 years ago, a British monk named Pelagius argued that humans have no natural tendency toward evil, but are born with the ability to love God and obey His commandments perfectly. Even after a person chooses to sin, said Pelagius, he retains the power to repent and believe in Christ without God’s help. This teaching sparked a massive conflict that the Church ultimately resolved in two subsequent councils, where it drew upon Scripture and the teachings of St. Augustine to condemn Pelagianism as heresy.

But if Cahill’s views accurately represent those of the majority of modern Evangelicals, does it mean we’ve embraced a heretic’s doctrine? That, according to R. C. Sproul, is exactly what’s happened.

“Modern Evangelicalism,” Sproul writes in Modern Reformation, “almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of ‘professing evangelical Christians’ in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves.”

Noting that neither of these views aligns with Arminianism, Catholicism or any other Orthodox Christian tradition, he concludes that “Pelagianism has a death grip on the modern church.”

Bondage of the Will

To understand how alien today’s theology is to history, one need only examine some of the cardinal statements and creeds of various denominations since the time of Pelagius.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession, which served as the theological underpinning for almost all Baptist congregations in colonial America(and closely mirrors the Westminster Confession), says of free will, “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man . . . is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”

Likewise, the Church of England, in its 1563 XXXIX Articles, declares in Chapter Ten, “Of Free Will,” that “the condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.”

Hundreds of years prior, the Roman Catholic Church responded to Pelagius at the Council of Orange, insisting, “If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, ‘What have you that you did not receive?’ (1 Cor. 4:7), and ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am’ (1 Cor. 15:10).”

For Martin Luther, the Reformer who opposed the teachings of Catholicism in his day, the doctrines of Orange were still sacrosanct. Refuting the work of “free will” advocate Desiderius Erasmus, Luther wrote in his Bondage of the Will, “Let all the ‘free-will’ in the world do all it can with all its strength; it will never give rise to a single instance of ability to avoid being hardened if God does not give the Spirit, or of meriting mercy if it is left to its own strength.”

Even Jacob Arminius, the foremost opponent of Calvinism in history and founder of Arminian theology, condemned the view that a person can freely choose Christ without God first enabling him. “Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace,” he wrote, as recorded in Volume Two of The Works of Arminius. “That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word ‘grace,’ I mean by it that which is the grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration. . . . This grace commences salvation, promotes it, and perfects and consummates it. I confess that the mind of a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins.”

Repeat these statements unattributed to the average Evangelical today, and you will likely become known as a Calvinist, regardless of your actual beliefs. For whatever reason, the conviction that human sinfulness affects our ability to choose Christ—though a historical doctrine of nearly every church—has lost its association with all but the Reformed tradition. We have fallen captive to an unduly high view of ourselves—one that likely would have resonated with the heretic Pelagius.

That’s why Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, sees the resurgence of Calvinism as a godsend.

“You’ve got a generation of Christians who’ve grown up in an overwhelmingly secular culture, and they’re not part of a churched culture,” he said in a discussion hosted by The Gospel Coalition. “They’re realizing that something has to explain how they came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They have an absolute determination . . . that their first principle is the sovereignty of God, not the sovereignty of the self.”

One wonders whether this renewed conviction that faith itself comes from God is the effect or the cause of resurgent Calvinism. Whatever the case, a return to a more realistic view of human nature as taught by Scripture, as defended by Augustine, and as affirmed by the great creeds and theologians (Calvinist and otherwise), has the potential to correct a grave error in our thinking. And a worldview that recognizes our basic depravity and dependence upon God for salvation should inspire deep humility and gratitude—not controversy.

G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


God helps...
Without more context, it's not at all clear that believing "God helps those who help themselves" is heretical. Is this intended to be a statement on salvation, or a recognition of our responsibility not to be passive (without, of course, extending it to shoplifting ;-) )?

That said, a distressingly high percentage of American Christians think that's actually a Bible verse.
You know, telling each other how much we dislike each other is a rather good way of convincing each other that we dislike each other.
>>"I didn't associate you directly with the negative experiences so many people have had with Calvinists. I said that you have highly underestimated the power of reputation."

Granted. Thanks for clarifying! =)However, if you're asking me to come out and admit that Calvinists, in general, are thorns (which is what you seem to be demanding), then doesn't that still place me, personally, in your crosshairs?

>>"But it is the Calivinist (esp the 5-pointer) that is widely seen as divisive by nearly every other denomination and Christian church."

First of all, Calvinism isn't a denomination. It's a theology of salvation which spans Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Episcopal and even some Charismatic denominations.

But even if it were true that everyone dislikes Calvinists (which I don't believe it is), what does that prove besides that everyone dislikes Calvinists? I'm really not seeing your point here, unless it's that Calvinists deserve that attitude. But I've heard the same thing argued of the Jews, Quakers, Waldensians etc. I would submit that such disdain, whatever faults Calvinists may have committed, is the responsibility of those who carry it, not of those against whom it is directed.

>>"You're [sic] answer seems to be that everyone else is too simple to understand your theology accurately, and THAT is the cause of the division."

I neither said nor implied this at any point. Please do not misrepresent my position.

>>"On John Macarthur, one of his sermons is entitled, "Explaining the Heresy of Catholicism." Now if that isn't evangelism with open arms, then I just don't know what is! Right? Please."

MacArthur believes the core doctrines of Roman Catholicism to be a heresy. I gather this offends you (and will venture a further guess that you are Roman Catholic, yourself).

But offense is not the same as unkindness, and certainly not necessarily a sin. Isn't Jesus himself called "the Rock of offense?"

John MacArthur believes (as I do, and all of the Reformers did) that the Roman Catholic Church teaches a fundamentally different way of salvation. This implies neither a lack of love, nor unwillingness to work with or befriend Catholics. I can guarantee you that MacArthur loves Catholics and reaches out to them on a regular basis. But loving someone does not mean keeping silent about doctrines which you believe endanger their souls. In fact, it usually means just the opposite.

It's also worth mentioning that the Roman Catholic Church also calls Protestants heretics. In fact, she declared us "anathema" (Divinely damned) at the Council of Trent. If you are, indeed, a Catholic, then you must agree with this stance.

Again, it doesn't mean you can't love me or minister to me. We are really in the same boat here. The difference is that I refrain from personally condemning you as "divisive" and "disinterested in evangelism." Unfortunately, you have extended neither me nor my fellow Calvinists such courtesy.

I appreciate you sharing your thoughts about how Calvinists often have unloving attitudes. I agree with you! But to insist that Calvinists are the only Christians who deserve (or have) this reputation really seems unfair to me. You also seem to be implying that something inherent in Calvinism fosters arrogance. Again, I must disagree, and insist that you lay the blame where it rightly belongs--at the feet of sinful men (who, by the way, inhabit all denominations).

Thankfully, this is all unnecessary, since my article was intended neither to promote Calvinism nor make any insinuations about the character qualities of Calvinists. Hopefully we can rejoice in our common, Augustinian theology and work as friends from there--understanding our disagreements, but not allowing them to make us enemies.
I didn't associate you directly with the negative experiences so many people have had with Calvinists. I said that you have highly underestimated the power of reputation. You have admitted a problem for the Calvinist--that they are seen as divisive with a fairly broad stroke. Some denominations don't like Catholics for any particular reason. Some denominations don't like Methodists for any particular reason. But it is the Calivinist (esp the 5-pointer) that is widely seen as divisive by nearly every other denomination and Christian church. You're answer seems to be that everyone else is too simple to understand your theology accurately, and THAT is the cause of the division. I am attacking your premise, not your answer. Do some people misunderstand Calivinism? Sure. But that isn't why Calivinists are seen as divisive. Can you even imagine that it isn't the theology, but they theologian that's so divisive?

On John Macarthur, one of his sermons is entitled, "Explaining the Heresy of Catholicism." Now if that isn't evangelism with open arms, then I just don't know what is! Right? Please.
(This is the author)

As a relatively new convert to Reformed Theology, I am far from fully qualified to summarize the general attitude among members of my tradition. But I can give an answer from my own experience.

First, I'm sorry you've had such poor experiences with Calvinists. Apparently, the ones you've dealt with have ignored Colossians 4:6, which clearly requires Christians to speak the truth in love. No one should act with arrogance or condescension toward anyone, especially in correcting the doctrine of a brother in Christ.

I can say honestly that I have also experienced the kind of attitude you're talking about, even from friends I love. At times, I have even offended in this regard. But I see this as a failing on my part, not an inherent tendency of my theology.

In light of this, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the same attitude has often confronted me from Roman Catholics, Arminian Evangelicals and Anglicans as well. In other words, Calvinists do not hold the copyright on arrogance.

Moreover, I am curious to know why you have lumped me in with the category you criticize. Is it really fair to accuse me of such things merely by association, because I hold a particular theology? I really have a right to defend myself here. What in the article communicates an attitude of arrogance and offensiveness? By rushing to judgement like this, are you not engaging in the very same incendiary tactics you condemn?

In regard to John MacArthur, I'm not sure where your accusations come from. MacArthur has devoted much of his career to evangelism, preaching the gospel over the radio every weekday on Grace to You and equipping other ministers to share the good news. I personally know men whose decisions to become pastors and evangelists were sparked by MacArthur's ministry.

Finally, I must also point out that this article is neither a defense, nor endorsement of Calvinism. I am a Calvinist, and have often written such explicitly pro-Calvinist material. This piece, however, was a reaction to the growing tide of Pelagian thinking I have noticed in many churches, and meant to call Christians of all traditions back to the roots our common anthropology. Radically fallen man, as I argue, is something we should all be able to agree on.

As a side note, I might also point out that although Calvinism rarely appears as a subject on BreakPoint or the Colson Center, each time it has during my time on staff, I have noticed a decidedly negative (even hostile) response from non-Calvinists, not unlike what this article describes. This strikes me as unfair, considering the inestimable contributions which Calvinists (and Calvin himself) have made to the Christian worldview and Western Civilization, and the fact that Mr. Colson, the dean of our Centurions program, a portion of the staff, and a large percentage of our readers, align with Calvinist soteriology.

This is a big ministry--one which welcomes the contributions and leadership of Christians from many traditions. That is why I have striven to write something relevant to all my brothers and sisters in Christ. But Calvinists deserve as much of a place at the table as Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Pentecostals.

The problem is neither Calvinism nor the Calvinist. It is the fallen, prideful human nature which all of our traditions have recognized--and which Christ came to remedy.
Don't Listen to Me
Don't listen to me instead read your Bible.

John 6:63-65-- 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

Romans 9: 14-18-- 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

Ephesians 1:3-6--3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

You will notice that this is not the teaching of Luther or Calvin it is from Jesus & Paul. Pray and consider what they say.
The problem is both Calvinism and the Calvinist
The divisiveness of Calvinism is not wholly in the theology. Of course free will, depending on how you define it, has limitations or pre-requisites, and Augustine recognized that, as did St. Aquinas, Boethius and other Catholic philosophers. But most Calvinists I've spoken to are arrogant and highly offensive. Starting a conversation about Calvinism and free will with a repudiation of everything the other person believes in, and calling them a non-Christian, isn't a good way to start the conversation--but that's been my experience time and time again. They just don't have a bone of compassion.

John Macarthur is a great example. He's obnoxious and offensive. He seems to have no evangelistic tendencies whatsoever. If there isn't free will, and if the elect are predetermined, than I guess it just doens't matter what he does.

Calvinists, including the author of this piece, have highly underestimated the power of reputation. People hear bad ideas all the time and don't necessarily get offended by them. But Calvinists have clearly struck a negative cord for a reason. For whatever reason, it seems that they just can't imagine that it's their own fault.