There is quite a bit of celebration among us Calvinists about our particular beliefs about God’s sovereignty and our salvation. Well . . . maybe not at first. Most go through a pretty intense time of confusion and even despair as attempts are made to integrate so many non-intuitive doctrines that give us far more than a knee-jerk reaction. But as the unnatural becomes natural, the rejected becomes accepted, and the confusion becomes “selah,” a new attitude sets in. Normally, this attitude provides an ugly facelift that is about as unnatural to Christianity as what might have come before. An arrogance sets in and grabs a warm seat in the (mostly empty) bleachers of Calvinistic celebration. No longer is Calvinism this ugly aspect of Christianity that might have been the Achilles Heel of your faith, now it is central to everything you are. A celebration of Calvinism finds its place in your daily spiritual conversations. Some find themselves talking more about Calvinism than anything else. The spiritual stance of others soon becomes judged by one’s acceptance or rejection of the blessed five points. Why? Because what was anathema has now become central. “Calvinism is the Gospel” you will hear people say with great pride. As hard as it is for me to resist, I won’t be given anyone any high fives when this epiphany is called out.
Yes, I hear it all the time. In fact, I think I have said it a few times in the past. It just sounded profound to my newly formed reformed ears. But not only do I think this is an unfortunate saying, not only do I think it is off-putting and unnecessarily decisive, in the context it is usually said, it is truly wrong. Calvinism is not the Gospel. Don’t get me wrong. I did not say that I believe the particular doctrines of Reformed theology that Calvinism adheres to is unimportant. Nor did I say that I don’t care whether people accept it. I simply do not believe that a belief in the five points of Calvinism is either necessary to becoming a Christian or becoming a good Christian.
To say that Calvinism is the Gospel implicitly indicts all those who do not accept this theology (which would include most Christians who have ever lived) as not accepting the true Gospel. Sure, they may accept their own sinful condition, cry out to God through Jesus Christ for mercy, but until they become a Calvinist, they have not fully embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have heard this kind of rhetoric from more than just Calvinists (although it might not be stated the exact same way). It is a way of demeaning others while making ourselves feel like we are among the elect few who “get it.” It makes us think we have some type of special anointing by God to be just a little closer to his side.
If you think about it, you could say “_____ is the Gospel” concerning just about anything. I have heard people say, “The Rapture is the Gospel.” Others might say “The Church is the Gospel.” Still others, “Six day creation is the Gospel.” You can just fill in the blank with your particular specially held belief. In all cases (while this might not be explicitly stated or thought), what the person means is that those who do not accept this doctrine have yet to really accept the Gospel.
Of course, in the broader (and highly qualified) sense, we might be technically correct. After all, I think everything we believe about God and every doctrine written or alluded to in Scripture is a part of the good news of God (the Gospel). It is good news that God created women in Genesis. It is good news that God will never flood the earth again. It is good news that God never changes. It is good news that God is eternal. It is good news that God gave so many prophecies. It is good news that angels were created (and they serve us). It is good news that the church exists. It is good news that Jesus is coming again. And it is good news that inspired David to write so many of the Psalms. All of these are part of the fuller Gospel, but the are not of first importance.
Of first importance is that though we are sinners, God has sent his Son who died for our sins and rose again. The central good news is that we (though undeserving), through Jesus Christ, get God forevermore. When we speak of the Gospel, this comes before all else. So many of these other doctrines that are less clear, while they can be very important to us, should not be spoken of as the Gospel. This includes Calvinism.
It is important for us who are passionate about non-cardinal issues to remain passionate about these. But we need to keep things in perspective and learn to distinguish between those things that are essential and those things that are not essential. We do ourselves nor the Gospel any favors by zeroing in on subsets of our faith and exchanging high-fives with others who wear the same exact shades of color as we do. It is a big race we are in and fellowship should be fostered with everyone in this race, even when we may strongly disagree with things like Calvinism.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]