Recently I had a conversation with friends (sisters in Christ actually) and I was sharing the major difference, that I am seeing lately, between Lutheranism and Calvinism. So, let me move on to that conversation because I realized this morning that even my Pentecostal past had its own overly-weighted focus on an Attribute of God that can really mess things up.
Perspective? It’s all there. Right there, in how you view things, ends up being reflected in how you say things. It is as true in everyday things as it is in spiritual things.
Growing up Pentecostal it was all about “Holiness Unto the LORD.” In fact, many of us members of that particular Holiness-Pentecostal Church had that verse hanging somewhere in our homes. I remember how at Pilgrim Camp (Brant Lake, NY), owned by the fellowship of churches I belonged to, had that hanging nearly in every room, in the Kitchen, Dining areas, even the bathrooms. The focus was “God is Holy” and “He is a consuming fire...”
We even had a hymn titled: Holiness Unto the Lord" That permeated everything you did, thought, said, how you interacted with others and your relationship with God. God was to be feared because He is Holy.
Now, I’m not saying God isn’t Holy for He is, but it’s the perspective and the weight of teaching that begins to affect your life. Everything you did was viewed as to whether or not it was holy unto the LORD. Which, of course, meant that you would need to be done at the altar either “surrendering all” again or actually getting saved for the fortieth or fiftieth time that year, summer, spring or what have you. Since we were not holy and were required to be holy you worked on the outward stuff: no drinking, no dancing, no card-playing, no radio unless it was ‘Christian’ radio, and certainly no smoking. This was simply because all of those behaviors were sinful in the eyes of the pietism-based religion of the Pentecostal movement. Many focused more on outward washing than what was going on deep within; jealousy, envy, bitterness, etc.
When you view God as Holy ONLY you begin to lose sight of all the other Attributes of God that matter. Your focus becomes you because you’ve got to be just as Holy as God but instead of that righteousness coming from outside of you (Extra Nos) through Christ, you begin to navel-gaze and focus inwardly (Intra Nos). In fact, the Ridgewood Fellowship of Churches called it “The Inward Life” and everything was about Law, your obedience, your doing, instead of Grace. So, when your focus is imbalanced, things can get really messed up.
Skip about 20 years of my life and I enter the Reformed world (for my Lutheran friends, that’s Calvinism, not just everyday evangelicalism) and the focus was on the Sovereignty of God. All of the subsequent doctrines of Calvinism must fall under this supreme teaching. Again, I am not saying I disagree with the biblical teaching that God is Sovereign and Rules over all things, but when you weight it too heavily, well, things get messed up.
Calvinism has a cute way of teaching it’s main doctrines. For those who don’t know, it came out of a large disagreement from the Heidelberg contingency of the Calvinist movement (as opposed to the Presbyterians and such). The Arminians could not agree with five major points that the Belgic Confession of Faith and Heidelberg Catechism taught (one day I’ll do a blog on how the writers of that Catechism basically plagiarized Luther’s and changed it to suit their beliefs). So, the five in discussion were: Man’s Condition, God’s Sovereignty, The Atonement, Power of God and Election. They were eventually termed: TULIP
· Total Depravity
· Undeserved Grace
· Limited Atonement
· Irresistible Grace
· Preservation of the Saints (some call it Perseverance)
Each of these, though, is understood by the overarching teaching of God’s Absolute Sovereignty. That means nothing happens in this world unless God has already pre-ordained or decided it to happen.
Total Depravity holds that humanity was so destroyed by the Fall that humans lost all possibility of even doing good. They use the picture of cancer metastasizing in a person to show that sin affects everything and renders everything useless even to other people. The will has been utterly destroyed for any good. Well, if you look around you see neighbors helping neighbors, charities, foundations all built by...sinners...and yet they do good to their neighbor and even to strangers. However, because this falls under the major teaching of the Absolute Sovereignty of God, they will tell you that a sinner cannot be even civilly good to another.
Undeserved Grace: Oh, I will admit none of us deserve any favor from God because we are sinful and unclean. However, Calvinists push this point under the Absolute Sovereignty of God so that God only gives grace to those He chose before the foundation of the world and that when a public offer of grace is given, for the unelected, or reprobated (those chosen by God to damnation), is not a true offer of grace but actually works to further condemn them, since they refuse it. Huh? Yes. I actually believed that myself and it was one of the foundation points in my doctoral dissertation which I really have to re-write at some point. Anyway, if you’re not of the elect and you refuse God’s grace in salvation, you are move condemned because you did something God had already ordained you to do (reject Him by Him reprobating and condemning you to hell no matter what) and you do that thing which He ordained and He blames you for simply acting as He ordained you to act. See, things get pretty messed up.
Limited Atonement: This, again, under the Absolute Sovereignty of God, means that Jesus did not die for the whole world. Yes...yes, I know, the Bible actually says He did (John 3:16-18) but you see He didn’t really. The argument is this: Since God knows who will reject Him, because He ordained them to reject Him, then any blood of Christ spilt for them would be a waste and useless. Therefore, God only died for the elect. Hmmm...but the Bible... No! No! The bible doesn’t mean whosoever, like it says, it really means the “believing whosoever” even though “believing” is not in the Bible. Don’t confuse their argument. They’ll take John Owen’s mathematically based philosophical argument to you, so my Lutheran friends, need to be aware of it. Here is the argument:
For Whom Did Christ Die? by John Owen The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either: Premise 1- All the sins of all men. Premise 2- All the sins of some men (the elect), or Premise 3- Some of the sins of all men. In which case it may be said-- a. That if the third premise is true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so none are saved. b. That if the second premise is true, the Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth. c. But if the first premise is true, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins? You answer. Because of 'unbelief'. I ask, is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it is, then Christ either suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did die for the sin of 'unbelief', why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not die for their sin of 'unbelief', then He did not die for all their sins!
There is a lot of peering into the secret things of God here, but let me just say this: Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is the unforgiveable sin. What is that sin? It is rejecting the Grace of God offered to all people, to each of us, through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That, friends, will be on your own head, it is your own sin, and will damn you personally to Hell.
This is not about philosophical equations but about what the Bible says: Jesus is the propitiation for the entire world. What is a propitiation? It is a sacrifice which makes satisfactory payment for a debt owed and completely covers our sins.
But, the Calvinist will continue that if Jesus died for everyone then everyone automatically goes to heaven and that makes you, the Lutheran, a universalist. This falls under the Absolute Sovereignty of God and therefore it is colored by that overarching doctrine in a way that negates the Love of God.
Irresistible Grace: The Calvinist view is that since salvation is based on election first, not on the payment for sins done by Jesus first, that all those who have been chosen will be unable to refuse this grace. Ahhh...we get into quite the conundrum here because the Bible speaks of those once in the grace of God through Christ as proactively rejecting and moving themselves away from that Grace. The Calvinist will peer into God’s secrets from before the foundation of the world and say, “Ah Hah! See, they fell away. They weren’t truly saved to begin with.” Oh, um, hmmm okay? How do you fall away, then, from something you never had? I mean, I can’t lose a million dollars if I never had a million dollars to begin with, right? Sadly, I taught this very thing but, I never really challenged it by their own philosophical position and worse yet, by the very Word of God. God warns we can fall away. Can’t reject something that was never yours, right? I mean, if God didn’t choose you to begin with, well how do you lose it. If God purposed in you to send you to hell by deciding you go there even before you’re born, how do you lose salvation which was never in God’s plan to give you to begin with?
Preservation of the Saints: This is a comforting doctrine, even for us Lutherans. There is not a single Lutheran (Confessional) that I know that does not hold to the truth that if we fall away it is our own fault and if we are preserved for Heaven it is all because of the work of God through His Word and Sacraments (meaning not our work ever!). Calvinists push this: All those chosen by God to be among the elect cannot and will not fall away. I dealt with this in my book Accidental Lutheran when I wrote about trying to figure out if you’re elect or not. (There’s a blog on this too here: ). If being elect (which Lutherans believe in it too we just don’t peer into the secret things of God about it) is the basis of your salvation (note again, it’s not based on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus but on you’re being elect which then gets the benefits of the Gospel put on it), then it is impossible for you to fall away. However, what about all the warnings about that possibility? Was God just kidding? Was He saying that to instill fear so you would “behave”? Was He just trying to confuse us? OR Was He very serious that a believer could fall away? I won’t peer any longer into this, I just know what His Word says; He keeps us from falling and He uses Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and His Word to do just that.
So, the Sovereignty of God permeates all of these teachings, called the Five Points of Calvinism or TULIP and you cannot remove that as the overarching doctrine from any of them. So then you have to wonder: How do I know I am among the elect. You don’t and you can’t. Don’t go by fruit because Calvin said you might have all the evidences of being in Christ and they’re fake evidence. Epic Fail! Things get really messed up here when the focus is on election and there is no way you can no whether you’ve been elected to spend eternity in Hell or Heaven. Assurance will eventually be blown away.
So what do Lutheran’s believe as the overarching teaching? I once read that Calvinists focus on God’s Glory and Luther’s on God’s Love. At first glance I began to think, why yes, that’s true. But, lately I’m thinking that God’s Glory is wrapped up by God’s Love. God’s Love permeates all things. A verse I often return to is “In His love and In His pity He redeemed us....” It was from an old choir piece at Ridgewood Pentecostal and that has always stuck with me when I would lose assurance, get depressed or during tough times. Why did God save sinners? In love and with great pity. He saw our lost estate and in love determined to redeemed fallen man. In love Christ gave His life a ransom for us all. For us all. Not a few elect but FOR US ALL. In love God ordained the death of Christ Jesus to be the propitiation for the world, the whole entire world, not just some. In love God created Adam and Eve and in love slew the first animals to clothe their nakedness. In love He promised Eve she would bear The One to undo what they had done by disobeying Him and sinning. In love God chose Israel who was such a small and weak tribe of slaves. In love He brought them to the Promised Lan, in Love God provided a lamb for Abraham when he was about to offer up his son Isaac, the son of promise. In love, God bore our sins. In love. God dies upon the tree. In love, He proclaims this good news to those who hated him, probably even counted among those who asked for Barabas instead of Jesus at the trial. In love, God is merciful to the unworthy. In love He has forgiven us of our sins. In love and in pity He saw our condition and paid the price Himself, in His Son Jesus, died, was buried and rose again for our justification.
The Glory of God is wrapped by God’s own love. Love for those who despise, reject and hate Him. Love for those who refused and refused him still. Love for those who are worthless, unappreciative sinners. God’s Glory is seen in His love and in His pity. That view changes everything and undoes the mess of a wrong perspective.
When I see the Love of God towards not just His elect but towards the whole world, who am I to not show that love to others. If God loved me that much how dare I not love my neighbor. If while I was still “at enmity with God” Jesus died for me because He loved me, then I need to show that love to others even if they call me an enemy.
You see, if my focus is on being holy as God is holy through my own behavior, attitudes, works, etc then I end up living the life of a pietistic killjoy. If my focus is that God is sovereign and nothing happens except what He has willed, then I end up living a life of a Gnostic/mystic/pietistic curmudgeon. That misery is then evidenced by my actions and words and a God who demands what we cannot do (Pentecostal pietism) or what we cannot know (Calvinistic peering into the secret things of God). What kind of God is that to tell others about?
First, the things God has required (holiness/perfection) He has already provided us in and through the obedience of Jesus and His life, death, burial and resurrection Second, God has offered the world forgiveness through the works of His Son and I’m part of that world so I don’t have to guess if Jesus died for me because He did. These two views end up masking the love of God, hiding it behind what God has already provided for the world...out of LOVE.
Yes, the Lutheran places all the wonderful works of God under the LOVE of God because God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). God loved us from before the foundation of the world. God loves us still because He offers us life and forgiveness through the Means of Grace and keeps us by those Sacraments out of His great love for us. The Glory of God is seen best in His Love for us. The Holiness of God is seen best in His love for us and providing all the things He required of us in the Son Whom He loves, Jesus.
Now many of my Reformed and Calvinist friends will remind me that I fought hard for TULIP and the 5 Points of Calvinism, so why am I saying it is wrong now? It's because the Scriptures don't teach what the Calvinist/Reformed teaches and so, I must reject it. I would rather err on the side of the plainly written Word of God than on man's feeble philosophical arguments. We must go by the Word of God rather than our own ideas or opinions. Just as Luther stated, I too am "bound by the Word of God".
When I speak with an unbeliever now, I do not focus on the "rules" which Christians have made up (Pentecostal) nor do I give them a Gospel which may or not be meant for them (Calvinists/Reformed). I can now give them the offer of the forgiveness of their sins through Jesus Christ, honestly and with boldness because I know God loves them and died for them and does not desire the death of the wicked but longs for them to come to Him for life and Salvation.
The Love of God wraps around that Glory and shouts it out to the world. When we focus on His love we proclaim Him Holy and Just because He forgives us and Glorious because His love shines through His plan.