The Doctrines of Grace

I recently began a new series in our Midweek Fellowship on the Doctrines of Grace, sometimes known as the Five Points of Calvinism. The purpose of this series is to make explicit some of the key doctrines in our confessional standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms, and to help members of the congregation have a greater zeal for the glory of God and for the task of mission.

Knowing and understanding these doctrines of grace is also crucial for knowing and understanding the gospel. The gospel stands or falls by grace, and the gospel is not really good news unless it is a gospel of grace. So it is crucial that we have a clear understanding of God’s grace.

The great Princeton theologian, B.B. Warfield said that evangelicialism stands or falls with Calvinism. Jim Boice and Philip Ryken in their excellent book, The Doctrines of Grace, point out that Warfield made that statement at a time when Calvinism still had a major influence on evangelicalism, helping to define its theology, shape its spirituality, and clarify its mission. This is no longer the case. Most evangelicals today are suspicious of Calvinism, and the result is that the gospel of grace has been diluted or lost.

A number of years ago, a group of evangelicals in North America expressed their concern at the changes they observed within the world of evangelicalism and summarised their views in The Cambridge Declaration. Part of that declaration states,

“Unwarranted confidence in human ability is a product of fallen human nature. This false confidence now fills the evangelical world; from the self-esteem gospel, to the health and wealth gospel, from those who have transformed the gospel into a product to be sold and sinners into consumers who want to buy, to others who treat Christian faith as being true simply because it works. This silences the doctrine of justification regardless of the official commitments of our churches. God’s grace in Christ is not merely necessary but is the sole efficient cause of salvation.”

It is sometimes claimed that Calvinism reduces and restricts one’s passion and enthusiasm for evangelism. That view is mistaken both in its understanding of Calvinism and in its understanding of evangelism. In fact, properly understood, the doctrines of grace give the most solid foundation and greatest motivation for sharing the gospel. Only when we hold thoroughly biblical convictions about divine election, the atonement, and the irresistible grace of God can we have any confidence that the gospel has the power to accomplish God’s saving purposes. With their emphasis on the glory of God in salvation, the doctrines of grace can help evangelicalism grow and mature by restoring a proper view of God’s majesty, sovereignty and grace.

C.H. Spurgeon was a great evangelist and a staunch defender of the doctrines of grace.

“I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified unless we preach what is nowadays called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel …. unless we preach the sovereignty of God in his dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the Gospel unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of his elect and chosen people which Christ wrought upon the cross; nor can I comprehend the Gospel which allows saints to fall away after they are called.” (quoted by J.I.Packer in his “Introductory Essay” to John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (London, Banner of Truth, 1959), 10.)

If Warfield and Spurgeon were right, then it is crucial that evangelicals understand and affirm the doctrines of grace. Quite simply, the doctrines of grace preserve the gospel of grace. More than that, understanding these doctrines enables us to be the humble worshippers that God calls us to be. As John Piper puts it about the doctrine of election,

“Unconditional election delivers the harshest and the sweetest judgments to my soul. That it is unconditional destroys all self-exaltation; and that it is election makes me his treasured possession. This is one of the beauties of the biblical doctrines of grace: their worst devastations prepare us for their greatest delights. What prigs we would become at the words, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6), if this election were in any way dependent on our will. But to protect us from pride, the Lord teaches us that we are unconditionally chosen (7:7-9). “He made a wretch his treasure,” as we so gladly sing. Only the devastating freeness and unconditionality of electing grace lets us take and taste such gifts for our very own without the exaltation of self.”

If you want a fuller statement on these doctrines then one place to start is here.

14 Replies to “The Doctrines of Grace”

  1. Well, we all need to hear alot more of this!!

    Interestingly I have been talking with a friend about our understanding of grace and the gospel just this week.

    In our conversation I said, “At a personal level, I’d say that this has been one of the central elements in my recent Christianity and my shift away from identifying with popular evangelical movements. For me, it has refocused my understanding of salvation on the person and work of Jesus, and away from my ‘ability to believe’ and me fretting about whether I could believe, either enough, or sincerely enough; and in doing so, it has lessened evangelical anxiety and increased my understanding of, and confidence in, the sovereignty of God/work of Jesus. Actually this is one of the main doctrines which provokes me to worship.”

    But at both a personal and general church level I think the issue of ‘grace’ runs even deeper, freeing us from both the destructive cycle of religious guilt, and judgementalism in the form of religious pride.

    The news that God, acting in his magnanimity towards us (and I don’t have a more favourite word to describe this attitude), loves us, inspite of how we live and, crucially, inspite of our opposition to him, is stunning. I do not have to pretend that I am holy, for I am not, but I need not fear guilt, for I am free. In the same way I am also freed from needing to endlessly highlight and rehearse the sins of others in order to feel better about myself, rather I can learn to act generously towards others too.

    I’m going to take a risk and suggest that too often the evangelical church (probably unintentionally, but in a variety of ways and in all denominations) portrays a gospel of conditional grace. There’s an ‘if’ or a ‘but’ with too much of our gospel: ‘If we repent’; ‘If we have faith’; ‘If we demonstrate enough commitment’; ‘If we give up this or that’ and so on, ‘then God will love us’, all the while missing the (really rather outrageous) news that God already does. Loving enemies is what God does, loving enemies is what grace provokes.

    There a wonderful (and historical) article here:

    The quotations given from Sinclair Ferguson and Alexander White towards the end of the article are worth the read on their own.

    Actually, the quotation from Alexander White should stop us all in our tracks.

  2. While I can wholeheartedly agree with the five points, I’m not at all sure that Lutheran or Arminian theology inevitably lead to theological or spiritual disaster. James Packer and Thomas Oden agree on a common theological foundation for Evangelicalism in “One Faith”. Furthermore, they find this consensus in the statements of Faith used by parachurch groups and evangelical seminaries. It also seems a bit strained to suggest that Calvinism is essential to evangelicalism when the Wesley’s ,Methodism and Lutheran Pietism are part of evangelicalism’s historical foundation.
    And I’m quite sure that the Five Points do not provide “the answer” to evangelicalism’s problems. This attitude pervades “The Gospel Coalition”, which insists on fidelity to the Five Points, but allows council members to take a casual attitude to Nicea, and to carelessly defy Paul’s teaching in Ephesian 5 v 12. How on earth can the Five Points take precedence over Nicea?

    Of course, I imagine that you will agree with this Dr Carson. If evangelicalism needs to go back to basics, I might need to go back further than the Puritans and Scholastic Protestantism. Some basic knowledge of, and loyalty to, the Creeds and Councils might prove helpful.

  3. I hesitate to comment on a blog yet again. I take a lot of the points you make in your comment, Graham. Could you please clarify, however, how the Gospel Coalition carelessly defy Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 verse 12? I am genuinely puzzled at this comment and seek elucidation. Thank you.

  4. Hi Brian,

    I wouldn’t accuse The Gospel Coalition of defying Ephesians 5 v 12. But it bothers me that a prominent council member can defy this passage without being challenged,rebuked, corrected or disciplined, by other council members. Generally, the defence of this council member runs – he’s Calvinistic and Complementarian, so don’t dismiss him. I’m afraid that’s not good enough.

    I don’t want to break Eph 5 v 12 myself. There is an Arab saying: “it is a scandal to report a scandal.” More simply put – it’s immoral to gossip about immorality. What I can do is provide you with a few links so that you can look into the matter yourself, and draw your own conclusions.

    There is a free e-book on the re:surgence web site that has the type of content and content that is being discussed in these reviews. John MacArthur also has online sermons dealing with this preachers approach to Song of Solomon. While I won’t link to either, they are very easy to find. It is easy to substantiate the concerns of these reviewers and critics. It is worth noting that the rather crude and distasteful approach to Song of Solomon taken by this Gospel Coalition Council Member was thoroughly refuted by MacArthur (who relies on a wide range of scholarship in his critique.) Has he changed his interpretation in his latest book? Not one bit!

    So that’s one cause for concern. Another is the “Elephant Room 2”. So my point is that the 5 Points are not a panacea for evangelicalism’s woes.

    A final curiosity – I find that I agree with the Five Points, but wouldn’t consider myself Reformed. I believe that humans have libertarian Free Will (although we are “turned in on ourselves”, and would never choose God without an Effectual Call); I would take a more Lutheran view of the “ordo salutis”; I would agree with Zwingli over Calvin on the sacraments; and I have concerns about the adequacy of Covenant Theology.
    Now those are all weighty disagreements. I can see why Dr Carson is using the 5 Points as a “way in” to Reformed thought. (You have to start somewhere, and they’re easy to understand and remember.) But I’d be really interested to see some more on the whole reformed tradition; especially on Union with Christ.
    (It’s also really kind of Dr Carson to put his thoughts online. I like it when people who are wayyyy smarter than me make their thoughts available like this. I appreciate and enjoy his blog, and hope that I don’t sound like I’m being critical of him. I’m more annoyed at what I think is a careless attitude to what it means to be Reformed in evangelicalism. )

    Best Wishes

  5. All over the country, people are asking themselves questions such as: “Why can we not get along with each other in this family; how am I going to cope with this 20% pay cut; how I can I find a way of relating to my daughter or son; why can I not control my temper?” With debates such as on this thread, I wonder if some of us are so theologically minded we’re no earthly use. No non-believer is losing a moment’s sleep over whether Calvin or Zwingli was right: I’m sure the complexity of doctrine matters, but to me the complexity, hopes and disappointments of everyday life, and those around me, matter far, far, more. Jesus told parables, yet some of his followers have ended up preoccupied with the obscure intricacies of fine points of theology, and then we wonder why some people find us irrelevant…

  6. Colin
    I was going to leave that comment unchallenged. However, I think that it represents such a terrible and harmful misunderstanding of theology that something should be said about it. (I am working on the assumption that you are an evangelical Christian; if you are not, why on earth would you expect to feel anything other than frustration on a thread like this?)
    I’ve never lost a night’s sleep over an intricate point of theology; if I met someone who had, I’d suggest counselling. Now I don’t think that we’ve met; if we had you’d know that I have to deal with practical and personal issues on a daily basis. Our immediate response must be to give immediate physical relief to the person suffering. Then we supply answers for the spiritual pain and angst.
    Now a person could google “Oprah” for practical answers to the questions that you’ve raised. I’m sure that they’d receive some helpful advice. But the question for the Christian is, “how do I use the Gospel to give encouragement and emotional strength”? Now, I’d like to think that a service like the Lord’s Supper/Communion can help people in difficulty.
    But it is helpful for a preacher at these services to have a clear idea as to what it is that they are talking about. Now if you can’t explain an idea in simple terms, you haven’t understood it yourself. And if you’re to understand any idea you have to put in a bit of work and do some thinking. God gave ordinary people a rather large book with some pretty big words. He didn’t give the Bible to intellectual elites, so I expect that he expects everyone to do a bit of reasoning with it now and then.
    I’d also like to note that any fool can repeat sentimental platitudes. Too often I have to undo the damage that well-meaning Christians cause with sentimental platitudes and false promises that result from poor teaching: Christians should never feel fear or worry (what about Gethsemane?); Christians never feel lonely (what about the man of sorrows? who came unto his own, and his own received him not?); Christians always pray in times of trouble, and always feel God’s presence (Then explain Romans 8 v 28 and Psalm 22)
    I could go on and on: you become a Christian by saying a prayer; you can be a “carnal Christian” who lives however he likes; Hell is a place of physical torture; no-one needs to ask for Gods forgiveness; God just expects us to do our best; faith has nothing to do with reason; a Christian can never doubt; doubt is unbelief; Christians are always filled with spiritual, emotional joy; and on and on it goes.
    This is dangerous nonsense that damages Christians and keeps others from the faith. I have found it helpful to know a subject area thoroughly when correcting misconceptions. So, if no one minds, I’d like to make a bit of an effort to get my own thoughts straight on these matters.
    Finally, Calvin and Zwingli would agree because they were Pastors first and foremost; they wrote to meet Pastoral needs. They were not ivory tower academics. And, for the record, if you teach theology correctly, it should sound so much like down to earth common sense that no one can tell that you’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading Theology should never sound like academia in public; when it does sound, as you say, useless.
    But I doubt that my comments here are being read by my junior classes, and I can’t believe that thousands are tuning in. So I used a little theological short hand for convenience. I apologise if this caused you any offence.

    God bless,

  7. HAVE to agree with what Colin has to say,the church has to start living in the real world,where people are finding it hard to make ends meet.Look at church house in Belfast over £8,000,000 pounds spent on it no expense spared there.What we need in this small island of ours is a revival but you don’t hear many calling for it from the pulpit,same as the prayer meeting.THE only good thing is JESUS because without him we are nothing.

  8. NC
    Oddly, those at the heart of the great revivals – Wesley, Owen, Edwards -and the writers who inspired them – Boston, Watts, Spener, Franke – were deeply interested in and passionate about the type of issues discussed on this thread. And this did not stop them evangelising, helping the poor and founding orphanages.
    I agree that the Church needs to start living in the real world. Christians have created there own little sub-culture that doesn’t engage the real world at all. Theologians can be guilty of this; so can “relevant” Christians, who talk in buzz words and catch phrases that mean something in Church, but nothing in the world.
    For example – how many non-believers understand what “revival” means? If I say “Jesus is the answer” to someone who only knows Jesus as a good guy who told a few stories what will that person think? The answer to what question, exactly?
    You have used theological terms; the only reason that it doesn’t seem like theology is that the terms are familiar to you. But they are strange and unfamiliar terms to people who are not evangelical Christians.
    I am not suggesting that we all should sit up nights wading through volumes of Luther and Calvin. God gave us all different loves and talents. Those who love teaching, and are gifted to teach the Church, do need to do their homework before they open their mouths (as the book of James teaches). If they are teaching correctly, they will avoid trendy slogans, evangelical jingles and academic jargon.
    Those who are not called to teach have no excuse for laziness. Paul’s letters were written to everyone. 2 Peter 3 v15 -16 acknowledges that they are difficult to understand; but we all have a duty to get to grips with them. And anyone who knows the hymns of Watts or the Wesley’s, or who loves “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” has got to grips with Paul, and is getting into theology. Or were these hymn writers wrong to worry about theology?

    Best Wishes

  9. the big mistake many people make when learning about the biblical teachings that are collectively described as Calvinism, is that they focus on the selfish issues of personal perspective. There is little recognition that the fact of God’s Sovereign mercy and grace should drive us to lives of service and obedience. Instead many spend their time arguing and frequently falling out with each other, over these doctrines.

    Calvin was a most pragmatic and active individual, his beliefs drove him to make a difference particularly in the life of his community in Geneva. His teachings produced acts of service both “religious” evangelism and teaching and “social”, working in the community for the Kingdom.

    So to those that believe this teaching or this thread is esoteric, I must say I totally disagree, this teaching, in fact this theology, should spur us to action, otherwise our faith is dead. Our response should be – because of God’s great mercy and grace I will do……. as a feeble act of thanks and service.

  10. I have been away from this for some time; but came back today and read your comments, Graham. I did find them helpful – and look forward to chasing up some of the links you provided. I think your remarks about Union on Christ were also interesting. I seem to remember, from my time spent studying in Scotland, that that was a major theme in the preaching of someone like the late James Philip of Edinburgh.

    It was also good to read some of the developing discussion.

    Thank you and kind regards.

  11. Ecclesiastes 12verse 12,And further by these my son,be admolished of making many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh.I think this verse speaks volumes.

  12. Yes; but Solomon also wrote volumes. And Paul, weary and nearing the end of his life, felt that a little study might do him some good. (2Tim 4 v 13).

  13. To be clear – I teach Religion to High School Students, and I have no time for dry intellectualism.
    But I also believe that we shouldn’t judge books by their covers. Simply because a discussion sounds pointless and academic doesn’t mean that it is.
    As anyone who has tried to explain the off-side rule to an American will realise….

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