Calvinism and the Great Commission
John Calvin (1509-64) was a religious reformer and theologian. The basic premise of his theology was the absolute sovereignty (right to reign) of God, out of which evolved his misguided theory of “predestination.” The Swiss reformer believed that human “free will” was destroyed by man’s “original sin”; thus, the innate power to yield to the will of God was lost forever.
Nonetheless, Calvin contended that God, by virtue of his sovereign will, predetermined to save some, whom he called the “elect,” but condemn others—the “non-elect.” In his famous work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, the reformer wrote: “No one who wishes to be thought religious dares outright to deny predestination, by which God chooses some for the hope of life, and condemns others to eternal death” (1975, III.xxi).
Later this ideology was incorporated into the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643). Note the following (Article III):
God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass. . . . By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death (Bettenson 1947, 347).
There are many modern advocates of Calvinism, particularly among the Presbyterians and some Baptists. One of these was James Montgomery Boice, who for more than thirty years preached for the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. In one of his books, Boice relates the following incident in the life of John Gerstner, a professor at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. One of Gerstner’s students was R. C. Sproul, now a popular preacher and modern advocate of Calvinism.
Gerstner had been lecturing on the theme of predestination. At the end of class he asked his students this question: “If predestination is true, why should we be involved in evangelism?” One by one the students replied: “I don’t know”; “It beats me”; “I’ve always wondered about that.” Finally the professor came to Sproul. The question was repeated.
After fumbling for words, young Sproul finally answered. Appealing to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), he said: “One small point I think we ought to notice here is that God does command us to be involved in evangelism.” Gerstner laughed and conceded that this was the correct response to his question (Boice 1985, 122-23).
That quip, one supposes, was construed to be the solution to the problem of predestination! But, in fact, it answered nothing! It does not even come close to addressing this problem that plagues the dogma of predestination. The Calvinist theory goes something like this:
Humanity, by virtue of its fall in Adam’s “original sin,” lost its ability to make spiritual choices. Accordingly, when one is exposed to the gospel of Christ, no matter how sincere he might be, in his depraved condition he cannot believe it—however hard he may want to, or try.
The sinner is utterly helpless to believe, unless God, by means of a direct operation of the Holy Spirit, opens his heart and empowers him with the “grace” to believe. Upon whom does God decide to pour out this life-changing power? Only those whom he “elected” before the foundation of the world!
These fundamental premises of Calvinism bring us back to the primary question posed earlier. If a person’s salvation was decreed before the foundation of the world, and there is nothing that can be done to alter that, what is the purpose of preaching the gospel to the whole creation when: (a) it would be impossible for the whole creation to believe; (b) the fate of all people already has been “set” (in predetermined theological “concrete” so to speak)?
The fundamental premises of Calvinism may be summed up in this well-known saying of a bygone era:
- Everyone’s salvation or condemnation was determined before time began.
- Therefore, if one seeks redemption, he cannot find it.
- If he finds it, he cannot obtain it.
- If he obtains it, he cannot lose it!
Such is a maze of incomprehensible confusion. It does not take an Aristotle to conclude that this theological system is beyond the sphere of both inspired Scripture and common sense.
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16) contains:
- facts to be believed;
- commands to be obeyed;
- promises to be embraced; and,
- a potential destiny to be avoided.
The truth of the matter is, the doctrine of Calvinistic predestination makes void every command of God, offers no hope to the obedient, and nullifies every warning of eternal punishment.
It leaves those who know they are lost with a sense of hopelessness.
It provides no confidence of salvation—for one would have no way of knowing whether he is saved or lost.
It leaves those who believe they are saved with a false sense of security, laboring under the illusion they never can be lost, no matter what they do.
It is thoroughly false and must be renounced by conscientious Bible students.
- Boice, James Montgomery. 1985. The Christ of the Empty Tomb. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Bettenson, Henry. 1947. Documents of the Christian Church. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Calvin, John. 1975 ed. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.