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"For we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves."

Legalistic Grace

by Kent Philpott

Moses Paul Luther Calvin J Edwards
Spurgeon J I Packer R C Sproul Mark Dever Mark Driscoll

Sounds like a contradiction in terms doesn’t it-- legalistic grace--but I have been coming across the sentiment, not the term itself, in a number of different ways. However expressed, whether in print, sermon, television, radio, or conversation, it sounds very much like, “I am more of a Calvinist than you are.”

At first I thought it was akin to an animal marking its territory, as we observe in dogs and cats. Perhaps the analogy is one of the old Calvinist guard not wanting to be marginalized or to not receive recognition for their heroic manning of the Reformed fort now that new recruits have volunteered for the front lines.

A Reforming Baptist

My own journey toward the Doctrines of Grace has been a slow one--little by little. This may have been due to the sheer glory of free grace, which must be absorbed over the course of time; or my slowness may have been due to the complexity of it all. I wonder, if back in 1996 I would have been rejected or even ridiculed for not embracing the complete collection of doctrine suddenly as a whole. But at that time and for some years to come, I knew no one who was a self-confessed Calvinist. Perhaps I was spared a rude awakening.

Coming from a Baptist background I had little exposure to the theology of those who had imbibed the traditional theologies handed down from Calvin, Luther, and others, mostly by way of John Knox. Instead, I learned from Billy Graham, Campus Crusade for Christ, C. S. Lewis, Watchman Nee, and other Arminian-leaning evangelicals. Then when I began reading Edwards, Owen, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, I. Murray, J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, and others, my theological reeducation took a new and confusing turn.

In 1996 I was in the eleventh year of pastoring Miller Avenue Church in Mill Valley, California and had begun research into the debate between Asahel Nettleton and Charles Finney who were noted evangelists during American’s Second Awakening, roughly 1799 to 1835.  The research sparked a new understanding of the differences between Calvinistic and Arminian points of view. For twenty-nine years of professional ministry I had been a staunch Arminian, regularly teaching through Charles Finney’s Revival Lectures, and John Wesley was one of my heroes.

Happily, there was no pressure from my congregation or denomination to toe any doctrinal line. The people I preached to and taught had little previous exposure to Reformed theology and took to it slowly. However, though it was some time before I even mentioned the name of John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards in sermon or Bible study, some rejected even my feeble efforts to introduce clear biblical ideas like predestination and election. As pastor I had to be careful to not drive everyone off remembering how haltingly I had progressed. The plain fact is that even after fourteen years of my consistent presentation of the Doctrines of Grace (1), only a fraction of the congregation are what I would call Reformed. Yet I am content with the progress.

Doctrinal Lists Added to the Basics

What I have been lately observing and experiencing with the emergence of the New Calvinists (2) is a pressure to accept a whole array of doctrines and positions beyond TULIP (3). Many insist that to be a true Calvinist means adhering to much more that the famous five points. More or less of these additional doctrines are found on varying inventories: views on the inerrancy of the Bible; replacement theology--where the church replaces Israel;  infant baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the context of Covenant Theology; views of last things; women and their place in the church; cessationism—whether spiritual/charismatic gifts are in operation today; applications of church discipline; using the correct forms of worship, especially having to do with music; the place of historic confessions of faith; and the list could continue. The requisites can even include political or social positions. My discovery has been that not all of those who identify with the doctrines of Grace hold essentials in harmony. So often, adherents of the Reformed tradition make a particular list of required doctrines an all-or-nothing litmus test. Surely this attitude, while it may appear to be a committed one, is likely not the firmest foundation for growing in grace; such a doctrinaire attitude, at least in my experience, has seemed more like sectarianism than faithful biblical orthodoxy.

Marking out territory? Or perhaps what I have been observing is a lack of grace along with a misunderstanding of the working of the Holy Spirit. We grow up slowly. We generally agree that wise parents do not demand their young children demonstrate adult stature or maturity.

When asked to describe my theological position I will say I am reforming rather than reformed. I have a long way to go in grasping all the ramifications of the Doctrines of Grace, since they deal with the greatness and glory of our Creator God. Early on, had I been instantly bombarded by the extent of the mercy granted me in Christ, I would have been overwhelmed, perhaps immobilized by the immensity of the realization. Yet, I run into people who have seemingly overnight become full five-pointers and are furthermore convinced of a number of extra points such as those listed above. 

A Plea for Grace

This is a plea for those of us who have had the time and freedom to grow up into the Doctrines of Grace to extend this same privilege to others who are setting out on their journey.

We begin with grace and we must continue the same way. Paul made this clear in his letter to the Galatian churches. Most Christians get the point easily enough when it comes to the salvation issue--works versus grace—and are convinced that they were helpless to attain it through their own efforts. But Calvinists, new and old, can be a blessing to those who are on the Reforming journey by not imposing unnecessary road blocks or by demanding doctrinal conformity in a host of other issues. If we trust that God saves us in a sovereign way, may we not also expect that He will continue that process until the day of Jesus Christ?  

1 Doctrines of Grace, Reformed Theology, and Calvinism are roughly synonyms.

2 The term “New Calvinists” refers to those Christians who have more recently, say the last twenty years, and from denominations not rooted in the Reformation itself, begun to embrace the Doctrines of Grace.

3 The acronym TULIP refers to the five points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints.

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Last Update: 2013-08-12 16:41