Why Do Calvinists Publicly Call for Repentance?

One common objection to Reformed soteriology is that Calvinism makes public calls for repentance illogical or unnecessary. The objection may present itself like this: “The Calvinist is inconsistent and unfaithful to his own worldview to issue a public call for repentance. After all, won’t only the elect repent of their sins and believe in Christ?” I would like to provide four brief thoughts on this objection.

I pray, in sincerity and good-intention, that this article proves helpful to you, reader. May these meditations exalt God as supremely glorious, satisfying and lofty: worthy of all praise, honor and adoration!

Calvinism Simply Wants to Confess Scripture

My Calvinism is not a box within which I want to squeeze God’s revelation into. My Calvinism, I pray, is my articulation of what I see God’s revelation most plainly teaching. The logical implications of any doctrine I believe are always subject to the explicit statements that Scripture makes. My foremost question is always, “What does Scripture say about this?” Calvinism makes a point to say what God says – but where God makes an end of speaking, we too must shut our mouths.

For this reason, it is entirely irrelevant to me whether or not I am condemned for a public call to repentance. I want to speak and do what Scripture says – nothing more. Below, I have provided a brief review of the Biblical witness concerning both Unconditional Election and public calls for repentance.

  • Biblical Clarity on Unconditional Election: This is not a full treatise on the Scriptural testimony for Unconditional Election. However, I do believe that this sufficiently proves the Bible to be ‘clear’ on the issue.
    1. The Father’s giving of specific individuals to Christ for salvation (Jn 6:35-51).
    2. The Father’s selection of True Israel for salvation, distinct from His selection of Ethnic Israel for bearing His oracles (Rom 3:2; 9:6-13; cf. Gen 12; 15).
    3. The Father’s purpose to save certain individuals being the grounds of Christian peace (Rom 8:28-39).
    4. The Father’s Christicentric work to salvifically bless certain individuals (Eph 1:3-14).
    5. The Father’s unconditional election of sinners being harmonious with past revelation of His character (Rom 9:14-18; cf. Ex 33:19).
    6. Christ’s High Priestly ministry proving sufficient to atone for all whom He intercedes for (Heb 7:23-28).
    7. The Holy Spirit’s calling being qualitatively effectual (Jn 6:44; Rom 8:30).
    8. The Father’s election and the Spirit’s effectual calling made a hallmark of New Testament discourse (Rom 1:1, 7, 16-17; 11:33-36; 16:25-27; 1 Cor 1:1-9; 2:1-5; 3:6; 12:11; 15:10; 2 Cor 1:9-11; 2:14-17; 3:18; 4:15-18; 9:14-15; 13:5-6; Gal 1:3-5; 5:1, 8, 13; Eph 3:7; 4:1; Phil 1:6; 2:12-13; Col 1:12; 3:12; 1 Thes 1:4; 5:9-10; 2 Thes 1:11-12; 3:3-5; 1 Ti 1:16; 2 Ti 1:8-14; 2:10; Tit 1:1-3; 1 Pe 1:1-9; 5:10; 1 Pt 2:10; 1 Jn. 4:7; 5:1; Ju 1-2, 24-25).
    9. Salvation made wholly creditable to God on the last day (Rev 7:10-12).
  • Biblical Clarity on Public Calls for Repentance: There are so many more examples and commands of public calls for repentance than I have included here. I have included enough to prove, I hope, that there is in fact a Biblical precedent and mandate.
    1. Precedent: Moses (Deut 30:15-20); Joshua (Josh 24:14-15); Samuel (1 Sam 12:19-25); Josiah (2 Ki 23:1-3); Nehemiah and Ezra (Neh 8:1-9:37); Psalmist (2:10-12); Solomon (Ecc 12:13-14); Jonah (Jon 3:1-10); Jesus (Mk 1:15); Peter (Ac 2:38-39); Paul (Ac 13:38-41).
    2. Mandate: Nu 21:6-9; Ps 51:10-13; 67:1-7; Matt 28:18-20; Ac 1:7-8; Rom 10:9-15; Phil 1:12-18; 1 Thes 1:2-10; 1 Ti 2:1-8; 2 Ti 4:1-5; He 12:1-2.

I hold many opinions concerning the texts referenced above, but two things seem plain to me: 1) God chose before time began to save certain individuals, 2) I have a responsibility to command all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel. Calvinism affirms that salvation depends solely on God’s will. However, Calvinism does not affirm that the logical implication of this truth is that we are not to offer salvation to all people.

Taking Unconditional Election to such an implication is what we call “Hyper-Calvinism.” In contrast, Calvinists affirm that Scripture holds the highest authority on all matters of doctrine. Explicit Scriptural statements hold an even higher place in our thinking than what appear to be logical implications. As a Calvinist, it is not on my agenda to device an unmysterious, neat box of theological principles. Calvinism simply wants to confess what Scripture confesses.

You’re Thinking of Hyper-Calvinism

Despite the work of some to equate five-point Calvinism with Hyper-Calvinism, the two ideas are distinct from each other. At ReformedCon 2016, James White provided four distinctives of Hyper-Calvinism that I believe would prove beneficial for the reader to take note of (you can listen to White’s lecture here).

  1. Theological Perfectionism: The conviction that my theology is absolutely correct, that other people are absolutely wrong, and that if you are not Calvinistic in your soteriology then you are not saved.
  2. Claimed Knowledge of the Secret Decree Rather than Prescriptive Will: The conviction that I should minister as though I understand God’s secret decree – as though I am given the identity of those whom God has elected.
  3. Looking for Regeneration Before Offering Christ: The conviction that a preacher must first look for signs of regeneration before he offers Christ to someone.
  4. A Refusal to Promiscuously Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature: The conviction that some reservation must be taken in preaching the gospel – that the gospel must be in some way a guarded secret.

If a Calvinist takes his doctrine to any of these four conclusions, he has now become a Hyper-Calvinist. In doing so, he denies the explicit testimony of Scripture. It is my aim, as a Calvinist, to always let Scripture set the boundaries for my doctrine. If you think a Calvinist is inconsistent to issue public, universal commands for repentance (even if you think we shouldn’t do it), you are thinking of Hyper-Calvinism, not Calvinism.

But Let Me Clarify: Repentance Flows from Unconditional Election

In light of the previous two thoughts, I need to affirm Calvinistic doctrine concerning the relationship between Unconditional Election and repentance. Calvinism confesses that faith (Eph 2:8-9) and repentance (Ac 11:18) are gifts from God. How is it, though, that God gifts men with an appropriate response to His gospel? Let me briefly walk you through what I see in Scripture.

  • Unconditional Election: Before the foundation of the world, God chooses certain individuals out from the mass of sinful humanity (see Scriptures above) and gives them an eschatology (ie. determines to make them into the image of Christ; this ‘eschatology’ is often separated from Election and called ‘predestination’ [ex. Rom 8:29; Eph 1:5]).
  • Effectual Calling: As time progresses, at the appropriate moment, the Holy Spirit goes forth and beckons the elected individuals, one by one, to come to Christ (Jn 6:44; Ac 16:14; Rom 8:28-30; 9:6-13, 24). Involved in this process is Regeneration, where the Spirit resurrects a dead spirit to love and respond to Christ (Jn 1:9-13; 3:1-9; Eph 2:1-10; 1 Jn 5:1; cf. Ezek 36).
  • Repentance: Having a living spirit/heart within that loves Christ, the regenerate individual freely, gladly and desperately cleaves to Christ (see Scriptures above). The love and obedience rendered will not be perfect, but it will be true (Eph 6:24).

I hope it is clear from this explanation that repentance flows from unconditional election. If God does not choose to save an individual, that person will never repent of his sins. Because God chooses to save an individual, that person will repent of his sins. Repentance, then, is a gift.

How Does Scripture Apply Unconditional Election?

When Scripture speaks of Unconditional Election, how does it apply the doctrine? What implications do the authors draw from God’s choice to save specific people in Christ? To be clear: however Scripture applies this doctrine is how I, as a Calvinist, want to apply it. A Hyper-Calvinist will draw further implications – a Calvinist will stop and say, “The Word makes a point to stop speaking here: therefore, I shall as well.” Consider these four applications of Unconditional Election.

  • I Repent (Deut 7:1-11)
    God gave the Israel instructions for when they would enter the Promise Land. Rather than intermingle with the peoples (vv.1-4), they were to be sanctified by wiping them out (v.5). This sanctification was required because God had already sanctified them by choosing them to be His people out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth (v.6). God’s election of Israel was not due to anything about them (v.7) – and in faithfulness to this choice, God brought them from Egypt (v.8). God chose Israel by choosing Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Gen 12, 15, 21, 25). The point? God’s choice and faithfulness to that choice are independent of the actions of those He chooses. In light of this: “Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, (v.9). The principle is that God is faithful. He deals with men consistently and can be depended on to abide by His promises. Because God is faithful, we can therefore trust that our faithfulness to Him is not in vain. God’s sovereignty in election should give us confidence that if we repent of our sins and sanctify ourselves to Him, He will never reject us. Unconditional Election in Deuteronomy 7:1-11 implies that we should repent of our sins and trust God.
  • I Trust (1 Kg 19:9-21; 2 Kg 19:1-7; Isa 1:9; 10:22 [cf. Romans 9:27-29; 11:1-6])
    Elijah cried: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kg 19:10). Again in verse 14, he grieves that “I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” God response by calling him to action and reveals that He will leave a faithful remnant of 7,000 Israelites. Elijah was not quite as alone as he suspected. God’s preservation of a remnant of faithful people is clung to in faith by Hezekiah (2 Kg 19:4). The remnant remained, by God’s power and mercy, throughout the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:9; 10:21-22). These texts demonstrate that God exercises His sovereignty in a merciful fashion. In response to God’s sovereign election, we can find comfort in any situation. Nothing we suffer can eclipse our opportunity for trust in God’s gracious purposes.
  • I Rest (Rom 8:28-39 [cf. 9:1-24])
    God’s sovereignty in salvation means that it is a monergistic work (monergism means “with one energy”). God alone accomplishes it. After articulating Divine monergism in Romans 8:29-30, Paul asks in verse 31, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” The implication is that if God has a disposition to be for someone then no one may effectively stand against that person. So what is the basis for Christian peace? Is it your pleasure in and obedience to God, or God’s pleasure and choice to save you? I suggest the latter. God’s sovereignty in salvation is the foundation for Christian peace. If God’s choice to save any individual was ultimately influenced by something within that individual, then salvation suddenly hinges upon mankind and Paul’s argument in Romans 8:31-39 is made void. This application drawn from Unconditional Election is peace in salvation. I know that my salvation ultimately hinges on God’s will, so I rest in His sovereign purpose.
  • I Worship (Eph 1:3-14)
    Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,” (Eph 1:3). In verses 4-14, Paul explains in detail how God has blessed us in Christ. It could be divided several ways but for simplicity sake we may see the blessing three-fold: election (vv.4-6), redemption (vv.7-8), sealing (vv.9-14). The Father chose to save the saints before He created the world. The Son secured the saints’ salvation on the cross. The Spirit seals the saints in salvation as history progresses. Every facet of this blessing, and the blessing in sum, moves Paul in an overflow of praise. Paul’s basis for blessing God is that He has blessed us. Verses 3-14 seem to be one long sentence in the Greek. It is as though Paul’s words were spewing from his pen as a whelming chorus of praise. God’s monergistic work of salvation (blessing certain individuals in Christ) drives Paul to a lofty expression of gratitude and praise.

Does Scripture deduce from Unconditional Election that we need not issue a universal call for repentance? Does God’s sovereignty in salvation warrant laziness from us? By no means. Unconditional Election is to teach us repentance, trust, peace, and praise. Unconditional Election encourages us in our repentance and preaching. It tells us that our repentance and preaching is not in vain – that God ultimately will have His purposes accomplished. It likewise leads us to worship, as we behold the power and grace of God.

Scripture simply does not apply Unconditional Election as the Hyper-Calvinist asserts it must be applied.

Exhortation

I suppose more could be said. A fifth point would be that God ordains the ends as well as the means. God does not simply ordain that a person be saved, but that a friend preach the gospel to them. Regardless of what I leave un-asserted, my four points above seem to provide a sufficient witness to the following conclusions:

  1. One may believe in Unconditional Election and yet, with good conscience, issue a public call for repentance.
  2. The Calvinist is consistent and faithful to his own worldview when he commands all people everywhere to repent of their sins.
  3. Furthermore, the Calvinist who refuses to issue a public command for repentance is inconsistent and unfaithful to the Doctrines of Grace (as articulated in such confession as the 1689 London Baptist Confession), and has crossed into the heresy of Hyper-Calvinism.
  4. No productive dialogue can be had if both parties ignore the distinctions between Calvinism and Hyper-Calvinism.
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