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Laying the Foundation

A Message by Steven Lawson

Each book of the Bible contributes poignantly and uniquely to the message of redemption revealed in God's Word. John's gospel offers much to the picture of redemption, but it provides special insight into the deity and supremacy of Jesus Christ. For this reason, it naturally follows that John would present the sovereignty of God in a profound, thorough manner. Therefore, Dr. Steven J. Lawson uses the Beloved's record of the life and ministry of Jesus, the all-mighty Son of God, to explain and analyze the doctrines of grace, and he begins his lecture series with an introduction to John's gospel and its insight into these doctrines.

From the series: The Doctrines of Grace in John

Get The Doctrines of Grace in John Series on DVD for a Gift of Any Amount

Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Escaping the "Cage Stage"

  2. article

    The Origin of Calvinism

  3. article

    The Battle for Grace Alone

Escaping the "Cage Stage"

R.C. Sproul

My friend Michael Horton often comments on the phenomenon of "cage-stage Calvinism," that strange malady that seems to afflict so many people who have just seen the truth of the Reformed doctrines of grace. We've all known one of these "cage-stage Calvinists." Many of us were even one of them when we were first convinced of God's sovereignty in salvation.

Cage-stage Calvinists are identifiable by their insistence on turning every discussion into an argument for limited atonement or for making it their personal mission to ensure everyone they know hears—often quite loudly—the truths of divine election. Now, having a zeal for the truth is always commendable. But a zeal for the truth that manifests itself in obnoxiousness won't convince anyone of the biblical truth of Reformed theology. As many of us can attest from personal experience, it will actually push them away.

Roger Nicole, the late Swiss Reformed theologian and colleague of mine for several decades, once remarked that all human beings are by nature semi-Pelagian, believing that they are not born as slaves to sin. In this country, particularly, we have been indoctrinated into a humanistic understanding of anthropology, especially with respect to our understanding of human freedom. This is the land of the free, after all. We don't want to believe that we are burdened by negative inclinations and outright enmity toward God, as the Bible teaches us (Rom. 3:9–20). We think that true freedom means having the ability to come to faith without the vanquishing power of saving grace. When we realize that this is not true, that Scripture paints a bleak picture of the human condition apart from grace, that it says it is impossible for us to choose rightly, we want to make sure that everybody else knows it as well. Sometimes we are even angry that no one told us about the true extent of our depravity and the majesty of God's sovereign grace before.

This gives birth to cage-stage Calvinists, those newly minted Reformed believers who are so aggressive and impatient that they should be locked in a cage for a little while so that they can cool down and mature a little in the faith. At times, someone who becomes convinced of the biblical doctrines of grace finds himself in conflict with friends and family because of his discovery of Reformed theology. More than once I've been asked how one should handle hostility from loved ones regarding Reformed theology. If Reformed convictions are causing problems, should one just drop the subject altogether? Are we responsible for convincing others of the truth of the doctrines of grace?

The answer is both yes and no. First let's consider the "no." Scripture says that "neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Cor. 3:7). Paul is speaking primarily of evangelism in that verse, but I think we can apply it to growth in Christ even after conversion. The Holy Spirit convinces us of truth, and one's coming to embrace Reformed theology shows this quite clearly. Given our semi-Pelagian inclinations, it takes a tremendous amount of exposure to the Word of God to overcome that natural bias against the doctrines of grace. People hold tenaciously to a particular view of free will that is not taught in Scripture. Calvin once remarked that if you mean by free will a will that is unencumbered by the weight of sin, you've used a term that's far too exalted to apply to us. It takes a lot to overcome the exalted view that most sinners have of themselves. Only the Spirit can finally convince people of His truth.

Recognizing the Spirit's work, however, does not mean we are silent or stop believing the truth of Scripture. We don't give up the doctrines of grace to keep peace in the family or with friends. John Piper puts it well when he says that we not only have to believe the truth, that it's not enough even to defend the truth, but we must also contend for the truth. That does not mean, however, that we are to be contentious people by nature. So yes, we are to share what we have learned about God's sovereign grace with those around us.

However, if we really believe the doctrines of grace, we learn how to be gracious about it. When we remember how long it took us to get past the difficulties we once had with the full biblical picture of divine sovereignty and our enslavement to sin, we can view our non-Reformed friends and family more sympathetically and share the truth with them more graciously. One of the first things a person who is excited about his discovery of the doctrines of grace must learn quickly is to be patient with friends and family. God took time with us to convince us of His sovereignty in salvation. We can trust Him to do the same with those we love.

The Origin of Calvinism

John Piper

Of course, like every other man besides Jesus Christ, John Calvin was imperfect. His renown is not owing to infallibility but to his relentless allegiance to the Scriptures as the Word of God in a day when the Bible had been almost swallowed up by church tradition. He was born in July 1509, in Noyon, France, and was educated at the best universities in law, theology, and classics. At the age of twenty-one, he was dramatically converted from tradition-centered medieval Catholicism to radical, biblical, evangelical faith in Christ and His Word. He said:

God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.

There is a reason why Calvin moved away from his classical studies to a life devoted to the Word of God. Something dramatic happened in his perception of reality as he read the Scriptures for himself. He heard in them the voice of God and saw the majesty of God:

Now this power which is peculiar to Scripture is clear from the fact that, of human writings, however artfully polished, there is none capable of affecting us at all comparably. Read Demosthenes or Cicero; read Plato, Aristotle, and others of that tribe. They will, I admit, allure you, delight you, move you, enrapture you in wonderful measure. But betake yourself from them to this sacred reading. Then, in spite of yourself, so deeply will it affect you, so penetrate your heart, so fix itself in your very marrow, that, compared with its deep impressions, such vigor as the orators and philosophers have will nearly vanish. Consequently, it is easy to see that the Sacred Scriptures, which so far surpass all gifts and g races of human endeavor, breathe something divine.

After this discovery, Calvin was utterly bound to the Word of God. He was a preacher in Geneva for twenty-five years until he died at the age of fifty-four in May 1564. His custom was to preach twice every Sunday and once every day of alternate weeks; that is, he preached, on average, ten times every two weeks. His method was to take a few verses and explain and apply them for the people’s faith and life. He worked his way through book after book. For example, he preached 189 sermons on the book of Acts, 271 on Jeremiah, 200 on Deuteronomy, 343 on Isaiah, and 110 on 1 Corinthians. Once he was exiled from Geneva for about two years. On returning, he stepped into his pulpit at St. Peter’s and began with the text where he had left off.

This incredible devotion to the exposition of the Word of God year after year was owing to his profound conviction that the Bible is the very Word of God. He said:

The law and the prophecies are not teaching delivered by the will of men, but dictated by the Holy Ghost.... We owe the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it.

What Calvin saw in the Bible, above all things, was the majesty of God. He said that through the Scriptures "in a way that surpasses human judgment, we are made absolutely certain, just as if we beheld there the majesty of God Himself."

The Bible, for Calvin, was above all a witness of God to the majesty of God. This led inevitably to what is the heart of Calvinism. Benjamin Warfield put it like this:

The Calvinist is the [person] who sees God behind all phenomena, and in all that occurs recognizes the hand of God...'who makes the attitude of the soul to God in prayer the permanent attitude...' and who casts himself on the grace of God alone, excluding every trace of dependence on self from the whole work of salvation.

That is what I want to be: one who excludes every trace of dependence on self from the whole work of my salvation. In that way, I will enjoy the peace that rests in God alone, and God will get all the glory as the one from whom and through whom and to whom are all things, and the message of the church will resound for the nations.

The Battle for Grace Alone

R.C. Sproul

The early part of the fifth century witnessed a serious controversy in the church that is known as the Pelagian controversy. This debate took place principally between the British monk Pelagius and the great theologian of the first millennium, Augustine of Hippo. In the controversy, Pelagius objected strenuously to Augustine’s understanding of the fall, of grace, and of predestination. Pelagius maintained that the fall affected Adam alone and that there was no imputation of guilt or “original sin” to Adam’s progeny. Pelagius insisted that people born after the fall of Adam and Eve retained the capacity to live lives of perfect righteousness unaided by the grace of God. He argued that grace “facilitates” righteousness but is not necessary for it. He categorically rejected Augustine’s understanding that the fall was so severe that it left the descendents of Adam in such a state of moral corruption that they were morally unable to incline themselves to God. The doctrines of Pelagius were condemned by the church in 418 at a synod in Carthage.

Though Pelagianism was rejected by the church, efforts soon emerged to soften the doctrines of Augustine. In the fifth century the leading exponent of such a softening was John Cassian. Cassian, who was the abbot of a monastery in Gaul, together with his fellow monks, completely agreed with the condemnation of Pelagius by the synod in 418, but they objected equally to the strong view of predestination set forth by Augustine. Cassian believed that Augustine had gone too far in his reaction against the heresy of Pelagius and had departed from the teachings of some of the church fathers, especially Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome. Cassian said that Augustine’s teaching on predestination “cripples the force of preaching, reproof, and moral energy…plunges men into despair and introduces a certain fatal necessity.” This reaction against the implied fatalism of predestination led Cassian to articulate a position that has since become known popularly as “semi-Pelagianism.” Semi-Pelagianism, as the name implies, suggests a middle ground between Pelagius and Augustine. Though grace facilitates a life of righteousness, Pelagius thought it was not necessary. Cassian argues that grace not only facilitates righteousness, but it is an essential necessity for one to achieve righteousness. The grace that God makes available to people, however, can and is often rejected by them. The fall of man is real and serious, but not so serious as Augustine supposed, because a certain level of moral ability remains in the fallen creature to the extent that the fallen person has the moral power to cooperate with God’s grace or to reject it. Augustine argued that the very cooperation with grace was the effect of God’s empowering the sinner to that cooperation. Augustine again insisted that all of those who were numbered among the elect were given the gift of the grace of regeneration that brought them faith. Again, for Cassian, though God’s grace is necessary for salvation and helps the human will to do good, in the final analysis it is man, not God, who must will the good. God does not give the power to will to the believer because that power to will is already present despite the fallen condition of the believer. Further Cassian taught that God desires to save all people, and the work of Christ’s atonement is effectual for everyone.

Cassian understood that predestination was a biblical concept, but he made divine prescience primary over God’s choice. That is to say, he taught that though predestination is an act of God, God’s decision to predestine is based upon His foreknowledge of how human beings will respond to the offer of grace. For Cassian, there is no definite number of persons that are elected or rejected from eternity, since God wishes all men to be saved, and yet not all men are saved. Man retains moral responsibility and with that responsibility the power to choose to cooperate with grace or not. In the final analysis, what Cassian was denying in the teaching of Augustine was the idea of irresistible grace. For Augustine, the grace of regeneration is always effectual and will not be denied by the elect. It is a monergistic work of God that accomplishes what God intends it to accomplish. Divine grace changes the human heart, resurrecting the sinner from spiritual death to spiritual life. In this act of God, the sinner is made willing to believe and to choose Christ. The previous state of moral inability is overcome by the power of regenerating grace. The operative word in Augustine’s view is that regenerating grace is monergistic. It is the work of God alone.

Pelagius rejects the doctrine of monergistic grace and replaces it with a view of synergism, which involves a work of cooperation between God and man.

The views of Cassian were condemned at the Council of Orange in 529, which further established the views of Augustine as expressions of Christian and biblical orthodoxy. However, with the conclusion of the Council of Orange in the sixth century (529), the doctrines of semi-Pelagianism did not disappear. They were fully operative through the Middle Ages and were set in concrete at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. They continue to be a majority view in the Roman Catholic Church, even to the twenty-first century.

The majority view of predestination, even in the evangelical world, is that predestination is not based on God’s eternal decree to bring people to faith but on His foreknowledge of which people will exercise their will to come to faith. At the heart of the controversy in the fifth and sixth centuries, the sixteenth century, and today, remains the question of the degree of corruption visited upon fallen human beings in original sin. The controversy continues. The difference between the Pelagian controversy and the issues with semi-Pelagianism is that Pelagianism was seen by the church then and now as a sub-Christian and indeed anti-Christian approach to fallen humanity. The semi-Pelagian controversy, though a serious one, is not deemed to be a dispute between believers and unbelievers, but an intramural debate between believers.

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