The Liberating power of the Reformation in the doctrines of grace

Text Romans 9 Time 22 11 17 Place Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Let's begin with some definitions. The Reformation refers, of course, to events that occurred in Europe in the 16th Century. What was “the greatest revival since Pentecost” began when Martin Luther (1483-1546) protested against the sale of indulgences by posting 95 theses for debate on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, 500 years ago this year.
The Roman Catholic Church dominated European life throughout the Mediaeval period. The Reformation began as a protest movement, calling for reform within. Previous reform movements had come and gone but this time, in God's providence, was different. Johannes Gutenberg (c 1400-68) had invented movable type in 1450 and the new technology made possible the swift and widespread dissemination of ideas. In the end the Roman Church was not radically reformed but a radical new form of Christianity did begin - the Protestant religion.
Among Reformation leaders, after Luther, were John Calvin (1509-64) and Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) in Switzerland and in Britain men such as John Knox (c 1513-72) William Tyndale (1494-1536) and Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556).
The Reformation brought to light vital Bible doctrines long neglected and perverted in the church. Crucially there were what are dubbed the five solas – sola scriptura, sola christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli deo gloria (Scripture alone, Christ alone, Faith alone, grace alone, the glory of God alone). Another obvious example is how thinking changed over the Mass. Romanism taught it was a bloodless re-sacrificing of Christ's body and blood by a supposed priest. Transubstantiation maintained that while the elements remained visibly unchanged they became Christ's body and blood. Such ideas were shown to be utterly false.
The doctrines of grace is the phrase used for Reformation teachings to do with soteriology/salvation. They are sometimes referred to as Calvinistic doctrines or Calvinism. Doctrines of grace is preferable as it avoids using a man's name and the suggestion these are human teachings rather than divine teachings from the Bible.
What are these doctrines? There are five. True to what Calvin and the Reformers taught, it was not until 1619 (over a century after the 95 Theses) that they were formulated as they are today. The doctrines came to prominence not because of an attack from outside (the Romanists had done their worst at the Council of Trent, 1545-63) but an attack from inside. It began with a Dutchman called Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). In 1610 his followers proposed their five points known as the five articles of the Remonstrants, five remonstrations against Reformation truths.
The five points of Calvinism first appeared in answer to the arguments of the Remonstrants or Arminians at an international Synod in Dordt (Dordrecht) in the Netherlands. The Synod met November 1618-May 1619 in 154 sessions with 62 Dutch delegates and 27 from other countries, including six from Britain.
The five points are often remembered by means of the acronym TULIP a 20th Century invention popularised in Predestination by Lorraine Boettner (1901-90) in 1932.
1. Total Depravity (Total Inability/ Original Sin)
2. Unconditional Election
3. Limited Atonement (Particular Atonement/ Redemption)
4. Irresistible Grace
5. Perseverance of the Saints (Preservation of the saints, Once saved always saved)
The acronym has drawbacks but is a useful mnemonic. These doctrines are often opposed but were preached in the earliest days by Augustine and others, in the 16th Century by the Reformers, the 17th by the Puritans, the 18th by Whitefield, the 19th by Spurgeon, the 20th by Martyn Lloyd-Jones and are still preached today. Time Magazine in 2009 cited Calvinism as one of 10 major ideas changing the world. These five ideas are still changing the world today. We should know them. Let me explain the words
1. Total Depravity (Total Inability, Original Sin) This is where to begin. We need to be clear firstly as to what is fundamentally wrong and how bad things are. Depravity is corruption or wickedness. The word total does not mean absolutely or completely depraved – no-one is as bad as possible or as often as possible. All can do relative good - helping old ladies across the road, building hospitals. Total depravity means that we are by nature only and always sinning; unable to do, understand or desire what is good. We are not just sick but dead in our transgressions and sins.
Boettner “This doctrine of total inability which declares that men are dead in sin does not mean that all men are equally bad, nor that any man is as bad as he could be, nor that anyone is entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human nature is evil in itself, nor that man’s spirit is inactive, and much less does it mean that the body is dead. What it does mean is that since the fall, man rests under the curse of sin, that he is actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God, or to do anything meriting salvation.” To spell it out. By nature we are ...
1. Only and always sinning. The unconverted cannot do what is truly good in God’s sight. They lack faith and the desire to please God. Like David, we all have to say (Ps 51:5) Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Prov 22:15a Folly is bound up in the heart of a child. Some think children are born innocent but they are born sinners. You don’t have to teach them to do wrong. It is in our nature to sin. We all have a sinful nature. We inherit it from our first father Adam (original sin/pollution). We are all born with a bias to evil and are by nature deserving of wrath (Eph 2:3). By nature we are incapable of doing anything truly good. The Bible spells it out
Gen 6:5 The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. Jer 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? Isa 64:6all our righteous acts are like filthy rags Rom 3:10-18 As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one ….
This is a heart matter not to be confused with physical inability. $ A paralysed man cannot come to church due to physical inability but the fact he does not want to come is due to moral inability.
2. Totally unable to do, understand or desire what is good. An alternative phrase preferred by some is total inability. It has drawbacks but is useful as it drives home the fact of our inability to do, understand, to even desire what is good. There is a threefold inability. Inability to ...
1 Do the good. Canons of Dort “all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto”.
Matt 7:17, 18 every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit … or a bad tree ... good fruit. Jn 15:4, 5 ... No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 1 Cor 12:3 no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says Jesus be cursed and no one can say, Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit Rom 8:7, 8 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. ….
2 Understand the good. By nature we don't even understand what is good. Acts 16:4 says it was only after God opened Lydia's heart that she responded to the message. Until then, her understanding was darkened. There was a veil over her heart preventing her from seeing the truth (2 Cor 3:12-18). It was only when God operated on her spiritually that she could respond. We all need that. This is why people could hear Jesus preach and not believe. Jn 1:11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
1 Cor 1, 2 teaches the cross (the basic Christian message) is foolishness to unbelievers who cannot know God by their own wisdom. If it is a matter of intelligence clever people will all believe but it is not down to natural wisdom. (2:14) The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. Without the Spirit it is impossible to understand.
3 Desire the good. By nature we can't even desire anything truly good. Edwin Palmer “The pit of total depravity is that natural man does not even desire a good goal.” By nature we hate the good; we hate God. Jn 6:44, 65 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them …. and no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them. We are so depraved we can't choose Jesus. We can't even take the first step to him. By nature our hearts are stone and unless God melts them and makes them flesh it is hopeless. Without regeneration we can do nothing. It is not faith that leads to new birth, new birth leads to faith. To be alive to Christ we need to be new created, raised from the grave, made alive (Eph 2:1) from being dead in transgression and sins
2. Unconditional Election Election refers to how God chooses or selects people for himself. There are three possible options - God saves all, God saves none or, as the Bible teaches, he saves some.
Unconditional means that this choice is not based on any conditions such as intelligence, which tribe or nation you belong to, how God foresees you will react to the gospel. Again, either this is true or God chooses us for something found in us. In truth, it entirely depends on God and his choice. In Romans 9 we are reminded that God says he will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. He is the potter who makes the pot. He decides what it will be like.
Many Scriptures teach this doctrine. Eg Jn 6:37-39 … 15:16 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. ... You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit ….. What he says of his disciples is true of all his people. Acts 13:48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
2 Thess 2:13 But we ought always to thank God for you ... because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. Eph 1:4, 5 For he chose us (not we him) in him (Christ) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless (not because we were holy and blameless) in his sight. In love he predestined us (election is loving predestination) for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – note that. Romans 8:29, 30 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Romans 9:6-26 perhaps is the most powerful passage. Paul points out that although God's great promise is to Abraham and his descendants this doesn't mean just any child of Abraham is blessed - Isaac not Ishmael. Then he says (10-13) Not only that, but Rebekah's children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad - in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls - she was told, The older will serve the younger. Just as it is written: Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.
Is this fair? 14-18 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
Why am I to blame? Paul anticipates another objection. 19-21 One of you will say to me: Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will? You may not like his answer But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, Why did you make me like this? Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? God is God. He does as he pleases, whether we like it or not.
Paul then says (22-24) What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath - prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory - even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? He is careful not to speculate but does ask what if, instead of saving everyone or no-one God chose to save some and not others in order to magnify his glory? $ The picture is often used of how a diamond necklace will look much more beautiful placed against a black velvet cushion. We do not know why God has acted as he has but he does not have to answer to us, we have to answer to him.
3. Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement or Redemption) Limited Atonement speaks to the question for whom Jesus died. Was it for everyone in general or his people in particular? Was his atonement a definite one, intended to save or just to make salvation possible?
Jn 10:15 I lay down my life for the sheep. He doesn't lay down his life for the goats but for the sheep. Interestingly, he says the unbelieving Jews (26) do not believe because you are not my sheep. Eph 5:25-27b is interesting too. There Paul says Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. Husbands and wives are to reflect the truth about Jesus Christ and his church. Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy. These verses do not really work if we take the view that Christ died for everyone not for the church.
Someone will say what about a verse like Jn 3:16? For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God so loved the world. We always need to be careful with the word world. When it says in Luke that the whole world went to be taxed when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it clearly means the whole Roman world. When Jn 3:16 mentions God loving the world it either means the world in general, as opposed to just the Jewish world, or more likely the world in its wickedness and lostness.
Rom 8:32 may not seem to give support either He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? But who is this all? If you work through the chapter it is clear again that Paul is speaking about Christians and no-one else. The object of predestination and the atonement of Christ are the same – the elect.
Another way of looking at this is to consider what Jesus did on the cross. Did he die to make salvation possible or to save his people? His atonement is either limited in extent or power. It is either confined to certain people or unable to save certain people who it is supposed to be for. The fact is that through the cross Christ provides a complete salvation for his people. This is one reason he said It's finished on the cross.
John Murray “The very nature of Christ’s mission and accomplishment is involved in this question. Did Christ come to make salvation of all men possible, to remove obstacles that stood in the way of salvation, and merely to make provision for salvation? Or did he come to save his people? Did he come to put all men in a savable state? Or did he come to secure the salvation of all those who are ordained to eternal life? … The doctrine … must be radically revised if, as atonement, it applies to those who finally perish as well as to those who are heirs of eternal life. In that event we should have to dilute the grand categories in terms which the Scripture defines the atonement and deprive them of their most precious import and glory. This we cannot do. The saving efficacy of expiation, propitiation, reconciliation and redemption is too deeply embedded in these concepts and we dare not eliminate this efficacy. We do well to ponder the words of our Lord himself I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that of everything he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up in the last day (Jn 6:38/39) Security inheres in Christ’s redemptive accomplishment. And this means that, in respect of the persons contemplated, design and accomplishment and final realisation have all the same extent”
Richard Phillips “If we think of the atonement as a bridge spanning a great river, Arminians see it as infinitely wide, but not reaching all the way to the far bank; Calvinists hold that the atonement is a narrow bridge, wide enough only for the elect, but reaching all the way to the other side. We believe that Christ's death actually saves those for whom He died.”
4. Irresistible Grace Grace can be defined as God's undeserved love. When we say that it is irresistible we mean it comes in so powerfully on God's chosen ones that they cannot resist it.
Understand what we do and don't mean by irresistible. $ If a person resists arrest he puts up a fight against it. He will fail if those who arrest him are strong enough. Arrest will be irresistible. Resistance can be a quite violent thing then. A killer has hold of you and you can't resist him.
But we're not talking about that sort of irresistible. It is much more like when you see something good and tasty – some tasty yams say; a piece of ripe fruit just ready to eat - and you can't resist eating it. This is why some prefer effective or certain grace.
What happens is that God changes a person's nature. Whereas by nature we desire only what is evil, what is opposed to God. God, however, works within and changes hearts from stone to flesh so that they freely choose to follow him and serve him.
$ Here is person who naturally likes to roll in the mud. Say you could change him so that he learned to prefer walking around, sitting in a chair. What a good thing. So God changes a person so that he wants the things God wants,things that are for his good.
The teaching is conformed by Scriptures such as Jn 6:37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. Then a little later (44) he says No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. The Son has received a certain number from the Father, the elect. All these will come to me Jesus says. How? By irresistible grace. Jn 10:16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. See how confident Jesus is of future conversions. They too will listen ... How so sure? Irresistible grace. Rom 8:29, 30 For those God foreknew (loved beforehand) he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined he also called; (external/internal) those he called, he also justified …..
5. Perseverance of the Saints (Preservation of the Saints, Once Saved Always Saved) The saints are all true Christians. This teaching says that once you become a Christian you will go on being one. You will persevere, you will be preserved in your faith. Again many verses support this view
Jn 6:39 … 10:28. 29 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. ... I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. Perhaps the most convincing text. Eph 1:13, 14 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession - to the praise of his glory. 1 Pet 1:4, 5 talks about an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade - kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. God's power is at work in the believer so that he can never be lost. Php 1:6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus This is my favourite. We may leave jobs half done but God never does. Lloyd-Jones “God does not merely initiate the work and then leave it, he continues with it; he leads us on, directing and manipulating our circumstances, restraining us at one time and urging us on at another. Paul's whole conception of the Church is that it is a place where God is working in the hearts of men and women.”
People object to this on two main grounds: 1. What about backsliders or apostates? Given that clearly some people appear to be Christians then go back on it – how do you explain that? First, we do not deny that genuine Christians can backslide. Spurgeon put it this way: you may be knocked down on the deck of the ship many times without being washed overboard. In getting to the top of a hill you may fall many times. Sin may creep in at many points yet not have final dominion. Of course, there are also people who profess to be Christians who in the end prove not to be Christians after all. We know that the seed did not all fall on the good soil. Jesus warns there will be many who claim to know him who will nevertheless be rejected. Sometimes it becomes clear who these are even on earth. This reminds us how important it is to make your calling and election sure.
2. Isn't this dangerous teaching that will encourage a lack of holiness? This is the other argument. Yet anyone who thinks like this shows they cannot really be a Christian or at least have much understanding of the gospel. If you really are converted then you will want to be holy. Your great desire will be to be more and more pleasing to God. Php 2:12,13 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence - continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, the encouragement he gives them to do this is for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. If you're a Christian God is at work within you. He won't give up on you – don't be tempted to give up on him.
On first sight these teachings may not appear to be particularly liberating. Let me assure you they are. John Piper has an article listing 10 things the doctrines of grace do for him. Let me mention some. He says they make him ...
1. Stand in awe of God and lead me into the depth of true God-centred worship
2. Marvel at my own salvation
3. Confident that the work which God planned and began, he will finish - both globally and personally
4. See everything in the light of God's sovereign purposes – that from him and through him and to him are all things, to him be glory forever and ever
5. Hopeful that God has the will, the right and the power to answer prayer that people be changed

6. Sure that God will triumph in the end. Now that's what I call liberatng!