Did you hear about the Calvinism debate? No, not that powwow in the corner of a seminary cafeteria near you. I mean the one on August 27, 2014, in Chicago. Hosted by Sojourn Network and moderated by Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, the debate featured Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones squaring off against Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd on the topic of the former duo’s new book PROOF: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace (Zondervan). Regardless of where you lean, the doctrines of grace are not an irrelevant subject to discuss. Indeed, what we believe about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation will have profoundly practical implications in our lives.
I talked with Montgomery (pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville) and Jones (professor at Southern Seminary) about whether Spurgeon was wrong to call Calvinism the gospel, the beauty and practicality of grace, advice for young pastors, and more. At the end of the interview we've included the video from the debate.
“Calvinism is the gospel,” quipped the great 19th-century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon. Was he mistaken? What did he mean?
Montgomery: It’s become near heresy to disagree with Spurgeon, so we’ll try to avoid that! But this question has two levels. First, Calvinism is not the watermark for true and genuine Christianity. There are faithful brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who delight in the gospel but don’t have a Calvinist understanding of the gospel. However, I agree with Spurgeon in the sense that if the gospel is not a gospel of grace, then it’s no gospel at all.
Our flesh has the tendency to make an insidious injection of works and performance into the gospel. A gospel of works instead of grace makes the gospel about us, not God. In one sense, Spurgeon was prophetically hinting at what we explain in PROOF: the doctrines of grace are the most biblical, most beautiful, most God-glorifying, most intoxicatingly wonderful truths in the universe. So is Calvinism the gospel? Well, no, a system of theology is not the gospel. But is grace the heart of how God singlehandedly works for our salvation? Yes.
You observe that “what Christian theologians meant by ‘free will’ in past centuries was far removed from what this phrase means today.” What do you mean?
Jones: When persons today hear “free will,” they sometimes assume it means the capacity to make choices that aren’t caused or coerced by some outside power. And so, when they hear the Reformers denied free will, they understand this to mean the Reformers denied humanity’s capacity to make authentic choices. But for the Reformers as well as their heirs and opponents, “free will” described the capacity to make choices in our own strength that enable us to make progress toward salvation. When Martin Luther argued for the bondage of the will his point was that, since our wills are enslaved to sin, none of us will ever choose God’s way of righteousness apart from God’s work of grace. Luther clearly affirmed that human beings enjoy some measure of freedom in the things “beneath us”—in the day-by-day choices we make. What he denied was our capacity “to do or work anything in spiritual causes.”
Have most non-Calvinists throughout history believed that faith precedes regeneration?
Jones: Calvinists understand Scripture to teach that our deadness to God runs so deep that we will never desire to trust Jesus until God’s Spirit enlivens our hearts and heals our wills. This truth is woven throughout the New Testament. According to John’s first letter, if someone trusts Jesus, he or she has already experienced new birth (1 John 5:1). Jesus said the new birth precedes our experience of God’s kingdom (John 3:3–5). Our flesh is incapable of contributing anything to God’s enlivening work; it’s a work of his Spirit alone (John 6:63–65).
As for non-Calvinists, a few do believe regeneration is God’s response to our faith and that faith logically precedes regeneration—but this claim cannot be sustained from Scripture. To be fair, though, not all non-Calvinists take this perspective. According to classical Arminianism, God begins regeneration by means of prevenient grace when someone hears the gospel. If the individual chooses not to resist prevenient grace, the Holy Spirit completes his work of regeneration and enables repentance and faith. I don’t find this process of prevenience presented anywhere in Scripture, but it’s significant that not even classical Arminians see regeneration as God’s response to our faith.
How do misunderstandings about grace lead to a loss of joy in the lives of Christians?
Montgomery: First, you can never have too much grace. God is inviting us to drink deeply of grace, and we can have as much of God as we want. Second, misunderstandings about grace often come from a “transactional” view of the doctrines of grace: a debt that’s been paid and exacted on Jesus. This transactional understand is true, but it’s far from the whole story about God’s grace. His grace is not merely transactional, it’s personal (Titus 2:11–14, Eph. 2:4–14). To receive grace is to enter a relationship with Jesus as Savior and King by the regeneration of the Spirit. By grace, God plans the salvation of people—not in some abstract manner but in a particular way, focused on particular people whom he chose before time began (1 Cor. 8:3, Gal. 4:9). This grace leads to life with God under his rule and reign, bought by the precious blood of the cross. When grace becomes merely transactional or abstract, joy is lost.
Through being a disciple of Jesus—someone who is near Jesus because he or she wants to be like Jesus—we move toward a deep, abiding, stirred up, shaken, and “runneth over” kind of joy that only comes from the life of God given to us in Christ. Licentious living does not bring joy; it brings misery and death. God’s offer of grace isn’t a license to do whatever fleshly deeds we desire. God’s grace is an overcoming grace that first conquers our unbelief and then overwhelms us with new desires that we never had before. By grace we’re finally free to do what God desires, and this obedience gives birth to joy.
And so, grace and joy are anchored to one another. Without grace, we end up on a performance treadmill. We become sweaty, exhausted, and poor due to the many membership fees that the law demands, but we move no closer to God.
How can a better understanding of God's grace enable us to love others?
Montgomery: Grace has a beautiful and violent way of crushing us. No one receives grace proud and smiling. We stagger before we stand. And when we stagger under the weight of grace, we become more human. Even before Adam sinned, he wasn’t designed to be independent of God. Humans, as the divine image, are meant not just for God’s glory but for God’s fellowship. From this God-ordained humanness we begin to love others.
There’s no bigger obstacle than our thorny pride to loving another human made equally in God’s image. We care about ourselves. We want our own good. We think only in terms of how our words and actions affect us. “Service” sounds inconvenient. But grace makes us strange to this world. Our worldview flips upside down and inside out. We care about others, even before ourselves. We want others’ good and seek it in ways that honor instead of manipulating them. Our words aren’t weapons to advance ourselves but solid stones placed on a pathway to bring others to a higher, more beautiful, and abundant place of life with God and love. Service becomes an invitation, not drudgery.
Grace makes us eager to wrap a towel around our waist and scrub each other’s feet. Grace highlights the scandalous outrage of God’s love for us. Grace shows us—sometimes painfully!—the depth of the debt God has forgiven in each of our lives (Matt. 18:21–35).
But here’s the even better news: grace resurrects us to life and overcomes our pride, giving us the courage to love even though we’ll never do so perfectly. John Piper delves into this point in his book Finally Alive, and it’s glorious. Without grace the command to love one another is too high, too holy, and will crush us. But with grace, love becomes happy, daring, and joyful obedience.
What advice would you give to young Calvinists going to pastor churches that are ignorant—or even suspicious—of Calvinism?
Jones: Here are a few things:
1. Be honest, but be certain you’re speaking the same language. Don’t try to hide your convictions. That applies not only to Reformed theology but to everything from ecclesiology to eschatology. At the same time, it’s wise to make certain what you mean by “Calvinism” is the same as what they mean. If someone asks, “Are you a Calvinist?” find out what he or she understands Calvinism to imply. The result may provide an opportunity to say, “If that’s what Calvinism is, I am not a Calvinist—but here’s what I do believe about God’s grace.”
2. Point people to Christ, not Calvinism. I served nearly two decades on pastoral staffs in three different churches and, as far as I can recall, I used the word “Calvinism” a grand total of three times in my teaching: twice when leading church history classes and once in a sermon to describe how George Whitefield was able to work with the John and Charles Wesley for the sake of the gospel. A variety of Reformed and non-Reformed perspectives mingled together in all these congregations, and church members cooperated with charity on this issue. I preached the doctrines of grace when they were present in biblical texts, but I never once defended Calvinism. If someone embraces the glorious goodness of God in Christ and his singlehanded work to save us yet never hears about the Reformation or Calvinism or the five points from Dort, what difference does it make? It’s God and the glory of his name that matters, not the name of any human system.
3. Preach grace graciously. If you proclaim God’s grace by maligning or misrepresenting those who disagree with the Reformed doctrines of grace, it’s quite likely you’re missing the point of grace. Preach grace with the gentleness and gratitude that become possible only when we recognize we have nothing left to prove because God in Christ has already proven it all.