7 Ministry Consequences of Calvinism
I will start with a slightly contentious theological claim about Calvinism relative to non-Calvinism. Then I will point to seven ministerial consequences for the Calvinist pastor that emerge from that claim. The goal of this piece is not to argue with or even to address the non-Calvinist pastor. It is to say to the Calvinist, “If you believe this, your ministry should look like that.”
CLAIM: CALVINISTS HAVE A ROBUST VIEW OF THE MIRACLE OF THE NEW BIRTH
Here is the theological claim: I believe Calvinism creates a more a robust view of the miracle of the new birth.
My non-Calvinist friends, whom I hold dearly in the gospel, might not agree with that claim. They affirm the miracle, too. I take it to be intuitive, however, that we Calvinists possess, as I said, a more robust view of that miracle.
After all, we affirm that God must regenerate us by his Spirit before we can repent and believe. We don’t believe that people are drowning in their sins and must reach up to grab the extended hand of salvation. We believe that people are drowned, dead, not breathing, in their sin. God then “makes us alive,” as Ephesians 2 puts it, so that we then reach up to grab that extended hand of salvation. Salvation requires a miracle. Blind eyes, see! Deaf ears, hear! Lazarus, come forth!
When we proclaim the gospel, Mark Dever has said, we’re evangelizing the graveyard.
The movement from unbelief to belief, for the non-Calvinist, requires a person to travel a shorter distance. He moves from unconvinced to convinced, from unbelieving to believing, through some internal thought process or a persuasive argument, almost like you would be convinced about anything else in life. And then the person is born again, regenerated, made new. The miracle, it seems to me, is a bit less miraculous because it depends upon our work too, not just God’s.
CONSEQUENCE 1: PATIENCE IN PASTORING
A number of consequences follow for our ministry and church practice.
First, the fact that you believe God must save, pastor, should make you patient in the ministry.
· “You know all about my teaching, my way of life, my…patience” (2 Tim. 3:10).
· “Preach the word…with great patience” (2 Tim. 4:2)
Pastor, God calls you to “hard work” and “sleepless nights” (2 Cor. 6:5). He calls you to be shrewd (Mt. 10:6), wise (Col. 4:5), persuasive (2 Cor. 5:11).
At the same time, you know the new birth and spiritual growth doesn’t depend on your gimmicks, your charisma, your humor, your intelligence. You are called to plant and water, knowing that God alone can give the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7).
This fact should make you profoundly patient in the ministry. It should relieve your anxiety and help you get a good night’s sleep . You’re not a savior. You cannot save.
So this Sunday you preach. Next Sunday you preach. The following Sunday you preach. Maybe God will give the growth. Maybe he won’t. You can’t control that. You know you have no choice but to be patient. He’ll do it in his time, in his way.
Pastor, your Calvinism should make you patient.
CONSEQUENCE 2: RELIANCE ON THE WORD
Our temptation, of course, is to build ministries on the things we can see, bodies we can count, laughing audiences we can hear. And such ministries often yield quick results.
My friend was invited to give several talks at a youth group retreat. Beforehand, the youth pastor told my friend to fill his talks with jokes, otherwise the youth wouldn’t listen. And if his jokes didn’t work, he should try “roasting” the youth pastor himself. The kids would love that. Arriving at the retreat, several teenagers repeated the exact same advice: tell us funny stories, and if that doesn’t work, roast the youth pastor.
Do jokes give life to the dead? Does roasting the youth pastor help the blind to see?
Some humor is fine. God can use it, just like he uses charisma and powerful personalities and smart preachers or any number of things. But remember what Jesus said: flesh gives birth to flesh, while Spirit gives birth to spirit (John 3:6). The Spirit gives life through the Word (Ezek. 37:1–12), not through human wisdom.
Pastor, what are you relying on? What’s most weighty in your ministry? Rely on the Word, which is the wisdom of God. It alone will call that youth group, and your church, out of death and into life.
CONSEQUENCE 3: CLARITY IN CONVERSIONS
If the new birth depends entirely on a miracle of God—not on the human processes of coming to believe—we will expect change. Real, substantial, concrete, identifiable change.
Many things in a new convert’s life may remain the same. Sin will continue. Yet Calvinists expect that, amidst the weeds, we’ll always see new, you-can’t-miss-them flowers. God has saved the person, and the Spirit is not weak. His work is not meager.
As such, Calvinism leaves less room for nominal Christianity, easy-believism, “carnal Christianity,” Jesus-is-Savior-but-not-Lord. It doesn’t say that Christians will always look morally better than non-Christians. It says people will be changed by becoming Christians. God changes them. They’ll look better than they used to. Even the thief on the cross rebuked the other thief.
Pastor, your Calvinism should clarify conversion and your sense of who is converted. It clarifies what a Christian is.
CONSEQUENCE 4: CLEAR LINES OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
If conversion is clarified, then the lines of church membership will clarify, too. The idea of a church member whose life looks just like world doesn’t make sense. The idea of a church member who never attends doesn’t make sense. Non-Calvinists might affirm this as well, but the Calvinist who affirms the monergistic miracle of the new birth should insist on it.
We expect that God’s people can be identified. We expect their professions to be credible.
One academic author recently argued that we expect too much by asking for “credible” professions of faith before baptism. He worried that insisting on credible professions would blur the line between conversion and sanctification. I appreciate his concern. Pastors can demand too much. That said, are we to baptize into the church people whose professions are not credible? “Well, you don’t seem like a Christian to me because you’re still living with your girlfriend and refuse to move out. But you’re professing faith, so, yes, I’ll baptize you.”
Perhaps this author was not a Calvinist. He specifically said the only repentance we should require is the repentance of belief. Nothing more. I don’t know his soteriology, but I do know that a Calvinist believes that, since the Holy Spirit births our repentance, that conversion involves not just the believing mind, but the heart, the will, the whole person. The whole person changes directions, even as the ongoing battle with sin remains.
A local church’s task is then to affirm credible professions of faith through baptism and the Supper, those two ways we make membership visible. Further, we expect those members to be attending and repenting. This is not perfectionism. Christians still sin, but when they sin they repent.
Pastors, your Calvinism should cause you to take church membership seriously, and to work at clarifying the lines between the inside and the outside of the church. See also Steve Wellum’s article here.
CONSEQUENCE 5: CONFIDENCE TO PRACTICE CHURCH DISCIPLINE
If Calvinism yields a robust view of the miracle of the new birth, which in turn clarifies conversion and church membership, then we should possess a new confidence in practicing church discipline. As I said a moment ago, we expect new flowers to sprout up amidst the weeds whenever God is at work. If there are no flowers, our job is clear. Correct, gently and slowly over time, yes, but, eventually, we must remove the unrepentant, as both Jesus and Paul instruct (Matt. 18:15–17; 1 Cor. 5).
Not only that, we’ll be less tempted to keep false professors and nominal Christians inside the church. Conversion—faith and repentance—doesn’t depend on our being nice, our being winsome enough, our being perceived as not mean. We must correct, but change depends upon God. Remove that conviction and there’s less incentive to remove a person. You’ll want to pacify. Keep the sinner’s guard down. Be nice. Maybe he or she will come around.
A Calvinist, on the other hand, should be utterly confident that “handing a person over to Satan” really can bring people to repentance (1 Cor. 5:5). It “works” because that’s how God set it up, even if it doesn’t fit with our intuitions.
Further, if a church does mistakenly remove someone from membership, then we don’t need to worry that such an individual will be unsaved. He or she will persevere.
CONSEQUENCE 6: CONFIDENCE TO EVANGELIZE
Calvinism should also give us a confidence to evangelize, even when the world hates us.
Non-Calvinism makes sense in a nominal Christian culture. In such a culture, there are social benefits that come with being a Christian. It’s considered respectable. You’ll meet clients at church. Most of your friends call themselves Christians. It makes you one of “them.” And so on.
In such a nominal context, evangelism is…easier. People won’t call you a bigot or a hater or intolerant. You don’t have to define “sin.” You can appeal to the immediate and temporal benefits of being a Christian—purpose, a fulfilled life, a sense of meaning, a better marriage, an eased conscience—without emphasizing the costs of following Jesus. And people will respond—in large numbers!
But now turn that society against Christianity. Increase the costs. Make everyone who is a Christian look like a fanatic and a hater for believing this stuff. Harden people’s hearts. Convince them they know exactly what Christianity is, because the world has tried that, and it’s oppressive and misogynistic and homophobic and racist.
Now, how will you help people to share the gospel in that environment? To pound their head against that wall?
I propose: remind them that it is God who saves. Remind them our task is nothing less than evangelizing the graveyard. And it has always been that way. Things actually haven’t gotten any harder. We’re just more aware now of how opposed the flesh is to God. As the Lord encouraged Paul, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9–10).
God has people out there. Speak with Jesus voice broadly, and his sheep will hear him and come.
CONSEQUENCE 7: TRUST THAT THE LORD WILL WORK IN OTHER CHURCHES
When you are convinced that the new birth is a God-given miracle, when you realize that it’s not your wisdom which brings people to life, you just might be more willing to trust God’s work through other voices and other churches. If he can work through you, then he can work through that church down the road. You’re not in competition with them. You can pray for them, support them, partner with them.
Maybe, you’ll even be less interested in starting a second service or a second campus and more willing to either plant or to attend that small church down the road that preaches faithfully but could use some help. The kingdom doesn’t advance only through the things you can control. “The wind blows wherever it pleases,” said Jesus. “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
My non-Calvinist pastor friends will affirm all seven things above as good. Praise God. I’m not writing for them. I’m saying your Calvinism, brother pastor, should be rocket fuel in your tank in all these ways. Light it!