Preach the Bible, Not Calvinism
“Are you a Calvinist?” asked the interim pastor who was guiding the pastoral search committee considering me. “If you’re a Calvinist, then this candidacy is over now.”
How would you answer that question? As a seven-point Calvinist I answered, “What do you mean by Calvinist?” He replied, “By Calvinist, I mean you only share the gospel with the elect and you don’t need to pray for people’s salvation because it’s already determined.” Based on that definition, I replied, “No, I am not a Calvinist.” Four months later, I was installed as their pastor.
Men desire the pastorate because they want to teach and equip the saints in sound doctrine (Eph 4:11–16). Pastors desire to train their members to disciple others to obey all of Christ’s commands (Matt 28:20). They teach the truth in order to take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:3–5). Consequently, we pastors face a choice on whether to push our Calvinistic doctrine hard or hold back. Biblical and theological illiteracy burdens us. Our hearers assume either personal free will independent of God’s sovereignty or an overbearing exercise of God’s will that obliterates human responsibility. Too many know nothing of human will compatible with God’s unchanging decrees.
Will our people correctly connect the theological dots? What if they’re steeped in Arminianism? More importantly, will they have the sturdy rock of God’s wisdom, power, and goodness amid terrible suffering? Or will they be swept away by one of the incessant winds of false doctrine? Supposing they embrace Calvinism, what if they grow in pride regarding their theological knowledge? Pastors are tempted to worry about these dangers, and to grow impatient about the state of their people’s theological understanding.
Personally, I’ve felt the pull to overreact impatiently and zealously by putting my people in their theological place. By grace, I’ve refrained from quick replies and asked clarifying questions instead. In seeking to wisely shepherd my church, many have been moved, without even knowing it, to a sound sense, conviction, and commitment regarding God’s sovereign freedom.
But here’s the question: how do we do this? At the risk of sounding too simple: preach the Bible, not Calvinism. Of course, if Calvinism is true, then as you preach the Bible you will preach Calvinism. My point is more specific: Do not aim to preach your system with its terminology. Aim to preach the Bible itself.
But, you might say, if Calvinism is true, then why shouldn’t I preach it? Three reasons: the content, the function, and the goal of preaching.
1. Because of the content of preaching.
Preach the Bible instead of Calvinism because the Bible’s words are God-breathed, not our theological formulations. Paul tells us “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16, cf. 2 Pet 1:21). The words written down in Scripture are God’s words. Do we trust God’s sovereign choice of words over our clever and even necessary theologizing about his sovereignty?
Charles Simeon serves as a good example of a preacher who aimed to be biblical. Though he believed in unconditional election he resolved “to endeavor to give to every portion of the word of God its full and proper force, without considering what scheme it favours, or whose system it is likely to advance” (Charles Simeon: Pastor of a Generation, Moule, Loc. 1066). If you’re a Calvinist because it’s biblical, then exult in and humble yourself before the Bible.
In considering the theological tension Calvinist preachers feel to nuance some biblical passages, Simeon wrote:
But the author [Simeon] would not wish one of them altered; he finds as much satisfaction in one class of passages as another; and employs the one, he believes, as freely as the other. Where the inspired Writers speak in unqualified terms, he thinks himself at liberty to do the same; judging that they needed no instruction from him how to propagate the truth. He is content to sit as a learner at the feet of the holy Apostles and has no ambition to teach them how they ought to have spoken. (Moule, Kindle Loc. 1062–1070)
Because the Bible’s words are God’s words, ground your members in those words. Trust your big God more than your articulation of big God theology. Explain and exult in the theology textually rooted and framed because the Bible’s words are sufficient to shape Calvinistic thinking. For example, D. A. Carson comments on Acts 13:48,
After the detailed account of Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch, we are told that many Gentiles “honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (13:48). An excellent exercise is to discover all the ways Acts, or even the entire New Testament, speaks of conversion and of converts—and then to use all of those locutions in our own speech. For our ways of talking about such matters both reflect and shape the way we think of such matters. There is no biblical passage that speaks of “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior” (though the notion itself is not entirely wrong). So why do many adopt this expression, and never speak in the terms of verse 48? (For the Love of God, vol. 1).
Let the Bible’s words “reflect and shape” the way our people think about salvation and sovereignty. After almost two years, I preached an overview sermon on Exodus about God’s supremacy. I read aloud every verse that spoke of (1) Pharaoh hardening his heart, (2) Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, and (3) God hardening his heart. Then I asked my self-professing anti-Calvinist church, “Who was ultimately responsible in Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, God or Pharaoh?” To my surprise, they all shouted back, “God!” They meant it. I thanked God that they embraced his ultimacy in hardening Pharaoh’s heart, regardless of what they did with the label “Calvinist.”
2. Because of the function of preaching.
Preaching does more than impart information. It both models and fuels sound doctrine in the church.
Yes, preaching on Sundays imparts biblical information. But that’s not all. Expository preaching—that is, preaching in which the words and goal of the text control the words and goal of the sermon —teaches the church submit to and meditate on biblical texts. Expository preaching ought to be a preacher’s weekly example of joyful submission to the text. It also models how to meditate on Scripture as questions are posed and phrases are explained. Therefore, the preacher disciples his hearers to submit to and meditate on Scripture by his manner of preaching.
Preaching to the Sunday gathering is the fountainhead of pastoral ministry because you feed the whole church at one time as they all sit together under the Word. But the fountainhead is not the whole fountain. Preaching fuels the church in sound doctrine beyond Sunday. The preached Word reverberates through the pastor’s ministry and the church’s discipling of one another.
There’s more to pastoring than preaching. Pastors pray for the flock (Acts 6:4), teach in other contexts (Acts 20:20), oversee (Heb 13:17), equip (Eph 4:11), and model mature Christianity (1 Tim 3:1–7). God gives several other complementary ways and contexts to ground your people in sound doctrine: classes, meals, conversations, one-to-one Bible reading, Bible studies, small groups, etc. Preaching is not the whole of pastoral ministry any more than the Sunday gathering is the whole of the church’s life together.
As the church shares life, they share Jesus and his words in their relationships. The local church and its relational web is the divinely designed matrix for discipleship and doctrinal maturity (Eph 4:11–16). Therefore, preach the Bible so they speak it to one another. Additionally, if your church has a confession of faith then ground them in those agreed-upon words. Strengthen their unity in the church’s confession; prefer them over your Calvinistic labels. If you trust your Calvinism is biblical, then know it is not necessary to use those specific terms. 
During the pastoral search process for my church I refused to use the label “Calvinism” when specifically asked because they imported meaning unseen and unknown to me. Their “Calvinism” turned out to be Hyper-Calvinism. Instead, I gave them my understanding of how God’s ultimate choice and our penultimate choices were compatible to which they agreed. I pointed to their statement of faith and told them I wholeheartedly affirmed what they confessed.
3. Because of the goal of preaching.
The goal of teaching and preaching is neither theological erudition nor the unashamed embrace of the label “Calvinism.” Instead, “the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). Our goal is love: love for God, one another, and our neighbors (Mark 12:30–31, John 13:34–35). Why? Because in the obligatory pursuit of knowledge (2 Pet 3:18), Paul warns that “knowledge puffs up but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1). And since God resists the puffed-up but gives grace to the humble, we pour ourselves out for our people’s growing experience of grace (1 Pet 5:5; James 4:6). God forbid that we contribute to God resisting our people as they grow in the theological pride that drips from our pulpits.
Two alternatives to doctrinally informed love are (1) sentimental intentions void of discernment, and (2) conceptual knowledge that never leads to acts of love. Fearing theological ignorance, we may overreact and make theological awareness the goal instead of the means. But theological awareness must not be pursued for its own sake, but for love’s sake.
Pastor, ground your members in the goal of God’s love in and through them by teaching them Scripture. Preach according to the function and goal of the Bible, and in doing so you will exemplify the divine love for your people that you pray to produce. In short, aim finally for biblically discerning love, not loveless theological articulation.
Because of the content, function, and goal of preaching, I plead with you to preach the Bible, not Calvinism. Trust that your church’s confidence in the Scriptures is more vital for their souls than their submission to certain theological terminology.
Ask yourself: why are you passionate to teach Calvinism in the first place? Because Calvinism, biblically conceived, once humbled you and lit a flame of joy in your heart that you never wanted to go out. Amen! But I wonder: were you soundly convinced of Calvinism after reading systematic theology? Or were you led to joy from God’s Word?
Brothers, if you resolve to preach the Bible instead of Calvinism you will immediately find relief to the burden of moving your people toward more nourishing theological waters. God’s Word will do the work. Trust the Bible, not your or others’ theological acumen.
Otherwise, you may impress your people with your theological precision to your glory. You may increase their theological tribalism. Or, you may increase their suspicion of your teaching and close them off to the glory of God’s sovereign freedom in saving his people.
But if you preach the Bible explicitly with unwavering confidence in the text, then over time your people will learn God’s Word. They’ll trust it. You’ll strengthen them for future suffering in ways not possible by twisting their arms to embrace Calvinism. God’s Word will be honored as your church’s true confidence. And you will shepherd them with God’s peace and patience, reflecting our good Shepherd.
 It must be said that systematic-theological terms are often helpful in discipleship conversations and are even in some sense necessary, though they are rarely necessary in the Sunday pulpit ministry.