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::: Calvinism is not the Gospel ::: Book Review

If you go to Southern Seminary (like I do), you are required to take a class in evangelism, and it’s usually one of the larger classes since it’s mandatory for almost any tract.  If you take Dr. Beougher, he requires you to read a book called A Pastors Sketches.  It’s an old book written by a Presbyterian minister named Spencer who was known as the “Bunyan of Brooklyn.”  It’s basically his journalism about evangelistic encounters he has with people around Brooklyn and beyond.  The first “sketch” of an encounter was actually quite fascinating and helpful.  But as the book drags on, it becomes onerous to the critical reader in a variety of ways.  I will be exploring several dangers of this book that may be influencing and effecting seminary students at Southern in the next few posts.

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Spencer, Ichabod.  A Pastor’s Sketches.  Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2001. Reprint 2002. 285. $12.95.

Danger 1: Calvinism is Not the Gospel

Spencer believes that part of saving faith and understanding is to understand “the entire depravity of the heart” (127, emphasis mine).  Reading between the lines that he is a Calvinist, believing the doctrines of grace, I assume he means by this that a person cannot be saved without an understanding of the doctrine of total depravity: “If he does not see that [the entire depravity of the heart], it is probable that he does not see his heart.  And hence his repentance, his faith in Christ, and his reliance upon the Holy Spirit, will probably, all of them, be only deceptions” (127, emphasis mine).  This perspective would explain why he is so intent on giving long indictment speeches to unbelievers (see “Election,” 230-255). 

He seems to further imply that one must not only believe the doctrine of total depravity for there to be certainty of his true conversion, but also the other four doctrines of grace: “My observation continues to confirm me more and more in the opinion that to experience religion is to experience the truth of the great doctrines of divine grace” (127, emphasis mine).  Because the following statement is made in the same context, it gives the impression that he considers these doctrines of grace, not as optional doctrinal positions, but as essential to Christianity: “And. . .I believed, and had always acted on the principle, that true experimental religion will always lead its subjects to a knowledge of the great essential doctrines of the Christian system—indeed, that to experience religion is just to experience these doctrines” (126).  This principle is also evident when upon testing some young men who had supposedly been saved through a “camp meeting,” he questioned the validity of their experience because they did not have all the right answers to his questions (129).

I can’t help but think Spencer’s approach in this respect is legalistic and dangerous.  Calvinism is not the gospel.  While I myself believe that the doctrines of Calvinism are biblical, I do not believe any one of them is necessary to believe as a prerequisite to true conversion.  If this were true, only Calvinists would be saved. (I’ve blogged about this before)  Also, Spencer’s glib outlook on so called “revival” seems to result from this false notion.  He says, “A true history of spurious revivals would be one of the most melancholy books ever written” (130).  He appears at one point to attempt making a distinction between a person having a technical understanding of such doctrines (which he names as human sinfulness, divine sovereignty, atonement, justification by faith, regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the constant need of divine aid) and a persons being “substantially right” in their minds “on such doctrines” (130).  However, it is not clear what the practical difference would be to him, especially since he was not satisfied with the answers given to him by the two young men in the chapter entitled “Excitement” (128-130).  Also, Spencer almost seems jealous when members of his attend “revival” meetings or go to another church to be taught.  In the section of his book entitled “Proselytying,” he immediately assumes that someone is “soliciting” them away from his preaching (182).  He judges the situation too quickly, assuming that if these revival attenders are not immediately converted to Christ once they have changed churches that it is “manifest” that whoever they have gone to hear is simply “tickling their vanity and pride” with their attention (183).  He seems pessimistic of all other churches but his own.  

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5 Comments

  1. Mike says:

    nice post, very interesting. i’ve never hear of that book, a little surprising that it’s being used in a 21st century evangelism class!

    yeah, i think we have to concede that calvinism, right or wrong, is NOT the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. it’s a theological construct, a systematic way of selectively integrating passages with a view towards a neatly ordered orto salutis, or order of salvation. i’m more of a soft calvinist (probably a 3-pointer, not a big deal to me), and i’ve definitely seen some hard calvinists (i don’t mean “hard” in a derogatory sense, just solid 5-pointers) confuse calvinism with the gospel, and it hurt their evangelism (although they would never concede this for doctrinal reasons lol). but, to be fair, the best men i’ve ever known at sharing their faith were also staunch calvinists, so it doesn’t have to be that way.

    it’s funny, if you ask christian today what the “gospel” is, you get all kinds of answers, and once a while the answer will basically be TULIP. may “funny” isn’t really the right word.

    good post, thanks

  2. theophilogue says:

    thanks Mike

    yeah … surprising to you, onerous to me (LoL)

    I’m a 7 point Calvinist, but I loath the level of importance so many Calvinists attribute to the system. We take ourselves way, way too seriously.

    Thanks for being fair.

    I think that’s one of the biggest problems facing the evangelical movement. It wants to define the gospel as something other than the simple message of the incarnation, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

  3. […] some of his evangelism encounters.  My last post on this topic attempted to demonstrate that he confused Calvinism with the gospel.   […]

  4. Mike says:

    yes – incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection – that’s the simple gospel, what we have to get across to people in order to actually practice evangelism. i personally think there should be plenty of room in baptist life (in my case the SBC) for the reformed, less reformed, and even arminian perspectives.

    yes, i was trying to be fair, and knowing people like that – calvinists who evangelize like madmen – has taught me quite a bit.

  5. Dr. James Willingham says:

    Well, it is the Gospel, if we know how to take it right. Every one who comes to these teachings has problems with learning how to take them and present them. One of the best ideas I ever stumbled across, was in Dr. Eusedin’s Introduction to his translation of William Ames’ MARROW OF DIVINITY. In it he says, “PREDESTINATION IS AN INVITATION TO BEGIN ONE’S SPIRITUAL PILGRIMAGE.” When I saw that statement a light went on. It was in 1972-73, and I prepared a sermon for a class in preaching taught by Dr. Theodore Adams, and I used Roms 9:13 as The Hardest Text in the Bible is an invitation to receive God who does not think like we do, or work like we do, or act like we do. Later I would cast that in more positive terms. I began to look at other texts as invitations to be saved, as invitations more intensive and extensive and compelling, wonderfully compelling, than we can imagine. Well, think about it.

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