Is Calvinism Evangelical?

I was alerted to a former view of Calvinist Dr. Michael Horton, a friend of Arminian Dr. Roger Olson, who once insisted that Arminianism is as "evangelical" as is Roman Catholicism, a very difficult insult to take lightly, and one which still needs to be addressed today. The reason this remains in need of addressing is because some Calvinists still read the 1992 article written by Dr. Horton, "Evangelical Arminians: Option or Oxymoron?" as though he still holds the expressed views -- and he does not -- and conclude in thinking that Arminianism is not evangelical. My question, however, turns Calvinism to face the same evangelical challenge.

When we examine our Greek word εὐαγγελίῳ, lit. evangel, gospel or good news, we must conclude that Calvinism is not evangelical in the strict sense: Calvinism is not good news. The underlying message of Calvinism to the world is this: "We have good news -- God loves some of you and has unconditionally elected to save some of you. There is nothing you can do about this 'good news.' In time, when some of you hear this 'good news,' God will monergistically regenerate you [i.e., make you born again] -- those of you who have been unconditionally pre-selected for salvation -- and you will then believe in Christ." This, friends, is not good news. At least it is not good news for the world God claims to love (John 3:16). Therefore Calvinism is not evangelical.

Now, this underlying implication of Calvinism is not what you will hear or read from John Piper or John MacArthur or James White or R.C. Sproul or Matt Chandler or Mark Driscoll or Francis Chan or D.A. Carson or Abraham Kuyper or John Owen or Jonathan Edwards or Theodore Beza or John Calvin or any other famous Calvinist. They tend to emphasize the positive aspect of unconditional election: "God unconditionally elected to save you, believer, and that for His own glory and grace." What Calvinist preachers and scholars tend to conveniently gloss over is the darker or negative side of Calvinism: "God has not unconditionally elected to save you, non-believer, and that for His own glory and justice."

Some Calvinists throughout the relatively brief history of Calvinist ideology have even posited the notion that non-believers will suffer God's wrath of torment in hell for His own glory, as quoted by Dr. Roger Olson:
Calvin's successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza [mentor to our Jacob Arminius], commented that those who find themselves suffering in the flames of hell for eternity can at least take comfort in the fact that they are there for the greater glory of God. To paraphrase [John Wesley], that is a glory such as sends chills down the spine. God foreordains some of his own creatures, created in his own image, to eternal hell for his own glory? Calvin may not have put it quite that bluntly, but many Calvinists have, and it is a necessary extrapolation of the inner logic of consistent Calvinism. (Institutes III:XXII.11) (link)
Beza also taught the heresy of supralapsarianism, and the unconditional nature of the decree of reprobation, both of which appear to be rejected by the majority of Calvinists today; yet, in my opinion, appears as the only consistent form of Calvinist logic. If infralapsarian Calvinism is not good news and, hence, not evangelical then supralapsarian Calvinism is a different beast altogether. While infralapsarian Calvinism leads us to question the arbitrary nature of God's unconditional pre-selection of certain persons unto faith and salvation; supralapsarian Calvinism leads us to question the justice of God and, therefore, His goodness and character.

Within the context of a Calvinistic system, we find it inadequate as an evangelical option, given that it fails to grant humanity its basic need: a Savior who died in their stead. Some Calvinists cannot even tell a general group of people that God loves them (contra John 3:16), to say nothing of that Christ died for them (contra John 1:29; 2 Cor. 4:14, 15; 1 Tim. 2:6; 1 John 2:2). This is not good news and, therefore, not evangelical. If we define and contextualize evangelicalism within the framework of offering good news to all sinners in need of a Savior and His atonement, then Calvinism cannot be a viable, evangelical option.

What is the saving face of Calvinism and Calvinist ministers? Why can we consider Calvinism as being in some sense evangelical? Because most Calvinists, unlike some of their hyper-Calvinistic counterparts, preach like an Arminian! They universally proclaim a Savior who has died for sins so that anyone who will trust in Christ Jesus, His atoning work at Calvary and His subsequent resurrection, can and will be saved by the grace of God through continual faith in the Savior -- a faith inwardly granted by the operative Spirit of God in totally depraved sinners.

In this sense, then, Arminians demonstrate that, at its core, Arminian theology is evangelical by default. If the evangel -- the good news -- of Jesus Christ is the message entailing His laying down His life for the sin of the world (John 1:29; 6:51; 2 Cor. 4:14, 15; 1 John 2:2), so that whoever would trust in Him would be saved (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20) -- since God does not save unbelievers (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13) -- then Arminianism is, both historically and at present, evangelicalism's brightest option!

Historically, Arminians have always fought against the error that God has unconditionally pre-selected to save only some, for this is not good news and, hence, not evangelical. As a corollary, Arminians have always fought against the error that Christ died solely for the alleged unconditionally elect, for this, too, is not good news and, hence, not evangelical. The nature of election and the atonement was what caused the Dutch Calvinists of The Netherlands to form a synod against the early evangelical Arminians, who taught that God loves this world of sinners (John 3:16), that Christ died for this world of sinners (John 1:29), and that God would save believers among this world of sinners (1 Cor. 1:21).

The Dortian Calvinists opposed this evangelical message, teaching that God did not love everyone salvifically in the same sense -- which is still being taught among Calvinists -- and that Christ did not die salvifically for everyone in the same sense -- again, an idea still being taught by most Calvinists. The irony here, of course, is that the Arminians who have advocated evangelicalism the most are accused, some four hundred years later, as not being evangelical; but Calvinists, who rejected the good nature of evangelicalism, are considered the only ones who are actually evangelical.

Of course, much like their qualified redefining of certain terms, e.g., the word "sovereign," some Calvinists afford themselves an exclusionary redefining and contextualizing of being evangelical such that only those who agree with Calvinism are called evangelicals. This is most unfortunate (and historically inaccurate).

We are willing to call anyone an evangelical who proclaims the truth that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); that God loved the world in this manner: He gave and sent His one and only Son into the world so that whoever would continually trust in Him would be saved (John 3:16); that all must be born again (John 3:3, 5); that whoever confesses with one's lips and believes in one's heart that God raised Christ from the dead, such a one will be saved (Rom. 10:9); that whoever continues to believe in the Son has eternal life; but whoever continues to disbelieve the Son will not see eternal life with God, but must endure God's wrath (John 3:36).

The good news -- the nature of evangelicalism itself -- is God in Christ through His Spirit. The Gospel is a Divine Being who loves His creation, seeks to save and redeem His creation (whose story was first realized through a relationship with Israel, and then with all others through Christ, who consummated the broken relationship) and intends to glorify Himself by grace in His Son Jesus Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of unworthy sinners.

I do not see good news in Calvinism and, therefore, I do not think that "evangelical" should be attached to that theological system. But Calvinism is evangelical in as much as its proponents advance the biblical truths that Arminians joyfully proclaim of Christ's atoning work, available to all (2 Cor. 5:14, 15), God's love and grace, which is near to all (Acts 17:27), and the Holy Spirit's work throughout the entire earth among all who hear the good news of Christ (John 16:8-11).


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.