Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 05/20/2008 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. A condensed application of the doctrines of grace to evangelism.
One of Canada’s two main twentieth century political parties was the Progressive Conservative Party. As you might expect, this party was derided on the grounds that its name was an oxymoron. You can’t be both progressive and conservative, critics maintained. The concepts are mutually exclusive.
The same goes for the title of this booklet. Calvinism cannot possibly be modified by such a positive adjective as ‘evangelistic.’ Or can it? According to John Benton, pastor of Chertsey Street Baptist Church, it can, and should, and must. Using the terms ‘Calvinism’, ‘the doctrines of grace’, and ‘TULIP’ interchangeably, Benton acknowledges that the full-orbed gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be reduced to the acronym TULIP: Total Depravity – Unconditional Election – Limited Atonement – Irresistible Grace – Perseverance of the Christian. Any study of the doctrines of grace (incorporating TULIP and then some), Benton avers, “ought to be placed within the context of a full Trinitarian theology, making a careful note of all the necessary balances, nuances, and depths of profundity.” But it remains, Benton maintains, that TULIP contains “five beautiful diamonds from which the glories of Jesus wonderfully shine to attract those who are lost in sin…they are full of the same spiritual pulling power which drew sinners to Christ long ago…” To that end, Benton encourages readers “to see how these great truths can be extremely useful in our preaching of the gospel, as we ‘persuade,’ ‘plead with,’ and ‘implore’ sinners to be reconciled to God – much like Peter at Pentecost.
Benton clarifies and nuances the five points of TULIP as he discusses their respective applications to evangelism, so I have chosen to tackle the points one by one. I have also chosen to quote freely, but be assured that the booklet features many more such quotable morsels.
Immediately dispensing with the misconception that total depravity means “all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be,” Benton explains that every aspect of our humanity has been affected by sin. This ruling principle of sin, as Jerry Bridges has been known to call it, “makes it impossible for us (apart from God’s grace and enabling) to make, or even want to make, any move towards God.” At this point in the booklet I was reminded of an interchange between a friend and work colleague of mine who happens to be an Eastern Orthodox priest. One evening my friend listened to the first section of Calvin’s Institutes, presumably spurred on my Reformed stance. He returned to work the next morning incensed at what he perceived to be Calvin’s gloomy attitude towards the heart of man. I mention this episode because Benton’s next exploratory question is, “How can the doctrine of total depravity be good news?” The answer given is threefold. Firstly, this truth faces reality. “It shows us where we actually are on the spiritual map. We now know where we are before God. In that sense it is good news.” Secondly, it provides us with the background for God’s grace. “If God loves those who can only be described as ‘totally depraved,’ then no sinner is without hope; no sinner can be too bad to be saved.” Thirdly, we can be transparently honest about ourselves before God, for we know the reality of our condition.
Benton first grounds his discussion in Scripture, noting that election is notably prominent in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In light of the scriptural presence of election, “it is tragic when those who oppose the doctrines of grace misrepresent them as a part of an outdated and evangelistically inept theology.” If Calvinism is outdated and evangelistically inept, then so is the book of Ephesians. What we should dismiss, Benton says, is a works-based concept of righteousness; that God chooses a certain type of person to save and transform into a Christian. God’s choice is free; He is no respecter of persons. Benton also touches on the free will controversy, but does not allow himself to be waylaid: “We choose freely, albeit in accordance with out nature.” And as we learned earlier, our nature is totally depraved; enough said.
In this section, where Benton relies heavily on the carefully nuanced words of Charles Spurgeon, John 10:14-16 acts as the foundational passage. Benton teases out the following points: 1) All who believe in Christ are definitely saved; 2) This doctrine sounds the death-knell of all religious legalism and bondage; 3) Christ’s death was designed to redeem not an amorphous mass of humanity in some general way, but His own people individually; and 4) It should bring great assurance to the heart, soul, and mind of a Christian. This section ends with a benediction emphasizing the historical weight of limited atonement: “Let us walk in the footsteps of Whitefield, Brainerd, Edwards, Carey, Spurgeon, and their like, and rejoice in the glorious certainty of an atonement that saves all for whom it was designed.”
If the T, the U, and the L of TULIP answer the ‘who’ question, then the doctrine of irresistible grace answers the ‘when,’ the ‘what,’ and the ‘how.’ “God’s grace works in such a way as to guarantee the required response to the gospel’s call,” explains Benton. “The purpose of God’s irresistible grace is not to violate the human will but to liberate it from its bondage to sin…Indeed, no violence is done to the will at all. Rather, the moral direction of the sinner’s will is changed as a result of the new birth.” Some of the strongest practical applications of TULIP to evangelism arise from this doctrine, as difficult as that may be to fathom: “To the person who says, ‘I would love to have your faith – but I just can’t believe,’ encourage them to go to God and ask him to help them.” Supply them with the words of Mark 9:24, for a “sincere desire for faith is the beginning of faith.” The initiator of faith is, of course, the Holy Spirit, who provides an object of faith, Jesus Christ, for whom those who hear and respond to the gospel find themselves yearning.
PERSEVERANCE OF THE CHRISTIAN
Historically known as ‘perseverance of the saints,’ this doctrine insists that “those who trust in Christ will be kept in Christ.” Ours is “a faith that is sustained by His divine resources.” In this section Benton provides meaty Luther and Warfield quotes to chew on – the Warfield quote alone may monopolize more of your time than reading this little booklet beginning to end. It concludes with a reiteration of the ultimate end of Reformed theology, and the end of true evangelism: the glory of God in Christ, which is as it should be.