Fourteen Characteristics of Theological Legalism

Without question, one of the most disturbing trends in the world of theology is that, far too often, grace is eclipsed by theological legalism.

Twice today I encountered this in its most blatant forms by two very different types of people. Both were very passionate about theology and both, undoubtedly, believe that their attitude toward me or my teaching is justified and honoring to the Lord. However, I believe both of these men sacrificed the major issue – grace – in defense of minor issues in theology.

The first, whose name I will not share as he is undoubtedly well-known to most of you, caught me very much off guard (and it is not really easy to catch me off guard, as I receive dozens of “hate” emails every day from those who believe it is their job to put me back on the path of theological correctness). This man, a significant figure in the world of reformation theology, does not believe I take theology seriously enough. Of course, his reasons come (I imagine) from the fact that I don’t agree with him. And obviously, if I took theology seriously, I would agree with him! Ironically, this lack of grace often comes from those who believe most strongly in the reformed “doctrines of grace.” But this man sent me one of the most ungracious emails I have ever received. And, yes, it did hurt my feelings. But more than that, sensing that this man’s criticism of me comes from his general disdain for the “heresy” of Evangelical Calvinism – it discouraged me that someone who believes he is so right theologically could be so graceless personally.

The second came from a Fundamentalist who was quite disturbed that I would suggest that Catholics could be saved. To be fair, I remember in the mid-nineties when Billy Graham suggested the same on national television. I was so angry and confused. I could not believe that Billy Graham would be so theologically inept as to make such a suggestion. In order for me to retain the belief that Billy Graham was saved, I had to convince myself that he had just gone senile in his old age. But this came from someone who has been a believer for quite some time and is a leader in his local church. This one statement (“Catholics can be saved”) has served to disqualify me and all of my teachings. To him, I will forever be one of the many who has compromised my faith for the glory of acceptance among men.

Theological legalism is nothing new (and is certainly not limited to the world of theology). Think of the Pharisees who, according to Christ, strained out gnats and swallowed camels (Matt. 23:24). To the theological legalist, there is no such thing as a gnat. Christ spoke of the weightier things of the Law (Matt. 23:23). To the doctrinal legalist, all issues are equally weighty. Paul spoke of things of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3); to those who are theological Pharisees, everything is of first importance. There is rarely, if ever, a second.

I find this very typical of those who call themselves “true” Calvinists. You will sometimes be given more grace by these if you don’t claim to be a Calvinist. But if you claim to be so, you are never Calvinistic enough. They live to nit-pick all the minor details they believe you get wrong about reformed theology. Nothing makes them angrier than so-called “Evangelical Calvinists” (such as me). I also find this among those egalitarians who wear bitterness on their sleeves, believing everyone who opposes them is doing so in order to oppress. I see this among Christian evolutionists who attempt to belittle anyone who opposes their position (some even calling creationists “cultic”). This theological fundamentalism elevates doctrine above the mandates that the doctrine necessitates. Right belief becomes their primary call to righteousness.

And let me not forget Roman Catholics. The system itself demands acceptance of everything the Church has ever dogmatized, from the resurrection of Christ to the assumption of Mary. The Catholic Catechism – to which all Roman Catholics must submit – is almost as long as the Bible itself. And I rarely meet a gracious Eastern Orthodox. Though they disdain Catechisms, they seem to have an unspoken canon which produces an incredible arrogance. And then there are the Baptists . . . oh, where to begin?!

Of course, there are many exceptions to all of these and I don’t mean to indict any without qualification. There are some shining examples of grace, wisdom, and humility in all of these traditions. I think of my Eastern Orthodox friend Bradley Nassif. I think of Irene, our Roman Catholic commentator. I think of Thomas Schreiner, an incredibly humble Baptist scholar and pastor. And, as you have noticed, I placed my own Calvinistic tradition on the stand. But the sad truth is that very often, the deeper one gets into theological passions, the more corrupt our ability to treat others with grace and humility becomes.

Here are some ways to know if you are a theological legalist:

  1. You don’t think there are “minor theological issues”
  2. You always define yourself with the word “true” in front of it (e.g., “I am a ‘true’ Calvinist,” “I am a ‘true’ Baptist,” or “I am a ‘true’ Christian”).
  3. Your statement of faith or catechism is so detailed that no one but your particular tradition can sign it.
  4. Your passions focus on the small issues and this finds expression in your personality.
  5. Most of your theological writing and/or discussion focuses on where other Christians have gone wrong.
  6. You have a bulldog mentality with regard to your “pet” issues; you cannot let things go emotionally. You have to leave the room.
  7. When one disagrees with you they are forever defined by that disagreement (“There goes Joe the Arminian,” or “I would like to introduce you to Katie the Complementarian.”
  8. You think belief is either black or white, you either have it or you don’t; there is no in-between and certainly no room for doubt.
  9. You think all those outside of your tradition are either going to hell or are less spiritual than you are (i.e., all Catholics are going to hell, all Protestants are going to hell, all those who suggest otherwise are going to hell, etc.)
  10. There are only three reasons why people disagree with you: 1) they don’t have enough or the right knowledge, 2) they have compromised, and/or 3) they are justifying in some sin.
  11. No one outside of your tradition wants to talk theology with you (and you take it as a badge of honor).
  12. When you write about other Christians, you continually find yourself putting the word “Christian” in quotes.
  13. Your statement of faith is so qualified no one can understand it.
  14. You are always shutting conversation down by accusations of logical fallacies ad absurdum.

Of course we all have these problems from time to time. And I am not saying the word “Christian” should not be placed in quotes for some people. But if you find yourself identifying with many items on this list too often, you may have the problem of doctrinal legalism which, in my opinion, is the most dangerous trap out there for those of us who love theology. I have been there and still wrestle with my own theological legalism. But this is something we all need to repent of, and teach our students and children about its dangers.

If you love theology, please be the first to put on the attitude of humility. When someone speaks about you in this regard, don’t have your goal to be for others to think you are smart or right, but rather humble and meek. When others talk about your personality with regard to theological discourse, would they say you are arrogant and legalistic, or gracious and gentle? This does not mean we sacrifice our passions or beliefs, it just means we temper ourselves for the sake of the Gospel. The truth is too important for us to lose our witness due to theological legalism.

Titus 3:2
[Instruct them] to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.

Phi 4:5
Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.

2 Tim 2:25-26
With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.


204 Responses to “Fourteen Characteristics of Theological Legalism”

  1. Thanks for the helpful reminders!

    And thanks for writing all that you do. I have to make a concerted effort to avoid regularly visiting your blog so as not to stay up all night reading (almost) everything you’ve written :-)

    Very interesting. Very helpful. To God be the glory.

    ps. i’m from okc (yukon), but serve in western China

  2. Michael, did you mean to add “Legalism” as the last word of your title by any chance?

    Good post. Sorry you’ve been knocked around by legalistic bullies. There are good cautions there for all of us.

  3. You beat me to it!
    Never mind :-)

  4. Thanks for a great article, Michael (and thanks for the one about “sufficient for the day is the evil thereof” a couple of days ago).

    In my experience, “evangelical Catholics” tend to be fairly gracious about doctrinal differences — and from all I have heard this extends to the current pope. The reality is, if you are a “cradle Catholic”, nobody ever asks whether you agree with everything in the Catechism, and evangelical Catholics would have more problems with liberal Catholics who dissent on such things as the sanctity of life than with evangelical Protestants who don’t pray to Mary.

  5. You mean there is “a significant theologian in the world of reformation theology”?

    Ok. Sorry, bad joke, but one I could not resist. I will probably pay dearly for that one some time in another discussion.

    Most of the reformers I read are Biblical scholars and are not overly concerned with formal, historical theologies. It is a breath of fresh air to hear someone who disagrees with me say, “here is how I would interpret the text, but it also could be interpreted otherwise.” Leander Keck noted in his commentary to Romans that all interpretation is tentative.

    As for who is saved and who is not, I am always amazed at how many people believe that they are the eschatological judge at the end of time. I once told my church study group that the last person they would want to be their judge was me. It is way beyond either my wisdom or my pay grade. I leave it up to God to make those decisions, not me.

    Perhaps it comes with age, but I think we evolve theologically as time goes by, either hardening to defend a position or softening to seek understanding. Growing up evangelical, I think I followed a similar path to CMP, not knowing why Billy Graham was sending Catholics back to their churches. But then I studied at a Catholic seminary under mostly protestant teachers (some Reformed). I saw people different than me confessing the same Lord. I saw people of different faiths and different religions able to say, “I disagree, but I understand.” I also saw that some people from other traditions were way smarter theologically than I was.

    We all should believe passionately in our Lord and Savior. But after a lifetime of study, I have come to the place where “knowing” now gives me understanding of how little I really know. It is the Savior we serve, not the theology.

    The goal of theology should be to learn to hear and understand. If we cannot hear, how can the Spirit teach?

    Thanks, Michael, for a good article.

  6. “You are always shutting conversation down by accusations of logical fallacies ad absurdum.”

    Certainly you have not seen that recently ;^)

  7. Mr. Patton, is it really unreasonable to expect even the newest Christian convert to have a basic Biblical understanding of an accomplished redemption? After all, when I explain the gospel to someone, shouldn’t I be explaining to them what an accomplished redemption is and what it means? Isn’t an accomplished redemption the very heart of the gospel message itself?

    You see, that is the problem. You don’t believe an accomplished redemption is the heart of the gospel at all. Rather, you think it’s icing on the cake doctrine, a secondary issue better left in the back room buried beneath issues you find more relevant; like abortion, taxes, and the nation’s moral center.

    The Scriptures define the gospel as the revelation of God’s righteousness (Rom 1:16-17). The Scriptures also define this revelation as being by faith in the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood for the redemption of His people whom He justifies by His grace as a gift in order to show His righteousness apart from the Law) (Rom 3:21-26). To summarize, the gospel is the revelation of God’s righteousness revealed by faith in the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

    Two questions loom before us in the face of this definition. First, are there other redemptions to be found besides the one that is in Christ? And second, what is the redemption that is in Christ Jesus?

    These are questions you don’t want answered, Mr. Patton. And you don’t want them answered, because you have already decided to make do with a “possible” redemption that is found in a Jesus who is Jesus-not-Vishnu-Buddha-or-any-other-god. Congratulations on the Jesus who isn’t any other god, Mr. Patton, but you’ve still got a false redemption.

  8. @Greg (Tiribulus): perhaps you could point out the most important point I missed per e-mail: Would appreciate it.

  9. I enjoy reading your articles. The way I found out about them was from somebody criticizing your theology on Facebook. If they had never done that, I would never have found out about this site. Haha. Thanks for this.

  10. Two verses that everybody should keep in their hearts.

    8 Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8

    8 He has shown you, O man, what is good;
    And what does the Lord require of you
    But to do justly,
    To love mercy,
    And to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

  11. Another verse to supplement:

    I Peter 3:15 – but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with GENTLENESS and RESPECT

  12. I know you don’t find particular atonement to be an issue of first importance, Mr. Patton. That is why I said you don’t. That is also why I said you have decided to make do with a “possible redemption” that is in Jesus-and-not-Vishnu. Sincerity is your righteousness, Mr. Patton, not Christ. Allow me to be blunt. You are a legalist, sir, masquerading as a grace teacher. You are an Arminian pretending to be a Calvinist.

  13. Well said! How can we love our enemies when we don’t even love each other? So many of these non-essential squabbles don’t change our job description at all. Get out there and spread the Gospel!

  14. I thought this was a great post! I also think it stings me a little (or maybe a lot). :)

  15. I suspect that I know who the “significant theologian in the world of reformation theology” you refer to is, and I’m guessing that many of your other readers do, too. Unfortunately, as one who admires both your work and his, I am unable to evaluate the situation because of the lack of detail that you have presented. I’m not saying you should tell us more detail, but what you are saying does not especially comport with my experience of hearing the man in question speak in the past (assuming that I am correct in my identification of him). Unless you are prepared to lay the issue out in full, this might have been better left unmentioned, since it now stands as a slur against his character that cannot be confirmed or denied by your readers. Saying only what you have said leaves a cloud hanging over his head that there is really no way to dispel.

    With regard to the matter of Catholics being saved, I think there is a difference between saying that Catholics cannot be saved and saying that the Roman system does not lead to salvation. Can Catholics be saved? Of course they can. So can Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They can be saved by turning to the Christ of Scripture. Which will mean that they are no longer Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, JWs or Roman Catholics in any meaningful sense. The RC system is a system in which salvation is based (at least partially) on works, and such a system does not result in salvation. Catholics can be saved, yes, but any who are saved are saved in spite of RC teaching, not because of it. It’s not a question of which organization’s membership roll our name is on, but rather on whom we rely for salvation. Is salvation of Christ alone, or is it partly based on our own works? So the answer to the question, “Can Catholics be saved?” really depends on what is meant by the question. I can’t speak for your Fundamentalist correspondent or Billy Graham, but might you have been talking past each other on this?

  16. Kenneth R Fountain May 23, 2013 at 8:35 am

    It’s quite importnt that all of us Christians be bottom up thinkers. When we foist our ideas about what we know on other believers we put ourselve in the position of “top down” thinkers. Hawking and Krauss are two self proclaimed type. Better to be like John Polkinghorne, a “bottom up” thinker. Top down contains the hubris that, although endowed ith only a 4% sample of the universe they proclaim conclusions that require complete knowledge. Who cn write on Dark matter but God himself?

  17. How does subscribing to a detailed Catechism automatically make one a legalist? What if that Catechism itself asserts exactly what the inspired writers asserted: that grace must take precedent over petty doctrinal disputes? The Catechism is extremely useful for by-passing legalism: instead of getting dragged into petty arguments about minute points of theology, you just point to the relevant chapter and get on with your life of grace!

  18. I reckon by FAR the clearest indications of legalism are:

    1) pride

    2) shame

    Both are ungodly and result from a ‘works-based’ righteousness… :)

    Blessings :)

  19. David Bishop, you need to learn principles of civilized discourse.

    One of these is to let everyone state their own motivation and thoughts, and comment on what they say/write rather than on what and why they think.

    Instead you pronounce on what Michael thinks (how do you know?) and why he thinks it (again, how do you know?)

    This comes across as arrogant.

  20. Wolf Paul, I bet Lois Lerner agrees with you.

  21. No idea what Lois Lerner has to do with this discussion or principles of civilized discourse.

  22. She doesn’t think words reveal a person’s motivations either.

    But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. – Matthew 15:18

  23. My original comment:

    Mr. Patton, is it really unreasonable to expect even the newest Christian convert to have a basic Biblical understanding of an accomplished redemption? After all, when I explain the gospel to someone, shouldn’t I be explaining to them what an accomplished redemption is and what it means? Isn’t an accomplished redemption the very heart of the gospel message itself?

    You see, that is the problem. You don’t believe an accomplished redemption is the heart of the gospel at all. Rather, you think it’s icing on the cake doctrine, a secondary issue better left in the back room buried beneath issues you find more relevant; like abortion, taxes, and the nation’s moral center.

    Mr. Patton’s response:
    David, I don’t know what you are talking about. I do believe in particular redemption. But, having said that, I don’t think it is an issue of first importance.

    See that, Wolf? I was correct.

  24. This guy would have come down on John Mac, and prob for the same reasons.

  25. The clearest indication of a works based righteousness is doctrine that fosters a works based righteousness. What does such doctrine sound like? Like this — particular redemption is not an issue of first importance, for a person who believes Christ died for everyone to make redemption possible can still have at least secured his redemption by utilizing his almighty, God-like power of sincerity to believe Jesus is the real true God rather than Buddha.

  26. Michael, if I didn’t trust your integrity, I’d wonder if you were setting up some of these comments to prove your point. :)

  27. David,
    Question: Must one hold to the doctrine of particular redemption in order to be saved?

  28. This is a great reminder! We must not make theology an idol. I actually wrote something similar on this subject earlier this week –

  29. One will hold as being the gospel the most basic, Biblical definition of particular redemption if they have been saved.

    That means that if you think you’re saved because someone told you that if you repent of your sins and confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior then you’ll be saved, then you’ve been duped, my friend. Someone has told you a lie.

  30. I explain the gospel as follows:

    The Scriptures define the gospel as the revelation of God’s righteousness (Rom 1:16-17). The Scriptures also define this revelation as being by faith in the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood for the redemption of His people whom He justifies by His grace as a gift in order to show His righteousness apart from the Law) (Rom 3:21-26). Now, this is what redemption means . . . And this is what propitiation means . . . Here is who He redeemed, here is why He redeemed, and here is how He redeemed . . . Now, God commands you to believe what I’ve just told you is true. Any questions?

  31. Christ died to redeem a chosen few. His death was an act of perfect obedience. In so dying for His chosen few, He accomplished what no goat, no bull, no dove or lamb had ever done or could ever do – fully satisfy God’s wrath on behalf of His chosen few, thereby atoning for their guilt. His death did NOT make redemption possible. Rather, His death actually redeemed His people. His death is why His people are brought to faith. His death is why His people are made willing. His death is why not one of His people shall be lost.

    Into this contrast between accomplished and possible steps the Tolerant Calvinist, who insists that, although the message of accomplished redemption is true, nevertheless, some of the redeemed are brought to faith by an inconsistent or deficient belief in a message of a possible redemption. This introduces a fatal flaw into the system, for it presumes an accuracy in inaccuracy, meaning that it turns lies into truth.

    If Christ’s death is the sole cause of a person’s redemption, and not everyone is redeemed, then naturally, Christ’s death cannot have been intended for everyone. Christ must have died only for those He intended to redeem. His death is why they have been redeemed.

    Suppose, however, I am convinced that 2 = 9. Could you assume of me that I also believe 2 + 2 = 4 simply because I tell you that 9 + 9 = 18? No, because no matter how correct I might be about the fact that 9 + 9 = 18, 9 + 9 is still not the same thing as 2 + 2. The Tolerant Calvinist presumes that I believe 2 + 2 = 4 rather than 2 + 2 = 18 simply because I believe 9 + 9 = 18. He disregards the fact that I believe 2 = 9.

    The Arminian believes his possible redemption is found “only in Christ” rather than in Buddha or any other false god. The Arminian is correct to say redemption is found only in Christ. But redemption found only in Christ does not equal an accomplished redemption found only in Christ. 2 is not 9. Works are not grace.

  32. There comes a point when all the nit picking really does nothing to edify or uplift the Body of Christ, rather is detrimental to very simple message that Jesus Christ came to convey. I wish I were so sure of my theological position as David Bishop, and so willing to stress my view to the point of without saying it outright, condemn another Christian as a heretic. What Tom said in his second paragraph leaves open the possibility of grace to work on the heart of a believer. How can any of us know the true heart of a believer? I certainly have no idea what is in the heart of my brethren, but I do know the fruit of his works, it becomes self evident.

    We can throw out Scripture verses all day long to support our various positions, yet by what measure of faith does final judgment befall all of us who confess Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Savior before men? By whose righteousness does qualify us to stand before Him with boldness and assuredness of pardon? At the end of this age, will all of this really matter to those who are in Christ? Brethren, none of us are frankly that sure of our theology and if you think that you are, you are in danger of being a legalist. Where is the love of God in Christ in all of that? Remember the parable of the wheat and the tares? Not all will be saved, and we are not judge and jury of God’s ontology. We are the clay, God is the potter. Be humble and gentle of heart, remember that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Be prepared.

  33. A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation — “Traditional Southern Baptist soteriology is grounded in the conviction that every person can and must be saved by a personal and free decision to respond to the Gospel by trusting in Christ Jesus alone as Savior and Lord.”

    Notice that. Saved not by the atoning death of Christ. Saved not by sacrifice of the Lamb. But rather, saved by a personal and free decision to respond. Well congratulations, mighty me. I think I’ll build an altar to myself.

    And you guys think adding sincerity to the response in some way turns “I saved myself” into “Jesus saved me”?

    I’ve no doubt you guys are sincere. So is Satan. When he lies, he sincerely speaks from his nature. You’re sincere? I say, so what? Your sincerity is just as sinful as the rest of you.

  34. Legalistic bullies……great term!

    Any “teacher of theology” who uses fallacy of Ad Hominem instead of dealing honestly with the topic of Adam in Romans 5 is likewise guilty of being a legalistic bully.

    Projection…..hmmmm, isn’t that the same thing that Jesus pointed out with the Pharisees?

  35. Michael, no, John Mac is not who I was thinking of. But regardless of who the person is, it seems to me that what you have done here is to throw up a cloud of suspicion that can’t be evaluated by your readers. Was this person truly out of line, or did you misinterpret what he said, or perhaps were you offended by his disagreement rather than his manner? We have no way of knowing and are left with doubts about our brother.

  36. David,
    You seem interested in particular redemption.
    I’m curious: Do you think Christ’s propitiation is particular in value and therefore particular in application to the elect? Or do you think Christ’s propitiation is immeasurable or infinite in value but particular in application to the elect?
    Would Christ’s propitiatory experience had been any different if God had elected 1 more or 1 less person?
    Did Christ suffer a designated amount for each particular sin for each elect person, so that there is a quantifiable relation of Christ’s suffering to individual sins that were or ever would be committed by the elect? If yes, is God just to punish Christ in a measurable way for specific sins not yet committed (even though God knows they would be committed)? (See movie Minority Report)
    Did Christ suffer for X amount of sins and bear X amount of wrath that corresponds to those X sins?
    If Christ propitiated a particular, defined, and/or limited value, of what measurement is that value? How would different measurements of that value be distinguished experientially for Christ when he suffered and died?
    If Christ specifically propitiatiated sins of specific people and did not propitiate sins of other people, so that in a measurable way he paid the penalty for the sins of the elect, would not the elect be justified at the time of the sacrifice? Can I be born by nature a child of wrath if Christ already took on God’s wrath in a measurable way for my sins specifically?

    What do you think of people who base the particularness of Christ’s redemption in its application and not in any sort of measurable and limited propitiatory value of Christ’s death? Would theological legalism result from the belief that Christ, as Great High Priest, applies his immeasurable sacrifice to the elect alone?

    What do you think is limited? The propitiation? The application? Or both?

  37. As a man with Calvinistic leanings, I do think that it’s interesting that from a theological view there is belief in pre-destination and salvation being a work of God alone, yet many people who have this belief seem to be quick to judge other people’s state of salvation.

    It is important to seek the truth that is written in the bible, & to apply it in our lives. Certainly there is also responsibility to share and educate from the truth that can be discovered in the bible.

    I do not hold that any particular theological view should be used as divining rod whereby one can judge the state of another whom God may or may not have called to be part of his kingdom.

  38. David Bishop, God always works hand in hand with us. It is the relationship that He seeks from us. Yes, it is the atoning death of Christ that saves us, but it would be worth nothing if no one accepted it or cared for it. Our personal and individual acknowledgement of its redeeming act is what saves us. This is the beauty of God’s love for us. Jesus gave His life for us free of charge. All we have to do is accept it.

    Having said that, accepting His death for us is different than just believing in it. You can merely believe in it, but may not accept it. Satan believes in God and that Jesus died for our sins too. However, Satan does not accept it and does not care for it. We, on the other hand, believe it AND accept it resulting in rebirth and change in our life and lifestyle.

  39. David Bishop,

    “Mr. Patton, is it really unreasonable to expect even the newest Christian convert to have a basic Biblical understanding of an accomplished redemption?”

    You asked CMP that question, not me, but I’ll try answering: That depends on what level of understanding you’re talking about.

    If you’re saying that even the newest Christian converts should understand more than “Because of what Jesus did in his death & resurrection, those who believe will be saved”, then yes, based on my read of how much detail we can see the apostles going into in Acts, I would call that unreasonable.

    But if “Because of what Jesus did in his death & resurrection, those who believe will be saved” does describe the “basic Biblical understanding” you’re talking about, then you and I are on the same page.

    And I’m pretty sure CMP wouldn’t disagree.

  40. Great post, Michael. It’s funny; not often being in reformed circles, including this blog, very often, I read this post and really didn’t expect such powerful examples to pop up in the comments, at least not to this post! Wow. If this is the world you live within, I very seriously empathize. No one should have to deal with this kind of thing this often.

    David Bishop, to me the crux of your argument lies in this statement: “The Scriptures define the gospel as . . .” and you then refer to Romans 1:16-17. But what about all the other scriptural references to the gospel in which it is defined or phrased differently, often very differently? If I paraphrase or even quote some other portion of the NT’s gospel summaries or descriptions, have I lied to my hearers? If not, and they are saved through that gospel that doesn’t even include the parts you see as central, does that give us any conclusions we can make? And further still, even the one quote from Romans doesn’t say all you’ve inferred. I hope you can hear some of what Michael has written here, or what others like him have said to you in this vein. The gospel is not a formula. It is news, about Jesus. The gospel according to Mark (or Matthew, or Luke, or John) is the gospel, for instance, and a long version at that, and it doesn’t emphasize the issues your emphasizing at all. Does it matter that our “gospel” writers themselves don’t really emphasize, at all, what you think is central?

  41. I agree with Tom’s # 39! What’s the real point? Indeed there is theological legalism in all Christian groups, and certainly with Calvinists and the Reformed! And I am a neo-Calvinist and Reformed myself! Sadly its the nature of our sinful self!

  42. Truth Unites... and Divides May 23, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    “Tom, it is not John Mac.”

    Rachel Held Evans? Rob Bell? Brian McLaren? Jim Wallis?


  43. Legalism is when you attempt to add something to what Christ has done in order to be saved. I highly doubt the thief on the cross had his ducks in a row when it comes to particular redemption. He was saved by His faith alone in Christ that day.

    Knowledge and assent to this doctrine saves no one. The work of Christ saves the elect. If I am dead on the street, I do not have to have knowledge of, or assent to CPR for it to be wholly and particularly effective.

  44. Peter Leithart on Charles Hodge and the Church:

    ‘When the Presbyterian General Assembly determined that Catholic baptism was not valid, Charles Hodge was “overwhelmed.” He was sure it was an anomaly, and that most Presbyterians would not believe that Catholics “lived and died unbaptized,” since such a position was “in opposition to all previous practice, and to the principles of every other Protestant church.”

    He was wrong. As Paul Gutjahr notes in his Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (236-9), Hodge’s argument for the validity of Catholic baptism was “tremendously unpopular” among Presbyterians. Hodge claimed that the Catholic church was “corrupted and overlaid by false and soul-destroying abuses and errors,” but that it was still a body of believers and Catholics were members of the visible church. Catholic baptism was done with the “intention of complying with the command of Christ,” and thus should be accepted as Christian baptism.

    He worried too that Presbyterian sectarianism would “unchurch almost the whole Christian world; and Presbyterians, instead of being the most catholic of churches, and admitting the being of a church, wherever we see the fruits of the Spirit, would become one of the narrowest and most bigoted of sects.”

  45. @Truth: Sadly those four you quote, are simply biblically & theologically erroneous or wrong! Not a personal attack at all, but certainly a simple biblical and theological approximation, at least from the general position of the Reformed Divinity!

  46. CMP,

    I don’t remember any time when someone from the Eastern church posted or acted in a way that you describe in your “14 bullet points”. Is there one in particular that you remember? Or were you just including us so that we wouldn’t be felt left out? :)

    “Though (E.O.’s) they disdain Catechisms, they seem to have an unspoken canon which produces an incredible arrogance.”

    Um…we’ve got a catechism my man. It’s called Holy Tradition:

    I don’t know about “arrogance”. When you’ve existed since Pentecost, and have carried forward the deposit of the faith “once delivered to the saints”, I think “secure” is a better adjective.

    I think this is mostly about your hurt pride because “Mr. Mystery Calvinist Man” dissed you.

  47. Isn’t it notable that Hymenaeus and Philetus made a theological error yet Peter didn’t defend them with doctrinal tolerance, but rather denounced them (by name) saying that they overthrew the faith of some?

    And it strikes me that, in the midst of that controversy, Paul says NEVERTHELESS, the foundation of God stands sure, having this seal, THE LORD KNOWETH THEM THAT ARE HIS. (2 Timothy 2:19a). In other words, doctrine matters because it ultimately reinforces or tears down faith. Even, however, in the face of that, Paul makes the statement that His own are known to Him and they are sealed and on an unshakeable foundation.

    However, what does he follow it up with? Let EVERYONE that names the name of Christ depart iniquity. There’s no claim that any man will know who belongs to God, but it is clear they are secure and fixed. Yet even so, the call to depart iniquity goes to all men who name Christ (whether they are elect or not).

    Takeaway :

    1. It is missing the point to divide theology up into minor and major issues. Any issue that is theological and has any bearing on a man’s faith is important and must be treated as such. Not a “number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin” issue, but certainly far more than what most would consider important. The OP seems vague on what is major and follow-up posts seem to argue over whether a particular vs. general view of atonement is major. Of course it is. Can one be on either side and still be saved? Yes. That doesn’t make it a minor issue.

    2. Naming those that disagree is important for many reasons – not the least of all is a consistent witness. If it is a private dispute, then don’t raise the issue publicly to begin with. The article could have been written without alluding to any personalities – just issues and doctrines.

    3. A person’s theology is just empty words if they don’t depart from sin. A man can be doctrinally correct but spiritually dead.

  48. Christ and His work…ALONE…is tough to adhere to.

    It seems everybody wants to add…something. If only a little bit.

    Your feelings. Your seriousness. A Pope. An inerrant biblical text (a paper pope). A decision. Anything will do.

  49. Sigh! After reading through the comments, I wish I hadn’t.

    Michael. Though I am not a Calvinist, I actually appreciate you and your thoughts as you explain what you believe and why.. This is a well written article and I am sorry to hear you have been over the coals…

    Many of the comments bear out the truth of your article.. and all I can say is that some of the commenters should go and join West Boro Baptist.. you would fit in well there.


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