Charles Spurgeon was unapologetic in his view of Calvinism. Such was Spurgeon’s conviction that he equated it with the Gospel. Now, a context is needed, of course, so let’s have a look:
I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.
In a facebook post on Saturday, I shared the above quote accompanied by this meme. I also included the following quote from Phil Johnson, which was taken from part 2 in his series, “Why I’m a Calvinist“:
I absolutely agree with what Spurgeon says there, in the sense that he meant it. And the context of that statement explains clearly what he meant. He was pointing out that the principle at the heart of all gospel truth is the same principle that drives Calvinism: “Salvation is of the Lord.” Salvation is God’s work; it’s not something we do for ourselves. That’s the truth he was defending.
The facebook post was met with a decent amount of likes and shares, but not without some pushback. A couple of old friends challenged me by pointing me to 1 Corinthians 3. I want to be careful by assuming too much about what they have suggested, so I asked for clarity as to what they intend to convey. Not receiving a response, I offered this unabashed and helpful description of Calvinism from John Piper. I was then asked to explain my understanding of 1 Corinthians 3, still, without knowing how 1 Corinthians 3 was being applied in my friends’ exhortation (or admonishment?). So with that, I’d like to share how I respond to what *I think* they are getting at, as it’s not the first time I have observed the claim that the term “Calvinist” is akin to sowing division and “following man”. I hope the response is not only helpful to my friends, but to any reader facing or using this kind of accusation:
Hi John, as I still am not sure what you and Joe have intended to mean or suggest by your exhortation to read 1 Corinthians 3, the best I can do is offer a general overview of 1 Corinthians 3 without addressing your specific concerns (since neither one of you have shared what they are with me).
It would be helpful to read 1 Corinthians 1-4 in one sitting to better understand the context of 1 Corinthians 3. In doing that, we can see that Paul is not doing anything remotely close to arguing against speaking of difficult truths or using a term like “Calvinist” to sum up doctrinal convictions. Ironically to what seems to be your concerns of either Calvinism or using the term Calvinist, Paul in chapters 1 and 2 smashes any belief that salvation is from anything else besides the Lord.
From the first verse in chapter 1 where Paul declares he is God’s apostle by the will of God alone, to the end of chapter 2 where he states it is impossible for sinners (the natural person) to accept or understand the things of the Spirit, Paul makes the case for what is commonly called Calvinism (or the doctrines of grace). Of course, there’s much in between the beginning of chapter 1 and the end of chapter 2 that demonstrates God’s absolute sovereign power and role in salvation, to include 1:18 where Paul states the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing but the power of God to those who are being saved; verses 1:26-31 that demonstrate God choosing the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the wise and strong so that man can boast in the Lord alone; and in 2:1-13 the demonstration of God’s sovereign power and wisdom in the cross He decreed before the foundation of the world. So, God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation is by no means what Paul is addressing in chapter 3, but it is God’s absolute sovereignty that informs the very basis of Paul’s argument in chapter 3.
Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth serves many purposes, one of which is to mitigate the division that was taking place. Factions had developed in this local church, with some claiming to follow Apollos, some Paul, some Peter (1:12; 3:5; 3:22). Each faction perceived these men to have some kind of superiority or deserving of favoritism, and thus themselves had some kind of superiority in following them. But, Paul is determined for them to understand that Apollos, Paul, and Peter are all just servants of the same Lord of the same kingdom.
That’s the thrust of Paul’s argument in 3:5-15, that believers in Corinth believed in the Lord Jesus Christ through the message Paul preached, and Apollos came to water the seeds that Paul sowed. Apollos was building upon what Paul had already laid. Neither Paul nor Apollos have any right to boast, for this work is of the Lord alone and He has gifted each one to be His servants. This is why Paul makes clear in 4:6 that everything he has said in the letter is applied to himself and to Apollos. They are just weak vessels that God chose before the foundation of the world to use for the building of Christ’s kingdom, just as God chooses every Christian to be His servant to serve in His kingdom.
Ultimately, as Paul teaches in 3:10-15, we are all God’s servants to do His work. We are all building on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Everything that is done for His glory with pure motives will be rewarded, but the things done for reasons outside of Christ’s glory, his work will be burned up and he will receive no reward. No leader in the church deserves special treatment or favoritism, nor should he be followed as though they are superior. Every leader, though deserving of honor, should be regarded as the Lord’s servant – a sinner saved by grace alone – who seeks to do the Lord’s work for God’s glory alone. And the leader should most certainly view himself as such, even last, as he serves the Lord and His people humbly and pastorally.
I’d like to encourage you to spend some time in this passage, if indeed you perceive 1 Corinthians 3 applies to someone who identifies with the term “Calvinist”, or who dares make a public statement relevant to Calvinism. The term is simply a way to succinctly describe one’s convictions in the doctrines of grace. Sometimes it is more helpful to do as Piper suggests above when the situation warrants. But neither Charles Spurgeon “followed Calvin”, nor do I “follow Calvin”, in the sense that we esteem Calvin as being superior to other men.
The Scriptures do instruct us to follow men, however, in the sense that we are to imitate those who imitate Christ. We are to follow them as they follow Christ, if you will. This most aptly applies to men in our local church, especially elders, who God has placed in our lives to shepherd our hearts. But, I think, to seek to apply 1 Corinthians 3 to those call themselves Calvinists, or to suggest Calvinists are being divisive because we unapologetically believe and proclaim those biblical doctrines summed up in “Calvinism”, is a poor and unwarranted application. It is at best an application derived out of a misunderstanding or an isolated interpretation of the text; or at worst a misrepresentation, or straw man fallacy, of what Calvinists actually believe and practice.
In case you’re interested, you might find the following beneficial to your own Christian walk and what it means to be a Calvinist. It is the original sermon by Phil Johnson from which the Spurgeon quote came from in my original post: Closet Calvinists.
Grace and peace to you in our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. – 1 Corinthians 1:9