THE DANGERS OF REFORMED THEOLOGY (Pt. 1)
by George Zeller
Before exposing some of the doctrinal dangers of reformed theology, let us consider some of the positive aspects of this movement. Consider the following strong points:
1) The Bible (66 Books) is considered the only rule of faith and practice. Those in the reformed tradition have a great reverence and respect for the Word of God and they generally hold to a high view of inspiration, insisting that the Bible is totally without error of any kind. May we all be counted among those who tremble before the Word of our God (Isaiah 66:2)!
2) JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH is given its proper place as well as the other great Reformation doctrines such as the UNIVERSAL PRIESTHOOD OF EVERY BELIEVER and the SOLE AUTHORITY AND SUPREME AUTHORITY OF THE SCRIPTURES. We can only thank God that these great truths were re-discovered and brought to light by the early reformers.
3) The GRACE OF GOD is rightly exalted. Knowing the depravity of the human heart, reformed men have expressed deep gratitude for the amazing and super-abounding grace of God which can reach to the chief of sinners. Every believer needs to join with them in boasting in our merciful and gracious Saviour and exulting in His sovereign grace.
4) Because of their emphasis on the depravity of man and the glory and sovereignty of God, those in the reformed tradition tend to have a GOD-CENTERED emphasis rather than a man-centered, humanistic emphasis which is so common today, even in the evangelical world. Their theology tends to abase sinful man and exalt the God of all glory. It is fitting to do so "for of HIM, and through HIM, and to HIM, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen " (Romans 11:36).
5) Those in the reformed tradition often have a HEALTHY FEAR OF GOD and a STRONG ABHORRENCE FOR SIN. They also have a reverential respect for God's absolute moral standards, especially as they are set forth in the Ten Commandments. "But as He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conduct; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy" (1 Peter 1: 15-16).
6) Reformed theology, to its credit, can claim for itself NUMEROUS MEN OF GOD – of the past and present – who obviously demand our respect. They have been diligent in the study of the Word of God and their scholarship is exceptional. Many have lived godly in Christ Jesus and their devotion to the Saviour is evident to all. We could mention J.C. Ryle, John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, J.G.Machen, R.Baxter, M. Lloyd-Jones, J. Murray, A.W. Pink, just to name a few. These men and countless others like them have made great and significant and substantial contributions to the cause of Christ. May we so imitate them, even as they imitate Christ.
7) Those in the reformed tradition have been very successful in making their views known. They have done this not so much through local church outreach, but through literature. Reformed writers have permeated the Christian book market. A great majority of theology books and Bible commentaries are written from a reformed perspective. Early dispensationalists such as Darby, Kelly and Ironsides used the pen in a mighty way and produced volumes of Christ-exalting books, but later dispensationalists have failed to pass on the torch in quite the same way. For example, no present day dispensationalist has come even close to the quantity and quality of work done by reformed writer William Hendriksen (now with the Lord) in his New Testament Commentaries [although D. Edmond Hiebert, a dear servant of Christ, has made significant contributions in this area]. Most who are converted to reformed theology will admit that they were led to embrace this position as a result of reading certain books.1 Though we do not agree with all that they write, we acknowledge that they have been diligent in making their positions known through the printed page.
Certainly there is much that is commendable in the reformed movement. These seven points (and more could be added) are much to their credit. In general it has been a God-honoring movement which has preached Christ, detested sin, acknowledged that God rules on His sovereign throne and proclaimed the glorious doctrine of justification by grace through faith according to the Scriptures. May these very things be said of us!
With all due respect for this movement, the men of this movement and the fruits of this movement, it is our purpose to alert believers to the doctrinal problems and dangers of reformed theology.
Believers are ever in a danger of failing to keep God's truth in balance. Christians often err when they seek to confine God's truth by locking it in to man-made systems of theology. C.H. Mackintosh made the following observation:
God has not confined Himself within the narrow limits of any school of doctrine – high, low or moderate. He has revealed Himself. He has told out the deep and precious secrets of His heart. He has unfolded His eternal counsels, as to the Church, as to Israel, the Gentiles, and the wide creation. Men might as well attempt to confine the ocean in buckets of their own formation as to confine the vast range of divine revelation within the feeble enclosures of human systems of doctrine. It cannot be done, and it ought not to be attempted. Better far to set aside the systems of theology and schools of divinity and come like a little child to the eternal fountain of Holy Scripture, and there drink in the living teachings of God's Spirit.2
In another place Mackintosh said this:
Dear friend, your difficulty is occasioned by the influence of a one-sided theology [extreme Calvinism] – a system which we can only compare to a bird with one wing, or a boat with one oar. When we turn to the sacred page of God's Word, we find THE TRUTH, not one side of the truth, but the whole truth in all its bearings. We find, lying side by side, the truth of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Are we called to reconcile them? Nay, they are reconciled already because they are both set forth in the Word. We are to believe and obey. It is a fatal mistake for men to frame systems of divinity. You can no more systematize the truth of God than you can systematize God Himself. Let us abandon, therefore, all systems of theology and schools of divinity, and take the truth.3
By God's grace may we wholly follow the Word of God, not the frail and faulty systems of men. In the following few points we will see some examples of how reformed theology has strayed from the simple and balanced teaching of the Bible, especially regarding the atonement and saving faith.
1) The Danger of Teaching that Christ Died Only for the Elect.
This is commonly known as a belief in a "limited atonement" (some reformed men like to refer to it as "definite atonement"). It is the teaching that Christ died on the cross and paid the penalty only for the sins of the elect. He did not die for the ones who eventually will be in the Lake of Fire. Often it is worded as follows: "Christ died for all men WITHOUT DISTINCTION but He did not die for all men WITHOUT EXCEPTION." This is a subtle game of semantics which makes it possible for them to say that He died for all without really meaning that He died for all. What they really mean is that Christ died for all kinds of people and all classes of people, but He did not die for every single person. That is, He died for Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, etc., but it is understood that He died for only elect Jews and Gentiles, only elect rich and poor, etc.
Dr. Paul Reiter has clearly and simply summarized the Scriptural teaching on this issue. FOR WHOM DID CHRIST DIE? HE DIED...
1. For all (1 Timothy 2:6; Isaiah 53:6).
2. For every man (Heb. 2:9).
3. For the world (John 3:16).
4. For the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
5. For the ungodly (Rom. 5:6).
6. For false teachers (2 Peter 2:1).
7. For many (Matthew 20:28).
8. For Israel (John 11:50-51).
9. For the Church (Eph. 5:25).
10. For "me" (Gal. 2:20).
One believer who was not committed to the belief that Christ died for all men made this remarkable concession: "If Christ really did die for all men then I don't know how the Bible could say it any clearer than it does." How true!
It is evident that the extreme Calvinist must ignore the clear language and obvious sense of many passages and he must force the Scriptures and make them fit into his own theological mold. Limited atonement may seem logical and reasonable, but the real test is this: IS IT BIBLICAL? "What saith the Scriptures?" (Romans 4:3). In child-like faith we must simply allow the Bible to say what it says.
Those who promote this erroneous doctrine try to tell us that "world" does not really mean "world" and "all" does not really mean "all" and "every man" does not really mean "every man" and "the whole world" does not really mean "the whole world." We are told that simple verses such as John 3:16 and Isaiah 53:6 must be understood not as a child would understand them but as a theologian would understand them. That is, we must re-interpret such verses in light of our system of theology.
The true doctrine of the atonement could be stated as follows: The Scriptures teach that the sacrifice of the Lamb of God involved the sin of the world (John 1:29) and that the Saviour's work of redemption (1 Timothy 2:6; 2 Pet. 2:1), reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19) and propitiation (1 John 2:2) was for all men (1 Timothy 4: 10), but the cross-work of Christ is efficient, effectual and applicable only for those who believe (1 Timothy 4:10, John 3:16). We could even say it in a simpler way: "Christ's death was SUFFICIENT FOR ALL but EFFICIENT only for those who believe." The cross-work of Christ is not limited, but the application of that cross-work through the work of the Holy Spirit is limited to believers only.
The extreme Calvinist would say that the cross was designed only for the elect and had no purpose for the "non-elect" (persistent unbelievers). But the death of God's Son had a divine purpose and design for both groups. For the elect, God's design was salvation according to His purpose and grace in Christ Jesus before the world began (2 Tim. 1:9; 2 Thess. 2: 13). For unbelievers, God's purpose and design is to render the unbeliever without excuse. Men are CONDEMNED because they have rejected the Person and WORK of Jesus Christ and refused God's only remedy for sin (John 3:18; 5:40). Unbelievers can never say that a provision for their salvation was not made and not offered. They can never stand before God and say, "The reason I am not saved is because Christ did not die for me." No, the reason they are not saved is because they rejected the One who died for them and who is the Saviour of all men (1 Tim. 4:10). They are without excuse.
This issue is not merely academic. It is extremely practical. It affects the very heart of the Gospel and its presentation. The Gospel which Paul preached to the unsaved people of Corinth was this: "Christ died for our sins" (I Cor. 15:3). Do we really have a Gospel of good news for all men (compare Luke 2:10-11)? In preaching the Gospel, what can we say to an unsaved person? Can we say, "My friend, the Lord Jesus Christ died for you. He paid the penalty for your sins. He died as your Substitute"?
One reformed writer said this:
But counselors, as Christians, are obligated to present the claims of Christ. They must present the good news that Christ Jesus died on the cross in the place of His own, that He bore the guilt and suffered the penalty for their sins. He died that all whom the Father had given to Him might come unto Him and have life everlasting. As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him, FOR THEY CANNOT SAY THAT. No man knows except Christ Himself who are His elect for whom He died [emphasis mine].4
As C.H. Mackintosh has said, "A disciple of the high school of doctrine [extreme Calvinist] will not hear of a world-wide Gospel – of God's love to the world – of glad tidings to every creature under heaven. He has only gotten a Gospel for the elect."
If the reformed preacher were really honest about it, he would need to preach his doctrine along these lines: "Christ may have died for your sins. If you are one of God's elect, then He died for you, but if not, then you have no Saviour. I cannot tell you that Christ died on the cross for you because I don't know this for sure. If you believe the gospel then this proves that you are one of God's elect, and then it is proper to speak of Christ dying for you." What an insult to the God "who will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (I Timothy 2:4). The Apostle Paul was not so handicapped when he preached the Gospel to the unsaved Corinthians. He clearly proclaimed that "Christ died for our sins [yours and mine!]." If Paul could preach that message, so should we and so must we! ¢
In our day when dispensational theology is being neglected or rejected, this series should prove to be very beneficial for those who seek to “rightly divide the Word of truth.” Next time, we will examine several more of the ten dangers of Reformed Theology. So look for it!
1 It is interesting that many reformed men were converted to Christ as a result of dispensationalism and later converted to reformed theology as a result of reformed writers. For example, John Gerstner wrote a book attacking dispensationalism but he admits, "My conversion came about, I believe, through the witness of a dispensationalist." (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, page 1).
2 From C.H.M.'s Miscellaneous Writings in the article entitled: One Sided Theology.
3 C.H. Mackintosh, Short Papers on Scripture Subjects, Vol. 2, p. 267.
4 Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel, p. 70.
George Zeller is serving the Lord as the Assistant Pastor of Middletown (CT.) Bible Church, and has written numerous articles, pamphlets, and books.