26
Aug
17

An Appeal to Closet Calvinists

This appeal is addressed to those evangelical pastors and Christian teachers who admit to a belief in God’s sovereign grace but, for reasons which we shall discuss in this booklet, never preach or teach this truth. For the lack of a better designation, we will refer to such pastors and teachers as ‘closet Calvinists.’

A Description of a Closet Calvinist

Like many of his contemporaries in the Lord’s work, the closet Calvinist is quite bold when he expounds those truths that he knows his hearers already believe. Notice how courageous he is when he proclaims popular evangelical opinions that are calculated to please the ears of those who have gathered to fulfill their religious obligation for another week. Yet, there are some biblical truths that cause him to cower in the cloistered safety of his ‘study’ where, if cornered, he might own up to believing some of the ‘deeper truths’ of Scripture. On these rare occasions, he will quickly explain that the ‘meat of the Word’ is not for everyone. Meat is only intended for the mature to masticate in the seclusion of their closets. It is surely not good for the sheep.

Devastating Effects

The truth is, the closet Calvinist knows that, to fleshly minds, some biblical truths are more palatable than others. His loud proclamation can be heard for miles when he declares some of these more tasty truths. He is often heard by thousands of people who will marvel at the great work that he is doing. The tragedy is that his ministry is having a devastating effect on the Church. Closet Calvinists are guilty of allowing fleshly hearers to persist in the delusion that they love the truth of God and the God of truth. The reality is that if he were honest in his teaching about God’s attributes and His discriminating decrees, many of his hearers would go back and walk no more with him (see John 6: 65-6). A more serious effect of the closet Calvinist’s sinful silence is that he is robbing Christ’s sheep of the very truths that God intended for their spiritual growth and edification.

In his classic book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, written over a century and a half ago, Octavius Winslow warned of the devastating effects of holding back God’s revealed truth. He wrote,

Is there not in the present day a criminal keeping back by some, and a painful undervaluing by others, of the scriptural and holy doctrines of grace [italics his]?-The doctrines which unfold the eternity of God’s love to His people-the sovereignty of his grace in their election-the effectual power of the Spirit in their calling-the free justification of their persons through the imputed righteousness of Christ, and the entire putting away of their sins by his atoning blood-the solemn obligation to ‘live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present evil world,’ and the certainty of their final glorification in the world to come,-are not these Divinely-revealed truths, at the present moment, and by the great mass of Christian professors and preachers, excluded from our pulpits and exiled from our land” are they not considered mean and unfashionable? and, having lost their savor with many, are they not cast out and trodden under foot of men? We verily and solemnly believe that it is so. By some they are professedly received, but criminally held back; by others they are professedly preached, but with such timidity and obscurity, as to render them of none effect: and by the many they are disbelieved altogether, and therefore openly and boldly denied! And yet, these are the doctrines which shine so luminously in every page of the apostle’s writings-these are the doctrines which formed the grand themes of Christ’s ministration,-and these are the doctrines, to the preaching of which by the reformers, we owe all the civil and religious liberty which, as a nation, we now possess. We hesitate not, then, to say that, along ‘with the denial or the undervaluing of these doctrines of grace, there will go forth an influence that will wither the spirituality and obstruct the prosperity of the churches of our land. It is true, an outward appearance of fruitfulness may follow the exhibition of opposite and conflicting doctrines,-crowds may flock to their standard, and multitudes seem converted by their influence,-but soon these delusive appearances are seen to pass away. The time of trial and sifting comes’, and then it is found-when, alas! too late to close the floodgate against the overwhelming evils which the preaching of error has produced-that the truth, and the truth only in the hands of the Eternal Spirit of God, can really enlighten the dark mind, regenerate the lifeless soul, and subdue and sanctify the rebellious heart: it is then discovered, that the true prosperity of a church, its stability, its spirituality, its vigor. and its holy influences, are essentially, and therefore inseparably, connected with a fearless and holy maintenance of the doctrines of grace; that where they are denied, or held back, or in any way obscured, there may indeed exist the form of godliness, but the power-the glorious, Divine, and sanctifying power-is wanting.1

Knowing Concealment of the Truth

Now, let’s be clear that we are not talking about those who are ignorant of these precious truths that God has revealed in His Word, the Bible. They have another reason for which they ought to be ashamed of themselves. Instead, we are talking about those who profess to know the truth, but willingly conceal it for expedience sake.

For example, there are many pastors who will tell you, behind closed doors, that they believe that, before the world began, God unconditionally chose those whom He intended to save. They will even admit that He determined beforehand to bring these chosen people to faith in His Son. Yet, they will tell you that these truths constitute the ‘meat of the Word’ and are not intended for everyone. The sad reality is that such preachers seldom, if ever, teach these truths to anyone.

Hard Questions

There are several questions that I would like to ask the closet Calvinist and his companions. I would be very grateful if they would give me a straight and satisfying answer.

First, what criterion do you use to distinguish the “meat of the Word’ from the ‘”Milk of the Word?”

I suggest that the distinction between “milk” and “meat” prevalent in evangelicalism today is one that was foreign to the mind of the Apostle Paul. When he distinguished between the milk and meat of the Word, e.g., Cor 3:2, he referred not to two different classes of teaching but to two different ways of presenting the same teaching.This was the view of Charles Hodge, among others. Commenting on I Cor 3:2, he wrote,

What is the distinction which the apostle here makes between milk and meat? It is evidently not the distinction between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God’ Paul did not preach the wisdom of the world to babes in Christ and the wisdom of God to advanced Christians. Neither does he sanction anything of the nature of theDisciplina Arcani, or doctrine of the hidden essence of Christianity, which was introduced in later times. For the sake either of conciliating the heathen, or of preventing believers from forming false notions of the gospel, it became common deliberately to conceal the truth. This is the foundation of the doctrine of reserve, as it is called. which the Romish church has so extensively practiced and taught, inculcating a blind faith, and keeping the people in ignorance [Does this sound familiar?] . . . The import of the figure leads to the conclusion that the difference is rather inthe mode of instruction, than in the things taught. The same truth in one form is milk , in another form strong meat. “Christ,” says Calvin, “is milk for babes, and strong meat for men.” Every doctrine which can be taught to theologians, is taught to children. . . . The important truth is that there are not two sets of doctrine, a higher and a lower form of faith, one for the learned and the other for the unlearned; there is no part of the gospel which we are authorized to keep back from the people [emphases mine].2

God plainly revealed the teaching of free, sovereign and distinguishing grace in the Epistles of the New Testament Scriptures. Are we to assume that there were no new or weak believers in the churches to which the apostles published these truths so clearly. How can we explain the fact that they did not conceal these teachings, if they are only suitable for mature Christians?

Second, what right do you have to conceal the truth that God has revealed?

At times, closet Calvinists resort to Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God. . . . ” in an effort to excuse their lack of faithfulness in proclaiming God’s truth. It is true that God has concealed the answers to some of our questions. These matters belong to Him, and we have no right to pry into them.This is a truth that should stand without controversy. Yet, this is not the only truth that is disclosed in Deut 29:29. The verse continues, “but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” Just as we have no ability to reveal or pry into what God has concealed, so we do not have the right to conceal what God has revealed.

Tell me, you who love to quote the well-known Spurgeon, have you not heard Spurgeon? He was no closet Calvinist who exulted in the truth of unconditional election in the solitude of his study. No! He loved to preach on these grand old themes. He said in one of his many sermons on election,

It is no novelty, then, that I am preaching; no new doctrine. I love to proclaim these strong old doctrines that are called by nickname Calvinism, but which are surely and verily the revealed truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus. By this truth I make a pilgrimage to the past. and as I go, I see father after father, confessor after confessor, martyr after martyr, standing up to shake hands with me. Were I a Pelagian, or a believer in free-will, I should have to walk for centuries all alone. Here and there a heretic, of no very honorable character might rise up and call me brother. But taking these things to be the standard of my faith, I see the land of the ancients peopled with my brethren. I behold multitudes who confess the same as I do, and acknowledge that this is the religion of God’s own church [emphases mine].3

In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, Paul reminded them of his faithfulness in declaring all the revealed wiII of God. He wrote,

I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable. . . . Therefore I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God (Acts 20:20-25).

The reason for such boldness is that Paul unequivocally believed these truths. For him, they were not mere academic propositions with which he might entertain himself in his more private moments. He perceived their value, as God’s revealed truth, for abasing the sinner’s arrogance and for training believers in practical godliness. Since he valued God’s truth, he could not conceal it. In his second epistle to the Corinthians he wrote, “But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, ‘I BELIEVED, THEREFORE I SPOKE’ we also believe, therefore also we speak,”. . . (2 Cor 4:13). If God’s truth is burning in our hearts, “. . .we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard”(Acts 4:20). See also Jeremiah 20:9.

Paul tells us in the second chapter of I Corinthians that God’s purpose in revelation is ‘that we might know the things freely given to us by God’ (I Cor 2:12).

If God has plainly revealed the truth of His sovereign grace, what right do you have to conceal it from those to whom it belongs?

Third, if your hearers remain fleshly after hearing all those teachings that your call ‘the milk of the Word,’ what do you now plan to do for them to bring them to maturity?

Such a situation existed among the addressees of the Epistle to the Hebrews.The writer of that treatise had many truths to teach his readers about Melchizedek, but they were dull of hearing. He told them that they needed milk and not solid food (meat).

Concerning him [Christ, a priest after the order of Melchizedek] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness’, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Heb. 5:11-14)

What did he propose to do in that situation. Did he plan to leave them in their state of stupor and continue to feed them nothing but the ‘milk of the Word?’ Did he intend to conceal this important truth from them until they came to maturity? No! He understood that if they continued in this state, they would do so because they had never become Christians at all. It would profit nothing to continue to teach them those doctrines that belonged to the infant state of God’s family. Pursuant to that purpose, he pressed on, in Hebrews seven, with the meaty doctrine of Melchizedek.The lesson this teaches is that we can never hope to mature God’s people as long as we continue to conceal from them those truths that God has revealed for their growth and development.

Fourth, if it is not yet time to teach your people the truth of God’s distinguishing grace, how will you know when that time has come?

What evidence do God’s people give that they have become ready to hear the truth of God’s distinguishing grace? Will they tell you that they have now become disenchanted with your “free will” approach to preaching and ministry and wish to delve into the”meat of the Word?” How do you expect them to become ready to hear the “deeper truths” of God’s Word if you continue to steer them away from such truths? If some of your sheep began to mature through their personal study of the Scriptures, would you continue to starve them in your public teaching and preaching? Would you rob them of God’s revealed truth because there might be some weak believers in your audience whom you fear would be offended by a plain description of their Father’s character and work? If you do not intend to teach the truth now, when do you plan to start?

Finally, I ask you in all candor, is it not true that you have concealed these truths because you have undervalued them?

Is having a large and “successful” church more valuable to you than being faithful to God’s truth? Have you counted the cost of standing up with those who have suffered for the faith and judged it to be to high? Is the approval of your peers more important to you than the smile of God? If so, it is time for you to get your priorities right.

In his excellent, little book, Warnings to the Churches, J. C. Ryle reminds us of an occasion when Bishop Latimer was called on to preach before King Henry VIII. He cites, from memory, the manner in which Latimer began his sermon.

‘Latimer! Latimer! dost thou remember that thou art speaking before the high and mighty King Henry VIII. before him who has the power to command thee to be sent to prison; before him who can have thy head struck off if it please him” Wilt thou not take care to say nothing that will offend royal ears” Then after a pause, he went on: ‘Latimer! Latimer! Dost thou not remember that thou art speaking before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords; before Him, at whose bar Henry VIII will stand; before Him, to whom one day thou wilt give an account of thyself’ ‘Latimer! Latimer! be faithful to thy Master and declare all God’s Word.’4

I leave you with two words of exhortation from Paul’s Epistles. In his closing words to the Corinthians he wrote, “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (I Cor 16:13). Never has there been a time when there was a greater need for pastors and other Christian teachers to act like men and be strong. In his final exhortation to Timothy, Paul identified the area in which lies our greatest need for manly strength when he wrote,

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship. do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:1-5).


1 Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of religion in the Soul, (London: The Banner of Truth Trust reprint ed. 1962), pp. 121-2.

2 Charles Hodge, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., reprint ed. 1969), pp. 48-9.

3 Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermons Vol. 2, (Grand Rapid: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.) pp. 69-70.

4 J.C. Ryle, Warnings to the Churches, (London: The Banner of Truth Trust. reprint ed. 1967) pp. 34-5.

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