Lecture 14: Reformation in the Lowlands
Course: Church History II
Lecture: Reformation in the Lowlands
Today I want to talk about something that’s been on my mind for some time. We looked first of all at the reformation in Germany, particularly North Germany under Luther and how it spread to Scandinavia and so on, then we looked at Switzerland, France and England, with Scotland, and we haven’t really touched Ireland yet but I’ll come to that in due course, but the main countries of the reformation, and we’ve kind of gone round in a circle leaving out the hole in the middle, the Low Countries as we call them, the Netherlands which today are Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg. This is not accidental. The reason is that by about 1560, most of the countries of Europe that were going to turn protestant had already done so. Scotland was the last major European country to accept the reformation just like that. But this area, here, was still at that time a question mark. The area that we think of as the Low Countries, if I call it Holland or the Netherlands, you’ll understand what I am saying. This part of Europe was strategically of crucial importance, because collectively it had France on the South, Germany on the East, and England to the West. The three big powers of northern Europe surrounded it on all sides. Technically, during the middle ages, this territory was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and therefore part of Germany. But it enjoyed a large measure of local autonomy.
Charles V of Spain Inherited Low Lands
In the 15th century, that is to say in the generations immediately before the reformation, what had been a loose collection of principalities, free cities, and so on in this area was gradually brought together under the rule of the House of Burgundy, which had its main seat in Eastern France. But in 1477, the Duke of Burgundy was killed leaving no male heir. His possessions were split up between whoever could grab them. The territory which we think of today as Belgium and Holland together, more or less detached itself from the rest at this point. It came through descent to Charles V. Charles V inherited the Low Countries through his father. He inherited Spain through his mother, but he inherited the Low Countries through his father, and therefore formed part of his Spanish Empire. That is the situation as it was at the time of the reformation.
Charles’ Sister in Charge
Charles had other things to do than sit in Brussels ruling that part of the world. He left his sister in charge of it most of the time. It was felt that this area didn’t particularly need a strong ruler, because it was small, because it was prosperous and generally speaking there wasn’t a lot of trouble.
Wealthy – Trade
The wealth came largely from skills. This is very important. The country was rich agriculturally, yes, but it was the skills of the weavers and people like that in the cities of Flanders which really made the difference. England was a major source of raw material. The English raised the sheep and exported the wool to Flanders and to Holland, and in Flanders the wool was turned into cloth. The cloth of Flanders was famous in the Middle Ages for being the best clothing that you could buy. It was this manufacturing industry which really created the wealth of this part of the world. Now this is extremely important because it make the Low Countries different from almost everywhere else. There might have been manufacturing industry on a small scale in other parts of Europe, but basically it was agriculture in most places. Only in this area can you say that trade and industry as we understand them occupied a significant portion of the national activity and created a lot of revenue. This is going to be very important for the spread of the reformation.
As a result, the towns of Flanders, places like Antwerp … were not only very wealthy, but very tolerant by medieval standards. Tolerant because they were trading centers, and the last thing any trader wants is something that is going to interrupt his business. If you come along and say nasty things like all Jews must be put to death, they don’t like this because Jews are good business. The Jews in fact had a relatively privileged status in these countries. The persecution was very slender indeed compared to what it was in other parts. They were expelled from England. They were expelled from France. They were never expelled from the Low Countries where they were welcome because of their trading activities.
Now, this situation might have continued indefinitely, except that in 1556, Charles V abdicated and divided his empire among his family. He gave the Holy Roman Empire to his brother, Ferdinand, and Spain and the Low Countries to his son Phillip. So Phillip, although the Low Countries were part of the Holy Roman Empire, they were actually ruled over by the king of Spain, Phillip II. This was not a good thing, as far as they were concerned, because by that time, the reformation had done its work in the surrounding countries.
Anabaptists, Calvinists, Lutherans settle in Low Lands
As people were forced to flee for different reasons, either because a city became protestant or it rejected Protestantism, or whatever reason, people who had to get out of wherever they were from, made their way increasingly to the relatively liberal atmosphere which prevailed in the Low Countries. This is why, for example, the Anabaptists settled there and why they were so prominent in those countries, because they enjoyed a relative degree of toleration. Now of course, all these things are relative; it doesn’t mean that they were welcomed with open arms or anything like that, but they were persecuted much less than they were elsewhere. Lutherans found a home in this area, they were tolerated. Calvinists were again tolerated, even though the majority of the population remained Catholic. There was no mass movement for reformation among the majority of the population.
Council of Trent becomes Law under Spanish Crown
Now this situation of relative tolerance, easy going, don’t bother me I am too busy making money attitude was brought to an end when Phillip took over. Phillip regarded it as his duty to defend the Catholic counter-reformation. In 1563, when the Council of Trent finally came to an end, Phillip promulgated the decrees of the Council of Trent in his dominions. What the Council of Trent said became law anywhere that the Spanish Crown ruled. Now this was an extreme step. France, for example, although it was a Catholic country, never accepted the decrees of the Council of Trent as the law of the land. Right down to the French Revolution, they never subscribed to this. They always said; well let the pope look after himself, we’re not going to do his dirty work for him. But Phillip was a much more Catholic minded person than any king of France, and he was only too glad to do the pope’s dirty work for him and the more of it the merrier as far as he was concerned.
Expel undesirables from Spain
Now, in Spain, enforcing the Catholic counter-reformation was not that difficult. It wasn’t altogether easy, but the kind of people in Spain who disapproved of Catholicism or of the Catholic counter-reformation were mainly not Protestants. There weren’t many Protestants in Spain, a few. They were mainly converted Jews, converted Muslims, people like that who were easily identified, who formed sub-communities of their own, and who could be expelled relatively easily. Getting rid of them was not a major operation, comparatively speaking. Quite a lot of people were involved. But Phillip found it relatively easy to purge Spain of undesirable elements.
Difficult to expel undesirables in Low Lands
The Low Countries were a completely different thing. First of all, you couldn’t identify Protestants as readily as you could identify Jews or Muslims. They blended into the atmosphere much more easily. Protestantism cut across families in a way that Judaism or Islam did not. Socially, in the cities, it is always much more difficult to track people down. In the city, people can hide more readily, than they can in country districts. So, therefore tracking people down and deciding who was who was a lot harder to do. The bulk of the population, including the Catholic population was unsympathetic to this, because it was interrupting trade. The one thing you don’t do is interrupt business. The Catholics didn’t care where the money was coming from, as long as it kept coming, and the same could be said for the other groups as well. They lived in relative harmony and peace.
Dutch Revolt 1566-1648 80 years
Phillip was not prepared to accept this. He did his best to enforce the counter-reformation in the Low Countries, to oblige people to re-convert to Catholicism or at least to demonstrate that they were good Catholics, because Protestantism had never been officially recognized. This led to revolt. The Dutch cities were not prepared to submit to what they regarded as tyranny on the part of an essentially foreign monarch. In 1566, the Dutch revolt began, and it lasted for more than 80 years. It was not finally brought to a successful conclusion until 1648. For all of that time, the Dutch cities were at war with Spain. Sometimes the war was hot, sometimes the war was cold, but there was a war.
William of Orange – Protestant
Now this was all very well, for the Dutch cities to revolt, but they needed leadership. Leadership was the thing that they were lacking. Leadership did not grow naturally in the kind of atmosphere that had prevailed in Holland up until this time. Live and Let Live. Tolerance. Everybody is equal. This kind of thing does not create an atmosphere where leadership springs naturally from the soil. Why should you tell me what to do? While lots of people were in favor of revolt, they weren’t so in favor of doing what someone else was going to tell them, with the result that the Dutch cities had to find a leader, a champion, a general, outside of their own ranks. The man they came up with was William of Orange. Orange, which is a little city in southern France, at this time an independent principality, which had become Protestant, it’s very near Avignon. William was asked to leave his orange groves and wine fields and go off to Flanders to lead the rebels in their struggle against Spain. William was glad to do this, because he was a Frenchman and the French didn’t particularly care for the Spaniards, but more particularly because he was a protestant. William was a new type of ruler, because he was the first and pretty well only ruler of any country who was deliberately chosen because he was a protestant, and because he was a good general, that also was an important thing. But whereas you see in other countries, like in England, for example, the king or queen could go back and forth; sometimes you had a protestant king sometimes you had a Catholic one, depending on the laws of inheritance. This was a major problem until it was finally decided that the king had to be a protestant. That took a long time before it was finally settled. In Holland, right from the beginning that was the main qualification. You could not lead the Dutch cities in revolt against Spain unless you were a card-carrying Protestant.
Calvinist Ruling Minority
Now, this of course brings a theological issue to bear, because who is a protestant, how do you tell? In Germany, it was quite clear; a protestant was someone who had signed the Augsburg confession, which is a Lutheran document. But, this solution was not easily applied in Holland because the so-called Protestants were very divided. You had Lutherans; you had Calvinists; you had Anabaptists, to name but three of the main groups, all more or less equal and also certainly concerned to see that they had freedom of worship over against Spain. So William, although he was a protestant, was sort of taken on board because his principality Orange, had declared for Protestantism of the French variety, because he was a Frenchman, and therefore of a Calvinist type. Now the Calvinists were never a majority among the Dutch Protestants. Even today, the majority of the population is not Calvinist. They are a minority. But, they became the ruling minority, partly because that was William’s personal belief, but also because Calvinism was peculiarly adapted to being in that kind of position. With a very strong doctrine of election, Calvinists could organize themselves into a Church of the gathered, of the elect, this sort of inner group and so on, but, also because they believed in election, that therefore whether or not you see the light of salvation is the work of God, rather than the work of man. In a curious kind of way they could tolerate other people. This is something that is not often understood about the Calvinist mentality, and particularly about the Dutch Calvinist mentality. You can’t be one of us, but you can be tolerated for whatever it is you are.
This is the way of thinking which in the 20th century created apartheid in South Africa. Because apartheid in South Africa has been frequently criticized, but what is often forgotten about apartheid, the aspect of it that is ignored is that apartheid is not really meant to be I’ll press you kind of thing. That’s what happened of course, but that wasn’t the original intention. The original intention was separate development. That is to say, God has made us who we are and therefore we have to live the kind of life that we have to live, that’s the white Calvinist South African types on the one hand, but on the other hand you African tribes have a right to your own existence; you can live in your own way and so on, just don’t come anywhere near us. You live over there and we live over here and that’s fine. The fact that we have all the best land and you have to just put up with what’s left, well that’s just one of those accidents of history. That’s where the injustice and so on comes in. But there is a side to this which you need to appreciate, because it was applied originally in Holland in the 16th century. It wasn’t a new thing when it was adapted to the African context.
Calvinists Rule – Tolerate others
People like Lutherans, for example, Anabaptists and what have you, were treated in more or less this way, I mean as if they were black South Africans. They could live there, but they didn’t have any civil rights. They didn’t have any share in the government of the country. This was reserved to the Calvinist elite; to those who accepted the doctrines of the reformed church. Now, in the 16th century context in Holland this worked, because it meant that there was a hard core of people who were committed to a particular belief and who were determined to fight for the rights of that belief against very great odds. In that circumstance it was okay. You couldn’t rely on the Anabaptists, because although the Anabaptists could be quite happy to create a riot whenever you wanted, they were not happy to bear arms because they were pacifists. You couldn’t rely on them. The Lutherans were not prepared to tolerate other people. If the Lutherans had been in charge, the Calvinists and Anabaptists would have been coerced into becoming Lutherans. So the Calvinists were elitists. They weren’t trying to make other people Calvinists if they didn’t want to be. You weren’t forced into it. It was just that you didn’t have any civil rights if you objected, but you were allowed to live. To us this is very unfair, but you have to see it in the 16th century context, where in most countries that would have been regarded as an excessively liberal policy. Anywhere else, you either accept the whole package, or you get out, or your throat is slit. You didn’t always have a choice. Seen in its own context it makes more sense than it does if you take it out of its context and try to judge it against modern standards of behavior which of course are quite different.
William of Orange kept revolt going
Well, William the Silent as he was known, William of Orange organized the armies, organized the Dutch cities and kept the revolt going, much to Phillip’s annoyance. Phillip imagined he would have no trouble whatsoever in suppressing these Dutch rebels because they were no good at anything except making money. He figured the knights in shining armor, the Don Quixote’s of Spain would have no problem whatsoever, they could just walk all over these people. This just did not happen. The war dragged on year after year after year getting nowhere for most of the time.
How much was Holland destructed by this war?
Quite a lot of course, it varied from year to year and from place to place.
William of Orange assassinated 1584
Because the traders had no land, they couldn’t be pinned down so easily. They could get in a boat or something, go off somewhere else and start trading somewhere else. It was hard to pin them down. In the early 1580’s, Phillip decided that the time had come to really clamp down. He sent huge armies, he did everything he possible could to put an end to what seemed to be this interminable revolt. Among other things he paid somebody, or at least somebody paid somebody to assassinate William of Orange. That happened in 1584. It was thought that with him gone the Dutch would collapse and that would be the end of that. However, that did not happen.
Queen Elizabeth tried to stay out of it
When William was assassinated, the Dutch got together, by this time there was an organized army command, and they offered the position of ruler of Holland to Queen Elizabeth in England. This was not what she wanted for Christmas. This put Elizabeth in a terribly difficult position. On the one hand there were plenty of people in England who were clamoring for war; they wanted to support Holland against Spain, because the English were traders too and traders get along with each other quite well. The Protestants in England also realized that if Phillip picked off the Dutch, they would be next, and so they saw it in their own self-interest. But Elizabeth, looking at it from her perspective, just wanted to stay out of all this; she didn’t want to get involved, because she felt that if England was involved in a long war in Holland, it would cost an awful lot of money and it wouldn’t bring England any long-term benefits, because England couldn’t conquer any territory. It wasn’t going to occupy Holland. There was no advantage in the long term that she could see, so she did her best to stay out of it.
Spanish Armada 1588
Did this persuade Phillip? Well, of course not. Phillip was convinced that the only reason the Dutch held out for as long as they did was because they were being supported secretly by the English. He felt that the way to get at the Dutch was to get at the English. And this is why he organized his armada in 1588, to try to put an end to what he regarded as the source of the trouble in Holland. If you read the story of the Dutch revolt, it’s very similar in its own way to the story of the Vietnam War. If you think of Spain as the Americans trying to root out the Viet Cong who were the Calvinist Dutch, and just assuming that they can’t possibly be running this revolt by themselves, they must be getting help from somewhere else and so you go off and bomb Cambodia in order to cut the lines of supply. That was what Phillip was doing, he was trying to get at England in order to cut off what he thought was the line of supply to Holland. Well, the Armada was defeated. That gave Holland peace of a kind. Not officially, but Phillip gave up his attempt to try to coerce the Dutch into submission.
However, not before he took control of the cities of the south of what is now Belgium and in particular the city of Antwerp. Because in Antwerp, Phillip said he took over the city which was the major city of Holland. He said either convert or get out. Most of the leading families of the city left. They left Antwerp, and they went north into what at that time was just swamp land, tidal waters and so on, and they found a sand dune that would take some kind of house and there they built Amsterdam, the great city of Amsterdam, which was built by Calvinist refugees from the south, from what is now Belgium. There they were safe from Phillip, because Phillip did not have the kind of amphibious forces, you needed a navy and a marine corp., and all he had was knights on shining armor on horses that got stuck in the mud so that didn’t do too well. So, the Dutch were able to survive in the swamps of the north, what is now the country of Holland. During the peace that they had in the late 1580’s early 1590’s they began to drain the marshes and build a country out of the sea.
It was at this time, too, that the theological approach to the country gradually took shape. The Dutch believed that like Israel, they had been forced out of Egypt, into the desert. How you could equate the desert with the North Sea, I don’t know. They saw themselves as the chosen people, people who had been deliberately preserved by God in order to do some great wonderful work which was basically reclaiming Holland from the Sea.
Middle Class Society
Now, we who look back 400 years later see a somewhat different picture, but nevertheless, one which is extremely important, because the Dutch emigration as it occurred at this time, created in what is now the Netherlands a middle class society, in other words, a modern type of society which at that time did not exist anywhere else in the world. Everywhere else, what you had was a small aristocracy, the hunting, fishing, shooting brigade at the top, a large peasantry at the bottom, and a very small middle class in between, the traders and so on, but few in number. All countries in the world were like that at that time, except Holland. The advantage of going into a swamp and building out of nothing was that you didn’t have an aristocracy to contend with. You didn’t have a peasantry, because the agricultural society which created that sort of person didn’t exist. All you had were enterprising middle class people, the kind of pillars of society building a city out of nothing. So Holland was a different type of culture, and this was noticed by people at the time.
It was also because of its urban and mercantile atmosphere, still considerably more tolerant than anywhere else, because even though they had been driven out by Phillip, for example, Catholics were able to live in Holland unmolested. Rembrandt the great Dutch painter was a Catholic. He painted for Protestant masters, but the fact that he was a Catholic was just his own personal religion, it wasn’t a matter of persecution or anything like that. He didn’t feel he didn’t belong there. It was a modern type of society at a time when this kind of thing just did not exist anywhere else.
Now, the one condition for a society like that to hold together was that the elite had to agree. If the elite, the ruling class, was not united, the society would fall apart. The values which kept this kind of society going had to be shared by a sufficient number of people, not by everybody, but by a sufficiently large number of people that they could keep the lid on, that they could keep control, that they could allow the kind of society that they had to grow. Now, to some extent, this is true in modern liberal type democracies.
You might think, for example, that the United States is a country run by its citizens, who am I to tell you that this is not the case, but in any so called liberal democracy the country is actually controlled by a similar kind of elite. This elite may be hard to define. It’s open ended; it’s not determined by heredity or anything like that. You can join it or leave it over generations. But there is an elite, the Eastern wealthy blue-blood type people. Whatever they think, basically goes. They basically run the country by creating opinions and deciding more or less what’s going to happen. And everybody else, although they think they are deciding in effect is obliged to follow that line. If you don’t you just don’t get selected by party machines to run for office. Every time there is a revolt threatened, like the religious right, some group that this elite cannot control, every attempt is made to keep them out of power, try to make sure they don’t get any influence because it will upset this elite group which basically runs things. This is what Holland was like in the late 16th century. The Calvinist elite ran it. If the Calvinist elite was corrupted, destroyed, weakened, or removed, Holland would have collapsed. Probably it would have gone back into the Spanish Empire after a lot of bloodshed, but it would not have survived in the way that it did.
Therefore, the most dangerous thing that could happen is a split in the Calvinist Church. The Calvinist Church could not split. And it was this which threatened in the latter part of the 16th century. If you want to read about it in detail, you can’t do better than to buy a book by Jonathon Israel, called “The Dutch Republic” published by Oxford University Press, it’s an 1100 page book, but very good value, it doesn’t cost very much. The trouble came when a Dutch theologian by the name of Yaakov, or Jacob, or James in English Arminius who lived from 1560 to 1609 started to preach and teach his version of Calvinism. Now the most important thing you have to learn about Arminius before you go any further is that Arminius was a Calvinist in his own eyes. And this indeed was the trouble. If Arminius had gone off and done something else, if he’d said I’m an Anabaptist, or a Lutheran or a Muslim or whatever, it might not have been very pleasant but at least he would have left the establishment. And probably, in the atmosphere of Holland, he would have been tolerated. The Arminians would have been okay in the overall umbrella. Arminius’ problem, and the reason he was such a threat was that he tried to reinterpret Calvinism or to interpret Calvinism in a way which caused lots of other people in Holland to react against him. Therefore, he ended up splitting the Church. Now, Arminius died before the whole issue came to a head. It is a mistake to imagine the final conflict between Arminius and the orthodox Calvinists, because Arminius was already dead at that time
It was Arminius’s followers shortly after his death who presented a statement of there beliefs called “The Remonstrance” to the governing body of Holland called the States General; it was like a parliament of Holland. They presented this Remonstrance detailing out what they thought the official teaching of the Calvinist Church should be. It was this Remonstrance which caused all the trouble. By crystallizing what they thought were Arminius’s beliefs, the Remonstrance drew upon themselves the wrath of the other party led by a Dutch theologian called Gomarus, who is otherwise pretty well unknown today, but who opposed the Arminians on the grounds that they had subtly perverted Calvin’s original teaching. The big issue comes; is this true? Arminius was not stupid, nor was he trying to pervert Calvin. He didn’t set out with the idea the Calvin was some awful person and we’ve got to go against him the way that modern Arminians might do. Arminius was not like that. He was sincere in trying to understand what Calvin actually taught. So we have to ask ourselves where did he go wrong, and indeed, did he go wrong? Was his interpretation false?
The fairest thing I think one can say about Arminius is that Arminius picked up the fact that Calvin was not really a systematic theologian, at least he was not systematic enough in his presentation. There were things Calvin did not talk about; things that he left out but things which needed to be decided because they fitted logically into the overall theology. Because Calvin did not sit down and write a systematic theology as such, these were the loose ends that didn’t really get treated in the right way. An example of this which I will discuss at greater length in a few minutes is the whole question of limited atonement. Did Calvin believe in limited atonement? Well, modern Calvinists will fall all over themselves to say that he did. They will do their utmost to prove from obscure verses in Calvin that he must have believed this, and possibly he did believe it, but it has to be admitted that Calvin did not expound this doctrine with any very great clarity. And so for Arminius to raise the question is at least understandable. The issue needs to be through and Calvin does not do it in that way. So there was scope for this kind of theological discussion. That’s the first thing.
Arminius didn’t understand the inner essence of Calvin
The second thing though whereas Arminius picked on different things that Calvin had either not treated fully or that appeared to be contradictory in different parts of his writings and so on, he somehow missed the wood for the trees. There is a kind of person who does this. They can concentrate very fully on the details, but they miss the overall picture. They give you some clear explanation of bits and pieces here and there, but they have not understood the essential spirit of the thing. This is Arminius with Calvin. When Arminius approaches Calvin, it’s very hard to say that what he actually says is wrong in itself. The question is; how representative is it? Does it really reflect what makes Calvin tick? Is it a fair assessment of Calvin as a thinker, as a theologian? Here is where you have to say that Arminius missed the boat. He didn’t really understand the inner essence of Calvinism. He got the wrong impression.
Synod of Dort 1618
Now, this all blew up after 1609, after Arminius’ death. It threatened to split the Dutch Church and therefore the Dutch nation, and let the Spaniards in, because that is what would have happened. It was a key moment in European history, with the result that in 1618 the States General of Holland invited all the reformed churches of Europe to send a delegation to the Dutch city of Dordrecht, we shorten it down to Dort. Dort is just an abbreviation of Dordrecht. They met there in 1618 for what we call today the Synod of Dort to hammer out what exactly Calvinism was. The question which had been held in suspense ever since William of Orange had been invited to lead the Dutch revolt. What does it mean to be a Protestant? What kind of Protestant are you? How are we going to define this? Now you’ve got to the point where a decision has to be made. Somebody has to say what it exactly it is that a so called Calvinist subscribes to and whether the Arminians can come under this umbrella or not. The Synod of Dort produced five distinguishing marks, the five points of Calvinism, as they are known which delineate what a Calvinist must confess.
The Five Points of Calvinism
The first of these is the doctrine of Total Depravity. Total Depravity is always wrongly understood. Total depravity means that there is nothing in us which is capable of working towards our own salvation. Total depravity is not the same thing as total corruption. What it means is that you can not rely on your mind, on your will, on anything that is in you to struggle against sin, because everything in us has been weakened, has been incapacitated by Adam’s disobedience. But it does not mean that unbelievers are incapable of doing anything good. That’s the point. Unbelievers can do all kinds of good, but this good does not benefit them, it does not count towards their salvation. You can’t earn your salvation by good works. That’s the point of total depravity.
This went against Arminius. Arminius said that the human race is not completely fallen. What is correct about Arminianism is that unbelievers are capable of doing good. Arminius realized that. He realized you didn’t have to be a card carrying Calvinist or even a Christian in order to help little old ladies across the road or something. You could be a kind, gentle, good person without being a Christian. But this is not the point – is what the Synod of Dort is saying. The Synod of Dort is not saying that all goodness resides uniquely and exclusively in the elect, but saying that your salvation does not depend on good works. Your salvation depends on God’s choosing, and you cannot say to God, when you stand before Him on the day of judgment, well look Lord, I helped little old ladies across the road. Good works do not earn your salvation. That is what total depravity is supposed to be about.
This is very important, and in some ways the most important of the five points. Unconditional election means not only can you not do anything to earn your salvation; you cannot be anybody and expect to be saved. To be unconditionally elected means that God has chosen you totally regardless of who or what you may be. In other words, the fact that you have a PHD in New Testament does not guarantee your entry into heaven. It doesn’t matter what sort of family you come from. It doesn’t even matter what you claim to believe. Because you can always sign a paper, you can always stand up and say you believe whatever you are expected to believe just to sort of keep the peace, people do this kind of thing. Unconditional election means what it says, God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and there is nothing you can do about it. If you are chosen, you are chosen, and that is that. If somebody else is chosen and you recognize this, you cannot exclude them from the fellowship of the believers of the elect just because you don’t happen to like them, or because they are the wrong color, or because they speak a different language. It is a deeply anti-tribal way of thinking, and therefore highly revolutionary, because it means there will be people in heaven who are not like you and me, because God has chosen them. There are no conditions placed on His electing power. You don’t have to measure up to any particular standard before you get chosen.
This is the doctrine which causes the biggest problem with non-Calvinists. More people reject Calvinism because of this than almost anything else. Limited atonement is the belief that Christ died for the elect and not for everybody. You immediately say; but Christ came to die for everyone. There is nobody that Christ did not die for. If people do not go to heaven, it’s because they choose not to go. They opt out. They reject. It’s not because Christ did not die for them.
What the Calvinists would say in reply to this is that, if God does something, no human power is strong enough to go against it. Who is a man to say to God, sorry God; you can’t do what you like. God is sovereign, God is all powerful’ God must be able to do things regardless of what human beings think about it. So, if Christ dies for me then I will be saved at some point; he will break down my resistance if I resist, but I will be saved whether I wish to be or not.
The way to understand limited atonement is to think of Christ dying not for sins, but for sinners; Christ dying for people rather than for things. If you look at it like that, then it makes a great deal more sense, because if you say Christ died for me, then who am I to refuse this, because God is after all sovereign over my life. I may want to refuse it; I might try to refuse it; but the great stories of conversion; one takes Saul of Tarsus as the classic case – Saul of Tarsus is the prime example of someone who never signed a decision card. Quite the opposite. If you could have found a way that Saul could have gotten out of being saved he would have chosen it. That was the last thing he wanted to do. He was not on his way to Damascus in order to hear Billy Graham, at least not in order to accept what he heard. God sort of reached into that man’s life and turned him around totally against his will. Nor is this just an ancient phenomenon. You read C.S. Lewis’s “Surprised by Joy”, and it’s the same thing. He gets down on his knees and says he was the most dejected convert in all England because he had fought tooth and nail against God and God had sort of overwhelmed him.
And this is one of the main reasons why people with a Calvinistic way of thinking don’t mind people who object to the gospel. You’d far rather have someone who was a militant atheist opposed to the gospel, than someone in a nice $1000 suit sitting in the pew agreeing with every word, but in their hearts are far from you. It’s better to have violent opposition, because you say to yourself, these people are bothered about it, possibly God is working in their lives in this sort of way. You don’t know; you can’t be sure; but you are not discouraged by opposition. Opposition is a good sign that something is going on. You take it as an opportunity that something might be happening in that person’s life.
If God is determined that you are going to be saved, there is not much you can do about it. You are going to be saved whether you want to be or not. This is the witness of people that God battles with us. And those of us who live the Christian life, we know this from our experience because we are always rebelling against God one way or another. God has the most marvelous way of reaching into our rebellion and just sort of turning it into nothing, and almost making us do his will even if we don’t want to. Certainly that is true in my life. A number of times that I have been rebelling in my heart and mind against everything that God wants me to do, and it’s never worked. It always falls to pieces, because He works in His own way. That’s when you see irresistible grace working. God is bigger than we are. He has the most marvelous way of frustrating us when we try to go against Him.
Perseverance of the Saints
The belief that once you’re saved, you’re always saved - what we call assurance of salvation. This also is vitally important, because if you believe that you might loose your salvation, then you will have no assurance, you will be very insecure and very frightened, because one wrong step and that’s it, you are gone for eternity. The perseverance of the saints is vitally important for us as a Christian doctrine, not because we want to be proud, not because we want to go out and sin as much as we like knowing that because God has rescued us from the pit of Hell that no matter how much we enjoy ourselves in this life, we’ll still go to Heaven. That’s not the right attitude and of course no true Christian thinks like that. But the perseverance of the saints is an encouragement and a reminder to us that whatever happens in life, and however much we are battered, and we will be battered, if you are a soldier for Christ you are going to get battered by somebody sooner or later, and you might be quite severely battered as time goes no, you know that at the end you will win through and it will be okay. Therefore you have the courage to go on. That’s the key thing - that you know that the God whom you serve is greater than any enemy that you may encounter.
Time and again you see this if you are in the Christian ministry, the number of people whose Christian life is destroyed by what you might call fear of men. People who are just scared of either standing up and witnessing or of speaking out, or just plain frightened of something or other, and they don’t do what they know they should be doing. This can freeze up people more than any persecution. If you are scared to begin with, and you are afraid something terrible might happen, you won’t take the risks. You won’t do what you need to do. You won’t say what you need to say. You need to have in your heart and mind a clear conviction that God will fulfill his promises to you. Because all of these things when you get down to it, are not there primarily to exalt the believer but to glorify God, because what you are saying if you deny one of these things is that God is not truly sovereign; that God is not all powerful; that there are forces in the world which are capable of frustrating His will. Now of course, if you identify your will as His will, which many of us are tempted to do, then that will be frustrated, and we may loose our faith, because our faith was never in God to begin with. Our faith was in ourselves. But if you truly believe that God is in control and that God is sovereign and therefore there is no power on Earth which is capable of frustrating Him – and if you don’t believe that, try reading Romans 8:38-39 because that is basically what I am saying.
Rom 8:38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
Rom 8:39 nor anything above, nor anything below, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is ours in union with the Messiah Jesus, our Lord.
If you have this belief that God is sovereign, God is all powerful, then you can do anything. You can survive anything. Because you know you will be kept; you will be guided the way will be open for you.
That’s certainly been true in my life. I’ve known many occasions when things could have gone terribly wrong and yet I’ve seen God work in the most marvelous way, totally unpredictable. If you are a preacher of the gospel, you must be very grateful for the people who come up and claim they have been very helped by what you say, when you know perfectly well that you never said it. Don’t ever turn on people like that and say; you stupid person, I never said that. Why weren’t you listening? Just remember that they were helped, because it wasn’t you, it was God working in you and through you. The right response there is to be grateful and say, “Well lord I never planned that. You know what you are doing.” It’s such a liberating thing because you can be grateful to God for all the things he does without worrying about whether you’ve achieved it or not, because you haven’t.
This is a way of looking at things in this particular context, which is trying to be faithful to the biblical witness. Now we live in a different context; we live in a different age. This is not to say that we deny the past, but we must not be locked into a particular formulation which in many ways today may be out of date. We must not be unaware of the way in which this can be corrupted. Because it must be remembered that the followers of the Synod of Dort, these are the wonderful people who gave us apartheid. There is a negative side to it. There is a side to it that has to be resisted. It’s a human thing. All human constructions are going to fail sooner or later. But having said that, one also has to say that in the light of the modern age, where these ideas get a very bad press and are very strongly attacked by a lot of people you need to turn around and say there is something of permanent worth and permanent value in them that must be reaffirmed. It must be perhaps put in a slightly different way or developed along different lines, but nevertheless there is a core here which rings true to the Christian experience – that I do not save myself; that I am saved by a higher power; that if I were not saved by a higher power I wouldn’t be saved. The word salvation would be meaningless. You have to be saved by someone who is greater than you. Otherwise it is not saved. I know that I need that, because if I try to do it on my own I’m absolutely hopeless and helpless. I also know that the closer I get to God in my daily walk as a Christian, the more I become aware of my own sinfulness, and my own sort of total depravity. I’m much more aware of that now than when I first became a Christian. That is part of growing as a Christian. What it means to be born again. A new born baby doesn’t reflect on life. He just lives it. But that doesn’t deny the quality of the life. Nor does it take away the need for growing into reflection at a later stage.