Recovering truth is one thing. Preserving it is quite another. In the Reformation, the great truths of justification by faith and a gospel of sovereign grace were wonderfully recovered. In the centuries that followed, these truths were consolidated, expanded, and, in many cases, set on fire. In other instances, unfortunately, they were dried like pressed flowers and put into a glass case.
The same thing is true of the Church. We can tell if we have unwittingly adopted evolutionary assumptions if we think that we are automatically “more advanced” than our fathers. This is quite simply false. In our culture as Christians, we have not lived up to what we have attained. Our fathers understood many things which we have forgotten. May God show us mercy once again.
Here are some important figures and events from this period. Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a Reformed pastor in the Netherlands who came to doubt certain key elements of the Reformed faith. He urged a national synod be called where he could articulate his views. In the midst of that controversy, he became ill and died. In the following year, his followers presented a five point remonstrance, asking to have their views accepted. The Synod of Dordt met and wound up condemning these views in 1618.
The five points of Arminianism were these: 1. Human ability (free will) — The Fall affected human nature, but not so much that man is completely helpless. Every sinner has free will, and his salvation depends upon how he uses it. 2. Conditional Election — God’s choice of individuals to salvation was based upon His foresight of their response to His calling. 3. General Atonement — Christ’s work on the cross made it possible that anyone could be saved. 4. Resistible Grace — The Holy Spirit does not regenerate a sinner until he believes, and if he refuses to believe the Spirit’s work is thwarted. 5. Possible Loss of Salvation — Disagreement exists between Arminians on this point, but the more consistent Arminians hold that a true Christian can fall away and be damned.
It is important to emphasize that what many people have come to understand as the ultimate characteristic of the Reformed faith (the five points of Calvinism) were actually a particular response in a particular controversy to the five points of Arminianism. The Reformed faith extends far beyond all this — but though it is more than this, it is certainly not less than this.
Over against the Arminians, the Reformed affirmed: 1. Total Inability — The fall of mankind in Adam made it impossible for men to save themselves, prepare themselves to be saved, or cooperate in being saved. They must be regenerated by God first. 2. Unconditional Election — Before the foundation of the world, God chose His elect and passed by the others, and the reasons for this are to be found in His good pleasure, and not in us. 3. Particular Redemption — Christ’s work on the cross made it certain that the elect would be saved. 4. Resurrecting Grace — When the Holy Spirit regenerates a man, He moves in a sovereign way, brings the man to life, and then as a result he believes. 5. Preservation & Perseverance of the Saints — One who is numbered among the elect cannot fall under the final condemnation of God.
One of the apparent ironies of history is that wherever this “grim” and “predestinarian” creed has gone, it has brought civil liberties in its train. This is because if God is ultimately sovereign, no human agency is. And if God has left any gaps in His sovereignty, certain human rulers (civil or ecclesiastical) take it as an invitation to try to fill that gap. This history of how this worked out over the centuries is quite fascinating.
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was one key figure in the English-speaking world. Because of the struggle between the Puritans and Anglo-Catholics, England was plunged into Civil War. A young parliamentarian named Cromwell excelled as a military man, and eventually became Lord Protector. Cromwell reluctantly agreed to the execution of Charles I. Cromwell was sincere and incorruptible — and at the same time misguided and destructive. The saints have often found themselves ruling before they were quite ready for prime time. This happened in the time of Constantine, and also in the time of Cromwell. Nevertheless, the results were good in both instances. The three major factions in England at this time were Independents, Presbyterians, and Anglicans. The most common mistake that is made is that of lumping the Presbyterians and the Independents since both were Calvinistic. But the Presbyterians were Puritans who objected strongly to the execution of the king.
The Westminster Assembly (1643-1647) met during this time. Convened by Parliament, this assembly of theologians has had a monumental impact on the history of the evangelical church — all denominations — since that time. The Westminster teaching on baptism, for example, is ignored by evangelical Presbyterians down to the present.
Another important figure was George Whitefield (1714-1770). As a result of the turmoil of the previous century, the state of religion in England was at a low ebb in the 18th century. The “nonconformist” churches were dying. The God who raises the dead moved in an unlikely place — the Church of England — by converting a young priest named Whitefield and making him one of the greatest evangelistic preachers the world has ever known. He was a thorough-going Calvinist — in 1743 John Wesley broke with him over the issue. He was the force behind the Great Awakening in America, and the Evangelical Awakening in England
Whitefield persuaded another priest to join him in open-air preaching, a young man named John Wesley (1703-1791). Wesley was an untiring worker, organizing genius, not too scrupulous, and the organizer of modern day Methodism. The founder of the “Methodist” club at Oxford was Charles Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement was Whitefield, and the founder of the denomination was John. Breaking with Whitefield on Calvinism, the Wesleys developed a position which we may call “evangelical Arminianism.” Most evangelicalism today is descended in some fashion or other from the Wesleyan revivals.