In a recent online discussion of some FV issues — of which I apparently cannot get enough — I was asked about the difference between what I call the amber ales and the oatmeal stouts. There is not a monolithic FV position on everything and, not surprisingly, there are differences of emphasis throughout the movement, as well as differences of substantive opinion. I identify myself as an amber ale, and I said that some of the oatmeal stouts, while historically orthodox, and good Reformed men, were not what I would describe as historic evangelicals. I was asked what I meant, and thought that I should make a fuller reply here.
It should be noted at the outset that I insist that the historic evangelical testimony is of the utmost importance. At the same time, I do not regard errors on this point as synonymous with heresy. There have been many believers who were not evangelicals but who were much finer Christians than I have thus far gotten around to being. I don’t want the larger body of Christ to lose what the evangelicals have contributed because I really do think it is really important. But “really important” in this instance does not mean that misunderstanding it is heretical.
The important thing is to be born again, and formulating your views about it correctly is less so (although still important). There have been non-evangelicals who exhibit the fruit of the new birth in everything they do, and evangelicals who don’t miss a signpost on the Romans road and who yet don’t exhibit the fruit of the new birth. One boy said he would work the vineyard and didn’t, and the other said he would not go, and yet did. One of the things that will happen when God gives us reformation and revival is that a large number of evangelicals will get saved.
The sine qua non of evangelicalism is the absolute necessity of the new birth. Without that, there is no evangelicalism, and with it, there is new life and joy and gladness. There is also a tradition of evangelical bromides, which bring the tradition of saying that new life and joy and gladness would no doubt be a good thing were they ever to show up. Like the Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice, had we ever taken up the piano forte, we would have been a great proficient.
In The Plan of Salvation, B.B. Warfield identifies the evangelical position as that which testifies to the saving grace of God as an immediate transaction between God and the saved soul. God can perform this stupendous work in the human soul apart from means, and He can do it in accordance with means. But when He uses means, He is doing so with sovereign authority over the means. He is not bound to them, He is not tethered. He uses them as He sees fit. There are those present who are just as baptized, and just as preached to, who are not converted. Why not? Because the effectual call did not summon them. This effectual call is the center of evangelicalism.
Ambrose Bierce once defined ritual as a “Dutch garden of God, in which He may walk in rectilinear freedom, keeping off the grass.” We love to set down rules for God, either tying Him down to the rites and rituals, so that we might have our priestcraft mummeries kept safe, or to divorce Him from His appointed means entirely, lest baptism and the preached Word prove to be too much of a temptation to Him. Hyper-evangelicals don’t want to stumble God.
So just as the general FV movement admits of gradations, so does the opposition to it. Some of the evangelicals in opposition have so emphasized the immediacy of grace, hot off the griddles of Heaven, that this evangelical position has become a parody of itself. If you introduce any means at all, however nuanced and however qualified, they immediately start yelling about how great Diana of the Ephesians is.
But the Spirit of God blows where He wishes. You cannot see where He comes from, or where He is going. You cannot chain Him to the baptismal font, and you cannot tether Him to that Ultimate Questions booklet either. The fact that God ordinarily works through the lesser means of the preached word, and through the lesser grace of baptismal water, and so forth, does not diminish at all the effectual grace of the effectual call. In the salvation of an individual, that is the one thing needful, and that is the evangelical confession.