Reproofs/Review of PROOF / Doug Sayers, former Calvinist

PROOF – a review and commentary

Published by Zondervan, PROOF, the book was read very clearly by Josh Aaron. Not too fast and with a marked absence of high school drama and distracting preachiness. Well done, Josh (but you might be expelled from today’s Reformed community for mispronouncing R.C. Sproul’s name and his Ligonier Ministries!)

The authors, Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones, are shown to be very capable writers; with appeal, I would think, to younger as well as older readers (like me). Daniel is the founding pastor of Soujourn Community Church in Louisville, Ky., with an MDiv from SBTS; and Timothy is a professor and associate VP at Southern. They contend, along with all true Christians, that we need a grace centered understanding of the biblical salvation. Going further, they insist, along with all true Calvinists, that we need an *irresistible* grace centered understanding of the biblical salvation. Grace, alone, is not sufficient. In their view, you must understand saving grace as utterly irresistible to discover that life does not depend upon you.

It seems that more adjectives are needed. “Sheer grace,” “sovereign grace,” “free grace,” and “undeserved grace” (as if there could be any other kind) are a few of the terms used by the authors to convey their interpretation of the word. Typically, these terms are used by Calvinists to avoid their clear, yet controversial, term: “irresistible grace.” But to the authors’ credit, they put the word “irresistible” on the book’s cover and did use it a handful of times. “Irresistible” is THE most essential word that distinguishes their system.

There is much in PROOF that should be agreed upon among Bible believing people. A few examples:

One, God is not a “divine therapist” or “cosmic butler” who is merely asking us in a gentlemanly way to allow Him into our lives; as if He is a product whose features and benefits will enhance our lives if we decide to buy. Rather, 1) the good news of the gospel is also a command to repent and believe the Truth … or else. 2) Sin and Satan are enemies. 3) “Faith is the fruit of God’s work in our lives.” Agreed. God gives us the ability to have faith, and we love Him because He first loved us. We did not devise or ratify God’s plan of salvation. It is His plan. We ask for mercy and He decides whether to grant it. 4) The authors are justifiably critical of many fellow Calvinists who tend to look only at their (presumed) clean “windshield” and miss the beauty of God’s truth that is seen through the windshield of sound doctrine. That reproof is warranted for both sides of the debate over grace. Indeed, too many love the debate more than the Truth.

Also, let’s be quick to add a hearty Bible thumping “amen” to the teaching that we must discourage all attempts to “earn our forgiveness.” Instead, we must preach Christ crucified as our only hope of salvation. But here Daniel and Timothy get typically (if not deliberately) sloppy in a place where they need to be precise in order to avoid confusion and create needless contradiction within the Bible. In chapter 4 (Outrageous Grace) they go on the attack against “doing something” in order to be saved and they were pouring reductionist shots at this point:

“Cease your doing; all was done long, long ago.”
“Doing is a deadly thing.”
“Doing ends in death.”

And this thinly veiled declaration of Christian fatalism: “The gospel of grace is a divine declaration that Jesus Christ has already secured all that’s required to turn zombie corpses into chosen children,”

All this was followed with: “Discard every concern about what you must do and cling desperately to what Christ has already done…” (Which, of course, is doing something). They make it sound as if turning from sin and trusting God is not doing something; or, it is something easy that is merely done once in a moment of time with no worry about persevering in faith and discipleship.

This all may sound pious and humble, but it neglects too much Scripture. There must be a reason for Jesus’ words to a forgiven sinner, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50).

The authors reduce justifying faith to a by-product of forgiveness instead of a meaningful condition of forgiveness, which is exactly what the New Testament will not let us do. We must be faithful to the biblical answer to the biblical question, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16) Jesus holds many wonderful titles in Scripture but He is never said to be our “Repenter” or our “Believer.”

This we must come to do – with a contrite faith that works by love, for the rest of our lives. The same charge of sloppiness applies to the authors’ suggestion that we should want to be free from the “burden” of pleasing God. I’m sure the devil would consider it a victory if he could get us to stop caring if we please God. Daniel and Timothy need to be more careful at these points.  An over-correction is not a correction.

We simply cannot ignore, or marginalize, all that the Bible teaches about running the race (Heb 12), building our houses on the rock (Mt 7), working for the food that endures to everlasting life (John 6), entering life through the Door (John 10), walking in the Way (John 14), receiving with meekness the implanted word (James 1), and fighting the good fight of faith (1 Tim 6).

Later, near the end of PROOF the authors concede this very point when they ask the question, “How do people enter God’s kingdom?” Their answer, “We must turn from sin and have faith in Jesus.” Now, if that is not “doing” something to be saved then I don’t know what to call it. Contrite faith does not “earn” or “merit” forgiveness but it is how guilty sinners receive the gift of salvation. We must never confuse fighting the good fight of faith with “human religion.” Indeed, faith is an action but not a work of righteousness.

The call to repentance, faith, and action must never obscure the cross, but we must not allow a misunderstanding of the cross to obscure the biblical mandates attached to salvation and its assurance.

All this is solved if we are simply careful to hammer home the point that we cannot enter the kingdom by obedience to the law, by making charitable sacrifices, or by going forward during an altar call. Repentance and faith don’t redeem but they must be done (by everyone who has the capacity) in order to receive the redemption of the cross and enjoy Christ’s imputed righteousness. Keeping the faith is “doing something” but if it is done, continually, in a contrite spirit, we won’t be boasting about it. God has brilliantly designed the plan of salvation to have a meaningful human condition. But the condition is one that we cannot possibly be proud of. Like most Calvinists that I know, and have read, Daniel and Timothy struggle to distinguish between the law of faith and the law of works. (Rom 3:27)

I will admit to some pre-judging. As a former Calvinist, when I first heard of the book, via a blog, I suspected that PROOF would be a modern day dilution of the historical Reformation doctrine. I expected about 60 proof, if you know what I mean. I was, for the most part, wrong. They do describe a system that is consistent with “orthodox” Calvinism; albeit their acrostic PROOF is more smoke screen than substance, as it does not suggest anything disagreeable to non-Calvinists, and will not likely replace the persistent TULIP any time soon. They suggest that TULIP is giving “heinously” false ideas of what Calvinism is all about when, in reality, TULIP’s big problem is that it is a little too clear. TULIP is a good teaching tool but poor marketing. PROOF will only serve to keep the sheep in a fog.

I did not hear the word “reprobate” anywhere in the book, and the authors avoid any clear discussion of the imputation of Adam’s guilt, (which impacts our conclusions regarding infants and small children who die). It is very hard, if not impossible, to explain how zombie babies, who die, could go to heaven. (But, to be fair, it is a rare Calvinist who is clear, thorough, and biblically consistent on these two Achilles heels of the Reformed system.) They do offer the following line regarding every person ever born, which alludes to the flawed Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 5 and Psalm 51:

“… who had already enlisted in the rebellion against God’s reign before they soiled their first diaper.”

They made little attempt to defend this bizarre inference on which their whole system is built. Given Rom 4:15 and 5:13 it is biblically impossible for the guilt of Adam’s sin to be imputed to his posterity. We are born with a sinful nature but we are not born guilty of actually breaking God’s law. That would be impossible; yet Calvinists teach that everyone is born guilty, even though we know that Jacob and Esau had not done any evil before they were born (Rom 9).

Although the authors trumpet the need for the Church to be always reforming (that is semper reformanda, in the Latin, of course) they have merely re-packaged the same confusing over-corrections and unnecessary inferences of historical Calvinism.

The respectful tone of the book was noteworthy. They are critical of non-Calvinist positions but they keep it civil. I am happy to report that there were no overtly pugnacious and personal attacks. There are some not-so-subtle assumptions regarding the motives of those who disagree. In one place, they suggest that the Remonstrants set out to glorify human decisions and deny the sovereignty of God (but let him who has never assumed and impugned the motive of the opposition cast the first stone.)

It is a fair criticism to say that PROOF is a one-sided cherry picking of the biblical texts that would seem to support their teaching with very little time devoted to the texts that present Calvinism with its biggest problems. This may work among those who don’t read the Bible very much but thoughtful Bible students will come upon many texts which will not jibe with PROOF’s inferences. For example, a careful study of scripture will reveal that there are no texts which teach clearly (or by necessary inference) that Jesus did not die for some people. If there was such a text in the Bible you can be sure that all Calvinists would be rallying around it like desperate bees on a lone flower.

We also see many instances in both OT and NT where apparent unbelievers made right decisions and wise judgments that would have been utterly impossible if they were merely “zombie corpses,” as described throughout the book.

Although, I like Dylan’s song (and heard the unmistakable Eagles reference) the Bible never says that anyone was “stone cold dead” as they stepped out of the womb. Scripture says we are born in sin but it does not say that we are born spiritually dead. We become dead in sin when God imputes the guilt of our own sin to our own account. Like Adam in the garden and Paul in Romans 7:9

Describing lost sinners as “zombie corpses” is a fresh and descriptive term but it is an unnecessary attack on the sufficiency of God’s common grace, which enables unbelievers to clearly see the invisible attributes of God in creation (Rom 1), give good gifts to their children (Mt 7), do by nature the things of the law (Rom 2), and know who Jesus was and where He was from (John 7). “Zombie corpses,” bereft of God’s common grace, could never do the things which Scripture attributes to lost sinners.

PROOF leaves God wide open to the charge that He sends people to hell for a sin they did not actually commit, sins they could not prevent, and sins they could not even confess properly.

The authors took the long way around to explain the simple Calvinistic theory that irresistible regeneration precedes irresistible faith. In their system, repentance and faith could be substituted by most anything – as long as it is impossible for those affected by Adam’s sin. If God said that whoever has wings will be saved and then He caused wings to grow on the elect and those wings only flew to heaven, it would be an accurate illustration of the authors’ view. In Chapter 5 (Overcoming Grace) they tried to obscure the overt fatalism by saying that repentance and faith doesn’t happen “forcibly, with God running roughshod over our wills; instead God changes our desires so that we love holiness and long to see God’s justice all around us.” This, coupled with a 3-page appendix constituted the obligatory attempt to explain how saving faith can be both irresistible and voluntary. There is no getting around it, in their system: God would be forcing people to be born again who do not want to be born again.

Little-to-nothing is said in the book about the final judgment. This is typical of, and makes perfect sense, for Calvinists, who essentially have the separation of the sheep and goats taking place before anyone was born, and based upon nothing foreseen by God that anyone would actually do or not do. The final judgment day would be reduced to a perfunctory ceremony – if the authors of PROOF are right.

PROOF is proof that you can’t improve tainted Calvinistic wine by putting it in new wineskins.