So lately I’ve been following the inner turmoil that is rocking the Southern Baptist Convention over, of all things, Calvinism. I admit that I don’t understand all of the intricacies of the debate, but it seems that the Calvinists within the SBC — a contingent that has been ever-growing of late — are demanding more theological rigor in the doctrinal statements of the denomination, while those less Calvinistic or even Arminian want a more moderate path, one that stresses evangelism and outreach and the basic Gospel truth that Jesus saves.
Now I have complained before about Calvinists and their tendency to stress rigid, uncompromising doctrine to the point that they value doctrine over Christian unity. In a time when our cultural battles as Christians are more critical than ever, when we are facing major losses almost every day, our Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox, and even many of our evangelical brethren are drawing closer to us and laying down their disagreements to join us in our common fight; but many Calvinists would rather continue fighting the theological battles of 500 years ago than stand alongside Catholics to face the onslaught of modernity. Leading Calvinists such as R.C. Sproul place such a high value on Reformation doctrine that they refuse to acknowledge Catholics and Orthodox as Christian brothers and sisters; they deny that we even believe the Gospel of Christ. To R.C. Sproul, and to many other Calvinists, the Gospel is sola fide (justification “by faith alone”). “Without a clear understanding of sola fide and the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, you do not have the gospel or gospel unity.”
The most ironic thing is, nobody had ever heard of sola fide prior to the Reformation. By declaring that “the Gospel is sola fide,” Sproul is denying the salvation of every Christian from the first century to the sixteenth — arguably even the Apostles. I am not going to get into a biblical argument here, but the fact is, considering all the ages of theological literature from the earliest Church Fathers to the Reformation, that Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines of sola fide and especially of justification by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, external to ourselves, represented genuine theological novelties: complete breaks with every theological tradition of the Christian Church from the beginning until their time. Protestants look for antecedents among earlier theologians, especially Augustine; but when it comes in particular to the manner of justification Luther proposed — this imputation of an external righteousness — there are none.* But they don’t really need antecedents, because their own interpretation of Scripture is sufficient. Even if no one else in history ever believed or taught sola fide, the Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture is absolute and indisputable, even if that means rejecting everyone who believes otherwise.
And I have to ask, Who is it that saves? Is it not Christ? How does He save us? Is it not by faith? Jesus commands us to believe in Him (John 6:29, John 3:16), to follow Him (Matthew 16:24), to love Him and love our neighbor (Luke 10:27). Is this not the Gospel? Is it not the Gospel truth that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took on human flesh, was crucified, and rose again from the dead, that we might be forgiven of our sins by His grace and have eternal life with Him? Paul delves deeper into the mechanics of salvation, of justification — but the fact is that Jesus didn’t really talk that much about it. Paul only wrote about justification at any length in a couple of his letters. In the earliest centuries of the Church, nobody was really all that concerned about justification; it was only St. Augustine who brought it to the fore. But now, apparently, the Gospel is justification? Not just justification, but justification sola fide? — a doctrine that, no matter how “perspicuous” Protestants insist it is, nobody in the first 1,500 years of the Church had ever found, and the majority of the people today calling themselves Christians still cannot find?
We are saved by faith — faith in Christ, not in sola fide. Whether or not salvation is by “faith alone” or otherwise, all Jesus asks us to do is have faith in Him and follow him. I do not argue for a moment that doctrine is not important — but it is the ultimate hubris to think that a doctrine itself is the Gospel; to think that the intellectual understanding of a human interpretation of Scripture is the sine qua non of salvation; to think that Jesus is unable to save someone who lacks an intricate understanding of your favorite doctrine, or even lacks any understanding at all. Is it not a childlike faith and trust that Jesus asks us to have (Matthew 18:3)? Catholics don’t have the exact same understanding of justification that Protestants do — we think, in fact, that Protestants are quite wrong in some important respects — but we do have the exact same understanding of Who Christ is and what He did for us. We affirm with all our hearts that whoever believes in Christ, who loves Him and follows Him, will be saved. Why can’t others do the same? The Gospel is not that complicated. Calvinists are, in effect, adding another requirement to the Gospel, based on something more than faith in Christ.