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Real Calvinism

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   July 26, 2010   |  Type: Articles

“Strong on doctrine and scholarship, but weak on life, evangelism and passion.” Too frequently this is the popular image of Calvinism. Contemporary Calvinists may sometimes be responsible for perpetuating this image. In their eagerness for theological precision some Calvinists seem to want to turn their churches into theological debating societies. To the extent the popular image is accurate, contemporary Calvinists have ceased to be genuine Calvinists.

Real Calvinists are as concerned about heart religion as they are about head religion. That is to say they are as concerned about the life of faith as they are about doctrinal orthodoxy.

In America today much evangelical religion seems so concerned about religious experience that it tends to neglect the importance of doctrinal truth. But this imbalance in evangelicalism should not lead to an imbalance in Calvinism. True Calvinism knows that sound doctrine is and must be life changing.

John Calvin said that true religion was born of piety. He defined piety as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” (Inst. I,ii,1) Knowledge of God’s truth is foundational, but it always bears fruit in reverence and love. The distinctive truth that Calvinism finds in the Bible leads to a distinctive piety, life and worship.

In History

That conviction was not limited to Calvin or the first generation of Calvinists. Again and again throughout the history of the Reformed movement the commitment to a religion of both the head and heart has been reasserted. The Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563, powerfully demonstrates that fact. Warm, vital piety is one of the distinguishing marks of the catechism. Repeatedly it asks, “How does this doctrine profit you?”

In the seventeenth century we can find an example of this commitment to head and heart religion in the Dutch Reformed theologian Gisbertus Voetius. He was one of the great scholastic theologians of his era and was very concerned with accurate theology. But he was also very concerned about vital religion. His first published work was “Proof of the Power of Godliness.” The title of his inaugural lecture as professor of theology summarized the passion of his life: “On knowledge joined with piety.”

Voetius had a conviction very much like that of the Puritans in Great Britain. They often referred to Ephesians 5:15 as a foundation of their concerns: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.” For the Puritans, the Christian life must be an examined life. The commitment to being careful in what Christians believe and how they live is crucial. The Puritans summarized their insights in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. In these key documents we can see they are as concerned about vital and holy lives as they are about doctrinal truth.

American Calvinism has had a similar conviction. The founding documents of Princeton Theological Seminary, the first Presbyterian seminary founded in America in 1812, include the statement: “learning without zeal and zeal without learning must ultimately prove injurious to the church.” Princeton Seminary – and Westminster California as one of its successors – recognized that both zeal and learning were important for the well-being of the church. Learning without zeal is cold and tends to deadness and rationalism. Zeal without learning is uninformed emotionalism.

In Scripture

This Calvinistic conviction about the importance of head and heart religion is of course derived from the Scriptures. One place where we can see that clearly is in Psalm 45, where we are told that the mission of God’s great king is this: “In your majesty ride forth victoriously in behalf of truth, humility and righteousness” (v. 4.) These three elements – truth, humility and righteousness – summarize the interdependence of orthodoxy and vitality in Biblical and Reformed religion.

Psalm 45 is a celebration of God’s great and blessed king. This king is blessed in his blameless character (vs. 2,7,8). He is the one who always loves the good and hates the evil. This king is blessed in his bountiful conquest (vs. 3-6,16). He will be victorious over all his enemies in God’s cause. And he is blessed in his beautiful consort (vs. 9-15). He finds joy, beauty and purity in his bride.

The picture of this king is an ideal of what kingship should be. No actual king in Israel ever fully measured up to this ideal. But the psalm celebrates how the king should fulfill the vision of the true and faithful king described in Deuteronomy 17:18-20, “When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.”

Here in Deuteronomy – as in Psalm 45 – the king exalts truth, humility and righteousness. The king upholds the truth of God’s word, which he has ever with him and meditates on every day. He expresses the humility of one who does not exalt himself above his brothers, but identifies with them. He lives out the righteousness of God’s law, deviating neither to the right nor to the left.

In Christ

This ideal of kingship is fulfilled only in Jesus Christ. He alone is the great and blessed king described in Deuteronomy 17 and Psalm 45. We see that clearly in Revelation 19:9,11,16, “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!...I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war….On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” His name is true. As a lamb he is humble. He is righteous and just in his victory.

This glorious king, according to Psalm 45:4 is not only true, humble and righteous in himself. He rides to victory that his people may also manifest these virtues. He is building a kingdom in which his subjects too will be true, humble and righteous.

In Christ we as his people are called to the truth. Truth is not an optional extra for the people of God. In his Great Commission Jesus instructed his apostles to teach disciples to obey all that he had commanded them. True disciples are eager to know the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ. Jesus is not a minimalist when it comes to truth and neither must his followers be. That is why we at Westminster California spend so much time and energy teaching future ministers to know and teach the Word.

In Christ we are called to humility. This virtue is not always well represented in the Reformed community. Too often a confidence in our learning and orthodoxy has made us proud. That pride does not commend our cause to others. By prayer, confession and hard work, we need to cultivate a spirit of love for others and an eagerness to share what we have. Humility is not pretending that truth is unimportant. It is listening to others and growing in recognizing that they too have the Spirit of God and that we can learn from them how to serve the Lord and his people.

In Christ we are called to righteousness. This righteousness in the first place is the perfect righteousness of Christ himself imputed to us for our justification and received by faith alone. But this righteousness is also the sanctifying righteousness that Christ progressively works in his people. In Christ we will be a people growing in holiness.


This conviction is the foundation of the work of Westminster Seminary California. We strive for a well-educated and vital ministry. It is essential to be concerned about both the head, sound doctrine, as well as the heart, the life of faith. Some churches today seem indifferent to education and only concerned that a minister be enthusiastic and “effective” in leading and inspiring people. But ministers are called to be ministers of the Word. To preach the Word faithfully they must be able to study the Word. For that study they need to know something of Greek and Hebrew, of the history of Biblical studies and theology, and of the confessions of the church. Those who simply preach from their study of the English translations and have little knowledge of the history of Christian theological reflection are likely to lead the church astray. They often are not really humble. They may suggest that their indifference to education is a sign of humility, but actually they are proudly maintaining that they do not need the rest of the church and its wisdom in their work – but that they can go it on their own. That attitude has resulted in innumerable doctrinal errors that beset American churches.

The conclusion of the Canons of Dort highlights the Reformed understanding of the proper function of doctrine in the life of the Christian community: “This Synod exhorts all their brethren in the gospel of Christ to conduct themselves piously and religiously in handling this doctrine, both in the universities and churches; to direct it, as well in discourse as in writing, to the glory of the Divine name, to holiness of life, and to the consolation of afflicted souls….” Pure doctrine both glorifies God and helps the people of God. God’s people are indeed encouraged by the truth to true faith which produces holiness and comfort in their lives.

First published in Evangelium, Vol. 3, Issue 5

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