A time to embrace
In the comments section of yesterday's post, someone posted a portion of one of my favorite quotes from Spurgeon. The full paragraph it was extracted from is a tad long, but the additional context is well worth reading:
It has been the desire of the true Calvinist,not of the hyper-Calvinists, I cannot defend themto feel that if he has received has received more light than another man, it is due to God's grace, and not to his merits. Therefore charity is inculcated, while boasting is excluded. We give our hand to every man that loves the Lord Jesus Christ, be he what he may or who he may. The doctrine of election, like the great act of election itself, is intended to divide not between Israel and Israel, but between Israel and the Egyptians,not between saint and saint, but between saints and the children of this world. A man may be evidently of God's chosen family, and yet though elected, may not believe in the doctrine of election. I hold that there are many savingly called, who do not believe in effectual calling, and that there are a great many who persevere to the end, who do not believe the doctrine of final perseverance. We do hope that the hearts of many are a great deal better than their heads. We set not their fallacies down to any wilful opposition to the truth as it is in Jesus, but simply to an error in their judgments, which we pray God to correct. We hope that if they think as mistaken too, they will reciprocate the same Christian courtesy; and when we meet around the cross, we hope that we shall ever feel that we are one in Christ Jesus, even though as yet the ministering spirit has not led all of us into all the lengths and breadths of the truthC. H. Spurgeon, "Effects of Sound Doctrine," a sermon delivered on Sunday evening April 22nd, 1860.
Alongside that excerpt, this quote from "A Defense of Calvinism" was also posted in a comment yesterday. It's a commonly-cited section, but this one is also worth hearing again. Here it is, with a little additional context:
There is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answerI wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, do I hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it. But far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none but Calvinistic Christians within her walls, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views. Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley. The character of John Wesley stands beyond all imputation for self-sacrifice, zeal, holiness, and communion with God; he lived far above the ordinary level of common Christians, and was one "of whom the world was not worthy." I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their Saviour, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist in or out of Heaven.
By the way, that second quotation is taken from the same article in which Spurgeon made another famous statementone of his most controversial statements about Calvinism ever:
I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.
Some very narrow Calvinists love to cite that third quote apart from its context as if it proved Spurgeon rejected all Arminians as infidels. Clearly, that is not what he meant.
In fact, the context of the full article makes clear precisely what Spurgeon did mean in that third quotation: He was simply saying that the central principle of Calvinism is the very gist of the gospel: Salvation is God's work; it is not something the sinner can do for himself. Plainly, he was not insisting that the only authentic Christians are Calvinists. The first and second quotations above make his position on that issue quite clear.
I agree with all three of those statements, of course. I also agree with the use Spurgeon made of the principle he was defending. Although he had no sympathy whatsoever for Arminian theology, he was charitable toward Christians who struggled to understand the doctrines of grace. Even though he regarded Arminianism as a serious error and a system fraught with all kinds of theological mischief, he did not automatically write off all Arminians as non-Christians.
Spurgeon held this position precisely because he did not believe Arminian opinions about free-will, unconditional election, or the extent of the atonement were tantamount to a denial of any fundamental, inviolable point of gospel truth. Which is to say that while Spurgeon clearly regarded the central idea of Calvinism as a truth that embodied the very essence of the gospel, he obviously did not regard every aspect of the doctrines of grace as essential gospel truth.
In other words, Spurgeon taught that the principle of grace per se is a primary and essential truth. But when it came to some of the more technical aspects of Calvinistic doctrine, including the doctrines of perseverance and effectual calling, he regarded them as secondary, and he allowed that a genuine believer in Christ mightthrough confusion or ignorancereject those truths. He embraced people who made such a profession of faith as authentic brothers and sisters in Christ.
A time to refrain from embracing
On other issues, however, Spurgeon was unwilling to grant such latitude. He made it perfectly clear that he regarded the principles of substitutionary atonement and justification by faith as absolute essentialsand he steadfastly refused to embrace or give encouragement to the purveyors of alternative opinions on those points:
The largest charity towards those who are loyal to the Lord Jesus, and yet do not see with us on secondary matters, is the duty of all true Christians. But how are we to act towards those who deny his vicarious sacrifice, and ridicule the great truth of justification by his righteousness? These are not mistaken friends, but enemies of the cross of Christ. There is no use in employing circumlocutions and polite terms of expression:where Christ is not received as to the cleansing power of his blood and the justifying merit of his righteousness, he is not received at all.Spurgeon, "A Fragment Upon the Down-Grade Controversy."
Spurgeon steadfastly refused to admit anyone who denied any essential doctrines of Christianity into the circle of his fellowship, and he regarded all attempts to seek Christian fellowship with such false teachers as sinful:
It used to be generally accepted in the Christian Church that the line of Christian communion was drawn hard and fast, at the Deity of our Lord; but even this would appear to be altered now. In various ways the chasm has been bridged, and during the past few years several ministers have crossed into Unitarianism, and have declared that they perceived little or no difference in the two sides of the gulf. In all probability there was no difference to perceive in the regions where they abode. It is our solemn conviction that where there can be no real spiritual communion there should be no pretense of fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin. Those who know and love the truth of God cannot have fellowship with that which is diametrically opposed thereto, and there can be no reason why they should pretend that they have such fellowship.Ibid.
The whole of the article is well worth reading.
So Spurgeon was no latitudinarian, and he had no patience whatsoever for the convoluted "liberality" the modernists of his day were peddling (and postmodernists today are likewise attempting to foist on well-meaning Christians):
I should like to ask modern broad churchmen whether there is any doctrine of any sort for which it would be worth a man's while to burn or to lie in prison. I do not believe they could give me an answer, for if their latitudinarianism be correct, the martyrs were fools of the first magnitude. From what I see of their writings and their teachings, it appears to me that the modern thinkers treat the whole compass of revealed truth with entire indifference; and, though perhaps they may feel sorry that wilder spirits should go too far in free thinking, and though they had rather they would be more moderate, yet, upon the whole, so large is their liberality that they are not sure enough of anything to be able to condemn the reverse of it as a deadly error. To them black and white are terms which may be applied to the same colour, as you view it from different standpoints. Yea and nay are equally true in their esteem. Their theology shifts like the Goodwin Sands, and they regard all firmness as so much bigotry. Errors and truths are equally comprehensible within the circle of their charity. It was not in this way that the apostles regarded error. They did not prescribe large-hearted charity towards falsehood, or hold up the errorist as a man of deep thought, whose views were "refreshingly original"; far less did they utter some wicked nonsense about the probability of there living more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds. They did not believe in justification by doubting, as our neologians do; they set about the conversion of the erring brother; they treated him as a person who needed conversion; and viewed him as a man who, if he were not converted, would suffer the death of his soul, and be covered with a multitude of sins. They were not such easygoing people as our cultured friends of the school of "modern thought", who have learned at last that the Deity of Christ may be denied, the work of the Holy Spirit ignored, the inspiration of Scripture rejected, the atonement disbelieved, and regeneration dispensed with, and yet the man who does all this may be as good a Christian as the most devout believer! O God, deliver us from this deceitful infidelity, which, while it does damage to the erring man, and often prevents his being reclaimed, does yet more mischief to our own hearts by teaching us that truth is unimportant, and falsehood a trifle, and so destroys our allegiance to the God of truth, and makes us traitors instead of loyal subjects to the King of kings!
I could quote dozens of similar comments from Spurgeon. The last years of his life were spent fighting against the kind of "liberality" that insists every type of religion that goes by the name "Christian" deserves to be embraced as such.
Unfortunately, Spurgeon's life was shortened by that battle, and he died before he wrote anything carefully outlining his views on how to distinguish essential doctrines from secondary ones. But it is absolutely clear that he made such a distinction, and that it defined his views on when to separate and when to seek fellowship with others who profess to be Christians.
A postscript about Packer's remarks
Yesterday's comments also included this quotation from J. I. Packer's explanation of why he supports the ecumenical Juggernaut of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together":
Fundamentalists . . . are unlikely to join us in this, for it is the way of fundamentalists to follow the path of contentious orthodoxism, as if the mercy of God in Christ automatically rests on the persons who are notionally correct and is just as automatically withheld from those who fall short of notional correctness on any point of substance.
I agree that it's possible in a more or less passive sense for an ignorant, untaught, or immature (albeit authentic) believer to hold a deficient ("notionally incorrect") understanding of justification by faith, the doctrine of the Trinity, or any number of essential Christian doctrines. But would any genuine Christian deliberately, actively, and with full knowledge reject such essential doctrines and teach the contrary errors? That is what I deny, on the authority of dozens of texts of Scripture, such as John 10:4, 27; 1 John 2:27; 2 John 2, 7-11; and many others.
Christians are those who "believe and know the truth" (1 Timothy 4:3). There must be some minimal degree of "notional correctness" in what we affirm and teach, or else we would fall under the condemnation of Galatians 1:8-9. Packer as a Calvinist certainly ought to understand that God sovereignly opens the heart and understanding of believers (1 John 5:20).
Packer is simply wrong to show such contempt for fundamentalists' concern for "notional correctness"which is, after all, nothing but a nickname for sound doctrine.
So we've come full circle to the issue that began this series of posts last week: Which truths must be affirmed with some degree of "notional correctness," and how (i.e., by what biblical principles) do we assign relative importance to this or that doctrine? There is no way for any Christian to dodge this question ultimately, and how we answer it has massive practical ramifications. Cynically dismissing fundamentalists because of their concern for "notional correctness" frankly doesn't make the difficulty go away, but it does open the door for all kinds of evil doctrine.