“I am of Calvin.” Are we forbidden from making such a claim? Karen, a listener who loves DG, and who recently was in the room with us in Nashville for our first live recording, asks it — pointedly asks it. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for Ask Pastor John! In what way is saying ‘I am a Calvinist’ (or ‘I am of Calvin’) different than saying ‘I am of Paul’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ as Paul warns against in 1 Corinthians 3:4? Is it different? It’s an honest question, and I hope it doesn’t come across sounding like a personal challenge. It’s not meant to be so. I thank God for you and your Reformed convictions and focus on God’s glory, beauty, and all-surpassing worth.”
This is my understanding of what’s being asked: Is the statement “I am a Calvinist” different from the statements in 1 Corinthians 1:12 — “I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas” — which Paul scolded as inappropriate? And the answer is that “I am a Calvinist” might be guilty of what they are guilty of. It might be. And that statement might not be guilty of what Paul is scolding.
Who Was Crucified?
We need to see what Paul was really criticizing and how “I am a Calvinist” might not be sinful the way some of the Corinthians were, and how it might be. Here’s what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10–12:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
“I believe all that the Bible teaches, including the glory of the sovereign grace of God in salvation.”
So, what’s the issue here? What is it about these teachers or the way they are perceived that is creating this quarreling and the divisions here in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, and really through the first four chapters? “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul” (1 Corinthians 1:13)? Wow, those questions that Paul asks, those really do point us to part of the issue, don’t they? It seems to me that they are magnifying their chosen leaders or celebrities to the point where it’s almost as though they are in the place of Christ. Otherwise, why would Paul say, “Is Christ divided?” or “Was Paul crucified for you?”
“Was Paul crucified for you? No, Christ was, so stop treating these other teachers as though they were Christ. Were you baptized into the name of Paul? No, you were baptized into the name of Christ.” So, that’s the first tip-off of the problem: The allegiance to a leader is starting to compete with allegiance to Christ. Things are out of proportion.
War of Words
And then Paul gives another clue in 1 Corinthians 1:17: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom” — that’s a key phrase — “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” This is a clue that what the parties were focusing on, that what these quarreling divisions were focusing on, was not different messages from Paul and Apollos and Cephas. It’s not like they preached three different theologies. These were not competing theologies. There’s no mention in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, where this problem is all front and center, of any difference between Paul and Cephas and Apollos as to the content of what they preached. What’s mentioned is eloquence, verbal giftedness, debating powers.
- 1 Corinthians 1:20: “Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?”
- 1 Corinthians 2:1: “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.”
- 1 Corinthians 2:5: “. . . so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
They seemed to be bragging — these groups, these divisions, factions — on the superior gifting, rhetorical gifting, eloquent gifting of their favorite leader. “Who’s the better preacher? Who’s the better debater? Who’s the better writer? Who’s the better blogger? Who’s the wittiest? Who’s the most culturally savvy? Who’s the funniest? Who’s got the best illustrations?” You get the idea. Corinth was full of this kind of thing: one celebrity entertainer exalted above another because of the skill — the rhetorical skill and eloquence and savvy — that they brought to their message. And America today is full of this kind of thing. So Paul’s response is this:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5–7)
The whole focus of the divisions in Corinth is not on the content of the teaching of these men; it’s on their relative effectiveness and communication and debating and eloquence. And Paul’s answer is, first, that everything that counts in these men’s lives is a gift of God, not human ability. And then he blows the Corinthians away with this crazy, wonderful, beautiful, glorious statement: “So let no one boast in men” (1 Corinthians 3:21). Stop having this vicarious sense of self-exaltation by identifying with your favorite eloquent preacher.
So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)
“Everything that counts in these men’s lives is a gift of God, not human ability.”
This is an interesting irony. You don’t belong to them. They were saying, “I am of Paul; I am of Apollos; I am of Cephas. I belong to them. I’m in their camp.” And Paul turns and says, “You don’t belong to them; they belong to you. You are children of God. You own the universe. Stop puffing yourself up as though you were paupers and need to have yourself propped up with some ersatz, vicarious celebrity preacher that you want to belong to.”
Center on Truth
So, the biggest difference with “I am a Calvinist” and “I am of Apollos” is that Calvinism is a theology, not a standard of eloquence. That’s the difference. “I am a Calvinist” may mean “I believe all that the Bible teaches, including the glory of the sovereign grace of God in salvation.” It may mean that. That’s certainly what I would mean by it: I believe all that the Bible teaches, including the glory of the sovereign grace of God in salvation.
But all Calvinists and Arminians are sinners, and so it is very possible — indeed, it happens — that someone might say, “I am a Calvinist,” and have the very same sinful attitude as the Corinthians, thinking, “I’ll be seen as smarter or more daring or more historic or more whatever because I have just declared my identification with the great John Calvin, or the band of people that I like to associate with called Calvinists.” That would be as sinful as “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos.” And so, may the Lord give us wisdom and humility to focus on the truth of teachings, not the appeal of teachers.