What is hyper-Calvinism, and how do we avoid it? It’s a question from a listener named Andrew. “Hello, Pastor John. In the wake of your helpful new book, Coronavirus and Christ, one theologian said of you, ‘Piper’s thinking is sometimes Calvinism raised to the nth power. That’s not where it belongs.’ I disagree. I think that’s exactly where it belongs — an elevated and consistent Calvinism maintained throughout one’s entire ministry, from private devotions to the pulpit, and into those rare moments when Christians speak into current events. For your model of consistency, I thank God.
“As for myself, I was recently called a ‘hyper-Calvinist’ by someone online for something I said. There’s no need to go into exactly what I said. I simply want to know from you, What is a hyper-Calvinist? Is that what you are being accused of? When does Calvinism go wrong? How do we sustain our strong Calvinistic convictions — to the nth degree! — without slipping into hyper-Calvinism?”
Let me state the absolutely crucial thing here first, and then back up to the specific question, and then circle back again at the end and end on the absolutely crucial thing. In my judgment, the absolutely crucial thing is that we submit all of our thinking to what the Bible teaches — all of the Bible, not just select parts of it, but all of it, rightly understood: the whole counsel of God. When I say “submit our thinking to what the Bible teaches,” I include bringing our thinking into biblical balance as well as biblical truthfulness.
Wherever someone stands on any issue, it is possible to emphasize that issue to the exclusion of other issues. In that sense, any issue may become a hyper-issue, meaning an overemphasis on some part of the Bible that silences other important parts of the Bible. That’s hyper — hyper-anything.
That’s the absolutely crucial thing: believe and teach what the whole Bible, rightly understood, teaches, and believe it and teach it in biblical proportion — biblical balance — so that no Scripture is used to silence the meaning and importance of other Scriptures.
Now to the specific question, What is hyper-Calvinism? I think probably the most common historic meaning for the term is that hyper-Calvinism refers to a distortion of historic Calvinism, and the distortion says it is inappropriate and unbiblical to invite people to Christ unless they give some evidence of being among the elect. That’s a distortion. That’s a falsehood.
“The absolutely crucial thing is that we submit all of our thinking to what the Bible teaches.”
The net effect of this viewpoint is to put a governor on the indiscriminate preaching of the gospel and wholehearted engagement in world missions. You can hear it in the voice of a preacher who, when William Carey wanted to go to India, said, “Sit down, young man. When God wants to reach the nations, he’ll do it without your help.” In other words, “Don’t you go out there and preach the gospel indiscriminately to those pagans. You might tempt somebody to embrace the gospel when they’re not elect.” That’s hyper-Calvinism.
In other words, the emphasis is put so completely on the unconditional election of God and the spiritual deadness of man and the sovereignty of grace in conversion (all of which are true) that the irrational and unbiblical inference is drawn that we should not say to any non-elect person who’s spiritually dead, “Repent. Believe. Come to Christ.” We should never preach like that. We should never indiscriminately say to a whole crowd of people, many of whom would be non-elect, “Come to Christ. Repent. Believe.”
Now, the reason I say that’s irrational and unbiblical to draw that inference from election and deadness and sovereign grace is this: nothing in reason says that summoning a spiritually dead sinner to repent might not be the means God uses to perform the miracle of making him alive, and thus demonstrating he is elect. I say it’s unbiblical because the Bible tells us to preach the gospel to everyone, and the sheep will hear the Shepherd’s voice in the preaching and follow him (John 10:27).
Our job is not to know ahead of time who the sheep are. Our job is to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, pray for converting power, and plead for people to repent and trust God — trust him to do his regenerating work. God raises the dead. He grants faith, and he does it through preaching. We’re supposed to say precisely to dead bones, “Live! Live! Why would you die?” That’s the way we should preach: indiscriminately, to all people, offering the gospel to everyone, and trusting God to call his own.
Now, here’s another contemporary form of hyper-Calvinism that is common among some Reformed groups. Just like the old hyper-Calvinism was hesitant to offer gospel salvation to someone who might not be elect, so this contemporary form of hyper-Calvinism is hesitant to offer gospel assurance to professing Christians who might not be elect.
I had a conversation with a man who held this view recently on one of my trips, and my conclusion was this: he so emphasized the danger of giving false assurance to possibly fake Christians that he preached in such a way as to withhold true assurance from real Christians.
That’s how a good concern becomes a hyper-concern. You can smell it, because the tone of the congregation is not the tone of Romans 8, which is so radically bent on helping Christians be gloriously bold in their assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
Scripture over System
Those are two forms of hyper-Calvinism, and the way to avoid both of them is Bible, Bible, Bible — the whole Bible, unashamed and uncompromising in biblical balance. My response to somebody who says, “Piper takes his Calvinism to the nth degree, the nth power,” would be to say, “Well, ‘nth degree’ has no meaning to me. It has no content. You can’t know if it’s true and I can’t know if it’s true or false because it doesn’t carry any meaning.” The question is this: Does Piper submit his so-called Calvinism to the Bible? Does he bring it into alignment with the truth of the whole Bible? Does he bring it into balance with the way the Bible teaches the sovereignty of God?
Here are the key questions, and I invite everybody to ask them of me, and of everything I’ve ever said:
- Does Piper silence important biblical teachings by his Calvinism?
- Does he silence the responsibility of man?
- Does he silence the reality of secondary causes, like Satan and sinful man, in the suffering and sin of the world?
- Does he silence the reality of the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit can be grieved, or that Jesus wept over Jerusalem?
- Does he silence the biblical reality that we should hold our hands out to a world bent on destruction and plead with them with tears to repent?
If Piper uses his Calvinism to silence truth — true and important biblical teachings — then Piper is moving into hyper-Calvinism. Now, whether that’s happening is not helped or clarified at all by saying Piper’s Calvinism is to the nth degree. What use is that?
Balance on the Bible
Here’s where the rubber meets the road: it often comes down to being thoroughly biblical versus silencing Scripture with philosophical assumptions. The modern world operates with the philosophical assumption that human willpower has the capacity for ultimate, final, decisive self-determination in the moment of conversion to Christ. That is the reigning modern philosophical assumption. (When I say modern, I mean in the last two to three hundred years.) Whatever divine influences there are, the modern world says that we humans provide the final, ultimate, decisive cause in our conversion to Christ.
“Our job is to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, pray for converting power, and plead for people to repent and trust God.”
That assumption, then, is brought to the Bible. It’s not found in the Bible. You can’t find that assumption anywhere in the Bible. That assumption, that assertion, is brought to the Bible, and it causes many people to call Calvinism hyper-Calvinism. By labeling it hyper-Calvinism, by labeling ordinary, Bible-balanced Calvinism hyper-Calvinism, you can blow smoke over the clear biblical reality that there is no such thing in the Bible or in the world as ultimate, final, decisive human self-determination in conversion to Christ.
We end back where we started with the main thing: Bible, Bible, Bible — not philosophy, not assumptions, not the modern American love affair with free will. No, no, no. Bible, Bible, Bible — not modern assumptions, not the darling of human self-determination in conversion, but Bible: the whole counsel of God in biblical proportion.