“A Calvinist on your knees and an Arminian in the pulpit” has been the counsel to young ministers for many years. It is the thoughtless advice of pragmatism, declaring theology to be irrelevant to the work of ministry.
The short hand terms ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ refer to the interplay of God’s will and the human will. To grossly oversimplify for the sake of this article – in the matter of our salvation and in preaching, the Calvinist emphasises the sovereignty of God whilst the Arminian emphasises the ultimate responsibility of the human.
I am not talking here of one sermon but generalising (with all the strengths and weaknesses of arguing this way) about the preaching agenda and pattern of two theological systems. In any one sermon it may be impossible to determine if the preacher is Arminian or Calvinist, though the theologically discerning can usually pick it. But over time the real theology of the regular preacher is demonstrated – even sometimes against his own profession. For many a preacher has not worked out how to practice his own theology – but rather follows the pattern of the day.
The “Calvinist on knees and Arminian in pulpit” saying appears to take the best from both theological systems. Unfortunately, instead of complimenting the two systems on their strengths, the saying insults both. It is an insult to say that Arminians do not depend upon God in prayer or that Calvinists do not preach challenging sermons.
The saying also tries to combine two incompatible theological systems. Both systems hold to certain truths of the Bible but you cannot cherry-pick the bits of a theological system you like without creating a new – and in this case, illogical and unbiblical alternative.
It is never the aim of a preacher to bore the congregation. How appalling to make the person of Jesus and the word of God boring. There are bigger insults e.g. ‘your sermon is false or unbiblical’, but to be called boring is one of the biggest insults that can be delivered. If the accusation is true, the boring preacher needs a serious spiritual reconsideration of his ministry. Sometimes, however, the ‘boring’ verdict tells more about the hearer’s willingness to listen to God’s word than the preacher’s ability to teach it. It is important not only for ministers but also for congregation members to understand the aims and goals of preaching and preachers.
Calvinists must never be seduced into Arminian style preaching in response to the ‘boring’ criticism. For the style of preaching expresses the theology that lies behind it and Arminian theology is significantly different to Calvinist theology. The Arminian concentration on human responsibility has an immediacy and relevance to the hearer. It is always interesting to hear a sermon about yourself. There is no topic more interesting to the human heart than ‘me’.
However, in an attempt to be relevant, lively, challenging, interesting and exciting, Calvinists must not ignore the profound weaknesses in Arminian preaching. For the difference has deep pastoral consequences – even deeper and more important than boredom.
The subject of the Calvinist preacher is not the hearer but God in his glorious majesty. His sermons are less about what we have to do and more about the wonder of what God has already done for us. To make the mighty work of God boring is a great tragedy. To overcome our incompetence as preachers by turning our attention to the audience and their felt needs is to change theology.
This difference in subject matter has enormous pastoral implications. For Arminianism always underestimates how sinful we are as well as overestimating the significance of our actions in reconciling us to God and God to us. Such sermons paradoxically lighten our sinfulness while adding to our guilt. They tickle the ear in saying how good, wonderful, moral and spiritual we are while burdening us with legalistic rules and regulations or spiritual exercises to perform and experiences to have. Sermons on “Ten steps to improve your prayer life” or “Six ways to a perfect marriage” or “to raise your children to be Christian” or “Steps to inner peace” etc. create in us an unrealistic evaluation of our successes and ourselves while increasing our guilt in our failures and burdening us with more rules, regulations and techniques for spiritual growth.
People do not need the lie that they are fundamentally good (with a little sin problem). Nor do we need more teaching that puts us, instead of Jesus, at the centre of God’s world and plans. “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” maybe true but places us at the centre of God’s existence instead of God at the centre of ours. Christian preaching must be more than spiritualised self-help. Such sermons promise help but effectively lock us into our failures and increase our guilt without relief.
What we must proclaim and hear is of our Creator and his wonderful grace and love shown in his Son Jesus. What the church and world must hear is of the victory of Christ in his death, resurrection, ascension and heavenly rule. What we need to know is the love of God in the forgiveness of sins and the transforming power of His Spirit bringing new birth. We need to know the grace of God that takes our sin seriously by paying for it while extending the acceptance of forgiveness. The Gospel truths relieve and revive but more morality and legalism are but the burden of death to us.
And this is the end point of Arminian preaching. It appears more interesting for it addresses our perceived problems with concrete action steps to follow. Yet at best it addresses the felt symptoms of our dissatisfactions. In reality it fails to listen to God’s diagnosis of our problems and the remedy of His glorious plan of salvation. It turns the centre of our attention onto us instead of onto God and Christ Jesus – and that is more a symbol of sinful natural religion than of the Gospel’s spiritually revealed salvation.