There is something healthy about returning to one’s roots. When it comes to evangelical Christianity, its roots are found in the soil of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

The Doxological Nature of Calvinism

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  • The Doxological Nature of Calvinism

    Sinclair Ferguson

    The wonderful, albeit absentminded, “Rabbi” John Duncan (1796–1870), professor of Hebrew at New College, Edinburgh, once read out the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain”:

    Long my imprisoned spirit lay
    Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
    Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
    I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
    My chains fell off, my heart was free;
    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
    My chains fell off, my heart was free;
    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

    Duncan commented quizzically, “Where’s your Arminianism now, friend?” The Wesley brothers were indeed Arminian in theology (despite their conviction that many of their views were “within a hair’s-breadth of Calvinism”). But at this point, Charles Wesley’s expressions of praise are rooted in a theology borrowed from his Calvinist friend George Whitefield’s preaching on the new birth.

    Wesley bids us sing praise to God for His sovereign, liberating, prevenient, divine work on the soul that both awakens us and delivers us. When he does so, he is forced to borrow a Calvinistic frame of reference. A moment’s reflection will underline how contradictory it would be to sing praise to God for something He had not done. Of course, hymns may be written to parody Calvinistic doctrine, and on very rare occasions one hears songs that celebrate “free will.” But the great hymns of ages past, like their predecessors in Scripture, praise God for being God, for being sovereign, for being a saving and keeping God. To cast a critical glance sideways in the contemporary evangelical world, it is difficult to imagine what hymns of adoration and praise might be written by Open Theists (whose chief enemy appears to be Calvinism). Do we praise God for being like us in that He is neither sovereign over all things in the present nor aware of what will unfold in our future?

    Most of the old hymns underscore the point that Calvinism is in its very nature doxological, and that all doxology, in fact, depends on such biblical theology. Here, for example, is the best-known hymn of Augustus Montague Toplady (1740–1778):

    Not the labors of my hands
    Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
    Could my zeal no respite know,
    Could my tears forever flow,
    All for sin could not atone;
    Thou must save, and Thou alone.

    Nothing in my hand I bring,
    Simply to Thy cross I cling;
    Naked, come to Thee for dress;
    Helpless look to Thee for grace;
    Foul, I to the Fountain fly;
    Wash me, Savior, or I die.

    This is Calvinism in poetry: such is our depravity and helplessness that “Thou must save, and Thou alone.” Only these emphases that are characteristic of Calvinism can give birth to such theology as poetry. Granted, the Calvinism is more pronounced and more deliberately articulated with some hymn writers. But these same truths come to expression in the more pastoral spirit of a John Newton and his “Amazing Grace!” What makes grace so amazing is precisely that it sovereignly frees and sovereignly saves from first to last. Since every stable doctrine of providence stresses God’s absolute sovereignty over the details of life, robust singing on providence is characteristically well-rooted in this Calvinistic emphasis.
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