Presbyterians would affirm all of the five points of Calvinism as accurate statements of God's dealings with man with respect to his salvation. These five points are:
1) total depravityAs an historical note, these five points were set forth by the Synod of Dort in 1618 to counter the five points of Arminianism. This teaching of Arminianism was derived from the theology of James Arminius, a Dutch professor. After his death in 1610 his followers, known as Arminians, set forth his teaching in what came to be known as the five points of Arminianism. These five points were:
2) unconditional election
3) limited atonement (definite personal atonement)
4) Irresistible calling
5) perseverance of the saints
1) free will or human ability
Even though man was affected by sin in the fall, the sin did not damage him to the extent to render him completely incapable of exercising a genuine spiritual pursuit of God. Man was capable of cooperating with God in choosing that which is spiritually good.
2) conditional election
God's election is based on His foreknowledge of all who would desire to be saved due to their own free will. Hence, God's election depends upon man's absolute freedom of choice. This is commonly pictured as God looking down the corridors of history and knowing all who desire to be saved and then electing them to salvation.
3) universal redemption or general atonement
This belief is that Jesus actually died for all men in the same manner. He made it possible for all to be saved. The effect of Jesus' death is made effectual only for those who by their free will choose to accept His atonement.
4) the Holy Spirit in regeneration is limited by human free will
This teaches that men can effectually resist the working of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit seeks to bring that person to a saving knowledge in Christ. It is possible that God's purposes can be frustrated by man's free will. The Holy Spirit cannot regenerate a man unless a man is first willing to allow this.
5) falling from salvation
Man can actually lose his salvation. This is the logical inference of the four other points. If man must first take the initiative in his salvation he must likewise be responsible for preserving it. Arminianism teaches that man is the determining factor in his own salvation. If sinful man still has the ability to do good in God's sight and if God via the Holy Spirit cannot regenerate a man without the man allowing it, then the all sovereign God is rendered virtually powerless with respect to man's salvation. Therefore, it can be said that man is indeed the determining factor in his salvation. It was such teaching that prompted the Synod of Dort to enumerate its countering five points with Scriptural citations.
Let's look in detail at these five points of Calvinism, as they popularly have been called.
1) total depravity or total inability
This teaching states that though all men are not equally as bad in the same sense, nor that they are as evil as they could be; nevertheless, they are dead in sin and wholly unable to love God or do anything of their own free will to come to a saving knowledge of Christ The fall of man (Gen. 3) means that sin has affected man's entire being - his affections, understanding, and will. Man is still a free moral agent in the sense he can make genuine moral choices, but the whole point is that fallen man does not want to seek God. In terms of his ability to turn to Christ and repent, this he cannot do (John 3:19; 5:40).
A man who is spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1-3) cannot of his own ability be made alive spiritually. Men are all bound in sin and enslaved to Satan (II Tim. 2:25). Fallen man is blind to the light of the Gospel (I Cor. 4:4) and they cannot hear with understanding (Mark 4:11ff). Fallen man cannot possess in himself the necessary knowledge to be saved (I Cor. 2:14). Fallen man simply does not pursue righteousness (Rom. 3:10-18).
"Can the dead raise themselves? Can the bound free themselves? Can the blind give themselves sight, or the deaf hearing? Can the slaves redeem themselves? Can the uninstructable teach themselves? Can the naturally sinful change themselves? Surely not! Who ran bring a clean thing out of an unclean? asks Job: and he answers. 'not one!' (Job 14:4). 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? asks Jeremiah; 'if they can' he concludes 'then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil" (Jer. 13:23)."9
Presbyterianism thus teaches that fallen man left to himself cannot under any circumstances bring about spiritual life from his own deaden soul. This is an act only God can accomplish (Eph. 2:5).
2) unconditional election
This point follows naturally from the doctrine of total inability. If man is spiritually dead then the only remedy lies outside of man - that is with God. "If man is unable to save himself on account of the Fall of Adam, being a total fall, and if God alone can save, and if all are not saved, then the conclusion must be that God has not chosen to save all." 10
The Scripture does testify of God's unconditional election. Deut 7:7 emphatically sets forth God's election of Israel. God chose Jacob over Esau (Rom. 9:13). Jesus chose those whom He desired to be His disciples (John 15:6). God spares whom He desires (Rom. 9:15). Believers are indeed chosen in Christ (Eph. 1:4,5; 1 Peter 2:9,10).
Rom. 8:29 speaks of election and the word foreknowledge is used in connection with it. In Biblical usage "foreknowledge" means to "forelove." It is a love bestowed without merit seen in the recipient. God has chosen to love some before the foundation of the world. God's plan or election is not based upon any foreseen faith in man (Rom. 9:11-13; 10:20; 11 Tim. 1:9; Acts 13:48; 1 Thess. 1:4,5; II Thess. 2:13,14; Phil. 1:29).
Presbyterianism sees God as an all merciful God who of His own choosing decided to same some out of their sin and misery. Each person who professes Christ ought to thank God daily for His electing mercy.
3) limited or particular atonement
This teaching is vitally important in understanding the purpose of Christ's death on the cross. Certain questions arise: whose punishment did Christ bear? Whose salvation did He actually procure? We know that all men cannot be saved because some will go into everlasting hell (Rev. 20:10,15). But did Jesus die for all men knowing that only some would benefit from that death? The answer is no! Jesus died actually to save God's elect (Eph. 1:4; John 17:9; Matt.. 26:28). Christ's whole purpose in His first advent was to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). Jesus gave Himself for the church (Eph. 5:25).
"Christ's atonement was sufficient to save all but it was efficient to save only the elect"11 Christ is said to have been a ransom for His people (Matt 20:28). We should note He gave His life as a ransom not for all but for many. A ransom frees only those for whom it was intended.
When Jesus died, He shed His blood for the remission of sins. We know that His blood was the cup of the new covenant (Matt 26:28). This passage says His blood was shed for many. It is quite clear that the shed blood does accomplish the purpose for which it was intended. Where the blood covers sin, salvation is apparent. Can there be an actual shedding of Christ's blood for someone who never repents and goes to hell? The answer is an unequivocal- NO! No shed blood of Christ can fall in vain. It will save all for whom it covers, and this is only the elect. Thus, the atonement is limited or particular.
Presbyterianism glories in the truth that Jesus died for those whom God the Father had elected unconditionally before the foundation of the world.
4) irresistible grace
There is a logical continuity in all the five points. As we have noted already, if man is unable to save himself, if God has elected some to salvation, if Christ has procured the salvation of these elect, then naturally God will provide the means for calling them to salvation.
By irresistible grace we mean that the Holy Spirit will open the eyes of the blind sinner; He will free him from his bondage to sin; He will enable him to hear the Gospel of truth; He will enable him to desire to seek God; and He will regenerate his deadened soul giving it life. This working of the Holy Spirit (commonly referred to as effectual calling) cannot be frustrated because God's purpose can never be thwarted (Dan 4:35; Job 42:2; Ps. 33:11; Isa. 14:24; Eph. 1:11).
We see in the Scripture that God calls men to Christ and no man can come to Christ unless drawn (John 6:37,44). The children of God are those led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14). Paul said he was called by His grace (Gal. 1: 15). We see a vivid example of the Spirit's calling. in Acts 16 where Lydia's heart was opened by the Lord (Acts 16:14,15). Other passages concerning the Spirits effectual calling are: Titus 3:5; Eph. 1:19,20; 1 Peter 2:9; John 3:3; Col. 2:13; II Cor. 5:17; Eph. 11:19.
Presbyterians give Praise to God that it was the Holy Spirit who enabled them to see the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ and that it was the Holy Spirit that awakened their deadened soul. Is this not the testimony of genuine believers? Listen sometime to a person's testimony of God worked the circumstances enabling him to be responsive to the Gospel. Essentially, what they are saying is that the Holy Spirit irresistibly called them to Christ.
5) perseverance of the saints
It only follows that if God has elected some to eternal life, if Jesus died to save these, and if God has called or drawn to salvation those who could not save themselves, then God will preserve those saved ones unto eternal life.
This doctrine states that it is impossible for those who are genuine Christians to be eternally lost. To believe they could be lost is a denial of fundamental truths in Scripture. Denominations which deny this fifth point state that there are some who once have believed but then have denied the faith. They refer to II Peter 2:20-22 and Heb. 6:4-6 as confirmatory passages. What these groups fail to grasp is that it is possible to profess Jesus Christ yet never genuinely be converted. Jesus illustrates such an occurrence in Matt 7:20-23. It is possible to have a certain knowledge of Christ without being converted. It is such a situation that exists in II Peter 2:20-22 and Heb. 6:4-6. The parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-15) also illustrates this fact.
Presbyterians are merely saying that where them is a genuine conversion there will be perseverance to the end. He who perseveres is the one who is saved, he who falters and denies the faith demonstrates the true condition of his heart.
God sees to it that His work is completed in His people (Phil. 1:6; II Tim 4:18). Jesus said none who are given to Him by the Father shall be lost (John 6:39; 10:28). A person who genuinely believes has eternal life (John 4:14; 5:24; 6:47,51; 1 John 5:11-13). The glorification of the believer is but the natural sequence of God's providential work (Rom. 8:29). The elect cannot be led astray (Matt 4:24; Mark 13:22). The mystic union between Christ and the believer guarantees continued steadfastness (John 14:19; Rom 8: I0; Gal. 2:20). We are sealed in Christ (Eph. 1:13,14; 4:30). God has promised to preserve believers from their own backslidings (Jer. 32:40). Believers are guarded by the power of God (I Peter 1:50; II Thess. 3:3; Ps. 34:7).
Jesus is the author of our salvation (Heb. 5:9; 12:2). How can we lose that which is not ours to lose. Praise God that He is faithful to preserve our souls to eternal life.
Presbyterians view the five points as precious gems in the theology of Scripture. They provide a great comfort to God's people. Those who fully realize that it was the sovereign God who awakened their deadened soul, that it was God who delivered them from the miry pit, that it was God who came to them when they were going astray are indeed the ones who can sing that great hymn, "Amazing Grace," with fervor as never before.
Presbyterians believe that Scripture teaches there are only two sacraments-the Lord's supper and baptism. These sacraments are a means of grace but never such a means apart from the Word of God. The sacraments, alone, are never sufficient unto salvation. "The Word and the sacraments differ in the following particulars: 1) The Word is absolutely necessary; while the sacraments are not, 2) the Word serves to beget and strengthen faith, while the sacraments can only strengthen it, 3) the Word is for all the world, but the sacraments are only for believers and their seed." 12
The sacraments are visible signs of inward spiritual graces. The signs of the sacraments are water in baptism, and of bread and wine in the Lord's supper. The purpose of the signs is to point to that which is signified-namely the inward graces. These inward graces are the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11); the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4); faith and repentance (Mark 1:4; 16:16), and communion with Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3,4; Col. 2:11,12).
The sacraments are a seal of God's new covenant with man. What is a seal? A seal attests to the genuineness or validity of what has taken place-namely that which God has promised has happened or will happen. The seal represents not man's ability but God's faithfulness and power. But in saying that the sacrament is a seal of inward grace we are not saying that the sacrament, in itself, actually bestows that grace. However, the very nature of the sacrament does confirm and strengthen the grace when actually present.
Presbyterians refute the notion of baptismal regeneration -the idea that a person is saved by the administration of the sacrament. A person receiving the sacrament may prove that his profession of faith was false or an infant may grow up never embracing Christ as his Lord and Savior. This apostasy does not detract from the genuineness of the seal. Again, the seal represents what God promises. But these promises are never understood apart from man's responsibility to obey the covenant stipulations. Man must be a covenant keeper-that is repent and believe on Jesus Christ-in order for the seal of the sacraments to be effectual in his life.
John Murray comments on the relationship between the sign and seal of the sacraments:
"It is apparent that as a sign or seal it should not be identified with that which is signified and sealed. That which signifies is not the thing signified and that which seals is not the thing seated. The sign or seal presupposes the existence of that which is signified or sealed. Hence baptism is the sign and seal of a spiritual reality which is conceived of as existing. Where that reality is absent the sign or seal has no efficacy. Equally pertinent is the observation that the sign or seal does not bring into existence that which is signified or sealed. It does not effect union with Christ."13
The Lord Jesus Christ instituted this supper during the tune of the passover just prior to His arrest and subsequent death (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19,20, 1 Cor. 11:23-25). This sacrament was tied with the pascal meal of the Old Testament. The broken bread symbolized Jesus' broken body. The wine symbolized Jesus' shed blood. The eating and drinking of these elements point to the spiritual receiving of the benefits of Christ's sacrificial death. The supper is a reminder of His death. The person who partakes of the Supper is professing their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Presbyterians believe in the spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper. By this we mean that the benefits of Christ's sacrifice are present and actually conveyed to believes by the Holy Spirit. All who desire to are called to examine carefully themselves (I Cor. 11:28-32) so that they do not partake in an unworthy fashion. This exhortation obviously rules out unbelievers, and it rules out children who have not yet come to a point of discretion in personally making a public profession of Christ.
Christian baptism was instituted after Christ's resurrection by Christ Himself (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:6). Baptism is an initiation into the church of Jesus Christ. As an initiatory rite, baptism conveys primarily a twofold idea: 1) the washing with water, 2) union with Christ and His people.
Concerning the first idea, the washing with water represents the cleansing of the participant. Water baptism signifies and seals the cleansing of the Holy Spirit. The Scripture emphasizes that sinners must be renewed by the Holy Spirit before they are engrafted into God's kingdom (1 John 3:3; Ezek. 36:26,27; Titus 3:5). As baptism represents cleansing, it represents the Holy Spirit's work of regeneration.
Concerning the second idea, baptism is the sin and seal of our union with Christ and with His people. We see this idea conveyed in Rom 6:3-6; 1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:27,28; Col. 2:11,12. "We may say then that baptism signifies union with Christ in virtue of His death and the power of his resurrection, purification from the defilement of sin by the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit and purification from guilt by the sprinkling of the blood of Christ." 14
The mode of baptism is another doctrine that has singled out Presbyterians from many denominations. Presbyterians believe that Scripture teaches the proper mode of baptism is that of pouring or sprinkling. We do not believe, as other denominations, that immersion is the only proper mode. Presbyterians do not deny the legitimacy of a baptism by immersion in a true church, however, we insist that Scripture nowhere proves that baptism can only mean immersion.
Immersionists insist that the Greek word "baptizo" means immerse, dip, or plunge. Hence, the mode of baptism only can be legitimately one of immersion. But Presbyterians equally insist that the key in understanding the mode of baptism lies in the use of the word in Scripture. Does "baptizo" always mean or imply immersion? The answer is NO! Heb. 9:8-22 demonstrates that a form of "baptizo" is used in connection with ceremonial cleansing done by the Spring of blood. Heb. 9:10 points out that Old Testament ritual "baptisms" were only types and shadows of true spiritual realities. Heb. 9:13,14 demonstrates that a cleansing is performed by sprinkling with blood. Heb. 9:19 speaks of a mixture of water and blood being sprinkled on all the tabernacle because all things were to be cleansed by blood. Therefore, Presbyterians insist that if "baptizo" can only mean immersion then how do we account for the word referring to baptisms performed by sprinkling?
In Acts 1 and 2 we see the teaching of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is prophesied as an event to be called the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2 the "baptism" occurred (also see Acts 11:15,16). This baptism is called a "pouring" out of the Spirit (Acts 2:15-17,33; 10:44,45). As previously noted, there is a close relationship between the Holy Spirit and water baptism. The Spirit is always said to be poured out sprinkled (Titus 3:5; Prov. 1:23; Isa. 32:15; 44:3; Ezek. 36:25-28).
Presbyterians simply say that the evidence of Scripture points to pouring and sprinkling as the proper modes of baptism. The immersionist's arguments, under close scrutiny, do not hold up.
Presbyterians recognize two groups as legitimate candidates for Christian baptism: 1) adult believers, 2) infants of believing parents.
When Jesus instituted the rite of baptism He was thinking of adult baptism (Mark 16:16). A profession of faith was to precede the baptism. On the day of Pentecost those that received and preached word were baptized (Acts 2:41). Hence, the Presbyterian church requires an adults seeking baptism to give reasonable evidence that they have repented and trusted Christ alone for salvation.
The second group that Presbyterians acknowledge as legitimate recipients for baptism are the children of believing parents. Infant baptism, along with the doctrine of predestination, is one of the doctrines that most people associate with Presbyterianism. Objectors to this doctrine insist that infants cannot exercise faith and that no command is given in the New Testament to baptize infants. But is this ground for denying the doctrine? Not at all. Presbyterians insist not only the legitimacy but the necessity for believing parents to baptize their children.
Infant baptism is rooted in a covenantal view of Scripture as presented earlier. There is a continuity or unity in God's covenant of grace. One of the keys in understanding the necessity for infant baptism is to understand the role of circumcision in the Old Testament. This was the sign and seal of God's covenant with His people (Gen.17:10,11,13,14). It is vital for us to note that circumcision was the covenant sign in its deepest spiritual meaning.
Three basic ideas are conveyed in the symbol of circumcision. First, it was the sign of union and communion with God (Gen. 17:7,11). As noted earlier, the heart of the covenant was the thematic phrase, "I will be your God and you will be my people." Circumcision was the sign of that covenant promise.
Second, it was the sign of the removal of defilement. It represented cleansing from sin (Deut 30:6; Isa. 52:1; Jer. 4:4; 6:10; 9:25,26; Ezek. 44:7-9).
Third, it was the seal of the righteousness of faith (Rom 4:11). Circumcision was vitally related to faith. Abraham received the sign as a symbol of his faith. The rite pictured and sealed internal faith. Of course, it must be remembered that it only represents faith and is not the cause of faith.
The significant concept is that circumcision was commanded to be administered to infants (Gen. 17:12). Hence, the covenant in its fullest meaning was to be given to infants.
Since the Scripture is an essential unity we must insist that where there is no command in the New Testament either implied or expressly given which abrogates an Old Testament principle, we must then assume the continuing validity of such a principle. This principle may take on a different manifestation, but it will be present. This means that the principle seen in circumcision as the sign of God's covenant should be seen in the New Testament as well. And this we do see. The New Testament affirms the principles of family solidarity, and infant inclusion in the covenant community. Moreover, we see "baptism" as replacing circumcision as the sign of Gods covenant.
We do see where God repealed the rite of circumcision as the covenant sign (Gal. 5:2ff; Acts 15:1,2,5,6,24). Circumcision was replaced with a bloodless covenant sign. The key passage demonstrating the change of covenant signs is seen in Col. 2:11,12. Baptism superceded circumcision as the covenant sign. The continuity, of God's covenant of grace is magnified. What was true in the principle of circumcision was now true of baptism. Baptism is now the initiatory rite into God's covenant community, whereas, before it was circumcision (Gen. 17:9-14 compared with Acts 2:4 1). Baptism is now the sign and seal of God's gracious covenant of love toward His people (Gen. 17 compared with Gal. 3:27-29). Baptism is now the sign of the covenant in its deepest spiritual meaning (Gen. 17 compared with Acts 22:16; 18:8).
The inescapable conclusion is that if infants were recipients of the Old Testament covenant sign then the continuity of the covenant demands believing parents, today, to baptize their infants. For an excellent presentation of this doctrine of infant baptism see Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr's tract entitled, Infant Baptism. A Duty of God's People.
Presbyterians are confident that their form of church government is the closest approximation to the apostolic church. Christ is seen as the head of the church (Eph. 1:22,23). He exercises His rule of the church through His word and Spirit and through the ministry of men (Eph. 4:10-12).
The term "Presbyterian" is derived from the word "presbytery." Presbyterianism means "a rule of the presbyter (elders)."
Key Features of Presbyterianism
1. There is a plurality of leadership consisting in two offices ordained by God. These offices are a) elder, b) deacon. For an excellent presentation of the biblical qualifications for elder and deacon see Roland Barnes' booklet, Selecting God's Men.
The elders (presbyters) are ordained by God to exercise spiritual oversight over the congregation of God (Acts 14:23; 11:30-, 15:2,6,23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17-20; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-3; Heb. 13:17).
There is normally a distinction made among elders. Some are referred to as "ruling elders" and others as "teaching elders." The ruling elders exercise their spiritual oversight through the teaching, visitation of the sick, comforting the mourning, nourishing and guarding the children of the church, praying with and for the people, and carefully seeking to see that fruit is produced among the people in response to the preached Word.
Teaching elders are those who are particularly set apart to labor in word and doctrine (I Tim. 5:17). These elders are commonly called "pastors" or "ministers." Their function, in addition to that performed by ruling elders, is to expound and preach the Word and administer the sacraments.
The distinction which exists between the elders is not one of authority but of function. This is referred to as the parity of elders. There is no evidence of a hierarchy in the churches. The qualifications are the same for both (I Tm. 3:1-7).
Churches are to be governed by a plurality of elders. Every church in the New Testament had several elders (Acts 14:23). Every city was to have several elders (Titus 1:5).
Elders were to be elected by the congregation. In Acts 14:23 the Greek word used for appointing elders literally means "to cause to vote by a stretching out of the hand."
Furthermore, the elders are given a real authority not exercised by the congregation at large. Some of the gifts of the Spirit were not meant for all (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:28). The office was entered into by a solemn rite (ordination) which is not automatic with conversion (I Tim 4:14; 5:22). This office carries with it a title of authority: "rule" (I Tim. 5:17), "Overseer" (Acts 20:28), "shepherd" (I Peter 5:1,2), "care for" (I Tim- 3:5). This office demanded higher qualifications not normally demanded of Christians in general.
Deacons are ordained primarily to a position of service (Acts 6:1-6). And their spiritual qualifications were just as high as those of elder (I Tim. 3:8-10). The deacons minister to those in need, to the sick, the friendless, or any in distress. They collect the tithes and gifts of the people and distribute these. They care for all the physical property of the congregation. In the overall discharge of their duties the deacons are under the supervision of the Session (the meeting of the elders).
2. Presbyterianism is a connectional church. By this we mean that church government is comprised of lower and higher courts which have authority over single or multiple churches.
The Jerusalem council of Acts 15 demonstrates the connections of the churches and the jurisdiction exercised by a given body. The matter was debated before the council (Acts 5:4,19). And the matter was adjudicated by the elders and not by democratic consensus among the congregation (Acts 15:6). Furthermore, the council of Jerusalem rendered a judicial decision regarding a problem in the church of Antioch. This judicial decision was sent back to the court of origin (Acts 15:20-23). The decision was binding (Acts 15:28; 16:4), and it was passed to the other churches to be obeyed (Acts 16:4).
The Presbyterian church seeks to follow the connectionalism in the apostolic church by its various courts which are: 1) the Session, 2) the Presbytery, 3 the General Assembly.
The Session is composed of the elders of a local church who have authority over a single church.
The Presbytery is the next highest court which is composed of multiple churches in a given geographical area. It has full jurisdiction over all the churches in its boundaries. Teaching elders are examined and approved on a Presbytery level and then commended to the church desiring his ministry. Issues not settled on a Sessional level can be appealed to the Presbytery court.
The General Assembly is, in reality, an extended Presbytery covering a nation. It is the court represented by all the denomination's churches. It constitutes the bond of union, peace and correspondence among all its congregations and courts. The General Assembly is the highest court of appeal. It adjudicates matters unable to be rendered by the Presbyteries.
Obviously, not every single belief of Presbyterianism was set forth in this presentation. The purpose was to explain major distinctives which historically have singled out Presbyterians from other denominations. Also, these major distinctives can serve as an introductory aid to those who are curious about what we, Presbyterians, believe. And, these distinctives can serve as a valuable aid to the church leadership in helping new church members (and old one ones as well) in understanding the basic teaching of their church.
Presbyterianism is a denomination with a rich heritage - namely one that stands upon the never changing foundation of God's Word. We are a people of the "Book". We are a people who give praise, glory, and honor to the providential God who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. And we are a people who are dedicated to the task of bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. We live for one purpose - to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.Previous Section