YOUR A CALVINIST, RIGHT? (John Starks interviews Fred

I’ve been reading Fred Sanders’s blog for a long time, and when his book, The Deep Things of God, came out, I was eager to read it. He’s a good writer, he loves and quotes the Puritans, he’s a reasonable thinker, and he knows how to do careful exegesis.

He’s also a Wesleyan.

I don’t mean to declare that so menacingly. But the first time I learned Sanders—associate professor at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University—was a Wesleyan, I was a bit surprised. It’s not that Wesleyans and Arminians can’t be careful interpreters and reasonable thinkers—I just don’t often resonate with their writings and conclusions quite the way I do with Sanders’.

And so, I had to know: For a guy who loves, quotes, and depends upon Calvin and Calvinists, why isn’t Fred Sanders a Calvinist? We corresponded, and he explained the one thing he wished Calvinists would stop accusing Wesleyans of doing and why Wesleyanism is only the opposite of Calvinism in a very small thought-world.

A good many Calvinists grew up in the Reformed tradition, but many of us became Calvinists later in life, when we had to make our faith our own and make sense of what the Bible says for ourselves. How did you become a Wesleyan? What about the tradition attracts you?

I grew up as a free-range evangelical, in pentecostal and baptistic churches of various kinds. But I actually got saved as a teenager when a revival broke out in the youth group at the local United Methodist church. I got an MDiv at Asbury Theological Seminary, a great interdenominational school with definite Methodist roots. So my conversion and my early theological training were in Wesley territory.

Nevertheless, for three reasons, it took me a while to warm up to Wesleyan theology. First, it’s just not all that obvious that there is any such thing as Wesleyan theology. I say that as somebody who loves systematic theology, who really enjoys reading treatises on doctrine. The Wesleyan tradition just isn’t famous for its systematic theologians. There are some exceptions worth naming (such as W. B. Pope and Thomas Watson), but the fact is that if you make a list of top five or ten theologians, Wesleyans don’t make the list. They barely make the top twenty-five list. My list, at least, is dominated (after the patristic and medieval periods) by Reformed and Roman Catholic thinkers of various kinds, who not only do great work, but have also successfully “branded” their style of theology so you can recognize it.

And second, there’s the problem of liberalism: the Wesleyan theological traditions have not done a good job of resisting the liberal impulse. Pretty early on in their history, Arminians made common cause with Socinians, lost their grip on all the hard doctrines, and became unusable for a conservative evangelical like me. My supreme theological commitments are to the Trinity and the gospel, so the old Arminian dalliance with anti-trinitarians and atonement revisionists (and later, I would add, to denials of verbal inspiration) is very distasteful to me.

And third, the United Methodist Church is one of those American mainline denominations that isn’t very hospitable to conservative evangelicals. There are some good congregations, of course, but the national scene is ugly. I saw right away that it would be hard for me to join that denomination. The Free Methodists do better, and there are plenty of smaller Wesleyan denominations to choose from. But overall, the “where do I go to church” question is a real problem for conservative evangelicals who are Wesleyan.

For these reasons, it took me some time to come around to see the Wesleyan-Arminian theological perspective as something worth claiming. But I eventually did so. The sermons of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley were major factors for me. These are simply excellent, and gradually they drew me to the conviction that these Wesley brothers must have had a grasp of something important if they could keep producing things like that. The Wesleys teach a form of evangelical Protestantism that goes straight to the heart and changes lives. That’s what drew me in to the Wesleyan way of thinking.

Would you include Thomas Oden in that list of exceptions worth naming?

Yes, God bless Thomas Oden for his joyful rediscovery of orthodoxy and his massive retrieval project. His theology is by design not very distinctive, not easily recognized as “his.”

Recently you had a fun post, “Calvinists Who Love Wesley.” From what I know of you, I’m tempted to call you a “Wesleyan who loves Calvin.” Is that fair? What about the Calvinist and Reformed tradition do you find compelling? Where is it strongest?

Definitely sign me up for the “Wesleyans who love Calvin” club. I teach excerpts from The Institutes every year, and I’ve worked through the whole book cover to cover five times (three with students in seminar). There is no better way to learn the craft of theology than to work through The Institutes. Calvin shows his work: he always lets you know what he’s after, what he’s afraid of, and why he’s doing things. He brings you along with him, and requires an active and responsive reader who is willing to make costly decisions all along the way. He never just lists a series of truths in the “Ten True Facts About Angels” style; he is always asking, at every point, “What can we be saying the gospel itself while teaching on every subject in theology?” He called The Institutes little, and really believed it: his commentaries of course dwarf it; his Job commentary alone equals its page count. He wrote a systematic theology that succeeds in pushing the readers out to Scripture itself, where they have to deal with the living God, not Calvin. The first time I read The Institutes I was in seminary, and he talked me into infant baptism with his testament-spanning arguments. The third time I read The Institutes I was a new professor, and he talked me out of infant baptism in spite of himself, because of the weakness of his argument. I don’t think I ever leave a Calvin experience unchanged.

Turning from Calvin to the Calvinists, I’d also be willing to host the meetings for a “Wesleyans who love Calvinists” club. I’m going to ignore the left wing of the Reformed tradition here (it’s not just the Wesleyan tradition that has generated its share of liberals), and focus on the side of the tradition that is either evangelical or within hailing distance of conservative evangelicalism.

The Reformed tradition has produced a whole series of great theologians. On my very short list would be Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, Ursinus and Olevianus (that is, the Heidelberg Catechism in particular, but also Ursinus’s exposition of it), and Karl Barth (I said “within hailing distance”). But many more are waiting in the wings; Calvinism has a deep bench.

There are probably a lot of reasons why so many good theologians come from this tradition. But the most important is surely that the Reformed have excelled at getting the central message of Scripture right. They emphasize the glory of God, and trace all of God’s ways back to that ultimate horizon in one way or another. I think that has been a beacon that has drawn a lot of the most faithful and creative theological minds to that tradition. On a related note, I think Ephesians is the key text for the Reformed tradition at large. Not that Ephesians trumps any other book in the canon, but Calvinists have long known that in that letter, Paul stands tip-toe on the highest point of the revelation and insight given to the apostles, and gives a panoramic overview of all God’s ways. I don’t just mean the occurrence of words like election and predestination in chapter 1, I mean the vast sweep of God’s purposes in the recapitulatory economy (1:10), and how it makes known his eternal character as Father, Son, and Spirit. Calvinists from Thomas Goodwin to John Webster get this. If I were to start a theological Ephesians fan club, more Calvinists would show up than anyone else.

Finally, the Reformed tradition keeps producing good leaders who have a seriousness and responsibility about them. I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s as if they’re the grown ups, at least in American Protestantism. They may be tempted to abuse power (and that’s very bad), but at least they are comfortable with the responsible exercise of power, which is not something it’s easy to say about the Wesleyan tradition. Wesleyans are great at shaking things up, at being the powerful protest voice, at activating and empowering the marginalized. But Arminians don’t run things well. I sometimes think the healthiest state of affairs for an interdenominational coalition like evangelicalism would be if the Calvinists ran things and the Wesleyans were a very strong loyal opposition.

What kept you from making the leap to Calvinism?

Well, I do consider it a kind of leap, and the place to leap off of would be Romans 9. I have felt the attraction of that reading. You would have to run all the way to the end of Paul’s line of argument there about the election of Israel and their role in salvation history, which in context are all historical arguments, and then decide that it applies to individual people, to all individual people, from before creation. That is, the exegetical key to the Calvinist view is that the overall drift of Paul’s argument demands that the theological points involved should be transposed into a higher order. I don’t mean that’s how all Calvinists get to their conclusions, I mean that’s where I would make the case if I were persuaded of the Calvinist view of election. Without Romans 9 as a key jumping-off point, it seems to me that the rest of Scripture furnishes the vocabulary used in Calvinistic predestination (Exodus! Ephesians!), but not the necessary argument and demonstration. I’m perfectly comfortable with using a key text or two as guidance in interpreting the rest of Scripture: that’s the kind of hermeneutical procedure that makes me a Trinitarian (with the highest possible level of certainty and commitment) and a premillenialist (with a considerably lower level of certainty and commitment). But I’m just not persuaded that Romans 9 is the place to make one of those transcendental leaps; or that it means what Calvinists take it to mean.

Without some kind of platform like that, I can’t launch the Calvinist rocket. Election and predestination are awesome, revealed realities of salvation, but the Calvinist construals and constructions of them generate a web of doctrinal inferences that clash with other biblical truths. I can’t do limited atonement or irresistible grace, to pluck at two of the most vulnerable petals of the tulip. I can’t affirm the perseverance of the saints as part of the predestinarian package, though I could re-state the core concern as something like the irreversibility of salvation, and (perhaps being a bad Wesleyan) affirm that.

That isn’t a full critique of Calvinism, but I’m responding to the question autobiographically rather than systematically. This is why I didn’t make the leap.

Finish these sentences:

You haven’t really considered Wesleyanism unless you’ve read . . .

1. John Wesley’s Standard Sermons. The first 14 are the most important to read as a set, though all 52 are classic. This is where you get to see Wesley putting first things first, emphasizing the most important elements of his message. God changed the world through this instrument.

2. William Burt Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology, or at least his Higher Catechism of Theology. Pope was a conservative British Methodist of the 19th century. I think he is one of the finest theological minds in Protestant history, sadly neglected.

3. I should probably recommend a controversial book that addresses the five points, though that’s not my favorite genre. Jerry Walls and Joe Dongell’s Why I Am Not a Calvinist is a pretty good presentation of the position.

If you think Arminianism is semi-Pelagian, then . . .

You need a more flexible vocabulary of heresiology. John Wesley’s longest treatise was on original sin, and he affirmed it, right down to the bondage of the will. He put a sermon on the subject into his Standard Sermons. The Wesleyan emphasis on sinners being enabled to respond to the gospel has nothing to do with a high view of human abilities, and everything to do with an optimism of grace and a trust in the Holy Spirit’s prevenient work.

Perhaps anti-Wesleyans do this because they are hoping to make the error of Arminianism more obvious by exaggerating it into its supposedly logical conclusion. But if you think Arminianism is an error, you should just call it “the heresy of Arminianism.” If you have to exaggerate its flaws to make it seem terrible, you probably shouldn’t.

It may also be that some anti-Wesleyans are tempted to characterize Wesleyans by their worst exemplars. There have indeed been Pelagians and semi- demi- hemi- Pelagians in the Wesleyan tradition. I don’t know any other way to interpret Charles Finney. But it’s a basic rule of fair discourse that you should meet your opponent’s views at their strongest and most central, not their weakest and most peripheral. Calvinism has generated its fair share of antinomians, determinists, theocrats, anti-evangelicals, and formalists. Anti-Calvinists shouldn’t attack on that front, but at the places where the tradition is strongest.

The one thing I wish Calvinists would stop accusing Wesleyans of is . . .

Being anthropocentric in their soteriology. Caring more about human free will than God’s glory.

I also wish Calvinists would resist the urge to think of Wesleyanism as the secret to Reformed self-definition. I don’t mind sharpening a position by contrast, but Calvinists need a better foil than Wesleyanism. Only if you live in a very small thought-world is Wesleyanism the opposite of Calvinism. A more instructive opposite for Calvinism probably ought to be Roman Catholicism, if we’re going back to origins. About 200 years ago, I believe the Reformed in Europe still thought of Lutherans as their opposites. I would think today’s evangelical Calvinists would think of liberals as their opposites. But if you think “there are two kinds of people, Calvinists and Wesleyans,” you’re on a false trail; your devil is too small (to paraphrase J. B. Phillips). That will lead you to pick fights with other conservative, evangelical, Protestant Christians who really are on your side of the net in the game that counts.

Sure, Calvinists have J. I. Packer, but Wesleyans have . . .

Robert E. Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism and more recently The Heart of the Gospel: The Theology behind the Master Plan of Evangelism. This is a one-volume, popular-level introduction to Christian doctrine that is systematically oriented to evangelism in every doctrine. Sound good? It is.

I could also pile up a lot of influential non-theologians here (C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Bill Bright), but I’m assuming your question was probing for a theological communicator of Packer’s stature.

But it’s hard to beat J. I. Packer in any theological camp. He once called Wesley an inconsistent Calvinist. That’s a cute and feisty way of affirming the common ground we share. I like to think of Packer as an inconsistent Wesleyan. He won’t read this, will he?




John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is the classic Reformation handbook for understanding the theology and key teachings of Scripture. After nearly five centuries since its first appearance in 1536, it has withstood the test of time and remains a must-have resource for pastoral teaching and leadership in the Protestant and Reformed traditions.

There are several reasons for this: 1) the talents of Calvin; 2) the training of Calvin; 3) the historical moment of Calvin; 4) the purpose of the Institutes; 5) the structure of the Institutes; 6) the sources Calvin used for the Institutes; 7) the impact and abiding influence of both the Institutes and Calvin’s writings and ministry; 8) the excellent translations of the Institutes; 9) the outlines, indices, and commentaries available in support of studying Calvin’s magnum opus; 10) the impact that Calvin’s theology as articulated in the Institutes has had on the drafting and interpretation of the Reformed confessions. But above all, is the biblical fidelity of Calvin’s theology.

Let’s address each of these points briefly and explain why they lead to the conclusion that serious pastors, as well as scholarly theologians, should engage Calvin’s Institutes.

1. The talents of Calvin. By any standard, John Calvin was a remarkably gifted thinker and author. His mastery of language, logic, rhetoric and his cultural milieu not only created a theological vocabulary and theological structure for the Reformed tradition but helped to create the modern French language. Coupled with this was his personal and academic discipline that enabled him to work long hours and write, preach and teach with scholarly consistency multiple times each week. The Institutes are the fruits of this discipline and talent. Calvin’s penetrating exposition, exegesis, analysis, and presentation clarify the teachings of the Bible, instructing and encouraging Bible-based preaching by pastors even today.

2. The training of Calvin. Calvin is able to teach us well even today through his magnum opus due to his outstanding education. His training included Catholic religious practice, jurisprudence and the original biblical languages of Greek and to some extent Hebrew. He immersed himself in the literary style and analysis of classical literature resulting in a mastery of Latin that reflected the best of the nascent humanist tradition of his day. Calvin’s scholarship shaped by this training has endured, providing a standard of theological excellence for pastors and preachers wishing to proclaim the word of God in their generation.

3. The historical moment of Calvin. Along with Calvin’s remarkable talents and well-rounded education, Divine providence allowed Calvin’s maturity as a pastor-scholar to develop in the early part of the second generation of Reformation leadership. This meant that he benefited by the writings of Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, and Bullinger as well as other first-generation Reformers who established the basic patterns of Reformation thought. Calvin not only built on their substantial contributions, but he also challenged it and perfected it, making the Institutes a much stronger work. Moreover, as Calvin’s ministry unfolded, he continued to improve and expand his work until finally in 1559, more than two decades after its first edition in 1536, he produced a final edition with which he was satisfied. Calvin’s reformation freshness was joined with deepening theological insights. He was afforded the privilege of standing on the shoulders of theological luminaries, thereby advancing their theological contributions. Thus the Institutes provide great vistas of biblical thought from which we can learn and benefit from as we, in turn, stand on his sturdy theological shoulders.

4. The purpose of the Institutes. The reason that Calvin wrote the Institutes is captured in the word “institutes” itself, meaning namely, instruction. He intended that the Institutes would be the go-to book to answer the inevitable thorny questions that arise when one studies the Bible. He intended that it would provide correction for many theological errors propagated by historic medieval Catholicism, heretical movements such as Anti-Trinitarians as well as other competing protestant and reformation theological movements such as Anabaptists and Lutherans. Calvin’s original intention for his work is still relevant for Bible students today. Pastors preaching difficult texts and doctrines will find helpful guidance from Calvin’s theological reflections in the Institutes.

5. The structure of the Institutes. Calvin modeled his Institutes by the Trinity and the grace that the Triune God brings to His Church. So in four distinct books, Calvin treats the knowledge of God the Father, the knowledge of God the Son, the knowledge of God the Holy Spirit and the Church and Sacraments that the Triune God has established and redeemed. His Trinitarian theology, coupled with his recognition of the significance of the church to the Triune God, create the heart of the Reformed and Presbyterian system of theology and ecclesiology, providing guidance for any church community that celebrates the saving grace of God and the centrality of the Christian Church. Calvin’s theology and theological churchmanship guide biblically motivated pastors in their quest to build up congregations that love God and wish to have God-centered worship.

6. The sources Calvin used for the Institutes. Calvin’s great work is useful for pastors because it is first and foremost an intense attempt to explain the leading and foundational truths of the Bible. Reading the Institutes will consistently drive pastors back to the Scriptures. Calvin equips pastors to be expositors of the Scriptures rather than mere analysts of culture, entertainers or pop-psychologists. Calvin’s efforts to understand the word of God will induce careful readers to desire to preach the Scriptures more faithfully, deeply and carefully. Calvin equips pastors to be expositors of the Scriptures rather than mere analysts of culture, entertainers or pop-psychologists.

7. The impact and abiding influence of both the Institutes and Calvin’s writings and ministry. Is it not remarkable that after all this time and in spite of the changes in the theological world and the restless global contemporary culture that Calvin’s teachings are relevant, remaining in print and translated into languages throughout the earth? This means that a pastor who assimilates the theology of the Institutes enters into a global community of theological scholarship and biblical pastoring that has withstood the shifting sands of human ideology and theological opinion. This in itself argues that a pastor would do well to engage Calvin’s work that has such staying power and such universally recognized value for the church.

8. The excellent translations of the Institutes. In the English language as well as other major languages, there are excellent scholarly versions of the Institutes that provide readable versions of his work. This means that although his writing was done centuries ago in a historical and cultural context quite different from the pastor reading Calvin today, Calvin’s language and arguments are generally accessible to a serious reader of his work today. A pastor who reads Calvin will find his theological vocabulary and theological accuracy substantially enhanced by the work of regularly reading Calvin as part of his sermon preparation or as an aspect of his teaching within his church communities.

9. The readily available outlines, indices, and commentaries available in support of studying Calvin’s magnum opus. In several major languages, many useful supporting tools are available to assist a pastor who chooses to read and to study Calvin’s theology. In the English language, the translation by Ford Lewis Battles is a magisterial tool for mastering Calvin. Therein, the Institutes are outlined throughout all four books. The indices include a full biblical apparatus as well as an outstanding index of the theological authors that Calvin referred to and in many cases depended upon and utilized to make his points. Calvin’s primary use of Scripture is manifestly evident as well as his deep respect for St. Augustine’s theology. A pastor would do well to consult the biblical index in the Institutes on a passage he is preparing to preach or teach to gain additional insight into the text. It is also a helpful exercise to see how Calvin interprets a text in his commentaries and then consider the additional emphases he offers on the passage in the Institutes. The discipline of consulting Calvin’s writings concerning a specific text will pay dividends for applications of the text and enable further mastery of its greater theological significance, thereby making the pastor a more effective preacher and expositor of Scripture.

10. The impact that Calvin’s theology in the Institutes has had on the drafting and interpretation of the Reformed confessions. The Reformed tradition has sought to organize and codify its faith by summarizing its theology in confessions and catechisms. Calvin’s Institutes was a rich source of theological insight for the authors of these great theological tools that remain in use for reformation- minded churches in the Reformed tradition. Reading the Institutes by pastors will often clarify and corroborate for them emphases found in these confessional documents. Pastors who love the confessions of his church will find help in teaching these documents more effectively by mastery of Calvin’s theology.

But finally and above all, we must recognize the biblical fidelity of Calvin’s theology. Calvin was committed to a reformation according to the word of God. Thus the Institutesleads its reader to a love for Scripture and a desire to obey Scripture “promptly and sincerely” as Calvin’s personal motto puts it. A pastor wishing to be a faithful man of God, faithfully preaching the Scriptures to his congregation, will be greatly assisted in this aim by keeping Calvin’s Institutes a regular part of his spiritual and theological disciplines.

Peter Lillback; President of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia is also the author of several books and an expert on John Calvin.



Like everyone who loves Puritan writings, I love John Owen’s (1616–1683) Works. But unlike most Puritan readers, I suppose, I have learned more and been fed in the depths of my soul more by Thomas Goodwin (1600–1679) than by John Owen. Consequently, Goodwin would be my number one choice of a Puritan pastor that pastors today should engage with. His insightful exegesis, doctrinal precision, experiential depth, and pastoral warmth are extraordinary.

The first collection of Goodwin’s works was published in five folio volumes in London from 1681 to 1704, under the editorship of Thankful Owen, Thomas Baron, and Thomas Goodwin Jr. An abridged version of those works was later printed in four volumes (London, 1847–50). James Nichol printed a more reliable collection of Goodwin’s works in twelve volumes (Edinburgh, 1861–66) in the Nichol’s Series of Standard Divines. It is far superior to the original five folio volumes and was reprinted in 2006 by Reformation Heritage Books. You will never be sorry for buying, reading, and praying over Thomas Goodwin’s remarkable writings. By God’s grace, your soul and ministry will be the better for doing so. CLICK TO TWEET

Goodwin’s exegesis is massive; he leaves no stone unturned. His first editors (1681) said of his work: “He had a genius to dive into the bottom of points, to ‘study them down,’ as he used to express it, not contenting himself with superficial knowledge, without wading into the depths of things.”[1] Calamy said: “It is evident from his writings [that] he studied not words, but things. His style is plain and familiar; but very diffuse, homely and tedious.”[2] One does need patience to read Goodwin; however, along with depth and prolixity, he offers a wonderful sense of warmth and experience. A reader’s patience will be amply rewarded.

Reading Goodwin’s Works

Here is a plan for reading Goodwin’s works.

1. Begin by reading some of the shorter, more practical writings of Goodwin, such as Patience and Its Perfect Work, which includes four sermons on James 1:1–5. This book was written after much of Goodwin’s personal library was destroyed by fire (Works, 2:429–67). It contains much practical instruction on the spirit of submission—a grace that pastors desperately need, especially in the challenging pastoral ministry of our day with all of its disappointments!

2. Read Certain Select Cases Resolved, which offers three experiential treatises that reveal Goodwin’s pastoral heart for afflicted Christians. Each deals with specific struggles in the believer’s soul: (a) “A Child of Light Walking in Darkness” encourages the spiritually depressed based on Isaiah 50:10–11 (3:241–350). The subtitle summarizes its contents: “A Treatise Shewing The Causes by which, The Cases wherein, and the Ends for which, God Leaves His Children to Distress of Conscience, Together with Directions How to Walk so as to Come Forth of Such a Condition.” (b) “The Return of Prayers,” based on Psalm 85:8, is a uniquely practical work. It offers help in ascertaining “God’s answers to our prayers” (3:353–429). (c) “The Trial of a Christian’s Growth” (3:433–506), based on John 15:1–2, centers on sanctification, specifically mortification and vivification. This is a mini-classic on spiritual growth.

You might also read The Vanity of Thoughts, based on Jeremiah 4:14 (3:509–528). This work, often republished in paperback, stresses the need to bring every thought captive to Christ. It also describes ways to foster that obedience.

3. As pastors, read some of Goodwin’s great sermons. They are strong, biblical, Christological, and experiential (2:359–425; 4:151–224; 5:439–548; 7:473–576; 9:499–514; 12:1–127).

Goodwin’s Works that Explain Major Doctrines

4. Delve into Goodwin’s works that explain major doctrines, such as:

(a) An Unregenerate Man’s Guiltiness Before God in Respect of Sin and Punishment (10:1–567). This is a weighty treatise on human guilt, corruption, and the imputation and punishment of sin. In exposing the total depravity of the natural man’s heart, this book aims to produce a heartfelt need for saving faith in Christ.

(b) The Object and Acts of Justifying Faith (8:1–593). This is a frequently reprinted classic on faith. Part 1, on the objects of faith, focuses on God’s nature, Christ, and the free grace of God revealed in His absolute promises. Part 2 deals with the acts of faith: what it means to believe in Christ, to obtain assurance, to find joy in the Holy Ghost, and to make use of God’s electing love. One section beautifully explains the “actings of faith in prayer.” Part 3 addresses the properties of faith: their excellence in giving all honor to God and Christ, their difficulty in reaching beyond the natural abilities of man, their necessity in requiring us to believe in the strength of God. The conclusion provides “directions to guide us in our endeavours to believe.”

(c) Christ the Mediator (2 Cor. 5:18–19), Christ Set Forth (Rom. 8:34), and The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth are great works on Christology (5:1–438; 4:1–92; 4:93–150). Christ the Mediator presents Jesus in His substitutionary work of humiliation. It is a classic that God used greatly in my life as a teenager. Christ Set Forth proclaims Christ in His exaltation, and The Heart of Christ explores the tenderness of Christ’s glorified human nature shown on earth. Paul Cook says Goodwin is unparalleled “in his combination of intellectual and theological power with evangelical and homiletical comfort.”[3]

(d) Gospel Holiness in Heart and Life (7:129–336) is based on Philippians 1:9–11. It explains the doctrine of sanctification in every sphere of life.

(e) The Knowledge of God the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ (4:347–569), combined with The Work of the Holy Spirit (6:1–522), explore the profound work in the believer’s soul of the three divine persons. The Work of the Spirit is particularly helpful for understanding the doctrines of regeneration and conversion. It carefully distinguishes the work of “the natural conscience” from the Spirit’s saving work.

(f) The Glory of the Gospel (4:227–346) consists of two sermons and a treatise based on Colossians 1:26–27. It should be read along with The Blessed State of Glory Which the Saints Possess After Death (7:339–472), based on Revelation 14:13.

(g) A Discourse of Election (9:1–498) delves into issues such as the supralapsarian-infralapsarian debate, which wrestles with the moral or rational order of God’s decrees. It also deals with the fruits of election (e.g., see Book IV on 1 Peter 5:10 and Book V on how God fulfills His covenant of grace in the generations of believers).

(h) The Creatures and the Condition of Their State by Creation (7:1–128) is Goodwin’s most philosophical work.

5. Prayerfully and slowly digest Goodwin’s nine-hundred-plus-page exposition of Ephesians 1:1 to 2:11 (1:1–564; 2:1–355). Alexander Whyte wrote of this work, “Not even Luther on the Galatians is such an expositor of Paul’s mind and heart as is Goodwin on the Ephesians.”[4]

6. Save for last Goodwin’s exposition of Revelation (3:1–226) and his only polemical work, The Constitution, Right Order, and Government of the Churches of Christ (11:1–546). Independents would highly value this polemic, while Presbyterians probably would not, saying Goodwin is trustworthy on nearly every subject except church government. Goodwin’s work does not degrade Presbyterians, however. A contemporary who argued against Goodwin’s view on church government confessed that Goodwin conveyed “a truly great and noble spirit” throughout the work.

You will never be sorry for buying, reading, and praying over Thomas Goodwin’s remarkable writings. By God’s grace, your soul and ministry will be the better for doing so.


[1] For the reprinting of the original preface, see The Works of Thomas Goodwin (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 1:xxix–xxxii.

[2] Edmund Calamy, The Nonconformist’s Memorial, ed. Samuel Palmer (London: Alex. Hogg, 1778), 1:186.

[3] Paul Cook, “Thomas Goodwin—Mystic?” in Diversities of Gifts (London: Westminster Conference, 1981), 45–56.

[4] Alexander Whyte, Thirteen Appreciations (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1913), 162.

Joel R. Beeke



R.C. Sproul once said, “If you ask me who I think were three most brilliant theologians in all of history, I would say Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, and Francis Turretin.” About Turretin, he added, “If you want to find sound theology, here it is.”

So who is this giant from the past? Francis Turretin spanned most of the seventeenth century. Born in 1623, he came by theology as his profession honestly. His grandfather, having embraced the Reformed faith, immigrated to Geneva from Italy. Francis’s father, Benedict Turretin, was also a theologian whose career included a significant role at the Synod of Dort. Francis cut his teeth on theology in Geneva, then studied at a number of Europe’s most prestigious universities. He returned to Geneva to pastor an Italian church and serve as a professor at the Geneva Academy. The Italian church in Geneva had been established in 1542 to serve Reformation refugees. The Geneva Academy was founded in 1559 by Calvin. Turretin died in his beloved city of Geneva on September 28, 1687.

In addition to preaching and teaching, he wrote. Most notable among Turretin’s writings is his three-volume Institutes of Elenctic Theology. It was originally published in Latin as Institutio Theologiae Elencticae, published in four volumes in 1688.

It was and is immense. Covering the whole range of systematic theology, Turretin offers twenty topics. Each topic is addressed through a series of questions. The questions are answered. Objections are raised. Objections are answered. With the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, Turretin addresses problems, works through all the angles, and brings the reader to a pinpoint resolution—aided by logic, the best of the tradition, and above all Scripture. It was this precision, that made Turretin so appealing to R.C. And it is Turrretin’s precision that makes him so necessary for pastors today.

We need to see this precision played out against three things:

  • the context in which Turretin lived and wrote
  • the method animating how and what Turretin wrote
  • the end for which Turretin wrote

The Polemics of the Seventeenth Century:  Turretin’s Context

Cool closets or controversy? B.B. Warfield once remarked that theologians and pastors might prefer comfortable environments, what Warfield called “cool closets.” The reality is that many actually find themselves in controversy, sometimes steeped in it.

When we think of the Reformers we sometimes forget that they lived far from charmed lives and existences. Luther lived most of his adult life as an outlaw with a potential death sentence over his head. Calvin suffered wave upon wave of betrayal, misunderstanding, and conflict. These were times of significant political, ecclesiastical, and theological upheaval. These times rolled into the seventeenth century. Disputes rose against what came to be called Calvinism, or the Reformed view of the doctrines of grace. They were addressed at the Synod of Dort, but the Arminian camp grew stronger as the decades wore on. The Socinian controversy raged in Turretin’s day, as it did in Calvin’s day. And the papists did not disappear when Luther swung his mallet. All of these controversies and more were part of the warp and woof of Turretin’s life. Whether he was addressing those in the pew or those who would step into the pulpit he fully embraced the challenge of defending orthodoxy and calling out heresy and error. That was called polemics, the engaging in controversy and dispute. Turretin knew that error was deadly for the church, and he stepped in.

This context of controversy means that Turretin’s academic theological work is not merely academic nor abstract. His theological writing has everything to do with church life and the Christian life. Turretin writes with an intellectual passion because what was at stake was the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, and the doctrines of grace. In fact, doctrine itself was at stake. The names of the figures involved in the controversies have changed since the seventeenth century, but the issues haunt our day.

Can a well-intentioned Christian go wrong on the doctrine of God? Can they be tripped up by impassibility? What are we to make of the discussion of the eternal generation of the Son? What do we do with subtle, or not so subtle, challenges to T-U-L-I-P? Turretin can help. Not only can Turretin help with actual arguments and actual, sound instruction, he also helps by reminding pastors that they are polemicists

Not only can Turretin help with actual arguments and actual, sound instruction, he also helps by reminding pastors that they are polemicists. Proclaiming the gospel involves defending and contending for the gospel. Pastors are not called to stir up controversy or be controversialists (in the negative sense). But they are not called to duck controversy, either. Controversy actually doesn’t need to be sought out. There’s something about proclaiming the truth that brings with it the drawing of lines. Warfield knew he wouldn’t have the “cool closets” of comfort, because he cared for and proclaimed the truth. Turretin had a similar context. Engaging Turretin is fortifying for the controversy that sometimes comes.

Turretin’s context lies behind his precision. His method also relates to his precision.

Scholasticism: Turretin’s Method

One of the many things you learn from the study of history is an appreciation for irony. One of those ironies you learn is that things that appear to the most irrelevant are indeed the most relevant. This is certainly true of scholasticism. The scholastics tend to get a bad reputation. They are seen as the ones having great answers to questions that no one is asking. How many angels can sit on the head of a pin?

The scholastics did in fact like to ask questions. But they weren’t unnecessary or merely academic questions intended only to tie your brain into a knot like a pretzel.

People have questions and people need answers. Turretin provides reliable and sound answers. I recently spoke with a pastor who shared of his experience with younger church planters. These were truly zealous and sincere young men who were willing to pour themselves into the work. But they lacked any formal training in Bible and theology. They preached, but they had nothing to preach. They wanted to have a church, but they had no theology of the church, nor a theology for the church. Many of them were like meteors with brilliant and radiant starts that sadly burnt out all too quickly and had become a spent force.

People have questions, and those questions are ultimately theological. Turretin is a great encyclopedia at the pastor’s fingertips to provide sound answers backed by solid reasoning and Scripture. Turretin is like having a theology curriculum answer key always at the ready. That’s a valuable resource for any pastor.

What proves quite helpful about Turretin’s method is the order and procedure by which he tackles a problem. He starts first by framing a question. He next explains how the question arose and, in the process, helps the reader grasp what’s at stake in the question. He then answers the question with propositions logically flowing together and all generously supported by Scripture.

There is something refreshing and nourishing about watching a sharp mind at work. Our campus at Reformation Bible College is currently undertaking a massive building project. I watched the other day as the construction crew lifted the roof trusses in place and then secure them to the finished walls. The skill and the precision of the workers were admirable. We marvel at skilled workers at work. Reading Turretin is watching a master craftsman at work.

In addition to Turretin’s context and method, we also need to consider the purpose of Turretin’s writing. What was Turretin aiming at?

Worship:  Turretin’s Aim

In the very first topic, simply titled “Theology,” Turretin says that the theologian who “does not carry his system into practice” is an impious theologian. For Turretin, theology is both theoretical and practical. Living is the aim of theology. But so is worship, and worship springs from love. Put simply, we study and know God so that we can love God so that we can worship God and so that we will serve God as obedient and grateful sons and daughters.

Turretin puts it this way, “There is no mystery proposed to our contemplation as an object of faith which does not excite us to the worship of God or which is not prerequisite for its proper performance.”

To know God is to love God and to worship Him aright. That is the aim of theology. Now, again, we see why precision matters. If we are talking about worshiping God, there can be no greater call than the call for precision, for utmost care and diligence. The subject of God is the most important subject we will ever apply ourselves to.

Why should every pastor engage Turretin? Because theology demands precision. And precious few rival Francis Turretin and his Institutes of Elenctic Theology.


by Al Baker; BANNER OF TRUTH online
October 15, 2018

‘Do not grieve the Holy Spirit’ –Ephesians 4:30 | ‘Do not quench the Spirit’ — 1 Thessalonians 5:19 | ‘Insulting the Spirit of grace’ –Hebrews 10:29 |’Repent. . . be baptized. . . receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ — Acts 2:38

After his resurrection and just prior to his ascension, the Lord Jesus gathered his disciples and told them, ‘Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of my Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high,m (Luke 24:46-49). My friends, if anyone was equipped and prepared for ministry, it was the disciples who had been trained by Jesus and lived with him for three years, being set aside as his apostles, and who had witnessed his many miracles and mighty preaching, who had been with him numerous times after his resurrection. Yet Jesus, in essence, said to them, ‘Don’t even think about doing my work until you have the promised Holy Spirit.’

Jesus says something similar in Acts 1:8, just before he ascended into heaven before their very eyes, ‘. . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses (the Greek word is martyrs) both in Jerusalem and in all of Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’ And we know that the promised Holy Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost on the one hundred and twenty who had gathered in the Upper Room and prayed for ten days.

Pentecost was a once for all outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church of Jesus. When you were converted, born again by the work of the Holy Spirit, you were baptized with the Holy Spirit. You were sealed with the Spirit, meaning you gained an assurance of God’s forgiveness and your union with Christ. And you are commanded to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). Thus you can daily be controlled by the Spirit.

So, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then you have the Holy Spirit. You have, therefore, the capacity and ability to be filled with the Spirit and to be used mightily of God. There is, therefore, no reason why you cannot every day be filled with great joy, boldness, growing personal holiness, and efficacy in ministry, seeing people converted and growing in grace.

Sadly, however, this is rarely the case for most of us. Why? Is it possible that you have grieved, quenched, or even insulted the Holy Spirit? What does this mean? Literally the Greek text of Ephesians 4:30 reads, ‘Grieve not the Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God.’ This is quite emphatic. This is a present tense command, meaning we are always, everyday commanded by God not to grieve the Holy Spirit. So, how do you know if you are grieving the Spirit?

The context of this verse gives us the answer. In verses 17-32 Paul lays out a series of commands on how the believers in Ephesus are to live. He begins in verse 17 by saying, ‘So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you no longer walk as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their minds, being darkened in their understanding, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their hearts . . .’ From there Paul commands them to put off the old man, to be renewed in the spirit of their minds, to put on the new man, to lay aside falsehood and to speak truth to one another, to be angry and not sin, to not give the devil an opportunity, to not steal, to not speak unwholesome words, to put aside bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice.

So to grieve the Holy Spirit is to disobey God in these specific commands. You can be sure that any sin grieves the Holy Spirit. Martyn Lloyd-Jones also says that grieving the Holy Spirit is to disappoint him, to not listen to his promptings that come to your heart and mind.1 This is like a wife who publicly embarrasses her husband. He is grieved. The Holy Spirit can be embarrassed by your actions. And while you still belong to God, the result of grieving the Spirit, besides short-circuiting power in ministry, is losing his gracious influences. The more you sin the less sure you are of God’s love for you, the less joy you have, the less faith you have to believe God will answer your prayers.

But you can also quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). What does this mean? The context, again, gives us a clue to its meaning. Verses 20-22 say, ‘Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.’ Prophetic utterance has the idea of speaking forth the word of God. So, one is quenching the Spirit when he resists the preaching of God’s word, when he mocks it, criticizing the preacher who is doing his best to preach accurately and faithfully the Biblical text. By all means, we are to make sure the preaching is Biblical and theologically sound, but to reject, mock, or criticize true preaching just because you do not like the delivery style is a serious matter indeed. To not hold onto the good word that is preached, to disobey the preacher’s clear exhortation to reject every kind of evil in the Biblical text he is preaching, is to quench the Spirit. You see, the Spirit is seeking to work in and through the preacher to promote holiness in you, and your taking lightly the speaking forth of God’s word is throwing water on the fire the Holy Spirit is seeking to burn in you.

And then you are not to insult the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29). The writer here is putting forth a severe warning to second generation believers who have continued sinning willfully, blatantly, and consciously without the slightest desire to repent and return to the Lord. He says they have rejected the person of Christ (trampling under foot the Son of God), rejected the work of Christ (regarding as unclean the blood of the covenant by which they are sanctified), and insulted, mocked, and ignored the Spirit (God’s gracious source of power and ability to obey Him). The Holy Spirit is the One who brings to us regenerating grace, who applies the fulness of Christ’s redemptive work (regeneration, justification, reconciliation, adoption, expiation, propitiation, and sanctification) to every believer. To reject consistently (if we go on sinning willfully, after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain, terrifying expectation of judgment, Hebrews 10:26-27) the marvellous overtures of the Spirit’s gracious work is the height of rebellion and folly. When the Spirit is prompting you to put away a specific sin, and you continue in it, unabated, unrepentant, then you are in danger of insulting the Spirit. We love to hear of the mercy and grace of God, but we also must remember the severity of his judgement and wrath upon the unrepentant.

So, if you lack power in your ministry, if you lack joy and boldness, then ask yourself — ‘have I grieved the Spirit, have I quenched the Spirit, am I in danger of insulting the Spirit?’ If so, then would should you do? What is the remedy?

When Peter preached at Pentecost and the people were pierced in the heart, saying, ‘What shall we do?’ Peter said, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,’ (Acts 2:38).

Peter was calling these people to do three things. First, they were to repent. They were to see the error in their thinking about Jesus, his person and work, the nature of God, and their own sin and guilt. They were to humble themselves before God. Secondly, they were to be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. Repentance led to forgiveness and the outward display of their new union with Christ was to be baptism which signifies the washing away of their sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And thirdly, repentance and forgiveness of sins would lead to the Holy Spirit indwelling them.

If you are born again, this is precisely what happened to you way back when, even though you may not have been conscious of how the transaction occurred. This was a definitive moment in your life.

But we can go further and make application to your daily living in Christ. When you sin, when you grieve, quench, or insult the Holy Spirit, then you must again apply this teaching to your heart, soul, and mind. Repent! Surrender to God. Don’t project your sin to your spouse, parent, child, or friend. Own it. Admit it. Confess it specifically. And if you have wronged someone else, then go to them and confess your sin to that person, asking them to forgive you. Make restitution if necessary.

When you do so, then you will immediately receive the forgiveness of your sins (1 John 1:8-10). You are going to Jesus, bathing in his blood, being cleansed by his blood. And when you do this, you will again be filled with the Holy Spirit. God is rich in mercy. He is slow to anger. He will daily take your sins away as far as the east is from the west. Repent, accept the cleaning blood of Jesus, and receive the filling of the Holy Spirit. Here is your source of power. Here is the source of joy, boldness, and efficacy in ministry.

Al Baker is an Evangelistic and Revival Preacher with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship. (Note: This article was originally entitled “Receiving the Holy Spirit: A Vital Necessity”. The title was changed for clarity.)


  1. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Darkness and Light: An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17-5:17, pp. 264-277


FROM Oct 15, 2018

What do the sovereignty of God, salvation by grace, justification by faith, and new life in union with Christ mean for the living of the Christian life? For Martin Luther, they carry four implications:

The first implication is the knowledge that the Christian believer is simul iustus et peccator, at one and the same time justified and yet a sinner. This principle, to which Luther may have been stimulated by John Tauler’s Theologia Germanica, was a hugely stabilizing principle: in and of myself, all I see is a sinner; but when I see myself in Christ, I see a man counted righteous with His perfect righteousness. Such a man is therefore able to stand before God as righteous as Jesus Christ—because he is righteous only in the righteousness that is Christ’s. Here we stand secure.

The second implication is the discovery that God has become our Father in Christ. We are accepted. One of the most beautiful accounts found in Luther’s Table Talk was, perhaps significantly, recorded by the somewhat melancholic, yet much loved, John Schlaginhaufen:

God must be much friendlier to me and speak to me in friendlier fashion than my Katy to little Martin. Neither Katy nor I could intentionally gouge out the eye or tear off the head of our child. Nor Could God. God must have patience with us. He has given evidence of it, and therefore he sent his Son into our flesh in order that we may look to him for the best.

Third, Luther emphasizes that life in Christ is necessarily life under the cross. If we are united to Christ, our lives will be patterned after His. The way for both the true church and the true Christian is not via the theology of glory (theologia gloriae) but via the theology of the cross (theologia crucis). This impacts us inwardly as we die to self and outwardly as we share in the sufferings of the church. The medieval theology of glory must be overcome by the theology of the cross. For all their differences in understanding the precise nature of the sacraments, Luther and Calvin are at one here. If we are united with Christ in His death and resurrection, and marked out thus by our baptism (as Paul teaches in Rom. 6:1–14), then the whole of the Christian life will be a cross-bearing:

The Cross of Christ doth not signify that piece of wood which Christ did bear upon his shoulders, and to the which he was afterwards nailed, but generally it signifieth all the afflictions of the faithful, whose sufferings are Christ’s sufferings, 2 Cor. i.5: “The sufferings of Christ abound in us”; again: “Now rejoice I in my sufferings for you, and fulfil the rest of the afflictions of Christin my flesh, for his body’s sake, which is the Church” &c. (Col. i.24). The Cross of Christ therefore generally signifieth all the afflictions of the Church which it suffereth for Christ.

The believer’s union with Christ in His death and resurrection and its outworking in daily experience thus became, for Luther, the spectacle lenses through which the Christian learns to view every experience in life. This—the theologia crucis—is what brings everything into sharper focus and enables us to make sense of the ups and downs of the Christian life:

It is profitable for us to know these things, lest we should be swallowed up with sorrow or fall to despair when we see that our adversaries do cruelly persecute, excommunicate and kill us. But let us think with ourselves, after the example of Paul that we must glory in the cross which we bear, not for our sins, but for Christ’s sake. If we consider only in ourselves the sufferings which we endure, they are not only grievous but intolerable; but when we may say: “Thy sufferings (O Christ) abound in us”; or, as it is said in Psalm xliv: “For thy sake we are killed all the day,” then these sufferings are not only easy, but also sweet, according to this saying: “My burden is easy, and my yoke is sweet” (Matt. xi.30).

Fourth, the Christian life is marked by assurance and joy. This was one of the hallmarks of the Reformation, and understandably so. The Reformation’s rediscovery regarding justification—that, instead of working toward a hoped-for arrival at it, the Christian life actually begins with it—brought stunning deliverance, filling mind, will, and affections with joy. It meant that one could now begin to live in the light of a settled future in glory. Inevitably, that light reflected back into the present life, bringing intense relief and release.

For Luther, the Christian life is a gospel-grounded, gospel-built, gospel-magnifying life that exhibits the free and sovereign grace of God and is lived out in gratitude to the Savior who died for us, yoked to Him in cross-bearing until death is swallowed up in victory and faith becomes sight.

Perhaps, in 1522, as they sat listening to Luther preaching one Sunday in the church at Borna, some of his congregation wondered what lay at the heart of this gospel that had so excited, not to say transformed, Brother Martin. Could it possibly be for them too? Luther had read their minds. He had come into the pulpit well prepared to answer their question:

But what is the Gospel? It is this, that God has sent his Son into the world to save sinners, Jn. 3, 16, and to crush hell, overcome death, take away sin and satisfy the law. But what must you do? Nothing but accept this and look up to your Redeemer and firmly believe that he has done all this for your good and freely gives you all as your own, so that in the terrors of death, sin and hell, you can confidently say and boldly depend upon it, and say: Although I do not fulfil the law, although sin is still present and I fear death and hell, nevertheless from the Gospel I know that Christ has bestowed on me all his works. I am sure he will not lie, his promise he will surely fulfil. And as a sign of this I have received baptism.

Upon this I anchor my confidence. For I know that my Lord Christ has overcome death, sin, hell and the devil for my good. For he was innocent, as Peter says: “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth.” 1 Pet. 2, 22. Therefore sin and death were not able to slay him, hell could not hold him, and he has become their Lord, and has granted this to all who accept and believe it. All this is effected not by my works or merits; but by pure grace, goodness and mercy.

Luther once said, “If I could believe that God was not angry at me, I would stand on my head for joy.” Perhaps that very day some of those who heard him preach responded and experienced the “confidence” of which he spoke. Who knows but some of the younger hearers later wrote to their friends in turn and told them that they had gone home and stood on their heads for joy?


This excerpt is taken from Sinclair Ferguson’s contribution in The Legacy of Luther; REFORMATION TRUST; 2017


Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the conquest of Canaan. Previous post.

Genocide. The very word makes us cringe and conjures up unpleasant images of death and reminds us of some of the most wicked acts in history. It is a loaded term, to be sure, and many Christians are caught off guard when they hear it used to describe the invasion of Canaan that God ordered the Israelites to accomplish. Hearing such a charge puts us on the defensive, and it may even cause us to wonder whether our critics might be right.

In our series on the invasion of Canaan, we have been considering whether it is accurate to describe the conquest as an act of genocide. Thus far, we have considered whether the invasion matches Merriam-Webster’s definition of genocide as “the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group,” and we have seen that the actual biblical narrative and history does not support the charge that the invasion of Canaan was a genocide. Before we move on to considering other aspects of the invasion more specifically, this article will look at whether the invasion of Canaan was a religious genocide.


Although the Merriam-Webster definition cited above does not identify genocide as the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular religious group, some other definitions of genocide do. Perhaps it is included implicitly under Merriam-Webster’s category of “cultural group,” but in any case, of all the possible definitions of genocide, the intentional destruction of people who belong to a particular religious group seems on the surface to be a better descriptor of the invasion of Canaan than the destruction of people based on other categories.

I say that it seems that way on the surface because once you dig deeper, there are serious problems with viewing the invasion of Canaan as an act of genocide for religious reasons. For instance:

1. One of the stated reasons for the destruction of the Canaanites is at best tangentially religious. Leviticus 18:24–25 states that God will drive the Canaanites out of their land because of their incestuous behavior, homosexual activity, and bestiality. Though it was not the only reason God wanted to purge the promised land, engaging in forbidden sexual acts was one of the chief sins that brought divine judgment on the Canaanites in the form of the Israelite invasion. Now, some of these forbidden acts could have had religious dimensions if, for example, a family member was a cult prostitute. But that’s not the reason why the acts were forbidden. God simply declared them to be wrong in Leviticus 18 in such a way as to indicate that they were wrong even when not a part of a pagan religious context. The invasion was not ordered to destroy a religion but to purge immorality from the Promised Land.

2. There is no blanket destruction ordered for all religious groups that engage in forbidden religious practices. Deuteronomy 18:9–14 adds to the list of reasons why God commanded the Israelites to invade Canaan such things as child sacrifice (also mentioned in Lev. 18), necromancy, sorcery, and fortune telling. Undoubtedly, these are religious practices. What is interesting, however, is that the Israelites were not commanded to destroy everyone they ever meet who engaged in these things. Old Testament Israel had dealings with many nations outside the land of Canaan throughout its long history, and many of these nations also engaged in fortune telling and other religious practices found among the Canaanites. Yet, God did not order the Israelites to destroy those other nations. Although God hates false religion, the destruction of the Canaanites was not motivated by some kind of simplistic religious pride that says, “My religion is better than your religion; therefore, I must wipe you out.” There was something more going on.

To participate in false religion is first a turn away from the Judge and Creator of all before it is a turn to false gods.

3. The destruction of certain religious (and cultural) practices is not inherently wrong. As we have noted, the term genocide carries with it a sense of moral judgment. When most people make the accusation of genocide, they are not making a simple statement of objective fact but are making the moral evaluation that the act of destruction is inherently wrong. But some religious and cultural practices should be destroyed. From a biblical standpoint, it is inherently wrong to kill an innocent person, which makes the act of child sacrifice morally abhorrent. It is religiously abominable as well, and not merely because it is offered up in the name of a false god. It is inherently wrong because all people are made in God’s image, and it is sin to kill a divine image bearer without just cause (Gen. 9:5–6).

Our morally relativistic world tends to say that all religious and cultural practices should be preserved. That is manifestly not the case. Child sacrifice, widow burning, and a host of other religious and cultural traditions are evil and should not be preserved.

4. From a divine perspective, the invasion of Canaan can be seen as an act of “self-defense.” I want to be careful here. God cannot be killed, so He cannot engage in self-defense as we can. And yet, the Scriptures tell us that idolatry is the attempt of fallen people to suppress the knowledge of the one, true Lord (Rom. 1:18–32). It is an attack on God Himself. When God orders the destruction of the Canaanites, He is “defending” Himself from those who would seek to destroy or displace Him.


While there are good reasons to deny or at least to qualify strongly the idea that the invasion of Canaan was a genocide for religious reasons, there is a more fundamental issue at play related to this specific aspect of discussion. When we discuss religion, we are dealing with matters of ultimate truth. And once we get down to it, the fact is that if the Bible is true, there is only one Creator God who owns everything, and He owns everything because He has made everything. To reject Him and pursue another religion is not merely an affront to mere fallible human opinions about what the supernatural world must be like. It is to reject reality itself. It is to reject the fundamental right of God to order our lives and tell us how to worship. Those who turn from their Creator lose their right to life, and as the Creator He has the absolute authority to determine when and how to take life.

Ultimately, God is going to destroy not only the Canaanites but all those who reject Him and His authority. He is not going to do so out of pettiness, for the choice to participate in false religion is not like the choice to wear a blue shirt instead of a red shirt or to eat vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate ice cream. To participate in false religion is first a turn away from the Judge and Creator of all before it is a turn to false gods. God has the right at any moment to destroy those who turn away from Him to falsehood, and it is a sign of His grace and patience that He does not immediately destroy everyone who does this and that He even chooses to save some of them.