Calvary Chapel is one of the best and most popular Evangelical churches in America. I spent many years involved in the movement (both preaching in church and teaching for their Bible College). I learned a lot during that time, and I continue to value much of it today. I haven’t visited a Calvary for years, but I recently attended a Sunday service with some visiting family members who did not think their kids could handle sitting through mass. Like my visit to a Baptist church a few years ago, it felt both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
There were no major surprises (despite being “non-denominational”, Calvary Chapels are in stronger lock step than most denominations), but I noticed something I might not have years ago – how biblically inconsistent the pastor’s message was (a serious charge when leveled against a Calvary Chapel sermon!). I say “biblically” because the problems were hermeneutical rather than simply theological (i.e., they prescind Evangelical / Catholic doctrinal disagreements). In standard Calvary style, the pastor was taking his group through a book of the Bible, and that day’s sermon was on Romans chapter 4. The message centered on the nature of belief, and included a few applications to the Calvary viewpoint. Two problems stood out the most: the pastor’s assertion that Romans 4 taught that only “belief apart from works” saves, and that baptism is like circumcision in that it is just an “outward sign of an inner reality.”
Faith Apart From Works
Calvary Chapel takes the standard evangelical line that works have no part in salvific faith. Over and over in the sermon, the pastor contrasted this with the idea that by doing good works we can earn our way into Heaven. As evidence of this position, he pointed out St. Paul’s example of Abraham in Romans 4. Since Abraham was declared righteous apart from works (indeed, before the Mosaic Law was even in existence), they must not be necessary for salvation. Now, the pastor’s conclusion that we cannot earn our way into Heaven by doing good works is certainly true (Rom. 2:13, 11:6; Eph. 2:8-10) and no orthodox Christian community denies it. The problem comes when this truth is then distorted to mean that works do not matter for salvation, which is clearly unbiblical.
God…will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness.. (Rom. 2:5-8)
The first biblical problem with this faulty conclusion is that it confuses works of the law with good works. In Romans 4, St. Paul is speaking of the former, not the latter. This is clear from the entire context of Romans 3 (which concerns circumcision) and especially verse 28 (“For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law”). The fact that we are not justified by works of the law says nothing about the role of good works for they are not the same thing according to the Bible (e.g., Gal. 2:16 cf. 1 Tim. 6:18-19).
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Tim. 6:18-19)
The second problem concerns the pastor’s heavy reliance on St. Paul’s example of Abraham for his understanding of belief – it actually works against Calvary Chapel theology when seen in its wider biblical context. The pastor made much of the fact that in Genesis 15, Abraham is said to be righteous (= “justified”) apart from works. Indeed, this first use of the word “believe” is said to be determinative of its very meaning (according to some alleged “Law of Hermeneutics” that the first use of a word in Scripture defines it for all of Scripture). The problem with this line of reasoning is that Genesis 15 is not when Abraham first believed. Hebrews 11 makes it clear that Abraham had saving faith three chapters earlier in Genesis 12 when he left Haram at God’s bidding (Heb. 11:8-9). So the first time Abraham demonstrated faith it was actually by doing something – not a “work of the law”, certainly – but a good work nonetheless. (An additional problem is raised for Calvary Chapel theology here – for if justification is by faith alone and cannot be lost as Calvary teaches, then Abraham would have been justified in Genesis 12. How, then, was he justified again in Genesis 15?).
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and . . . . By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son. (Heb. 11:8, 17)
Further, St. Paul is not the only biblical writer to use Abraham as an example to make a theological point about salvation. St. James does so as well in his epistle when he references Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22. The problem this raises is that James uses Abraham’s actions to argue contrary to the pastor’s message (i.e., “faith apart from works is dead,” and, “man is justified by works and not by faith alone” – James 2:18-26). Further, Abraham is said to be justified in this passage too – but (again) if justification is by faith alone and cannot be lost as Calvary teaches, then how could Abraham be justified in Genesis 12 when he left Haran (Heb. 11), and when he believed God about his offspring in Genesis 15 (Romans 4), and now for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22 as well?
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:20-24)
Circumcision and Baptism
Following from Calvary’s position on the relation of faith and works, comes the idea that baptism is unnecessary for salvation and that it functions only as a symbol of salvation. How so? The pastor’s argument is that since circumcision was never meant for earning one’s salvation (for Abraham was declared righteous while yet uncircumcised), and baptism functions in the same manner, then baptism doesn’t save either. The pastor put it this way: circumcision was an outward sign of an inner reality just as is baptism. He concludes from this that only persons who have believed the gospel can be baptized (i.e., not infants).
Several problems arise from a biblical evaluation of this position. First, the Bible nowhere says that circumcision or baptism are merely outward signs of an inner reality. This is therefore an unbiblical assertion based on the pastor’s theology and not the Bible alone.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom. 6:3-5)
Second, while the Bible never says that circumcision saves, it does say baptism saves (e.g., John 3:3-5; Acts 2:37-38; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:20-21). In fact, baptism’s saving action is described later in the book of Romans itself (e.g., 6:3-6). This places baptism in an entirely different category than circumcision. Although both function as covenant signs (Col. 2:11-14), only baptism is a sacrament. So the analogy the pastor makes fails at the very point it is meant to function. Further, if one can argue against infant baptism by equating baptism and circumcision, then others can argue for infant baptism (i.e., the historic Church’s doctrine of baptism) by doing the same thing.
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you. (1 Pet. 3:21)
These biblical problems do not necessarily disprove Calvary’s doctrinal positions (although it should be admitted that none of these problems arise if God saves through baptism and if justification is a process of growth in holiness that increases with good works!). Like any other Christian group, they have their means of theologizing their way out of biblical problems. I still think, though, that it’s instructive to see how biblical exegetes can easily overlook problems raised by their interpretive traditions – especially when they think themselves to be free of them. Although Calvary Chapel is quite outspoken on its reliance on the Bible as the ultimate religious authority, it is clear that they rely on theological presupposoitions as much as anyone else.