“God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.”
I Found What I Wasn’t Seeking
The year was sometime between 2008 and 2009 if I’m not mistaken. It was around that time that I inadvertently stumbled upon Reformed Theology, or as I’ll refer to it for the remainder of this blog: Calvinism. I had only been “saved” or “born-again” for roughly 2 years at this point, and I was attending a vibrant and “cutting edge” Charismatic/Word-of-faith church in the city. It was about 7 min (walking distance) from my house. I was a young and zealous new convert, and wanted eagerly to put down my roots and grow in my faith and relationship with Jesus Christ. I quickly got involved with the Church’s youth group and met several leaders who I immediately grew to love and admire. These particular leaders had a way about their faith that was substantive. The version of Christianity that they taught in our youth group was dense and robust, it was able to withstand criticism and provoked one to examine the Scriptures. It challenged us to not settle for a surface Christianity that only addressed one’s emotions or outward behaviors. Honestly, I didn’t understand a lot of what I was being taught in youth group, mainly because it was foreign to what was being “taught” in the main service of our Church. The messages we heard on any given Sunday were jam packed with charisma and flair, able to rouse even the most mundane of personality types. I seldom left a Sunday service emotionally discouraged, yet could rarely find the substance in the messages to defeat my sin throughout the week. I knew something was fundamentally different between the version of Christianity I would get on Sundays, and the version of it I would get at youth group. Still I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it could be.
After about a year of seeing these two contrasting paradigms at work within the same church, I noticed that one of the youth leaders I had come to love and admire was no longer attending our Church. I looked intently for him week after week to no avail. Eventually, I decided to make a trip to his house to inquire for myself why he wasn’t there anymore. We spoke for some time as he expressed to me that they could no longer attend the church with a clear conscience, seeing that they had stark theological disagreement with the leadership of the Church. It was December and only a couple weeks away from Christmas, and much to my surprise, as I was leaving he tells me he actually had a gift for me. He runs upstairs and comes down almost immediately and hands me a copy of John Piper’s book “Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ.” My life would never be the same after that! I thanked him and went home, I devoured that book, I couldn’t get it out of my hands. It was as if everything I had experienced and learned in youth group started to make perfect sense. The reason that I loved my youth pastor’s version of Christianity, is because it was True Christianity. As Piper masterfully laid out in that great book I was being groomed to see and savor Jesus Christ, and anything less than that would not do it for me! This unmistakably became my inception to Calvinism. I started with John Piper through sermons and books. I watched Youtube videos of Piper’s, which led me to other Calvinists as well. Before long I was all in with pastors like Voddie Baucham, John MacArthur, Mark Dever, Paul Washer, R.C. Sproul, Steven Lawson, James White, C.J. Mahaney, James Boice, and so many others. I managed by the grace of God, to stumble upon and find that which I wasn’t even seeking!
What is Calvinism?
My introduction to Calvinistic Theology was, well, abrupt and dramatic. It was this way in large part because my church at that time, was outspokenly opposed to it. I would hear things from the pulpit like, “doctrine divides,” “theology puffs-up,” “don’t be a pharisee.” Sure I have little doubt that my leaders meant well with these statements and truly felt they were protecting their flock by giving these “warnings.” Yet, the irony in each of those statements, is that each one is a doctrinal and theological statement so it was counter-productive to make them. Needless to say, I quickly realized through my interactions with my leaders and peers that I had to be careful about how I communicated the Reformed Faith I now held firm to and believed. The Podcast app on my phone became my new sermon source, and functionally my pastors became men I admired but only knew from a distance. Though not ideal or recommended, for that season of my life I would have it no other way. Better to receive robust Biblical Truth from afar, than to be spoon fed erroneous doctrine regardless how sincere the one feeding you may be. So, what is Calvinism? In short and simple terms, Calvinism as I like to call it is merely a nickname for Biblical Christianity. I say this because what Calvinism aims to do, is view the Scriptures of the Holy Bible (66 books) from an objective perspective. Whereby we draw out or Exegete from the Biblical text what is there, rather than impose upon or Eisegete the text to fit our biases and pre-conceived notions. Calvinism or Augustinianism, naturally derives its name from the historical Church leaders, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 AD-430 AD) and John Calvin of France (1509-1564). Their writings and teachings (along with many others) helped to draw out conclusively what Orthodox Christian Theology is, based solely on Scripture. Most notably, they wrote extensively on the Biblical testimony of the Depravity of man and the Sovereignty of God. Time would fail me to write in great detail of the rich history of The Reformation and the genesis of Calvinism. However, I certainly encourage you to research the history for yourself as it will be greatly beneficial in helping you find confidence in your Faith. I recommend starting with this three part video series on “The History of Calvinism.”
Pertinent to a proper understanding of Calvinism is the realization that John Calvin was not himself the originator of Calvinism. Though undoubtedly his teachings and writings were the premise upon which Calvinistic Theology was formed. However, what came to be understood as The Doctrines of Grace, or even more widely known as The TULIP was not Calvin’s doing. So, if “Calvinism” is not John Calvin’s doing, then who’s is it? Well, in 1618 the Dutch Reformed Church convened an international Synod, called The Synod of Dort in order to address “The Arminian Controversy” which had arisen among the followers of Jacobus Arminius and was upsetting and causing no small disturbance in the Reformed Church of Holland. Ironically enough Jacobus or James Arminius was actually an orthodox Reformed Scholar for most of his life. It was not until later in his life and studies that he opposed the Biblical and Reformed notions of man’s depravity and subsequently the bondage of the will of man. Additionally he also opposed the Reformed teaching of God’s sovereign grace in salvation. Arminius though orthodox in the public eye was privately concurring with classic Roman Catholic doctrines especially in his soteriology. He went from being a confessional monergist with an Augustinian view of man’s condition, to a synergist with a semi-pelagian view of man’s condition. Though Arminius himself never came out and said these things in public, he had managed to infiltrate several of his students behind closed doors. Upon Arminius’ death in 1609 his students and followers took it upon themselves to form a remonstrance against The Dutch Reformed Church, which would come to be known as the 5 points of Arminianism. In these Five Points Arminius’ followers laid out a man centered approach to Salvation:
- 1. election conditioned on foreseen faith
- 2. universal atonement (that Christ died for all men and for every man, so that He merited reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for all through the death of the cross; yet so that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer)
- 3. the need for regeneration if man is to be saved (here they seemed to be orthodox enough, but, as it later appeared, this was understood in such a way as seriously to underestimate the depravity of human nature)
- 4. the resistibility of grace (‘but with respect to the mode of this grace, it is not irresistible’)
- 5. the uncertainty of the perseverance of believers (in respect of this article the Arminians shortly came openly to deny such final perseverance)
It was after many years of conflict and uproar in the church and government that the Synod of Dort was convened from 1618-19. At this Synod The Arminians or Remonstrants as they were known, were proven to be inconsistent in their reasoning and unable to provide any conclusive biblical backing for their conclusions. Eventually the Synod dismissed the Remonstrants seeing they were making no progress with them, and ultimately Rejected their 5 points as erroneous and false. This is portrayed in writing within The Canons of Dort. The synod then formed their own 5 points in response to the 5 points of Arminianism rooted in Holy Scripture, that came to be known as the Doctrines of Grace or The Tulip of Calvinism:
- 1. T- Total Depravity (Man’s complete inability to choose God or Salvation)
- 2. U- Unconditional Election (God’s Sovereign Choice in salvation based on no act or merit of man)
- 3. L- Limited Atonement (Jesus’ atoning work applied only to and accomplished only for His Elect)
- 4. I- Irresistible Grace (God’s effectual calling and regeneration to the soul dead in sin)
- 5. P- Perseverance/Preservation Of The Saints (God keeping those He saves until they are with Him in glory, or once saved always saved)
This may seem a trivial matter to most in the Church today, since not many care to see the significance of these doctrines in daily thought and practice. So, why does it even matter whether you side with the Arminian view of salvation or the Calvinist view? Maybe you consider yourself to be one of those Christians who doesn’t side with either, you’ve paved a new road as it were (be very careful lest you be found to be lacking true saving faith at all). There is great significance in understanding the truth laid out in the Calvinist view and the error laid out in the Arminian view. These are soteriological doctrines, so to err in this matter could prove fatal. Today most everybody in the Protestant Church whether consciously or subconsciously views the condition of man as well as the role man plays in salvation through either an Arminian or Calvinist view. This is owing to what has been handed down to us throughout the history of the Church since the Synod of Dort. What’s at stake you might ask? Well the glory of God of course! The glory that God says he will share with no-one (Isaiah 48:11). The Calvinist view is the Biblical view, and it is the view that is devastating to human pride. It speaks of man’s complete spiritual deadness and inability to do anything to please God. It empties man of any and all grounds for boasting (Ephesians 2:1-10). Most importantly it shows the infinite and glorious mercy and kindness of God in electing and redeeming a people for Himself by His own sovereign grace and pleasure (Romans 9:19-24).
Rage of the Cage Stage
This is not to say that there are no faults with calvinists or that we’ve perfected our theology. Many a Christian and non believer have inevitably been hurt or offended by a Calvinist who is new to his/her Calvinist theology and is going through what we call “The Cage Stage.” This stage is where a new Calvinist discovers the wonderful depths of the Doctrines of Grace and feels the need to prove to every opponent of Orthodox Reformed Faith that they are wrong and must repent and turn to Calvinism! Cage Stage Calvinists experience a wide spectrum of emotion, since they now question everything about their previous life in Christendom. They wonder if they were lied to their whole Christian life, and whether they were really even saved. It is quite a dilemma that one finds them-self in. Naturally but not justifiably so, they lash out on others and feel the need to prove any and every opponent wrong even to the point of humiliating them. This is a terrible thing, and I’ve certainly been guilty of it. How long does this stage last for new calvinists? It is hard to say since it varies greatly based on the individual and their support system, but it is a real problem for the Calvinist and others. If you are reading this and have your walls up in defense or feel a real and insidious distaste with Calvinism, the chances are you’ve encountered several Cage Stage Calvinists along your journey. I want to apologize on their behalf and assure you that this is not the best, by any stretch of the imagination, that Calvinism has to offer. I implore you to reconsider whether you could benefit from what the Scriptures teach through the Calvinist lens. The Doctrines of Grace are merely the tip of the Ice-berg, there is so much more to Calvinism since there is so much more to our Christian Faith. I feel the need to also correct a misconception amongst the opponents of Calvinism which assumes that Calvinists don’t feel the need to evangelize or do missions work, or even speak to others about our faith due to our view of God’s sovereign election. This is a false and erroneous position that is seen as Hyper Calvinism and any sound and orthodox Calvinist rejects this position. I stand firm in the belief that Calvinism is for every Christian who wishes to be Biblical and see their Christianity objectively, as God through Holy Scripture would have them. Do you want to be Biblical? Do you desire to see God for who He truly is as He has revealed Himself in Scripture? Then you would do yourself a great benefit to be a Calvinist. This is not a call to perfection, rather a call to Orthodox Christianity. This is not a plea to be saved, rather a plea to make your calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). I love deeply those from my previous Church, even though I disagree strongly with their theological conclusions. This is not a call to hate your opponents rather to pray for them, and to understand that God is the one who works in the hearts and minds of His children. Whether you are a Calvinist or not, examine the facts and search the Scriptures and by the Grace of God you too will see that Calvinism is for you!
Steps For Application
With all the talk of doctrine and theology this may seem like pure mental ascent, however I would seek to help you apply what you’ve read. Consider the following:
- If you’re not a Calvinist especially, read Romans 9 and examine whether you find that you are the one arguing with Paul. (We often implicitly assume that God would be wrong to withhold mercy from whom he pleases. If you find yourself defensive with Romans 9 that’s an indicator your view of man is much more favorable then it should be)
- If you’re a Calvinist call an Arminian you know and invite them to coffee and ask them to share their testimony with you. (This is not a matter of saving them, rather it will encourage you to remember the grace you yourself have received, and will serve to help you gain rapport with them in matters of Faith. It will also help dispel the myth that Calvinists are cold and arrogant)
- If you’re an incognito Calvinist in an Arminian Congregation, set up a meeting with your elders and share your theological convictions from Scripture and ask them if that is a problem with them. (You may be feeling the need to leave your church, but you may find after a real and thoughtful conversation that it’s possible to have effective fellowship right there. If nothing else you’ll see it is not possible and may feel affirmed in your decision to leave. Don’t ever leave abruptly and with hard feelings so long as it depends on you)
- Read an intriguing and accurate biography of John Calvin. I recommend this one. (Biographies do wonders in helping us look down the corridors of history to admire the strengths as well as the weaknesses of some our heroes. Both Calvinists and Arminians would do well to read about Calvin and examine his life)
- Associate with others who think and believe different than yourself. (Don’t feel threatened since we have the Word of God as our final authority. Yet be willing to repent and change where you find your views are in contradiction to Scripture as pointed out from your peers, remember context, context, context.)
This argument between Calvinists and Arminians is well over 400 years old, and will not be resolved on this side of eternity so long as sin and human pride is in the picture. These steps are by no means the solution to your differences, but if applied biblically and humbly can help you gain steady traction in seeing for yourself and helping others see the Scriptures as God intends. Grace and peace to you!