Tag Archives: J.I. Packer

Calvinism: So Hot Right Now

To the surprise of many, Time magazine recently listed “The New Calvinism” as the third most important idea changing the world “right now.” What?? 500 years after the birth of John Calvin, is his theological namesake really enjoying resurgence in 2009?

I guess I’m not totally surprised. I’ve noticed the trend myself. I read Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed last year. I’ve been to Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I’ve witnessed many young Christian friends getting totally passionate about the Reformation and everything it represents.

But why is it happening now? What is it about Calvinism that is suddenly more appealing than it was just a decade ago? Here are a few of my initial thoughts—as someone who increasingly identifies with Reformed ideas (though not 100%):

Calvinism is about certainty.
In an era in which certainty is hard to come by and ambiguity is frequently championed, more and more young people are longing for something that is rock-solid certain. In Calvinism, there is no second-guessing about whether I’ve done enough or prayed the sinners prayer earnestly enough to be saved, because it has nothing to do with my own powers.

Calvinism emphasizes sin (total depravity) and places it at the starting point, rather than as a footnote. It cuts us humans down to size from the get go, underscoring both our desperate need for redemption and righteousness and our utter inability to achieve it ourselves. I think this really resonates with younger people today, who have grown up in a world that has told them they are good boys and girls who can do whatever they want to in life. They’ve been met with yeses at every turn, but are longing for nos. They recognize that they are far from the angelic harbingers of goodness that their parents, teachers, and advertisers have deemed them. Calvinism tells it like it is.

Calvinism views God in the highest way possible. He is sovereign and fearsome and awesome in ways we can’t begin to understand. While “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” doesn’t sound comforting, many people would still rather be in the hands of an angry God who is sovereign than a buddy God who is only partially sovereign and sometimes surprised (see Open Theism). In times of crisis and tragedy, an all-powerful God who effects everything to his purposes is so much more comforting than a God who isn’t in complete control.

Calvinism has a beautiful picture of grace. It is irresistible and unconditional. When God sets his eyes on us, we can’t escape his pursuit (and who would want a God who couldn’t capture those he sought to save?). As Sufjan Stevens beautifully sings in “Seven Swans”: He will take you / If you run / He will chase you / Because he is the Lord.

It rings true to many young people that nothing they can humanly do could ever achieve salvation—at least more true than the idea that God, the author and perfecter of our faith, saves only on the condition of some action on the part of the saved. On the contrary, the Calvinist view insists that we have no recourse to self-sufficiency or pride. As Paul writes in Galatians, “far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14).

Calvinism fears God. A healthy fear of God is totally lost on contemporary Christianity, which sees him as more of a “buddy/friend/therapist/guru” than the creator and sustainer of the universe. More and more young people are growing dubious of God-lite and prefer thinking of him as a commanding, dominating, dangerous God who deserves our deferential fear.

Calvinism ground itself in the bible rather than sugarcoated feel-goodisms. Consider what J.I. Packer says about this when he contrasts the “new” and “old” gospels in his famous introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

“The pitiable Savior and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel. The old gospel tells men that they need God, but not that God needs them (a modern falsehood); it does not exhort them to pity Christ but announces that Christ has pitied them, though pity was the last thing they deserved. It never loses sight of the divine majesty and sovereign power of the Christ whom it proclaims but rejects flatly all representations of him that would obscure his free omnipotence.”

Calvinism is a little bit edgy, dark, and punk rock. It is less about hugs, Sunday School pink lemonade and “God loves you” than it is about discipline, deference and “God hates you in your sin; you are a wretch who needs God’s grace.” It’s not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Kids like this.

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What Was Going to Be My Epic Calvinism Post…

So I wrote this long draft of a blog post a few weekends ago entitled “Why I am a Calvinist” and it was full of some heavy duty theologizing (for me). I spent hours and hours writing it, talking about the doctrines of predestination, the atonement, justification, and so on… I was quoting John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and many others. It was epic. And then I lost it. All of it. Unsaved and (somehow) un-recovered on my computer.

So of course when that happened I wondered: was this a sign? Was I being chastised for attempting to make an argument for Calvinism? Or maybe it was the devil?

Either way, as someone with a definite Calvinist bent, don’t I have to believe that the unfortunate deletion of my epic blog post was meant to happen? If God is supremely sovereign in all things (which I believe he is), why should I be worried by something like this? Surely there is a reason for me losing that work, and maybe it’s that I’m now writing this. Or maybe I can’t understand how God works or what sovereignty and free will look like. And that, ironically, is one of the main points I wanted to make in the first place.

People look at Calvinism and think of predestination, an angry God, and an elitist “elect.” It doesn’t look that attractive to the average human because it goes against (seemingly) so much of what we feel to be true: that we are aware of our choices and active in our actions, that we have free will. But my question is: why do we assume that what we think of as free will is necessarily in conflict with the sovereignty of God (which we’ve conceptualized in terms like “predestination”)? Couldn’t it be true that in God’s reality (which is certainly not within our human capacity to understand) there is no disharmony between him determining all human history and reality and it actually happening by what we call choice? I’m not saying all human dichotomies have no transcendent application (surely good and evil are transcendent categories in eternal conflict); I’m only suggesting that many of them might end up being perfectly sensible and resolved in God’s plane.

But that’s really abstract, and if anyone is going to be swayed by anything I write I should probably move into more rational modes. So briefly, here are but a few of the more concrete reasons why Calvinism is attractive and sensible to me:

• It views God in the highest way possible. He is sovereign and fearsome and awesome in ways we can’t begin to understand. To me, if there is a God, he is either infinitely sovereign or not God at all.

• In this view, God alone is sufficient to save. He doesn’t need any help (i.e. he doesn’t just “open the door” for people to choose salvation but does it all, start-to-finish, himself). Those who insist that humans have to do some of the salvation work, even just by consciously deciding to accept God’s gift, are limiting the power of God. Did not the cross accomplish salvation once and for all? Did not he say “It is finished!”? Salvation belongs to the Lord, the author and finisher of it.

• Calvinism has a much more beautiful picture of grace. It is irresistible and unconditional. When God sets his eyes on us, we can’t escape his pursuit (and who would want a God who couldn’t capture those he sought to save?). As Sufjan Stevens beautifully sings in “Seven Swans”: He will take you / If you run / He will chase you / Because he is the Lord.

• Calvinism’s view of God is ultimately the most comforting. While “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” doesn’t sound comforting, I think that I would still rather be in the hands of an angry God who is sovereign than a buddy God who is only partially sovereign and sometimes surprised (see Open Theism). In times of crisis and tragedy, an all-powerful God who effects everything to his purposes is so much more comforting than a God who isn’t in complete control.

• It rings true to me that nothing I can humanly do could ever achieve salvation—at least more true than the idea that God, the author and perfecter of our faith, saves only on the condition of some action on the part of the saved. On the contrary, the Calvinist view insists that I have no recourse to self-sufficiency or pride. As Paul writes in Galatians, “far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14).

• “God wants me” holds infinitely more weight than “I want God.”

• Calvinism is about certainty; There is no second-guessing about whether I’ve done enough or prayed the sinners prayer earnestly enough, because it has nothing to do with my own powers. God pours out his grace freely and unconditionally, and all I can do is be consumed by it.

• Calvinism emphasizes sin (total depravity) and places it at the starting point, rather than as a footnote. It cuts us humans down to size from the get go, underscoring both our desperate need for redemption and righteousness and our utter inability to achieve it ourselves. Like it or not, this makes so much more sense to me than a Christianity that isn’t first and foremost about God saving pitiful sinners.

• Calvinism fears God. A healthy fear of God is totally lost on contemporary Christianity, which sees him as more of a “buddy/friend/therapist/guru” than the creator and sustainer of the universe. We need to fear him, and respect him. He’s God, whether we like it (or believe it) or not.

• Calvinism allows the modern church to reconnect with its heritage and grounds itself in history, tradition, theology, and the bible rather than sugarcoated feel-goodisms. I like what J.I. Packer says about this when he contrasts the “new” and “old” gospels in his famous introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

“The pitiable Savior and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel. The old gospel tells men that they need God, but not that God needs them (a modern falsehood); it does not exhort them to pity Christ but announces that Christ has pitied them, though pity was the last thing they deserved. It never loses sight of the divine majesty and sovereign power of the Christ whom it proclaims but rejects flatly all representations of him that would obscure his free omnipotence.

I could go on and on, but that’s probably enough for now. While I am more and more identifying with Calvinism these days, I don’t want to come across as some sort of apologist for it. First of all, it’s not some monolithic way of thinking or some “club” to which one must belong. On many levels I think Calvinism and Arminianism are not as diametrically opposed as they are often assumed to be.

As I stated early on in this post, I think it is beyond our rational capabilities to truly understand the mysteries of free will and determinism. And honestly, does it really affect your day-to-day life? Even if I think that God has ordained my every action, I still must make choices to either sin or strive for righteousness, and those are real choices (in a sense we can’t fully understand). And while I agree that grace is given solely by God and salvation is his work 100%, I still must actively engage people in conversations about the gospel, presenting it to them as a conduit of God’s grace, just as I must help the poor and the sick even while understanding that God controls all of it. Calvinists who shrug off these responsibilities are erring on the side of fatalism. It’s one thing to completely ignore the repeated commands of Christ (the great commission, etc), but it is also just nonsensical to assume that God disseminates his grace outside of the work of human agents. This isn’t the same as saying he needs us; just that we are his, bound up with his grand purposes on earth. Such are the awesome mysteries of being captured by God’s grace.