Tag Archives: predestination

God Knew I Would Blog This

john_calvin_-_young

500 years ago today—on July 10, 1509—one of the most important theologians in Christian history was born. John Calvin.

A second-generation reformer during the Protestant Reformation, Calvin was a scholar out of the Renaissance humanist tradition and produced a striking amount of scholarly output, including commentaries on most books of the Bible and his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion–one of the most significant systematic theologies ever written.

But he’s also known for Calvinism—the theological approach (also known as Reformed) that emphasizes things like God’s sovereignty, predestination, and the inherent depravity of man. And Calvinism, strange as it may seem to some, is now more popular than ever.

Back in March, I wrote a blog post about why I think Calvinism is increasingly resonant and attractive to younger generations of Christians. I mentioned such things as the fact that Calvinism is about certainty, that it doesn’t shy away from talking about sin and yet also emphasizes grace, and that it views God in the highest way possible. Read the whole post here.

I would consider myself Reformed, Calvinist, whatever you want to call it. I believe God is huge and in complete control and worthy of all praise. He’s God. All notions of truth and justice begin and end with the reality of his being. In other words: what he does—whatever he does—is true and just, even if it sometimes doesn’t seem that way from our perspective. Would it be just if God decided to condemn every human to hell for eternity and didn’t save any of us? Yes. He can and should do whatever he wants. But that he DOES save some of us, in spite of our sin, is truly remarkable. He’s a loving God.

Anyway, in as much as I agree with Calvinism and most of its controversial points, I have to say that the “neo-Calvinists” and the current crop of Reformed defenders do sometimes annoy me. It sometimes seems like they love Calvin more than Jesus, and elevate TULIP above even the Bible. They know who they are. They’ve pit themselves against “the rest of the world” in a sort of battle mentality, cloistering together with like-minded comrades, and it isn’t doing anyone any good. Calvin would not be pleased with the way that some Calvinists have commandeered his theological namesake.

And another thing that annoys me is the way that some Calvinists and Reformed types have misinterpreted sola scriptura. One of the five solas that are associated with the Reformation, sola scriptura (“by scripture alone”) was meant to articulate that scripture held the final and only infallible authority for Christianity, not that it was the only thing that mattered or the only thing that held any truth. Some neo-Calvinists act as though the Bible is the only thing that a good Christian ever needs, that they should just study it and look to it alone for all questions and matters of import.

But none of the Reformers would have agreed with this “just me and my Bible” approach to the faith. They all thought that it was important to have theological guidance and that we should build on the orthodox beliefs that the church had already established. The Bible was the most important thing, yes, and its authority superseded everything else… but it wasn’t the only thing. Calvin was all about the Bible and wanted it to be held in high esteem (much higher than himself), but he also understood that it was a document that needed to be thoughtfully interpreted and systematically analyzed through lenses and thoughts that others had articulated before (like Augustine, for example).

The Bible is completely and utterly true and authoritative, but it is not necessarily self-evident. It needs human minds to makes sense of it, and many minds throughout history have taken up the task. Calvin was one of them, but he wasn’t the only one. There are many others who have looked at the Bible and made different insights and saw different, though equally helpful patterns and themes. And Calvin would be the first to point this out.

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.