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Why are new Calvinists so…enthusiastic?

 

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Comic by Adam Ford. Used by permission

Calvinism has been on the ascendance in the last couple of decades of American Christianity. More and more young pastors are part of a group of “new Calvinists.” Reformed theology has taken hold of more and more evangelical seminaries as professors have taught the “doctrines of grace.” Almost 10 years ago, even Time Magazine took notice.

One of the anecdotal results of this has been the rise of the sometimes-tongue-in-cheek identification and designation of a “Cage Stage Calvinist.” This is supposedly the phenomenon of a believer who has come to grips for the first time with the ideas of human depravity, God’s sovereign choice, and Christ’s atoning work for his people. Enamored with these new-found discoveries, and arrayed in his favorite Depraved Wretch t-shirt, he proceeds to badger every poor believer he encounters to proselytize them into affirming these once-hidden, now-obvious truths. And since his understanding is not nuanced at all, he comes across like a sledgehammer. Older, wiser Calvinists roll their eyes and quietly wish they could assign him to a cage for a couple years until he settles down.depraved

There is something that happens during this learning process that excites the mind and causes one to want to share this knowledge with others. What is it?

I was Reformed before Reformed was cool, and I don’t recall any cage stage in my life. But I do remember the growth in knowledge as I studied the Scriptures in my journey toward the doctrines of grace.  Over the years I’ve come to realize in a meta-cognitive way what these truths have meant to my understanding. My theology was deepened in 3 significant ways.

God

 “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” (Psalm 115:3)

Perhaps most foundational to my thinking was the emphasis on God being God. I suppose to some degree I related to God as if he and I were in some sort of partnership in my life and salvation. Encountering God as sovereign lifted my understanding of him to heights previously unknown. “Let God be God” has become my mantra as I promote the doctrines of grace.

Myself

 “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Romans 3:10-11

When one realizes the radical nature of sin that has affected everyone, there’s no room for pride and ability – ever. Where my testimony might have once hinged on “my decision” to follow Jesus, it now glorifies the God who saved me not only when I couldn’t save myself but when I couldn’t even know I needed saving, and wouldn’t want it if I did.

Grace and Christ’s work on the cross

 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

I memorized that verse as a child, long before embracing the doctrines of grace. But “it is the gift of God” took on a much deeper meaning as I realized that I was incapable of generating my own faith apart from his definitive work for me as a chosen child of God. If there is to be any salvation for me, it must be because of his gracious gift.

Obviously, these are things to get excited about. And when one’s doctrine causes a deeper understanding and appreciation of these truths, it’s bound to result in some enthusiastic bubbling over. So, forgive the Cage Stage Calvinist; just hand him a Charles Spurgeon bobblehead and tell him to sit in the corner. He’ll calm down after a while.

An open letter to a skeptic friend who once professed belief…

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Dear Z___,

It was good seeing you the other day and nice to catch up on what’s happening in each other’s lives. I’d still like for Carolyn and me to get together with you and Y___.

Understandably, it saddened me to hear that you no longer profess faith in Christ and that you believe the biblical account to be fable – a “good fable, but a fable.” You now claim to believe that there is no God. You attribute this to your treatment by X___, saying that if that’s how Christians act, then you want nothing more to do with it.

I certainly understand the hurt you feel and the sense of betrayal you experienced. It’s difficult to have given of yourself for so long in that situation only to have your character called into question and to be accused of things you deny. I can’t speak to the validity of the claims, but the fact is, you’ve had real feelings of being treated wrongly, and you say this has led you to abandon the faith you once affirmed.

If I may, I’d like to speak to your abandonment of the faith.

Do you realize that you’ve engaged in a massive argument of circularity in declaring that the Bible and the story of Jesus is a fable and not in the least true?

You claim that if the behavior of X___ is indicative of Christianity, then this invalidates the truth of Christianity. The circularity comes because you need God, whom you now deny, to make this argument. You have invoked a “God-standard” (how Christians ought to act), observed a Christian who does not act according to that standard, and inferred from that that the standard is thus, not true.

Let’s approach this a different way. If you claim that God does not exist and the Bible is not true, then it logically proceeds that you have no basis to judge behavior; you have no foundation to call any of X‘s (or anyone else’s) actions wrong or unjust. In fact, there would be no reason for him not to treat you that way or worse.

“But,” you say, “I’m only calling into question his behavior because it is inconsistent with how he claims to live and the standards of the faith that he affirms.” Fair enough.

You professed faith in Christ and attended church long enough to know that no Christian claims to be perfect in this life. In fact, the claims of Christianity assert that only one Person ever lived in perfection – Jesus Christ. Even the redeemed people of God continue to commit sins and live lives inconsistent with commands of Scripture.

Furthermore, your treatment at the hands of X___ pales in comparison with the actions of many Christians in the course of history. Sometimes professing Christians have done far worse. Sometimes in the name of Christ great atrocities have been committed.

You, as well, when you were professing faith in Christ, never claimed to be perfect. You understood yourself to be forgiven and a work in progress who was not yet perfect. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it may own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own,” Paul says (Philippians 3:12). You once affirmed this of yourself.

You know all this. The difference is that now, it is personal. It was how you personally were treated by a believer. And this has led you, so you say, to abandon the faith you once claimed.

Whenever unbelievers experience the transformative power of the gospel, their lives are changed. But the changes are never complete until we reach heaven. There will always be a degree of disconnect between faith claims and real life.

The fact is, the behavior of believers can either enhance or belie the faith they claim, but their actions can never ultimately determine the objective truth or falsity of the faith. You yourself once lived with the inconsistency of X’s life, my life, and even your own life to affirm the truth of Christianity. How could further inconsistency now erode that truth?

I’d urge you to be honest in your skepticism. X‘s actions can be inconsistent with the faith he professes, but they do not have the power to invalidate the objective truth of Christianity. So, what is the real reason behind your abandonment?

I pray for you, that you return to Christ in repentance and faith. I pray that you will be able to get past your mistreatment that has blinded you, and that you will come again to a place of faith and trust in Christ, who is our only hope and Savior.

With love,

Mark

When we see it…

Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 44.5250489°N 110.83819°W

A meditation…

On our way down from this overlook and incredible view, we heard a mother encourage her young, weary son with these words, “When we see it, it will be worth it.”

How true this is of life and suffering and heaven and glory.  When we see it, it will be worth it.

Keep reminding yourself that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18) I could have turned to that young boy and said, “Yes! Your mother is right. It WILL be worth it. I know, for I have seen it.”

Oh, that we might look with faith upon those who have gone before us, who would be saying to us now, “Don’t give up! It will be worth it!” And most of all, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith .” (Heb. 12:2)

How often do we set our gaze on the here and now, the sufferings we must go through, and try to bear it on our own. We need to keep an eternal perspective, reminding ourselves that it will be worth it. For therein lies the strength to carry on.

On Mountain Paths I Travel

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On Mountain Paths I Travel

Poetry by Mark G. Knox

On mountain paths I travel
To vistas yet unseen
Through Rhododendron corridors
On trails of evergreen
Through alpine glades and meadows
Along the rushing creek
By switchback after switchback
Until I reach the peak

On mountain paths I travel
Yet leaving not a trace
Save only footprints from my boot
On every special place
I hike and plod and trudge and slog
Beneath my laden pack
I lay it down at end of day
And rest my weary back

On mountain paths I travel
The goal was not to find
Some great new destination
Myself I must remind
The lesson to be savored
When the day is done
The joy is in the journey
And in the end, home

Meritorious Self-Faith

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I was a believer in Jesus before I knew about the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereign hand in my salvation. That was something that, over time, I grew into. So it is helpful to me to remember that many who are not in step with me doctrinally are in fact, brothers and sisters in Christ, even though we don’t share similar theological persuasions, no matter how foundational those doctrinal truths have come to be in my thinking.

Specifically, I recognize that my Arminian/free-will friends affirm, like me, that salvation is by grace through faith, apart from works, and that there is nothing meritorious about our great salvation.

The difference between us, of course, is in our understanding of faith and the role of the will in believing in Christ. My understanding is that apart from Christ we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), unable to respond to God with anything other than rebellion, and that before we can believe, we must be made alive (Eph. 2:4-5), and thus it can be said that the entire process, including our response of faith, is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-10).

Now, an Arminian doesn’t cut this passage from his Bible; he just sees it differently. His understanding is that before Christ, we have the innate ability to believe in Jesus, to freely “choose” or reject Christ. Some men believe, some don’t, but this believing is a result of that individual making a free choice of his own accord, apart from any efficacious drawing by God.

This understanding of autonomous faith or choosing of God leads me to ask, if this is so, why do some believe and others don’t? And if the faith comes from the unfettered “free will” of the individual, how is it not considered meritorious?

While an Arminian evangelical would never consider the exercise of his free will in believing in Jesus as a meritorious act, it’s difficult to see it as anything but that when you consider it more deeply. [I owe a debt to author John Samson in his book, Twelve What Abouts: Answering Common Objections Concerning God’s Sovereignty in Election, for these thoughts.]

If self-generated faith, apart from God’s sovereign quickening activity on the heart of spiritually dead sinners, were possible, then the believer could claim some measure of superiority over non-believers, and this could lead to meritorious thinking.

  1. Meritorious intelligence – A believer could think himself to have more “intelligence (that we somehow worked out who Jesus was for ourselves)” (Samson, p.28).
  2. Meritorious humility – A believer would have more “humility (we having conquered our own pride, were able to humble ourselves to be able to respond in faith to the Gospel)” (Samson, p.28). In self-humility, the believer would, of his own free will, be able to give up all self-effort.
  3. Meritorious submission – Having once been hostile in mind toward God (Rom. 8:7), the believer would be able to turn that enmity by himself into surrender, which is impossible (vs.7-8).
  4. Meritorious love for God – If autonomous faith were possible, a person could, of his own ability, take what was despised and rejected and instead desire and treasure Christ as Savior.

So my question becomes, if divine regeneration is not a sovereign act of God leading to repentance and faith as a gift (2 Tim. 2:25; Eph. 2:8-10), how is autonomous free will not meritorious?

While my so-called “Free Will” brothers and sisters would never consider that they have earned their salvation in any way, I encourage them to think about how their doctrine might somehow subtly lead them into a measure of pride and merit (that they were smarter, more humble, more submissive, more loving than one who does not choose Jesus). I encourage them to think deeply about the implications of their doctrine, and to “watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16 NIV).

So what makes a Calvinist?

My last blog postCalv_Arm Divide posts small lead me to think about what it would take in someone’s belief system for me to consider them in the Reformed/Calvinistic/sovereign grace camp (Oh, how I dislike the labels, necessary though they sometimes may be).

I suppose most Christians I’ve known have affirmed the doctrine of Eternal Security, and I could probably get tacit approval of Total Depravity (but not affirmation of the full implications of it). Effectual Grace and Particular Redemption are normally the last points to be affirmed. But when someone comes face to face with the realization that before the foundation of the world, God chose his elect, not as a result of foreseeing any action on their part, but because he did so unconditionally according to his own good pleasure, then that person is well on his way to affirming sovereign grace doctrine. So, if you affirm Unconditional Election vis a vis Conditional Election, you are at the very least, a budding Calvinist.

What think ye?