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.

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?

 

Interesting thoughts on the Calvinist/Arminian divide and how it speaks to our other divides

Calv_Arm Divide postsInteresting thoughts on the Calvinist/Arminian divide and how it speaks to our other divides

Josh Crowe is a good friend of mine, a valued co-worker, a fellow believer in Jesus Christ, and a card-carrying “Free-will Baptist.” There’s about one-third of that last descriptor that would apply to me, and even there, I’m more “baptistic” than Baptist.

So, in conversation one day, he asked me what percentage of “Bible-believing Christians” would I say were Calvinistic. I searched my thoughts and eventually came up with 20%. “Really?” he said, incredulously. See, in his thinking it was more like 80%.

As we talked further, it became apparent to me that the theological dividing line for him was at Eternal Security. A belief in “Once saved, always saved” was enough to put you squarely in the Reformed camp. “Once saved, always saved” might be the sine qua non of most Southern Baptists (the one group I have the most experience with), but as a firm believer in the doctrines of sovereign grace, my observation is that the vast majority affirm mostly classic Arminian doctrines (with the exception of OSAS) or haven’t given the issues any serious thought but recoil at hearing sovereign grace teaching.

I asked Josh a question. “In a Presidential approval poll, why might a liberal express disapproval for President Barack Obama?” He thought for a moment and then answered, “If they think he’s not liberal enough?” Exactly. What Josh saw as Calvinistic from his point of view was not nearly Calvinistic enough from mine.

This conversation has led us both to further reflection, and not just in a theological way. It has been very eye-opening on several fronts.

Could this shed some light on the dynamics of other divides in our culture? We live in a time of increasing polarization. As Josh said, “Perhaps the way of “Them” is wide, and the way of “Us” is narrow.” I think he’s right.

How easy it is to assume that the number of people who are different from us is greater than the people who are like us. We start to generalize and assume that we have nothing in common with this or that group simply because we don’t have XYZ in common.

“fill in the empty spaces with grace”

What’s great is that Josh and I work together, laugh together, and endlessly recite lines from The Office together. We also talk civilly about matters in which we are polar opposites, like our theological persuasion. Someday, he’ll come around. But in the meantime, we’re great friends.

All it takes is a little dialog and an ability to “fill in the empty spaces with grace.” That’s a wise phrase I learned from Josh.

This is your God!

Note: Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to preach at my church.  Missio Dei Churchvectorstock_20456096 small, in Asheville, NC. We are in a series on the 10 Commandments, and my message was on the 1st Commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me.” In my message, I indicated that the true God has revealed himself to us by his name and by his work in history. What follows is a recitation of some of the true God’s deeds…

Who is the true God?

He is God the Father, the God who created all things out of nothing by the power of his Word, which we know is his Son, Jesus Christ…

The God who placed the crown of his creation, man and woman created in his image in a perfect garden, with the promise of life if they obeyed and immediate death if they did not,

Who, when they sinned, graciously withheld his immediate judgment and promised a future redeemer and covered their sin with clothing from a slain animal,

Who judged the wicked world by flood but spared Noah and his family so that mankind and his redemptive promise would go on,

Who entered into a covenant with a pagan Abram and promised his seed would be as numerous as the stars.

This is your God!

Who preserved his people by sending Joseph to Egypt in chains so that the family could be saved from famine,

Who 450 years later spoke to a lowly shepherd from a burning bush and sent his servant Moses to rescue this now nation from bitter bondage,

Who spoke from the mountaintop and gave his people laws and commandments so they would know how to worship and obey,

Who time and again was patient with his people when they failed to keep the covenant he had made with them.

This is your God!

Who, after speaking at many times and in many ways by the prophets, spoke to us in these last days by his Son, Jesus,

Who was God-made-flesh, born of a virgin, God with us, Emmanuel, Jesus, who shall save his people from their sins,

Who lived a life in perfect obedience to the law, both in deed and in thought,

Who, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, was crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.

This is your God!

Whose death lovingly purchased forgiveness for the sins of all who would believe in him, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,

Who, when his work was complete, demonstrated the Father’s acceptance of his sacrifice by raising from the dead,

Who ascended to heaven, with the promise of his return as reigning King of kings and Lord of lords.

This is your God!

Who sent the Holy Spirit, who is himself God, to indwell his people with power, and to intercede for us with groanings too deep for words,

By whom, even to this day, is building his Church upon the rock of the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God,

Who now is seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come,

And he is the God who in the fullness of time will by his return unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth,

To the praise of his glorious grace!

THIS IS YOUR GOD!

You cannot love Christ enough…

2017-03-31 00.30.47-1by Mark Knox

You cannot love Christ enough, you cannot believe in him enough, you cannot bend your will strong enough, and you cannot keep your heart pure enough to assure your eternal salvation from this day to the next. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” A thousand times, no! The only reason I trust in God today, and will trust in him tomorrow followed by an eternity of tomorrows, is that God in his grace and by his eternal purpose and for his glory has set his heart on me.  Having believed in him as a gift of grace, how do I know I will believe in him tomorrow? Because He. Holds. Me.