Monday, January 14, 2013

Why I'm a Calvinist

I certainly did not start off as a Calvinist. I grew up in a Baptist church and heard the Bible preached every Sunday. It’s amazing to me how you can spend so much of your life in church and hear even less about the Bible. I even attended a weekly Bible study put on by the associate pastor where we went through books of the Bible and asked whatever questions we could think up. To be honest, most of it consisted of laughs about words like “mandrake”. Sometime during high school I really started questioning Christianity so I read it cover to cover and all the study notes that came with it. Most of it made sense but even more of it didn’t.

                My journey to Calvinism started in college. I knew of predestination and election but was always told it somehow didn’t contradict freewill. My pastor would just shrug his shoulders and say it was somehow both. I heard of these so called “Calvinist” and how crazy their beliefs were. It wasn’t until I started really reading the scriptures that I started to question my own views on predestination, election, salvation and ultimately how I viewed God. I figured, if I really believe the Bible then I best figure out what it says on the subject. The Bible is our authority for understanding our faith and how we understand and view God. If we don’t believe it then we might has well view all other religious texts as equal or even all together irrelevant.

                The problem is what to do with verses that talk about “the elect”. There isn’t many and all of them only appear in the New Testament. If the verses were limited to only Paul’s teachings then some could easily dismiss them but since even Jesus supposedly made comments regarding it then it seems to carry more weight. (Matthew 24:22-31) The struggle is how to think and understand what it means to be one of “the elect”. The very idea suggests either foreknowledge or some action on part of God to make or call His elect. Either view seems to butt up against free will.

                I started off trying to reconcile free will with election. My first attempt was to suggest that God elected His people based on His foreknowledge of who would accept Him. (Romans 8:29) This answer seemed to suffice but something didn’t sit well with me. Was this then saying God’s election was conditional? Was there some good in me that enabled me to choose Jesus freely? Maybe I’m somehow a better person if I have the will to choose Jesus. The obvious pride behind such questions suggests something’s off. Plus, if God still foreknew the end result could it still be said the individuals were “free” if their path was already predetermined (whether they realized it or not)? If they were not predetermined by God then by what? The role of the dice? If by random chance, then how is it possibly fair for a Supreme Being to create something He would knowingly damn to hell? Why even bother creating it all? That would be a far more merciful act. Such questions either lead us down the “open theist” view of a God with limited foresight (i.e. not truly omniscient) or a God who knowingly made such a decision.

                But let’s go back to the idea of God’s choice based on mine. I tried to reconcile this idea with suggesting it was like a marriage. God made a marriage proposal and I accepted. This fits within the view of John 3:16. God loved the world and Christ died for it and whoever accepted this would be saved. Simple enough but something about this nagged at me. It makes Jesus out to be some desperate loser; willing to love anybody who would just take him. Plus, what a foolish gamble God took sending his son to die. What if NO ONE accepted him? What a stupid idea that would have been, uh? 

                The idea of choice and faith was very troubling to me. If my salvation depended solely on my faith and faith IS a choice what if I decided to change my mind at some point? What if I love Jesus one day then have a terrible day the next and I doubt God’s very existence? Am I damned because of my doubt? I could feel the doctrine of eternal security eroding below my feet. So on one end I’m a good guy because I chose God and on the other I’m a fickle individual capable of losing my salvation at any moment. Both seem troubling to me.

                Suppose though I am a good guy or I made a wise decision in choosing Jesus.  If it was my willful choice to follow Jesus then it’s my willful choice to do all the good things Christians are supposed to do. If there was one thing I learned my senior year of high school it was I did not do what Christians are supposed to do. In fact, I found myself doing all the things Christians are not supposed to do. I learned that I was a sinner. It wasn’t until I experienced the consequences of my sin that I accepted the fact that I was indeed a sinner and that I loved sin/self more than God.  If I’m free to accept then I’m also free to reject but this seemed to fly in the face of scripture. Who can resist God’s calling? Who can thwart God’s Will? Can man upset God by not doing what He purposes? I once question my open theist friend with this and asked then what did Jesus mean John 10:27-30? Can man (including himself) pluck himself out of the hand of God?

                Ephesians 1-2 were probably some of the most powerful verses in changing my thinking to Calvinism. Here Paul tells how we were chosen before the foundation of the earth (v4) how we were predestined to adoption (v5) how we were dead in sin (2:v1) but in His great love and mercy (2:v4) brought us back to life (2:v6) “For it’s by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2:v8-9) This sealed it for me. What was “that not of yourselves”? Salvation, yes, but more specifically faith. Even faith is a gift, so that no man may boast.

                You see most people view Calvinists as arrogant sanctimonious assholes but the truth is they should be anything but that! If they truly understand what has been given to them then they have no choice but to fall in humility before a mighty, merciful God.

                This is just a precursor to my journey. There are many questions I have not yet addressed but this is a good start. I hope to spend some more time and type them up for you.

Part 2   

                To be fair, Calvinists don’t believe God gives us our faith. They describe it as “Irresistible grace”. They describe it as a calling by God that speaks to us in a way that we can’t resist, like trying to hold our breath or avoid eating food. Calvinists do believe though (as do Arminianists) that God “enables” our faith. They make statements like “the Holy Spirit prompts our heart”. I came to my conclusions before ever reading what Calvinists and Arminianists actually believe. I’ll admit I don’t understand the relationship between “our faith” and what role the Holy Spirit plays in our lives. I’ve yet to read any good material on the subject that can fully separate this divine entanglement.

                It does seem to reaffirm though the Calvinist position since even the influence by the Holy Spirit would seem to reduce free will. Does the Holy Spirit speak to everyone? Maybe he does but only His Sheep hear His voice (John 10:27). So maybe everyone hears a general voice of His Spirit but then is everyone called? Jesus didn’t think so (John 6:44). For me the problem with election, predestination, salvation and our understanding of God comes from the Bible. It’s not some doctrine just thought up by Calvin. Once I started buying into this God centered world view I started it seeing it EVERYWHERE in the scriptures. 

                Before, I didn’t fully understand what Jesus was talking about when he said things to his disciples who asked “who then can be saved?” and he said “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26). Or when Jesus talked about being “born again” he said it was by the Spirit (John 3:6-8). Or when the disciples were starting to realize how serious Jesus/God took sin and they responded “Increase our faith!” and he responded with the parable of the mustard seed (Luke 17:2-6). After starting to buy into the Calvinist thought I thought that was a jerk comment Jesus made since I was starting to believe faith comes from God but Jesus goes on to explain that his followers are like slaves to God (Luke 17:7-10) and was actually reaffirming their statement. He would increase their faith if only they ask for it but most importantly if they were His they would do what he commands.

                 It’s this weird place where God works through us and it seems the only responsibility of man is to acknowledge his sin and cry out to God for help! How can one know he is called and truly saved? By obeying his commands (1 John 2:3 & 1 John 3:24) and loving one another (John 13:35). So, the doctrine of grace (Paul) doesn’t contradict the doctrine of works (James). This is where I started to understand and like Piper. Piper realizes this and acknowledges the disconnect between our desires and what we MUST desire i.e. we MUST desire God above all else. His whole teaching is founded on the phrase “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him”. It’s not a mutually exclusive view as defined by the Westminster catechism. That is, the purpose of mankind and our existence as they define it is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever”.

Do we always enjoy Him? What about when we lose our loved ones to an IED? Or our wife gives birth to our stillborn child? Or our family member is raped or molested? No. Our hearts want to cry out for revenge and we seek answers. We blame others or we blame God. In these moments we are not satisfied in God but those who truly love Him have faith that all His actions or in-actions are for a greater good. Our love for Him is greater than our love for others. After all, we are commanded to love God first and foremost and only then followed by a love for mankind. For me, Calvinism put God back in a place of God. Where He does what He wants and I have to simply have the faith and trust that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). This good is not good as we see it in our flesh but His good. This reaffirms what Jesus means when he says “ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7) contrasted against (James 4:2-6)

The paradox of faith is much like the paradox of sin. Neither Calvinism nor Armenianism give an adequate answer to either topic. How can God hold man accountable for sin if he knew he would do it? Neither camp has a good answer. But such a question is like asking: Why did God even bother creating mankind?; Was it out of some lacking in himself? I believe there is a God sized hole in the heart of men but there is not a Man sized hole in the heart of God. God is not served by hands as if He needed anything (Acts 17:24-31). Everything was created by Him, through Him, and for Him (Colossians 1:16/John 1:3/Romans 11:36).

When God becomes the center of the universe and not man (Anthropocentrism) the scriptures look a lot different as does God and our relationship to Him. I believe anthropocentrism is at the root of why we are not willing to believe in a God who does what He pleases. “How can God truly “love” someone if he forces them?” is a common objection. How are we not just robots?  This thought troubled me as well. The Calvinists again hold that man does freely choose God but that His grace is “irresistible”. This answer doesn’t seem to suffice. The idea that this doesn’t seem “fair” though stems from our own perspective. It’s like we quickly forget that we are held accountable as sinners and our true just sentence is death and damnation. He is just in whom he has mercy and on whom He does not (Romans 9:14-16).

This brings us to the question of sin. Is there such a thing as “original sin”? Is sin something we do or can it also be something we think? Are we only capable of it if/when we reach an “age of accountability” or a certain maturity or conscientious level? There aren’t many scriptures around these things but I could give you scriptures that suggest any or all of them. The answer to any of these questions takes us to wildly different end results (some seemingly more pleasant than others). I tend to hold to the original sin view and total depravity view. I realize it is controversial but this is the only way I can reconcile the God of the Old with the God of the New Testament. I would love to hear how an Open Theist reconciles the God of the Old Testament and His command to slaughter children.

Regardless, Arminianists and Calvinist both agree that all are guilty at some point. They disagree on when they commit a sin deserving of guilt but they tend to both agree that given a long enough time span all humans will eventually sin. I did however have an Open Theist friend suggest that it is possible for man to go his life without sin but all eventually do. To that I said Jesus’s death was in vain then if He did not have to die for that person’s sin. Again, to me, it would make God out to be an idiot or someone who likes to play dice. But hey, God does seem to like to play dice as Niels Bohr points out.  Admittedly, either view seems crazy to me so I have to rely on hermeneutics or else throw out the baby jesus with the bath water!  

There are a lot of things I still don’t understand. Like how can God reward people if we are influenced by His spirit? Perhaps our rewards are not the crowns and riches we see on earth but are metaphorical for a deeper understanding of Him. Maybe those who enter heaven somehow maintain a sense of their individuality but somehow become a part of God. How else can one explain Romans 8:17 since this seem to contradict God. (Isaiah 42:8) This mystery might also explain the paradox of the Trinity. How can God send people to Hell who He knew either would never accept Him or willfully chose not to elect them? Perhaps our understanding of Hell is wrong? A thought I’ve been pondering lately. Perhaps God will save everyone (Universalism) or truly annihilate them (Annihilationism).

I hope this helps explain the thinking of a Calvinist. I didn’t go into detail regarding the five points but touched on all of them. I probably wouldn’t agree with Calvin on everything just as I find I don’t agree with everyone on almost everything :-) but I do tend to agree with him on these big questions due to my own interpretation of scriptures. This might surprise you but I wouldn’t call myself a fundamentalist even though I tend to hold views of some fundamentalist. I guess it all depends on how you define “fundamentalist” since that word seems to be mostly used as a pejorative. E.g. I don’t tend to hold a literal interpretation of Genesis, Revelations, or many of the Prophets namely because of the lack of supporting evidence. I am however “open” to them being interpreted literally. Thus, the reason why I consider myself an “agnostic theist” since I’ll admit I’m basing all this on faith.

3 comments:

Jim Powell said...

I came across this article by Dr. Adrian Rogers who I thought did a pretty good job of explaining why he holds a view counter to mine. http://lacollege.edu/sites/default/files/reformed_theology_jan_13.pdf

Of course he completely dismisses what "faith" and "election" are which are at the root of my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Beloved Jim,

Glad you're a Calvinist. I didn't realise I was a Calvinist until recently when I heard someone arguing about Calvinism vs Armenianism, so I looked up the two definitions. I was quite shocked to read what the Armenians believe, which seems to have no basis in the Bible. But Calvinism is what the Bible says, so I guess that makes me a Calvinist.

That's how I found your article. I wanted to read someone who proclaimed "I'm a Calvinist!" I am pleased :)

So I completely agree with Calvinism, with one exception (which comes under point 1 of the 5 points of Calvinism). Calvinists would seem to believe that a person needs to be born of the Spirit BEFORE they can come to Christ, which in my view is not Biblical. I was not born of the Spirit until 10 years after I came to faith, so I know that can't be true. Jesus is right when he says we need to be born again! If you continue to walk in his way in faith, it will happen at the time God appoints. His seal of everlasting life; new life. Until that point, the Bible will go against your nature; but after you are reborn, reading the Bible will be like a mirror reflecting your own Spirit. Until then, keep praying every day and trusting him when things get tough. And expect them to get tough because they will but don't be afraid because your faith will see you through. This is what separates the thorny soil from the good soil (Mark 4)! :)

Now you seem a little confused about a few things. Maybe I can help? You think being chosen by God is at odds with free will? That is really not the case. Let me try to explain.

OK, an analogy. Let's say there were 50 Nazi war criminals on trial and they were all convicted of killing scores of Jewish men, women and children, and all of these 50 men were sentenced to death by hanging. Now let's suppose the night before their execution there were 15 of these criminals in one cell together, and they were all weeping in total despair, having been convicted of their sin, and afraid to die. And let's suppose these men had been chosen by God in his mercy to be saved. And let's say that the Lord Jesus appeared to these men, shining with light and truth, and said "Do not be arfaid, come with me and you will live." And they believed him and knew they could be saved from their awful dark fate, and they all went off with Jesus who took them out of the prison and into a safe place.

Now the question is: were these men being rescued of their own free will? Did they have the free choice to continue to their graves without hope? Of course they did. But why would they? It's not a matter of Jesus coercing people into following his plans. It's a matter that Jesus is the truth, and when the truth is revealed to you by the Holy Spirit: the truth that you deserve to die, and you are going to die, but you can be saved, then we choose to be rescued because, well, who wouldn't?

As for the issue of why God would reward us if we are merely doing what he tells us to do. It is true that God is sovereign and he shapes and guides the ultimate destiny of each person, and his eternal plans are played out through events on earth.

However, he doesn't control our personal will. Crucial difference. Our will is our own. A shepherd has a rod that he uses to guide and correct his sheep as they stray from the path, but have you ever seen a shepherd using one of those little radio control joysticks to control his sheep? Not going to happen.

Part of the reason God gave each of us a free will is so that our love and affection towards him would be freely given. We can give as much or as little as we like to God, and we will be rewarded accordingly.

Love,
Lee :)

Jim Powell said...

Hi Lee, thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts and insights. I'm glad my post helped explain the Calvinist view. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts as well.

I do think there is a struggle between free will and God's election. This struggle is at the heart of Calvinism & Armenianism's debate. I'll admit I struggle with understanding where my will ends and where God's Spirit begins. If it's sin then it is undoubtedly my will but if it is good then it becomes a gray area to which I would rather claim God's Spirit so that He might receive glory and not me.

Regarding the first point of Calvinism, this is pretty necessary to understand and accept Calvinism. While I like your analogy it doesn't go as far as a Calvinist sees God's work in our salvation. Calvinist often prefer the analogy of someone who isn't just drowning in the ocean but has drowned in the ocean and God dives down, pulls them up, and performs CPR on them to bring them back to life. When Calvinist speak of Total Depravity they mean we are so depraved that we wouldn't follow Jesus out of the jail cell to save our own life even if we knew death awaited us.

That sounds pretty extreme but is it really when we look at America? You can ask almost any atheist who Jesus is and they can probably give you a pretty good answer. Most understand Christianity and the Bible better than people who regularly attend church. So, why wouldn't they follow Jesus? Why do some "Christians" who you could swear know what it means to be a Christian and even perhaps followed His teachings much of their life only to renounce him later (like many atheists have)? The Calvinist argues apart from God's Spirit no one comes to the father unless He is called (John 6:44) and all who are called answer the call (John 6:45) but we must be certain of our calling. (2 Peter 1:10)