Coming to Grips with Calvinism, part 1: A Protestant’s (ongoing) Reformation
I’m deeply thankful to have been invited to write for this site. I thought I’d begin by introducing myself in light of the site’s name and nature.
Writing for a blog entitled “Gentle Reformation” is a bit of an historical irony for me. During my first decade or so of life in Christ, the terms “gentle” and “reformed” did not really apply.
When I first learned of Calvinism in college, I immediately and vehemently opposed it. I thought it taught a puppet master God, a fatalistic view of history and an unnecessarily dark view of humanity. I hated what Calvin taught. True, I had never read Calvin, but that did not deter my zeal!
I read just enough of the Reformer to feel justified in my preformed conclusions. Brimming with what I deemed righteous indignation, I felt I had found my purpose, the great contribution I’d make to Christ’s church. I announced to one of my college roommates that my life’s mission was to debunk Reformed Theology.
It did not take long for my mission to go horribly awry. When I began to read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, I was moved by his description of God’s glory and our utter dependence upon Him to know Him. Some of Calvin’s prose was poetry in a different form! He seemed so sincere in his faith – so in awe of the Lord! Though I softened in my view of the man, I was still angry at some of what he taught.
Of course, Calvinism is only valuable in so far as it is biblical. But that’s what made me so angry – reading Calvin’s exposition of Scripture was, in some cases, like seeing the plain meaning of some biblical texts for the first time. The message of these texts was obvious, and devastating. As I became more and more convinced that Calvin was right on certain big points of theology – summarized in the so called “five points of Calvinism” – I became depressed and jaded in my Christianity. All the color seemed to have drained from my previous picture of the faith. Others with whom I’ve talked have had the same experience; some are going through it now.
People newly convinced of Calvinism sometimes struggle intensely beneath its theological weight. The eyes of our faith more widely opened, we behold all the more the immensity of God’s glory. What we see is breathtaking – sometimes suffocating! We come to increasingly understand that our salvation – and indeed all of created reality – is more about God than it is about us (Ephesians 2:8-10), that God works all things – ALL things! – according to the purpose of His will (Ephesians 1:11), and that were it not for God’s giving us spiritual life and the faith which flows from it, we never would have sought Him much less loved Him (Romans 3:10-12; 1 John 4:19). These truths strike us with a sanctifying sting – pride we never knew was there begins to crumble, and we find our hearts simultaneously broken and built up. As we see our autonomy vanish like the illusion that it is, we see more clearly the glory of God’s sovereign grace.
For me, the process was particularly painful. My pride besieged by what I was learning, I found a new release for it. Instead of boastfully blasting Calvinism, I became bitter in accepting its major claims, angry at the God whom I apparently never really knew.
But Scripture’s emphasis on Christ’s being His people’s Shepherd broke me with its beauty (1 Peter 2:25 was particularly piercing). I began to see myself as I was: an overconfident little sheep, banging my head up against the Rock of my salvation, believing that I was wiser and more loving than He. And there was Christ, my loving Shepherd, watching over me the whole time – making me stronger by letting me stumble a bit on some of the steep climbs of His Word, but never allowing me to fall off the cliff. Christ was gently guiding me. I realized that the Lord was (and is) wiser, more loving, more righteous, more compassionate and holier than I could ever imagine Him to be in my efforts to mold Him according to my image.
I still struggle, sometimes mightily, in my understanding of Him and acceptance of His teaching. Struggle should be expected when a sinful sheep is called to submit to his sinless Shepherd. But this Shepherd is so compassionate! He gave the church promises, and gave His life to secure them. He even gave us the Psalms – songs He wrote by which we can work through and express to Him the tremblings of our souls – all as a means of worship!
Though my head still bangs too often against the Rock, and my ego is still enormous, I hope I can say with integrity that God has been shrinking it – though the more He shrinks it the better I can see its enormity! Whatever progress has been made in killing my pride, the Holy Spirit has largely done it by pressing upon my heart the doctrines of God’s grace as expounded by Calvin.
I’m sure I would be just as prideful in any other Christian camp, but I know of no other theology which so frequently and forcefully confronts my arrogance. It calls me out for my innate desire to be God. It reminds me of God’s relentless refusal to be ruled by my desires, and His relentless refusal to let me perish in my pride.
If you are tempted to write off Calvinism because of what it seems to teach about God or the affect it seems to have on its advocates – sadly, Calvinists are known for practicing a caustic Christianity – please have another look at the theology and its true practical outworking – not for the sake of Calvin, but for the sake of seeking whatever Scriptural truth he taught.
In the next entry (or several entries), I plan to present a brief overview of the five points of Calvinism and brief reflections on what it “looks like” to truly believe them. Thanks for reading! I pray these blogs will honor the Lord and be a blessing to you.