Alright, I need to talk to the Calvinists out there. Stop with the John Piper memes for five minutes and gather ’round; it’s time for a family discussion.
Like you, I came to Calvinism by the mercy and grace of God. I’m one of you. I named one of my daughters Piper. I named another of my daughters Haddon (I don’t have to explain the reference, because we’re all Calvinists here). I wrote a children’s book on Arminians giving us nightmares. I wrote another book that explains the Doctrines of Grace to skeptics. I collaborated a Baptist Catechism using the 1689 London Baptist Confession. Rarely is there an article written about me – either positive or negative – that doesn’t put “Calvinist” right in front of my name, as though my parents named me that.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in their theology, I have more: Monergist by way of Spurgeon, of the people known as Reformed Baptists, of the tribe of the infralapsarians, a Calvinist of Calvinists; in regard to the gifts, a cessationist; as for zeal, running a polemics ministry; as for Reformed orthodoxy, flawless.
You get the point.
Like you, I speak of becoming a Calvinist like a born-again (but not quite) experience. It did change my life. Understanding the sovereignty of God over salvation gave me – for the first time – genuine awe and appreciation to God for his unmerited favor. For the first time, worship felt like a privilege and not a duty. God was big. God became (in my sight, as in reality) beautiful. The heavens opened, and angels descended from above singing a Getty’s album.
Again, you get the point.
My goal in preaching is to make God “bigger” for the hearer, and every time a church member moves away I tell them that my prayer is that they see God “bigger” (more powerful, more sovereign, more majestic, more beautiful, more God-like) than when they came. Calvinism is at the core of that preaching ministry. Don’t get me wrong. I preach expositionally, but the doctrines that most unfortunately go by the name of a sixteenth century Reformer are bled out all over the Biblical text, and there’s no avoiding them.
In one way or another, every sermon I preach is touched by the Sovereignty of God, the Providence of God’s micromanaging control over all creation, God’s decreed and hidden will, and the purposes of God’s election. If you listen to my podcast, radio program, or read anything I write, you know that to me, Calvinism is more than Reformed Thug Life memes, beard jokes, and a disturbing interest in dusty old books. It’s a way of life, the air I breathe, and so much more.
That being said…
Over the course of the last several years, I have grown increasingly disturbed at the amount of Bible-toting, Calvin-quoting, Spurgeon-reading, Bible Logos Reformed Platinum Edition-owning five-point, fire-breathing Calvinists who seem to exhibit no understanding of God’s grace outside of their (astute and true) soteriological system. While their theology seems to be stellar, their inability to apply grace to their personal relationships, church family and friends indicates that perhaps they don’t understand grace as much as their egos testify. The reality that a great deal of professing Calvinists are graceless to those around them – which is one that I am not alone in noticing – bears witness that a Calvinism that is inch deep is no better than no Calvinism at all.
I have spent a year teaching Calvinists in home Bible studies, and while they soaked in soteriological grace like rain on parched desert soil, I watched them go on to treat church family like the second coming of Judas Priest for a perceived infraction of some imaginary and self-contrived rule of deluded expectation. I have seen Calvinist brethren, near and dear and close to me, completely ignore the instructions of our Lord in Matthew 18 and sling slander like a sickle slaying wheat, and do so with unconquerable self-righteousness, assuming their trail through the swamp of gossip to be the high-road of virtue. I have seen Christians who could recite the Five Solas and propound propitiation who are unable to distinguish between sins and their personal opinion, and who treated the Bride of Christ as an object of their scorn rather than adoration. I have heard five point Calvinists (is there any other kind?) in the last year say – and I kid you not – that someone didn’t “deserve” their grace. Maranatha.
To be candid with you, if I wasn’t already fully and theologically convinced by a preponderance of Biblical evidence that the Doctrines of Grace were irrefutably true, I’d take one look around at my recent past interactions and run as far away from Calvinists as I could possibly get. For being a bunch of doctrinal smarty pants, we sure seem to lack the understanding of how grace works outside of salvation.
Perhaps, we Calvinist teachers are the problem. The thesis is worth evaluating.
When we do the job of Biblical polemics that each and every single pastor and teacher has to do to be Biblical (granted, we don’t all need polemics parachurch ministries, but we all need a dose of polemics in our teaching and preaching), and we talk about heretics like Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer, do we clarify that’s our posture toward those who we are warned about in Romans 16:17 and that we should never ever ever ever have the “mark those” posture towards good-hearted brethren with whom we have minor disagreements?
Are we so busy clarifying that regeneration precedes faith and faith doesn’t precede regeneration that we don’t take the time to point out that we’ll be known by our love one for another (John 13:35) and not by the order of our Ordo Salutis?
When we teach doctrines like Total Depravity and Unconditional Election, are we making sure to specify that these truths have implications for our personal relationships? Are we taking a break from soteriology (gasp!) just long enough to point out that we are all sinners and unworthy of God’s grace, and that reality should inform our interactions?
Are we teaching people that God’s grace is provided out of the wellspring of God’s love, and that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7)?
Are we teaching people that the love that we are to have for other people must be a mirror of the type of love that God has for us (John 13:34)? Are we clarifying that people are not disposable, friendships are not recyclable goods, and that church family shouldn’t be traded like a peace pipe at a powwow?
Let me speak from the heart, here. A Calvinism that doesn’t demonstrate and exude a long-suffering, ever-patient, sacrificial, indomitable love for others is a worthless and steaming pile of pointless, fetid σκύβαλον (surveys show 9 in 10 Calvinist know that word in Greek). How on Earth does one understand the impossibly-expansive depths of God’s gracious love for the sinner and not apply that love to other sinners?
If we Calvinists really understand the Gospel as much as we think, then we have got to understand that a Gospel which can restore a wretched sinner and a Holy God can surely restore two wretched sinners. If our Gospel can’t restore sinners together, then we might as well be preaching some kind of Arminian, heart’s door-knocking, Pascal’s Wager faux-gospel. For crying out loud, if we Calvinists don’t start cleaning up our act and learn to apply our soteriology to our lifestyle and relationships, we need to close down shop and head back to Geneva for re-education.
As much as every-head-bowed and every-eye-closed altar calls annoy me, I would rather worship with Arminians who understand the horizontal application of the love of God than many Calvinists I know. And truth be told, if Arminians are better at the horizontal application of the love of God than Calvinists, they understand Calvinism better than we do.
[Editor’s Note: To better understand the practical implications of Calvinism for your life, please read The Practical Implications of Calvinism by Albert Martin, available here]