As one who is relatively new to the Reformed tradition, and one who has ‘come over’ from a broadly pietistic, Baptistic and non-confessional background, I think I have a fairly interesting perspective. Fresh eyes, if you will. Having joined a Presbyterian congregation with many members who ‘grew up in the church’, were baptized as infants as a sign and seal of God’s covenant promise, were re-born by the power of the Spirit at an early age “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”, and grew up reading the Westminster Shorter Catechism (or for some, the Heidelberg Catechism, as there are many Dutch Reformed families in our congregation), we have, in a sense, a unique vantage point. We, like probably a small minority in our church, were saved only five and a half years ago, and certainly not Reformed until sometime around the end of 2010 (and then, only as far as our soteriology).
Our gradual growth and change which resulted in our embracing of the Reformed tradition began with, as it has for many of the people I have met, the “discovery” of the doctrines of grace (see Rev. Ligon Duncan on the resurgence of Calvinism, here). I hate to call it a discovery because that implies a sense of novelty or doctrinal individualism inherent in something which is anything but novel or innovative. With B.B. Warfield I stand in agreement that, “the world should realize with increased clearness that Evangelicalism stands or falls with Calvinism.”
I know how brash that may sound. What he meant by that, I believe, comes from this: Calvinism is used simply as a label that distinguishes the gospel from all of its sub-Biblical and synergistic variations. That the future of Evangelicalism (something Warfield was deeply concerned with), depends on whether or not it clings to those truths encompassed by what is called “Calvinism.” As well, this agrees with C.H. Spurgeon, who wrote,
“The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach to-day, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox’s gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again.”
I can’t help but assume that where Spurgeon was referring solely to so-called “five points of Calvinism”, Warfield was referring broadly, nevertheless with greater accuracy, to the whole system of doctrine encompassed in the confessions of the Reformed tradition (with its emphasis on justification by grace alone).
So when I say “discovery” of these doctrines, what I mean is that through the study of the Word of God, outside of the anti-Reformed context of our first church, we were broken of our anti-Reformed presuppositions. We were so frustrated with the teaching and attitude of those within our fundamentalist-Baptist camp (broadly) towards things which seemed so plain in Scripture, that we had to look outside the camp for answers (I am not making any intentional allusion to the book of Hebrews here). It was in that ‘looking outside’ (i.e. reading literature and listening to sermons from non-fundamentalist theologians) that we began to have our questions about the sovereignty of God and the salvation of man answered. And they were answered Scripturally, soundly, basically understandably, leaving us with overwhelming conviction as to their veracity.
The word “Calvinist” in our circles was one of the worst possible words. This is no exaggeration. Our first church practically split over a perceived Calvinistic sympathy in the heart of an assistant pastor. I have friends who, having left that tradition, now fully confirm monergistic regeneration and limited atonement, yet will not touch the label out of latent fear. Calvinists were falsely thought of as heretics, and preachers of “another gospel”. Well known Reformed ministers of the present and the past were practically demonized, or at least, branded as dangerous (the irony of that is astounding, given their hymnals, the Calvinist KJV translators, and their penchant to uphold Spurgeon as hero of the faith). So at first, our inquiry was secretive. We didn’t want to be lumped in with the heretics. I was hoping to become a pastor one day, and assumed that would be impossible in those circles if I so much as winked at the theologian John Calvin (or used the word ‘elect’ in corporate prayer – but that’s a story for another blog post!) I was essentially a ‘closet Calvinist’.
This was the third most important thing to happen in my life (behind salvation and marriage). I had come to embrace what I believe to be an unadulterated gospel. The Holy Spirit had graciously given me to understand the most fundamental teaching of the Bible: God saves sinners. That God does not make salvation possible, but in His great mercy He actually sent His Son to die for His people, and to redeem the world, thus securing our salvation. In the eternal counsel of the godhead, He had predetermined the fate of those He would call His own. Not as a respecter of persons, for we are all dead in our sins and enemies of God, but according to His grace and mercy. That He would pass over the non-elect, who will receive what we all deserve: divine justice. That our wills, constrained by our nature as Adam’s helpless and broken race, require God’s free and enabling grace. Therefore God must intervene, granting us repentance and faith. Granting us new hearts, so that we can come to Him freely for the forgiveness of our sins, and be sealed until the day of redemption. Amen.
These doctrines I have briefly tired to capture, which are commonly known as the five-points of Calvinism, or by the acrostic TULIP, or as the doctrines of grace, we embraced wholeheartedly. Or more accurately, they seemed to embrace us. I remember likening it to being born again, again. The Bible gradually began to come together like never before. Passages we literally avoided were now passages of both great comfort and accepted, awesome mystery. There was no rationalizing away the mystery of God’s sovereign predestination and man’s responsibility anymore; at the heart of Calvinism is this mystery. God Himself became ‘bigger’; that is, our perception of God’s character through His revelation enlarged, so that in our hearts his attributes eclipsed all that we had previously thought of Him. We felt more free, more secure, more treasured and more joyful in Christ than ever. It was humbling as well, suddenly coming to learn the true depths of my depravity, that God alone saved me, and that I contributed nothing to it. It is the true gospel alone that brings the Christian to his knees before God to cry, “why me, Lord?”
So as I hope I’ve illustrated, we came to embrace the doctrines of grace gradually. This led to our tearful but necessary departure from the only church we knew, the very church God had saved us in. Despite it being difficult to leave (we love those people despite doctrinal differences), we were very excited because we knew we were following Jesus. We were following what He had put before us, and by the Spirit’s convicting us through the Word, were completely persuaded that this was God’s will. And, we were going to a church where we would be united with a congregation of God’s people who had all come to the same understanding. A relatively young congregation, where these old Biblical truths were the champion of many once-weary hearts.
But I have (joyfully) digressed. What I am setting out to do in this post is to lay the groundwork for the question of why I think we, and others like us, have a unique perspective when joining a long-standing Reformed congregation. I believe that in order to effectively accomplish that, I had to explain what I mean by “embrace”, when I am speaking about Calvinism. I needed to depict how God graciously led us to discovery and drink deeply from the Word of His sovereign grace. This will help me to describe what I mean by “a tale of two Calvinists”.
I would like to set up a small disclaimer before ending Part I: as I endeavor to articulate my thoughts here, let me be clear that I am not going to be pitting two groups against each other. Neither am I drawing out two classes of Christian, nor trying to be overtly definitive in this “tale of two Calvinists.” I hope it will be an encouragement to both new and old Calvinists alike! If anything, I’d love to build up zeal for the truths of God’s sovereign grace, those old truths which pump through the veins of the Reformed tradition. Those massive, humbling, tectonic truths which have set ablaze every man and woman I know who have come to embrace them. They are the kiln of true, evangelistic piety.