Theology erick-hikups-fresh-eye-candy-street-art-belgium-sab-3

Published on November 28th, 2012 | by Aaron Everingham

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A Tale of Two Calvinists – Part I

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.

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About the Author

Aaron is a reformed blogger (lumberingbrown.com), a member of Crestwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Edmonton, Alberta and husband to his bride, Brittany.



17 Responses to A Tale of Two Calvinists – Part I

  1. Robert Horton says:

    There are three books every born again child of God should read (1) the Bible (2) The Reign of Grace by Abraham Boothe (3) An Antidote to Armianism by Christopher Ness. There is no such thing as a “Reformed Christian” because you are a christian or a non christian and if you have not been led by the Holy Spirit to a belief in the doctrines of grace (which is a being raised from the dead, not a reformation) then you believe another gospel and you are anathama.
    It is comforting but not true to believe that someone can believe in free ill and be saved

  2. Eric Heil says:

    There are Reformed Baptists, you know. Not everyone fits into these nice little categories.

    • GentleDove says:

      Thank you! Not all baptists are Arminian. Some, like me, are reformed, TULIP, and covenantal. Even Calvin was split on baptism–on one hand, he said it was for believers only, and on the other hand, he said it should be administered to infants. I’m Calvinistic in the believers-only sense :-)

    • ACS says:

      Fair enough. Yes, there are solidly Reformed Baptists. We react to what appears to be the overwhelming norm. I’d be curious to know, however, how the Baptistic community breaks down. What percentage would be Arminian vs. Calvinistic? For that matter, when pressed, what percentage (of any group) are really outright Pelagians?

      • GentleDove says:

        I agree that among baptists, Arminian Baptists are in the vast majority in this country–but, among baptists in the readership of this web site, probably Reformed Baptists are in the majority :-)

        Actually, I sadly must concede that the vast majority of even Reformed Baptists are extremely pietistic and “two-kingdom” (but then, so are many of the paedo-baptist, reformed churches I’ve visited and sermons I’ve listened to). I am one of a teeny, tiny minority of theonomic reformed baptists.

        My point was that it makes more sense to identify the opponents of Calvinism as Arminians, rather than “Baptists” (if you’re talking about views of soteriology, as I assume neither reformed paedo-baptists, nor any Baptist whatsoever thinks water baptism with human hands is a rite that causes the salvation of the subject baptized).

        I believe that Pelagians are lost unbelievers (unless God converts them and they move out of Pelagianism, of course) because they are so mistaken on the very nature and definition of God, man, sin, and salvation.

        I believe that there are unbelievers (who believe themselves to be believers or may be self-aware hypocrites) in every denomination and probably most local churches. Pelagians tend to depart from churches that preach what the Bible teaches on God, man, sin and salvation, though. They prefer their false gospel.

  3. Has anyone here read C. Gordon Olson’s book “Getting the Gospel Right: A Balanced View of Calvinism and Arminianism” or the longer version “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: An Inductive, Mediate Theology of Salvation”?

    One of the basic premises that Olson establishes is the fact that his theology is “inductive” and not “deductive” as the Cavinist’s is. This is important. The Calvinist makes his claims and bases his theology on a deductive reasoning of the scriptures instead of letting the scriptures speak for themselves within their context.

    I would appreciate hearing comments.

    • Lee says:

      I’ve seen responses to his work before from aomin.org, Dr. James White’s apologetic ministry. I did a quick search and found this article from James Swan who also has a great blog. I can’t really comment myself because I haven’t read his material.

      http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=1934

      • Thanks.

        Could someone recommend a good book that would provide an overview of Calvinism, not a scholarly or technical defense, but an explanation of what it is and responses to common objections? I would appreciate something that would address questions like, “If God is sovereign, isn’t that the same as fatalism?” and “If God is sovereign, do I have a choice about anything I do?”

      • ACS says:

        I’m sure others can also recommend some great books, but I’ve always loved The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner. That being said, I would contend that every Christian (indeed every American who wants to consider himself learned) should read Calvin’s Institutes. One may not agree with Reformed theology, but every thinking Christian should know the details of such a big part of church history and western culture. The Institutes is one of the many “standard” texts we should read, along with others such as Augustine’s CIty of God, etc.

      • Lee says:

        Book recommendations:
        James R. White:The Potter’s Freedom (A response to Norman Giesler’s Chosen but Free)
        RC Sproul: Chosen by God
        David N. Steele:The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented
        Joel Beeke: Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism

        The Potter’s Freedom is really good and covers both the exegesis of proof texts as well as textual and philosophical objections of Calvinism. Because it is a book response it provides a nice contrast, especially since he provides full quotations of Chosen But Free.

        Chosen by God is easy to read and understand which is predictable coming from Dr. Sproul.

        Dr. Steele’s book is a very popular treatment among Reformed as an introduction. I haven’t read it personally, but it come highly recommended by many people.

        I haven’t read Dr. Beeke’s book, but hope too soon. Everything I’ve read from him has been good. From the introduction, the book is intended specifically for what you are seeking.

    • ACS says:

      Thanks for the book title. I’ll check it out to see his argument.

      However, I’m a little skeptical of the diffrences presented here. They don’t appear to me as two differences in the same topic. That is, “letting the scriptures speak for themselves within their context” is simply good hermeneutics (exegesis instead of eisegesis) and is not an inductive vs. deductive question. Good grammatical-historical hermeneutics always seeks to understand the meaning of the text based upon the context of the text. I would be interested to read, though, how an inductive hermeneutic would differ from a deductive one.

    • GentleDove says:

      Thoughts for Young Men,

      For answering specific objections to Calvinism (fatalism, choice, etc.), I recommend Debating Calvinism: Five Points, Two Views by James White and Dave Hunt.

      http://www.amazon.com/Debating-Calvinism-Five-Points-Views/dp/1590522737/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1354209619&sr=1-1&keywords=calvin+james+white+dave+hunt

      For more general questions about Christianity, I recommend Reason to Believe by R.C. Sproul. He gives Calvinistic answers to the questions: Will non-Christians who never hear of Christ go to hell? * Is it narrow-minded and bigoted to believe Christ is only one way to God? * Do Christians have a good answer to evil and suffering?

  4. GentleDove says:

    Being a credo-baptist and being Arminian (Semi-Pelagian) are not the same things. One belief does not require the other. There is much equivocation on that in the paedo-baptist camp (and in the Arminian Baptist camp as well) because they believe that they must go together. If anyone would like to investigate further, I recommend the audio lecture series “The Great Debate over Baptism and the Covenant” by William O. Einwechter.

  5. WP says:

    Many Baptist and of that camp wrongly charge Calvin with the death of Servetus. I think this is why they hate Calvin. The civil magistrate burned Servetus, not Calvin. Calvin even asked that Servetus not be burned, but his request was not heeded.

    • ACS says:

      I think that many people will charge that against Calvin, but I don’t think it’s a big reason. After all, how many Christians know who Servetus was? How many Christians can even give a biblical definition of justification? Or even the gospel?

      I would come down to one basic reason why many (especially Baptists) hate Calvin and Calvinism: they refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of God. Yes, in a theoretical sense they will say that God is sovereign. They will admit that God can “do anything,” and so on. But, when you pull that back and force them to dig deeply into the details, they can’t stand the notion that God is completely sovereign in their coming to faith or of others not coming because He passes them over. Time and again I hear, “God gave us free will…” and they mean this in a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian sense. I can’t help but conclude what they truly hate is the idea that they are not as sovereign as they think they are.

      • Len says:

        Part of the problem is that we are sinful creatures and as such, since sin contains at it’s core a desire for autonomoy from and rebellion toward God, this desire to deny God’s sovereignty pervades ALL our thoughts, words, deeds. We always wish to have our way rather than God’s way. “We will not have this Man to reign over us!”

      • Chris says:

        I don’t think it has anything to do with Servetus either. But I also don’t think it is because they can’t stand the idea of God’s sovereignty either. I came from a Baptist background, and still go to a Baptist church because there are not Presbyterian churches worth attending within a 40 mile radius of my home. I have a pretty good understanding of what makes the Baptists tick.

        They won’t believe Calvinism because most people don’t want to think about it, nor do they want to think about anything when it comes to the Bible. It’s more apathy than rejection. They will accept what is said from the pulpit, as long as it doesn’t deviate too much from what they already believe. We had a Calvinist preacher at my Baptist church. He preached most of the points of Calvinism, but he never used the title “Calvinist.” The people accepted it, because the verses were there in the Bible, but more importantly because they just don’t care enough about the Bible to question anything. Most congregants don’t pay attention to the sermon anyway.

        After that pastor left we had our youth minister fill in some in the pulpit. He was not Calvinist. I remember hearing him say, “And this may offend some of you Calvinists in the audience, but I believe the Bible says we have the ability to make choices.” So that guy obviously didn’t know what Calvinism was all about, and that’s the caricature that gets presented to the congregants. It’s not that the congregants are opposed to the sovereignty of God. It is because they heard about some crazy belief system called Calvinism and they don’t need to know anything else about it because it is crazy. They really do believe that God is sovereign, they just haven’t thought out the implications of this. Which is the exact point you were making, ACS.

        And since so much emphasis in Baptist worship services is on ‘feelings’ rather than what is actually written in the Bible (I’ve actually heard a handful of sermons where the Bible was never opened), they have a hard time accepting that God was in control of bringing them to salvation. After all, every Baptist remembers when “they” made that personal decision to walk down the aisle and accept Jesus into their hearts. They felt themselves make that decision. It doesn’t make since to say that it was God doing that to/for them. So feelings trump what the actual verses say. Throw in a dash of apathy toward digging in deep on the Scriptures, and you’ve got a good recipe for Arminianism.

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