I’m A Calvinist (And That Hardly Matters)
Without knowing it, I grew up believing in a quasi-Wesleyan form of Arminianism. When I went to college, and was exposed to Calvinism for the first time, I was very hostile. I was undoubtedly the most obnoxious Arminian on campus my freshman year. Eventually I came to a point where I decided to be open-minded. That alone was a big step for me. So during my sophomore year of college I decided to study the issues afresh. After reading Tom Schreiner’s Still Sovereign I began to believe that Calvinism made better sense of the biblical texts pertinent to the discussion. Then I read James White’s debate with Dave Hunt (Debating Calvinism), which is in many ways comparable to Godzilla’s visit to Tokyo. That book was a complete disaster and by no means a fair fight (Dave Hunt is simply a poor debater). But then it was The Pleasures of God by John Piper that would provide the rich theological foundation for my understanding of soteriology. Yet I never became the kind of vindictive Calvinist that would have corresponded to my days as an Arminian. If anything, becoming a Calvinist mellowed me out. This is because although I’m convicted of Calvinism, I do not esteem it to be a divisive issue. It can be. I know. But I don’t think it should be.
Allow me to explain by (1) briefly stating why I’m a Calvinist, and (2) by noting in which ways this hardly matters.
(1) Why I’m a Calvinist
Much could be said here, so for the sake of space I will limit myself to three points:
I am a Calvinist because I don’t believe in Free Will
Humans are limited creatures. We are limited because we’re finite and because of our sin nature. The only truly free being is God. Is there such a thing as volition? Sure there is. But I wouldn’t say that our volition is “free.” That seems misleading to me. Frankly, it’s a misnomer. Many say that the will is free because one could always choose to do something other than what one chose to do (contraries). But would one say that a person under house arrest has freedom simply because he can choose the contrary within the house? To me this is analogous to the human predicament. Call it what you will, but it’s not freedom. Not all Calvinists would agree with me on this. In fact, it’s entirely possible to believe in Libertarian Free Will and be a Calvinist. These are not mutually exclusive despite what many assume. However, for me, this does inform my Calvinism.
I am a Calvinist because of the exegesis of John 6; Eph 1; Rom 9
The main reason why I’m a Calvinist is because I believe that a few scriptural passages strongly point in that direction. I don’t hold to it because ‘I like it’ or because ‘it makes me feel good.’ Rather I feel compelled to affirm it and have not met any exegetical presentation that has led me to shake this conviction. The three texts that I cannot make sense of outside of what is commonly referred to as Calvinism are John 6:37-44; Rom 9.1-29; Eph 1.3-14. I won’t offer an exegesis here, but these three texts are essentially the main passages — among others — that inform my understanding of God’s sovereignty over salvation.
I am a Calvinist because I believe that Individual Election is Unconditional
Of course, every Christian believes in election and predestination (they are biblical terms after all). It’s just a question of how this works. What makes someone a Calvinist or non-Calvinist is whether one affirms the unconditional nature of individual election. It’s not about whether you hold to all five points of TULIP or not. If election is based solely on God’s will and not on any conditions (whether it be foreseen faith, works, etc) then it is an unconditional election, and one who affirms this position is Calvinistic to some degree. This is where I stand. I don’t believe in ‘foreseen faith’ because I don’t believe that humanity is capable of autonomous faith.
(2) Why My Calvinism Hardly Matters
Whereas I hardily affirm that the biblical picture of soteriology leads me to affirm a Calvinistic viewpoint, there is a sense in which my own acceptance of this perspective hardly matters. Please do not misunderstand me for saying that soteriology doesn’t matter or that I don’t think Calvinism matters. What I mean is that my acceptance of Calvinism hardly matters. Allow me to explain:
My Calvinism Hardly Matters Because I Believe The Same Gospel As Non-Calvinists
The first thing that needs to be said is that Calvinism is not the gospel. It’s easy to make this mistake in Calvinistic circles and so it must be stated emphatically. The gospel message is that sin and death have been defeated through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah who now reigns over the cosmos and will one day bring judgment and make all things new. That is the good news! And we can participate in this grand redemption by declaring our allegiance to Jesus. The fine-tunings of how predestination and election play into this do not eclipse the fact of redemption. Election is therefore a secondary issue. By swearing allegiance to Jesus and putting our faith in him we bow our knees to his Lordship. It is a separate and secondary question to then ask how we got on our knees. At the end of the day, you’re either on your knees or you aren’t.
My Calvinism Hardly Matters Because I Would Be On An Elder-Board With Non-Calvinists
Because of my conviction that Calvinism is not the gospel I believe strongly that Calvinism should not divide elder-boards. I would gladly sit under the teaching of an elder-board consisting of both Calvinists and Arminians and would likewise be content to join an elder-board in the future with a similar make-up. Anything less than a willingness to co-exist together in this kind of environment is tantamount to a confusion of the gospel with Calvinism. I think it would be healthy for a local congregation to witness civility among elders on this issue. Now I’m not saying that elder-boards should seek to ‘diversify’ by any means. I’m simply asserting that ‘doing church’ is what Christians do. And I want to be with Christians.
My Calvinism Hardly Matters Because I Would Do Missions With Non-Calvinists
Lastly I want to affirm that I would gladly link arms with my Arminian brothers and sisters for the sake of presenting the gospel to a lost and dying world. Sure, an Arminian evangelist will think and assume certain things about the dynamics of salvation that I would not but that wouldn’t deter me. Additionally, even though an Arminian might be more likely to speak about ‘free will’ I likewise wouldn’t be bothered. Since I affirm that humanity has volition and a genuine responsibility to believe the gospel — and since I believe that Jesus died in such a way that whoever believes in him will be saved — there shouldn’t be anything substantively different between an Arminian presentation (believe the gospel!) and a Calvinistic one (believe the gospel!)
Has Scripture sufficiently revealed how one receives salvation? Certainly. One must believe. Do we have enough information to fully understand all the dynamics involved? Hardly. It’s a mystery. As Piper would say, Calvinism and Arminianism are not solutions to the mystery, they are merely titles. Thus, election and predestination remain mysteries. Acknowledging this can bring some much needed humility to the entire discussion. So to reiterate, I’m not saying that Calvinism doesn’t matter. I’m simply trying to say that Christians should not turn this debate into a divisive issue. It really doesn’t need to be. The first step is to admit the secondary nature of the debate. This is why I say that I am indeed a Calvinist and at the same time acknowledge certain ways in which this hardly matters.