If you know much about me at all, you probably know that I’m a Calvinist. I prefer saying that I’m reformed in my theology–which refers to the Reformation theology of the 16th century that revitalized an orthodox reading of Scripture and a commitment to Scripture alone as the only infallible rule for faith and practice. If you were to break down some of the core distinctives of Reformed Theology, you’d focus on things like the five solas (that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as infallibly revealed in Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone) and the five points of Calvinism (total depravity, unconditional election, particular redemption, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints).
As I’ve gone through 14 months of graduate school at a reformed seminary, I’ve invariably been exposed to a lot of this theology! And the more I read Scripture through these particular glasses, the more beautiful Christ becomes and the more attractive Reformed Theology becomes, too. Yet, as I’m diving into these doctrines and trying to be faithful in my reading of Scripture, I’ve become very convicted: convicted as a Christian and convicted as a Calvinist.
Good doctrine does not a good Christian make. And, in fact, sometimes it can be a great hindrance! For many of us Calvinists, our theology truly has been a hindrance in our growth in Christ, as our commitment to being right has overshadowed our commitment to living rightly. Because we’re all so dreadfully sinful, we can take every good thing and turn it into a God-thing. We can make idols out of our ideology and spears out of our soteriology. We can assent to correct theology one minute and seconds later act as if we’d never heard it before. It’s not even that the theology is wrong. Rather, many of us Calvinists have failed to actually live out the beautiful theology in real life!
Total Depravity and how we treat the sinner.
Calvinism has always emphasized the importance of mortifying the flesh, fighting against sin, seeking to live a holy life. And rightly so. We are not just saved from sin, but we are saved to obedience. It is for freedom from sin that we have been set free. Yet, along the way to charging people to live in obedience and submission to the law of God, many of us Calvinists have forgotten the other side of the coin: namely, if we truly are totally depraved (which means not that we are as sinful as we could be, but that every aspect of our being is tainted by sin in some way), then obedience is an amazing thing worth celebrating. Many of us in the Reformed tradition seem to have an inconsistency in our practical application of the doctrine of total depravity. Knowing we are sinners to the root, we rightly place an emphasis on recognizing our sin and repenting, yet we fail many times to emphasize the massive significance of a believer actually walking in obedience! When sin is the norm we are slowly being broken of, it seems that the obedience of a sinner should find a great focus and joy in the community of faith. To find a sinner sinning is not a surprise–but to find him walking in obedience is a miracle worth celebrating.
As a Calvinist, I need to make sure that I am celebrating the obedience and victories in the lives of fellow believers. What a wonderful miracle of the Holy Spirit to be transforming His people from enemies into obedient sons and daughters!
Being Winsomely Reformed
This is a really important one. Sadly, so many of my non-reformed friends are turned off by Reformed Theology because many of the Calvinists they know are arrogant, argumentative, and not very compassionate. I was definitely one of those type of Calvinists growing up, and I pray that day by day the Lord is working in me to root out those sins which are, sadly, made acceptable in many reformed circles. But my question is: why is it so common?
One of Calvinism’s greatest strengths is also one of its greatest weaknesses. As a whole, the thing that sets Reformed Theology apart is its unyielding commitment to fidelity to Scripture. We always go back to what the Scriptures teach. We revere the Scriptures. We are always seeking to faithfully expound the clear teaching of the Word (and sometimes not-so-clear teaching!). But our deep commitment to being “right” when it comes to our reading of the Word can also breed a belief that we really are right about everything–and everyone else is wrong. And they should know about it. And feel bad about it.
It’s convicting to me, especially when I think about the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t seem to pick on the ignorant people very much–it was those who knew the Scriptures backward and forward and knew they were right who Jesus condemned. And, as it turns out, the Pharisees were wrong about a lot of things, even though they knew Scripture better than any of us ever will.
The inconsistent thing about all this, though, is that Reformed Theology should breed the deepest humility and greatest willingness to say “I don’t know.” If we were to break down the essence of Reformed Theology it would be this: God is really big, and I am very small; and everything good that ever happens in my life–especially my salvation–is %100 a good gift from a good, really big God. Reformed Theology emphasizes the fact that all of our being (including our intellect) is affected by sin, and that it is only by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit that we can know God, love God, and love others. Any knowledge of God or true knowledge of the Word is a gift from God. And because God is so big, we can never understand Him fully. Reformed Theology is all about glorifying God and removing the glory of man from the picture. Our theology is Christocentric, not anthropocentric. The only good thing about us is that fact that God made us, saved us, and is working in us and through us.
Calvinistists should be the first to say in humility “I could be wrong.” Calvinists should be the first to say “God moves in mysterious ways.” And Calvinists, if they are truly committed to sola Scriptura, should be willing to never stop exploring the Word and refining their theology if Scripture starts to push back against some of their assumptions. Because the reality is that God is way bigger than our systematic theology. Systematic theology is designed by nature to turn knowledge of the Infinite into a system that can be swallowed and understood. But God can’t be contained! This isn’t to say that systematic theology is wrong or that we should abandon all systematic approaches to understanding Scripture. But we should remember that within our theological system, we need to allow room for God to poke holes, stretch us, challenge our categories, and remind us that even the most Biblically faithful theology still has a great need for refinement.
So as a faithful Calvinist, I need to be willing to truly listen to the views of others and seek to explore their position before trying to get my own “correct” opinions heard. I shouldn’t be so arrogant as to insist on instructing everyone else in why my theology is right and their’s is wrong. Rather, in humility, I should recognize that I really could be wrong, and Scripture really might be trying to tell me something about God that I didn’t see–and that even if I am right, it is only due to the grace of God.
Boldness in Evangelism
This is particularly convicting for me, because I am not very bold. Rightly so, Calvinists like to remind everyone that salvation is solely within the hands of God, and because of that, we shouldn’t panic when it comes to evangelism. We shouldn’t feel the burden to evangelize to every person on the street because we think that if they go to hell, their blood is on our hands. Unfortunately, our emphasis on not feeling the unhealthy pressure to evangelize out of fear or guilt many times causes us to not feel like we need to be bold in our evangelism at all. This isn’t to say that Calvinists don’t evangelize. On the contrary, a majority of the greatest evangelists throughout history were Cavlinistic. The problem is that many of us Calvinists haven’t really taken to heart what they seemed to get very clearly:
If we truly believe that God has sheep out there just waiting to be found, and that nothing we can do can keep someone out of the Kingdom of God, and that God will bless our evangelism because He’s involved in all of this, then we shouldn’t be afraid to be bold in our evangelism. What’s the worst that could happen? If God has chosen that person for redemption, then the seed will take; if not, then it won’t. It’s easy to object, reminding me that we shouldn’t be foolish in our evangelism and always be annoying people with the Gospel, or make the Gospel the sole part of our conversations with unbelievers. While I’d agree, my guess is that very few of us have that problem; I think most of us struggle to be bold enough. At least, I know I struggle with this.
* * *
These are just some brief thoughts. I hope to continue to be thinking about these things and learning what it means to truly live out my theology. And I hope that perhaps it has challenged or encouraged you as well. Either way, thanks be to God that He bears with our weaknesses and rejoices in our victories, fully confident that He is working in us and will complete the task of making us like Christ, full of joy and wonder, love and awe.
Ta ta for now…