Dancing on the Edge of Calvinism

Enticed by Calvinism

There have been times in my life where I desired to accept the Calvinist theological system. Primarily because of the great blessings I have received from sitting at the feet of the puritans, reading their writings. I deeply appreciate their devotional depth and their focus on the glory of God in all things. Calvinism, at least in its classical form, also emphasizes the need for holiness, a need that I have recognized from the first day Christ saved me. This is a basic aspect of the Christian faith that is obviously lacking in our day in which worldliness is rampant among those who confess Christ. Besides these reasons for desiring Calvinism, there is the simple fact that embracing a tradition that already claims to have an airtight logical grid through which to view every verse of Scripture was very tempting to my lazy heart. But I was never able to embrace it, though I honestly tried to accept as much of the system as I could without throwing God’s word under the bus. 

the perservering error

Though I was able to fudge in some areas and read certain passages in a Calvinist light, in many areas it was a stretch. I could understand the logic of God using means to ensure the perseverance of the saints, and so I could classify the warnings as genuine means by which God could keep them in fear and trembling. But it was an exercise in mental gymnastics, and I was always aware of that, but I was able to make it work for the most part. But there were always verses that even my logical fancy footwork could not overcome. And I left those passages on the shelf until I could approach them from a different perspective. When the seasons of life changed, I was able to once again let them stand by themselves outside of a theological system, and listen to what they had to say. And once I did, of course, all the other verses of warning were put back in their proper place and the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints once again blew away like chaff in the wind.

Equality is not a thing, nor is unconditional election

Since I hold firmly to the holiness of God and the wickedness of men, I had, and still have, little problem (if Scripture taught it) accepting the idea that God is right to damn any soul for their sin. I am aware of people that I know that came from the same sinful and unbelieving background that I have which have not been brought to their knees by Holy Spirit conviction like I was back in 1992. So I have no illusions that God must give each person the same opportunity to embrace Christ in order to be just in His damnation of sinners. The apostle Paul and King Herod were not given the same divine incentive to repent and be saved, and yet God is fully justified in judging Herod. This principle applies to everyone, even if they have little opportunity to hear and be convinced of the Gospel truth. If God sees 5 wicked men drowning in their own wickedness and only chooses to lift one of them up to the Rock of salvation, I have no issue with that. And to some degree that is just what He does; as I said, not everyone is given the same convincing grace as everyone else. 

So unconditional election is not a nauseating doctrine in my view, it is simply an unbiblical doctrine. Even through my years close to the edge of Calvinism I had trouble reading John 6, Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 in a Calvinistic way. Having already seen the context of those passages, it was difficult to unsee. The best I could do was to teach that though those passages did not directly teach the “doctrines of grace,” it could be said they implied them. That was a rather convenient way to ignore the weight of the context of those passages. Once I had to revisit the Arminian/Calvinist controversy in a new season of life, the chaff of implied unconditional election went the way of all the earth.

Depraved, yes – totally, no

Ironically (ironic only to men who have never actually read Finney) it was Charles Finney that convinced me of moral depravity, and that is a doctrine I still hold firmly to this day. Men do not come to Christ because they love their sin and hate the light. Until a heart repents of its rebellion towards God it will never see the grace of God in Christ’s face. Until a person casts his desires aside and seeks to know the will of God, he will never be able to listen to and learn from the Father who is bearing witness to His Son. This is the clear teaching of the Gospel of John, for those that are able to read it in its context and not through the tradition of a theological system.

But moral depravity is a far cry from the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity which teaches there is not just a moral inability in men but a constitutional inability in men. That is, Total depravity imagines that men are not the kind of creatures that can hear and respond to God’s overtures of grace. They must be made into a new creature before they can respond rightly to God. For me, the Calvinist understanding of depravity seemed more like metaphysics than plain Bible teaching, so I never gave it any influence on my theology.

Ugly Twins (Monergism & Irrisitible Grace)

Because of the metaphysical doctrine of Total Depravity the mechanical doctrine of Irresistible Grace and its unsightly twin brother Monergism had to be pieced together by prooftexts apart from their context. Besides the unnatural and Scripture-twisting theological creature of Limited Atonement, this collage of doctrines (i.e. Total Depravity, Monergism & Irresistible Grace) were the most difficult doctrines for me to even begin to take at face value. Since, as I said, I was for various reasons inclined to embrace Calvinism, I did my best to rework these doctrines in a way that could in some way fit with the teaching of Holy Scripture, but I was unsuccessful. 

Monergism was never something I considered. It was clearly a non-starter. The order of salvation in the Bible is too clearly laid out. A person must repent of their rebellion towards God. Then they must place their trust in Christ as the Lord Who has the authority to judge and forgive. Next, they must put on Christ, confessing Him as Lord, by submitting to baptism by which their old life is buried and a new life in Christ, the risen Lord, is given to them (Col. 2:11-13). Following this identification with Christ Jesus, having been adopted as God’s child through faith (Gal. 3:26) and put on Christ in baptism (Gal. 3:27) they are then given God’s Spirit, which seals their adoption into God’s family (Gal. 4:6). This is how one is born again. Not just faith, not baptism apart from faith, not mere repentance, and not even the receiving of God’s Spirit, is rightly called regeneration. Regeneration is being born of God, becoming God’s child in position and in spiritual reality. Regeneration is leaving the kingdom of darkness and being translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son; it is being raised with Christ Jesus to the right hand of God. The idea that one is raised with Christ before repentance and faith was never one that I could even see hinted at in the Scriptures. So though I sought to understand what Reformed Theology taught in regards to Monergism, once I understood what they were saying, I never gave it another thought.

But, as I mentioned, I tried to redefine Irresistible Grace without the concept of Monergism / Total Depravity. I attempted to speak of it in terms of persuasion instead of a mechanical act of God by which He unilaterally changes the very constitution of a person. So though I was willing to embrace the term irresistible grace, I actually was guilty of accepting the term while rejecting the concept. So, at this point in my life, though I have changed the terms I use, I continue to accept the concepts I have long held. God comes to convict a sinner of their sin and convince them of the Lordship and sufficiency of Christ’s saving work on the Cross and at the right hand of God. Men are able and responsible to respond to the enabling grace of God!

Atonement limited? Well, kinda

If I have not lost track of where I am in this short theological autobiography, that leaves the doctrine of Limited Atonement. This is another doctrine that never had any persuasive power in my heart and thinking. It is not that I think any sort of limitation in the atonement is incompatible with Scripture, in fact, I think it is compatible. I believe that God knew from eternity who through grace would enter Christ through faith. And therefore, He always knew who Jesus’ death was going to benefit. In that sense, from God’s perspective, the scope of the Cross is limited. God foreordained to give His Son as a sacrifice for men, and He knew which men would receive eternal life through this act of amazing grace. In that sense, the death of Christ was not offered for all men. Now to be clear, I do not believe the Bible directly teaches this perspective of the atonement, but for me, it is a reasonable philosophical conclusion; this is my personal conviction and understanding.

But this is not the aspect of Limited Atonement that is completely untenable biblically speaking. Instead, it is the strange view of the atonement itself. The Bible teaches that we are all born under the condemnation of death, without fellowship with God, due to one man’s sin, namely Adam. And because of this divine loophole, God is able to bring men back to life and fellowship by the righteous sacrifice of One Man, Jesus Christ. Jesus died for the race of men that were birthed from Adam. He did not die for the sins of particular men, but for the sin of mankind. This seems to be the clear teaching of Scripture if taken as a whole. I could never see Jesus suffering the exact punishment for each and every sin which each and every man, or each and every elect man, had committed. That is not the biblical teaching of the atonement. Instead, the Bible teaches that He took the death we each owed to justice. Then because He was without sin, rose from the dead and was seated at the highest place. Now, all those who are part of the fallen race of Adam can freely come into the New Adam, Jesus Christ. In Him sin, death and hell are all defeated. Those who remain in Adam will be condemned. Those who are born again into Jesus Christ, and remain in Him, will receive reconciliation, adoption and eternal life.

divinely hardened & gratefully so

Well, for those of you who have followed this blog for a while and have been interested in my varying posts over the last decade, I hope that gives you some context. And for those individuals on Twitter who cannot understand why I do not quickly & enthusiastically embrace Calvinism after being presented with the beautiful “doctrines of grace,” now you will know that I am a lost cause who has been divinely hardened into a non-Calvinist position 😉

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