Calvinism’s Missing Contexts – Part 1

Philippians 1:29

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

Calvinism’s Challenge:

This verse shows that people don’t believe in Jesus because they “choose to,” but because God allows them to have faith. Paul was telling the Christians in Philippi they only believed because God decided to save them. They weren’t elected by God because they believed, but because of God’s unconditional election they were allowed to believe. This verse teaches irresistible grace, and strongly implies unconditional election.
Continue reading “Calvinism’s Missing Contexts – Part 1”

The Making of a Calvinist (Calvinism’s Bold Accusation)

A humble and hungry disciple is a wonderful thing in God’s kingdom. They are humble not because they have no pride, but because they hate the pride that they see in their own hearts. They long to deny themselves and take up their cross. They often confess more than is necessary, and they have no doubt that they deserve every rebuke you send their way. These spiritual children are hungry for whatever God has for them. If you encourage them to share the Gospel boldly, they might embarrass you by standing on the table and telling everyone in the restaurant that Jesus commands everyone to repent. If you encourage them to meet with you for morning-prayer, they might become your living alarm clock that is not equipped with the gracious feature of a snooze button. They are humble and hungry, willing to do anything to serve God, no matter what the cost.

These disciples are quick to obey any commands and also quick to doubt their own motives. They hunger for pure spiritual milk and humbly receive the word of God that is able to save their souls. This passion and vulnerability makes them fit for growth in God’s kingdom. But these same qualities can also make them a target for deception. As natural children are easy to manipulate in their innocence and ignorance, so are spiritual children. Zeal can make them hasty, and humility can make them naïve.

When they hear the doctrines of Calvinism they usually give them little thought. The new disciple believes that God loves everyone and wants all people to come to repentance. So a teaching which says God does not want everyone to be saved makes no sense to them. They have hope for people and sincerely believe that if they labor and pray for souls to come into the kingdom, they will. So the doctrine which teaches that God has already unilaterally determined how many will be saved and that absolutely nothing can change that number, seems unbelievable to them.

But sooner or later they read a passage in the Bible that shocks and confuses them. They read something like, “Before the twins were born, God loved Jacob and hated Esau” (Rom. 9:13). Then their heads begin to spin. They can’t make heads or tails of it. At this point they usually ask their mentor what it means and wholeheartedly accept whatever explanation that is given, whether it makes any sense or not. If the explanation didn’t really clear it up for them, they consciously avoid such passages in the future. This is a dangerous situation. And it is for this reason that the Calvinism section of this blog was written. Disciples must be armed with clear and biblical interpretations of these “calvinist verses.”

One of the common testimonies of Calvinists goes something like this, “I didn’t accept Calvinist theology because I wanted to. In fact, I hoped that it wasn’t true. I only accepted it because I couldn’t ignore what the Bible plainly teaches.” This confession is their honest experience and I’m sure it usually is said from a place of humility. A brother cannot be faulted for his testimony. But sometimes that same testimony is spoken with an air of superiority by people who take great pride in their theological system, and though the words are the same the testimony is expressed with an accusatory tone. When shared from such an attitude it carries with it a subtle accusation, “You don’t follow the Bible, but your desires. You want the Bible to teach that God loves everyone, so you refuse to submit to the truth of God’s word.”

Eventually the disciple meets a Calvinist who believes that their theological system is the Gospel and hears the testimony of their conversion, with the accompanying subtle accusation slipped in the tone. This accusation often has its intended effect on the sensitive conscience of the humble follower of Christ. The disciple knows that he continually wrestles to submit his will to the will of God. So he begins to wonder if he is guilty of the charge of ignoring the Scripture in order to protect his preferred perspective about God. As he meditates on this accusation he has to admit that it seems to accurately describe the struggle in his heart. After all, he does avoid certain passages in the Bible because they seem to teach the unpleasant doctrines of Reformed Theology. And though he has read many verses in the Bible that seem to disprove the claims of Calvinism, he cannot deny that his main objection to that theology is that he doesn’t like what it says about the character of God. This accusation brings the disciple into self-doubt and prepares his heart for Calvinism. By accepting the subtle accusation that his Spirit-renewed conscience is actually just human reasoning, he is stepping into dangerous territory.

The Calvinist’s confession also carries with it a strange suggestion, again, usually without his awareness. The suggestion goes something like this, “If something is hard to accept, accepting it must prove a sincere devotion to God.” By submitting to a view of God that is distasteful to his understanding of justice and mercy he feels reassured that he is devoted to God’s word.

The Calvinist’s testimony, when spoken in pride, has been used to accuse and manipulate his brother in Christ. After the Christian has been humbled by the subtle accusation that he is more devoted to his desires than to God’s word, the strange assumption that things unpleasant to man are most glorifying to God can begin to work its magic. The disciple is now eager to prove his devotion to God’s truth. In this state of mind he turns to Romans 9:20 and reads, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” He can resist no more; he falls on his knees and solemnly vows, “I will no longer fight against your truth. I will submit to your word and abandon my human reasoning based on carnal desires.”

But it is not only the zealous and haughty Calvinist that can lead his brother into error. Even godly and humble Calvinists, who do not boast in their system more than in their Savior, can unwittingly be used to influence their brethren in the wrong direction. When the godly Calvinist shares the testimony of how they came to embrace the Doctrines of Grace, the disciple cannot help but see in himself the same struggle that the Calvinist admits he had before his acceptance of TULIP. In his testimony the godly Calvinist will honestly admit that the reason that he resisted Reformed Theology was because it was distasteful to him. He will also share the peace he now has since he has submitted to God’s word instead of his own human reasoning.

This will often make the disciple defensive, and he will deal with the Calvinist in a less than brotherly manner. But, when the disciple is convicted of his pride, he will confess and forsake his arrogant attitude. At this point he is more open to listen to the humble Calvinist brother share about how God-honoring the Doctrines of Grace are, and what peace and humility it has brought to his walk with the Lord. He humbly tells the disciple to be honest with the plain teaching of Scripture and humble himself before God and his word. 

The disciple determines to face the issue head on because of the godly character of the one who gave him the advice. In this state of mind he turns to Romans 9:20 and reads, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” He can resist no more; he falls on his knees and solemnly vows, “I will no longer fight against your truth. I will submit to your word and abandon my human reasoning based on carnal desires.” The result is the same, whether the Calvinist brother is humble or haughty, because the source of the deception is not in the Calvinist, but in theological system, namely Calvinism.

With this sincere commitment the disciple’s theology is now set in stone. The error of Calvinism has taken hold of his conscience, and it will not easily loosen its grip. From this point on he cannot question any verses that seems to teach Calvinism. He must take them at face value. If his heart at any point begins to doubt the interpretation of Reformed Theology on Romans chapter 8 and 9, Ephesians chapter 1 and 2, or John chapter 6, he rebukes himself, “Don’t doubt God’s word because it doesn’t satisfy your carnal desires, just submit!” 

Passages that he once tried to avoid have now become the only verses in the Bible clear enough to interpret the meaning of every other verse in the Bible. Any verse that seems to disprove the doctrines of Total Inability, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints must be carefully reinterpreted until it lines up with his understanding of these key passages. Any line of reasoning that seems to oppose his newly found calvinistic understanding of God’s word is clearly humanistic and worldly, and it must be rejected as a carnal attempt to lead him away from a sincere devotion to the word of God.

The error in this scenario is not that he so unreservedly submits to God’s word, but that he assumes his understanding of God’s word is accurate. He accepts the apparent meaning of certain verses, not because it is confirmed by the rest of Scripture, but because it is the quickest means of proving his devotion to God’s word and silencing the accusations assailing his heart. He is afraid to allow his conscience to influence him. He forgets that when he repented of his sin and became a Christian his conscience had been molded by the testimony of the Gospel message. He already knows what, “God loves everyone and Christ is the Savior of the world” means. He doesn’t need to have it reinterpreted for him.

The theological system of Calvinism comes to deceive and manipulate the sincere devotion of God’s children. It tempts them into accepting error by implying that to refuse it shows that they are more committed to human philosophy and the free will of man than they are to the sovereign rights of God as the Creator. To be clear, we are not saying that Calvinists always call people to a hasty commitment to Calvinism. On the contrary, they will often say, “Take time to study and see what God’s word says.” It is not the Calvinist that pushes the disciple, though some Calvinists are certainly pushy, but it is the domineering nature of Calvinism itself that manipulates the disciple.  

Calvinism boasts that it has a monopoly on devotion. It is the hardest philosophy to swallow, so it must be the most God glorify theology on the market. After all, it says that God is everything and that Man is nothing. God is the only participant in salvation and mankind does nothing to “help” God save him. As the disciple looks into the claims of Calvinism, he always hears the challenge poking at his heart, “See, another clear verse! Why are you so rebellious? Why do you keep holding onto your human philosophy? Submit to the word, unless you really are rebel! Do you really want to refuse to give God the glory due his name?!”

Calvinism is like a manipulative elder brother influencing his little brother into a sinful action. The elder brother doesn’t have to say, “Steal that candy bar for me or I will hit you.” He has a more foolproof way of getting his little brother to do his dirty work. Instead of direct intimidation he uses simple psychology. He says, “You are too little to be here with us big boys. Go home!” To this the younger brother predictably replies, “I am big!” “Ok,” the elder brother continues, “then steal that candy bar to prove it. But I know you will not do it. You’re a chicken! You’re too small to do it!” it is not hard to guess what happens next. The little brother promptly steals the candy bar.

The first strategy of intimidation would leave the little brother with an excuse, “My brother made me do it.” But the second strategy is ingenious. It ensures that the younger brother has no one else to blame, because he chose to do it all by himself. This is the strategy of Calvinism’s irresistible error. Calvinism doesn’t require pushy salesmen for its theology. Calvinists can present Reformed Theology and say, “Take it or leave it. It is up to you. You just have to decide if you want to submit to the Bible or your own understanding. But, I do encourage you to seriously consider this challenge from Paul, ‘Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?’” 

No more urging is needed; the zeal of the disciple will do the rest. The hungry and humble disciple feels compelled to prove his devotion. Calvinism informs him that he doesn’t believe the biblical view of God’s universal love because the Bible teaches such a doctrine, but because that is what he wants to believe. By accepting the harsh doctrines of Calvinism, the disciple can prove once and for all that he doesn’t follow God according to his own understanding. The simple accusation of pride and rebellion, coupled with his ignorance of the meaning of a number of passages, can coerce the humble disciple as successfully as the older brother’s accusation about the younger brother being a chicken.

Of course it is not only new believers who fall prey to the accusing claims of Calvinism. Converts to Reformed Theology might have been believers in Christ for many years or even decades before they submit to the paradigm of TULIP. Nevertheless, most converts to this system will have similarities in their testimony. Many, if not most, will share how they resisted accepting Calvinism for a long time because they despised how it seemed to belittle the goodness of God and/or that it seemed so fatalistic. And most, if not all, will share that the ultimate reason that they finally accepted TULIP is because it is “the plain teaching of the Bible.” They sincerely believe that certain verses can be taken in no other sense than in a calvinistic sense. This is not to say they do not have other reasons for accepting Reformed Theology, but I believe that the large majority of such converts would not have made this leap without being firmly convinced that it is the clear teaching of particular passages in the Bible.

Ironically, the error they have made is that they have leaned on their own understanding of some particular verses, instead of submitting to the plain teaching of God’s word and trusting in the Lord with all of their hearts. Their Spirit-renewed consciences long warned them against submitting to their own reasoning about certain passages of Scripture, but they were not able to persevere in submitting to the whole tenor of biblical revelation until they had a better understanding of the “calvinist verses.” Instead, they chose to submit God’s word to their misunderstanding of a number of passages in the Bible.

Of course a Calvinist would object at this point and say that they are following the whole tenor of Scripture. They will argue that the Bible clearly teaches: “Mankind is utterly dead in sin and therefore totally unable to respond positively to the Gospel without the irresistible grace of God, in accordance with His eternal and unconditional election, monergistically regenerating the totally depraved soul first.” But of course, the reason they think this represents the biblical message is because they have chosen to view everything in the Bible through the lens of a misinterpretation of a few key passages. If they did not misunderstand the passages in question, they would never see the biblical message as they presently do. Basically, they have found a few odd looking pine trees in a pine forest, misidentified them as oak trees, and then declared that the entire forest consists only of oak trees. They can’t see the forest for the trees! And they can’t see the biblical message because of a number of passages which they have misinterpreted and made the cornerstone of their theology. 

It is for this reason that the Calvinism section of this blog has been written. We want to look at several of the passages that usually trouble the honest, but uninformed, disciple of Christ. We will present these passages in light of their historical, theological and scriptural context in order to shed some much needed perspective on what they are actually teaching. Admittedly, it is unrealistic to imagine that every point of interpretation in this book is completely accurate. Nevertheless, after finishing this book it should be beyond doubt to the reader that each passage, when proper perspective is given, cannot carry the calvinistic interpretation without ignoring the context. As it has often been said, “A text without a context is simply a pretext for a prooftext.” 

Let it be said at this point, that I consider Calvinists who have repented of their rebellion against God and trusted in and submitted to Jesus Christ as my brothers and sisters in the faith. And many of them would put me to shame with their love and devotion to our common Savior. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the theological system of Calvinism tends to lead people to a mechanical view of salvation which becomes a stumbling block to many in their walk with the Lord. The errors of Calvinism, though not damning, are certainly serious enough to warrant a strong caution against embracing them. Not only does it distort the character of God, but it often leads to the extremes of overconfidence or despair in those that embrace it. Some are led to be too cavalier believing they will never fall, and others secretly fear they are not among the elect. 

The errors and dangers of TULIP are many. But if I had to boil it down to one issue that makes Calvinism dangerous, it would be that it sets up a system of theology as the only lens through which to understand every passage in the Bible. The Bible is not to be viewed through Covenantal Theology (i.e. the underlying paradigm of Reformed Theology) or through the Doctrines of Grace, but through the Person and Gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44-46). This aspect of Calvinism makes it a stronghold according to Paul’s definition in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5. We must let each passage of Scripture speak freely and not submit it to any philosophical understanding or system. We must submit to God and His word, and let Him give us understanding as He sees fit. We are not saved through holding to a proper systematic theology, but by trusting in, submitting to, and following Jesus Christ. His word is a lamp for our feet, and we must not block the light of that word with a system of theology, even an airtight logical system of theology like Calvinism. We must let every passage shine freely, though it means we don’t always know how to make it all fit together in a nice package.

Though Calvinism comes with many dangers, many calvinistic Christians, as mentioned above, are able to rise above these temptations and live godly lives that truly honor Christ. For such calvinistic believers I have the utmost respect. But, the dangers are real enough, and the consequences serious enough, that people must be encouraged to avoid embracing the calvinistic theological system.

Finally, it must be said, this book is not for Calvinists, though they are more than welcome to read it. This is written for people that are on the fence. Those who feel the weight of Calvinism’s accusing suggestion bearing down on their conscience. It is my hope that many will see that TULIP’s interpretations do not stand up to the context of each passage. And if this is seen, then the philosophical arguments of Calvinism will also be seen for what they really are, mere human philosophy.

Proverbs 3:5

“Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”