A Fair Chance

8 04 2011

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In a preface to this series, I explained that our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour is what unifies all Christians and that every Christian has a shared goal to become more like him. For Christianity essentially is not a belief system. It is a Person we follow, not a system. It is Christ, we follow, not a religion. Christ is, quoting S. M. Lockridge: “the loftiest idea in literature. He’s the highest personality in philosophy. He’s the fundamental doctrine of true theology.” Jesus is the truth, the way and the life (John 14:6); it is him we all love and therefore desire to put his commandments into practice. That’s what unites us.

On another level, however, which is also important, what divides us is our theological persuasion, i.e. our interpretation of the Bible and our view of God and his plan of salvation for humanity. As we reason from Scripture, we sometimes come to different conclusions about what the authors meant. Now in many areas this is trivial, insignificant and superficial, such as the type of hymns, the organization of service, worship and ministries in the church, but in some areas, such as who God is and how he relates to mankind, teachings and beliefs can radically diverge, to such an extent that people won’t consider each other brother and sister in Christ anymore. This is not theological niggling or nitpicking over some minor details, this is a clash of different worldviews. And none is without its implications. Your theological persuasion will not only radically influence your interpretation of the Bible, but also your view of God, his church and the world. As you know, these different views can’t all be true at the same time.

One extreme way of thinking about God’s providence that is upheld by a minority group of Christians is Calvinism. It is also commonly called Reformed Theology, although not all Reformers were associated with Calvinism. This religious philosophy is known for its distinctive doctrines of sovereign grace and God’s eternal predestination and pre-election of who will be saved. But its teachings are certainly not limited to the national Reformed churches. They’re upheld across denominations and generally taught by Presbyterians and Calvinist Baptists, but also (Evangelical) Lutherans, Dominican Catholics and the like.

There are Calvinists of all sorts and sizes. There are many different branches, even in the Reformed Church alone, ranging from the sectarian and conservative to the more moderate and liberal churches, but they all endorse the concept of sovereign grace and unconditional election. Some believe Calvinism is the only true gospel, others rightfully understand it as tradition.

Needless to say, accepting the gospel of Calvinism has also encouraged many Calvinists to come to genuine repentance and to put their faith in Christ as their Lord and Saviour. But we should not credit such fruits of the Spirit to the power of their theology. Frankly, in my experience, it is in spite of the distinctive doctrines of Calvinism that people have been saved. Sadly, many people in the Reformed Church do not know Christ intimately.

What I would like to explore with you in this series is a debate that has been going on for a long long while between Calvinists and non-Calvinists regarding the role of God’s providence and man’s decision-making in salvation. Unlike other Christians, Calvinists believe that there is a pre-elected number of people, called the Elect, that God has loved particularly before the foundation of the world and has predestined to sovereignly draw to faith in him. Keep in mind that it is this what I refer to as “Calvinism”, which roughly comes down to the doctrinal views held by John Calvin himself. Not all Calvinists endorse the full story, some have added to the story, but don’t accuse me of misrepresentation, if I am using the Calvinistic trademark for a particular product of Calvin that you don’t support.

For the goal of our series is not to misrepresent or destroy Calvinism or run its adherents down, but to show with love and respect that Calvinism is wrong in several respects and to offer the Calvinist a better, more Christian and more Biblical view that reveals the splendour of God’s providence, his unconditional love and his universal call to salvation. And I hope my Calvinist brothers and sisters who are watching now will hear me on this without prejudice.

Of course, nobody’s understanding is perfect, so I am not so bold as to proclaim that I have the full understanding of the truth and that everyone who disagrees with me is necessarily wrong. I am not wise in my own eyes (Proverbs 3:7; Romans 11:25, 12:16), lest my folly put me to shame (Jeremiah 8:9; ; 1 Cor 8:2). But this is no excuse for intellectual laziness, we are called to love God with our mind. Surely, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7) and although it is the glory of God to conceal things, it is the glory of kings to search things out (Proverbs 25:2). So let my modest research be an encouragement to revere God’s power and love and to continue to study his Word.

For the sad thing is that a Calvinist can’t say to a stranger, let alone their own children: “God loves you”, for they don’t know whether they belong to God’s elected few and it would certainly be unfair to them to say so if they don’t. What’s worse is when Calvinism is presented as the one true Gospel, someone who rejects these teachings is labelled reprobate. It is dreadful that this extreme way of thinking has led many people away from God.

Whereas people speak of a resurgence of Calvinism in North America, in the Netherlands, where Reformed Theology took definite shape as the state religion, the total number of registered members of the Dutch Reformed Church has decreased from 43% of the population in 1899 to 12% in 2003. In Dutch, the term ‘Calvinistic’ unfortunately has become a pejorative for extreme strictness, prudishness and conservatism. The Reformed church had been fragmented into various denominations and many are emptying, because the preachers don’t preach the Lord Jesus Christ and thus many of its members don’t even know Christ or believe in his resurrection.

Often you won’t be able to argue with Calvinists on a subject like free will. You’ll be labelled Arminian without even knowing what this means. You’ll be accused of believing in salvation by works, diminishing God’s glory and being influenced by “humanistic” thinking. If you don’t accept their doctrines, sometimes you’ll be told you’re not spiritually born again and don’t know God and his gospel.

Non-Calvinists aren’t as charming either. They have to deal with an image of being worldly, fickle and compliant. Often Calvinists won’t get a fair chance to discuss God’s providence either. As a Calvinist, you might be labelled a Gnostic without knowing what this means. You’ll be accused of sectarianism, reluctance in evangelism and turning God into a tyrant.

Of course, these accusations don’t apply to most adherents of either view. And we need to give each other a fair chance to discuss our view on divine providence and human free will respectfully and constructively, so that we may learn from each other’s view and grow in our faith.

But what’s the problem here? What’s at stake? In debating Calvinism, a good illustration of the problem that we are going to face is the following one, which I’ve got from David Pawson. With regard to God’s salvation of mankind there are three opposing views, of which only one can be correct:

  • Assisting Grace (Personal Merits): a man (representing humanity) is drowning and God, standing on the shore, encourages and instructs him to save himself and swim to the shore;
  • Sovereign Grace (Forced Faith): a man has already drown, dead on the bottom of the sea, and God has to jump in and pull him onto the shore in order to revive him;
  • Free Grace (Free Faith): a man is drowning and God throws him a rope; neither would the man say he saved himself or would God say I forced you to be saved.

Of course, this illustration isn’t perfect, but it will stimulate your thinking on this subject. Calvinists say or actually fear that some form of human involvement in saving faith means that God will not be given all the glory that he deserves. That there is some credit in the free faith of people that glorifies the human being and diminishes the glory of God. But is this fear legitimate? Have you ever met someone who willingly received the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ yet glorified themselves instead of God who graciously offered it them?

(We, from YouApolgetics, understand that this covers difficult material that may come across one-sided. It is not our intention to misrepresent Calvinism or to attack Calvinists personally. If you’re inclined to comment on our videos or want to have a decent discussion, we would like you to make a video response on YouTube.)

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COPYRIGHT © 2011 Life put in perspective by Harry a.k.a. Buckleherry. All rights reserved.
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