I am a Calvinist. This means that my soteriology will be disturbing to some and to others it would be worth celebrating over a pint. However, what it means to me is something that I haven’t had the pleasure of indulging in the years prior to me being a Calvinist. To some, Calvinism (as well as Arminianism, and such) is on the fringes of importance. And they would be right, to some extent. To me, though, how I understand God has affected how I read and interpret life and the degree to which joy is produced. Calvinism has been a thing of joy for me.
Why am I a Calvinist?
Well, first of all, let’s talk about what it is. It is a perspective on election, divine grace, and human nature grounded in the starting assumption of God’s absolute sovereignty and freedom over creation. It is a theology derived from the work of one 16th-century reformer, John Calvin. It is summarized, in its most popular form (the form I accept and hold), in the acronym, TULIP: Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; Perseverance of the saints.
I will not go into the fullest explanation of the Five Points but I would like to explain the best I can in a brief summary what its significance is, why I embrace it, and what its contribution has been for my spiritual life thus far.
The Bible talks about sinners being in total desperation for grace, the one solution for Man’s fundamental problem. And it is by grace, through faith, that men and women are saved from their sin. What is required is that men and women trust in God, placing their lives into His hands, so that they might be saved. However, the pressing question, I think, which Calvinism seeks to answer is whether faith precedes, or comes after, the conscious choice to follow Jesus. And this explodes into a bunch of other questions: Is salvation chosen or determined (predestined)? Is God active or passive in the event of salvation? What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the event of an individual’s salvation? Does grace actively save or is it a passive object to be received? Calvinism (in very, very brief summary) asserts that God predestines those who will love Jesus to be saved (Ephesians 1:3-6); that men, in and of themselves, are incapable of good and therefore incapable of coming to Christ on their own (Romans 3:9-12); that the will of man is free, in the creaturely sense, but bound to sin (Romans 8:7-8); that grace is required to overcome man’s suppression of the truth (Romans 1:18, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6); that grace actively calls people to salvation (John 6:44); and that all who are called by grace are given faith such that they will persevere to the end (Philippians 1:6).
Why do I embrace this theology? Well, it’s not without controversy. Certainly, many have tried to affirm that it is evil, heretical and absolute trash. My perspective is that Calvinism is the most reasonable, biblically consistent, intuitive, assuring and, to be honest, comforting understanding of the nature of salvation and God’s ordering of the universe.
1. It Is Reasonable
It is reasonable because it’s in agreement with compatibilism. In my view, a hard deterministic perspective on reality, where God punches in x to get y, where He strings together everything outside of time, only makes God a puppeteer and absolutely deprives us of freedom and choice which are necessary prerequisites for any loving relationship. The hard deterministic positioning of hyper-Calvinists is certainly out of line with the teachings of scripture concerning the active participatory role of men and women in God’s plan for creation, their being held accountable for their actions, and, again, that human beings were created not to be chess pieces but to be in a loving, joyful, mutual relationship. All of these things are disintegrated by any view totally annihilating free will. Calvinism, I think in its most consistent form, reconciles the certain existence in free will with the biblical teachings of God’s sovereignty in creation, in his conduction of history, an his predestination of the saints. Calvinism tries to link together the two pieces of the puzzle, predestination and free will, and not go the route of reducing reality to two dimensions.
Of course, the flip end of the spectrum is the position holding to libertarian free will which fits probably most comfortably under Open Theism and, maybe, Arminianism. However, I think to sever human decisions from deterministic causes is somewhat absurd to even contemplate. We all do things for reasons. And there are reasons for everything we do and everything that happens. Therefore, I think it makes the most sense to conclude that God, being the uncaused first cause who very intentionally designed his created world, is also the ultimate cause of everything.
In summation, then, it seems reasonable to think that the extremes of absolute free will and absolute determinism are both stretches. While I cannot mathematically reconcile the existence of determinism with the existence of human free will, I don’t believe I have to. In my mind, it is enough to me that the Bible presents a compatibilistic reality. I must believe what it says, though it endangers my skill in logic, though the God it presents breaks through all of my boxes of rationality. In this way, it’s not too different from how I accept the Trinity or the Hypostatic Union.
For more on this topic, I recommend “Confessions of a Reformed Philosopher: Why I Am a Compatibilist about Determinism and Moral Responsibility” by John C. Wingard, Jr. published in Themelios Volume 42, Issue 2.
2. It Is Biblical
I think I’m mostly drawn to the Calvinist perspective because it is what I see plainly described in scripture. Compatibilism, to me, is entirely biblical. It’s what I get in places like Genesis 50, Isaiah 10, Daniel 4, the Psalms, John 6, Acts 2, Romans 9, Ephesians 1-2, and so on. In fact, one could say that the doctrine of compatibilism, that God ordains and man chooses, is made evident by the entire narrative of scripture.
My careful thought here is not to supply easy proof-texts, because that would be silly, but mainly to explain that when we want to investigate these things — Calvinism, Arminianism, Open Theism, etc. — we are trying to take into account the entire council of scripture. This isn’t about some texts outweighing other texts (you have your John 3:16, I have my John 6:44). That’s just picking and choosing.
When I read the flow of the Biblical story, and think about the way God manages his universe, holding his people accountable, bringing them prosperity when they come to God, bringing destruction when they sin, choosing a people to use, a people that sinned way too frequently, choosing before the foundation of the world was laid to send his Son to die on behalf of the world as a redemptive sacrificial atonement for sin… It seems very clear to me that God never relinquishes even some of his authority to human beings or loses his grasp of history itself. It is all the more evident the depraved state of Man before his Creator, and the necessity of grace to actively overcome the aggressively resistant hearts of people, like Saul of Tarsus. When I read the story of scripture, I read the story of how God loved his people enough to die for them and strive for the restoration of their hardened hearts. He actively pursues us and never fails.
3. It Is Intuitive
This view, moreover, is intuitive as one who knows the Christian-ese lingo a little too well. “Lord, I pray that you would just work in person x’s heart and make them receptive to your word.” “We don’t convert people. God does.” “The Holy Spirit works in our hearts, empowering us, using us as his instruments.” Now, which part of these phrases doesn’t sound at least a little compatibilistic? Unless we maintain that God must be ordered (via prayer) to work in people in order to save them, or that God can work in people’s hearts if he wants to but doesn’t have to necessarily to save them, or that God’s work in people’s hearts might not result in their salvation (for whatever reason), then it seems that if (a) God does what he wills and is never forced, (b) that people are saved only if God has sufficiently renovated their hearts, then (c) it is by God’s will that specific people are saved and specific people are not. Moreover, that in some sense, while there is real choice involved, God is also, somehow, Lord even over this decision to receive Christ. The alternatives all seem to reflect a too-small, not-sovereign-enough view of God. A God who gambles. A God that can fail. A God just not apparent to me in scripture.
4. It Is Assuring
Much joy has been produced in me by the knowledge that God is King over all. Nothing escapes his might nor catches him off guard nor shakes him from his plan. God is unchanging, absolutely trustworthy and ever faithful. And he efficaciously and actively accomplishes our salvation and every day renews our hope. It is truly good news to the one who loves God. That he is on our side.
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:35-39
…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. –Hebrews 12:2
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. —Ephesians 1:7-14
God never changes. He is faithful to his children and never wavers in his love. His plans never fail. Because he is King. Because he rules. Because he is living and active. Because nothing is above him. Because he allows nothing to stand between him and his beloved. There is no loophole, no weakness, no compromise, no device, no agent, no warfare, no thing that can ever breach his will or his authority. The God of this universe rules over it. Manages it for his ultimate glory. And that’s how I know that what he set out to accomplish in my life, he will accomplish.
5. It Is Comforting
My final thought has to do with the obvious. “Well, what does Calvinism mean for the existence of suffering? Do you believe God intended suffering to exist, in all its brutal and unspeakable forms?”
Yes. And, again, this is the answer I get when I read passages like Isaiah 45 or Job 1. But knowing that God is sovereign over all of it gives me so much more comfort than if it were all the accidental but necessary consequence of human free will actions, because if God is sovereign, he is in control, and if he is in control, he will accomplish his purposes, and if that is so, then we can trust him.
The promise we’re given in scripture, in light of pain and agony, is that God will work all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). All things. The good. The bad. If God doesn’t ordain suffering, then the pain we experience every day is utterly meaningless. But if God allows suffering, working through it, then it is for his glory and our good. Because what brings him glory is ultimately good for us. God’s sovereignty, as it turns out, isn’t a problem. It’s actually a revolutionary cure. It defeats rogue fatalism and vanquishes existential dread. In the face of suffering, we can stare back and sing for joy even in our agony that Jesus is Lord, our suffering is temporary, the Spirit walks with us, and that it will all be for the highest possible good in this world.
Photo: John Calvin, Ary Scheffer, 1858, http://www.history.pcusa.org/history-online/exhibits/john-calvin-french-theologian-and-reformer-page-6