The end of the road

brainCan I be frank?

When I made the decision to write a little bit about my journey through the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate, a tactical error was made.  A “little” cannot be written.

I have spent over forty years with these two competitors.  I have read a dozen books directly related to the topic.  I should receive a prize.  I’ve attempted to read Calvin’s Institutes.  Reading an encyclopedia would have been easier.  I’ve even read Edward’s, Sinners in the hands of an Angry God.  Whoa!

I’ve listened to dozen’s of sermons by reformed preachers and many more by preachers out of my own heritage on the topic (I miss the days of cassette tapes).  I attended a predominantly reformed seminary (Fuller Theological).  My current sermon series through Romans has caused me to be re-immersed in the debate this entire year.

Hence my brain cramping dilemma.

I am not flippant about my study of God’s Word.  Nor do I take this debate casually.  But really, for the free-willer guy like me,  the debate produces very little.  I have no need to win.  I totally believe you can be a Calvinist and be fully Christian (even though my salvation has been called into question by some of the hyper and strong Calvinist authors and preachers I have read and listened to).   Just keepin’ it real.

This morning, I‘ve been preparing my sermon out of Romans 9 for this coming Sunday.  It contains a whopping 33 verses.  After an hour of thinking and re-thinking my outline, I realized I was going to need at least six or seven weeks of sermons to adequately cover the topics of election, pre-determinism and God’s sovereigntyin this chapter alone!

And then I started imagining the looks on the faces of my church family, in my imaginary Lord’s Day  pontification.  It was there I decided that spending one week on chapter 9 would be plentyand all of you North Pointers can thank me later.

Whether you believe in true free willor in one of the many variations of divine determinism, I am still going to call you to real repentance and real obedience.  If you believe that only the elect can have absolute assurance of salvation, I will continue to maintain that only those who live in an active, conscious, personal obedience to the Word of God and conformity to the life of Jesus, will experience the assurance of actually being the elect.

So I will continue to believe, preach, and live out the truth that Peter means exactly what he writes in 2 Peter 3:9…

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

For me, everyone will always mean everyone.

If you wish to do some further contemporary reading on the “free will” side of the debate, here are a few links that have been helpful to me recently.  I don’t necessarily agree with every word of each, but they certainly do a pretty good job of reflecting where I’m coming from.

As always, I’m always up for a coke and conversation (or an email dialogue).  As for my blog, it’s time to move on.

Controversial Passages

What’s Wrong with Calvinism

Arminians vs. Calvinistsa spectrum

Dear John

On Predestination

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Continued brain pain…

brainHere are some more of my thoughts on the Calvinism thing…

First, I’m not writing as an apologist of the opposition trying to convince you my position is more tenable. I’m simply writing to express my position.  This is what makes sense to me.   This is my best attempt to embrace the beauty of the character of God and the meaning of being created in the image of the Creator.

Like I said last Friday, I certainly believe in the total depravity of humans, although I never really use those words, because they have been co-opted by Calvinism and a more far-reaching definition is usually implied.  I don’t believe total depravity implies or necessitates total evil or the total inability to respond to God’s love and mercy by faith.

In spite of being “spiritually dead and helpless”, all humans are special, loved, possessors of dignity and worth, and most importantly, redeemable.

This is critical.  Because of this belief, these are my necessary and inevitable responses to the other four core tenets of Calvinism (TULIP):

T – Total Depravity (but not total inability to respond to God).

U – Unconditional Election.  I reject this belief completely.  God loves everyone equally and desires that all people live the life He designed for us to live.  I don’t believe that God arbitrarily assigned “a few” to eternity in heaven and “the masses” to eternal, unending torment.  I do not believe that God destined some to live for his honor and created all the others to live for evil, with no hope of redemption.   For me, this is not consistent with character of God revealed in the Bible (in spite of the apparent need for continual justice and violence in the OT).

L – Limited Atonement.  I believe his atonement, just like his love and mercy, is universal and not limited. Christ died equally for all people, and paid the ultimate price that made salvation possible for all, but guaranteed it to none.  I believe when God’s word says, “whosoever believes in Me will have eternal life”, I actually think He meant that.

I – Irresistible Grace.  Because of my belief in the God-given freedom of the human willand because I do not accept the premise of arbitrary and unconditional election, I most surely believe that God’s overtures of love and mercy to his children can be resisted (rejected).  The potential to receive or reject His grace is always present.  I do not see God as the Cosmic Puppet Master who pulls strings to make us love Himany more than I believe He pulls the strings to make evil and disaster happen.  I believe that is the work of Satan and the presence of evil in a broken, but redeemable, world.

P – Perseverance of the Saints.  This is most certainly the logical and understandable conclusion to Calvinist theology.  If God wants you saved, you are saved.  Period.  You may not know it, you may not act like it, you may never experience the life Jesus died to give you, but you will make it to heaven.  No matter what.  But I do not hold to this belief.  I believe that God’s grace and human faith work in tandem together.  They are the two sides of the same coin.  I believe that is the reality we see on every page of Scripture.

This is my logical and understandable conclusion:  I live every day with confidence, boldness and assurance that my salvation is secure, because I trust God at his word and by faith, I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  I experience the reality and presence of a life in the Spirit, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 5-8.  I hold on to his promises and the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit is in, and around, every part of my life.  But I can never be tethered to this life of faith against my will.  

As freely as I have received the gift of grace and tasted the fruit of a new life, I can just as freely turn my back. That’s how love is.

In my next post, I’ll give Scripture references that reflect my position, if you wish to do some further study and comparison.

Where we part company

brainFirst off, here is a pretty exhaustive list of biblical support for the doctrine of total depravity, which I see as the cornerstone and foundation of the Calvinist perspective.  You should, at least, give a quick look at the breadth of the list.  It’s impressive.

Like I said in my previous post, it’s all about the lens you view things through.  For me, I look at those verses and see something totally different from what the Calvinist does.  I come to different conclusions, because I start from a different point of view.

Granted, there are some passages that are still confusing and I struggle to completely harmonize them with the core of what I believe.  And it’s an honest struggle.  But this is true for the honest Calvinist, also.

Since the doctrine of total depravity is a foundational starting point of Calvinist doctrine, I’ll start there.

I believe in the doctrine of total depravity.

  • Jeremiah 17:9 – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
  • Titus 1:15-16to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.
  • Romans 7:18 – For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.

I believe the Bible teaches that human beings are all born corrupted and depraved by original sin.  I believe we live in a world that is fundamentally flawed and influenced by sin and evil on every level.  I believe that Jesus died to set us free from sin and death and give us the fullness of life that was corrupted when sin entered the Garden.

In spite of that, I believe people can still do good.  Even those who clearly do not believe in God.  The Bible teaches that every person is the handiwork of God, created in his image and bearing the substance of his creative essence.  Everybody.

The history of mankind has been painted by the work and effort of engineers and doctors and teachers and lawyers and philosophers and moms and dads and all other shapes and sizes of humans.  And all of them have been depraved and flawed and corrupted by sin.

But they could still do good.  They could treat people kindly.  They could think and reason and emote and act selflessly, at least in a limited way.  That’s because they are, in essence, God’s handiwork.  There is something of God’s image in everybodyno matter how good or bad we behave.

But I don’t believe in the doctrine of total inability.

As I understand it, central to Calvinist belief is the understanding that because people are completely depraved, we are also completely unable to respond to God of our own volitionunable to respond to God by faith, unless God makes it happen.  Here is a passage that apparently supports this view:

  • John 6:44,65 – “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

I see that, but for me, that is not the complete lens.  Later in John, Jesus says this:

  • John 12:31-33 – Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

All people are drawn to Christ, but not all will trust Christ as Savior. Every person will make his own decision to trust Christ or to reject Him. The Bible makes it clear that all people have light. John 1:9 says, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”  Romans 1:19,20 says that every sinner has been called through the creation about him.  And Romans 2:11-16 teaches that every depraved person is called through their conscience, even when they have not heard the Word of God.

It’s the lens I see through.  Even in our depraved, sinful state, people still have the freedom (the will) to respond.  For me, it’s not a matter of whether or not you can follow Jesus, but whether or not you will follow Jesus.

Revelation 22:17 is an invitation at the very end of the Bible. It says, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”

If it is really true that no person has the ability to come to Christ unless God makes (predestines) them come, then why would Jesus confront their obstinance and unbelief in John 5:40:

“These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  It’s because freedom, choice, human will and responsibility are real entities, and not simply the act of going through predetermined motions.

Again, this is my lens, my filtereven as compelling as the so-called Calvinist texts can be.

Continued cramping of the brain…

brainI am an unapologetic “glass is half-full” kind of guy.  It affects how I see most every situation I find myself wandering into.  Hopefulness is the lens I view my world through.

My first take is to see the good in people.  It’s the lens through which I interact with people.  Always.

You might have a different lens that filters how you see people and situations.  If you do, your interpretation will always be colored by that lens.

The same thing happens pretty naturally when we set out to interpret the Bible.  Every time we read a passage or confront a doctrine, we bring our preconceptions, our beliefs, to the table.  It’s natural.  It’s human.  It’s virtually impossible to remove the filters and look at the words of Scripture without bias.

In spite of my filters, I try to look at the Bible with fresh eyes and openness whenever I study.  That has become more true the older I have gotten.  The arrogance and superiority of my youth have certainly been replaced with a more genuine and hopefully, more humble, search for truth.

In my formative young adult years, big-name Calvinist preachers and teachers were all over my native SoCal landscape. They were prominently displayed on Christian radio and television.  They were the most popular authors and conference speakers.  I listened closely and was profoundly challenged by their commitment to the Kingdom and their call to surrender by life to the pursuit of the same.

But I knew of very few loud (legitimate) voices standing in opposition.  So I began to study.

I didn’t grow up around Calvinist perspectives.  I was raised in a more Arminian theological contexteven though I had never heard of the word and had no clue there was even a different point of view.   Once confronted with the logical flow and linear thinking associated with Calvinism, not to mention the overwhelming authority booming from their apologists, I was forced to make room for it.

So I adopted a “compromise” position.  Since I didn’t have a deep enough understanding of my Arminian theological foundationand I couldn’t refute the Calvinist theological foundation with any confidenceI concluded they both must be true.  They both seemed to make sense.  And even though concepts like predestination and freedom of the will, both co-existed in the Bible, my inability to intellectually harmonize them simply proved that God was a lot smarter than me.

For years I quietly accepted some of the core tenets of Calvinism, because I wasn’t taking enough time to really dig in and decide what I really believed.  About thirty years ago, I decided to take that study seriously.

I am not a Calvinist.

I’ll start telling you why in my next post.

Let the brain cramps continue…

brainTrust me.  I’m not going to spend forever on this topic.  I could write about Calvinism or Arminianism or predestination or God’s sovereignty or free will every day for years, and not come close to exhausting a fraction of what has been written previously.

You want your mind to be blown?  Google “a simple definition of Calvinism and Arminianism”.  You will get back nothing that resembles simple.

I’m pretty convinced if someone more nuanced in the rhetoric of this debate were to stumble upon my piddly little blog discussion, they would wag their head thinking, “Rookie…”.  But here goes anyway:

By way of introduction, Calvinism and Arminianism are two systems of looking at, and interpreting, the biblical record concerning salvation and the sovereignty of God.  Calvinism is named after the teachings of theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) and Arminianism after the teachings of theologian Jacobus Arminius (1559-1609).  Both base their beliefs on the Bible, but end up with different views on some pretty critical issues.

They were not the first ones to develop these beliefs.  They each built on the theology of previous church leaders and Bible interpreters.  Somewhere in the lineage of church history, their names got associated with the particular systems and they stuck.  Unfortunate, but at least it comes in handy for lobbing grenades…

To make matters more complicated, there are some in each of these two groups who do not believe certain points of their own system.  There are also some who agree with certain points of the opposing system.  One guy identifies seven different “camps”:

  • Hyper Calvinist
  • Strong Calvinist
  • Moderate Calvinist
  • Soft Calvinist
  • Reformed Arminian
  • Strong Arminian
  • Open Arminian

There.  I’m sure you feel smarter already.  If you’re interested in his rather lengthy explanation of the differences between each camp, you can check it out here.  Although I don’t personally reside in his theological tent, I certainly respect him and his evaluation.

Here’s a short version of the history of the fight:  In the 1600’s (yeah, like 400 years ago…), Jacob Arminius was Dutch scholar, who studied under the strict Calvinist teachings of the Reformed Church of Holland.  Gradually, Arminius came to reject the core teachings of Calvinist teachings and his personal disagreements spread to others and it turned into a full-blown controversy.

The opponents of Calvin organized and created a document stating their five articles of belief.   In response, Calvin’s supporters drew up a document of five points to counter the five articles of the Arminians.   Game on.  (BTW, Calvin and Arminius were both dead theologians by this time.)

Somewhere along the line, the five points of Calvinism came to be summarized by the acronym TULIP.  The following is a really, really simple summary of those five points.  Remember, not all Calvinists completely believe all five points.

T – The Total Depravity of humans.  Sin controls every part of people.  People are spiritually dead and blind, and completely unable to obey, believe, repent, or respond to a righteous God in any way.  People continually sin, because our nature is completely evil.  It means that people cannot choose to believe in or follow God.

U – Unconditional Election.  God chooses who will be saved. Those people are called the Elect. God picks them based not on their personal character, their decision, or seeing into the future, but only out of his kindness and sovereign will.  Since some are chosen for salvation, others are obviously not. Those not chosen are the damned, destined for eternity in hell.

L – Limited Atonement.  Jesus died only for the sins of the Elect, not for everybody.

I – Irresistable Grace.  God brings his Elect to salvation through an internal call, which they are powerless to resist.  If God wants you to be saved, you will be.  If He doesn’t want you to be saved, you won’t be.  You cannot change the outcome of either.

P – The perseverance of the Saints.  The Elect (those who are chosen and truly saved) cannot lose their salvation.  Sometimes referred to as eternal security or “once saved, always saved.”

Next, I’ll give you the Arminian response to TULIP.

My brain already has cramps…

brainI feel like I may need to introduce myself to you.  I’m just coming off the longest break from writing in the past five years.  It’s been over a month since my last post.  If you’ve missed me, sorry.  Lots going on in my life and writing just had to be put on hold.

However, if you haven’t missed getting your regular email, feed or FB post from me, let the pestering begin again!

I didn’t really intend to break the drought with this particular topic, but my hand was forced.

I’ve been preaching on Paul’s letter to the Romans through most of 2014.  It’s been a pretty invigorating study for me.  I have a totally different perspective on the teaching of the letter than I have had most of my life.  Hopefully, those who have studied along with me have benefitted.

(I had never grasped the fullness of the context of the letter before this year.  It is now my understanding  that Paul was writing to address the issue of unity in the Roman churchhelping his Jewish family to understand their right standing before God was not based on law-keeping and that Gentiles could be fully included into God’s familyand helping both groups live and serve side-by-side in the face of persecution.)

This past Sunday, we reached one of the most famous verses in the whole Bible.  Certainly one that people hold close to their hearts and lean on in times of difficulty:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  Romans 8:28

Truth?  Things don’t always turn out how we plan.  Sometimes they turn out horribly wrong.  Sometimes they end in rejection, failure, total loss, tragedy and even, death.  That’s just the way life is.  But for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (that means not just anybody), God promises to continue to work in our lives, molding and shaping us into the image of his suffering servant Son.  Here’s how Paul states it in the next couple of verses:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.  8:29-30

When we read these verses, hopefully our hearts are filled with confidence and a growing love for a God who set a plan into motion that gives meaning and boldness to our existence.  These verses are also at the center of hundreds of years of argument, divisiveness, judgment and disunity in the church.

Over the next few days, I’m going to give you my simple take on the debate.  I don’t plan to write a second master’s thesis.  It will not come close to covering all the angles of the war.  Remember, I’m a lover, not a fighter!

I will try to define some terms as simply as possible.  I’ll work hard to accurately reflect the opinions and interpretations with whom I disagree.  Feel free to call me out, if you think I’m failing in that effort.

If the words, Calvinism, Arminianism, predestination, freewill, election, unlimited atonement, God’s sovereignty, and the like, capture your interest, maybe this will be interesting to you.

If not, I’ll be back to football, church goofiness, hamburgers and marriage soon.

Goodness, shmoodness…

i just got through doing a nice thing for my son.  a really nice thing.

i was sitting here admiring the nice thing i had done.  i was thinking, “i’m a good dad.  i’m sure my son realizes that.  i hope my example makes an impact and carries on after i’m gone.  yup.  i’m a good dad.”

yuck.

please forgive me for my moment of deluded self-admiration.

although i hopped out of the USS John Calvin boat many years ago,  i will still readily…and biblically…admit that any good thing that comes from me is simply because of the goodness of god that has taken up residence in my body.

i don’t love because i’m a good guy.  i love because god loved me first and rescued me from a dismal life of self-centeredness,  self-interest,  and self-obsession.

every day is lived “in view of god’s mercy”…which means i don’t get the wrath of god that i really deserve…and i constantly get opportunities to treat others with the grace and patience extended to me by a benevolent and just father.  my true example and the one who daily shows me how treat others.

in these days of uncivility, i’m grateful the great gift-giver continues to influence and empower this self-absorbed and clueless child.

when all is said and done,  i’m not a very good person at all.  but i know the one who is.

and hopefully today will not be a continued adventure in missing the point.