The story is told of a group of people who disagreed over the issue of predestination so they divided themselves into two separate camps. One camp existed for the predestinarians and another for those who emphasized the free will of man. A single undecided man was stranded in between. Since he wasn’t sure what to do, he went and tried to join the predestinarian camp. They refused to allow his entrance, saying, “You can’t be here if you choose to be here, you must be called.” So in concession, he made his way to the free will camp. They too, rejected the poor man, stating, “You can’t be here if you were sent, you must choose to be here of your own free will.”
I have often felt like that man in my own struggle to understand and reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s free agency. My own struggle began shortly after my surrender to the gospel ministry, as I entered the student body at Central Baptist College in Conway, Arkansas. Calvinism and the “doctrines of grace” were a constant source of controversy among the overzealous ministerial students. We would often stay up until the wee hours of the mourning in our dorm rooms, debating the eternal decrees of the Almighty. Our pursuit was not so much to understand the God who had saved us, but rather to have a keen grasp on our theology, and if I might admit, to entertain ourselves by feeling intellectually astute.
My pursuit of an understanding continued as I devoured the writings of John Calvin, Lorraine Boettner, and R. C. Sproul. John Piper’s popularity had not yet reached our small school in central Arkansas but we were quite familiar with the scholarly perspective of Dr. John MacArthur. (May I make an aside to say that these are godly men who have done much good for the cause of biblical inerrancy and other areas of conservative theology.) I was particularly drawn to the well-known Reformed writers because of the great appeal of their emphasis on the “five solas:” (in English only…) the Scriptures alone teach us salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone to the glory of God alone. I affirm these solas to this day, but I no longer believe them to be the product of the Reformation, but rather the natural conclusion of a right exegesis of the Bible. Thankfully the Reformers simply stumbled onto truths held by the ancients, and by ancestral Baptists throughout their centuries of underground faith as well.
Only a few years ago, I would have proudly labeled myself a Calvinist and I had my arguments in tact to defend my position. I found myself teaching these truths in my pulpit ministry, unwilling to give a universal invitation to anyone who would want to be saved. Rather I qualified my invitations with such phrases as, “If God is dealing with you, then come…” My intent was to avoid “casting my pearls before swine.” I had two basic approaches to defending my incorrect theology. One approach was to run to the familiar proof texts such as Ephesians 1:3-14, John 6:43-46, and Romans 8:28-30. The other was to twist my opponents’ words using human logic. In fact, my first confession would be that Calvinism had a strong appeal to my own appetite for that which was intellectually challenging.
That Calvinism is a logical system cannot be denied. If in fact all are totally depraved and unable to respond to God, then God must unconditionally elect some to believe. If He elects some, yet they cannot believe on their own, then He must draw them and give them faith. Further, if He draws them and gives them faith, then they surely could not be lost, so His grace must be irresistible. And if only some will be elected, drawn, and saved, then Jesus must have died only for the elect, else His blood would have been spilled in vain and the non-elect would, in their own damnation, cause God to judge their sin twice. The perseverance of the saints must be a right doctrine if God’s sovereignty in electing lines up with His wisdom of the future lifestyle of the elect. So it all made sense to me. Being able to state the doctrines of grace and convince others of their truthfulness fed my own ego and gave me the feeling of being in the ranks of the world’s great theological thinkers. But what I felt was Calvinism’s great strength (the fact that it was ultimately logical to the intellectual person) turned out to be Calvinism’s great weakness.
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The Bible is full of paradoxes. Believers are alive and dead at the same time. We are servants and sons. We are saints and sinners. We are chosen, and free! None of these paradoxes are logical. None of them make any human sense but when we see the Scriptures through a heart of faith, they seem sensible to us after all. Calvinism ultimately creates a mindset that blocks out the possibility of man having anything at all to do with his own salvation. Indeed, man cannot purchase it with his good works, nor can he suffer for its penalty and be freed from sin’s curse. Nonetheless, the Scriptures plainly record the necessity that man, in his divinely granted freedom, choose Christ of his own volition. The logic of Calvinism sees only the sensible side of God’s sovereignty but can never reconcile it with man’s freedom to act in faith.
Beyond the appeal of the logic of Calvinism was the second draw upon my soul… the ability to line up with the great theological thinkers of my day. The popularity of Calvinism is growing, thanks to the growing popularity of some of its great advocates such as R. Albert Mohler, John Piper, and John MacArthur. As I mentioned before, I believe these to be godly and conservative men of profound intellectual insight and personal character. I so wanted to fit in with the great scholars of my day that I was willing to overlook apparent uncertainties about my theology. In reality, I was taking an apologetic approach to Calvinism within my own heart! I was consistently attempting to convince myself!
The final straw came for me in the summer of 2005 when I purchased and listened to the well-known sermon by Dr. Adrian Rogers entitled Predestined for Hell? Absolutely Not! One of my strongest arguments for Calvinism was my eisogesis of Romans, chapter nine. I listened, dumbfounded, as Dr. Rogers decimated every supporting argument I had given in asserting that God had created people who were forordained to damnation, simply to show forth His justice. Dr. Rogers’ masterful exegesis of this oft-studied passage convinced me to do a thorough re-evaluation of my own theology. Very few Calvinists today would claim to be hyper-Calvinists. In fact, any Calvinist I’ve ever met would always label those a little more extreme than themselves as the “hypers.” Suddenly I was faced with the evidence which proved my own leaning toward a hyper-Calvinist theology.
I began reading all that I could again on the subject of Calvinism, this time from an objective position. Formerly I had sought proof of Calvinism, now I simply wanted God’s answers to my deepest questions. My mind was stirred to re-consider my theological position, but my emotions were wrenched by a question I had subtly ignored when a loved one asked, “what if your little girl (two years of age at the time) isn’t chosen, but instead was created simply to be damned forever in hell?” Though an emotional reaction is never the basis for a solid affirmation of truth, I would beg the same question of any Calvinistic reader… what if all of your loved ones were simply “fitted for destruction?”
Dave Hunt reflects my final conclusion in this way, “…the ultimate aim of Calvinism… is to prove that God does not love everyone, is not merciful to all, and is pleased to damn billions. If that is the God of the Bible, Calvinism is true. If that is not the God of the Bible, who ‘is love’ (1 John 4:8, emphasis added), Calvinism is false…”
My confessions as a former Calvinist could be summed up in this way: I twisted various passages of Scripture so that I might have a system of theology that appealed to my intellectual ego, could reconcile itself with my own logic, and which would include me in a great class of Christian scholars, past and present. None of these motivations are glorifying to God, neither are they the motivations placed before us in Scripture.
Having recanted my affirmation of Calvinism, let me affirm my believe in a sovereign God who is always in control, but Who never forces or coerces converts to His Son. I believe in a God who sent His only Son to the cross so that anyone who believed on Him might be saved. I believe in a God whose knowledge is truly “past finding out” and who cannot be defined by any system of theology that is not firmly rooted in Scripture. Put simply, there is no acrostic that will summarize God. Sixty-six books, written over a span of 1500 years, at least seven genres of literature and multiple eras of God’s relating Himself in different ways to mankind were required to produce a single document that could even begin to tell of the mysteries of God’s deity and person. Calvinism is a partial explanation of God’s ways, presenting to us the sovereign God, divorced from His limitless love and His universal provision for the sins of all of His lost creatures. Let the reader beware that impenitence is damning, but let the reader behold the “great love wherewith He hath loved us.” To quote the Author of all theological truth, “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:39-40)
Adrian Rogers, in his rebuttal of extreme predestination, stated it so well, “If you want mercy, you may have it.” I would urge you to fling yourself upon the foot of the cross where Jesus died and claim His mercy, receive His forgiveness, and take hold of the promise of a future resurrection to be with Jesus forever. For the Scriptures conclude with this great thought… “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” (Revelation 22:17)