Purposes of These Posts
1. To tell my theological story in and out of Calvinism for those who may be interested.
2. To tell my story honestly to help other people evaluate the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. People get way too polemical and hotheaded in this debate, and I think we could all benefit by admitting the weaknesses we see in our own systems and explaining why we really believe what we believe.
3. To eliminate some misunderstanding, as much as possible, on both sides.
This first post will cover the broadest stretch of time: from Junior High till a year or two after high school.
Hate at First Sight
First exposure to Calvinism: It was in Junior High (or maybe a little earlier) while participating in an AWANA program at a reformed church. I was beyond shocked by what one of the leaders was saying, and I’m sure I let him know. I remember thinking “Why on earth would anyone believe that God only loves some people and wants other people to burn in pain for billions of years?” If God wanted everyone to be saved, and some people weren’t, then clearly it was their fault and not God’s. The issue was settled in my mind, black and white, and I hardly even discussed it with anyone.
First Wrestling with Calvinism: It wasn’t until I was in high school that I slowly began to really think hard about whether Calvinism was true. I got into a handful of small debates with the high school director at the AWANA program, and I can only imagine how poorly I argued back then. But I’ll admit what I didn’t admit then: my hard-headedness was largely an over-compensation for how uncertain I was becoming about the whole issue. I was very committed at a young age to the idea that the Bible (and all of reality) was straightforward and easy to interpret. So it naturally began to unsettle me when I saw some pretty plain verses that seemed to teach Calvinism. Four passages in particular come to mind as the sort of verses that haunted me:
- Romans 9:17-18 “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” Why was Pharaoh hardened? Because God wanted him to be hardened. It was his will.
- Ephesians 1:4-5 “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” It sounds like God decided beforehand what was going to take place.
- Proverbs 16:4 “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” Why do evil people exist? For the day of trouble. I always thought that hell was made for evil people. But it sounds like evil people were made for hell!
- Proverbs 16:33 “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Even little things were caused by God!
I remember lying on my bed, wrestling through these things in my head. All the sudden the thought flashed across my mind: “Wait, if this is true… am I even… thinking? Am I actually evaluating evidence for or against these positions, or am I just thinking these thoughts because God wanted me to think these thoughts? God just wants me to think I’m weighing evidence, but maybe my thinking only seems logical and it isn’t corresponding to anything in reality at all!” I think you have to admit: for those who are first introduced to Calvinist teaching, it can be pretty hard to not feel like a puppet (or perhaps to feel like the Calvinist God is a little bit like Descarte’s hypothetical master-deceiver who can even fool you into think things are logical when they’re not).
My Rebuttal: Ultimately, though, I just couldn’t swallow it. Why? This was the argument I couldn’t get around: If Calvinists were right, then God doesn’t love everyone equally. But God does love everyone equally. Therefore, the Calvinists are wrong. But what about the texts? My answer at the time: I don’t know; but I knew they couldn’t mean that.
Was my thinking at this time fair? On the one hand, I was basically refusing to believe what it looked like Scripture was saying. On the other hand, I was quite confident that God did love everyone equally, and it seemed like that theological truth should govern how I interpreted other passages. I remember using this argument: In John 17:21-22, Jesus makes a shocking request of his Father: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” This passage clearly teaches that we will be one with God in the same that the Father and Son are one, right? Well, that means we’ll be God! We’ll join the Trinity! But we all know that’s the wrong interpretation. Why? Because it’s theologically absurd. Man cannot become God. It’s as simple as that. And in my mind, it was “as simple as that” that Calvinism was also theologically absurd. God certainly loves all people equally and desires everyone’s salvation. And I think it’s true; we ought to reject ideas that are theological absurd. But I failed to do two things: first, I didn’t really understand all the nuances of what I was rejecting; second, I didn’t offer an alternative reading of any of the texts. I’d give my argument a C- at best.
Flirting with the Devil
Eventually, I began to grow a love for listening to sermons in my spare time, and for studying Scripture on e-Sword (a free Bible study tool) and reading what all the commentaries had to say about everything. I loved it; I was growing; I was seeing more of God. But something disturbed me deeply: “Why are my favorite commentators and preachers Calvinists?” Seriously: John Piper, John MacArthur, David Platt, Voddie Baucham, Paul Washer — they all were Calvinists! And they were so confident about it. And it made me mad. But I just ignored it. Yet over time, something odd happened: I started to see how it could, possibly, maybe, make sense. Like, I at least didn’t think they were stupid anymore. And it isn’t as if I had never heard good sermons from non-Calvinists. But I had never, ever heard someone preach with so much power about such a big God. I never laid it out this way, but the argument that got me to consider becoming a Calvinist was this: 1) God is certainly a mighty, holy, majestic, glorious God; 2) only Calvinist preachers ever make God appear this way to my heart; 3) therefore, Calvinism might be true after all. I had never worshiped God like I did when I heard Calvinists preach about him. Because of Calvinist preaching, I first wanted to devote my life to the preaching of this great Gospel. No other preachers had ever done that for me.
Again, let’s evaluate this: was this a reasonable theological move for me to make? Absolutely. If a theological position increases your love for God, it certainly ought to be considered (not necessarily accepted wholesale, but considered). After all, what’s the purpose of theology if it doesn’t produce worship and piety?
The Decisive Moment
I had been learning how to read my Bible carefully, mainly by listening to good sermons and seeing the steps the preacher would take in carefully reading a text and seeing the logical connections between clauses and phrases and words. And I was learning new things day after day by actually attending to the text. But I consciously chose to never read those pesky “Calvinist passages” with such carefulness (I say this to my shame); I would just skim over them really fast. Then on one fateful day, I was reading from a passage that I didn’t realize was actually an undercover Calvinist passage! It snuck in unawares. It was from Isaiah:
Isaiah 64:6-8 “V6: We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. V7: There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. V8: But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
This was the logic I saw, and I saw it laid out verse by verse. I was reading quite slowly and meditating on the verses as I read them.
- V6: “We have all become… unclean… our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” I meditated on how vile and evil I am apart from God’s grace. I can’t do anything righteous.
- V7: “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you.” Our sin (V6) is so bad, that we can’t even move toward God! Nobody will even cry out to him unless he acts. I remember sitting there, genuinely asking the question: “How on earth can man be saved, then?”
- Verse 8 hit me like a bomb: “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” This verse immediately brought to mind Romans 9 (because of its reference to God as a potter) and John 6 (“Nobody can come to me unless the Father draws him”) and every time I had heard a Calvinist preacher preach on the effectual call of God.
I was defeated. I was a Calvinist. And I worshiped God that night, absolutely amazed by his grace for me.
So what had happened to “convert” me? Several things:
- I saw the love and zeal for God that these preachers possessed, and I wanted it.
- I began reading my Bible more carefully, and it seemed like Calvinism was making more sense of what I was seeing.
- I saw the role of Total Depravity: If we are really all dead in our sins, then only God can give us new resurrection-life, and he is under no obligation to do this for everyone. And the thing that really got me is that I felt like I had seen this very argument in Isaiah.
- Worship: my mind followed my heart. I loved this God I was seeing through the Calvinistic perspective, and I soon wouldn’t be able to imagine not loving him that way.
And you might ask, what about my original objection? Isn’t it obvious that God loves everyone equally and desires everyone’s salvation equally? Honestly, I didn’t have the best answers early on. But what I listed above helped to explain a few things: first, I didn’t want to simply say “it’s obvious” — I wanted to be more focused on Scripture (#2 above). Second, I saw the role of Total Depravity — none of us deserve his grace (#3 above). And lastly, I was compelled that nothing this beautiful could be false (#1, 4 above). No, I didn’t understand the origin of evil. No, I didn’t understand why God didn’t want everyone to be saved, even if he wasn’t necessarily obligated to give it. But who really understands everything?
I was convinced: this is what Scripture teaches, it’s beautiful, and I’m okay with a little mystery.
In the next post I’ll begin talking about my years at college, describing how I used to defend my position, my thoughts on Limited Atonement, my crisis of doubt in which I almost became an atheist, my new-found love for philosophy and William Lane Craig, and the process of slowly rejecting Calvinism.