WRF Member Clair Davis Asks, "What Makes Calvinists Tick?"
Communicating the Christian gospel clearly must include deep empathy of the way those in another culture are likely to misconceive it. For instance, Muslims have deep appreciation for intimacy within their families, so a gospel with a Western overly-individualistic setting must be transcended and overcome,
probably by working harder and deeper within the family orientations of the biblical covenant.
That ‘contextualization’ is true even within a Christian setting, where old sectarian emphases die hard but we need to do it. Jesus has told us clearly that when we agree he will hear us, so it is high time that we insiders worked harder to understand each other. I learned that from my student Marq who had been part of a group doing student evangelism in Mexico City. Nothing went right, no one there had any interest in their message at all. Marq was sure they needed to pray, asking the Lord to change student hearts. But the group leader objected, stating that would be clearly against their theological orientation, as they believed in human ‘free will,’ that God could have nothing to do with shaping human decisions. Marq knew that couldn’t be right and began to find out for himself what the Bible had to say, how I got to know him. That story has encouraged me so much—because I had never ever heard anything like that before. In my experience, no matter what believers claimed their theology to be, no one had ever objected to that kind of prayer. I believe that almost always every believer is an ‘implicit Calvinist.’
That helps us. Our ‘Calvinist’ or ‘Reformed’ orientation shouldn’t be something that separates us from other believers but rather, once misunderstandings have been resolved, should bring us all together, not just theoretically but in the way we live our lives before the Lord.
We will need some serious conversation. The Bible speaks of God's election, that he actively chooses his people, that he himself breaks the bondage of their rebellious thinking and brings them back to himself. What does that mean? Isn’t it that God’s election comes ‘before’ anything else, that anything we do depends upon him and his love for us?
That is hard to accept for anyone. We’re sure that we are the way we are because of choices we have ourselves made. We all are proud of being in charge on our own destinies, we are all ‘implicit Pelagians.’ Only when we recognize what we really are like, those who deliberately and thoroughly mislead ourselves into minimizing our sinful hearts, only then can election be deeply encouraging to us as our only real hope.
For most of us, also within the Reformed tradition itself, most confusion revolves around questions of ‘priority’ or ‘sequence.’ What does it mean that God’s will and his action come ‘before’ ours? Does that mean we need first to be confident that God has indeed chosen us ‘before’ we can do anything else? That is not at all a theoretical question; many have felt unready to come to Jesus Christ until they could be sure of that, and have lived long lives of deep despair. So much of the old New England theology went that way. But the fact is that being confident of election somehow without enjoying life in Christ just doesn’t happen. You were not ‘chosen’ in the blue, but ‘chosen in Christ.’ There is no knowledge of election without faith in Jesus Christ, never ever.
Two things to remember. One is what ‘priority’ means. When I was a student of John Murray we were talking about the ‘ordo salutis,’ the way of salvation, the sequence Paul sketches for us in Romans 8. It seemed clear that regeneration ‘precedes’ faith—mustn’t that mean that you are born again before you believe? Murray set us all straight, vigorously and loudly: to speak of a regenerate unbeliever is a theological monstrosity! That ‘ordo’ is not at all temporal or experiential but instead logical or causal, that’s what he pushed us to understand. He was underlining sharply what we were just now talking about: keep your mind and heart clear from election thinking until it’s God's time and your time that you should.
The second thing to remember is very close to that: just when should we go down that path? When should we think about our having been chosen by God? The pattern in the book of Romans is the most obvious. The first five chapters cover the well-known ‘Roman Road,’ the description of what faith in Christ looks like: we are sinners, we can’t obey God, Jesus did, his righteousness is ours by faith in Jesus. Frequently we quit there, what else would we ever need to know? Only how we are to live our lives, that’s all! We have been set free from our guilt, our bad record—but how are we to live from now on? Yes, we live to follow the Lord’s course for our lives, to obey him and what he tells us to do—but that is so hard. How can we ever do it? We try and fail, try again and fail again, what other conclusion can we come to than that of dismal chapter 7, ‘wretched man that I am.’ Where can we find hope for our lives considering our hard struggle with idolatry and unbelief?
Where is that hope? The ringing answer to that is chapter 8’s, ‘what shall separate us from the love of Christ? Nothing ever shall!’ God has given us all we need in his gifts of our forgiveness and also our change, sanctification as well as justification—with his electing love underneath all that. Do we doubt that, considering the record of our lives? Then look in 9-11 at the love of the Lord for his first people, the Jews. Beyond their unbelief for centuries now, look to the future when so many of them will experience that electing love of their Father, never to be thwarted or denied.
That’s our answer. God’s election may be ‘logically’ or ‘causally’ at the very beginning of our lives, well before our birth—but it becomes more and more vital and encouraging to us in the midst of our hard battle throughout our lives. Too often people have guessed foolishly and unproductively about God's choice of them, apart from trusting Jesus Christ, and what was that worth? Those who are against what they think Calvinism is, are right! But if the real value of being sure of God's eternal love for you is when you have those oppressive deep doubts as you keep losing in the struggle, ‘wretched man that I am,’ then that’s something else. Why work at speculation when you can learn to live in hope?
Since that’s how God wants us to believe and live, let’s just do it. To think about God’s choosing you just doesn’t help in your not-yet-believing life, but so encouraging after you believe, in all those hard places! That’s where our questions over ‘assurance of salvation’ come from. I do wonder though about the Westminster Confession’s chapter 18 on assurance; after a moving biblical and pastoral beginning, its ending seems dismal to me. The final paragraph speaks of our committing sin so grievous that God withdraws the light of the countenance from us, and that then we fall into despair but are ‘kept from utter despair.’ As last words that doesn’t strike me as encouraging. Shouldn’t we hear then about how the Lord encourages us to go on from despair, how we ‘nevertheless’ may begin again in knowing Christ’s personal love for us? I think so, and that’s just where that Romans 8 election fits.
That’s where that Reformed ‘perseverance of the saints’ fits. If we make a good beginning in trusting Jesus, does that guarantee we’ll stick with him? As our world now changes so rapidly, deliberately turning away from Jesus and his gospel, that is an very crucial question. For not only is that change outside of us, but we find it so easy to identify with it ourselves. Isn’t what we really desire not je but ‘happiness’ as we ourselves define it? What in this world will not separate us from the love of Christ? There’s where the real issue is, and we need to learn very quickly just how we’ll ever make it in a world like that. It won’t be because of our sterling character or good church or anything like that, but only through the ongoing love of our Savior. It is always about him, never about us. We build on that. The heart and soul of our Confession is chapter 8, Christ the Mediator. He knows us, he’s been there, tempted in every way we are! From out of his life of humiliation, now in his exaltation and power he knows how to pray for us—and he does! We are not alone, blown this way and that, for he is always at our side. That is the best of being Reformed, but it is the core of every believer’s faith, sometimes implicitly, sometimes Reformed explicitly. Some of us have that unqualified trust in Jesus in our hearts, others on paper—and the Lord desires that we will all have it both ways!
Why are we so cared for, so loved, so blessed by Almighty God? Always because of Jesus! We think the Bible says that, that every good gift the Father gives us comes to us through Jesus. That’s why we believe that when Jesus went to cross, and when he was raised up, when he gave the Holy Spirit, that was for us, the people he loves. His death was for us. That’s where people think we’re going too far. Didn’t Jesus die for everyone, after all? Wouldn’t that mean he went all the way in obedience to his Father, and for most people it didn’t matter? It sounds that way. We don’t think God says that. We’re sure that not only did Jesus give us everything we need, by going all the way for us—but that his Father honored him and glorified him for that, and gave us to him.
That seems so clear. But don’t we after all have to decide whether we want him and what he did for us? There’s no doubt about that, we’re not spectators in God’s plan, we’re very active and interactive with him. But it’s clear that we’d never stay with Jesus without his kind and merciful power and prayers for us—and it’s always been that way, right from the beginning of our faith in him. His care is what keeps us going, and his care got us started too.
There’s always more to life than that, and pleasing God and loving him and each other. It’s always a struggle and a battle, and it’s never without our doubts and fears and unbelief. But from beginning to end, it comes together only because of Jesus our Savior, our Mediator and our Hope.
We Reformed people live by that, by God's grace not just on paper but in our hearts and lives. We share that with everyone who loves Jesus, it’s God's gift to us and we give it on to you.