It’s happened throughout my ministry, someone has come to me and either asked if I am a calvinist or if calvinism is as bad as they have heard. Unfortunate misrepresentations of calvinism are the usual problem that sets the stage. However in my experience, when given opportunity a good conversation on calvinism has led to closer relationships not divides.
This does not come without some cost. There is time to be expended and many misunderstandings to be worked through. Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes this post is meant to convey some things that I have learned over the years, at least initially, in speaking about calvinism in a way that draws people near and not away.
We could very well get into the history of calvinism and talk in depth about how calvinism was the orthodox doctrine that was opposed by the liberals, but that would be quite difficult to understand at first when someone has had a very negative experience with what they believe to be calvinism.
Most who have a negative experience with calvinism narrow it down to three things: election, predestination, and an assault on John 3:16.
I don’t find the need to debate over John 3:16 when it is mentioned as an affront to calvinism. It is a poor assumption that biblical election and predestination would ever oppose another portion of scripture.
I have been hesitant at times to go in and simply state the facts because I do care very much about relationships, and understand people have been hurt deeply by something that entirely misrepresents calvinism. Nonetheless, that is the very reason we need to define terms and set the record straight.
Biblical election is irrefutable. Ephesians 1:4 says that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.” This election is not the same as the election of the nation of Israel. When the apostle Paul speaks of “the called” in 1 Corinthians, he speaks of those who are most certainly saved. However, when Moses speaks of the chosen or called in relation to Israel, they are not necessarily saved. Many of them God was not pleased with at all (1 Cor. 10). Many of them rejected all that God told them and perished. But “the called” in the New Testament are those who believe the truth of the Cross and are saved.
There is both a general call and a particular one. The general call is for everyone to come to the Lord. God does not prevent anyone from coming to the Lord. People are certainly able to come to the Lord. The problem is not in ability, for God is not far from any one of us. The problem is in desire.
Before you became a Christian you didn’t desire the things of God. But when you became a Christian you fell in love with God and the things of God. Jonathan Edwards described the human condition as a man inside a prison cell with the door wide open, but the prisoner doesn’t want to come out. So, every sinner is in the same condition. The door is wide open for every person to come out of death and into life, but the problem is that fallen spiritual dead humanity does not “want” to come out, and therefore will not.
The human will is not free, but in bondage to human sin. Therefore, when you came to Jesus Christ, you came because God changed your heart.
Why is all of this important? Why even discuss it? It is because God is concerned about His glory. He will not share it with anyone. The reason at the end of the day as to why anyone is a Christian is that God saved them.
We agree on this on our knees, but when we stand to our feet it seems that our heads get swimmy and forget the truth. Yes, a choice needs to be made. Calvinism does not deny that. But man is spiritually dead, following after the world, and serving Satan until God interrupts their downward plight to hell (cf. Eph 2). Man will always be making the wrong choices until their hearts are changed. And we all pray that God will change the hearts of people because sooner or later we will realize that we can’t change human hearts.
On our knees we all agree. We all are calvinists there. Unfortunately, due to misrepresentations of calvinism as some heretical teaching that removes human choice, free will, and makes God into a tyrant, people begin to pin the truth of election and predestination against what they term as the gospel.
I don’t think it is far from what Spurgeon is attributed to have said, namely, calvinism is simply the Christian gospel. I would simply say that calvinism is a formulation of Christian truth similar to the formulation of what we call “trinity.” Theological terms are important, they stick, and they do at times divide. However, if given a chance, I have not found calvinism to divide, but to actually draw people near.