All Because I Needed A New Bible
Or, How I Joined Ranks with C.H. Spurgeon and Became a Calvinist
My Bible has been a beloved treasure to me. It has accompanied me everywhere I have gone, and I have filled most of its pages with all manner of notes and markings. Over the years, however, as its pages began to separate from the spine, I have often repaired it with tape. Then one day my kids carried it out into the back yard and my dog tore it apart. Never will I forget the horror of that scene! Once again, I repaired it, but it became increasingly inconvenient to use; yet, I held on to it because I loved it so!
In recent years, I have traversed uneven territory on my Christian journey. Frustration in ministry and frustration with ministers. Things and people beloved were falling by the wayside, tarnished by scandal and compromise. Beyond the circumstances and conflicts, I found myself in a state of spiritual melancholy toward the word of God. After years of study, it seemed there was nothing left to discover. Alas, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was nothing new under the sun! I was cynical and discouraged.
I prayed about this.
Then one evening in early July I sat in front of my old Bible, attempting once more to repair it that I might seek for spiritual renewal in it; but my Bible was beyond repair. I sat there and wondered how I could ever find a Bible quite like it. I did not want anything but what I had: an original 1982 edition of the New King James Version of the Bible. Though my Bible was very simple, with no study notes whatsoever, it was precisely this simplicity that had become dear to me. Due to the poor condition of my Bible it was very difficult to identify, let alone shop for a replacement. After putting some clues together, I was finally able to locate one, never used and still in the box. I was so excited! However, something else had caught my attention as I was looking for my new Bible. I had stumbled across an age-old controversy which I had not considered in over a decade; and though I had long since answered it in my own mind, suddenly it seemed completely unanswered.
In a very round-a-bout way with many detours here and there, my research that night inadvertently led me into a study of the Doctrines of Grace, or Calvinism, as it is commonly called. As my Bible arrived I jumped into the Scriptures like I hadn’t done in years, quickly marking it up as I ventured into a comprehensive study of God's sovereign grace as outlined by the five infamous points; and I was truly taken aback by what I encountered.
The first thing that surprised me about Calvinism was how little I knew about it. Previously I would have considered myself quite an expert on such theological matters, and yet I found myself facing doctrinal issues which I had never honestly considered. How did this happen? Then it hit me. My deficiency of substantive knowledge was a byproduct of choir preaching. I had never bothered to listen to an explanation of Calvinism by someone who believed in it. I had only heard disparaging discourses from pastors who disavowed the Doctrines of Grace outright. Turns out I had never given Calvinism a fair hearing.
I was surprised by the ease of which the Doctrines of Grace seemed to be exegeted from the text of Scripture; so I began to search out a defense against the claims of the Reformed perspective. Though I found many to defame the theology of Calvin’s soteriology, I noticed they had to consistently explain the text away, and struggled both to accurately present the claims they were refuting, and to properly answer the doctrines themselves. This was my side who seemed to struggle with scriptural exposition and exegesis. This was my side which misrepresented the claims of the opposition and seemed to have no command of that which they so ardently refuted. This was my side which seemed to be wresting the scriptures. And why? Were we afraid of the sovereignty of God? Was I? In truth, I believe I was.
I spent several months researching, and listening, and studying, and thinking, and praying. The problem faced me on two basic fronts. First, in the great debate on free-will, to stand against the Reformers placed me squarely with the Catholics. I believed that for man’s free will to remain unviolated God must not generally intervene in the affairs of men. Fundamentally, I never imagined a true distinction between the free will of man the creature, and the free will of God the Creator; but just as Luther had said to Erasmus nearly five centuries ago, the free will of man was “the hinge upon which all turns.” How could I be on the wrong side of the Tiber on such an integral biblical issue?!
Second, I was faced with the scriptural revelation of God’s decree and His absolute rule and intimate involvement in both man’s nature and his history! Did I truly believe that “a man’s heart plans his way but the Lord directs his steps”? Did I believe that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes”? Did I believe that “He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens”? Could I praise the Father as Jesus did, when He said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden [the things of the Gospel] from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him”? I was faced with the terror of the Lord as I considered His righteous judgments, pondering as Paul did, “What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” I had ever bragged that I just believed the Bible: God said it, I believe it, that settles it! I had felt so safe and smug and right in my own half-baked understanding of Christian theology. And now the chickens were coming home to roost!
Then a funny thing happened on the way to Geneva. It suddenly dawned upon me that I did not understand what I always thought I believed. The 5 Solas of the Reformation are Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura), teaches Faith Alone (Sola Fide), by Grace Alone (Sola Gratia), through Christ Alone (Sola Christo) to the Glory of God Alone (Soli Dei Gloria). I had always given mental ascent to this, and yet I never realized that these words were but a chorus to the Doctrines of Grace! I was raised with a reverence of Scripture, and with an attitude of submission to the Word of God. I was raised to bend to Scripture, rather than force Scripture to bend to me. I was raised with a belief that Scripture is ever to be the final authority in faith and practice no matter what I may prefer. If my theology does not square with Scripture, then I must be wrong and I must conform my theology to Scripture. This is obviously easier said than done, and I never imagined that I would ever be faced with the possibility that I was wrong in my biblical interpretation; and yet, this is precisely what was happening.
One night as I listened to a Reformed preacher defend Calvinism, two things cut me to the quick. First, he insisted that the trend of compromise in the modern evangelical church was directly related to the church’s abandonment of the Doctrines of Grace and of God’s absolute sovereignty over man. He asserted this created a man-centered gospel, and a man-centered church, rather than a gospel and a church which supremely glorified God. As I thought about this, I could not help but see the relevance of all of this in our day. I do believe, and have even preached, that we have abandoned the historic gospel in favor one more fitting the masses. It does appear that in abdicating the majesty of God’s sovereignty and the glory of His grace that we have indeed reaped the whirlwind of a powerless and man-centered gospel. Powerless in that we have exchanged conversions for decisions; and man-centered in that it is asserted that God is dependent upon the will of man, and that ultimately his salvation rests in his own hands rather than in God’s.
Second, he hearkened back to the great men of God who had held to the Doctrines of Grace: The prince of preachers himself, C.H. Spurgeon, John Bunyan, George Mueller, John Knox, George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, David Livingston, Francis Schaefer, John Newton, John Gill, John Foxe, John Winthrop, Matthew Henry, J. Gresham Machen, Arthur W. Pink, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, along with many others throughout history. I was overwhelmed by this, and could only ask myself one question: Why was it that I was not on their side? It seemed theirs was the number I would wish to be counted among. These men were lifted up by every pastor I had ever known, so why was it we parted from their company on the greatest points of Christian theology?
Finally, I asked myself these questions, which seemed to cut to the heart of the antagonism toward the Doctrines of Grace: Was I doubtful of God’s grace? Did I fear to leave the salvation of sinners in the hands of God alone? Was I truly fearful that He could ever be less gracious than I in His election of sinners to salvation? Thus, I was finally brought to my knees before the truth of God’s sovereignty and grace. I could deny it no longer. In the London Baptist Confession of 1689, I found a statement of faith which echoed my newfound theology, and thereby I accepted the Doctrines of Grace as the truth of Scripture, and the sovereignty of God over all things as the great truth of the universe, let alone of my life.
All of this has rekindled the fire of God’s Spirit within me. As I have begun to read and hear from many Reformed preachers and teachers I have been encouraged to preach the word and to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus! I have found a renewed passion for the expository preaching of God’s Word and the sound exegesis of Holy Scripture! In short, as I have rediscovered the magnitude of God’s grace I have plunged deeper in my study, in my praise, and in my worship. God’s sovereignty, like nothing else, commands greater reverence for His majesty, His holiness, His grace; also of His House and the worship due Him therein.
Thus, the Word of God which I feared had become stale in my life brought about a great revolution of faith and thought, perspective and belief, and even of passion and preaching. And to think, it was all because I needed a new Bible. I marvel how the Lord works when we least expect it and in ways that we could have never predicted. Though I began life in a Baptist church, I had grown cynical towards the very name; yet, by God’s grace, I have taken up that mantle again, albeit as one Reformed. Only a handful of months ago I would have never believed it though it were told me!
C.H. Spurgeon would quip, “George Whitefield said, ‘We are all born Arminians.’ It is grace that turns us into Calvinists.” Spurgeon has been rightly called, The Prince of Preachers, and I believe a few words from him will place a great exclamation point upon my story:
“It is no novelty, then, that I am preaching; no new doctrine. I love to proclaim these strong old doctrines that are called by nickname Calvinism, but which are truly and verily the revealed truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus. By this truth I make my pilgrimage into the past, and as I go, I see father after father, confessor after confessor, martyr after martyr, standing up to shake hands with me . . . I behold multitudes who confess the same as I do, and acknowledge that this is the religion of God's own church.”
“I do not come into this pulpit hoping that perhaps somebody will of his own free will return to Christ. My hope lies in another quarter. I hope that my Master will lay hold of some of them and say, "You are mine, and you shall be mine. I claim you for myself." My hope arises from the freeness of grace, and not from the freedom of the will.”
“A man is not saved against his will, but he is made willing by the operation of the Holy Ghost. A mighty grace which he does not wish to resist enters into the man, disarms him, makes a new creature of him, and he is saved.”
“I believe that Christ came into the world not to put men into a salvable state, but into a saved state. Not to put them where they could save themselves, but to do the work in them and for them, from first to last. If I did not believe that there was might going forth with the word of Jesus which makes men willing, and which turns them from the error of their ways by the mighty, overwhelming, constraining force of divine influence, I should cease to glory in the cross of Christ.”
“I would rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than a universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of men be added to it.
“We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved…We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ's death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.”
“I have my own opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel if we do not preach justification by faith without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing unchangeable eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross.”
“My business is to bring to bear upon men, not falsehood, but truth…Rest assured that, to keep back any part of the gospel, is not the right, nor the true method for saving men. Tell the sinner all the doctrines. If you hold Calvinistic doctrine, as I hope you do, do not stutter about it, nor stammer over it, but speak it out. Depend upon it, many revivals have been evanescent because a full-orbed gospel was not proclaimed. Give the people every truth, every truth baptized in holy fire, and each truth will have its own useful effect upon the mind.”
As I take refuge in the shadow of Spurgeon, I imagine him saying something like this to me: “We may be called Calvinists, we may be named Baptists, but truly we are men of Christ; therefore, do not be ashamed!”
November 7, 2016
Stepping on the 5 Points
Or, How I Discovered that Theology Matters
Without controversy great is the mystery of grace. There is no ground more holy than Calvary, and there is nothing more awesome, more terrible, more unsearchable than the Cross of Christ. Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost. It sounds so simple, yet the mission of Christ has its origin in the darkness of eternity, and the redemption of man flows from the very mind of God who counselled within Himself, Father to Son with Spirit. As men approach the unapproachable light of God’s holy wisdom, our understanding is blinded, for we are as one who would dare hold his gaze upon the noonday sun. Truly the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it. Nevertheless, it is reasonable that Christians should desire to know more and more about their Redeemer and of their redemption. Scripture has been provided to the people of God that they might know the Lord and gain insight into His ways. The Bible is written plainly, and is to be understood simply, and yet it is not always interpreted uniformly. Redemption is the bloodline of Scripture, and it is natural that this integral theme of the Divine Library should be subject to sharp disagreement and heated debate. All are faced with the same facts of God’s sovereignty, of man’s responsibility, of the fall and predestination, of election and grace, of faith and repentance, of the atonement and the gospel, and of Christ and His Church. But how these facts are harmonized brings us to the difference between Augustine and Pelagius, between Luther and Erasmus, between the Reformers and the Catholic Church, between the Calvinist and the Arminian.
Personally, I considered myself to be quite knowledgeable about the Bible. Honestly, I would have considered myself an expert in the Scriptures! For nearly 20 years I have studied under the tutelage of Calvary Chapel pastors, going through the Bible book by book, verse by verse from cover to cover. While I had developed a great love and respect for many Calvary pastors, it turned out that they were anemic in well-rounded theology. Since I have written about this elsewhere I will not belabor the point here. Suffice it to say, the faux theology I had learned was altogether lacking in logic and depth. Although I could not articulate Arminianism, nor the Remonstrance which defined it, I was taught that Calvinism, and especially something called hyper-Calvinism, were aberrant theological philosophies. As I embraced the Calvary Chapel Distinctives I was convinced that both Arminianism and Calvinism were unbalanced interpretations of Scripture, and that only an approach which split the two down the middle was fair to the Word of God. However, since I did not know enough about the subject, I failed to see that Calvary Chapel simply proffered their own brand of Arminianism while condemning Calvinism with greater fervor as the movement aged.
Then one day I stumbled over the Five Points. It was quite by accident. Throughout my life I have been fascinated with textual criticism and Bible translation and Church history. Long ago I found the ministry of James White to be a great resource in these areas. I discovered that he was a Reformed Baptist, but never paid him any mind on the subject of Calvinism. I feared that if I heard him say things that sounded blasphemous I would no longer be able to benefit from his other work. Then one day I took a chance, and down the rabbit hole I went!
With great apprehension I listened to the presentation which became the basis of his book, The Potter’s Freedom. What follows is a brief summary of my journey through each of the Five Points of Calvinism. I will not attempt here to give a detailed analysis of each point, nor will I provide a complete Scriptural foundation for their defense; rather I will seek to demonstrate the process of thought which eventually led me to embrace the Doctrines of Grace.
First, I was faced with the doctrine of man’s depravity before God, which unbeknownst to me underlies the Doctrines of Grace in such a way that to properly understand it is to be ushered down the road to Geneva. Here my upbringing was key. Raised in a fundamental Baptist church I was taught from an early age that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” From my youth I learned that man is fallen and sinful, and is completely without hope in the world. I was taught that man could never save himself. This, of course, is where I veered into Arminian thought, as I was also raised to believe that a man must choose to exercise faith in God by trusting Christ which triggers the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work. As I stepped upon the sharp point of Total Depravity, I was forced to question man’s ability to act in a spiritual manner. How dead in sin was an unregenerate person? Partially dead, mostly dead, or completely dead? Was there some life within men by which they could please God by faith. Romans 8:8 and Ephesians 2:1 declared plainly that man cannot please God and that he is quite dead indeed. While I had always given ascent to the notion of Total Depravity, I was now forced to consider the Total Inability of fallen man in his spiritually dead state. As I pondered this it began to seem quite unbiblical to assert that a fallen sinner was somehow able to seek Christ, turn to Christ, and exercise faith in Christ, when Scripture teaches we are spiritually dead in sin and incapable of pleasing Him, and that no man in his sinful state seeks after God, nor can comprehend His light, nor can he even discern spiritual things. What a theological mess I suddenly found myself in, as I had never imagined Total Depravity as Total Inability,yet this seemed the logical biblical conclusion. As I said earlier, to step firmly on this first painful and inconvenient point of Calvinism, is indeed to step towards a full acceptance of the Doctrines of Grace. It is nigh impossible to believe that fallen man who is dead in sin, may yet please God by simply willing his unregenerate mind to have faith in Jesus Christ and choose that the Holy Spirit should make him born again. All of this must be asserted despite the fact Scripture declares that no sinner seeks after God in and of himself. As I came to grips with this old doctrine in new light I could only wonder how it was that I never saw things this way before.
After dashing my foot upon the point of Total Depravity, it became needful to reconsider the other aspects of Calvinism. When I had previously approached God’s divine election, I had preached that through His foreknowledge God had seen from eternity past who it was that would trust in Christ and had elected those whom He knew would eventually choose Him. In stepping on the sharp points of Calvinism, I was now, for the first time in my life, forced to see my understanding of God’s foreknowledge to its logical end. Turns out, I was actually implying that God saw my behavior, saw that I would believe, saw that I was more spiritually receptive than others, and thus elected me because I had chosen Him (or would, according to His foreknowledge). Grace was leaking from my Gospel cup! Rather than simply knowing beforehand what the creature will do, did God actually foreknow His people in a deeply intimate sense connotating relationship? Was foreknowledge active rather than passive? The Bible declares that His people were chosen from the foundation of the world, to enter a kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, because of the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world. He foreknew His people, and “whom He foreknew, He also predestined…moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30) I had never imagined foreknowledge to refer to relationship, neither had I imagined that grace was truly bestowed freely by God upon whomever He willed to show mercy. I went back to Romans chapter nine and wondered how I had ever explained away such a crucial aspect of the Gospel; a gospel that was truly of grace, and much more of grace than I had ever dared to believe. Then I wondered why I should ever have felt it necessary to explain away such verses which spoke so directly to the Doctrines of Grace and of divine Unconditional Election itself. This doctrine was both terrifying and awe-inspiring, and yet it now seemed to drip from the pages of Scripture!
This led me to particular redemption which has ever been anathema in my Christian sphere; and suddenly I became aware that my theology was a stepping stone to Universalism. If Jesus' death was a substitute for all, then how was it that all were not saved? Christ either substituted Himself for all and saved all, or He died for some in particular and saved His elect alone. In re-evaluating my long held and often preached beliefs, there was no room in my mind for an atonement that made all men savable, but saved none of itself. From the cross Jesus said He had finished what He came to do, and by His own admission He had come to save and to give His life a ransom for many. Surprisingly, this sharpest edge of the five points came the easiest to accept. There was simply no way I could fathom that men could be in Hell (and the Bible plainly teaches that some are) if Christ had truly been their substitute and had actually paid the penalty for their sins. Jesus claimed that all that Father gave to Him would be raised by Him on the last day. Jesus is a perfect savior who saves perfectly all who trust in Him, losing none that the Father gives Him.
Upon reconsideration of the unconditional nature of divine election, as well as the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the doctrine of Irresistible Grace was nigh inescapable! If the Father had chosen a people for Himself apart from anything they would ever do, whether of faith or works, then it must be that the Spirit of God regenerates His elect, causing them to be born again that they might believe in Jesus Christ. How had I misinterpreted the words of Jesus so ignorantly, and yet so blatantly. Jesus told Nicodemus that he did not believe because he had not been born again. He even told Nicodemus that the Spirit brings new birth to whomever He wills. Is this not to assert that salvation is of the Lord! That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. I did not choose to be born, and I did not orchestrate my birth in the flesh; neither can it be said that I chose to be born again by the Spirit of God who like a holy wind blows where He wishes and regenerates whom He will.
This point was always the sticking point for me. I could never comprehend how a Calvinist could imagine that people were born again before they believed. How could anyone think that rebirth came before faith, or regeneration before belief in Christ? And yet when properly and biblically viewed it now became impossible for me to hold onto my former interpretation of the Gospel. Now I wondered how I could have ever thought that I made a decision to be born again; how I thought that dead men could revive themselves and turn to Christ; how I could preach that sinners with stony hearts could repent or that slaves of sin could free themselves?! When Lazarus was dead, it was the call of Christ that raised him up. Through Ezekiel the Lord declared that He would remove the heart of stone from His people and give them a heart of flesh that they might follow Him. Those who were slaves to sin could never please God and would never choose Him; but where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty! It is the Spirit that brings life and new birth, it is God who grants repentance and supplies the gift of faith to those He has appointed to eternal life. Paul said that "no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit." (1 Cor. 12:3) And in his first epistle John explains that only those who have been born of God believe that Jesus is the Christ. (1 John 5:1) How could it be any other way?
Perseverance of the Saints
Apparently my grandfather had been a 1-point Calvinist, as he ever preached, “Once saved always saved!” This was the easiest of the five points to adopt as I had been raised to believe it. In my twenties I had shunned this doctrine in favor of the Calvary Chapel view which holds to the absolute free will of man. Since a man could choose Christ, he could certainly forsake Him. This was actually one of the main things that attracted me to Calvary Chapel in the first place. However, it now became ever so clear that if salvation is of the Lord, then no one who was redeemed could ever be lost. In fact, what stunned me most about this point of Calvinism was how some could embrace it with accepting the other points. How did my grandfather preach “once saved always saved” without also preaching Unconditional Election? How did my family hold that a Christian could never lose their salvation without also affirming Irresistible Grace? I was, in effect, returning to my Baptist roots, so at this point, there was simply no reason to deny the perseverance of the chosen. I must confess it was both comforting and nostalgic to come back to something that was so integral to my grandfather’s preaching and ministry. While I am well aware that he was no Calvinist, he certainly believed in this particular point; and on this point I am able to join him even as a Calvinist myself.
Thus, my journey into the Doctrines of Grace was complete. Strangely enough, the thing that amazed me the most, was how I ever interpreted the Scriptures differently. Traditions are indeed powerful things, but I believe being raised to bow in submission to the Word of God was the foundation upon which I am now able to stand confidently as a Calvinist, and a Reformed Baptist.