Thursday, May 12, 2011

If Calvinism is True, Was I Predestined Not to Like It?

Recently, a friend of mine was telling me about an experience he had on a summer missions trip with a ministry for college students. As was standard procedure for the ministry, students were sent out in pairs to start conversations with people and to share the Gospel. During one of these excursions, my friend happened to be paired with a student who was very passionate about Reformed theology. After the two shared an overview of the Gospel with a man who decided not to embrace it, the Reformed student said to my friend, “I don't know how you can have peace right now if you don't believe in the sovereignty of God. I have peace because I know God is in control of that man's salvation, not me. If God wants him to get saved, he'll get saved.

If I had heard a statement like that several years ago, I might have nodded my head and smiled in passive (albeit halfhearted) agreement, but I just can't do that anymore. At the risk of being divisive, I'm going to come out of the closet and admit it: I don't like Reformed theology. 

Of course, I should be careful to define what I mean. I actually agree with the vast majority of Reformed theology. It's just the parts that get the most press that I don't like. 

I haven't always felt this way. Like any young Christian man worth his salt I went through a period of time when I suspected that the Reformers had the only legitimate interpretation of Scripture. It was sometime near the end of college, and all my friends were having a similar experience. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Christian circles – particularly college fellowships – knows what I'm talking about. A couple guys hear about Calvinism, they read some Biblical passages that seem to confirm the doctrine (i.e., Romans 9), and next thing you know they're on a personal crusade to convince all their Bible-believing friends of the truth that no one really has any control over whether or not they accept the truth. God predestines some to destruction and some to glory, they say. If you don't like it, tough. God might seem like kind of a jerk, but if you're a mature Christian you'll worship Him anyway.

Fortunately, most of my close friends who subscribed to Calvinism weren't pushy about it, but I know this scenario is not unusual and I've witnessed it several times from a distance. In the years since my first major exposure to Reformed theology my opinion of the movement has shifted from mildly-supportive to neutral to mildly-against to pet peeve. It's possible that I just don't understand it, but if I don't it's not for lack of exposure. I've heard and read a decent amount of stuff from guys like John Piper and Mark Driscoll, and I took (and aced) a systematic theology class through Reformed Theological Seminary. Perhaps one day my mind will change, but if it does God's going to have to do it (literally).

Let's go back to the student's quote. My first complaint is that he sets up a false dichotomy. He assumes that one cannot believe in the sovereignty of God unless one also believes that God is fully responsible for whether or not an individual puts his faith in Jesus. This perspective fails to acknowledge the possibility that God, in exercise of His sovereign will, may have designed human beings such that they actually have the capacity to receive or reject His love freely. God's sovereignty and human free will are not mutually exclusive ideas.

Secondly, the student's claim that belief in a Reformed view of God's sovereignty is necessary for peace-of-mind displays a remarkable inability to consider what Reformed theology implies about the nature of God. If God really is sovereign over a person's salvation in the way the student suggests, then the only reason someone doesn't escape eternal condemnation is because God chooses to withhold the gift of faith from him. In other words, if the Reformed view of God's sovereignty is true, God punishes people eternally for not doing something that only He could have done for them. Yikes.

If you believe this is true feel free to plead your case from Scripture, but don't tell me it's a good foundation for peace of mind. If the author of my existence is an all-powerful being who creates eternally conscious beings, grants them the capacity to experience eternal joy or pain, gives them no legitimate power to choose one over the other, and then willingly subjects the majority of them to eternal pain, then He is not a being who embodies love, compassion, or goodness in any meaningful sense.

The Reformed view of God's sovereignty may give some people peace, but for many of us the doctrine creates a burden too heavy to bear. What is this burden? It is the burden that comes from trying to love a God who seems unloving. It is the burden that comes from trying to rejoice in a God who seems grumpy and void of humor. It is the burden that comes from trying to be generous when God seems stingy. It is the burden that comes from trying to be empathetic when God seems to enjoy judgment so much more than mercy. It is the burden that comes from loving unbelieving friends and family while simultaneously accepting that their unbelief, if it persists, is ultimately because God does not will to give them the gift of faith. In short, it is the burden that results from trying to worship a God who seems to violate the very principles He condemns humans for violating.

So, what about the alternative? What if Reformed theology is wrong and human beings really have been created with a capacity to freely accept or reject God's love? If this is true, God doesn't force anyone to believe (or not believe) in Jesus. People come to believe through the free exercise of their wills. Can we have peace of mind if this is the case?

Certainly this perspective has its own challenges, but to my mind they are far less troubling than the ones caused by the Reformed view. If human beings really do have an innate ability to accept or reject God's love, then it is possible that God, in His love and mercy, is doing everything He can to save humanity – and why would we expect anything less? As Scripture says, “He is not willing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2nd Peter 3:9).” That is a God I can worship and celebrate.

But wait!” the Reformed theologian cries, “How can you worship and celebrate a God who does everything He can to save people, but then doesn't succeed? That God is not the omnipotent Lord of Scripture. He is an idol of your own creation.” To that, I would offer several thoughts:

  • If God does everything He can to save people and some people still don't end up repenting, that doesn't mean God isn't all-powerful or worthy of worship. Why do I think this? First, if God really has created beings with free will that is an incredible demonstration of His omnipotence. An atheistic, mechanical universe might spend billions of years shifting its matter and energy around, but it could never spit-out a conscious being with the power to make actual choices. Even if it could assemble something that looked and acted like a human being, that entity would only be a configuration of chemical reactions subject to the inalterable course of natural processes. There is no “free will” under such conditions. Free will only exists if God, the first free agent, creates beings in His image. 

  • As if the creation of free agents isn't enough, God's willingness to be patient with humanity in the midst of their rebellion is also a remarkable demonstration of power. If someone strikes you it takes a great amount of resolve – a great amount of power – not to strike back. It is especially hard not to retaliate when you are confident your enemy is in the wrong and you know you could take him out easily. In fact, the more force you have at your disposal, the more power it takes for you to resist exercising that force against your enemy. Consider that God, the omnipotent Creator of the universe, has an infinite supply of power at His disposal. He could eliminate anyone who rebels against him instantly, and since He makes the rules He would be within His right to do so. In spite of this, rebellious humans go on living. It seems odd to think of this as a demonstration of the power of God, but it's all in how you define power. For God to allow humanity to misuse the free will He's given them—to permit them to spit in His face and yet refrain from smiting them instantly—takes a special kind of power. It's a power that, thankfully, God exhibits everyday and that He demonstrated very poignantly on the Cross.

  • A God who grants human beings the freedom to choose to accept or reject Him while simultaneously doing everything within His power to draw them to Himself possesses a character that is consistent with the heart of the Old Testament Law: Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself.

  • If you have a hard time worshiping a God who humbles Himself by choosing to submit Himself to certain limitations (i.e., not forcing anyone to love Him), don't forget that the Incarnation demonstrates once and for all that God is willing to humble Himself dramatically. If Christianity is true, the God of the universe stepped down from Heaven and walked around in human flesh for 33-years. He was subject to all the same bodily functions as you and I. Does that sound scandalous or even blasphemous to you? Most of the 1st century Jews thought so, and many people still do today. If you have a hard time worshiping a God who humbles Himself, you're going to have to look somewhere other than Christ - “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant...and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross (Phil 2:6-8).” Jesus said “the last will be first and the first will be last (Matt. 20:16). The last will be first because they, like God, have embraced humility, and no one will be first more than God Himself, the one who, in Christ, allowed himself to fall from the highest first to the lowest last for the sake of sinful humanity. If we can worship the humble Christ, we should also be able to worship the God who, in His sovereignty, allows man the freedom to accept or reject His love.

    • The alternative question – 'How can you worship a God who creates a large portion of humanity for the express purpose of punishing them in eternal suffering?' is far more troubling than any supposed threat to God's omnipotence.

      • Maybe He does. I hesitate to include this thought in light of all the negative reaction to Rob Bell's latest book, but I'm going to mention it anyway. Yes, I realize there are many, many places in the Bible that seem to indicate that everyone will not repent, but I still think it's possible to take Scripture seriously and harbor hope that the story God is writing will end with a twist. Certainly the story twisted once already when we shifted from the Old Testament Law to the New Covenant, a shift so jarring and seemingly contradictory that most of the people involved in phase one rejected phase two. Let me be clear: I am not trying to say with any confidence that everyone will end up saved. I am only saying that I think it is a possibility, and if it does happen I think it will be because everyone freely repents, not because God decides to start allowing those who reject Him into the Kingdom. I don't preach universalism because I don't know if it's true, but I hope for it and I think every Christian should hope for it. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, and if you're okay with the idea of your enemy suffering forever you don't love him. We are commanded to hope for the salvation of all, and according to 2nd Peter 3:9, God hopes for it, too

      With all that said, I don't want to deny the fact that the doctrine of free will can also create a sense of burden. If humanity has been granted the freedom to choose between accepting or rejecting God, that means we wield a power with potentially devastating consequences, both for ourselves and for others. One might argue that free will isn't worth it.

      In Fyodor Dostoevsky's famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, there is a chapter where the skeptical Ivan Karamazov tells a parable about Jesus returning to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Although the public receives him with joy, the religious establishment does not. Shortly after his arrival, Jesus is seized and taken away to be confronted by The Grand Inquisitor, who tells him he will be burned as a heretic the following morning. The reason, the Inquisitor explains, is because the church has corrected his work. For Jesus offers "a promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread—for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom.”  The Inquisitor goes on to describe how each of the Devil's propositions during Jesus' wilderness temptation were attempts to get Christ to force his power upon mankind in a manner that eliminated power of choice. Jesus, of course, refused, and the Inquisitor thinks Jesus was in the wrong.

      Whether or not the Inquisitor's interpretation of Scripture is correct, the point remains: free will can be a frightening thing, and sometimes we are comforted when someone (or something) removes the burden.

      You might say we are trapped on every side when it comes to how we view freedom, God's sovereignty, and salvation. There are burdens to the left and burdens to the right. And yet as I consider the options, the significance of Christ's call rings ever louder and more profound
      Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
      Matthew 11:28-30
      Gentle and humble Christ, may I only carry the burden that brings rest.

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