As I noted in last week’s post, while most of my writings here will be devoted to matters related to brass playing, on the fourth and fifth Fridays of each month I intend to indulge in a bit of writing on theological matters. If you’re here looking for something about the trombone, come back on September 7 and, God willing, you will find what you are seeking. The rest of you, read on!
For the past several years (except for a 15-month absence from social media), my primary means of engagement of theological matters in public forums has been through posting various articles on Facebook. My intent in doing this has been simply to share things that I find interesting and thoughtful, rather than to defend my point of view. Nevertheless, those that have read them will have noticed a decidedly Calvinistic bent to those articles.
Anyone that has first gotten to know me during the past seven or eight years will not be surprised by this; those that knew me before that might be wondering, “A Calvinist? A CALVINIST? All five points? And a Presbyterian?!? What happened?” I am going to answer that question in today’s post. This will definitely have more of a “How I got here from there” feel rather than that of a thorough defense of Calvinism.
I was born and raised Southern Baptist. To some extent, I will always identify with that branch of Christ’s church, and still maintain a keen interest in the theological and political developments within the SBC. I was born the year that the so-called “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC began, during a time when Calvinism was not “on the radar” for most in that denomination. The battles over the inerrancy of Scripture were “front and center” at the denominational level, though at the grassroots level most of us were unaware of this—we always believed the Bible—and it was some years later that I learned that there were intense battles for control of SBC agencies between conservatives and “moderates;” battles that spanned a large part of the first two decades of my life, and which made allies of inerrantists that in later decades would oppose one another on the issue of the Doctrines of Grace.
Suffice it to say that I was well into my twenties before I had even heard anything about Calvinism outside of high school history, where we learned only that Calvinists were austere people that smashed church organs and stained glass windows. I knew very few Presbyterians, and as far as I knew they were mainly in the more liberal part of the church. For most of my childhood and teenage years we lived in a suburb of Jackson, Mississippi, and I was entirely unaware that I was surrounded by vibrant, conservative churches that played a formative role in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and was just a few short miles from Reformed Theological Seminary. In our Lord’s providence, I would move 700 miles away from home before my journey to the Reformed faith began.
I was a relatively poor student in high school. My grades were sufficient to graduate with honors, but only because I was smart enough to “get by” with minimal effort (I regret this now). Somehow this changed when I entered college, and I managed to complete bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in music in eight years, and with a 4.0 GPA. Along with my newfound love for study and practice in my chosen professional field came a desire for increasingly deeper study of God’s Word. My Christianity-related reading habit began with the usual evangelical fare—James Dobson (b. 1936) and the like—but over time progressed to weightier materials.
After I entered graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro my wife and I joined a medium-sized Southern Baptist Church just outside of town. For a variety of reasons (some of which were our fault), that church was a poor “fit” for us, but one thing we gained there was our first exposure to the writing and thought of Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), by way of a study of How Now Shall We Live?, a book by two Schaeffer devotees, Chuck Colson (1931-2012) and Nancy Pearcey (b. 1952). Although some time would pass before I began reading Schaeffer himself in earnest, this was my first exposure to deeper thinking about the Christian life, about the idea of our faith as a “worldview” that encompassed more than simply “going to church” and “getting saved.” Rather, the Christian faith was a “lens” through which all of life can and should be viewed, and indeed a rigorous system of thought with implications for, well, everything.
At the time, I still knew nothing of Schaeffer’s Presbyterianism or of the Reformed faith more generally. In time, though, I would discover that Schaeffer’s thought did not develop in a vacuum, but rather was nurtured by an approach to Scripture and to Christianity as a whole that was deeper and more robust than anything I had encountered previously.
Discovering the Doctrines of Grace
Discovering Schaeffer was my first glimpse into the Reformed world, but I did not know it yet. I had long suspected that the version of Christianity with which I had grown up, while orthodox, was not as intellectually and theologically robust as it could be, and for the first time I was realizing that this suspicion was not simply the result of my exposure to other ideas through higher education, or of me just “being weird.” There were Christians out there that were deep thinkers without abandoning their faith in the truth of the Bible or otherwise becoming liberal, and these people had written lots of books and—more importantly for me at the time—were publishing websites.
The internet is a mixed blessing, to be sure. Along with much that is good comes much (probably more) that is not, and I and others have spent (or wasted) ample time trying to sort through it. One good that came when browsing the web sometime during 2004 or 2005 was stumbling onto the website for Founders Ministries.
The first thing that I noticed on the Founders Ministries site was that they had posted all of the back issues of their quarterly Founders Journal online. This was a “treasure trove” for me. Here were writings by Southern Baptists that were full of deep, rich, challenging doctrinal material—the kinds of things that I was increasingly craving. While most of the articles were by more recent authors, Founders also reprinted materials by Southern Baptists and other Baptist writers going back to the mid-nineteenth century and earlier. Here I learned for the first time that Southern Baptists had a rich and rigorous doctrinal heritage, and I was eager to delve into this.
Over time, I came to realize something else about these writers—they unabashedly contended for the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over all things, including men’s salvation; in other words, the doctrines of election and predestination. Of course, few if any Bible-believing Christians would categorically deny that God is sovereign, but many would question whether this includes sovereignty to the point of deciding (or “electing”), on an individual basis, who would be saved. At the time, I had never considered the issue in any detail. What I did see was that these men were not basing their doctrines upon their feelings or experiences, but grounded everything they wrote in the Word of God.
This is Scriptural!
I did not have to delve into Calvinistic writers for very long before I encountered, for the first time that I recall, the “TULIP” acrostic for the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism.” The use of this acrostic to summarize the Calvinistic view of salvation was a twentieth-century development, and in later years I would learn that Calvin himself would have known nothing of a “five-point” summary of his teaching on this matter. (In fact, I think he would abhor being the namesake of any “ism.”) Still, to my uninitiated mind, this summary was quite helpful. Calvinism teaches the following regarding salvation:
- Total Depravity. Man is “dead in trespasses and sins,” so fallen that he can of his own will do no saving good whatsoever. (John 6:37, John 6:65, Romans 3:9-12, Romans 5:12, Romans 8:7-8, 1 Corinthians 2:14, Ephesians 2:1-6)
- Unconditional Election. God has, from all eternity, elected some in Christ to everlasting life, not on the basis of foreseen faith, but “of His mere good pleasure.” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8, John 6:65, John 17:9, Romans 8:28-33, Romans 9:16, Romans 11:5, Ephesians 1:4-5, Ephesians 1:11)
- Limited Atonement (also sometimes called Particular Redemption). Rather than making salvation merely “possible” for all men, Christ actually purchased and completed the work of granting salvation to all of God’s elect. (Matthew 1:21, John 6:35-40, John 10:11-29, John 17:1-11, Acts 20:28, Romans 5:8-10.
- Irresistible Grace. All for whom Christ died will come to Him for salvation, having been chosen and drawn by the Father. (Ezekiel 36:26-27, John 3:3-8, John 6:37, John 6:44, John 10:27-30, Ephesians 2:8-10)
- Perseverance of the Saints. Those that have been truly saved by Christ will never fall away, but will continue in the faith to the very end. (John 3:16, John 3:36, John 6:35-40, John 10:27-30, John 14:21, Romans 8:35-8:39, Philippians 1:6)
(The lists of Scripture proofs I have provided contain representative texts, but are by no means comprehensive.)
Again, what impressed me from the very beginning about the Calvinistic writers I was encountering was how grounded their teaching was in God’s Word. This was no less true of the “Five Points” themselves. All five are drawn directly from Scripture. Sure, I had then and have since encountered attempted rebuttals and even some that reference isolated Scripture texts. However, I came to believe that these “Doctrines of Grace” as they are sometimes called were in agreement with the overall thrust of Scripture’s teaching on salvation, and indeed that texts referenced in an attempt to refute these doctrines could be shown (usually quite easily) to not be in conflict with them at all.
And so, still committed to the Bible, and having discovered an understanding of salvation which was clearly demonstrated as biblical by its proponents, I became a Calvinist.
Coming to accept Calvinism as the understanding of the doctrine of salvation taught in Scripture was relatively uneventful for me. After all, I was (and remain) convinced that the Bible is the Word of God, and completely truthful in all that it affirms. If the Bible taught something, then that thing must be true, and I had become convinced that these Calvinists were right about what it teaches with regard to God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in salvation. Too much “bending over backward,” theologically speaking, had to take place in order to make the popular understanding of man’s “free will” somehow fit with the Bible’s affirmation of a sovereign, electing God.
I continued in Southern Baptist churches for a little over three years after coming to understand and affirm the Doctrines of Grace. I served the church in whatever capacity I was called, particularly as a Sunday School teacher. As I was becoming more familiar with Calvinist authors in my own studies and even began using commentaries by John Calvin (1509-1564) himself, as well as those of Calvinistic Baptists such as John Gill (1697-1771) and B.H. Carroll (1843-1914) in preparing my lessons, I began to realize that one’s understanding of the doctrine of salvation affected how one viewed a number of other teachings of Scripture. I increasingly found myself unable to use the Sunday School materials distributed by Lifeway Christian Resources in my teaching, because I believed them to be either shallow or, at times, mistaken in their interpretations of certain passages. When I was asked by the leadership of the church we attended at the time to resume using those materials in my lessons, I resolved to resign from teaching in that church rather than teach using materials that I believed to be lacking, and a short time later we left the Southern Baptist church, first attending a Reformed Baptist congregation, and later becoming Presbyterians.
As more Southern Baptists and members of other primarily non-Calvinistic denominations have discovered the Doctrines of Grace over the past few years, I have heard numerous “horror stories” of church splits, arguments among congregations, and even pastors being fired over the question of Calvinism. I am thankful that I never experienced any of that. Realizing that my understanding of Scripture was becoming incompatible with that of the congregation of which I was a member, I chose to leave, and did so quietly. My only regret is that I was not more “up front” in discussing these issues with my pastor and church leadership before suddenly announcing our departure.
Overall, I remain convinced that for committed Calvinists to remain in congregations that are not Calvinistic creates unnecessary tension and sometimes very public and Christ-dishonoring disputes. Better to remain in separate congregations (and even denominations) and cooperate in areas of mutual agreement (i.e. my involvement with The Gideons International), happily acknowledging one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, despite our differences, and longing for the Day when all of our understandings—and misunderstandings—will be corrected.
The Calvinistic understanding of soteriology (i.e. the doctrine of salvation) is but one part of the Reformed understanding of Scripture and of the church. I have not here endeavored to speak on matters of church government, church ordinances or sacraments, creeds and confessions, or any number of other issues on which my opinions have changed as a direct result of my embrace of Calvinism. I have also not addressed the question of evangelism, which is an area in which non-Calvinists often accuse Calvinists of being weak. God willing, I will address all of these matters in the coming months. Still, I hope this account of “how I got here from there” shows that my embrace of Calvinism grew directly out of my commitment to the Bible as the Word of God. Believing that these doctrines were contained in Scripture, my choices were to embrace them, or to reject Scripture’s teaching on this subject. The latter option was unconscionable, so here I am, a convinced and contented “five-point” Calvinist.