With apologies to AA, I admit to being on my own version of a twelve-step program as I continually experience what it means to be saved by God’s grace alone.
I began this journey when I finally accepted an inescapable reality: I was frustrated in my attempts to “square the circle.” I kept running smack up against the unavoidable logical contradiction between the competing concepts of an absolutely sovereign God and a God with a will must somehow be subordinated to mine when it came to deciding whether or not to accept an offer of salvation.
Most importantly, when I looked for the root cause of this frustration it became obvious that it was a self-inflicted wound originating from my own heart, and, moreover, that I was incapable of rectifying the situation all on my own. That’s when I woke up and realized I was one of those dour, dreaded Calvinists. (Or, as I prefer to consider myself, a person with a Calvinist perspective on Reformed Theology, a label I prefer because I believe that references to “Calvinism” give the impression that it’s a theology all to itself, which it isn’t.)
But, all of this gets back to the real source of the problem: the spirit of rebellion that resides in our hearts and which we all inherited from Adam. And I’ll return to that momentarily, after I address a couple points.
First, we’ve been hashing and thrashing this “drag vs. attract” issue on Theology Mix. That’s not saying the illuminating aspects of the debate are of little value, because they are; even considering that I come down on the staunchly Calvinist side of the issue. But viewed from a larger perspective, the constant back and forth of the debate between Arminians and Calvinists over the extent to which free will plays a part in our salvation always reminds me of an incandescent light bulb: only 5 percent of the energy it consumes actually produces any visible light, while the other 95 percent just produces heat.
Second, since I’m not a formally educated theologian, I can’t get into the linguistic minutiae to anything approaching the level of professional expertise like that of a Calvinist and Arminian.
But I can apply some skills I’ve picked up over years of a profession where I spent a lot of time analyzing observations and data. More importantly, I can rely upon the promises of Scripture as the Holy Spirit illuminates my understanding of the human condition. So that being the case, here’s some things I’ve observed and what I think they mean.
To begin with, over the years it seems the overwhelming majority of Calvinists I’ve met described themselves as former Arminians, but I really can’t recall ever meeting Arminians who described themselves as having been former Calvinists. In my line of work we call this a “significant indicator,” one of those recurring things that make you say “Hmm.” And I attach particular significance to it because if we are supposed to grow in grace and understanding as Scripture promises, then this trend from an Arminian to a Calvinist perspective seems to indicate a maturing appreciation of the cause-effect relationship that proceeds from the fact of salvation, the origin and nature of faith, and the deepening of belief.
The whole issue of the active agency of our individual salvation as being “hauled in” to God’s Kingdom against our natural inclinations, versus being “attracted” to make a decision, immediately opens up the subjects of predestination and election. Scripture proclaims predestination and election as a matter of fact: God chose whoever he would save before any of Creation even existed. For Calvinists this is not even major issue of discussion; it’s just accepted as a settled matter that once explained is hardly ever discussed. Whereas for Arminians this seems to be the bone of contention they can’t stop worrying, in the sense that predestination and election are construed to be some elitist doctrinal proclamation by Calvinists. And this is where the spirit of rebellion that resides in every human heart comes to the fore, a spirit of rebellion traces directly back to the cause of our separation from God that began in Genesis 3. Moreover, this human spirit of rebellion has its seed in the rebellion against God’s sovereign authority that set Lucifer and his followers at war with God. So it is only natural that the human heart is inclined to chaff at the notion of a salvation that comes to us completely independent of any act or decision on our part whatsoever. This goes to the heart of what it means to have a Calvinist appreciation of the sovereignty of God.
At some point, the issue of the Great Commission always surfaces in these Arminian-Calvinist debates. And it’s almost always broached from the Arminian perspective that the necessity to get people to “make a decision for Christ” is the motivation for fulfilling the Great Commission; whereas, the presumed elitist Calvinist acceptance of predestination and election are always cast as removing motivation to fulfill the Great Commission. But, there’s a very subtle trap in this reasoning. If I believe that my salvation hung on my autonomous decision to accept it, and if a principal result of that decision placed upon me the task of getting other people to make the same consequential decision, then my appreciation of the reality my own salvation becomes increasingly vulnerable to my perceptions of how successful I am at getting people to take the same step. The trap in this reasoning is that it leads to a lose/lose proposition in the end game. If we’re objectively honest about it we can see plenty of examples of how this trap plays out just by looking at all too familiar examples in the life of the church and in our own inner lives.
On the one hand, great success at getting others to make a decision leaves one vulnerable to self-centered pride, and on the other hand failure to win decisions leads one vulnerable to doubting the validity of their own salvation; but, in either case, the trap in success or failure is a growing conviction that assurance of salvation, or the perceived lack thereof, is “all about me.” None of this takes away any of the imperative to fulfill the Great Commission, but what it does fundamentally alter is how we approach fulfilling it. If I am convinced that my salvation was completely out of my hands and I am smitten with the reality of that fact, then I can truly approach the task of the Great Commission by simply witnessing from my own life experience and then trust God for the result.
Finally, it occurred to me some time ago that we often sing hymns without thinking a great deal about what they’re actually saying. I had this thought when I was turning over the words to “Amazing Grace” in my mind. It was at that point that what is so amazing about the grace that saved a wretch like me, when I was lost and blind, was that that I had nothing to do with the accomplishment of my salvation. Not to put to fine a point on it, but can we really sing “Amazing Grace” and mean it if it all comes down to the critical point of us having to make an autonomous response to God’s “attraction?” Or, instead, isn’t grace really amazing for the fact that in spite of ourselves God made our salvation an accomplished fact before we ever even came on the scene? I think the Holy Spirit uses the apostle Paul to speak to this matter beautifully in Ephesians 2:1-10.
A geographer with a lifelong fascination with physics, who also deeply enjoys classical and Celtic music, anything to do with railroading, and brewing beer at home...but most especially any opportunity to sit quietly and think. Deep in the throes of working out my salvation in fear and trembling after having been dragged against my will into God's Kingdom over forty years ago.