November 24, 2020

Why Calvin is cool: An infomercial for calvinism

Why Calvin Is Cool
An Infomercial for Calvinism
by Michael Spencer

UPDATE: Even though I am no longer a Calvinist, a lot of this essay is still true. I know that’s Calvin Coolidge, but if I put a picture of John Calvin up there, most people won’t read the column. The hostility towards Calvinism is growing here in Bibleland. Note the intrepid Dave Hunt’s attempt to vanquish the Calvinistic dragon with his new book, What Love Is This?, perhaps more aptly titled, What Research Is This? Norman Geisler unsuccessfully sought to forge a via media in Chosen, But Free and Gregory Boyd and the Openness Boys (great name for a band) have been blasting away for several years now against the monstrosity of the Calvinistic God and an Augustinian theodicy. I recently attended a debate between Calvinist and Arminian seminary profs, and I have to say that Jerry Walls was vewy, vewy upset that God could save everyone and apparently isn’t going to do so. He was also mad that John Piper said he would still love God even if one of his sons wasn’t elect. And, of course, C.S. LEWIS WASN’T A CALVINIST! So I think silent Cal is a better choice than Geneva John. These are dangerous times. You could possibly get burned at the stake. (That’s a joke.)

• • •

I’ve never been naive about what people thought about Calvinism. It’s always been controversial, hence that little party called the Reformation and the counter-party called the Remonstrance and the rave known as Revivalism. In my kid’s history textbooks, Calvinists and Puritans are witchburners. Period. When I began hanging out with Calvinistic Southern Baptists in the “Founders” movement, it had some of the trappings of a secret society. There were lots of people keeping their heads low and their mouths shut in order to survive in Southern Baptist land. And at my current assignment, rumors of my Calvinism have been my only real trouble in ten years, and that even though the founder of our school was an out and out card-carrying five-pointer with no shame about saying so.

A few years ago our state denominational newspaper discovered Southern Baptist Calvinism and went on a ten-year windmill tilt against it. It was enormous fun to read what Arminian revivalistic evangelists had to say about Calvinism, based upon their extensive experience and research. (I concluded the in-depth tape series of Jimmy Swaggart on Calvinism was behind it all.) I was surprised to discover that Southern Baptists had no Calvinistic roots or influences (which seemed odd given the overwhelming historical record of just exactly that fact.) I learned that Spurgeon was not really a Calvinist. (It seems particularly galling for Arminians to come to grips with this one.) I learned that despite all those years of preaching, I was against missions and evangelism, and that I could not preach the free offer of the Gospel or tell people that Jesus loved them. (The inability of these experts to differentiate between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism is basic to everything they say. What a heretic I’d been!) And I learned that despite my cheery outlook, I am really obsessed with predestination, and have no real good reason to get up in the morning. (Again, if one wants to discuss fatalism, go to the Muslims.) All this free education came to me week after week, courtesy of those who hated Calvinism and feared Calvinists. And all totally false.

Such misunderstandings continue today, though the articulate writings of people like Michael Horton, John Piper and James White are making a difference. I am now meeting people who say they are Calvinists, and really probably aren’t, but they identify with or admire someone who is. Hey, you gotta start somewhere. Even so, I still know that I could lose my job over being a Calvinist, and I know that I will always have to answer ridiculous questions from Arminians who have no idea that they are Arminians or even have a theology. As long as they read Jabez and Left Behind and like Joyce Meyers and T.D. Jakes, they feel normal.

So how can I say it’s cool to be a Calvinist?

1) Calvinism is that rare and wonderful thing: classical, orthodox Christianity. Evangelicals are selling the theological store right and left. I am really grateful for orthodox non-Calvinists like Ravi Zacharias, because the trend on that side of the fence is to sell out the essentials. Omnipotence and omniscience are in trouble. The authority of scripture is in trouble. Biblical worship is in trouble. Postmodern Arminianism seems ready to jettison anything that stands in the way of intellectual acceptance by the cultural elites or the potential drawing of a crowd. Calvinists have their problems, but going the openness route or denying the authority of scripture are not dangers in the near future. That’s cool.

2) Calvinism is fired up about missions. Contrary to the press releases, it is a bunch of Calvinists who are fueling the missions movement among the college age Christian community. The influence of John Piper is massive, and honest Arminians admit it (as they did in the debate I observed.). His book, The Supremacy of God in Missions, has become highly influential in frontier missions circles. Louie Giglio’s Passion movement is God-centered and missions-centered and he has said Piper will always speak at those gatherings. The supreme optimism of Calvinism that God has a people to be called and saved in every nation, and that a sovereign God can move in the Muslim world, is winning the hearts and minds of many young missionaries. Check out and see what I mean. That is very cool.

3) Calvinism is the strongest resistance to the excesses and errors of the church growth movement. You could deny the Trinity in most pulpits today and not get the kind of reaction you will get if you question the tenets of seeker-sensitive church growth methods. These days Calvinists are less unified on questions of worship and church life than on other areas of theology, but the reformed camp is still the loudest source of resistance to the church growth pragmatism that has overwhelmed evangelicalism. Reformed writers are engaging in a solid examination of Biblical worship and the current crisis and offering a God-centered alternative to the man-centered carnival that is engulfing our churches. Especially see the cool work of Marva Dawn, John Macarthur, James Boice and Michael Horton.

4) Calvinism is contending for the Gospel. Now that will get a few tomatoes headed my way, but I am not saying that Calvinists are the only Christians, nor that Calvinists are the only ones contending for the Gospel. I know that is not the case. I am saying that Calvinists have a passion for the Gospel, particularly for soteriology. There is remarkable unity among Calvinists on the doctrine of total depravity, the primacy of the work of the Trinity in salvation, the effectiveness of the substitutionary work of Christ, the priority of regeneration over faith and the grace of God over all. On the Solas, Calvinists stand strong, even stronger than on the five-points, where there is considerable diversity on the extent of the atonement and the nature of perseverance. The sad fact is that many of our evangelical Arminian friends cannot say the Solas with certainty of an “amen” from their team. The Gospel is under attack on virtually every side within evangelicalism. Some of these are the same controversies that preceded and followed the Reformation, but many are the attacks of post-modernism, pragmatism, multi-culturalism, and liberalism, smuggled in through evangelicalism’s fetish with popularity, publishing, and media. It is refreshing to hear a seminary president like Calvinist Al Mohler consistently contend for the Gospel on Larry King Live in this age of pluralism and tolerance. It’s not an accident. In Calvinistic circles, it’s cool to fight for what others are surrendering.

5) Calvinism is warmly God-centered. Again, hold the bottle throwing. I know, I know. I know there are many non-Calvinists who are God-centered, but I think you have to notice that Calvinism is God-centered by definition, and it simply makes a marvelous difference. Look at the music of Steve Green, the sermons of Al Martin or the books of Douglas Wilson, John Piper, Jerry Bridges or R.C. Sproul. Whether in evangelism, worship, or the Christian life, Calvinists have a suspicion of humanism that is healthy and helpful in retaining the God-centered nature of the Christian faith. It is a marvelous simplicity in Calvinism that says anything we do or contemplate or consider must first put the sovereign God of the Bible as the reference, goal, and center of everything. The vision of God that animated Luther and Calvin, Spurgeon and Edwards is the same vision that is animating Calvinism today. The impulse that is causing havoc in evangelical circles today is a dethroning of God, and the resulting mess seems to be headed down the path that leads to the generic, new age, feelings-centered spirituality that grows like kudzu in America. It’s cool to be God-centered, and there is no area of contemporary Christianity where the air breathed in Piper’s The Pleasures of God or Carson’s The Gagging of God or Packer’s Knowing God isn’t badly needed.

There’s lots more I could say. Calvinism is evangelistic, when practiced and not just debated. (Ask those Korean Presbyterians.) Calvinism has a wonderful reverence for history. Calvinism has the best approach to cultural issues. Calvinism isn’t detoured into fads like Jabez, Experiencing God, or Left Behind. Calvinists have Spurgeon. Calvinists are great apologists. Calvinists aren’t on television. Well, D. James Kennedy on TBN, but thank God for that. Calvinists have the best preachers. If Benny Hinn were a Calvinist, he’d have better hair. I think I should stop.

Are there negatives? Certainly, but this is an infomercial, so I am supposed to say all those really fast at the end so you won’t hear them. They would include: Calvinists debate too much and do too little. Calvinists don’t start enough churches. Calvinists fight about the stupidest things. Calvinists go overboard on anything they are right about. Calvinists have more than their share of loons. Calvinists spend too much on books. I’d better stop. Even with all this, trust me, it’s cool to be a Calvinist.

Sometimes Calvinists spend too much time trying to argue their friends into Calvinism. That is a waste of time. I don’t want to convert you. I just wanted to brag, and perhaps suggest that in this postmodern swamp we are living in, we might want to remember that all the criticism of Calvinism within evangelicalism is coming from a house that needs to get itself in order before it throws rocks at its own team.