For over 20 years I have been exposed the the Calvin vs. Arminian debate (also known as Reformed vs Free Will theology). I have been in churches on both sides of the debate and let me describe it in one word – UGLY. It can make Labour vs Liberal party politics look tame. Sadly, the bad behaviour in this debate is perpetrated by Christians and the topic is eternal. Both sides generally paint the choices as bi-polar. You are either for us or against us. Like most controversial topics, the reality is there is a bit of truth on both sides and the correct position lies somewhere in between.
I wish we did not have to talk about this. However, in the last 5 years, I have fellowshiped with resurging evangelicals who find their identity in their reformed interpretation. This movement has become increasingly vocal and marginalising. I refuse to support or be part of a church or movement which makes either a reformed or non-reformed position a dividing plank of their platform. Allow me to share with you 3 reasons why I will not join the neo-reformed crusade.
1. Jesus was not ‘reformed’
A leading reformed church planter recently preached and tweeted “I am a Calvinist just like Jesus and the Apostle Paul”.** For me, this brings back bad memories of the ‘Jesus was a Baptist’ movement. Well, to be accurate, Jesus lived 1500 years before Calvin. Christians followed Jesus before reformed theology was even invented. In my experience, some of the adoration of Calvin seems akin to mormonism – to the point where Jesus and Paul are interpreted through the golden lenses of Calvin’s institutes. Or to put it another way, the logic is similar to the 1611 KJV re-inspiration theory. (i.e. full understanding was not complete until around 1500-1600). If reformed theology is Biblical, then it should be able to be fully defended and justified from Scripture without the need for Calvin.
2. Neo-Reformed is different to Historical Reformed.
The Reformation was a necessary response to middle ages Roman Catholic Church doctrine and practice. Started by Martin Luther in Germany, subsequent European leaders (including John Calvin) moulded the reformation movement to their political and theological understandings. The Reformation was a precursor to great spiritual awakenings. Today, Roman Catholic doctrine no longer has the same political/spiritual monopoly over the western masses. However the neo-reformed movement is resurging by creating a new enemy – psycho-Christianity. I am certainly not defending the bad doctrine of some ‘feel-good TV preachers’, but let’s be clear – this is not the same beast as the historical reformation.
3. The ‘Reformed Label’ is used as an egalitarian weapon
“They are not reformed” has been used as code for ‘Christians who are not in our clique and are probably heretical’. Rather than deal with the doctrines of foreknowledge, election and predestination, this slur plays the man and not the ball. In practice, modern use of the reformed label seems to be creating an exclusive new form of fundamentalism. As someone who emerged from fundamentalism, I find the personal attacks, the pride, and the lack of love particularly repulsive. For that reason alone, I choose not to be known by the reformed label. Godly evangelicals don’t need to constantly tell people how reformed they are – and how non-reformed you are. Having said that, Ben Kwok recently posted about biases he has witness from non-reformed Christians. So problem behaviours can cut both ways.
Reformed theology use to be known by the TULIP acronym. Today, the reformed label has evolved in some circles to mean different things depending on who is using it. So it is hard to pin down. TULIP is helpful in that it explains some soteriological truth regarding God’s sovereignty, however it does not give the complete love picture of salvation that only the Scriptures can bring. So for the sake of dealing with the issues, let me expand on TULIP’s points.
- T – Total Depravity of man: The heart of man is inherently evil. Salvation requires the intervening of the Holy Spirit to move us from spiritual death to spiritual life. – Ephesians 1 YET, while unregenerate man is depraved, he still retains the image of God with the free will to choose to do right (e.g. obey government by paying taxes). In comparison to God, these acts of righteousness are still filthy rags.
- U – Unconditional election: Election to salvation requires repentance. God provides the command and the power to repent both mentally (saving faith) and physically (visible faith). YET, the command to repent does not negate our free-will actions to choose to ‘seek first God’s Kingdom’. Our acts of faith are not works that earns us favour or standing with God but we choose them as a response because He first loved us.
- L – Limited Atonement: Atonement is only applied to the elect. YET, God died and shed his blood for the sins of the whole world. The price is paid for everyone. That is why God can honestly say that He wants everyone to be saved.
- I – Irresistible Grace: For those of us who ave received God’s grace, we understand why grace seems so irresistible. YET the Bible is full of stories of people who resisted the grace that God offered to them (e.g. the rich young ruler, Pharoah, etc)
- P – Preservation of the Saints: God gives man the power to repent (John 1:12) and the power to stay following Christ. YET Christians don’t become preserved toy puppets. Rather God gives His followers the power to persevere. There is no earned merit in a Christian’s faithfulness, and some will chose to walk away from the faith (this is not hypothetical). In His eternal foreknowledge, this is not a surprise to God. – Hebrews 6:4-6
If you meet an ugly calvinist or ugly non-calvinist, resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water. God does foreknow and pre-destine his elect. (Romans 8:29) He also created man with a free will. Let’s conclude that the ugly person is just not expressing it well.
As I said before, the truth often lies in the middle of man-made debates and positions. I do not consider myself a follower of John Calvin or Joseph Aminius. I am simply a follower of The Way. So the next time, someone asks if you are reformed – don’t buy into the artificial game. Simply smile and say that you follow Jesus.
*EDIT – My responses to TULIP were updated on Jan 16th to provide more clarity. My position on TULIP remains the same.
** I have been told this was originally preached jest. Here is a link to the sermon. However, the comment was subsequently tweet by the Geneva Push and retweeted by other, hence I remain concerned.