Buckle up, this is a long one.
I was saved at the age of 16. I immediately began to immerse myself in the Bible, and I soaked it up like a sponge. But as a baby Christian, my doctrine stopped at Revelation 22:21. In other words, I studied the Bible, and nothing else.
My first hint that there were labels for the different doctrines, and beliefs referencing things outside the Bible (such as Martin Luther, etc) was when I was on the Talents for Christ tour in 1993. For those of you who don’t know what this is, I will explain. “Talents for Christ” is a nationwide high school competition where Regular Baptist high school students meet in each state of the competition and compete for the privilege of going to the national competition. The categories are varied, and mostly musical, but there is scholarship money for the winners, and the national competition is at the GARBC national conference.
The “tour” that I was on is for winners at the state level. Every 1st place and 2nd place finisher in each category is invited to go on tour, but not every one does. The group of kids is led by a pastor and they spend a week driving across the state going to different churches, using the talents that God has given them to glorify Him. I competed in the “Bible Knowledge” category, where you essentially memorized a passage of Scripture, and then were tested on it. My first year the passage was Luke chapters 13-24, and my second (and final) year it was the book of Romans. Yes, the whole thing.
My first year I came in second (some girl from Forest City, IA beat me), and I went on tour. My second year I came in first (she graduated, evidently), and went to Nationals. I thought, “Alright! I get to travel!” I mean, the year before Nationals were in Milwaukee, I believe. Where were the nationals being held the year I went? That’s right: Des Moines. So I got to travel downtown. At least I didn’t have to pay for a hotel. I went on tour the second year as well. And that’s when I met Christa. I remember vividly sitting in a wading pool of a water park in Ottumwa, Iowa, talking to Christa. I was a teenage boy talking to a teenage girl. She was a theologian talking to a baby Christian. I still remember her question, “Are you a Calvinist or an Arminian?” She may as well have asked me what my dress size was, for all I knew about her question. All I can say is that she is her father’s daughter (He is my favorite theology professor, a man I hold in high esteem).
After I learned more about Calvinism and Arminianism, I began to ask myself the same question. As I studied the Scriptures, I began to identify myself as a Calvinist, and if pressed, I will still come down on that label, but….
In 2005 we moved to Indiana and searched for a Bible-believing church that agreed with our doctrine, music philosophy, and worship style. We looked for a GARBC church because that was what we knew as “good churches”, but the only ones in our area that we could find used CCM in their services or had no young people whatsoever. Long story short, we ended up at Trinity Baptist Church, which is an independent fundamental Baptist church. They have a conservative music philosophy (like us), and a review of their doctrinal statement revealed no glaring differences. So we became members and began serving God there.
It wasn’t until a few years later that we found out some members disagreed with Calvinism, while others viewed Calvinism as dangerous and heretical. Color me shocked! I remember the first time I got a clue about it. We had just sung “There’s a New Name Written Down In Glory”, and I mentioned to the song leader that “technically, there are no new names if you believe in predestination” to which he replied, “I don’t.” I was taken aback. I mean, we agreed on everything else, so how could we disagree on something like this?
I have made my peace for the most part with the fact that my fellow church members, whom I love, disagree with my stand in this area, but I have studied the issue, and as Martin Luther said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
I have always referred to myself as a “Four point Calvinist” (the theological term is “Amyraldist”) because I don’t believe in the doctrine of limited atonement. I believe the Bible teaches that Christ died for all human beings. I don’t think you can put a value on the blood of Christ. I believe the phrase is “sufficient for all, efficacious for the elect.” (His blood was sufficient to cover the sins of all mankind, but only actually covers the sins of the elect, since the non-elect persist in their choice against God). But am I a Calvinist? I read things on the internet describing what “Calvinists” believe, and I don’t believe those things. Am I a Calvinist and those people don’t understand Calvinism, or do I misunderstand Calvinism, and those people are right?
Here’s what I believe about the four points of Calvinism (TULIP minus the L):
T: Total Depravity. I believe this means that we are incapable of pleasing God. It means we are all sinful beings worthy of God’s wrath. There is nothing in us that makes God look on us favorably, other than His own gracious choice. Romans 3:10-12 says, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.”
U: Unconditional Election. In the words of Berkhof, election is “that eternal act of God whereby He, in His sovereign good pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them, chooses a certain number of men to be the recipients of special grace and of eternal salvation.” (“Systematic Theology”). The Bible refers to saved people of the Church age as “the elect” twenty-five times. The word “elect” means “chosen.” This means that God chose us. I don’t believe the Bible teaches that God chooses us because of anything He sees in us (see Total Depravity). I believe Ephesians 1:4-5 when Paul says, “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.” That seems pretty clear that He chose certain people on purpose, and He did it before Adam was created.
Personally, I believe the story of the Great Flood is a good illustration of election. God told Noah in Genesis 6 to build an ark, gave the exact dimensions of the ark, and then said, “But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” That’s eight specific people, and nobody else. God never told Noah to invite anybody else on the ark, although I’m sure Noah, being a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5), warned the people of God’s impending wrath, but God never promised to save anybody other than Noah and his family. Interestingly, his father and grandfather were alive the whole time he was building the ark, and they both died the year of the flood. Whether they rejected God or not, they weren’t promised a spot on the ark.
I: Irresistible Grace. Basically this means that everybody God chose to be saved, will be saved. Just as He chose eight specific people to be saved from the Great Flood, and those exact people were saved, no more, no less. I believe that every single person God elects to salvation will be saved.
P: Perseverance of the Saints. I believe that if a person is elected by God to salvation, and therefore they come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, and are bound for heaven, that they cannot “lose” their salvation. Some would term this “Eternal Security” or “Once-Saved-Always-Saved.” I do NOT believe, as some have claimed Calvinists believe, that I am the one doing the Persevering or securing. I am sealed by the Spirit, and God is the one that keeps me saved, so to speak, not myself.
What it comes down to is that some people emphasize God’s sovereignty, that God is in charge of everything. Other people emphasize man’s free will, that men freely choose whether they will trust Christ or not. I believe both. I believe God is in control, and we have a responsibility to respond to His call to salvation. Believing both ideas is not impossible, because there are other doctrines equally difficult to understand, like the hypostatic union, the Trinity, and the kenosis.
I understand the beliefs of others who say that the Bible says “whosoever will may come”, but I don’t know how these people interpret passages like Ephesians 1:4-5, Ephesians 1:11, and Romans 8:29-30. The best explanation I ever heard was that when a believer enters heaven, there’s a sign on the outside of the gate that says “Whosoever will may come”, and when they pass through and look back, the inside of the gate says “Chosen before the foundation of the world.”
Did Noah and the other seven people in his family have to individually choose to obey God by building the ark and getting on board a week before the rain started? Yes. Did God predestine and choose those eight people to be saved from the flood? Yes. Do I understand how these two thoughts can be reconciled? No, but I believe them both.
So am I a Calvinist? I guess it depends on your definition. I trust the Lord Jesus Christ, and if I’m wrong on this doctrine, I’ll defer to His judgment.