David Allen Soundly Refutes John Piper’s View on Limited Atonement and the Genuine Offer of the Gospel
I wouldn’t have expressed some things quite the same way, but there is a lot of corrective truth in this powerful little song,
HT: Richard Coords
I was raised in the Presbyterian Church (USA) (that is, liberal Presbyterianism). The version of Reformed theology I encountered there is probably best described as “Calvinism Lite.” I was trained at Princeton Seminary. “TULIP” or the five points of Calvinism was not taught there except as a historical artifact. Nevertheless, we were schooled in Reformed distinctives such as the sovereignty of God and election, very broadly (and loosely) defined (how election actually works was never specified).
My issues with Reformed theology as I encountered it were less theological than they were practical. Most Presbyterians I knew had a vague notion that nothing happens unless God causes it and that everything is pre-determined. Over time I found that this led to an attitude of fatalism and prayerlessness. As one of the parishioners I pastored actually asked me one time: “What’s the point of prayer if God’s already decided what’s going to happen anyway?” Even in my own life I found that the version of God’s sovereignty I had embraced had a stifling effect on my prayer life. I found it hard to pray believing prayers when deep down I felt as though my prayers didn’t really matter because God had already decided what was to be.
As the years went by in my ministry, I found that my faith was lacking in being able to make a difference in my life or the problems I encountered either personally or in church leadership. This may have had as much to do with the unbelief that is so present in mainline Christianity as it had anything to do with Calvinism specifically. I found myself searching for more.
My spiritual hunger led me to attend an interdenominational prayer retreat for pastors. Though it was interdenominational, I would say the vast majority of pastors and churches represented there were Arminian in their theology (most were charismatics, pentecostals, and Baptists). Among these pastors I encountered a level of urgency and faith in prayer which I rarely (dare I say never?) found among the people of my Reformed denomination.
At that retreat a group of Christian brothers prayed for me, and as they did so, the Holy Spirit began to reveal to them things about me which no one knew but me. Through prayer the Spirit enabled them to release me from things that had held me in bondage for many years. I was also encouraged to ask Jesus into my heart–something I had never done, for they don’t talk that way in the Presbyterian church. I did ask Christ into my heart, and had the experience of being born again (as in John 1:12-13 and 3:3-15).
To be honest, this experience of asking Christ into my heart and being born again came as a complete surprise to me. Prior to that I had assumed my relationship with Christ was settled because I had sincerely professed faith in him. But I had no assurance of salvation and had come to question if I really was saved.
After this experience my entire experience of the Christian life began to change. Before that the concepts of God’s love and of his being my Father had been difficult for me to grasp or believe. After asking Jesus into my heart I came to experience God’s love for me and that He is my Father. Likewise, passages of Scripture about God’s love and grace which had always mystified me before began to make sense. Also, I began to see prayers answered at a level I had never experienced before. The faith I had long claimed became much more real and vital for me.
More than anything, it was these experiences which caused me to question the Calvinism in which I had been raised and which I had embraced as a pastor in the Presbyterian church. It was as if in the PCUSA I had been exposed to the message of Christ but had never experienced the power and reality of that message. It was my Arminian brothers who actually had the faith to allow the Holy Spirit to work through them to minister to me in very practical ways which set me free from bondage and brought me into a personal relationship with Christ.
It was almost as if the Calvinist religion I had been raised in was one which had a form of godliness but denied the power, as Paul describes in 2 Timothy 3:5. It seemed to be my Arminian brothers and sisters who actually walked in the power of God to set me free from sin and spiritual bondage and into the freedom of the Holy Spirit.
These experiences caused me to re-examine my theology. They caused me to come to believe beyond doubt the truths of 1 Timothy 2:4 that God wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, and also 2 Peter 3:9 that the Lord doesn’t want any to perish but everyone to come to repentance. These experiences also increased my understanding of the importance and efficacy of prayer, that God really does listen to us, and changes the course of events based on our prayers. I believe Calvinism encourages a feeling of fatalism that causes people to be unbelieving regarding prayer and God’s activity in the world and in daily life, and regarding His responsiveness to our prayers.
I see Calvinism vs. Arminianism as more of a contiuum than as two completely incompatible systems. I don’t know that I have fully embraced Arminian theology, or completely rejected Calvinism in every respect. I just want to be faithful to God and to His Word. At any rate, I certainly have moved more toward Arminianism and away from Calvinism.
I don’t know whether you will find this explanation to be acceptable on your site since it is more experiential than theological in nature, but this is my testimony. Soli Deo Gloria.
1) How did you become a Calvinist? What did you find most compelling about Calvinism?
A few different experiences played into my journey into Calvinism.
I grew up in a family that was moderately reformed (my Dad’s personal library included “The complete works of Jonathan Edwards”, all four of Loraine Boettner’s popular books, as well as a number of books by authors like Pink and Owens, though my Dad would never have called himself a Calvinist). For grades 5-9 I attended a private Dutch Reformed Christian School. This background, though not decisive, did make it much easier for me to accept Calvinism later on.
Growing up our family attended a Christian Brethren church. It was in my mid teens when our group of churches began to become hostile to Calvinism, with the publication of articles like “Born by the railroad tracks: confessions of a zero-point Calvinist” by one of the leading teachers in the Brethren Assemblies, and “What Love Is This? Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God” by Dave Hunt who was well respected by the Assemblies. Later books would follow including “John Calvin Goes to Berkeley”. (This move away from Calvinism in the Brethren Assemblies has been noted Mark R. Stevenson in his article “Early Brethren Leaders and The Question Of Calvinism”, online: http://brethrenhistory.org/qwicsitePro/php/docsview.php?docid=1563).
I accepted these arguments at first, but was finally turned off by the lack of exegesis I found in their works. During my undergraduate studies (at a secular university) I especially longed for a deeper theological basis for my faith. The first book where I really found this was reading “Why We’re Not Emergent” by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. After that I was introduced to Desiring God and the Gospel Coalition. It was Calvinist’s commitment to the Bible and use of Systematic Theology (which I had very little prior exposure to) which I found especially attractive.
After I finished my Bachelor’s degree I worked in the insurance industry where one of my co-workers was a soon-to-be church planter who was struggling through the same theological issues I was. Together he and I discussed the Bible and our studies in theology every day, and through these discussions eventually both of us embraced the five points of Calvinism. For me, the case was closed when I read “The Justification of God” by John Piper, which I considered to be an air tight exegesis of Romans 9.
Over the next 5 years I was immersed in New Calvinism, complete with new friendships with Acts 29 church planters, and road trips to Bethlehem Baptist.
2) Why did you begin to question your Calvinistic convictions? What primarily led to you abandoning Calvinism?
Last year I started law school. The first year of law school is spent learning how to “argue both sides”, which helped me to think about my arguments for Calvinism in a different way and forced me to face the logical conclusions of these doctrines. The past year also exposed me to the sickening depravity of man, especially through my course in Criminal Law. I had to look full-on at the idea that God had ordained these grotesque acts and was somehow glorified through them.
At the same time, on my mind were passages like Matthew 5:45-48, and Luke 6:35-36, where Jesus shows us the character of God: does God love His enemies (cf Rom 5) only in superficial ways and not where it really matters (their salvation)? How can God be the personification of Love (1 John 4), or be “abounding in steadfast love” (Ex 34, Num 14, Neh 9, Psa 86, 103, 145, Joel 2, Jonah 4), and yet limit the provision of the only thing we really need (the provision of Himself)? I would be confronted with news articles (like this one: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/child-divorcees-of-nigeria-face-a-bleak-future-after-fleeing-abusive-marriages-9570585.html ) that show communities in desparate need of the Gospel, yet as a Calvinist I had to believe the systematic sin they were suffering in was all ultimately ordained by God, and the world is exactly and perfectly as He had created and willed it to be. I couldn’t reconcile that with the character and way of God revealed throughout the Bible, especially in His law and finally in Jesus.
Wrestling with all of this, I finally decided that the only passage really holding me to the Calvinist position was my understanding of Romans 9. So I re-arced (biblearc.com) it and found the inference in v 30-33, which I had never before considered in light of the preceding context. Verse 30 – 32 begins as an inference from what has been argued thus far. Paul does not conclude that Israel is cut of and Gentiles in because of election/predestination, but instead he says it is because of belief vs those who pursued by works. (cf 11:20 & 23) If Paul had just made the argument that the Calvinist’s claim, then these verses should not be an inference at all. This especially made me think I may have misunderstood the chapter all along.
So I wrestled through the preceding verses and realized my interpretation had assumed far too much. In particular, “purpose of election” in verse 11 seems to be connected with God’s purpose in choosing Abraham, and His continuing that purpose through Isaac and then through Jacob, rather than the Calvinistic interpretation of election which I had brought in from outside the context. That purpose was that through Abraham God would bring blessings to all nations (v 4 and cf Gen 18:17-19 and Rom 4:16); a purpose fulfilled in Christ and being fulfilled before the eyes of the Roman Christians as they saw gentiles embracing the Gospel. The question being answered beginning in v 6 then is, has the Word of God failed because God is fulfilling His purpose (bringing blessings to the gentiles) despite the unfaithfulness of most of those descended from Israel (cf Rom 3:3-4)?
The rest of the passage fell into place from there. For example, verses 22-23 made a much better parallel with Eph 2, Rom 2:4, and 2 Pet 3:9 than with any idea of double predestination. (I know this isn’t the place for a full exegesis, though I would love to share mine).
Once I saw that there was an alternative (and I believe stronger) interpretation of Romans 9, I began taking out books and reading articles on alternatives to Calvinism (with full access to the University library and journals). I had deliberately wrestled through the passage before consulting any scholars to avoid making the same mistake I had originally made — I had relied more on “The Justification of God” than I had on the text.
3) What kind of support or opposition did you encounter while questioning your Calvinistic beliefs?
I was quiet about my struggle until I was convinced. I’m part of a church planting team on campus at the University where I am studying, so the first step after telling my wife was to tell the rest of the leadership team (who are each 5 point calvinists, and include my former co-worker from the insurance industry).
I had worried far more than I needed to. I’m still part of the launching team (I worried they might want me to step down, but instead they understood that my commitment to the Bible and upholding the character of God has not changed). A few members of the team and I have been emailing back and forth, and I think it has been helping each of us to consider our positions and the various texts. My former co-worker was quick to remind me that it was I who always argued for double predestination and limited atonement – he was never really that committed to those points anyway.
Today I consider myself a Reformed, 4-point Arminian; still holding to perseverance of the saints in the mostly-Grudem sense, and still committed to penal substitution and imputed righteousness (a doctrine I love). I’m excited for the reprinting of Thomas Grantham’s works, which I think I will be in substantial agreement with.
Though I don’t know a single Arminian to discuss with, I have found a number of helpful books and blogs. Some of the most helpful resources have been David Allen’s chapter on the Atonement and Steve Lemke’s chapter in Irresistible Grace in “Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism”, “Against Calvinism” by Roger Olson (who articulates a lot of the same conclusions that I struggled with as a Calvinist), and “The New Chosen People: A Corporate View of Election” by William Klein.
I’ve also found David Allen’s blog (especially his review of “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her”; a book which I had received last Christmas), the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (at http://baptistcenter.net), and The Society of Evangelical Arminians to be especially helpful.
Ultimately it was the Bible, our world, and Calvinist teacher’s themselves who turned me away from my Calvinistic convictions. I did not even look at an Arminian blog or book until I was already convinced that the middle three points of TULIP could not be reconciled with the character and way of God revealed throughout the Bible, especially in the law and in Jesus.
You can read other stories from people who have left Calvinism here.
Reproof: Recent Book Looking to Re-Package Calvinism With a Fresh New Acronym (PROOF) is Reviewed by a Former Calvinist
It is a fair criticism to say that PROOF is a one-sided cherry picking of the biblical texts that would seem to support their teaching with very little time devoted to the texts that present Calvinism with its biggest problems. This may work among those who don’t read the Bible very much but thoughtful Bible students will come upon many texts which will not jibe with PROOF’s inferences. For example, a careful study of scripture will reveal that there are no texts which teach clearly (or by necessary inference) that Jesus did not die for some people. If there was such a text in the Bible you can be sure that all Calvinists would be rallying around it like desperate bees on a lone flower.
Filed under: atonement, Book Reviews, Calvinism, dead in sin, election, faith, free will, irresistible grace, monergism, predestination, prevenient grace, regeneration, Uncategorized | Leave a comment »
It is often said by Calvinists that when Arminians pray, they pray like Calvinists. Typically this is expressed in such a way as to imply that while Arminians may deny the theological claims of Calvinism, they affirm Calvinism in the way that they pray. The Calvinist assumes that when Arminians pray for God to work or to save the lost we are praying for God to work irresistibly. But why should that be the case? Prayer is relational and if it is true that we are asking God to work in people’s lives, even bringing them to salvation against the backdrop of relational assumptions, then we have no reason to expect God to act irresistibly in response to such prayers. Why should it be assumed that if someone asks God to save a loved one that the person praying is expecting God to do so in an irresistible manner? This isn’t what such things would imply in our normal experiences, so why should we think that way with regards to prayer? Dr. Brian Abasciano makes this point well,
…respectfully, I strongly disagree that as Arminians we should not pray for God to save people or that it is inconsistent with Arminian theology to do so.
It is all a matter of what is meant by such prayer. We use such language in everyday life all the time of resistible action. What corroboration is there for such language naturally implying a request for irresistible action? The evidence of actual language usage counters the automatic assumption of irresistible action. If I ask my son to take a visitor in our home to the bathroom, that does not mean to overpower them and force them into the bathroom. It means something like, “show them where the bathroom is and lead them there as long as they *willingly follow you*. Similarly, if I say to my son, “Please bring your mother here,” I certainly don’t mean, “get your mother here at all costs; overpower her and drag her here if necessary.” I simply mean something like, “let your mother know I want her to come here.” Or if I ask my friend to pick up my wife from the doctor’s office, that does not mean “force her into the car and drive her back to my home.” Such examples could be multiplied. One more. If a morally upright store owner tells his salesman to sell an item to a customer, he does not mean to do whatever is necessary to make the sale, including drugging the person and coercing them to buy the item, or overpowering them, taking their checkbook, and writing the check out himself, or kidnapping their family and holding them hostage in exchange for buying the item, or anything of the kind. “Sell them this item” or “make the sale”, simply means, “do all you can do that is not coercive or in violation of their free will to persuade them to buy the item.”
Similarly, when we ask God to save someone, we do not mean, “Take over their will and irresistibly cause them to believe and so be saved.” We mean something like, “Take action to lead them resistibly and willingly to believe in Jesus,” which would include any number of actions God might take. Olson mentions God bringing circumstances into their lives that will increase their awareness of their need of God and of his love and power to save them. Yes, that. But there are so many more things God might do that would work toward leading people toward faith in Christ. Be that as it may, I would argue that in a context in which there is the assumption of the honoring of free will, then such language implies a request for resistible action rather than irresistible action. If an Arminian prays for someone’s salvation, then it should be assumed that the prayer is for resitible action for the person’s salvation.
In my opinion, to discourage praying in such a way is needless, ignores this normal use of language, and limits our proper expression to God in prayer. It also fails to rightly grasp the critical issue of the meaning behind words and assumes a Calvinistic meaning for language that is completely compatible with an Arminian understanding. Indeed, it is biblical language–as Paul says in Rom 10:1, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation” (NASB)–and I think it would be very unwise to concede this language to Calvinists, just as it is unwise to let them own the terminology “doctrines of grace” (the *biblical* doctrines of grace = Arminianism).
So the important thing is what the person means by their prayer for God to save. I disagree that asking God to save someone is an incorrect or misleading way to express a request that God work resistibly for someone’s salvation. Indeed, I would argue that it is a perfectly natural and biblical way to pray for this. God, please save the lost! (From: Arminians Can be Consistent and Pray for God to Save the Lost; note that Abasciano’s comments were in response to some posts written by Arminian Roger Olson)
Old time Methodist theologian and philosopher, Daniel Whedon, argued in a similar manner long ago, pointing out that certain things are presupposed when either a Calvinist or an Arminian makes requests of God,
Calvinists often claim that the prayers even of Arminians presuppose that God may at any time consistently with his administrative system convert any man they are praying for, or even the world, at any moment. But in this matter Calvinists truly contradict themselves. They pray, as the result often shows, that God would do contrary to his own sovereign election. Their prayer, though itself decreed, is often against God’s decrees. They pray that God would act contrary to the strongest motive; which they say God has no moral power to do. That is, they commit these contradictions unless all prayer is considered as offered under the proviso that what is asked for be consistent with the Divine Will, and is in fact asked for so far only as allowable by the fundamental laws of God’s administration. Not my will, but thine be done, tacitly or expressly limits and underlies every true prayer.
And such a proviso as fully explains the prayer of the Arminian as of the Calvinist. When an Arminian prays that God would awaken the public mind to repentance, or convert an individual, or spread the Gospel through the world, and turn all men’s hearts to righteousness, he thereby expresses his earnest desire that such things be accomplished in accordance with fundamental laws. Just as when he prays that a temporal blessing may be bestowed, as health restored, or life preserved, he usually expects no unequivocal miracle, but trusts that it may be done in such way as Infinite Wisdom may devise in accordance with the constitution of things; and that on the condition of his prayer it may be ordered otherwise than if such prayer were not offered. We know not how far the prayer of the saints is a condition to the goings forth or putting forth of God, nor how fully he requires the co-operation of his Church, in order to render possible such displays of his truth as will convince the unbelieving, and such impressions by his Spirit as the free wills of men in process of time will, it is foreseen, accept and obey. Certainly man’s Will and not God’s remissness has prevented the complete good of the world. (Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner, 119)
As Whedon points out, unless a Calvinist brings certain presuppositions to his prayers with him, he may indeed be praying contrary to the will of God. Since the identity of the elect is hidden, the Calvinist cannot know if the subject of his prayer is one that God desires to save or one that God has decreed to forever leave in his or her hopeless state. They might pray for countless hours for the salvation of someone who God has decreed from eternity to reprobate and has no desire to save. Indeed, they might be praying for God to save someone who, as the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 would have us believe, has likewise been hated by God from the womb and been made an irrevocable vessel of wrath doomed for destruction. This is a difficulty that seems out of line with passages like Rom. 10:1 or 1 Timothy 2:1-6. Furthermore, 1 Timothy makes it clear that we should offer prayers for all people because God desires all to be saved and because Christ died for all. So the Arminian has Biblical warrant for praying for the lost and knows that in doing so he is always praying in line with the will of God.
But what of the Calvinist? If they interpret 1 Timothy 2:1-6 to mean “some among all kinds” or “some among all classes”, then in what way should they pray? Should they say: “God I pray for some among all men to be saved?” Or should they pray: “God, I pray that you will save all of the elect from among the various classes of men in the world?” Such prayers, driven by the Calvinist approach to such passages, illustrate again that the Calvinist shouldn’t pray for the salvation of any specific person because he cannot know that it is actually God’s will to save that person.
Furthermore, if Calvinism is true, it is hard to understand why one should even bother to engage in intercessory prayer at all. In Calvinism, God has already pre-determined from eternity which persons will be saved and which persons will be damned. That eternal decree is unchangeable, and that decree was not made in response to the prayers of yet uncreated people, who will in fact be created for one destiny or the other in such a way that nothing could possibly work to change that destiny. The person the Calvinist prays for is either elect or reprobate, and nothing can change that. No amount of praying can bring salvation to the reprobate, and no lack of prayer can prevent the elect from being finally saved. It would seem that the Calvinist prayer cannot possibly accomplish anything since eternal destinies cannot possibly change in any way.
Some Calvinists reply that such prayer may yet serve as the ordained means by which God saves the elect, but also maintain that God is in no way influenced by our prayers. It is, therefore, hard to understand how prayer can be a means to salvation, if those prayers can have no possible impact on God or His predetermination to save some and reprobate others. If prayer really plays no part in whether God will save or not, then how can it be a “means” towards accomplishing salvation? As one commenter responding to a post written to help understand and defend prayer in Calvinism well said,
While God knowing everything is consistent with prayer, God planning everything in the Calvinistic sense of unconditionally decreeing it is not. Calvinism cannot account for the Bible’s portrayal of prayer as a cause of God’s answers to prayer because it holds that God unconditionally decides all that he wants to happen and then irresistibly causes it to come to pass, including the prayer that supposedly causes him to respond to it with action that grants the request. It would be like saying that with putting a sock puppet on your hand and having the puppet ask you to do something, that the request made by the sock puppet is a cause of you doing what you had the sock puppet ask you to do. (link)
This observation is important because it highlights how Calvinism, if consistently held, can serve to undermine one’s motivation for prayer (and this eventual lack of motivation to pray is something we often see reported by former Calvinists). If all things are decreed by God from eternity, then whether we pray or not, it is likewise decreed and can have no impact on whether anyone is ultimately saved or lost. A Calvinist can still pray because he thinks it his duty as a Christian or because he thinks it has certain personal spiritual benefits, but petitionary prayer still seems essentially useless since it can have no impact on anything since God has already decreed whatsoever will come to pass from eternity (including any such ineffective petitionary prayers that might be prayed).
So it seems to me that if Arminian prayer has difficulty, Calvinist prayer has far more difficulty. And while Arminians can pray for the lost knowing that such prayers are in line with God’s desire to save everyone and Christ’s provision of atonement for everyone, Calvinists cannot. While Arminians can make sense of why Paul’s heartfelt desire was for his fellow Jews to be saved (and in the context of Romans 9-11, Paul is speaking of the same Jews that Calvinists insist were reprobated and “hated” by God from eternity), Calvinists struggle to make sense of Paul’s anguish.
But if Arminianism is true and God desires all to be saved, why should prayer move God to act anymore than He would already be moved to act? The answer seems to be that as a relational God who so strongly values genuine inter-relational interactions, He wants us to be a part of the process (we are co-laborers with Him, 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 6:1) . He wants us involved. He wants us to demonstrate our own love and concern for others by petitioning Him for others which further glorifies Him in that it is an example of His love expressed freely in us for others. We reflect His love in our efforts to bring people to Christ and in our prayers for the salvation of the lost, efforts and prayers that are themselves empowered by God with a view towards seeing all saved.
The following is a recent testimony of leaving Calvinism from the X-Calvinist Corner page. I wanted to highlight it here because it illustrates that leaving a certain theological viewpoint in the pursuit of truth can sometimes result in tremendous risk and consequences. Whether you agree with Keith’s journey or not, its hard not to respect his courage in pursuing truth, whatever the cost.
When I was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1999, I enthusiastically affirmed my agreement with its Calvinistic/Reformed doctrinal statement, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). That same night, I also vowed that if I ever found myself out of accord with its teaching, I would take the initiative to notify my Presbytery (the regional ecclesiastical body) that my views had changed. I did not expect to have to keep that promise because I had been Reformed since my first semester seminary in 1992 and “knew” that I was right. But fifteen years later, in April 2014, it became necessary for me to notify my Presbytery that I no longer adhere to its confessional standards; I no longer believe that Calvinism is biblical teaching.
I had chosen a Reformed school not because I agreed with Reformed theology (RT), but because a favorite pastor taught there. But I quickly embraced Calvinism because I desperately wanted to understand how Scripture fit together, and my professors were offering me a comprehensive ready-made system that explained 1,200 pages of divine revelation. They were wiser than I by far, and could mount a massive number of verses that appeared to teach TULIP. I had neither the time nor the skill to test their interpretation of Scripture. And besides, God’s knowledge is infinitely greater than mine; so even if his word taught that he ordains whatsoever comes to pass – including the salvation or damnation of all people – I was going to worship him on his terms.
So for the next 20 years I would be a staunch Calvinist, convinced that it was simply the teaching of God’s word. I sincerely believed it, taught it, and defended it. I even wrote a study on the WCF, explaining the intricacies of the system and answering common objections to it.
But several things eventually led to me reconsider the views of almost all my teachers, colleagues, friends, and heroes. The first was that an acquaintance gave me a copy of a book written by a “Reformed Arminian”. I read it out of curiosity, and though it did not persuade me in the least it did challenge my prejudice against Arminians. Scripture seemed clear about RT, so I had assumed that anyone who denied it was either ignorant or insolent. Some had not read the Bible carefully enough and others just could not stomach God as he revealed himself to be. But this book offered a clear alternative to Calvinism and intelligently interacted with its favorite proof texts. The author did not convince me, but he did give me a new category: there were non-Calvinists who had taken the Bible to heart and honestly believed that it taught God’s desire to save all.
The second thing that contributed to my journey out of Calvinism is that I became better acquainted with its teaching. In seminary I had accepted RT in principle, but had not had time to work out the details in my own mind. During decade after graduation I had more time to read Reformed theologians like Calvin, Edwards, Frame, and Reymond; I came to understand what RT teaches about the divine decree – that libertarian freedom is an illusion; that God effects his eternal plan by determining and controlling our desires; that we are responsible for sin not because we could have done otherwise, but because we did what we wanted to do (even though God determined that we would want to sin). I accepted this teaching, again, because I thought Scripture taught it. But it introduced tension into my thinking that would weigh more and more heavily upon me over the years to come.
The third thing that set me on the course to reject RT was the thing that had led me into it – Scripture itself. As a pastor I preached through books of the Bible verse by verse. Occasionally I would encounter a common Calvinistic proof text and realize that it did not necessarily say what I had thought it said. John 3 does not necessarily teach that regeneration precedes faith; John 10 does not necessarily teach that Jesus died only for the elect; Eph 1 does not necessarily teach that God ordained whatever happens; 1 Pet 1 does not necessarily teach that God elected individuals for salvation – unconditionally, effectually, exclusively. Once again, these discoveries did not shake my confidence in RT. There were too many passages that clearly taught it; I considered Romans 9 impregnable to Arminian assault. But I realized that the quantity of verses used to support my view did not matter if, upon closer scrutiny, they could not bear the weight that we Calvinists were putting on them on a case-by-case basis.
I remained a committed Calvinist by choice and wanted to silence the issues that were bothering me, so on vacation in October 2012 I decided to shore up my confidence by reading some Reformed writers. But my plan backfired: I began with a small booklet about election; the author opened by stating his case from Eph 1:4 – a verse that I had studied when teaching through Ephesians the previous year. I had been struck by the parallels between Deut 4:37; 7:6-11 and this text: In the former, God says that he chose the Israelites to be his holy people because he loved them for the sake of their fathers; in the latter, Paul says that God chose “us” to be holy in Christ, which may easily mean “for the sake of Christ”. Election was a corporate, vocational, conditional concept for Israel; perhaps it was the same thing for Christians (see 1 Pet 2:9-10). Whatever the case, I knew that there was a lot of room to interpret Eph 1:4 differently than this author did. He was building his case for election on a verse that I knew could not bear that weight, and I began to wonder what would happen to other classic proof texts if examined more carefully, without Calvinistic presuppositions.
I decided to spend my vacation differently: Instead of trying to bolster my confidence in RT I began to work my way through several texts ostensibly supporting the Calvinistic concept of unconditional election. I asked, “Is there another way to understand these passages?” To my surprise and chagrin, I found that there were not only alternative interpretations, but that they actually made better sense of the texts’ contexts.
That was a turning point in my life. For the first time I said, “Whatever it cost me (and I knew it could cost me everything), I want to know the truth.” I spent the next year and a half going back through Scripture, reading books on both sides of the issue, listening to debates and lectures, praying fervently, studying passages, and meditating deeply. Gradually, my questions about RT turned into doubts, and by the end of 2013 I realized that my doubts had turned into disbelief. I had not fully reconstructed my theology, but it was clear that I no longer found Calvinism coherent, much less biblical.
Some were later critical that I explored Arminianism privately, but it was prudent for two reasons: First, I had been exposed almost exclusively to Calvinistic theologians for 20 years; they had given me the lens through which I read Scripture. I needed to test that lens by the word of God, not the words of humans; I needed mental space to examine my beliefs without outside influences pressuring me to conform to an ecclesiastical standard; I needed to widen my intellectual dialogue to include voices from the breadth of Christ’s church and not just from one part of it. Second, I did not know what would happen if my Presbytery discovered my questions before I had drawn any conclusions; I was not ready to recant Calvinism and needed time to think through the issues. Now, from the outside, I have grave concerns about the ways that some Calvinists discourage dissent; and I fear that intimidation will keep most from ever even considering that they may be misguided.
In fulfillment of my ordination vow, I sent notice to my Presbytery in April 2014, and at the meeting that month stood before my professional peers to acknowledge that my views had changed. For the most part they responded as they should: They met with me, prayed for me, and asked me to take a study leave to reconsider the issue in dialogue with Reformed thinkers. I was grateful for that opportunity to “check my work” and used the time well; but 30 days later I could only say that my convictions had not changed. They had no choice, but to divest me of office at their next meeting in July. My credentials as a PCA minister were withdrawn, and I was no longer qualified to pastor the PCA congregation I was serving.
Some of my worst fears were realized, but this journey was for me a simple matter of faithfulness to Jesus. We are called to believe what we think Scripture teaches and to obey what we think Scripture requires, such as keeping one’s vows and swearing to one’s own harm. Sometimes our love for Jesus means that we must lose friends, approval, and job-security; but these are small matters alongside the pleasure of walking with him.
A couple of “friends” turned on me, but the biggest relief in this process was to find that most stood by me. Though they disagree with me, they have heard my heart and continue to love me, pray for me, even socialize with me; and I am grateful for this above all else. Calvinists and Arminians have said hurtful things to each other, so tempers can run high and suspicions can go deep. But I have felt no conceit or contempt in this journey. I disagree with them, but in their numbers are some of the finest men and women I have ever known. By God’s grace, I pray that my love for them will always temper my critique of RT – and keep me open to their criticism as well.
On one hand, I gained much more respect than I lost in this process. Many in the PCA still smart from the dishonesty of men who had lied in their ordination vows before their split from a mainline denomination in 1973; so they welcomed my honesty, even if they did not welcome my departure. But in a subtle way I have had to endure the loss of respect as well. Many Calvinists think as I did – Arminians are either ignorant or insolent. Since no one has been able to accuse me of either, I represent a problem to them. They are not ready to admit that I may have left RT for good reasons, so they have probed for the cause of my apostasy. No one has said this explicitly to me, but several have implied that I was brainwashed by reading the wrong authors and commentaries; and that is a condescending, disrespectful attitude that has been painful. But it has been good exercise for me to practice the example of Jesus “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (see 1 Pet 2:21-23). It is difficult not to demand honor from one’s opponents; but I wonder if this process was a rehearsal for tests we may all face as it becomes more costly to follow Jesus in this culture.
Finally, I lost my livelihood and have not yet recovered it. There have been seasons of desperation and even anger as I’ve asked why the Lord led me down this path that seems to lead nowhere. But he has provided for my family abundantly, and he has reminded me to worry not about how I’m going to pay the bills, but what pleases him (Prov 3:5-6; Matt 6:33).
In the end, this journey has not been about having the right answers, but following Jesus. I differ from some Arminians when I say that if, when I meet the Lord, I discover that Calvinists were right after all, I will fall on my face in worship, savor the sacrifice that covers sins committed in ignorance, and trust him for the grace to love him as he is. I am not seeking a man-centered religion more palatable to my ego, but have followed him down this path because I am zealous for his honor as a loving God, a just God, and a God who is so sovereign that he can make creatures who, like himself, are not scripted . . . but free and thus capable of loving and being loved by him. What I have found is a God that actually lives up to the glorious God preached by Calvinists.