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.