I Was Calvinist (When Calvinism Wasn’t Cool)

John Calvin
Among younger Christians and church planters it seems the theological philosophy known as Calvinism is all the rage. Many current popular pastors and authors are unashamed Calvinists: David Platt, Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, and J.D. Greear, to name but a few. Then, there are the old stand-byes who’ve greatly influenced today’s generation: Piper, Sproul, and MacArthur. There is a resurgence of Reformed Theology sweeping the church, and it cannot be ignored. Even Big Media has picked up on the phenomenon (“The New Calvinism”). Depending on who you ask, this is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m not here to debate either, though I am personally glad to see this day come, at least inasmuch as it is a return to sound biblical theology and not a fad. Time will tell.

Because of the heightened exposure of Calvinism, I’ve been asked often about my thoughts on the issue. I’ve never thought of myself as a Calvinist, though I’ve been called one both as a compliment and as an insult (mostly as an insult). I’ve never denied being a Calvinist, either. Calvinism in the Bible Belt, particularly in my region of the Upstate of South Carolina, has been looked upon with suspicion, at least in my experience. Like most things, there are truths and there are misconceptions. I often have to answer questions about Calvinism by first finding out exactly what the questioner means by the term. I’m not going to go into a deep assessment of the history of Calvinism, or the five points, but here’s a good link from Desiring God“What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism” that reflects my definition of Calvinism.

All that being said, I’d like to briefly share my story – how I “became” a Calvinist and why.

Let me say from the outset that I never jumped on a Calvinism bandwagon. There wasn’t one around at the time. I never had to be “converted” to or “convinced” of Calvinism. Though I might’ve been one (though I didn’t know it at the time), it definitely wasn’t cool.

I became a Christian sometime in the mid 1990s. Prior to that I had zero exposure to Calvinism or Reformed Theology. I attended church with my family or friends for things like Vacation Bible School, but other than that I didn’t have much of a church background. At the time of my conversion I’d classify myself as an atheist at worst, an agnostic at best. I didn’t attend a church for several months after my conversion, but simply devoured the Bible whenever I could. I didn’t have any reference materials, except the concordance in the back of the dusty pink NRSV Reference Bible I‘d stolen from my mom. I read and read and read. I’m pretty sure in a couple of months I’d read the entire Bible cover to cover several times. A friend at work, the man who led me to Christ, invited me to his church. This was the first church I became involved with after my conversion. It was a Charismatic mega church. My friend kept preaching that I should judge everything by Scripture, which is interesting because a lot of what I saw take place in his church didn’t line up with the Bible. Never the less, his wisdom resounded with me and I kept on reading the Word as often as I could.

What I began to see was a pattern of how a sovereign God dealt redemptively with his people. Adam sinned, all hope was lost, in Jesus Christ hope was restored, and in Christ’s return the redemptive plan of God would be fully realized. One thing that struck me in this formative time of my faith was that the Bible was painfully clear that man could do nothing to save himself. So, in his love and mercy God provided the means for our relationship with him to be restored. This is summarized in Romans 8:28-30, and reiterated throughout every book of the Bible in some way, shape, or form. I came to realize that throughout my whole life God had been calling me, and provided the means by which I would be saved. I was floored to see that much of this happened before I was ever born. I could look back at my pre-Christian life and trace the sovereign hand of God leading me to the place where I’d hear the gospel and believe. It was beautiful, and I thought of how undeserving I was. In the Bible, I saw a big God with big plans that I couldn’t wrap my puny mind around. I was just glad he took me along for the ride.

Again, I was seeing all this apart from any John Piper books, Spurgeon sermons, or Westminster confessions of faith – I’d simply never been exposed to them. (During this point in my life I was reading and listening to things such as Kenneth Hagin, Charles Stanley, and Adrian Rogers.) The couple of pastors I’d sat under up to this point were both classic Bible Belt Arminians. Yet, I was still growing in my belief that a sovereign God saves us apart from our own works or desires.

Fast forward several years. By this time I was on staff at my first church, ironically enough, serving as an associate pastor/pastor of evangelism. I’d not heard the term Calvinism used until my senior pastor called me one after we’d discussed the doctrine of election one day in a casual conversation. He seemed floored that I believed the Bible teaches that God chooses to save us apart from ourselves. I was more floored that he believed otherwise. He said, “If you believe that, you must be a… Calvinist!” I did some research and found out more about Calvinism. I didn’t see anything I disagreed with. I also checked out a book from my college library around this time that would revolutionize and galvanize my thinking, Chosen By God by R.C. Sproul. In this book I didn’t find anything revolutionary, but Dr. Sproul helped me gather my thoughts around election, predestination, human responsibility, and God’s sovereignty as succinctly and as eloquently as only he can.

Another thing that helped solidify my thinking about Calvinism was I also went on my first mission trip. The host church was a Reformed Southern Baptist church (though I didn’t have any idea what that meant at the time). When the pastors found out I was a newer pastor, they gave me a box of books on the promise I’d read them all. I agreed. It was a literal treasure trove of authors and theologians from the early days of my Baptist tradition: John Gill, J.L. Dagg, Charles Spurgeon, and J.P. Boyce, along with booklets by the Puritans, Ernest Reisinger and several early copies of the Founders Journal. These guys were saying exactly what I’d already been believing, and it was exciting!

In time the internet became easily accessible, and I was able to read and listen to a variety of viewpoints on salvation, both from a Calvinistic perspective and not. My desire was never to be a Calvinist, just biblical. Over the years I have mostly ministered alongside Christians and in churches that were not Calvinistic. Their failure to embrace every minute point of theology that I own has never gotten in the way of the larger cooperative mission. I pray it never will. Until the past few years I’d cross paths with the occasional Calvinist, but for the most part I was the Ugly Theological Duckling.

For me, Calvinism holds the most rational way of looking at God’s redemptive plan. It also offers more of a God-centered way of reading and understanding the Scriptures, as well as its application to daily life. I’m glad to see a renewed interest in Calvinism. It’s about time. There was a long season where in Southern Baptist life where it was not. I’m glad Calvinism is cool.

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