Lent, Depravity, and Why Hyper-Calvinism Has It Backwards


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

One of my responsibilities for The Mission is to help keep our fledgling little faith community in step with the traditional church calendar. We do this for a couple of reasons—to acknowledge that our small church is part of a much bigger Church and to remember that our young community springs from a very old Community. It keeps us humble, and it provides those of us whose singing voices can best be described as “joyful noises” with another way to worship, through liturgy.

So every week I prepare the liturgy and speak a little about the religious season.

So far, I’ve really enjoyed the rhythm and poetry of the liturgical year—the expectant tension of Advent, the celebration of Epiphany.

But now it’s time for Lent, a season of fasting and repentance.

When I first began my research into Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent, it was with trepidation and dread because the whole thing sounded to me to be very…Calvinistic.

What I mean is that Calvinists love to talk about depravity. It’s the first petal in the TULIP and the one I hear the most about. Total depravity provides an intellectual cushion to the blow of predestination because it explains why no one deserves salvation to begin with. The Reformed understanding of total depravity effectively shifts attention away from the question of why a loving God would damn most people to hell to the question of why an angry, offended God would choose anyone for heaven.

This is why several of my Calvinist friends have told me that objections to their theology are the result of pride. Ever since the sin of Adam, they say, our fallen nature has made us so utterly disgusting to God he is under no obligation to pay us any mind. It is therefore arrogant for me to assume that I or any of my fellow human beings deserve a chance at salvation.

Famed Reformed preacher Jonathan Edward explained it like this:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God)

Recently, Reformed pastors like Mark Driscoll and John Piper have revived this kind of language, Driscoll explaining that the Gospel begins with “God hates you, and it’s going to go really really bad forever,” Piper concluding that natural disasters like the Asian tsunami and presumably the Haitian earthquake are acts of judgment by a holy God on an unholy people, stern illustrations of what we all deserve.

In other words, according to Piper, we find the bodies of children buried underneath rubble because God wants to remind us of just how little he thinks of us. They deserved it and so do we.

This is why I dreaded Lent. 

Not because I agree with Edwards or Piper, but because I have a hard time reflecting on sin without thinking about their view of it. I guess I just assumed that Calvinists had the edge on the whole penitence thing because they have such a developed theology regarding depravity. In fact, one of the things I appreciate about my more moderate Calvinist friends is their deep appreciation for God’s grace in light of their sin. They talk about it all the time. 

With this in mind, I opened my Book of Common Prayer wondering if I could spend 40 days in penitential reflection without becoming a Calvinist. 

When I read the Collect for Ash Wednesday, my heart lifted with relief. Then it sunk with conviction and remorse.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

My heart sank because in one wrenching moment I realized that the true ugliness of our depravity lies not in the fact that we have offended a God who hates us, but in the fact that we have offended a God who desperately and relentlessly loves us.

The hyper-Calvinists have it backwards. We do not grasp the full weight of our sin by claiming we are inherently worthlessness to God, but by acknowledging that we are infinitely valuable to him. For if we are worthless to God, our sins against him are inconsequential; if we are but pesky insects or venomous serpents, our rebellion would not grieve him. 

To enter penance with the assumption that God loves his creation changes everything. It is the difference between realizing you have offended a vengeful deity and realizing you have grieved a loving Father.

It is painful.

It stings through to the bones.

But it is the beginning of restoration and redemption and all the beautiful things that God does through people who know they came from dust.

What do you think? Does God love his creation? Is it possible for him to hate anything he has made?

[For a brief response to potential biblical objections, see the first comment below.]

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