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

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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Is God in control?

As you may have noticed, Dan integrated a cool new comment system into the blog. I hope you like it!

To give it a good test drive, I thought I’d write a post about a subject that tends to spark quite a few comments here—Calvinism.

When people find out that I’m not a Calvinist and that I frequently write about the subject on the blog, (see “Calvinism” in the tag cloud), they often ask me, “But don’t you think that God is in control?”

This is a common misunderstanding of Arminianism—that it leaves God impotent and powerless in his relationship to us. 

So lately I’ve been thinking of the simplest way to explain my position on free will. This is it:

I believe that God is in control. I do not believe that God controls.

I believe that God—being all-wise, all-resourceful, all-powerful, and all-good—can redeem anything. I believe that God will accomplish His ultimate purpose of redeeming and restoring our broken, sinful world.

But I also believe that God is powerful, wise, and loving enough to do this without controlling our actions. I believe He chooses not to control us because He loves us and wants to have a relationship with us—and true love simply cannot coexist with absolute control. God didn’t want robots; He wanted relationships.

Working under this assumption, I can still say that God is in control, in the sense that things have not gotten so out-of-hand that they are beyond His ability to redeem them. In fact, I believe that God often intervenes in miraculous ways to bring about His purposes, but that He does so in such a way that does not override our ability to choose to love Him or reject Him.

How does this work out practically? 

Let’s say a young husband decided to leave his wife. She was devastated and did all in her power to reconcile the relationship, but he refused, so they get divorced.  Let’s say that five years later, the woman meets a kind and good man who loves her, marries her, and has three wonderful children with her. Now she can’t imagine her life without him.

A Calvinist/determinist might look at that situation and say, “See, God was in control all along.” The idea from their perspective is that God actually caused the first husband to leave, that the husband’s abandonment was just part of God’s secret plan, which had been predetermined long ago.

The implications of this position are troubling, for they leave us with a God who wills and orchestrates sinful behavior, a God who presides over every rape of a child, every battery or enslavement, every murder, every abortion, every abuse, every abandonment. (They also leave us with a God who creates hopeless people—people He never had any intention of loving, but who were predestined for an eternity in hell. See “Why Calvinism Makes Me Cry.”)

Instead, I would look at that situation and say, “See, God can redeem anything.” The husband’s decision to leave his wife was an act of rebellion against God. God did not desire that to happen, nor did He find glory in it. But God, because He is all-powerful, all-resourceful, all-good, and all-loving, led people (who responded in obedience to His will) to make good decisions that glorify Him and bring about healing and redemption.

The idea that God can redeem the world without coercing it is a hopeful and important one to me. I know that there are a lot of loose ends that don’t tie up perfectly, that God’s ways always remain beyond our comprehension, and that every metaphor we can think of has flaws. But I am convinced that God continually empties Himself on our behalf, loving us without controlling us.

In fact, the season of Advent is perhaps the best time of year to take a moment or two to marvel at the fact that the God of the universe—who has the ability and the right to control us—does not consider that position of power something to be grasped, but humbles Himself to the point of crucifixion on a cross.

Rather than making God weak and impotent, this, to me, is precisely what makes Him so strong.

What do you think? Is God in control? And how do you like our new comment system?

P.S. For some biblical support for this position, check out theologian Greg Boyd’s articles on control, on Romans 9, and specifically Romans 9:18. I don't agree with all of Boyd's positions (I leave a little  more room for shades of gray when it comes to free will and foreknowledge.) But I think he handles Scripture with integrity.

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Six Questions for John Piper

As much as I disagree with John Piper’s theology, I was sad to see the popular Reformed theologian and pastor join the ranks of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson by claiming that a natural disaster was the result of God’s wrath regarding homosexuality.

In a blog post entitled, “The Tornado, The Lutherans, and Homosexuality,” Piper confidently proclaims that the tornado that hit downtown Minneapolis yesterday was a result of divine judgment on a group of Lutherans meeting in a local church to discuss, among other things, a “social statement” that could make it easier for the church to accept homosexual unions. The tornado did significant damage to the church’s steeple.

I’m sure that the blogosphere will erupt with responses to Piper’s extraordinary claim, so I’ll try keep mine simple, with six questions to correspond with his six points.

Dr. Piper:

1. Citing the Apostle Paul, you argue that the unrepentant practice of homosexual behavior will exclude a person from the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Jesus said that greed will exclude a person from the kingdom of God (Luke 14:33;  Luke 18:24-25). Were inclement weather conditions to flood or destroy the Christian bookstore at the downtown campus of your mega-church, should we interpret that to be an act of God in judgment of materialism?  

2. You say that “the church has always embraced those who forsake sexual sin but who still struggle with homosexual desires.” Do you think that blaming a tornado on homosexuality is the best way to reach out to the gay community and show them the love of Jesus Christ?

3. You argue that “official church pronouncements that condone the very sins that keep people out of the kingdom of God, are evil” and then conclude that the tornado must have been God’s response to such evil. And yet Jesus said that God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  (Matthew 5:45) Do you believe that homosexuality is so extraordinarily evil that it warrants special divine intervention while little children dying of famine and lack of water do not?

4. You claim that Jesus “controls the wind, including all tornadoes.” While the Bible includes stories in which God does alter weather conditions, such things are not always linked to divine intervention. In fact, the book of Job indicates that Satan was behind the storm that killed Job’s family…and the Gospel of Mark never states that God started the storm that Jesus calmed.  Do you believe that God orchestrates every natural disaster, and that the death and suffering that occurs is always a result of God’s wrath upon the people involved?

5. Your example of Jesus’ perspective on the tower in Siloam is a curious one, seeing as Jesus was responding to the hypocrisy of those who assumed that disasters happen to people who are “greater sinners” than they.  I am reminded of the incident in which the disciples, having been rejected by the people of a Samaritan village, asked Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”Jesus rebuked them and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (Luke 9:51-56)  And so I will ask you the question that Jesus asked—Do you suppose that the Lutherans meeting in that church were greater sinners than you?  Perhaps the point of Jesus’ question was not to make a general statement about natural disasters, but rather to evoke a response similar to that of the Pharisees, who after being asked a similar question, turned and dropped their stones.

6.  In  your last point, you speak on behalf of God, confidently concluding that “the tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin.” A wise man once said, “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve…No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14) What makes you the exception? How can you be so certain that you know exactly what God is up to in extra-biblical circumstances such as these?

Okay, so maybe I asked seven questions.

I could ask a hundred more.

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The Justification Debate - Discussion Starter

I wanted to share this summary from Christianity Today about the current debate between theologians N.T. Wright and John Piper regarding the nature of justification.  I’m almost finished working my way through Wright’s book on the subject, and am pretty convinced (as I expected I would be) that his Scriptural support is abundant.

In a second article about the practical implications of the justification debate, this question was asked:

“Which is more scandalous? The multitudes of Christians who think they need to earn their salvation by being good? Or the throng of Christians who think that holy living doesn't matter so long as they have prayed the sinner's prayer?”

I’m not sure that this is the best question to ask, as both Wright and Piper would most certainly deny either extreme. But I thought it would be a good discussion starter.

Which extreme have you encountered most often? With which did you grow up? Do you think that either Wright's or Piper's position naturally leads to one of these conclusions, or are these essentially straw man arguments?

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