A Week Without Opinions, Day 5: Calvinism

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

So my final interview during the week without opinions was with a local Reformed pastor about Calvinism.  I was most nervous about this interview, mainly because discussions about predestination, salvation, limited atonement, and sovereignty tend to elicit strong emotional reactions from me.  I actually cried while writing up the questions!

Fortunately, no tears were shed during the interview itself. Carter, the pastor, could not have been more kind. He even brewed a pot of coffee for the occasion.  We sat in two comfy armchairs in the foyer of his beautiful, brand-new church building, and for over an hour talked about Reformed theology. I learned a lot—about the theology itself, about common misconceptions, and about why it can be so meaningful to some people.

Carter has been a pastor for 24 years, and with this particular church for 18 years. He said that the majority of the people in his congregation did not come from a Presbyterian background, but were drawn to the church because it is a place where the Word is being taught and where the people genuinely care for one another. Indeed, the church has a reputation in the community for being a tight-knit and loving family.

Carter himself was raised in the Reformed tradition. However, because he attended the non-denominational Columbia Biblical Seminary, he had the opportunity to encounter a wide variety of theological perspectives, which actually helped him work through and refine his own views.

Ultimately, Carter felt drawn to Calvinism because he says he found it to be the most biblical approach to Christian theology and because he appreciated its history. (“Calvinism is much older than Arminiainsim,” he noted.) As a Presbyterian minister, Carter believes that what the Bible teaches is summarized best by the Westminster Confession of Faith, although he acknowledged that, as a system of doctrine, the confession is not inerrant.

“Calvinism keeps us from compartmentalizing our faith in that we recognize the sovereignty of God over all things,” Carter said. “We know that the earth is the Lord’s and that it exists for his glory... So wherever there is truth or beauty, we embrace it as God’s. We know that all people were created in God’s image and have the stamp of God upon them.”

(Within Calvinism, this perspective is commonly referred to as “common grace.”)

In addition to recognizing common grace, Calvinism acknowledges the reality of a “common curse,” said Carter, in that “man is fallen, man has a bent toward evil, and man is not capable of creating utopia on his own.”

“Calvinism represents the Bible well in that it keeps man in his rightful place,” Carter said. “It recognizes both the greatness and fallenness of man.”

...which brought us to the first petal of T-U-L-I-P.

I wish I could include our whole conversation about these five tenants of Calvinism—total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. In the interest of space and time, I’ll focus instead on some of the points that Carter clarified.

  • Total depravity refers to “pervasive sinfulness, in that no part of our being is touched by sin,” explained Carter.  It does not mean that people are incapable of good.
  • Unconditional election means that “God chooses those whom he will save unconditioned upon anything they do themselves.”
  • Limited atonement means that Jesus' death paid for the sins of the elect alone and by it secured their salvation. Carter explained that Christ’s atonement was “sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect.” 
  • Irresistible grace means that grace always works in the manner in which God desires.
  • Perseverance of the saints refers to the fact that those who are saved are eternally saved. They cannot be lost.

At this point, we got into some of the nitty gritty, as I asked him about things like the Problem of Evil and the preordained damnation of the non-elect. Here are some of Carter’s points:

  • Regarding the damnation of the non-elect, Carter pointed out that both Calvinists and Arminian’s share a “problem” in that most Arminians still believe that God permits people to be damned. “Is it any more fair for God to leave the salvation of so many people in the hands of Christian witnesses than it is for salvation to be foreordained?” Carter asked.  Whether we use the word “preordain” or “permit,” we end up with God knowing ahead of time who will be saved and who will not be saved. 
  • That God will keep people out of heaven who want to be in heaven in violation of their free will is a misconception about Calvinism, Carter said. “If man is left to himself, he will never desire to come after God. No one deserves salvation.  We are all on death row. It is by grace that God pardons a select few.”
  • Regarding God’s sovereignty and the Problem of Evil, Carter noted that this is also a “problem” shared by Arminians and Calvinists, in that even most Arminians believe that God knowingly permits things like genocide, rape, and war. Carter acknowledged a distinction between God’s moral will and his sovereign will, in the sense that things like genocide, rape, and war violate God’s moral will because they run contrary to his nature. However he maintained that such things do not happen outside of God’s sovereign will. The Problem of Evil, though difficult, should not lead us to despair, he said. “It’s like reading the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and stopping there because Gandalf dies,” he said. “Though we haven’t experienced the end of the story yet, we know that God will ultimately win and that his purposes are good.”

As we talked, it became clear that Carter found Reformed Theology not only intellectually satisfying, but personally enriching. 

“God is sovereign. God is wise. God loves me,” he said. “Knowing this enables me to rest in the mess and to hold on to hope no matter what may happen. It brings contentment, peace, and excitement for life because I know that God is in complete control. Reformed Theology acknowledges that despite the brokenness of this world, God can be trusted and he will make all things new.”

Because I could not include our interview in its entirety, I asked Carter what reading material he would recommend for a basic understanding of Calvinism. He suggested Putting Amazing Back Into Grace by Michael Scott Horton, The Reformed Faith by Loraine Boettner, and What is the Reformed Faith? by John R. de Witt. Regarding T-U-L-I-P, he recommended The Five Points: Define, Defended, Documented - by David Steel, Curtis Thomas and S. Lance Quinn.

Josh, a friend of the blog and a (mostly) Calvinist, recommended this link for a comparison between Calvinism and Arminianism.

What has been your experience with Calvinism through the years? What do you see as the greatest strengths and weaknesses of Calvinism as compared to the greatest strengths and weaknesses of Arminianism?

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