Almost a decade ago I was involved in a titanic spiritual battle between two opposing theological views. I could feel the once rock solid doctrines of free will slipping through my fingers like fine sand. I begged and beseeched the Lord to deliver me from the relentless reasonings and scriptural bombshells ripping the house I had built on the shifting dunes of man-centered doctrines. My pride and self-respect were on the line.
See, for the first decade of my born-again life I embraced a form of Arminianism that many call Semi-Pelagianism. Simply put, I believed that man’s free will is the deciding factor in salvation. Calvinism, which is the belief that God is sovereign over all things, including man’s salvation, had recently started making sense to me and I was drawn to it. (While at the same time being repulsed by it).
Calvinism was a dirty word in my old church. I considered it to be on equal footing with cultic beliefs.
I used to say such things as:
“Calvinism is a doctrine of demons!”
Or worse yet:
“If God is like how the Calvinists describe him, I would never serve such a cruel, heartless dictator who arbitrarily chooses who will and will not be saved!”
In my blindness I scoffed at the idea of a completely sovereign Lord who had the power over his clay to mold vessels of honor and of dishonor. From my limited exposure to Reformed soteriology I instead envisioned God towering over a huge golden lottery bin, filled with the names of every living person. I could see the holy angels rotating the bin by hand, mixing up the names so all participants in the game of life get at least a million-to-one chance to win the ultimate prize: everlasting life. I imagined the Lord reaching his hand inside, looking the other way (as to not show preference) and drawing out the lucky names at random. In my vision He then decrees these souls saved for all eternity. The angels rejoice and the Holy Spirit hurries down to earth to let those lucky few know they had hit the jackpot.
Yes, I was sarcastic and unrelenting in my disdain against the slandering, blasphemous Calvinist view of the loving and kind God that I knew – or at least the God I thought I knew…
The truth is, I only recall meeting one person in those first years who called herself a Calvinist. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very gracious toward her. In my college days, a girl sat next to me in speech class. We got to know each other a bit and I discovered she proclaimed faith in Christ. We got along great – for a time. One day after class we were walking together and out of the blue she blurted:
“I’m a Calvinist, you know.”
I was aghast. I did not know real people actually bought into that nonsense. I looked at her incredulously, shook my head and said something like:
“Why on earth would you believe that garbage!”
I could tell I had offended her. She offered the vague but often used ‘trump card’ defense of ‘It’s what the bible teaches.’ I replied:
“Then why does the bible say that God wills for none to perish? If it’s in His complete power to save all, then why does he only choose a few in the end when it’s his will for all to be saved?”
Disappointingly, she offered no rebuttal, choosing instead to walk away quietly. Not surprisingly, she never spoke to me again. In retrospect, if she had vigorously defended her position with scriptures I may have come down this road much sooner than I did. Oh well. It wasn’t time, right? God is sovereign and he revealed this truth to me in his own time, in his own way. I’m not complaining!
I have related the story of how my journey to the Reformed faith began here and here so I will not tread old ground. All I want to get across in this series is the why I crossed over to the dark side.
God revealed the Doctrines of Grace to me and it has been a mighty humbling experience. I tremble at my presumption for saying I never would serve a God that was completely sovereign over his creation. I now truly understand his Lordship and I am eternally grateful that He has chosen me, not arbitrarily, but also not according to anything I have done. He chose me for his good pleasure and purpose. I am grateful beyond words that He has provided me with an advocate, Jesus Christ, who cleanses me of all sin; even blasphemy spoke in ignorance. Only by his grace and mercy am I now a new creation in Christ, called to do His good works which he has prepared for me in advance to accomplish. I cherish his sovereignty over me and am thankful that all things are done for His glory alone.
Surprisingly, my conversion from free-will theology to Calvinism came rather swiftly. It’s shocking really, if only you could understand the depths of hatred I once held toward those doctrines.
I resisted initially, desperately hopeful that some sensible compromise existed between these diametrically opposed belief systems. I figured the Semi-Pelagian flavor of Arminianism fell into one ditch while Calvinism veered clear over to the other side of the road. I searched in vain for the imaginary highway that ran through the middle of both views, but I never found any signs to point the way. After wrangling with Calvinism for about 4 months, I finally beheld its beauty with a clarity only the Holy Spirit could grant.
The ditch I had plowed into, turns out, is really an off-ramp exiting the pothole plagued ‘Free Will’ service road. It flows into a smoothly paved four-lane interstate winding a clear path to the Celestial City. The road first runs through the firmly established townships of Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Sola Scriptura and finally Soli Deo Gloria, which lies at the very gates of the streets of gold.
You may have already deduced the obvious. My diligent search through the scriptures utterly convinced me of the truth of the Doctrines of Grace.
So, the first and foremost reason I became a Calvinist is the overwhelming evidence contained in the scriptures declaring God’s unquestionable sovereignty over every person, place and event in all of history.
The scriptures seen through the lens of God’s sovereignty and man’s helplessness made clear to me salvation can only be a gift freely bestowed upon those the Father has loved.
A Calvinistic world view allowed me to engage scripture passages that in the past I had tended to avoid, because they made me uncomfortable. In retrospect, it is clearly obvious why I avoided them. They shook the very foundations of my belief systems. I passed over difficult passages (such as those found in Romans Ch 8-9) expounding the doctrines of election and reprobation. If ever confronted with them in study or conversation I would quickly throw out carefully articulated defenses I had memorized from teachers opposed to the Reformed Faith without giving the text much thought.
I won’t go into detail about how the scriptures convinced me of Calvinism, but will briefly explain how free will theology failed to answer one very nagging question satisfactorily and how the Doctrines of Grace did answer it.
The question formed in my mind partly due to the church growth principles embraced so fiercely by my former church. We changed our altar call by adopting a sinner’s prayer approach to salvation, which included a pulpit guarantee of eternal life for all who spoke the prayer aloud and ‘meant it in their heart.’ I questioned the validity of such a presumptuous statement. In these prayers sin was never confronted . The pastor never clearly defined it as a power of wickedness that dominates human nature. He didn’t strip people naked (figuratively, of course) and lay them bare before the holiness of God with the righteousness of the law. He didn’t send them to their knees, pleading for mercy; a poor sinner in desperate need of grace through the righteousness of Christ.
The question causing so much unrest in my soul was this:
Is salvation really as easy as reciting a canned prayer, and sincerely confessing belief in a certain set of biblical truths?
I didn’t remember it being that easy for me! More importantly, where did the Holy Spirit fit into this approach? I had always believed that the ministry of the Holy Spirit actively participated in the conversion of a soul, even if I did not really understand why. I mean, as a former ‘free-willie’ type, I strongly believed that every person had to make a choice unconstrained by outward influence to follow Christ. To be honest, I am obligated to believe this or my doctrine of free will would be crushed. Yet, at the same time I also believed the Holy Spirit initiated this process, too. I never took the time to examine the obvious dichotomy between these ideas – at least until I began to examine the theology of salvation.
My search began with man’s nature. I quickly discovered man by nature did not seek after God, understand or receive the things of God, nor does he do good. Great enmity exists between man and God. This, in turn, has created a gulf that no man can bridge. The fact of the matter is, no man has any desire to cross that gulf and be reconciled to his Creator – at least not naturally. God took it upon himself to bridge the gap with the cross of Christ. He has reconciled to himself people from every tribe, tongue and nation for His glory alone. The only way God gets all the glory is if salvation is His to bestow on whom He wishes. God’s glory shines most brilliantly when we see that our salvation is from His sovereign hand from first to last. The doctrine of man’s total depravity utterly convinced me that salvation through rote recitation of a canned prayer is about as effective in converting souls as was the Spanish Inquisition. You might get a lot of converts, but their motivations are often centered solely on the immediate temporal benefits of doing so.
The Holy Spirit is not only a necessary helper in man’s conversion but acts as the lone agent in the regeneration of our souls. This is called the doctrine of Monergism. The Holy Spirit sends us to our knees with deep-hearted conviction. We then crawl to the altar of repentance, sapped of even the strength to lift up our heads toward heaven. With profound regret we beat our breasts and cry out “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” The Holy Spirit grants us a measure of faith, bestowed as a gift flowing from the cross of Christ. Man cannot come to Jesus in his own power. God, willing to show his great kindness and mercy, plucks many poor condemned souls from the jaws of hell and clothes them in the white robes of righteousness. They shall shine like the sun for all eternity.
At that point I had allowed the truth of God’s word to transform my highly overrated opinion of human nature. I realized God must renew the heart in order for any soul to be rescued from eternal damnation. If all this be true then God must choose who lives and who dies. The bible is clear in showing that only few ever find the narrow gate that leads to life. I then had to redefine the doctrines of election, predestination and foreknowledge. In light of my new understanding of man’s inherit corruptness, I could no longer believe that election and predestination referred to only God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. A closer study revealed these verses taught the actual salvation of particular people through Jesus Christ. I had been taught Arminian doctrine as a toddler Christian. I held tenaciously to it without ever studying the passages thoroughly. If God indeed foreordained only the plan, He must believe in man’s natural ability to come to Him of his own free will. But this runs contradictory to the well established truth of man’s total depravity. Based on that fact alone, my errant election theology got tossed in the dumpster alongside my ‘man is not all bad’ belief.
The domino effect of theological truths beginning with man’s Total depravity unfolded very clearly the remaing ULIP in short order. Yes, it all makes sense logically, but that alone is not enough to believe it. The scriptures from Genesis to Revelation reveal these truths to be self-evident. I will go deeper in future articles concerning the exegesis of these holy doctrines. For now, know this: The only way I could fiercely embrace these doctrines, that are unquestionably repugnant to the carnal mind, is by the grace of God and submission to the authority of His eternal, inerrant word.
A great mystery once surrounded the circumstances of my salvation experience that for a decade confounded all my attempts to unveil its secrets.
Let me start at the beginning. In the summer of 1993 I found a job at the recycling center of a local non-profit agency. They provided a training environment for people with developmental disabilities. The job humbled me, but I did enjoy working with the people. My supervisor lived his Christian faith openly, and stood boldly for his convictions. To make a long story short, he preached the gospel to me for a solid year-and-a-half, slowly chipping away at my granite hard heart. One day he quoted a scripture that flew like a steel-tipped arrow, breaching my great wall of enmity.
Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the world’s rulers, of the darkness of this age, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Eph 6:11-12)
I remember getting into my car at the end of the day with that verse blazing through my mind. I paused in the parking lot as illumination fell on me from above. I realized at that moment good and evil were struggling for my very soul. I could not remain neutral in this war. I had to take sides. I either had to stand with God against all the powers of darkness or cast my lot with the devil and his angels. Another, more sobering thought then dawned on me. I had already spent my entire life aiding and abetting the commander-in-chief of the armies of darkness.
I stewed over those thoughts for several months. One day in late January, 1995 as I prepared to leave for the day, my boss stopped me. He launched into one of his passionate discourses on the goodness and faithfulness of God in his life. At one point he started pounding his desk speaking of the zeal he had for God, quoting from scripture. At that very moment the Spirit of God came upon me with a such a mighty rush that I could sense it in a tangible manner. A great tingling warmth spread from the top of my head to the heels of my feet. I gasped audibly, not quite understanding what had just happened. My boss did not notice my reaction, so I politely acknowledged my appreciation for his word of encouragement and drove home.
However, an entirely different man arrived home that evening than the one who had woke up that morning. My thoughts were consumed with Jesus Christ and his goodness. I hungered and thirsted for righteousness like a man rescued from a long spell in the desert craves water and bread. I hurried to the nearest bible so I could immediately discover more about this Jesus of Nazareth. I wanted to know Him. Not just about Him, but to know him in a personal, relational way. I desired to follow Him no matter the cost. I devoured the gospels in a few short weeks. My hunger for the scriptures grew insatiable. I bombarded my boss with hundreds of questions. I amazed him with my new found zeal for Christ and for holiness.
Simultaneous with my office experience, the Holy Spirit pressed upon me the weight of my sin and guilt before a holy and just God. I repented and put all my trust in Jesus Christ, my Savior. I grew in knowledge and wisdom for the next several years in a Pentecostal, Arminian-leaning church. As I came to embrace ‘free-will’ theology as the only truth the scriptures taught, I came face-to-face with an apparent contradiction between theology and experience. My mind constantly raised this objection:
If repenting and putting my faith in Christ comes before I am born-again, how is it that the Holy Spirit changed me before I did any of those things?
My experience at work didn’t seem to completely match up with the doctrine of free will. I openly admit I didn’t spend too much time pondering the inconsistency. I simply shrugged it off. I believed salvation came, at least in part, by my intellect finally grasping the doctrine of salvation (with the help of a slight nudge from the Holy Spirit). I believed I had somehow woke myself from the slumber of ignorance, turned on my own light, took the blinders off my own eyes, unstopped my own ears and grasped with my own hands the salvation that lay before me. From time to time I would think back and wonder about the strange order of events, but I would fall back on the comfortable conclusions my mind and theology had conjured.
See, my understanding of the salvation process from my education in a ‘free-will’ church taught that man and God cooperate together in conversion of the soul. The Father initiated the salvation process by giving his Son as an atoning sacrifice, propitiating His wrath, opening the door for all men to become adopted sons of God. Then, in response to the gospel offer, we must do the following:
- Admit our condition as a lost sinner in need of salvation from the wrath of God.
- Note: This is no longer a pre-requisite for conversion in most churches
- Believe the gospel message of salvation
- Repent of all our sins.
- Note: This also is no longer essential for conversion in many churches
- Put all our faith in God, trusting Him to deliver our souls from eternal death
As a result of man meeting all these conditions by making responsible free-will choices, God will then:
- Justify us as free from the guilt of sin
- Impute the righteousness of Christ to us
- Give us a new heart that we may hunger and thirst for righteousness
- Give the Holy Spirit who will empower us to live holy and pure before God
In summary, man becomes born-again, but only after he has met the four conditions listed above. At the time, this order sounded logical and appeared biblical. However, in recent years as I came to understand the true state of natural man through Calvinism, I questioned the soundness of it. It seems odd that God would require all these things of man, but waits until he fulfills them of his own power before He regenerates him and empowers him.
In my studies over man’s total depravity, I came across a stunning internet article that yielded vital clues to the mystery of my salvation. The article was titled something like ‘Does Faith Precede Regeneration?’ I initially responded with a sardonic ‘Duh!! Faith always precedes the new birth.’ I shook my head, wondering why anyone in their right mind would waste precious time writing an article pondering such a silly question.
However, I decided to have a good chuckle at the author’s expense. My laughter quickly turned to gasps of astonishment. Illumination dawned over my fog-shrouded heart. The article taught that man cannot fulfill the conditions of salvation on his own merit, lest his salvation be attributed to his own works, which contradicts the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone. If a man of his own abilities can come to Christ then he either has more wisdom, greater intellect, better circumstances, a superior environment or a more tender heart than a man who hears and rejects the gospel. The author raised the question, “What makes a man who receives the gospel to differ from one who rejects it?” The answer lies not in man’s innate abilities or environmental circumstances, but simply upon the mercy and compassion of a sovereign God.
The article emphatically nailed home the truth that regeneration must precede repentance and faith. These abilities do not reside in us naturally, they are a gift of God through the cross of Christ. Unless you are born-again you cannot even see the kingdom of God much less partake of it.
It all made perfect sense to me. That day in my boss’s office God chose to give me a new heart by his sovereign choice alone. My rock-hard heart split asunder, revealing beneath a new heart of flesh.
Prior to that moment I did not seek God, I did not feel the weight of my sin, I did not sorrow over my offenses against the holy and righteous Judge of all the earth. I did not desire to read the bible. My natural mind did not accept the things of the Spirit of God. I did not want to give up my life of sinful pleasure. I did not want to obey the commandments. I did not desire to follow Christ. I did not want to believe I was lost and headed for hell. I had no inclination to humble myself and submit to the righteousness of God in Christ.
But in a twinkling of an eye that all changed, forever. When the Spirit of God came upon me, every belief and desire I had built my life upon dissolved like a sand castle beneath the ocean’s tide. Repentance and faith clearly came after regeneration in my experience. I didn’t even clearly understand what repent meant until the Spirit worked in me.
In fact I didn’t fall to my knees in repentance until nearly two full weeks after my office encounter with the Holy Spirit. I confess that I put it off so I could make a spectacle of the whole affair. I believed that making a ceremony of it in a special childhood haunt would please the Lord. However, the Spirit of God so overcame me one Saturday at work, that I marched out of my office into a snowstorm and fell to my knees in the middle of a sticker patch, repented of my sins and put all my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. My mouth finally uttered those things God had already worked in my spirit.
The stages of salvation I once embraced had it all backwards. It’s not as simple as ABC. Salvation doesn’t depend on human exertion or desire, but on God who has mercy. Here is the Ordo Salutis of true biblical salvation, exemplified by my experience.
- For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom 8:29)
God the Father, from the dateless past, before the foundations of the earth were laid, chose for himself a people out of the world. He set his elect apart for his own purposes, by His compassion and grace alone. My heavenly Father elected me, Brandon, to inherit eternal salvation through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, who died in my place, bearing in his body all of my iniquities.
- And those whom he predestined he also called, (Rom 8:30A) No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. (Joh 6:44A) The Ephesians 6 scripture pricked my heart and the first rays of gospel light shone on my spirit. The Lord opened my eyes that I would know beyond a shadow of a doubt where I stood spiritually. My heavenly Father issued his outward call through His word. The Holy Spirit, on an intellectual level at this point, convicted me of my sinfulness and alliance with the devil and his work.
- And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Eze 36:26-27) That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Joh 3:6-8) The Holy Spirit poured over me in that little office twelve years ago. He granted me a new heart of flesh and renewed my mind by the sovereign decree of the Father. My heart of hate and malice toward god morphed into one of love and gratefulness.
- So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom 10:17) For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, (2Co 7:10A) God made his call effectual, granting me the gifts of repentance and faith. He brought me to a position of absolute humility through the constant preaching of my boss. I sorrowed over my sinfulness and threw myself upon his mercy and grace. I repented of my sins and put all my faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
- And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom 8:30) I have been justified freely by the grace of God. I come nearer to glorification with each passing day. My spirit will eventually be released from this body of death and be present with the Lord. At the resurrection of the righteous I will receive my glorified body and my full sanctification. I will stand boldly before the throne of grace, an adopted member of the Lord’s family.
In conclusion, the second reason I embraced Calvinism is because it teaches regeneration precedes faith. I know this not only from the scriptures and by logic, but also from personal experience.
My coming to Christ the way I did aligns perfectly with this teaching. God took a man who loved himself above all and performed a miracle in his heart; reviving a soul utterly dead in trespasses and sins with a spiritual rebirth, turning his desire away from the passing pleasures of the world to now seeking to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Precisely nine years ago I embraced the doctrines of Grace (also called 5-point Calvinism). It was a chaotic time, where both the tearing down of my old theology and the construction of this new theology were taking place simultaneously in my mind and spirit. To complicate matters, an old friend, who had faithfully attended my weekly bible study for college students, came to my office one day and begged me to start up a new study group. She had come to a difficult point in her life and had a deep hunger for someone to bring her the Word. I had sympathy for her, but didn’t feel I was in any position to teach.
First, I could no longer teach much of what I had in the past. Many of those doctrines, like a house built on shifting sand, laid in a collapsed heap. I was in the process of bulldozing those aberrant beliefs right off my intellectual property. Second, I still did not know enough about Calvinism to be confident enough to teach it. Third, I still had not resolved all the points of Calvinism in my heart and mind yet. I readily accepted the T, the U, and the I but I wasn’t so sure about the L and the P. Odd, I know, if the U then the P should follow, right? I’ve never said I was the sharpest knife in the drawer!
Anyway, against my better judgment, I plunged ahead with the study and presented my understanding of sovereign salvation to that small audience. It all worked out for the good, though. The class constantly presented challenges that helped to sharpen me. In the end though, only one person from the group came to believe in the doctrines of Grace. She came to visit me in my office one afternoon last year and I asked her pointedly, “have you become convinced that Calvinism is true?” My friend gave me an unforgettable reply. In a humble and almost broken-hearted tone, she said, “Yes it has to be true, because I know my own heart.”
What did my friend mean by this? She is talking about the biblical doctrine of Total Depravity. The prophet Jeremiah sums it up succinctly with his observation that, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9) Moses recorded that “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen 6:5) Paul wrote, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” Rom 8:7) Jesus taught, “No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (Jn 6:44)
In other words, the T in the TULIP is readily apparent, derived not only from the scriptures but by observation and experience. I witness its fruit everyday with the perplexing thought processes of my mind and the inner workings of my heart. Darkened thoughts rise up and vain imaginings spring into existence and if not cast down, evil deeds will follow. And this from a man who has been given a new heart! I am being transformed by the renewing of my mind daily, but this process of becoming holy is a slow one, progressing only by the Grace of God that strengthens me in my weakness. If my heart contains iniquity even now, in a state of grace and renewal, how wicked a heart did I have before conversion?
Allow me to demonstrate just how corrupt a heart I had.
I had a knowledge of God, but never gave him the glory and honor he is due. I could list all 10 commandments, but never cared to obey any of them. I understood the way of salvation, but only offered him lip service in exchange for a fire-free future. I did not seek Him, yet claimed to possess him. I understood his character and nature in an intellectual sense, yet I molded him into my image. I had heard of his great love, but spurned it. I was warned of His coming wrath, but convinced myself it wasn’t aimed at me. I understood that he loved righteousness, yet I despised it. I knew he hated the wicked, but I was basically a good person. God demanded that I turn from sin, but I kept my course steady. God said that I have become worthless, yet I esteemed myself highly. The Lord proclaimed that without him I can do nothing, yet I set my heart to do all things without his help. He declared that without faith it is impossible to please him, but I thought my good deeds would make Him smile. God created me to sing his praises, but I uttered curses instead. I believed Jesus to be the Prince of Peace, yet I did not know the way of peace. The Scriptures demand that I fear God, but for 23 years I had no fear of him before my eyes. God commands for all to repent and believe the Gospel, but I was not willing to do the former nor able to obey the latter.
I followed the lusts of my own heart without any sense of guilt for my first 17 years. One day during m Jr. year in high school, as I browsed through the merchandise at my local Wal-Mart I came across a Chick tract. This one, in fact. It literally scared the hell right out of me. I sought refuge in the nearest church I could find. I started going to Sunday school and service for the first time in my life. I soon made a profession of faith in front of the congregation and got baptized. After securing my fire-insurance card, I proceeded to antagonize my Sunday school teacher and talk with my buddy about our weekend exploits on the back pew instead of listening to any of the messages.
Nothing had changed. My heart was still stone hard and unyielding to the call of God to true repentance and a living faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I was a baptized pig who had gone back to his wallowing in the mud. My initial reaction to the gospel message in that tract was one of pure abject fear. Not a fear of God in the sense of reverence and awe, but only a dread of eternally burning in the unquenchable flames of hell. I couldn’t bear the thought of such a horrible fate and carried out all the necessary outward rituals to avoid it. Unfortunately, though I performed the outward circumcision, so-to-speak, God had not performed the inner circumcision of heart required for true conversion.
The problem lay in the fact that I still hated God just as much as I did before my ‘conversion’. Jesus said the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your mind and with all your strength. I did not love him. I, in fact, despised him for his harsh, unfair and (in my mind) irrational judgment on man. I believed man to be basically decent at heart, but because he fell short of perfection, was forced to pay for it by suffering eternally. I remember feeling sorry for all my friends who were not Christians. They would not listen to my pathetic attempts at evangelism. As a result, I knew they were doomed.
Eventually, I rejected the doctrine of judgment and hell. As a natural consequence, I eventually denied the authority of the bible as God’s revealed word. In my wickedness I adopted a much more pleasant-natured God who accepted everyone on the basis of their own uniqueness. This new age God placed no demands upon my life, but encouraged me to live guilt-free according to whatever my heart desired. The process of conviction, to faith, to doubt, and then to complete unbelief occurred all within 6 months. I had faith, but not a faith that could save. I put my faith into my ability to be pleasing to God by doing what I thought he demanded. After that, I could do as I pleased. These aberrant thought processes are all the result of the depravity of my heart. I did whatever I had to do to achieve the most rewarding benefit to my person. I did not seek God because I wanted to love him, I did not claim to cling to Christ because I wanted to ‘know him and the power of his resurrection and in the fellowship of his sufferings’. (Phil 3:10) No, I went through the motions of salvation just so I wouldn’t fry in the furnace of fire.
I am a totally depraved man apart from union with Christ. The holy nature of God given to Adam, which suffered corruption at his disobedience has infiltrated every corner of my entire being because I am his offspring. My heart is full of sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, evil, slander, pride and foolishness. My thoughts are only evil all the time. My carnal mind is at enmity with God. Out of the abundance of my heart my mouth speaks. My body obeys all my lascivious desires. Every single component of my humanity is touched by wickedness. My spirit, my mind, my emotions, my thoughts, my will and my entire heart is in bondage to the power of sin. This does not mean that I am the worst sinner that I can be in my natural state, but the potential for evil greater than history’s most corrupt tyrants dwells within my darkened heart.
The world around me that I read about everyday in the media convinces me that total depravity is alive and well on planet Earth. Terrorists blow themselves up, taking as many victims with them as they can, expecting an eternal reward of beautiful virgins – and you would dare say to me that man is not depraved? A gunmen walks the hallways of a university, public school or shopping mall and opens fire on people he does not know to exact revenge on a society that has supposedly shunned him – and I’m to believe man is basically good at heart? A father takes a gun and murders his two-year-old twin daughters and his three-year-old son and then kills himself – and you want to convince me that we have the ability to love God with all of our hearts? One young boy tells his parents that ‘I will kill you’ every time he is punished for calling them ‘idiots’ and ‘freaks’ – and I should accept that any man would be willing to come to Christ of his own free will? Another older boy, when punished for screaming and throwing things at his parents, then goes into a rage destroying everything in his path – and you want to boast of man’s natural ability to repent and believe the Gospel?
Sorry, I’m not buying it. We have corrupted ourselves in our zest for absolute autonomy and driven ourselves to madness with our lust to indulge every forbidden pleasure. God’s common grace is manifested through our conscience and in the civil governments of law and justice. These forces restrain our madness. Should God remove these restraints, society would dissolve and complete lawlessness would reign until man utterly destroys himself. This is the reality of the doctrine of Total Depravity.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:24-25A)
God’s grace has saved me from the great trinity of evil – Me, Myself and I. While I was dead in trespasses and sins Christ has made me alive.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. (1Co 15:10A)
The combination of the doctrines of God’s absolute sovereignty over all creation and the radical corruption of man form the forge on which Calvinism is shaped and sharpened to a razor edge. I stand in absolute awe of the immeasurable magnitude of God’s magnificent grace in light of these biblical truths. Despite man’s intent to do evil all of his days, God has unconditionally and lovingly elected a people to call his very own out of every tribe, tongue and nation. He has purchased them out of the bondage of the devil and sin and purified them by the blood of Jesus Christ. He has drawn them irresistibly to himself by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and has set them upon a rock that shall never be moved. God protects and preserves his precious elect, causing them to persevere through every trial and tribulation. These doctrines are precious to me because they demonstrate God’s mercy and compassion to a company of people who deserve nothing but His fierce wrath.
In summary, the doctrine of Total Depravity, as taught by God’s word, is easily demonstrated by looking both inwardly to the thoughts and desires of one’s own heart and by observing the outwardly manifestations of those thoughts and desires in the world around us.
During my years as a Pentecostal/Arminian Christian I focused my theological studies on an array of supposedly sound biblical topics. I studied Dispensational Theology (though at the time I had no idea what it was called), learning the different epochs of time Earth’s history had been neatly packaged into. I dabbled with spiritual warfare, waging battle against all principalities and powers of darkness. I learned how to defend my family against the wiles of the devil. I read many kooky books that inspired me to take up the armor of God and stand firmly against the devil’s fiery darts in ways that now make me cringe with chagrin. I danced as King David did (except fully clothed) and anointed everything with olive oil (or Crisco if the former was not conveniently available). I claimed enough territories for Christ during those years that I could have established a whole other country. I scoured the scriptures, scrapping together verses in an effort to discern the times, and determine the signs of Christ’s Second Coming. I agreed with both Jack Van Impe and Hal Lindsey that the temple in Jerusalem would soon be rebuilt and the secret rapture of the church would whisk us away while the world would suffer beneath the iron heel of the Antichrist’s reign of terror. I spent hours pleading and wrestling with God at the altar, in the desperate hope that he would grant me an authentic, earth-shattering spiritual experience akin to the ones enjoyed by my brethren, who appeared to get a ‘dose of the Ghost’ on a weekly basis.
I worked hard to perfect my faith. I constantly exercised my spiritual muscles, speaking words of great faith, staving off sickness and disease, boasting in the power of my personal belief that God wanted me healthy and wealthy all the time. I voraciously rebuked the devil when a case of the sniffles assailed my sinuses. I cursed his name whenever I stubbed my toe, convinced that he was hard at work trying to bring me harm and weaken my faith – in my faith. I would walk around, point my finger at a piece of merchandise that I wanted and claimed it by faith. I then would daily thank God for granting everything that I asked for. I would patiently await for my stuff to miraculously arrive at the front door. Which, by the way, NEVER happened. I followed Scripture’s advice to lay hands on the sick and they would recover. I performed this ritual many times – on my broken down Nissan – and marveled at its miraculous resurrection from the dead. I believed in living a sinless life, by faith in my willpower to resist temptation. It became an obsession with me. I would often berate myself for failure to conform perfectly to God’s will. I cursed my lack of faith and promised to do better. After all, I had the Holy Spirit! I had no excuse for spots and blemishes any longer. This failure to be perfect eventually led to an unhealthy focus on backsliding and committing apostasy. I would often wonder if I had committed the ‘unpardonable sin’ by grieving the Holy Spirit with my mistakes. The combination of these toxic doctrines and my utter failure to measure up to God’s standards of righteousness caused great mental and emotional distress. It all came to a head in late 2005 when I cried out to the Lord in the dead of night, “Show me the truth!”
I had lived by faith, but in retrospect I now realize I’d grossly misplaced and misapplied my faith. Many Word-Faith heresies became my foundational doctrine, and at the time I had no inkling that I was in error. However, God revealed himself shortly after my desperate plea. The truth of God’s sovereignty shone like a heavenly beacon as I delved deep into the doctrines recovered by the Protestant Reformation. I quickly learned God the Father ordains all that comes to pass and always works according to his good pleasure. For the first time in my Christian life I marveled at the greatness of Christ. He lived a life of perfect obedience, thus fulfilling the righteousness of God. He willingly took up his cross and died, that my sins would be forgiven and his righteousness would clothe me. I stood amazed at the work of the Holy Spirit, who could take a heart, dead in wickedness, and infuse eternal life into it without even a prior hint of godly desire for that life on my part. I slowly came to realize what my Christianity was lacking – Christ himself!
My religion had been dominated by a plethora of secondary topics. I divulged in countless hours of end times prognostication. I exercised a self-centric philosophy of faith and obedience. I had an unhealthy obsession with spiritual performance and supernatural signs and wonders. All these distractions worked to remove my focus from the only thing that matters – the cross of Christ. I came from a church that viewed salvation by Christ’s blood on the cross as only the first step into a victorious and adventurous life of prosperity and personal fulfillment. They assumed the Gospel most of the time. As the leadership thought, so did I. In my personal reformation God re-prioritized my mindset. I began to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. I fixed my gaze upon the King of Kings and his glorious kingdom. I realized that the cross is not a first rung on a spiritual ladder to success, but instead the luminescent sun, burning brightly in the center of my renewed heart. All my doctrine, theology and devotion revolved around it, compelled by the irresistible gravity of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.
I can honestly attest that for the first 10 years of my Christian life I never truly grasped the glory of Christ in the cross. I pause to wonder if I really was a Christian. I pursued signs and wonders, but failed to see the greatest sign and wonder of all. I turned up every stone, looking for clues to his second coming, while not beholding the majestic beauty of his first coming. I sought a spiritual buzz from the ‘Holy Ghost bartender’ and refused the cool refreshment of the the living waters of Jesus himself. I worried constantly about falling from grace instead of simply accepting Christ’s free grace. I worked to attain a state of sinless perfection, instead of clothing myself with the righteousness of Christ. Calvinism forced me to gulp down the milk of the elementary principles of Christ. By God’s grace he quickly moved me on to the strong meat of the word. Contrary to popular opinion, this does not mean that we ever move on from the cross of Christ. I will forever remain anchored to its profound truths, and I never will be able to distance myself from it. How I survived my early Christian life majoring in the minors I’ll never understand apart from God’s mercy.
When I became exposed to the doctrines of Grace – Calvinism – Reformed Theology – pick the moniker of your choice, a life of vibrant, lucid faith sharply came into focus for me. The simple revelation that Christianity is all about Christ profoundly changed me. I dare say that it’s almost as if I had been born-again – again! An overwhelming sense of awe floods my soul as God reveals to me that he is absolutely sovereign over all people, places and things for all time. I feel horror and revulsion as I begin to peel away the religious facade of feigned innate goodness in man as the scriptures speak to me of our great and awful depravity of mind and spirit. I marvel at the Father’s graciousness and mercy in the calling of a people as his very own. His reasons lie within himself and not according to our actions or desires. My heart exults when I attempt to fully comprehend the breadth and depth of God’s love for us, as demonstrated in the cross of Christ. I tremble at God’s power that ‘by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified’ (Heb 10:14). I’m forever grateful for the ministry of the Holy Spirit to overcome our obstinate, rebellious natures. I’m thankful that he effectually works the life of God in us so we would revile our sin, love God and flee to Christ. Finally, I’m at rest knowing God loves me so much that although he will not spare me from the trials and tribulations of life, he will preserve me through them, causing me to persevere in the faith.
So the final reason I am a Calvinist is because in essence it is all about the Lord God, His Christ and the everlasting gospel.
, I first came to accept Reformed Theology due in no small part to the overwhelming support of scripture. Not just a verse here and a verse there, but the entire fabric of Calvinism is woven together so intricately into every book of the bible that to pick apart the threads of these profound truths is to unravel the whole tapestry of the holy scriptures. I am not overstating this in the least. Personal pride took a mortal blow when I confronted the awful, yet glorious truth of God’s marvelous grace fully bestowed upon me despite the cold, hard lifeless heart that contributed not one iota to my coming to Christ.
Which leads me to the second reason I converted to the doctrines of Grace. Since I was dead in my trespasses and sins, Christ had to make me alive, and so he did. God granted me a new heart. In response I turned away from my great sin and turned toward Christ in repentance and faith. I was born again by the spirit of God – before I repented and believed, not because I repented and believed. I am convinced from the scriptures and by personal testimony that regeneration precedes faith. Faith can only flow from a renewed heart. A renewed heart is a gift of God through Christ. ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’ (1Pe 1:3).
The third reason I embraced the Reformed faith is that I, by the grace granted unto me by the Father, have become keenly aware of the sinful inward workings of my heart, that never ceases to tempt me into once again living a life of debauchery and self indulgence. God’s grace constrains me, yet I shrink back in loathing at the unlawful desires that still stalk me day and night. The depravity of my fallen human nature leaves me in awe. How did I not destroy myself completely in the days of my youth? God’s hand was undoubtedly upon me even before his call came. Calvinism, which teach me about the total and complete depravity of my entire being, has been irrefutably confirmed by observing the inner workings of my own heart and the manifestation of those inner workings in the world around me.
Lastly, as I outlined above, I discovered that the teachings of Reformed Theology are God glorifying and Christ-centered. The scriptures all point to the person and work of Christ and the glory of God demonstrated by him and his deeds, which will remain for all eternity. We, the people of God, will stand also as an eternal reminder to the mercy and goodness of the entire Godhead. God the Father elected a people for himself in eternity past, before the foundations of the earth were laid, to glory in his majesty and enjoy his goodness forever. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took on the likeness of sinful flesh to procure unto himself the elect God had sovereignly chosen, to fulfill his holy justice and righteous wrath against their sin. His crucifixion and shed blood forever sealed these believers as God’s own adopted children. The secret unseen work of the Holy Spirit regenerates stone cold hearts and calls men out of the world by a deep conviction of their trespasses. This leads to a loathing of sin and all its destructive power. In turn, the new heart of flesh cries out in faith to Christ, the only source of salvation. We plead for mercy instead of justice, repenting of all uncleanness of the flesh and mind. The renewed heart aches for communion with Christ everyday through fervent prayer, the reading of the scriptures, doctrinally sound preaching and teaching, the joyful singing of hymns and spiritual songs and the reverent administration of the sacraments. For all this I thank you O Lord our Lord. How majestic is your name in all the earth! You have done more for me than I could possibly repay in a thousand lifetimes. I’m grateful not only for doing all these things on my behalf, but also for revealing to my heart the scope and the breadth of your mighty deeds, that my gratitude and thankfulness may pour out to you for as long as we both remain.
Soli Deo Gloria.