Some personal history, as a prelude to “Spiritual Saturdays”

Politics is my first love, but I actually make my living (partially) teaching Bible Overview courses and have both a BA and an MA in Religion. For some time, I have wanted to begin posting on theological/Biblical topics on Saturdays. This is the first of what I hope will become a continuous series of musings on sacred subjects. If I wanted to be cute about it, I’d begin labeling these as “Spiritual Saturday” posts. To the business at hand then…

A couple of years ago, Indiana Wesleyan University employees were treated to a campus visit by Mark Noll, one of the premiere minds in modern mainline Protestantism. In fact, Dr. Noll had recently been invited to the Oval Office by President George W. Bush as a recipient of the Medal of Freedom. However, Dr. Noll fit the profile of the majority of people I have encountered thus far in my life who have accrued genuine achievements in their respective fields: He was down-to-earth, humble and approachable. After being introduced and brought to the podium in the Student Center, Dr. Noll stated in his opening remarks (to the crowd of Indiana WESLEYAN faculty, staff and students) that he was proud to be a member of the society of those who appreciated Charles Wesley’s hymns. He then, with a wry smile, reiterated that he loved said hymns “even though I’m pretty sure I’m a Calvinist!”

I was in the room when Mark Noll made that comment; I glimpsed the body language he employed. I am reasonably sure that the point he actually meant to make and employed irony to enforce was that he was a strong Calvinist in most regards, but he could nonetheless enjoy the same freedom in Christ that is rhapsodized in Wesleyan hymnody.

Full disclosure is in order at this point. Not only was I raised in the Wesleyan/Arminian church tradition; I was taught that Calvinists were our archenemies! Calvinists, after all, believed that once you were saved, you were in the Kingdom forever, no matter what you did. (Or so I was told.) When I went to a conservative holiness Bible college, I was taught that even in the Great Awakening, people who repented of their sins under the great Calvinist minister of that era, Jonathan Edwards, weren’t sure they were really “right with God” because after all, they might not be part of the “elect.” (There is a lot more truth to this than the previous snippet of teaching.)

Though I don’t possess Mark Noll’s prodigious intellect, in the same vein he articulated, I am “pretty sure” that I am an Arminian. Today, I am a member of the Church of the Nazarene, an Arminian denomination of something like 1.7 million members worldwide. Like most of my fellow Nazarenes, I am a lot more moderate in my personal opinions of Calvinists, to put it mildly, than I was taught to be growing up, though I maintain many of the same doctrinal distinctives from Calvinism that you would expect from a Nazarene in good standing.

One of my best friends, in fact, is a huge R.C. Sproul/John Piper/Mark Driscoll/Matt Chandler fan and we regularly engage in animated, occasionally heated debates on subjects of Calvinist/Arminian disagreement. Some funny things, though, have happened along this road for me. I remain as opposed to the teaching of eternal security as I have ever been. But I have learned through the years that what I was taught about the unchecked antinomianism that Calvinists espouse isn’t accurate for many of them, to my happy surprise. My Calvinist friend is just as horrified as I am by people who claim the name of Christ on Sunday, but live as they want through the week. Where, as an Arminian, I refer to “backsliding”, his explanation is that these people never really had a genuine moment of repentance where they placed their faith in Christ. In many, if not most cases, he is probably right!

I have six John Piper books on my own shelf, as well as a number of volumes by other Reformed scholars, such as R. Albert Mohler and D.A. Carson, and I plan to purchase many more! (Did I mention that my MA is from Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s brainchild?) I love these men and many of their counterparts. They have valuable insights to impart that spring from a passion for God and a love for His church. They are articulate, kind, capable and compassionate men of God, sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

There is a new burst of exuberant Calvinism that is, in fact, on the ascendancy today. I was recently discussing this phenomenon with an equally non-Calvinist relative of mine and we agree on the chief reason why Calvinism is surging in popularity among today’s Christian youth. Calvinism offers spiritual structure and logic in a culture that is running pell-mell from both. How can I be depressed by such healthy desires and not cheer on this pursuit of spiritual vitality? I choose, rather, to participate in John Piper’s pursuit of God’s glory in all things.

But at the end of the day, I do part ways with my Calvinist friends on a key foundational issue. I plan to delve next week into why I differ with some of John Piper’s outlook, while wholeheartedly embracing his essential message.

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