When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

I have great respect for many colleagues in ministry who espouse a reformed or Calvinist view of the world. That said, it should be no surprise to those who read and listen to me regularly that I am enthusiastically and unapologetically Arminian (really interested? Read this book). I am far too deeply committed to the notion of God’s pure love exercised in his gift of human free will to appreciate most of what reformed theologians teach us. I can manage about two  and a half letters of the TULIP; the rest of it does not convince me.

I suspect that at least some of our theological differences are just a matter of how our brains work but there are concepts that cross a line into dangerous territory. Here are three Calvinist ideas I’ve heard voiced in real conversations that cause real damage when spoken into a secular culture:

Misconception #1: God has my days numbered and nothing I do can change that. This line was shared (verbatim) while someone I love was animatedly sharing his participation in some fun but risky behavior. He said, “Listen, I know where I’m going when I die and God knows exactly when that is going to happen and nothing I do can change that.” His point was that since God has already ordained the day of his death, his choices have no power to change his future.

What?

Calvin not only taught that God’s grace is irresistible but that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. And in fact, he took this idea a step further. He believed every detail happens according to the will of God, that even evil people are operating under God’s power so that no matter what a person does, God has caused it.

Maybe on my weak days, I wish this were true. I sometimes wish God would just override my will. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with people who struggle to believe; in those moments I’d give anything if God would just save them from themselves.

Make them believe, Jesus! Because they’re killing me!

But that isn’t how it works. People come to Christ every day and every day people resist the grace of God. Not only that, but every day people make horrible choices against the will of God that limit the length or joy of their lives.

Our behavior matters. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes  a day, it will affect the length and joy of my life. To persist in such behavior isn’t God’s will, and our behavior matters to God. As Moses said to the Israelites, we have two choices before us — blessings and curses, life and death. “Choose life, that you might live.”

Misconception #2: Everything happens for a reason and all reasons are ordained by God (even the evil ones). I most recently heard this one at the funeral of a young adult who overdosed. How such a hollow statement could have provided comfort to a family dealing with such a tragedy is beyond me. Is even an overdose ordained by God? I can’t imagine the thought of having to endure such a tragedy believing that God had done this to my loved one … or at least blessed it.

Paul’s word to the Romans was that God can work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. There is a ton of solid theology in that one line; it assures me that God can make good out of even my worst mistakes. What it doesn’t tell me is that God causes my mistakes. He can work redemption into a circumstance without causing it.

The fact of God’s sovereignty does not have to mean that God has made toys to play with. People are not puppets. To the contrary, he has made free humans with heads, hearts and wills, “just a little lower than the angels.” I can have  tremendous trust in who God is, in his great love for us and in his power to redeem anything without having to believe that he causes even my worst mistakes and sins.

Misconception #3: Jesus died for the ones he came to save, but not for everyone.
This is how many people deal with the fact that many in the world have never heard and will never hear the name of Jesus. It is because Jesus didn’t die for them. The “L” in TULIP means God’s atonement is limited. A Calvinist would say, “It is not my salvation to get and it is not my salvation to lose. It is Christ’s salvation of me.”

An Arminian would agree. God’s salvation is his gift to us, and nothing we do can generate it. But everyone is offered the gift. Every person on this earth has both the right and the opportunity to have their chains broken, their guilt removed and their value restored. There is no one beyond the reach of his mercy. To think otherwise is to judge someone before Christ himself has had the opportunity to do so.

Salvation is a free gift for everyone. Not everyone will accept that gift, but everyone is offered it. Otherwise, what was the cross for?

This is the strength of His grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so that when we awaken to him, he will be there. Grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days, even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others we feel. God is there through all of it. That is what it means to be sovereign. God has been there the whole time, watching and in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you, not even once.

 

Carolyn Moore

I follow Jesus within the communities of Mosaic Church, Asbury Seminary and the Moore household.

18 thoughts on “When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

  1. I want to leave a comment that expresses how much I agree with this and how much I appreciate it. But, in terms of sufficient wording, I’ve got nothing…and you know what it takes to leave me wordless. You are my person. I hope I get to hug your neck next week.

  2. Just curious, have you actually read Calvin? I can’t be sure, but it looks more like you’ve read what other people have said about him (or have said other people have said about him) more than what Calvin actually taught. In other words, I think Calvin would take issue with several of the things you’ve taken issue with here, and on the ones he would hold to, I think you would find his own writing on the subject insightful.

  3. 1) there is only reference to Scripture in your entire essay, and it’s not really pertinent to Calvinism vs arminianism.

    2) so what do we do with the parts of the Epistles in which Paul repeatedly tells us that we have been predestined to be called, and that it is Christ that does the calling, not us?

    1. “we have been predestined” – yes, “we” – corporate election.

      In the first century, the argument between the non-believing Jewish community and the Christian community which included both Jewish believers and Christians was over WHO are the true people of God. And Paul’s answer is, of course, we are. The cross, the formation of a new people consisting of both Jew and Gentile, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit were all of God’s predetermined plan.

      Calvinism/Calvinists of the TULIP variety get this wrong by applying this truth to individuals. Go look at the Greek in all of the references about predestination and such . . . and notice that the verbs and nouns are plural.

  4. Carolyn, thanks so much for speaking out against this rabid belief system of foolish men! Oh, how many have these philosophies of men kept away from Jesus Christ?
    It’s one or the other: one is either “elects” (grr, it just sounds so elitist they way Calvinists use it, and wrongly, of course!) or Jesus death and resurrection is God’s call for anyone who is interested in accepting the gift. There are no in betweens; it’s one or the other, and one is a lie. That much is obvious.

    1. Rita, I’m with you. I’m so very concerned about the resurgence of reformed theology, especially among those in their 20s and 30s. Reformed pastors have learned a lot about planting churches, which is great. But the theology they are teaching in those churches so severely mischaracterizes our gracious God.

  5. Carolyn, since I am a lay person seeking deeper theological study, I thank you for your insightful
    Blog. It allows diverse and healthy conversation. This is so evident in the above comments from a Calvinist follower. I ordered the book by Walls on Calvinst vs Armenianism. I do have to read some passages several times but I am thoroughly enjoying exploring both sides. You have spoken at my church a couple of times and your heart for Jesus is always evident and compelling.
    Lifelong Methodist committed to study and search for God’s meaning.

  6. Misconception #1 – You may have fatalism confused with the Gospel, or that which when rightly studied and understood by scripture and not through human experience only, I believe is synonymous with Calvinism (by the way…the majority of the early church preached prior to what Calvin articulated systematically). I used to be Arminian until I studied church history and discovered that the early church considered Arminism a heresy. You can read Augustin or Tertullian, to list only a few of thousands who lived long before Calvin or Luther for that matter, who articulated what we now call Calvinism in their preaching and writings on God’s sovereignty and God’s glory. This led me to study scripture and our church fathers’ arguments against Arminism, based solely upon scripture, that I discovered 100% of my resistance to reformed theology was my pride, my need to control salvation, and my desire to feel good enough by mere effort to be a Christian. Essentially, “cultural Christianity” is very seductive because it attempts to remove God’s glory in salvation and put it back into our hands. In someways, this is just a reenactment of the original lie the Serpent took Adam and Eve with; the desire to be like God. Even though, I believe #1 is more fatalistic philosophy than Calvinism, could I ask what could be more perfect than a perfect God, who is good…who can not lie…who designed us…and loves us incredibly to be in control of our lives? Do we really believe that our control of our life is better than God’s control of our life? Do we not believe He has the right to do what ever He wishes with our life? Is He not the Creator? We were given free will and Adam and Eve demonstrated what that free will accomplished. Sin entered the world by their use of their free will. Our free will is now corrupted. When the Bible says that we are dead in our trespasses and sins, how does one who is dead in sin wake him or herself up from sin without proclaiming to be a god themselves? Just a few thoughts.
    Misconception #2 – I think Calvinism, if I know it correctly, would agree with most of what you said. Unfortunately, there are many untrained and unwise people who have ordained themselves to be pastors who speak too quickly and at the wrong time without proper study. They are quick to present human opinion verses God’s word. It may not be a good idea to make broad stroke comments based upon a “pastor’s” comments and use those comments as proof that all of Calvinism agrees with that one person’s statement.
    However, I will say that you’ve mixed your words…you’ve labeled “mistakes” as “evil” as if every mistake we make is evil. Do I really need to point to all the patterns of God’s counsel found in scripture (notice I’m not proof texting…finding one verse to prove my entire point while being blind to the whole counsel of God in His Word) that shows God chastening his people, perhaps what we would call “mistakes” or God allowing people to make mistakes, to bring about His glory?
    However, in saying all that, do you honestly believe that God doesn’t have the right to make us into “puppets” or “toys” as you called it? What exactly is offensive about The Creator using His creation for it’s intended purpose? Once again, I think our pride and our need to feel worth God’s love keeps us from seeing who Romans 3 actually says we are without Christ and were before Christ.
    Misconception #3- I think you offer a very humanistic and cheap grace by saying that everyone has a “right” to be saved. Where is that found in scripture? It’s definitely found in our culture. A “right” is earned..what exactly have we earned when it comes to salvation. I think a Calvinist would quote Paul in Romans to say, “It is God who saves.” Notice the period after the sentence. There is no condition there…God saves…period.
    I also think you offer a fractured Trinity by saying that Jesus died for everyone but yet there are people who still go to hell, unless, of course, your a Universalist (everyone will go to heaven in the end). Here is what you’re proposing if you believe people go to hell:
    1. Jesus died for everyone
    2. Yet there are people who go to hell
    So, Jesus dies for everyone and the Father sends some of those to hell. This presents a conspiracy within the Trinity, a imperfect Jesus to complete the work He was sent to accomplish (John 17:6), a confused and incapable Holy Spirit to draw people to Christ, and a Devil who is able to win over God’s redemptive purpose. Ah, I know what any good arminian would say, “God doesn’t send anyone to hell, people send themselves to hell,” right? Once again, I ask, who gets more glory in that statement? God or Man? I seem to remember a passage of scripture that warns us that God will not share His glory with anyone.
    I think you may want to study scripture more than human experience or your own reason to get the truth about God’s salvation. I notice that you’ve got a link to “Belonging, Believing, and Behaving: The Sense of a Faithful United Methodist” below. You may want to pull out that ole Quadrilateral that the United Methodists have long deserted even though John, himself, used it as a strategy to determine truth. If you remember, Scripture was primary. Only after Scripture had been exhaustively studied was it then that reason, tradition and experience considered. Unfortunately, it seems that the most outspoken portions of the UMC denomination have inverted the quadrilateral to determine truth. I fear this inversion has slowly but methodically (no pun intended) infiltrated the christian education of the UM denomination.
    Nevertheless, you only need Scripture and tradition to see that the burden of proof through the ages is on the Arminian view of salvation…not Calvinist.

    1. You are seriously confused in your history friend. Wesley never proposed or used the quadrilateral….it’s a way of talking about his method. Also, how could the church fathers debate Arminius when he wasn’t around until 1600? Some serious anachronism going on here. And that the fathers articulated Calvinism before Calvin? They werent even protestant yet much less calvinist. Oh dear.

  7. I agree with you on all your points, as they are also my major points of disagreement with Calvinists. I normally keep my peace about these things when around Calvinists, but I am sorely tempted to ask them that if they believe wholeheartedly that Jesus only died for a limited number of people and that they are saved regardless of what they do, then why, oh why bother with evangelism? I mean, why even waste the time, effort and money to evangelize people who cannot ever be saved, and evangelize those whom will be saved regardless of our efforts? On those few occasions I didn’t resist that temptation, I kinda got that annoyed look from them. What really kills them when I bring up the subject is when I point out that all three of these points are summed up by Muslims in their saying (and philosophy), “Inshallah.” (as God wills) 🙂

  8. So many do not know or understand free will. God gave us the great ability to think for ourselves and make choices. I’m sure God’s heart has broke. Many times over the choices his beloved children have made.

  9. God bless you Carolyn! Yes! God’s saving and sanctifying grace is offered to all!
    And the Holy God is never the author of sin! Thankful for your voice.

  10. Beautiful and simple explanation of what we believe as followers of Jesus through a Wesleyan/Arminian prism. Thank you for your wonderful ways of being pastor as local theologian–even as local means “the world is our parish. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *