How Glorious Theology Becomes Distasteful

Ray Ortlund | March 4th 2019

Calvinism is exciting. As a way of gaining new insights into the Bible, as a God-centered way of seeing all of reality, Calvinism is exciting. The God of Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Spurgeon, Machen, Lloyd-Jones, Schaeffer and many others, the God of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the 1689 Baptist Confession—the glorious God envisioned by these thinkers and displayed through these documents is compelling to more and more Christians today. “Reformed” theology has made a big comeback. It’s a good time to be a Calvinist.

The sad part is, we corrupt everything we touch. That too is a teaching of Calvinism, and we sure are proving it. Let’s all admit the complication we too often introduce. It works like this. The very fact that Calvinism is intellectually satisfying, and even thrilling, can make us feel superior to other Christians who don’t “get it” yet. Then we Calvinists become oblivious to how annoying we are in attempting to spread our beliefs to others who are unconvinced. Glorious theology, conveyed through an immature personality, ends up seeming inglorious and even distasteful.

Losing sight of Jesus

A humble Arminian can be a good Christian. But a proud Calvinist cannot be a good Christian or a good Calvinist. One of the clearest messages from one end of the Bible to the other is summed up like this: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4 v 6). Any theology that is technically accurate but personally self-exalting does harm not only to people but also to that very theology. Above all, in relishing the fine points of theological debate we can lose sight of Jesus himself, without our even realizing it. Then we Calvinists leave behind us a trail of destruction in our churches and families and friendships.
In this respect, we Calvinists might be the ones who don’t “get it” yet.

Humble Calvinism

Humble Calvinism

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Understanding Calvinism in our hearts as well as in our heads

But the fault is not in Reformed theology itself. That theology, so true to the Bible and honoring to the Lord, is in fact a wonderfully humbling power. It puts us down on our faces before the Lord, where we are happy, winsome, and fruitful. And that is how Humble Calvinism by Pastor Jeff Medders can help us all. 

This book needed to be written, to guide us into the very humility that Calvinism should create. If God is big and we are small, if God’s power jump-starts us without our help, if the only contribution we make to our salvation is the evil that makes salvation relevant to begin with, if it is God’s eternal purpose alone that will sustain us all the way, if our Christianity is all according to Scripture and not our brainstorms, all of grace and not our merits, all by faith and not by demands, all thanks to Christ and no thanks to us, all for the glory of God alone—where does our self-exaltation fit into that picture? On the other hand, a heart at rest in our gracious Lord of glory, a heart at peace with other Christians who disagree with us—that is the heart of a true Calvinist.

Of all people, we are bound to humility

John Newton, the eighteenth-century Calvinist composer of “Amazing Grace,” wisely wrote to a younger pastor, “Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation.” Jeff understands and embodies that. He himself has taken the journey that many of us are on—a journey from the child’s play of theological arrogance to the sweetly humbled faith that true Calvinism calls for. Jeff has been led by grace into the green pastures and beside the still waters of true Calvinism, and this book can help us all to get there and stay there, in that place where the Lord himself is wonderfully present.

Now may the Lord add, as the crowning beauty upon us all, humility, gentleness, kindness, and restraint, with a relaxed, cheerful enjoyment of one another. The modern rediscovery of Reformed theology, rather than leaving people cold, could then grow into historic revival, for the glory of God alone.

In this challenging (and surprisingly witty) book, J. A Medders reveals how a true understanding of "the five points" fuels a love of Christ and his people that builds others up, rather than tearing them down. Pick up a copy of Humble Calvinism today. 

George Mattern

1:11 AM EDT on March 14th
There was hardly ever a more "Calvinistic" statement uttered than what the Lord Jesus said in Matthew 16:17--"Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven." It is true that Peter's flesh-and-blood brother Andrew had initially told him, "We have found the Messiah" (Jn. 1:41), but Andrew could only present the "information"--the "persuasion" that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah could only come from God, because, as Jesus asserted, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (Jn. 6:44)--an effectual drawing with the guaranteed result that "Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me" (vs. 45).

How thrilling it was to first realize the truth conveyed by those verses! How zealously eager is the newly-awakened head to disencumber itself of the crown of self-congratulation when it realizes that it would not have had the "good sense" to come to Christ without receiving the blessing of Lydia, "whose heart the Lord opened to respond to the things spoken by Paul" (Acts 16:14). And then, how amazing it is to see this glorious truth all over the Word of God!

And how wretchedly easy it was for me to take this precious gift--not only the reality of my salvation, but the understanding that it was sovereignly bestowed upon me by Him who had loved me with an everlasting love and drawn me with lovingkindness--how wretchedly easy it was for me to take that gift and erect it as a throne in my heart, from which I would wield the arrogant scepter of contempt against others who could not see how clearly the truth is revealed in Scripture!

And clear it is, indeed-- so clear, in fact, that even an infidel who understands language and grammar could construct a very accurate Calvinistic systematic theology derived from the Bible, though he would by no means believe it. And so, I justified my contempt of non-Calvinistic brothers and sisters by dismissing them as being "in rebellion" against the plain teaching of Scripture--for thus they certainly had to be!

Now, to be sure--Non-Predestinarians often make it very easy to be angry with them, since they often respond to the truth of divine sovereignty in salvation with such vitriol and calumny and misrepresentation and slander. Such responses to the truth have often elicited a "God-will-strike-you,-you-whitewashed-wall" eruption from me, for which I have tended to excuse myself by calling it an outburst of indignant zeal for the truth--rather than what it really was, which is paying back "evil for evil" (Rom. 12:17).

But I grew to realize the absurd and gross inconsistency of having Luciferian pride while holding to an inherently pride-smashing doctrine! The Lord brought me to the point that, in shameful self-loathing, I finally asked myself, "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" (1 Cor. 4:7). Borrowing from another Pauline statement, I asked myself this: Since it is true that "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3), well then, "Having begun by the Spirit, are you now [going to perfect other people] by the flesh?" (Gal. 3:3).

Do I really suppose that I, having necessitated the sovereign and powerful intervention of the infinite Lord of the Universe to bring me to an understanding and acceptance of...yes, very plain and clear language--am I now the equal of the Holy Spirit because I have received some gifts from Him?!?! Is it now true that "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit"--and by the convincing and clever explication of George Mattern? (I speak as a fool.)

In my detestable scorn for other believers who did not agree with me on this point, I didn't realize that I was holding to an impossible double-standard: On one hand, I was gratefully acknowledging that I possessed "blessed...eyes because they see, and...ears because they hear" (Matt. 13:16) only because they were given to me by the sovereign Lord who alone is the One who "has made both of them" (Prov. 20:12)--and yet, on the other hand, I was being scornful and contemptuous of those who did not see what I saw after I merely waved it in front of their face, without regard to whether or not they had been given those same capacities of understanding from the Lord, neither remembering that the "Rome" of my personal theology was not "built in a day," but developed only after a lot of hard work and long, painstaking difficulty!

I hold my Calvinistic convictions very dear, because I believe them to be Scriptural--therefore, I am prepared to contend for them zealously and passionately. But, I earnestly desire to join with the Psalmist in his declaration to the Lord that, "I am a companion of all those who fear You, and of those who keep Your precepts" (Ps. 119:63). I may disagree with a Brother or Sister on this and other issues--but the Gospel bonds that unite us are far stronger than disagreements on less-than-heretical issues!

And, oh, how I thank God that the limits of His patience were not stretched to the breaking point before I, myself, was brought into His kingdom and then, years later, brought to the understanding of His sovereign grace in my salvation! Shall we not treat our brothers and sisters with the same patience and forbearance of the Savior who, at one time, tenderly said, "I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now" (Jn. 16:12)? That considerate patience with people, and deference to the sovereign working of the Lord, are called for by the Apostle Paul when he tells us: "The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to all...patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition"--now, here comes the big, practical Calvinistic payoff--"if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

I am able to "inform" someone of "the knowledge of the truth," but only God can "persuade" them of it. And so, by His grace, may I always remember that, if I or anyone else has truly believed, then we have "believed through grace" (Acts 18:27), and so, may I always "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15), and never "let kindness and truth leave [me]" (Prov. 3:3)! Let us "adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect" (Titus 2:10)--especially by the humility in which we proclaim what should be the most man-humbling, God-exalting doctrine of all.

Thank you, Pastor Ortlund, for your insightful and convicting article! I am 50 years old now, but as I look back on the pride of my youth as a Christian (and, especially, as a Calvinist), I must plead "Guilty as charged" to the indictment of boasting in that from which boasting is most thoroughly excluded. But, I can also testify that, "He is able to humble those who walk in pride" (Dan. 4:37), and "He who [sovereignly] began a good work in you will [sovereignly] perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6)--and that process of sanctification can be more or less painful, depending on how hard we "kick against the goads," as it were!
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Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is lead pastor of Immanuel Church, Nashville, Tennessee. He is President of Renewal Ministries, a member of The Gospel Coalition Council, and a Regional Director of Acts29. He has written five books, and participated in the ESV and NLT Bible translations. Ray is married to Jani and has four children. He holds a Ph.D. from The University of Aberdeen, Scotland. And he loves hunting.

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