Calvinism’s strength and weakness


Not long ago my wife and I were visiting in the home of a family who have visited our church worship services recently. We wanted to welcome them, get to know them and take the opportunity to speak to them about the Lord and our church. It turns out that they are faithful followers of Christ who are new in the area and looking for a church home. In the course of the conversation the father asked me, “So, are you a 5-point Calvinist?” Without any hesitation I borrowed a phrase from my friend, Mark Dever, and responded, “I am a slobbering 5-point Calvinist.” They had a good laugh and then we enjoyed spending the next few minutes talking about confessional Christianity and historic Southern Baptist theology.

We Calvinists tend to be a peculiar lot. Our greatest strength can quickly become our greatest weakness. What is it that tends to characterize self-professed Calvinists? Love for truth. We love God’s revealed truth and, consequently, we have a great appreciation for theology. In an atheological age a commitment to careful theological thinking stands out as odd–some would even say, elite. One megachurch pastor referred to Southern Baptist reformed pastors as “wine and cheese theologians.

Devotion to truth is a good thing, but left unbalanced it can become a bad thing by making us suspicious of anyone who does not agree with us at every point. When a love for truth becomes an excuse to look down on people you can be sure that the truth-lover has fallen prey to that constant danger of which the Bible warns us: “Knowledge puffs up” 1 Corinthians 8:1). What is the antidote to this tendency? Ignorance? The way some people decry theology you would think so. “Leave theology to the theologians, let’s get busy for Jesus!” Those words and the sentiment behind them have dominated church life for the last 50 years.

But anyone who decries theology sets himself in opposition to the Bible. God tells us to give attention to doctrine (1 Timothy 4:14) and carefully consider it (1 Timothy 4:16). In addition, Paul tells us that much of his praying for his fellow believers focused on their growth in knowledge. For example, he writes in Colossians 1:9, “For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; 10 that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

No, the safeguard against the tendency to pride is not ignorance. Instead, it is deeper knowledge. A proud Calvinist is a contradiction in terms and shows that he needs to dive deeper into God’s truth until he realizes that he is but a minnow swimming in the ocean. Such an awareness breeds humility and leaves no room for looking down on others.

The Apostle Paul addresses this “head on” in his first letter to the Corinthians. I plan to make a few comments on that later this week.

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12 Responses to “Calvinism’s strength and weakness”

  1. Tom, thank you for this thoughtful, timely post. I like the phrase – slobbering 5 point Calvinist. :) I haven’t read Dever’s 9 Marks book yet, but it is on my list to buy when I get some money.

    I also find it sad that what you say about the attitude toward theology is in fact true. I was having a conversation with some people at our church after FAITH visitation one night. The minister of students, like myself, is Reformed. The pastor is not. There was a brief discussion which didn’t get anywhere really, and the pastor made a comment to the effect of letting disagreements eb as long as we get back to the “main thing.” Those words were hauntingly familiar to what Welch and Lemke said in the now infamous batch of articles.

    The implication was to get back to evangelism of course, and we should joyfully embrace evangelism. However, not digging into the Scripture to understand what real soteriology is can and will give us trouble when we do evangelism since it is so wrapped up in soteriology! People by and large nowadys seem to think that you let ministry determine your theology (Peter Wagner comes to mind) rather than theology determine your ministry. This is a dangerous trend.

    May God give us grace to come before Him and His Word in humility and have sound theology by which to do ALL kinds of ministry.

    A slave of Christ Jesus,
    David Hewitt

  2. Isn’t our problem that we can raise our theological knowledge to the point of being an idol – we love the truth more than we love God.

    When we love God first, then we will stand for the truth as it is his truth. But we will speak the truth in love, for those who love God love the brethren (even those who are not calvinist!).

  3. Well put, Stephen. Sometimes I have fallen into that trap, becoming angry at those who don’t line up with it exactly, despairing over it. However, when I stop and think (by God’s grace) and realize that I miss the mark many times myself and cry out to God for Him to be my affection again, then love returns, and His truth goes forward.

    When God really is our focus, we go forward with His truth in love for Him and others. Otherwise, if we just insist on right adherance to the Scriptures (which is good, but not when done in the absence of His love) we become legalistic. Oh how strong a temptation it is to do that; I’ve fallen into it before as I have already stated. May God grant us mercy and grace to escape such tendencies! May we return to our knees, seeking His face through His Word and not just Pharasaical legalism.

    An unworthy slave of Christ,
    David Hewitt

  4. In one sense I can understand the reaction against “theology”. People are suspicious of it because, at least in the last 150 years, studying theology meant denying the resurrection and other assorted heresies.

    But I fully agree with what you’ve said. Whenever I have got into conversations with theology haters, I usually turn it around by arguing that “Theology is the study of God. It’s a good thing.” I also tell them “I believe what the Bible says. Doctrine is just another way of saying you believe the Bible.”

  5. Amen! This article brings to light an underlying problem with those of us committed to strong, Calvinistic teaching. Our love for the truth can overpower the manifestation of our love for people. Love for truth and love for people do not have to be seen as mutually exclusive; they are not polar opposites. Rather, perfect truth and perfect love are seen wrapped together in the incarnation of our blessed Lord and Savior!

    The apostle Paul gave relevant and timeless advice, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for servants of the Word by showing the tender heart and the loving goal of serving those who are not ‘where we are.’ He wrote, “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

    Thank you for the reminder!

  6. “A proud Calvinist is a contradiction in terms and shows that he needs to dive deeper into God’s truth until he realizes that he is but a minnow swimming in the ocean. Such an awareness breeds humility and leaves no room for looking down on others.”

    Thank you, Bro. Ascol, for reminding us of such important things. Many of us need to have such a statement as this embroidered and placed prominently where we can see it often. Even before I was a Calvinist, I always tended to have a superiority complex anyway. So it is easy for me to want to look down on others who haven’t grasped the Biblical truths of Calvinism yet. So I need to be reminded every day that it is un-Christlike and just plain silly to do so. After all, I didn’t come to accept these truths because I’m smart–I accepted them because God was gracious enough to make me able to learn and to teach me!

    Though I always struggle to not look down upon those who don’t agree with me, I still allow myself to get a little upset when people are anti-doctrinal. It’s one thing to not agree with certain doctrine, it’s another to not believe anything at all. That drives me nuts.

  7. Even though my name isn’t Stephen, I’m going to post…

    Amen to all that was said. I find myself still in that phase of going from merely being enamored with the truths of Calvinism to living out an experiential life of love for God (a la, Stephen Dunning’s comment about loving the truth more than God Himself).

    Calvinists ought to be the most fervent in worship, evangelism, prayer, family devotions, obedience to Christ, study in the Scripture, love for people (especially the brethren), etc.

    Wouldn’t more people be convinced of the rightness of our theology if they see us consistently living out such a life before them? Praise God for those who are. God give us grace to do moreso- I know I desperately need it.

    This blog is a great encouragement to me- thanks Tom for taking time out of your (no doubt) busy schedule to post.

    In Christ,

  8. As a “Calvinistic Christian”, I think there is a point being missed here…
    When you are visiting people who have visited your church, the most normal question for a Reformed believer to ask is about Reformed Doctrine. Such as: church discipline, belief in Grace, Predestination and issues like that. Unfortunately, it seems that Reformed Believers are not as wide spread as other “doctrinal” believers. Also, I have found many people who claim to be Reformed and yet, are not. I do not think that some of the questions asked are from Pride but from the desire to really stay in a Truth Study and Word of God study. I think maybe some of you need to take a look in the mirror and see if the Pride issue is with yourself and not with others…
    Just a thought from someone who loves the Lord and am blessed to believe in Reformed Doctrine.

  9. It appears to me that many christians do not see the importance of sound biblical doctrine. I am a young christian of 4 or 5 years and there have been just about, well, nobody who has been interested in discussing doctrinal things. The attitude seems to be that while doctrine is important, having a theological position is important, my view is my view and thats that. Is that a common problem today? To further compound the problem many who are willing to discuss doctrine do so in a divisive or compromising manner. It seems they will establish “their” essentials where they will “go to the mat” to defend them (never mind discuss) and then they have those points in which they are willing to compromise for the “sake of unity”. It is a contradiction i think. What I choose as essential I am willing to be divisive over and what I deem unessential I will appear humble by compromise. Not even my Pastor, though I love him dearly, is much into discussing doctrine as others have said he is one of those who would say “now lets get back to the important matter at hand.” I visited a reformed batist church and on my forst visit expressed that I was looking for a church where I could explore reformed theology. I was then asked if I was reformed, received a two minute drill, which quite honestly I didn’t do very well, and then with a smile was told we’ll have to discuss this more. I was thinking to myself thats why I came but I am not so sure you are the one to discuss these things with. My point is that while I have met more people who lack a heart for “doing theology” I have met those who are just ignorant in their approach. Myself well I am the most ignorant stuck in a place where there is nobody to discuss simple general questions like how important is it to have a theological viewpoint? How important is it that after being a church for four years or so we do not have an offical doctrinal statement? How important is it that our church is listed as Southern Baptist because they provided start up funding but consider ourselves multi-denominational and don’t believe we participate int hings like the cooperative program? I believe that a right view of Scripture or good theology, sound doctrine whatever way you want to word it bears heavily on answering questions like these. Instead many like myself are answering based on feeling and common sense because there truly is a lack of heart towards doctrinal things.

  10. I am attending a Reformed Calvinistic Church for the past few weeks. Theologically I agree with most at least 4 of the 5 points. What I’m finding though to some degree is that this “puffed”upness is a subtle manifestation which shows it self more the more you get to know the people. The “We have it” mentality when all they discuss are things that wrap around those 5 points almost as if they were converting calvinist verses converting the gospel. It seems it’s one or the other, there is either cheap grace in most of the other churches or puffed up truth — of course there are no perfect churches but I long for a church which would love truth and show love. —



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