The Shattering of Every Calvinist’s Dream


One of the realities of life is that our greatest strengths tend to incubate the seeds of our greatest weaknesses. So a man who is decisive, proactive and determined to accomplish much good can be unsympathetic, dismissive and harsh. Similarly a woman who is thoughtful, careful and quiet can be passive, distant and self-absorbed.

We see this reality played out at many crucial points in history. At the Marburg Colloquy, Luther and his followers spent three days in discussion with Zwingli and his followers on key points of biblical doctrine. After coming to a common agreement on fifteen points of biblical teaching on the last day Luther refused to shake Zwingli’s hand, stating, “Yours is a different spirit from ours” because of their disagreement on the nature of Lord’s Supper. In even plainer language he told Zwingli’s whole contingency, “You do not belong to the communion of the Christian Church. We cannot acknowledge you as brethren.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 9.05.02 AMLuther’s great strength was his love for truth and unwillingness to compromise any part of God’s Word. Embedded in that strength was a weakness of narrow-mindedness that denied Christian fellowship to obvious Christians with whom he disagreed at only one point.

The doctrinal reformation that we are experiencing within our Baptist churches (and beyond) is a wonderful manifestation of God’s love and power at work. The return to the doctrines of grace by more and more pastors and congregations is both undeniable and, from my perspective, to be celebrated. One of the strengths of this revival is the high priority that is being placed on biblical doctrine. Truth matters to Calvinists (as it does to others, also) and it matters in such a way that they are willing to contend for it and unwilling to compromise it.

That is, as I say, a strength of the revival of reformed theology over the last few decades. Lurking within that high devotion to truth, however, is a temptation that must be recognized and resisted. It is the temptation to be unloving and ungracious.

In his helpful book, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ, Ray Ortlund describes the dangers that exist when either truth or grace is advocated at the expense of the other.

Left to ourselves, we will get it partly wrong, but we won’t feel wrong, because we’ll be partly right. But only partly. Truth without grace is harsh and ugly. Grace without truth is sentimental and cowardly. The living Christ is full of grace and truth (John 1:14) (22).

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 9.08.51 AMThe Apostle Paul puts it even more starkly in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” When I think about the ability to “understand all mysteries and all knowledge,” it strikes me as every Calvinist’s dream! That’s why we study. It’s why we love books. Can you imagine having Wayne Grudem, R.C. Sproul and Al Mohler calling you to ask for help in understanding some theological point! If you understood all knowledge, they would be wise to do so.

Yet, Paul’s point is to convince us of something that is far superior to having unsurpassed knowledge. And he makes that point in a profoundly startling way. To possess the greatest theological mind that the world has ever seen and yet be devoid of love makes a man “nothing.” Nada. Zilch. Zero.

Being right is never an excuse for being unloving. In fact, you can be 100% correct in your doctrine and still be nothing spiritually. If any teaching in the whole Bible should give a Calvinist pause, it is this one. In fact, the Calvinist who looks down his nose at those who disagree with him or who uses truth as a cudgel in harsh, unloving ways is actually demonstrating that he doesn’t really know the truth of God’s Word very well at all. Because the very Word that teaches unconditional election also teaches that knowledge without love makes a man nothing.

When the English Puritan pastor, Joseph Caryl died in 1673, his congregation merged with the church that John Owen pastored. Owen was the greatest reformed theologian of an era that was marked by great theologians. On the occasion of their first worship service as a newly merged church, Owen preached on Col. 3:14, “Above all these things, put on love which is the bond of perfection.” In that sermon, he said this:

A church full of love, is a church well built up. I had rather see a church filled with love a thousand times, than filled with the best, the highest, and most glorious gifts and parts that any men in this world may be made partakers of (Works, IX:268).

Owen was a Calvinist who got it right. We who follow his doctrine would do well to cultivate also his spirit.

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11 Responses to “The Shattering of Every Calvinist’s Dream”

  1. I am dealing with this very issue right now and this could not have come to me at a better time. So many pastors in the SBC love every jot and tittle of God’s word and have been shoved into a position by unloving words, actions and spirits among many other pastors and denominational leaders…
    Thank you brother Tom Ascol.

    • Tom Ascol

      Thanks for letting me know. May the Lord give you grace and wisdom as you press on seeking to make Him known.

  2. this has been a problem in Calvinistic churches for many years.

    As we pursue truth, we must not forget that the ultimate truth is not the Grace of God in Salvation, but the Love of God.

    Scripture does not say God is Grace, or God is Sovereign. But it does say, God is Love. And EVERYONE that loves is born of God.

    The ONLY way we know we are born of God is not by how much sound doctrine or biblical theology we know, preach and understand. But by how we love the brethren, and our enemies.

    When a Calvinist says he or she cannot have fellowship with an Arminian, pride has replaced the Love of God. I believe that many pride filled professing Christians will be shocked on the day of judgement that the popular Christianity of America, among Calvinist and non Calvinist, is not the Christianity of the East, or the Bible.

    I have met many Unloving brethren, in the past 20+years, who are defenders and believers in the Doctrines of Grace. Yet it grieves me to watch them demonstrate non Chrislike behavior in his the strive with others (2 Tim. 2:24, 25.

    We must CONTEND for the faith (truth). One part of that truth that MUST be contended for, but is often neglected, is the doctrine of love. If 1 Cor. 13 is properly understood we will be forced to admit that there is no way to know you love someone until there is conflict, disagreement and/or annoyance in your interaction. This then requires the FRUIT of the Spirit, which no religious person can produce.

    Thanks for writing and identifying a problem that many If us witness on and ofline.

  3. dr. james willingham

    Perhaps, the best writing on this blog that I have ever seen. I congratulate you on addressing the problem so forthrightly and faithfully. It is a difficulty with which I have wrestled for 50 years. The answer lies in the nature and the effect or application of our Sovereign Grace theology. Basically, it is this: Practically every doctrine is composed of two concepts that are asymmetrical or apparently contradictory, and there is a reason for this; it has to do with the nature of our minds. Our brains as you undoubtedly known consist of two hemispheres which, apparently, are devoted in one instance to the objective, factual nature of things while other is devoted to the subjective. In other words, we are dealing with doctrines that are both/and propositions or, at least, should be. There is a reason for this, namely, that the two sides of the doctrine are designed to fit the brain, to set up a tension between the two halves.

    The purpose of this tension is to enable the believe to respond appropriately to any given situation which might arise. Learning this takes time, and it is not an immediate response event. The objective side requires study, reflection, analysis, while the subject requires affirmation, synthetical (a term I have taken to describe two ideas side by side for the sake of the tension) considerations, followed by actions which reflect the appropriate response to a given situation in the external world.

    I think it was Petrus Ramus, one of the logical influences among Puritans, who stated that” “If the rule is true, and the exceptions are true, then the truth is both the rule and the exceptions.”

    It is not strange as far as I am concerned that you should cite John Owen regarding the union of his church with that of Joseph Caryl. It was Owen’s The Death of Death in The Death of Christ, that served as a source for Andrew Fuller’s Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. Owen’s idea that the sacrifice of Christ was of such excellency that it enabled me to grasp the idea that Particular Redemption is far better and more appropriate to the realities of this fallen world than is General Atonement. Owen spoke of the value of Christ’s blood atonement as having a value to it that it could redeem the multitudes of many worlds. The key, of course, is that the power is in the blood, not in man’s decision to accept or reject; it is the winsomeness of God’s sovereign love as well as its sternness that works in varying situations, one case require loving attraction, while another needs to know that his or her sinfulness is so terrible that God in strict justice could pass that person by. In other words, the election or choice of someone else with no mention of any provision of a choice of the person addressed can serve to draw from that sinner worshipful acknowledgement of God’s right to leave him or her out of consideration (cf. the woman of Canaan). What is more, not only the intended redemption of someone else, i.e., “I am not sent but to the house of Israel,” but the idea of reprobation, total depravity, total inability can serve to startle the rebel into awareness of his or her need: “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs.” The person addressed in that situation, agreed, saying, “Truth, Lord.”(Mt.15:21-28)

    Returning to the matter of two sided truths, it is a matter of record that the Puritans like to make lists of contrarieties, and it is in contrarieties that we find the true liberal of biblical orthodoxy, the freedom to be compassionate without the feeling of having compromised our Gospel and ourselves. Instead, we come straight forward to the most attractive, appealing audacity that wins the day, and we are due for a win, indeed, for a victory far surpassing anything we could have ever imagined. Just to whet the appetite, consider what our Lord said in Mt. 24:31 about His angels gathering the elect from one end of THE (definite article in the original) heaven (starry, apparently and evidently) to the other. Could it be that mankind will spread to distant stars and the planets that circle them? I think it is likely, and we do have the Lord’s statement to the effect that the word of His covenant is “commanded to a thousand generations.”(I Chron.16:15). Since we are developing warp drive capabilities and, likely, have already gone to distant stars in Black Ops. (cf. the statements of the late Ben Rich, head of the Skunk Works of Lockheed where the Stealth program was developed. There is more but that will do for now) We have the greatest challenges before us and the means to meet those challenges in our possession, if we will only seek to understand, grasp, and make a proper use of them.

  4. Dear Tom,
    I’ve recently ended a one year sabbatical from preaching and pastoring. I spent 10 years in a ministry that was filled with orthodox Calvinists that were so diabolical that I left completely exhausted at the thought of pastoring another church. The last year has allowed me to back away and take an objective look at my own ministry approach as well as the health of churches that I was familiar with. I must say that my theology has sustained me and I am more convinced than ever that the doctrines of grace, graciously held, are vital to the health of the church. However, the distance between the head and the heart can be a very long way and Calvinism does tend to attract a crowd that loves an intellectual argument. It is puzzling how the most humbling doctrine can produce such pride and militance among many of its adherents. When discipling believers in the TULIP, we should be careful to labor on the T and the U until there are enough tears at the thought of our depravity and His unconditional grace that the pride that causes so much strife is drowned under them. A proud Calvinist is a living contradiction and one of the greatest dangers to the reformed movement. In some ways far more dangerous than the Arminians.

  5. Linda Rios

    Dear Tom,

    My husband is taking classes with Reformed Baptist Seminary and had the privilege of attending your lectures on Creeds and Confessions last November in Las Vegas.

    Thank you for this timely article. I echo what Russell Taylor stated above, “it’s puzzling how the most humbling doctrine can produce such pride and militance among many of its adherents.” I found much refreshment in your words. Thank you brother Tom!

  6. Good article in that I truly see this on both sides of the arguement. Arminians have the sam problem in their camp, people who lose that love because of their pride in making their arguement. I can attest to this because I am calvinist, God bless you all

  7. Scott Gordon

    Yeah, Dr. Ascol,

    I get tired of being asked whether I am a Waldron Covenant Calvinist, MacArthur Dispensational Calvinist or Schreiner New Covenant Calvinist as I agree with all of them on some things and disagree with all of them on some things (Yes Waldron too!). I even read New Calvinist John Piper occasionally.

  8. Doesn’t anyone remember that we must NOT pit one set of Scriptures against the others? 1 Cor. 13 must never be separated from
    2 Cor. 6:14-7:1. It is the same God who inspired Paul to write both. It is UNloving to have bad doctrine. Love IS a doctrine too. The man who said Scripture doesn’t call God gracious or sovereign, but does call Him love…, is wrong. The Bible calls Him ALL 3. The Bible also calls Him Holy thrice in many places. Don’t we want to be that? You know, holy? Love is not love unless it is Holy, incorruptible love.
    See 1 Peter 1:13-25.

  9. I applaud the efforts of the author, but it won’t change. Any change would be man made. Prideful people are attracted to the Calvinist message “I am one of the elect”. Translated…I am more special than others. The idea feeds into their personality. It completely takes away the focus on Christ. I have been in church with Calvinists all of my adult life and none of them had the gift of mercy. That is why the message of double predestination doesn’t seem to bother them, while non Calvinists are horrified at the mere thought of it. Instead of “trying” to be nice, please consider a different doctrine. Don’t read “Calvinist” passages but read the entire Bible in a year, then you will see that there is absolutely no focus on the things you stand for. God loves everyone. Jesus died for everyone. He wants all to be saved. He gave us free will ( I’m not Arminian either) to choose/love Him. When you believe the Gospel, God will give you a humble heart that you are seeking.

    I’m sure I’ll get a lengthy intellectual rebuke instead of a loving one :)


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