by Stephen Altrogge
Another well-articulated and tastefully conveyed conviction to model myself after.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with
all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second
is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets
hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:34-40
“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:2
“When I first understood the Doctrines of Grace (more commonly known as Calvinism and/or Reformed theology), I felt like I had entered The Matrix (minus Keanu Reeves).
It was as if multiple puzzle pieces were clicking into place and a single, unified picture was becoming clear. Things that seemed somewhat confusingly jumbled, like the various covenants, Israel’s rejection of Christ, and weird statements in the book of Romans, suddenly came together, like in a television show when an enlightened detective starts drawing lines between various mug shots and newspaper clippings while heart-thumping music plays in the background.
All this was a big deal to me, and I quickly came to the conclusion that it was my mission from God to convert every person in existence to Calvinism. As you can imagine, this made me quite a pleasant person (insert record scratch noise).
As I’ve gotten older, slightly more godly and slightly less annoying, I’ve come to a few realizations about the place the Doctrines of Grace should hold in my life.
I wish I could go back in time and communicate these things to my younger self, although my younger self probably would have fiercely debated my older self and then come away concluding my older self was a moron.
What would I tell my younger self?
CALVINISM MATTERS, BUT IT’S NOT EVERYTHING
I treated the Doctrines of Grace as if they were the sum and substance of Christianity. As if when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he said, “Be sure you believe in election and total depravity!”
This full-throated zeal for all things Calvinist caused me to look down on those who were far more godly than me yet maybe didn’t agree with me on every point of doctrine.
Sure, you’ve given your entire life to serve orphans and widows in Cameroon, but you don’t believe in election, so what’s the point?
Meanwhile, I’m sitting in my living room, wearing sweatpants and sipping coffee while I read Systematic Theology.
It was absolutely pathetic.
I still believe that the Doctrines of Grace are crucially important to understanding Scripture, but there are other astonishingly important elements to following Jesus.
Like love. Mercy. Justice. Generosity. Serving. Compassion.
Calvinism should NOT be the dominant theme in everything I do as a Christian. Rather, it should be the background track, like the bass line in a Daft Punk song. Or, as John Newton said:
I am more of a Calvinist than anything else; but I use my Calvinism in my writing and preaching as I use this sugar. I do not give it alone, and whole; but mixed, and diluted… I think these doctrines should be in a sermon like sugar in a dish of tea, which sweetens every drop, but is nowhere to be found in a lump – tasted everywhere, though prominent nowhere.
IT’S NOT MY JOB TO CONVERT THE WORLD TO CALVINISM
For a brief time, I became the Mormon missionary of Calvinism (minus the weird name tag and odd underwear). I thought it was my job to convert all people to the gospel of Reformed doctrine, and if they didn’t convert, I became frustrated.
If someone disagreed with me, my brain began generating thoughts like this:
Why can’t they see it?!? They must be spiritually defective! They must be, like, a baby Christian or something! Have they not accepted John Piper into their hearts? Maybe if I just speak louder and longer, I can convince them of the truth.
I foolishly assumed that it was my God-given responsibility to make sure that every person I knew fully agreed with everything I thought. As if I somehow had cornered the market on all sound doctrine and biblical understanding.
This is incredibly ironic given that the very heart of Reformed theology says God gets all the glory because he is the one ultimately responsible for all the saving, changing, and preserving. It’s like Alanis Morissette said: “Isn’t it ironic?”
Yes, yes it is.
I don’t debate about Reformed theology much these days. I’ll happily discuss it with someone who wants to, but I know that I can’t convince or change any person. If you want to chat about Calvinism, let’s grab a beer (a requirement of being Reformed) and we’ll hash it out.
CALVINISM IS NOT REQUIRED FOR GODLINESS
Some of the most godly, prayerful, loving, generous people I know, do not believe in Reformed theology. These people are so godly and so spirit-filled that they make me look like a headhunting pagan who plays with ouija boards for fun.
The truth is, godliness and Calvinism don’t necessarily go together. Calvinists have a somewhat well-earned reputation as pompous, self-righteous windbags who would rather write 10,000-word screeds than actually serve someone.
When I was younger, I assumed that a person who didn’t embrace Reformed theology was somehow less mature or godly than me. I look back and shudder.
I was the windbag.
I was the one who loved hearing myself talk.
I was the one who liked to toss around fancy theological words (double reprobation anyone?).
It was both terrifically ungodly and tremendously obnoxious. If you were at the business end of my weaponized Calvinism, I apologize.
I still fully embrace Reformed theology, but I now realize that it’s no longer necessary for godliness.
When John Wesley (an Arminian) was asked whether he thought he would see George Whitefield (a Calvinist) in heaven, he said, “No.” Then he said:
Do not misunderstand me, madam; George Whitefield was so bright a star in the firmament of God’s glory, and will stand so near the throne, that one like me, who am less than the least, will never catch a glimpse of him
I feel the same, but in the opposite direction. I expect I won’t see many of my fellow believers in heaven who don’t believe in Reformed theology because they will be much nearer the throne than me.
CALVINISM ISN’T THE SOLUTION FOR EVERY PROBLEM
When I first truly understood that God is sovereign over all things, that was a great comfort to me. God is working all things together for my good. God is the one responsible for saving people. God is in control of governments and presidential candidates (thank goodness!).
But too often, I treated the Doctrines of Grace as the cure-all medicine for every spiritual problem.
You’re struggling with worry? Don’t you believe God is sovereign?
You’re struggling with anger? Don’t you believe in total depravity?
You’re worried about whether you’ll make it to the end? Don’t you believe in perseverance of the saints?
You get the point. Calvinism became my miracle pill that I dispensed freely. No matter the circumstances, I was always quick to whip out my bottle of Reformed theology from my fanny pack of systematic theology (I think that analogy works).
I somehow failed to grasp that truth always goes down better when it’s preceded by grace, love, compassion, and the bearing of burdens. Grace is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of truth go down. Love, compassion, and empathy make it so much easier to hear truth.
Now I still talk encourage people with those same biblical truths, but not before I spend plenty of time simply listening and bearing burdens.
IN THE END
When Jesus returns and all is said and done, I don’t think we’ll be debating the finer points of theology. We’ll be so enraptured with the glory of God that not much else will matter.
Until then, I’ll seek to continue to learn from those who are more godly than me. By God’s grace, in 10 years I’ll be less of a pompous windbag than I am now.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to drink a craft beer while listening to a John Piper sermon.