When I Introduce People to Calvinism…

, posted by K.W. Leslie

I’m a theology nerd. Most of the Christians I interact with, aren’t. So sometimes I have to explain to people what I mean by “Arminians” and “Calvinists.”

I tend to do it thisaway. It’s very simplified; Calvinists may object it’s over-simplified. Especially since their description isn’t all that flattering.

ME. “Do you believe Christ Jesus died for everybody’s sins, to save everybody?”

THEY. “Of course. ‘For God so loved the world’ and all that.”

ME. “Then you’re Arminian. That’s what we believe.”

THEY. “Okay. So what’s a Calvinist?”

ME. “They’re the folks who don’t believe Jesus died for everybody; only some. God decided to save certain Christians, and throw the rest of humanity into hell. Not because we trust him or repented or anything like that; it’s for God’s own private, secret, arbitrary reasons. They claim God destroying most of humanity shows off how almighty and glorious he is.”

THEY. “Seriously? Good grief. What is wrong with them?”

ME. “They think God is best defined as being almighty. Not as he defines himself—as being love. God’s power is way more important to them. So that’s what it looks like when power trumps love, compassion, free will, and everything else.”

Sometimes they ask where we find such odd creatures as Calvinists. So I list a few of their churches in my town.

Usually they’re horrified when they realize people they know are attending these churches. That, or they nod and think to themselves, “Oh that explains her,” or “Well of course he would believe such a thing.” But more often their emotions are all over the place: It’s a new idea, sounds monstrously wrong, and they’re worried.

Or confused: The people they know in these Calvinist churches are good, kind, loving people. Because most Calvinists are trying to follow Jesus, y’know. So I have to explain: Calvinism is what the churches’ leadership believes. The rank-and-file don’t always.

And sometimes the leadership doesn’t believe in it all that hard! A Presbyterian of my acquaintance likes to downplay the particular Calvinist doctrines of his church. Ultimately he feels they’re irrelevant to his mission. Y’see, he has no idea who’s elect and who’s reprobate, and figures the only reason Christians would try to guess who’s who is so they can weasel out of loving certain reprobate neighbors. (He’s entirely right, too.) So he chooses to emphasize God’s love. In the Calvinist reckoning God’s love has its limits—but if you don’t know what the limits are, may as well love everyone!

And in so doing, love more people than they believe God does… but I’m not gonna go there today. One of my fellow SEA members can have some fun with that article.

So this is what I point out, when people grow alarmed at what Calvinists believe: You do realize if the Holy Spirit is actually indwelling these Christians, his fruit is gonna temper bad doctrine.

A Calvinist defines God by his almightiness and sovereignty. Well, without the Spirit’s fruit, a Calvinist will quickly equate the two—God is power—and worship the power. And no, this is hardly just a Calvinist phenomenon. Plenty of Christians of all stripes worship power. Political Christians are the most obvious examples. Authoritarian Christians tend to be the ones we point to instead (especially when we’re political), and yeah, they’re a problem too. Any Christian who downplays grace, or loves to object to “God is love” with “God is also just”—yep, more philodynamism. It’s everywhere. Watch out for it; nobody but Christ Jesus is immune, which is why all power rightly belongs in his hands. Ours aren’t trustworthy.

But with the Spirit’s fruit a Calvinist, despite their definition of God as almighty, is gonna recognize God emphasizes love, so they emphasize love. As do their churches. Their focus will be less on perpetuating the heritage of the Genevan Reformation, and more on proclaiming God’s kingdom, exhibiting the Spirit’s fruit, doing the works he prepared beforehand for us to do, and following Jesus. Any power-centered doctrines take a distant back seat. And even get rebuked when they manifest themselves in other ways, like authoritarianism or tribalism.

With the Spirit’s fruit, an Arminian should have no problem visiting a Calvinist church. My brother, fr’instance, attends a Calvinist church. He and my sister-and-law grew tired of their previous church’s loosey-goosey children’s program, and switched to a Baptist church which actually teaches the scriptures in their Sunday school classes—and good on them for doing so; don’t get me started about Sunday schools which babysit instead of teach. Yes he’s aware these particular Baptists (pun totally intended) are Calvinist. Yes he’s aware this may become a problem at some point. But they’re kind. They’re generous. Loving. Gracious. Do for one another. Do for the needy. Do as Jesus does.

Of course, if leadership changes, and the new leaders would rather pursue power than Jesus—whether they call themselves Calvinist, Arminian, or insist Pelagius wasn’t all that bad—it’s time for people to start church-shopping. Jesus sees good fruit as a priority, and so should we.

So when people’s loved ones are in a Calvinist church, but it’s a Jesus-following, fruitful Calvinist church, I don’t fret. And tell them not to fret either. All our churches belong to Christ, right? They just have a few wrong ideas. What church doesn’t have a few wrong ideas?

But, I warn ’em, have a ready answer for the wrong ideas.