The X-Calvinist Corner is a page on this website that shares the stories of people who were once Calvinist but have left Calvinism for a more Arminian theology. This series (The X-Calvinist Corner Files) highlights one of the testimonies from the X-Calvinist Corner in each installment.
Today’s testimony is a new addition from a man named Steve Sabin. His testimony is unusual for the X-Calvinist corner in that Steve never became a Calvinist, but shares his story of almost becoming a Calvinist. However, it seems worth including in the X-Calvinist Corner because of how similar it is to testimonies from those who were Calvinist but moved to a more Arminian theology.
Steve Sabin writes:
How did you become a Calvinist?
I was raised in a series of churches, starting first with Lutheran (ages 0-9), then Baptist (ages 10-12), and then Pentecostal (ages 13-20). My later years were characterized by a variety of churches ranging from Calvary Chapel to Evangelical to Foursquare, and even a brief foray back to the Lutheran church. To the best of my knowledge, none were Calvinist in theology except perhaps elements of Lutheran theology. Regardless, if any of the churches were Calvinist, deterministic theology was never taught or discussed that I can recall. I assumed there was no rational alternative to free will, just like there was no rational alternative to a spherical earth. In fact, I had never heard of Calvinism until well into my 40s.
While at a Foursquare church in my 40s, two friends that I met there were (unbeknownst to me) Calvinists. They began gently challenging some of my beliefs, primarily God’s sovereignty regarding salvation in particular and all events in general. I vividly remember a weeknight Bible study where we were going through a book by Dutch Sheets on intercessory prayer. One of my Calvinist friends was leading the study and the book asked what I presumed was a rhetorical question with only one obvious conclusion: “If Jesus prayed, ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’, does this means that God’s will is always accomplished?” My theology said “no, God’s will is not always done – He is not willing for any to perish, yet some do – so prayer must in some fashion influence the outcome of events in ways that are not pre-determined in advance.” However, for some in the group (including my Calvinist friend who led the study), this simple question created a gigantic and passionate debate. It was so substantial that the Bible study essentially met for a few more session and then disbanded because we could not seem to move past that point. I was frankly surprised that this question stirred such a division of perspectives. I honestly assumed that it was no more controversial than asking if the sky was blue. There was no animosity within the group, but it was as though everyone lost interest at the thought of studying prayer and its effectiveness if the outcome of what you were praying about had already been infallibly decreed and “could not be otherwise”. Each week, attendance dropped until there was no longer a critical mass of people to keep it alive. The Sheets book addresses this basic question directly by asking, “Is prayer God’s equivalent of having people dig holes and refill them, or does prayer meaningfully alter the outcome of events in real ways with real stakes?”
Although the Bible study did not continue, my friend (the leader) continued to challenge my conceptions of God’s sovereignty. To him, it meant absolute control of everything. I instinctively pushed back, because my reading of the Bible as a whole (and the offer of salvation in particular) didn’t seem to make any sense under a fully deterministic scheme.
Not long afterwards, during dinner with my other Calvinist friend, he asked me this question, which I think he believed was airtight logic from which nobody can escape: “Do you believe that God already knows where you will spend eternity? If so, what makes you think you are free to alter that outcome?” It took me awhile to recognize the error in logic: he made the mistake of conflating foreknowledge with causation. Knowing something is not the same as causing something. We do this all the time with regard to the past. We know the outcome of the 1942 World Series with absolutely certainty, without having caused the outcome. The players enjoyed total freedom even though my knowledge of the outcome is total.
Around the same time, I was reading Romans 9 and it puzzled me. I remember being very agitated and having a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach: “What if my friend was right? What if God’s sovereignty is only consistent with hard determinism, and some are elected to salvation while others to damnation? How can God say He “…loved Jacob and hated Esau”? What is a “vessel of wrath prepared for destruction?” I felt there was no other satisfactory explanation for what I was reading than the Calvinist interpretation because, as Peter says, “Paul wrote … some things hard to understand” and I did not understand this section of Romans at the time. I was also struggling with the little “mental puzzle” about God’s foreknowledge that my Calvinist friend had posed. I later worked it out, but until that occurred, I remember feeling a sense of panic and dread. “Is this the God that I have spent my life studying about, loving, and serving?”
Still later, I was in a Christian bookstore, browsing. I picked up something by R.C. Sproul where he essentially said (I’m paraphrasing): “Nobody has trouble with salvation they don’t deserve but everyone seems to have trouble with damnation they don’t deserve.” These types of statements increased that feeling of dread I was having and kept gnawing at me. Was this theology true? It felt more like I was being forced inexorably to surrender to something hateful than that I was running to embrace something wonderful. The gravitational pull toward Calvinism felt liked being sucked into a black hole. It was going to obliterate everything I thought I could rely on and nothing in scripture could be taken at face value any longer. For example, John 3:16 and 2 Pet 3:9 no longer meant what they appeared to say. God had cleverly disguised a different meaning therein and one must have the secret TULIP decoder ring to understand what “whosoever” “any” and “all” really meant. It felt like there was no light within Calvinism because although it purported to give answers, rhyme, and reason to the scriptures, it actually made Christianity pointless. Instead of freely responding to God with love as a child to a father or a wife to a husband, this was spiritual coercion – even rape. Or actually even worse. It was the equivalent of Stepford Wives – automatons that could do nothing other than as decreed.
Still later, I heard R.C. Sproul on the radio where he described his own journey to Calvinism. Again, I’m paraphrasing from memory, but he basically said: “I could not withstand the arguments of my professors. I finally had to surrender to the blows of their logic and scripture.” It pretty well described how I was feeling about Calvinism – a miserable, grudging surrender instead of a joyful epiphany.
I can thus be characterized as somebody that was given the brochure, prospectus, and guided tour for Calvinism. It was accompanied by a sickening feeling of having no choice but to embrace it because there was no other alternative explanation in my mind to Romans 9, John 6:44, and Acts 13:48, yet all the while feeling that the God I knew from scripture was very, very different from the one being described to me by my Calvinist friends and Calvinist scholars. It prompted me to do my own research because I felt I either had to accept it or find an alternative – but the one thing I could not do was ignore it. It kept gnawing at me and would not rest until addressed.
What did you find most compelling about Calvinism?
It seemed to be the only satisfactory explanation for the major proof texts I listed above (Romans 9, John 6:44, and Acts 13:48). Prov 16:33 also troubled me.
In contrast to the proof texts, the sovereignty argument never really resonated with me. I never equated sovereignty with “total control” and assumed that only a truly sovereign God was big enough to create people with free will, yet within constraints and without subverting His sovereignty. A God that controlled every outcome, as in Calvinism, seemed to me to be a smaller, and less powerful God than one that could sustain free will and yet still accomplish His overall purposes. Poor leaders tend to be micromanagers. Good leaders tend to be good delegators and to allow people to make mistakes, with real consequences and real potential for hurting the leader. I guess I reasoned that the same qualities we admire in human leaders are innately planted in us by our Creator and it seemed contradictory for Him to be a micromanager that must control everything. It certainly felt to me from the pages of scripture that this God was not a micromanager. He delegated authority and responsibility to people like Lucifer and Adam and in response, they certainly seemed to exercise legitimate choices with legitimate consequences. The idea that they were actually predetermined blocks of code from God’s equivalent of The Matrix and could thus not do other than as they had been programed / decreed just was not congruent with my plain reading of scripture.
Although I did not find it particularly compelling, I did admire the logical consistency of TULIP and that it was a system of belief – not just a hodgepodge of maxims. I guess it was my introduction to systematic theology. Prior to that, I didn’t know what a systematic was, nor did I realize there were alternative systematics. It only later dawned on me that because Calvin was a lawyer, the harmonization of the ideas that came to be known as TULIP was one of his core competencies. But things can be internally consistent with one another while being consistently false.
Why did you begin to question your Calvinistic convictions?
I never accepted Calvinism, but as I said above, a sense of dread that it might be true compelled me to search it out. I felt a lot of unrest during that season, because the logic seemed at first to be irrefutable. Indeed, it instilled a sense of panic. I probably spent 3-4 years reading and re-reading the main Calvinist proof texts, learning about TULIP, exposing myself to its primary proponents (MacArthur, Piper, Boettner, Pink, Sproul, et. al.), and trying to understand whether Calvinist theology was the only suitable way to interpret and reconcile not just the so-called proof texts, but the entire body of scripture.
One of my Calvinist friends in particular would dismissively proclaim that the only objections to Calvinism were rooted not in scripture, but in sentimental (i.e. man-centered) appeals to the character of God. He was pretty adamant that only Calvinism was Sola Scriptura. However, that didn’t resonate with me either, because the very thing that fueled my own research was Sola Scriptura – if scripture really taught what Calvinists assert, then I had no choice but to hold my nose and accept it. But did scripture really teach what Calvinism asserted? Could I ever get to the place where I loved and embraced what it taught, or would I forever have to hold my nose as part of crucifying my flesh and giving God His proper glory?
At the end of the day, for me, it was that the attributes of God I read about in scripture did not match the attributes of God being presented to me by Calvinism. I could not cross the chasm that Calvinism would require me to bridge. It would essentially require me to say:
“Just because the God of this theology seems arbitrary and capricious doesn’t mean that He is arbitrary and capricious. The God Calvinism describes must be the true God, as it is the only theology that ascribes the proper glory due Him and makes Him truly sovereign. If He seems arbitrary and capricious – if He seems to possess the very qualities that would actually damn a human being or an angel to hell – then it is my understanding of love, justice, mercy, grace, faith, equity, and sovereignty that must be adjusted – not Calvinism’s.”
What kind of support or opposition did you encounter while questioning your Calvinistic beliefs?
I had many discussions with my wife (who is not a Calvinist) and she wisely counseled me to just read the Bible and let the Holy Spirit speak to me. I found a few websites (not yours, unfortunately) that helped, and found some books on the internet that likewise helped. But my wife was probably my biggest support. I encountered no real opposition because my quest was primarily private and internal. I did not try to debate my Calvinist friends, or any other Calvinists for that matter.
What primarily led to you abandoning Calvinism?
Because I had been taught at an early age to read the Bible without relying on commentaries, and because I had established the habit in my 20s of reading through the entire Bible chronologically each year, I resolved to just read through it again from cover to cover, Genesis to Revelation, and make a special note of reading with the five assertions of TULIP in mind – and whether I could honestly find support for them in scripture. My Bible now has hundreds of embedded notes as a result of this effort. What I found were many passages that flew in the face of Calvinism. In contrast, there were only a few dozen that seemed to support Calvinism. It came down to two things:
- The preponderance of the evidence – hundreds or thousands of scriptures comprising overall themes of free will, salvation being extended to all, total depravity but not total inability, etc. versus a few dozen “proof texts” – all of which could be interpreted differently than Calvinists asserted, without doing violence to the scriptures, the character of God, or the plain meaning of words and universally accepted grammatical constructions.
- That if God intended to state what Calvinism asserts, He did an exceedingly poor job of it in the scriptures. It is not visible to the naked eye at all and requires almost everything one has learned about the meaning of words and grammatical structure to be turned on their head. There is a very real double-speak going on in Calvinism where the same words are exchanged between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, but with very different meanings. Ironically, Calvinists try to make their theology palatable not by doubling down in the deterministic direction, but mostly by trying as hard as possible to give the appearance of choice, but then qualifying by successive degrees of restriction upon that choice until it no longer exists in any meaningful sense. It becomes CINO (choice in name only). I found the attempt by Calvinists to control the debate by hijacking the definition and plain meaning of words to be especially egregious in my readings and in listening to their teachings and discussions and debates.