X-Calvinist Corner Files: A New Addition (Testimony # 51)

, posted by SEA

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 Dana Steele:

I’m finally ready to tell my story. I apologize that my response is longer than most. Thank you for the opportunity to share my story with others. Thank you especially Ben for your perseverance in helping me on my journey. Thanks to those who take the time to read my story. My story is not done but it reached a pivotal point yesterday, so I think it is time.

Though I have written out many drafts of this story, I have condensed it and adapted it to fit your suggested format.

How did you become a Calvinist?

I grew up in a Calvinistic Baptist church from age 11. The 5-points of Calvinism (TULIP) were taught regularly with great enthusiasm and Arminianism was spoken of dismissively. But it wasn’t until college that I began to understand and embrace the “Doctrines of Grace” and TULIP more fully. I knew Arminianism was the counter to Calvinism, but I had never studied the doctrine seriously. Why study false doctrines?

I have come to learn that many of my previous views of Arminianism were assumed or misinformed. For example, I thought that Arminians believed that extra-biblical ideas like free will and fairness are more important than biblical ideas like election, predestination and sovereignty. To be honest, this view was sometimes reinforced by uninformed Arminians I met. It seemed to me that Arminianism was the default position of untaught Evangelicals because freedom from God’s sovereignty appeals to the flesh. But once a believer studies the Scriptures, they come to realize their default thinking is unbiblical. Or they remained stubborn by picking and choosing which parts of the bible they agreed with and ignored the rest.

On a practical level I saw problems with the Arminian notion that anyone can be saved. This encourages reliance of fleshly persuasion rather than the Holy Spirit, since God has already done his part and now it is up to us to close the deal. I had heard that Arminian Charles Finney introduced humanistic evangelism techniques like the “alter call” and the “anxious bench.” These became popular tools in Arminian churches to compel unregenerate people to make “decisions” for Christ and thus pronounce them saved. This type of arm twisting assumes that men are no longer totally depraved, they just need a little encouragement to get over their inhibition to come forward. I was therefore openly critical of modern Arminian evangelical ministries like Billy Graham and Louis Palau. Arminians would prematurely invite unbelievers to recite the “sinner’s prayer” and then pronounce them saved when they were not.

Ironically Arminians also believed you could lose your salvation which meant you had to keep earning your salvation, which brought into question whether they even preached the true gospel of salvation by faith alone. Basically, anything negative in Christianity I associated with Arminians. So growing up I had a very negative impression of Arminian Theology. Arminians in my view were well-intentioned but misguided and certainly not serious bible students. How could they be? God’s sovereignty and election are taught throughout the Bible. Romans 9 was a slam dunk for Calvinism.

What did you find most compelling about Calvinism?

Growing up I took great comfort in the doctrine of eternal security. If salvation were up to me, I would certainly be doomed! I also learned to love the doctrine of election because it meant that God loved me personally and specifically in a unique way. Though it made me a little embarrassed to think that God did not love everyone this way, I was content to leave this as a mystery. Who am I to question God? I was just glad I was one of the lucky (I mean chosen) ones.

My church had many mature Christians who knew the Word. They were a praying church, an evangelistic church. We supported missionaries and had a heart for reaching our community with the gospel. I loved my church and knew of none that were doing the work of the kingdom better. OK, I didn’t really know any other churches.

In college I began meeting Christians from different theological backgrounds. Most, I assume were Arminian but when I would mention election they were not interested in challenging my soteriology. Some saw it as a divisive doctrine, others as not important, but I never met anyone who wanted to challenge my understanding of the “Doctrines of Grace”. One of my pastors gave me a booklet entitled “The 5-Points of Calvinism” by David Steele and the volume of scriptures in that booklet really reinforced my confidence that Calvinism was unassailable. I would go back and read its proof texts occasionally like an antidote whenever I started to doubt my Calvinism. The problem was, I had never met a serious bible student who wanted to defend Arminianism from the Word of God. When we did discuss the subject, the debate quickly turned from scripture to philosophy regarding “robots” and “puppets” and “real love”. This was a quick turnoff for me. So my view of Arminians only grew more and more cynical. I concluded that Arminians were either theologically lazy or just in denial of the hard truth of unconditional election. I had developed a sense of theological superiority.

After college I returned to my Calvinist church and began serving actively. I continued to fellowship with my Arminian friends from other churches. I knew they were Arminian but we rarely discussed it. Even as we matured in the Lord no one challenged my Calvinism. When I did try to press the issue I was usually met with little fight. They probably just wanted to avoid conflict, valuing my friendship more than a doctrine, but this just continued to reinforce my view of Arminians.

Our church called a new pastor whose doctoral dissertation was on Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. He grew up an Arminian until his exegesis of Romans 9 forced him to accept Calvinism. Then he grew to love it. I grew a lot siting under his teaching, learning how to study the Word. I became a youth leader, Young Adult Sunday School teacher, and later a deacon.

Unlike most Baptist churches in our area, we believed in a plurality of elders. Our church website promoted the fact that we were “Reformed yet Dispensational”, a curious combination for many visitors. I liked the fact that we were not tied to one tradition but strove to be biblical even if it meant not fitting into a conventional box. I was fully persuaded that I was on the right side of the soteriology debate even though I had never seriously engaged a formidable opponent in the debate.

When our pastor left, the church called the only remaining elder to be the new senior pastor and later called me to be a bi-vocational associate pastor in 2009. Although I never attended seminary, I took the Word of God seriously and had been trained well under my former Calvinist pastors. The problem was not that I didn’t understand Calvinism, the problem was I had never been seriously challenged in my beliefs. I had accepted superficial answers to the debate because I did not recognize there was any substance to the debate. I had approached the Scriptures already convinced unconditional election was true, so it was easy to find it in Scripture when looking for it. I couldn’t see past my Calvinistic lens. Calvinism was biblical and that was the end of the discussion for me. If I were to reconsider Calvinism, the Scriptures would have to point the way.

In my preaching and teaching I consistently defended the Doctrines of Grace, aka, the 5-Points of Calvinism. I had a well-developed sense of superiority over those who held to Arminian theology even though I had never studied Arminian theology! In my adult Sunday School class I had taught A.W. Pink’s “The Attributes of God”. I taught the book of Hebrews and managed to explain away all the warning passages as hypothetical or not addressed to genuine believers. I had heard my fellow pastors for years quote teachers like Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Spurgeon, Sproul, Piper and MacArthur. They promoted Ligonier Ministries and the Gospel Coalition. Although I was not an avid reader, I was familiar with these men and convinced that the vast majority of scholars and theologians were on my side. This “appeal to authority” was encouraging even though I’ve always been more of a “question authority” personality. But since Calvinists were still in the minority of evangelical Christianity, even this desire to go against the flow was satisfied in my Calvinism.

Why did you begin to question your Calvinistic convictions?

In 2016 I decided to teach an adult Sunday School series on The Gospel Coalition series called “9-Marks of a Healthy Church.” I started with the booklet entitled “The Gospel” by Ray Ortlund, Jr. From the start, I was struck by his definition of the gospel which he called “the essential message Bible-believing people rally around.” Ortlund put it this way:

“God, through the perfect life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, rescues all his people from the wrath of God into peace with God, with a promise of the full restoration of his created order forever – all to the praise of the glory of his grace.”

What struck me about this carefully crafted gospel statement was the complete absence of faith or any response at all on the part of man. In a word, it was thoroughly “monergistic”. To be fair, Ortlund prefaced his definition by saying this message is to be proclaimed and believed, but he offered no other connection between faith and salvation. Also to be fair, the goal of his booklet was not to provide a robust definition of the gospel but rather to show how the Church lives out the gospel, a worthy subject. I doubt Ortlund was intending to be controversial by neglecting to mention faith, but his overt monergism startled me and got me thinking. What is the role of faith in salvation? Why does the bible talk so much about faith if salvation is solely a work of God (monergistic)? As a Calvinist, I believed that God saves through regeneration. Faith is the result of regeneration. It is only secondarily and indirectly the condition of salvation. That does not mean it is not important. It is necessary for salvation but it is a consequential result of regeneration. Since all who are regenerated believe, the key question in determining who will be saved is not who will believe but rather who will be regenerated. But as I thought about those things, I began to ask, “Is that biblical?” It was that question which started me on my path away from Calvinism.

I began to think about my Arminian friends. Why did they believe in synergism when it was so clear from Scripture that God is sovereign over everything, especially salvation? Since I wasn’t confident any of my Arminian friends could or would want to engage my questions at a deep level, I decided to search online for Arminian websites. I found this website: arminianperspectives.wordpress.com. The first surprise I encountered was that classical Arminians believe in Total Depravity. Why did I not know this? Maybe I had other misunderstandings about Arminianism. I kept reading.

The more I read, the more I came to realize that there are Arminians who are serious about bible exegesis. They did not shy away from the difficult Calvinist proof-texts. I read several Arminian exegesis of Romans 9 and John 6 and it was like a light coming on in my brain. I learned about corporate election and prevenient grace, terms I had honestly never heard before. Suddenly, all the latent concerns and doubts I had about Calvinism began to surface. Does God decree sin? How does prayer change anything in a deterministic universe? Does God in fact love everyone and want everyone to be saved? Why does the Scripture warn us about falling away?

I had become adept at suppressing my doubts in obedience to God’s transcendence. I had bought into the tensions and mysteries that held Calvinism together but now was seeing another solution, one that made more sense of the biblical texts. Even John 6 and Romans 9 which I thought were rock solid proof texts for Irresistible Grace, Unconditional Election and Preservation of the Saints were suddenly opening up to me like I was reading it for the first time without bias. Of course we all have bias but for the first time I was admitting it.

I had so many questions. I began pestering the webhost with questions. I didn’t understand prevenient grace. I wasn’t sure how it worked. Is everyone totally depraved until they are enabled to believe? When are they enabled to believe? Is it a moment in time like regeneration or progressive? I used to think that Free Will was a man-made philosophical construct designed to make us feel better about ourselves. Essentially I thought it was an illusion, but since God is good and he loves me, no problem. I was admittedly not that familiar with the Calvinist compromise known as Compatibilism though thinking back it is clear that my fellow pastors were all compatibilists. Perhaps a more robust understanding of “soft determinism” would have insulated me from Arminianism but I don’t think so.

I began to ask myself, “What if I have been wrong this whole time? Did God really create some as vessels of wrath and damnation to glorify Himself? Was there a better way to understand Romans 9? Maybe sometimes what I consider a plain reading of the text is actually biased by assumptions? What if God really does love the world? What if the reason we proclaim the gospel to all is that everyone can be saved by the gospel? What if Christ really is the propitiation, not just for my sins but the sins of the whole world? You mean the plain reading of these texts might actually be true?” I was blown away.

It is essential that I submit to God always even when I come across “hard sayings” in the Word. I need to humble myself before God and remember that He is big and I am small. He does not owe me an explanation. I am not in a position to ultimately determine what is good and just. So when I don’t understand I just cling to what I know is true. That used to be Calvinism. But it is not Calvinism that I loved, it was God’s Word. I find great comfort in submitting to the Word because it is true even when my thoughts and feelings are faulty and can’t be trusted. So when I considered that the Word might actually be telling me that God loves the world and desires all to be saved, and sent his Son to make provision for all to be saved and invites all to be saved and grants grace and faith freely to the world, it was a wonderfully liberating feeling. I felt like I was being reintroduced to my God.

What kind of support or opposition did you encounter while questioning your Calvinistic beliefs?

Even as I was thrilled to rediscover key biblical texts, these discoveries at the same time created a pit of fear in my stomach. What would my fellow pastors say? What would my congregation say? What would my family say? I suspected that many of them were in the same position as I had been. Calvinism was all they knew. But I was pretty sure the other elders would say I need to resign my pastoral position. “Pastors must be in hearty agreement with the Articles of Faith,” our constitution reads. I had no intention of leaving my church. I loved the people there. I grew up in this church. I couldn’t imagine worshiping anywhere else. They were my family. But revealing my changed position would undoubtedly lead to disappointment and pain. I was torn.

I eventually broached the subject at an elders meeting in the fall of 2016 and finally came clean as to the extent of my concerns in January of 2017. After over 30 years as a committed Calvinist, I now no longer considered myself a Calvinist! The elders were understandably shocked and concerned. To my surprise the elders decided to allow me to continue in my ministry provided I did not preach or teach Arminian Theology. We had some discussions on the subject but their approach was mainly to let me study on my own with the hope I would eventually come around. My approach was to just preach the Word and avoid the labels. This approach continued for 3 years until ironically, by God’s providence, each of my fellow pastors were called away by various means and I was eventually the only pastor left, an Arminian pastor in a Calvinist church!

When I finally revealed my secret to the congregation there were, not surprisingly, many who were shocked, disappointed and even angry that this had been kept from them so long. As I suspected, the galvanizing doctrinal issue was the P in TULIP, Perseverance of the Saints. I’m convinced that if I had somehow settled on 4-point Arminianism or Traditionalism as many Baptists do, the response would have been much different. But I could not tailor my convictions to a more favorable response. I am compelled to submit to the Scriptures.

Some members wanted me to resign immediately. But most felt it was not an important issue and wanted me to continue as pastor. Others actually agreed with me. But no one wanted to go so far to ask me and my family to leave the church. I did not want to leave. This was my family and families are supposed to work through their differences. But I came to realize that it was wrong for me to have kept this secret for so long. It was also clear that remaining a pastor would split my church family. So I decided to resign as pastor but stay to serve. This Sunday I was elected to return as a Deacon and I look forward to working with my diverse church to determine what direction we should go seeking a pastor to replace me.

These past 3 years I have received a mixture of support and opposition but I am particularly grateful for my understanding wife who turns out came from a 4-point Arminian background! I guess I didn’t properly screen her in the courtship process! I am also particularly grateful for one of my fellow Deacons who remains a strong Calvinist but has graciously engaged me in serious doctrinal discussions. Through our vigorous debates, we have actually grown in our love for one another. This is a model I hope to see repeated.

What primarily led to you abandoning Calvinism?

Simply put, I became convinced that the Bible does not teach Calvinism. It does not teach that regeneration precedes faith. It does not teach that Christ died only for the elect. I even gave up the one petal that most Baptists hold on to, Perseverance of the Saints. As I said, this was by far the hardest for my congregation to swallow. I just finally surrendered to the fact that the plainest and clearest interpretation of the warning passages is that they are actually warning believers of a real danger and not just loss of reward but the greatest of dangers, eternal death (Romans 6:23). I also take comfort in knowing I still believe in eternal security “in Christ.” While I still believe that if it is totally up to me, I would fall away, thankfully God preserves me as I cooperate with his preservation. I do not preserve myself by my own will or power. I am kept by the power of God!

My prayer is that my church and others will come to realize that soteriology, though important, is not something we should divide over. To grow in our faith, believers need to discuss these differences rather than sweeping them under the proverbial rug for “unity’s sake.” Believers must engage the hard questions if we are to develop a robust faith. Believers can disagree on the finer points of soteriology as long as we preach the same gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in the person and finished atoning work of Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, for God’s glory alone. But when we disagree, we must never forget to speak in love with the goal of edification and not insist that our counterpart accept all our perceived logical implications of their theology. Many believers are content with mystery and apparent contradiction and we should be content with their contentment.

As I have observed this debate taking place online and in person the past 4 years, I have concluded the problem lies mainly with our perceived need to defend God’s character. Because each side believes the character of God is at stake (God’s love or God’s power), they rush to defeat their opponent in an effort to defend God. But here’s the thing: both sides agree that God is great and worthy of worship. Even if you can’t see how the “Calvinist God” is worthy of worship or how the “Arminian God” is truly sovereign, accept the fact that many can and do. So get over it and worship Him together!

“Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.” (Phil. 3:15-16)