When I was 21, I had a simple tattoo applied to my ankle – a symbol I had been drawing since high school: a heart, a cross and a fish. Having grown up when the Hard Rock Café was cool, I explain to people that it stands for “Love All, Serve All, Reach All.”
That isn’t entirely true.
Yes, the “Love All, Serve All” part was completely ripped off Hard Rock Café’s logo, but the “Reach All” was originally “Win All” and I stole it from a WMU campaign. I changed “Win” to “Reach” because I eventually came to find the term disturbing.
People were more than prizes, and salvation more than a game.
I wasn’t raised in the Church, but I was raised in faith among the Southern Baptist Convention. I was invited to some sort of “youth crusade” program my first year in high school, “accepted Christ” while at the winter “Joy Explo” event, “came forward” at my church to let them know about my “decision” and was soon baptized before the congregation. I served as a leader in my youth group, participated in “outreach” and “evangelism” events, went on “mission” trips and choir tours, helped with VBS and day camps and sleep-away camps, attending “Super Summer” (evangelism training/summer camp) every year, worked at the church as a children’s ministry intern, went to an SBC university, spent a summer as a missionary with the state convention, and returned to my “home” church after graduation. For better or worse, these were my people.
Early on in my “conversion”, at the age of 15, I was taught a lot of words to say in order to “lead” others to Christ. I’m sure I spouted them around often enough, but I remember using them earnestly only twice. Both times, the words failed. I thought that meant I failed, because I didn’t use the words correctly. Years later I would figure out I failed because I relied on the words to begin with. In once case, I alienated a friend. In the other, I heard my mother respond, “If you’re going to come home this upset, I’m not going to take you back there again.” You see, I didn’t drive, so my mom was kind enough to drop me off at church and pick me up again when it was over, at least until my friends got cars. I never (sincerely) tried to “share” again.
Around my Junior year in college, two phenomenons occurred in my religious thinking.
On one hand, some religion majors at my SBC University started talking about this thing called Calvinism, and became legalistically conservative in their actions and expectations of others. We began referring to a particular group of particularly outspoken guys as the “CC” – the Christian Coalition.
Now, I was already familiar with the long, drawn out civil war taking place in the convention. It may not have affected our local congregation so much, but it was inescapable on a denominational campus. The ones in “control” when the war broke out (we’ll call them the Yankees) were apparently too liberal, and the ones who “revolted” (we’ll call them the Confederates) were apparently more conservative. One side viewed the war as the “Conservative Take-Over” while the other side dubbed it the “Reformed Restoration”, or something along those lines. In this case, the “South” rose again.
The whole conflict blew my mind at the time. Remember, I was not raised SBC, or even in the wider Church, so in my mind the convention and its congregations were already ultra-conservative. The summer I interned at the large church I was a member of, one of the secretaries commented negatively on the outfit my best-friend had worn to church on Sunday. I thought back to the previous day and replied, “But she wasn’t wearing polka-dots – she wore that brown dress!” “Oh,” the secretary corrected, “It must have been someone who looked like her…” The crime in question? SHORTS! I did have enough grit by that point to ask, “What does it matter what she was wearing, anyway, as long as she was here?!” (not to mention Sunday afternoon choir practice… and Sunday evening service… and Sunday night fellowship… and Monday night visitation… and Wednesday night youth group?!)
So the SBC was being taken over by “conservatives”. Not until that Junior year of college was this made clear to me: it wasn’t just a moral issue, it was a theological one. I had TULIP explained to me, and I cried. I was already driving my ever patient philosophy professor crazy over my struggles with “the tree” (why would God put a tree in paradise, make it attractive, allow Satan to slither in, give us free-will to take from it, punish us for doing so…) and now I was being told to scratch the free-will part? God created us, put the tree there in paradise and predestined us to pick the fruit from it?! He pre-destined the fall?! He ordered us to “be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth” with people He had already determined of which many would go to hell?! And this was Good News?!
Another thing happened that year, if not slightly before. I was introduced to the Christian Community Development Association, and the concept of “Incarnational Living”. The idea that God became flesh and dwelt among His people in the person of Christ, demonstrating the fruit of His spirit lived out, and how people are drawn to Him by a lifestyle of obedience to loving God and loving one another… The idea that imitating Christ would not only glorify God but would draw others to Him… The idea that it wasn’t about “If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?” so much as it was about “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did”… this was earth shattering. It spoke truth to my soul.
I wasn’t questioning the sovereignty of God. God is all-knowing, yes. But if in His sovereignty He could create a whole race of people and tell their stories of decisions and mistakes and redemptions and choices through His scriptures, the whole time leading them to believe that they had free-will in any of this, all the while having pre-determined their paths and destinies, then in His sovereignty He could be equally able of allowing them to actually make those decisions, mistakes and choices. God is big. He can grant us decisive wills without it affecting his sovereignty in the least.
It became abundantly clear that I understood the “-ships” much more than I understood the “-isms”. Discipleship. Relationship. Stewardship. Calvinism. Denominationalism. Evangelism.
I just didn’t get this new-found, though apparently foundational, devotion to Calvin’s theology. It didn’t mesh with what I had been taught about Christ, and now people were saying if you teach it any other way than you teaching something unbiblical, and therefore you are offering a false salvation.
I thought back on my teachers and mentors, and I knew (as best as a human can know) theirs was not a false salvation, and I knew that neither was mine.
By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation: and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death.
~ John Calvin
I just don’t get it. I’ve read the arguments for and against, and I just can’t buy into it. That doesn’t mean that I would say that people who walk in the Calvinist view of creation and salvation are unbiblical or less likely to find favor with God than those who mesh with my view, whatever that may be. Here’s the thing, really. I may not agree with Calvinism, but I believe it could be so. God is sovereign, and it is entirely possible that this whole “world” thing could just be one big game of watch the little humans squirm. I don’t see that in His character as revealed to me through His incarnation among us or through His spirit that lives within us, guiding us in discernment.
I’ll be honest, I don’t understand evangelism from the Calvinist perspective. If their understanding is the only biblical one, and their evangelism should portray an honest, biblical account – how honest should they be?
I’m sharing my testimony with you because I want you to go to Heaven. Of course, if you are one of the chosen people, then you will respond because God’s grace is irresistible. I now have a list of programs you should sign up for and principles you should ascribe to in order to verify that your faith is real. If you don’t respond to what I have shared, it’s because you weren’t chosen – God hardened your heart and predestined you to an excruciating eternity burning in hell among Satan and his mignons. So, what’ll it be?
I’m also confused on how this works with the whole end-of-days scenario. Do we stop birthing new chosen beings at some point? You know, once the quota has been met? If not, what happens if the Lord returns before someone has a chance to respond to His irresistible grace, repent and believe? Are they damned because they never got a chance to respond to God’s salvation? If so, were they actually predestined, afterall? Are they saved anyway because they were chosen? If so, what is the point of “witnessing”?
I could get into semantics, but it’s all just words. In the end, it doesn’t so much matter whether God chose a select group of people to receive His grace or whether He has made it available to all, anymore than it matters who will ushered first into the presence of the Lord.
God became flesh and dwelt among us.
He has shown us how to live: act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.
He has instructed us what to do: feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, show hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick and imprisoned.
He taught us what the fruit of His spirit looks like, and what it does not.
He called us out of sin and into a lifestyle of obedience.
He reminded us that many will be surprised on the last day.
He commaneded us above all to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself.
I don’t have to believe in pre-destination, because, in the end, it does not matter.
God demonstrated His love toward us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Who is “us”?
Why waste time wondering?
Just do what He told you to do.