Why John Calvin?
We’re pushing off into a 5-month voyage of the life and thought of John Calvin. Where this boat will float us I cannot say. Augustine said that he wrote to learn and that’s my intention. But I can predict with certainty that these will not be easy seas. Understanding God’s motives and actions require the utmost humility. Calvin leads us off the path of human wisdom to the cliff edge of divine mystery. Scripture leads us here, so we go.
My goal is to uncover the implications of Calvinism for the Christian life (If you want a 20-point defense of limited atonement, you will not find it here). But this will not be a difficult task. Calvin never strays very far into theology without showing the practical implications.
Here are a few answers that come to mind when we ask: Why Calvin? Why now?
1. Because Calvinism is biblical. No system of theology has better (notice I did not say ‘perfectly’) displayed a consistently biblical framework. If you want to be consistent with Scripture, Calvinism is your system. Because of this, Calvinism is a firm confrontation to theological reductionism (those who build theological systems from only parts of Scripture). We must deal with themes like God’s sovereignty, our depravity, His election, etc. These Calvinistic themes are carried throughout the Old and New Testaments.
2. Because Calvinism is tested. The greatest theological minds in church history were Calvinists. Augustine, who predates Calvin by centuries, laid a foundation Calvin could easily build on (“Augustine is totally ours!” Calvin once wrote). After Calvin, men like Jonathan Edwards and John Owen stand atop the list of theological elites who were Calvinists which should not surprise since the Puritan movement itself was “a kind of vigorous Calvinism” (Joel Beeke, Meet the Puritans). John Bunyan was a Calvinist. Mathematical genius and philosopher Blaise Pascal was a Calvinist. Great evangelists like David Brainerd and George Whitefield were Calvinists (Whitefield frequently preached of election to non-believers). Calvinist theologians include B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, Charles Hodge, Cornelius Van Til and the other early Princeton Seminary leaders. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Francis Schaeffer were Calvinists. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon equated Calvinism with the gospel itself. Representing several denominations, many contemporary Evangelical leaders are Calvinists (Al Mohler, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, C.J. Mahaney, Joshua Harris, R.C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, John MacArthur, J.I. Packer and Mark Dever). A ministry producing some of the most powerful sermons and worship music goes by a very Calvinistic name, Sovereign Grace Ministries. And this is just a sampling. For centuries (right up to 2007) Calvinism has caught the eye of the brightest theological minds, evangelists, preachers, philosophers and musicians.
3. Because Calvinism is a relevant worldview. We are not talking merely about theology and doctrine! Calvinism puts every detail of this world – not in the hands of mere men or fate or luck – but in a personal God who is working all of world history towards one final goal. To say it another way, “there is nothing casual nor contingent in the world.” So what does a Calvinist look like? B.B. Warfield wrote, “He [the Calvinist] has caught sight of the ineffable Vision, and he will not let it fade for a moment from his eyes – God in nature, God in history, God in grace. Everywhere he sees God in His mighty stepping, everywhere he feels the working of his mighty arm, the throbbing of His mighty heart.” Calvinism is a worldview that embraces music, art, history, natural sciences, medicine, politics, economics, labor and race relations. Fittingly, McGrath closes his biographical account of Calvin with these words: “Although Calvin lies buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Geneva, his ideas and influences live on in the outlooks of the culture he helped to create” (p. 261).
4. Because Calvinism brings reverence and trust in God. According to Calvin, without reverence towards God and worshipping Him as the giver of all things, we cannot know God. Understanding God is not about scholarship and academic degrees but of piety, submission and love towards God. A true study of Calvin and Calvinism will help us foster these godly characteristics.
5. Because Calvinism protects the church. Whether we are talking about open theism, theological liberalism, religious relativism, emergent church movement, church-growth methods, new perspectives of Paul or misunderstandings of the fundamental differences between the gospels of Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, Calvinism will keep our attention on Scripture. In the book The Doctrines of Grace, Boice and Ryken write, “The pathway from Calvinism to liberalism – and even atheism – is well worn, and it usually passes through Arminianism” (p. 66). Churches who preach a god unable to sovereignly manage the world to his own glory become vulnerable to the most grave errors.
6. Because Calvinism brings comfort. When life is tough, there is no comfort in a powerless god. Only when we understand God to be firmly in control of our pain and discomforts can we say with Job, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!” And only then can we say with Paul, “All things work together for the good of those who love God.” Only a sovereign God can comfort us in our deepest trials.
7. Because Calvinism is high. If you want to grasp God, you must stand on the highest plateau to get a glimpse of his majesty. Steven Lawson’s newest book reminds us that Calvinism is where “The lofty truths of divine sovereignty provide the greatest and grandest view of God” and “The doctrines of grace serve to elevate the entire life of the church.” Calvinism forces us to climb higher than we imagined, to see bigger things then we thought possible, and elevates the worship and reverence of the church beyond the routine and mundane.
8. Because Calvinism is cool. That’s right. Last Fall Christianity Today called Calvinists, “Young, Restless and Reformed,” which is another way of saying Calvinists are now the cool kids in school. Seriously, people can see through the wafer thin glazing of seeker sensitive church growth movement. Confusing conversations and open theism simply will not do. Christians want the mighty God of Scripture. One who sits high and exalted, who shakes the heavens and whose right hand controls every detail of life to His own glory and to the good of believers. Calvinism is very relevant today.
Loraine Boettner wrote of John Calvin that he “ventured boldly but reverently upon the brink of that abyss of speculation where all human knowledge is lost in mystery and adoration.” And in pursuing the depths of Scripture, Calvin has set before us the Christian life as it flows from the most profound theology.
Together we will learn Humble Calvinism. Will you join us?
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