What Calvinism Isn’t

The first time I heard the name of John Calvin was in my high school Social Studies textbook, and it wasn’t a positive introduction. It said something about his belief that people were fundamentally bad and that God chose to love some but not others. Maybe it said more than that, but I don’t remember. What I do know, is I immediately disliked him and wondered how anyone could like this Calvin fellow.

Calvinism is a dirty word in many circles. Even among Calvinists, being called a “Calvinist” can seem like something of a slur. I have already explored some of the path that led me to embrace Calvinism, so I won’t do that here. I also don’t want to write in order to try persuading others to change their doctrinal positions. This article addresses some stereotypes of Calvinists and focuses on what Calvinism isn’t while next week’s article will highlight what Calvinism is.

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Do False Teachers Concern You?

I was in college when I read a book that captivated me. It was an apologetics book where a theology professor was writing letters back-and-forth with his atheist father, and he carefully and winsomely explained his Christian views. The problem was, some of those views were radical reinterpretations of what the Bible teaches. Because of this book there were a number of significant doctrines that I misunderstood for years. Since then, I have grown more discerning and careful about evaluating what I read and listen.

We are all called to be careful readers and listeners, to be on guard against false teachers. Sometimes it might come off as spiritual superiority (“I know better than they do, I’m not falling for it!”) or spiritual arrogance (“I can’t believe you’d read that book”). We need to remain humble even as we grow in our spiritual discernment, but one of my great concerns for Christians today is a lack of spiritual discernment.

There are authors and musicians (yes, our Christian music can easily spread false teaching) who are on the Christian best seller’s list, but they’re false teachers who should be avoided. Sure, maybe their books are really fun to read, their personalities are engaging, and some of their stuff is helpful. But the Bible calls Christians to be spiritually discerning, because there are false teachers who can lead well-intentioned believers astray.

Do false teachers concern you? Do you ask theological questions about the books you read, music you listen to, shows you watch, or teachers you learn from? Sadly, we cannot simply trust anyone who talks about Jesus and quotes the Bible.

Careful Reading
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Three Things Every Christian Should Know

Evangelism has always been difficult. Gone are the days when even nonChristians generally understood what Christianity taught. Nowadays, even many professing-Christians struggle to articulate the essentials of Christian theology. Because we can no longer assume a general awareness of Christian thinking, evangelism will continue to require us to teach basic theological truths before we can be assured that people know enough to truly become Christians.

Here are three truths every Christian should know and be able to clearly explain to others.

Bible on Table

 

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Faith is Not a Good Idea

Jim grew up in church and still believes most of what he learned there, but his life doesn’t look like you might expect. He cusses, drinks more than he should, has been known to sleep around on occasion, and hasn’t gone to church (or read the Bible) in well over a decade. But overall, he’s a good guy who tries to look after his friends as best he can. When Jim hears coworkers talking about religion, he often jumps in to offer the “Christian perspective.” He considers himself a Christian (although he’s quick to admit “I’m a bad Christian”).

While friends like Jim don’t really care what label you give them, it’s worth our time to figure out what’s going on when religious ideas seems to get confused as faith.

Sears Tower

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

What is Faith?
The Bible defines faith this way,

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV)

Faith isn’t simply a “good idea.” It’s assurance and conviction in what is unseen. The visible is interpreted through the lens of the unseen – faith shapes life.

  • Because God is holy – I live my life to worship and honor him
  • Because God is merciful and gracious – I am accepted because of his provision, not my performance
  • Because God is the judge – I live according to his law
  • Because God is faithful – I will trust him even in the midst of suffering
  • Because the Bible is God’s Word – I will read it, understand it to the best of my ability, and obey it as the very word of God

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3 Things Every Christian Must Know

Man with Bible in Field

Theology is important. What you believe about God matters. But for the normal Christian (or the person who’s considering Christianity), it can be extremely overwhelming to know where to begin.

Here are three things every Christian must know. They are also useful for evangelism and sharing the Gospel with others, because this is a clear and simple way to summarize what is at the heart of Christianity.

The Essential Core:

Who God is: God is the holy creator of heaven and earth who made us in his image to love and worship and reflect him in this world.

What God has Done: Because we have sinned, and our sin has earned God’s judgment, He took the initiative to rescue us from the wrath we deserve. In love, God came to us in Jesus Christ who lived and died and conquered death on our behalf so we could be forgiven, made new, and adopted as sons and daughters of God.

Who is God Calling You to Be: As a son/daughter of God, my life isn’t my own, but God’s. I live for his glory and not my own. I live to do everything in a way that shows the light and love and saving grace of God to all people, inviting them to confess their sin, repent, and become children of God themselves.

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How to Not be a Heretic

What you believe matters. Your beliefs about the world, yourself, and God are always operating in the background of your mind, shaping your decisions and passions. Especially today, where tolerance is often talked about but little practiced, talking about religious belief is difficult and tricky.

Being a Christian means you believe certain theological statements are true while rejecting other claims about God and religion are not true. Of course, that’s not unique to Christianity. Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Atheism have their own “theological walls” that set the boundaries… and if you pass those boundaries then you can no longer be considered a part of that theological camp.

For example,

  • An Atheist cannot believe in intelligent design.
  • A Buddhist cannot believe the Jesus is the only way to heaven.
  • A Christian cannot believe there are multiple paths to heaven.

While some people throw the word “Heretic” at anyone with whom they have a strong disagreement, that doesn’t capture what heresy is. Heresy is a teaching that undercuts and contradicts the essential teachings of a religion. This is why Christians may disagree regarding Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered cults who are outside the bounds of true Christianity. airplane-wreck Continue reading

What is the Trinity?

Alice was an elderly friend of mine who is now with the Lord. For years she struggled with the Trinity and the more we talked about the Trinity, the more concerned I was about her faith, because she kept arguing that God could not be three-in-one. And yet, she continued to affirm that she is indeed a Christian.

Alice thought it was just some Christian mumbo-jumbo and it didn’t really matter if you understood it or not. Eventually, I gave her the warning, “Alice, if you deny the Trinity, you cannot be a Christian. You either believe in the Trinity and you’re a Christian, or you deny the Trinity and set yourself outside the lines of Christianity.”

A few months later, she came to me after church smiling, and said, “I finally get it. 1+1+1=1.” I was overjoyed. So was she, and she thanked me for being so direct about the seriousness of our discussion.

The Trinity really is that important. All Christian theology is an explanation of the Trinity. You cannot understand Christianity without a basic understanding of the Trinity. The following is intended to present what you need for a basic and foundational understanding of the Trinity. If you study and learn this, it will serve you well.

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Rooted: “Does God Repent?”

The following is a brief excerpt from an article I’ve published for The Rooted Ministry. Please follow the link below to read the whole post.

Rethinking God’s nature is a dangerous, but exciting thing. What if we’ve misunderstood what it means for God to be sovereign and omniscient? This is a provocative question, and one that is increasingly being asked among theology professors today.

As youth workers, we can easily be intimidated to avoid difficult and confusing biblical passages. After all, most teenagers I know would prefer talking about how a Christian worldview effects their social media habits, rather than discussing controversial biblical passages. But we need to demonstrate the beauty and value of studying the Bible (all of it, not just the comfortable parts) seriously.

Many of us are intimidated to teach on passages where God “repents” or “regrets” or “seems to change His mind,” because we don’t know what it means or what the implications ought to be.

Read the whole article

5 Reasons Youth Workers Need Theology

I was sitting in the car with one of my youth group students. We had just spent the last two hours hanging out and talking about the movies and video games he’s been into lately when he asked seemingly silly question. It turns out, those are the questions that are usually the most difficult to answer. He asked, “Why do you think God made us so we need sleep? It seems like we could get more done without needing the sleep.”

He was curious, but didn’t even take his own question seriously. But it turns out, that very question gets to the heart of creation. Why did God create the Sabbath? Why are there seven days in creation instead of six? Simply put, so we would have a very tangible reminder that we are not in control. We can’t even control our bodies. They need sleep and rest. No matter who you are, your need for rest demands that you lay down your strength and rest in your weakness. In fact, those who are healthiest and most productive are strong advocates for rest! God made us with a built-in system to remind us that he is in control and we are not.

It was a great conversation that never would’ve happened without a reasonable degree of competence in Christian theology. I’m not wise enough to come up with all this on my own. Thankfully, I don’t need to!

Here’s the thing: you never know when significant theological questions are going to be asked. Usually, it’s unexpected and from the least likely student.

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Theology isn’t the goal of faith, Love is

Evangelical Christians have a habit of being known more for what we believe theologically/ideologically than for how we live. And when those outside our camp think about how we live, “hypocrite” is the frequent accusation. I’m not here to debate whether or not that’s a fair accusation, but I’ve been challenged twice just today to remember the centrality of love for God in the Christian life.

I was rereading Revelation 2-3’s letters to the churches and was struck again by the Letter to the Ephesian Church. Here’s what immediately jumped out at me:

“I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.” (vv.2b-4)

What Caught My Attention
As someone who named his blog “Living Theologically” I doubt I need to tell you that theological faithfulness is important to me. The name of this blog isn’t just an idea that I came up with, it really is a description of how I think, make decisions, observe what’s around me, even how I make jokes (or attempt to, at least). Accordingly, I naturally filter what I hear and read through a biblical and theological lens.

The Ephesian Church did the same thing, and yet they were rebuked because the did this at the expense of love. How often do I, and how often do we as thoughtful Evangelicals, think theologically in a way that separates doctrine from love?

No Division Necessary
Theological faithfulness and passionate love for God belong together. One without the other either leads to sterile faith or rootless faith. Scripture consistently affirms God’s passionate love for humanity. Why, then, do we who desire to know him thoroughly fail to show the kind of love towards him that we are trying to understand?!

As I/we continue to grow in our understanding of who God is and what He’s done and what He’s calling us towards, let us do so with our eyes firmly fixed on God Himself, not on our theology books or creeds. When we desire theological clarity more than we desire intimacy with Christ then we are in danger of forsaking our “first love.” As the A.W. Tozer quote above reminds us, “The Devil is a better theologian than any of us and is a devil still.”

The Heart of the Christian Faith is Love
The heart of Christianity is love: God’s love for us, our love for Him, and our love for each other. As the Apostle Paul concludes in the famous “love chapter,”

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (vv.1-3)

Theological precision is good, it’s something I am committed to – but love is better. I know from experience the coldness of theological faithfulness when one’s heart begins to harden towards God. I want a soft heart that is filled with wonder that God would love me. I want a discerning heart that would give someone a word of comfort and hope before I jump to correct their theology.

I don’t think I’m alone. I think there are many who hear the words to the Church in Ephesus and are convicted about forsaking their love for God in exchange for theological accuracy. Let’s not throw theology in the dumpster or say it’s not essential (it is, just read the words to the Church in Thyatira!), but let’s remember that Love is primary.

  • Do not let God’s love for you grow boring or theoretical
  • God is more than “a good idea” …  ask yourself whether or not you have affection for God
  • When God’s love for you (or your love for Him) begins to grow cold, you can assume that your love for other people has already iced over. You cannot love God without loving other people (1 John 4:20), so if you want to recover your love for God then send some “Thank You” cards, give to those in need (out of genuine love, not pity), and listen carefully to those around you (and refrain from being the “answer guy” who knows the solution to all their problems… just listen).

Note: I heard John Piper talk on the relationship between the heart and the head last year at a Gospel Coalition: New England conference. I haven’t read his book Think, but I know it dives into this topic more fully… if you hear nuances of what Piper writes about in this post it’s probably coming from the talks I heard last year. 

I’d love to hear from those of you out there who share this struggle with me, please add your insights in the comment section regarding the relationship between theological faithfulness and all-out love for God. I know I’m not alone…