Notes from a Reluctant Calvinist – Phil Johnson

When people start reading God’s word…. Look Out!  They start to change.  They start thinking differently and their words begin to change.  It’s actually a wonderful evidence of grace to witness; they begin to meet God in the Word and that is an incredible joy!  Along the way though, there are bound to be some bumps.  When what is read in the Bible keeps contradicting or at least not fitting with what they’ve been taught for years and years, it can get pretty crazy. 

For me, it was in the area of the doctrines of grace.  I’d seen and experienced a lot of fads and themes through the years, but mostly I grew up in an environment that pretty much embraced  man’s free/determining will (Arminianism).  I can’t say I remember much about the sovereignty of God.  Now… let me quickly add, that my dad seemed more grounded in that ‘reformed theology’, but I didn’t hear it in our church and so I just figured it was his old-fashioned reformed church background he grew up with.  I wish I could talk with him now.  I have so many questions as I look back.

So, as I see different blogs, there are some that catch my attention (like this one) and I can’t help but chase ’em down.  I post them here with overt hope that others like myself may take opportunity to read and begin to think about what the Bible says and if they’ve adopted a bias in their reading of the Scriptures without even knowing it, this might at least stir up some thoughts and questions for them as they continue to read and study God’s word.

I like Phil Johnson.  This is a post from him called “Notes from a Reluctant Calvinist”.  I hope you find it helpful.

19 April 2010

Notes from a Reluctant Calvinist

by Phil Johnson

The following excerpt is from a message I gave to a group of college students about five years ago. I’m posting this excerpt to encourage you to listen to the entire message, titled, “The Story of Calvinism,” which you can download (or stream) from HERE.

     have not always been a Calvinist. As a matter of fact, I was raised in the context of a liberal Methodist church, so long before I ever became a Christian, my mind was poisoned with a blend of liberalism and Wesleyan theology. And after I became a Christian, it was several years before I finally came to the point where I could affirm the biblical doctrine of election without trying to explain away clear statements of Scripture like Ephesians 1:4 (which says that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world). Or Romans 9:15-16, where God says, “‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’ So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”

I resisted those ideas for years. I knew the word election is biblical, but I had a friend who explained it this way: “God voted for you the devil voted against you. You cast the deciding vote.”

That made perfect sense to me.

Very early in my Christian experience, I went to a small church in the town where I attended college, and my Sunday-school teacher there was decidedly anti-Calvinistic. Almost every week, he would warn us against the dangers of putting too much stress on the sovereignty of God. Almost every week he would work into his lesson the idea that human free-will is sovereign, and the choice is ultimately left entirely up to each sinner to decide what to do with Christ. That seemed reasonable to me. It reinforced what I was inclined to believe anyway.

But at the same time, in my own study of the Scriptures and my reading of church history, I kept running into biblical statements and doctrinal issues that posed a severe challenge to that sort of free-will theology.

Then one Sunday while this guy was taking prayer requests, a girl in the class raised her hand and asked, “Should we really be praying for our lost relatives? It seems like it’s a wasted effort to pray to God for their salvation if He can’t do any more than he has already done to save them.”

And I vividly remember the look on the face of this Sunday School teacher. This was clearly a question that had never occurred to him. So he thought about it for a moment, and you could see the wheels in his head turning while he tried to think of a good reason to pray for the salvation of the lost. And finally, he said, “Well, yeah, I guess you’re right.” And from that Sunday on, he never accepted any more prayer requests for people’s lost loved ones.

That didn’t seem quite right to me, even as a dyed-in-the-wool Arminian. I had just done a Bible study in Romans 10:1, where Paul says, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” Not only that, I began to wonder why we should pray about anything in the realm of human relationships if God never intrudes on the sanctity of human free will. You know: Why should I pray for God to move my English teacher to look favorably on my work when she graded my paper if she is ultimately sovereign over her own heart? Those were questions I couldn’t answer.

And the more I studied the Bible, the more it seemed to challenge my ideas about free will and the sovereignty of God. One by one over a period of more than 10 years, the doctrines of election, and God’s sovereignty, and the total depravity of sinners became more and more clear to me from Scripture.

It was a sermon series by John MacArthur on the doctrine of election from Ephesians 2 that finally turned me into a full-fledged Calvinist, and that was at least 15 years after I first came to the Lord.

So I know what it is like to be baffled by these truths and to resist what seems like a dangerous tendency to go overboard with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. I’ve been there, and I feel your pain.

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3 Responses to Notes from a Reluctant Calvinist – Phil Johnson

  1. Thanks, Tim. I’m going to listen to the rest of this message . . . You know this has been my journey to some extent. Growing up Methodist and then A/G for the last 30 years, yet finding some things I’ve been taught just not squaring up with Scripture.

    Side note: While at T4G, I saw a guy I went to Central Bible College (A/G) with in the late 80’s early 90’s. I contacted him, and he’s Sovereign Grace pastor now! I’m gonna call him later in the week and find out how he ended up there :). Might help me understand my unique (of maybe NOT so unique) situation…

  2. TimWitten says:

    Isn’t it pretty amazing as you actually spend lots of time devouring God’s word, God opens himself up to you and all the weird language of the Psalms starts to make sense… your soul really does begin to pant after God. And then as you read and meditate on His word, many of the things that you picked up from others through the years starts to fall apart and away. That’s a part of this wonderful relationship with God that I love.

    So Blaine, you went to CBC? I just reviewed a resume from someone graduating from there in May. I’m on a youth pastor search committee and were in the midst of reviewing resumes and applications, and when I saw your mention of Central Bible College it rung a bell. Did you have a good experience there?

    • I certainly do value my time at CBC (my wife graduated from there, too) and the friends I made during that time are now ministering all over the planet! 🙂 I think they do a great job of training for ministry, even though the best ministry training is simply doing it for years.

      The tricky thing about hiring youth pastors is finding a young man with maturity behind his eyes. There are some young twenty-somethings ready to interact with and lead kids just a few years younger than themselves, while others just want to act silly and feel accepted. I guess you kinda have to pick them out like Samuel did David – let God reveal the one with maturity, a true heart, and leadership skills.

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