The Christian Reformed Church
Given the rise of emergent Calvinism the word has become (again) a hot potato. I’m not a Calvin scholar so for a more academic treatment I’ll defer to a real Calvin scholar like Richard Muller who asked the question “Was Calvin a Calvinist”
Calvinism in online, social media debates often gets reduced to “predestination” (usually erroneously confused with determinism“) and TULIP as a reduced version of the Canons of Dordt. There is plenty of reading available (for better or worse) on the Internet on all of this.
Calvinism as I know it was filtered down to me through the persons and institutions of the Christian Reformed Church . I’ve of course done my own shaping as we all do.
I think “Our World Belongs to God, A Contemporary Testimony” does a pretty good job of expressing a lot of the beliefs that my community has given me.
I’d like to make a few emphases that I think are helpful in understanding My Calvinism
I believe God made the world from joy. God did not make the cosmos out of his own necessity. He had community and communion in the Trinity. He did not make it because he needed to prove something. Creation was made to multiply joy.
If you are a good chef cooking a fine meal is amplified by inviting a group of eager eaters to enjoy the meal. If you are a good photographer opening a gallery to share your photographs expands the joy.
What God did in creation was magnify his how joy by sharing his own glory and his own goodness.
God is also humble and wise so he doesn’t get in the way of the joy.
If a good chef cooks a great meal but then continues to pass among the diners saying “I cooked this. Isn’t it glorious? Aren’t I a great chef?!” the meal may be ruined. The chef will likely quietly accept praise but the joy is in the enjoyment and as the chef brings the diners to enjoy the meal the praise is magnified.
This is the purpose of creation. That God’s glory may be magnified and enjoyed.
God also made us within the creation to be creative. The man and the woman were put in the garden to develop the raw materials of the earth. This produces greater glory as we ourselves enjoy what God enjoys and on and on we go further up and further in.
If this is what God wanted for the world and from the world why is the world so painful?
Imagine the eater in the dining hall enjoying the banquet when one sly fellow says to naive enjoyer of the treats “You know, he’s only giving us the rejects here. He’s saving the good stuff in the kitchen for himself. Follow me and I’ll show you how to sneak in and take some of the choicest goodies for yourself!”
Once that seed of suspicion is sown it is very hard to enjoy even an perfect meal. “There must be something better. The chef can’t be trusted, he’s holding out on us!”
This is one way of understanding the story of Genesis 3 with the serpent the man and the woman. Mistrust grows and innocence is lost.
At the realization of the loss of innocence the man and the woman turn on each other as they turn on the serpent. The woman who had been the man’s joy now together with the chef become the target for his accusations.
Their children will receive the same suspicion and will turn on each other resulting in murder.
We simultaneously can’t trust and shouldn’t be trusted and down the spiral we go.
We start to hoard the gifts of the father.
Probably the greatest evil we do is instead of using things and loving people we love things and use people.
Who we are and what we do gets multiplied into the world we have today. We are blind to our own sin but ready to manipulatively and defensively point out the failings of everyone else. We are miserable indeed.
If you’ve ever tried to talk someone out of their blindness you should know it doesn’t work. As a pastor I sometimes have people come to me and say “can you talk to so and so and tell them to do this and that.”
Most of the time I say “I can but I really don’t think it will do any good. I could tell you this and that but it wouldn’t change you. What makes you think talking to them will change them?”
Our painful prisons are mostly locked from the inside.
Jesus comes into this mess not so much to talk us out of it but to act on our behalf. He who did not need to suffer any distress became our victim. He who did us no wrong died at our own hands. He became an innocent victim of our violence.
One way to understand our rebellion is that we were suspicious of God’s way of living, which is “your well-being at my expense”, being the chef that loved nothing more than feeding us with eager appetites simply wanting the joy to multiply. We in suspicion imagine he instead works “my well-being at your expense” and so we adopt that mode of living. We become takers and not givers. We become users and not lovers.
Jesus comes, not to be Mr. Incredible and rescue us in that way, but rather to rescue us by paying the just penalty for our rebellion and be helping us to begin to see that the creator in fact wants the best for us, wants us to join in the joy.
So Jesus comes to us and lives out “your well-being at my expense” by doing things like forgiving enemies and turning the other cheek, only to have us kill him.
What God does then is to in fact vindicate Jesus, because in our suspiciousness had our doubts by raising him from the dead and seating him at the right hand of the Father.
What this does is to invite us into following Jesus into his way of living. To be perfect in the way the Father is perfect and in the way Jesus showed his perfection.
Matthew 5:43–48 (NET)
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’
44But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,
45so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they?
47And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they?
48So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
We, however, do not have the power to love in this way. So what happens, in fact, is God gives us his own power to do so. Read The Hiding Place.
What is God’s goal in all of this? Nothing more than for the party to commence.
Most of Jesus’ stories about the age to come are told in relation to parties. These are also the times he speaks most about hell.
The resurrection is when the party begins and the joy continues unabated. The cosmos will be delivered from the age of decay and we will continue to not only enjoy the glory of God as expressed in his new creation but develop that creation with the creativity he’s given us.
Another one of foundational documents of my Calvinism is the Heidelberg Catechism. The catechism is structured into three sections “Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude”.
The catechism talks about comfort and joy.
LORD’S DAY 1
1 Q. What is your only comfort
in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,^1
body and soul,
in life and in death;^2
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.^3
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,^4
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.^5
He also watches over me in such a way^6
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:^7
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.^8
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life^9
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.^10
^1 1 Cor. 6:19-20
^2 Rom. 14:7-9
^3 1 Cor. 3:23; Titus 2:14
^4 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7-9; 2:2
^5 John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:1-11
^6 John 6:39-40; 10:27-30; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 Pet. 1:5
^7 Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18
^8 Rom. 8:28
^9 Rom. 8:15-16; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14
^10 Rom. 8:1-17
2 Q. What must you know
to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
A. Three things:
first, how great my sin and misery are;^1
second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery;^2
third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.^3
^1 Rom. 3:9-10; 1 John 1:10
^2 John 17:3; Acts 4:12; 10:43
^3 Matt. 5:16; Rom. 6:13; Eph. 5:8-10; 2 Tim. 2:15; 1 Pet. 2:9-10
LORD’S DAY 2
3 Q. How do you come to know your misery?
A. The law of God tells me.^1
^1 Rom. 3:20; 7:7-25
4 Q. What does God’s law require of us?
A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22—
Love the Lord your God
with all your heart
and with all your soul
and with all your mind
and with all your strength.^1^*
This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it:
Love your neighbor as yourself.^2
All the Law and the Prophets hang
on these two commandments.
^1 Deut. 6:5
^2 Lev. 19:18
*Earlier and better manuscripts of Matthew 22 omit the words “and with all
your strength.” They are found in Mark 12:30.
5 Q. Can you live up to all this perfectly?
I have a natural tendency
to hate God and my neighbor.^2
^1 Rom. 3:9-20, 23; 1 John 1:8, 10
^2 Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:23-24; 8:7; Eph. 2:1-3; Titus 3:3
Experiencing Joy in this Broken World of Loss
In my Calvinism I work “Misery-Deliverance-Gratitude” as a sort of ritual that help me try to avoid both self-righteousness and bitterness from loss.
I first reflect on how I can really not secure much of anything that I want. I can, for a time secure some things that I want but the truth about life is that while there are many great joys and glories that this broken world cannot suppress, there is also crippling loss and great suffering.
I find reflecting on “the age of decay” helpful because no atheist can debunk it. Everything we try to establish will fade away. Our health is fragile, our bodies get old. The sun has a finite amount of fuel and if you are a materialist everything you love will die never to even be remembered, honored or enjoyed. This is what we see “under the sun”.
I believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection I am delivered from the penalty of both my inability to love and the crushing circumstance of the age of decay.
If my identity is established upon anything within the age of decay it is unstable and fragile. If I instead receive my identity from Christ it cannot be threatened or taken away. My deliverance is complete and unassailable.
I don’t need to be good to win God’s favor. It was granted to me by Christ. This is a great help in combating the normal state of my heart which is self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is in fact one of my chief enemies in loving my neighbor. I can’t both love my neighbor AND feel superior to my neighbor.
Relating to my neighbor out of gratitude to God for what he’s done on my behalf helps this. Now I no longer need to save the world but trust in God’s work to save it. This frees me to help without the fear of failure and the grip of co-dependence.
So much of what I’ve written here is at brief, probably futile attempt to distill so much of what I write about on my blog and preach about in my sermons. I hope it helps to explain what “My Calvinism” looks like. Please feel free to ask any questions.