We welcome a guest blogger to Defending Contending. George Alvarado may be known to some of you as the author of the book Apocity. I hope that we can learn from the attitude he portrays on what is often a sensitive issue and one that is not always found with a great degree of humility.
Imagine someone drowning and gasping for air as they are gargling water trying to cry for help. Just before they black out, their lungs fill with water, preventing them to give a final cry, and their body sinks to the depths. As they black out, they feel nothing but the cold water surrounding them, and hear nothing but a deafening silence that welcomes them to their watery grave. Then, they wake up and find themselves underneath the pressure of someone administering CPR. As their chest is compressed and their lungs fill with air from their rescuer, they begin to regain consciousness and the breath of life is once again restored to their own control. When they take their first, deep breath, the adjoining exhale is filled with overwhelming gratitude towards the person that resuscitated them from certain death. Now, imagine a local journalist reporting on this incident asking this person their thoughts on this event, and they say, “I am really glad I chose to come back to life. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I didn’t take my first breath.”
It’s truly amazing how two people can witness the same event, or be part of it, and yet come to two different conclusions on what exactly happened. Part of the reason is semantics and pragmatics, which in linguistics deals with the study of meaning. It is an absolute reality that two human beings mean the same thing, but say it differently. And it is just as certain for two people to utter similar terms, yet have opposing meanings. I have heard it said that “The worst distance between two people is misunderstanding.” And in my experience in doing ministry for the last ten years, traveling with the military the last thirteen years, and in my study of linguistics the last three, I can affirm that this, most of the time, is the case when there are disagreements between two parties. However, what do we do with statements like the one above made by our hypothetical victim? What happens when there is no room for misunderstanding? How do we deal with an individual, like this person who was rescued from drowning, that feels as though their own volition was the reason they revived?
First, it is important to realize that the above scenario concerning the drowning victim is not the first of its kind. There is an ocean of illustrations that can be drawn from to help mankind understand its own depravity, and the necessity of Christ having to intervene on our behalf, lest we perish. Secondly, we must realize that while the illustration above is meant to depict the sinner’s helpless disposition to save themselves from their own sin, this in no wise will be an adequate depiction for everyone who hears it. In other words, there will be some who will disagree with the theology in which the illustration was meant to portray. Thirdly, while the answer to the journalist’s question is indeed bizarre considering the context of the situation, this can be a primary example of poor word choice more than a denial of the events that took place. What I mean is, although the person is implying that they resuscitated because of their own “choosing,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that is what they were really trying to say. Finally, if the above stated was indeed meant to entail that the reason why they are alive is because of their own volition, rather than the rescuer being the cause, that doesn’t mean our response should be cruelty, animosity, or denigration toward the other person. If anything, the proper response should be pity, compassion, and certainly, humility, since we understand that we were once that person who was rescued from drowning.
With all that said, I hope that I am starting to make myself clear on this central issue that I think is lacking among some Calvinists (at least the ones I read on social media, and some of the ones I know). That issue? Humility. This, of course, is not a problem central to Calvinists, but the whole of humanity. Dispensationalists and Covenantalists, Presbyterians and Baptists, and Arminians and Calvinists must all be reminded of the necessity to be humble. However, what is starting to be of some concern is how those who hold to the doctrines of grace seem to be lacking in the application of it. What I mean is, although there are many who have the sovereignty of God as their creed, and are committed to the teachings which can be generally labeled as “reformed” (whatever the denominational distinction), they seem to also have somewhat of a bad temper against those who don’t hold to their Calvinistic views, and who are not damnably heretical. This bad temper, no doubt, will be unlawfully justified because it is administered to us by opposing parties, but under what circumstance should it be the Christian’s response to return such an attitude to others?
Here is a simple question. Does poor word choice of the interviewee change the absolute reality of the event that took place in their life? In other words, for example, even if the person thinks that because of their will they revived from certain death, does that change the reality that the rescuer is the true savior? No! And if you haven’t picked up on the illustration, Jesus Christ is our rescuer. The point I am making here is that just because someone makes the claim (whether wrong or right is not the point here) that free-will played a primary (or even synergistic) role in their salvation, that doesn’t mean it changes the reality of how regeneration takes place. To put it differently, if someone disagrees with the Calvinistic point of view concerning salvation (which is monergistic), unless they are stating damnable heresy (and Classical Arminianism is not damnable), if they have indeed experienced regeneration and are showing the fruits of it, they are still partakers of the heavenly calling even if we can’t agree on the details of the event. It could be semantics, it could be poor word choice, or it could be exactly what they proclaim it is without confusion, but if they know the gospel, and have experienced salvation through faith, then we should at least rejoice in their conversion, despite the fact that we cannot agree on the nuances.
In a related topic concerning predestination and election, I have often jokingly said that “even if some don’t believe in election, if they are Christian, they are beneficiaries of it.” And even though I may say it playfully to get a laugh from others, I really do mean it! But, if I run into another brother in Christ who is against this, or any form of theology that resembles it, I don’t quibble over things which I believe are an inarguable reality, and I don’t try to convince the inconvincible. I only attempt to correct any misunderstandings, endeavor to remember that I was there once concerning the various teachings of the doctrines of grace, and make a purposeful effort to remain humble knowing that God has had grace on me concerning this subject. Therefore, I should exercise grace toward others. In other words, just because I am a Calvinist, that doesn’t mean I have permission to be a jerk. And even so, if I am truly a Christian, regardless of labels, I have no right to be doctrinally boastful about anything I know, considering no man can know anything unless Christ reveals it to them (Matt 16:17; John 3:37; 6:45). What knowledge have I gained that cannot be attributed to the grace of God and His illuminating Spirit? After all, everything I learned from Scripture wasn’t my idea, so why be overly defensive if someone cannot agree with my position?
Unfortunately, since the doctrines of grace seem as though they are constantly under scrutiny, and because the gospel is repeatedly being preached in a dishonoring way, this puts Calvinists in a posture of readiness with their sword only halfway into the sheath. But more than this, we are quick to swing our swords against those who are also God-fearing, Christ exalting, gospel-centered Christians who believe in the sovereignty of God, who trust in Christ alone for salvation through faith alone, who may also disagree with particular aspects of Calvinism, but are just as concerned about the very things we are concerned about. This is in no wise entails that I am making a call for ecumenicalism, and that we should all throw away our discernment and sing “Kumbaya” by the camp fire. If it there is sin, expose it. If it is damnably heretical, denounce it. But if they are a brother or sister in Christ and the subject matter is specifically concerning the more difficult portions of the doctrines of grace, we should all venture to be long-suffering toward one another, compassionate, humble, fair, and graceful. Not exchanging reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing (1 Pet. 3:9). As Calvinists, we not only need to be proclaimers of the doctrines of grace, but we also need to be humble, panoramic depictions of them. To be prideful about our Calvinism is to deny the very doctrines we profess to affirm.
Once again, this isn’t about declining to engage with people of other doctrinal positions, or shrinking back from discussing theology that we are passionate about. This is about our hearts being smitten and checked by the very doctrines we have approved to be true, and to not be so quick to smite others on the cheek concerning the doctrines of grace. Let the reviling, misrepresentations, and stereotypes be hurled by our opponents, but let us be diligent to uphold sovereign grace by being fair to our accusers, humble within ourselves, and approved before God by practicing what we preach, even if we are ignored by those whom we wish to gain.