Why I Am No Longer a Calvinist

In this blog I’d like to discuss my journey in and out of Calvinism. If you’re not familiar with that word; no problem, I’ll do my best to explain what I mean.

I was raised in a United Methodist church, which had previously been an Evangelical United Brethren congregation. Both strains either were, or are, strongly Wesleyan or Arminian in their doctrine. I know those words might not mean a lot to some people, so let me explain them first.

Jacob Ariminius – which is the English version of his name – was a Dutch theologian during the early 17th century.  He’s known today for his resistance to the teachings of John Calvin, especially in terms of free will. Arminius affirmed that man had free will when it came to salvation. He believed that a person could respond to the grace of God in their lives and choose God, or a person could resist the grace of God in their lives and choose not to be a follower of God.

Today, those who embrace this idea of free will are often called Arminian. This is what I was taught from a small boy, and for decades I had heard of nothing different.

Then, in my early 20s I was involved in a bible study group at a local Presbyterian church. The pastor had invited me to attend and I really became rather attached to him. He kind of took me under his wing and began mentoring me, and eventually allowed me to do some teaching at his church. He became a man that I greatly admired, and as I was beginning to preach at around that age, I began to imitate his style and approach, sort of making it my own.

Now, it was during that time with this pastor that I was exposed for the first time to a way of understanding salvation that I had not known before. This way of understanding became known to me as Calvinism.

Calvinism, if you aren’t familiar with it, is named after John Calvin, a French reformer from the 16th century. He broke from the Roman Catholic church at a fairly early age and is famous for the reform that he brought to the city of Geneva. His Institutes of the Christian Religion would become one of the most influential works in the protestant world.

Now, among other beliefs that John Calvin held, he is probably best well known for his teaching on salvation. In respect to free will, which I had already mentioned, Calvin took an alternate position. He taught that humankind could never choose God. He believed that humankind was so morally corrupt that if left to ourselves we would not even want to choose God. Therefore, according to Calvin, God must first choose us.

Calvin taught that God saves us prior to us even having faith in God. In order to do this, God had to first decide who gets saved and who does not. Those whom God chooses – or elects – to be saved are saved. Those whom God decides not to be saved are let alone because they are already damned. Therefore, according to Calvin, long before any of us were ever born, God decided either to save us or damn us, and we have absolutely no say in the matter. If you were elected by God for salvation, then there was nothing you could ever do about that because you would be saved. If you were elected by God for damnation, then there was equally nothing you could do about that because you would then be damned. I know that there are some modern Calvinists who aren’t comfortable with the idea of God electing people to be damned, but Calvin never shied from that idea.

When my friend first began to share this with me I was very resistant. It went against everything that I had been taught and what I felt like was the truth. However, there were two major factors in my life that began to influence me. First, I greatly admired this pastor friend of mine. I looked up to him and deeply appreciated how he was taking his time with me in my own spiritual development. And second, there were some events starting to take place in my life that were really out of my control. I felt like I was being tossed to and fro without any say in the matter. Therefore, it started to become easier for me to accept the notion that there were obvious limits to what  I can choose.

These two factors really began their work on me as I studied the Bible with my friend. He began showing me passages of Scripture which really seemed to support Calvinism. Passages like, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you”(JN 15:16) or, “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13), and “for whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom 8:29).

Slowly, at first, my resistance began to wane. I had never thought much about these passages and therefore really couldn’t intelligently defend my position. Plus, I respected my friend. He was highly intelligent, formally trained, and he just really loved Jesus. Those things coupled with the out of control events in my life eventually tipped the scales in favor of Calvinism. In time, I would become a full, five-point Calvinist. I began to see the Scriptures through the eyes of a Calvinist. It was though I had put on John Calvin’s eyeglasses and was now seeing the Bible as he had read it. I was amazed as to how all of these passages suddenly made sense to me.

I also became very good at arguing Calvinism. In time I believe that I convinced a number of people that this was the way in which God enacted salvation among us. The most typical reply that would be offered in rebuttable was that this made God out to be some sort of monster. It sounded like He was the one who was choosing who to send to hell.  I would reply by quoting Romans 9, “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”

Now, I’m embarrassed to say that I began to see Calvinism as a very deep teaching that not everyone could understand. The fact that “I” knew it made me feel a little bit more intellectual than those who couldn’t embrace it. In a way, I think I began to look down on those who didn’t agree with Calvinism as being somewhat less intellectual. I also found myself becoming very emotionally invested in the Calvinist doctrine. I regret very much those un-Christlike attitudes.

I continued untouched in my Calvinism for well over 15 years. Like my Calvinists, I felt that what was really at stake was whether or not God was truly sovereign. If man could choose God, I thought, then man was in control, not God. Or, as the late RC Sproul said, “To say that God’s sovereignty is limited by man’s freedom is to make man sovereign.”

Then in 2005 I stumbled on to the teaching of a man named Steve Gregg from the TheNarrowPath.com. At that time, I was sorting out my views on eschatology, and found that he was teaching something similar to where I had been heading. However, I also discovered that he was Arminian, not Calvinist. Because he provides free audio teachings on his website, I decided to give them a listen. I already knew the arguments against Calvinism, and felt that I really wouldn’t be challenged by hearing them again. I was wrong.

Steve also knew the arguments quite well. In fact, in one of his lectures he actually articulated the arguments in favor of Calvinism exactly as I knew them. He then slowly went through these arguments and one by one the threads that held them together in my mind began to unravel.

The one question that was laid before me – a question that I continually ask today in regards to any theological issue – is “is the Bible really saying what you think it’s saying?”

In other words, was I importing something into the passage that the passage itself did not necessarily say? For example, when Jesus said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you,” was the passage actually about our salvation, and was it saying that Jesus chooses us to be saved, or was it possibly saying something else.

In this case, it’s plain to see that there’s no evidence that Jesus is talking about salvation. Rather, He’s simply stating that He chose His disciples and appointed them to bear fruit.  This is true. In Luke 6:13, we read that Jesus called all of His disciples together and from that larger group He choose twelve who would be His closest disciples. The passage in John doesn’t say that Jesus chose them to have eternal life. However, I was making the passage say that because that’s what I wanted it to say.

Soon, my Calvinist position began to topple. I kept looking at my old arguments and asking myself if those verses necessarily said the things I thought they were saying. When I looked at them without assuming the Calvinistic lens, I realized that they didn’t. I found that if I began with the assumption that Calvinism was true that I could read Calvinism into the any passage.  But if I took a neutral position and just sought to see what the passage said, that I was not ending up with Calvinism. And I want you to understand that I say that from the position of a person who had been very devoted to the Calvinist position.

I’ve heard a lot of people hear both sides of this argument and try to find a middle position. They’ll say that they agree with Calvin on some points and Arminius on other points. So, they say that they find a place somewhere in the middle.  The problem with this is the misunderstanding that Calvinism and Ariminism are the two polar opposites. They’re not. You see, Calvinism can really be traced to St Augustine of Hippo of around the fourth century. Augustine developed theology, which would later be known as Calvinism, in a debate that he was having with a man named Pelagius. Pelagius took the position that man’s free will was supreme. He believed that man could not only do good works without the grace of God, but that God’s grace wasn’t even necessary for salvation. Man’s free will reigned supreme.

So, the two extremes in this argument are not Calvinsm and Ariminism, but Calvinism and Pelagianism. The better middle ground between the two is Arminism.

The purpose of this blog is not to explore every single verse and try to make my argument. That would take hours and hours to do. Rather, the point of this video is to lay out the challenge – regardless what the topic is – and ask ourselves if we might be reading something into the passages of Scripture that isn’t there. The challenge is to do our best to lay aside our preconceived notions, biases, experiences, and background, in order to properly understand God’s holy word. It’s not an easy thing to do. But it’s essential for good Biblical study.

Dane Cramer is a backpacker, follower-of-Jesus blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmakerPodcast host, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us , and has worked as an investigator for over 35 years.




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