Few descriptors are more tragic for a Calvinist than angry and mean.
How could those who rally to the bigness of God play the part of Chicken Little in a day of societal decay? And how could shameless lovers of “the doctrines of grace” treat others ungraciously? We Calvinists believe the clear biblical witness that God is sovereign in salvation and sovereign over everything. How could we not see that poking others in the eyes — eyes we believe that God has not yet opened — amounts to thumbing our noses at God himself?
“Calvinists should be the meekest and most patient of all men,” observed the beloved pastor and hymn writer John Newton (1725–1807). If we really believe what we say we do, we Calvinists should be the calmest and kindest people, no matter how angry and mean our world becomes. And we should hold accountable our fellow confessors of a big God when they show anger at unbelief or meanness to those who don’t share our theology of extensive grace.
However, we also shouldn’t be shocked when Calvinists don’t live up to the grace they profess. After all, we believe in total depravity too. It’s no excuse, but we also shouldn’t be surprised.
“We human beings have the capacity to pervert almost any true doctrine and turn it into an ugly form,” says author and professor D.A. Carson, founder of The Gospel Coalition. “It is possible with an inappropriate temperament to take these doctrines and begin to constitute ourselves as the superior sect. It can breed a certain kind of arrogance.”
Are Calvinists Better Prepared for Pain?
One regrettable reality is the angry Calvinist. Volatile temperaments will emerge in any age, but we may be especially prone to it in our day of societal decline. And the question is all the more pressing as opposition grows toward biblical Christianity.
Trusting that God is both thoroughly good and utterly in control should make us more meek and patient, but should it also make us more calm in the midst of cultural upheaval? I asked Carson if the Calvinist resurgence of the last generation should make us more ready to weather the coming pressure, and even persecution, against Christians.
“I would like to think so. I would say it certainly ought to. Especially believing absolutely in God’s providence in such matters so that you’re not thinking, ‘Oh God is losing this one,’ or something like that. Yes, it ought to.”
But of course, we have more to say than simply what should be the case. We know our sin.
“I am very reluctant to say that because you’re a Calvinist, you’re a little more immune from the pressures of the age,” adds Carson. “I’d rather say, ‘If you call yourself a Calvinist, learn to trust the sovereign goodness of God.’ This is not a time for triumphalism or feeling we’re better. This is a time for contrition and begging God for mercy.”
God’s Bigness Fills the Vacuum
A factor in the resurgence of big-God theology in our day, according to Carson, has been the previous generation’s “lowest-common-denominator evangelical theology and the reaction against it. . . . It just became too easy, too glib — ‘Trust Jesus and receive him as your personal Savior and everything will be hunky dory.’ People were looking for more authenticity, something with more power, something that was transforming — not what came to be a kind of easy-believism.”
The undiluted big-God theology of the Bible has filled the vacuum for many and hopefully readied them for the insults, maligning, and opposition that will target faithful Christians in an age increasingly led by secular elites. The theology of God’s free grace — despite our sin, in election, in the atonement, in conversion, in perseverance, and in all things — can and should make us the most secure of people, even when the world around us seems to be shaking.
Nothing Romantic About Persecution
In God’s providence, the Calvinist resurgence may have come just in time to give many Christians the needed ballast for the storms ahead. However, let it be said, loud and clear, that believing in God’s absolutely sovereignty does not lead us to romanticize persecution. Carson knows better from personal experience, growing up a persecuted Baptist in a mid-twentieth-century French Canada hostile to Protestants.
“I remember where I was growing up, there was a shoemaker. In those days, this is not somebody who’s selling shoes in a box store. He actually made shoes. He measured people’s feet and made shoes. He lived in a little village of Saint Cyril. He was known. He was the small businessman doing his work. He became quite clearly, soundly converted, and he lost 90% of his business. He didn’t know how he could make it. Then his shoe establishment was fire-bombed. He and his family moved out of the province of Quebec and moved to Ontario.
“Well, it was dislocation for him. He had to start learning English. He didn’t know much English before that. But also, from our church’s point of view, it was a huge loss. He was a genuine convert that was, from our point of view, lost to French Canada. There were a lot of things of that order. That was a more extreme case. But it did happen.
“If you call yourself a Calvinist, learn to trust the sovereign goodness of God.”
“The pressure that you face from those kinds of things does not fill you with joy as you’re going through them. In retrospect, you can look back and see in the big picture how God used that to toughen people up and prepare them for the period of real fruitfulness that did come along two or three decades later. But while you’re going through those two or three decades, there’s nothing romantic about it.”
Has Your Theology Humbled You?
A second regrettable reality is the mean Calvinist. It is worth asking ourselves regularly, are we accurately reflecting the theology we profess in the way we treat others? Whether it feels as big as social pressure and societal upheaval, or seems as small as daily dialogue with nonbelievers and other stripes of Christians, those of us who claim the sovereignty of God aren’t only free to be calm about the world, but also to be kind to its people.
Newton, in particular, had some kind, but constructive, words for Calvinists who were hard on others who didn’t share their theology. He reminded them, “The humbling theology of Calvinism is undermined by embittered, angry, and scornful words,” and he asked pointedly, “Has your Calvinism humbled you?” As Tony Reinke helpfully captures from Newton’s life, “Calvinism, rightly understood, breaks us, and that should be clear to others.”
“The humbling theology of Calvinism is undermined by embittered, angry, and scornful words.”
Newton had little trouble finding “a proud and self-sufficient Calvinist” in his day and warned, “I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of.”
Newton’s counsel is perceptive — and convicting. When you disagree with an “unconverted person,” remember that “he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger.” And if he is a fellow believer in Jesus?
In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.
As true as such counsel was in Newton’s day, it is perhaps even all the more prophetic in ours, where the lines are drawn less between denominations, and more between belief and unbelief.
Because God Is Kind
In the end, though, it’s not mere theological inferences that will make us kinder. Christians don’t become kinder — not with Spirit-generated kindness — just by pondering abstract connections, but by feeding our souls on, and taking our cues from, the very words of God.
Not only does the story of the early church celebrate small acts of kindness (Acts 10:33; 24:4; 27:3; 28:2), but text after text characterizes Christian conduct as manifestly kind (2 Corinthians 6:6; Colossians 3:12; Titus 2:5). Not only are recognized leaders in the church to be “kind to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:24), but all Christians are to be “kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32). Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Love is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4).
“God’s own kindness frees us to bend our kindness out into the lives of others.”
And when God, who rules over every square inch of the universe, instructs us to cultivate kindness, he is prompting us to become greater imitators of him. Our heavenly Father, says Jesus, “is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). In his kindness, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Such kindness “is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Such kindness engrafts even strangers into his age-old tree of blessing by faith (Romans 11:22).
Because we are saved through God’s “loving kindness” (Titus 3:4), and anticipate an eternity basking in “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us” (Ephesians 2:7), we are freed to bend his kindness toward us out into the lives of others.
Calvinism should prepare us well to suffer opposition — and not take it out on others. We say we believe only God can decisively change hearts, and this should release us to be the calmest and kindest people of all.
As Carson says, “If you call yourself a Calvinist, learn to trust the sovereign goodness of God.”