How did Calvinism come about? And what do you mean by it, first of all? My guess is stereotypes are pretty bleak at this point. When you say “I’m a Calvinist” what does that mean?
Well, I mean the five points. I don’t know how to define it without the five points. So here’s my journey into Reformed theology. There were always texts that I didn’t know what to do with. I just didn’t know what to do with them. So even when I was having to preach them, I was thinking, “I don’t know what to do with this.”
On college campuses there has always been dialogue over the issue. I was in the dialogue, but I was on the other end, even though I could see there were some problems here. I thought, “Why are we praying? I don’t understand prayer.” I mean, it already started kind of going that direction. I thought, what’s going on with that? There were texts that I had no idea what to do with, and you end up saying really silly things. For Romans nine, they said, “Well, he’s talking to Israel there. He is not talking to people.” Well, Israel is a people, right?
It’s a couple of things. First, I was having to read and study a lot because of where my life was and where it was going. I got the question, “Hey, so when did you feel called to ministry?” Well, up until this point, I didn’t even know. It hadn’t registered to me to think, “Oh this is someplace we’re going.” I mean, I was teaching on Thursday nights. I was studying and I was not thinking this was the rest of my life here. I was thinking I’ll teach Sunday school or whatever, all right?
While you do what, law?
Yeah sure, and then viral things get out. The tapes are rolling out and I’m getting called from here and people are giving me money to teach. I didn’t know that happened.
So you had to study to do that and you were bumping into the truth?
Yes, and then not only that, but I am a contrarian by nature. It goes back to that “How? Why? Explain that to me. Show me that. How’s that?” So my professor’s bent towards the liberal side of things just pushed me even farther to the other side of things. Up until this point probably the deepest thing I had read was stuff by Chuck Swindoll. Then somebody handed me J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, and that was the first shot across the bow. That was a different God to me. That was transcendence, that was power, that was a different God.
And then, it wasn’t but three months later that I was at Passion. You walked out and said, “Did Jesus die for you, or did he die for God?” I thought, “Me! No? Crap.” Listen to me. I couldn’t quit sobbing at the end of that thing. My friends went on, I don’t know, Cafe Brazil or something. They went and ate pie. And I couldn’t gather myself. I mean, I literally can’t put myself back together. So for me I’m thinking, “How does it work?” And I read Desiring God, Pleasures of God, and in there somewhere Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul, and then I could see it, but I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t a warm blanket to me yet, so I just wrestled. And now see, once those lenses get put on you, you can’t read your Bible without seeing it. It’s just the truth. Somewhere in there, and I don’t know where to point to, it became a warm blanket and I loved it. I loved it. But at first it was a wrestle for me.
And how did it relate to your ability to lead people out of darkness into light? I ask it because people say, “If you believe this five point stuff, this Calvinism, you’re going to be disinclined to evangelism and ineffective in evangelism and not do missions.
See, I went the other way. I went the other way because now I was going, “It’s going to happen.” I mean, I just went the other way. I thought, “It’s mine. I’m of Christ, he’s of God. It’s ours. Let’s go. Let’s take it.” So it really had the opposite effect on me. I was emboldened by it. Up until then there was the thought, “Are we doing this okay? Are we doing this right? We got this right? Is this going to be okay?” And I just felt emboldened by the doctrine to preach harder, to preach longer, to study harder. It emboldened me. It did not have that effect on me.
And it didn’t get you unhired? It didn’t get in the way. They let you come. Why’d they do that?
Well, here, here’s what I did. I answered the questions they asked me. They said, “Do you believe in predestination?” And I said, “I do believe in predestination. You have to believe it. It’s right there. It’s in Ephesians, it’s in Romans, it’s there in the text. You have to do something with it.” And they said, “Okay, but surely you believe that he desires that all men come to repentance.” And I said, “I absolutely believe that he desires that all men come to repentance, but he actively works against that, so we’ve got to figure something out there.” Boom, now I’m teaching. Now I’m teaching. Are there two wills in God, right? Now we’re teaching. I enjoyed talking with Dever because he says he’s very similar in how he handles this. I think there’ll be a day where on whole we walk through TULIP.
But right now, I think if you came to a covenant member at The Village and you said, “Do you believe the five points of Calvinism?” they would say, “Tell me what they are.” Then you said, “Do you believe in total depravity?” And they would say, “Okay, what’s that?” And if you explained it, they would say, “Absolutely, absolutely.”
Which means you’re not leading with this every Sunday, like today we’re going to make the five points clear.
No, I want them to live it and breathe it and see it in such a way that it’s just normative; that they think, “Of course. Yeah, of course. If we’re safe, we stay safe. Of course. Yeah, it’s limited. Absolutely. Of course it’s, look, my neighbor’s not saved. It’s limited.” I want them to see it and hear it and think about it in such a way that it’s just what our faith is.
So they got over that hump somehow or other?
Here’s how they got over the hump. To that point, it’s the most biblically ignorant place I had ever been. There wasn’t one person in there that could have any type of real theological conversation. So I often said, just kind of jokingly, “There’s a way that seems right to man, but in the end it leads to what? Death. Which means there’s a way that you think is right and in the end it’s going to kill all of us. So here’s the deal. I would love to talk about Scripture with you. I’d love to answer any question textually, but if you have an illustration about two pigs and one pig was this and the other pig was that, and this happened to both pigs, I don’t really care about that story. So let’s have this conversation. Here’s the Book. I’ll answer any question about any text. This is what we’ve got to submit to. All right, let’s go.”
I taught and asked, “Are there any questions?” Not one question. So I even said, “Let me tell you what you should ask me right now, let me give you some problem texts. I don’t know what to do in Joshua, where it says, “And for the first time God heeded the advice of man.” I don’t know what to do with it. But it does not in any way take away from all we’ve already covered. And so by setting this forth I’m saying, “Here’s the type of conversation I want to have. I want to have biblical conversations.” This isn’t an op-ed piece. This isn’t, “Well I don’t think . . .” I don’t care how you think. I know how I think, and it has to be subdued and submitted to the Scriptures or I’ll kill us all. And so with that as our framework, we were able to progress.
Plus I think where they were coming from was in this. There I was and they were coming out, driving out, and sitting in an auditorium watching me speak to 3,000 to 4,000 20-year-olds. And I think it was blowing up their paradigm because they thought, “Calvinists are this, but we’re this . . .” They were digesting all things Willow. So what’s the common denominator there? They were saying, “Reach people, reach people, reach people, reach people. And you can’t reach people with Calvinism. You can’t reach people like this.” Then they’re walking into this room with all these 20-somethings and going, “Okay, let’s listen to him.” I think that’s the piece that made the difference.
Evidently, you’re not alone. In other words, across the country, God seems to be proving that a faithfulness to the fullness of the biblical picture of himself as supreme and sovereign isn’t hindering the spread of the gospel. But it’s undergirding it, like it has historically. The complementarian piece — that is, why it’s good news that in your church elders should be godly men and women can’t be an elder — why does that feel life giving to these 20 something?
Well, here’s the way we talk about it. Obeying God’s word, obeying the Scriptures, is God lining us up with how he designed the universe to be. So he’s never trying to take anything from us except what’s wicked. He’s trying to restore what went horrifically wrong. So lining up with the Scriptures on any issue, isn’t God going, “You’ll do what I say,” even though he can. He is saying, “This is how I designed the universe to be. This is how to live. This is shalom. This is how it is.” Now you can war against that. You can choose another way of that. You might even choose another way of that and be happy, but there will always be that piece that’s out of rhythm. There will always be that piece that’s like that shrill sound that you’re just trying to figure out where it is in your life until you line up with how the Scriptures teach the universe is.
So your experience so far has been, it sounds like, these several thousand young women that go to your church flourish when told that their men should be their leaders at home and should be the spiritual leaders at the Church in the office of authority.
Oh, absolutely. To them it’s good news. It’s, “Thank God.” They love it when I go after the men. Every once in a while we’ll have some people who disagree, I mean, I just got an email from somebody who was a podcaster. They were going beyond just my weekly sermons looking at what we believe, and they found out what we believe about women. She had given money to our building deal and she wanted it back. She wanted it back. And then sent me an article saying, “You must not have read if a woman’s been gifted, why would God give a gift of teaching and then not let a woman teach?” So we definitely have some of that. But on a whole, our girls love that I say that.
I’ve said it publicly. I teach men. That’s who I’m talking to. People have given me the books about “here’s how you preach in such a way that includes the women.” I go after the men. That’s how I understand the Scriptures. I want to go after them. I want to charge them. I want to push them. And if anything, it has just been applauded and has drawn young men who seem to just have this little sense of sadomasochism. So if you just go, “You need to do that. You’re not doing this. You need to walk in this. You need to embrace this,” they think, “Thank God somebody’s telling me what to do. Okay, yes, I’m in.” And then women go, “I don’t want a neat Christian guy. I want a godly man.” So if you’re teaching that, then I’m going to hang out here in the hopes that I find that. And so that was a big bump early, and I don’t know that we’ve looked back. It was a hill I was willing to die on.
One of the lessons that we should take away, it sounds like to me, from what we’ve said so far, is that something as counterintuitive (for a lot of human beings) as the sovereignty of God, the irresistibility of his Grace, the totality of our fallenness and deadness, and the fact that men should take the initiative and lead at home and lead in the Church, is not so counterintuitive that it hinders Church growth.
No, we went from 100 to 6,000 in six years.
Interesting. I mean, I’m 63 and when I was your age, 34, I was fighting this battle first at Bethel College. And the attitude of young women was so vicious. And I thought, “It’s over. This battle is over. I’ve lost it. I’m going to say what I have to say and then go to my grave, and America will be its feminist self.” And now I look at you and I look at your Church and say, “Who would’ve ever dreamed there would be 3000 women who’d want to hang out with a chauvinist like you?” I thank God for that and what he’s done.