I want to begin by reading a poem by Mary Oliver. One reason is Calvinists don’t read poetry, and I just want to wreck that for you. The stereotype is that we’re just logic-choppers, and cool thinker types. So, that’s one reason. And the second reason is that the poem is about thankfulness. I have a month to go as a pastor at this church and I’m just overwhelmed with thankfulness these days. I just feel brimming with gratitude. So, this is called “The Place I Want to Get Back To.”
The place I want to get back to
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
and first light
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me
they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let’s see who she is
and why she is sitting
on the ground like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;
and so they came
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring to me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can’t be repeated.
If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named
How Am I Saved?
One of the most pivotal questions you could ask at the beginning of a seminar on TULIP or Calvinism or the doctrines of grace or Reformed theology for thinking rightly about what we’re up to here is the question, How did I get saved? I’m not assuming that you are all saved. I would like for you to get saved — be regenerated, born again through this seminar. That would be wonderful. But I’m assuming most of you are. And the question would be how did that happen?
“The most important and precious promise of the Bible depends on these things.”
And I have two kinds of questions in mind: How did it happen historically? What did God have to do? But more relevantly for this moment, How did it happen to you? How you answer that question decides whether you’re a Calvinist or not. How did you become a lover of Jesus?
Because you were not always a lover of Jesus. You were born against Jesus. Something had to happen to you so that you love him — you love his word. And what happened? So, that’s a question I’m just going to leave with you now. I won’t answer it right now. For me though, the answer makes all the difference in the world for my life, my theology, how I minister the word, what I expect God to do in seminars, in services.
So, you should ask yourself right now, What would I say if I had to stand up there beside John and tell him the decisive way God saved me. What did he do? How did he do it? What did he have to overcome to save me? What was my part in it? And how did those two things relate to each other? So I leave that question with you because I think how you answered that question just determines the whole course of the seminar.
Let’s just look at the outline. So, there are ten pieces.
- Introductory remarks
- Historical background
- The differences between Calvinism and Arminianism
- “I” — irresistible grace
- “T” — total depravity
- “U” — unconditional election
- “L” — limited atonement
- “P” — perseverance of the saints
- Ten good effects of believing these things
The Promise Depends on It
One of the reasons this issue means a lot to me and has meant a lot historically is because the most important and precious promise of the Bible depends, according to Paul, on these things.
We know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
So, there’s the promise. That’s the most important promise there is, because it’s just encompassing of all other promises. What’s the basis of it?
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many, many brothers. And those whom he predestined, he also called, and those whom he called, he also justified, and those whom he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:29–30)
That’s the argument for how you can know everything is going to work together for your good. I preached seven sermons on that unit because of how massively important verses 29 and 30 are in supporting verse 28. So, if you care about the promise of verse 28 you have to care about 29 and 30. Because they begin with for, which means they are like pillars.
I remember when I preached on this back in the late ’80s when they were building one of the skyscrapers downtown that everybody takes for granted now. And the hole in the ground was so massive I thought, “Are they building this skyscraper up or down?” And I used it as an illustration. I said, “The higher this thing’s going to go up, the deeper that foundation is going to go down. And the promise doesn’t get any higher in verse 28, and the argument doesn’t get any deeper than 29 and 30.”
If you want the practical relevance of this class, this class is devoted to building foundations under Romans 8:28, so I can survive my life. If you think we’re in this for fun and games, just theological ear-scratching, you don’t understand anything. This is a survival technique for John Piper. The things that come at me in my life cannot be managed by fluff.
Roots in Eternity Past
Then there are these roots to these doctrines that go so far back in history like to eternity.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ in every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace. (Ephesians 1:3–6)
So, the roots of predestination, the roots of the purpose of his will, the roots of his grace go back before creation. That’s a long time and a very deep basis.
He saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ before the ages began. (2 Timothy 1:9)
If you have been saved by grace, he gave you that before there was a universe. Salvation is not by works. He didn’t save me by my works. He saved me because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us before the ages began. He had been thinking about you a long time. It should just blow you away.
It should even change your marriage like it did mine today. I had tension with Noël about the way lunch went. “Why did you leave the table like that? Are you upset about anything?” “No.” That didn’t mean No. Now, I have two choices: anger or patient, compassionate query of what’s going on. And my default is this: “Don’t treat me that way. I don’t like it when you walk out of the room quiet. Say something. Why are you leaving the table?”
This made all the difference: He has loved me forever. He has been thinking about me and her forever. He is totally on my side and totally committed to us as a couple, with all of our pain and all of our sorrow and all of our imperfections and all the failures of these years. He’s totally for us, and he has been forever. Now with that, I was able to go into the living room without anger and say, “If you’re not upset, what is it?” And we were okay. We’re okay.
All who dwell on earth will worship the beast, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of the life of the Lamb who was slain. (Revelation 13:8)
Before the foundation of the world, your name written in a book called “the life of the lamb who was slain.” Jesus is crucified for me in the mind of God before there’s a universe, and there’s a book of people for whom that is true. If your name is not in the book, you’re going to be an idolater and worship the beast. If your name’s in the book, you won’t. That’s big. That’s really big. That’s just really, really big.
So, we’re still in the introductory remarks about why this matters. The magnitude of the promise that it supports, the depths of the roots that it has.
Pilgrimage to Providence
And now a few comments about my pilgrimage. Nobody is born a Calvinist. My father was one of the greatest men I’ve ever known and one of the happiest man I’ve ever known. He was an evangelist and preached the gospel, traveling away from home two-thirds of the year or so. He came home with stories of the triumphs of grace in wicked people’s lives, who got saved under his ministry. And I loved the stories. He’d come home with jokes and stories of triumphs of grace. He was amazing. He loved to laugh. I have really happy memories about my dad, and he wasn’t a Calvinist.
So, know that I can really love people who aren’t Calvinists. He acted like one though, and in essence he was. And here’s what I mean. My dad loved the glory of God. Every prayer he prayed, he prayed about the glory of God. He knew the Holy Spirit was necessary to save people. And he had absolute faith in the sovereignty of God to take care of us as a family. We would send out letters together as a family, bow in prayer, and Daddy never doubted our needs would be met.
“If you have been saved by grace, he gave you that before there was a universe.”
So I was taught that there’s a big God up there. He’s merciful towards sinners. He saves sinners, and he takes care of his own, and you can count on him big time. But when he saw me begin to argue in my early twenties that regeneration precedes and enables faith, he just shook his head and said, “Johnny, that’s not right. That’s just not right. If I believe that I don’t think I could do evangelism.” And, of course, my response was, “If that’s not true, you might as well not do evangelism. Because nobody’s getting saved anyway.”
Well, we never agreed on that. We just never agreed on that. But it’s his fault that I’m a Calvinist because your actions speak louder than your defective words. And he was a lover of the sovereignty of God.
Then I went to Wheaton, and at Wheaton I was an Arminian. I remember my senior year reading a book arguing that John 15 meant branches could be broken off, and therefore, you could lose your salvation. And that was just totally compelling to me.
And that’s where I was when I went off to Fuller Seminary, and ran into James Morgan and Dan Fuller. James Morgan was a systematic theology teacher. I think he was about 36 years old. And Dan Fuller was the son of the founder of the school, and the most important living teacher in my life, and the man who had the greatest impact on me after my dad. Both of them were reformed. They’ didn’t make a big deal out of it. They just began to teach the Bible and it was the Bible and not any system or textbook.
So, here’s the story that some of you have heard before just to show you where I was. I’m pretty sure I was in my first year, and I was coming out of a class in systematic theology where James Morgan was talking about the doctrine of election and the limitations of so-called free will. And three or four of us were talking. I was here, and I think there were a couple other guys around, and we were talking and I was just steaming.
And so, I took a pen and I said, “Dr. Morgan, watch this. I dropped it. I dropped it.” That’s what I said. Meaning “I’ve got free will. It’s as plain as day.” That’s where I was. And by the end of that class with him just patiently showing texts, I wrote on my final exam, “Romans 9 is like a tiger going around devouring free-willers like me.” That’s what I wrote. And the battle was coming to an end.
And just to encourage you a little bit about paradigm shifts and how painful they are, I wasn’t married yet. I would be married that December, and I went back repeatedly to my little private room with nobody else after another class of having my will jolted. And I put my elbows on either side and I just cried. I just cried.
That’s what happens if your world is crumbling around you and you just don’t know which end is up. “This is not making sense anymore. It’s not what I was taught in Sunday school. I’m just not getting this at all. Do I know the God of the Bible or don’t I know the God of the Bible?” And if you care about truth, you’re going to have moments like that in life unless you came into the world perfect, and you didn’t.
And then there was Jonathan Edwards. Dan Fuller pointed me to Jonathan Edwards and his book, “The Freedom of the Will.” It is the most important book I’ve ever read on the issue of the freedom of the will. I think it’s probably the most important book that’s ever been written outside the Bible on the freedom of the will. Luther’s book, “The Bondage of Will,” may come close, but I don’t think there’s anything more compelling or more thorough, or more powerful than Edward’s “Freedom of the Will.” David Wells said to me one time, “John, that book is like the Rockies in America, meaning it’s a watershed. When you land on this book, you either are going to go down the side to the Pacific Ocean, or down this side to the Gulf of Mexico, and the rivers. And that’s how important it is, and how big it is. You don’t have to read the book to come to a good conclusion, but if you want the best, there it is.
Limited atonement is generally the one that people get stuck on the most. And we’ll probably spend a good bit of time on it for that reason. And that was true for me. I wanted so bad, and I still want more than anything to be biblical, not Calvinist. I couldn’t care less about being called a Calvinist. Is that clear to everybody? In a sense, it’s misleading to even use the term Calvinist, but I’m going to for the sake of shorthand. But know that my stake is with this Book. If you can show me in the Book, and it’s not a Calvinist doctrine, I’ll say goodbye to Calvinism. I’d go with the Book.
“Jesus is crucified for me in the mind of God before there’s a universe.”
So, I was stumbling over a lot of texts that looked like Christ died for everybody — and there are a lot of texts like that. And so, I was slow to come around to “limited atonement,” and that’s why I put John Owen’s The Death of Death here because I was at Bethlehem already in 1983 or after, when I was still reading The Death of Death in order to settle this issue for myself. That’s how long it took for that one to fall into place, and it was this book that helped me to settle that.
And now I’ve tried to lead this church in a way of biblical faithfulness, which I think is the doctrines of grace, for these thirty-something years.
So, let’s go to assumptions. I’ve got about eight of these, just so we’re all on the same page. These are things I’m just not going to bother arguing for. I could, I have a whole seminar number one.
1. Committed to the Bible
We believe that the Bible, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is the infallible Word of God, verbally inspired by God, and without error in the original manuscripts.
That’s my assumption. I did an entire seminary just on why we believe the Bible is the word of God. Just know that my final court of appeal in any of my theological arguments is the Bible, not any human being.
2. Biblical Is Best
Number two, being faithful to Scripture is vastly more important than being faithful to Calvinism or Arminianism.
3. Bad Theology Dishonors God
Right thinking about what the Bible teaches about God and man and salvation really matters. Right thinking matters. Bad theology dishonors God. It hurts people. Churches that sever the root of truth may flourish for a season, but will wither eventually or turn into something besides a Christian church.
4. The Holy Spirit Is Essential
The work of the Holy Spirit and the pursuit of his work in prayer is essential for grasping the truth of Scripture. So right thinking about doctrine is essential, and now I’m saying the Holy Spirit and pursuing him through prayer is crucial. Right now in this room, nobody will embrace the truth without the work of the Holy Spirit.
And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
So, I think that means if you’re spiritual, you have capacities to assess what is true and right. And people who stand outside the Holy Spirit, outside the Scriptures, will try to judge you and assess you, but they won’t succeed. It takes the Holy Spirit in order to recognize the things of the Spirit.
So, I have been praying for you for several days, and even before, that the Holy Spirit would come here. This should be a charismatic meeting. Meaning that unless we have the charisma that is the gift of the Holy Spirit in this room right now, I will be wasting your time, and you’ll be wasting your time. “Nobody can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). And nobody can say the other truths and mean them without him.
5. Thinking Is Essential
Thinking is essential for grasping biblical truths. The Holy Spirit is essential, prayer is essential, thinking is essential.
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. (1 Corinthians 14:20)
Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7)
Think over what I say, and then you look to the Lord to grant you understanding. Don’t say, “Oh, the Lord gives understanding. I don’t need to think.” And don’t say, “Oh, it’s telling me to think. I don’t need the gift of understanding from the Lord.” Evidently, in the way Paul thinks, your thinking with me about the Bible is the way God gives understanding.
6. Teachers Are Essential
God ordains that there’ll be teachers in the church to help the body grasp and apply the truth of Scripture. I think sometimes we’re so individualistic in the West we forget that the body is a means of growth and understanding — not just our Bible and the Holy Spirit and God. If you’ve got your Bible, you’ve got the Holy Spirit, and you have a brain, so you go into a closet and you come to your theology. And if that were the way it was supposed to be, Ephesians 4 and the whole New Testament wouldn’t make any sense.
And he gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints.
Can’t they equip themselves? No. Of course, you should read your Bible. Of course, you should buy all the books in the bookstore. Of course, you should study, and you should go to seminars, and you should go to worship services. And you should be in small groups so that the horizontal dimension can refine, and deepen, and correct and take you somewhere.
“I couldn’t care less about being called a Calvinist.”
I’ve done that. I still do it. I’ve got teachers I go to every day. They’re all dead. Well, they’re not all dead, but most of them are, right? I just finished listening to four sermons by John Harold Ockenga. They just found them in the archives at Park Street Church in Boston. These are sermons from the middle of the last century. And this was the man through whom God called me into the ministry. I never met him, but I love him. And I’m getting to hear him on tape for the first time in fifty years. It was 1966 when I heard him preach, and I felt called to ministry through him.
I go to school every day and so should you. It’s true: teachers are given to the church.
7. We Can Know
Like all fallen finite human people, you and I see in a mirror dimly. We do not claim to be perfect in what we know, and we do not claim to know all that can be known. Nor do we claim to see what we know more clearly than anyone else may see it.
But we do say with the apostle Paul,
Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we speak.
Though we do not know everything there is to know, and though we do not know anything perfectly, yet we do know many things truly. And I hope you can make that distinction. We do not know anything perfectly, comprehensively, flawlessly, but we do know many things truly because of God’s revelation and God’s Spirit.
We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again. (Romans 6:9)
We know that for those who love God, all things work together for good. (Romans 8:28)
We know that while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:6)
We know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 2:16)
We know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding. (1 John 3:2)
Those statements are just illustrative of the fact that knowledge is possible for fallen, finite, non-God people. God would not have inspired a book and preserved it for us if he didn’t think knowledge was possible — knowledge for which you should be willing to die.
8. Secrets Belong to God
Nevertheless, there remain things that God has not chosen to reveal to us and we must often be content with mystery. Deuteronomy 29:29:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
This is a good time to define free will. Here’s my definition of free will: free will is ultimate self-determination. By ultimate I mean there’s no cause after your choice that made you do it that’s decisive. And if you have that kind of willing — “I decided and nothing was decisive in bringing about my deciding” — then you believe in free will.
If you believe, “I do decide, my decision is real, but I know that God ultimately governs what I will decide,” then you don’t believe in free will. And that’s what I believe. I don’t believe in free will, defined that way. Now, almost nobody who uses the term on the street means what I mean by it.
If you get in an argument on free will, what most people mean is you believe you have choices that should not be physically coerced with a gun, or jail, or a fine, or whatever. And I believe in that free will. I believe in that. So, when you get into an argument with somebody, the first thing you should do is define the terms because once terms are defined, most of the arguments are over.
So, my answer to the question here, Does free will exist in other areas of life? in my definition, No, except for God. God’s the only person with free will. God’s the only person who, when he decides, nobody caused him to decide that. When I decide anything, God is always the one who ultimately is the decisive influence that caused me to decide. If I mean choices are real, choices are responsible, I’m responsible for my choices, then free will exists not only outside at the Dairy Queen, but inside at salvation. You can ask for clarification on that later, and you could ask about implications of that, because they’re huge.
Does God micromanage the universe? For example, Did he make me sit in this chair? R.C. Sproul likes to say, “There are no maverick molecules in the universe.” Sproul would also say something like, “For the loss of a nail, the shoe was lost. For the loss of a shoe, the horse was lost. For the loss of the horse, the battle was lost. For the loss of the battle, the kingdom was lost.”
“God ordains that there’ll be teachers in the church to help the body grasp and apply the truth of Scripture.”
And that’s why it matters that there be no maverick molecules. It just may get out of hand, and a meteor might land and blow the whole world up or something before due time. God never says, “Oh, oh, oh, how did that happen?” God is never shaking his hands. God never says oops. He micromanages as the universe and he micromanages your life.
Now there is a slight problem in the word make here. Did he make me sit in this chair?* Almost inevitably when you ask it that way, you mean “against my will.” God never makes you do anything against your will. Your will is always doing what it wants to do, and it is a responsible will. And God governs our willing, not by making us do what we don’t want to do, but by influencing our will in ways that preserve our accountability.
Born Wanting to Be God
Why do you think free will theology is so prevalent in our culture and churches today? Everybody’s born believing in free will, and everybody wants to be God.
Every one of you is a rebel deserving of hell. What would be more natural than to believe in, “I can do what I want to do, thank you very much. And butt out of my life. Don’t even begin to tell me that God governs my life. I am still responsible for my life.” Nobody’s going to embrace that as a rebellious human being. You have to be born again.
What’s the historical background for this Calvinism Arminian thing? John Calvin, the great Reformer of Geneva and author of the Institutes of the Christian Religion was born in 1509, converted at the age of 21 and died in 1564. He records his conversion:
God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.
Indeed, he did. his father hoped you would be a lawyer, and when he was converted, he abandoned that and became a theologian and a pastor. I’m glad he did.
So, now we have Mr. Calvin and Mr. Arminius — two real human beings. I think we’ll see both of them in heaven. I just got out my old biography of Arminius this morning, written by Bangs, just to remind myself of things he said. And boy, if there were Arminians like that around today, I’d have a lot of friends in that group, because he was such a blood-earnest, serious biblical theologian. And I can go a long way with people that are blood-earnest about the Bible.
The Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius, was born in 1560 and died in 1609. He came to disagree with key tenets of Calvinist doctrine. In the early 1600s a controversy arose, especially in Holland, between the Arminians and the Calvinists, the groups who bore the name of the persons who had most powerfully expressed their understanding of Scripture.
In 1610 the Arminians presented five doctrinal positions, called the Remonstrance, to the state authorities. These expressed the key areas where they disagreed with Calvinists. From November 13, 1618 to May 9, 1619 — so about eight years after that — the Calvinists met in the Synod of Dort to answer these five disputed points. Their answers came to be called the Canons of Dort. And these are the original expression of the five points of Calvinism. And thus, the five points were not asserted by Calvinists as a summary of their doctrine. They were the Calvinists’ response to the Arminian Remonstrants, who chose these five points with which to disagree.
“The five points are vital to understand and have a bearing on all of life and ministry.”
The Arminians read Calvinist doctrine. And they said, “We don’t agree with that. We don’t agree with that, we don’t agree with that.” And there was five of them, and they wrote the declarations, the Remonstrants, saying, “These five things we think are wrong in Calvinism.” And the Calvinists looked at that and said, “We need to have a synod and decide what we think about that. And then they studied for that year there — November through May. And then they wrote the Canons of Dort, which are now the five points of Calvinism.
These five points are at the very heart of how we understand God and sin and grace and atonement and salvation, and all the things that are touched by these great realities. In short, the five points are vital to understand and have a bearing on all of life and ministry. So, another comment about the question, How essential are the differences? You can’t answer that in the abstract because there are lots of different ways to disagree with a truth. You can say the truth is hellish, and the diametric opposite is true. Or you can say the truth is not quite right, and affirm something that’s almost in it but not in it. There’s a whole spectrum of kinds of disagreements you can have over any given point.
So, I can’t answer in the general like, “Oh, if you’re an Arminian, you’re lost.” That’s not true. Or “If you’re a Calvinist, you’re lost,” or “certainly bound for heaven.” That’s certainly not true. You can have perfect doctrine and go to hell, because doctrine doesn’t save you. Jesus saves by faith, and some mighty poor doctrine can bring forth some mighty wonderful faith.
That’s an important thing to me. Let me say that again. I never equate a person’s thinking about God with his true trust in God. Because you can have very right thoughts about God and be a very defective man, and a defective believer. Your faith is weak and you sin a lot. And you can have a pretty defective view of God, and the Holy Spirit mercifully through that defect gets at your heart, really changes it, and really causes you to walk a life of love better than the man with a better theology. It’s never one for one.
I think all things considered, we should try to be as faithful to the Bible as we can be. But I never assume that a church over there that has the best theology is going to be a more godly church than a church over here that has less good theology.
Now, some people might hear me say this and respond, “Oh, then what’s the point of the seminar?” Because God is honored by right thinking. And over time, right thinking preserves the kinds of structures in thought and in affection, which I think will breed more godly people long-term, more persevering people.
But at any given moment, in any given city, in any given church, you can’t draw a straight line from doctrinal orthodoxy to biblical living, loving, faithfulness.