This is a personal post that deals with my journey as an Arminian.
I became a Christian at a young age. I remember going to a church service, being convicted of sin, and going down to the altar to pray with my dad. I asked Jesus to forgive me and to come into my heart. He did. I remember the experience. I felt forgiveness, peace, and the personal love of Jesus. This brought me great joy. I was around the age of 4 or 5 when this took place.
I grew up in a Christian family. My parents were committed church goers. If the church doors were open, we were there. My family attended the Nazarene church. Growing up, I did not realize that my denomination was “Arminian”. But, I was learning Arminian concepts. John 3:16 was the first verse memorized. In Sunday school we sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children”. I grew up believing that Jesus loves every person, that he wants each person to be saved, and that it is genuinely possible for anyone to become a believer. To this day, I believe that these distinctives are the heart of Arminian theology.
Until several years ago, I was largely ignorant of Calvinist theology. I knew that Calvinists placed a lot of importance on predestination. I also knew that they believed that a Christian could not lose his salvation. I thought that “eternal security” was the defining characteristic of Calvinism, thus, in my mind every Baptist was a Calvinist. I was blissfully unaware of the TULIP. I was also unaware of the Calvinistic concept of exhaustive determinism.
There were three events that piqued my interest in Calvinism. They all took place around the same time.
1) I attended Sunday school class where we went through a book by John Piper.
2) I started memorizing scripture, and ran into Romans 9.
3) My brother became a Calvinist, and began to try to convince me and other family members of its merits.
In the Sunday school class we studied the book “The Dangerous Duty of Delight” by John Piper. The discussions were lively. At the time I had never read Piper, and didn’t know that he was a Calvinist. However, I knew that I didn’t care for his book. Initially I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why. In retrospect, I think it was my “stink detector” going off. I didn’t really know what Calvinism was, but was still able to detect something amiss in Piper’s writing.
To this day, I don’t enjoy Piper’s work. No doubt he is a godly man with spiritual insight. However, his deterministic theology is in focus in all of his writings. This turns me off. When I read his writings I know that he is using Biblical terms in a way that is quite different from the way I understand them, and the way they have usually been interpreted historically. As a result, I find it difficult to appreciate his work (As a side note, I don’t find this to be true of all Calvinist authors.).
Around the same time as the Sunday school class, I began to memorize scripture. There was a man at our church who had memorized huge chunks of the Bible. He said that anyone could memorize large passages, and encouraged me to do so. I decided to give it a try. Over the course of several months I memorized Romans 8 and 12 – two of my favorite chapters. When I had 8 and 12 down, I decided to work on the chapters in between.
When I dug into Romans 9, it bothered me. What I read in Romans 9 did not sound like the God that I had heard about growing up, or had read about elsewhere in the Bible. A God who hates Esau before he was born? A God who hardens hearts, and creates objects of wrath? And to top it off, He tells us not to talk back and question his motives. What did this mean? What kind of God was this? Fortunately, I didn’t start or stop at Romans 9 (as I fear many Calvinist “converts” do).
When I read Romans 10, it seemed to me to flat out contradict Romans 9. There I read that that the same Lord is Lord of all. He richly blesses all who call on him. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Romans 9 created a lot cognitive dissonance for me. I didn’t understand how it fit in with Romans 10, or with other passages that seemed to contradict it. As I began to research the issue, I found that there were some viable Arminan interpretations of Romans 9. They made a lot of sense to me. I now enjoy Romans 9. Understood in context, it is a refreshing passage (My thoughts on Romans 9 can be found here).
As they say, sometimes life happens in threes. Around the time these other events were going on, my brother became a Calvinist. At the time I was still unaware of the distinctives of Calvinism. I just figured that he had bought into the “eternal security” thing. This didn’t really worry me. I had always respected my brother’s views and insight. He was (and is) a kind, patient, and reflective person. If he thought eternal security was true, that was fine with me. Maybe it was true.
But, to be sure, I decided to read up on Calvinism – both pro and con. What I read about it bothered me. I discovered that there was much more to Calvinism than “eternal security”. There was this thing called TULIP. TULIP contradicted what I knew to be true – that God loves the world (John 3:16), that Jesus died for all (1 Tim 2:4-6), and that God does not desire for anyone to perish (2 Pet 3:9). These were all biblical concepts that Calvinism rejected. I did not believe in a God who damned people before they were born for “His glory”. It was at that time that I realized that Calvinism was more than simply a minor variance in theology.
When I read Calvinist authors, I did not find their criticisms of Arminianism to be accurate. They said things like: Arminians deny the sovereignty of God. Arminians believe in a works salvation. Arminians are man-centered. Arminians don’t believe in the sinful nature. Arminians worship free will. Arminians are liberal. I knew from personal experience that none of these criticisms were legitimate (As a side note: Roger Olson’s book addresses many of these myths.).
Later on my brother convinced my sister and her husband of the merits of Calvinism. Both of their families broke fellowship with the churches that they had been attending, and began attending Calvinist churches. Unfortunately theology is now a matter of division in our family. I have learned to agree to disagree with my brother. I have not discussed the issue much with my sister. We are neither likely to change opinions, and I feel that addressing the matter would only strain our relationship. To my brother and sister: if you happen to read this, I hope you both know that I love you dearly, and accept you as fellow believers.
I have found that my experiences are not unique. Calvinism is in a period of resurgence. Thankfully, there are many godly Calvinists who are followers of Jesus. My brother and sister are among them. However, I also believe that Calvinist theology damages the body of Christ. Calvinism is a distortion of the Gospel. It misrepresents the character of God. It is something that needs to be addressed, checked, and opposed. For this reason I am now dedicated to to promoting Arminian theology.