At my private Christian university, the big theological debate on campus was Calvinism versus Arminianism. (We can leave that super fun discussion for another day, but in the meantime, here’s a handy chart of the differences.) At first, I tried to stay out of the fray — somewhere in the middle between 2-3 of the 5 points — but an experience with God after a scary car accident pushed me into full-on Calvinism and I embraced the role with gusto. I read a lot of John Piper. I debated free-will. I talked about the book of Romans a lot. In short, I was kind of annoying.
In the intervening years, my stance toward Calvinism has shifted. I’m less sure about a great many things than I was in my college days. But the foundations of my faith have not been shaken, thanks, in large measure, to my time as a Calvinist. Contrary to TV images of intractable Puritans, Calvinism made me more, not less, open-minded about the non-essential elements of Christian belief (see what I think of as the essentials here). Here are three reasons why:
Calvinism taught me to question received beliefs.
My exploration with Calvinist thinking marked the first time I really challenged some of the ideas about God and humanity that I had grown up with. All my life I’d heard people say things like, “Free-will is the only thing that separates humans from the animals,” and “God is a gentleman — He knocks on your heart’s door and won’t come in until you invite Him.” Both of these statements are probably rooted in some truth, but it was important for me to question them because it helped me to understand the assumptions and interpretations those statements were built on and to think critically about those assumptions and interpretations. Such questioning and critical thinking has proven essential to my growth as a Christian.
Calvinism taught me to trust God with the unknowns.
In a nutshell, Calvinism teaches that God, in total sovereignty, knows and chooses those who will believe in Him. Their belief in Him is impossible without this knowledge and choice on God’s part. In order to embrace this teaching, I had to make peace with the terrible idea that some people are simply not chosen. I had to believe that somehow, beyond my understanding, God had a perfect plan for the world and all the people in it. I had to trust God to know better than I did. Today, some of my beliefs about salvation and free-will and eternal destiny have altered. For me, the old adage has proven true: the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized I have yet to learn — and there is so much I still do not understand about these complicated matters. This lack of understanding has not wrecked my faith, however. As much as my views toward predestination may have changed, my views toward God’s sovereignty have not. Because I believe God is sovereign, I can have peace with mystery, believing that God alone understands that which I cannot.
Calvinism taught me to appreciate and display grace
Grace — God’s freely given, undeserved gift of forgiveness and redemption — is a central teaching of Calvinism. My mind may have changed in recent years about some of Calvinism’s finer points, but I am still sure that grace is a free gift, totally independent of what we “deserve.” Importantly, I don’t get to decide who deserves grace. God has shown me much grace; therefore, I am to show much grace to others. While some may imagine Calvinists as closed-off curmudgeons who take it upon themselves to sort their world into “sheep” and “goats,” most Calvinists I knew were not like that. Most Calvinists I knew tried to treat everyone with love and respect as part of an outpouring of God’s grace. And that teaching has made me open my arms and my mind to more people and more ideas than I would have believed possible prior to my Calvinist days.
These days, I don’t wear the Calvinist label — or many labels — well. I’ve learned to hold non-essential doctrines with a loose grip. And in many ways, I owe that sense of exploration and open-mindedness to my days as a Calvinist, when I learned that if God is sovereign and God is gracious, then I can seek, question, and love without fear.
See also: HISTORY AND SYMPATHY: HOW HITLER HELPED ONE MAN UNDERSTAND THE PURITANS and I SAID “YES!”