Legalist Grace?

Legalistic Grace?

Sounds like a contradiction in terms doesn’t it, legalistic grace, but I have been coming across the sentiment, not the term itself, in a number of different ways. However expressed, whether in print, sermon, television, radio, or conversation, it sounds very much like, “I am more of a Calvinist than you are.”

At first I thought it was akin to an animal marking territory as we observe in dogs and cats. Perhaps it is little more than the old guard Calvinists not wanting to be marginalized or not receiving recognition for their heroic manning of the Reformed fort now that new recruits have volunteered for the front lines.

My journey toward the doctrines of grace has been a slow one–little by little. This may have been due to the sheer glory of free grace, which must be absorbed over the course of time, or, my slowness may have been due to the complexity of it all. I wonder, back in 1996, if I would have been rejected, even ridiculed, if I could not embrace so much doctrine suddenly. But as it was I knew no one, and for some years, who was a self confessed Calvinist. Perhaps I was spared a rude awakening.

Coming from a Baptist background I had little exposure to the theology of those who had imbibed the traditional theologies handed down from Calvin, Luther, and others, through John Knox mostly; I learned from Billy Graham, Campus Crusade for Christ, C.S. Lewis, Watchman Nee, and other Arminian leaning evangelicals. Then when I began reading Edwards, Owen, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, I. Murray, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and others, my theological reeducation took a new, and confusing, turn.

The year, 1996, when I began to understand the differences between Calvinistic and Arminian points of view by way of research into the debate between Asahel Nettleton and Charles Finney during American’s Second Awakening, I was in the eleventh year of pastoring Miller Avenue Church in Mill
Valley, California. For twenty-nine years of professional ministry I had been a staunch Arminian regularly teaching through Charles Finney’s Revival Lectures; John Wesley was one of my heroes.

Happily, there was no pressure from my congregation or denomination to toe any doctrinal line. And the people I preached to and taught had little exposure to Reformed theology and took to it slowly. It was some time before I even mentioned the name of John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards. Some rejected even my feeble efforts to introduce clear biblical ideas like predestination and election. As pastor I had to be careful to not drive everyone off remembering how haltingly I had progressed. The plain fact is that even after fourteen years not all of the congregation would be what I would call Reformed. Yet I am content with the progress.

Now then, what I have been observing, and experiencing with the emergence of the New Calvinists, is a pressure to accept a whole array of doctrines and positions beyond TULIP. Many insist that to be a true Calvinist means adhering to much more that the famous five points. Some of these doctrines are: views on the inerrancy of the Bible; replacement theology where the church replaces Israel; the place of infant baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the context of Covenant Theology; views of last things; women and their place in the church; cessationism—whether spiritual/charismatic gifts are in operation today; applications of church discipline; using the correct forms of worship especially having to do with music; the place of historic confessions of faith, among others. The list can even include political or social positions. My discovery has been that not all of those who identify with the Doctrines of Grace are in harmony all the way down the list. So often, too often I think, it is all in or nothing. Surely this attitude, while it may appear to be a strong one, is likely not the firmest foundation for growing in grace; such a doctrinaire attitude, at least in my experience, has seemed more like sectarianism that faithful biblical orthodoxy.

Marking out territory? Maybe, or perhaps what I have been observing is a lack of grace along with a misunderstanding of the working of the Holy Spirit. We grow up slowly. We generally agree that the wise parent does not demand their young children demonstrate adult stature or maturity.

When asked to describe my theological position I will say I am reforming rather than reformed. I have a long way to go in grasping all the ramifications of the doctrines of grace since they go to the greatness and glory of our creator God. Early on, were I to have been bombarded by the extent of the mercy granted me in Christ I would have been overwhelmed, perhaps immobilized. Yet, I run into people who have seemingly overnight become full five-pointers and are furthermore convinced of a number of extra points such as those listed above.

This is indeed a plea for those of us who have had the time and freedom to grow up into the doctrines of grace to extend this same privilege to others who are setting out on their journey.

We begin with grace and we must continue the same way. Paul made this clear in his letter to the Galatian churches. And most Christians get the point easily enough when it comes to the salvation issue–works versus grace—and are convinced that they were helpless to attain it through their own efforts. But Calvinists, new and old, can be a blessing to those who are on the Reforming journey by not imposing unnecessary road blocks or by demanding doctrinal conformity in a host of other issues. If we trust that God saves us in a sovereign way, may we not also expect that He will continue that process until the day of Jesus Christ?

Kent Philpott, July 29, 2010