Calvinism’s Stages of Grief
Leighton Flowers, who recently broke out the Play-doh for a debate with Dr. James White on Romans 9, addressed a tiny fragment of a conversation I had with the good brothers in Las Vegas at the Refining and Reforming podcast. Flowers took issue with my comparing stages of accepting Calvinism with the stages of grief. This is the clip of P&PP that Flowers plays in the program.
My recitation of the stages of acceptance of election, I should clarify, is not unique. Years ago I read this account from Edwards as he, too, fell from the center of his own universe and began to see God’s preeminent central authority in salvation.
From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure. But never could give an account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit in it; but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections. And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense, in God’s strewing mercy to whom he will shew mercy, and hardening whom he will. God’s absolute sovereignty and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation, is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of any thing that I see with my eyes; at least it is so at times. But I have often, since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God’s sovereignty than I had then. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.
Edwards seemed to know what I was going through.
- Denial – When first reading God’s sovereign election in Scripture, we deny it. We don’t want to see it. Some claim that there is only a “corporate election.” Some argue that God predestines everyone and some people up and unpredestine themselves. Some just determine never to go back to Romans 9 or Ephesians 1 again and act like these more explicit texts aren’t in the Bible.
- Anger – The man-centered Christian is angry that they’ve been knocked off their throne. They’re angry that they can’t take partial credit for their salvation. Their angry that the picture they’ve been painted of God is entirely fabricated. And sometimes, they’re angry that they weren’t taught the truth by pastors and teachers who never made it past the first stage.
- Bargaining – This is typically where the Scripture-twisting comes into play. We begin to bargain with God and say silly things like, “Well…God chooses us BUT only because in his omniscient foreknowledge he knew that we would choose him.” Or, perhaps like Leighton, we look at clear, didactic teaching like what’s found in Romans 9 and bargain with eisegeted texts foreign to that passage. We try to bargain away what the Scripture clearly teaches.
- Acceptance – Finally, we have to reach the stage where we’re like, “Okay. That’s what it says. I don’t completely get it, but I agree that’s what it says. But, I don’t have to like it.”
- Embracing – Eventually you reach the stage that Edwards arrived at – God’s divine sovereignty is something we begin to love to ascribe to him. We embrace the Doctrines, love the Doctrines, and want to propagate the Doctrines when we see God in all of his powerful fullness.
Most Calvinists I know, who reached the beliefs through a heartfelt and earnest study of Scripture (especially if they saw it in Scripture – as a surprise – and no one pointed them to the passage, IE “coming by them honestly”) can relate to what I just wrote. The stages of understanding or accepting the Doctrines of Grace my vary slightly, but most of us remember what it was like to deny them, hate them, try to bargain them away, depressingly accept them and then, embrace them. Spurgeon thought the same. Quoting Whitefield, Spurgeon said…
“We are all born Arminians. It is grace that turns us into Calvinists.” (Sermons, Vol. 2, p. 124)
Flowers’ commentary makes it seem that what grieving to me was the Gospel. God forbid – it was not the Gospel that was grieving. What was grieving to me, complete with reactions of denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance and embrace was the workings of the Gospel that clarified God’s bigness and my smallness.
I had been taught that Jesus needed a friend, I made the right decision to be that friend, and that God should be grateful I choose to worship Him. What I saw in Romans 9 is that Jesus doesn’t need and neither does he ask for my acceptance, my choosing of him was the product of God’s regenerating power, and that God could rid the world of me as an object of wrath prepared before hand for destruction and not loose sleep. It was my humbling state before God that appalled me – not that Jesus saves. I could concur with Spurgeon entirely…
Rebellion against divine election is often founded on the idea that the sinner has a sort of right to be saved, and this is to deny the full desert of sin. (Sermons, Vol. 24, p.302)
Because God’s saving grace was indiscriminate and promiscuous, in my mind, I had felt entitled to salvation. Reading Romans 9 clarified that I was not entitled to salvation, and the only thing keeping me from dangling like a loathsome insect on a thread over hell was the grace of God. This is not what I was taught in my “traditionalist” Southern Baptist upbringing. Like a welfare recipient being informed they’re not entitled to their next meal, I was gravely upset that the Scripture was explaining God didn’t have to save me and that He would be equally as glorified if I were an object of wrath rather than of mercy. Looking back at my initial hatred of my own humility before the throne of God, Spurgeon says it better than I…
I am not a Calvinist by choice, but because I cannot help it. (Sermons, Vol. 18, p. 692)
To reiterate, what took various stages for me to fully appreciate, is that God is God and I am not. This is what I initially abhorred about the Doctrines of Grace as I first discovered them in the sacred Writ.
- There was nothing in me deserving of Heaven
- My good decision making is the product of the Holy Spirit’s work in me
- God doesn’t have answer back to men like me or explain his actions
- God is equally glorified in the dispensing of justice as he is the dispensing of grace
- God does not pine for my worship or friendship, and he is not lesser without it
- No aspect of my salvation – not even the contributions of faith or repentance – are in any way my doing
- The only thing I have to offer God in exchange for justification is my sin
- All pride and arrogance for my “choosing Jesus” is utterly foreign to reality
Mostly, in the vivid imagery provided by the Holy Spirit in Romans 9, I saw as though a huge swath of humanity was swept into the sea of God’s wrath and Christ shutting the door. And I saw myself in the Ark, a worst sinner than those in the sea of wrath, and finally knew what the phrase meant, “Except by the grace of God, there go I.” That’s a terrifying God. That was not the God I was taught in Sunday School. Folks, that takes some adjusting to. I had never worshipped a God that big and unapologetic. It takes time to let that settle.
Thankfully, so long as I’m quoting Spurgeon, I’ll agree with him here, too…
I do not ask whether you believe Calvinism. It is possible that you do not. But I believe you will before you enter heaven. I am persuaded that as God may have washed your hearts, He will wash your brains before you enter heaven. (Sermons, Vol. 1, p. 92)