Thursday, July 07, 2011

This is all my Calvinism

Charles Simeon

I had a conversation with an Arminian yesterday. We covered the usual ground concerning divine sovereignty and human responsibility.  Trading biblical texts didn't get us anywhere. My Ephesians 1:4 was met with his Matthew 11:28. I believe that it is possible to hold to election and the free offer of the gospel, but my friend didn't think so. I tried another tack. I asked him whether when he was converted it was,  a) because he had freely chosen to be saved, or b)  because God saved him? Predictably he opted for b). In his case God had to wonderfully save him else he never would have chosen to become a Christian. Did acknowledging this point turn my interlocutor into a convinced Five Point Calvinist. Er, no. We parted on friendly terms with him still an Arminian. Ah well. Can't win 'em all. But our exchange put me in mind of a dialogue between the young Charles Simeon (1759-1836) the ageing John Wesley (1703-1791).

CS: Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?

JW: Yes, I do indeed.

CS: And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?

JW: Yes, solely through Christ.

CS: But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
John Wesley

JW: No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.

CS: Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?

JW: No.

CS: What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?

JW: Yes, altogether.

CS: And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?

JW: Yes, I have no hope but in Him.

CS: Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.

Interesting isn't it, that as with my Arminian friend, Wesley's theology broke down when it came to his own personal experience of the grace of God? With the Calvinist, his theology explains his experience. Head and heart cohere around the truth that salvation is of the Lord. With the Arminian, wrong-headed belief is contradicted by his actual experience of salvation. Note this impeccably Calvinistic account of conversion in Charles Wesley's famous hymn, And Can It Be? 
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
In his essay, What Is Calvinism? B. B. Warfield reflects, 
The Calvinist is the man who is determined to preserve the attitude he takes in prayer in all his thinking, in all his feeling, in all his doing... Other men are Calvinists on their knees; the Calvinist is the man who is determined that his intellect, and heart, and will shall remain on their knees continually, and only from this attitude think, and feel, and act. Calvinism is, therefore, that type of thought in which there comes to its rights the truly religious attitude of utter dependence on God and humble trust in his mercy alone for salvation.
That is all my Calvinism.


Ralph M. Petersen-Always Right; Sometimes Wrong! said...

I like it!

Andrew said...

Marvellous thoughts, and the extended quote from Simeon/Wesley is superb.

Ben said...

C H Spurgeon said, I think (but can't provide the source off hand) something like: We are all born Arminians; we are Calvinists by grace.

Which is to say, I suppose, that we've no reason to be proud of the fact that we hold our theology, but we can still proudly maintain that it is the only validly Christian theology there is. As Warfield says, Calvinism is theism come to its rights; calvinism is religion at the height of its conception; calvinism is evangelicalism in its purest and most stable expression. (Calvinism Today).

Michael Baldwin said...

Great stuff!
I was wondering, do you hold to theological determinism also?
Do you know of anywhere where you or someone else has written defending it?
Thanks a lot,

Guy Davies said...


I'm a compatibilitist, holding both to divine sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility. But human freedom is not indeterministic. Our choices are determined by the fact that we are sinners. Human freedom is the freedom of spontaneous choice, not absolute freedom of choice.

Don Carson has a chapter on this in his How Long, O Lord, The Mystery of Providence, (IVP), where he defends compatibilism.

Paul Helm discusses the finer nuances of determinism and compatibilism in his The Providence of God (IVP).

Dan said...

I am not so sanguine as to think that Wesley was a closet Calvinist or that Simion sincerely accepted Wesley's Arminianism. On the face of it, Arminians and Calvinists seem the same. But probe beneath the surface and you find that the meaning of the Arminian is quite different. Many have used this exchange to prove that in fact we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We are not. Not any more than we are with the RCC.