Wednesday, September 25, 2013

From Tozer to Piper to Arminius: A Theological Journey

Theological Discovery
A.W. Tozer
Like most, my teenage years were monumentally formative in my development.  High School provided the unique opportunity of digesting deep theological truths and facing a world that desperately needed them. At school, we began to systematically examine the great doctrines taught by the Bible. Initially, I looked forward most to Eschatology, the study of Last Things. It was Soteriology, the study of salvation, though, that captivated me. 

Parallel to this theology focus in the classroom, Pastor Deets began a discipleship group. The group's focus was discussion, fellowship and ministry. We read and discussed A.W. Tozer's Knowledge of the Holy. For the first time in my life I was exposed to the fascinating life of the Christian mind. There is depth to knowledge of God that stimulates the brain and feeds the soul. In theology, mind and heart meet. Tozer guided me into the deep things of God. Once finished with Knowledge of the Holy, I read The Pursuit of God, then The Pursuit of Man. During these years, I was continually reading something by him. No other writer shaped my Christian spirituality like A.W. Tozer. He was and still is my greatest theological mentor. Our discipleship group alternated between study and service every week. One week we discussed theology over Sonic drinks, the next week we were out knocking on doors and sharing the Gospel. For a teenager, this was absolutely terrifying. In Farmington you will be challenged by Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics and Atheists. Each brought its distinct challenges. At times, I stood there without an answer. This inability to answer challenges drove me to desperate study.

In the study of salvation I was first exposed to Arminian and Calvinist thinking. As we studied their views on salvation I was stuck. I wanted to be Arminian, but I did not believe salvation could be lost. At this point, I did not truly understand Arminian Theology. Calvinism was appealing, but I did not believe that Scripture taught God arbitrarily elected individuals to salvation. If that was true, His choosing some to salvation was also choosing the rest to damnation, irresistibly. So I left my initial study of salvation not as an Arminian or Calvinist. I took the label of "Biblicist." Biblicist is a rather silly position. In some ways, it is elitist nonsense. Elitist, because its implication is that neither Calvinists nor Arminians are being biblical. Their commitment is not to Scripture, but to a system. Nonsense, because by saying you are Biblicist you aren't really saying anything at all, there is no description to your view of election or predestination. High school ended with me not knowing what I believed, at least, not knowing what my beliefs should be called, but knowing that it was certainly more biblical than Calvinism or Arminianism. In college, however, things would change. 

Calvinism Forming and Flourishing
John Piper
My freshman year, I roomed with a John Piper junkie. I literally woke up every morning to Piper's passionate preaching through the speakers of Emanuel's laptop. Piper's focus was the glory of God in all of life. His preaching gripped me. It didn't take too long before I, too, became a Piper junkie. I ordered Desiring God and had it read in a couple of days. The truths Piper communicated in that book were so true to my own spiritual experience. I had always believed and experienced that life with God was real, satisfying, joy. God was my greatest joy and greatest pleasure. Relationship with him was a liberating satisfaction over the fleeting pleasures of sin. Piper showed me that this perspective was actually taught in the Bible. "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him," became the theme of my freshman year. Much like Tozer in high school, Piper rocked my world and shaped my thinking. I could not get enough of his preaching and writing. I ordered the Pleasures of God and read it hungrily. Once again, I swam in the deep riches of theological knowledge. It was here, that I saw most clearly that Piper was a committed Calvinist. Initially, I was troubled. As I read more, however, I began to awaken to the truths of the Doctrines of Grace. The message of God's glory in the redemptive storyline of Scripture and in the drama of existence became the motif of my soul. In salvation, like everything else in existence, the glory of God, not the salvation of man should be the focus. I affirmed total depravity. Piper taught me the unquestionable Scriptural teaching of election. He showed me that the atonement had a purpose. Christ didn't waste his blood for the non-elect. His death was meaningful for the chosen and that was beautiful. Because of our depravity, our deadness in sin, only God's irresistible grace could redeem us. If God chose me, died for me, regenerated me, then certainly He would keep me for ever. I even saw the glory of God in the doctrine of reprobation. Because God's glory was the central focus of salvation, He was glorified by the display of His justice in the damnation of souls. They were chosen by Him to burn in Hell for the display of His glorious justice. They suffer so God can display His deep, special love of the elect to the elect and the entire heavenly host. My freshman year through the hot summer I was a committed Calvinist.

Crumbling Calvinism 
John Calvin
By the start of my sophomore year, things were already changing. My sophomore year was the worst year of my life. I foolishly took all of my upper level classes. I began Greek. The economy tanked and our family was met with harsh economic strain. I was facing the rapidly declining health of my grandpa. I met romantic rejection from a girl I had liked and pursued since my freshman year. My sophomore year was very dark and I spent it in deep depression. Yet, to be consistent in my theology I had to recognize that all of this was by the direct hand of God. My academic shortcomings was God's will. My economic stress and pain was a gift of God. My grandpa's deteriorating health was a display of God's goodness. I took it like a stoic. The Doctrines of Grace that seemed so rich and enlightening to me the year before were now loosing their grandeur. Concerning the fate of others, I still did not like Romans 9, but Scripture's teaching was clear: If God created people for the purpose to damn them, who am I to question the Him? I am man, He is God.

When I would doubt the truth of Calvinism I quickly reminded myself of its rich heritage. Augustine, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon, were all Calvinists. Today, John MacArthur, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, and John Piper are all Calvinists. These men were and are some of the greatest and most influential individuals in the history of Christianity. But self-reassurance with these men only lasted so long. Life was beginning to hurt. It was more than theoretical theology in a book, it was real life: experiencing deep pain, romantic heartbreak and tearing loss of death. For me, my theology had to be able to function practically.What I believed brought actual, serious, perspective to the hardships I faced in life. Theology could not be disconnected from life. And life was crushing me. I began to question. What is God really like? Why is there evil in the world? Why does God offer salvation to all if He doesn't intend for all to be saved? Why does he command every man to repent, but purposely withholds regenerating grace from them? Why does He with hold from them the ability to repent, then holds them responsible for not? Isn't that the very nature of cruelty? Are my family members elect? What if God made my precious, little cousins for the purpose of suffering in Hell for His glory? Was God truly good?

That last question was the breaking point for me. I turned to my theological mentor, and hoped he had an answer. He did. John Piper taught that God had two wills. At times the wills of God clashed with one another. This view was taught by Edwards and also held by profound theologian Wayne Grudem. In salvation, God's revealed will was the salvation of all, but his secret determinative will was the damnation of those He wanted to save. God decreed against his own wishes? He willed against Himself? I found no assurance or comfort in the doctrine of the dual willed God. It was John Piper who showed me the glories of the Doctrines of Grace and ironically, it was John Piper who showed me its glaring weaknesses. He both drew me in and pushed me out of Calvinism. One chilly, fall morning I reached the crossroads. I was walking along the campus sidewalks, deep in thought. Is God really for me? I mean, is he really for me? Or is that what His revealed will says, but His secret will decrees against? Again, God's goodness was in question. Remaining a Calvinist meant I would either have to abandon my belief in God's goodness or abandon my belief in God altogether.

Classical Arminian
Jacob Arminius
Abandoning belief in God would mean abandoning everything I knew to be true about the universe. If there is no God, there is no objective morality. There is no standard to whom I must reckon with. Without God all these notions of treating others rightly or even the sentiment of justice was completely lost. I could not abandon God. It would be the implosion of my entire existence. It wasn't an option. Like so many times before in my theological quest, I was driven back to Scripture.

As I studied more, I found Calvinism to be lacking in its account of Scripture's whole teaching. The character of God I discovered in entirety of the Bible was one of immense compassion. He is One who describes His relationship with humans as a lover wooing and striving for newly rekindled love with an unfaithful bride. He is One who feels the pain of rejected love. He is One who is actually hurt by the actions of His creatures. This God who is love, made an atonement for every human being and desires the salvation of everyone. This was the character of God that I had known before my conversion to Calvinism. Even Romans 9 wasn't a chapter to be feared. It is in the context of God's dealing with Israel. This discussion spans from Romans 9 and goes through Romans 11. It must be read with Jeremiah 18. My study of Scripture no longer allowed me to remain a Calvinist.

I didn't embrace Arminianism right away. In fact, I wasn't comfortable at all with the label Arminian. Arminians, after all, believed that you could lose your salvation and that man was the primary mover in salvation. At that time I didn't understand what Arminians actually believed. As time moved on, however, I was intrigued by Arminian Theology and so I began to study it for myself.

The first book I bought was Roger E. Olson's terrific Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Olson, a crusading Arminian, clarified all of my misgivings and misconceptions about Jacob Arminius and the theology that bears his name. Here I learned that the primary concern of Arminian theology was not the free will of man but the character of God. I learned that the two biggest proponents of Arminian theology, Jacob Arminius and John Wesley both taught a strong, reformed view of original sin and total depravity. Without God's prevenient grace man was without hope. I was surprised to see that the possibility of falling away from the faith was not a settled topic in Arminian thinking. To be Arminian did not necessitate the abandonment of perseverance of the saints.

I began to read Arminius for himself. To my great surprise, I found much in common with him. My study of Arminian thought continued with Thomas C. Oden's helpful work The Transforming Power of Grace. Arminian theology was an expression, a description of my own interpretation of Scripture. I discovered that I was Arminian. And that was ok. 

As it turns out, with the exception of my brief stay in Calvinism, I had always been Arminian. A.W. Tozer, who had so profoundly shaped my theological thinking in high school, was a thorough Arminian. As I read him today, my mind is still fed and my soul stirred. I still love John Piper and John MacArthur. I consume their books.  I listen to their sermons. I'm built up by them. I still have deep, deep, sympathies for Calvinism. I still see the glory of God as the motif of my life. My life's goal is to make much of Him. I rejected Calvinism because I could not live life as a Calvinist. I could not believe both that Calvinism was true and that God is good. For me, and Arminius, and Wesley, God's goodness is the central burden of Arminian theology. I greatly appreciate Calvinism, am enthusiastic about the Young, Restless and Reformed, and still read, enjoy, and glean much from Calvinist theology. But ultimately, I'm an Arminian. My soteriological journey has led me here. I'm an Arminian who affirms total depravity. I'm an Arminian who believes in the beautiful, necessary, drawing of God without which no one would ever come to the Father. I'm an Arminian who believes and submits to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I'm an Arminian who embraces the perseverance of the saints. I'm a Classical Arminian.