Monday, December 21, 2009

Calvinist Confessions, 1

I'm a Pharisee. And I'm a Calvinist.

Those things should not go together. But they do in far too many instances. The Calvinist should be the last to become a Pharisee. Our theology should keep us humble. Or, so we're told.

But I'm a Pharisee. And I'm a Calvinist. Which means I'm a bad Calvinist.

Here's the first reason I'm a Pharisee and Calvinist, or, one reason why those two things happen together far more often than they should. The Pharisee and the Calvinist are both exacting persons. They care about precision, about "getting things right." They care about the letter because each believes getting the letter correct is important. And it is.

So, there is this "bent" toward intellectual things. There is this tendency to live in our heads. And when that meets with a theological tradition as rich and robust as the Reformed tradition, sparks fly--in our heads. Add to that a pinch of argumentative spirit and out comes the Pharisee.

But you know what's lost? The spirit, or the Spirit. Sometimes both. The letter kills. That's what happens with us Calvinist Pharisees.

In my particular case, the letter became pretty important once I realized I had spent a few years of my life giving praise to an idol. Once I realized I had believed a lie and bowed to a god who was not God, well getting things correct theologically became desperately important. Who wants to "get it wrong" in the things of God? I certainly didn't any longer.

I didn't know it, but I began the Christian life with this impulse that could either help me grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and/or push me into peevish, narrow, gnat straining regard for "getting it right." I've experienced both in my Christian life. The difference is made by where you're aiming: those who aim at knowing Jesus escape so much pharisee-ism; those that aim at "getting it right" become so much more Pharisaical.

Perhaps you're like me. You've had some experience that's left you zealous for getting it right. You love the Book in part because you love parsing things, dissecting them, weighing them, identifying what is wanting, tossing the chaff and holding onto the wheat. There's a joy that comes from discovery--and refutation. Soon, you're proud you're not "one of those publicans" that explains the Trinity in loose language, that balks at giving various views of the atonement, that's read the latest book from one of "those authors." "Lord," you pray, "I work to get it right. I avoid mistakes. I protect your word. I'm not like those who 'happily' accept 'weak' doctrine."


Truthfully, it isn't our theology that keeps us from the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. Our theology, and the smugness of "Reformed" correctness, are part of the problem. Oh, I don't mean we have aberrant ideas mingled with our theological outlook. We'd never have that. I mean all this heady truth barely lights our hearts. Our theology becomes the handmaid of our pride and our empty orthodoxy. Our fine theological theorems too seldom ignite liberty, joy, love, or anything else that accompanies the Spirit. Honestly, how often does your theology leave you with Jesus?

I know. The Lord reveals Himself in and by the word. The Spirit and the word belong together. Pharisee.

Do you remember that time when you were free? No, I mean happily care-free in your walk with the Lord. When there was lightness to everything?

Do you remember when you could share with others something God was teaching you, perhaps with imprecise language and a lot of enthusiasm, without first hesitating to make sure you were saying it "correctly"? Perhaps you were too liberal in assigning your enthusiasm or ideas to God, but you were happily excited about the possibility that indeed God had done something in you, for you, through you. Do you remember that?

I do. It was before I was self-consciously "Reformed." I didn't have a label then, other than "Christian" or "Baptist." Even those I held lightly. I was label-less, free. And I felt free. I did dumb stuff. I said dumber stuff. But people knew what I meant. Then I discovered what I meant, and knowing what I meant seemed to replace experiencing what I meant.

Now, "experience" is a bad word. Pharisee.

Yep. That's me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a "Calvinist" because what we popularly call "Calvinism" or "Reformed Theology" looks a whole lot like what I understand from the Bible. I think that's what the Bible teaches, and that's what I believe. So, I'm comfortable with the label--if we have to use one. I'm just not comfortable with the self-righteousness I see all too often in my heart and life. I'm sure I was self-righteous before; after all, I was an adherent of the world's largest works-based religion. Pride and self-justification have always been there. Yep. Certified Pharisee here.

But here's the bottom line: As long as my inclination toward detail ends with "getting it right" and not with getting more of Jesus, I'm going to be a Pharisee. Our theology doesn't keep us humble. Jesus keeps us humble. I think there are a lot of Calvinist Pharisees out there, like me, who push deeper into the theology trusting the next truth to abase them before God. But we keep getting "puffed up" instead. Why? We settle for knowing more rather than knowing Jesus. We don't stop to sit at Christ's feet, to adore Him, to commune with God the Spirit. Far too often, that's not the goal we have in mind.

My grandmother couldn't cite you two theological terms if you paid her. She probably never heard of the theological "giants" of church history, and certainly never read them. You know what she did? She "had a little talk with Jesus, told Him all about her troubles. He would hear her faintest cry, and answer by and by." With all her "little talks with Jesus," she had infinitely more than I've gotten from my books. She walked with the Lord about like Enoch.

I know. Books are not the enemy. Books are our friends. Communing with the saints is important. That's how we get it right and avoid mistakes. I know. I know. Pharisee.

There was another "Calvinist" (speaking anachronistically, of course) who won his bout with his inner Pharisee. He wrote: "I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 3:8). I want to be more like that brother--gripped by the greatness of knowing Jesus.

Lord, let us know you and cease the pretension of Pharisees.


Lewis said...

Thanks for his thought provoking post. The honesty is refreshing.

I think you ask a good question for Calvinists: 'How often does your theology leave you with Jesus?'

Surely there must be some serious questions asked of the system at this point!

Shawn said...

I likewise tend toward a Pharisaic intellectualism when I dive down into the heady truths of Reformation theology. I think that's why John Piper's preaching has been so crucial for me. Every time I want to get bogged down in mulling over the facts and arguments, he drags me back to the center of joy and adoration of Jesus. Praise God!

Nicodemus said...

Thanks Thabiti, I agree. Jesus full of grace and truth. That's why I love reading the stories of Jesus life such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead and seeing His humanity as well as His divinity and His love for that family and also seeking His face in prayer so that His reality is sustained in my heart and life.

wwdunc said...

Lately, I've been listening to cassette tapes of sermons I preached some 10-17 years ago, and it seems to me I've lost some of that enthusiasm & fire of those earlier years. I think part of the problem is traceable to what you've written. I think another part of the problem is I'm not praying as much & as fervently as I was then.

I'm often reminded of verses from that hymn by William Cowper:

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul's refreshing view
Of Jesus and His word?

Cowper goes on to pray,

Return, O holy Dove, return
Sweet messenger of rest;
I hate the sins that made thee mourn,
And drove thee from my breast.

He pleads further:

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate'er the idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.

BoldLion said...

Wow! Thank you for writing this to us, Calvinist (or to those who are leading to Calvinist). We all need to read this.

We all need to have a correct Biblical view to live our life for Christ and not to have the label.

Hungry to eat His Word,
'Guerite ~ BoldLion

Greg Gibson said...

Amen! We need to beware of the error of "sanctification by theology alone."

I suspect that my fellow Calvinists "hyper-intellectualism" started with the Reformers, whom the Anabaptists nicknamed "the scholars."

I'll never forget after I had become "Reformed" during college, hearing a chapel message on the filling of the Holy Spirit. All of a sudden, I realized that although I knew the Bible better than most of my fellow students, I was not filled with God's Spirit. Have you ever noticed how the Lord often providentially leads Spirit-filled Arminians and Pentecostals more than non-Spirit-filled Calvinists to evangelistic opportunities?

Even Biblical knowledge can puff up. All of our diligent study should lead us to humble ourselves before Christ, revere Him, trust Him, love Him, and obey Him.

Unbreakable Joy said...

Thank you brother for your honest and convicting reflection.

How true it is that "we settle for knowing more rather than knowing Jesus."

May He grant that we would come to know Him more.

Anonymous said...

What a word!

This is not, however a problem exclusive to our Calviinist camp. You find this spirit everywhere one loses sight of the realities of the gospel. John 17:3

And that is the Godhead. And yes and experience of grace, which causes our theology to be vital and attractive , only as it assist us in exalting Christ both in doctrine and life, is what we need!

Let the intelectuals carp. And let us continue to pursue the Person and to the picture. The reality and not the shadow. The Spirit and not merely the letter.

And then our Calvinism will be real also.

By Grace alone,