Happy Reformation Day.
Now, a brief word – You are not as bad as you think you are. I say that, with love, as a fellow Calvinist. And I want you to have an even happier Reformation Day.
I grew up Lutheran, transitioned to the Christian Reformed Church, then over to the Reformed Church in America, back to the Christian Reformed Church in high school – college, before landing in the Presbyterian Church in America for my ordination. I’ve had the Germans, the Dutch, and the Scots tell me how totally depraved I am. I was raised on a diet of worms. (Get it?) I’m a minister in the Reformed Church in America, and I am a confessional Calvinist. Just so you know…
Yes, I’m a Calvinist, because I’m a mess and I know it, AND because Calvin affirmed the image-bearing dignity of human beings. More on that in a minute. This shift in my thinking began in college only after I read Calvin’s magisterial Institutes. Before then, my understanding of Reformed theology was mediated through the Five Points articulated well after Calvin at Dordrecht. I was raised on the first canon, in particular – Total Depravity. In fact, I don’t think there was a Bible study I attended back then that studied anything but Romans. And the center of Romans was Romans 3:10 – “There is no one righteous, not one.” Calvinism, I thought, was about how bad I was, how undeserving I was, and how incredible God was for including me in the .00001% called “predestined” before the foundation of the world. In other words, the Calvinist credo began with sin.
Thankfully, I was asked to read Calvin, himself, in college. I was dumbstruck. Now, to be sure, Calvin clearly and vividly painted the grim picture of sinful human beings because…IT IS GRIM. But as I read I recognized a continual counter-theme in Calvin – image-bearing dignity. In fact, Calvin sees something as more fundamental to our identity than sin. As he writes, “Certain philosophers, accordingly, long ago not ineptly called humanity a microcosm, because it is a rare example of God’s power, goodness, and wisdom. And humans contain within themselves enough miracles to occupy our minds, if only we are not irked at paying attention to them.” J.M. Vorster, a Calvin scholar, writes, “God created man in his image. The gift of God’s image is present in every person. Due to this creational principle he (Calvin) stressed the worthiness of the human being.”
The dignity afforded human beings as image-bearers extends, in fact, to a social ethic. Calvin wrote, “It is not the will of God, however that we should forget the primeval dignity which he bestowed on our first parents – a dignity which may well stimulate us to the pursuit of goodness and justice.” Indeed, Calvin did not walk down the street defining everyone he met as “sinner,” but was far more nuanced, even paradoxical, in his thinking. Do you want an ethic of compassion? Consider what Calvin thought as he counseled men and women who’d run into the unlovable: “Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.”
Yes, here we have Calvin in all of his paradoxical and mystical glory! He can say BOTH that we are worthless and worthy, depraved and dignified. We Calvinists are often allergic to anything that hints at some inherent goodness within a human being, but Calvin isn’t quite as allergic.
I find among Calvinists (at times) a kind of vitriol, a reveling in the doctrine of sin. A well-known neo-Calvinist megachurch pastor shouted at his congregation not long ago: “God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.” I wonder if this pastor, among others, would shutter to hear Calvin say this:
In this way only we can attain to what is not to say difficult, but all together against nature, to love those that hate us, render good for evil, and blessing for cursing, remembering that we are not to reflect on the wickedness of men, but look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, should by its beauty and dignity allure us to love and embrace them.
Is Calvin light on sin? No, Calvin is just holding the tension of dignity and depravity, as we all ought to.
If Calvin is right, then sin is not our core identity. I wonder sometimes if we too flippantly define ourselves as “sinners” in my tradition. Sin, in fact, is an invading vandal, a “disease of the vital region” as Spurgeon says, a virus. Sin is not native to us:
17But in fact it is no longer I (the true, image-bearing self) that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh (or false, sinful self). I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (from Rom. 7)
I can, as a Reformed Christian, affirm the doctrine of total depravity if it doesn’t become the WHOLE story. For Calvin, depravity is, in fact, only understood in light of our original goodness, “meaning by the term the depravation of a nature formerly good and pure.” Yes, those are Calvin’s words. He maintained a doctrine of original goodness.
I do sometimes wonder if we’re so afraid of ennobling humanity that we choose a perverted form of Calvinism – a neo-Puritan wormology which defines us first and foremost as depraved rather than dignified. We start at Genesis 3 rather than Genesis 1.
I do sometimes wonder if our theological tipping-of-the-scales to depravity is more a product of our psychology. This is purely anecdotal, but having counseled many, many Reformed pastors and leaders in the last 15 years or so, I find us to be, by far, the most guilt-and-shame-based ‘demographic’ I see.
I saw a pastor some time ago who was buried in guilt and shame. His mantra – I am far worse than I think I am, but God is far greater. He constantly reminded me of how much he needed the Gospel. I never understood what he meant by ‘Gospel’ (good news) until I said at one point, “Can you see that God smiles at you, embraces you, calls you his son?”
“No, no, no,” he retorted, somewhat reactively. “God cannot look upon me. He can only look upon Christ, who covers me. That is the Gospel.”
“If that is the Gospel, that is not good news,” I said, channelling Calvin. “You are God’s image-bearer, God’s beloved. He sent Christ to welcome you home. God puts the ring on your finger, the robe on your back, and throws a party for your homecoming.”
He never returned to my office for counseling again. I suspect that he considered me outside of his orthodoxy.
If Calvin can hold the tension of dignity and depravity, can you? Can you believe that God is smiling at you? Can you believe that, without minimizing the mess that you are, Christ says, “You’re mine”?
Dear Calvinist, you are not as bad as you think you are. You are a dignity-bearing royal ambassador who has been chosen and sent to call others into their deepest vocation. Along the way, you’ve taken a hundred detours, like a lost sheep. But God keeps coming for you, sending Jesus to redirect your way, sending the Spirit to illuminate your path. Stop defining yourself by your stumbling, and start defining yourself by your deepest identity. God paid an awfully big price to make his welcome crystal clear for you…now receive it. There is a feast waiting.
Now, go have a happier Reformation Day.