Dear Calvinist – You’re NOT as Bad as You Think You Are

Dear Calvinist,

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 your view is his, then Reformation Day is not a happy one, I’d say.  Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project-x0-y1

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.

 

 

18 comments

  1. This is really good. I think what so many misunderstand is that being united to Christ preserves and restores the fundamental integrity of our person-hood. There is an all too familiar form of self-loathing sold as being “hidden in Christ.”

  2. Great post. Sactification as image restoration? In Pauline language would the new man be the true self and the old man the false self? Thanks, really enjoyed Leaving Egypt.

  3. This is really good and something that I have wrestled with lately. It is comforting to know that Calvin was able to hold the tension of depravity and and dignity, it gives me encouragement to do the same knowing that I am in good company…

  4. This is great stuff!
    I am a Calvinist as well, only I became a Calvinist after reading Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance.
    I am reading the Institutes right now. Like everything else I read them critically.Yet there is so much good stuff there. I wish more Calvinists actually read Calvin. And I also wish T.F. Torrance were more known outside academic circles.

    May I reblog?

  5. chuck, thank you so much for writing this. i am stuck in the same “no, no, no” as the pastor who left your office. somehow i believe God loves me but would never want to look at me. but i have encountered the idea of “God’s welcome” quite a few times lately… the Holy Spirit is stirring!

    if you have time, could you suggest some writings of calvin for beginners?

    i’m thankful for your writing.

  6. Chuck, really good food for thought. I am one of those “Calvanist” pastors that has focused, perhaps too heavily, on the sin factor without talking about the image. I’ve been pulled up short a number of times here recently. The problem is that when you have a melancholy personality like mine and a tremendous self-image problem like I do, you tend to resonate much more with the sin side of things than with the image side of things. I see Jesus doing great things in me, though, and am beginning to think much more about the image and our position in Christ. Thanks for a great blog.

  7. Chuck what a great post! Thank you so much! Came at such a great time. Had two conversations about this today. I remember writing these words in a paper in seminary reflecting on the double sided nature of humanity in the OT, “Psalm 8 speaks about a world after the fall. It addresses the world of the contemporary moment, not an idyllic existence in the distant past. It is thus significant that the psalmist can point to an exalted and dignified humanity without focusing on its sinfulness. One could even argue that the psalmist’s first and primary word about humanity is about its proximity and similarity to God, not about its falleness and fallibility. There is hardly a stronger claim to support the continuing glory of humanity than the one that it was made just a little lower that God himself! John Goldingay concludes, ‘[Psalm 8] implies that Gen. 1 was not devastatingly undone by that human failure. Human disobedience did not undo God’s placing the animate world under humanity’s authority any more than it eliminated the divine image from humanity.'”

  8. The ecclesiastical journey aspect of this fascinates me. I grew up CRC but never felt hobbled by lack of acceptance and overwhelming judgment from God. Of course my CRC experience was very much dictated by my father who was also my pastor. I’ve never been a part of a church where this was a dominant theme, although I know plenty of CRC folks who have. Church for me has always been a place of great love, acceptance, grace, affirmation. I imagine I have been blessed in this while others have not.

    Of course your title seems in response to Tim Keller’s mantra. “The Gospel is that I am far worse than I imagine and simultaneously more loved and accepted by God than I ever dared hope for — because of Jesus death for me.”

    Is there anything beneficial to telling them the first part? I guess that is the question. I’ve generally experienced the doctrine of total depravity to be liberating and communal. I always understand it both as “I’m not alone in my mess” which is comforting. I also sense it as “I have no right to look down upon another. Why exalt myself at their expense?”

    What I hear from you is that a real issue in some of these conservative Reformed enclaves is a belief in the functional efficacy of holy browbeating. It’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of never telling your beautiful daughter she’s lovely because “I don’t want her to get a big head.”

    My impression (and you’re the shrink in this conversation) is that so much of this is:

    1. passed on implicitly in our relationships, families and communities.

    I don’t find TD to be debilitating because the community that I grew up in which it was embraced doctrinally didn’t receive it as a cause for some morose self-flagellation.

    2. in places where it has become a cornerstone of individual identity it has bonded with other aspects of our brokenness to become abusive. Like when the stories of a violent, angry god are employed to justify our anger and violence.

    I’ll have to ponder this further.

    Thanks for illuminating the side of Calvin that unfortunately gets far too little press. pvk

  9. Hum……? This is a head scratcher for me. I was raised on a game show theology where God was behind door number one or door number two, choose carefully and let’s play, “Are You Saved?” 🙂

    When I finally meet God, and began reading the bible more clearly, I began to discover other theological thoughts besides John Wesley who conveyed an understanding of the bible like I was seeing it as well. Thusly, I call myself a “Calvinist” today, not because I walk with John Calvin or wear his underwear, but because I simply understand the Gosphel in a like minded way.

    John Calvin did not introduce me to the Gospel, the other JC did, and so maybe that’s why I understand the “T” in Total Deprivity, differently than what is being expressed here. I understand it as the totality of my sin, and sin nature of mankind, not simply how good or bad I am. In fact that’s not even the point.

    My salvation is of God, by God, and because of God. Any good in me is of God, not of me. If we understand the doctrines of Grace, then we need to truly understand what that grace is being applied to. It not being applied to a relatively good person. It’s being applied to a sinner. If grace where for the somewhat good, or the person God picks because He like them, their not so bad,…..then that grace is meaningless.

    Thankfully it’s not. Thankfully Gods comon grace is applied to all to keep us from being as “bad” as we could be due to the totality of our sinfulness, and His special Grace is applied to those He chooses who are totally sinful in our sinfulness.

    We aren’t as bad as we could be, should be the title of this.

  10. You are not as bad as you think you are. You are far, far worse. But God doesn’t care. He has set His love upon you, and will never relent. He sees you “in Christ” – absolutely sinlessly perfect. He sees the glorified you, the work He will perform until the day of Jesus Christ.

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