My wife and I are currently in the process of finishing up our 2014 taxes. Like the rest of you, we’re busy trying to figure out whether we have all of our tax documents, if we’ve entered all of the information correctly, and if we’ve maximized the greatest possible return on our taxes. Now, I don’t know much about taxes or how they’re calculated. I’ve always just entered the standard information on my W-4 and sort of…hoped for the best around tax season. What I do know is, if I’ve paid more then I’ve supposed to during the year – I get something back. If I were to somehow pay the exact right amount, I wouldn’t get anything back – but I also wouldn’t owe anything. Sadly, I’ve been in the position before where I didn’t pay enough during the year and I end up owing money to the government. Nobody likes that. To be honest, my knowledge about taxes comes down to nothing more than a gamble – I never really know what my return is going to be once everything gets filed.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who – in a similar yet much more significant way – take a gamble on God. Many people have a position towards God – if He exists, anyways – that just trying hard enough to be a good person puts them on right terms with God. You might think, “If I do enough good things, wouldn’t God owe me?” Or, at the very least, “If my good and bad deeds even out, God and I will be neutral, right?” You might even think that it’s only if your bad deeds severely outweigh your good that God would have any business punishing you. Do your best, make people happy, and God owes me one.
Is that right? Or are you taking a gamble?
When we think about God, ourselves, and our relationship to him, we need to think about these things on his terms, not on our terms. Anything less is wishful thinking. So here’s the thing about our good deeds. We tend to think of all of our good accomplishments – whether it is serving a homeless person or smiling to our neighbor – as going above and beyond. We like to think that our good actions are a positive investment that will net us a big return. But the reality is, being perfectly good and obedient is just the baseline of what is expected of us. There is no going above and beyond where good deeds are concerned. The Apostle Paul explains this at length in the Book of Romans when he says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Romans 4:7). You owe God perfect obedience and good works, nothing you do is above and beyond the expectations.
But here’s the problem. None of us have ever or could ever say that we’ve had perfect obedience and good work. You might say, “I’m not as bad as ____ (fill that in with whatever your movable standard is),” but that doesn’t mean anything to a perfectly just God. Either you’ve perfectly obeyed, or you haven’t. As hard as it may be to admit, in our heart of hearts we all know that we haven’t been able to do this (Romans 3:23). Even if we could perfectly obey from this moment forward, we would still have a blemished track record that we couldn’t make up for. No matter how hard we try to be a good person, we’ll never be able to pay enough back to God.
You might be saying to yourself, “That sounds ridiculous. Of course nobody can be perfect all the time, how could God punish someone who is relatively good?” The problem with that question is that its relative. Again, if we think in God’s terms and not our own, then we need to be prepared to say that things cannot be relative. Either God is just and punishes sin, or he is the cosmic absent deity who cares very little about your life.
So where do we go from here? Let’s consider again what Paul has to say in the next verse of Romans, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:8). What is Paul saying here? Is Paul saying that we don’t need to try to do good at all as long as we believe in something? No, in fact, elsewhere Paul will passionately explain how those who believe must necessarily work as hard as possible to love God and love their neighbor.
What the Apostle Paul is explaining in these two verses is that our forgiveness, our right standing with God, cannot come from what we do. That is impossible, because we can’t do enough to earn that. Our forgiveness and our right standing, must come simply through faith in the one who freely gives that to us. And who is that? Paul explains:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God (Romans 5:6–9).
See, God is not only just but he is also gracious, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love and patience. Yet, every single one of us must face the reality that when we stand before God and hand in all of our documents, we each will owe far more than we will be able to pay. But for the one who comes empty handed, not boasting in his success and earnings, but pleading only the blood of Christ, he can and will be forgiven. His return will not be what he is due, but what is due to Christ – the full inheritance and manifold blessings that are worthy of a son or daughter of God.
So friend, let me ask you: are you taking a gamble with God? Are you banking on your own insufficient merit and knowledge in hopes that you’ve made enough positive investment to get a big return? Acknowledge your inadequacy and ask for the grace and mercy from the one who gives it abundantly, and receive a return worth far more than can be measured: love, acceptance, forgiveness, mercy, kindness, adoption, peace.
He bore my sin on Calvary’s tree
And Righteousness bestowed on me
That I might see his face.
God justified me, set me free,
And glorified I soon will be:
How marvelous this grace.
-James Montgomery Boice
After two years as a committed Calvinist, I’m done. No longer will I wear the quotes of dead white dudes on my sleeves; no longer will I stand committed to cleverly articulated doctrines in the shape of a flower.
Well, at least, not formally.
It has long been my conviction that titles and labels in Christianity are helpful so long as they serve to point people to Christ and stir their affections for Him. Labels and distinctions are helpful to communicate what and why we believe to be true about Christ, the Church and his Word.
The problem is, the term “Calvinism” often draws more hatred than it does stir affections; it turns people away from Christ rather than drawing them to Him. I’ve noticed this happens for one of three reasons: either 1) people don’t understand “Calvinism” and so they draw caricatures or interact with a false depiction of it, writing it off as cruel or mean, 2) people mistakenly think “Calvinists” worship Calvin over Christ, or 3) they’ve only interacted with cocky, prideful people who mistakenly believe themselves to be “true Calvinists.”
Taking these three things into consideration, I’m giving up on “Calvinism” and the five points of TULIP. Where these terms have failed, it is now my purpose and intention to elevate the grandeur and grace of my King Jesus Christ. You see, my King is gracious and worthy to be worshiped beyond all comparison. There is no one more worthy of his praise. Even if he were not gracious and kind to us he would still be worthy of all my worship because that is just who he is.
Yet, he is gracious. He’s so loving and gracious to us that we can’t begin to fathom it. Without Christ, all of us are dead in a rebellious state against the creator (Romans 3:9-18, Ephesians 2:1). When the Bible says dead, it means dead. Corpse. Lifeless. Incompatible with life. But in his kindness to us, knowing the consequences of our sin is death (Romans 6:23), he predestined a plan for us in the fullness of time (Ephesians 1:10-11).
This plan is Christ our Savior. On the cross, Jesus died for his sheep (John 10:11). The definiteness of his death is what enables the Apostle to say that before the foundations of the world he knew us! This efficacious grace in our lives does not mean we are robots just waiting for God to make a move. To paraphrase one of my favorite Christian artists, it was while we were dead and a slave to sin that we were actually robots. True freedom of our will only come when Christ breaks into our reality and frees us from life in the machine.
When Christ graciously, lovingly, and rightfully makes himself King of our lives he holds us tight in his hands. We are not held tight in his hands only, but because Christ and the Father are one we are held tight in the Father’s hands as well(John 10:28-30). What assurance this is! So much grace is given to us that the grace of God does not only save us but keeps us. Those whom Christ proclaims as his are kept until the very end. This is not some trite saying of “once saved always saved.” No, those whom the father saves he restores, and those whom he restores he fuels to obedience and good works. Those who are redeemed will be known by their works, those who are not known by their works are not redeemed (James 2:18).
This life, this inheritance, this adoption as a son or daughter is grace. Sweet, loving, amazing grace. Who are we to argue about this love? Who are we to deny the grace and love of our Father in heaven and diminish it to some argument over labels and titles? I do not love “Calvinism” because I worship Calvin; I am grateful to the work of Calvin and saints of history past for their work that helps point me to Christ, increasing my love for Him. If we decline the hard work and labor from the history of the Church, we are cutting ourselves off from the richness revealed to our forebears by the Holy Spirit.
Abraham Kuyper once said, “The special trait of Calvinism [is its ability to place] the believer before the face of God, not only in His church, but also in his personal, family, social, and political life. The majesty of God, and the authority of God press upon the Calvinist in the whole of human existence.” The sad reality is that many people who claim “Calvinism” do not live the way Kuyper outlines, favoring instead cockiness, arrogance and pride. Brothers and sisters, this should not be so! How can a doctrine that is all about the necessary grace and love of a God far greater than we can imagine ever make us prideful!?
The only hallmark of true Calvinism should be that of a penitent spirit, someone who wakes up in the morning and cries out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). This kind of posture of the heart can never take the form of pride or arrogance. B.B Warfield explains the “Calvinist” as “humble souls, who, in the quiet of retired lives, have caught a vision of God in His glory and are cherishing in their hearts that vital flame of complete dependence on Him.”
But as I said, I’m done with “Calvinism.” Seeing as how the name and fragrance of its tulips deter people from the grace of the King, from now on I will primarily and solely speak of His grace sans labels. See, I don’t want to convince anyone of “Calvinism.” Oh Lord would it not be so! No, I want to convince you of grace. If and when my “Calvinism” begins to get in the way of that more often than not, then I’m done with the title. My motivation is now to live my life in such a way that when you ask me why I live the way I do, I can confidently say “Grace.” Or, what was formerly known as “Calvinism.” No labels, no titles, no doctrines wrapped up in a pretty bow. Just grace.
Grace. I am so undeserving of grace. Why me, oh Lord?
Consider not I, who would at a young age feign faith yet know you not, rejecting your daily mercies. Consider not I, who at my core am nothing but a lying, thieving, adulterous, man-hating, selfish, prideful and covetous man. For what reason am I deserving of your grace and mercy? Why would you, while I am consciously rejecting and blaspheming your very name, choose to open my eyes and ears to see the beauty of the gospel? “Oh wretched man that I am! Who can save me from this body of sin and death?”
Surely there are others more deserving. Consider instead the social worker who fights daily for justice for children, yet she remains far from you. Consider instead the politician who gives their life towards advocating peace, yet he does not know you. Consider instead those who give up everything to bring relief to people in need, yet they have not experienced your love. Consider instead the doctor serving in low-income areas, who provides medical care to the neglected, yet remains entirely resistant to the very idea of your existence.
Why me, oh Lord? Why would you choose me as your “vessel of mercy”, while I was running farther and farther from you? How could you bring me so near to your holy throne, a filthy and stained sinner like me?
Is it true, as your Word says, that the heart of man is entirely wicked and that we have all gone astray? Is it true, my God, that there is “not one who does good” and that our righteous deeds are like “filthy rags” to you? Who then is worthy to receive your grace?
Indeed my God and Savior, there is not one who is deserving of your grace. For if we could earn your grace, it would no longer be grace. How could we then be so far from you that we would reject the very idea that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us?”
What love is this, that it would please you to bring filthy and dirty people like myself into your presence? How great a love that shows mercy to those who “act ignorantly in unbelief.” For in us you are pleased to show your goodness and mercy, “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
I contemplate then the cost of such grace. For as loving and gracious as you are my God, you are also the unlimited and just judge of all creation. How great are you, that you would consider my soul greater than yourself. What kind of God would love a filthy man like me, to allow my sins to nail your perfect Son to the wooden cross?
What kind of God would sacrifice himself for his rebellious creation? There is only one, our mediator Christ Jesus. And just as you then paid the perfect sacrifice “once and for all”, so now you are continually making propitiation and turning away the wrath of the Father towards our sin.
Your grace, Oh Lord. I am so undeserving of your grace. Yet I am so thankful for giving me “eyes to see, and ears to hear.” How can I not now, after weighing the cost of such love, not live my life entirely for you? Oh Lord, melt the hearts of my fellow men, and if it pleases you to do so, send me out to make you known among them.