Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace"

(Articles of Faith, 5)

My wife and I are back from a spring vacation trip on which we were able to spend some time with a good friend from a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) Church. We know each other through my past association in the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church). The visit brought good memories of quality spiritual times together. We chatted about worship styles, about evangelistic initiatives, about the state of the church today, especially the church in the Reformed or Calvinistic denominations. This all brought a flood of memories and training which I received, and still cherish, from my Reformed Baptist days in ministry. And, with this, a new, and hopefully maturer, appreciation of what are called the "doctrines of grace."

Why would someone who now ministers in a more Wesleyan-Arminian based church fellowship comment on the Calvinistic "doctrines of grace?" Certainly not to criticize or debate them, but to stand in appreciation for their impact in my life and thought. To a great extent, I have not forsaken or supplanted these precious truths even though they technically disagree with the denominational affiliation I now have. They have played and do continue to play a profound influence on my ministry. Moreover, it is often from the "outside" that one can see more clearly what needs to be emphasized in our day about certain historical theological tenets. This is why I am writing this particular blog. I believe many in the Reformed camp have lost sight of the forest for the trees. The debates and interior struggles of many in Calvinistic circles, I believe, have tended to almost de-value these precious truths.

What are the "doctrines of grace?"
The doctrines of grace are the five cardinal truths re-emphasized by the Synod of Dordt in 1618/19 in their response to the five tenets of the Remonstrants, which we now call Arminianism. This Synod simply noted what had been generally accepted in orthodox Christianity up to their juncture in historical theology, that mankind is totally depraved and therefore unable to save themselves, that God has unconditionally elected or chosen those whom He wanted to save, that Christ died for those whom the Father had chosen, that these are irresistibly brought to saving faith by the sovereign Holy Spirit, and that these are the ones who will most certainly persevere in faith unto the end. More popularly, these doctrines are known by the mnemonic TULIP -- Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited (or particular) atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints. Many Calvinistic pastors and theologians know them well and have been trained in their applications to faith and life. In Reformed Baptist history and circles they are known as the "doctrines of grace."

Why revisit them?
In my first 15 years of ministry, I was a zealous advocate of the doctrines of grace and took on all comers who would argue against them. I saw them more as biblical "sledgehammers" to wield against the man-centered, subjectivistic oriented Christian religion of the day, which was mostly Arminian-laced. I read books, papers and pamphlets condemning "decisionistic" Christianity, where a walk to a church altar or to a Crusade front would "save" a person. I railed against the popular notion that God has one vote, Satan has one vote, but we get to cast the deciding vote on our eternal state. I became associated with churches that staunchly defended and preached the "truth" against such humanistic fluff. Until one day I began to realize that all of the arguing and defending and postulating against other Christians missed the grand points of the Great Commandment and especially the Great Commission of Jesus Himself. So I left the fray, but not the essential truths of the doctrines of grace.

These grand truths are not for sale or debate, I believe. They were never drafted to be bastions of spiritual prowess or in-depth theology. Once truly understood and appreciated, they are precious to any Christian, any child of God. They are grounds for a deep and rich and lavish love for God. Contrary to popular opinion and sentiment, they actually bring heartfelt desire for the conversion of those who know not God and have not a saving relationship to Jesus Christ. They secure the believer, not in any mechanical, once-saved-always-saved format (not really the teaching of perseverance of the saints, by the way!) but in the way of hearing, following and loving the voice of Jesus in the Word of God. They bring a believer's heart close in gratitude and desire to the heart of God. "TULIP" is not a sign of protest, defense, spiritual war or a name badge to wear at Calvinistic conferences! The doctrines of grace emphasize God's GRACE, His undeserved and unearned favor toward rebellious sinners, like you and like me. They resonate with Bunyan's oft-quoted quip, "There, but for the grace of God, go I!"

So let's revisit these grand truths once again and enjoy their biblical and practical richness and power. Succeeding blogs will take them on. Let me know what you think!