The cage-stage Calvinist. Oh that we didn’t need this term! But sadly, though understandably, we do.
In the resurgence of Reformed theology in recent years, especially among young adults, the term has arisen for good reasons. Sometimes it can seem like the safest thing to do with a new Calvinist is lock him in a cage for a few months (perhaps even a couple years), until his spiritual maturity can catch up to his newfound theology.
The “doctrines of grace” are explosive — first mind-boggling and then, if they truly take root, inevitably life-transforming. When they land on a young and restless person, they can make him a kind of liability for a season (though a host of other benefits may come with it). Giving mental assent to the Bible’s teachings about our depravity and God’s election, atonement, and grace is quicker and easier than learning to live out the kind of virtues God pairs with such precious truths. You can chop down a tree, and plant a new one, in just a few hours, but you cannot grow fruit overnight.
Meekest and Most Patient
Those of us who take most seriously what the Bible says about God’s sovereignty, foreknowledge, and predestination will be just as serious about the kind of life and spiritual fruit that will accompany such knowledge. As the beloved pastor and hymnwriter John Newton (1725–1807) observed, “Calvinists should be the meekest and most patient of all men.”
“It is a great shame when good theology has a bad reputation because of poor conduct.”
Side by side with the great truth in 2 Timothy 2:24–26that God is the one who grants repentance comes the summons for his servants to be kind, patient, and gentle. So also in Colossians 3:12, have you learned “as God’s chosen ones” that he chose you before you chose him? Amen. Wonderful. Also, learn “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
Maybe we could use a second TULIP to pair with the first. What might it look like to encourage young Calvinists — and all of us — to the kind of spiritual virtues that should accompany the biblical theology of Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints?
T — Total Humility
Both James and Peter quote these words from Proverbs 3:34. One of the great themes in all the Bible is that God, in his highness, not only visits but lifts the lowly (Luke 1:48, 52; 14:11; 18:14; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6). This is his peculiar glory, that he, in a sense, humbles himself to help the humble. Which is the very heart and essence of Calvinism. One of the great ironies of indwelling sin is that learning about God’s absolute sovereignty could, in any way, make us arrogant.
Who are great in God’s kingdom? Those who humble themselves like children (Matthew 18:4). God himself, in human flesh, rode into Jerusalem not on a mighty steed, but as the humble king, on a beast of burden (Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 21:5). “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him” (Philippians 2:8–9). If taking the Bible seriously is what made us Calvinists, how can we not “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3)?
“The humbling theology of Calvinism,” writes Newton, “is undermined by embittered, angry, and scornful words.” Then he asks pointedly, “Has your Calvinism humbled you?”
U — Unconditional Kindness
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Kindness may seem small in modern eyes, but it’s emphatically not so in God’s economy. Not only does the story of the early church celebrate small acts of kindness (Acts 10:33; 24:4; 27:3; 28:2), but text after text characterizes Christian conduct as manifestly kind (2 Corinthians 6:6; Colossians 3:12; Titus 2:5). Recognized leaders in the church are to be “kind to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:24), just as all Christians are to be “kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32). Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Love is kind (1 Corinthians 13:4).
“The humbling theology of Calvinism is undermined by embittered, angry, and scornful words. Has your Calvinism humbled you?”
And when God, who rules over every square inch of the universe, instructs us to cultivate kindness, he prompts us to become greater reflectors of him. Our heavenly Father, says Jesus, “is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). In his kindness, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Such kindness “is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Such kindness engrafts even strangers into his age-old tree of blessing by faith (Romans 11:22).
Because we are saved through God’s loving kindness (Titus 3:4), and anticipate an eternity basking in “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us” (Ephesians 2:7), we are freed to bend his kindness toward us out into the lives of others. “Mean Calvinist” is a contradiction in terms. Calvinists should be the kindest of all people.
L — Limited Criticism
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, . . . correcting his opponents with gentleness. (2 Timothy 2:24–25)
Don’t fall for the “four-pointer” deception. Yes, Calvinists can be critical types. It’s good to be discerning, and pay attention to details. But a critical eye does not necessitate a quarrelsome spirit. “The Lord’s servant,” Paul says about church leaders, “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24–25).
There is, of course, an important place for Christian rebuke (Luke 17:3; 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:15) and “correcting . . . with gentleness” — particularly for pastors. “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul admonishes his converts not as slaves but as beloved children (1 Corinthians 4:14), even with tears (Acts 20:31), and expects local-church elders to do the same (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 14). And there is a place for every Christian, in love, to provide gracious correction, “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
But our criticism has a limited place. And the goal is always building up, not tearing down (2 Corinthians 13:10). Please do have a critical and careful eye. And do have the courage, and kindness, to humbly, lovingly, offer a corrective word. But let your correction be limited.
I — Irresistible Graciousness
Let your speech always be gracious. (Colossians 4:6)
This may be the single most important word for a young Calvinist: “Let your speech always be gracious.” Always. This is remarkable. Even when correcting error, even when officially approved leaders combat serious deception, there is a way for our words to always be gracious.
Not only is it gracious to humbly inform people of their error, and protect others from it, but how we talk can be gracious or ungracious. And what a tragedy when a new Calvinist, in the name of our glorious “doctrines of grace,” speaks ungraciously to others. Shouldn’t those with the highest view of God’s grace take extra care to make sure our speech is gracious?
“This may be the single most important word for a young Calvinist: ‘Let your speech always be gracious.’ Always.”
Look to Jesus himself. The people “marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22). Let’s pray that others would see in us, as they did with him, the fulfillment of Psalm 45:2: “grace is poured upon your lips.”
How differently might our five-point debates unfold if we resolved to speak with grace? After all, the effect Paul gives of gracious speech is this: “that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
P — Perseverance in Patience
Be patient with them all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
What does Paul celebrate first about love in 1 Corinthians 13? “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4). He considered patience to be one of the distinguishing marks of his ministry (2 Corinthians 6:6; 12:12; 2 Timothy 3:10). “Be patient” is one of his repeated exhortations to church leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Timothy 2:24; 4:2). And not just patience, but as 2 Timothy 4:2 commends, “complete patience”!
When our theology is becoming increasingly God-centered, our lives should become increasingly patient. God himself is the great model of patience (Romans 2:4; 9:22; 1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 3:15), and his Son, the God-man, — get this — is our example of “perfect patience” (1 Timothy 1:16).
It is a great shame when good theology has a bad reputation because of poor conduct. Yet however we’ve failed, we can take heart that the sovereign God in whom we trust is at work in us (Philippians 1:6; 2:13) by the power of his sovereign Spirit. With him in view, Paul prays that we would be “strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). This is the kind of patience we need. We can grit our teeth and endure without joy, and win no one. Or we can endure with contagious joy, and out-rejoice those who don’t yet see things as we think they should.
Let’s believe in both divine sovereignty and human meekness, and trust that our sovereign God, in his good and perfect timing, will show himself to those who disagree (Philippians 3:15). Perhaps we may even have a part to play, through our graciousness.