Tim Challies (check him out for recommended reading) recently wrote an article on the different approaches that Christians have in dealing with the forces of evil in their lives. The article is helpful, insightful, and worth reading. There is one line, however that caught my attention and revived a recurring thought I have about many Calvinists. He says, “Calvinists have a deep sense of their own depravity,” and he builds a paragraph around this statement. “After all,” he continues, “Calvinism begins with the T of TULIP—Total Depravity.”
I agree that Calvinism (although Calvinism is much bigger than the acronym TULIP) puts a great emphasis on the doctrine of total depravity. But to say that “Calvinists have a deep sense of their own depravity” assumes too much and gives too much credit to those of us who call ourselves Calvinists. It is an irony that has perplexed me for some time, that many of those who hold to the “doctrines of grace” often prove to be the least gracious. Let’s be honest, the Reformed church is not known for its love—the Pentecostals wear that badge.
We may wear with honor the badge of thoughtfulness, theological exactness, and historical roots. These are our greatest assets in the Reformed faith. But like many other areas of life our greatest strength can become our greatest weakness. Our heads can become our Achilles’ heel. The problem lies, I believe, in the nature of Calvinism itself—it is beautiful in its genius and logic. It stimulates the brain and keeps drawing you in as you follow the avenues of logic through the Scripture into the different aspects of life.
Paul tells us that “knowledge puffs up.” Many Calvinists, puffed up with knowledge and logic, act as though total depravity ended with their conversion. They have come to a knowledge of the truth and think that they have arrived. They lack grace; they turn every discussion into an argument about election or the covenants. They become obnoxious and judgmental of those who don’t see it as they see it. Michael Horton calls this “cage-stage Calvinism” as R. C. Sproul points out in the December 2013 edition of Table Talk. Sproul says that there are those who are so “aggressive and impatient that they should be locked in a cage for a little while so they can cool down and mature a little in the faith.” The problem with these cage-stage Calvinists is that they are puffed up with their newfound knowledge. The only antidote to the swollen head of Calvinism is ironically in Calvinism itself—“a deep sense of their own depravity.”
Let’s be thoughtful and theologically aware and let’s hold our roots in the Protestant Reformation, but let’s do this with love and grace and affection for the church of Christ. Let’s have—as Challies graciously assumes we have—a deep sense of our own depravity and keep looking to Him who is sinless for us. “If we really believe in the doctrines of grace, we learn how to be gracious about it” (R. C. Sproul).