Calvinists have a reputation for sometimes being angry and argumentative regarding Christian doctrine. Granted most Calvinists are not angry. Why does it seem that there are a disproportionate number of cranky Calvinists? Some say it’s because Calvinism is a system of thought that appeals to left-brain types who like to debate ideas. Others say Calvinism is just so biblical and beautiful that it naturally causes people to feel spiritually superior.
The root problem with angry Calvinists does not lie with their learning but with their hearts. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1 (“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”) Calvin wrote:
“Paul did not mean, that this (being puffed up, i.e. arrogant) is to be reckoned as a fault attributable to learning—that those who are learned are often self-complacent, and have admiration of themselves, accompanied with contempt of others. Nor did he understand this to be the natural tendency of learning—to produce arrogance, but simply meant to show what effect knowledge has in an individual, that has not the fear of God, and love of the brethren; for the wicked abuse all the gifts of God, so as to exalt themselves.” (emphasis mine)1
Calvin’s point here is that the gift of biblical learning, like all gifts from God, can be abused in such a way that results in arrogance and contempt “through a mistaken confidence in these things.” When that happens you must learn not to blame the learning but the learner. Calvin wrote:
“If riches naturally tend to make men proud, then a rich man, if proud, is free from blame, for the evil arises from riches… At the same time, knowledge is not by any means to be blamed for this (arrogance), any more than a sword, if it falls into the hands of a madman.”2
In the introduction to his contemporary classic Knowing God, Calvinist theologian and author J.I. Packer reminds us that people can know a lot about God and godliness, but still not know God. Those who are proud of their deep theological knowledge are, ironically, showing the depth of their theological ignorance. Calvin put it this way:
“And truly, where there is not that thorough knowledge of God which humbles us, and teaches us to do good to the brethren, it is not so much knowledge, as an empty notion of it, even in those that are reckoned the most learned.”3
But those who are prone to view with contempt people who deeply value theological knowledge (including those angry with the angry Calvinists) must be aware of their own arrogance. Calvin responded to people on this end of the theological spectrum with an old proverb: “There is nothing so arrogant as ignorance.” There is also nothing more practical than sound theology.
We must all be on our guard against the arrogance of both knowledge of doctrine and ignorance of doctrine. And we must learn what it means to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Titus 2:10). Calvin wrote, “This ought to be a very sharp spur of exhortation to us, when we learn that our becoming conduct adorns the doctrine of God, which, at the same time, is a mirror of his glory.”4
Below are some of my favorite quotes from Tom Wright (Anglican Bishop) on the Resurrection and Heaven:
“(If you’re a true believer in Jesus), after you die, you go to be ‘with Christ,’ but your body remains dead. Describing where and what you are in that interim period is difficult, and for the most part the New Testament writers don’t try. Call it “heaven” if you like, but don’t imagine that it’s the end of all things. What is promised after that interim period is a new bodily life within God’s new world.”
“I am constantly amazed that many contemporary Christians find this confusing. It was second nature to the early church and to many subsequent Christian generations. It was what they believed and taught. If we have grown up believing and teaching something else, it’s time we rubbed our eyes and read our texts again.”
“Heaven is important, but its not the end of the world.”
“Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.”
“The great drama will end, not with ‘saved souls’ being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that ‘the dwelling of God is with humans’ (Revelation 21:3).”
“The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven.”
“We could cope—the world could cope—with a Jesus who ultimately remains a wonderful idea inside his disciples’ minds and hearts. The world cannot cope with a Jesus who comes out of the tomb, who inaugurates God’s new creation right in the middle of the old one.”
“God’s plan is not to abandon this world, the world which he said was ‘very good.’ Rather, he intends to remake it. And when he does he will raise all his people to new bodily life to live in it. That is the promise of the Christian gospel.”
“It is not about ‘life after death’ as such. Rather, it’s a way of talking about being bodily alive again after a period of being bodily dead. Resurrection is a second-stage postmortem life: life after ‘life after death.’”
“If you believe in resurrection, you believe that the living God will put his world to rights and that if God wants to do that in the future, it is right to try to anticipate that by whatever means in the present.”
“[Jesus] is, at the moment, present with us, but hidden behind that invisible veil which keeps heaven and earth apart, and which we pierce in those moments, such as prayer, the sacraments, the reading of scripture, and our work with the poor, when the veil seems particularly thin. But one day the veil will be lifted; earth and heaven will be one; Jesus will be personally present, and every knee shall bow at his name; creation will be renewed; the dead will be raised; and God’s new world will at last be in place, full of new prospects and possibilities.”
The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
“In other words, precisely because the ultimate goal is … the redemption of the whole creation, our calling is to live in our bodies now in a way which anticipates the life we shall live then. Marital fidelity echoes and anticipates God’s fidelity to the whole creation. Other kinds of sexual activity symbolize and embody the distortions and corruptions of the present world.”
“It is a matter of glimpsing that in God’s new creation, of which Jesus’s resurrection is the start, all that was good in the original creation is reaffirmed. All that has corrupted and defaced it–including many things which are woven so tightly in to the fabric of the world as we know it that we can’t imagine being without them–will be done away. Learning to live as a Christian is learning to live as a renewed human being, anticipating the eventual new creation in and with a world which is still longing and groaning for that final redemption.”
The History Channel’s mini-series called The Bible has been a huge hit. The premiere telecast ranked as cable TV’s most-watched show this year. Producer Mark Burnett said one of the reasons he produced the mini-series was to help tackle biblical illiteracy globally—especially among younger people. In this ten-episode mini-series, the viewer is given a sweeping survey of the major Bible stories.
Just like any mini-series, if you watch only one of the episodes, you’ll learn a few Bible stories, but you’ll miss how those stories are meant to fit with all the other stories that happened before and after. In other words, you’ll miss the overall plot of the story, the one greater, unfolding story that begins in week one, ends in week ten, and encompasses all the other stories. But even if you faithfully watch all ten episodes and understand all the individual Bible stories, you can still miss the overarching plot.
Ed Clowney writes about this common problem:
“There are great stories in the Bible…but it is possible to know Bible stories, yet miss the Bible story…The Bible has a storyline. It traces an unfolding drama. The story follows the history of Israel, but it does not begin there, nor does it contain what you would expect in a national history…If we forget the storyline…we cut the heart out of the Bible.”1
Although the Bible consists of a wide variety of historical narratives (stories spanning generations) and many other types of literature (laws, poetry, lyrics, prophecies, letters, etc.), many don’t realize that, at its core, the Bible is one, greater unfolding story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Former missionary to India and author Lesslie Newbigin wrote about his strange encounter with a Hindu scholar who rebuked him for not communicating more clearly to people the unique “story in the stories” found in the Bible:
“I can’t understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion–and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don’t need any more! I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole of creation and the history of the human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it.”2
So what is this one “story in the stories?” What is this unique interpretation of the universal history of the human race? The essence of this story consists in the reality that God’s creation of both mankind and the world, now ruined by the fall of man into sin, is being restored through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The good news is that both fallen humanity and the fallen world are now in the process of being re-created by God’s Holy Spirit, through His Church, into a Kingdom of God, where one day Christ will return and make all things new in a new heavens and a new earth that will last forever.
The reason it’s so important for us to know this one overarching story of God’s purpose and plan for humanity and the world is because, whether we realize it or not, all of our lives are constantly being shaped by some story. And there are several stories or worldviews (e.g. naturalism, relativism, dualism, etc.) that are competing to be the story that shapes our lives. The way we understand the purpose and meaning of our lives depends on our understanding of the human story. Newbigin writes,
“The way we understand human life depends on what conception we have of the human story. What is the real story of which my life story is a part.”3
The more deeply we understand God’s unfolding purpose for humanity and the world, the more deeply we’ll understand God’s unfolding purpose for our lives. That’s because the only way to make any ultimate sense out of our individual life stories is to understand how they fit into God’s one unfolding story revealed in the Bible. God means for this story to so captivate our minds and hearts, that we’re drawn, by his Spirit, into its plot to find our vital place in it.
For Mature Audiences Only (Double Entendre Intended)
During the last few years my wife, Becky, and I have become members of a new demographic group that’s quickly dying off called “Thirtysomethings”—couples who have been married for more than 30 years (32 so far).
The first time I heard about the movie Hope Springs (PG-13, starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carell) was from my doctor at my annual check-up. He walked into the examining room, looked up at me and said, “Well, have you and Becky seen the sex movie yet?” I said, “No, I don’t think so.” He then told me every couple should see it, especially those who’ve been married a long time—like us.
I disregarded my physician’s advice for the last several months—conveniently long enough for the video to be available for streaming in my own living room so no one would catch me walking out of the theatre. Last Saturday night I mustered up the courage to watch it with Becky. I’ll be honest. Even though Rotten Tomatoes gave it good ratings, I was still cynical (one of my issues)—especially after I read the Rolling Stone review that referred to it as the “AARP version” of young love.
Here’s the story line: After 3 decades of marriage, empty-nester Kay Soames (Streep) realizes she and her husband, Arnold (Jones), have settled for being amiable roommates. Kay deeply longs for something they once had, but haven’t had in a very long time–emotional and physical intimacy. So she cleverly manipulates Arnold to attend a week of intense marriage counseling at Dr. Feld’s (Carell) Center for Intensive Couples Therapy.
And intense it is. Easy it is not. After experiencing a few blundering, fleeting glimpses of what used to be, they return home and fall back into the same platonic patterns. Having naively and tenaciously held to the hope of something more for years, Kay finally gives up. But Arnold finally wakes up from his slumber of relational passivity, heroically embraces his fears underneath it, and discovers a renewed longing for something more.
As Arnold begins to risk moving toward Kay in new ways, Kay finds herself awakened to new ways she wants to move toward him. They decide to begin their new journey toward greater intimacy by renewing their marriage vows on the beach with Dr. Field officiating and a few close family members and friends observing. With unfeigned transparency and humor, they stand on the beach and read to each other the new vows they have written (yes, Becky and I played it back several times so we could write these down):
Kay: After 32 years of marriage, I can honestly say that I love you more than I ever did.
Arnold: The day I met you changed my life and made my life. I can’t imagine living my life without you. It wouldn’t be any kind of life at all.
Kay: When I think about spending the rest of my life with you I only regret that it won’t be long enough. So I now want to make this next chapter of our lives something that we’ll both cherish. I vow to watch more golf with you without complaining.
Arnold: I vow to watch less golf and to buy you good presents that aren’t for the house—like jewelry.
Kay: I vow not to cut my hair any shorter than it is because I know you like it longer.
Arnold: I vow not to complain so much if I can help it (but sometimes there really is something that needs to be complained about). I vow to go to one of those sleep studies like you’ve been asking me to go to. I vow to take you somewhere once a year that’s more than 200 miles away from home that isn’t to see a family member.
Kay: Now on this wonderful day I give you the rest of my life, and I thank God every day that you’re in it.
Arnold: I vow to tell you how I feel. Not just when you ask me. And I’ll tell you how I feel about this. I love it and I love you.
Kay: I love you.
We all know that syrupy happy endings are provisional (my cynicism starting to rise up here). But to my surprise I found this movie to be anything but Pollyannaish. Director David Frankel’s intent was clearly not the typical Hollywood disingenuous use of erotic imagery. This movie is not one you’d probably feel comfortable watching with your mother or your kids. And it may even be too offensive for some adults. So consider yourself warned.
In the end, Hope Springs is a counter-cultural case for not giving up on your relationship—even after it dies. It’s a radical call to repentance from unloving, long-term relational patterns of passivity and indifference. And it’s also a call to a new resurrection hope for a deeper intimacy that’s worth fighting for.
At a critical turning point in the movie, Dr. Feld privately asks Arnold whether he’s done everything possible to save his marriage. If not, Dr. Feld says, he’ll live with regret later. “The moment is here,” Dr. Feld tells Arnold. “You have to ask yourself, have I done all that I could? Is this the best you can do?” And, of course, it wasn’t.
Raun Swafford, an African American church planter in Memphis, received a full scholarship to attend the 2013 GCA Conference in Orlando a few weeks ago. I received this letter from Raun last week. Here’s another encouraging story of how God works through the faithful prayers and generous support of those who partner with GCA in equipping leaders to start, grow, and multiply gospel-centered churches.
Just wanted to personally thank MNA, Randy Nabors, Coach B, Wy Plumer, Steve Childers and everyone one else who made my trip to GCA 2013 possible. This trip could not have come at a more providential time as my wife and I are in the middle of making some major decisions regarding our call and place to serve. We moved to Memphis about two years ago to serve in what we thought was the ideal church setting for us. The people were very loving; the support was coming in almost miraculously….it just seemed right.
But over the last year and a half following a loss of leaders, three major moves for my family (two residential moves and relocating the church), a steep cultural learning curve of both my supporters and those whom I minister to, it has taken an enormous emotional and physical toll on my family. Through God’s grace and providence we were able to gather encouragement and direction from dear friends but still struggled with the decision of whether or not we felt called to stay in Memphis. Randy and Wy suggested that GCA would help with that decision as well as give me the opportunity to meet other brothers who may be having the same struggle.
They also thought GCA might provide some “Ah ha” moments regarding things I could have done better in the past and also guidance for the future. GCA did all that and then some. Not only did I get the direction I prayed for but was offered the potential of several different ministry opportunities that better “fit” my calling and gifting. As I’m going through my notes there were two speakers that really impacted my life to the core, Steve Childers and Tim Rice.
In Steve’s opening session he discussed the topic of “vision” with four sub points: 1.) The Glory of God 2.) The Kingdom of God 3.) The Church of God 4.) The Gospel of God. He spoke of how God has a vision to help us see how Jesus’ story lines up with our story…a merging of stories. He continued by explaining how God brings glory to Himself by making His invisible Kingdom visible thru the church. As he elaborated on this familiar but needed topic of discussion, it brought new light to the gospel in the context of where I serve and within my own heart.
Next there was Tim Rice who’s first topic was “focus.” Wow….Tim was on it! He began to speak about the Incarnation and then asked the question, “With whom are you trying to identify with like Jesus identified with you when He came to this earth?” From then on he used numerous illustrations which kept everyone’s attention and were very applicable to the questions I had. He was more than willing to take questions both during and after the sessions which helped greatly. I walked out of his class knowing my target area of ministry and myself much better.
Guys, thank you again. Please in prayer for our church (New Beginnings Community Church) and my family as we seek the Lord for guidance and wisdom regarding our future. Lord willing, my wife and I will be joining you again next year. Please know that I am truly grateful.
Raun Swafford, Senior Pastor and Servant, NBCC
A 3-minute video peek inside this year’s GCA conference in Orlando.