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Brenda's Testimony: Her 14 years in Calvinism

My Journey into Calvinism by Brenda Nickel

This month we recognize the immense impact John Calvin, the influential Roman Catholic reformer, has had on the face of Christendom over the past five hundred years.  Many around the world are commemorating his quincentennial birthday this summer with special events and celebrations.  This month begins the series, The Subtle Danger of Spiritual Fusion , where readers are being introduced to John Calvin's life and theology.  Just as he was shaped by various influences in his day, his theology in like manner, impacts believers in surprising ways today.   Following is the story of how John Calvin’s theology diverted the walk of a believer who fourteen years later escaped the snares of his reformed Catholicism.  

My Introduction to Calvin

My introduction to John Calvin came one spring night while driving down a desolate Wyoming highway.  It was early evening and the road conditions were mildly challenging, which was often the case in that part of the country.  I was listening intently to a cassette tape of R. C. Sproul's commentary on Romans 8:28-30, "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;  and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified." I remember the moment well.  The full moon lit up the prairie between the low buttes. The blowing snow was swirling across the road.   The scenery was soothing yet my mind was racing.  Could it be that God "elects" some, that He deliberately chooses some, but not all  for eternal  salvation?  While I thought I was about to learn more about Jesus Christ and His Gospel, in reality I was about to learn more about the teachings of a man named John Calvin.

A few short years prior to that spring evening, I had become a born again believer in Jesus Christ through belief in he gospel,. My life became brand new.  I was hungry to study and absorb as much about Christ and the Bible as possible, in order to help others be saved.  As a new believer, I trusted my pastor (who lent me the Sproul lectures) would lead me through only solid biblical teaching.  Little did I know, the teaching  I was about to  be exposed to would redirect my walk of faith in ways that would be difficult to escape.  That spring night, my thinking had instantly been taken captive by a new approach in interpreting the Bible. "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." (Colossians 2:8)

That night, I learned that God not only loved me enough to sacrifice His Son for my sins, but had also chosen me before the foundations of the world.  I learned that I was in the mind of God before Jesus was even ordained for the cross.  He had predestined me to salvation before I was even conceived.  Tears of joy were streaming down my face as I thanked God for His unspeakable gift.  However, what began in tears of joy, ended in tears of despair fourteen years later.  The question ,years later, became "How did this despair set in?" and "Who indeed was this John Calvin?"

Fascination with Calvinism

Having been introduced to the idea that God "predetermines" who He will choose to save left me with many unanswered questions.  Walking back into my pastor's office to return the tapes, I sat down to question these issues and the impact they had on me.  I told  him how my thinking had been completely reoriented.  The answer came back with a small chuckle, "I knew that would happen."   There was a slight reluctance on my pastor's part to tell me of this hidden secret I was now privy to.  I was left to figure out whether this teaching of "selective salvation" was true according to the Bible.  Since no objections were made, I took my pastor's statement as an endorsement of God's sovereign predestination of the "elect" to salvation.

Returning home, I searched my Bible to see if this elective prerogative of God was indeed true. Finding several verses that seemed to back up the type of election I heard in the Sproul lectures, I became convinced that election was true. Having also told my friends of my 'conversion' on the highway, they too found verses for me that pointed out "sovereign" election and predestination.  Everywhere I turned this 'deeper' understanding of God's word  seemed to be becoming  more established in my thinking and confirmed by others.  I was indeed privileged to have discovered this new insight into the sublime purposes of God.  Unknown to me at the time, my thinking had totally been taken captive, by scholars' mere suggestions coupled with supposed scriptural support, causing me to understand biblical verses  in  a new light within a new interpretive framework. Now I see the importance of warnings about wrong teachings. 2 Timothy 3:6;  “… those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts” (1 Peter 5:8)   "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour."

This intense fascination with predestination demonstrated I had been taken captive by a different way of understanding the Bible. "You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?" (Galatians 5:7)  I yearned to learn all I could about this theology and the bearing it had on my Christian walk.  I began pursuing the teachings of Calvinism.

Laying the Foundation

Bible study took on a whole new dimension after my "conversion" to sovereign election.  Week after week, I braved the blowing snow and howling winds to gather with my new friends in the faith for the study of God’s word.  This little Wyoming church had become a home to me.  I loved learning scripture, especially when predestination was hinted at.  The mere mention of the topic always piqued my interest as my new found knowledge was validated.  I soaked up election passages like a sponge, relishing all the "proof" for this doctrine I could find.  Memorizing these verses was an easy and delightful task. Tracking these verses was sport for me. I started a card file, marking the predestination passages with a big ‘P.’ Unwittingly, I was constructing a foundation for "reformed election" using bible verses plucked out from their context. Every time I saw a verse that mentioned 'predestination, election, calling, choosing, foreknowledge,' they all meant one thing to me; "God chose me."  I misunderstood the scriptures which say believers are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ.  I read verses like Romans 8:29 and understood them to mean I was predestined to salvation.  Scriptures were always understood in the light of Calvinism, rather than within their context.  Romans 8:29, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” 

In this early stage, the term ‘Calvinism’ was foreign to me, but that was soon to change.  Within the year, my family and I moved to Salt Lake City.  We found Salt Lake to be clean and convenient with world class skiing only ten miles from our front door.  Life seemed crisp, pleasant, and brand new.  Finally we left the ever blowing Wyoming wind behind, although leaving my church friends was not easy for me.  Even the fierce summer heat of Utah was a welcomed change.  Life in the beehive state was better than I would have imagined.

Some of my first tasks in Salt Lake were looking for a church home and a bible study.  My family and I found a church home where many of its members attended an international bible study of seven rotating, one year courses.  This first year in Salt Lake introduced me to a whole range of new people and new opportunities for learning and serving.  Still somewhat publicly shy about the teaching of predestination, I was surprised to find hints of election sprinkled throughout church and Bible study teachings.   References to the ‘sovereignty of God,’ ‘God choosing His own,’ ‘the call of God,’ ‘God hardening hearts,’ ‘God giving grace to the elect’ and similar catch phrases all conveyed their inclination toward God's sovereign election.  My ears were keenly attuned to any shred of this teaching.  I remember thinking that perhaps this teaching was more accepted than I had first realized. My shyness gave way to approaching the subject with others, carefully engaging them in the ‘predestination’ discussion.  Wherever possible I broached the topic gently; in the halls between church services, in the parking lots, on the phone with friends, with those in my Bible study discussion group.  I cautiously pressed with innocent questions to filter who was safe to discuss election with. To my surprise, many Christians agreed with the type of election I thought the Bible was teaching.   I was gaining assurance from people rather than from the scriptures.

About this time, I was introduced to the teachings of a well known pastor in California.  Assured he was a solid bible teacher, I registered with his lending library to receive sermon tapes six at a time which I quickly turned around for more.  I considered taking out two memberships so I could listen to one set as the new requests were being filled.  My heart was thrilled to redeem the long hours of household chores by listening to ‘good’ teaching.  All I needed was my fanny pack and Walkman, which became fixtures about my hips.  I found this teaching pastor to be an incredibly gifted expositor. The lending library catalog allowed me to choose nearly any subject I could imagine.  Of course, first and foremost were selections dealing with Calvinistic election.  As questions came up about election, I merely looked up the passage in the library catalog and requested the sermon I needed to listen to.  Listening to these tapes created an insatiable appetite for still more audio teaching which prompted the ordering of more tapes from other teachers, all of whom were sympathetic to Calvinistic election.  Hundreds and hundreds of lectures and sermons were pumped into my brain, feeding me a steady diet of one or more points of Calvinism.   My shy caution in sharing election was now giving way to empowerment.  The many questions I had once asked of my Wyoming pastor were now being answered in full detail.  I was being fortified with the pat responses that any trained Calvinist gives out verbatim.  It wasn't long before I too talked and thought like a skilled four point Calvinist (which I'll explain later)! 

Ministry Trouble

During these years of exposure to Calvinism, my involvement in this international Bible study deepened.  I was entrusted with several important tasks serving both as a staff member and a discussion leader for groups of 15 women.  I felt pride in knowing I was truly serving God.  My years in this ministry were filled with joy as my training and leading skills were developed.  I valued my friendship with leaders, the studying,  prayer, developing organizational skills, singing hymns, and pouring out God’s love and acceptance for those in my groups.  All was perfect in my world until this international Bible study introduced a new study covering the book of Romans.   The commentary notes, which accompanied their weekly lessons throughout the study of Romans that year, seemed very Calvinistic.  This is when I began to investigate more thoroughly the five points of Calvinism.

The five points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints, were not totally clear to me before then.  I had believed in God's sovereign and unconditional election, but immediately disagreed with the lesson notes which taught a person was regenerated (born again) BEFORE belief based on faith in Jesus Christ.  This teaching confused me greatly. Not only did they teach this main tenet of Calvinism, but they taught many others as well.  

The effect of this controversial teaching split our leader’s circle into two camps.  I felt somewhat caught in the middle because while I strongly sided with election, I also fully rejected regeneration before belief.   Surely this influential and well reputed ministry had good scriptural reasons for teaching such a divisive issue.  Romans 16:17, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” Our leader’s circle and discussion groups had been harmonious until  the introduction of this Calvinistic 'born again before belief' teaching divided them.  Heated debates occasionally broke out as each side defended what they thought the Bible was saying.  In the midst of all the confusion, I wondered what biblical proof existed for such teaching.  I thought a call to another of this Bible study's leaders, who lectured for the night group each week, might shed some scriptural light on this debate.  He was a follower of this theology, that emerged from the reformation of Catholicism, so I thought he would surely have the answers.  The only verse he was aware of on the subject of regeneration before faith was John 3:3 where Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Apparently, this verse is taken to mean that a person cannot perceive the kingdom of God unless he is born again rather than one could not enter the future kingdom of God unless one is born again.  Knowing that this spiritualized explanation, which didn’t satisfy me at the time, would lead to embracing limited atonement, I rejected it.  In my usual style though, rejecting it wasn’t enough…I had to research the subject thoroughly to know why it was confusing and why it was causing division.

This quest coincided with a trip to the newly opened Christian book store in my area.  Salt Lake City doesn’t have many Christian bookstores since the area is heavily populated by Mormons.  Walking into the tiny shop and meeting the owner, George, and his brother, we chatted a bit about his new endeavor of breaking into the Christian retail market.   Noticing the icons on the walls, I asked what church he attended.  His reply was, “Greek Orthodox.”  I remember thinking something was significantly different between Greek Orthodoxy and Biblical Christianity, but since his shelves were stocked with all the popular Christian books at the time, I decided not to press further until I learned more about the former.  I had enough on my plate with Calvinism.  Browsing around the store, I discovered a small set of shelves with a cache of cassettes from various reformed Catholics and Calvinist scholars. These were apparently George's personal collection that he lent out and also offered for purchase at a substantial discount.  I scooped up all I could afford.

Back in my car, I put the most interesting of the cassettes in the tape deck.  I listened closely hoping to understand why the Bible study I was involved with had embraced five point Calvinism.  There had to be a good reason.  What was so attractive about being born again BEFORE belief since the Bible clearly teaches otherwise?  I thought, Paul taught in Ephesians 2:8a, “For by grace you have been saved through faith...” These tapes not only taught the five points of Calvinism, but also the theology that emerged from the reformation of Catholicism.

As I listened, I further understood the theology of John Calvin, the renowned reformer of 16th century Catholicism.  Surprisingly, his theology was shaped in large part by the early Roman Catholic theologian Augustine. I discovered the five points of TULIP were integrated and mutually dependent on one another in explaining how John Calvin understood salvation.  The gospel of John Calvin’s reformed Catholicism was unfolding before me.  

Discovering  the Five Points

These five points spell the acrostic TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints and teach that man’s total depravity prevents him from believing the gospel.  I learned that sinful fallen man can’t comprehend or consider the things of God.  Therefore God must elect individuals (Unconditional Election) to salvation apart from the condition of faith.  The God of Calvinism apparently elects only some to salvation since not all men are saved.  Further, those predestined to salvation are the only ones for whom Christ died (Limited Atonement). Apparently there was no need to waste His blood on the non elect; hence His atonement was limited only to the elect.  His blood is applied to the chosen, apart from their will or their knowledge through irresistible grace.  This grace, apparently not only regenerates them before belief, but it also gives them the ability to persevere in obedience once they believe. 

Trying to comprehend the gravity of these concepts took much thought and repetition.   My rejection of limited atonement combined with continued support for unconditional election caused my own unique brand of Calvinism to develop.  Many partial Calvinists synthesize their personal beliefs with these five points to construct a system that makes sense to them.  For instance, some have explained limited atonement as being the atonement limited only by God's great love, which is totally inconsistent with the intent of TULIP.  In fact, those who hold to Calvin’s theology, teach these five points either stand together or fall together.  The key to understanding what John Calvin and reformed Catholicism mean by these points is to take their explanations of the terms, rather than mingle these points with one’s own thinking.  Biblebelievers.net, in refuting Calvinism, makes their point well;

The five points which identify Calvin's teaching (outlined above and commonly called "TULIP") are like dominos; they stand or fall together. If a person claims to be a One-Point (Total Depravity) Calvinist, if he believes the doctrine taught as Calvin taught it, then the person must accept the other four points. [1]

I wasn’t alone in processing all this teaching.  My dear friend Sandra, who also underwent a Calvinistic conversion through the teaching of the late Presbyterian scholar, D. James Kennedy, met with me every Saturday morning to hash out our new discoveries from the previous week.  We often discussed the five points of Calvinism and tried to decide whether the bible indeed taught such things.  We thought the bible taught the Calvinistic view of man’s total depravity which necessitated God’s election of some to salvation.  We reasoned that not all were elect which explained why some reject the gospel and why there were issues in the church at large.  However, we both rejected limited atonement recalling how the apostle John clearly taught that Jesus died for all men in 1 John 2:2, “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” The rejection of limited atonement put us in the four point Calvinist camp.  We then wrestled with irresistible grace and viewed it as some sort of grace that enabled belief when the gospel was presented, but this grace certainly didn’t cause regeneration before belief.  And finally, once saved, we thought that believers would certainly persevere in faith, meaning they would never abandon Christ.  Later we would learn that this grace that enabled belief, was expected to enable obedience.   This is how we reasoned through the five points of TULIP during this stage in our developing Calvinism.

The Dilemma of Faith

There was still some lingering confusion in resolving God’s election with personal faith.   Salvation by faith had to somehow harmonize with election.  Sandra and I were left with a dilemma.  Faith proceeds from us, yet God enables belief.  How did these two connect?  The answer came one night at the dispensational prophecy study we attended weekly.  This study, led by a dispensational pastor, upheld Dispensationalism's basic tenets; the church began at Pentecost and has not replaced Israel, the church is not under the Mosaic Law but under grace, the church will be raptured before the future tribulation occurs, Israel will inherit the promised future thousand year kingdom, and the Bible is meant to be understood literally.  This pastor hobnobbed with prophecy experts, therefore we reasoned, he must always be on target with whatever he taught.  How trusting we were.  Consequently, when he taught that faith is the gift of God, our dilemma was solved.  I thought, “Of course, that’s it!”

Adding this piece to the Calvinist puzzle further deepened the stronghold.  While new information was fortifying my position, nothing had changed in my reasoning since my introduction to predestination years before.  I still comprehended everything inside the Calvinist framework of unconditional sovereign election.  Anything outside that box was nonsense to me.  The influence of Calvinism held me powerfully, and in my arrogance I  believed I had "the truth".  When evaluating ‘faith as a gift,’ it never occurred to me that Ephesians 2:8-9 is practically the only verse used to justify this view of gifted faith.  Again, the scripture was wrongly interpreted for me and I continued constructing my stronghold.  1 Corinthians 3:10, “According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it.”

Quenching the Opposition

Occasionally there were those who disagreed with my positions.  Generally, their challenges were met with my 'knowing' smile that politely disregarded anything they had to say.  My years of listening to Calvinist teachers provided scripted answers to any who objected to unconditional election.  My audio instructors systematically ingrained Calvinist explanations for Calvinistic verses, usually taken out of context, completely quenching the true intent of the  Word without my  even being aware of any distortion.  Their inculcation was so complete that I couldn’t comprehend views opposed to four point Calvinism.  This stronghold of Calvinistic election was nearly impregnable because the word of God had been used to implant the deception.  2 Timothy 2:26, “and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.” Any plea for understanding salvation differently, even using the scripture, was interpreted according to my Calvinistic understanding of the text.  Attacks against Calvinistic election were defended with rote responses which only embedded my indoctrination further.

Not only did I hold to unconditional election and gifted faith, but to my shame, I also wrongly understood the sovereignty of God.  I was taught that if God is sovereign then He must have complete control over every event.  Conversely, if man had any choice at all, then God was not totally sovereign.  I reasoned that any choice of mine was really His choice.  Therefore, I came to believe God was responsible for determining who believed the gospel.  I thought if anyone believed the gospel through making a personal decision for Christ, it was really a human work.  God had to be the author of faith from start to finish.  Anything man contributed to salvation, even faith, threatened God's sovereignty.  Any autonomy ascribed to man was a cardinal sin in Calvinistic thinking.  It is God who elects and grants faith which is later quickened upon hearing the gospel.  R. C. Sproul sums up Calvinistic predestination in the following quote;

Predestination seems to cast a shadow on the very heart of human freedom.  If God has decided our destinies from all eternity, (unconditionally) that strongly suggests that our free choices are but charades, empty exercises in predetermined placating.  It is as though God wrote the script for us in concrete and we are merely carrying out His scenario. [2]

Sadly, I now realize, that while I was protecting against idolizing man’s abilities, I was actually idolizing the sovereignty of God.  I’ve learned the hard way that God's character never violates or diminishes any of His other attributes.  I had overemphasized His sovereignty at the expense of His love.

Elitist Thinking about evangelism

Thinking back, I realize that "love" was an expendable commodity in those days.  While I really "loved" all on one level, on another level I didn't have to care too deeply about anyone.  After all, hadn't God done the same, loved some and not others?  A subtle elitism began to creep into my thinking.  A hidden attitude of discrimination and partiality emerged against those who couldn't 'ascend to the higher truths’ of God due to His lack of concern about them.  Since I  had been given perception to know these doctrines of God's grace, I was secretly indifferent toward the slow and dull of learning.  I feigned interest to hide my attitude of false sympathy toward them.  If God didn't care enough to gift them with the capacity to understand, then I didn't have to concern myself with them  either.  I reasoned that to care would go against the will of God.  After all, weren’t we supposed to fellowship with those of similar faith?  Wasn’t there only one faith handed down to the saints?  If some couldn't understand the purposes of God, then it was God's will. Predestination made God the cause of everything that happened. And if they couldn't understand the ‘truth,’ had God really elected them?  Had they really and truly believed?  Did they have a false conversion?  Why were they stubbornly holding on to inferior beliefs such as faith coming from man’s heart?

By this point in my descent into Calvinism, my thinking had set like concrete.  No one could have changed my mind.  I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt from the witness of scripture, scholars, pastors, leaders and other Christians that God’s predestinating purposes for man were true and beyond our human comprehension.  I thought, 'to question the motives of God was to place myself above God'.  Hence, supposed contradictions were relegated to ‘mystery’ as His ways were beyond finding out.   It never occurred to me that this type of election skewed God's character or that God would ultimately be judging men for His own choice of a cruelty too unfathomable to reason upon.   In my mind, God chose to enable some for salvation leaving the rest to be against Him.  The ones so cruelly discarded would then be judged by God for their supposed choice.  I reasoned the reprobate (those not elected) wouldn't know the difference anyway. 

This insidious elitist attitude, pervasive within Calvinism, occurred without my notice.  Mind control, operating by stealth, implanted these ideas through mere suggestion, deepening them with a false and superficial knowledge, to hold me both willingly and unwillingly.  On one level I knew something was wrong, yet on another level, things appeared correct.  The resulting confusion prompted queries, but sadly in the case of Calvinism, the answers were sought from the very people who imbedded the deception in the first place.

Looking back, all the answers to these questions prompted adjustments in my theology.  The overarching presupposition, never doubted, was unconditional election.  Every scriptural understanding I learned had to coincide with this type of election.  As new information entered my mind, it had to fit with my previously constructed framework of thinking.  I was synthesizing a spreadsheet of theology.  I adjusted all doctrines to accommodate election.  All my doctrinal entries assembled a system where ‘God sovereignly chooses.’  As one verse was understood more fully, other entries in my data sheet of theology would be adjusted so the whole system seemingly added up.   New answers prompted more questions which kept me circulating in this theology.  It became a quagmire of logic and rational interpretation without the freshness of the Spirit.  One adjustment led to another and another and another and so on.

Genuinely Elect?

In continuing my Calvinist education through tapes of sorts, I noticed a preoccupation among these teachers with defining the nature of true saving faith.  Most Calvinists will eventually come to this all encompassing dilemma.  The question for them becomes, ‘Who is really saved?’  If God foreordains belief, wouldn't He also ordain obedience?  If God predestines all that happens, wouldn't He also preplan the compliance of the elect? To deal with this nagging and consuming problem, the Calvinist attempts to identify the elect using obedience as the criteria.  While the bible teaches salvation is by faith in the gospel, the Calvinist, who defends unconditional sovereign election, feels compelled to decide which kind of faith a person believed with.  Did faith originate with personal faith from the heart or faith gifted from God? Sadly, John Calvin set the precedent, that many of his followers imitate when he spoke of a false faith he termed evanescent.  Notice in the following quote that Calvin claims evanescent faith originated with Christ. 

“... Experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. Hence, it is not strange, that by the Apostle a taste of heavenly gifts, and by Christ himself a temporary faith is ascribed to them. Not that they truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith; but the Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instills into their minds such a sense of goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption .... there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith .... Still it is correctly said, that the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because, under a covering of hypocrisy they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their mind to this extent.... there is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent.” [3]

Defining the essence of true faith, foremost in the minds of Calvinists, sheds light on the last point of TULIP; perseverance of the saints.  I naively thought perseverance of the saints meant persevering in belief. However Calvinists, who are busy defining true faith by election, reject personal decisions for Christ unless the life of the believer is near perfect.  If the elect have received grace both for regeneration before belief and gifted faith to believe, they certainly have received the grace necessary for obedience.  Therefore, perseverance of the saints isn’t persisting in faith in Christ, but rather persevering in obedience.  Outward performance is the real test for determining whether one has been given true gifted faith or a false faith produced by the human heart.

Once my thoughts were preoccupied with the question of who was really saved, my descent into Calvinism accelerated.  In investigating the quality of the faith of others, the finger that pointed at them, in time was pointed at me.  Paul identified this dynamic in Romans 2:1, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”   I began collecting proof for true faith in myself and others.  Gifted faith, I reasoned, had to demonstrate obedience as well as understanding. I seemed to have the understanding, but did I have the obedience?  Election was easy to comprehend, but perfectly yielding to the will of Christ was another story.  Subtly, assurance shifted from what I believed to what I did right.  I remember lying on my bed at night taking stock of my day and second guessing everything I did.   In my mind, I wasn’t adding works to salvation but condemning myself for what I didn’t do right.  There was no comfort, no sense of forgiveness or acceptance.  Only my performance would give me a measure of assurance.  My focus had completely shifted from the cross of Christ to a debilitating fear of condemnation.  I kept asking myself, “Didn’t Jesus pay for all these sins? Why am I feeling so condemned?”  I knew something was seriously wrong but Calvinism was never suspected as the culprit. This bait and switch of Calvinism set up the final endgame of election which is this last point of Calvinism; perseverance of the saints.  The proving of one’s salvation by obedience is more commonly known as Lordship salvation.

The Grip of Lordship Salvation

Lordship Salvation was always a confusing term to me.  It was explained as the believer’s enablement and obligation to follow Jesus as Master and Lord.  Knowing that Jesus is indeed Master and Lord, the case for making obedience the criteria for evaluating true faith was easily made.  If one cannot obey, then one must not be saved is how the reasoning goes.  In the mire of this doctrinal confusion, no allowance is made for serious sin by the true believer.  Hence lordship salvation sets up a deadly legalism that robs its follower of forgiveness, hope and joy.  It convinces the believer there is no assurance even though Christ provided everything the believer needs for the abundant life.  For those in the grip of lordship salvation, the way of freedom is right before them, but the pathway out is blocked by wrongly interpreted verses which send the believer back to Calvinism.

Looking around at others, few passed the tests of true faith I was learning about through my tapes.  Even those who believed in sovereign election didn’t always behave or espouse doctrine perfectly.  This massive exercise of determining whether others were saved produced a profound lack of assurance that I was truly saved.  I prayed I wouldn't judge others as the Word instructed, but my mind was preoccupied with trying to know if I was saved.  I had fully believed by faith, but I had to ask myself if my faith was a false faith as John Calvin wrote about?   I stayed awake at night wondering how I could know for sure.

Paradoxically, these anxieties occurred while I was immersed in various bible studies.  One would think I would have taken hold of the promises of God to fight back my fears, but the ruse of this deception is that it dangled answers right in front of my face yet at the same time kept me from taking hold of them.  It’s like a captor freely parading his captive in public having no concern they may try to escape or defect.  Like a prisoner, I would return to the scriptures seeking freedom, but they had been so misinterpreted with Calvinist explanations that they only embeded my fears all the more.  How could I be sure I really believed?  What kind of faith did I believe with?  Was I producing fruit in keeping with repentance?  I was so convinced by Calvinistic reasoning for the scriptures that the Word was neutralized and provided no comfort. Jesus identified this method of rendering the scriptures ineffective in Matthew 15:6b, “…thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”  The bars of my prison were bible verses explained wrongly combined with human rationale from a Calvinistic point of view. I had been taught that faith in the gospel could be a superficial faith, therefore much more than simple trust in Jesus’ and His death had to be demonstrated.  Unknown to me, I had trusted men and their interpretation of the Bible.  Jeremiah 17:5, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the LORD.

Not realizing that Calvinism was the problem, I continued listening to my audio teachers for direction. These teachers then directed me to keeping the moral part of the Mosaic Law as the way to resolve my dilemma. Law keeping, they explained, doesn’t save a person, but after being saved, it is the rule of life for the believer's life.  They taught me that Christ’s Law keeping righteousness, given to believers, enables them to keep the Law.  The cross, they explained, has two sides to it; one side is the shed blood of Christ for salvation, the other side is the law keeping righteousness of Jesus given to the elect for the purpose of keeping the law. This teaching goes further to assume that the new nature of Christ is the only nature of the believer.  The sin nature, or the carnal nature, of the believer is denied.  Therefore, if the elect have no sin nature but still sin, then they must not have the new nature of Christ and must not be saved.  This reverse progression in reasoning sets up like a domino effect whenever the ‘elect’ sin.

In this system, one cannot avoid the fear of not being saved if one sins.  Salvation by election proves itself by obedience, but salvation by faith looks to the cross alone to gain assurance.  The doctrine of predestination becomes a cruel taskmaster over its adherents, whereas the doctrine of salvation by simple faith in the cross from the heart forgives sin and gives life.  Election sounds good and quasi biblical on the front end, but is a condemning inquisitor on the back end.  This is the final outcome of perseverance of the saints or Lordship Salvation.  Perseverance of the saints has little to do with persevering in belief but everything to do with persevering in obedience and works.

My final years under the influence of Calvinism found me fearful, insecure, worried, sleepless, critical, self-loathing and hopeless.  A deep depression settled over me as I often broke into tears and looked to others for assurance.  Did they think I was saved?  Had I lost my objectivity?  Could they see faith in me when all I saw was failure?  The joy of knowing Christ had given way to an inescapable fear of condemnation.  The broken record playing in my mind kept asking, ‘How can I know I’m saved?’  Gone were the carefree years of trusting Christ and enjoying the freedom of assurance in salvation.  Gone was the joy of meeting other Christians because I had been programmed to test whether they were truly Christian.  Witnessing lost its urgency because God had foreordained who would believe and when.  I strongly urged that people listen to the gospel, but if they rejected truth, I shook the dust off my feet and moved on.   Ironically, while in such need of encouragement, a self-inflicted isolation set up where I rejected fellowship with many because my idol of Calvinism required the bearing of a particular testimony.   The standard to pass was an individualized interpretation of four point Calvinism that few could possibly meet.   I refused to fellowship with five point Calvinists and four pointers seemed hard to come by.  Though the doctrine of election was destroying my life through legalism, I stubbornly held to it never suspecting it was the cause of all my trouble.


Deliverance came in an unexpected package during this dark time.  The church I had first belonged to in Salt Lake, called a new pastor to candidate for the position of senior pastor.  Many of us who departed from the church during the prior five years (because of church growth methods) were excited to come back.  Hope was high among us. I was optimistic to have a chance to be reunited with this fellowship of believers.  I reasoned I needed some encouragement and there were some four point Calvinists there.  This prospective candidate's statement of faith was delivered to me by a close friend who also anticipated reunion with our dear assembly.  She sat on my couch as I excitedly read through the resume headings.  My heart sank when I read he was a historic premillennialist.  Wasn’t this church, which we had loved, dispensational and pretribulational?  Unfortunately, those who exited the church during those years, apparently left those not committed to dispensationalism to choose this candidate.

To my surprise, my phone rang off the hook as several of my old friends sought my viewpoint about this candidate’s doctrinal views.  Interestingly, his end times views began to unite those of us who disagreed with his eschatology.  For the time being, Calvinism was no longer an issue that divided us.   One friend, who had challenged me in the past about Calvinism, also now sought my opinion about a controversial book she recounted to me in thorough detail. This questionable teaching seemed strange to me so I decided to explore the subject further.  As God would have it, my investigation showed this unconventional teaching to be a peculiar blend of modified Calvinism and dispensationalism.  Ironically, an expose I found about this book's controversial teaching explained the Calvinist view of faith in a way I’d never heard before.

For the first time, I learned that faith, in the Calvinist venacular, is something gifted to the elect at the time of their regeneration.  Their regeneration, which happens at conception or baptism, is accompanied by this gift of faith so that faith is lying dormant in the elect for years before they use it in responding to the gospel when they eventually encounter it.  In my personal interpretation of Calvinism, I thought that God somehow gave faith to the elect in the moments before hearing the gospel, but did not believe this gifting by grace included regeneration.  I always thought one must believe first, then be born again.  Now I was seeing that what I thought I understood Calvinism to be, wasn't true Calvinism at all.  There had been a gulf between four and five point Calvinists, but now I was beginning to see why.  While unconditional election is held in common, faith is understood very differently.

The next Saturday I went to Sandra’s office to hash out with her this new understanding of Calvinistic faith.  I explained to her  the theology that emerged from the Catholic reformation viewed faith as lying dormant in a person for perhaps years until it sprang to life when encountering the gospel.  She did some investigating of her own in the book of Ephesians and found that while faith seemed to be the gift in Eph 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God,” Paul continued in Ephesians to teach that it was that grace that was given to him; Eph 3:2, 7, 8 and 4:7.   Both of us sat there speechless as the impact of what we’d discovered settled on us.  If faith wasn’t the gift, but salvation was the gift by grace, then everything we thought was wrong.  We read Ephesians 2:5, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. Suddenly, Ephesians 2:8a read differently to us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith...”  Faith wasn’t the gift; salvation was the gift by grace through faith!

Wondering how this misunderstanding could have happened, since the Calvinists all teach that Ephesians 2:8-9 absolutely means that faith is the gift by the 'rule of the nearest antecedent,' I researched further.   I found a great website that dealt fully with this very issue.  What had been conveniently overlooked by the Calvinists in the ‘faith is the gift’ discussion was the gender of the Greek words; ‘faith’ (feminine), ‘this’ (neuter).  It seemed there was another rule at work which debunked the gift being the nearest antecedent of faith.  Notice Romans 6:23, ‘the gift of God is eternal life.’  Both Sandra and I sat there motionless by the implications of this discovery.

Breaking the Stronghold

Since this site, http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/index.html, had been so thorough in unraveling the 'faith is the gift' argument, we wondered what else we might need to learn. I downloaded as many articles as possible to see what else I could learn about the theology of the reformation of Catholicism.  Sandra and I quickly read through and discussed these many articles to see how we’d been deceived.  It seemed that while we embraced Calvinistic election, because we thought the bible taught it, we really didn’t understand the full import of that doctrine.  With every digested article, the picture was becoming clearer and the scales were falling from our eyes.  She hadn’t committed as fully to election as I had; therefore it was me who was harder hit when the truth became evident.

I remember sitting at home on the floor with articles spread out all around me, reading through them and highlighting the parts to share with Sandra when suddenly, with evidence mounting against Calvinism, I realized why Calvinism is held; it is the gospel of reformed theology, otherwise known as the theology of the Catholic reformation.  Calvinist Charles Spurgeon said it like this:

“I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else” [4]

Unwilling to listen to anything opposed to Calvinism before its central pillar of ‘gifted faith’ was pulled from its foundation, I was now not only listening, but embracing all I could take in.   With articles all around me, seated on the floor, highlighter in hand, it finally hit me.  Calvinism wasn’t true!  It was a lie and I had been deeply deceived.  Sitting there stunned, my first reaction was disbelief that I had been so thoroughly duped.  I had been lied to.  I trusted scholars and renowned pastors to teach me what the bible truly said only to learn they taught wrongly.  A sickening feeling washed over me as I realized I had not trusted the Lord, but men who in turn led me to follow an impostor.  And I followed?  At once, I realized I had profoundly misunderstood the character of God! Deep humiliation consumed me as I realized there is a diabolical evil which convinces Christians that God unjustly chooses people for hell.  This evil attributes to God the willingness to unjustly condemn and deceive sinners, just as John Calvin had said in his Institutes; “a temporary faith is ascribed to them…. but the Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instills into their minds such a sense of goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption.[5] (Emphasis mine) It was morbidly clear; Calvinism was a lie.

Once again, unbelievably, I returned to my audio teachers, but this time to see where they had gone wrong. I was still confused about election.  Isn't it taught in the bible, I said to myself?  How was I to understand the doctrine of election?   What did God mean by election in the pages of scripture?  The particular tape I chose to listen to brought up the pars excel lance verse of Calvinism once again, Jeremiah 1:5.  God said to Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations."  Hearing this verse threw me back to my prior understanding of election.  My first thought was, ‘Is election true?  It can’t be!”  I cried out to the Lord, “Help me understand how to interpret this verse because I now know that election isn't true because it doesn’t reflect your character.”

Getting a hold of myself and sitting down with my bible, I examined the progression of events in this verse carefully.  First God knew Jeremiah, then formed him, consecrated him, then Jeremiah was born and later he was appointed a prophet to the nations.  When God knew Jeremiah, it was His foreknowledge that knew Jeremiah would believe.  I realized anew, what I had once known before being deceived, that foreknowledge isn’t the same as foreordaining.  1 Peter 1:2 teaches that believers are ‘elect according to the foreknowledge of God.’   This interpretation leaves room for personal choice. God could easily prepare good works in advance for Jeremiah to do, all based on His foreknowledge.

At this moment I was simultaneously set free from the deceptive pull of Calvinistic election yet deeply ashamed at having misunderstood the character of God.  For several months thereafter, I hung my head in disgrace having misunderstood the nature of God’s love.  I had a lot of relearning to do.

Starting Over

This deliverance took place during the months my old friends were calling me about the candidating pastor.  I disagreed with his eschatology, but they took issue with both his eschatology and Calvinism.  Looking over his doctrinal statement more closely, armed with my new understanding of Reformed theology, his five point Calvinism was glaring.  I quietly, yet broken heartedly, determined not to return to my beloved church.  The believers remaining at the church voted to call this Strict Calvinist as their pastor.  Having been set free from Calvinism, there was no way I could unite with them under this leadership.

My friends were confused about Calvinism and called to ask me how to interpret the very verses I’d kept in that card file for years.  Intensely embarrassed over severely misunderstanding the character and love of God, I had no answers to give.  It was time to keep quiet.   I had nothing to offer.  But God in His great mercy had those friends calling me, not for the purpose of me helping them, but for them to help me.  While they called me for help, it was they who gave me the very help I needed.   They brought up Calvinistic verses offering explanations for them by saying, ‘This is the way to comprehend them, right?’  And I’d meekly respond by saying, “I think so” or "I think that's actually right" or "I've never seen it that way before."   Seeing the alternative ways of interpreting these verses which preserved God’s character and love while also preserving the free will choice of man, I was being gently shown how to replace the bad teaching I’d been indoctrinated with for years with correct teaching.  My friends had no idea that it was they who were ministering to me.  The Lord redirected my understanding tenderly and in dignified privacy which I in no way deserved.  He was setting my feet on solid ground, yet not exposing the deep, deep shame that reflected my complete repentance from the seduction of Calvinism.  I had been snatched from the jaws of teachers who were sentencing me to the theology of Reformed Catholicism and trying to betroth me to an impostor of Christ, functioning under the theology of Calvinism.

The Lord’s deliverance brings these comforting words from Luke 4:18 to mind;

“ The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” (NASB)

Looking back

It’s been nearly five years since God rescued me from the snares of Calvinism.  Once the stronghold of unconditional election was broken, I was finally able to comprehend what I had been involved with.  I've spent a great deal of effort since that time educating myself about what Reformed theology is all about.  I found that unconditional election is the entry point into this system of theology through Calvinism.  Since Calvinism describes the way a person is saved, it becomes the gospel and foundation for Reformed theology.

Reformed theology is more properly known as Covenant theology, which postulates God made three other major covenants (in addition to the six He made with Israel) that can't be found in the Bible with chapter and verse.  These additional inferred covenants define how God elected some for salvation while letting the rest go to hell (Covenant of Redemption),  how God promises salvation for obedience (Covenant of Works), and how since man can't obey, God through Christ provided obedience actively in His life and passively through His death for salvation (Covenant of Grace).  Both His life and death are said to contribute to salvation. The Bible teaches that Christ's one act of obedience on the cross provided atonement for sins.  These postulated covenants lay the groundwork for salvation through election and law keeping righteousness.  In essence, these three additional covenants skew God's plan for mankind to the point where Reformed theology can justify not only Calvinistic election and reprobation (not choosing to save some), but also for replacement theology where the church replaces Israel, the tribulation happening in 70 A.D. and the kingdom promises occurring for the church today.   This complicated theology cannot be defended if Calvinistic election is false.  

Unconditional election has been brought forward to our day from the 16th century reformation of Catholicism.  The reformers learned it from Augustine who very likely learned election and predestination from the Manichean cult he was involved in prior to converting to Roman Catholicism.  These concepts of election and predestination are not new, but very old being found in antiquity as enlightenment, elitism and fate.  Augustine, who blended Christianity with neo Platonist philosophies, is not only responsible for many of the errors of Roman Catholicism, but also for many of the teachings found in its reformation.  Sadly, much of Catholicism was retained, only redefined, in the Protestant Reformation so that many of its denominations today are merely degrees of separation from the Roman church.  The despair of Lordship salvation yeilds the same hopelessness Roman Catholics experience if they take their doctrine seriously.

Thankfully, the Lord has delivered me and revealed to me the true face of Calvinism.  Today, I’m at rest in the love of Christ when I fail. I sleep well at night and no longer fear condemnation.  Christ’s blood, shed for all men, completely cleanses my conscience of guilt by faith.  The pure truth of His Word gives me great joy, assurance and life.  Having been humbled, I am better able to give love and show mercy to others who sin.  Suffering teaches me lessons about the deep and abiding love Christ has for all His children.  I thank the Lord often for His goodness in forgiving and delivering me from entangling deception.

I have a special place in my heart for those who are under the spiritual deception of Calvinism, knowing they are unable, and many times unwilling, to violate what they believe the Bible is teaching.   As God gives me opportunity, I help all I can to understand this masterful and intellectual heresy which can be traced back to the 16th century reformation of Roman Catholicism and beyond.  "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun," Ecclesiastes 1:9.  

Caveat – While nearly all the articles on Middletown’s website are most excellent and while I am deeply thankful to God for the gift of these articles,

I politely disagree with any form of unconditional election.  Out of conscience, I need to warn all about the pitfalls of adopting any hint of Calvinistic election.  My view of election is that God elects those who believe the gospel from their heart. This view of election allows God to foreknow, but not foreordain belief, which preserves God’s sovereign activity in the believer’s life, yet doesn’t determine every move the believer makes.  God sovereignly uses the variables of man's free choices, making His sovereignty infinitely greater than if He predetermined everything that happens.


[1] http://www.biblebelievers.net/Calvinism/kjcalvn1.htm

[2] R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God, 51.
Source Cited:  http://www3.calvarychapel.com/library/bryson-george/books/fpocwafw.htm

[3] Institutes of the Christian Religion, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989, translated by Henry Beveridge.3.2.11 
Source Cited: http://www.evangelicaloutreach.org/spurgeon.htm

[4] The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, Curts & Jennings, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, 1898, Vol. I, p.172
Source Cited: http://www.evangelicaloutreach.org/spurgeon.htm

[5] Institutes of the Christian Religion, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989, translated by Henry Beveridge.3.2.11
Source Cited: http://www.evangelicaloutreach.org/spurgeon.htm

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