Guest post by Jared Wilson.
I have discussed with other Calvinists just where the (well-earned) stereotype of the graceless Calvinist comes from. Shouldn’t belief in total depravity necessitate profound humility? Shouldn’t belief in unconditional election preclude a spirit of superiority? And yet there is a doctrinal arrogance infecting Calvinist Christianity. This culture then produces doctrinaires like Baum’s man of tin: squeaky and heartless.
Cold-hearted rigidity is not limited to those of the Reformed persuasion, of course. You can find it in Christian churches and traditions and cultures of all kinds. In fact, to be fair, I have found that those most enthralled with the idea of gospel-wakefulness, those who seem most prone to champion the centrality of the gospel for life and ministry, happen to be of the Reformed persuasion. So there’s that. But gracelessness is never as big a disappointment, to me anyway, as when it’s found among those who call themselves Calvinists, because it’s such a big waste of Calvinism.
Why? Because it’s a depressing irony and a disgrace that many who hold to the so-called “doctrines of grace” are some of the most graceless people around. The extent to which your soteriology is monergistic—most Calvinistic nerds know what I’m talking about here—is the extent to which you ought to know that your pride is a vomitous affront to God. The hypocrisy is incongruous. Some attribute this phenomenon to the rise of militant fundamentalism in the late nineteenth century or the rise of Internet tribes in the late twentieth, but it goes back further than that. Here is John Newton, writing in the eighteenth century:
And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of. . . . Self righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace. (“On Controversy,” in The Works of John Newton (New York: Williams & Whiting, 1810), 1:245.)
The problem goes further back than even Newton, however, back even before the allegedly “puritanical” Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It goes all the way to the fall, in which the desire to know things like God knows them (Gen. 3:6) resulted not in glory to God but worship of self. Knowledge puffs up (1 Cor. 8:1).
Here’s the deal, I think: the problem is not the Reformed theology, as many of my Arminian friends will charge; it’s not the Calvinism. No, the problem is gospel wakefulness (which crosses theological systems and traditions), or the lack thereof. A joyless Calvinist knows the mechanics of salvation (probably). But he is like a guy who knows the ins and outs of a car engine and how the car runs. He can take it apart and put it back together. He knows what each part does and how it does it. A graceless Calvinist is like a guy who knows how a car works but has never driven through the countryside in the warm spring air with the top down and the wind blowing through his hair.
Gospel wakefulness changes theological pursuit. It reorients knowledge to become the means to knowing God, not knowing stuff. It exults in God, not merely in thoughts about God.
– (This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Gospel Wakefulness.)