The Empty Debate
Within a couple months of coming to faith in Jesus Christ, I was apprehended by one of my newfound Christian friends, being told that I had to become a Calvinist. I resisted him a great deal on this point (I was raised mostly in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition) and could not understand why it was so important to him that I agree with 5 theological points that I couldn't even remember after our conversation. Though my memory is quite fuzzy regarding a conversation I had almost 13 and a half years ago, I'm not sure he even remembered all of the "five points of Calvinism." As the years passed and I delved deeper into knowing and understanding the doctrines of the Gospel, I became increasingly interested in some of the doctrines known as part of "reformed theology," and even publicly identified myself as "reformed" in my theological persuasion. I had the five points of Calvinism memorized (often abbreviated with the acronym "TULIP*") and even engaged in debate with my friends who leaned towards my previous set of beliefs, often classified as Arminianism.
The funny thing I discovered as I researched further, was that the "five points of Calvinism" were never developed by 16th century theologian John Calvin, but were created years later by his disciples to counter the arguments of Calvin's son-in-law, a man by the name of Jacobus Arminius. I won't say where I stand in all of this now apart from the fact that I find the whole argument over which guy was right silly in the light of Scripture.
The primary focus of Jesus' teaching to His disciples regarding salvation was not on the favorite theological debates regarding single or double predestination, free will, monergism or synergism. But Jesus (whose real name is Yeshua) had a great deal to say about abiding in Him. One of the longest sermons recorded in Scripture from the lips of Jesus has a repeated and strong call to cling to Him. To abide in Him. To "dwell" in Him.
Jesus' primary question was not, "Did you repent and believe when you were 10 years old?" (a question originating from a misunderstanding and misapplication of Calvin's teachings used often in evangelical circles), but, "Are you abiding in me right now?" Not, "did you at one time repent and believe the Gospel?" But, "are you repenting of sin and believing in Christ today?" There was no room for a comfortable Christianity that was not actively in pursuit of following and obeying Christ among His disciples. Either you were following Him, or you weren't. If you were a follower of His, sin was an unwelcome contradiction in your life rather than a welcomed pleasure. Maybe you were actively opposing the Messiah, maybe you used to follow Him but did't anymore, but either way you were not currently one of His disciples if you were not actively following Him.
My favorite modern Calvinist evangelist, Paul Washer, often says it as (and this is a paraphrase), "Not only did you repent before, but are you continuing to repent today?" John Wesley, the famous 18th century Arminian Methodist revivalist, would question his followers as to whether or not they were continuing to pursue holiness through accountability groups and the Methodist disciplines. Wesley often railed against any sense in which a person could put the whole of their belief of personal eternal security based entirely upon past experiences with God. Paul Washer today focuses on the doctrine of regeneration in whether or not a person is saved (did you really get born-again, did you really get saved in the past becoming a new creation in Christ). Wesley (I think) would say that the issue of having assurance of being saved from hell is a matter of present day faith and present day actions. Either way, both recognized that the greatest proof of a person's current salvation in Christ is not found in the past but the present reality of their relationship with God.
So, while people in the church may argue about whether they follow Calvin's teachings or Arminias' teachings much as in Paul's day the Corinthians argued about whether they were followers of Apollos or Paul, the real issue of the hour is not found in either side of the debate. Are we following the Messiah, Jesus? Are we currently endeavoring to reject anything that gets between Him and us? When our eyes are opened to sin and compromise in our lives, does that drive us deeper into Yeshua for safety, or do we hide from the light of His face? Do we love Him not simply in our emotions, or only in our words, but also in our actions?
The great issue for instance in my marriage to my wife is not, did I actually make a covenant vow on our wedding day, but am I obedient to that vow, am I faithful to her today? Not, "Did I know her at one time?" But, "Do I seek to know her more deeply today?" Not, "Did I serve her at one time?" But, "Do I seek to serve and bless her now?"
Already some Calvinists are enjoying the marriage analogy because they see it as acknowledging that no matter what my actions may look like now, I'm still married to her. They see this as analogous to salvation in Christ, but that's now what I'm directing the attention towards because the Arminian would respond that if I was consistently unfaithful to my wife she might divorce me, so the analogy works in their favor. The Calvinist might argue however that a last minute repentance is always possible, and that God Himself said through the Old Testament Prophets, "I hate divorce."
This is why the debate is empty. It's focus is on categories and theological points and not the most important objective of all of Scripture: right relationship with God lived out faithfully in past, present and future. If my past is not right with God, then I am to repent of it, seek to provide restitution for my actions and find forgiveness in Christ. If my present is not right with God, not only am I to repent of past actions and provide restitution for my actions, but I am to stop whatever sinful activity I've been engaging in. As for my future? Well that is secure according to both theological positions provided that my present and past have been and are continuing to be properly addressed in the light of Jesus' commands. And the greatest command of all? To love.
This is the funny part of the whole nature of the debate - most of the people (myself included), focused on vigorously arguing the various points of it not only neglect love in the process, but lose sight of the very God who is truth Himself in an effort to prove themselves correct.
Beloved, let us focus less on debating one another on our various pet doctrines (and I'm speaking to myself on this because I have done plenty of arguing), and more on abiding in Christ. Instead of being ruthless with our theological opponents, let's be ruthless in our pursuit of God. Perhaps if we put as much effort into abiding in Christ as we do into our theological discussions the world might truly see the light of Christ in us and turn to God. What might happen then?
"Give me 100 men who love only God and hate only sin and I can change the world." (Paraphrase of quote attributed to John Wesley)
Phil Carlson Co-President Worth Love Ministries, Inc.