Calvinism on the “N” Train

TrainAs I sat on the train this morning, I looked into the face of a Chinese man. He looked old, tired, and alone. I wondered, If Calvinism is true, is this man one of the ones God loved enough to send His Son to die, or is this man excluded from any possibility of grace? Does God care about this man, or is he one who is not the object of God’s love? What a troubling thought!

I continued to look at this lonely man across the aisle and thought about the apparent contradiction between Calvinism and encountering real people on the “N” train from Brooklyn to Queens. I asked myself, Is God most glorified by the expression of His great love for all or by the expression of His sovereign power in electing and predestining a few? Why is that grace must be irresistible for a chosen few? Is the love, goodness, and grace of God in the message of cross not persuasive and compelling enough in itself that God must save men against their willingness?

Some of my heroes in preaching and teaching are men like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, C. J. Mahaney, Mark Dever, J.I. Packer, and the list goes on. I consider them my friends and desire to be associated with them. However, I hope there is room to uphold their legitimacy and value in the body of Christ, respect them, fellowship with them, but not be compelled to agree on all points. I hope that my Calvinist friends will not allow a new surge of Reformed theology to create a new kind of Fundamentalism in which the “rightness” of Calvinism becomes the standard of Christian belief.

I am neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian. Frankly, I do not have a satisfactory theological label, though part of me really wants to be a Calvinist. Most of my heroes wear that label. Calvinism is associated with being biblically astute, theologically grounded, and intellectually superior. Who does not want those accolades?

Admittedly, there have been times when I have succumbed to the push of the crowd swell toward Calvinism. Sometimes it’s easier to agree with the giants than to fight them. So I have worn the label, though most often it was like wearing a borrowed suit others thought looked fine when I knew it did not quite fitl. For inquisitive and honest minds, outward conformity never quiets the internal discomfort of contradiction.

The contradiction that exists is not the ability to find enough Scripture to support the assertions of Calvinism. The contradiction for me is between the assertions of Calvinism and my personal understanding of God acquired through thirty-eight years of Bible study, preaching, counseling, and living as a disciple of Christ. The God whom I know personally causes me to look into that Chinese man’s eyes and believe with passion that the God of the Bible loves him and wants that man to know Him.

Theological minds in pursuit of biblical accuracy always seek coherence. However, too often it is coherence with someone else’s systematizing of Scripture while living with internal contradiction. Yes, I have been able as a confessed Calvinist to satisfactorily exegete texts to fit the system. I can argue and offer exegetical explanations that support the points of TULIP. My Calvinist friends will applaud. My borrowed suit looks fine to them, but I am still uncomfortable. I still have to get on the train and look the elderly Chinese man in the eye.

Some obviously find comfort in Calvinism. I am glad for their comfort and seek not to detract from it. However, some of us have a nagging discomfort with a system that limits the love of God and intentionally shuts the door of the gospel to an “unknown many.” Though we can exegetically support Calvinism, we also know that those texts can be adequately explained in a non-Calvinistic way.

So the dilemma is this: Do I uphold the exegesis of texts that cohere to a system and allow me to be a member of the Calvin Club while living with the internal discomfort of looking into that Chinese man’s eyes and wondering if this man has no possibility of knowing the love of God. Or do I handle texts in a way that is equally honest, does not always cohere with a system, but coheres internally with my overall knowledge of God acquired over thirty-eight years as a Christian.

I am comfortable not being a Calvinist and not really knowing which system I most align with. I see the God of the Bible as creating out of all possible worlds the world that best reflects His nature. Which of the possible world most glorifies God - one in which gracious provision is made for all who are invited to believe or a world where God predetermines who can and cannot believe and experience His love and grace? I see a world where His love and grace is expressed broadly and men are given opportunity to accept it or reject it. I see a world that display God’s sovereignty and power, but is more about His grace and His goodness. I see a world where God is more interested to include as many as will believe (Go and disciple the nations) than He is in showing His Sovereign power in limiting who can believe.

If God has not elected that Chinese man to salvation, then obviously God does not care about him. Of course, if I were a Calvinist, I could not know for whom God cares so I should care for everyone, even though it’s possible that God doesn’t care about him But, I’d still have to live with the contradiction of my own knowledge of God which tells me, “God so loved the world.” Is this Chinese man part of the world? Does God’s love for him include the possibility of salvation, and, equally so for the two Hispanic men sitting next to him, and the Chinese lady to my left. Even as a Calvinist, all of the exegetical gymnastics with verses such as John 3:16 never quite explained away the clarity of “God so loved the world” and “he is the propitiation for our sin, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.”

I seek an understanding of Scripture that coheres with looking into the eyes of a Chinese man on the “N” train — an understanding that moves beyond “I don’t know if he is elect; yet, God ordained the use of means in bringing the elect to Himself; so as a matter of obedience I should share the gospel to this man; but, if I don’t witness, God will save the elect anyhow.”

I seek an understanding of Scripture that coheres both with the Bible and with my own personal experience of God that tells me, “God loves and care for that Chinese man and has provided for his redemption. I should care because God cares.”

John DavisDr. John P. Davis is currently planting a church in Sunnyside (Queens), New York. Grace Fellowship Church is a gospel-centered city church seeking to reach people of all nations. John received the Bachelor of Arts in Bible with a minor in Greek at Bob Jones University, a Master of Divinity from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, the Master of Theology in Old Testament from Westminster Theological Seminary, and the Doctor of Ministry from Biblical Theological Seminary. His Th.M. thesis was on A Critical Evaluation of the Use of the Abrahamic Covenant in Dispensationalism. His D.Min. project/dissertation was on Common Factors in the Practice of Ongoing Personal Evangelism. In addition to Sunnyside, NY John has pastored churches in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, in Brooklyn, New York, and in Roslyn, Pennsylvania. Two of the churches were new church-plants.
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