This past weekend I was sick and didn’t feel up to doing much of anything. Saturday night was particularly restless, and I had a fever keeping me from sleeping much more than an hour at a time, so I was on and off my laptop a lot to try and pass the time. A little before 7, I saw an e-mail notice that there was a new comment on the blog. It turns out, it was from Phil Naessens, a Protestant apologist who runs a blog called Theology Today Apologetic Ministries. Anyways, he writes:
I’m sorry the anonymous folks at defcom gave you such a hard time. They are a poor representative of Monergism in general and Christianity in particular.
Short, thoughtful, simple. It’s always nice to get feedback, and always nice to get words of encouragement, but all the more so Sunday morning since I was still so sick. Anyways, it really raised my spirits, so if you’re reading this Phil, thanks! I’m sure there are plenty of issues on which we don’t see eye-to-eye, but it’s nice to have the spirit of Christ animating the conversation. This actually motivated me to write the following post, which I’d been thinking about for a while:
John Newton, the Calvinist author of the song “Amazing Grace,” is one of the most charitable and outgoing writers I’ve come across. His conversion to Christianity is pretty famous, but what you may not know is that it was started by reading the Catholic monk Thomas Kempis’ Imitation of Christ during a storm at sea. He later became an evangelical lay preacher, and finally an Anglican priest. He wasn’t overly concerned with denominational boundaries, having applied for positions as both a Methodist and a Presbyterian. Although he eventually became a Calvinist, his prior “tasting” of so many Christian traditions left his favorably disposed to seemingly all of Christendom. He penned A Guide to Godly Disputation, which is well worth the read. In it, he’s primarily concerned about the number of uncharitable Calvinists, although it certainly has a broader appeal:
Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy: but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose as taught in 2 Timothy 2:25, “If peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.” If you write with a desire of being an instrument of correcting mistakes, you will of course be cautious of laying stumbling blocks in the way of the blind or of using any expressions that may exasperate their passions, confirm them in their principles, and thereby make their conviction, humanly speaking, more impracticable.
He takes the same premise of all 5-point Calvinists: that those who aren’t (apparently) Christian aren’t because God has chosen not to make them Christians at this time. But instead of concluding that, therefore, they’re damnable reprobates to be treated with scorn and contempt, Newton holds out hope that since God is the one who works conversions, He may have a bigger plan not visible, and that our job is to not be a stumbling block. I’m interested in this passage from Newton, in part, because to arrive at this conclusion, it seems that he violates the basic premise of Calvinism. He speaks of making individuals convictions, “humanly speaking, more impracticable,” which seems to be a pretty direct reference to human agency and free will, the very things he dismissed a few sentences prior.
It seems almost as if he’s saying that while our free will alone can never lead to our justification or salvation, it can delay or reject our justification and salvation. That while we can’t merit Heaven, we can and do merit Hell, and can choose Hell even when offered the free gift of Heaven. Certainly, this isn’t the position he would identify as his own, but it seems in places to be what he intuitively operates from. And of course, this is a very Catholic position. In another great passage from the same Guide, he says:
The Scriptural maxim, that “the wrath of man works not the righteousness of God,” is verified by daily observation. If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service of the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit.
The maxim in question, by the way, is from James 1:20. Newton didn’t just preach this philosophy, he lived it out. He was reading some of sermons and correspondence of an old friend he hadn’t spoken to in years, and felt that he was advocating works-righteousness without enough (or any) mention of turning one’s life over to Christ. This having taken place in 1775, and me not having seen the writings in question, I have no idea if there was any validity to Newton’s conclusion. Certainly, there are some Calvinist who see everything non-Calvinist as Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian or Semi-Semi-Pelagian, but Newton doesn’t seem the type; and certainly, there are preachers who speak more on “be a good person” than “love the Lord your God.” What’s important here isn’t who’s right, though, but how Newton addressed it. What he didn’t do was claim that this was a “different Gospel” by proof-texting Galatians 1:6. Rather, he wrote:
From your letters and sermons, I am encouraged to address you in our Lord’s words, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” I am persuaded the views you have received will not suffer you to remain where you are. But fidelity obliges me to add, “Yet one thing thou lackest.” “That one thing,” I trust the Lord will both show you, and bestow upon you, in His due time. You speak somewhere of “atoning for disobedience by repentance.” Ah! my dear sir, when we are brought to estimate our disobedience, by comparing it with such a sense of the majesty, holiness, and authority of God, and the spirituality, extent, and sanction of His holy law, as He, and He only, can impress upon the heart of a sinner, we shall be convinced, that nothing but the blood of the Son of God can atone for the smallest instance of disobedience.
How transparently he showed Christ, even in disputations! Gentle correction of a brother in Christ, rather than trying to rend the body of Christ in two to root out all the tares! Most of us, and I readily add myself to this category, are much worse at this than Newton, but this charity and irenicism is something worth praying for.