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Out of the Cage: Being a Gracious Calvinist

“We hold this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Locked in a Cage

Isn’t it ironic that the people who claim to believe in the radical, free, sovereign, amazing grace of God tend to be some of the most ungracious people you’ll meet? Some of us in the Reformed world are familiar with the term “Cage-Stage Calvinist”—and those that do know it’s not pretty.

A CSC is someone who has recently experienced the wonder of the doctrines of grace, who has come to know the sovereignly gracious and graciously sovereign Triune God of the Bible, who has been wrecked by the powerful hand of the God that singlehandedly saved His people, but after their experience become so dogmatic and rigid that they are unbearable and (for lack of a better term) jerks.

They believe all the right things—good, glorious, true things indeed!—but they have taken truths that are meant to prevent boasting (Eph. 2:9) and have turned Calvinism into something to be argued rather than something to be treasured. And the sad thing is, the people who have been freed from their sin-slavery by sovereign grace stay locked in the cage of meanness and coldness.

Practice What We Preach, Believe What We Blog

But shouldn’t people that believe in human depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, definite atonement, and the preservation of the saints be the most humble? Shouldn’t we be the most humble, gracious, merciful, winsome, compassionate, kind, and gentle people because we believe of the fact that we contributed nothing to our salvation except belief (and that’s a gift!), because of the fact that God chose us in spite of our sinfulness, because of the fact that God reconciled His enemies to Himself, because of the fact that God keeps us believing even as we continue in sin? Shouldn’t these wonderful truths cause us to “speak the truth in love” lovingly?

I can speak on this subject from experience—I am a recovering CSC. I was dogmatic and rigid and boastful and argumentative and, well, a jerk. I saw the majesty of the God of sovereign grace, but I portrayed His truth in such a way that drove people away, rather than drawing them in. Not until the grace of church discipline came into my life did I realize my sickness.

God used the discipline of a couple trusted pastors and mentors to show me my pride and domineering spirit. Praise God for the grace of the church. But some people never exit the Cage Stage. Some Calvinists go on forever verbally burning people at the stake for years. If we are to be the salt of the earth, light of the world, and city on a hill we must first become treasure-holding clay pots (2 Cor. 4:7).

Our theology is meant to flatten us, not to exalt us; our theology is meant to soften us, not to harden us.

Six Steps to Remember the Gospel

So how can we both be truth-proclaimers and grace-givers? It is possible: Jesus was simultaneously able to argue theology with the best of ‘em and play with children. Jesus was simultaneously a five point Calvinist and mercifully dined with prostitutes and tax-collectors and Pharisees. It is possible to be a gracious Calvinist. But one of the treasures we Calvinists hold in jars of clay is the good, devastating, news that only the gospel has the power to change us (Rom. 1:16; 2 Pet. 1:9).

Calvinists do not believe in self-help programs, we believe in the Spirit-empowered Word of God in the Gospel that God has given us to save us and to sanctify us. So rather than giving us “five smooth stones” to conquer the Goliath of pride and hardness in our lives, I will give us a few things to remember the great gospel of our risen, gentle Lord Jesus Christ.

I think these few precepts can help guide us in that direction:

  1. We must constantly remind ourselves of the truths we confess. At the center of our theology is the unmerited, unwarranted, unilateral grace of God. Don’t forget that Christianity and all the Bible is fundamentally about grace.
  2. Keep pursuing and proclaiming truth. Being grace-saturated doesn’t make us Universalists. God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). Jesus is truth (John 14:7). We’re called to pursue and embrace truth (2 Tim. 1:13), but in such a way that images Christ, who wouldn’t break a bruised reed or extinguish a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3). The same Lord that called people white-washed tombs and taught thousands ate with sinners and invited tax collectors into his following.
  3. We must remember that as truth-pursuers and truth-proclaimers, we aren’t ever as smart as we think we are. Ultimately, theological pride is saying that we know more than God. Would we echo with Paul in Romans 11:33—“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” After spending eleven chapters unfolding the riches of God’s sovereign grace in Christ, Paul admits he knows nothing.
  4. We must remember that patience, kindness, and gentleness are fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). All the elect have been sealed with the Spirit (Eph. 1:13). Enough said.
  5. We must remember that it was the kindness of God that led us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God wooed us to Himself with the sweet nothings of grace (Hosea 2:14). Any repentance we want to see in ourselves and in others must both be saturated with bold conviction the kindness and mercy of God.
  6. Know that your journey of sanctification is a dirt road not a paved freeway. We will continue to wrestle with our remaining sin and Cage Stage tendencies until we are finally made new, either when we die or Jesus comes back. Of all people, those that confess the total depravity of humanity should be the most aware of our sin. Our sin—and the sin of others—should sadden us, but it shouldn’t surprise us.

Simul Justus et Peccator

Ultimately, only when we come to terms with the fact that God set His love on undesirable wretches like us, we will become boldly broken.

Only when the reality of our own sinfulness and the magnitude of God’s love for us in Christ sinks into our hearts will be become faithful, winsome heralds of God’s sovereign grace. Only when the “glory of the gospel of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4) wrecks any notion of pride will we be able to be gracious Calvinists.

The boldest witness to the truth of Calvinism isn’t your witty Facebook comments or your Joel Osteen memes, the boldest witness to the truth of Calvinism is your own brokenness and your treasuring of the Sovereign Surgeon.

 

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