I am in the midst of doing something, I have longed to do for years. I am preaching through Paul’s letter to Ephesians and more specifically I just finished preaching through what I consider the most beautiful, glorious and precious passage in the New Testament, Ephesians 2:1-10.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
This is one of the most theologically power packed paragraphs in all of Scripture. Total depravity, unmerited election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints are all right here in this paragraph. To be frank, on the basis of this single paragraph alone any honest and competent interpreter of scripture must conclude that God is sovereign over the salvation, that man apart from God’s sovereign action is utterly incapable of responding to the gospel, that when God acts in salvation His action is decisive and irresistible, and that because salvation has eternal purposes, God himself preserves His people for all eternity. In other words, to understand this paragraph is to embrace the doctrines of grace or to speak the name so many are afraid to say, rightly understanding Ephesians 2:1-10 means you are a Calvinist (at least a four-pointer).
I think the reason that many, myself included, tend to not use the term Calvinism/ist is because too many who do, give that good and correct doctrine a bad name. Witness the necessity of the term “cage stage Calvinist” for those who come to a theological understanding of the doctrines of grace and yet have not been transformed by them so that they treat others with grace, in essence the joke is that they wield their doctrinal knowledge like a weapon and until they learn to live in light of the grace of God, they ought to be locked in a cage. (And just because someone sports an Adam4d “certified cage free” tee-shirt, is no guarantee they have matured beyond the cage-stage.)
This ought not to be. As the doctrines of grace are truly understood, not as theological propositions, but as the gracious way in which God has dealt with you personally as one of His people, you should be overwhelmed by His love, rooted and anchored in it.
Saying that is one thing, but seeing it in action is quite another. The strongest Christians I encounter are firmly rooted in the doctrines of grace because they are firmly rooted in the doctrines of grace. They can navigate the most difficult of circumstances in a God honoring way. Let me give you three examples.
The Sovereignty of God
One of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met is a man named Gary. His family actually hired me, as a seminary student, to come twice a week and spend some time with him and to generally help him with a few things. Gary had had a massive stroke at a fairly young age, and that stroke left him with sever aphasia, which is an impairment of the ability to communicate through speech. It is not an inability to think clearly or to form thoughts, it is, in his case, an inability to select the right word to express his thoughts. For instance, if he wanted to say broccoli he might say “nasty, carrot, bacon, ice-cream, apple, red, green…broccoli, broccoli.” It was as if the mental file cabinets containing his vocabulary had been tipped over and he had to pick words out a pile on the floor instead of going right for the one he wanted in the organized files of his brain.
As you can imagine this made continuing his career an impossibility for him, and he was very successful prior to his stroke, the contractor to the stars (at least when it came to building fences and gates). It made maintaining friendships very difficult, and the formerly gregarious Gary found himself isolated, largely forgotten by his friends.
This stroke also had a debilitating physical impact. Gary lost the effective use of his right arm and leg. This meant he could no longer do many of the things he enjoyed. Riding a motorcycle or a dirt bike was out (he in fact was on a motorX trip in Utah when the stroke struck), he could no longer play on his church softball team (as he had done for over a decade), he could no longer maintain his yard and garden as he liked.
Yet in the midst of this not only did I never hear him complain, he was the most consistently happily content person in my life at that time. The reason was simple, he was well grounded in the sovereignty of God. The brain is a remarkable thing; although Gary had trouble speaking, he could sing, and in the face of what could be a frustrating situation he would often sing the opening bars of A Mighty Fortress or he would simply say two words, “God’s will.” Because Gary was well grounded in the absolute sovereignty of God before his stroke, he never cried out “why me” or this is “unfair” after his stroke.
The Perseverance of the Saints
The perseverance of the saints is the “P” in the familiar TULIP acronym, and it is the doctrine that tells us that those whom God has saved He will keep. This is what Jesus was speaking of in John 10:27-29 when He says no one can snatch His people from the father’s hand.
I saw this doctrine encourage many when I served in an Alzheimer’s ministry while a seminary student. No one more so that a woman who was married to a man named Gary.
Gary had true early onset Alzheimer’s, in fact he was so young he wouldn’t qualify for social security retirement for years, yet by the time I knew him/them he was in an advanced state of dementia, entirely unable to communicate. He was at times angry and easily upset. He not only didn’t seem to be acting, at times, in a very Christian manner, he was entirely unable to express faith in Christ.
Yet his wife being rooted in the doctrines of grace, never despaired. She understood that those whom the father has called He has glorified (Romans 8:30), in other words God keeps his people.
This of course doesn’t mean that things were never tough, or frustrating or that she never cried mourning the loss of her husband. But it does mean that as she cared for him, even while mourning the loss of her beloved husband she didn’t mourn as one who has no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Even though Gary had not yet “fallen asleep” his eternity was secure, because God keeps his people.
This is the big dog of the doctrines of grace, the belief that God is sovereign over the salvation of His people; that He saves whom He wills for His own purposes. For any of us who are aware of our own sinfulness this is an encouragement. But I have never met someone who was as deeply encouraged by the doctrine of election as Wayne.
Whereas I knew the two Garies well (Gary #2 has gone home to be with the Lord), Wayne I only spent a few hours with. One afternoon, I received a call from a man I didn’t know. He found me through the internet, and having read our statement of faith he saw that I was like minded, and asked me to go visit one of his church members, who was in a motel lobby waiting for a supershuttle to take him to the train station, so he could begin the long rail journey to the west coast and his home. He was taking the train because AIDS had ravaged his body so completely that it couldn’t handle the G-force of a commercial jet taking off.
The reason he was on this side of the country was because he wanted to see his parents one last time. But his visit didn’t go as he hoped. His parents are committed secular humanists and they had no interest in their Christian son; they literally slammed the door in his face, after telling him they just wanted their gay son back.
Wayne had been a promiscuous, wild, politically active gay man. His parents were proud of that; they (according to Wayne) felt it gave them some cultural cache. He was pleased to make them proud. Then one day, about a year before I met him, in a doctors waiting room, another AIDS patient shared the gospel with him and he was radically converted. Not only was he converted, he was discipled in a “reformed” church, where he was introduced to the doctrines of grace.
The doctrine of election struck a profound note of encouragement for him; without it he said he had no way to understand his conversion. He told me he was happy in his sin, hated God and had no desire to change. Yet in a blink of an eye he hated his sin, and entirely changed his life, losing most of his friends and the love of his family in the process. Through tears of joys, he told me that because he knows God chose him before the foundation of the world, he could count the great physical and emotional pain he was enduring in the closing days of his life as joy, because he knew that God loved him enough to choose him, and nothing else matters.
The point in sharing these three short vignettes, was to drive home an important point. The doctrines of grace are not mere theological positions, they are the truths that make Christian living joyful and in some cases possible. So don’t embrace the doctrines of grace, live them, lean on them and build your Christian walk on them.