Monday, August 19, 2013

The Fellowship of Grace

More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to Thee!

Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.

This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ, to Thee;

More love to Thee, more love to Thee!

--Elizabeth Prentiss

We sat opposite each other at Warren Beach. Littered, unromantic Warren Beach and I was bashful and I was young, and Warren Beach was the only place that we could walk to from his house. The air was cold, and I wore a funny-looking sweater. I didn’t care much (about the cold or about my sweater). I was with the boy who would later become my husband. And when you’re 19 and you’re in love (or think that you are) you don’t care much about the details. 
Except for certain ones. 

I was a Calvinist, and he was most definitely, most vocally, not one. I remember that we talked that day about whether God could be just in rendering judgement if He had already elected certain of His chosen ones. Was it fair? Was God good? Did He have to be “fair” to be good? And then the train scenario—if a train is off the tracks and headed down a cliff and God reaches out and saves one or two but not everyone . . . Well, anyway.  

We always talked, always discussed, and I was usually quiet, until I thought that something really mattered and then I TALKED. And Bill was young and Bill was headstrong and Bill would get huffy until I stayed quiet and then he would back away from the subject at long last. 

And I thought, I like Bill, but he’s not a Calvinist, and how will this ever work? Until I realized that it wasn’t Calvinism, but Christ who holds a relationship together. Not a doctrine, but a Person. Not a cold, wingless creed, but a warm, rich and real God. 

 So we married, a Calvinist and an Arminian, both sinners, both saved by grace, both utterly dependent upon the Father for our salvation. And that is ultimately what matters. And that is the reason that we could be married and we could disagree amiably, lovingly, and yes, passionately. And we could look one another in the eyes, through the love of Christ outpoured in our hearts and know that it was and is His love that binds us together, that preserves our love and that seals our souls so that no one can snatch us from the hand of our Father. 

The funny thing is, over the years, we have realized that we agree on far more than we thought we did. Often, as my sister’s college professor used to say, “It’s about semantics.” And sometimes it’s not and there are valid debates within orthodoxy and it is good and right and commendable to search the Scriptures and to dig deep into the rich mines of the Word. We may come out of those mines disagreeing with our brothers and sisters about what the Word is saying and about how Christ would have us apply it to our lives. But we must never emerge from our study of the Scriptures to become a clanging gong, a loveless, doctrine-pounding Christian who leaves a stench wherever he or she goes. 

Because that kind of response to the Word is ugly and it is cold and I may end up alienating my brothers and sisters by pouring the icy water of doctrine without love down their backs. Because it makes me feel puffed up, because it makes me feel important that I think that I know better, because I want to gain the upper hand over my brother, and, in all honesty, to think of myself more highly than I ought. 

Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.

Romans 12:10-13

And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.”

I Peter 4:8

Love, the law of love, not a touchy-feely-anything-goes-Joel-Osteen “love,” but Christ-love, love for the brethren, love that is patient and kind and not easily angered, that isn’t puffed up, proud or rude. Love that doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. Love that persists in forgiveness, love that can act in humility when a brother disagrees with our particular interpretation of the Scriptures. Love that can reach out and pray with and for that brother. Love that can wash that brother’s feet and look him in the eyes and know that we will sit at the banquet table in Heaven together, when all mysteries will be revealed and John Calvin will bow before the Throne of grace right next to John Wesley. And Christ will be all and Christ will be worshipped and reverenced and every eye will be fixed on Him. Unfettered, undistracted by conflict, free to worship. 

Over the years, I’ve stopped calling myself a Calvinist.  I’ve stopped calling myself a Calvinist, because for me, in accordance with my own conviction, I believe that it divides the Church, divides believers, draws swords where there is no need for a sword to be drawn. Within orthodoxy, we don’t need to be at one another’s proverbial throats. There is enough heresy to fight together, enough Satanic deluge to contend with, without being distracted by whether or not our brothers and sisters in Christ are Calvinists or Arminians. 

Furthermore, through my own study of the Scriptures, I am not convinced that the Word of God can be so neatly pinned down into “isms.” There is a mystery, I have come to believe, within the context of the whole of Scripture that cannot be so easily explained and divided into five points, some of which, to my own understanding, seem to directly contradict many passages in the Scriptures.  As my sister says, “Belief  is not a work; belief is throwing yourself at the mercy seat.” And whether a person believes that someone who is “dead” in their sins can do this or not, the mystery of grace remains, and the fact that God is not pleased in the death of the wicked. (Ezekiel 18:23)

Warren Weirsbe recalls Vance Havner’s address to himself and to his fellow seminarians. “Some of you are more concerned about your dispensations than about your dispositions.” It was a phrase that stuck with Weirsbe, and it is a phrase that ought to stick with us. There is a danger in becoming too caught up with our particular “favorite” doctrines and not enraptured with the Lover of our souls Himself. I need to examine myself, examine myself often to make sure that my focus isn’t merely on what I believe, but on Whom I have believed. To make sure that the embers of love are burning bright in my heart. To know whether I am growing not merely in knowledge, but in love—love for Him and love for the brethren. 

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Not to the exclusion of knowledge, but to the inclusion of love. And the greatest of these is love... 

 I found this conversation between  John Wesley and the Calvinist minister Charles Simeon extremely interesting and helpful in conveying the unity that we may have through Christ with our brethren who differ with us on doctrine within orthodoxy: 

 [Simeon] Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers.  But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions.  Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?

 [Wesley] Yes, I do indeed.

 [Simeon] And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?

[Wesley] Yes, solely through Christ.

[Simeon] But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?

[Wesley] No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.

 [Simeon] Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?

[Wesley] No.
[Simeon] What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?

[Wesley] Yes, altogether.

[Simeon] And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?

[Wesley] Yes, I have no hope but in Him.

[Simeon] Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things where in we agree.

And finally, this quote, taken from an article written by Calvinist Justin Taylor on The Gospel Coalition’s website provides an excellent summary: 

By and large, Calvinists feel duty bound to attack Arminianism at every opportunity. And far too often the debate between Calvinists and Arminians has failed to glorify God, promote understanding or honor one another as fellow members of the body of Christ. It is our aim, however, to treat our Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ as we would want to be treated...

The Arminian Christian believes that Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh to save sinners and that the saving work of Christ comes to the sinner by way of the grace of God received through faith. Whatever issues relevant to salvation we disagree upon, let us agree on this: the Calvinist and the Arminian are brothers in Christ. Both belong to the household of faith. The issue of debate is not between belief and unbelief but rather which of two Christian perspectives better represents the biblical portrayal of the divine-human relationship in salvation and the contributions of both God and man in human history.

Christians may disagree with each other, and disagree profoundly over issues close to the center of the faith, yet affirm one another as fellow believers. For some on both sides, we are sure that this might seem to subtract from the seriousness of the divide between Calvinism and Arminianism. We do not seek to disvalue the issues of contention. They are real and important. . . . But neither do we want to overestimate the debate. In the division between Christianity and Islam, the Arminian is our brother...

With all of the foregoing in mind, we will seek to write under a number of self-imposed strictures that we hope will help us in addressing the issues of the contention without adding to the strife of the debate. Far too often, polemical works are not actually targeted at the other side of the debate. That is to say, they are not aimed at engaging the other side in discussion, or at seeking to persuade the other of the plausibility or truth of the author’s own position. Many of the discussions we have read—from both sides of the debate—seem to be written to those who already agree with the author. The point often seems to be one of arming one’s own troops, giving them ammunition for future firefights.

We will not follow this strategy. We write as Calvinists to Arminians, as persons who hold the Word of God precious and worthy of our most careful reflection to other believers who share that same commitment of the heart.

Bound by the law of love, we may hold our own doctrinal views and yet have deep and fervent love for our brothers and sisters who partake of Christ’s mercy with us. By grace, through faith, to the glory of the Father. 

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