Needed: Robust Arminian Theology for Lay People (Especially Youth)
As most people who come here know, a “new Calvinism” movement (some prefer to call it “neo-Puritanism” and others call it the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement is spreading like wildfire among evangelical Christians, especially young people in their late teens and twenties. To an alarming degree this is happening in evangelical churches where Calvinism has traditionally been not only virtually unknown but definitely an alternative to their heritages and ethoses. I speak, of course, of the many Wesleyan (“Holiness”) churches, Pentecostal churches and even Anabaptist churches. I hear frequently from pastors and others associated with these churches and their schools about inroads of Calvinism among them. Often I’m asked something like “What do we do?”
My answer is simple: Rediscover, retrieve, teach and preach a robust, winsome, attractive, biblically-rooted Arminian theology—the one that your church or school has held officially for decades or centuries but has been largely forgotten and certainly neglected.
People often ask my opinion about the causes of this wave of new Calvinism among American evangelical young people. I give much of the credit for it to John Piper and his protégés. Piper is a force of nature: articulate, brilliant, persuasive, ubiquitous, prolific, profoundly Christian. Unfortunately, Arminians have not produced such a spokesperson in recent decades. I say “unfortunately,” but actually I think not only have Arminians not produced such a person, almost no specific evangelical theology has produced one. Piper stands alone. He has followers and imitators, but no peer. (I don’t regard Billy Graham as promoting a specific evangelical theology; his is “generic” evangelical theology.)
However, I think the deeper cause of this wave of Calvinism among young people is a doctrinal vacuum in evangelical churches—even among Arminian ones.
I don’t remember the specifics, but I grew up knowing “we” were Arminian. I didn’t fully understand it until college and learned more about it in seminary, but I learned from our hymns and sermons and Bible studies and Sunday School lessons and youth group events that we believed in God-granted free will (“freed will”), God’s love for all people, Christ’s death for everyone without exception, resistible grace, etc., etc. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not claiming that by age 16 I was already theologically trained. Far from it, but our church communicated doctrine and handed it down from one generation to another by many means. Hymns and gospel songs was one. The pastor I grew up under was very careful about the hymns we sang and he explained their meaning; we didn’t just sing them thoughtlessly.
Far too many non-Calvinist churches (and I’m sure more than a few Calvinist ones as well) have moved away almost entirely from teaching doctrine. Or they expose their young people to a variety of options but don’t explain to them what their church’s doctrines are and why. They focus a lot on ethical issues and spiritual formation, but too little on belief.
Christian young people encountering Calvinism, even ones from decidedly non-Calvinist churches, often have two problems. First, they don’t hear about the negative implications of Calvinism. Its popular promoters rarely, if ever, say “Here’s a problem with Calvinism.” And they simply don’t think through the logical implications of Calvinist beliefs. I often have the experience of pointing them out and receiving stunned expressions like “Oh, I didn’t think of that.” Second, they think Calvinism is the only biblical and theologically sound option. They simply don’t know about Arminianism or any other alternative to Calvinism except, occasionally, they are told the alternatives are subchristian at best and simply unbiblical or even heretical at worst.
The solution (to the problem of non-Calvinist churches wrestling with an influx of young Calvinists or the rise of Calvinism among their own young people) is to rise to the occasion, use it as a teachable moment (a cliché, I know), and begin teaching and preaching (and singing!) their own historical theology. What are the basics of this alternative? First, Jesus Christ is the perfect revelation of the character of God; there is “hidden God” with different dispositions and intentions behind him. Second, the character of God is unconditional love. (Sing “The Love of God” and similar songs.) Third, Christ died for everyone and wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4-6). Fourth, God is sovereign, but he is sovereign over his own sovereignty. Fifth, God is in no sense the author of sin and evil and does not “design, ordain and govern” evil. Sixth, election is corporate and predestination is conditional (foreknowledge). Seventh, we do not earn our salvation, but we do cooperate with God’s prevenient grace, accept the gift of his Son and salvation, and that is our choice. Eighth, God does derives no pleasure or glory from hell.
Of course, there are other points of a robust non-Calvinist evangelical soteriology and doctrine of God’s sovereignty. But these are the essentials.
Why not have the congregation sing “And Can It Be?” by Charles Wesley and then use it as a springboard for a sermon on prevenient grace (“Thine eye diffused a quickening ray…My chains fell off, my heart was free….”)? Use as your text “If I be lifted up I will draw all men to me.” Don’t be afraid to talk about Calvinism as defective theology without implying that Calvinists are bad people or heretics.
Much of the blame for the rise of the “new Calvinism” is ours—Arminians. We have failed to provide our young people with our theology. So naturally they think Calvinism is the only biblical, evangelical theology when they encounter it preached and taught by attractive, persuasive, young men like Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, Louis Giglio, et al. And when they fall under the spell of John Piper who is simply a magician at persuasion.