maybe I’m more Lutheran than Calvinist

A bunch of critical questions about Calvinism have appeared in my Facebook feed lately — usually posed by people who consider themselves Calvinist/Reformed. (If you’re interested in catching up there was THIS, <a href="THIS“>THIS, and THIS.)

Co-incidentally (or was it predestined?) the next question I was asked to address in the church bulletin at one of my partner churches was this:

Last week’s reading in Acts we saw that Jesus’ death and resurrection were God’s plan from the beginning, however Peter holds the crowd responsible for that sinful act. How do we reconcile these things?

Here’s my response. You tell me — am I more Lutheran or Calvinist in my approach to God’s sovereignty?

The Bible constantly affirms two things we struggle to reconcile: God’s sovereignty and our genuine agency—the fact that God perfect plans and implements his will in the world, and the corresponding fact of our moral responsibility for our own actions.

Christians can find it awkward or embarrassing to follow the Bible in affirming these two things.

After all, don’t they cancel each other out?

How can we be held responsible for playing our part in something God has perfectly planned and irresistibly carried out?

Doesn’t believing that God is sovereign reduce us to being puppets on a string — and, worse, doesn’t that mean he is the one who’s actually to blame for the evil we do?

But the Bible’s simultaneous insistence that God is sovereign and that we are responsible for our actions is profoundly good news.

How?

To start with, it points us directly to the death and resurrection of Jesus (as we hear Peter doing in Acts 2).

At the foot of the cross we witness the most shocking and wicked act in history. An act in which God’s own creatures fully and rebelliously assert our agency — by murdering our own Creator!

At the empty tomb we see God victorious over death and evil. He sovereignly overturns the perverse verdict of a rigged human court, giving Jesus his divine ‘tick of approval’.

And then looking back with Peter from the empty tomb to the cross, we discover that God was graciously and patiently working with and through his rebellious creatures to fulfil his eternal plan to bring life and salvation out of death and evil.

That’s ultimately why the ‘theological charter’ of the Anglican Church, The Thirty-Nine Articles, says that the Bible’s teaching about God’s sovereignty is “full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort” (Article XVII).

It’s comforting because it tells us that the God who meets us in Jesus is victorious. Life may get very messy—whether through our own decisions and actions or those of others. But it’s never out of hand for God. Or beyond hope of retrieval.

And it’s also comforting because it tells us that the God who meets us in Jesus graciously and patiently works with us to implement his plans. Even to the point of untangling us from our mess — forgiving and changing us rather than merely sweeping us aside as he would be entitled to.

I’m aware that all of this can sound remote and theoretical. But it really shouldn’t be that unfamiliar to us.

Because we actively take hold of this comfort whenever we pray.

When we turn to God in prayer, we’re turning to him as someone who can (sovereignly) do something about our situation -— no matter how messy.

At the same time, we’re expressing our agency. Although, we’re doing so in order to surrender it —- admitting our inability to deal with our situation, and entrusting it (and ourselves) to him instead.

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3 comments

  1. Chris, you haven’t fallen into the problems that both Luther and Calvinism fall into as they want to push beyond the gospel to systematise something much more abstract. You’ve made God’s sovereignty a more narrative category.

    So perhaps you’re neither? 🙂

  2. Whether a Lutheran or a Calvinist (and I’ve been thinking about that as well, based on those same articles), I think you’re spot on with the pastoral implication of the bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty.

    I’ve been trying to get my head around *why* God’s sovereignty is important in our experience. You’re onto something with ‘it’s never out of hand for God.’

    So far the best I’ve come up with is this: God’s sovereignty isn’t a doctrine that explains the inner workings of the universe; it’s an assurance that whatever happens by our hand or by the hands of others, God’s good purposes will not be derailed.

    I think that’s important to keep in mind with well-known verses like Romans 8:28 – that God works ‘in all things’ for our good doesn’t (necessarily) mean ‘God made this happen specifically for your good,’ but rather that none of the ups and downs of life can derail what God has planned and purposed for you in Christ.

    The pastoral importance is that you avoid saying ‘grin and bear it, I know it seems shockingly hard, but really it’s a good thing.’

    Longer comment than I intended. My apologies. Just thinking aloud.

    1. Thank for thinking aloud with me, Richard! (What else are blogs for?)

      I reckon you’re spot on with Romans 8 — lots of care needed in how we appropriate its glorious truths. I’m always uncomfortable when verse 28 is invoked (or comparisons are made with tapestries) to suggest that the bad things that happen are somehow instruments in God’s hands before they’re enemies that he’s promised to overcome.

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