A Perspective on the Historical Development of “Calvinism”

There is much to be said about Calvinism among American Evangelicals today. In my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, there has been no small amount of concern about the recent resurgence of Calvinistic theology and people claiming to be Calvinists.

In this brief essay, I merely want to offer a fast-paced perspective of how some of the foundational doctrines of Calvinism developed and were articulated throughout church history. This is obviously not an exhaustive report or historical volume. I simply want to offer the average reader an opportunity to gain an introductory perspective of how we arrived here in American Evangelicalism.

John Calvin did not invent “Calvinism”

The five doctrines, known as the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “TULIP,” or “the Doctrines of Grace,” were not articulated as “five points” until sometime in the 1800s. John Calvin was born in 1509 and he died in 1564. As a matter of fact, the doctrines in focus in the “Five Points of Calvinism” were only collected in a group when students of a Dutch theologian, named Jacobus Arminius, protested these doctrines in a town called Dort, in the Netherlands (1618-19). Arminius was born in 1560, so he was 4 years old when Calvin died, and his students never met Calvin at all.

I will say more about the “Five Points of Calvinism” in a bit, and I will even give a brief overview of the acrostic “TULIP,” but before I do, let me show you that these doctrines were already in focus way back in the early church. In fact, the “T” in TULIP (standing for Total Depravity) can at least be traced back to a theological debate among churchmen in the fourth-century.

Augustine vs. Pelagius on Total Depravity[1]

Late in the fourth-century (like 398-99 AD), a North-African bishop by the name of Augustine wrote the longest prayer known to man. It was a 300+ page autobiography, emphasizing his own conversion to Christ from paganism, which was entirely written as a prayer. It was a best-selling book at that time, and you can still find it in print today because Christians have recognized Augustine’s tremendous biblical insight and humble honesty.

In this book, Augustine wrote,

My whole hope is in Your exceedingly great mercy and that alone. You command self-control from us, but I am sure that no one can have self-control unless You give it to him. Grant what You command and command what You will (or in some translations: whatever pleases You).”

Essentially, Augustine was claiming that fallen humans (i.e. sinful humans after Genesis 3) cannot do anything genuinely good unless or until God enables them to do so. This claim is basic to the doctrine known as “Total Depravity.”

Total Depravitydoes not mean that fallen humans are as bad as they could be… as though a sinner could not possibly be any worse than he or she already is. We all know that we could be much worse than we are right now. Instead, Total Depravityis the doctrinal understanding that fallen humans are affected by sin in such a way so that no part of the person is left untouched by sin (our body, our minds, and our will or desires).

Augustine’s view of fallen humanity was built upon biblical descriptions of the sinful corruption of fallen humans.

For example, Romans 3:10-12says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Or Ephesians 2:1-3speaks of the deadness of man’s soul and the corruption of his desires. The Apostle Paul wrote to Christians, saying, “you were [once] 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.”

Pelagius, an ascetic monk and theologian who lived during the same time period as Augustine, read Augustine’s book and didn’t like that particular part of Augustine’s prayer.

Pelagius said, “How can God hold humans responsible for not doing what they cannot do? Man is either utterly free to obey the commands of God, or God’s commands are unjust… God is unjust.”

Pelagius argued that even fallen humans must be able to obey God’s commands without God’s help (i.e. without God’s gracious and active intervention). Whatever sinful corruption humans suffer after the fall of Adam, Pelagius argued, these effects have not taken away man’s ability to do genuine good and obey God’s commands.

Unlike Augustine, Pelagius does not have any surviving works today, so historians don’t know very much about him. His students were the ones who picked up his cause against Augustine’s doctrines of man’s depravity and God’s sovereignty, and the doctrinal dispute came to a head at the Council of Ephesusin 431 AD. That gathering of Christian pastors and theologians declared Pelagianism an officialheresy– a doctrine that is outside of the umbrella of Christianity (an unbiblical teaching of a First-Level doctrine).

On a side note: Southern Baptists have historically agreed with Augustine and the Council of Ephesus on this matter. The Baptist Faith and Message states, “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” Therefore, anyone who disagrees with Augustine or John Calvin on the nature of fallen humans must also admit that they disagree with Southern Baptists.

Though Pelagianism was outed as an official heresy in 431 AD, a similar doctrinal teaching emerged among Christians only about 100 years later (called Semi-Pelagianism). In this modified view, Semi-Pelagians claimed that fallen humans do not have the ability to do genuinely good things, but they argued that there was a general distribution of God’s grace among all humans, which brought every person back to a neutral position from which they could choose to do good or evil (this is known as “prevenient grace”).

In 529 AD, Semi-Pelagianism was also condemned as a heresy at the Council of Orange(in southern France). For the next 1,000 years, Augustine’s view of natural man’s inability to choose genuine good (Total Depravity) was the standard of orthodox Christian doctrine in Western Christianity. And yet, Semi-Pelagianism remained a constant doctrinal rival to the orthodox view, sometimes gaining and sometimes losing ground. In fact, the doctrine of “prevenient grace” was a dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestants during the Reformation.

Protestant Reformers vs. Roman Catholic Church on “Monergism”

During the Protestant Reformation, this millennium-old doctrinal dispute came to the fore again. This time theological terms were coined to describe the work of regeneration (This is the biblical term associated with the concept of being “born again”). The argument was set something like this: If fallen humans are in fact unable to do genuine good unless or until God enables them to do so(i.e. Total Depravity), then God must be the one who acts alone upon dead sinners to make them spiritually alive and desirous of genuine good.

Of course, this kind of reasoning was not invented by mere philosophy. This argumentation is directly drawn from Scripture. Consider Ephesians 2:1-8.

1 You were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 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 – 3 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. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

The doctrinal divide between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church is best summed up in two words: Monergismand Synergism.

Monergism literally means “one unit working.” Monergism, in our theological discussion, declares “God alone works to regenerate the sinner.” In other words, regeneration is an act or work of God’s grace, to which the sinner responds with faith and repentance… one has faith because he/she is born again… one is not born again because of faith.

The Protestant Reformers argued that fallen humans can do nothing to save themselves or even to make themselves savable. Salvation (particularly regeneration) is by the grace of God alone, and the sinner is merely a passive beneficiary of this miraculous divine work.

Synergism literally means “units working together.” Synergism, in our theological discussion, declares “God and the sinner cooperate in the work of regeneration.” In other words, regeneration is the cooperative work of both God and the sinner… one is born again partly because he/she has faith and partly because God graciously works spiritual life in them.

The Roman Catholic Church argued that fallen humans are indeed sinful, but God distributes “prevenient grace” to all people everywhere, which brings humans to something of a neutral state in their desire for good and evil. The sinner cooperates with this “prevenient grace” in order to prepare himself/herself (by doing genuine good) to receive God’s saving grace. In this way the Roman Catholic Church brought Semi-Pelagianism back from the heresy trashcan.

On a side note: If you are wondering where Southern Baptists land on this issue, we may look again to the Baptist Faith and Message, which says, “As soon as they [i.e. humans] are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God [i.e. God’s commands].” The Baptist Faith and Message goes on to say, “Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit [i.e. brought about by the Holy Spirit] through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note that the Baptist Faith and Message says that ‘repentance’ and ‘faith’ are how the sinner ‘responds’ to the gracious work of regeneration. In other words, regeneration is the act of God alone, which precedes faith… This is a clear affirmation of Monergism. So, again we find that those who disagree with John Calvin (also a Monergist) are in disagreement with Southern Baptists as well.

Before there was such a thing as a Southern Baptist, and even before John Calvin was a theologian, Protestant Reformers were Monergists. Peter Waldo (born 1140), John Wycliffe (born in 1330), Jan Hus (born 1369), Martin Luther (born 1483), Ulrich Zwingli (born in 1484), Thomas Cranmer (born 1489), William Farel (born 1489), Martin Bucer (born 1491), and William Tyndale (born in 1494) were all Monergists. John Calvin wasn’t born until 1509, and Martin Luther published his masterful book (Bondage of the Will), describing the inability of man’s will and the necessity of God’s monergistic work, when John Calvin was only 16 years old.

The reason for citing all of this is, once again, to say that John Calvin did not invent what is known today as “Calvinism.” The “Five Points of Calvinism” or “TULIP,” as we shall see, is the summary of doctrines that have deep roots in Christian history. But, Christians have been looking to the Bible a long time for answers to all kinds of questions. Many of the questions that center on salvation are at the heart of Christian doctrine.

The Five Points of Calvinism

As I mentioned earlier, what often goes under the heading of “Calvinism” today was not the invention of John Calvin. In fact, anyone who has read Calvin’s writings would know that Calvin would be horrified to learn that Christians have used his name to label any doctrine. Calvin was a bookish introvert, who almost never spoke or wrote about himself. His life’s work was given to studying, preaching, and teaching the Bible. Many Christian theologians today think that Calvin was the best Christian mind up to that point in history (the 1500s), but Calvin wanted nothing of any celebrity status. At Calvin’s request, his body was buried in a mass unmarked grave when he died, because he did not want any fuss made about his burial place.

So where did the so-called “Five Points” come from? When did the TULIPs bloom? Well, simply put, it is not clear exactly when the acrostic “TULIP” was fist formulated.

As I said before, it was sometime in the 1800s when TULIP was first used to describe the “Five Points of Calvinism.” But before then, there was a statement that came out from a council of churchmen in the Netherlands, which articulated the doctrines in summary form. It is important to remember, however, the “Five Points” stated at this gathering were only in response to “five disagreements” that an outside group raised in dispute.

Synod of Dort: The Origins of TULIP

Jacobus Arminius was a Dutch theologian (1560-1609) who lived a generation after John Calvin. Arminius thought highly of Calvin, saying, “Next to the study of the Scriptures… I exhort my students to read Calvin’s Commentaries carefully and thoroughly… for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture.” However, Arminius disagreed with some of Calvin’s theology. Arminius believed that God elected to save some sinners because God knew these sinners would respond positively to the gospel in the future. Arminius also believed that sinners could restrain the renewing power of the Holy Spirit and that Christians could lose their salvation if they did not persevere.

Calvin and Arminius never met (Calvin died when Arminius was 4 years old), but Arminius’s followers (known as the “Remonstrance”) organized their opposition to some of Calvin’s doctrines about 50 years after Calvin died. It all came to a head at the Synod of Dort(1618-19).[2]

The Remonstrance were 42 ministers, influenced by Arminius’ writings against some of Calvin’s theology. They petitioned the state to ask for theological allowance since Semi-Pelagianism was already classified as a heresy 1,000 years earlier. At that time in history, most Reformers were magisterial (meaning they still operated inside of a church structure that was connected to the civil magistrate). Religious freedom as we know it in America today isn’t really a thing until very recently in human history.

The Five Articles of the Remonstranceare:

Conditional Predestination: God predestines some sinners for salvation, and this predestination is conditionally based on God’s foreknowledge about each person’s anticipated faith or unbelief.

Universal Atonement: Christ died for all humans, and God intended His sacrifice for all humans, but only those sinners who accept this atoning work will be saved.

Saving Faith or Serious Depravity: Sinful and Fallen humanity is unable to attain saving faith, unless he is regenerated and renewed by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Resistible Grace: The grace of God is effective, but it is resistible, so man must cooperate with God’s grace to bring about personal salvation.

Uncertainty of Perseverance: Although God’s grace is abundant, the sinner can lose that grace and become lost even after he has been saved.

The Synod of Dort ended with a judgment against Arminianism, which declared that Arminianism was a heresy alongside Semi-Pelagianism. With this judgment, the Synod produced several “canons” or statements about the doctrine of salvation, some of which became the origins of the “Five Points of Calvinism.” These five statements are commonly listed today in short form with the acrostic TULIP.

A Summary of TULIP

Regrettably, many who call themselves “Calvinists” today are merely intending to say that they affirm somewhere between 3 and 5 of the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Calvin is so much more than these isolated points. Calvin’s commentaries on various books of the Bible are a treasure to any Christian who desires to understand the depth of Scripture. Calvin’s life-long work, the “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” are a touchstone for almost every systematic theology book written in the last 500 years. I have personally found Calvin’s “Little Book on the Christian Life” to be one of the most praise-inspiring books I have ever read.

Now, don’t forget that Calvin was a sinful human just like everyone else. I am not saying that he was perfect, or that anyone should try to follow him above or even beside Christ. I am saying that Calvin was a hero of the Christian Faith, and we are fools to disregard or disparage someone like Calvin – especially if we haven’t even read anything he actually said for himself.

Another regrettable reality, when it comes to “Calvinism” today, is that the acrostic “TULIP” provides us with some less-than-helpful phrases. The flower is easy to remember, but its theological precision is quite lacking.

Here are the Five Points of Calvinismor TULIP:

Total Depravity: Fallen humans, since Adam, are affected by sin in every aspect of who they are – their bodies, minds, and wills/desires; and they are incapable of naturally doing anything genuinely good (Rom. 3:10-18).

Unconditional Election: God elects some sinners unto salvation, whereby they become beneficiaries of God’s blessings, not because of any condition in them, but according to the riches of God’s gracious grace and the purposes of His divine will (Eph. 1:3-6).

Limited Atonement: Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross is priceless, sufficient to cover all sin and all sinners, but Christ’s work was intentionally for those who believe and not for anyone else (Jn. 10:14-16).

Irresistible Grace: God alone causes sinners to be born again (Monergism), through the proclamation of the gospel and powerful work of His Holy Spirit. All who are born again possess new hearts with which they respond in loving affection for God, trusting and repenting by His grace (Eph. 2:1-10).

Perseverance of the Saints: All sinners whom God has elected unto Himself, those for whom Christ has died, those God has made spiritually alive, will grow in personal holiness in this life and will persevere unto glory (Rom. 8:28-39).

Not every Christian will immediately agree with these five points of Calvinism, and many Calvinists have even found some disagreement with some of these points. The object of this essay is not to convince anyone to be a Calvinist, or even to explain what Calvinism is. I have simply endeavored to give an introduction to the historical development of some of the central doctrines of Calvinism.

[1]See a very helpful breakdown of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism here: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/semi-pelagian.html

[2]See a great historical and theological explanation of the Synod of Dort here: https://tabletalkmagazine.com/article/2018/06/the-synod-of-dort/

“Going Public” by Bobby Jamieson

Jamieson’s writing style and authorial posture make this book an enjoyable read for anyone interested in studying a biblical argument for the historic Baptist view of believer’s baptism and the relationship of Christian baptism to church membership.

I found this book to be a likable, direct argument for believer’s baptism as the theological and public signal of someone becoming a Christian. Jamieson’s repeated obeisance to Paedobaptist comrades throughout the book makes him hard to disregard as a rabid sectarian of sorts. He simply and amiably asserts the biblical explanation and defense for believer’s baptism. He then works through the logical implications of this doctrine is such as way so as to present believer’s baptism as essential to the structure of church membership.

Quoting Robert Stein, Jamieson describes “faith going public” by pointing to five “integrally related components” of conversion. “Repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration… and baptism by representatives of the Christian community.”[1] This last phrase carries quite a bit of freight, but this is the basic idea Jamieson explicates throughout the book.

Baptism is integrally related to conversion (necessarily post-dating punctiliar conversion and serving as the public oath-sign), it is the affirmation of Christian representatives, and it is normally carried out in the context of formal Christian communities (i.e. local churches). Jamieson’s book attempts (I think successfully so) to unpack this freight and examine the substance of it.

Baptism, Jamieson argues, is the initiating oath-sign of the New Covenant. It is the formal and public commitment of the new believer to associate him or herself with Christ and Christ’s people. Baptism is also the passport of the kingdom of Christ on earth. It is the affirmation of the new believer by those Christians who are already part of Christ’s visible kingdom on earth.

Jamieson also argues that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the effective signs of what and who a local church is, thereby making church membership structurally visible. All of this collectively forms the basis for arguing the logical implication that baptism (i.e. believer’s baptism) is necessary for church membership. Anyone who neglects this necessary ordinance (even for reasons of conscience and/or conviction) cannot avoid the charge of inconsistency and, ultimately, theological error.

Honestly, I found this book to be a refreshing articulation of what I have been trying to practice among my own church family. It is hard for me to interact very critically with it. I thought Jamieson did a good job of laying out his case, and I believe he also stayed within the boundaries of Scripture and suitable deductions from the diligent and faithful study of it.

I also thought that Jamieson’s book would be quite accessible to the unstudied Christian. I think most Christians would be able to understand the overall argument of this book, and I think the bite-sized chapters and sections would not be too difficult to swallow and digest.

If I might make one negative comment about this book, it would be related to the compliment I gave it above. While the chapters and sections were arranged in a simple and easy-to-follow fashion, I think there was a little too much redundant content. Each chapter began by “putting his cards on the table” with lengthy introductions that essentially presented the chapter’s content in brief. Jamieson offered the reader an option to omit an entire chapter so as to avoid too much repetition, but I wonder if this doesn’t merely make my point that the re-packaged content could have simply been omitted in the final publication.

Overall, I think this book was great. I unreservedly commend it to the reading list of every Christian and curious non-Christian. This book will help the reader better understand the biblical importance of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership.

[1]Jamieson, 38.

Theological Triage: A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

Theological Triage is a phrase coined by Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The phrase joins two concepts: one, diagnosing a medical emergency, and the other, the field of theology. Theological Triage is the art of categorizing theological questions or topics in such a way so as to give priority to some doctrines over others.

In short, all doctrine is important because it is God’s truth articulated, but not all doctrine is equally important.

Some doctrines are essential to the Christian faith, some are essential to doing life together among a local church family, and some are not worth dividing over at all. Furthermore, some doctrines are worth dying for, but not all doctrines should kill or divide us.

I would like to offer 4 categories or “levels” for us to use in our Theological Triage, and my hope is that we will be able to discuss theology without either leaving our convictions or our friendships behind.

First-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians. Some First-Level doctrines are the Triunity of God (Is God one or three or both?), the true divinity and true humanity of Christ (How do we understand Christ as the unique God-man?), the substitutionary atonement of Christ upon the cross (How did Christ substitute Himself under God’s penalty for sinners?), and the exclusivity of Christ as Savior (Is there any way for someone to be saved apart from personal trust in Jesus Christ?). Many of these First-Level doctrines are contained in the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicaean Creed.

These First-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like cooperative evangelistic efforts (Will we participate in an “evangelistic” event with this other group or church? Will we endorse/recommend a parachurch ministry? Will we be associated with a person, group, or activity?). These doctrines also include or exclude certain guest preachers (Will we welcome this or that guest preacher on a Sunday? Will this or that preacher be affirmed as an officiant of a wedding or funeral service in our church building?).

Again, these First-Level doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians… These are the doctrines for which Christians must be willing to die.

Second-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide one local church from another. Some Second-Level doctrines include the authority of Scripture (Are the Scriptures the final court of arbitration when we have a difference of opinion?), believer’s baptism (What does baptism mean and who should be baptized?), church membership (What does membership mean and how is membership to be practiced?), and the Lord’s Supper (What does the Lord’s Supper mean and who should participate?).

These Second-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like our local church pastors (Whose pastoral leadership will you follow?), our local church membership (What church will you join? And, who will you welcome into your church membership?), and our church planting partnerships (Will we offer our local church support for a denomination, or association, or particular church planting effort?).

Again, these Second-Level doctrines divide one local church from another… These are the doctrines over which Christians may join or leave a church.

Third-Level Doctrines

These doctrines vary among Christians (especially in their application) without necessarily dividing Christians or local churches. Some Third-Level doctrines include the details of our eschatology (When will Jesus return? What is the millennium? Who is the anti-Christ?), the intermediate state of the soul (What exactly is existence like between death and final resurrection?), and eternal rewards and punishments (Will there be any difference in the degree to which Christians are rewarded in glory and the lost are punished in judgment?).

These Third-Level doctrines do not have to build any fences or divide any Christian brotherhood, but they may provide areas of fruitful discussion and sanctifying application for Christians in fellowship together. If Christian brothers and sisters are willing and able to discuss these Third-Level doctrines in a loving and patient manner, then these discussions may produce spiritual growth and provide a marvelous occasion for exercising biblical exegesis, faithful living, and humble wisdom.

Again, these doctrines vary among Christians… and I (for one) welcome the kind of spiritual growth and sharpening that careful theological dialogue produces among Christian brothers and sisters. I also pray that Christians will become better able to benefit from dialogues over Third-Level doctrines and the applications thereof.

Fourth-Level Doctrines

These things have no clear imperative from Scripture; they are matters of Christian conscience. These matters are sometimes called “adiaphora,” which literally means “indifferent things” or spiritually neutral things. These Fourth-Level doctrines are the wise, biblically principled grounds from which we make decisions about where to go to school, what job we should take, what party we should attend, what coffee we should drink, or how long we should let our hair grow.

These Fourth-Level doctrines must not build fences, otherwise, we will be attempting to bind the consciences of fellow Christians on matters in which God has left freedom. In fact, dogmatic Fourth-Level doctrines are the very definition of legalism. We ought to give one another grace and charity where God gives us liberty.

I am convinced that we must learn the sensible art of theological triage.

A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

For the sake of our personal spiritual development and for the sake of our church families, we must learn to distinguish those things (those doctrines) that are essential from the non-essential. We must distinguish those vitally important doctrines from the essential ones and the lesser important ones.

For the sake of the gospel, Christians must be able to know the basis of their distinct relationships with other Christians generally, with fellow church members specifically, and with their non-Christian neighbors in the world around them.

Furthermore, we should remember that intellectual and spiritual growth is a process, and where we are now is not where we may always be. By God’s grace, we shall all grow in time.

Taking Jesus at His Words

Jesus said, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (Jn. 12:48).

In some parts of America, the label “Christian” is still a celebrated identifier. What someone means by claiming such a moniker is usually little more than simply saying, “I believe in Jesus.” But even this phrase begs greater specificity. What do you mean by “believe?” And who is “Jesus?” The Bible reveals substantial answers to these questions, and the Bible warns us to take the words seriously.

In fact, Jesus Himself so closely associated His person and His words that one cannot receive or reject one without doing the same to the other. To receive Jesus is to receive His words, and to reject His words is to reject Jesus. The plain and absolute nature of this proposition rubs against our modern sensibilities, but it is no less reasonable or consistent.

The words of Jesus Christ are indeed the promises and precepts of eternal life. The one who hears and obeys Jesus has no judge, but rather enjoys freedom from condemnation altogether. But the one who does not receive Christ’s words… who does not hear and obey Christ’s words… that one will be judged and condemned by those same words on the last day.

Let’s be real about death.

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn. 11:25).

Concerning death, modern American Evangelicalism can seem much more like Epicureanism than biblical Christianity. The ancient Epicurean philosophers taught that the key to happiness is the experience of pleasure and evading pain. Death, being the ultimate pain, must be avoided and ignored. Many Evangelical funerals today have become “celebration of life” ceremonies or some other kind of forced-happiness occasion.

Biblical Christianity is much grittier and more direct than many of us might think. The Bible speaks much of suffering and death, and these ugly foes are confronted head-on. The Bible gives expression to what we know deep-down about suffering and death. Death is awful. Death is painful. Death is bad.

The Bible also speaks of a sure victory over death and suffering for those who look to Jesus Christ, who has already conquered such things. In fact, Jesus’ power over death is so certain that He calls Himself “the resurrection and the life.” Anyone who believes or trusts this masterful Savior will certainly and joyfully live, even in the face of death.

Are You Prepared to Suffer?

When tragedy strikes, we usually experience a range of emotions. We feel sorrow and pain, guilt and regret, and sometimes even vulnerable and bitter. At some point we decide, whether consciously or not, how we will cope with our new reality.

In these moments of turmoil, there is little we can do to regain our solid footing. The winds of circumstance and emotion furiously toss us to and fro. And yet, there is solid ground for those who are prepared for these perilous times.

But, how does one prepare for such times? And, how does one brave such perils?

The Bible proves itself to be divine wisdom in so many ways, but in my experience, its usefulness is most precious in the midst of the stormiest calamities. God knows His creation well, and He is sovereign over everything, so He is not surprised by suffering. In fact, He has ordained it. Furthermore, He has given us counsel and even His own example in an effort to prepare us and shelter us from all kinds of distress.

First, consider the reality and expectation of suffering. Since Genesis 3, this mortal life has been full of suffering. In our modern western culture, we are often insulated from some of the painful realities of life, but our illusions of safety are ripped away when the sting of this world wounds us too (James 5:10-11).

Second, consider the biblical teaching that God ordains suffering. The Bible knows nothing of a god who merely watches human events and activities. The God of the Bible is sovereign over whatever happens, and He is at work through suffering. God not only allows suffering; He brings it to pass according to His will (1 Pet. 4:19; Lamentations 3:37-38) and for His purposes (Eph. 1:11; Rom. 8:28-29).

Third, consider Christ’s example of suffering. Not only may we take heart in the fact that God is sovereign over our suffering, but we may also be encouraged to see God Himself endure suffering through Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are not surprised to experience suffering because our Master and Lord experienced it long ago (Heb. 2:10; Phil. 3:8-10; 1 Pet. 2:19-21).

Last, consider the hope of what is to come for those who trust Christ through their suffering. One can hardly say it better than the Bible already has:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 5:6–11).

May God spare us all from too many harsh and painful experiences. More importantly, however, may He help us to be sober-minded about what to expect in this fallen world, and may He grant us grace to trust Him in the midst of our stormy days.

For we know that He who reigns supreme will gloriously strengthen all who lean upon Him, and we know that God Himself will exalt those who cast their anxieties on Him.

The Good Shepherd

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11).

Christianity is a distinct religion among all of the options we have in the world. The basis of Christianity is not found in a leader who shows the followers what they must do and how they must do it, nor is it found in a leader who demands nothing of the followers.

Christianity is defined by the Christ who came from God in order to rescue a people from their own destruction. This rescue, however, was not performed according to worldly standards of power. Rather, Christ rescued His people by giving Himself over to the destructive consequences of the people’s disobedience and foolish rebellion against God.

Christ took on the role of a shepherd among His people who are like helpless sheep; and when the flock was exposed to ruin, Christ absorbed the full weight of it. This selfless sacrifice is not all that Christ does as shepherd of His flock, but it is the pivotal point at which His relationship with His people is solidified. All that Christ is and all that Christ does is enjoyed by those people who are counted as His sheep from among all the people of the world.

May Christ be glorious to you today, and may you find Him to be the Good Shepherd of your soul.