Ian Hamilton has written that Calvinism is not “first and foremost a theological system; it is more fundamentally a “religious attitude.” As any parent is fully aware, attitudes can be both agreeable and detestable among the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. So it is with Calvinists as well. Hamilton’s statement begs the question: if Calvinism is a religious attitude, then exactly what kind of attitude is it? To many casual observers of the Reformed churches, the answer is that our attitudes often seem too cold and academic, too harsh and severe. Surely there are many reasons for that assessment, but I would suggest the main reason is because our attitudes are often very cold and academic, very harsh and severe! We Calvinists too easily forget that, “before sovereign grace is a truth to defend, it is a captivating truth to glory in.” As confessional Calvinists in pursuit of doctrinal purity, we have rightly become fearful of the idol of experience, yet to borrow a comparison from C.H. Spurgeon, perhaps we have preoccupied ourselves with defending a lion that when unchained can defend itself. Therefore, my thesis is that, as Reformed believers, we have far too often favored orthodoxy over orthopraxy without realizing that we lose one without the other. In practice this has meant that we have busied ourselves with exercises of comprehension, without being mindful to busy ourselves with exercises of practical experience as well. In our embrace of the towering theological truths of monergistic salvation, we have failed to embrace the corresponding lowly lifestyle of the blood-bought servant of God.
I experienced this in stark reality while serving as the pastor of a Calvinistic church in an area where Arminianism and folk religion was most common expression of Christianity. During my tenure, it was my supreme joy to see souls that had been worn out from the treadmill of religious works come to embrace Christ as Savior through the sovereign grace of the gospel. What joy to behold souls set free from the burden of religiosity taught to rest secure in the grace of our Lord Jesus! Though I have many hallowed memories, I can remember one dear friend explain his newfound grasp of the doctrines of grace in his rich Appalachian accent saying that “I felt like I was swimmin’ in a kiddie pool and woke up in the ocean.” That image has stuck with me through the years as I’ve thought about the wonder of God’s amazing grace. How wonderful it is to consider that the vastness of His love is beyond our knowing! As the hymnist has written:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
This doctrine of the vast “free and special love” of the Lord is at the heart of Reformed theology. God’s love, as presented through the biblical prism of Reformed theology is an unending source of comfort for the believer “in life and death.” The years I spent walking with those saints will certainly remain a treasure until my dying days. However as we shared our amazement at God’s sovereign grace, we also began to notice a unique concern among our little flock. As exiles from the works centered Arminianism of our past many of us retained obdurate feelings, falling to the danger of creeping defensiveness that comes with being Reformed believers in a milquetoast theological environment. Sometimes those feelings would even manifest themselves in an unhealthy indignation of our non-Calvinist brethren. We reasoned among ourselves, “After all, it was their preaching and teaching that kept us from the mercy of the Lord Jesus, and caused our suffering…” We still remembered that agony of trying to meet demands of a law that we could never meet and of trying to maintain a righteousness that was impossible to maintain. And so, as we gathered around God’s Word in fellowship we often found ourselves complaining about those who taught such things and their churches – even to the point of questioning their salvation.
Now, please understand, I am no friend of Arminianism. I believe that it steals our joy and keeps us from true Christian growth. I believe that it is an error that ought to be pointed out as often as it rises. However what was noticeable among our small group was that we, staunch Calvinists that we were, had refused to extend the same grace we so desperately treasured. While glorying in the doctrines of grace that explained our salvation, we were simultaneously forgetting one of the main facts about grace – that, for grace to be grace, it must be completely undeserved. In narrowing the Kingdom of God, we were failing to accept the fact that, like our Arminian brethren, it was our own sin and self-righteousness that kept us from the plain truth that was revealed to us in the Word of God. Ironically, in an effort to protect our doctrine, we found ourselves actually failing to live out that very same doctrine toward others. In reality we were forsaking our orthodoxy at the hands of wrong practice. In our overwhelming desire to protect the glorious doctrines of grace, we had found ourselves unwilling to extend that grace to others. Describing such an attitude, Jared Wilson writes, “gracelessness is never as big a disappointment… as when it’s found among those who call themselves Calvinists, because it’s such a big waste of Calvinism.”
So, how do we pursue a warm hearted Reformed piety while maintaining strong biblical Reformed theology? While it so often seems that we hold one at the expense of the other, I would suggest that we can indeed have our theological cake and eat it too! The answer to this question lies in the central principle of Reformed theology as a whole: the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
The glory of God is a theological truth that is also a simultaneous experiential reality. To be awake to the glory of Christ is to be awake to both the immensity of his person and the lowliness of our own estate, providing us the proper frame in which to live out our doctrine. Consider John Owen’s explanation of how the glory of Christ intrinsically weaves together both doctrinal truth and experiential reality into one glorious exchange:
Wherefore, as truth is only the means of illumination, so it cannot communicate any light unto the mind, but only as it is a beam from him, as it is an organ to convey it from that fountain. Separated unto him, it will not retain, it cannot communicate, any real spiritual light or understanding to the souls of men… Whatever notional knowledge men may have of divine truths, as they are doctrinally supposed in Scripture, yet – if they know them not in respect to the person of Christ as the foundation of the counsels of God – if they discern not how they proceed from him, and centre in him, – they will bring no spiritual, saving light unto their understanding. For all spiritual life and light is in him, and from him alone. [italics mine]
Christ, as Owen points out, is meant to be understood through both doctrine and experience. In fact, he cannot be grasped through one without the other. The old liberal notion that “doctrine divides but Christ unites” is absolute nonsense when we understand that Christ himself is doctrine. He, the Fountainhead and source of all spiritual life and light is both doctrine and being. The Lord Jesus united this truth in John 14:6, “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through Me.” Highlighting this bridge between doctrine and devotion in the text, William Hendricksen wrote that in John 14:6 all of these aspects are, “active and dynamic… truth makes men free; the life produces fellowship.” In Christ is a world of life indeed.
Owen rightly informs us that “all spiritual life and light is in him [Jesus], and from him alone.” If this is true, then the first thing that we ought to do in pursuit of warm-hearted Reformed piety is to seek Christ in his glory. Turning once again to Ian Hamilton’s statement that Calvinism is a “religious attitude”, our one pressing enterprise should be the pursuit of the radiant glory of Christ as it is revealed in his Word. As we behold the glory of Christ, we come to know two things: the majesty of God and the corresponding lowliness of man. Therefore, the one task of the warm-hearted Calvinist ought to be seeking that vital union with Christ that breaks us and molds us into his image.
We also ought to recognize that seeking Christ in his glory has been at the heart of Reformed piety since the earlier days of the Reformation itself. Calvin, in reply to Cardinal Sadoleto noted that salvation was not the chief end of man, but that the purpose and aim of man was to be even higher than seeking his own salvation. Calvin wrote:
It is not very sound theology to confine a man’s thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to show forth the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves.
This is the mistake we so often make. We are like the infamous Cardinal, missing the forest of God’s greater glory for the concern of our own spiritual good. Because Calvin understood that God is the blazing center of all creation, he understood that he must also be the center of the life of the church. How can it be that we would find the humility and warm-hearted charity that we so badly need? We find it in great supply, not in our own effort, nor even in our own theological erudition, but only as we behold the glory of God in the person of the sovereign Christ.
 Ian Hamilton, “Heart Warming Calvinism,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed Sept. 10, 2016, http://www.ligonier.org/blog/heart-warming-calvinism/.
 Frederick M. Lehman, Hymns of Grace, The Love of God, 91.
 WLC, Q. 14.
 Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1.
 David Mathis, “The Tragic Hypocrisy of Joyless Calvinism,” Desiring God, accessed July 25, 2016, www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-tragic-hypocrisy-of-joyless-calvinism.
John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. 1, The Glory of Christ, ed. John Goold (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1968), 81.
William Hendriksen, John: The New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1953), 268.
 John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate, ed. John Olin (New York: Harper, 1966), 58
Latest posts by Jason Hutchinson (see all)
- Well Off Target: ‘Systemic Racism’ and the Human Heart - January 19, 2017
- Our Opinions Don’t Make Us Righteous - November 22, 2016
- Pursuing a Warm-Hearted Reformed Piety - September 27, 2016