My introduction to John Calvin came one spring night while driving down a desolate Wyoming highway. It was early evening. The road conditions were mildly challenging, which was often the case in that part of the country. I was listening intently to reformed theologian R. C. Sproul lecture about Romans 8:28-30 “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” I remember the moment well. The full moon lit up the prairie between the low buttes. The blowing snow was swirling across the road. The scenery was soothing, yet my mind was racing. Could it be that God elects some to eternal salvation? Did He deliberately choose some to be saved, but not all? While I thought I was about to learn more about Jesus Christ and His truth, in reality, I was about to learn more about the teachings of a man named John Calvin.
A few short years prior to that spring evening, I had become a born-again believer in Jesus Christ by placing full faith in the gospel. My life became brand new. I was hungry to know truth and absorb as much as I could about Jesus and the Bible. I wanted to help others to be saved. As a new believer, I loved the church, I loved believers, and I craved truth. I also trusted my pastor to lead me to solid, biblical teachings but instead, my pastor led me to the teachings of men. Little did I know that the teaching my pastor recommended would redirect my walk of faith in ways that would be difficult for me to escape. That spring night, my thinking had been instantly taken captive by a new approach to interpreting the Bible. “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
That night, I learned that God not only loved me enough to sacrifice His Son for my sins, but I erroneously learned He had supposedly chosen me before the foundations of the world. In that lecture, I was taught that I was in the mind of God before Jesus was even ordained for the cross. And that He had predestined me to salvation before I was even conceived. Tears of joy were streaming down my face as I thanked God for His unspeakable love. However, what began in tears of joy, ended in tears of despair fourteen years later. The question I asked myself, years later, was, “How did this despair set in, and who was this man John Calvin?”
Being introduced to the Calvinist idea that “God predetermines whomever He wills for salvation” left me with many unanswered questions. Walking back into my pastor’s office to return the borrowed cassette tapes, I sat down to ask questions about these teachings and discuss the impact they had on me. I explained how my thinking had completely shifted toward a different view of God and salvation. I told how I couldn’t think of anything other than this new characteristic of God. When faced with this probing inquiry, my pastor merely chuckled and said, “I knew that would happen.” I detected a slight reluctance to explain this hidden secret that I was now privy to. I felt left on my own to figure out whether this teaching of “selective salvation” was really true and biblical. Since no objections to my concerns were made, I took my pastor’s acknowledgment as an endorsement of God’s sovereign predestination of the “elect” to salvation.
Returning home, I began searching my Bible to see if this elective prerogative of God was indeed true. Finding several verses that “seemed” to back up the type of election I had heard in the Sproul lectures, I became increasingly convinced that sovereign election was taught in the Scriptures. After telling my friends of my “conversion” on the highway that night, they, too, found verses for me that pointed to “sovereign” election and predestination. Everywhere I turned this so-called deeper understanding of God’s Word was reinforced. It began to be established in my thinking. It was molding and taking shape in my mind. It was increasingly confirmed by others. I felt privileged to have discovered this new insight into the mysterious purposes of God. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my thinking had been totally taken captive by a scholar’s mere suggestion, coupled with supposed scriptural support, which caused me to understand the Bible and its verses in a completely new light. I trusted this scholar’s supposed intellectual prowess. I dropped my guard and adopted this new interpretive framework. I could “see” this new viewpoint and follow its logic. Now, years later, I fully comprehend the importance of heeding the warnings in the Bible about false teachings, but back then, I was completely trusting and unsuspecting. I was a sitting duck and ripe for deception. “For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts,” (2 Timothy 3:6). “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:” (1 Peter 5:8).
The intense fascination I had with this subject of predestination demonstrated how completely I had been taken captive by this different way of understanding the Bible. I yearned to learn all I could about this theology and the implications it had for my Christian walk. And because the seed of sovereign election had been planted in my mind, I began pursuing the teachings of Calvinism to see how it all worked. “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” (Galatians 5:7).
Bible study took on a whole new dimension after my “conversion” to sovereign election. Week after week, I braved the blowing snow and howling winds of Wyoming to gather with my Christian friends to study God’s Word. This little church had become home to me. I loved learning the Bible, especially when predestination was hinted at. The mere mention of the topic always piqued my interest because I craved the validation of my new-found knowledge. I soaked up passages about election like a sponge, relishing all the “proof” I could find for this doctrine. Memorizing these verses was an easy and delightful task. Tracking these verses was sport for me. I started a card file, marking the index cards that had predestination passages on them with a big “P” and memorized them. Unwittingly, I was laying a foundation for the reformed view of “election” by plucking verses from their context and setting them side by side like bricks. Every time I ran across a verse that mentioned predestination, election, calling, choosing, or foreknowledge, it meant one thing to me: “God chose me.” I misunderstood the Scriptures that said believers are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ and understood them to mean, instead, that I was predestined to salvation. I always understood verses in the light of Calvinism rather than within their context. Romans 8:29, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”
During this early and formative stage, the term Calvinism wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. It was a foreign term to me, but that would soon change. Within the year, my family and I moved to Salt Lake City. We found it to be a clean and convenient city with world class skiing only a few miles from our front door. Life seemed crisp, pleasant, and brand new. We had finally left the ever-blowing Wyoming wind behind, although leaving my church friends wasn’t easy. Even the fierce summer heat of Utah was a welcomed change. Life in the beehive state was better than I would have imagined.
My first order of business in Salt Lake was finding a church home and getting plugged into a Bible study. My family and I found a great church and many of its members participated in BSF (Bible Study Fellowship), a Bible study that offered seven rotating, one-year courses. My first year in Salt Lake introduced me to a whole range of new people and new opportunities for learning and serving. Still somewhat shy about the teaching of predestination, I was surprised to find hints of election sprinkled throughout the teaching notes of this Bible study. References to the “sovereignty of God,” “God choosing His own,” “the call of God,” “God hardening hearts,” “God giving grace to the elect,” and similar catch phrases all conveyed their inclination toward the sovereign election of God. My ears were keenly attuned to any shred of this teaching. I remember thinking, “Perhaps this teaching is more accepted than I realized.” My shyness gave way to cautiously approaching the subject with others. I carefully engaged others in discussions about “predestination.” Wherever possible, I gently broached the topic in the halls between church services, in the parking lot, on the phone with friends, and with those in my Bible study discussion group. I guardedly pressed with innocent questions to filter out who was safe to discuss election with and who was not. To my surprise, many Christians agreed with the type of election I had come to believe in. I was gaining assurance from people and the popularity of these teachings, rather than from the Scriptures.
About this time, I was introduced to the teachings of the well-known Calvinist pastor, John MacArthur. After asking my church elders about him and being assured he was a solid and safe Bible teacher, I signed up with his lending library to receive sermon tapes—six at a time—which I quickly turned around for another six tapes. I even considered taking out two memberships so I could listen to one set as the other set was being fulfilled. My heart was thrilled to be redeeming the long hours of household chores by listening to “good” teaching. All I needed was my fanny pack and Walkman, which became fixtures about my hips. I found John Macarthur to be a gifted and convincing expositor, of course, for his point of view. The lending library catalog allowed me to choose from hundreds of sermons for nearly any subject I could imagine. First and foremost on my list were selections covering sovereign election. As questions surfaced about some aspect of election, I merely looked up the passage in the library catalog and requested the sermon I wanted. Listening to these tapes created an insatiable appetite for still more audio teaching which prompted the ordering of more tapes from other teachers, all of whom were sympathetic to sovereign election. The hundreds and hundreds of lectures and sermons that were pumped into my mind were supplying me with a steady diet of one or more points of Calvinism. My shy caution about publicly discussing election with others was now giving way to empowerment. The questions I had once asked of my Wyoming pastor were now being answered in full detail. I was being fortified with the pat responses any trained Calvinist gives out verbatim. It wasn’t long before I, too, talked and thought like a skilled, four-point Calvinist (which I’ll explain later).