I was saved by grace through faith in Christ in my late teen years and began my Christian life with no biblical foundation. When I first encountered the concept of election and predestination as a young convert, I naturally consulted with Christian leaders in my circle and accepted the explanations and definitions they supplied. As a result, their view simply became my view, and it was reinforced by the books I was reading and the sermons I was hearing. Whenever I came across these words in the Bible, I automatically applied the definitions I had learned. Those who first discipled me were loving, godly believers who carefully instructed me in the Arminian perspective. However, when I later attended Bible college, I became convinced of, and thoroughly grounded in Calvinistic theology. Once again, I was instructed by godly people whom I respected.
For a time, I ran a small on-campus bookstore and consequently had access to reduced-rate specials. I accumulated a large library of Reformed and Puritan authors and eagerly studied them. I cut my theological teeth on Augustine’s The City of God, Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I eagerly devoured the writings of Jonathan Edwards, John Flavel, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and many others. My studies beyond college were also grounded in Reformed, Calvinistic teachings, and I sat under some high-profile Bible teachers whom I greatly admired. I then ministered in two Reformed denominations, holding to this perspective for many years until I eventually came to something of a personal crisis of faith over some of the doctrines of grace to which I had subscribed.
Where Did I Get Those Concepts?
One experience in particular stands out. I had undergone a medical procedure, but due to an error, there were complications which resulted in a leakage of spinal fluid, causing excruciating headaches. I was confined to bed, flat on my back, for many weeks. During this time, since I was not permitted to sit up or roll onto my side for anything other than brief changes of position, it was difficult to do much reading. However, by resorting to audio Bible recordings, I was able to listen through the entire Bible. This proved to be life-changing! The pure Word of God, free from external commentary, challenged my theological pre-suppositions. I remember remarking to my wife, “I have just listened to the entire Bible, but not once did I hear some of the doctrines which I have believed and been teaching! Where did I get those concepts, if not from the Bible?” This unsettled me, and I began to take stock of my theology. It seemed as though I had too easily accepted the definitions of important biblical words without ever truly examining them directly from the Bible. Had I relied unquestioningly on the opinions of people whom I respected simply because these opinions were widely accepted and were taught by men who held degrees and titles?
As I began this journey, there was opposition from some who sought to discourage me from re-evaluating my theology, particularly regarding election and predestination. In their opinion, to question the accepted theological positions is to question God. However, my quest was not at all to question God, but rather to re-examine human theological systems in light of His Word.
A Struggle to Let Go
I began a thorough re-evaluation of the entire spectrum of theology in this area, re-examining hyper-Calvinism, moderate Calvinism, Arminianism, Wesleyanism, and even Pelagianism, to be sure I had a thorough understanding of each of these views. I was also searching to find out where the prevailing consensus definitions of election and predestination had originated. I noticed that some of these teachings had merely been the personal opinions and logical deductions of earlier, influential theologians who were then transmitted through creeds, church councils, commentators, books, preachers, and seminaries. Eventually, they became regarded as the only accepted ways of understanding. These definitions, which had been developed along partially philosophical lines outside of biblical context, had gradually been imported into and superimposed upon the Bible. Strong personalities and proof texts then anchored and established these definitions in highly structured theological systems, held together by tightly woven logical arguments, making them difficult to question or resist.
This realization fanned the flame of my growing desire to allow the Bible to define its own terms, to speak for itself. I longed to truly discover God’s own definitions for the words He has employed in Scripture. What meaning did He intend in the words He chose to use in His Word?
I felt compelled to take up the challenge and embark on this rather rigorous, uncomfortable, years-long course of questioning, study, and examination of all the facts and facets of Scripture involving election and predestination.
I closed my books and commentaries, put away my college and seminary notes, and purposely set aside the opinions and teachings of those whom I admired and respected. I determined to step back from the accepted phrases, which for so long have been fundamental to these theologies, and to disentangle myself from the dogmatic theological systems themselves. No easy task, I admit! I struggled to let go of dearly held presuppositions and to strip away the clutter of accumulated traditions and arguments. I needed to get back to square one.
The basic ground-rules on which I proceeded were as follows:
The inspired Scriptures alone are sufficient for all matters of doctrine and practice. The Bible is sufficient; therefore, it contains everything we need to believe, everything we need to understand, and everything we need to live the Christian life, even concerning complex subjects like election and predestination. We need not look beyond God’s Word for understanding (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3).
God meant His Word to be clear, and it does not contradict itself. “God is not the author of confusion but of peace…” (1 Cor. 14:33).
Scripture itself is the best commentary on Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
I have the right and the responsibility as a Christian to stand on Scripture, yielding to it as my sole guide and authority for answers. It is legitimate to ask the God of the Bible sincerely and directly, “Lord, what do You say?” and to expect that He will answer by bringing me into an understanding of His truth.
The promise of the Lord Jesus Christ is that the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures and now indwells every true believer, can guide us “into all truth” as we sincerely seek Him, submit to Him, abide in Him, and allow His Word to abide in us (John 15:4, 7; 16:13).
The promise of God is on our side: “My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:1-6).