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How R.C. Sproul became a Calvinist

December 1, 2012

My struggle with predestination began early in my Christian life. I knew a professor of philosophy in college who was a convinced Calvinist. He set forth the so-called “Reformed” view of predestination. I did not like it. I did not like it at all. I fought against it tooth and nail all the way through college.

I graduated from college unpersuaded of the Reformed or Calvinistic view of predestination only to go to a seminary that included on its staff the king of the Calvinists, John H. Gerstner. Gerstner is to predestination what Einstein is to physics or what Arnold Palmer is to golf. I would rather have challenged Einstein on relativity or entered into match play with Palmer than to take on Gerstner. But… fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

I challenged Gerstner in the classroom time after time, making a total pest of myself. I resisted for well over a year. My final surrender came in stages. Painful stages. It started when I began work as a student pastor in a church. I wrote a note to myself that I kept on my desk in a place where I could always see it.

YOU ARE REQUIRED TO BELIEVE, TO PREACH, AND TO TEACH WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS IS TRUE, NOT WHAT YOU WANT THE BIBLE TO SAY IS TRUE.

The note haunted me. My final crisis came in my senior year. I had a three-credit course in the study of Jonathan Edwards. We spent the semester studying Edwards’s most famous book, The Freedom of the Will, under Gerstner’s tutelage. At the same time I had a Greek exegesis course in the Book of Romans. I was the only student in that course, one on one with the New Testament professor. There was nowhere I could hide.

The combination was too much for me. Gerstner, Edwards, the New Testament professor, and above all the Apostle Paul, were too formidable a team for me to withstand. The ninth chapter of Romans was the clincher. I simply could find no way to avoid the Apostle’s teaching in that chapter. Reluctantly, I sighed and surrendered, but with my head, not my heart. “OK, I believe this stuff, but I don’t have to like it!”

I soon discovered that God has created us so that the heart is supposed to follow the head. I could not, with impunity, love something with my head that I hated in my heart. Once I began to see the cogency of the doctrine and its broader implications, my eyes were opened to the graciousness of grace and to the grand comfort of God’s sovereignty. I began to like the doctrine little by little, until it burst upon my soul that the doctrine revealed the depth and the riches of the mercy of God.

I no longer feared the demons of fatalism or the ugly thought that I was being reduced to a puppet. Now I rejoiced in a gracious Savior who alone was immortal, invisible, the only wise God.

They say there is nothing more obnoxious than a converted drunk. Try a converted Arminian. Converted Arminians tend to become flaming Calvinists, zealots for the cause of predestination. You are reading the work of such a convert.

My struggle has taught me a few things along the way. I have learned, for example, that not all Christians are as zealous about predestination as I am. There are better men than I who do not share my conclusions. I have learned that many misunderstand predestination. I have also learned the pain of being wrong.

When I teach the doctrine of predestination I am often frustrated by those who obstinately refuse to submit to it. I want to scream, “Don’t you realize you are resisting the Word of God?” In these cases I am guilty of at least one of two possible sins. If my understanding of predestination is correct, then at best I am being impatient with people who are merely struggling as I once did, and at worst I am being arrogant and patronizing toward those who disagree with me.

If my understanding of predestination is not correct, then my sin is compounded, since I would be slandering the saints who by opposing my view are fighting for the angels. So the stakes are high for me in this matter.

The struggle about predestination is all the more confusing because the greatest minds in the history of the church have disagreed about it. Scholars and Christian leaders, past and present, have taken different stands. A brief glance at church history reveals that the debate over predestination is not between liberals and conservatives or between believers and unbelievers. It is a debate among believers, among godly and earnest Christians.

It may be helpful to see how the great teachers of the past line up on the question.

“Reformed” viewSt. AugustineSt. Thomas Aquinas

Martin Luther

John Calvin

Jonathan Edwards

Opposing viewsPelagiusArminius

Philip Melanchthon

John Wesley

Charles Finney

It must look like I am trying to stack the deck. Those thinkers who are most widely regarded as the titans of classical Christian scholarship fall heavily on the Reformed side. I am persuaded, however, that this is a fact of history that dare not be ignored. To be sure, it is possible that Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards could all be wrong on this matter. These men certainly disagree with each other on other points of doctrine. They are neither individually nor collectively infallible.

We cannot determine truth by counting noses. The great thinkers of the past can be wrong. But it is important for us to see that the Reformed doctrine of predestination was not invented by John Calvin. There is nothing in Calvin’s view of predestination that was not earlier propounded by Luther and Augustine before him. Later, Lutheranism did not follow Luther on this matter but Melanchthon, who altered his views after Luther’s death. It is also noteworthy that in his famous treatise on theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote sparingly on the subject. Luther wrote more about predestination than did Calvin.

The history lesson aside, we must take seriously the fact that such learned men agreed on this difficult subject. Again, that they agreed does not prove the case for predestination. They could have been wrong. But it gets our attention. We cannot dismiss the Reformed view as a peculiarly Presbyterian notion. I know that during my great struggle with predestination I was deeply troubled by the unified voices of the titans of classical Christian scholarship on this point. Again, they are not infallible, but they deserve our respect and an honest hearing.

Among contemporary Christian leaders we find a more balanced list of agreement and disagreement. (Keep in mind that we are speaking here in general terms and that there are significant points of difference among those on each side.)

“Reformed” viewFrancis Schaeffer

Cornelius Van Til

Roger Nicole

James Boice

Philip Hughes

Opposing viewsC. S. LewisNorman Geisler

John Warwick Montgomery

Clark Pinnock

Billy Graham

I don’t know where Bill Bright, Chuck Swindoll, Pat Robertson, and a lot of other leaders stand on this point. Jimmy Swaggart has made it clear that he considers the Reformed view a demonic heresy. His attacks on the doctrine have been less than sober. They do not reflect the care and earnestness of the men listed above in the “opposing” column. They are all great leaders whose views are worthy of our close attention.

My hope is that we will all continue to struggle. We must never assume that we have arrived. Yet there is no virtue in sheer skepticism. We look with a jaundiced eye at those who are always learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth. God is delighted with men and women of conviction. Of course he is concerned that our convictions be according to truth. Struggle with me then as we embark upon the difficult but, I hope, profitable journey examining the doctrine of predestination.

Sproul, R. C. (1986). Chosen by God (11–17). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

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