Notes from a Reluctant Calvinist by Phil Johnson

As a former Arminian having been confronted with the truth of the Bible, I found this article by Phil Johnson to be very thought-provoking and hope that you do too as well.

Notes from a Reluctant Calvinist

by Phil Johnson

The following excerpt is from a message I gave to a group of college students about five years ago. I’m posting this excerpt to encourage you to listen to the entire message, titled, “The Story of Calvinism,” which you can download (or stream) from HERE.

have not always been a Calvinist. As a matter of fact, I was raised in the context of a liberal Methodist church, so long before I ever became a Christian, my mind was poisoned with a blend of liberalism and Wesleyan theology. And after I became a Christian, it was several years before I finally came to the point where I could affirm the biblical doctrine of election without trying to explain away clear statements of Scripture like Ephesians 1:4 (which says that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world). Or Romans 9:15-16, where God says, “‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’ So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”

I resisted those ideas for years. I knew the word election is biblical, but I had a friend who explained it this way: “God voted for you the devil voted against you. You cast the deciding vote.”

That made perfect sense to me.

Very early in my Christian experience, I went to a small church in the town where I attended college, and my Sunday-school teacher there was decidedly anti-Calvinistic. Almost every week, he would warn us against the dangers of putting too much stress on the sovereignty of God. Almost every week he would work into his lesson the idea that human free-will is sovereign, and the choice is ultimately left entirely up to each sinner to decide what to do with Christ. That seemed reasonable to me. It reinforced what I was inclined to believe anyway.

But at the same time, in my own study of the Scriptures and my reading of church history, I kept running into biblical statements and doctrinal issues that posed a severe challenge to that sort of free-will theology.

Then one Sunday while this guy was taking prayer requests, a girl in the class raised her hand and asked, “Should we really be praying for our lost relatives? It seems like it’s a wasted effort to pray to God for their salvation if He can’t do any more than he has already done to save them.”

And I vividly remember the look on the face of this Sunday School teacher. This was clearly a question that had never occurred to him. So he thought about it for a moment, and you could see the wheels in his head turning while he tried to think of a good reason to pray for the salvation of the lost. And finally, he said, “Well, yeah, I guess you’re right.” And from that Sunday on, he never accepted any more prayer requests for people’s lost loved ones.

That didn’t seem quite right to me, even as a dyed-in-the-wool Arminian. I had just done a Bible study in Romans 10:1, where Paul says, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” Not only that, I began to wonder why we should pray about anything in the realm of human relationships if God never intrudes on the sanctity of human free will. You know: Why should I pray for God to move my English teacher to look favorably on my work when she graded my paper if she is ultimately sovereign over her own heart? Those were questions I couldn’t answer.

And the more I studied the Bible, the more it seemed to challenge my ideas about free will and the sovereignty of God. One by one over a period of more than 10 years, the doctrines of election, and God’s sovereignty, and the total depravity of sinners became more and more clear to me from Scripture.

It was a sermon series by John MacArthur on the doctrine of election from Ephesians 2 that finally turned me into a full-fledged Calvinist, and that was at least 15 years after I first came to the Lord.

So I know what it is like to be baffled by these truths and to resist what seems like a dangerous tendency to go overboard with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. I’ve been there, and I feel your pain.

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