One of the charges often leveled against Calvinism is that it hinders growth in holiness. It is often asked, “If God is going to bring his elect to maturity then why bother engaging in spiritual disciplines”? It is thought that if Calvinism is taken to its logical conclusion then why bother with holiness. Reformed folk like John Samson rightly disagree with and don’t understand this charge:
I have heard this mentioned a few times recently and just scratch my head in wonder about it. One great example are the Puritans, who were strong Calvinists and yet were driven by a desire for holiness. But some see this as a contradiction in terms. Where they get this, I do not know.
Allow me to try to answer that from my own journey. I grew up (spiritually speaking) in a Baptist church that was strongly revivalistic. I also had a good does of Pentecostal teaching along with a steady diet of Keswick theology. Early on in my walk with Christ one of my favorite books was Andrew Murray’s Absolute Surrender. Some of these quotes were underlined in my copy:
The condition of God's blessing is absolute surrender of all into His hands.
When God has begun the work of absolute surrender in you, and when God has accepted your surrender, then God holds Himself bound to care for it and to keep it. Will you believe that? In this matter of surrender there are two: God and I-- I a worm, God the everlasting and omnipotent Jehovah. Worm, will you be afraid to trust yourself to this mighty God now? God is willing. Do you not believe that He can keep you continually, day by day, and moment by moment?
Say: "Lord God, not a word upon my tongue but for Thy glory, not a movement of my temper but for Thy glory, not an affection of love or hate in my heart but for Thy glory, and according to Thy blessed will."
I firmly believed that if I wanted my life to “count for God” then I had to have absolute surrender. I wanted (probably somewhat selfishly) for God to use me to do great things. I desired revival. I desired a deep experience with God. I wanted what my heroes (at that time) experienced. Men like Finney, Moody, and other revivalists. I wanted the intimate “talking together” type of relationship with God that I heard my favorite preachers on television speak about. And I knew this would come from absolute surrender.
The only problem is that I could never seem to absolutely surrender. There was always something I was hanging on to. There was always some residual sin. I never could have absolute surrender or perfect faith. So like a donkey pursuing a carrot I sought experience after experience, hoping that something would click. I wanted to find the key to this whole Christian life.
Somehow my disenchantment actually led me towards Reformed theology. Hearing of a great God that would bring about my holiness was welcome news. Inevitable faith was what my heart had been longing for. So, the pendulum swung. I stopped focusing so much on the “let go” aspect of my faith and started focusing on the “let God”.
I became spiritually dry. I stopped worrying about spiritual disciplines so much. Yeah, my “Calvinism” had stunted my growth in holiness. I know now that it was not my “Calvinism” it was my wrong headed understanding of sanctification matched with my new found doctrines of grace. In other words, when Keswick meets Calvin the result is deadly.
Calvinism, rightly understood, should not lead to stunted growth. But Calvinism (or any other system) that is not firmly rooted in the gospel will inevitably lead to frustration and a lack of true growth.
This all came to a head in my bath tub in Hannibal, MO. I was in a deep and dark time of the soul. I felt as if I was on the precipice of rejecting the faith. Not just Keswick. Not just Calvinism. But the whole darn thing. Then it clicked. The beauty of the gospel was awakened in my mind, heart, and soul. And just like John Bunyan I felt chains come off my legs. Indeed I came to find that my righteousness is found totally in Christ and him alone.
Keswick theology may call this having a crisis, surrendering absolutely, and trusting in Christ alone. Perhaps. A Calvinist would say that all of this was the sovereign working of God bringing about inevitable growth in holiness. I am inclined to agree. But all I know is that my desire for holiness was a sham until Jesus rescued me in that bath tub. The gospel awakened my heart.
And now I’ll put my trust in absolute Jesus not my absolute surrender.