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by Kent Philpott

John Calvin

The Journey

How far does the born again metaphor extend?

In John chapter three Jesus speaks of the new birth, often rendered born again, and a more literal translation from the Greek would be “born from above.” In the same passage He also contrasted being born of the flesh with being born of the Spirit (see John 3:1-8).

Two births: one birth of the flesh, and a second of the Spirit. A question may be raised then—how far can the metaphor be taken?

As humans we arrive as newborns, then progress to infants, rug rats, toddlers, small children, older children, adolescents, teenagers, young adults, mature adults, older adults—not exactly an academic breakdown, but close enough to make a point.
And the point is that, as human beings we grow and learn as we age. We grow up in physical stature, but our emotional and mentality capacities change as well. I read recently that some individuals do not peak mentally until the age of sixty-eight, and since that is my age now, I was pleased to read the results of the study that made such a pronouncement. Whether that is good science or not I do not know, but the fact is that we are generally capable of beneficial growing as we age.

Okay, what about spiritual growth then? 

  Let it be noted that I will not suggest here that an acceptance of Reformed theology is an indication of spiritual growth and maturity. No, I am simply going to make an effort to recount the chronology and map of my own spiritual journey.

My spiritual infancy

At age twenty-one I was converted. Physically I was not finished growing, emotionally I was still a kid in many ways, but spiritually I was a newborn. I gobbled up the “milk” of the Word and had no basis to evaluate it, even if I had wanted to. There was only one truth and that was Jesus—that much was certainly clear—and I could bring no critical analysis to what I was hearing preached and taught. For some time, a period of more than three years, I learned of the heresies of the major American Bible-based cults, but I was not aware of the various shades of theology that existed in the broad Christian community. I had no idea that the theology I was embracing was Arminian as opposed to Reformed, and I had no idea that the means of interpreting the Bible at my church was something called Dispensationalism. And what I learned I then also preached and taught.

Toward the end of my first year of seminary I began to be aware that all Christians did not see things in the same way. This came through most significantly in regard to the various views of “last things” or “end times.” There was post-, pre-, and a-millennialism, with a number of nuances amongst these. I knew I was a pre-millennial, pre-tribulation, rapture guy, and that was it. Any hint that there was credibility in any other position would bring up a fight or flight reaction from me. My views could not be challenged—I was not emotionally able to deal with differences.

The environment in which I lived supported me intellectually and emotionally— congregation, teachers, other students, the material I studied, all my fellow students (as far as I knew), all my professors—we were all of the same mind. And I was so busy with school, work, and pastoring a small country church, that I had no time to look into anything different.  

A breaking away

While pastoring in the 1970s a respected member of the church approached me and asked to be shown the difference between the second coming and the rapture. My immediate reaction was, Oh, that will be easy; I will simply go to 1 Thessalonians chapter four. For some time we looked at the Scripture and consulted some of the books on my shelf, but for the life of me I could not distinguish the difference between the two. Usually I had made a division between verses sixteen and seventeen in 1 Thessalonians 4, but for the first time I saw that that approach would not work. My Schofield Reference Bible seemed to solve the problem in the notes, but they were notes only and did not give me what I needed to show that the two events were not the very same thing.

As a result, my investigation of the issue was not done quickly but lasted several months, and by the end I had changed my mind. In fact, I issued a declaration from the pulpit one Sunday morning to the effect that I would give $1000 to anyone who could clearly and biblically show me that the second coming and the rapture did not occur at the same time. I took alot of abuse, to some extent from the congregation but mostly from the assistant pastors, most of whom had graduated from the same seminary I had.
It was a time of growing up spiritually, and it was painful. For the first time I had made a change in my theology, I was going against the current, and I was experiencing some rejection. For years I would question myself as to whether I was right or not. Time and again, I studied the issue but always came to the same conclusion. I was not sure if I was an amillenialist or not, because there were some points there I did not entirely embrace either. Finally I just let the whole issue go fallow. Nevertheless, my spiritual journey had taken a fork in the road.

An unpleasant encounter

Sometime in the mid 1970s I was visited by a young man named Michael Butler whom I had met when our band Joyful Noise had visited a Southern Baptist Church in Manteca, California. Michael began making the trip to Marin from time to time for Sunday morning services and we became friends. That friendship came to an abrupt halt one day. He had asked to spend some time with me so that he could talk to me about something important.  We sat down in my living room, and he explained that he had become a Calvinist and wanted to share some Scripture with me, so we started looking at Bible verses together. Slowly the heat rose in the room, until it was as though I was being cooked. Finally I could take it no longer and angrily ordered him out of my house. He closed his Bible, and I did not see him again for thirty years.

My reaction had been to throw at him John 1:12, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Now, Michael had been showing me such verses as John 3:1-8, 6:35-40, 15:16, and 17:6, all passages from the same book as John 1:12, of course, and all verses that speak quite definitely of election. Now it is obvious to me, but then I could not make the connection.

Throughout my whole Christian life I had been told that we cooperate with God. Yes there is grace, but we must repent, believe, receive, and obey. I could not reconcile what he was telling me, so I stuck to what I had been taught and was consistently preaching. He mentioned the sovereignty of God over and over to me, but I did not get it. He explained how faith was a gift of grace. He explained that we were dead in our trespasses and sins and incapable in our own strength of believing. Back and back I went to the supposed safe haven of John 1:12 and a few other texts. No! We must be involved in our own salvation! I thought.

Michael was the only one I knew who believed like he did. John Calvin was a heretic as far as I was concerned. Though I knew about Martin Luther and the grace alone idea, it did not move me away from my ideas of cooperation.

The fairness concept played heavily upon me as well. It simply would not work that God should save some and condemn others. Not fair! Fairness depended upon human choice. A rejection of the Gospel is clean and fair—deny Jesus and go to hell. Simple. And I knew it was my job to get people to chose Jesus, get them to decide whether they would believe or not. That was fair.

No, Michael was wrong, I was right, and it would end there.

Stagnation and despair

What followed next was just more of the same, except that the Jesus Movement was over, and the conversions and miracles of various sorts dried up. I will not now go into the details, but I experienced difficulties of many kinds and even tired of preaching the message of Jesus. I was looking for something new, all within the realm of Christianity, and landed at church planting as defined by the church growth movement out of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. It fit so neatly into my Arminian theology. So I began pastoring again and doing my best to get people to believe in Jesus.

It was as pastor of Miller Avenue Church in Mill Valley, California that things began to change. In a kind of miraculous way I stumbled across something that brought me to a place of peace, confidence, and contentment in what is often referred to as the doctrines of grace.

The discovery of the solid biblical truths of foreknowledge, predestination, election, free grace, and so on, so captured me that it brought me out of the malaise into which I had fallen. The joy of my salvation was restored to me. My personal troubles were not alleviated, rather they increased for a time, but my journey had led me to safe pastures theologically and emotionally. Without this, I might have crumbled entirely.

One of the first things I did, completely impulsive, was to visit my old seminary where I found a couple of professors and asked them why I had never heard of Reformed, Calvinistic theology either in church history or theology class. The answer was that I had, but for such a brief period and without emphasis, that it probably went over my head. We discussed other issues, but I left knowing that these were honest explanations.

The journey continues

As the story of my journey in the introduction indicates, my appreciation for Reformed theology increased little by little and continues to this day.

As in everything else, I find that Christians differ with each other. There are those who are hard line, double-predestination folks with whom it is sometimes difficult to remain in fellowship. There are those who are able to combine a sacramental view of salvation with election—and with some of whom it is also hard to stay engaged. There are others who hold an ecclectic theological mixed bag, but not as diverse as is the Arminian theological camp, I think. Then there are those who are slow and careful about their embracing of any theological system—people who are content to study and grow as it comes to us.

Right now it appears that Reformed folks are becoming more numerous, so it will not be surprising to see the age-old tussle of positioning and claiming of turf occur. Some of it may be ugly, but that would be understandable in something so new. For so long the Arminian model has dominated, and now in the last decade and a half we see Reformed views being accepted across denominational lines. Division, even divisiveness, may make an appearance, but hopefully without the acrimony that characterized the charismatic movement. I am content to grow up in grace, if that be possible for me, and if there is some progress, it might almost be in spite of me. For being allowed to be on the journey at all, I can only thank my Lord.

Paul makes use of the same idea in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15, as does Peter in 1 Peter 1:3 and 23.

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