by Kent Philpott
Not all the theology taught me in my early years was errant, not by any means. The first church I was part of and the seminary where I spent six years gave me the Bible basics. Those building blocks have proven to be a solid foundation. Now, however, I was taking another look at the Scripture and I had difficulty putting away the filters and lenses acquired from my formative teaching.
Confusion over conversion and grace
Though I considered myself Reformed, I did not know what to think about the nature of conversion. I continued with a synergist or cooperation view. Not that I thought a person could bring about their own new birth, since Jesus had made it clear in John 3 such was impossible. My view was that repentance and faith precipitated or came before grace and salvation. It did not occur to me that repentance and faith also had to be gifts or it would mean that a person had to do something in order to earn God’s forgiveness. Somehow I was convinced that a person could, actually must, repent of sin and trust in Jesus before they could be saved. Anything else, I was sure, was sub-Christian.
And then I began to cautiously examine the standard altar call, the invitation to accept Christ, the repeating of the sinner’s prayer—must something like this occur in order for a person to be born again? In various publications I found attacks on what is called decisionism, which is the act of doing something in order to be saved—like repeating the sinner’s prayer or publically confessing Jesus as Lord. It became clear that grace would be lost if the new birth was conditioned on anything at all.
During the Jesus Movement I relied upon the Four Spiritual Laws of Campus Crusade for Christ, or the famous Roman Road, and had used them to lead hundreds if not thousands of people to Christ. The thought, “Was I wrong?” troubled me greatly. So I simply moved to a cooperation concept of salvation—God’s grace plus our free will, or our ability to repent and believe. And that seemed fair, too.
When I wrote a book about conversion in 1996, my title was The Mystery of Conversion, Understanding True and False Conversion, and I expressed my cooperation notion of conversion, all the while thinking it fit with Reformed doctrine. Evangelical Press of the United Kingdom offered me a contract for publication and all went well until I received a letter from the board of directors of EP informing me that my view of conversion was deficient. After reading the letter over a few times, I felt like I wanted to abandon Calvinism and go back to being an Arminian. What a shock, and it was then that I had to confront whether or not cooperation or synergy was the right way to look at conversion, and not merely to get published.
At stake was how I conducted my ministry, and the good old altar call was at the heart of it. I had often declared I would never preach a sermon without inviting people to be saved. What I began to discover was that Reformed preachers would proclaim the Gospel and then depend on the Holy Spirit to bring about conversion. This was the way of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, and indeed, all the great Puritan divines did the same. These were the true Pentecostals—they simply preached a good, solid, biblical Gospel message and then depended on the Holy Spirit to convict of sin and reveal Jesus. It was only with Charles Finney in the 1830s that the altar call and the sinner’s prayer came into widespread use. And Finney had always been my guy.
Rereading the letter from Evangelical Press over and over again while reading back over what I had written in the conversion book , I slowly began to understand. Grace was not grace if salvation depended upon human action. Were we really dead in our trespasses and sins or not? If there was no free will to enable one to make a decision—what was to be done? And of a significant practical concern, how would I end my sermons?
It was at this point that I began to talk to other evangelical pastors and ask their opinion. Each one I consulted admitted that it was obvious that repeating the sinner’s prayer was no sure fire means of conversion, and these were all pastors holding to an Arminian theology. Anyone who had been a pastor for very long saw it plainly. What about those who repeatedly came forward and prayed the sinner’s prayer? Was it a question of a lack of sincerity, of inadequate repentance, or of not having enough faith? As time went on I saw that I was still talking about human ability and was, innocently enough, nullifying grace.
Grace began to mean more to me. Grace meant I had been rescued as I was heading for disaster. I really had nothing to do with it; it was more that I discovered I believed in Jesus, I was repenting, I was trusting in Jesus as my savior, and I wanted to learn more of what the Bible had to say. I even wanted to be with other Christians. The reality is I am still doing these same things.
Confusion about sovereignty
Gradually the fairness idea began to recede as a major objection. My anchor verse, John 1:12, the one about receiving Christ, now shown with a different light. It dawned on me that a person could only receive what was given, and what I read in the same book, out of the mouth of Jesus, mostly in John 6, convinced me a person could only receive by God’s work. Then I read Romans 9 about the potter and the clay. What had in times past made me angry now gave way to an acceptance of the fact that of course the creator will act as He will act, according to His good pleasure completely apart from what I might consider the right thing to do. Yes, I had been guilty of judging God.
God would have mercy upon whom He would, and the extending of mercy did not depend on anything about the one who would receive the mercy. It had made more sense to me if the mercy was given to a person for a reason like goodness, faith, obedience—something to justify being given salvation. The parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee would come to mind—the unrighteous tax collector was justified. Stories like that and others reminded me that God does things differently.
God simply saved those whom He would and for no reason apparent to the human reason. It was all for His good pleasure and based on His will. This God would not be controlled, could not be bribed, could not be flattered, or influenced in any way. He found those who were not looking for Him and sought those who were trying to run from Him. A strange God indeed. This was perhaps the greatest source of my confusion.
Confusion over God sending people to hell
Calvinism meant for me that God sent people to hell and that was from before the foundation of the world. That notion brought up for me a spirit of rebellion—I had declared that I could not believe in a God like that. But from what I was discovering about Reformed Theology, it looked like I would have to accept what was called double predestination, God saving some and sending the rest to hell and to hell forever.
At some level I wanted to borrow the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, that place where a person who did not make it to heaven could work things out and end up in heaven after some period of trial and suffering. It made sense; it seemed fair, but to arbitrarily send some to hell revolted me.
Double predestination—yes some Calvinists hold to this concept, others do not, but I did not know this early on. It seems to me, and many Reformed people hold to this, that the reality is we are all headed to hell and destruction since we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And what God does is rescue those whom He will before they tumble over the falls into the darkness of the nether region. Maybe it is a moot point, but I am more comfortable with the rescue concept than the double predestination.
Confusion over the doctrine of total depravity
Classical Calvinism, from the day of Augustine at any rate, incorporates into the “T” or Total Depravity the idea that each of us is born a sinner and condemned, thus is unable to achieve or earn salvation. Psalm 51:5 is quoted and held to mean that David was a sinner from birth. Let me briefly note here that there is an alternate way to interpret David’s lament. Then from Romans 5:12 and following, classical Calvinists insist that every person inherited the sin of Adam.
My problem and my confusion was that I did not see that the Scripture taught that I am condemned on the basis of Adam’s sin —born condemned— rather I was convinced that I am condemned for my own sin, which Romans 3:9 and following plus Romans 6:23 seem to teach. Certainly death and sin both came in through Adam, and all humans inherit what is called a fallen or corrupted nature totally making it impossible to do any good. But I stand guilty due to my own law breaking.
When I began to struggle with this point of theology I would at times be dismissed as a Pelagian, meaning that I thought a person could choose salvation through the exercise of free will. Or at other times I would be described as a semi-pelagian, meaning that I thought that a person entered the world with a weakened will but one still capable of earning salvation. I had been in tune with contemporary Arminianism, which will be examined further in later chapters, which held that either one could make a decision to become a Christian or cooperate with God’s grace and repent and believe. The point is none of these, Pelagianism, semi-pelagianism, or contemporary Arminianism, subscribe to the doctrine of total depravity; there is something a person is capable of doing.
During the period of my early confusion I did not personally know a Calvinist; I only had books and some wonderful conversations with Brother Shelton of Mt. Zion Church in Pensacola, Florida. Try as I might I could not find a book on the issues written by anyone other than a classical Calvinist. My concern was that any system developed by humans was likely flawed to some degree. The result was I was driven to the Scripture and commentaries thereon. My suspicions were confirmed, though I chose not to quarrel with the classical Calvinists; but I lost a half point on the first point, Total Depravity. Clearly, it seemed to me, we are absolutely unable to forgive our own sin, repent of sin or even have an idea of what sin was, believe in Jesus as Savoir and Lord, and be born from above. There were those whom I encountered who argued that unless I adhered to each point of Calvinism as historically defined I was something but not a Calvinist. I had to agree to disagree, but it was usually not a bilateral agreement.
Some confusion is inescapable
It is okay, normal even, to be confused when one makes a jump from one of the major paradigms of Christianity to the other. And yes, I mean to say there are only two such patterns of systematic theology. My view is that Christianity is either Arminian, in the contemporary sense, or Calvinistic. In fact, I would lump all the religions of the world into one camp or the other. Only the Reformed based theology of Christianity is truly grace-based; all and everything else somehow involves or is dependent upon something a human does or does not do, and of course, it is a combination of the two. The “Doctrines of Grace,” a term that often describes Reformed theology, is actually all about the grace of Almighty God and the total and complete inability of humans. Grace is truly grace in the Calvinistic scheme of things.
If everyone believed alike, the confusion quotient would be lessened. Alas, and this is about the only context I would think of using a word like “alas,” such same thinking is not in evidence. The “Old Calvinists” are marking their territory as opposed to the “New Calvinists.” Oh well, our commonality is in Christ and not in points of theology. Let that be enough, and perhaps we can view the differences as part of an intramural debate rather than an extramural debate. In such a state of fellowship we can more pleasantly work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.