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Goodbye, five-point Calvinism

When people have had enough of weak, make-me-feel-good evangelicalism they start looking for a more punchy theology to build their lives on. Many find Calvinism to fit the bill. In the USA—and to a lesser extent elsewhere—many younger Christians have signed up for five-point Calvinism in its modern format, as championed by the likes of John Piper. One of them tells his story in this book: Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism by Austin Fischer (Cascade Books, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-62564-151-9).  

The title is a deliberate allusion to an earlier book, Young, Restless, Reformed by Collin Hansen. Unlike him, Fischer became disillusioned with Calvinism and escaped from it into free-will theism as he came to see that God’s primary attribute is love, not sovereignty. His book is a warm and sensitive account of his personal theological journey.

He grapples frankly with the deep biblical and theological issues he encountered on his journey, including the meaning of Romans 9, the origin of evil, and whether true relationship can exist without freedom of choice. And he has some kind words to say about Karl Barth. His conclusions are convincing, though he is to be commended for also facing up to the philosophical weakness of his current free-will theism.

I confess to having walked a very similar path, though over a much longer period than Mr Fischer. Maybe I’m a slow learner. But the older I get, the more convinced I become that Calvinism isn’t what God, faith and the Christian life are all about. What about you? If you’re unsure, this book could help you reach a conclusion.


I drank in the wine of Calvinism until I was inebriated in the best sense of the word. I loved it—I loved its fine lines of thinking, and I think what I liked most is that it both put me in my place and God in his, and I liked that sense of all things being where they ought to be. Until I encountered passages in the Bible that shook that theology to the core. (From the foreword by Scot McKnight)

I believe we best say yes to God’s glory and sovereignty by saying no to Calvinism. (p2)

“So you’re telling me that God has already determined everyone who will be in heaven and hell?” This big, ugly question is what anyone who wrestles with Calvinism must square off with sooner or later. (p9)

If—before the creation of a single human being—God chose to send people to hell for sins he ordained they would commit, how is he good? (p9)

So why doesn’t God save everyone? Because [according to Calvinism] while God wants to save everyone, what God wants even more is to display the fullness of his glory. As such, God ordains the eternal damnation of the humans he also wants to save because he wants to display his wrath and justice even more than he wants to save them. When it comes down to it, God values his self-glorification above their salvation. It’s all about God’s glory—meaning, everything circles around the supermassive black hole of God’s desire to show the universe what being God is all about. (p15)

…the holy trinity of Johns—Calvin, Edwards, and Piper… (p19)

[According to Calvinism] The reprobate are those humans who, before they existed, were chosen by God to spend eternity in hell. And to be clear, the reprobate will spend eternity in hell for sins God ordained they would commit. In summary, then, the reprobate are all those humans who will experience a fate dreadful beyond comprehension (hell) as they are eternally punished by God for sins he ordained they would commit before they existed—they were created so they could be damned. If you don’t cringe a little, you don’t have a pulse. (p22)

It seemed Calvinism forced me to call things “good,” when they could only be considered the most morally repugnant atrocities imaginable, perpetrated by the Creator himself. (p25)

God’s desire to glorify himself had not only subsumed but consumed all his other desires, so that the only thing I understood about God was that he would glorify himself. Love, justice, and goodness had been warped beyond recognition as they were sucked into the black hole of glory. (p27)

For Wesley, if the Bible teaches that God unconditionally ordains people for eternal damnation, we lose the Bible because we lose a trustworthy God—the Bible becomes impossible. I didn’t know how to disagree. (p33)

When everything is about God’s glory, everything else—love , justice, goodness, mercy, wrath, meaning, existence—fades to black. (p34)

As Jesus says, “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen God” (John 14:9). It’s not negotiable, it’s not up for debate, and if you don’t like it you have to take your ball and go home. God looks like Jesus. Not some of the time, not part of the time , not most of the time, but God has always, does always, and will always looks just like Jesus because Jesus is God. (p39)

[Re Hebrews 1:3]  In the Greek, Jesus is the character (exact imprint) of God’s hypostaseos (being/nature/essence). This is a loaded phrase, dripping with both moral and ontological implications, with perhaps its most important being the simplest: the character of Jesus is the character of God. God would never do something Jesus would find morally reprehensible, so if you can’t find it in Jesus, then you really ought to think twice before you claim you’ve found it in God. (p41)

In the crucified Jesus, we learn that the God who pours out wrath is the God whose hands are nailed to the cross. The God who punishes sin is the God who takes the punishment. The God who judges is the God who looks upon those crucifying him and says, “Forgive them.” I found the crucified God very difficult to square with the God of Calvinism. (p45)

For the first four hundred years of church history, people read Romans 9 and did not think it taught what later came to be called Calvinism. (p48)

You can’t have a “crucified-for-sinners God” and a “creates-sinners-in-order-to-crucify-them God.” If you want to be biblical, you can’t have a God who is only half like Jesus, because if God is only half like Jesus, he’s nothing like Jesus. (p49)

At the center of the universe, there is not a black hole of deity, endlessly collapsing in on self, but a suffering, crucified, mangled lamb, endlessly giving away self. (p50)

I had become a Calvinist because I did not think the Bible left me much of a choice. I began walking away because Calvinism had made both the Bible and God impossible. I took my last steps out the door because I did not think Jesus left me much of a choice. (p50)

This is who God is—the One who exists in absolute sufficiency and happiness within himself, and has no need to do anything except be himself for all eternity. Thus, God does nothing he does not want to do. And yet in this complete and absolute freedom, God chooses not to exist for himself alone. God creates and God redeems and God is crucified for creatures that need not exist. God condescends and forgives and resurrects, and we find ourselves bowing before an ineffable mystery that we can identify only because God has given us its name: love. (p55)

When God opens his heart to us and we get a glimpse of what makes it beat (Jesus Christ crucified), we see a desire to love at all costs, not glorify himself at all costs… Love is not just a cog in the glory machine. The glory of God is the glory of love. (p58)

Belief in free will is no foundation on which to build a theological home, though this is the unfortunate mistake of many. (p61)

Looking for free will in the Bible is like looking for gravity: it’s assumed everywhere and holds everything together, so you probably won’t notice it until it’s missing and you float away. (p62)

Far from being another power-grabbing, insecure, anxiety-ridden god of the ancient Near Eastern pantheons, the Creator God is so secure and free that he has the power to give power away. He is not anxious about his rule or insecure about his sovereignty. He does not grab or hoard—he gives. (p64)

Although God has every right to issue only commands, he often issues invitations. God is always sovereign, but that means he—and not we—gets to decide what shape that sovereignty takes. And apparently, God’s sovereignty makes room for human freedom so that God and humans can have a personal, and not merely causal, relationship. (p67)

To claim that God voluntarily and temporarily limits his sovereignty to allow for free moral agents is not to disfigure God’s sovereignty in a humanistic attempt to make it more palatable. Rather, it is to let God’s sovereignty speak for itself as opposed to us telling it what it has to mean. (p68)

God can be as in control as he wants to be, and scripture certainly leads us to believe that God can and often does intervene decisively, even manipulating circumstances to bring about his will. But God has willed that he will not necessarily always get his way. God has willed that there be other wills that matter. From creation to cross to new creation, God limits himself, not because he has to but because he wants to. And apparently, God wants to love and be loved more than he wants to be in complete control: omnipotence is never loved; it is only feared. (p70)

I was weary but I knew I was home. It was a [theological] home founded on the glory of a crucified God of self-giving love, and around that center had sprung up walls of grace, free will, kenosis, and a peculiar sort of sovereignty. And in my opinion, it was quite a home. (p72)

[Calvinism] has already affirmed that God is the all-determining reality and ordained the fall, and yet it won’t just bite the bullet and admit that God ordained the first sinful impulse in Adam. What do Calvinists have to say for themselves? They appeal to mystery: “We don’t know where the first sinful impulse came from.” But it sure doesn’t sound like they don’t know where it came from so much as they don’t want to say where it came from. Or better yet, it sounds like they willfully suspend the logic of their theology at this point. (p75)

Salvation is a gift but a gift still has to be received. And what sort of idiot receives a gift and then starts boasting about how he used the muscles in his vocal chords, tongue, and mouth to say, “Yes, I will accept this gift”? (p79)

Perhaps the surest sign that our theology actually brushes against God is the presence of a limp. It is the cultivation of humility, candor, and generosity. It is a certain trepidation, modesty, and restraint. Theology that doesn’t limp is not Christian theology. (p86)

We’re humans and that means we don’t get to be certain. And this is why one of the noblest, purest, and most Christian of theological confessions is the acknowledgement of our humanity instead of the concealment of it behind the flimsy charades of swagger and certainty… As Buechner says, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” (p90)

If we want to be people who live and speak the gospel, then we need to go to the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John…they’re called the Gospels for a reason), and there we find that the key words in gospel vernacular are kingdom, cross, and discipleship. (p93)

Evangelicalism is littered with pseudo-gospels and theologies that produce consumers of religious goods and services instead of disciples. (p96)

The question is whether the emphases of Calvinism naturally produce disciples. And from my finite perspective and limping experience, they do not…  In Calvinism, you simply do not have a choice and therefore do not have a will that matters. So the questions, “What will you do with your will? What will you do with your kingdom?” are rendered unintelligible. (p97)

Despite its many flaws, at the heart of free-will theism there is the belief that, by the grace of God, we have a choice and therefore a will that matters—the same belief that lies at the heart of gospel-driven discipleship. (p98)

Romans 9 is one gnarly, aggressive text; however, it’s aggressiveness is rooted in its mercy, not its narrowness. Romans 9 has teeth, but they’re for saving, not damning. (p99)

Paul explains mercy and hardening as God’s response to faith and unbelief, not unilateral, eternal decisions to save or damn individuals. (p102)

Far from being a treatise meant to justify God’s righteousness in unconditional election, Romans 9–11 is a treatise about the incomprehensible mercy and scandalous faithfulness of God towards his creatures, through the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. (p104)

While far from perfect, free-will theism has the gravitas to hold sovereignty, glory, grace, and love together. So sit on the fence as long as you want, but don’t be afraid to jump. (p108)


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