"What Is a True Calvinist?" Part Two: God-Centered Mind and Penitent Spirit
I am currently posting a six-part series called “What Is a True Calvinist?” based on the booklet written by Phillip Ryken which can also be found in the book, Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel (chapter eight) by James Montgomery Boice and Ryken (Crossway, 2002). The purpose of these posts are not to give detailed expositions of the five points of Calvinism but to express in summary form the heart of a true Calvinist and the impact the biblical truths of Calvinism on the Christian life. For previous posts, see Part One: Introduction.
Phil Ryken sets out to reveal six aspects of a true Calvinist. They are: a God-centered mind, a penitent spirit, a grateful heart, a submissive will, a holy life, and a glorious purpose. I will address these aspects in pairs, so in this post I will mention the God-centered mind and penitent spirit. One quick caveat: I believe Ryken (though unintentionally given the format of the booklet) left out a HUGE part of a true Calvinist, namely that he or she is vibrantly committed to personal evangelism and missions. I will explain this in a subsequent post which will be included in this series.
A God-Centered Mind
The first thing that Ryken shares about a true Calvinist is that the Calvinist’s mind is on the glory of God. Using the illustration from the life of Isaiah 6:1-8, Ryken argues, along with Al Martin that this passage is how God “makes a Calvinist” (7-8). Explaining this passage, Ryken is quick to note that Isaiah’s vision of God was of his great glory, majesty, holiness and grace. He adds,
“The God enthroned in heaven is the God who rules. From his throne he issues his royal decrees, including his sovereign decree of election, and also executes his plan of salvation, drawing sinners to himself by his efficacious, persevering grace. It is not without reason that God’s throne is styled ‘the throne of grace’ (Heb. ), for all grace defined by the doctrines of grace flows from his heavenly throne” (9).
Calvinists understand that it is the King who is sovereign and exercises dominion and rule over all the earth. And it is the at the King’s free choosing to bestow favor and grace at his good pleasure, not at the presumed deservedness or demands of anyone else. Our God is King, but He is also abundantly gracious! One of the problems which plague our churches today that Calvinists have serious issues with is the portrayal that God is not King, but a beggar who is trying, pleading, begging for anyone, just one to accept him “into their heart.” Some have said that Calvinists are therefore anti-invitational. This is not accurate. What Calvinists are against is not the invitation but the portrayal of God as subordinate to man as though salvation, its application and efficaciousness, is not accomplished by God but by the free (libertarian) will of man, which in effect, makes man King and not God. Therefore, when an invitation is given and God is honored as King, Calvinists welcome the opportunity for sinners to turn from their rebellion and flee to Christ for salvation.
Furthermore, I believe it is important to state the reason why Calvinists have a God-centered mind. Calvinists are God-centered precisely because God is God-centered. There is no greater being in the universe than God, and were He to value anyone or anything more than Himself would be idolatrous. Throughout the pages of Scripture you will find that the fundamental and final motive for everything God does is for His own name’s sake and glory. Therefore, given that God places such a supreme emphasis for His name and His glory, the Calvinist believes it only fitting to center his mind and activities on the glory of God. Indeed, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever because the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever.
A Penitent Spirit
Ryken transitions into addressing the penitent spirit by saying,
“Although true Calvinism begins in the mind, it does not end there. This point needs to be emphasized because, although people who identify themselves as Calvinists are usually strong-minded, they are not always large-hearted. Thus it is especially important to understand that Calvinism is not a set of doctrines but a whole way of life. God has revealed the doctrines of grace not simply for the instruction of our minds but ultimately for the transformation of our lives” (10-11).
Such a transformation of our lives begins and continues through a penitent spirit. Again referring back to Isaiah’s vision of God high and lifted up, Ryken mentions that Isaiah sees not only God’s holiness and perfections but in light of this also is confronted with the depths of his depravity and deep need for cleansing. The only words Isaiah could utter is, “Woe is me!” Similarly, it is the heart of a true Calvinist to recognize that he is a great sinner in need of great mercy. Calvinism is not a merit system in which we tell God how precise our theology is but rather a disposition of humble pleading which cries, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Such an awareness of God and his perfections will only lead to an honest and painful look at our imperfections (sin). Ryken points out that “we stop comparing ourselves to others and start comparing ourselves to God . . . The more we see of God’s glory, the more we recognize our need for God’s grace” (12). It is not in the interest of a true Calvinist to gain a glance at God and then preoccupy himself with other affairs. Rather, his interest is to gaze at God and be preoccupied with His beauty, His glory, and His grace in which the only response of one’s life is not to check off spiritual performances as acts of progressive sanctification, but to be nearer to the God he loves through daily repentance and renewal. The throne of grace is not a theoretical concept but a dwelling place we knees are worn, hearts are softened, and lives are transformed.
Ryken concludes by saying that “a penitent spirit is one of the hallmarks of Calvinism” in that it “enables a Christian [through confession] to promote God’s holiness with all humility and gentleness” (13-14). To that I would like say, Amen.
Having thought about these two aspects of having a God-centered mind and penitent spirit, I am quickly drawn to a real apprehensiveness in even writing about these matters. In doing so, I feel like they can often be cheapened or in the process become like the Christian who boasts of his humility. I tremble at the prospect of that taking place in my own life pray that God would keep me ever near the cross to see and savor such a precious Savior. While there is the sense of unworthiness of writing about these virtues, I believe it important enough to attempt to communicate the heart of a true Calvinist in a day where some think it is cool and others would call you a fool to be one. So with those warnings and my own sense of “woe” I continue in the hope many brothers and sisters would be drawn closer to Jesus.