Rarely do we realize how important the small things we do can be. Many years ago, in a religion course at a community college in Georgia, I taught a young woman who did not believe in God. I felt a burden for her, and my wife and I began to pray for her and talk with her about God. I gave her a number of books, the most important of which was C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Soon she received Christ and began to grow in her faith.
Several years later, after I had become president of Welch College, she brought her fiance to my office to meet me. He was a conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) pastor. One of the things she said was that she still had questions about the doctrine of salvation. So I gave her two Reformed Arminian books: Robert Picirilli’s Grace, Faith, Free Will and Leroy Forlines’s The Quest for Truth. I wondered if she or her soon-to-be husband would ever read those books.
Several months ago, her husband, Keith Coward, contacted me and said he had become a convinced Arminian. A couple of weeks ago, his presbytery divested him of office. Some comments he recently made about his journey were picked up by the Society of Evangelical Arminians website, which I have printed below, after some brief remarks Keith placed on the SEA members’ page when asked about the book that got him thinking about Arminianism in a more serious way. I thought my readers would find this interesting.
From the SEA Members’ Page:
“A cool story about that first book. . . . My wife was an atheist when she attended junior college. She took a religion course to meet a general education requirement. The teacher challenged her, gave her a copy of Mere Christianity, and prayed for her with his wife. She ultimately became a believer because of his influence. Before we were married, we were in Nashville and I dropped her off to visit her former professor; we met just briefly. I am sure that he was disappointed to find that this young girl he had led to Christ was dating a PCA pastor. He gave her a couple of books, one of which was Picirilli’s Grace, Faith, Free Will. I’m not sure that she ever read it, but out of genuine curiosity and respect for the man who led my future wife to the Lord, I read it. The teacher’s name is Matt Pinson, president of Welch College, at the time Free Will Baptist College. I continue to be amused at the fact that the Lord reached my wife through a conservative Arminian in a religion class at a secular college, and how that ultimately led to my own sort of conversion.”
From the SEA Website:
When I was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1999, I enthusiastically affirmed my agreement with its Calvinistic/Reformed doctrinal statement, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). That same night, I also vowed that if I ever found myself out of accord with its teaching, I would take the initiative to notify my Presbytery (the regional ecclesiastical body) that my views had changed. I did not expect to have to keep that promise because I had been Reformed since my first semester seminary in 1992 and “knew” that I was right. But fifteen years later, in April 2014, it became necessary for me to notify my Presbytery that I no longer adhere to its confessional standards; I no longer believe that Calvinism is biblical teaching.
I had chosen a Reformed school not because I agreed with Reformed theology (RT), but because a favorite pastor taught there. But I quickly embraced Calvinism because I desperately wanted to understand how Scripture fit together, and my professors were offering me a comprehensive ready-made system that explained 1,200 pages of divine revelation. They were wiser than I by far, and could mount a massive number of verses that appeared to teach TULIP. I had neither the time nor the skill to test their interpretation of Scripture. And besides, God’s knowledge is infinitely greater than mine; so even if his word taught that he ordains whatsoever comes to pass – including the salvation or damnation of all people – I was going to worship him on his terms.So for the next 20 years I would be a staunch Calvinist, convinced that it was simply the teaching of God’s word. I sincerely believed it, taught it, and defended it. I even wrote a study on the WCF, explaining the intricacies of the system and answering common objections to it.
But several things eventually led to me reconsider the views of almost all my teachers, colleagues, friends, and heroes. The first was that an acquaintance gave me a copy of a book written by a “Reformed Arminian”. I read it out of curiosity, and though it did not persuade me in the least, it did challenge my prejudice against Arminians. Scripture seemed clear about RT, so I had assumed that anyone who denied it was either ignorant or insolent. Some had not read the Bible carefully enough and others just could not stomach God as he revealed himself to be. But this book offered a clear alternative to Calvinism and intelligently interacted with its favorite proof texts. The author did not convince me, but he did give me a new category: there were non-Calvinists who had taken the Bible to heart and honestly believed that it taught God’s desire to save all.
The second thing that contributed to my journey out of Calvinism is that I became better acquainted with its teaching. In seminary I had accepted RT in principle, but had not had time to work out the details in my own mind. During decade after graduation I had more time to read Reformed theologians like Calvin, Edwards, Frame, and Reymond; I came to understand what RT teaches about the divine decree – that libertarian freedom is an illusion; that God effects his eternal plan by determining and controlling our desires; that we are responsible for sin not because we could have done otherwise, but because we did what we wanted to do (even though God determined that we would want to sin). I accepted this teaching, again, because I thought Scripture taught it. But it introduced tension into my thinking that would weigh more and more heavily upon me over the years to come.
The third thing that set me on the course to reject RT was the thing that had led me into it – Scripture itself. As a pastor I preached through books of the Bible verse by verse. Occasionally I would encounter a common Calvinistic proof text and realize that it did not necessarily say what I had thought it said. John 3 does not necessarily teach that regeneration precedes faith; John 10 does not necessarily teach that Jesus died only for the elect; Eph 1 does not necessarily teach that God ordained whatever happens; 1 Pet 1 does not necessarily teach that God elected individuals for salvation – unconditionally, effectually, exclusively. Once again, these discoveries did not shake my confidence in RT. There were too many passages that clearly taught it; I considered Romans 9 impregnable to Arminian assault. But I realized that the quantity of verses used to support my view did not matter if, upon closer scrutiny, they could not bear the weight that we Calvinists were putting on them on a case-by-case basis.
I remained a committed Calvinist by choice and wanted to silence the issues that were bothering me, so on vacation in October 2012 I decided to shore up my confidence by reading some Reformed writers. But my plan backfired: I began with a small booklet about election; the author opened by stating his case from Eph 1:4 – a verse that I had studied when teaching through Ephesians the previous year. I had been struck by the parallels between Deut 4:37; 7:6-11 and this text: In the former, God says that he chose the Israelites to be his holy people because he loved them for the sake of their fathers; in the latter, Paul says that God chose “us” to be holy in Christ, which may easily mean “for the sake of Christ”. Election was a corporate, vocational, conditional concept for Israel; perhaps it was the same thing for Christians (see 1 Pet 2:9-10). Whatever the case, I knew that there was a lot of room to interpret Eph 1:4 differently than this author did. He was building his case for election on a verse that I knew could not bear that weight, and I began to wonder what would happen to other classic proof texts if examined more carefully, without Calvinistic presuppositions.
I decided to spend my vacation differently: Instead of trying to bolster my confidence in RT I began to work my way through several texts ostensibly supporting the Calvinistic concept of unconditional election. I asked, “Is there another way to understand these passages?” To my surprise and chagrin, I found that there were not only alternative interpretations, but that they actually made better sense of the texts’ contexts.
That was a turning point in my life. For the first time I said, “Whatever it cost me (and I knew it could cost me everything), I want to know the truth.” I spent the next year and a half going back through Scripture, reading books on both sides of the issue, listening to debates and lectures, praying fervently, studying passages, and meditating deeply. Gradually, my questions about RT turned into doubts, and by the end of 2013, I realized that my doubts had turned into disbelief. I had not fully reconstructed my theology, but it was clear that I no longer found Calvinism coherent, much less biblical.
Some were later critical that I explored Arminianism privately, but it was prudent for two reasons: First, I had been exposed almost exclusively to Calvinistic theologians for 20 years; they had given me the lens through which I read Scripture. I needed to test that lens by the word of God, not the words of humans; I needed mental space to examine my beliefs without outside influences pressuring me to conform to an ecclesiastical standard; I needed to widen my intellectual dialogue to include voices from the breadth of Christ’s church and not just from one part of it. Second, I did not know what would happen if my Presbytery discovered my questions before I had drawn any conclusions; I was not ready to recant Calvinism and needed time to think through the issues. Now, from the outside, I have grave concerns about the ways that some Calvinists discourage dissent; and I fear that intimidation will keep most from ever even considering that they may be misguided.
In fulfillment of my ordination vow, I sent notice to my Presbytery in April 2014, and at the meeting that month stood before my professional peers to acknowledge that my views had changed. For the most part, they responded as they should: They met with me, prayed for me, and asked me to take a study leave to reconsider the issue in dialogue with Reformed thinkers. I was grateful for that opportunity to “check my work” and used the time well; but 30 days later I could only say that my convictions had not changed. They had no choice, but to divest me of office at their next meeting in July. My credentials as a PCA minister were withdrawn, and I was no longer qualified to pastor the PCA congregation I was serving.
Some of my worst fears were realized, but this journey was for me a simple matter of faithfulness to Jesus. We are called to believe what we think Scripture teaches and to obey what we think Scripture requires, such as keeping one’s vows and swearing to one’s own harm. Sometimes our love for Jesus means that we must lose friends, approval, and job-security; but these are small matters alongside the pleasure of walking with him.
A couple of “friends” turned on me, but the biggest relief in this process was to find that most stood by me. Though they disagree with me, they have heard my heart and continue to love me, pray for me, even socialize with me; and I am grateful for this above all else. Calvinists and Arminians have said hurtful things to each other, so tempers can run high and suspicions can go deep. But I have felt no conceit or contempt in this journey. I disagree with them, but in their numbers are some of the finest men and women I have ever known. By God’s grace, I pray that my love for them will always temper my critique of RT – and keep me open to their criticism as well.
On one hand, I gained much more respect than I lost in this process. Many in the PCA still smart from the dishonesty of men who had lied in their ordination vows before their split from a mainline denomination in 1973; so they welcomed my honesty, even if they did not welcome my departure. But in a subtle way I have had to endure the loss of respect as well. Many Calvinists think as I did – Arminians are either ignorant or insolent. Since no one has been able to accuse me of either, I represent a problem to them. They are not ready to admit that I may have left RT for good reasons, so they have probed for the cause of my apostasy. No one has said this explicitly to me, but several have implied that I was brainwashed by reading the wrong authors and commentaries; and that is a condescending, disrespectful attitude that has been painful. But it has been good exercise for me to practice the example of Jesus “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (see 1 Pet 2:21-23). It is difficult not to demand honor from one’s opponents; but I wonder if this process was a rehearsal for tests we may all face as it becomes more costly to follow Jesus in this culture.
Finally, I lost my livelihood and have not yet recovered it. There have been seasons of desperation and even anger as I’ve asked why the Lord led me down this path that seems to lead nowhere. But he has provided for my family abundantly, and he has reminded me to worry not about how I’m going to pay the bills, but what pleases him (Prov 3:5-6; Matt 6:33).
In the end, this journey has not been about having the right answers, but following Jesus. I differ from some Arminians when I say that if, when I meet the Lord, I discover that Calvinists were right after all, I will fall on my face in worship, savor the sacrifice that covers sins committed in ignorance, and trust him for the grace to love him as he is. I am not seeking a man-centered religion more palatable to my ego, but have followed him down this path because I am zealous for his honor as a loving God, a just God, and a God who is so sovereign that he can make creatures who, like himself, are not scripted . . . but free and thus capable of loving and being loved by him. What I have found is a God that actually lives up to the glorious God preached by Calvinists.