Fighting for sound doctrine certainly is important, and too few evangelicals engage in contending for the faith. Partly, laziness keeps people from digging into Scripture. Many Christians my age and younger read the Bible superficially, more intent on finding a “personal word for the day” than patiently mining it to learn what the Lord has revealed about Himself and His plan for history. Such study requires a time commitment, an abandonment of self-referencing and good old-fashioned hard work!
People also shy away from doctrine because it divides, and one cannot deny the nobility of that motive. Many New Testament passages command unity among believers. And arguably, a Church (meaning Christians as a whole rather than specific congregations) at war with itself can often discredit the Gospel before a watching world.
We walk, therefore, in tension. On one hand, we see the enormous responsibility to uphold sound doctrine, studying both carefully and tirelessly to understand the Lord’s perspective and His nature. And on the other hand, we appreciate the value of setting aside disagreements for the sake of unity. As usual, the Lord calls His people to both postures…presumably to show us our complete dependence on Him.
This tension presented itself to me a few years ago as I scrolled through my Twitter feed. I noticed a Tweet from a woman who shares my Calvinist convictions. Quoting Michael S. Horton (with whom I agree 99% of the time), she tweeted:
“The evangelicals who faced this challenge of Arminianism universally regarded it as a heretical departure from the Christian faith.”Horton
As a former Arminian, I had great difficulty characterizing my old approach to theology as “heretical.” While I now believe salvation is exclusively God’s work, and that the Bible overwhelmingly teaches election rather than free-will, I recognize that my Arminian friends study Scripture as diligently as I do and have drawn slightly different conclusions about man’s role in salvation. Obviously, I no longer agree with them, but I know the verses that lead to their theology well enough to understand how they’ve formed their views.
Some Arminians, please note, sincerely believe Calvinists are heretics. As they see it, we teach that God is a capricious manipulator Who reduces us to mindless robots. For that reason, they can’t see a possibility of us actually loving the Lord. Furthermore, they believe the doctrines of election and predestination cancel out the need to evangelize the lost. I well remember holding such opinions of Calvinists.
Those characterizations of Reformed theology show a misunderstanding of its doctrines, and I do see good reason to question the Arminian doctrine of free will. I confess that I easily forget how tenaciously I once clung to that very doctrine, sincerely convinced that Scripture substantiated my position. I need to remember that I held those beliefs out of an honest love for God and His Word. My Arminian brothers and sisters have a love for Christ, and come to their conclusions because they love Him.
Do I now think Arminianism is wrong? Yes. And I’m much firmer in my Calvinism than I ever was in my Arminianism. Reformed theology has been like coming home for me; it makes sense of Scriptures that I’d always allowed pastors and Bible Study teachers to explain away. So I do disagree with that approach to Scripture.
Christians in both camps, however, believe that salvation comes through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Even though Arminians would emphasize human responsibility in “accepting” God’s grace, calling them heretical seems extreme and uncharitable. Can’t we pray for them to better understand the doctrines of grace, perhaps helping them see how Scripture supports our position, and still recognize that they do adhere to the fundamentals of the Gospel. Doctrine should divide us from false teaching, not from variations within the truth.