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Essay

Unsexy Reformed

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Pious little towns often have such a character, maybe even three—the irreverent skeptic, the loudmouth agnostic, more well-read and agile than the typical small town believer, adept at pointing out the bumper crop of religious pettiness and hypocrisy. Often he (and it is almost always a he) is beloved, the trickster, the one who makes us laugh at parties, who says things most godly folk only dream of.

He and I had engaged a few times over the years—evolution, Marcus Borg, Pascal’s wager. Me usually trying not to take the bait, not meet his stereotypes, not confirm his low expectations.

But now he was dying, and I wondered if there would be any cracks in the hard-boiled agnosticism, any vulnerability. There wasn’t much. He said, “I still just can’t believe in God.” Quietly I replied, “Maybe it is more important that God believes in you.”

With this he sat up, sputtered, obviously annoyed. “What do you mean? That crazy predestination stuff?”

Recently here, Jes Kast-Keat has described being Sexy Reformed. That’s great for Jes, but not really a label for me. Then The Blazing Center’s Stephen Altrogge spoofed “Early Warning Signs of Adult Onset Calvinism.” It didn’t sound at all like me. I’m a lifer. I don’t have the zeal and sharp edges of a convert. I’m not really familiar with the work of John Piper, and I’m fine keeping it that way.

I am not self-consciously or combatively Reformed. It is barely intentional, more innate, almost genetic. In college (mine was a hotbed of holiness Wesleyanism where I was inoculated so I never caught the disease), I was reading some textbook for an introductory religion class. I don’t remember the topic anymore, but I thought it was making good sense. It felt right to this sophomore. At the end of that section, it said something like, “This is the classically Reformed view.” I felt spooked yet somehow gratified.

We could now have a colossal and convoluted conversation about what it really means to be Reformed. Which of its various hallmarks are most essential, non-negotiable? Let me instead offer a quick take on one of its most maligned and misunderstood doctrines—election. Or if you must, predestination.

It is easy to portray it in its ugliest form—a capricious god picking a few and damning a lot. Here in a brief blog it is impossible to address all of those cob-webbed corners and murkiness.

I can’t make a good choice when I stand in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. How am I supposed to make the right choice for Jesus, for faith, for everlasting life? Thankfully, our gracious God chooses me. Grace isn’t simply an offer, a possibility we can choose. In Jesus Christ, grace comes to us. It is sheer gift, God’s doing. Otherwise, it has to be that I’m smarter, more repentant, more spiritually sensitive, or just a better person than those who resist faith.

Here’s an experience I bet none of you have had. Out of the blue, I received a call from a college (see above) friend. He was driving across the country and wanted to swing by to say hi after many years. Here’s the extraordinary part. “I remember you are Reformed. Would you happen to have a copy of the Canons of Dort that I could have?” (Of course, I always keep one in my pocket!) When he arrived, he wasn’t especially forthcoming. My guess is that he was weary of being saved and then not. Of being “born again” again, only to have it slip away, his eternal destiny equivalent to his latest mood. I gave him a copy and never heard from him again. I’ve taught Dort often enough that I’ve made peace with most of it. Are there parts I would say differently, or not say at all? Yes! Do I wish we could a do a sort of Eugene Peterson’s The Message version of it? Absolutely. But don’t overlook the pastoral, patient, and mature voice it often has.

Back to my conversation with the town agnostic: In a world still drunk on self-determination, on our volition, and our reason, a Reformed understanding of election conveys an ancient and again-new wisdom. It goes wonderfully against the grain of notions of our freedom, ability to choose, to be personally responsible for our fate. This is why he took it as an affront.

More and more, don’t we recognize that we rarely stand as free, equal, and autonomous individuals, noble in our impartiality, making rational decisions? We are products of our genetics, our community, our traditions. Everyone from social scientists to evolutionary biologists seems to be telling us that our decisions have deep, even primal, roots, and are not nearly as solitary and unencumbered as we like to think. This doesn’t make us victims or trapped, passive or irrational. I realize this isn’t an especially theological argument for being unsexily Reformed. But it does help deflate the myth of modern man (sic) as wise, powerful, rational, and the captain of his own destiny.

That someone, a gracious God, has taken hold of me, and does better for me than I could do myself—that sounds like good news to me.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

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