An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the conception of following Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
When i was a young lad at Eastern Nazarene College, right down the street from “blue” Quincy Bay, I took a class called Philosophical Quest with a man named Dr. Thomas J. Oord (“the doctor of love”). During the course of the semester I came to the understanding that the God of Jesus of Nazareth IS Love and that we are creatures made in God’s image so that we can respond freely to God’s desire to be in relationship with us (creation). Not too far into taking this course, a friend of the family happened to be visiting from New York. This friend happened to be a newly converted Calvinist and he was after me like a heat-seeking missile. While I was sharing about the great freedom I has experienced from this new found truth about God, he began to quote scripture (Romans 8-10, Ephesians 2, John 3). ‘At this time I was a young, impressionable evangelical mind, and I began to think that this “doctor of love” had duped me with flowery language in order to lead me away from the truth! Indeed, I was told that this college professor was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Needless to say, I dove head first into the soteriological system known as “the doctrines of grace,” a.k.a Calvinism.
From that point on, I became one of two “Reformed” students in the class, ready and willing to stomp out the sea of heretical Arminians. What’s strange is that, to this day, I’m not sure what came over me. It’s as though simply believing in the “doctrines of grace” led me to become an attack dog for God. A quiet student before this, I began to raise my hand in defense of the faith so that my fellow classmates would have the chance to hear “the truth” before they spent too much time believing that God actually loved the people God made.
Over time I softened on my stance that there were some divinely elected before the universe was made to experience the joys of heaven, while others were predetermined to suffer in the fires of hell. I didn’t stop embracing Calvinism for another couple years, but I did relax on my defense of the system as time moved on. I just couldn’t reconcile all the suffering in the world with the idea that all was going according to God’s plan, and I didn’t feel like the sovereignty of God, as defined by Calvinists, provided an adequate or biblical explanation for the mess that is planet earth.
More importantly, I discovered that my embrace of the idea that God was willing all that came to be (rape, genocide, sex-trafficking, etc.) left me crippled. It was way too much to handle or even think about. Actually following Jesus became purely optional. I mean, I had been forgiven and any attempt to do good works would be like filthy rags anyway, so why should I get caught in the trap that the Catholic church had set before the time when Martin Luther and John Calvin set everyone straight! After all, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was just showing us how sinful we were and in need of his substitutionary death. He certainly didn’t mean for us to pursue a righteousness that goes deeper than the law! You may be able to see why, at the time, I mustered very little resolve to enter into the lives of people who didn’t have the luxury of going to heaven when they died.
As Bonhoeffer said, when we allow man-made systems to guide us, even systems characterized by grace and forgiveness, we make discipleship superfluous. This means that not only do we suffer, not experiencing the life Jesus offered, but folks who are without any hope or faith are simply offered something other than a horoscope or the possibility of winning the lottery to believe in.
We spend more time debating matters that are out of our hands than we do sharing the good news of freedom from oppression with our lives. We offer a new belief system (often based on guilt and shame) rather than a living and breathing community patterned after the loving, triune God. Therefore, our churches have become splintered and impotent, allowing theological debate to rule the day when Jesus had already defeated all the arguments we continue to use against following him like a child.
That’s why I was a one time, never-to-be-repeated Calvinist. I can never again adopt a system of salvation, because I’ve been freed from the need to be caged in a prison of TULIPs. These systems paralyze us into thinking we have it all figured out and that our sole duty as soldiers in the army of God is to share that information with other people. Don’t let that happen. Let the mess we have made overtake the neat and tidy world we would like to embrace. It’s only when we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the pain we experience that we can find the Messiah who was emptied, leaving himself vulnerable for the whole world.