Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Amazing Grace Books That Have Shaped Me - Part Seven

Bob Rakestraw

“The Benediction Project”

10. Grace Unlimited, Clark H. Pinnock, editor (Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 264 pp.

This book came to me at a crucial time in my life and ministry. There was a crisis coming, and I knew I had to face it soon. I was just finishing my second year as pastor of a Baptist church in New Jersey, and the pastoral responsibility that gave me the deepest satisfaction was preaching. I thoroughly enjoyed both the sermon preparation and the sermon delivery. As in most churches, our Sunday morning service was considered the major gathering time for the church members and all others who wished to attend.

As I stood at the pulpit preaching, I was always aware of the possibility that some in attendance might not be true followers of Jesus Christ. In light of this, I always—at some time during the sermon—explained in brief the message of the Bible that everyone is sinful and needs to respond to God’s invitation to come to him, through the cross of Jesus Christ, to be saved for time and eternity. I always included a plea to those present who had never received Christ in true repentance and faith to “receive him now—today!”

But I had a problem, and it was growing worse every Sunday. Basically, it had to do with my telling the truth. When I urged people to “come to Christ today,” whether they were regular attenders or visitors, I would also emphasize that God was reaching out to them and to all people to bring them by his grace into his spiritual family. God longs for everyone to be saved.

My difficulty was that I was becoming more and more aware of a contradiction in my mind between this open invitation to come to Christ and the idea that everyone—before his or her birth—has been predestined to go either to heaven or hell, and nothing can change God’s sovereign decree.

The latter view, which has come to be known as the Calvinistic or Reformed view of salvation, is in contrast with the Arminian or Wesleyan view that I was preaching. My issue was that I regarded myself as a Calvinist, because I felt that Calvinism was what the Bible taught, yet I was preaching as an Arminian. The tension within me was becoming unbearable. I knew I needed to present the truth of the Bible consistently, no matter what the consequences would be. Yet, what was the truth?

When I came to the church as pastor two years earlier I did not have this problem. I was a Calvinist, but a reluctant one, because the “horrible decree” (John Calvin’s own words) of predestination was extremely difficult to accept, both in my mind and in my heart. Yet I was determined to be faithful to God’s Word. God’s ways were just and good, and his wisdom was past finding out.

When I offered an invitation on Sunday mornings before my conversion from Calvinism to Arminianism, I would qualify my words enough so that they did not contradict my Reformed theology. “I urge you, if you sense God working in your heart right now, drawing you to himself, then come to him in repentance and faith to receive his gift of salvation. God will not turn away anyone who comes to him.” Of course, in my mind, I assured myself that my words were biblical because the only ones who would come to God were those who had been predestined to do so. They, and they alone, are given true repentance and saving faith. So my words in themselves were true, but I felt insincere by leaving out the huge Calvinistic qualifications.

As time progressed I felt I could no longer perform these mental gymnastics on Sunday mornings. I began to study in a fresh, new way the biblical teachings on how people come to Christ. I studied the major scriptures that seemed to support Calvinism and the major scriptures that seemed to support Arminianism. Gradually I was returning to the Arminian view that I had held for my first several years as a new Christian. And I was becoming more and more excited about this renewed theology that was fitting together harmoniously and biblically. I no longer felt discomfort while I was inviting people to come to Christ.

Grace Unlimited, contending for the Arminian view, came along at just this time. My switch from Calvinism back to Arminianism was pretty well complete by the time I discovered this book. Even so, I simply devoured it. So many of the biblical teachings explained in this valuable book were points that I had discovered already. These twelve essays confirmed over and over the truths I had been finding, and explained and refined them even more clearly.

In addition to his introduction and article, editor Clark Pinnock includes essays from I. Howard Marshall, Grant R. Osborne, David J.A. Clines, Vernon C. Grounds and other highly-esteemed scholars—all building a solid and biblically consistent case for Arminianism. (I really don’t care for the labels Calvinist and Arminian, but they are so widely used I decided to stick with them.)

Even though the church congregation had no idea of my recent struggles, I felt a freshness and a freedom as I preached, counseled, served and lived daily. While I have numerous Calvinistic friends—ones I have respected deeply for many years—I have to live and serve God according to the scriptures as I see them.

This is all God asks of any of us. He does not expect us—whether Calvinists or Arminians—to devise a flawless theological system with no loose ends, no questions unanswered, and no elements of mystery. But he does ask us to study his word with diligence, open-minded attention to other views, honesty, humility, and with an eagerness to believe and obey what we are finding. He also asks us to love and respect all people, including those with whom we disagree on predestination and the universal salvific will of God.

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