The bible verse that made me a Calvinist

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Highlights are what I call instances in our lives that are so identifiable that we often share time with them. I’m sure you can think of several pretty quickly. The easiest are when you get married, graduate, etc.

The funny thing is that with some defining moments, we don’t realize their significance until many years later. This was the case for me when I began to meditate on a particular verse in Acts 13. I did not realize the influence this would have not only on my theology, but on my entire life.

I came across this verse after being recently confronted with Calvinist theology and Reformed thought. At the time, I was a new Christian and very opposed to Calvinist doctrines, as many are. They can seem abrasive because they go to the heart of who we are, our view of God, and our view of the world.

Yet we cannot deny that words like “predestination” and “chosen” do not appear in the Bible. Because they are. The question is, how do we manage them? How to integrate them into a systematic thought that helps to understand the bible in all its context?

If we profess to have a high opinion of the scriptures, which means that the scriptures are indeed the inspired word of God, then clearly we have to do something with them. We can’t pretend they don’t exist. God has given us his word to be “profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16) for believers. It is important to know how to understand election and predestination in the Bible.

For some, they take what I will traditionally call “Calvinist verses” and take a “hands off” approach; they put them in the same category of other mysteries of the bible and move on. For others, they do not see them as directed against individuals but groups of people, like the church as a whole. Or maybe they find ways to change the meaning of the word “predestined” to make it more like “foreknowledge.”

There are all kinds of different interpretations and understandings of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and the purpose of this article is not to provide an exhaustive review of each. Rather, it is to draw attention to the verse that, for me, shattered non-Calvinist interpretations of these Bible verses.

It should be added that it is not only this verse that finally convinced me of Reformed soteriology. But, cohesive collective thinking and a progression of how God has always dealt with His people throughout the entire Bible. Yet Acts 13:48 was monumental in this process.

When I first came across this part of the scriptures, I read it, reread it, and reread it. I encourage you to do the same. In fact, read the whole chapter – it’s a fantastic tale. I have provided a few more verses for immediate context. Note that Paul and Barnabas preach in Antioch.

The following Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews seeing the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what had been said by Paul, cursing him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke boldly, saying, “The word of God must first be spoken to you. Since you have cast him aside and deem yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For this is how the Lord commanded us, saying:

“I made you a light for the Gentiles,
so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth. ‘”

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and glorify the word of the Lord, and all who were destined to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord spread throughout the region. But the Jews incited high-ranking devout women and leading men in the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their neighborhood. But they shook the dust from their feet against them and came to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. (Acts 13: 44-52, emphasis added, ESV)

It was there, a defining moment. I think what is still so convincing to me about this verse is that it is not a broad doctrinal statement about God choosing a general people for himself. Nor is it a long theological treatise with difficult “if, then” statements. Rather, it is a very historical and contextual example of elections taking place in the Bible. This is a succinct statement, from Luke, on how God saved the Gentiles who heard the sermon.

Not to mention the fact that he says it so clearly and bluntly. Those who were “called to eternal life believed”. We can deduce from this text that there were also people present who were not named and who did not believe either, like the Jews in this text. Luke doesn’t look for excuses or qualify what he says. Rather, he explains how and what happened and moves on.

Reading this for the first time, I quickly grabbed some other translations and tried to see if that was for the version I was using. I saw words like “ordained,“ destined ”and“ elected. ”I couldn’t get around it. I put down my pen and began to pray for understanding. It wasn’t long before I decided I was “reformed.” It took a while for me to adopt the term “Calvinist,” after all, I didn’t want people to think I adore Jean Calvin!

But even that, over time, has become less of a problem. Calvin was not the author of these ideas, he was just the person in Church history that God has used to help the Church rediscover these beautiful truths.

I can now agree with Charles Spurgeon who once said: “So it is not a novelty that I am preaching; no new doctrine. I like to proclaim those strong old doctrines that we call by nickname Calvinism, but who are truly and truly the revealed truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus. By this truth I make my pilgrimage in the past, and as I advance, I see father after father, confessor after confessor, martyr after martyr, get up to shake my hand. . . Taking these things for the standard of my faith, I see the land of the ancients populated by my brethren; I see multitudes confessing the same thing as me and recognizing it’s the religion of God’s own church. (Spurgeon Sovereign Grace Sermons, Still Waters Revival Books, p. 170)

I think back now and realize how deep that moment was for me. My heart and my mind have been captivated by the word of God and changed. God opened my heart to understand the scriptures and it was only after that time that the Bible really started to make sense to me. I used to read sections of the scriptures and was largely confused about what was going on. But, with a general understanding of God’s sovereignty, the pieces fit together beautifully. The Bible finally made sense and communicated a common thread of hope throughout it – namely, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”

There are certainly mysteries in the Scriptures and areas that I’m sure all of my theology is not right about. But, one thing I have learned is to rely on the grace of God for forgiveness and right understanding. I thank God that there was a point in time when He appointed me for salvation. Because if He hadn’t chosen me, I never would have come.

Attribution of the original photo: “Belgium” by Willy Verhulst; CC 2.0

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