God’s grace and Calvinism revisited

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As I wrote in my conversion story, I realised that the greatest challenge in my life would be receiving and responding to God’s love.

The Calvinist God

I grew up with a Calvinist God, an angry, intolerant figure who was going to send many of us to hell no matter what if we hadn’t made it onto the list of Elect. After being brought up with a weekly diet of hell, fire and judgement sermons, it was hard for me to believe in God’s love.

This kind of fear was certainly not limited to a Calvinist upbringing. In God of Surprises, Fr Gerard Hughes writes about the Catholic version, comparing religious instruction to a small child being taken to see their Great-Uncle George whom supposedly loves them. Before they leave, however, he shows them the furnace in the cellar and threatens to throw them in if they don’t visit every week.

In the church I was brought up in, only people who had been shown by God that they were among the Elect were considered to be saved. The other people, no matter how devout they were and how much they tried to live good lives, were going to go to Hell. In other words, there was nothing you could do to decide your salvation.

This led to despair. It also led to people not taking part in the Lord’s supper as they felt they weren’t worthy.

I was recently digging around in The Statistical Accounts of Scotland online, which, despite their dry name, are actually fascinating accounts written by ministers on all aspects of their parishioners’ lives. In a report in1845, the Rev Archibald Clerk wrote:

The majority of the people have been brought to regard the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s supper, with horror which causes almost all of them to avoid partaking of it

So, the feeling that we weren’t worthy to receive God’s grace through the Lord’s supper was not a new thing.

How can I trust God?

It’s taken me a long time and many years in exile from the church to even begin to unravel the tangle of love and fear, duty and punishment. When I was drawn back to Christianity and began attending a Catholic church, I felt like a someone who has survived an abusive relationship and is trying to build another one. How could I trust God? How could I believe in His love? How could I believe that He wanted anything good for me? Wouldn’t I be better trying to eke out whatever good I could get out of life on my own?

I also still felt that if I made mistakes or drifted away from God, I had to grovel, beg and persuade God to forgive me. Things had moved on from my perception of God when I was a Calvinist, but not a lot. In my new understanding, God would listen, but would still only grudgingly forgive if I managed to be sufficiently penitent.

Now, I am beginning to see something different. When I ask for God’s forgiveness, it isn’t about changing God’s mind, getting Him to give me another chance or persuading Him that I might have a good bone in me and be worth a bit of love.

No, it’s about healing, healing of the hurt part of me which can’t believe in God’s grace, healing of the part of me that is so twisted and curled in on itself that it is unable to receive the love that God always offers.

God’s grace

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I am beginning to understand my helplessness. I can’t save myself. That may seem like a truism. Haven’t I always been told, no matter what flavour of church I’ve been in, that Jesus saves?

But have I really taken that to heart? Haven’t I tried to ‘earn’ my salvation, by being good, keeping the ten commandments, helping people, respecting the law? As a Catholic, haven’t I sometimes let myself think that I somehow ‘deserve’ salvation by going to Mass regularly? When I’ve slipped up, haven’t I seen the Sacrament of Reconciliation as something I do to make things okay with God again.

Only now am I beginning to understand that I can’t by my own power do anything to heal myself and overcome my faults. All I can do is receive God’s grace and God’s healing. When I ask for forgiveness, whether alone in prayer, or through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s about healing the barriers to receiving God’s love and grace, including my own refusal to accept it.

Calvinism revisited

When I look again at the verses which were quoted to back up Calvinism, I see now that it’s all about grace:

Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made to be holy and faultless before him in love, marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ. Such was his purpose and good pleasure, to the praise of the glory of his grace, his free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. (Ephesians 1: 4-7)

The Calvinists almost got it right. So close, and yet so far. They understood that salvation is God’s free gift, that there’s nothing we can do to earn it or add to it. But in teaching that it was wrong to ask God for mercy and salvation, they made a grave and damaging error. We can’t do anything to add or take away from God’s salvation, but it does require an important step on our part: ACCEPTANCE.

God is outside of time and I am in it. And here is the paradox. God is omnipotent, and yet He has limited Himself, taken on human nature, made Himself vulnerable. In giving us free will, He has allowed us to receive or to refuse Him, not just once and for all, but continually. In every moment of every day, He’s there waiting for us to turn Godwards.

I’ll give Julian of Norwich the last word:

This is his meaning: that we should see what he does and pray that it should be done … It is our Lord’s will that, whatever he plans to do, we should pray for it, either in particular or in general. The joy and delight it gives him, and the thanks and glory we shall be given because of it, pass all understanding – in my sight.

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