God’s grace and Calvinism revisited


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.


A confession about Confession

I gathered all my courage and went to first confession. I felt about as willing as a dog heading for a bath, but I fortified myself with the thought that in almost every Protestant to Catholic conversion story I had ever read, new converts testified to feeling a great sense of peace after confession.

A note to non-Catholic readers: we are given the opportunity, and even encouraged, to confess to a priest whom we don’t know so well, especially for first confession. I can’t express how relieved I was when I found this out.

Before we started, the priest who was going to be hear my confession tried to reassure me. He said that he had never taken part in the Sacrament of Confession, either as the one listening to confession or as the one confessing their sins, without having some sense that God was at work. This encouraged me a little, and I really hoped that he was right.

I went through my pathetic collection of sins, the ones committed long ago, which still bothered me, and the ones which are like persistent weeds in the garden, and keep coming back no matter how much you try to get rid of them. It isn’t easy to voice these things, and confession was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Before I went to confession, I worried that I would be set a time-consuming and difficult penance like visiting strangers in hospital or volunteering for a charity. However, I was simply given a prayer to say in the church afterwards. The priest pronounced absolution and that was it. I felt no relief or peace or sense of God’s presence. All I felt was an awful sense of my own sin and worry that I had made a total mess of confessing it.

Maybe this magic feeling of lightness and peace would only work after doing penance, and so I said my prayer, as fervently as I could, although I was burdened by a heavy sense of my own unworthiness and sinfulness. Afterwards I didn’t feel better. If anything, I felt worse.

I scuttled home feeling like a small, low creature which could do nothing good, and which should best stay out of everyone’s way. I am a mother, and so when I reached home, I just had to get on with what needed to be dealt with. However, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something had gone horribly wrong and that God was angry with me and wouldn’t forgive me.

When I got the chance, I thought back over what I had confessed and wondered if I had got it wrong. Maybe I should have tried to remember every single sin I had ever committed. However, that would have been impossible. Even if I had attempted it, the confession would have taken days. Father K had instructed me to pray for guidance, and to confess the things which bothered me, and that’s exactly what I had done.

I couldn’t understand why I felt so bad. The day before I made my first confession, I went to the church to pray. I was alone and yet not alone, as if there was an unseen presence which expected me there and welcomed me. I felt great peace. The next day, after making confession, I felt anything but peaceful. Something must have gone very badly wrong.

When I had time to indulge my feelings, I wept and read Psalm 51 in which David says, “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” Sackcloth is hard to come by these days, but I did the next best thing and dressed in old clothes. I felt as if I was carrying an impossible burden, like dragging chains which were attached to great heavy lumps of stone so that I could hardly inch forward.

I was due to be received into the church in a few days time, but I decided I would probably have to cancel since I didn’t feel as if my sins were forgiven. However, I had already told lots of people, including my family who had taken the news better than I expected. I didn’t want to cancel, but I also didn’t want to commit a sacrilege by taking Communion unworthily. Maybe I could ask Father K about being received into the church without ever taking Communion. That seemed like a very good solution.

At this point the game was up. Attending church without ever taking Communion, where had I heard that before? I was behaving like the people in my Calvinist church and refusing to believe that God could forgive me. It took a lot of faith. If I believed Jesus’ teaching when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” then I had to believe in God’s mercy in spite of my feelings that God hadn’t forgiven me.

By faith, I tried to put the miserable feelings of sinfulness and unworthiness aside, and believe in God’s forgiveness. The priest had heard the worst I had ever done, but instead of shouting and telling me that I was an awful person, he had shown compassion. My image of God was worse than the example of the priest who represented him. Clearly I had to challenge my own warped image of God and believe that the true God could show compassion and forgiveness.

Turning up at the church for my reception and confirmation was an act of faith. I told Father K that I had found confession very difficult. I said, “I’m not doing very well with sacraments. I’m not expecting to have feelings of peace and joy after today. I might still feel guilty and miserable.”

He replied, “If you don’t feel peace and joy after today, you can sue me.”

A week later, after I had been received into the church, I looked back on the confusing, painful experience of confession, and realised that it had been absolutely necessary, like painful but life-giving surgery. Without confession, I wouldn’t have realised that I still had deep-rooted unbelief in God’s love and forgiveness, and without a priest to listen to me, I wouldn’t have had an example of how God’s compassion works.

Any readers who’ve stuck with the last few posts will be pleased to know that that’s all I have to say on confession for the moment. Maybe I should have entitled this post, ‘A Calvinist goes to Confession and comes back a bit less of a Calvinist’. However, that would have been a bit long. Oh, and just for the record, I didn’t sue Father K.

A Calvinist prepares for confession

I’ll make no bones about it. Confession was probably the Catholic teaching with which I struggled the most. Again and again, I came back to the question, why not just confess my sins to God?

Two passages in the Bible challenged this view. One is the verse in James 5:16 ‘Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

The other is the passage in John 20:23 where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, ‘“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” The Catholics belief that this passage describes Jesus establishing the Sacrament of Confession.

In my first post on confession, I described how some of the things I had done in the past came back to bother me as I investigated Catholicism. They bothered me so much that I couldn’t wait for some future date when I might or might not become Catholic, and so I confessed them to God. I felt a great sense of peace afterwards, which would suggest that I had never actually confessed them to God before.

Now I know that Protestant readers are going to say, ‘Stop right there’. You confessed them to God and that’s enough. However, these things had come back to bother me in the context of investigating Catholicism. When I confessed them to God, I told Him that I wasn’t trying to bypass Confession. Therefore I think that the peace I felt would have been falsely won if I had dodged out of Confession.

I mentioned in the last post, that I was brought up in a Calvinist church where many people didn’t take Communion, because they didn’t believe that they are worthy. These people struggled to believe that God has forgiven them.

In one of my conversations about Confession, I blurted out, ‘There’s nothing you can do about Protestant guilt.’ I had a good think about what I had said, and realised that the church in which I grew up, provided no clear path for those burdened by guilt, to talk over the things which were bothering them and receive assurance that God can forgive. This may have happened in informal conversations between individuals and their minister. However, many people were waiting for God would to give them assurance that they were saved. They faithfully attended church and lived exemplary Christian lives without ever receiving Communion.

Some people in my Protestant church did put themselves forward for church membership and Communion. Perhaps they were troubled by a less sensitive conscience. Leaving it up to something as subjective and dependent on the individual and their circumstances as a feeling of assurance, doesn’t work. Some people will come to the conclusion that God has forgiven them and others will always doubt that they are forgiven.

These thoughts led me to the conclusion that some formal way of helping people deal with guilt was necessary and I accepted the idea of Confession. As I prepared for it, my biggest fear was that I would bare my soul, confess my sins and at that at the end the priest hearing my confession would say, “I’m sorry. One of these sins is just too bad and I amn’t allowed to absolve you.”

Father K told me that a priest could absolve almost any sin, including murder. However, he mentioned that one sin required permission from Rome, and I immediately started worrying that I had committed the one and only sin which parish priests weren’t allowed to absolve. This sin was so rare that Father K no longer had it on the tip of his tongue. He did some research and told me that a sin leading to ex-communication from the Catholic church was the only one parish priests couldn’t deal with. Obviously that didn’t apply to me, but I was still very nervous as I got ready to go to Confession. I’ll write one more post about Confession and I promise that that will be the last you’ll hear about it for a while.

Something else beginning with ‘C’

I grew up in a family and in a church which subscribed to Calvinist beliefs. Of course, as a child I didn’t know that I was a Calvinist. I listened to the church’s teachings in sermon after sermon, but it was a long time before I became aware of the underlying beliefs.

Calvinism is a bit like time travel; it seems simple at first, but if you think out all the consequences, then you get tied up in knots. Calvinists believe that because God is all-powerful, He has already pre-ordained everything which happens. This means that before the world was created, God decided who would be saved and go to heaven and who would spend eternity in hell.

Religion is full of apparent paradoxes, which you just have to accept at one layer of belief and sometime later on, when you are able to go deeper into the mystery, you catch a glimpse of a bigger picture where the paradoxes resolve. Paradox aside, Calvinism raises some serious problems. Where does our free will come in, if God has decided everything, and how can a loving God create people knowing that no matter what they do, they will go to hell?

When I was looking into becoming Catholic, I came across the writing of Frank Schaeffer, who was brought up in Switzerland as the son of American Calvinist missionaries. In his novel ‘Portofino’, the main character is a boy called Calvin. He wrestles with the Calvinist beliefs of his missionary parents, in a way that would be funny, if it wasn’t also sad. For instance, he tries to escape the fact that God already knows exactly what he’s going to do, by doing something so fast and so unexpected that he hopes he’ll get one step ahead of God’s pre-ordained plan.

In the novel ‘Portofino’, Calvin and his parents believed that they were among God’s Elect whom he had pre-ordained to be saved. However, most members of my own family, doubted that they were among the Elect. They believed that unless God gave you assurance of salvation, preferably in some kind of Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type conversion, then you were not saved. If God hadn’t already shown you that you were numbered among the Elect, who were you to approach the God of the universe and ask for His forgivenes? Who indeed.

I grew up with a feeling of hopelessness. I was caught no matter what I did. If I didn’t try to live as a Christian and attend church, I was damned. On the other hand, even if I tried to live a Christian life, at the end of it, I might still find out that I was pre-destined to Eternal Damnation.

The effect of this kind of teaching was that many people, including myself, did not become church members and take communion. They doubted that God would actually forgive them and feared taking communion unworthily.

So there you have it: Calvinism, the Highland version.

I’ll finish with the thoughts of Emily MacDonald on Highland Presbyterianism. She was born in England and her uncle Lord Leverhulme had just bought the island of Lewis when she made her first trip there in 1918. She married a young doctor from Lewis in 1923, and although they settled in England, she retained a great affection for the island and visited on holiday. In ‘Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories’, she writes:

A very strict form of Presbyterianism is observed by a large number of the inhabitants, and I feel that the beliefs held prevent many truly Christian men and women from receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They pass through life debarred from this service, because they dare not venture to partake of it for fear they be not worthy. …. What a help and comfort this service might be to hundreds of good-living Lewis men and women, whose chief ‘sins’ are that they read novels and write letters or take a walk and discuss mundane problems on Sunday afternoons though it is likely that they have attended church in the morning and will do so again in the evening.