If the title of this book shocks you, you’re not alone. To our shame, Calvinism is not typically associated with humility. I’m proof of that—part of me didn’t want to read this book because I was happy in my little bubble of theological pride. Halfway through the first chapter, I had to put the book down and get on my knees before God to repent of my arrogance.
By writing Humble Calvinism, J.A. Medders aims to point his readers back to a right view of Calvinism. This doesn’t involve changing our doctrine, but rather allowing our doctrine to truly change us. He says in the first chapter: “We don’t need less Calvinism; we need real Calvinism—one that resides in our hearts rather than merely lodging in our hearts” (p. 25).
Early on, Medders considers the purpose of doctrine. He cautions against “theological taxidermy”, where we collect and preserve our theology like specimens mounted on a wall. Instead, doctrine should always centre on Jesus and point us back to him.
The rest of the book walks through each of the traditional five points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Our pride comes from having only an intellectual understanding of these doctrines, which doesn’t reach our hearts. On the other hand, we must become humble when we truly understand Calvinism as the Bible presents it.
We begin with the doctrine of Total Depravity: “We are totally unrighteous and need God to save us” (p. 33). Medders illustrates the comparison between proud and humble Calvinists using Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). The proud Calvinist signs off on this doctrine, but the depravity we see is rarely our own. We prefer to point the finger at other people. Yet when we truly understand total depravity, Medders argues, we are driven to sympathy and dependency rather than pride.
Unconditional Election is the belief that “God chose to save sinners apart from any human merit” (p. 33). There’s no room for pride. If we really believe this, it also has huge implications for how we treat other people. God has accepted us when we don’t deserve it, so we too must love other people without conditions or theological strings. Medders prompts us to examine ourselves: “Have we ever made Calvinism, instead of Christ, the comfortable terms of Christian love and fellowship?”.
When it comes to Limited Atonement, Medders prefers the phrase definite atonement: “Jesus’ death on the cross secured the salvation specifically of his people” (p. 33). This puts the emphasis on what Jesus explicitly achieved, not what he made a mere possibility. If you trust in Jesus, he died for you. On the impact of this doctrine, Medders writes: “Definite Atonement, the death-blow to our sins, must also be the death-blow to our pride…[it] brings a definite humility to our lives, seen in acts of specific, sacrificial service” (p. 110).
The doctrine of Irresistible Grace states that “sinners believe in Christ because God draws them to himself” (p. 33). Medders argues against a misunderstanding of this point, whereby evangelism is unnecessary because God will save his chosen people anyway. Instead, he makes the case that this doctrine gives us boldness and confidence in evangelism. God doesn’t need us, so we can’t boast, but he graciously invites us to be involved in spreading the gospel to all the world.
The final doctrine, Perseverance of the Saints, tells us that “Christians cannot lose their salvation; they will endure till the end” (p. 33). Humility necessarily follows this belief, for we are preserved by God’s hold on us, not our ability to hold onto him. Our union with Jesus means we have his righteousness forever. This puts boots on our doctrine, for being united with our sinless Saviour compels us to live a holy life.
All throughout this book, Medders shows us that “holy happiness is the main export of Calvinism” (p. 158). None of the doctrines of grace should make us prideful or lazy—rather, when they pierce our hearts we see more clearly our utter dependence upon God. We are empowered to love and serve God and the people around us.
If you’ve been turned off Calvinism by the pride of those who profess it, read this book. Early on there’s a short section on the history and jargon of this tradition, which makes it user-friendly for non-Calvinists. And of course, I highly recommend all Calvinists read it too. Prepare to be challenged about any pride that clings to your theological convictions.
I’m still firmly convinced that Calvinism is what the Bible teaches—in fact, Humble Calvinism reminded me how deeply rooted these doctrines are in Scripture. But thanks to Medders I now know how to use them as a wellspring of joy, and hopefully a magnet for the gospel, rather than wielding them as a weapon against those who disagree with me.
This review was originally published on the Reformers Bookshop blog.