To the surprise of many, Time magazine recently listed “The New Calvinism” as the third most important idea changing the world “right now.” What?? 500 years after the birth of John Calvin, is his theological namesake really enjoying resurgence in 2009?
I guess I’m not totally surprised. I’ve noticed the trend myself. I read Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed last year. I’ve been to Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I’ve witnessed many young Christian friends getting totally passionate about the Reformation and everything it represents.
But why is it happening now? What is it about Calvinism that is suddenly more appealing than it was just a decade ago? Here are a few of my initial thoughts—as someone who increasingly identifies with Reformed ideas (though not 100%): Calvinism is about certainty. In an era in which certainty is hard to come by and ambiguity is frequently championed, more and more young people are longing for something that is rock-solid certain. In Calvinism, there is no second-guessing about whether I’ve done enough or prayed the sinners prayer earnestly enough to be saved, because it has nothing to do with my own powers.
Calvinism emphasizes sin (total depravity) and places it at the starting point, rather than as a footnote. It cuts us humans down to size from the get go, underscoring both our desperate need for redemption and righteousness and our utter inability to achieve it ourselves. I think this really resonates with younger people today, who have grown up in a world that has told them they are good boys and girls who can do whatever they want to in life. They’ve been met with yeses at every turn, but are longing for nos. They recognize that they are far from the angelic harbingers of goodness that their parents, teachers, and advertisers have deemed them. Calvinism tells it like it is.
Calvinism views God in the highest way possible. He is sovereign and fearsome and awesome in ways we can’t begin to understand. While “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” doesn’t sound comforting, many people would still rather be in the hands of an angry God who is sovereign than a buddy God who is only partially sovereign and sometimes surprised (see Open Theism). In times of crisis and tragedy, an all-powerful God who effects everything to his purposes is so much more comforting than a God who isn’t in complete control.
Calvinism has a beautiful picture of grace. It is irresistible and unconditional. When God sets his eyes on us, we can’t escape his pursuit (and who would want a God who couldn’t capture those he sought to save?). As Sufjan Stevens beautifully sings in “Seven Swans”: He will take you / If you run / He will chase you / Because he is the Lord.
It rings true to many young people that nothing they can humanly do could ever achieve salvation—at least more true than the idea that God, the author and perfecter of our faith, saves only on the condition of some action on the part of the saved. On the contrary, the Calvinist view insists that we have no recourse to self-sufficiency or pride. As Paul writes in Galatians, “far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14).
Calvinism fears God. A healthy fear of God is totally lost on contemporary Christianity, which sees him as more of a “buddy/friend/therapist/guru” than the creator and sustainer of the universe. More and more young people are growing dubious of God-lite and prefer thinking of him as a commanding, dominating, dangerous God who deserves our deferential fear.
Calvinism ground itself in the bible rather than sugarcoated feel-goodisms. Consider what J.I. Packer says about this when he contrasts the “new” and “old” gospels in his famous introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:
“The pitiable Savior and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel. The old gospel tells men that they need God, but not that God needs them (a modern falsehood); it does not exhort them to pity Christ but announces that Christ has pitied them, though pity was the last thing they deserved. It never loses sight of the divine majesty and sovereign power of the Christ whom it proclaims but rejects flatly all representations of him that would obscure his free omnipotence.”
Calvinism is a little bit edgy, dark, and punk rock. It is less about hugs, Sunday School pink lemonade and “God loves you” than it is about discipline, deference and “God hates you in your sin; you are a wretch who needs God’s grace.” It's not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Kids like this.