A tale of the things we believe and why we believe them, by Steve Sabin
This article (except comments thereto) is copyright © 2020, Steve Sabin. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Our protagonist, the acolyte, is a young man in his 20s named Jordan Frazier. He became a Christian about a year ago and is very passionate about his faith. He isn’t yet real fluent in the scriptures and struggles with some of what he is reading. He loves his church’s worship, but the messages are mostly motivational rather than doctrinal or methodical verse-by-verse deep dives. He has the Bible on his iPad and has been reading through the New Testament – sometimes during his lunch hour at work. A few weeks ago, he hit the middle of Romans and is struggling – like almost everyone – to understand chapters 9-11. He continued reading and is now in Galatians, but the passages in Romans have been gnawing at him.
Peter “Thiely” Thielsen is in his early 40s and is Jordan’s co-worker. He embraced “the doctrines of grace” while he was in college and has been attending a large, urban and youthful Reformed church since that time – Grace Metro. Thiely had a pretty brazen past – not unlike Augustine of Hippo – and his salvation was a lot like the Apostle Paul’s: arrested in his tracks when he wasn’t really looking for God. This made Thiely the perfect candidate for the appeal of both “T” and “U” in Calvinism because it matched his personal conversion experience almost perfectly. He reasoned that because God showed up in His life uninvited, his salvation was both sovereign and particular. Thiely has never turned back from his Reformed roots and he loves helping others in their spiritual walk. In episode 1, we meet both characters and Thiely becomes Jordan’s mentor. As the story progresses, additional characters will be introduced including Thiely’s “band of brothers” as well as several others in Jordan’s life that will prove influential.
Episode 1: Discovery
We begin our Chronicles with Jordan reading the Bible on his iPad during lunch. Thiely, sitting a few tables away, approaches Jordan to start a dialog, pulling out a chair and joining him at his table.
Jordan, our acolyte, is in italics. Thiely, our mentor, is in bold.
(Our corrective lens analogy will be woven throughout with parenthetical remarks).
Jordan – how’s it going? I noticed you were out of the office last week.
Hey Thiely! Yeah, I was in Philly struggling to get that beta installation working. We hit some major firmware issues but the team managed to correct most everything with a new build. I didn’t leave site until 7 on Friday night. Got home around 2AM. Slept most of Saturday. How about you? How you doing?
I’m doing great man. Couldn’t help but notice you were reading the Bible.
Yeah! How’d you know?
Olive Tree app. Can spot it a mile away. I take it you’re a believer?
Absolutely – and you?
Yessir. How do you like reading the Bible on your iPad?
You know, I love the platform – pretty much same size as a real Bible, and I love the app, but the subject matter is a killer sometimes. There are just some things in the Bible that seem almost impossible to understand. Romans 9, for example.
Hey – I hear you. Peter did say that Paul wrote “…some things hard to understand.” That was pretty much the greatest understatement of the last 2000 years, no? The Bible can be really hard to understand, particularly that passage. In fact, most don’t really understand that passage or the rest of the Bible because they hold to mutually exclusive and irreconcilable beliefs. But I have something that I think will help you.
I do indeed. It has helped me a ton over the years. But to introduce it properly, let me ask you a question.
Sure, have at it.
Do you believe that you were totally dead in your trespasses and sins?
Well, yeah. Of course I do. I know that I couldn’t save myself – it’s sort of Christianity 101. That’s why Jesus is such a big deal. He did what I couldn’t do.
So, there was NOTHING you could do to save yourself?
No, of course not. Where are you going with this?
Stay with me. It will all make sense in about 30 seconds. Next question: What does the word “dead” mean to you?
Well, you know, without life. Lifeless.
Precisely. Can lifeless things respond? If you beat them? Scream at them? Threaten them? Cajole them?
No, that would be stupid!
Agreed. But that is exactly what some people believe.
They refuse to accept the plain words of scripture where it says we are DEAD in our trespasses and sins.
Wow, I never thought of it quite that way – but you’re right! Dead means dead.
(the glasses are now firmly in the acolyte’s hand, and he is looking at them with a sense of wonderment)
So, if we are truly DEAD, then somebody has to resurrect us – at least enough so that we can respond to the Gospel. Without that, we’d remain totally unresponsive, right?
Yeah, exactly. I think I see where you’re going with this.
So if God has to resurrect you from the dead to respond, and not everybody responds, it must mean that He doesn’t choose everyone to respond, right? We call the responders “the elect” and the non-responders the “non-elect”.
Yeah – I’ve heard that word “elect” before. I wasn’t exactly sure how to construe it.
(the glasses are now getting closer to the nose and one temple piece of the frames has been unfolded)
When we understand that dead means CANNOT respond instead of WILL NOT respond, this is really the first step to understanding the scriptures. See the distinction?
Absolutely. So does this mean that I’m one of the elect?
Well, God doesn’t tell us directly whether we are one of the elect or not. It is a secret He keeps to Himself, but the fact that you have responded to the Gospel and have a hunger for His word are pretty strong indicators that you’re elect. Do you mind if I borrow your iPad for a minute?
Sure – go right ahead.
I remember seeing almost this exact question on a website recently, answered really well by my favorite teachers – John Piper. No sense reinventing the wheel. (long pause) OK – found it. Let me read it to you:
“…the assurance of salvation is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:15–16 says, ‘You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom you cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness” with your spirit that you are a child of God.’ When you cry out “Abba! Father! Jesus! Lord!” that is the Holy Spirit testifying with your Spirit that you are a child of God. So ask Him for that gift. Ask Him for the gift of His own personal testimony that you are His.”
Oh man – what a relief. I’ve done that and I’ve experienced that. So that is the Holy Spirit bearing witness that I am elect?
Exactly. But can you see now that unless God individually chose you to resurrect, that you would not have been able to respond? And that because not everybody responds, it means not everybody is elect?
Yeah – I see it in my own life. It’s very clear to me.
That’s my story, too. In fact, when I came to Christ, I wasn’t even looking for Him – I was pretty much running the other way. He had to initiate the whole thing, because you and me were both as dead as doornails.
Dude, that is so humbling. I totally see it.
(the other temple piece has now been unfolded)
And can you now see the sovereignty of God at work? You didn’t choose Him – He chose You! If He didn’t, you couldn’t have responded to the Gospel.
Man, this is beginning to make a LOT of sense.
In fact, this is exactly what the Bible explains in Ephesians 1:4 where it says: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world”. Are you starting to see how these things fit together? Are you starting to see now what it means when it says you were “predestined”? He knew from even before the world was formed that you were going to be His child. He planned all along to resurrect you.
Yes! It makes so much sense to me. Why didn’t I see this before?
(the glasses are again being studied, this time with even more wonderment)
Well, like I said, most people don’t see it. They want to rely on their feelings about God and their own ideas about justice and fairness. Do you know anything about the reformation?
Well, not too much. I think it had something to do with rebelling against the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, right?
Spot on. One of the greatest theologians of that period was a guy named John Calvin. Have you ever heard of him?
I vaguely recall that name. Weren’t Luther and Zwingli also reformers?
Yup. Two heavy hitters. Calvin, however, might have been the heaviest of all. He was a lawyer and had a very logical mind. Like most lawyers, he was good at codifying things and especially making sure those “codes” or “truths” were carefully harmonized, so they did not conflict with one another. Much of his life’s work around this effort is in a series of books called “Institutes of the Christian Religion”.
Yeah – I think I’ve heard of that.
It is not light reading, but over the centuries, the basic ideas have been distilled into something known as TULIP.
Like the flower?
Yeah – like the flower. You can think of it as a tulip with five petals. Each petal is a truth and allows you to understand scripture. Together, the five truths form a “system” and this is why we call it a systematic theology. It’s this framework of truth that allows us to understand scripture properly. Our God is an orderly God, who created an orderly universe – wouldn’t you agree?”
Totally. And I love the thought of God’s ways being just as orderly as the universe He created.
Yup. That’s the beauty of a system. Everything works together. Now, back to our TULIP. The letter we assign to each of the five petals spells out the word “TULIP”. “T” for example, stands for “Total Depravity” or “Total Inability” and is what we have just been discussing – being TOTALLY dead in our trespasses and sins.
I’m with you. It’s clear as day. And what does “U” stand for?
That stands for Unconditional Election. It is also what we have been discussing. If you are truly dead, then you cannot elect yourself. God must do that. And because He is sovereign, everyone He elects must bend to His will. They cannot do otherwise because that is basically what “sovereignty” means – that the sovereign’s will is always done.
Wow – this makes SO much sense!
(the glasses have now been placed fully on the acolyte’s face. They are now HIS glasses. Everything hitting his optic nerves will henceforth be refracted through those lenses.)
We’ll start with “T” and “U” for now, but rest assured that the other 3 petals will all make perfect sense and will harmonize all of scripture for you. It will all make sense because – like I said – it’s a system and in a system, everything works together.
This is so cool. I was a little bummed when you walked up. Romans 9 has been eating at me.
Is it starting to make some sense?
Oh man, is it! Jacob was predestined for salvation. Esau wasn’t. It’s pretty much hiding right there in plain sight.
See – I told you this would help you understand the scriptures. I’d like to give you a little homework that involves just reading your Bible, is that OK?
Sure. You know, to be honest, I was actually dreading my reading a little bit, because I didn’t want to get high-centered again on a log like Romans 9. But now I’m feeling pretty stoked about reading again – I love it when things just WORK!
Have you ever heard of something called the “Five Solas”?
No – can’t say that I have. Singing group?
No, but that’s a pretty good guess. I’ll have to remember that. Actually, its from the Reformation. The reformers had something they called the “Solas”. Sola, Soli, and Solus are all variations of the Latin word for “alone” so you can think of these as the five “alones” or five “onlys”: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Solus Christus (Christ Alone), Soli Deo Glory (Glory of God Alone).
Ah. That explains your tattoo!
(Thiely has the five solas tattooed on his bicep, above a celtic braid)
Yep. Now you know! And that’s what’s so cool about TULIP. It really is the only systematic theology that lives up to every one of these.
Dude, this is the kind of Christianity I can sink my teeth into. Courageous. Uncompromising. Simple to understand. Everything fitting together. I like these reformers already!
So back to homework. It all has one thing in common: Sola Scriptura.
Sweet! Only the Bible.
Exactly. Only the Bible. I want you to read John 6:44 and Acts 13:48, thinking about what we’ve discussed today. Take your time and really meditate on them.
Yup. That’s it. We can tackle some more next week. How does a bible study on Tuesday night sound? There’s a great group of guys I’d like you to meet. We study, drink craft beer, and a few of the guys even smoke cigars. I’d like to introduce you to the “I” and “P” in TULIP. We’ll cover the “L” later because it might not make sense until we’ve done all the other letters, but then it will fit right into place.
Yeah, sure. Whatever order you think is best. Thiely, this is CRAZY awesome. Today really feels like a divine appointment. I never knew Christians were so hip – and so super-devoted to scripture! Man, this is a privilege. See you Tuesday!
(our acolyte is already thinking of going straight from glasses to Lasik, making this newfound key to scriptural understanding permanent)
Why We Believe
1. What “hooked” Jordan?
2. Where was the first error introduced? (Hint: there are many, but where is the FIRST one in the dialog?)
3. Is Jordan actually going to be able to proceed completely “Sola Scriptura”?
4. If not, what is now between him and the scriptures?
5. Is he aware of this intermediate “filter” at this stage?
We hooked our young acolyte by appealing to his total sinfulness and God’s sovereignty, producing a self-assured humility. We took the concept of “Total Depravity” and extended it beyond what the Bible teaches to become “Total Inability”. We backed this up with scripture, but our acolyte’s eye and understanding is not yet trained to spot the error or to refute the error. What has energized our young acolyte is the belief that he is now beginning to possess a system for understanding the Bible, and all of the things that seemed confusing and contradictory are now going to make sense. As an added bonus, he gets to be one of the humble ones! For a while, he will look in the mirror and admire the new glasses, but in time he will forget they are there. Eventually, they will never come off his face and he’ll graduate to the equivalent of contact lenses, which might come out just long enough to pop new ones in with the same prescription, or maybe he’ll just take the leap and go full-on Lasik so he no longer has to think about things for even a few seconds.
Everything he perceives biblically from this moment forward will be refracted. It will feel like unaltered light, but it is in fact altered light. And the light he gazes at will perhaps be mostly or even entirely scripture, thus reassuring himself, Thiely, and his brew pub bros that they are faithfully maintaining their bona-fide SOLA SCRIPTURA creds. High fives will abound over another round of craft beers.
Unaware of the lenses, when someone now challenges Jordan’s understanding of scripture, he will adamantly and stridently remind them that he is SOLA SCRIPTURA. When challenged, it will not really occur to him that he is defending his lenses – he will think he is defending scripture, and scripture alone.
10 thoughts on “The Acolyte Dialogues Episode 1: Discovery”
I’m waiting to see the whole thing published in book form.
I think a lot of Christian women would especially find it informative and highly relatable.
“Dead means dead” unless of course it is in Luke 15 where the Prodigal son was “dead” (says it twice) and yet came to his senses.
“Dead means dead” unless of course you mean “dead to sin”—- since we all still sin.
Can you scream at them…or cajole them?
Sure….Paul did. He reasoned with men, persuaded men…. Scripture says it pretty plainly.
So, Calvinists run way too far with the dead idea….
So, Calvinists run way too far with the dead idea…
Well said FOH!
Yes – they play it like an accordion – stretching it and shrinking it however they need – for whatever temporary position serves the purpose.
Luke 15:17 is particularly noteworthy: But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!‘ (NASB)
The words in bold are a single word in Greek (ἑαυτοῦ [heautou]) which means simply “himself”. This is precisely the opposite of being externally, providentially “zapped” with a gift of faith as Calvinism asserts. It means the ability to assess and respond to his situation was something the prodigal possessed as a normal, inherent part of his being. It required no divine intervention. Indeed, the story implies a level of insanity possessed him and it was natural consequences and common sense that got his attention – not a divine intervention of faith and awakening. Grace is apparent in the story because his father was under no obligation to take him back, and there was nothing the prodigal could do to force his way in or circumvent his father’s gracious forgiveness. He was ENTIRELY at the mercy of his father and the trip back to the door in no way meant he earned his way in. Nor does the son demand anything or boast in his decision. He simply repents and humbly requests to be treated like a slave – if indeed he gets back in the door at all.
Scripture is full of so many wonderful parables like this, such as the sower and the seed, that teach precisely the opposite of Calvinism. Oh that the Calvinist would take off the glasses long enough to see what is plainly before him.
I think the first error (besides maybe saying “I take it you’re a believer” and later hinting he might only think he’s among the elect…) was “In fact, most don’t really understand that passage or the rest of the Bible because they hold to mutually exclusive and irreconcilable beliefs.”
I hate this sort of “poisoning the well” tactic where one plants the seed that others with an opposing view only hold it because they are less intellectual/spiritual/humble/logical/studied, etc. And that others couldn’t possibly have harmonious and non-contradictory Biblical reasons for what they believe.
It also has the effect of priming the pride of the listener as “secret knowledge not everyone has” is held out to them.
Well said Jenai :-]
Thanks for your interesting article, Yes these false seeds are added to the Scripture which cause their system to take priority and distort plain Bible reading.
I am curious about what are your thoughts on the claims of the following article about current Calvinism in France, especially how do you reply to this sentence: “Predestination is a sweet, tasty, liberating doctrine, which means that man does not have to take care of his own salvation … God only knows who is elected; man, until his death, he will know nothing about it. It doesn’t depend more on him than the color of his eyes. … [Calvin] does not want God to be the “good God”, who forgives all and all the time, as in the parable of the prodigal son.”:
Obviously in writing a series of articles such as this, I believe that Calvin was misguided and the doctrine he codified is wrong and unscriptural. All five TULIP petals are in error.
And before Calvin, the error of Augustine, who is the real father of causal determinism — the fundamentally erroneous bulb from which Calvinism’s five petals sprout as logically interlocking necessities.
As the article series progresses, this will become more evident and the parable of the prodigal son as well as other parables will play a role in highlighting the doctrine’s departure from scripture and how foreign the teaching is from that of the apostles as well as church fathers for the first 400 years after Christ.
But this idea that “man does not have to take care of his own salvation” is precisely what makes Calvinism so appealing to many people. There is a feeling of superiority and immense relief that God picked them — even if the selection criteria is unknown. Calvinism ultimately absolves the elected man from responsibility for any aspect of salvation and renders verses such as 2 Cor 13:5 essentially meaningless. It is not “his” salvation to obtain, examine, or forfeit. It is God’s and the man is merely along for the ride with no ability to alter the outcome.
The article series will have about a dozen episodes before concluding so there is much more to come in the months ahead. Jordan is merely getting started at this point.
quote from Calvinism in France article:
“God only knows who is elected; man, until his death, he will know nothing about it”
Hello Emmanuel and welcome
If one thinks this statement through a little bit, one will discover it is actually double-think.
If you question the election status of the average Calvinist you are not going to find people who will acknowledge they “know nothing about it”.
If you ask them if they have no “certainty” of their election, they are not going to give you an affirmative answer.
The fact is – they look for behavioral signs of election – and use those as indicators
And they examine the behaviors of others who claim to be elect.
As a matter of fact they look for indicators of a person’s eternal fate – like they are reading tea leafs.
They use their own percentage of belief as their primary indicator.
If they find themselves questioning their election now and then – they are told that is not a sign of non-election.
But if they find themselves questioning their election too much – then they are in dangerous territory.
So how to correct that problem?
They force themselves to keep questions down to a minimum.
But human mind can easily do this using thought-blocking techniques
In short – they maintain their own mental state of belief.
Which in the end is simply a human work.
In other words, when you scrutinize the psychology of a salvation of “uncertainty” what you find is that “uncertainty” causes an internal mental duress that as akin to the minds response to physical pain.
The normal human response to “uncertainty” is to find ways to minimize it.
Building on that – the Calvinist will try to convince himself that his faith is supernaturally gift.
But again the doctrine says the Calvinist has no “certainty” of that as well.
So once again the human response is to manufacture faith in a form that minimizes the duress of uncertainty
And thus we are back to a human work again.
So in the end – Calvinist doesn’t REALLY escape the “good god” his doctrine tells him he is escaping.
He just convinces himself that he does – by using double-think.
I love the script and reading the replies. Thanks for another interesting and informative post!