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Grace as big as creation
The fisher of man’s lures
In my pilgrimage, God used the idea of Calvinism as a lure. After hooking my soul through the testimony of my girlfriend’s family (she’s now my wife of 22 years), Jesus, the fisher of men, wouldn’t let me go. And so my conversion at 18 led to a reconfiguring of my vocation, setting off for Bible college in a different country, with nary a clue as to what the Lord of my life really had in store.
If it’s not too irreverent, when I think of my theological education I imagine the Sovereign Lord as a fly fisherman sort of teasing me with various lures that, in a flash, captivated my attention and hooked me again and again. As a freshman, I bumped into a whole treasure chest of wisdom (the bait!) in the works of the so-called “Old Princeton” theologians like Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, along with a fellow Presbyterian, William G. T. Shedd. I soon discovered that what they all shared in common was “Calvinism”—a theological vision and project that seemed to have deep intellectual reservoirs. Here was a well from which I could drink for a very long time.
Pulled into the boat
What first captivated me about Calvinism was its soteriology, or doctrine of salvation. Calvinism offered a robust, biblical, and historic account of personal salvation, helping me to make sense of all those biblical passages about sin, grace, election, and predestination. Not only did this make sense of the Scriptures for me, it also had an existential resonance. It accounted for that deep sense that I had been found, not that I had found what I was looking for. (I became a Christian a year after U2’s Joshua Tree was released, so . . .)
But having been hooked by soteriology, God sort of reeled me into an even bigger theological universe. While it was trying to understand personal salvation that brought me into the orbit of the Reformed tradition, once I was drawn into that orbit, I began to see a lot more than just the individual. The orbital trajectory of Reformed theology showed me a side of things I hadn’t encountered before. Or, to return to my fishing metaphor: you might say that while I was hooked by soteriology, I was pulled into a boat that was as big as creation. The doctrine of election was the flashy lure that caught my attention, but I was caught up into the web of a doctrine of creation.
Salvation is not sheer reinvention—it is renewal.
For what I realized was that the Reformed tradition wasn’t just a soteriology. In fact, the Reformed tradition’s understanding of salvation was bound up with a doctrine of creation. Indeed, this was part of the polemic with Rome at the time. While Catholicism seemed to teach that salvation was “super”-natural, that grace was a supplemental addition that “completed” creation, Reformers like John Calvin and his heirs emphasized that salvation was the restoration of creation—that grace restores nature. This is why the vision of the New Jerusalem is not just some science-fiction fantasy of an unimagined world. It explicitly hearkens back to the Garden of Eden. Salvation is not sheer reinvention; it is renewal.
The depth and breadth of grace
What I began to discover in the treasure trove of the Reformed tradition was that the soteriological focus on election and predestination was only a slice of a wider theological vision that was rooted in God’s sovereignty over all creation. While grace was absolutely central to the Reformed theological vision, I began to realize that the Reformers also emphasized that grace went all the way down: that creation was, in a sense, the “first grace,” because creation was God’s first gift. Creation was God’s “very good” gift, now marred by sin and the Fall. But in saving us, God’s wasn’t going to let his good creation languish and dissolve and be lost to the evil one. This is why the whole creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19).
So not only does grace go all the way down, but it sort of goes all the way around. That is, God’s grace will reach far as the curse is found. God is not just saving us—he’s renewing his world. Christ doesn’t just reconcile us to God—he reconciles all things to himself. In his Epistle to the Colossians, notice how Paul’s magisterial hymn to Christ’s saving power is bound up with Christ’s work of creation: it is because “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,” and because he is “before all things,” that God was pleased “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15–19, emphasis mine).
We are saved for this work of tending God’s creation.
This is why the Reformers refused the unbiblical, two-tiered model of spirituality that seemed to suggest monks and nuns were really Christians, while butchers and bakers and husbands and wives were sort of second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. No, Calvin insisted: God is the creator of this good-but-broken creation, and he affirms the sanctity of mundane, “domestic” work. God affirms and delights in the good, hard work of tending families and tilling the earth (Gen. 1:26–31). We are not saved from such “earthly” cultural labors—we are saved for this work of tending God’s creation, for this is how we bear God’s image.
So now when I hear “Calvinism,” I think of a theological vision as big as God’s creation, and am reminded that God’s grace is just as expansive.