We Calvinists have a problem. And it’s not Calvin or Calvinism, but our failure to communicate to other Christians what we believe concerning God and his saving work. According to Greg Forster, the five points we traditionally use as a summary of Calvinistic teaching, that is, our beloved flower TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints), not only fail to convey the beautiful truths contained in our theology, but they tend to misinform others about what we actually believe. As a result, Christians outside our theological world know only a caricature of Calvinism – a cold, heartless jumble of “formulas, technicalities, and negations” (pg. 17). What’s more, “Because we don’t communicate clearly, our own congregants have a very inadequate grasp of what lies at the heart of Calvinism” (pg. 17).
Forster wrote The Joy of Calvinism to address this problem. He aims to give Calvinistic theology a fresh recasting, explaining the Reformed doctrines of grace in ways that not only head off misunderstanding, but also show why they will produce joy in the heart of all who embrace them. Though the book is intensely theological, and demands some abstract thinking, Forster wants his readers to come away rejoicing in the glory of God’s sovereign and saving grace towards sinners. And as long as the reader takes to heart the truths he expounds, I believe he succeeds.
I thought Forster would go about his task in this way: present the traditional five points (TULIP), point out their inadequacies, and then go on to rename each of the five points so we end up with a different acronym altogether. But he takes a completely different tack (though in the appendix he does offer his own version of TULIP by replacing it with WUPSI, “as in, ‘Whoopsie, we just realized that TULIP is giving everyone heinously false ideas of what Calvinism is all about'”!, pg. 167). He structures the book along these Trinitarian lines:
Chapter 1. God Loves You Personally – When Jesus died and rose again, he saved you.
Chapter 2. God Loves You Unconditionally – Nothing is more important to your heavenly Father than saving you.
Chapter 3. God Loves You Irresistibly – The “new birth” in the Holy Spirit is a radical, supernatural transformation.
Chapter 4. God Loves You Unbreakably – You can do all things, persevere through all trials, and rejoice in all circumstances.
Though Forster introduces no novel theology, I found his explanation of Calvinism unique, provocative (in the right sense), edifying, and soul-stirring. His focus on the sovereign love of God, and his ability to illustrate this love with human analogies is effective in bringing out the profound and glorious truths of the grace of God towards sinners in Jesus Christ. God didn’t love me in a vague way as a faceless, nameless member of an amorphous “humanity”, but he loved me personally and Jesus died specifically for me (chapter 1). In his love for me, God didn’t make a system of salvation more important than me, but loved me more than anything in all nature or creation (chapter 2). And in his love, God didn’t merely assist my fallen nature so that I might choose him (as though I would), but his love gave me an entirely new nature (chapter 3). As he unpacks these truths, Forster interacts with non-Calvinist theologies and helpfully shows how they fail to do full justice to the love, grace, and power of God. Only consistent Calvinism (i.e., a thoroughly biblical theology) does this.
In chapter 4, true to the title of the book, Forster brings everything he writes to bear on the matter of joy in the Christian life. He knits together the strands of God’s grace, our love for him (produced in us by him, of course!), suffering and perseverance, and shows how they work together to produce true joy. And this joy “is not an emotion,” but a “settled certainty that God is in control” (pg. 146).
He also deals with some of the more egregious misrepresentations of Calvinism in a preliminary chapter he calls a “Detour” (saying, for example, “Calvinism does not say we are saved against our wills”). And there is a lengthy appendix (which I skimmed) that addresses more specific questions about Calvinist doctrine, including an enlightening history of the famous (infamous?) acronym TULIP.
I would put this book into the hands of any non-Calvinist believer who has questions about our theology. I also recommend it for those, like myself, already in the Reformed camp. I was blessed as I pondered in a new way God’s sovereign grace towards me in Christ. Forster’s writing is engaging and non-technical, but to profit from this book you will need to think carefully on his words as you read.
I offer only one minor critique, or perhaps just an observation. I wish Forster would have at least mentioned that Calvinism includes more, much more, than a distinct understanding of God’s sovereign grace in our salvation. Calvinism teaches covenant theology, and embraces the entirety of Christian life, practice, and worship. Of course Forster could not include all that in his book, especially since his focus is on the doctrines of grace. So I understand why he didn’t expand his discussion. But perhaps some, having been convinced by this book of the truth of Calvinistic soteriology (theology of salvation), will go on to discover the many other truths taught by Calvin and treasured by Calvinists.
Overall a welcome and superb apologetic for Calvinism.