by John Ellis
“A man is not saved because he believes in Christ; he believes in Christ because he is saved.”
The above quote from Lorainne Boettner’s seminal book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination came to my mind during a recent conversation with a brother in Christ from my church about Calvinism. That conversation prompted me to begin writing an article titled, “Why I Believe in Limited Atonement.” That was a month ago.
(Edit: “Why I Believe in Limited Atonement” is finished and can be read here.)
The article is taking longer than I anticipated. Considering the topic, I want to be thorough. The above quote from Boettner reminds me of a topic that my friend and I briefly touched on during one of our conversations, and I thought that it would make a good “tune-up” article, whet appetites for the coming, much longer, and much denser article, and, Lord willing, be edifying and encouraging.
During that conversation, my friend challenged the belief that many Calvinists hold that sinners don’t seek God, but rather God seeks sinners. Admittedly, holding to the teaching that sinners don’t seek God, but rather God seeks sinners is a challenging belief that asks us to surrender our autonomy. But verses like John 6:65 where Jesus instructs, “that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father,” coupled with the array of verses that teach that humans are evil and that our evil prevents us from doing good or even seeking good, including the ultimate Good, leaves little room for doubt that God does the seeking and humans do the running. One of the clearest passages to this effect is found in Romans 3. Paul, referencing Psalm 14 and possibly Ecclesiastes 7:20, writes these sobering words, “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks God [emphasis added] (Romans 3:10-11).”
Experience makes for a poor epistemology. Our emotions are easily manipulated; our understanding of experiences is often dulled by sin or hijacked by self-interest. But that doesn’t mean that experience is completely devoid of any value. As Christians, it is incumbent upon us to judge/interpret our experiences by the truth that God has revealed in His Word; not the other way around. With that caveat in place, during the conversation with my friend, I replied that while not being able to speak for everyone, obviously, my experience aligned with that belief. I most definitely did not seek God. In fact, I did the exact opposite – I angrily ran from God.
After God stripped me of my false god of atheism, I went into a tailspin, both existentially and physically.
Over the course of about a year, several events challenged my atheism. From my vantage point, the moment that the Holy Spirit used as the pivot in my overt intellectual rebellion against God happened while I was in Denver. Sitting in a bar on 16th Street, a man sitting two bar stools away struck up a conversation with me. While genial, our conversation was mostly boring and lacking in substance. Which is to be expected, I guess, when a conversation between two strangers is mostly a placeholder for loneliness. At some point during our intermittent dialogue, I mentioned that I was a pastor’s kid. It now eludes my memory why I mentioned it. At the time, that fact meant very little to me, or so I thought. I believed that I had successfully dumped the baggage of my parents’ religion into the rushing torrents of science, facts, and freedom years earlier.
Not long after my conversation partner left, I paid my bill, and began the mile or so walk back to my youth hostel. Just a few steps outside of the bar, I felt a hand on my backpack. I turned, expecting to confront a mugger; instead, my conversation partner was sheepishly smiling at me. He asked if he could walk with me. While finding the request odd, we were standing on a public sidewalk, I didn’t know what else to say except, “Sure.”
He didn’t walk with me very long before stopping and saying, “I’ve got to get back to my hotel, but I want to tell you that God loves you and someone somewhere is praying for you.” He added that he didn’t want to argue with me because he was afraid that since I was a pastor’s kid, I knew more about the Bible than he did. He concluded that he had felt compelled to tell me this, and then he turned and walked away.
I stood there stunned, with tears streaming down my face.
Even if that kind stranger had attempted to engage me in “argument,” I would’ve been at a loss. That moment was the most audible thunderclap, roaring winds, and blinding lightening from a pursuing God that I had experienced up to that point in my entire life. And the chaos in my mind had been generated by a still, small voice.
My confusion and emotional vertigo was quickly replaced by anger. The thing was, who was I supposed to direct my anger at? The man? He hadn’t really done anything wrong, and he hadn’t told me anything that many others hadn’t told me, going back to my earliest childhood memories. Angry at myself? I guess. But, to be fair, it wasn’t my fault either. I hadn’t manufactured my emotions in that moment; I wasn’t playing games out of a love for drama, and as an actor, I knew the difference. In fact, I had spent years steeling myself against that kind of worldview assault. I had done the hard work of deconstructing the myth of Christianity; I was supposed to be impervious to religious mystical nonsense. After all, there was no God. So, who I was supposed to be angry with?
Angry, but not sure why; emotionally torn up, but not sure why; I began to look askance at my atheism. Over the next six month, my atheism absorbed body blow after body blow. At the end of those six months, it took a mere book to sweep the legs of atheism out from under me.
I had a crush on my co-star, which wasn’t unusual, but this time it was different. This actress was a Christian. Backstage she would look at the floor and smile ruefully whenever the rest of the cast spoke our rebellion, which was a frequent occurrence. She was quietly kind and quietly giving in a manner that was a stark contrast to the preening narcissism that tends to reign over green rooms. With most actors, words and actions are laden with histrionic subtexts; layers of desperate need for the spotlight, for affirmation. But not her.
After a couple of weeks of gently rebuffing my advances, she asked me to read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and told me that once I had finished the book, she’d have coffee with me and discuss the book. In God’s kind providence, my parents had just given me Mere Christianity for Christmas. I read the book.
By the time I put the book down, I was no longer an atheist. I was something worse.
No longer able to intellectually deny the existence of God, I doubled down on finding a moral reason to reject God. I began to scour the Bible looking for contradictions, ethically dubious commands, and any subtext that revealed God’s real agenda. It didn’t take long for me to convince myself that God was lying. Believing that God feared humans, I told a friend that I hoped that I was the Anti-Christ so that I could be the one to unseat God from His throne.
Six months after that encounter with the actress and Mere Christianity, six months punctuated by anger, violence (to myself and others), and publicly flailing at God, I found myself in California.
It took me a few weeks, but I finally got my feet under me. A good bartending job, auditions lined up, and a room to rent from a co-worker, I had managed to quiet the worldview storms that had been raging in my mind for over a year. Entering July, my life was finally back on track. I had regained my intellectual smugness and assurance, and I once again viewed Christians as people to be pitied and not necessarily the enemy. I had conquered God.
However, over a three-day period, beginning on July 4th, having had enough with my Tower of Babel, God brought me to the end of myself, destroyed my worldview, and graciously revealed Himself to me and provided me the gift of repentance and saving faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Adopting me into His family, God gave me new life and a new identity in Christ. But, it wasn’t until after the fact that I wanted any of it.
After my shift ended at the restaurant, I sat on the back deck overlooking the San Joaquin River, and smoked weed with my new co-workers. I returned home, happy in thoughts about my future. A feeling that I hadn’t experienced in years.
With thoughts of my future successes dancing in my head, I was too ginned up to go to sleep, so I rolled a joint and enjoyed the mixture of the night air with my thoughts. But something else began sneaking into my thoughts. A heaviness. Different from the previous heaviness that had upended my mind and world over the last year, I felt this deeper. Thoughts about God began to push out thoughts about my plans. Disturbed, I went to bed.
The next night, thoughts of God once again began to set up residence in my mind. Conversations with my mom about Jesus from when I was a kid played in my mind. Bible verses that I had been looking at over the last few months to disprove God’s claims about Himself lodged in my mind. I didn’t want those Bible verses in my head; I didn’t want to think about Jesus. So, I smoked more weed. When that didn’t work, I turned on the TV. For some “reason,” everything on TV served to fuel my thoughts about God. Over the course of that night, I went back and forth from the back patio to the TV, trying everything I could to think about anything else but God.
I had one more day off, and I woke up that morning after a restless night of nightmares dominated by my sin and God’s wrath. During the day, when the sun is out, it’s easier to hide. Or, rather, like a cat whose head is in a bag, it’s easier to fool yourself into thinking that you’ve escaped God. Days remind us of opportunity. Nights remind us of closure.
That night, that third night, I became angry as my thoughts once again turned towards God. This time, however, my thoughts became very personal. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I needed to make a decision. And that decision felt final.
I knew the gospel. I knew that the Bible taught that apart from faith in Jesus, I was under the wrath of God. I just didn’t believe that God was worthy of my submission. And I told Him that. Repeatedly. I pleaded with Him to leave me alone. I cursed Him and told Him that I had figured His game out and that He couldn’t fool me. But the thoughts that I was the problem and that I was under God’s wrath and that God had provided a solution to the problem only got louder. Finally, after days of wrestling, I cried, “I don’t get it, God! I don’t believe that you are who you say you are. So, prove it. Prove that you are God.”
And He did.
As odd as this now sounds to my dry, reformed ears, in the very next moment, God gave me understanding and He gave me faith, and I repented of my sins and, by God’s grace, placed that gift of faith in Jesus, and, by God’s grace, continue to do so. Up until that very moment, I had wanted nothing to do with Jesus. I’m thankful that God didn’t give me what I wanted.
I am thankful that faith is not a work upon which my salvation rests. Divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul is clear that, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).” I am eternally thankful that God sought me and gave me the gift of faith because if it had been up to me, I’d still be dead in my sins.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1932), 101.
 “Particular Atonement” is more accurate but less click-baity. Make of that what you will.
 Hopefully, when I do publish the longer article, you’ll forget that I described it as “much longer, much denser.”
 I debated striking that sentence. After all, it could apply to this very article. By God’s grace, it doesn’t. But out of humility, I must acknowledge that it might. Please come quickly, King Jesus.
 As grateful as I am for her kindness and faithful witness, I don’t know if I think this tactic was a good idea. For several reasons. Regardless, I praise God for how He used this actress’ actions and words to reveal Himself to me.