I was interested to read through a new little booklet written by Ian Hamilton, pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, England. In this work he means to show that Calvinism is both deeper and richer than the well-known 5 Points (a.k.a. TULIP). Calvinism at its best is also experiential, a word which Tom Nettles once helpfully described in this way: “An experiential theology, or experimental Calvinism, pursues the purposeful application of every doctrine to some area of life that needs further conformity to Christ’s perfect humanity.” Hamilton explains further:
Calvinism is natively experiential. Before it is a theological system, Calvinism is deeply affectional, God-centered, cross-magnifying religion. A man may loudly trumpet his adherence to the distinctive tenets of Calvinism, but if his life is not marked by delight in God and His gospel, his professed Calvinism is a sham. In other words, there is no such thing as “dead Calvinism.” Such is a theological oxymoron for one simple reason: Calvinism claims to be biblical religion, and biblical religion is not only profoundly theological, it is deeply experiential and engagingly affectional! Wherever men and women claim to be Calvinists, their lives and their ministries will pulse with life—the life of living, Spirit-inspired, Christ-glorifying, God-centered truth.
Hamilton goes on provide 8 fundamental features of the experiential Calvinist, and looks at the subject from a confessionally Reformed perspective. I would disagree with some of the finer points, such as his insistence that Reformed worship necessarily adheres to the regulative principle. Still, I found each of his points is very helpful.
- The experiential Calvinist honors God’s unconditional sovereignty. God’s sovereignty is never seen in Scripture as an excuse for believers to become passive. God’s sovereignty does not suspend human responsibility but rather embraces it. [This] is shown chiefly in God’s people giving themselves to consistent, faithful, heartfelt prayer. Nothing more honors God’s unconditional sovereignty than prayer.
- The experiential Calvinist cherishes God’s grace. Calvinism supremely rejoices in and placards the grace of God. … Experiential Calvinists are jealous to magnify the grace of God because it opens to us the heart of the God of grace.
- The experiential Calvinist has a deep sense of the sinfulness of sin. It is the greatest tragedy of our age that the supreme focus in much of the Christian church today is man, not God! Man and his needs, not God and His glory, is the organizing principle and central concern of much that passes for evangelical Christianity. Perhaps the greatest difference between us and our Reformation and Puritan forefathers is that they had high views of the glory of God and therefore deep views of the sinfulness of sin.
- The experiential Calvinist lives before God’s face. Experiential Calvinism has one preeminent concern: to glorify God. He recognizes that the only verdict that counts is God’s.
- The experiential Calvinist shapes all of life by the revelation of God’s unimpeachable holiness. The experiential Calvinist is … an obedience-loving believer. God’s commandments are his happy choice. … This piety is rooted in a love for God’s law. The experiential Calvinist loves God’s law. Experiential Calvinism seeks to give God’s holy law the place in the believer’s and church’s life that God’s holy Word gives it.
- The experiential Calvinist is content and satisfied with scriptural worship. Submission to the unconditional sovereignty of God is seen practically in submission to the authority and sufficiency of his holy Word. This means that the experiential Calvinist seeks to have his life and the church’s life contoured by “every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). This means that our worship can (and must) never be shaped and informed by the fads and fashions of the moment, but by the abiding precepts and principles of God’s Word. Historically, this has come to be known as the regulative principle.
- The experiential Calvinist pursues godly catholicity. From its inception, the Reformed faith was a multifaceted faith. To be sure it had a well-defined core of nonnegotiable doctrines. But it did not have and has never had one public face or particular theological expression. The Continental Reformed tradition, centered upon the Three Forms of Unity—the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort—is no less Reformed than its British and American Reformed counterpart within the tradition of the Westminster Standards.
- The experiential Calvinist cultivates communion with God. … Experiential Calvinism cherishes communion with God and understands that this communion requires two things: that we “receive” His love and that we “make suitable returns unto him.” The Father’s love is received “by faith” through Christ. “The soul being thus, by faith through Christ, and by him brought into the bosom of God, into a comfortable persuasion and spiritual perception and sense of his love, there reposes and rests itself.” But there is more: “God loves, that he may be loved.” So, we are to make “returns” of love to the Father. (Note: The quotes are from John Owen.)
Excerpted from What Is Experiential Calvinism? by Iain Hamilton.