Greg Forster. The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God's Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 208 pp. $15.99.
I would wager that the vast majority of reviews you read about this book will start with some kind of wisecrack about how “joy” and “Calvinism” are mutually exclusive (yuk yuk), since growing up “Calvinist” has resulted in some of history’s greatest personal-religious meltdowns. Calvinists aren’t generally known for being a fun-loving group of people, unless your idea of a party consists of downloading sermons all night and then having long theological debates about dead Puritans.
Lots of other reviews start by saying things like, “If you only read ONE book this year, read THIS one!” I would never start a review that way . . . until now. I actually think that especially for the kinds of people who read this website (young Calvinists, mostly) this is the one book you should read this year because it will speak directly into our unique subculture in fresh and potentially helpful ways.
As young Calvinists there are a number of markets that we’ve “cornered” in recent years. We’ve pretty much locked down the “knowing our theology” market, we almost single-handedly killed the emergent church a few years ago, and we’re beginning to see Calvinists influencing broader non-historically-Calvinistic denominations and universities. These are all good things, because as the author effectively explains, Calvinism isn’t a “brand” or a list of points, it’s a framework for understanding scripture and the Bible that results in the greatest possible amount of truth, comfort, and joy. Yet the question remains: Are we living joyful lives?
What Calvinism Is and Isn’t
The first and potentially most helpful thing the author does is to explain what Calvinism isn’t. He starts by deconstructing the “five points” of Calvinism—a stumbling block to many over the years. This is sort of the “brand name” that we Calvinists have been known by in the greater marketplace, and an accessible breakdown of this image has been long overdue. The book is worth the proverbial “price of admission” just for this. It’s comprehensive, comforting, and inspiring to be reminded that what we believe is rooted in the goodness and love of Christ.
As our profile has grown over the last decade, we’ve become known for other peripheral/cultural/non-gospel things as well; things like:
These are my observations, not Forster's. That certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. And it certainly doesn’t apply to all Calvinists or Calvinist congregations. It’s just a realistic look at how the world sees us, how we see ourselves, and perhaps how we’re arranging our priorities and expending our energy. This book could play a vital role in the re-calibration we need to stay healthy and humble.
Forster writes on page 60:
Few would disagree with the statement that a true Christian is a person who clings for salvation, not to the church; not to the sacraments; not to the Bible; not even to the proclamation of the gospel or the believer’s belief in it; but to the cross and the empty tomb. Calvinism is just the systematic application of this truth in all doctrine, piety, and life. If you make this truth your theological touchstone and resolve to reject everything that comes into conflict with it, and carry out that resolution consistently, you will find yourself a Calvinist.
And on page 63: "true worship is simply contemplating what God has done and responding to that knowledge in the way we naturally respond to it, if we are really loving him.”
This is Really a Book About Who God Is, and You Can’t Have Too Many Books Like That
On more than one occasion this book reminded me a lot of John Piper’s Future Grace and J. I Packer’s Knowing God. Without having discussed it personally with those authors, I can bet they’re both passionate about the idea that Calvinists live joyfully in Christ! Part of knowing God is rejoicing in him always. In fact, The Joy of Calvinism begins with this scriptural command—the mandate that we live joyful lives.
“Real Calvinism,” Forster writes on page 15, “is about joy. But for some time now, defenders of Calvinism have tended to communicate about it only in highly technical, formulaic, and (especially) negative terms.”
Word About Style/Readability
I can tell that Forster and his editors went to great lengths to make sure this book didn’t sound like it was written by a guy who has a PhD from Yale (note: he has a PhD from Yale). It has its moments of wordiness and Yale-ish-ness but for the most part is exceedingly accessible for regular people (like me) while at the same time being the opposite of shallow or simplistic. The simple truths are communicated clearly, and the complicated points are communicated with a level of sensitivity toward those of us who don’t have PhDs. This is much appreciated.
Who Should Read This Book and Probably Will
If you’re the kind of devoted, loyal TGC reader for whom a large part of the ol’ pastoral research budget goes directly to Crossway each year, you’ll more than likely read this book, discuss it with colleagues and benefit from it not only for your personal edification but more significantly because it will affect the way that we share Calvinism with the outside world.
If you’re the kind of devoted, loyal TGC reader who doesn’t have a research budget but who probably goes to seminary or is a member of an already-Calvinist congregation, this book will help grow your understanding of what you say you believe, because it articulately and scripturally teaches who God is and how he loves us. There is, in fact, a lot of ink devoted to love (how God loves us, how we in turn love others) in this book, which may be a surprise/wake-up call for certain kinds of curmudgeonly, joyless Calvinists.
Who Should Read This Book and Probably Won’t
If you’re not a devoted, loyal TGC reader and have stumbled upon this site and this review some other way, or if you have Calvinist leanings but haven’t consumed the entire young Calvinist library (or consumed the entire mug of Calvinist Kool-Aid), I would encourage you to read this book.
Or maybe you’re even turned off by Calvinism, which is completely understandable given that Calvinists (like everybody) are (sometimes contrary to popular belief) still sinful, fallen people who make mistakes, are occasionally wrong and occasionally abrasive jerks in spite of their best efforts not to be.
How Does It Feel?
These two groups should read this book because it devotes considerable space to how Calvinism feels. There are all kinds of books about what we believe, but very few, I think, about how it should makes us feel—which, primarily, is joyful! One of the tenets of Calvinist subculture is to not trust our feelings, and I get that. I get the intent. I get that knowledge of God and truth about God should be our foundation, rather than our moods or appetites. But this book does a brilliant job of summing up the feeling of Calvinism—a feeling that is driven by our knowledge of a God who loves personally, unconditionally, irresistibly, and unbreakably.
From page 19:
The absence of affirmative and spontaneously devotional expression of Calvinistic theology has left a gaping hole in the public understanding of what Calvinism is. Put simply, the rest of the world has no idea what it’s like to be a Calvinist. It’s like trying to describe Italian food by making a list of all the things it doesn’t taste like.
This book is an invitation to Calvinists to taste and see that the Lord is good, or perhaps a reminder to do so, because in all of our zeal for study (or because of the hard realities of life in a fallen world), some of us have forgotten how.
Ted Kluck is an award-winning author of several books on topics ranging from Mike Tyson to the Emergent Church. Visit him online at www.tedkluck.com.