By Elder Neil Phelan Jr.
Somewhere around the year of 1973, when I was at college, my parents rented a Winnebago and took my brother and me to the Rio Grande valley to visit some relatives. My uncle, who lived in the valley, was an avid hunter and fisher. One year, he took us deep sea fishing. But this year, he had something else planned for us. He took us on a goose hunt.
Well, I had never seen a goose up close, but I loved to hunt and so we set off one morning before daybreak to the guide service that had guaranteed him that they were the best in the business. When we arrived at the camp, there was a large group of people waiting at the dock where we boarded a ferry and were carried across to a large vehicle, with guns, waders and decoys. We traveled for about an hour and the guide began to let us all off at different stations in a large field. My brother and I were left alone in our own little bunker. Then the guide began to spread out his decoys. It wasn’t long until light began to break over the horizon and the beautiful morning sky became visible. As it did, visions of geese, falling from the sky raced though my mind. Suddenly, out of the west, a large flock of birds began to wing their way across the red horizon of the Rio Grande valley. We became very excited because, of all places, they were coming right over the top of us. I whispered to my brother, “Are those geese?” He said he thought they must be since we were there for that occasion. So, as they began to get into range we raised up to fire. Just before I pulled the trigger a man to the right of us, about fifty yards off, began to shout at us. I was quite annoyed because I knew he was going to mess up our hunt and scare the birds away. But he waved his arms so frantically that we knew something was up so we listened to what he was saying. Finally, we got his message. The large winged creatures that were traversing the skies at that very moment were not geese at all. They were a protected species of some kind of crane that, if killed, carried a large fine and possible imprisonment. Disgusted, embarrassed and frustrated, we sat back down in our little dirt hole and waited all day for nothing. One man did kill a sizable coyote. When we made it back to the camp we noticed several pictures posted on their wall of some successful hunts. But after looking closely at the pictures we surmised that the most recent picture dated sometime in the late fifties.
We bring our humorous story before our readers because it reminds us of another sport that is popular among preachers these days and that is the sport of shooting what they have identified as Calvinists. Thinking that it is a fine sport, they have gone off with their brothers, gotten in their trenches, loaded their weapons and are ready and waiting for one to fly over. But for the most part, we find their posture to be much the same as me and my brother’s…….they really don’t know what one looks like. And if they are not careful, which some have not been, they will be found shooting some protected species which we will refer to as God’s faithful servants.
First, we will address our ‘free will’ friends, whose doctrine, though they claim they believe in grace, is based upon their own works. We have found that many who teach salvation by their own works claim to believe that salvation is by God’s grace. That is like telling two different women that you love them and want to marry them. A most confused individual this is, who will probably have neither or will wind up with something they will regret in the end. These individuals are easy to identify. One way to identify them is that they hate the words election and predestination. They equally hate the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Many of their followers have never heard of these terms. If one of their followers happen to read something that teaches these truths and ask them what they mean, they shoot the person who wrote it by calling him a Calvinist! Of course, when they say it, they must do so with just the right kind of smirk, a roll of the eyes and a shake of the head to demonstrate the writer’s ignorance and their own wisdom, besmeared with a personal disgust of the word. That is about all it takes for most people. They have learned that the way to identify a Calvinist good enough to shoot it is to find that they say or teach the words election and predestination.
To these we must say, “Well done my friend. You have hit your mark and killed the bird. Now go and pick him up and examine him closely.” You will probably find that you have just shot a crane. You can take him home, pluck him in front of your friends, fry him or however you like to enjoy your spoil, but you have just killed a protected and endangered species, someone who is willing to preach the truth. This you must be very careful of because if you start preaching these truths you may lose your popularity, your salary and your church. You well know from experience that when you tell people they are bankrupt, guilty sinners that would never see God in glory without God’s sovereign, saving grace, without His personal choice of the sinner, without His power to predestinate all things according to His own will, you make a lot of people uncomfortable. They see themselves in a much finer light than that and surely you would not want to tell them the truth.
Come with me out into the field and see some of the other birds that you murdered when you shot that one. One is the Apostle Peter. There he is over there in the dirt somewhere, amidst the decoys. You have killed his testimony for he said, “Elect, according to the foreknowledge of God.” Perhaps you have had your people get a new translation of the Bible so that they will not read these words, but Peter said them anyway. We ask you, “Was Peter a Calvinist because he taught election?” Surely not! John Calvin was not born into the world until 1509. Therefore, we know of at least one bird that taught election who definitely was not a Calvinist. So, what was Peter then? He was a strange bird, indeed, at least in these days of preaching for popularity….he was biblical! So, for those who are spiritual, we must come to a logical conclusion. We can not call a person a Calvinist just because he teaches election and predestination. To these hunters, we challenge you to teach what Peter did about election……if you will……if you can. If you refuse to do so we just ask you to quit shooting men who will, men who can, birds that you can not properly identify. You can get in to a lot of trouble with the judge.
We don’t have time to go all through the Bible, and, perhaps you didn’t, but you will find the word predestinate, predestinated, elect, election, chose and chosen used by many faithful servants. Any person can take a Bible dictionary and find these men. They will find the prophet Isaiah, the Apostle Paul, Peter, John and even Jesus. You do remember Him. Yes, He taught election over and over again. We must ask you, “Did you know you were shooting Him when you labeled His faithful servant a Calvinist?” Yes, you shot Him as well.
“And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”(Matthew 24:31).
“And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”(Luke 18:7).
One day you will stand before the One who said these words, the One that you shot as a Calvinist. We hope things go well for you because in that same Book it is also written where the beast and the false prophet shall go. We pray the judge is very lenient upon you since you are from another country and had never really seen a real, live goose before.
But there is another Calvinist hunter we must address at this time. He is equally dangerous. This Calvinist hunter loves the doctrines of election and predestination. As a matter of fact, that is all he ever preaches on. You would think from his preaching that the devil himself was going to heaven because, from his language, our works are of little importance. This person is just as dangerous to the endangered species as the first. They have some people so scared of the Calvinist that they can’t sleep at night. They begin to look around in their church with great suspicions…perhaps that person sitting next to me and my family is a Calvinist!!! Well, we can’t be too careful, so lets start shooting away and kill everything that flies over….just in case. Dead bodies are strewn all over the ground, churches are torn up, ministries are questioned, bars of fellowship are put up and many are yet unsure as to what they have really done. We will shoot now, ask questions later. We will go out in the field and look over all the dead birds and perhaps one real goose will be there. In deer hunting terms we call that a ground check. Sometimes we have what we think and sometimes we have a lot of explaining and/or hiding to do.
When it comes down to it, their way of identifying the Calvinist is different, yet, in many ways, quite like the first. It is different because, as we have said, they like the doctrines of election and predestination. They will never identify a person as being a Calvinist just because they preach these doctrines. In this, they are correct. Since the prophets, the apostles and Christ Himself taught these truths, every God called man should as well. But they are the same as the former in that they call a man a Calvinist because of just one word, or we might say, by just one stripe. Allow me to explain.
On February 11th, 2004, a Hot Springs man was kayaking down the Cache river in Arkansas and to his amazement he saw a bird that was, supposedly, extinct. They identified the bird as an Ivory Billed Woodpecker. My, there was quite a stir. Television reporters swamped the place. Ornithologists and magazines flooded the news media with descriptions of the bird, even what kind of noise it made. Billboards even boasted about what we had in Arkansas. The little town where the discovery occurred began to make a lot of money upon the tourism that ensued. Yet, to this day, no one has really been able to prove that they actually saw this bird. A hoax? Who knows? Perhaps it was the real thing. Perhaps they were honest people, but just made a mistake that was blown completely out of proportion. Or, perhaps, they accomplished what they wanted….they made up a big story for fortune and fame. To this day, some claim they actually saw one and we hope that they did.
But how would a person properly identify an Ivory Billed Woodpecker….and how would we know if we have seen a real Calvinist? Well, according to the experts, the Ivory Billed Woodpecker has certain markings that distinguish it from other woodpeckers of its species. The bird has a black body with white patches on the wings. A white stripe extends from below each yellow-colored eye, even down the sides of the neck and onto the sides of its back. The males have a bright red color at the back of their crests. The females have a black crest that curves forward. It has a pure white bill. These characteristics distinguish it from the smaller Pileated Woodpecker. But to those who are not experts, who have not studied the birds, they could be easily confused. They have the same colors, just in different places.
We find that this is the error of this kind of Calvinist hunter. They have seen some of the colors, perhaps one of the markings, but have failed to get close enough to really identify the bird. For instance, there is a black body, he looks a lot like the Ivory Bill but is really not, he is a Pileated Woodpecker. There is a white patch on the next one and from a distance, he too, looks a lot like the Ivory Bill, but is not. So, what does this have to do with our second class of hunters? Everything!
This hunter has identified a lot of birds to be the Ivory Billed Woodpecker when they are really not. Yes, they saw a stripe, some color, a few tufted feathers that was very similar, but just like the Ivory Bill, a bird can have one feather, one stripe, some resemblance to an Ivory Billed Woodpecker and not really be one.
We remember talking to one our distinguished friends in the ministry on one occasion concerning the persons listed in the book of Jude. Jude described them like this: “But these speak evil of those things which they know not: but what they know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves. Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core. These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear: clouds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever. And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, To execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him. These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men's persons in admiration because of advantage”(Jude 10-16). During our conversation I shared with him the fact that I believe these to be the non-elect, that they were not going to heaven. To this he said, “Brother, if you believe that, you are a Calvinist, because that is what they believe.” I told him I was not a Calvinist, but that the language was pretty strong concerning those people. They were, like Cain, who murdered his own brother, they were “brute beasts’, they had no Godly fruit, the blackness of darkness is reserved for them forever, and when the Lord returns He is going to execute judgment upon them. To this he replied that the Bible was chiefly written to, and about, God’s people. This was quite confusing because I knew the Bible said a lot about Satan, the fallen angels and hell. I also wondered if this was a description of his church family. Nevertheless, we parted friends.
Now, I still have great respect and love for that person. I did not label him a Universalist just because of that little white Universal feather on his wing. But I did go home and study Calvinism to see if I was really one because I held that view, which I still hold, on that particular part of scripture. And I surely did not want to get shot at by this kind of hunter. After a little study I found some of the tenants of Calvinism that I certainly did not agree with. I will not go in to those at this time but I would like to say that a person that is a Calvinist, a real Calvinist, must believe and agree with everything that Calvin has written. Or, must he agree with ninety-nine percent of what Calvin taught? Or must he believe in sixty percent of what Calvin taught? One point? Three points? Or more than half of his five points? Let’s not forget that there was much more to his doctrine than just five points!! Perhaps we should read his ‘Institutes’ before we pull the trigger.
Here is the confusion, we perceive. Here is why many cranes are shot instead of geese. Some men are labeled, Calvinists, just because of their view on one point, or one person, or one scripture. To some, just a difference of opinion on the book of Jude is enough to be shot. To another hunter, a man is shot just because he thinks certain people in the Bible do not belong to God’s family. To others, a person is a Calvinist just because he wants to see more evidence displayed in a person’s life before they will say they are saved. To some hunters, a person who leans a little stronger towards the sovereignty of God has just the right feathers to shoot at.
Labels are dangerous. Label a man, lift yourself up and you have just violated the greatest maxim in God’s kingdom which is love. He who hates his brother is in darkness. How can a person claim to be a Christian if they are going around shooting other Christians? I’ve never seen a goose shoot another goose. Why not use your time and ammunition on a coyote, or perhaps, a roaring lion. While they are eating your families, you are shooting cranes.
No, my friends, we do not claim to be a Calvinist, in the strictest sense of the word though we do believe in some of the things he taught. Perhaps we have been shot at from both hunters. I believe in election, predestination and the sovereignty of God because these precious truths are biblical. Concerning election, I would not explain it exactly the same way he did and my heaven would be a little larger than his. But my sorrow and concern is for all of those dead cranes that I see scattered around the field and, perhaps, the judgment of those who did the shooting. In the end, there will be no trophies to carry home and certainly nothing to eat.
We believe this shooting has killed a lot of innocent birds and they have, as a result, become extinct. You drive past some of their meeting houses and they are abandoned. They look like a cottage in the wilderness covered with cucumber vines. Perhaps just one person in the whole church was a real 100% Calvinist. But that didn’t matter to the hunters, the whole flock was surrounded, ostracized, cut off, starved and essentially, shot.
But, wait a minute. We must be careful, even a bird with one stripe can get into our own congregation and make other birds like him. We MUST kill that bird. Yes, let’s make everyone in our pews believe exactly the same thing, at all times, concerning every sentence of the Bible. To accomplish this we must follow the paths of others who were successful. We must write precise confessions of faith and make every person claim them. If they do not we must put them out of the church or, as they did, murder them. Any deviation to our Papal bulls will not be tolerated. This Calvin did, even though he was a dissenter. In this regard, he was much like the camp he came from. He could not tolerate any person to think any differently than he did. Just ask Michael Servetus. So, how about you? Are you like him in that regard? Are you unable to tolerate those who deviate from you in a few areas? Are you really the Calvinist?
That day, those cranes looked a lot like what we thought a goose should look like… but they weren’t. Though we probably would have missed, today I can say that I am very glad we didn’t shoot.-NMP