It's the fall of 1999, and as the world lies restless in anticipation of Y2K-inflicted chaos, I find myself in Visalia, CA with tickets to see Caedmon's Call. The Christian alternative music scene is thriving in the wake of the breakout successes of bands like Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer, and Caedmon's offers their own take of artistically relevant and lyrically profound folk-rock. Unlike the aforementioned bands, they take no interest in crossing over to the secular market, with lyrics that are transparently Christian, often with specific references to Bible accounts. No, Caedmon's Call were far more interested in appealing to the deep-thinking Christian, and as the new millennium approaches, "40 Acres," their sophomore album, finds them emerging as one of the brightest and most talented bands in all of Christian music.
On this night, "unknown" singer/songwriters Jill Phillips and Bebo Norman set the stage for Caedmon's and their faith-filled "coffeehouse" music. The band, featuring three alternating lead vocalists, delivers solid renditions of their best-loved songs, and a cover of "Walk On the Ocean" for good measure. Between songs, singer Derek Webb steps forward to deliver a rant a la Rich Mullins about Joshua Harris' book, "I Kissed Dating Goodbye." Clearly he is not a fan, and by the sound of it, neither is the audience. This is what we love about Derek. He is willing to speak his mind and challenge the status quo. He's authentic, and this comes through in his songs. Whether he is writing about his struggles with temptation ("Standing Up For Nothing"), or the frustration of being single and waiting ("Table For Two"), we feel like we know Derek, and Derek knows us. The band closes the night with the biggest hit of Webb's career, "Thankful," an encapsulation of Reformed theology in just over 4 minutes. "Yes, by grace I have been saved, through faith, it's not my own…" This is the anthem of the serious-minded Christian, the one who gives God all the glory.
Fast forward to 2017, and Derek Webb releases his latest solo album, "Fingers Crossed," announcing to the world that he is no longer a follower of Jesus Christ. Not only that, but he is now boldly proclaiming the "gospel" of atheism. How did this happen? How could someone who so passionately devoted himself to Christianity make such a sharp turn? What happened to Derek Webb?
There are a number of things we could point to, most obviously his recent divorce from his wife of 13 years, to which he accepts responsibility. He fell into sin, and sin is deceptive (Hebrews 3:12-13). Yet many believers who do so recognize their need for Christ and repent. Derek took the opposite route. In the wake of his sinful choices, he has come to see that he is a better man by embracing his freedom apart from Christ. In his mind, free will and Christianity are incompatible. In a recent interview on the ex-Christian podcast, "The Life After," Webb talks about how he now has victory over pornography after 20 years of struggling. He credits his ability to choose to do what is best for himself, rather than to wait on God to make the changes in him. And here it becomes clear where he went wrong in his theology. It all comes back to that line, "through faith, it's not my own." Derek Webb never took responsibility for his faith.
For many Calvinists, faith is the gift of God spoken of in Ephesians 2:8, which reads: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God." The interpretation offered by Webb in "Thankful" is one that is proven false through analysis of the original Greek pronouns used by the Apostle Paul. When Paul speaks of what is "not of yourselves," he refers back to the whole equation of salvation that precedes it, not specifically to faith. Therefore, Paul is saying that we are powerless to save ourselves, and in combination with verse 9, "not of works, lest anyone should boast," he is driving home the point that the works of the law are not meritorious for salvation, but it is by God's grace that we can be saved through placing our faith in the work of Christ. Webb's interpretation is a common mistake, and sadly, it illustrates where his philosophy went wrong. He saw faith as something that was happening to him. He didn't have faith. Faith had him. And as such, when doubts emerged, it was evidence that he wasn't given the gift of saving faith.
Consider these lyrics from the song which closes his new album, "Goodbye For Now:"
"So either you aren't real
Or I am just not chosen
Maybe I'll never know
Either way my heart is broken
As I say, goodbye for now"
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is a central tenet of Calvinism, representing the "P" in the acronym "TULIP." It is commonly credited with giving the believer assurance of salvation. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the one who is chosen from eternity past for salvation (unconditional election) will be regenerated (irresistible grace), and their faith, because it is the effectual work of God, will persevere to the end. Therefore the Calvinist can rest in the assurance that because they are chosen, they will remain faithful. Unfortunately, while the intent is to give the believer assurance that he/she is saved, the opposite is often the case, and we see this evidenced in the lyrics above. Derek is convinced that he wasn't chosen because his faith did not last. Lack of assurance is nothing new for the Calvinist, or any believer for that matter, and was even the basis for another Caedmon's Call song, "Prove Me Wrong," written and performed by other members of the group:
"Sometimes I fear, maybe I'm not chosen
You've hardened my heart like Pharaoh
That would explain why life is so hard for me
And I am sad that Esau hated
Crying against what's fated
Saying father, please, is there any left for me
Cast out my doubts, please prove me wrong
'Cause these demons can be so headstrong
Make my walls fall, please prove me wrong
'Cause this resentment's been building
Burn them up with your fire so strong
If you can before I bail, please prove me wrong"
These lyrics are haunting now that Derek has in fact bailed. So why then has he bailed entirely? Why not simply believe that Christianity is true, but he is on the outside of it, needing to get in? Listening to his interviews, it seems that much of his rejection of the faith is based on practicality. Because he now finds life so much more livable by taking ownership of his actions, it shows that something is horribly false about the claims of Christianity. Though he doesn't believe in God, he remains a Calvinist. He likens his views on theology to his views on Star Wars or other works of fiction. It is a source of conviction, and in his mind, the Bible is solidly on the side of a deterministic God who elects some people to eternal glory, and others to hell. From his perspective, if God is real, He is a horrible monster (his interview comments use much harsher terms) responsible for all the evil in the world, and Derek is a "reprobate," created specifically to glorify God in his never-ending torment for the sins that he has been determined to commit. Honestly, I can't blame him for rejecting such a god. I can't think of a good reason why a "reprobate" should worship someone who has made him for such a reason. This is such a tragic misunderstanding of the character of God!
So what do we conclude from this? I think it raises some hard questions for the Calvinist that need to be answered. Clearly, Derek Webb was, and still is in some sense, a Calvinist. This doesn't mean that Calvinists aren't Christians, but it does show that the two aren't synonymous. Most Reformed types will cite the words of the Apostle Paul below to argue that people reject Calvinism because their minds are darkened to it:
"But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:14)
How do we make sense of the fact that Derek embraced the "Doctrines of Grace," if those doctrines are spiritually discerned? If we say that his mind was enlightened by the Holy Spirit, why did he not persevere in the faith? Some will say that he didn't really believe, but that is hard to square with the Calvinistic understanding of the above verse. The way I see it, the Calvinist is left with two options:
1. The unbeliever is able to understand and willfully embrace the truth of the Gospel (which appears to violate "total inability"), or
2. The true believer is able to renounce his faith (which violates "perseverance of the saints").
This conundrum seems to point to the solution that John Calvin himself offered:
“Experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. Hence, it is not strange, that by the Apostle a taste of heavenly gifts, and by Christ himself a temporary faith is ascribed to them. Not that they truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith; but the Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instills into their minds such a sense of goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption .... there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith .... Still it is correctly said, that the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because, under a covering of hypocrisy they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their mind to this extent .... there is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent.” (Institutes of Christian Religion, 3.2.11)
This "evanescent grace," is a concept that most Calvinists shrink away from. It is a terrifying thought, that God could determine for them to have such an assurance of salvation and genuine faith that could one day, even in the moment before they die, be taken suddenly so as "better to convict them, and leave them without excuse." For many, this is not an acceptable thought, and I cannot blame those who reject it. Yet they will hold onto Calvinism with no better option. Maybe Derek will return to his faith in the end? Maybe. Yet, I am certain that many before him and many after will embrace Christianity just as fervently and ultimately die in their unbelief. As Calvin said, "experience shows" this to be the case.
Derek's dilemma of choosing to believe in an evil God with wicked intentions and a godless existence of freedom and personal responsibility is completely reversed from the truth. There is no real freedom to be found in atheism. From a naturalistic perspective, we are biological machines, the sum products of cause and effect extending backwards endlessly. To appeal to free will is to appeal to something that lies outside of natural processes, as apologist Tim Stratton demonstrates through his "freethinking argument." Instead, freedom of the will is something that is reflective of the image of God in man. We are granted the ability to choose, and the Bible consistently appeals to us to make the choice to believe in the one true God, and to act in obedience to Him. Freedom is only possible through God, and it saddens me that Derek has it backwards. He always has. He never "chose" to put his faith in Jesus Christ. He did not accept responsibility for it, and he does not accept responsibility for losing it. This is what happened to Derek Webb.
My prayer is that Derek will allow his skepticism to extend to his Calvinistic presuppositions, and most importantly to his atheism. He once sang that "love is different than you think." I would like to challenge him to consider that maybe, just maybe, faith is different than you think. And consequently, God is much, much different than you think. You have a choice, Derek. Choose to believe in the goodness of God. Choose to believe that God loves you, because He is love (1 John 4:7-10). Choose life so that you may live (Deuteronomy 30:19). It's not too late to make faith your own.