"When I first began to study Calvin in earnest, I was puzzled by what seemed a glaring omission in his writings and sermons. He never counseled his readers and listeners to be “Born Again.” This struck me as odd because I knew our denomination (PCA) considered Calvin to be our true founder. I also knew that the evangelical doctrine of “New Birth” (regeneration), understood as the moment of personal, conscious conversion, was the linchpin, the central dogma of our congregation. As an Evangelical Presbyterian, I had grown up constantly hearing these exhortations to be “Born Again.” My pastors and teachers revered evangelistic luminaries like Billy Graham and Bill Bright right along with the great Lion of Geneva. It was simply inconceivable to me that the great John Calvin did not know how to be saved! Nevertheless, as I kept studying, a clear but shocking picture emerged. Calvin knew no conversionistic account of Christian initiation. His was a vastly more ecclesial, sacramental view of the Christian life – one begun in baptism, and nourished through the Eucharist. It was not conversion but the Eucharist, Calvin held, which “brings an undoubted assurance of eternal life.”[“Have you been Born Again? Catholic Reflections on a Protestant Doctrine, or How Calvin’s view of Salvation destroyed his Doctrine of the Church”]I was not brought up Presbyterian, but similar to this CTC author, I was raised on the "magic moment conversion" paradigm. I sat through years of altar calls and heard many versions of "with every eye closed and every head bowed, slip up your hand if you want to accept Christ... yes I see you.... yes I see you..." etc. I was raised with this sort of paradigm. It was a normal part of the church experience for me. If you were a Christian, you were expected to be able to point to the year, day, and hour in which you accepted Christ into your heart. Anything less than this was a bit suspicious. You had to have a magic moment in which you were born again.
Here's the ironic part. Despite at least three decades of opportunities, I never once lifted my hand when every head was bowed and every eye was closed (and by the way, every head and eye didn't obey this liturgical rule). Nor did I ever leave my seat, walk the isle, head towards the front to be prayed with. This at times was met with consternation by those presenting the salvation offer. I recall really giving the counselors at the Word of Life Bible camp in New York state quite a challenge. They had these invitations every night that never made any sort of dent on me. In fact, I enjoyed not providing them with any sort of certainty of my spiritual state.
It wasn't just the altar calls. By the time I got into my twenties, the idea of standing up and committing to something had grown. I recall going out to the big Intervarsity Urbana conference and one of the speakers got the entire stadium on their feet to commit to some form of Christian behavior. I was one of the only persons that didn't stand up (God bless my friend Bob who likewise sat there with me). The last church I went to previous to my paradigm shift to a Reformed perspective was a rocking Church of the Nazarene (what a band!). Each service ended with a 10 to 15 minute altar call. This church began its early ministry during the early 1970's having many hippies go forward at the end to get saved at every service. By the late 1980's, the amount of people going forward at the end of each service dwindled down to a few... every once in a while. The altar call then morphed into an invitation for anyone to go forward to get prayer for anything. I eventually started leaving the church service early right before the altar call began. This way, I beat the crowd out of the parking lot.
What's struck me as so odd about the CTC quote above is I had the exact opposite experience when I started learning Reformed theology and going to a Reformed church. The CTC author thinks he was raised in some sort of Reformed paradigm, and then experienced dissonance by reading Calvin. As far as I can tell, the CTC author was raised more like I was, and then read Calvin and was confronted with Reformed theology for the first time. While he may not have been subjected to the same number of altar calls I was, we certainly both share being brought up with the "magic moment" paradigm of becoming "born again".
One of the helpful aspects of going "Reformed" was that it made sense of my own conversion "experience." Reformed theology understands that not every one hears a voice from heaven and falls to the ground like the the apostle Paul. The idea of a dramatic "once I was blind, but now I see" magic moment isn't the rule. In fact, some people can't locate a specific date in which they realized their own sin, need of savior, and desired to live a life of gratitude to God for salvation. It just happens.
Now here's something that may come across a bit controversial. I realize that many people today weren't raised in Christian homes and have either had dramatic sudden conversion experiences or a slower conversion experience over time. I get that. Ask yourself this question: throughout history, by what means have most people been exposed to the Gospel message? I would argue that the answer to this question is...the family. That is, most people throughout history weren't clueless about the Christian faith, but were rather raised in some form of it. This isn't an exact science, but my guess is that the reason why there may be quite a number of other people throughout history that had the same sort of eventual conversion that I did was because of their family going to church.
The notion of raising a child in the community of faith is ingrained in a Reformed paradigm. In my own church, a child that eventually realizes their sin, need of savior, and desires to live a life of gratitude to God is typically a partial result of living in the covenant community and being exposed to the Gospel. A serious Reformed church will therefore have an emphasis on catechizing children. The Holy Spirit works in the church through the proclamation of the word.
Avoiding my desire to discuss Luther as the father of modern catechetics, this brings us back to where I began, with John Calvin, and why it appears to me the CTC author was never "Reformed" to begin with. In Calvin's The Catechism of the Church of Geneva (1545), Calvin writes,
“It has always been a practice and diligent care of the Church, that children be rightly brought up in Christian doctrine. To do this more conveniently, not only were schools formerly opened and individuals enjoined to teach their families properly, but also it was accepted public custom and practice to examine children in the Churches concerning the specific points which should be common and familiar to all Christians. That this be done in order, a formula was written out, called Catechism or Institute.”-snip-
“After this, the devil, miserably rending the Church of God and bringing upon it his fearful destruction . . . subverted this sacred policy; nor did he leave surviving anything more than certain trivialities, which give rise only to superstitions, without any edifying fruit. Of this kind is that Confirmation, as they call it, made up of gesticulations [gestures, waving the arms] which are more than ridiculous and suited rather to monkeys, and rest on no foundation. What we now bring forward, therefore, is nothing else than the use of a practice formerly observed by Christians and the true worshippers of God, and never neglected until the Church was wholly corrupted.”For Calvin, Catechisms united the Church through a common systematic testimony. Calvin states, “For in [Catechisms] there appears not only what someone or another once taught, but what were the rudiments with which both the learned and unlearned among us were from youth constantly instructed, all the faithful holding them as the solemn symbol of Christian communion.” Calvin believed that catechizing children and others was essential to the health, maturity, and continued vitality of the church. Calvin didn't teach "magic moment" theology. Children came to maturity and either became productive and mature members of the church or rejected it.
The Reformed churches wanted their children catechized so as to eventually make a profession of faith and be faithful to a particular visible church. Now this notion of a profession of faith is not the conversion experience. It is rather a public profession to join a particular visible church. This tradition is a strong part of the Reformed churches that came out of the Netherlands (my Presbyterian friends can inform me as to their practice in this area, but I would not be surprised to find out that this profession is also part of their tradition). Within the URC church I'm part of, infant baptism places a child in the covenant community (or a member of the broad visible church), profession of faith is a public confession to a particular church that one is a Christian, embraces the covenant promises, and will submit to church authority.
Now I certainly realize the author of the CTC article in question has a different intent with his article than what I'm talking about. He does though claim a Reformed heritage. I can't help but be very suspicious as to whether or not he really was raised... Reformed or as any sort of a Calvinist. He concludes with the following: "As a very young child, I believed that salvation came through recitation of a mantra: the sinner’s prayer." This certainly isn't taught in my Reformed church, nor do I think this prayer finds its way into to Westminster Small Catechism. It is though taught in the tradition I was raised in: garden-variety-evangelical-fundamentalism. It appears to me that the Presbyterian church the CTC author was raised in had been infected by "magic moment" theology. The reason why he was surprised to not find it in Calvin isn't the fault of Calvinism, but rather his understanding of Calvinism.
Simply because a church says "Presbyterian" or "Reformed" on the marque outside doesn't mean that in spirit they actually are. This was made quite apparent to me from my early visits to Reformed churches before joining the one I'm currently in. Imagine my surprise when I sat through a Reformed church service in which the minister quoted out of M. Scott Peck's Road Less Traveled rather than the Bible. As to Presbyterian churches, I have a number of good Pentecostal friends with a serious Arminian bent that are right at home in some version of a Presbyterian church. Recently a read about "Free Will Presbyterians." The rule of thumb: the words "Presbyterian" and "Reformed" on a church sign do not necessarily mean Calvinism.