At Reformed Margins, we want to highlight the stories of ethnic minority Reformed thinkers. This week, Howard Quach, a graduate student at Westminster Theological Seminary shares how he found salvation in Jesus Christ and embraced the truths found within Reformed Theology. Here’s his story!
For many of us, we experience something before we learn what it is. You walk before you learn about the human anatomy; you drive a car without understanding how things work under the hood. I experienced Reformed Theology before I could understand and put into words God’s sovereign and saving grace.
I grew up in a non-Christian home. Raised by two loving Chinese-Vietnamese parents—the order of ethnicities mirror the order as you would understand Chinese-American or Asian-American—I breathed the traditional Chinese air of respect, reverential fear, and strong work ethics. Both of my parents were refugees from the Vietnam War. They continued the Chinese traditions and cultural practices that blended Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion. I have memories of the Buddhist temple on 16th street in D.C., the Taoist priest at family funerals, asking my ancestors for blessing and protection, and waking up to incense and candles for the various lunar calendar holidays. To me, and I suspect to my friends growing up, we were just really Chinese. “Too Chinese,” I had once told my Christian buddies in high school, “to believe in Jesus.”
I first tried to believe in high school. Love; sacrifice; the cross of Christ—the message moved me. But the message was foreign. The only connection I could make of what Jesus did for me was what my mom did for me. She gave me one of her kidneys the summer before high school. I had been diagnosed with kidney failure in fourth grade, suffered End Stage Renal Failure in middle school, catheterized for peritoneal dialysis, and fought multiple infections. My mom had enough. She couldn’t see her son suffer anymore. So she presented herself as a donor after a year and a half of me on dialysis. As far as I could tell, I sincerely wanted to believe and experience the love of Jesus, but something was missing. “A supreme and sovereign deity? Yeah! Jesus is God and the Savior of the world? Hm, I just don’t get it.” I tried to believe—but I couldn’t.
Surrounded by the same Christian friends in college, this time, I tried not to believe—but couldn’t. I was confronted with the exclusivity of Jesus at a bible study. “Are you telling me that all of my friends and family who don’t believe in Jesus will go to hell? Well, I’d rather be in ‘hell’ with my family in your eyes than believe this!” I was furious. After those words came out, with the bible study leader and my friends dumbstruck, logic kicked in somewhere in my conscience. “Wait, if I believe there’s a hell, then I don’t really want any of us being there.” At the moment when I felt the most hostile against Christianity, when I tried my best not to believe, I couldn’t.
After college, I attended the Alpha Course at the invitation of my cousin. It was there that I experienced the hospitality and love of people who believed in Jesus. During the small group discussion, someone asked the group a set of rhetorical questions: “How many times do you have to steal to be a thief? How many times do you have to kill to be a murderer? How many times do you have to sin to be a sinner?” I immediately responded along with a nervous laugh, “Well then, I’m screwed.” It was at that moment, the Holy Spirit used the irony of my response, and made it an existential reality—conviction of sin and guilt. Then, without any more words from me, I finally understood; I finally knew why I needed Jesus. He was irresistible.
I tried to believe—but couldn’t. Total Depravity. I tried not to believe—but couldn’t. Irresistible Grace. At the risk of anachronism and imprecision of theological terms, I like to recall my experience in terms of two out of the Five Points of Calvinism. The glory is God’s. It was years later until I could describe my experience that way, and learn about the remaining three points.
Cage-Stage Calvinism and Freed to Explore
TULIP is just a subset of Reformed Theology. But as far as I could tell, it was the essence of Reformed Theology. I became a member of a church self-identified as “Essentially Reformed.” The essence, then, of Reformed Theology was the Five Points of Calvinism. Before and after my profession of faith, I was also learning on my own about the doctrine of justification in contrast with the Catholic church’s views. In a sense, I was “saved” apologetically; salvation is justification according to the five solas of the Reformation. Anything else falls short of God’s glory. I made my way into the “Cage-Stage” of Calvinism.
I should’ve been caged, but found my way to Reformed Theological Seminary. I asked the systematics professor, “What is Reformed Theology?” I can only recall two words: “biblical” and “covenantal.” I was thoroughly confused. Where was TULIP? Where was justification by faith alone? Where was the “essence” of Reformed Theology? I wanted to move back into the cage —but I couldn’t.
I’m currently a fourth year student at Westminster Theological Seminary, saturated with Reformed Theology. At this point, am I even Reformed? Well, as Andrew Ong helpfully pointed out, it depends on what it means to be Reformed. Given “RM makes no authoritative claim on what it means to be Reformed”, here’s a small scribble to RM’s virtual whiteboard session that has significantly helped me personally to discern what Reformed Theology is: history.
It’s through Reformed Theology I can say, “It’s not because I was too Chinese to follow Jesus. It’s because I was totally depraved.” I’m grateful God kept me alive long enough physically to bring me to life spiritually. I’m grateful I’m no longer foreign to Jesus, but family. I’m grateful we experience God’s saving grace before we can articulate it. Reformed Theology helps us do just that.