What is Calvinism?

Calvinism: It’s a buzzword in modern Christian circles and is on the rise among the ranks of millennials who are beginning to fill pastoral positions and seminary professorships. Though many church leaders lament Calvinism’s rise, we’ve all been influenced by Calvinist figures in one way or another. Whether it came through Louie Giglio’s Passion Conferences, the ESV study Bible, John Piper’s desiringGod, Charles Spurgeon’s famous sermons, and John MacArthur’s widespread ministry, nearly all 21st century, American Christians have been influenced by Calvinism to some extent. Even though I am not a Calvinist, I read Calvinist literature on a weekly basis because Calvinists have some really good resources.

Here’s the thing: Calvinism is not a cancer that will ultimately destroy all of the Christian Church. Instead, most Protestants would probably be surprised at how much they have in common with their Calvinist brothers and sisters in Christ: Calvinists believe that the Bible is the authoritative word of God to human beings and that Jesus is the only way to the salvation that we desperately need from our sins. Similarly, Calvinists believe that all Christians ought to live a faithful life of obedience to Christ by avoiding sin and doing good works. As James Arminius—the one from whom we get Arminian theology—put it: “The whole controversy reduces itself to the solution to this question, ‘Is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?’”[1] Aside from that question and a few connected to it, Calvinists have much in common with other Protestants.

I don’t want to blur the lines around Calvinism too much, however: Calvinism is a well-defined system of thought that makes a lot of sense. Also known as Reformed Theology, Calvinism traces its roots to the thought of the French-born theologian, John Calvin. Calvin’s teaching still survives in his writings: Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the earliest examples of a systematic examination of Protestant theology.[1] Calvin also wrote a commentary on every book of the New Testament except Revelation, which he wisely avoided.[2]

Calvinism as we know it, however, is not directly tied to Calvin himself; instead, what we call “Calvinism” comes from the Synod of Dort in 1619, over fifty years after Calvin’s death. The Synod of Dort convened to refute Arminian theology by summarizing Reformed Theology into five points. These five points, which we remember by the acronym “TULIP,” describe what we mean by Calvinism.[3] The central tenet of Calvinism is God’s absolute sovereignty over salvation.

T: Total Depravity

The Synod of Dort summarized Total Depravity by saying: “All men (read human beings) are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, or to dispose themselves to reformation.”[4]

In short, the doctrine of Total Depravity holds that left to our own devices, we could never do anything which would qualify as good in the sight of God. On our strength, we may be able to do things that our society deems good such as volunteering for the Red Cross, adopting children out of an orphanage, or building homes for the homeless; however, as Isaiah said, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags”[5] compared to the holiness of God. Thus, on our very best days, we fall utterly short of God’s commands because our nature itself is tainted by sin. It’s not that we need to do enough good works to be made right before God; the problem is that there is a fundamental perversion in our nature as human beings such that we are incapable of truly good actions. Christianity is thus not reducible to a program of good works: Christianity is about God giving us a life change on a fundamental level.

Total Depravity runs much deeper than saying we can’t do good works on our own: According to Total Depravity, the absolute only way for a person to be saved is for God to do the work. No person, no matter how good society may deem her to be, can choose to save herself or to take one step towards salvation. To have salvation—even to seek God—we need God to awaken us spiritually and pull us towards himself. As Paul put it, prior to salvation, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins.”[6]

Total Depravity is an uncontroversial doctrine in Protestant circles with both Arminians and Calvinists affirming this doctrine. Protestants consider it heretical to reject Total Depravity.

U: Unconditional Election

Unconditional Election, along with Irresistible Grace, forms the breaking point between Calvinism and Arminianism. While both Calvinists and Arminians affirm election, Calvinists assert that election is completely unconditional; that is, in the Calvinist system, God chose to save a determined set of people for no reason other than he simply chose to save them. Nothing influenced God’s choice to save John Doe but not Jane Doe: Election is instead God’s free choice of individuals to salvation.

To support Unconditional Election, Calvinists usually go to verses that discuss God foreknowing who would be saved. For example, in Romans 8.28-30, Paul discusses what happens to individuals whom God “foreknew” and “predestined.” Also, in Ephesians 1.4-5, Paul says that God chooses believers—Calvinists will stress that this was a choice of individual believers[7]—before the foundation of the world. Finally, a classic passage for Calvinists is Romans 9 in which God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion,”[8] and that God’s dealings with Jacob and Esau from Genesis 25 were not based on anything the boys had done but was according to “God’s purpose in election.”[9]

Election comes in several different flavors among Calvinists. Some Calvinists follow John Calvin and affirm a double predestination (or election) in which God predestines some individuals to heaven while actively predestining others to hell. Other Calvinists take a softer path by saying that God elected some to heaven while passing over the others. In the latter version of election, it’s not that God actively sends Jane Doe to hell, just that he picked John Doe and not Jane Doe. In either case, however, the reason that a person goes to heaven is that God elected that person to salvation before he or she was born.

L: Limited Atonement

Calvinists often claim to be a different number of points: A 5-point Calvinist affirms all 5 points of Calvinism. A 4-point Calvinist affirms 4 of the points. If a person is a 4-point Calvinist, Limited Atonement is almost always the first point to go.

According to Limited Atonement, the only people for whom Christ died on the cross were the ones whom God sovereignly elected to salvation. Keeping with our example, since God elected John Doe to salvation, Christ paid the price for Mr. Doe’s sins upon the cross; however, since God did not elect Jane Doe to salvation, Christ simply did not die for Mrs. Doe’s sins.

To support Limited Atonement, Calvinists might point to Jesus’s claim that he is the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep.”[10] In the biblical idiom, Christians are sheep, Jesus is the shepherd, and non-Christians are goats. Thus, when Jesus says he dies for the sheep, Calvinists claim that he means that he dies for Christians alone since non-Christians aren’t sheep. Furthermore, from a logical standpoint, Limited Atonement leads to the belief that Christ didn’t waste anything on the cross by dying for people whom God did not elect to salvation.

Needless to say, this doctrine is unpleasant: According to Limited Atonement, there may be people in your church next Sunday for whom Christ did not die. Thus, assuming Limited Atonement, these people can hear and understand the gospel, but there is simply no possibility of their being saved.

Though I find Limited Atonement repugnant, I want to be fair: When discussing Limited Atonement, we must keep it as a part of the Calvinist system. According to Calvinism, it’s true that Jane Doe goes to church this Sunday, hears the gospel, and understands the gospel, but that the gospel is not for her; however, according to Calvinism, Jane Doe, who is not a part of the elect, does not and cannot move towards repentance and faith. Since she’s totally depraved and not a part of the elect, Mrs. Doe feels no impetus towards Christianity. At best, the Christian religion is a fascinating oddity; if she desires to be a Christian, it’s a fleeting, ingenuous desire. In Calvinism, Jane Doe is the person who has heard of the gospel, but whose life never reflects the impact of the gospel. Thus, Jane Doe cannot come to salvation; however, that fact probably wouldn’t interest her.

I: Irresistible Grace

Irresistible Grace is the second major difference between Calvinists and Arminians. The Synod of Dort summarized Irresistible Grace thusly: “Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure, but because it is in reality conferred upon him, breathed and infused into him; nor even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of salvation and actually believe in Christ, but because He who works in man both to will and to work, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also.”[11]

In other words, when salvation happens, God regenerates the sinner, calls the individual, and gives saving faith to the new believer in one movement while sovereignly ensuring that the person responds affirmatively:[12] The new Christian was thus unable to choose not to become a Christian. Since God’s sovereignty is the heartbeat of Calvinism, John Doe was irresistibly drawn to the salvation to which God had elected him before the foundation of the world.

That isn’t to say that Calvinists reject free will, however: Calvinists affirm a compatibilist definition of free will. According to a compatibilist understanding of free will, you can have free will even if you only have one option. Thus, even though John Doe’s only option was to accept the salvation to which he was irresistibly drawn, a Calvinist will say that Mr. Doe willingly accepted it because God created the desire for salvation in John Doe’s heart.

For scriptural support of Irresistible Grace, Calvinists rely on texts like John 6.37 in which Jesus says, “all those the Father gives me will come to me.”[13] Furthermore, Calvinists will point to the fact that salvation is a new birth; since we didn’t choose our first birth, we don’t technically choose the second birth. Instead, both births—spiritual and physical—happen to us; nevertheless, we don’t (usually) complain about being born, neither do we complain about our spiritual birth.[14]

A common misrepresentation of Irresistible Grace is that God drags us to heaven kicking and screaming. While it’s true that we didn’t choose to be elected to salvation and thus didn’t choose to go to heaven, I don’t see any Christians complaining about it. When God gives a Christian their spiritual birth, he also creates within the new believer a desire to go to heaven; thus, no one goes to heaven kicking and screaming.

P: Perseverance of the Saints

The final point of Calvinism is something that Calvinists and Arminians can agree on. The Perseverance of the Saints is the belief that all who are truly saved necessarily persevere in the faith until the end of their lives. The perseverance is not due to the person’s individual strength, however: Persevering in the faith comes from God’s strength. Thus, since John Doe was elected by God to salvation and irresistibly drawn to faith, God gives John Doe the strength required to remain in the faith until the end of his life.

To support the Perseverance of the Saints, Calvinists—and some Arminians—point to numerous passages from scripture. For example, Romans 8.38-39 says that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.” Similarly, Jesus claimed that no one can take his sheep (read Christians) out of his hand and that his sheep will “never perish.”[15]

The Perseverance of the Saints is not exactly equivalent to the popular “once saved, always saved” maxim. Calvinists don’t believe that a person can claim salvation before living a life antithetical to the gospel: Salvation is not fire insurance or a get-out-of-hell-free card. According to the Perseverance of the Saints, if a person appears to come to faith in Christ but then turns from their faith, that is evidence that the person was never genuinely saved.

Conclusion

Both Arminians and Calvinists believe that the people are going to heaven; the question comes when we attempt to understand the details. The Calvinist stresses God’s absolute sovereignty over the process of salvation. According to Calvinism, since we’re totally depraved, we can’t even desire to know God, neither do we seek to know him. Fortunately for us, God elected some to be saved and then provided the atonement for their salvation upon the cross. Since God passed over the rest of humanity, there was simply no need for Christ to die on their behalf. Since God is sovereign and since Christ died for the elect, God irresistibly draws the elect to himself while giving them the required strength to remain faithful to the gospel throughout their entire lives.

While I find much with which to disagree in Calvinism, if we get to heaven and find out that the Calvinists were right all along, I’ll join with them and say that “the Lord is good and his love endures forever.”[16] After all, even if God only elected one person to salvation, he would still be beyond fair.

Notes & Sources

[1] James Arminius, Arminius Speaks Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God, ed. John D. Wagner (Eugene, OR: Wiph & Stock, 2011), 69.

[1] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York, NY: Harper One/Harper Collins, 2010), 77-80.

[2] Philip Schaff, The Swiss Reformation; 1519-1605, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8, 3rd ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 524-6.

[3] González, 229-33.

[4] “Synod of Dort.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed February 27, 2018, 3.3, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anonymous/canonsofdort.

[5] Isaiah 64.6, all scripture quotations are from the NIV.

[6] Ephesians 2.1

[7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 677.

[8] Romans 9.15

[9] Romans 9.11

[10] John 10.11

[11] Synod of Dort, 3.14

[12] Grudem, 700.

[13] John 6.37

[14] Grudem, 699.

[15] John 10.28

[16] Psalm 100.5

4 comments

  1. Another great post, Nicholas!

    One of the things that confuses me about Calvinism is that if God is sovereign in matters salvation, then surely He is sovereign over the entirety of our lives. Calvinists try to hold on to the idea that we have free will (because without free will many Christian doctrines make little sense), and I have heard much confusion from Calvinists as they try to reconcile free will with God’s sovereignty.

    I couldn’t be a Calvinist as I believe God is sovereign over ALL events, not just those pertaining to salvation. God is not dipping in and out of people’s lives! He is everywhere and in control of everything.

    As I said in a recent article, without God’s sovereignty, Calvinism doesn’t make sense, but with God’s sovereignty, Christianity doesn’t make sense. I hope you can see the logic.

    God bless,

    Steven

    Like

    • While I’m not a Calvinist, Calvinists will affirm God’s sovereignty over everything and human free will; however, they’ll define “free will” according to compatiblist terms. Compatiblism says that we can have free choice even if we only have one choice. So, technically, we choose to believe in Christ; however, we could not have chosen not to believe in Christ. Nevertheless, the Calvinist will say that this choice was a “free” choice. I think they’re wrong, but there are a lot of really smart Calvinists who could out-argue me on this point!

      Where I think Calvinists run into a problem is when they have to explain the origin and ultimate cause of sin. According to Calvinism, God predestined everything regrading salvation and then providentially ensured that what he had predestined came to pass. Unfortunately, human sinfulness is a key element in salvation. Thus, it certainly seems like God predestined the sin that had to take place for salvation to be necessary and then providentially ensured that sin entered the world. However, if God predestined human beings to sin and then providentially ensured that we would sin, then I don’t see how we could avoid saying that God is the author of sin. At this point, however, the Calvinist will punt to the mysterious.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Nicholas, great comment, thank you.

        The irony of compatibilism is that the position that God is completely sovereign and the position that we have free will are logically INcompatible, at least in my understanding!

        You correctly point out that if God is the author of sin, Christianity makes little sense. This has been something that I’ve really wrestled with over the last few years, because I love Jesus and the Gospel and so much about Christianity, but I find it impossible to deny that God is the author of all events, including those that Christians describe as sinful.

        If you’re interested in reading about the struggle I’ve had with this issue, I spent a long time putting the dilemma into an essay entitled ‘An Almighty Predicament: A Discourse on the Arguments For and Against Christianity’ which you can download as a (free) PDF from my Essays Page.

        I realise the thought of reading an essay by someone you don’t really know might sound boring and like somewhat of a chore, but I do believe you might find my arguments and conclusions interesting.

        In any case, I’m grateful for the discussion.

        Thank you and have a great weekend.

        Steven

        Like

      • I think that what could help you would be reading about a free will theodicy. Saying that God is sovereign does not mean that we believe in determinism in which God would definitely be the author of sin. God can be sovereign while allowing human beings to do things of which he disapproves. God’s sovereignty means that God is in ultimate control; it doesn’t follow that God directly causes everything. God could be sovereign while possessing a genuine disapproval for some of the actions of human beings.

        Liked by 1 person

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