A prominent trend in American evangelicalism is the rise of Calvinism. While Arminianism was the dominant theological position of American Christians throughout the end of the twentieth century, Calvinism may be the dominant position in the near future. My first seminary class was taught by a Calvinist, the popular Passion Conferences are routinely headlined by Calvinist speakers, and the Southern Baptist Convention may just elect a Calvinist as president in June of this year.
Like any good movement, Calvinism has its slogans. One popular slogan is the claim that Calvinism, sometimes referred to as “the doctrines of grace,” is the gospel. Unless I am misunderstanding Calvinists, we should be concerned about this statement for at least two reasons: First, this slogan is patently false. Second, this statement has dangerous implications for non-Calvinists, such as myself.
What is the Gospel?
The claim that Calvinism is the gospel seems to make a 1:1 comparison between Calvinism and the gospel: It’s as if Calvinists are claiming that the theological structure we call Calvinism is identical to the gospel. However, when we look at the New Testament, we see that this is clearly incorrect.
If we boiled Calvinism down to its bare bones, we’d see that Calvinism’s two central claims are God’s unconditional election of certain individuals to salvation and the irresistible nature of saving grace. First, unconditional election posits that God predestined certain people to heaven before these individuals were created. These people were not selected on the basis of any foreseen response to the gospel; instead, the basis of election to salvation is God’s unconditional choice.
Alongside unconditional election is Calvinism’s other essential position: irresistible grace. According to a Calvinist understanding of grace, we don’t have any say in salvation: If you were elected to salvation, you will irresistibly come to faith in Christ and go to heaven. Unconditional election and irresistible grace are two sides of the same coin which together form the essential elements of Calvinism. Since these are Calvinism’s essential qualities, if these are missing, there simply is no Calvinism.
In contrast, the gospel according to the New Testament has no mention of either God’s unconditional election or the irresistible grace that are central to Calvinism. The first Christian sermon ever preached is in Acts 2; as one would expect from the context, Acts 2 is about the apostles preaching the gospel to a Jewish audience.
In Peter’s Acts 2 sermon, the content of the gospel centers on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. No mention is made of unconditional election nor does irresistible grace appear in the conversation. Without these two doctrines, there is no Calvinism. Thus, the first time that the Church preaches the gospel, there is simply no mention of Calvinism.
Acts 2 isn’t the only gospel presentation that lacks Calvinism’s essential elements, however: In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul boils the gospel down to its essential elements and gives what may be the most succinct summary of the gospel in the New Testament. Paul says that the gospel, which is of “first importance,” is that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.” Notice that unconditional election and irresistible grace are unambiguously absent.
Thus, it seems that the gospel as presented in the New Testament and Calvinism are not identical. The gospel is about God’s kingdom breaking into the morass of human existence through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Calvinism, on the other hand, is a system of thought that attempts to understand the order of salvation, the ordo salutis. However, if two things have different essential qualities, they are not identical. Therefore, Calvinism is not the gospel.
What Does This Slogan Mean for Non-Calvinists?
Not only is this slogan incorrect, this slogan has dangerous implications for non-Calvinists.
What is a person who rejects the gospel? People who reject the gospel are non-believers or non-Christians. What is the ultimate fate of a person who rejects the gospel? The fate of those who reject God’s gospel is to spend eternity separated from God. What is a person who claims to be a member of the Church but rejects the gospel? At best, this person is a heretic. If Calvinists really believe that Calvinism is the gospel, what do they think about people who claim to be Christians yet reject Calvinism?
The problem with saying that Calvinism is the gospel isn’t just that the claim is wrong, saying that Calvinism is the gospel implicitly labels all non-Calvinists as heretics and pseudo-Christians while excluding us from the Church. Personally, I don’t think that Calvinists really want to exclude non-Calvinists from the Church; indeed, the overwhelming majority of Calvinists whom I’ve met recognize me as a fellow Christian. In fact, some churches have Calvinists and Arminians on staff together and cooperating in ministry!
How Calvinists treat non-Calvinists aside, the problem with the slogan’s implications remains. Unless we’re prepared to redefine the terms “Church,” “gospel,” “heretic,” and “Christian,” saying that Calvinism is the gospel implies that non-Calvinists are not authentic Christians, which is probably more than Calvinists want to say.
Therefore, it would be beneficial if people stopped saying that Calvinism is the gospel. The gospel is grander than our theological systems could ever be!
Notes & Sources
 Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 128ff.
 For a discussion of how the New Testament presents the gospel, see Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).
 1 Corinthians 15.3-5, NIV.