Calvinism is Not the Gospel

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.[1]

In Peter’s Acts 2 sermon, the content of the gospel centers on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.[2] 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.”[3] 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

[1] Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 128ff.

[2] 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).

[3] 1 Corinthians 15.3-5, NIV.

8 comments

  1. You state that Calvinism is based upon 2 central claims and that because in those 2 specific passages they are not stated, this is evidence of Calvinism “missing” from them. I disagree that with this premise. First, in Acts 2, Peter is giving a gospel presentation. I don’t know of any Calvinist who would think it a good idea to try to exposit the 5 points (or even 2 points) of Calvinism to someone as a starting point in presenting the gospel, so the fact that any of them are missing from a specific evangelistic sermon is not evidence that they are untrue. However, since you used Acts 2, I would like to note that in response to the sermon, Peter followed up in verse 39 saying “the promise is for […] everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” I think a 5 point Calvinist would find this to be evidence that Peter did adhere, at least in part, to their understanding of predestination. (my bible here cross references Joel 2:32 and Romans 8:30, 2 passages commonly used by Calvinists)

    In 1 Corinthians 15, you are right to point out that unconditional election and irresistible grace are not mentioned, but neither are they refuted. You are making an argument from silence, but a Calvinist would surely point you to other places where Paul does mention God’s election, predestination, etc. Of course, a lack of specific terminology is not evidence that a particular doctrine must be rejected; if this were the case we might reject the doctrine of the Trinity and other important doctrines because scripture does not mention them specifically.

    Calvinism, like Arminianism, is a system. Neither system can be taken down simply because examples can be found that are silent on a particular issue. Writers of scripture were not writing in a way to prove or disprove either system, but we can trust that the Bible itself is our best source, and proponents of both systems find passages to comfort them. Saying that Calvinism is the gospel is not necessarily a claim that other understandings are apostate, and I have read and listened to many Calvinists and have never heard it said that one can only understand the gospel in light of TULIP, although they will confidently tell you they are right, just as most Arminians do. A devout Calvinist, as you noted, can work effectively alongside a devout Arminian to God’s glory.

    I think you are overly concerned about a Calvinist saying that Calvinism is the gospel. Unless they were to follow up by saying “and if you don’t believe in the TULIP you are cursed!”, I think it is just a way of saying that Calvinism is good news. I found this post to be a bit unfair towards Calvinists, and at odds with your blog post on Calvinism, which was more even handed and informative.

    In case you wonder my position, I tend towards the Calvinist position, and appreciate RC Sproul’s modified TULIP language (see: https://www.ligonier.org/blog/tulip-and-reformed-theology-introduction/). The common acrostic language often leads to mischaracterizations of Calvinism. When I am preaching a passage like Ephesians 1, I speak of God’s sovereign power in saving us and probably sound like a Calvinist, and when I preach from passages that tell us we are commanded to believe, I probably sound more Arminian. In reality, I do not believe that one’s preference towards one or the other really changes our responsibilities as believers, and I am thankful that in my denomination, we have pastors on both sides of this issue. We have some good conversations about this, and our agreements are far more than our disagreements. I have found that regardless of where one of my fellow servants stands on the particulars of Calvinism or Arminianism, we mostly agree on our responsibility to share the gospel and to live out the faith with God’s Word as our primary source of instruction.

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    • Thanks for your comment. I always appreciate when people can disagree with one another with respect on the internet, as you just did.

      I would like to point out one thing that I thought was really important: In your reply you state that the fact that Calvinism’s points are missing from Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 isn’t proof that Calvinism is incorrect. You also say something similar in regard to 1 Corinthians 15. I wholeheartedly agree with you here: The fact that Peter and Paul don’t mention Calvinism in these two passages says absolutely nothing about whether Calvinism is true of false. However, this blog post didn’t actually argue that Calvinism is false; instead, the argument was just that the system of Calvinism isn’t identical to the gospel. I think a Calvinist could agree that the system of Calvinism is not identical to the gospel while remaining a Calvinist. They might, as you say, point to other verses to support Calvinism. So, whether Calvinism is taught in the Bible isn’t really what I’m concerned with in this post.

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      • Just as a quick response to that, I would have to agree. I’m a Calvinist–though I prefer the term “Reformed”–and I agree that the TULIP does not equal the gospel. I believe wholeheartedly that the Bible teaches the Doctrines of Grace, but I don’t think that they have to be explicated in order to give an accurate and sufficient gospel presentation.

        Reformed theology really just tries to explain who turns the lights on, so to speak, and why the Bible teaches that it can only be God (as I believe it does). I’ve honestly never heard a Calvinist make this claim. I’ve heard of so-called Calvinists making similar claims, but never directly, and never this one.

        Also, I didn’t read your post as an argument against Calvinism, but simply an argument against the 1:1 comparison of it with the gospel. So, just from this post, I have no clue if we see eye-to-eye on the Doctrines of Grace, but I don’t think that in any way breaks our unity in Christ.

        Best,

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not a Calvinist, so we disagree in that regard; however, we do agree that Calvinism is not equal to the gospel. Instead, as you say, Calvinism is a system that tries to make sense of what happens when a person responds to the gospel.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I’d probably say that it’s a system that deals specifically with the cause of regeneration and the implications of that cause. This would include a person’s response, but would also include election, assurance, moral inability, effectual calling, etc.

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  2. It has always seemed to me that the Calvinist position seeks to interpret the sovereignty of God as God CONTROLLING all things. There is a sense in which this is correct. But when it comes to salvation (and the responsibility of man to respond to the gospel) the strict sovereign control of God is difficult to maintain from Scripture. There is just no way to get around the obvious issue that God is pre-determining (controlling) who is saved and who isn’t (which makes the issue of man’s response utterly irrelevant). The Bible clearly teaches that man is responsible for his choices — which makes God’s sovereign control of all “choices” contradictory to what the Bible tells us. I respect my Calvinist brothers and sisters (I used to be one!) and their passion to see people come to Jesus, but I could never get beyond the larger picture of Scripture which tells us that the issues of judgment, love, and faith are all dependent on choice. Perhaps the real issue is the need for a better understanding of what God’s sovereignty actually means?
    Thanks for your work here. Well-done! M. A.

    Liked by 1 person

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