What first comes into your mind when you see the word Calvinism? If you’ve heard the word, you likely have an opinion on it. And if you’ve ever talked with anyone else about it, you’ve probably found that they do, too. We’ll get into exactly why that is, but let’s first consider (very briefly) how Calvinism originated.
A Quick History of Calvinism.
Calvinism was (quite creatively, if I do say) named after John Calvin (1509-1564), one of the most influential leaders of the Protestant Reformation. His theological masterpiece, The Institutes of Christian Religion, essentially served as the foundation of what would eventually be known as the Five Points of Calvinism.
The phrase The Five Points of Calvinism, though not called The Five Points of Calvinism at the time, were formally articulated 55 years after Calvin’s death at the Synod of Dort in response to the Five Articles of the Arminian Remonstrants, which were written by people who weren’t exactly “fans” of what we now know as Calvinism. And there is still a great number of people who aren’t exactly “fans” of Calvinism almost 400 years later.
Despite its opposition, the interesting truth is that most of the strongest arguments against Calvinism are emotional rather than biblical. In other words, most of the best arguments against Calvinism sound something like, “I’m not comfortable with that,” “I don’t like the implications of that,” or, “I don’t like the potential ramifications of that,” rather than, “That’s not what the Bible says.” The Bible does, in fact, teach from cover to cover what are now known as The Five Points of Calvinism.
What I Don’t Mean When I Say, “I’m a Calvinist.”
That said, it is important to recognize that Calvinism is not the worship of John Calvin. And neither is Calvinism an effort to elevate human systems to the same level of authority as the authoritative Word of God, whether Calvin’s Institutes, the Canons of Dort, or any other work, nor an effort to cram a theological system onto the Word of God. Calvinism is an effort to explain what God has revealed about election in the Bible.
To clarify, let’s get personal with it. I am not a Calvinist because I’m madly in love with John Calvin. And neither am I a Calvinist because I believe other writings are of equal value with or possess the same authority as the Bible. Further, I’m not a Calvinist because I think humans have no personal responsibility (in fact, I believe people are responsible for everything they do, but we’ll get to that later). And I’m not a Calvinist because it teaches what I want to believe about election. To the contrary, Calvinism is exactly what my human nature wishes the Bible did not say. I want some credit for my salvation, but Calvinism eliminates all grounds for me to boast about me.
Rather, when I say, “I’m a Calvinist,” I am saying that I see in Scripture what John Calvin and the men who produced the Canons of Dort saw in Scripture. The result is that it enables me to say in a word, Calvinism, what I’ll now spend several paragraphs explaining.
What I Do Mean When I Say, “I’m a Calvinist.”
Here’s what I mean when I say, “I’m a Calvinist.” These are known as The Five Points of Calvinism.
a) Total Depravity.
Human beings are born sinful (Rom. 5:12), and they all continue in sin thereafter (1 Ki. 8:46, Rom. 3:9-18, 23, 1 Jn. 1:8). The effect of sin, or rebellion against God, on human nature is that every person is spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1), blind (Jn. 12:37-40, 2 Cor. 4:3-4), deaf (Jn. 8:47, 10:25-29) and foolish (1 Cor. 2:14). Further, people are by nature slaves to sin (Rom. 6:17-18), and so hostile toward God that, were God to choose to let people follow their own natural desires, they not only could not (Rom. 8:7-8, Eph. 2:1-3), but, in fact, would not choose to know and love Him (Rom. 3:10-18).
b) Unconditional Election.
In short, God accomplished the salvation of His people based not upon the foreseen wisdom of His people, but based on His own wisdom. God chose to rescue sinners from the unbearable consequences of their sin against God (i.e., eternal separation from God in hell forever). This means that God didn’t choose people based their character, but on His. Neither did God choose people based on His foreknowledge that they would choose Him (Jn. 6:44, 65, Acts 13:48, 16:14, Rom. 9:16). ((This is a weak argument for several reasons. First, it requires one to read a phrase into the sentence that just is not there, namely, “would choose Him,” so that the sentence would actually say, “those whom he foreknew would choose Him…” Needless to say, adding phrases to Scripture isn’t a good idea. Second, the Greek word for “know” in Rom. 8:29 and the word for “know” in Mt. 7:23 have the same root word (gnosis). The context of Mt. 7:23 reveals that Jesus was saying that He didn’t intimately know these people, not that He was cognitively unaware of their existence. Finally, the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines foreknowledge (proginosko) as, “to choose beforehand; to select in advance; to decide in advance.”)) In fact, God chose to save His enemies while they were still in active rebellion against Him (Rom. 5:8, 10), meaning that salvation can only be the produce of the free choice of God (Jn. 1:12-13, 6:37, 63-65, Rom. 9:16).
Interestingly, regeneration (i.e., the new birth) (Jn. 3:8), faith (Jn. 6:37-40, Eph. 2:8-9), and repentance (Acts 5:31, 11:18, 2 Tim. 2:25), are all unconditionally given by God to His people, the elect.
c) Particular Redemption. ((Some people use the phrase “Limited Atonement” in place of “Particular Redemption,” and while I do not mind the phrase, it does not provide an adequately distinction, since Calvinism, Arminianism, and every other perspective short of universalism, limit the atonement in one way or another. Calvinism limits the scope, or extent, of the atonement, meaning that God is not offering salvation to all people, but accomplishing the salvation of the elect. On the other hand, Arminianism limits the power, or effectiveness, of the atonement by claiming that while God offers salvation to everyone, He does not accomplish the salvation of anyone.))
For the praise of His own glorious grace (Eph. 1:3-14, Rom. 9:22-23), God has chosen to rescue a particular people from among the whole of sinful humanity (Jn. 6:37, 44, 63-65, 17:6-12). As such, Christ’s death did not merely make salvation possible for those who would choose to be saved, but the cross of Christ actually accomplished the salvation of those whom the Father chose before the foundation of the world (Mt. 1:21, Eph. 1:3-6).
d) Irresistible Grace.
God’s elect are saved by the irresistible grace of God. To clarify, this does not mean that God’s grace may never be resisted, since Acts 7:51 plainly states the opposite. Rather, irresistible grace means that God can and does overcome all resistance whenever He so chooses (Rom. 9:16). In other words, human beings may resist God’s grace until God decides that they will resist Him no longer.
e) Preservation of the Saints.
“Perseverance of the saints” is the traditional phrase assigned to this particular point, but the phrase “preservation of the saints” seems to be a better fit, since the term preservation highlights the work of God in ultimately causing His elect to persevere in the faith. That said, I acknowledge and affirm the tension found in Philippians 2:12-13, that God’s elect are responsible to persevere in the faith (1 Cor. 15:1-2), and that God’s elect will persevere to the end ultimately because of God’s power and commitment to preserve them (Phil. 1:6, 1 Thess. 5:23-24). God’s preservation of believers is internally evident to God’s elect as they increase in affection for both God and people (Mt. 22:37-40), and is externally evident as they grow in joyful obedience to God’s commands (1 John 5:3).
How are you doing? Did those Five Points shake your theological grid like they did mine about a decade ago? Or did they confirm what you all ready believe? If you’re the former, I wouldn’t guess that this post alone answered all your questions regarding Calvinism, so I hope it serves as a great springboard for your personal study and for your participation in the dialogue in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!
- “What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism” by the Bethlehem Baptist Church staff
- The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented by Steele, Thomas and Quinn
- The Canons of Dort (1619)
- The Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin