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What is Calvinism?

Today’s Question: My question is this! I am talking to a friend of mine that is rooted in Calvinism. I am trying to convince him concerning Faith, Baptism of Holy Spirit, Victorious Gospel (Inheritance) etc. I do not know much about Calvinism except that it seems dead! Can you enlighten me to how Calvinism works?

Thanks, Dave Richardson

Bible Answer: The influence of Calvinism over the Protestant churches cannot be overestimated. Although Calvinism was developed centuries ago the lingering affects of it can still be felt. This is why the message of faith is resisted. When you finally understand the roots of Calvinism you discover why people have trouble with the faith message. It is difficult for them to really live by faith and experience the victory that God promises when they are buried by Calvinism.

            Calvinism gets its name from its founder, John Calvin, who was born in Noyon, France in 1509. His father was a lawyer for the Catholic Church, and sent him to be educated in Paris, Orleans. There John became friends with Protestant Reformers Pierre Robert and Melchior Wolmar. He followed Wolmar to Bourges Law School. At this time he declared himself a Protestant. He left France and settled in Basel, Switzerland and published his “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” In this volume he explains his interpretation of the Christian faith. You have to understand this book in light of the age he lived in.

            Like many who leave a church over doctrinal issues, Calvin, I believe overreacted to the works-oriented salvation of the Catholic Church. No doubt the Catholic Church, then and now, teach that works save us. They teach it in a way that makes it impossible to have assurance of salvation. After all, how many good works must I do to be saved? Maybe I haven’t done enough! You can understand that under these conditions, John Calvin was disgusted with man’s attempt to secure his salvation with good works. So his teachings swung the pendulum to the other extreme, where man had “nothing” to do with his salvation—not even “faith” was man’s responsibility. To him, faith was something that God sovereignly gave to those He elected to be saved.

            Now you understand why Protestants have difficulty with the message of faith, healing, miracles and victorious Christian living. They view faith not as something we can have by getting into the Word of God, but as something God gives if He wills for you to have it. This is an extreme form of Sovereignty.

                Many accuse me of denying the Sovereignty of God, but I do believe in it, just not the same way as John Calvin taught it. Let me share an email from Nick who believes I am a false teacher because I refuse to accept the main five points of Calvinism:

“I don't know what Bible you are reading, but anyone that studies the word with an open heart can see where the five points of Calvinism come from. Read the New Testament; you know the books like Ephesians, Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians. They all speak of predestination, election, atonement, perseverance of the saints, total depravity. It sounds to me like you think salvation is of man.”

            Nick’s problem stems from his uncritical embrace of Calvinism. However, we are not called to justify, prove or defend anyone’s teachings. We are only called upon to stand for the Word of God. Of course the Bible mentions these topics—predestination, perseverance, atonement—but not the interpretation that Calvin gave to these terms.

            Jacob Arminius was a pupil of John Calvin, and once embraced and defended his views. But after digging into the scriptures, he came to the ultimate conclusion that many of his teacher’s doctrines were wrong. He refuted the main points of Calvin’s theology which had to do with “free will.” You see, Calvin did not believe in “free will” but instead held to the idea of “total sovereignty.” Arminius could not accept Calvin’s view of total sovereignty in light of biblical teaching. Arminius was quite successful in refuting the main points of Calvinism so the Calvinists came back with a rebuttal. The rebuttal came in the form of what is commonly called the “Tulip.” Tulip is an acronym for the five points of Calvinism: 

            T. Total Depravity

            U. Unconditional Election

            L. Limited Atonement

            I. Irresistible Grace

            P. Perseverance of the Saints

Except for the last one, all the biblical terms are “labeled” not simply stated. In other words, you can’t simply believe in depravity, but according to Calvin, you must accept “total” depravity. It is not enough to believe in election but in “unconditional” election. The belief of atonement is not sufficient; you must accept “limited” atonement. So you believe in grace, who doesn’t? But for Calvinists the doctrine of grace is not adequate, you must believe in “irresistible” grace. Do you see that Calvinism defines for itself what the biblical terms mean for its adherents?

            This is why I cannot be a Calvinist. I do not agree with how the Calvinists use the terms. I believe in all the doctrinal terms, but not the definition that the Calvinists give them.

            Here is what John Calvin did: rather than taking the understandable passages which directly relate to particular doctrines, he pooled together various scriptures and made assumptions based on these passages to develop his system of theology.

            When one has a question about a doctrine, it is best to look at the plain, unambiguous Bible verses that directly speak on the topic, rather than trying to philosophize upon the meaning of a verse. Calvinism’s errors are easily disproved by clear Bible passages. Let’s look at Calvin’s doctrine:

1. Total Depravity. Calvinists believe that man’s nature and will is absolutely fixed and determined against all godliness. He is so depraved he has no ability whatsoever to even have faith. Man cannot even come to Christ.

            The concept is easily refuted by Ezekiel 16:47: You not only walked in their ways and copied their detestable practices, but in all your ways you soon became more depraved than they. If depravity is “total” than how could one person be more depraved than the others? “More” speaks of quantity. If one can have “more” than someone else, then the others cannot have “total”. Yet, Calvin believed that all of humanity was “totally depraved.”

            This depravity was so grave to Calvin that he believed man could do “nothing” to be saved, including “believing” the gospel. I agree that man cannot work his way to salvation. No amount of good works could save anyone. That is true. But to say that man cannot even “believe” is going too far.

            One day Jesus taught the disciples that, instead of working for food which perishes, they should “work” for food that is eternal. Obviously the disciples wanted to be employed in this kind of labor, so they asked Him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

            Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28-29) The disciples were thinking plural “works” but Jesus made it simple, there is only one “work” they could do, and that was to “believe.”

            If Jesus did not think it was possible for man to believe, then He had a royal opportunity to expand on Calvin’s idea of total depravity, but instead, He revealed to us that there is one thing that man can do to get saved, and that is to “believe in the one God has sent.” This is within man’s reach.

            Saint Paul said it a different way: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9) Notice the subject matter is “grace”. Grace by nature is not from us. It is a gift of God. Right of entry into this grace is “through faith.” Faith is our responsibility. God will not make us believe.

            (Some have construed Paul’s words to mean that even our faith is not from ourselves. However, he was referring to grace as not from ourselves. Sure there is an element where faith is a gift of God too, however, it is gift only in the sense that man cannot believe unless he “hears the Word of God.” Without God speaking, man cannot believe anything about God. But God has spoken and is still speaking through His Spirit.)

            Here is another passage which confirms the Apostle’s concept of the role of Faith and Grace: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” (Rom 5:1-2)

            How do we gain access into this grace? Paul says we gain access by faith into this grace. Grace is God’s doing, Faith is man’s doing. Grace is God’s Work, Faith is Man’s Work.

            Calvin was wrong. Mankind has the ability to “believe.” He is not so depraved that he lost his ability to have faith.

2. Unconditional Election. Calvinists believe that the eternal destiny of man is determined by God alone, and in no way is grounded in any foreseen merit in the sinner. God does not elect based on any foreknowledge that the person would believe. So if a person is saved, then God saved him, solely, because God chose him. For those who are not saved, God chose them also for damnation.

            This concept can be refuted without difficulty. Peter brings forth the concept of election is his first letter: “To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood:” (1 Peter 1:1-2)

            We are the elect, but under what basis does God elect us. Peter makes it abundantly clear that we have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God. Calvin did not believe that election was based on any foreknowledge, yet Peter says it is. Who do you believe, Peter or Calvin? I will go with Peter!

            Why is our understanding of election important? It is important because if election is the sole cause of our “choosing” Christ, then sinners cannot choose to repent. They could only repent if God first chooses them to get saved. Yes, I understand that Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). But under what basis did He first choose us? He chose us because He has omniscient powers of foreknowledge, and He is able to know in advance who will choose Him, so he “beats us to the punch” and chooses us before we can choose Him.

            Let me illustrate it this way: suppose a gambler knew all things and so he knew which horse would win the race. He would then pick the winning horse. Now, would the gambler be the “cause” of the horse winning and conversely be the “fault” of the other horses losing? No!  In the same way, you cannot blame God for those who are not saved any more than you can credit Him “solely” for being the cause of those who get saved. I am not saying that God does not have something to do with getting us saved, but He is not “solely” responsible for us getting saved.

            Someone might be offended and accuse me of making God out to be a gambler. I am not trying to bring God down to the level of a gambler anymore than Jesus was trying to bring God down to a level of an “unjust judge” (Luke 18:6) or Himself to the level of a “thief in the night” (Matt. 24:43-44). This was only an illustration to help you understand election.

            Defenders of Calvinism often use Roman’s chapter nine to defend the concept of “unconditional election.”

Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!  For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. (Rom 9:10-16)

            It is understandable how someone can get “unconditional election” from Paul’s words here in this passage. But as Peter says, “Paul’s letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16)

            Here is a “hard to understand” passage if you pull out this passage from the entire book of Romans. What Paul was trying to argue for was the right of the Gentiles to be included in the plan of redemption. There were some Jews who felt that Gentiles were excluded from salvation, so Paul cites an incident when God elected the young brother, Jacob instead of the older brother to receive the inheritance.

            The point that Paul was making is it may seem a surprise for God to “elect” the gentiles for salvation, but He does surprise us. Paul reminds the readers that God will have mercy on whom He wants to have mercy and He will show compassion on whom He wants to have compassion. You cannot tell God whom He can save!

            So in the next chapter Paul concludes his teaching on election with this wonderful all-inclusive statement:

As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”  For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom 10:11-13)

Do you see it? Paul concludes his remarks with the fact that now all may be saved—Jews and Gentiles together. All they need to do is “call on the name of the Lord.” Calvin got stuck in Romans 9, when he should have continued reading because in chapter 10 Paul makes it clear that salvation is available to “Anyone” who trusts in Him.

3. Limited Atonement. Calvinists believe that Christ’s sacrifice was intended to affect just those who would be saved. Jesus did not die for everyone, but only for the elect.

            I suppose if there is any awkward doctrine for Calvinists to defend is limited atonement. The scriptures are blunt on this idea: He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)

            How simple do we need the Bible to be on this point? John clearly says that Jesus’ atonement covers not just our sins, but the sins of the whole world. There is no limit to the atonement. The price has been paid for everyone. Not all will accept the payment, but it is there nevertheless.

            Calvinists will split hairs at this juncture. They might say that technically Jesus’ blood “could” cover everyone but God “intended” it to cover only the elect. Furthermore they teach that the atonement is the “cause” of salvation, not simply the “provision” of salvation. In other words, the atonement is not just the payment for our sins. If it were, then a person would be able to “cash in” on the payment and that would allow sinners to accept the payment. Calvinists cannot have just any sinner accepting the death of Christ, so they redefine the atonement to mean more than “payment” and “provision” but actual “disbursement” of salvation.

            Let me illustrate it this way: The Bible’s understanding of the atonement would be like a millionaire who left his wealth to his four children. Now the responsibility of the children would be to probate the will. Once they probate the will, then the wealth is theirs. This is how God works. Jesus died and left enough salvation for all men, but men must accept the payment, which would be their way to probate the Will of God.

            On the other hand a Calvinist cannot allow any responsibility for the sinner. The sinner cannot “accept” Christ, because, to their thinking, that would make them somewhat responsible for obtaining salvation. To the Calvinists, they would see the wealthy man leaving an inheritance to only the children whom he wanted to have the wealth, not to all. And then the wealthy man before he died would have probated the will himself and put the money in the children’s account. The special children then would find the money in the bank. In this scenario, what responsibility did the children exercise? None!

            In the biblical scenario, the responsibility for actually obtaining the inheritance was the children’s. The Bible teaches that it is our responsibility to accept the atonement, and by accepting it, we become heirs of salvation.

            Do you see how ludicrous the doctrine of “limited atonement” becomes? The simple understanding of Christ dying for the sins of the entire world is now twisted to mean that Jesus died only for the elect.

4. Irresistible Grace. The Calvinists believe that there is no cooperation of the man’s will with the divine power. An apparent change in the will of man is wholly God’s doing, and not man's, even in part.

            Now we come to faith and repentance of the sinner. How does a sinner repent? According to the Bible, “The Holy Spirit convicts the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.” (John 16:8) A person comes to faith in Christ through the convicting power of the Spirit. To this there is no doubt!

            However, the Calvinists take this further to mean that the Holy Spirit convicts to such a degree that you will be “forced” to believe. You will not be able to resist the Holy Spirit in any way. In Calvinism there is no “free will” but only the “Sovereign will” of God. Since you were elected for salvation, according to the Calvinists, God cannot leave it with you to believe and repent. He will cause you to repent. This is what is meant by “irresistible grace.” Grace that you cannot resist.

            Does the Bible mention whether it is possible to resist the Holy Spirit? It sure does, and here is a clear verse: You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! (Acts 7:51) There it is! They resisted the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted, then how was it possible for these people to do it? It is clear; man still can resist the Holy Spirit. This makes their judgment even worse.

            The Lord does everything He can, without violating free will, to bring us to salvation. He even sent His precious Spirit to convict us, and yet, to resist Him takes a great deal of effort. However, the Calvinists believe that the Spirit violates free will to make a person repent. A Calvinists believes that a person’s faith and repentance only appears to be of their volition, but it is really the outcome of the Will of God. So that means, those who do not repent, it is because the Spirit had not convicted them; if He had, then they too would have repented.

5. Perseverance of the Saints. Calvinists believe that those, whom God has elected, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere to the end, and be eternally saved.

            We come to the final problem with Calvinist’s theology. They know the Bible warns about apostasy and falling away from the faith. They acknowledge the necessity of producing good fruit to show their salvation, and that he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt 24:13) How does a Calvinists take these warnings? Simple, they believe if a person is truly regenerated, that means they are the elect, and being the elect, the Lord will “make them stand” to the end.

            No doubt there are many promises from God that He will be faithful to do everything He can to make a believer stay saved. To him who is able to keep you from falling (Jude 24) is one of them. Another is he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil 1:6) How about Jesus personal promise, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28)

            The Lord is clear, if someone loses their salvation, they cannot blame God. He is faithful to keep His word. However, like in the preceding points of Calvinism, the doctrines are taken to the extreme so that free will is nullified. If man does not have a free will then God is the only one responsible to cause the believer to persevere.

            Of course that brings us to the issue of the warnings in the Bible concerning apostasy and backslidings. If God warns the believer not to backslide and depart from the faith, and if the believer cannot really ultimately fall away, then the warnings is needless and pointless. Right? Why warn us about something that cannot happen?

            I suppose in the end, it is this final point that is most dangerous of all. Calvinism provides a believer with an “unconditional” eternal security. They do not believe that anything they do will have any affect upon their eternal destiny. If God has chosen them, then there is nothing they can do to ultimately be lost, and if God did not chose them to be saved, then there is nothing good they can do as well. So they fall into a fatalistic mindset—whatever God wills, it shall be done! This is dangerous. (For a fuller teaching on the Eternal Security of the believer, click here.)

            When you think everything is already determined—set in cement—you might have a tendency to live recklessly or like the movie “Unbreakable” starring Bruce Willis he lived numb. He had no feelings or ambitions. He thought he was unbreakable and, thus, could not die.

            When a person feels that their actions do not amount to “anything” it becomes difficult to claim God’s blessings by faith. They already assume He either has predestined them for them or not.

            Dave, this is probably what you notice about Calvinist's churches—they seem lifeless and dead, much like Bruce Willis’s character.

            Thank God we know the real truth about the gospel and our responsibility to it. Our decisions and actions do matter for eternity. Don't give up on your Calvinist's friend. Print out this article and have him read it. Perhaps he will see the light.

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