Calvinism: What is it all about?
You may have never heard of this, but nearly every pastor has. And whether you know it or not, many pastors have been influenced by the teachings of this man. The man I speak of is John Calvin. He’s a famous theologian and was a pastor in Geneva, Switzerland. He died in 1564. He was the author of many writings. Along with a pastor named Martin Luther of Germany, they were the most influential forces of what is spoken of as the Protestant Reformation. His commentaries still exert a tremendous amount of influence on the Christian church worldwide.
From 1979 to 1981 I was a student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. In addition to the study of the teachings of the Bible, I was particularly interested in studying the original languages of the Bible and getting the credentials I needed to become a chaplain in the U.S. Army. What an interesting time that was! I’d grown up in a Baptist church and graduated from a Baptist college in Clinton, Mississippi. However, Reformed Seminary was primarily a Presbyterian school with many students who came from what are often called Reformed churches. That means they had been schooled in the teachings of men like John Calvin and what is today called Calvinism. When I entered the school, I knew practically nothing about this man and what he taught. But in those next three years I had to learn and was tested on his teachings, as well as other “Reformers” of his era. There were times when I was asked if I was familiar with what are called The Five Points of Calvinism. I quickly learned what they were. And none of this may mean anything to you, but I can assure you that if you’re involved in a church, the pastor or leading teacher there probably has some degree of familiarity with all this. Furthermore, it’s likely that a lot of his teachings are influenced by them. The point of this article is to help you see what the Bible has to say about the beliefs of Calvinism, so you’ll know where you should stand in your own beliefs on these very important teachings of the Bible.
When I first entered seminary, I was especially interested in learning why certain groups baptize babies. In all my studies, I’d never seen any biblical justification for it but was wondering why so many people had accepted it as something that should be practiced. Soon I found out that it had been linked to the religious rite of circumcision. The reply I got was that the baptism of babies was the New Testament counterpart or replacement for circumcision. My immediate response to this was to ask where this was taught in the Bible. The answer I got amazed me. In every case, I was met with silence as to where this was taught in the Bible. In other words, there is no biblical basis for it at all. I then immediately knew it was founded on a house of cards, so to speak. To put it plainly, infant baptism has no biblical and divine authorization whatsoever. The Bible says absolutely NOTHING about it. Yet people observe it as though it has some wonderful divine meaning. It does not! The only meaning it has is whatever people choose to give it. It is what I often call, ritual without reality. If you think otherwise, what is the biblical basis for your thinking? As I hope you know, there is none. All you have is a deep-seated traditional practice that has gone on for many years.
Regarding what are often referred to as the five main points of Calvinism, let’s look at that. To simplify the matter, someone came up with the acronym of TULIP. Each letter stands for one of the five basic doctrines of Calvinism. We’ll walk through each of them individually, but here’s a list of them.
- Total depravity
- Unconditional election
- Limited atonement
- Irresistible grace
- Perseverance of the saints
These five doctrines are by no means the only things Calvinists teach, but they provide a good summary of things they are particularly known for believing. These have also been the five main points of contention with other groups of believers. So, let’s look at a summary of the meaning of each of them.
Man is surely a totally depraved creature. Therefore, on the surface this teaching of Reformed Theology looks like a perfectly acceptable truth. Fundamentally this tells us man does not naturally know or receive the things of God because such things are spiritually discerned.
I Corinthians 2:14
14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. [Emphasis added]
Man’s inability to receive the things of God is not due to any defect in his physical constitution. Instead, this is a spiritual problem. This also does not mean man can’t understand the basic meaning of the sentences he reads in the Bible. It’s just that his study of the Bible doesn’t contribute to his spiritual growth because along spiritual lines he is dead until he becomes a believer in the gospel of Christ. It is when he is saved by believing Jesus Christ died for his sins, was buried, and raised from His grave for his justification that salvation occurs instantly and permanently. When anyone accepts this work Christ performed in his behalf as their sole basis for salvation, eternal life is provided immediately. That person is then instantly made alive spiritually.
1 And you hath he quickened [made alive], who were dead in trespasses and sins; [Emphasis added]
Until someone is made alive spiritually, they remain condemned of God and subject to all the bad influences of life.
2 Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air [a reference to Satan], the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: [Emphasis added]
All this tells us the unbeliever’s thoughts and actions are totally dominated by his sinful nature, the world of people about him, and Satanic influences. This includes even the things he does that are typically thought of as good. Even those things are badly motivated, emanating from his sinful nature. By no means does he do anything that is acceptable to God. Many passages speak of this which is man’s condition from the time of his conception until he is saved.
12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: [Emphasis added]
This is the condition of all mankind apart from the salvation God offers to him.
9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
Yes, this is God’s description of all people who are in a state of unbelief.
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; [Emphasis added]
Not until he’s justified, that is, credited with the righteousness of God because of his personal expression of faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection which was provided for him as a basis for his salvation does his condition change.
24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: [Emphasis added]
This means God gladly provides justification to anyone who will look to the work of Jesus Christ for his salvation. There’s nothing in Scripture to indicate that a person can’t do that of his own free will at any time. By no means does God provide this opportunity for salvation to some but not others. He doesn’t pick some for heaven and others for hell. He’s made it plain that it is His wish, His desire that all come to a change of mind [repentance] from unbelief and be saved.
II Peter 3:9
9 The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing [THELO—meaning wishing or desiring] that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. [Emphasis added]
It is when anyone freely chooses to believe in this which God has provided, that salvation and spiritual life become his immediately.
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that [that salvation] not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. [Emphasis added]
One reason I mention this passage is that Calvinists claim that it is God who provides the faith for one to believe. That’s not at all what this passage, or any other passage of Scripture, is teaching. Volition and the ability to choose is something God has granted to all mankind. Even the initial fall of man into sin when he resided in the Garden of Eden didn’t change this. There’s nothing in the Bible to indicate that it did. This means anyone is free to accept what God has provided as the means for their eternal salvation. The two options every individual has is to depend on his own works for salvation or those that God has provided through the one work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I Corinthians 15:1-4
1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;
2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: [Emphasis added]
There’s nothing at all to indicate that this offer was only open to some of Paul’s readers of this writing. Furthermore, there’s nothing anywhere in the Bible that says God picks and chooses some to believe and not others. We’ll deal with this more when we get to our next subject, that of election.
Even though man gains a new nature at salvation, he retains the old one throughout his earthly life. Paul addresses this in his letter to the Galatian believers.
17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. [Emphasis added]
This tells us that even after salvation, man still has a sinful nature that battles this new one for control. Even with extreme desire to serve God, man still falls short by personal sin. Not in a lifetime is he able to serve Him perfectly.
It was when God provided the Mosaic Law of the Bible that man was caused to become even more aware of his sinful condition and his need for a Savior.
19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. [Emphasis added]
Yes, the Mosaic Law just shows us clearly of our need for a Savior. The law exposes our blemishes, much like a mirror does physically. But just as you cannot comb your hair with a mirror, you cannot be saved by trying to observe the commands of the Mosaic Law. The Savior we all needed was provided in the Lord Jesus Christ.
II Corinthians 5:19-21
19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.
If complete “full circle” reconciliation between man and God was completed by Christ’s work at the cross, there would be no need for this command to BE reconciled. God has made full provision for it, but man must accept by faith Christ’s work for this to occur.
21 For he [God the Father] hath made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. [Emphasis added]
Therefore, despite man’s total depravity, God appeals to Him to exercise his faith so as to be fully reconciled. All people are free to decide for themselves as to whether or not they will accept His offer.
This is typically thought to be the idea that God has chosen or selected some for salvation but not others. There are many charges that have been brought against this view. Here are probably the main ones.
- It is arbitrary.
- It cancels the need for evangelism and the urgency of it.
- It says God has already made up His mind about who He has decreed with certainty to go to heaven and who He has decreed with certainty to spend eternity in hell, even though Calvinists don’t seem to like to admit this last part about the destiny of the unsaved.
- It promotes the sin of pride in those who think they are among the ones God has selected over others for salvation and for heaven.
The Bible speaks of Jesus Christ being the elected or selected One of God.
Isaiah 42:1 [This is the first place in all the Bible election is mentioned.]
1 Behold my servant [this is speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ], whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. [Emphasis added]
Matthew 12:17-18 affirms that this is Christ under discussion. We also know this is speaking of Him because all judgment has been committed to Him.
22 For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son: [Emphasis added]
In every age, in salvation people become identified with Christ by faith. Before the present dispensation, people were simply identified with Him redemptively. Today, believers are said to be made members of His body. A mystical union takes place when one is first saved.
30 For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. [Emphasis added]
Therefore, we get to share in His future. Unlike Israel that was promised a kingdom on earth [Matthew 8:11; 18:3-4; 19:23-24; 26:29], we have a heavenly destiny with Him. As believers our citizenship is now said to be in heaven. God has chosen or elected us as a people for that future Christ shares with us.
20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: [Emphasis added]
This verse has nothing to do with a “conversation,” as we use the word today. The Greek word from which this comes is POLITEUMA which means citizenship. Yes, this tells us that as believers and members of what is called the body of Christ, we have become citizens of heaven. That’s because of our eternal identification with Christ through what is called the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
I Corinthians 12:13
13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
Obviously, we’re not in heaven yet, but we surely will be at some point in the future. Meanwhile we are to live in a manner that reflects our status as the elect or chosen of God.
12 Put on [as one would put on a garment] therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies [a merciful heart], kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness [a non-disputing attitude], longsuffering;
13 Forbearing [bearing with] one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.
14 And above all these things put on charity [love], which is the bond of perfectness. [Emphasis added]
This simply tells us that God expects such a life from us because of who we are in Christ. We are His people. We are to think like it and act like it. That demands faithful study and application of God’s Word.
By being God’s elect, we all have a glorious future awaiting us. Only by our own choosing to accept God’s means for our salvation will we get to enjoy these wonderful benefits of eternal blessing.
This is the one of the five that even many professed Calvinists reject. That’s why some people think of themselves as four-point Calvinists. But, as you will see, the truth of the matter is that all five points are wrong in the way in which they teach them.
In this case, it’s talking about who Christ died for. The limited atonement crowd claims Christ only died for “the elect.” The reality is that Scripture clearly shows us otherwise.
The word atonement involves an act where something is done to satisfy the just demands of someone who has been offended so that peace and harmony between the two parties can be restored. Other words that could be used would be expiation or propitiation. Whatever term is used, it involves the act of satisfying the just demands of the party offended. In this case, we’re talking about God being offended by our sins.
The idea of limited atonement puts forth the idea that Christ only made the payment for those who accept the offer of salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But what does the Bible say about this?
I Timothy 2:5-6
5 For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;
6 Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. [Emphasis added]
Here in this next verse Paul lets us know that all are not going to believe the gospel by which they could be saved. Christ is the Savior for all, but not all will accept His provision for their salvation.
I Timothy 4:10
10 For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe. [Emphasis added]
Other writers of Scripture also make this fact quite clear.
I John 2:2
2 And he [Christ] is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. [Emphasis added]
Even during our Lord’s earthy ministry this was brought up.
29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. [Emphasis added]
Even a far more well-known verse speaks of this.
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. [Emphasis added]
For more information on this, look at the article on our website [4Us2UsMinistries.com] entitled Atonement: In what sense did Christ atone for our sins?
A wonderful thing about this is that it means anyone can be saved. No sin was overlooked at the cross of Christ. To make this possible He took the judgment of the wrath of God on that occasion for the sins of all mankind. As ambassadors for Christ, every believer now has this wonderful message to proclaim to others. That’s why it is called the gospel which means good news.
II Corinthians 5:20-21
20 Now then we [as believers] are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.
21 For he [God the Father] hath made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin for us [this is speaking of all mankind], who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. [Emphasis added]
Because of Christ’s work on the cross, sin no longer stands as a barrier for man’s salvation. Anyone can be saved. Forgiveness of sins was provided then and there. When faith is placed in that work of Christ, the righteousness of God is credited to the one believing. This is the believer’s justification before God that provides eternal salvation. Therefore, the teaching that this was done only for those who choose to believe is totally unacceptable. Scripture clearly shows us otherwise.
This is the belief that man’s will is not a factor in his salvation. It presents the idea that when God moves to save a person, they are unable to resist His will in the matter. The concept suggests a mechanical and coercive force that man cannot resist. This theory teaches that God’s grace is so powerful that it has the capacity to overcome man’s natural resistance to it. It, therefore, presents the idea that man is regenerated [made alive spiritually] before he believes the gospel message. But where is the evidence that all this is supported by the Bible? Even though many Calvinists reluctantly admit it, the theory advocates the idea that the Holy Spirit works to save some, but not all.
As we’ve already seen, the Bible plainly teaches that God desires for all to be saved, not just some.
II Peter 3:9
9 The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing [the Greek word THELO means desiring] that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. [Emphasis added]
Because God wants all to be saved and not just some, He has made provision that all can be saved and not just some.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. [Emphasis added]
The only reason some are not saved is that they are not willing to accept the offer of salvation He provides.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. [Emphasis added]
No indication is given at all that God only desires some to be saved. Because He desires all to be saved, He made provision so that all could be saved.
II Corinthians 5:19
19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word [the message] of reconciliation. [Emphasis added]
The sins of the world were placed on Christ, and He was judged for them. This means anyone at any time can be saved by accepting by faith what He did for them. The only reason one is not saved is because of his own resistance to what God has provided and offers to all.
51 Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
The fact that man resists the grace expressions of God should be clear to all. If man was unable to resist God’s grace, there would be no sin. And the idea that God, therefore, imposes His will on man is ludicrous. It’s not that He’s incapable of that, it’s just that He’s chosen not to do that. Man’s history of rebellion and sin clearly shows that. One thing the Bible does very well is show the history of man’s rebellion against God’s will in every generation. To study the Bible and all history is to study man’s continued resistance to the grace of God.
Perseverance of the saints
This is a teaching that says once a person is truly “born of God” or “regenerated” by the indwelling of the Holy Spirt, they will continue doing good works and believing in God until the end of their life. However, here again, Scripture clearly shows us things can be and are often otherwise. There are many believers who have turned on the Lord and even died in that state of rebellion. If you don’t believe it, just look at the Corinthian church in Paul’s day.
I Corinthians 11:29-30
29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep [have died].
You can hardly name a sin these Corinthian believers weren’t guilty of performing. Paul has some clear statements about their carnal status.
I Corinthians 3:1-3
1 And I, brethren [addressing them as fellow believers], could not speak unto you as unto spiritual [ones functioning obediently to God’s Word], but as unto carnal [driven by their sinful nature], even as unto babes in Christ [having failed to mature spiritually].
2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.
3 For ye are yet carnal [dominated by their sinful nature]: for whereas there is among you [much evidence of it] envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men [meaning they functioned just like unbelievers]? [Emphasis added]
As you read through his letter to the Corinthians you find Paul rebuking them for one sinful activity after another. This clearly demonstrates that there’s not a sin a believer cannot commit and still be a part of the family of God’s people. There’s no doubt that sin has consequences for believers, but never the loss of their salvation.
Paul had labored fervently in Asia Minor leading many to salvation.
10 And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks. [Emphasis added]
But we find that “all” these converts later turned away from him and the teaching he had given them.
II Timothy 1:15
15 This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me; of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes [who had apparently been Christian leaders there]. [Emphasis added]
People don’t “turn away” unless they were once following. This doctrine of the perseverance of the saints teaches that once a person is truly “born of God” or “regenerated” by the Holy Spirit, they will continue doing good works and believing in God until the day they die. This simply is not always the case. Many believers have died in rebellion against the authority of God’s Word in their lives. However, all those who once believed the gospel are in heaven today.
In this present dispensation of grace, a believer’s salvation is settled the moment they receive the gospel [I Corinthians 15:1-4]. The whole matter is then and there settled and sealed once and for all time.
II Corinthians 1:21-22
21 Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God;
22 Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts. [Emphasis added]
Yet believers are commanded not to grieve the Holy Spirit who resides in them.
30 And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. [Emphasis added]
What would be the point of this and other such commands if believers were incapable of doing these things? Note the verse that follows in this same passage.
31 Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: [Emphasis added]
In nearly all Paul’s epistles he is rebuking believers for sinful expressions of thought and conduct. So never think a true Christian is incapable of certain sins, for such is not the case. It would be nice if this was not the case, but it certainly is. At the heart of growing up spiritually is learning God’s will and developing the habit of choosing to lead a life of obedience to God’s Word. But we find that most believers don’t do that. That was true in Paul’s day just as it still is today. The majority of believers spend a lifetime in ignorance to much of God Word and live a lifetime in various forms of carnality. A part of the incentive to do otherwise is God’s rewards in eternity.
I Corinthians 9:24-27
24 Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.
25 And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate [self-disciplined] in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible [eternal blessing and reward].
26 I therefore so run, not as uncertainly [as one without a purpose]; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air [shadow-boxing]:
27 But I keep under my body [I discipline myself], and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway [disqualified and caused to miss out on the rewards]. [Emphasis added]
As you should be able to see, there’s good reason for all five of these points on Calvinism to be rejected. Certainly, man is a naturally sinful and depraved creature, but not to the point of being incapable of expressing faith for salvation. In election we find our identification with Christ and Him being the chosen or elected one of God. In “atonement” Christ has done the work needed to pay the price for all men’s sin, not just those who become believers. Regarding God’s grace, everyone is free to accept it or reject it. There are no limitations. Regarding one’s security in salvation, that is not in man’s hands. His salvation is sealed forever the moment he accepts by faith God’s provision in Christ for his salvation. It is for all the above reasons that it is best to be what I call a zero-point Calvinist for THAT is the biblical teaching on these matters.
Gospels: Did Peter and Paul preach the same gospel?