A Brief Review of Calvinism

We are not to believe everything we hear. John warned, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). We test the spirits (teachers and their teaching) by the inspired, infallible word of God (2 Timothy 3:16; John 17:17; Psalm 119:160).

Some of the most common doctrines in the denominational world fall under the heading of Calvinism. Calvinism simply refers to the doctrines and teachings of John Calvin and his followers. Calvin was a theologian from the 1500′s who greatly influenced the Reformation movement. He was a brilliant man, but brilliance does not always translate into faithfulness to God or one accurately handling His word (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-27). These doctrines are accepted by many, but are not taught in the word of God.

Tenets of Calvinism

The five major tenets of Calvinism can be remembered using the TULIP acronym. Each letter represents one of the tenets. It is a helpful way to remember them. The five major tenets of Calvinism are the following:

Total Depravity – Total depravity goes along with the idea of “original sin.” The doctrine of original sin teaches that the guilt of Adam’s sin in the beginning has been passed on to all men. Because man is born in this depraved state, he is unable to turn to God. Therefore, if man is to be saved, it will be wholly the work of God. Man can do nothing to affect his salvation.

Unconditional Election – This is the idea of individual predestination. That is, before the foundation of the world, God had predetermined that certain individuals would be saved and certain individuals would be lost. In other words, before you were born, God had already decided whether you would be rewarded with heaven or punished with hell. There are no conditions which you must meet in order to be saved.

Limited Atonement – Without the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross, salvation would be unattainable. Limited atonement means that Christ’s death was only for a few, not for the whole world. In other words, Jesus died only for the elect – those whom God has unconditionally chosen to be saved.

Irresistible Grace – The idea here is that the grace of God cannot be resisted or rejected. The Calvinist idea is that since man is totally depraved and unable to come to God, then salvation is unconditional and wholly the work of God. Therefore, if God decides to save someone, that person is going to receive His grace no matter what. Even those who initially reject God, if they are one of the elect, will eventually surrender to the working of the Holy Spirit.

Perseverance of the Saints – This has to do with the belief that the elect (the saved) will continue to grow in faith until the end and that those who eventually fall away were never saved in the first place. This is slightly different from the “once saved, always saved” doctrine which teaches that one who was once saved will be saved despite later apostasy. The perseverance of the saints doctrine holds that apostasy is a sign that one was not truly saved to begin with.

Simple Rebuttals

The major tenets of Calvinism that we briefly listed above are not taught in the word of God. Much could be written to refute these ideas; but for our study here, I would like for us to notice some simple rebuttals for these tenets. Let us begin with the last idea and work backward.

Perseverance of the Saints – As we noticed above, this is slightly different from the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. With that doctrine, you can go to any passage that warns of one falling away (1 Timothy 4:1) or makes salvation dependent upon one’s continued faithfulness (Revelation 2:10) to refute it. But we can easily show the error of this “impossibility of apostasy” doctrine as well. Can a true child of God fall away? The Calvinist says no. The word of God says yes. Paul wrote, “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4). Those who had fallen from grace were not those who were never really saved in the first place. They had been “severed from Christ,” indicating they once had fellowship with Christ as one of God’s children. Paul understood the possibility that he would be lost if he did not remain faithful (1 Corinthians 9:27). Was Paul truly a child of God? Of course he was! Yet he understood that it was possible for a child of God to fall away and be lost.

Irresistible Grace – Can we resist the saving grace of God and the influence of the Holy Spirit? The Calvinist says no, but the word of God says yes. Paul told the Corinthians, “We also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). He told Titus, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). If grace is irresistible, then all men would be saved. But we know that not all will be saved (Matthew 7:13-14, 21-23). Even the Calvinist believes this (doctrine of limited atonement). So what does Titus 2:11 mean? It means that all men can be saved by the grace of God. If man is not saved, it is not God’s fault but his own. The Hebrew writer warned: “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God” (Hebrews 12:15). It is possible for us to resist God’s grace and fall short of salvation.

Limited Atonement – This is probably the most easily answered tenet of Calvinism. This doctrine holds that Jesus did not die for the world, but only for the elect. Yet Jesus Himself said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Paul wrote, “He [Jesus] died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Is the “all” in this verse referring to all the saved or all the world? The context provides the answer: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Peter said that God was “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus’ atoning sacrifice was not just for a few, but for the benefit of all mankind to make salvation possible to all men.

Unconditional Election – Again, this is the idea of individual predestination. Those whom God has arbitrarily chosen to be saved do not have to meet any conditions in order to be saved. They are saved solely by the grace of God. A favorite passage for the Calvinist to use on this point is Ephesians 2:8 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Certainly we are saved by grace. But are we saved by grace only as the Calvinist would teach? This passage speaks of faith. Is faith necessary for salvation? Yes (Romans 5:1; Hebrews 11:6). Paul taught the “gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). Part of this gospel of grace was the command given by Jesus: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Jesus is “to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation” (Hebrews 5:9). Yes, we are saved by the grace of God. But God has revealed to us certain conditions that must be met in order to receive His grace.

We might pause at this point and wonder, how could anyone believe these things? We have noticed some simple answers to these tenets that are not hard for anyone to understand. Why is it that so many people believe these doctrines? It is because they have accepted the foundation of Calvinism upon which the rest is built.

The Foundation of Calvinism

The doctrines of Calvinism are based on two key ideas: total depravity and the sovereignty of God (or a misconception of it). Let us consider both of these.

Sovereignty of God – This refers to God’s omnipotence (being all-powerful) and rule over all things. While it is true that God is omnipotent (Deuteronomy 3:24; Matthew 19:26; Romans 1:20) and rules over all things (Psalm 47:8; Ephesians 1:20-21; Colossians 1:16-17), the Calvinist takes this too far and extends this to the control over the mind and will of man. The idea is that man has no free will. According to the Calvinist, to affirm the free will of man is to deny the sovereignty of God.

However, there is a difference between foreknowledge and predestination. That is, God can, if He chooses to do so, look into the future and know that an individual is going to do something. But that does not mean that God caused him to do it. Man has free will. Joshua told the people of Israel that they had a choice to make: “Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). The very nature of preaching indicates that man has free will. Paul said, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). When you persuade men, you attempt to convince them to believe what you are saying and act upon it. If man had no free will, there would be no reason for Paul to be “reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). God is sovereign, but man still has free will. Yet Calvinism is based upon the sovereignty of God extending to such a point that it eliminates man’s free will.

Total Depravity – This was the first major tenet of Calvinism we noticed. It is the idea that man is unable to come to God on his own. God must will for you to come to Him. But if our salvation was based solely on God’s will, then all would be saved. After all, God is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

The concept of original sin is at the heart of the total depravity doctrine. The idea is that the guilt of sin was passed to all men from Adam. One passage used to defend this is Romans 5:12-21. Notice one verse in particular: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Romans 5:18). What this passage actually teaches is that Jesus opened the door to salvation like Adam opened the door to sin. We are not made sinners by Adam’s sin any more than we are made righteous by Jesus’ sacrifice alone. Notice what Paul said: “Death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Sin was introduced into the world as the result of Adam’s sin in the beginning. But the reason we stand condemned is because of our own sin. We will not be condemned for anyone’s sin but our own (Ezekiel 18:20). We will each “appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Our fate will be based upon whether our deeds were good or bad, not upon Adam’s sin.

We all believe in election, atonement, and grace. But the foundation of Calvinism causes these to become unconditional, limited, and irresistible. If these two fundamental ideas are assumed, the rest logically follow. If man has no free will and is unable to come to God on his own, then of course salvation is going to be unconditional and completely the determination of God. And if our salvation is unconditional and completely by grace alone, then Jesus’ sacrifice must have been only for a few, because we know that not all men will be saved. And of course, we will not be able to resist the grace of God because we are not able to override His will. Not only that, but we will not choose to fall away, but will continue to grow and be faithful because God has chosen us for this. Calvinism makes sense. It is logical if you assume that man is born depraved and has no free will. But we have seen that these assumptions are not supported by Scripture. So the rest of the tenets crumble with them.

Conclusion

Calvinism is a perverted form of the true gospel. Therefore, we must not follow after it (Galatians 1:6-9). The true gospel plan of redemption is this: Man is lost because of his sin, not the sin of his father or Adam. The gospel reveals God’s work to make salvation possible. It also reveals the conditions that God has placed upon salvation that we must obey. Salvation is open to all who will receive it. Then after being saved (becoming a Christian), we must work to remain faithful so we can receive the reward God has promised.


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