What is Calvinism? 

Calvinism is the theology advanced by John Calvin. He was a Protestant reformer of the 16th Century. The term, Calvinism, is also used to refer to doctrines and practices derived from his works, which are characteristic of reformed churches. Calvin believed that salvation is only possible through the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8). Even before creation, God chose some people to be saved (Ephesians 1:3-4). Like all the reformers, he hated how Catholicism had degenerated into a religion of salvation-by-works. So Calvin’s constantly repeated theme was, “You cannot manipulate God, nor put him in your debt”. If you are saved, it is God’s doing, not your own (John 6:44). He believed God alone knows who is elect (saved) and who isn’t (Romans 8:29). Calvin impressed on others the need to work out their salvation not that they might be saved, but to show that they are saved (Philippians 2:12-13). 

Historical Background

Calvinists argue that they are followers of St. Augustine’s theology. Some scholars synonymously render Calvinism as Augustinianism because St. Agustine emphasized that a sovereign God would only save men from depravity in sin.

Martin Luther is another predecessor whose works, especially The Bondage Of The Will, greatly influenced John Calvin’s theology. Luther taught that man’s will is always in slavery: either to sin before salvation or to righteousness after salvation (Romans 6:17-18). Luther held that man could not come to repentance apart from God’s grace (Acts 11:18, Acts 5:31, 2 Timothy 2:24-25). The connection between the two men is best articulated by James Anderson, who writes, “If Luther sounded the trumpet for reform, Calvin orchestrated the score by which the Reformation became a part of Western civilization.”

John Calvin is best known for his work The Institutes of the Christian Religion. At the age of twenty-six, in 1539, he wrote Institutes with the intent for it to be used as a catechism for French protestants. However, his work soon became popular, so he translated it from Latin to French in 1543. Calvin did the final revision in 1559. This last edition was unlike the first; it was four volumes of systematic theology and included more theological discussions. 

Around the same time, Roman Catholics persecuted Protestant Christians in Belgica (modern-day Holland and Belgium). So in 1561, Guido de Bras, a preacher there, wrote to King Philip II stating that they would be willing to offer themselves for persecution because of their faith as expressed in the confessions. Though Bras was among those who sealed their faith with their lives, the Belgic Confession would be written two years later, combining his confessions and the confessions of French Reformed Churches, which John Calvin chiefly wrote. Following a controversy, the confession was revised at the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619), where a determination was made between Arminianism (the position favoured by Roman Catholics) and Calvinism. The council decided in favour of Calvinists (who followed the Belgic confessions), declaring them biblical and Arminians heretics. Five points of Calvinism would subsequently be coined, also known as T.U.L.I.P. 

Key Biblical Arguments for Calvinists

The acronym TULIP summarizes the five major points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and, finally, Perseverance/Preservation of the Saints. 

Total Depravity

As a result of Adam’s Fall, the entire human race is affected; all of humanity is dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Since humans are “dead” in their sins, they, like actual dead people, are not going to cry out to God to save them. It would take an act of grace to save man, whose natural inclination is to serve his own interests at the expense of God’s rule, as opposed to loving God their Creator (John 3:19, Romans 3:11). Sin affected not just the actions of man, but his desires, corrupting his will and inclining it to selfishness and evil (Romans 1:18, 28-32). Humans, therefore, cannot save themselves (Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10-18). God must both initiate and effect salvation (1 John 4:19, 1 Peter 1:3). 

Unconditional Election

The doctrine of unconditional election teaches that God, from eternity past, chose for himself some individuals from the fallen human race without regarding any merit of theirs or any foreseen faith in them, but solely on his sovereign grace (Ephesians 2:5-9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5). Salvation is, therefore, an act of God’s election (Romans 8:29-30; 1 Peter 1:1-3), which is never once conditioned on man’s response (Romans 8:29-30, 9:11; Ephesians 1:4-6, 11-12). Man would never be obedient to God unaided by his grace (Romans 3:11, John 6:65). 

Limited Atonement

In keeping consistent with election, Christ’s atoning work is therefore limited to the elect (Romans 8:33, John 10:14-16, 26). Atonement is when one suffers sacrificially in the place of another. Christ was innocent and did not, in any way, deserve death (Romans 6:23). Then why did he die? He died in the stead of sinful man so that whoever would believe in him would inherit eternal life (Romans 8:2-4). Calvinism upholds that the finished work of Christ on the cross takes away all of man’s guilt and punishment due to sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). To be considered truly and fully effective then, Christ’s death on the cross must only have been for all the elect (Matthew 1:21; John 10:11; 17:9; Acts 20:28; Romans 8:32; Ephesians 5:25)–the ones God himself chose and saved. 

Irresistible Grace

Those who God elected, he draws to himself (John 6:44). God makes a man willing to come to him by changing him from within; from being rebellious to being a willing, devoted believer (John 6:65, Ephesians 1:18). When God calls, man responds (John 6:37, 44; 10:16). The elect cannot resist God’s call to salvation as it was determined from the beginning that they would come to the faith (Romans 8:29). Calvinists believe that God graciously penetrates the hard, stony hearts of sinful men by the Holy Spirit and changes them into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), predisposing them to heed the inward call to salvation. Man accepts God’s call because it is God himself calling him and has made him able to act and will to do God’s good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).

Perseverance/Preservation of the Saints

The precise ones God has elected and drawn to Himself through the Holy Spirit will persevere in faith (Philippians 1:6, Ephesians 1:13-14). None whom God has elected will be lost; they are eternally secure (John 10:27-29; Romans 8:29-30). Calvinists rest on the promises of Scripture that Christ gives to assure the elect of their security in him and their eventual glorification on the Day of Jesus Christ (John 6:39). 

The implication of Calvinism today

Calvinism emphasizes the fact that God chooses those who are saved. God is the sole determiner of who is saved, creates an attitude of humility as humankind is not involved in this decision (John 15:5). One has nothing to boast about since they did not choose God (Philippians 3:3; Galatians 6:14). It is by grace that God chose them and gave them the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8). Jonathan Edwards says that the desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires: their hope is a humble hope, and their joy, even when it is unspeakable and full of glory, is humble, brokenhearted pleasure and leaves the Christian poorer in spirit, and more like a little child, and more disposed to a universal lowliness of behaviour.

Secondly, God assures the elect of their eternal life with him since God has started a good work in them and will be the one to bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). This emphasis ensures the security of the saint’s salvation. To the believer’s delight, no man can undo what God has done–God preserves his children. The Christian is forever living in a sure hope, one that is imperishable and cannot be defiled.

Thirdly, there is an emphasis laid on God’s glory and praise. Everything God has done is for his praise and glory (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). Hence, man exists ultimately to glorify God. Calvinism makes one see everything in the light of God’s sovereign purpose—that from him and through him and to him are all things, to him be glory forever and ever (Romans 11:36).

Read more

Check out our upcoming blog on Arminianism to see a contrasting view. 

Reference.

  1. https://www.theopedia.com/john-calvin
  2. Calvin, John, Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Transl. James Anderson. Vol.
    1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949.

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