We are often asked this question. Sometimes it is posed by some with a hopeful spirit who themselves are proud to wear that moniker and then sometimes rather tentatively by those who are convinced that such doctrine is akin to grave error if not outright blasphemy. We seldom know exactly how to answer either type of questioner because so many preconceived notions are attached (in the minds of many) to the doctrinal scheme which is known as Calvinism.
Over the years “Calvinism” has been both vilified by its opponents and turned into an “icon” by some of its adherents. Some who do not claim to be “Calvinists” often find themselves rejoicing at the preaching of those truths commonly associated with it, while some who desire to be identified in that camp take on an air of pride in exclaiming what they consider to be the great intellectual exercise of Christendom. In our modern day we often hear men calling themselves “moderate Calvinists” who consider any who hold a more strict position than they do, to be “hyper-Calvinists”. Even more odd are those who claim to be Four point “Calvinists”, which is to invent a position quite opposed to Calvinism.
We prefer to be called “Christians” but realize that to call ourselves that might involve a bit of presumption. The early believers did not take unto themselves any names, but they were first called Christians at Antioch. (see Acts 11:26) The term Christian means, “a follower of CHRIST” and is a name which it seems was likely given to them by those who observed them in their everyday lives. It is easy for a person to call themselves a “Christian” but seems that much more import is placed on such an appellation when others call us that in recognition of our commitment to HIM and HIS teachings by the outward manifestation of our obedience to HIS way.
So what exactly is Calvinism? A lot of that depends on who you ask but we can define what has historically been recognized as the systematic doctrinal scheme called Calvinism. Since there are many preconceived notions about what Calvinism is; I think it would be helpful to say what “Calvinism” is not. Calvinism is not a new idea nor did it in fact begin with John Calvin. It is not a system in which Calvin is revered as a patron saint nor do many who are called Calvinists have any regard to the majority of John Calvin’s teaching. Calvinism is not fatalism. All Calvinists do not sprinkle babies and call it “baptism”, though some do.
We do not particularly desire to be labeled Calvinists, but we definitely do not want to be called Arminians, which is the opposing systematic doctrinal scheme from which what are known as the “Five Points of Calvinism” came to be identified. So, if we must be one or the other we will reluctantly take the designation of Calvinists. In 16th Century Holland a man by the name of Jacobus Arminius began to teach a system of doctrine which was at odds with the commonly received doctrines of the church of which he was a part. These doctrines were later systematized by his students and followers as the five points of Remonstrance. What we now call the Five Points of Calvinism were formulated in response to those five challenges to the common doctrine which had been taught for years in that Church. But the truths set forth in the five points of Calvinism are timeless and as old as the scriptures.
The Five Points of Calvinism are often set forth as an acrostic using the TULIP for the beginning letters of each of the doctrines which are considered foundational truths:
- Total depravity (also called total inability)
- Unconditional election (also called sovereign choice)
- Limited atonement (also called definite atonement or particular redemption)
- Irresistible grace (also called effectual calling)
- Perseverance of the saints (also called preservation of the saints)
Total depravity is the doctrine which the scripture teaches concerning the state that man is in by nature. Some think that the word depravity is too strong a word to describe the average man’s heart but that is because they are unacquainted with the depths of sin which man is born into contrasted with the absolute holiness of GOD. (see Ps.53:3; Rom.3:23) This doctrine does not mean that each man is as bad as they could be, nor is it a moral indictment, only that they are completely wicked and unless they are restrained by the grace of GOD they are each one capable of the most heinous of crimes imaginable. This doctrine teaches that man’s fall into sin has completely and irreparably separated them from GOD and that there dwells in them no righteousness at all. It also teaches that man has no natural ability to know GOD spiritually nor even to be aware that he is lacking this ability. Man’s love for natural religion is a testament to this ignorance and inability. By nature, men think that they can worship GOD in an acceptable way and are convinced that HE is pleased with their efforts. Total depravity is an apt description of men as the LORD described them in Noah’s day. “And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen 6:5) Men cannot approach unto GOD and shall perish in their sin apart from HIS grace to rescue them. Some who reject Calvinism as being totally true claim to believe in total depravity but they cannot consistently do so if they believe the rest of Arminian doctrine.
Unconditional election is the second most hated aspect of the five points (with Limited Atonement being first.). Simply stated, it means that GOD chose to save the human race by choosing a people which HE loved in CHRIST JESUS before the world was created. Had HE chosen none, none would be saved. Nothing seems clearer in the scriptures than the doctrine of election. One has to overlook many plain passages of scripture in order to deny it. It is most clearly and vividly illustrated in the account of Noah, who found grace in the eyes of the LORD. Of course, many simply admit that the scriptures do speak about election but claim that GOD’s selection of some is “conditional” or based on some choice or obedience foreseen by HIM to be ultimately present in them. Usually those who take this view use a passage in Romans 8:29 “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate.” They try to make election depend on what GOD foreknew or foresaw. One of the glaring problems with this view is that this passage speaks of “whom” HE did foreknow rather that “what” HE did foreknow. Election is about a personal choice made on the part of GOD. Paul makes it clear in the first chapter of Ephesians that this choice was made before the foundation of the world and then in the ninth chapter of Romans that this choice was made without regard to their commitment of good or evil.(see v.11) In fact the scripture plainly says that “GOD is not a respecter of persons” (see Acts 10:34)
Most of the objections to this plain truth arise from man’s natural hatred of GOD’s sovereign right to do whatever HE pleases to do with HIS creation. Paul very plainly deals with these objections in Romans when he says, “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” (Rom 9:20-21) When a man bows down before HIM these objections for the most part vanish. One only has to consider the lost condition of men who are in a state by nature wherein they cannot escape their own just damnation, to realize that had GOD not chosen to save some then none would have been saved. “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.” (Rom 3:11)
Limited atonement is a doctrine that is sometimes hampered by its very name. How can the atonement, wrought by the blood of the LORD JESUS CHRIST be said to be limited? The truth is that all men limit the atonement in one way or another unless they are “universalists”, believing that all men are saved. The scripture seems to clearly indicate that such is not the case since all who are not found written in the LAMB’s book of life are ultimately cast into the Lake of Fire. The Arminians limit the power of the blood of CHRIST to actually save anybody. They believe that the scope of the atonement is universal, that CHRIST actually died to make salvation a possibility for everyone in the world but that it is up to man to appropriate its “power” or “efficacy” by believing the gospel. Therefore, they do not believe that CHRIST actually procured anything on Calvary. Calvinists on the other hand believe that HE made a definite atonement for a particular people, actually paying the price for their sin and saving them by imputing HIS righteousness to them as HE took their sin upon HIMSELF. We prefer to call this particular redemption rather than limited atonement since the power of GOD to save HIS elect is without limit and therefore absolutely effectual in justifying them by the shedding of the blood of the LAMB. There is nothing left to do nor is it possible for men to “appropriate” this atonement by any action of their own.
Some have claimed to be “Four Point Calvinists” in denying this truth while embracing the other points set forth in Calvinism. The doctrine of particular redemption is the very heart and soul of the gospel. The atonement of CHRIST for HIS elect is the centerpiece around which all of the truth of the gospel is woven. “By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” (Heb 9:12) That appears to be the end of the argument as far as I can see. If HE has obtained eternal redemption for HIS elect then what more can be said. If a man denies that JESUS CHRIST has actually purchased an everlasting redemption for those for whom HE went to the cross, then he has denied the gospel. There is no hope for ruined men in such a proposal.
Irresistible grace is also called effectual calling which in our own mind is a more appropriate title for this doctrine which literally means that GOD calls HIS own sheep by name, they hear HIS voice and they follow HIM. All of those whom HE has selected in the eternal covenant of redemption, for whom CHRIST died, HE shall in due time draw to HIMSELF with cords of love that cannot be broken. HE shall give them ears to hear the gospel and they shall believe it falling down to worship HIM and adore HIM as the SAVIOR of sinners. The objection that is sometimes raised to this teaching is that those who die in infancy and are otherwise impaired physically cannot hear and believe the gospel. Those who use this argument assume that such infants and those with impairments are of the elect. We have no way of knowing this and do not make such assumptions though we have no doubts as to the wideness of GOD’s mercy. The other error of this thinking is that they do not recognize the power of GOD to communicate HIS truth to such people nor how HE might make them aware of HIS glory. This is illustrated quite clearly with the thief on the cross and the Roman centurion (see Mk.15:39) The salvation which is purchased for the sons of GOD is not simply one which has eternal consequences but according to HIS purpose is effected in HIS people in this time world in such a way as to make such exceptions as noted above to have no bearing on this doctrine.
This is not a doctrine about which we speculate but observe the clear teaching of the word of GOD which says, “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Rom 8:30) HE has not left their calling to chance but issues a command to them to come to HIM whenever it pleases HIM and they shall respond. “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” (John 6:37) If HE left their decision to come to HIM up to them none would ever come since “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:44) None of those for whom HE has shed HIS precious blood shall ever enter into HIS presence ignorant of who HE is.
Perseverance of the saints is the crowning jewel of GOD’s sovereign purpose to save HIS people to the uttermost. “And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.” (John 6:39) GOD does not play games with men, those whom HE is pleased to call to HIMSELF to fall down and worship HIM in SPIRIT and truth HE shall preserve even to the end of the world and they shall never perish. If we understand clearly that the work of salvation from beginning to end is dependent upon HIM alone then we can take comfort in this glorious doctrine “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phill. 1:6)
There are many who espouse a doctrine which they term “once saved always saved” which they think is similar to this but in reality, in most cases has no basis in fact. Most of the time those who advocate this doctrine teach that part of a man’s salvation is dependent upon him making a decision to allow the LORD to save him and when once he has opened the door the LORD then shuts him in. If man has power to open the door to start with, then he would have power to open it once it was shut. This is a doctrine without foundation. Unless one also believes that CHRIST is the AUTHOR and FINISHER of our faith and that what HE opens no man can shut and what HE shuts no man can open then the preservation of HIS people is but a pipe dream. In fact, the mindset of “once saved always saved” is a perversion of the real truth and is only a mollifying ointment which will be shown to be no balm at all, Multitudes are convinced of their inclusion in the kingdom of GOD because of some decision they have made. They shall be included in that number of whom the LORD said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Mat 7:21-23)
These doctrines which we have set forth here under the definition of Calvinism are most surely believed among us although we have no desire to be called by that name. There are some who call themselves Calvinists with which we have little in common and there are some who have perhaps never even heard the term with which we have much in common. Because someone calls themselves by a certain name and even pay lip service to believing certain doctrines does not mean that they have anything more than a letter knowledge of the truth of GOD. We have no desire to promote any particular system of doctrine except that any doctrine that we would hold to would be designed to exalt and honor the name of JESUS CHRIST and to place men in their rightful place in the dust of adoring wonder at the unfolding of HIS purpose and work in redemption.
We are sure that those who believe that men play a part in their own salvation will reject any doctrine that we should set forth regardless of what we or they may call it. We shall proclaim with every breath that HE alone is the salvation of HIS people and that no man can in his own power and understanding approach unto HIM. Apart from HIS sovereign grace all shall perish.
We are equally sure that there are some in whose eyes we could never quite measure up because they have such superior understanding as to make all who do not speak every syllable exactly as they have defined “truth”, to be “outside the camp”. Some of them spend more time defining why nobody could possibly be saved apart from their sanction than they do in proclaiming the absolute deliverance from condemnation of all of those for whom CHRIST shed HIS precious blood.
We have no axes to grind and will let others call us what they will. Hopefully at the end of the day it will be manifest that we are Christians for if we have no proof of our sonship then we are of all men most miserable for we confess that we can turn to no other but HIM. We say with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:68-69)mam