Bible Answer

What is Calvinism?

Can you explain Calvinism?

The term Calvinism refers to a system of teaching popularly associated with John Calvin, a renown theologian of the 16th Century. Calvin was one of the key leaders of the Protestant Reformation, and he wrote literally hundreds of volumes of Christian teaching over his lifetime. Even today, he is still considered one of the foremost thinkers of the Christian faith and arguably the most influential teacher within the Reformation movement.

Among all his teachings, Calvin is most closely associated with a five-point set of beliefs that bear his name. The five points of Calvinism were actually distilled from the larger body of Christian teaching common to all Reformed movement leaders of that era (e.g., Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Knox, etc.). Over the centuries, Calvinism's five points have become a covenient shorthand for summarizing the Reformers' views concerning the Bible's teaching on the fallen nature of man and God's saving grace through faith.

Though the five points are now commonly called Calvinism, ironically they were not actually authored by Calvin himself. In fact, Calvin never proposed a list of five points, nor did he ever teach from such a framework. In reality, the five points were already widely-held beliefs among most Protestants of the 16th Century, and only many years after his death did Calvin's name become closely identified with this teaching.

Before we explain the five points and examine them in light of Scripture, we need to clarify that no Christian should ever profess a belief in the five points of Calvinism or any other man-made teaching. Rather, Christians are to embrace the Word of God above all else, and when we find the counsel and teaching of men to agree with Scripture, then we may commend that teaching to ourselves and others. Nevertheless, our trust lies solely in God's word.

Therefore, if we should agree with the Reformers' teaching on God's sovereignty, still we don't profess to "believe" in Calvinism or to "be" Calvinist. Likewise, if we disagree with the Reformers' teaching on salvation, nevertheless we don't automatically dismiss everything Calvin and the other Reformers taught nor should we demonize the men. No man is perfect in his understanding of Scripture (1Cor 13:12), therefore we trust only the Holy Spirit to teach us all things as we yield to Him and seek His counsel in the Word of God.

With that background, the five points of Calvinism can be remembered with the mnemonic “TULIP”. Let’s examine each point in comparison with Scripture:

Point 1 - Total Depravity

Calvin (and the other Reformers) viewed Scripture to teach that men are born with a depraved and fallen nature. As a result, men are forever opposed to God, never seek God, and therefore have no hope to find God by their own efforts. Reformers summarized this point by affirming the total depravity of man.

On this point, the Reformers' teaching is consistent with scripture. The Bible clearly teaches that men are depraved from birth (Rom 1-2), no man will ever seek God by his own nature (Rom 3), nor are men even able to do so (Rom 8). Fallen men are forever lost and without hope. No human appeal made to the flesh will ever persuade an unbeliever to obey God's word. Only when the Holy Spirit quickens a man's spirit and prompts him to receive the Gospel will true faith result (e.g., 1Cor 12:3).

Point 2 - Unconditional Election

Secondly, the Reformers taught that God acts unconditionally and according to His own sovereign purposes in bringing a man into a state of faith. In this way, Calvinism says that God "elects" to bring men to faith, and His election does not depend on the work nor the will of the person being saved. Only God's grace (i.e., God's unmerited favor) is responsible for man's salvation through faith, since men are depraved and unable to act on their own behalf apart from God's grace.

On this point, the Bible's teaching also reaffirms the Reformers' views. The Bible teaches repeatedly that our faith is a gift (Eph 2:8-9) and that our coming to faith must be preceded by God's regenerative work in our heart to bring about repentence (John 6:44; 6:65; 1Cor 12:3; Phil 1:29; Acts 11:18; 13:48, etc.). Since man's depravity leaves him unable to seek God by his own will, then it's clear that God must choose to act first to bring men to faith, otherwise no man would ever be saved (see Rom 9:16)! God must elect us to faith for salvation to be possible.

Point 3 - Limited Atonement

Calvinism's third point teaches that Christ's atonement on the cross was "limited," in the sense that God only intended to extend the saving work of Jesus to cover the sins of the elect. Reformers did not teach that the atoning work of Christ on the cross was insufficient to save all men, but rather Calvinism says it was only intended for those whom God chooses to elect through grace. While the work of Christ on the cross was indeed powerful enough to save all men from sin (had God determined to save all men), God only intended to apply Christ's sacrifice to the sins of those He foreknew and intended to grant mercy.

Regarding this point of Calvinism, the Bible's position is less certain. First, some passages (like John 3:16) seem to suggest that the atonement was intended for all men. On the other hand, Jesus Himself declared in John 10 that He had certain lost sheep He would call, and they alone would hear His voice. This statement could lead us to conclude that the rest of humanity who were not His sheep (those not elected to salvation) are not expected nor intended to hear His voice, just as sheep will not respond to an unknown voice. This view seems consistent with John 6, where Jesus says that the Father has given Him certain sheep (i.e., the elect) and that those sheep Jesus has been given, He will not lose.

Going a step further in this analysis, we know that both the events in John 6 and John 10 occured prior to the crucifixion, suggesting that the elect were already on God's mind even before He sent His Son to the cross. Could this mean that Jesus' sacrifice was intended to cover only those He foreknew and intended to call into faith? This is the difficult concept Calvinism proposes from Scripture.

Other passages to consider on this point are those that teach the wicked are storing up wrath for their day of judgment (i.e., Romans 2:5). These passgaes might support the view that Jesus' atonement was limited in application. We know that as Jesus hung on the cross, He took upon Himself the Father's wrath for sin. Paul says unbelievers are storing up wrath for their day of judgment. If Jesus took the wrath intended for all men on the cross, wouldn't that mean that God's wrath would have already been exhausted come the day of judgment?

Instead, perhaps God withheld that portion of His wrath reserved for unbelievers and only poured out the balance upon Jesus – that is, His wrath deserved by the elect? If God did withhold His wrath reserved for the unsaved, then we might say that the atonement of Christ was limited by design. Additional scriptural evidence that potentially supports this conclusion may be found in Rom 2:5, Rom 5:9, Rom 9:22, Eph 2:3, Eph 5:6, 1Thess 5:9, among others.

Regardless of these postulations, Cavinism's third point remains debatable and controversial. Furthermore, it is largely academic and without application in our daily practice as Christians. Therefore, many believe it is the weakest link in the five-point chain, leading some to reject this tenet of Calvinism, calling themselves "four-point Calvinists."

Point 4 - Irresistible Grace

Fourth, Calvinism teaches that as God extends grace to an unbeliever, His work through the Holy Spirit is assured to result in a spiritual transformation leading to salvation. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a work that is, by its very nature, an expression of God's sovereign will, and as such it cannot be thwarted by our contrary nature. After all, all men are by nature enemies of God, and therefore we will always oppose the Gospel - until God causes us to believe.

All believers, therefore, are merely the recipients of God's grace, and our profession of faith is both the evidence and testimony of our salvation (John 3:16-18).

Regarding this third point, there is much agreement to be found in scripture, though there is also opportunity for confusion. Among the many scripture references supporting this teaching are Rom 9:15-18, Rom 9:10-12, 1Pet 2:9, James 1:18, 2Thess 2:13-14, and others. In these verses, the Bible affirms God's sovereignty over the salvation of men, to include that God, having purposed to save a man, will certainly carry it through (Eph 1:9).

Nonetheless, there is debate and confusion concerning this point due to the many Bible passages that call upon unbelievers to repent and accept the Gospel. These passages suggest that since the Gospel is, by necessity, proclaimed to unbelievers, then the choice to respond - or reject - that call must lie with the unbeliever. Otherwise, why would God bother to extend an appeal in the first place if His grace will always bring about a positive response?

The answer offered by proponents of Calvinism's fourth point is that the appeal of the Gospel spoken through evangelists is merely the method God uses to manifest His grace, but it is still His grace alone which prompts a positive response in the unbeliever.

We can use two examples to illustrate this point. First, a mother looking for her lost child in the shopping mall will call out for the child. The mother's call for her child is heard by the entire mall crowd, but the mother only expects her child to hear her voice and respond. She has no expectation that others in the crowd will respond, though they heard the same call. Her method resulted in her call reaching many ears, but she only expected a response from her true child.

Likewise, the call of the gospel goes out to all the world, but only those who have "ears to hear" will receive it. In this way, God uses men to spread the message of His grace, but He only expects the message to be received by His lost children, and when they hear the call, they will respond (John 10:27-28).

Secondly, we can see a demonstration of this point in the story of the Exodus, when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. God directed Moses to raise his staff, and in response to his obedience, God caused the Red Sea to part before the Israelites. Though God caused the Red Sea to part when Moses raised his staff, we can be sure that God was prepared to part the Red Sea with or without Moses' cooperation. God's will would be done, and though he allowed Moses to join in that work, Moses was never in control of the outcome.

Likewise, God chooses to use human voices to spread the gospel, and He uses evangelists to persuade men to believe the Gospel, but we can be sure that it is only God's grace through His Spirit that is responsible for faith in the heart of a believer. Like in the day of Moses, God's eternal purpose to save men will be accomplished in the lives of His children.

Point 5 - Perseverance of the Saints

Finally, Calvinism says that all who are saved by God's grace are forever saved and can never fall from that grace. God's saving work results in a permanent relationship that can never be undone.

On this final point, there is also obvious agreement with scripture. Our eternal security in Christ is a consequence of the nature of our regeneration in Christ and of our New Covenant relationship with God. When we are "saved," our old nature is put to death by the power of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We inherited that old nature at birth from Adam, but upon regeneration we receive Christ's nature in its place.

From that point onward, it is not we who live, but Christ Who lives in us. Our old man is gone and can never return because it no longer exists. It has died with Christ. Scripture references include Rom 8:30, Rom 6:3-4, 2Cor 5:17, Gal 2:20, John 6:39-44, among many others.

In summary, Calvinism's five points were born out of the Reformation teaching concerning man's fallen nature and God's grace. Many of the tenets of Calvinism are in keeping with the teaching of scripture, though some disagreement is possible.

Regardless of our views of Calvin's teaching, we should never declare a "belief" in Calvinism, nor would we encourage others to take such a position. Our faith is in Christ and our belief is in His word. All else is ultimately unimportant.

For a more in-depth examination of these ideas, please read our article Wrestling With God.