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Calvinism: The Gateway to Reformed Theology
From Evangelly to Calvinism
For many of us who grew up in evangelical Christian churches in America, if we had ever even heard of Calvin or Calvinism, it was associated with something dangerous or scandalous. The only time I remember hearing of Calvinism before I was in high school, was in regard to a dangerous pastor of a small country church that was teaching people they didn’t need to evangelize because God was going to save who He wanted anyway.
Of course, one doesn’t need to know much about John Calvin to realize that kind of teaching would not flow from his writing. In fact, as distasteful as the reality would be to many evangelicals, there is a lot of Calvin’s theology present in most of our churches. Nearly everyone believes that God is sovereign, that He has the ability to save sinners, and most even believe that once someone is saved in Christ they cannot lose their salvation. While Calvin isn’t alone in church history in formulating those theological persuasions, he did have an outsized influence in their clear formulations and in articulating the arguments that undergird them.
My own journey toward reformed theology owes much to Calvin. Before I had given any thought to what it meant to be protestant, confessionalism or covenantal theology, I was confronted with the clear teaching in Scripture that God is sovereign over every aspect of salvation – something that flew in the face of what I had grown up believing. I didn’t learn much of the concepts behind what is commonly called Calvinism from Calvin – I got them largely from Paul’s letters, and the Gospel of John. Even so, I struggled to articulate clearly what I saw throughout Scripture, and it was difficult to understand just how different everything now seemed from what I had previously believed.
While I owe the theology of Calvin a great debt in helping me quantify the paradigm shift I had experienced in understanding God’s Word, I didn’t go to his writings directly, at least not yet. If I remember correctly, the fist place I really saw Calvinism defined and defended it was in Charles Spurgeon – both in his defense of Calvinism, and in reading about his controversy against the hyper-Calvinists.
My next progression into understanding the importance of, and far reach of the doctrines of Grace undoubtedly came through the preaching of John Piper. I am sure that will come as a shock to no one. Piper has been the gateway to understanding and celebrating the glory of God and His universal sovereignty for many of us. John Calvin may be the gateway to reformed theology, but John Piper was the gateway to Calvin. His was the first preaching I found that drew its strength and vitality from the theology I had been learning in Calvinism, yet that was mature enough to not constantly feel the need to constantly defend itself or offer endless apologies for stepping on toes.
So Much More than Five Points
I don’t think that anyone could really say that they are a student of Calvin unless they have at least studied through his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Of course if one undertakes to work through that great work, they will soon realize that we do him a great disservice to limit his impact to only what is commonly called the five points of Calvinism that we will discuss shortly.
If you open his magnum opus, you will search long and hard for his famous five points. In fact, Calvin didn’t formulate his theology that way. The five points came as five responses to five criticisms against Calvin’s theology leveled by followers of Jacob Arminius. They don’t encompass the heart of Calvin’s theology, as he or anyone else determined it, they were simply a well-reasoned response to a handful of doctrines that he had taught.
What will you find in The Institutes? You will find much that almost no orthodox Christian will have anything to argue against. He was an absolute master of understanding and explaining Scripture. You will see him to be an apt philosopher, historian, sociologist, and theologian. He had almost an obsession with understanding and celebrating the glory and majesty of God. He knew the relation between what man could know about himself and what he must know about God.
There could be so much more to say, and yet the greater appreciate for Calvin often doesn’t follow until some time later on in one’s journey to reformed theology. In our immediate conversation, it is his contribution in clearly articulating God’s sovereignty over all of salvation that drew me, as it has drawn many others, to a deeper love for and appreciate of God’s glory, God’s Word, and the wonder of our salvation in God’s Son. It is with those new eyes that we hunger for more, are not as easily satisfied with unanswered questions, and that cause us to press onward and upward.
For our conversation today, we should explain a bit more about the basic tenants of Calvinism to which most of us are first exposed. What are called the five points of Calvinism. Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. We will see that there is a logical progression in these interconnected doctrines. They both support and rely on one another and are confused and weakened if any are removed.
The first point to consider is called total depravity. This states that fallen man, as a result of sin and the fall, is totally depraved. That doesn’t mean that every man is as bad as they could possibly be in every way possible. This doctrine does not teach that the image of God in man’s creation has been completely removed, but that it has been thoroughly corrupted. Meaning, that there is no part of fallen man that has not been affected by the fall. As such, there is no thought, intention, affection, word, or deed of man that is not laden with sin – enough sin as to be worthy of eternal damnation.
Romans 3:10–18 (ESV)
10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Rightly understood, total depravity lays the foundation for why man cannot save himself, or even come to God on his own. It is not in his nature to seek after God – in face he will actively suppress all the truth about God that he is shown.
Romans 1:18–23 (ESV)
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
The mercy and general grace of God holds sinful man back from being as wicked as they otherwise might become, yet he is so utterly ruined (dead) in his sin that his condition is hopeless apart from some outside action.
The second point of Calvinism is called unconditional election. If men are completely hopeless, unsavable, on their own – if they will not and cannot choose God – then God must act to save if salvation is to happen. God must choose them because they cannot choose Him.
Unconditional election is the doctrine that before the foundation of the world, God chose those whom He would redeem. He did this before they sinned, yet with knowledge of their sin. Because everyone falls short of His glory (Romans 3:23), He chooses some for salvation based only on His good pleasure.
Ephesians 2:8–10 (ESV)
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
This election took place as part of the covenant of redemption made between the Father and the Son before creation. It is here where the Son was promised to be super-exalted (Phil. 2:9-11) once He had redeemed those whom the Father had given to Him. Everyone who’s name had been written in the Lamb’s book of life before the creation of the world (Rev. 13:8).
Limited Atonement (Definite Atonement)
The third point of Calvinism is limited atonement, which many prefer to call by the less inflammatory term definite atonement. What this doctrine teaches is that the Son of God only died to pay the penalty for the sins of God’s elect – those whom the Father had determined to give the Son.
This is the most controversial of the five points of Calvinism, often said to be more of logical necessity than Scriptural mandate. I would argue that there is ample reason to accept this doctrine both in the pages of Scripture, and in clear reason of necessity from other clearly taught doctrines in the Bible.
While we do see passages in the Bible that speak of Jesus dying for the whole world, we recognize that there may be different effects purchased by His sacrifice that don’t apply to everyone equally, and we recognize that inclusive language is often designed to speak in categories rather than to be fully exhaustive.
To the first point, Jesus died for the world of men, and yet His death purchased something radically different for those who believe than those who do not. Salvation from sin was only achieved for the elect, and yet because of Jesus’ sacrifice all men under the curse have enjoyed the general grace and mercy of God. They have enjoyed God’s patience as He has not immediately struck them down for their sin. They have enjoyed the warmth of the sun and the refreshment of the rain all while God is working out His grand design though the centuries. In a real way, even the lost benefit from the sacrifice of Christ.
To the second point, all doesn’t always mean all; the whole world doesn’t always mean the whole world. Before you accuse me of having lost all faculty of reason consider the importance of context. In normal conversation, how often when you say all, or everyone, do you mean each and every person that has or will ever live? Sometimes we do mean that, but often we are simply talking about everyone in a particular group, as defined by the context of the conversation. Sometimes it is understood to be hyperbole to emphasize the great number of people. In a similar way, we often hear people on the news or maybe during the Olympics say that the world is watching. We never understand that to mean every person who is on the earth, we know it simply means people all over the world. Scripture often uses the language of the whole world or mankind to emphasize that all types of men are included, of the nations, and of different stations – slave or freeman, popper or prince.
Scripture does indicate the specificity of Jesus mission and sacrifice. It would be hard to read through the parable of the Good Shepherd in John 10 without realizing that Jesus had a unique love for specific people, and that He gave His life to save them.
As far as logical necessity, think of it this way – and I will paraphrase J. I. Packer who was himself summarizing the argument of John Owen. Jesus either paid for all the sins of all men, or some of the sins of all men, or all of the sins of some men. If all of the sins of all men, then either none are damned, or God is unjust. If some of the sins of all men, then none can be saved because even the smallest sin is cause for eternal damnation. The only option that makes sense with what we know in Scripture is that Jesus died for all of the sins of some men, and thus some are truly saved.
Irresistible Grace (Effectual Calling)
The fourth point of Calvinism is irresistible grace, or as some like to call it effectual calling. If none seek after God, then God must seek after them. This is the doctrine that teaches us that just as it is God who determines who would be saved, and God who accomplishes their salvation, then it should be no surprise that God is the one who applies that salvation to those who have been redeemed.
John 6:44 (ESV)
44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
John 6:37–39 (ESV)
37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
Salvation is a sovereign work of the Triune God. Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father chooses, the Son purchases salvation, and the Spirit applies that salvation to them by drawing men to the Son, and causing them to be born again.
Perseverance of the Saints
The final point of Calvinism is, along with perhaps total depravity, the most widely accepted and celebrated of these doctrines. The perseverance of the saints, or as many Baptist like to say it, once saved always saved. It is the doctrine that understands that once someone has been united to Christ, they cannot afterward be removed from Him.
John 10:27–30 (ESV)
27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
While most evangelicals find comfort in this doctrine, its strength and foundation is found in unconditional election. A believer cannot lose their salvation because they didn’t cause their salvation. The same God who chose them, redeemed them, and called them will not then lose them. Our perseverance is guaranteed by the same power that saved us in the first place. The same Lord who began the good work in us will complete it (Phil 1:6).
So Much More
There is, of course, so much more that could and probably should be said. I do not pretend to have exhausted what Scripture or far more learned men than myself have to say on these matters. It is enough for now for us to recognize the importance of these doctrines in our journey toward maturity in the faith.
For me, and for many others, these are the doctrines that first truly opened our eyes to the majesty and wonder of our sovereign God, His bountiful mercy in salvation, and the beautiful consistency that can be found throughout the pages of Scripture – both in the Old and New Testaments.
Want to learn more about Calvinism and Reformed Theology?
If you are interested in learning more about what it means to be reformed in faith and practice, check out the Reformed Faith and Family Podcast. Caleb and Lindsey are hosting a series entitled What Does It Mean to Be Reformed? In Part I they discuss the details of TULIP as a part of what it means to be Calvinistic. In Part II they discuss what it means to be Confessional, and finally in What is Reformed Theology: Part III, they cover what it means to hold to a covenantal understanding of salvation.
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Caleb Stomberg is husband to Lindsey and father to their seven children. He is pastor at Legacy Reformed Baptist Church in East Grand Forks, MN. Caleb enjoys woodworking, hunting, and anything Tolkien.