What is “Calvinism”?
What is “Calvinism”? Those of us who identify ourselves as Calvinists would assert that Calvinism is simply the most consistent expression of historic, biblical Christianity. But, then again, many non-Calvinist Christians would claim the same thing for their brand of the Faith. So obviously more needs to be said in order to identify the essence of what has come to be known as “Calvinism.”
The name itself is unfortunate, since we Calvinists would deny that Calvin himself invented the doctrines that have come to be identified with his name. Rather, we believe that the doctrines Calvin and his followers taught are taken directly from the Holy Scriptures and can be seen in the teachings of some of the early church fathers (in particular Saint Augustine, whom Calvin often quoted in his writings).
Also unfortunate are the often slanderously-false and misleading caricatures of Calvin himself and of Calvin’s teachings that one can often find in anti-Calvinist literature and among anti-Calvinist preachers. Calvin is often depicted as a gaunt, stern-looking, nasty little man with a long pointy beard (just add some horns and he would look like the devil himself!), a man who preached a capricious, arbitrary, hate-filled God and who took delight in burning heretics at the stake. But such a picture is far from the reality of the real, historical John Calvin, who, for all of his faults (and, admittedly, he did have his faults, as we all do), was nevertheless a theological genius and one of the best biblical scholars in all of church history, and who was a devout follower of Christ with a sensitive soul and a pastor’s heart.
In order to help the reader come to a clear idea of what Calvinism is, I will mention a number of characteristics of Calvinism.
First of all, Calvinism emphasizes the absolute sovereignty of God over all things. While historic Calvinism does not deny genuine human agency or the reality of second causes, it recognizes the biblical truth that all of history is ultimately the outworking of God’s eternal decree, His eternal plan for the ages. God’s sovereignty over all is especially seen in the salvation of sinners, and biblical Calvinism emphasizes that our salvation is by God’s sovereign grace alone! The human will, human works and human merit add nothing to the saving work of God in Christ, for God has done it all and Jesus paid it all! As the Word of God teaches, in Jesus Christ “…we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11, ESV, emphasis added). Therefore, none of us has any reason to boast before God, for even our faith in Christ is ultimately a sovereignly-bestowed gift of God, not a result of so-called free will (Ephesians 2:8-9).
This sovereignty of God even extends to the reality of evil. While the Bible is clear that God is holy and that He is neither the author nor the approver of sin, nevertheless Scripture is also clear that God has sovereignly decreed to permit sin and evil for wise and just reasons, to work toward the greater good of His glory and the good of His people in the end. For example, the crucifixion of the Son of God was the greatest evil ever committed by the human race, yet God decreed the death of His Incarnate Son on the cross as the very means by which our redemption would be won!
The Calvinist doctrines of salvation by God’s sovereign grace alone are sometimes called “the doctrines of grace.” These doctrines of grace are often summarized by the acrostic TULIP, which stands for the following:
T = “Total Depravity”
U = “Unconditional Election”
L = “Limited Atonement”*
I = “Irresistible Grace”
P = “Perseverance of the Saints”
In future articles I will explain these doctrines of grace and how they fit together in the Calvinist system.
Secondly, Calvinism is also distinctive in that it takes a covenantal approach to Bible interpretation. Calvinism sees the Bible, God’s Word, as an unfolding drama of God’s plan for the ages to bring about the salvation of His people through a promised Redeemer, Jesus Christ. The Bible is a unified, unfolding, progressive revelation of God’s covenantal dealings with His people. Among other things, what this means is that biblical Calvinists reject the common false teaching of dispensationalism, which sees a sharp difference between Israel and the Church. But Calvinism recognizes that Israel was the church under the old covenant, and the Church is the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) under the new covenant. The witness of the New Testament is clear that there is only one people of God, namely, the church of Jesus Christ. This church includes both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus, and it is they – and they alone – who are the true “children of Abraham”, the true Jews, the true people of God (see, for example, Romans 2:28-29; 9:6-8; Galatians 3:7-9; 23-29; Ephesians 2:11-22; First Peter 2:4-10; etc.).
Finally, Calvinism teaches that, because the glory of God is the highest priority, therefore the reformation of worship is the church’s highest calling. Luther and his followers were content to keep as much of Roman Catholic worship practice as possible, as long as such worship customs did not contradict the gospel or direct commands of Scripture. But Calvin sought to apply the Reformation principle of sola scriptura (“Scripture Alone”) consistently to the worship practice of the church. For Calvin and his followers, every element of worship in the church must have positive biblical warrant behind it. Therefore, Calvinism promotes a simple, reverent, yet joyful form of worship which is centered on the Word of God and which seeks to use only those elements of worship which are revealed in the Word of God.
Much more could be said about Calvinism, but these three characteristics – (1) Emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God; (2) a covenantal approach to Bible interpretation; and (3) a God-centered, biblical approach to worship, are of the essence of biblical, historic Calvinism.
*”Limited Atonement” is an unfortunate designation for this biblical doctrine, for it gives the false impression that Calvinists believe that the atonement of Christ is limited in its value. However, Calvinists wholeheartedly affirm that Christ’s atonement is of infinite value, and that it is sufficient for all. What is “limited” about the atonement is not its value, but those whom it is designed to benefit – namely, the elect, who in God’s time come to trust Christ as their Savior as He is offered in the gospel. So Calvinists believe that Christ’s death on the cross is sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect (and thus “limited” in its design and extent to benefit them alone).
Recommended Reading: John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by W. Robert Godfrey (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, copyright 2009)