This article is written to clarify common misconceptions about Calvinism. It is the third installment of a series in which I mean to defend the Calvinistic worldview against misunderstandings and harmful caricatures. If you have a concern that I do not address here, please comment below and inform me. At the end of these clarifications, I will provide a list of commitments that a Calvinist is bound to.
Calvinism is often misunderstood (as is, for example, Classical Arminianism). The plethora of subtleties and nuances in each doctrine provide ample opportunity for misconception. If you study Calvinism in order to critique rather than understand it, I can almost guarantee that you will despise it. I would be honored if allowed to guide you around some of the pot-holes that many people hit on their journey to comprehending the Calvinistic worldview.
May God bring profit from my inadequate efforts.
A Faith Twisted in Haste
Do Calvinists follow John Calvin?
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I exhort you, be imitators of me” (1 Co 4:16). Though he was an apostle, surely it is not a sin to follow someone in the context of discipleship. So the question, “Do Calvinists follow John Calvin,” is loaded if intended to convey that we worship the man or think him to be inerrant. Calvinism derives its name from Calvin solely because he was perhaps the most influential author in this stream of theology. Calvin was not alive when the “five points” were articulated. Furthermore, the tenants of Calvinistic thought can be traced back to Augustine and to the first centuries. Calvin was a sinner in need of grace and did not have perfect theology.
Does Calvinism deny free will?
This question over-simplifies the issue. Most who ask this are confessors of Libertarian Free-Will, which I propose is a philosophical construct and not based on faithful exegesis of Scripture. A better question, perhaps, would be: “According to the Calvinist, in what sense is a man’s will free?” There are two categories to consider here. First, we may consider the antinomy of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Second, we may consider the effect that sin has upon mankind.
The Calvinistic worldview typically confesses that God ordains all things that occur. He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11). However, humans still have a responsibility for the actions they commit. Moreover, humans freely commit actions out of their own agency. Though you might say, “That makes no sense,” the Calvinist will likely respond, “It doesn’t matter: Scripture teaches it.” Calvinism affirms such texts as Joshua 10:29-30, “Then Joshua and all Israel with him passed on from Makkedah to Libnah, and fought against Libnah. The Lord gave it also with its king into the hands of Israel, and he struck it and every person who was in it with the edge of the sword.” Who defeated Libnah? Scripture explicitly says that the Lord gave it into the hands of Israel. However, who struck Libnah with the edge of the sword? Joshua/Israel. God is credited with the victory, yet human agency is clearly not compromised. How is this possible? Though some may work it out purely through philosophy, Calvinism is satisfied to rest in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”
As an illustration, you might consider Shakespeare and Hamlet. As the author, Shakespeare writes everything that Hamlet does. In fact, Hamlet does nothing that Shakespeare does not ultimately will him to do. However, inside the story-dimension, Hamlet has agency. The mind-blowing thing about Christianity is that God crosses the metaphysical line between Himself and creation, to actually “walk with Hamlet.” This, I believe, best articulates the Calvinist position on God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
The second category would be the effect that sin has upon a man’s will. The man is under sin (Rom 3:9), meaning that sin has dominion over him. This picture, however, is not of a trapped, innocent soul. The bondage is one of the will. Man’s hostility towards God is so great that he will not obey God (Rom 8:6-8). Without Divine assistance, he will not even come to God (Jn 6:44). The Light of God’s holiness exposes his deeds: rather than humble himself, man will slunk away from the light in pride (Jn 3:19-21). Man can’t come to God on his own because he won’t. So, mankind is free in the sense that he is always able to choose what he wants to do. However, he is in bondage to his own depraved desires. He can’t choose God on his own because he never wants to choose God.
In summary: the Calvinist position is that man’s will is free until it conflicts with God’s free will. In that instance, God’s will is sovereign over man’s. Also, man’s will is free to choose whatever it wants to choose. However, it is a faithful saying that no one will choose God without regenerating grace (Jn 1:13).
But isn’t Total Inability the same thing as Judicial Hardening?
This question is one commonly promoted by Leighton Flowers. It is a misconception of Calvinism on a most fundamental level. The doctrine of Total Inability says that man’s will is so ruined by sin that he will never choose God freely without Divine, regenerating grace. The doctrine of Judicial Hardening says that God at times hardens a person’s heart in order to accomplish a specific purpose in history. The two ideas are completely distinct from one another.
For example, consider the hardening of Pharaoh. He was born in Original Sin just as we were: naturally unable to freely choose God without regenerating grace. When Moses came to ask for the Jews to leave, the text is clear that God had to harden Pharaoh’s heart to keep him from letting the Israelites leave. If God had not hardened his heart, there wouldn’t have been ten plagues – maybe two or three, tops. But God made Pharaoh stubborn, in order to glorify Himself against the false gods of Egypt. Judicial Hardening did not keep Pharaoh from choosing God, it kept Pharaoh from letting God’s people go.
Don’t Calvinists believe that only elect babies go to Heaven?
Realize first that every Christian has to answer the question of infant salvation. If God doesn’t elect people to salvation, then their choice is the determining factor. So…what about babies who never get a chance to choose God? What about the fetus who never develops ears to hear the gospel or a mind to understand it? Since he doesn’t have faith in Christ, does that mean he will not go to Heaven? “Of course not – God has grace on them,” you say – but my question is, how do you know? What text of Scripture do you have to prove this?
Truthfully, there is no explicit Scriptural basis for infant salvation or an “age of accountability.” It is irresponsible for an opponents of Calvinism to throw this question upon a Calvinist, unless he himself has also considered the ramifications of infant death to his own theological system. Calvinists themselves disagree on the matter (ex. Piper and White). For what it’s worth, I will provide you with what I see in Scripture.
First, I begin with the truth that God is absolutely free in all that He does: “Our God is in the Heavens and He does whatever He pleases” (Ps 115:3). Second, I see that all men are sinners deserving of an eternal punishment in God’s wrath. This sinful condition is not excluded from infants: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (51:5). Third, I acknowledge the justice of God: “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight” (Prov 11:1). Because infants themselves are sinners, it is not unjust for God to kill them. If you disagree, pit yourself against this: “Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam 15:3). Prior to this, God had commanded Joshua to kill all the inhabitants of Canaan. If God is just, then this must have been a just command.
Fourth, I remember the grace of God: “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Ps 130:3-4). Through Christ’s death on the cross, God can spare people from His wrath and still be a just God (Ro 3:21-26). Fifth, I rest in the freeness of grace: “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Ro 9:16). Based on the first three points, the only hope for a newborn child is that God wills to pay for his sin on the cross – and praise God that an infant’s salvation does not depend on his own will to choose God.
After these five considerations, my conclusion: “I don’t know the eternal destiny of any infant, but I wholly trust in God’s goodness, justice and mercy.” Ultimately, I think that Unconditional Election gives infants a far better hope than will-dependent salvation.
Does Calvinism teach that God only loves certain people?
This question oversimplifies the issue. God loves in many different ways. First, we see His God-centered delight. All His actions are ultimately for His glory. Second, we see His benevolent care for the universe. He maintains the laws of logic and science, feeds the birds and maintains the seasons. Third, we see the universal disposition He has towards men. He commands them all to repent and so in some sense desires all to repent. Fourth, we see the salvific love He has towards His elect. He chooses certain individuals to be in Christ for an eternity of glorifying the riches of His grace.
Calvinism does not deny that God loves all people. Denying this would be Hyper-Calvinism. However, Calvinism affirms with Scripture that God has a special love for His people, a love that does not exist for the wicked. It is true to say Calvinism teaches that God doesn’t love all people the same way.
A salesman will often neglect to tell you the unpopular side-effects of the product he wants you to buy. He’ll tickle your ears with things he knows you want to hear. Well, I’m not going to do that. For the sake of transparency, I would like to explain to you several things that a Calvinistic worldview is committed to.
You do not ultimately determine whether or not you go to Heaven.
The point of contention is probably in “determine.” Calvinism denies that men can thwart the will of God. If God has chosen to save you, you will be saved no matter what. If God has chosen not to save you, you will be damned no matter what. The twin doctrine to this is Romans 10:13, “For all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” One of the great wonders of heaven shall be, by the glorious merit of Christ, that not one person who ever called on God’s name in faith will be absent.
Your children may not be elect.
It may in fact be the case that God chose to save you and not your offspring. God does not make arbitrary decisions, playing with our eternities “for kicks.” Even so, just because someone is close to you does not mean that he/she is close to God. The Calvinist denies that God is malicious or unreasonable or unloving. The Calvinist likewise recognizes that mankind’s benefit is not the ultimate good in the universe.
There are no good people.
The Calvinistic worldview denies that there is an “innocent man in Asia who has never heard the gospel.” There are certainly wicked men in such a state, but no innocent people. This is hard to accept for some, yet is the necessary conclusion of Total Depravity. Even an atheist who feeds homeless people for a living is not a good person.
Election coincides with the free choices we make.
“Two railroad tracks,” Spurgeon describes them. While this may not be compatible in our minds, the Calvinist claim is not that election negates the responsibility and meaning of our decisions. God’s election always, mysteriously, sovereignly coincides with the free decisions that we make in day-to-day life. Taking election to a logical conclusion of, “It doesn’t matter what I do,” is called Hyper-Calvinism.
The question, “How do I know if I’m elect?” is answered in the gospel.
When a Calvinist begins to explain the benefitting commitments of his theology, a question like “How do I know if I’m elect?” is often thrown up. Nowhere does Scripture tell us the identity of the elect. In fact, everyone in covenant with a local church can consider themselves elect (Eph 1:1-6). After recognizing that election mysteriously coincides with the free choices we make, it is helpful to understand that understanding election is above our pay-grade. Calvinism claims that if you simply trust in Christ, you prove with that action that you were elected before the world began.
Christ’s work is successful.
Calvinism asserts that Christ soundly provided propitiation on the cross and today intercedes on behalf of His church. Furthermore, the Calvinist believes that Christ needs absolutely no help from any man in order to do His work. This is particularly applicable in times of slow progression in holiness. I know that my will and good works do nothing to improve upon what Christ did.
If you could lose your salvation, you would.
“Once saved always saved,” as the Southern Baptists say. Most don’t realize that this is an historically Calvinistic statement. When Baptists derived from the Puritans in England, they distinguished themselves into Particular (Calvinistic) and General (non-Calvinistic) Baptists. At this initial differentiation, only the Particular Baptists confessed that you cannot lose your salvation. Future melding of Particular and General would be just that: a mixture of the two ideals. To reject Calvinism in its entirety is practically impossible for a Southern Baptist. Calvinism happily professes that an individual’s salvation is kept in God’s hand alone. Your salvation is as secure as God’s will is sovereign.
The only infallible source of information one has is Scripture. The Calvinistic worldview claims, therefore, that Scripture must be the starting point of our logic. Science and philosophy must submit themselves to Christ by taking a back-row seat to the Word of Christ. For more information on Presuppositional Apologetics, I direct you towards the following theologians: James White, Jeff Durbin, Douglas Wilson, Vern Poythress.