Calvinism is a theology that was developed by John Calvin (1509-64) in the sixteenth century. He presented this theology in his Institutes of Christian Religion, which subsequently became the cornerstone of Presbyterian and Reformed theology. It is also called TULIP theology. Calvin himself did not use the term TULIP to describe his theology, but it is an accurate, though simplified, representation of his views, and every standard point of TULIP theology can be found in Calvin’s Institutes.
Calvinistic theology was summarized into five points during the debate over the teachings of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). Arminius studied under Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at Geneva, but he rejected Calvinism and taught his non-Calvinist theology in Holland. Arminius’ followers arranged his teaching under the following five points and began to distribute this theology among the Dutch churches in 1610: (1) Free will, or human ability, (2) Conditional election, (3) Universal Redemption, or General Atonement, (4) Resistible Grace, and (5) Insecure Faith. These points were rejected at the state-church Synod of Dort in Holland in 1618-1619 (attended as well by representatives from France, Germany, Switzerland, and Britain), and this Synod formulated the “five points of Calvinism” in resistance to Arminianism. Arminius’ followers were thereafter put out of their churches and persecuted by their Calvinist brethren.
In the late 18th century, the five points of Calvinism were rearranged under the acronym TULIP as a memory aid.
A SUMMARY OF TULIP THEOLOGY
Total Depravity: Man is totally corrupt and dead in his sin so that he cannot even respond to the gospel unless God sovereignly enables him, which only happens if he is one of the elect. God not only must enable the dead sinner, but must sovereignly regenerate him and give him the gift of faith. In the words of the Westminster Confession Total Depravity is defined as follows: “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”
The Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity does not mean merely that the sinner has no righteousness of his own or that his heart is depraved. It means also that his will is in bondage to sin in such a fashion that he is unable to believe the gospel. Further, it means that he must therefore be born again before he can believe. Arthur Pink states this doctrine as follows: “Faith is not the cause of the new birth, but the consequence of it. This ought not to need arguing. … Faith is a spiritual grace, the fruit of the spiritual nature, and because the unregenerate are spiritually dead–‘dead in trespasses and sins’–then it follows that faith from them is impossible, for a dead man cannot believe anything” (The Sovereignty of God, p. 73).
Unconditional Election: God unconditionally and “sovereignly” elects who will be saved and this election has nothing to do with anything the sinner does, including exercising faith in the gospel. Consider the words of the Westminster Confession: “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life and others foreordained to everlasting death. These angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished. … The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.” John Calvin expressed the doctrine of unconditional election in these words: “Predestination we call the decree of God, by which He has determined in Himself, what He would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny: but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, chap. 21). Calvin emphasized his belief in sovereign reprobation as follows: “[God] devotes to destruction whom he pleases … they are predestinated to eternal death without any demerit of their own, merely by his sovereign will. … he orders all things by his counsel and decree in such a manner, that some men are born devoted from the womb to certain death, that his name be glorified in their destruction. … God chooses whom he will as his children … while he rejects and reprobates others” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, chap. 23).
Limited Atonement: The death of Christ was only for those God has sovereignly elected. Calvin denounced the universal offer of the Gospel. “When it appears that when the doctrine of salvation is offered to all for their effectual benefit, it is a corrupt prostitution of that which is declared to be reserved particularly for the children of the church” (Institutes, Book III, chap. 22).
Irresistible Grace: God’s call to the elect is effectual and cannot be resisted. The dead sinner is sovereignly regenerated and granted the “gift of faith.” “That some, in time, have faith given them by God, and others have it not given, proceeds from his eternal decree; for ‘known unto God are all his works from the beginning,’ etc. (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). According to which decree he graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however hard, and he bends them to believe; but the non-elect he leaves, in his judgment, to their own perversity and hardness” (summary derived from the Synod of Dort). The Westminster Confession adds the following: “This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved…”
Perseverance of the Saints: Those who are sovereignly elected and regenerated will continue in the faith. “Those whom God hath accepted in the Beloved, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere to the end; and though they may fall through neglect and temptation, into sin, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, bring reproach on the Church, and temporal judgments on themselves, yet they shall be renewed again unto repentance, and be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (Abstract of Principles, 1858).
SOME INTRODUCTORY POINTS
1. I HAVE STUDIED CALVINISM FROM “THE HORSE’S MOUTH.” In order to gain a proper understanding of Calvinism, I have studied the writings of many influential Calvinists, both contemporary and past. I have examined Calvinism many times during the 32 years since I was saved. The first time was shortly after I was converted, when I was in Bible College, and Calvinism was one of the many topics that were strenuously discussed by the students. I had never heard of Calvinism before that and I didn’t know what to think of it, so I read Arthur Pink’s The Sovereignty of God and a couple of other titles on the subject with a desire to understand it and to know whether it was scriptural or not. Some of the students became Calvinists, but I concluded that though Calvinism makes some good points about the sovereignty of God and though I personally like the way it exalts God above man and though I agree with its teaching that salvation is 100% of God and though I despise and reject the shallow, manipulative, man-centered soul winning scheme that is so common among independent Baptists and though it does seem to be supported by a few Scriptures, the bottom line to me is that it ends up contradicting far too many plain Scriptures.
In the year 2000 I was invited to preach at a conference on Calvinism at Heritage Baptist University in Greenwood, Indiana, that was subsequently held in April of 2001. The conference was opposed to Calvinism; and I agreed to speak, because I have been in sympathy with such a position ever since I first examined the subject in Bible College. Before I put together a message for the conference, though, I wanted to re-examine Calvinism in a more thorough manner. I contacted Dr. Peter Masters in London, England, and discussed the subject of Calvinism with him. I told him that I love and respect him in Christ and I also love and respect his predecessor, Charles Spurgeon, though I do not agree with either of them on Calvinism (or on some other issues, in fact). I told Dr. Masters that I wanted him to tell me what books he would recommend so that I could properly understand what he believes on the subject (knowing that there are many varieties of Calvinism). I did not want to misrepresent anything. Among other things, Dr. Masters recommended that I read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and Iain Murray’s Spurgeon vs. the Hyper-Calvinists, which I did.
In the last couple of years I have re-investigated Calvinism from both sides. I read Dave Hunt’s “What Love Is This?” and “A Calvinist’s Honest Doubts Resolved by Reason and God’s Amazing Grace.” I read “Debating Calvinism: Five Points, Two Views” by Dave Hunt and James White. I carefully re-read Arthur Pink’s “The Sovereignty of God” as well as the “Westminster Confession of Faith.” I have also studied about 100 pages of materials published in defense of Calvinism by the Far Eastern Bible College in Singapore. This is a Bible Presbyterian school.
As best as I know how, I have studied these materials with the sole desire to know the truth and with a willingness to follow the truth wherever it leads.
Thus, while I have not read every book on this subject that could be recommended by my readers, I have made a considerable effort to understand Calvinism properly and not to misrepresent it (though I have learned that a non-Calvinist will ALWAYS be charged with misrepresentation).
2. BAPTISTS MUST FACE THE ISSUE OF CALVINISM. It is a divisive subject, but it must be faced because it touches some of the most important points of biblical truth and affects how Christians perceive of the gospel and the very person of God. It is interesting to observe that there have always been divisions among Baptists on the issue of Calvinism. The early Baptists in England were divided into the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists, referring to how they viewed Christ’s atonement, as to whether it was for all men (general) or only for the elect (particular). Adam Taylor’s History of the General Baptists of England (1818) deals with the history of the non-Calvinist Baptists in Great Britain, and there were a large number of them. To my knowledge, Taylor is the only 19th-century British Baptist historian who was not a Calvinist. It is certain that the vast majority of Baptist histories are written by Calvinists and they typically neglect and sometimes misreport the history and beliefs of the non-Calvinist Baptists. Be that as it may, the fact remains that Baptists have always been divided on this issue and it is not wise to draw back from dealing with it today, even though divisions are certainly the result.
3. FEW THINGS HAVE HINDERED BIBLICAL EVANGELISM MORE THAN CALVINISM. It almost killed the evangelistic zeal of the Baptist churches of England in the 18th century and well into the 19th. Among Calvinists, evangelism is done IN SPITE OF Calvinism, not because of it. Baptist historian Thomas Armitage wrote: “William Carey’s ‘Inquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use means for the Conversion of the Heathen’ was published in 1792, but found few readers and produced little effect. To most of the Baptists his views were visionary and even wild, in open conflict with God’s sovereignty. At a meeting of ministers, where the senior Ryland presided, Carey proposed that at the next meeting they discuss the duty of attempting to spread the Gospel amongst the heathen. … Ryland, shocked, sprang to his feet and ordered Carey to sit down, saying: ‘When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine!’”
Things were not much better when Spurgeon took his first pastorate in 1854. This situation is described in Spurgeon vs. the Hyper Calvinists by Iain Murray. Many Calvinists opposed Spurgeon and denounced his broad, indiscriminate invitations for sinners to come to Christ. For example, one Calvinist publication warned in Spurgeon’s day, “…to preach that it is man’s duty to believe savingly in Christ is ABSURD” (Earthen Vessel, 1857).
4. IT IS IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THAT CALVINISM IS AN UNSETTLED THEOLOGY. Calvinists are seriously divided among themselves and always have been. There is Supralapsarianism and Sublapsarianism and Infralapsarianism. “The Supralapsarians hold that God decreed the fall of Adam; the Sublapsarians, that he permitted it” (McClintock & Strong). There is also Amyraldianism, named for theologian Moise Amyraut, and Reymond’s modified supralapsarianism, named for Robert Reymond, another Calvinist who wants his own type of lapsarianism. The Calvinists at the Synod of Dort were divided on many issues, including lapsarianism. The Swiss Calvinists who wrote the Helvetic Consensus Formula in 1675 were in conflict with the French Calvinists of the School of Saumur. There are Strict Calvinists and Moderate Calvinists, Hyper and non-Hyper (differing especially on reprobation, the extent of the atonement, and whether God loves all men), 5 pointers, 4 pointers, 3 pointers, 2 pointers. In America, Calvinists were divided into Old School and the New School. As we have seen, the Calvinists of England were divided in the 19th century.
Whenever, therefore, one tries to state TULIP theology and then refute it, there are Calvinists who will argue with you that you are misrepresenting Calvinism. It is not so much that you are misrepresenting Calvinism, though. You might be quoting directly from various Calvinists or even from Calvin himself. The problem is that you are misrepresenting THEIR Calvinism! There are Calvin Calvinists and Andrew Fuller Calvinists and Arthur W. Pink Calvinists and Presbyterian Calvinists and Baptist Calvinists and many other sorts of Calvinists. Many Calvinists have never read Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion for themselves. They are merely following someone who follows someone who allegedly follows Calvin (who, by his own admission, followed Augustine).
Calvinists believe that they have the right to reject or modify some parts of, or conclusions of Calvin. I agree with them 100%, and I say, further, that we also have the right to reject the entire thing if we are convinced that it is not supported by Scripture!
5. IT IS NOT WISE TO FOLLOW JOHN CALVIN; HE WAS UNSOUND AT THE VERY FOUNDATION OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH. Calvin never gave a testimony of the new birth; rather he identified with his Catholic infant baptism. Note the following quotes from his Institutes:
“At whatever time we are baptized, we are washed and purified once for the whole of life” (Institutes, IV).
“By baptism we are ingrafted into the body of Christ … infants are to be baptized … children of Christians, as they are immediately on their birth received by God as heirs of the covenant, are also to be admitted to baptism” (Institutes, IV).
Calvin was vicious toward his enemies, acting more like a devouring wolf than a harmless sheep. Historian William Jones observed that “that most hateful feature of popery adhered to Calvin through life, the spirit of persecution.” Note how he described his theological opponents: “…all that filth and villainy…mad dogs who vomit their filth against the majesty of God and want to pervert all religion. Must they be spared?” (Oct. 16, 1555). Calvin hated the Anabaptists, though they were miles closer to the Scriptural pattern for the New Testament church than he was. He called them “henchmen of Satan.” Four men who disagreed with Calvin on who should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper were beheaded, quartered, and their body parts hung in strategic locations in Geneva as a warning to others. He burned Michael Servetus (for rejecting infant baptism and for denying Christ’s deity). Calvin wrote about Servetus, “One should not be content with simply killing such people, but should burn them cruelly.”
6. GOD DOES NOT REQUIRE HIS PEOPLE TO CHOOSE BETWEEN CALVINISM AND ARMINIANISM! I am convinced that John Calvin has caused great and unnecessary divisions among God’s people because of dogmatizing his philosophizing about God’s sovereignty and election. If men were left simply to believe the Bible’s own statements on these matters and if men were not forced to decide between the man-made theologies called “Calvinism” and “Arminianism,” the Christian world would be much better off and many artificial and unnecessary divisions would not have resulted.
The Bible says “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). The Bible itself is the test of truth, not some man’s systematic theology. I have the right and responsibility to test every theology by the Bible, and I am free before the Lord to reject any part of it or all of it. I do not have to make a choice between human theologies. I can stand strictly and exclusively upon the Bible itself, the SOLE authority for faith and practice. Many Calvinists won’t allow that, though. James White, author of “The Truth about the King James Bible Controversy” and “The Potter’s Freedom” and several other books, wrote to me in about the year 1999 and challenged me to a public debate. He urged me to “defend Arminianism.” That is a strange notion, because I don’t follow Arminianism and I don’t care anything about Arminianism. I have studied the theology of James Arminius some and I find errors in it just as I have found errors in John Calvin’s theology. Though I do believe that Arminius was closer to the truth than Calvin, this does not mean that I have any intention to “defend Arminianism.” White has the idea that is so typical among Calvinists that if a man is not a Calvinist, he is surely an Arminian.
This idea actually began with Calvin. He treated those who disagreed with his position on election as enemies of God and the gospel and would not admit that men can reject Calvinism and still believe God’s Word! From the time that I was saved by God’s marvelous and free grace 32 years ago until this very day, I have wanted to understand the will of and to be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ through God’s preserved Word, the Scriptures. As best as I know how, I have made that my sole authority. I enjoy systematic theology; I have taught a course in Bible doctrine in a new Bible college that helped establish in South Asia and have published a book on Bible Doctrine or Theology, but I test all of the various theologies with the Scriptures alone, and I have never agreed completely with any man’s systematic theology.
I praise God that I am not under any divine obligation to follow either Calvinism or Arminianism.
SOME CENTRAL ERRORS OF CALVINISM
1. CALVINISM TURNS THEOLOGY INTO PHILOSOPHY.
Calvinism goes beyond biblical statements in an attempt to systematize the mysteries of God. John Calvin was a philosopher by training; his Institutes are extremely philosophical. It was first written when Calvin was young and only new converted to Protestantism, when his mind was still filled with the philosophy that he had studied as a Catholic priest.
True theology is simply believing and rightly interpreting the Bible, but God warns against philosophy and about leaving the simplicity of Christ (Col. 2:8; 2 Cor. 11:3).
Philosophy is to use the human intellect and logic in an attempt to come to the truth apart from divine revelation. In the case of Calvinism, the problem is that he goes beyond the actual statements of Scripture and creates doctrine by human reasoning.
For example, Arthur Pink states, “If then God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass then He must have decreed that vast numbers of human beings should pass out of this world unsaved to suffer eternally in the Lake of Fire. Admitting the general premise, is not the specific conclusion inevitable?” (p. 84).
The answer is that Pink’s premise is wrong and so, therefore, is the conclusion. To say that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, is to go beyond what the Bible teaches. The Bible says He “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11), but that is not the same as actually foreordaining everything. And to build on this faulty platform by claiming that God must have decreed that vast numbers of human beings should pass out of this world unsaved, is to allow human logic to assume the place of divine revelation.
Again, Pink says, “Now if God had willed their salvation, would He not have vouchsafed them the means of salvation? Would He not have given them all things necessary to that end? But it is an undeniable matter of fact that He did not” (p. 83).
This is all human reasoning. But what saith the Word of God? It says that God did will the salvation of all (1 Tim. 2:3-6; 2 Pet. 3:9) and did provide for it (1 Jn. 2:2), but He also gave man a choice to believe or disbelieve (Jn. 3:16).
Here is another example of the philosophical approach of Calvinism. Pink says, “Now all will acknowledge that from the foundation of the world God certainly fore-knew and fore-saw who would and who would not receive Christ as their Saviour, therefore in giving being and birth to those He knew would reject Christ, He necessarily created them unto damnation” (p. 82).
The authority for this statement is not the plain teaching of Scripture but the author’s human reasoning. Pink confuses foreknowledge with forewilling. A parent gives his children many choices and greater liberty as they grow older and he knows that they will make mistakes and he knows the consequences of those mistakes beforehand, but when the children do wrong that is not to say that the parent forewilled it.
In this context, it is important to observe that Calvinism is not simple; it is very complicated. James White often makes the claim that Dave Hunt, who has debated him in print on this subject, doesn’t understand Calvinism, even though he is intelligent and has studied the issue diligently. This highlights the complexity and philosophical nature of Calvinism. It results in an elitist mentality. Consider some of the terms that James White uses in his debate with Dave Hunt: compatibalism, monergism versus synergism, electing grace vs. irresistible grace, effectual calling vs. general calling, effective atonement vs. hypothetical atonement, libertarian free will vs. the bondage of the will. Other Calvinists speak of objective grace and subjective grace, natural ability and moral ability, mediate vs. immediate imputation of Adam’s sin, supralapsarianism, sublapsarianism, infralapsarianism, desiderative vs. decretive will, and antecedent hypothetical will.
I believe that Calvinism is more akin to philosophy than to sound Bible theology and that it has left the simplicity that is in Christ.
2. THE CALVINIST SYSTEM TRIES TO RECONCILE THINGS THAT CANNOT BE RECONCILED IN THIS WORLD.
Consider Acts 13:48 and Acts 13:46
Verse 48 is a pet Calvinist verse: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.”
The Calvinist says, “See, here is a plain statement that those who believe are those who are sovereignly ordained to believe.” The problem is that the word “sovereignly” is added to what this verse actually states and Calvinist doctrine is read into the verse to make it say, “…as many as were sovereignly and arbitrarily elected believed.” Any possibility that God’s foreknowledge could allow for the exercise of human will is entirely discounted, but there is nothing in the verse itself to require such an interpretation.
Also, in verse 46 we see a different story. “Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.”
Here we see that salvation is associated with man’s response to the gospel. According to the plain teaching of this verse, these Jews did not go to Hell because they were not part of the elect or because they were sovereignly elected to reprobation, but simply because they refused to believe. They reprobated themselves. Paul told them that God wanted to give them everlasting life and they rejected it.
Consider John 6:37 and John 6:40
Again, John 6:37 is a favorite Calvinist proof text. “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”
The Calvinist finds his doctrines of Sovereign Election and Irresistible Grace here. The problem is that if “irresistible grace” is taught in this passage, it is for all who believe on Christ and not merely for a special few who were sovereignly pre-elected to be saved.
This verse does not say that God has sovereignly pre-chosen only some for salvation and that it is those pre-chosen ones that are given to Christ. One must read all of that into the verse. It simply says that all that the Father gives will come to Christ. The question is this: “Who is it that the Father gives to Jesus?”
That question is answered plainly in this passage only three verses later: “And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:40). (Of course the Calvinist argues that it is only the elect who can “see the Son,” but one must read that into the verse.)
In verse 40 we see that the sovereign will of God is that each and every sinner that believes on Christ will be saved. Here the sovereign will of God is to allow men a choice in salvation, and a great many other verses agree.
Consider John 6:44 and John 12:32
John 6:44 is another Calvinist proof text. “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.”
The Calvinist finds sovereign election and irresistible grace here.
Yet John 12:32 says, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”
Here we see that Jesus draws all men.
How can these seemingly contradictory things be reconciled? Calvinism doesn’t have the answer, because its proposed solution ignores or twists too many clear Scriptures.
I don’t believe these things can be properly reconciled in this present world. We should simply let them stand and not try to force them into a perfectly formed theological system. God truly elects and man truly chooses. God elects and yet every man is urged to be saved and every man can be saved. God elects and yet sent His Son to die for the whole world. God elects and yet does not want any sinner to perish.
All are equally true and Scriptural, so let them ALL stand and do not try to reconcile that which the Bible itself does not reconcile and which therefore cannot be reconciled into a neat theological package in this present world.
3. CALVINISM’S DOCTRINES ARE CONTRARY TO THE PLAIN TEACHING OF GOD’S WORD.
THE BIBLE VS. THE CALVINIST DOCTRINE THAT FAITH IS A WORK
Calvinism says that grace means man cannot do anything, cannot even believe, because otherwise grace would not be grace and the sinner would have something to boast of.
First of all, this is unscriptural, because the Bible plainly says faith and believing are not works.
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
It is not faith that is the gift of God; it is salvation that is the gift. Salvation is by grace but THROUGH faith. Faith is “the hand that reaches out and accepts the gift of God.” Faith is not a work.
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:2-5).
Here we see plainly that faith is the opposite of works. Therefore to require that a sinner believe the gospel is not to require the sinner to do some sort of works for salvation.
Furthermore, this doctrine that faith is a work is unreasonable. Salvation is likened in Scripture to receiving a gift. It can also be likened to accepting a pardon and taking a life preserver. If someone purchases an expensive gift for me and I accept it, do I have anything to boast of? If I am in prison on death row for my crimes and the governor mercifully offers me a pardon and I accept it, have I done anything that I could boast of? If I am drowning in the ocean and a boat pulls alongside and offers to rescue me and I allow them to do that, have I thereby had some part in my salvation from drowning? Have I done something I could boast of? Of course not! When the sinner hears that Christ loves him and died for him and rose from the dead and offers him eternal salvation and the sinner joyfully receives that great salvation, that is not works and the sinner has nothing to boast about.