Skip to comments.Addressing the Top Five Misconceptions of Calvinism
Posted on 02/07/2013 12:06:49 PM PST by Alex Murphy
Even though I embrace reformed theology (aka “Calvinism”) now, I understand the thinking behind articles such as Dan Delzell’s recent “Infant Baptism and 5-Point Calvinism are Limited”. I grew up under an Arminian pastor who I still deeply respect and admire that would nod in agreement with all the points Delzell makes in his post.
When I first went to seminary, I studied systematic theology under a very well know theologian who espouses what he calls “moderate Calvinism”, which is really an inconsistent form of Arminian theology. At the time, that framework seemed logical to me.
But when I started my Ph.D. studies, I chose as the focus of my dissertation the apologetics of the Apostle Paul. This topic forced me to do something I had never done in my Christian life up to that point: seriously study the doctrines of grace. I’m ashamed to admit I had never actually examined any of the Biblical arguments of reformed thinkers, but had only read what those opposed to Calvinism said that reformed theology taught.
The outcome of that Biblical investigation was that I became convinced of reformed theology’s validity.
Because I know both sides of the fence so well, I thought I’d try and sort out what I believe to be the top incorrect stereotypes and misconceptions about Calvinism that I constantly run into and see if some of the confusion that surrounds this sometimes volatile subject can’t be cleared up. I’ll use Calvinism’s TULIP acronym to work through each false impression.
Misconception: People don’t have “free will” and are basically robots without any ability to choose on their own.
Fact: Calvinism acknowledges that all human beings make various choices in life. However, when it comes to making a decision for God, reformed theology affirms that no one seeks God or receives Christ on their own without being spiritually awakened by God and enabled to do so.
It is no understatement to say that once a person fully understands the doctrine of total depravity, all other points in Calvinism are easy to accept. Get this teaching wrong, and you have a theological mess on your hands.
Do people make choices? Of course, each and every day, and on many different levels. But when it comes to salvation in Christ, the Bible is clear that each person is born in sin (Ps. 51:5), spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1), and morally incapable of coming to Christ by themselves (1 Cor. 2:14, Rom. 8:6-7).
Jesus made the explicit statement, “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65), which clearly showcases an inability in everyone to freely choose Christ unless granted by the Father (see also John 6:44). Once an unbeliever is spiritually called by God out of their darkness (2 Tim. 1:8-9) and their eyes are opened (John 9:39), they then willingly receive Jesus as Savior.
James White sums up the correct position well when he says: “Reformed Christians believe that men believe and choose. It is the order of events that is in dispute. Every Christian has chosen Christ, believed in Christ, embraced Christ, and even more, continues to do so. The question is not ‘must a person believe,’ but can a person believe while a slave to sin? Further, whose decision comes first: the decision of God to free the enslaved, dead sinner and give him the ability to believe, or the free-choice decision of the sinner that then makes him or her one of the elect?”
Misconception: The doctrine that says God chooses who will be saved is incredibly unfair.
Fact: Reformed theology upholds that no one deserves salvation and that God displays incredible mercy in saving those He chooses.
Arthur Pink began one message in Australia many years ago by saying, “I am going to speak tonight on one of the most hated doctrines of the Bible, namely, that of God’s sovereign election.”
By far, the most uttered complaint against election is that it’s not fair. And yet, every Christian acknowledges they don’t deserve God’s mercy and His salvation – that it’s “fair” if God chose to judge all sinners as being unworthy of spending eternal life with Him.
That being the case why is it considered repugnant if God chooses to show mercy to some and allows His justice to fall on others who willingly continue in their sin? Would a governor be considered an ogre and unfair simply because he/she decided to grant amnesty to one criminal while others are left to carry out their proper sentence?
Those who reject election believe in choice, but they don’t want God to choose; they want humanity to choose instead. This seems more fair and just to them.
However, Paul anticipated this response from the audience that received his letter to the Romans. In chapter 9, after carefully laying out the doctrine of election, Paul specifically and proactively answers the charge of unfairness with God and clearly spells out that salvation has nothing to do with our choice but is rather His alone:
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:14–16).
Such a statement from Paul makes absolutely no sense if the Apostle believed that we are the ultimate decision maker where salvation is concerned vs. God. From a human standpoint, what would be unfair about that?
Misconception: Only Calvinism limits the atonement of Christ on the cross.
Fact: Outside of Universalists, every Christian believes in limited atonement.
Unless you’re a Universalist and believe that everyone will eventually be saved, then you believe that the atonement of Christ is limited and that it automatically doesn’t save all of humanity.
How is the atonement limited? It is limited to those who believe (John 3:16).
But how does a person come to believe? This is where we must boomerang back up to the “T” and “U” of Calvinism’s TULIP and first understand how God saves those He chooses.
But as to who truly limits Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, reformed pastor Charles Spurgeon offers these helpful words in this semi-lengthy, but helpful quote:
“We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ. Because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men or all men would be saved. Now our reply to this is on the other hand our opponents limit it, we do not. The Arminians say Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by that. Did Christ die to secure the salvation of all men? They say no, certainly not. We ask them the next question: Did Christ die to secure the salvation of any one person in particular? They say no. They’re obliged to say that if they’re consistent. They say, no, Christ has died that any man may be saved if ... and then follow certain conditions of salvation…“Now, who is it that limits of the death of Christ? Why, you - you say that Christ did not die so as to infallibly secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon. When you say we limit Christ’s death we say no my dear sir it is you that do that. We say that Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number who through Christ’s death not only may be saved but will be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.”
Misconception: God drags people kicking and screaming against their will into His kingdom.
Fact: Reform theology teaches that God lovingly overcomes the natural rebellion in the sinner’s heart so that they may accept His gift of salvation.
J. I. Packer sums up this doctrine in a very succinct manner when he says, “Grace proves irresistible just because it destroys the disposition to resist.”
A passage in Acts showcases this efficacious call of God in action: “And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled. A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. ” (Acts 16:13–14).
Another point worth making is that this call is not given to everyone. This fact is evident in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24).
Notice the same two groups are preached to (Jews and Gentiles) and yet only those called by God (also Jews and Gentiles) are saved by His grace. These are the ones who receive God’s efficacious call (i.e. His irresistible grace).
Misconception: A person remains saved no matter how they live their life.
Fact: Calvinism teaches that a professing Christian with no change in behavior and no movement toward sanctification proves that they were never saved to begin with.
Reformed scholar and pastor John Piper tells the story of a woman who heard a message he delivered on the perseverance of the saints (which says a born again Christian can never lose their salvation, but will persevere to the end). She came to him and stated that she was in an adulterous affair, but because she was saved, she intended to continue in her affair without any worry about losing her salvation.
Piper’s reply to her was direct and rare in our current sugar-coated, seeker-friendly church environment: “God will damn you to Hell if you continue in your sin.”
In making that statement, Piper was simply affirming the Bible’s teaching that the fruit of the tree identifies the type of tree (Matt. 12:33). In no way does Calvinism teach that a person born again may continue in their rebellion, sin against God, and see eternal life with the Creator.
Instead, reformed theology upholds just the opposite: that a true Christian will manifest holy affections that prove their salvation, although they will always struggle with the sin nature that they have (see Romans 7). For an excellent treatment of this subject, see Jonathan Edward’s magisterial work, “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections”.
While I have no fanciful dreams that the above will instantly turn those who oppose Calvinism into reformed theologians, I do hope that perhaps some of the faulty critiques aimed at the doctrines of grace will be blunted, and that believers will take their Bible in one hand and some accurate teaching of reformed theology in the other, and at least understand the positions in a more accurate way.
For a thorough treatment of this theology, see Chosen But Free by Dr. Norman Geisler: http://goo.gl/xBrIn.
See http://www.reformed.org/index.html for a brief explanation of the Calvin TULIP acronym.
James White, The Potter’s Freedom (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2000), Pg. 184.
Arthur Pink, The Doctrine of Election (Granbury, TX: PBM Desktop Publications, 2005), Pg. 4.
For an explanation of why I think this is the easiest teaching of Calvinism to believe, see my post here: http://goo.gl/ic66o.
J. I. Packer, introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), Pg. 8.
U: By far, the most uttered complaint against election is that its not fair. And yet, every Christian acknowledges they dont deserve Gods mercy and His salvation that its fair if God chose to judge all sinners as being unworthy of spending eternal life with Him. That being the case why is it considered repugnant if God chooses to show mercy to some and allows His justice to fall on others who willingly continue in their sin? Would a governor be considered an ogre and unfair simply because he/she decided to grant amnesty to one criminal while others are left to carry out their proper sentence? Those who reject election believe in choice, but they dont want God to choose; they want humanity to choose instead. This seems more fair and just to them.
L: Now, who is it that limits of the death of Christ? Why, you - you say that Christ did not die so as to infallibly secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon. When you say we limit Christs death we say no my dear sir it is you that do that. We say that Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number who through Christs death not only may be saved but will be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.
I: J. I. Packer sums up this doctrine in a very succinct manner when he says, Grace proves irresistible just because it destroys the disposition to resist. A passage in Acts showcases this efficacious call of God in action: And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled. A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. (Acts 16:1314).
P: ...the fruit of the tree identifies the type of tree (Matt. 12:33). In no way does Calvinism teach that a person born again may continue in their rebellion, sin against God, and see eternal life with the Creator. Instead, reformed theology upholds just the opposite: that a true Christian will manifest holy affections that prove their salvation, although they will always struggle with the sin nature that they have (see Romans 7).
I don’t see where this addresses the problem in Calvinism of salvation by election instead of by grace through faith.
Quick question about Calvinism and its relationship to Puritanism - I vaguely remember reading that John Milton, by all accounts an archetypal Puritan, wrote a critique of the doctrine of Predestination. If that’s the case, how was he (and others like him in the Puritan movement) reconciled with Puritanism’s Calvinist roots?
Ephesians 2:8-10 (and note that Ephesians starts by discussing predestination, so this is in that context). Faith and grace are the gifts of God to the (elected) believer.
I think you're agreeing with my point. Faith and grace are conditional - determined by election. Therefore salvation is by election. No election, no grace, no faith.
However you may feel about its correctness, this is at odds with salvation by grace through faith.
Calvinism doesn’t seem to agree that all Scripture is useful for teaching, so most tend to ignore the passages they can’t just explain away.
Let me see if I can come ‘round it a different way, then: Reformed Theology declares that God is in control of all things - including who he chooses salvation for. The Ephesians passage declares that those elected are given these tools - grace/faith by a means that is irresistible... and salvation is the result. This is indeed salvation by grace (bestowed from God) through faith (also bestowed by God).
If you want to say this means that salvation is by election (by derivation), then so be it - Ephesians 1:4-5 suggest strongly that the election to salvation occurred before the creation. I don’t see that this changes anything since it all comes from the Father... it’s still consistent.
Election is the means that God uses to show his grace and to impart faith on the believer.
If you’re gonna throw around catch phrases, you could at least support the point with something worthy of discussion.
At best, this is a gross mischaracterization of Calvinism; at worst, outright slander.
Thanks for your reply:
>>>If you want to say this means that salvation is by election (by derivation), then so be it..
I think it is obviously true for Calvinism.
For example, if I say a gunshot victim died due to loss of blood I am correct but incomplete in terms of cause. The real cause was the gunshot. Had the gunshot caused loss of blood or loss of oxygen or loss of brain function is irrelevant to the cause, these are conditional upon - not existing without - the gunshot.
This does not conform with non-Calvinist Christianity which teaches salvation by grace through faith.
The fundamental problem with reform theology in general and Calvinism in particular is that there is little room for the concept of a loving God, and that fundamental moral transformations in individuals are probably not possible at best and futile at worst.
Neither--it is experience right here on these forums.
If you believe that God picks a subset of humanity to save then logically you believe that God created the rest for the specific purpose of torturing them eternally in Hell.
Thanks for your reply:
>>”Election is the means that God uses to show his grace and to impart faith on the believer.”
I really don’t follow. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but are you saying that those that respond to His grace with faith, God elects?
If so, then I don’t think your view agrees with Calvinism.
If you believe that God waits for people to decide whether they will accept Him or not, then you believe that God is not omniscient and omnipotent, and therefore not God.
That statement is not logical. The conclusion does not follow from the premise.
No, I’m saying that those that God elects will respond to His grace (irresistible grace) by the faith that is given to them by the Holy Spirit.
It's His grace that bestows faith.
Thus, His grace causes faith to be operational; salvation by grace through faith is correct.
Thanks, that is consistent with Calvinism; however it describes salvation by election.
As the original post mentioned, we look at it from the other way around: we are all depraved and worthy of condemnation. All. It is only by virtue of a loving God that some of us can be declared righteous (by Christ's work) and rescued from that fate. It's the stark contrast between Jeremiah 17:9 and John 3:16. The hate comes from US - not from God: Romans 8:6-8.
"...fundamental moral transformations in individuals are probably not possible at best and futile at worst."
Not without a fundamental transformation enabled by God, no.
You will say to me then, Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, Why have you made me like this?
Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory
even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
-- Romans 9:19-24
If He waits, he is not omniscient, as He must see the results that are to come.
If He waits, he is not omnipotent, for He cannot will them to come.
The Bible speaks of a God that is omniscient and omnipotent. If He waits, He is not God.
Again, those first two statements are not logical. The conclusions cannot be drawn from the premise.
Thanks for your reply:
>>”His grace causes faith to be operational..”
conditioned upon election.
>>>”salvation by grace through faith is correct.”
Dependent upon election. Salvation is determined by, dependent upon, election. The rest follows only if...
This is different and opposed to the teaching of salvation by grace through faith.
The fourth sentence is not only untrue, it is unbiblical.
“Waiting” is a non-starter for God who is eternal, outside time.
There is not a dichotomy between salvation by election and salvation by grace and faith, as show in Eph 2:4-10. If you believe there is, please explain.
Eph 2:4 But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us,
Eph 2:5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
Eph 2:6 And hath raised [us] up together, and made [us] sit together in heavenly [places] in Christ Jesus:
Eph 2:7 That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in [his] kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.
Eph 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God:
Eph 2:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Eph 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
Exactly. He knows all, so He knows who he will save and who will reject him.
Aside from the “P”’, there’s not a dimes worth of difference between the ‘misperception’ and the ‘facts’ as he explains them.
I once went to a family Bible camp where Edwin Palmer spoke on “The Five Points of Calvinism”.
His entire presentation on Perseverance of the Saints was, “Once saved, always saved; no exception.”
Exactly. He knows all, so He knows who he will save and who will reject him.
This would indicate election is dependent upon not rejecting Him...
I believe this would not conform with Calvinist teaching, re: Election>>Irresistible Grace>>>Salvation.
Let me try something else: are you denying that there is a group referred to in scriptures as the "elect" (which, in our context, represents those having salvation)?
Because I'm not sure it matter how you slice it: yes, we believe that grace&faith result in salvation. Yes, we also believe that God knows the elect before the foundations of the world were laid (scriptures already cited on these).
Does this mean that election *causes* salvation? No... other events will take place later for that. It's kinda like (bad example coming) when we elect a politician to office. It's now enabled that he will take office, but he's still gotta go to the courthouse and be sworn in to accept his new position.
Eph 2:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Is responding to God's grace a work?
No. I worded my post explicitly to show WHO is responsible for salvation and WHO is responsible for their own damnation.
A “work” only in the sense that is seen in John 6:
John 6:28 Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?”
John 6:29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”
Even Calvin believed in common grace.
It's now enabled that he will take office, but he's still gotta go to the courthouse and be sworn in to accept his new position.
If he doesn't, or there is any possibility that he can't or won't, then Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints is false.
The problem remains and is compounded with the free will choice and robot objections.
I think it is not a work. Not in the sense we are discussing and not in the sense St. Paul uses work - as in works of the law.
No - it's specifically saying exactly the opposite: that we cannot earn salvation by any means... so that we can't brag about it (2:9b).
I don't see where grace is conditioned upon election; election IS grace.
It's only by grace that one is elected.
While in college, after once arguing until 3:00 with a Calvinist, both of us honestly using scripture to support our point of view, I came to the conclusion that I would never embark on that discussion again. Something was wrong.
After study quantum mechanics, I came to the conclusion that what was wrong was a form of “indeterminacy,” an inability to process the true state of things, because we see in three dimensions. An electron is a particle if tested for particularity and a wave if tested for waveness.
When tested from God’s point of view, it’s 100% election. Tested from man’s point of view, it’s 100% free choice.
So, I assume election is true and free choice is true, and the contradiction bothers me no more than an apparently self-contradictory theory which attempts to model reality.
And, BTW, God isn’t telling me whom is predestined. To try to guess is hubris.
Thank you for your replies. But I think you missed the larger point that there is no dichotomy between salvation by election and salvation by grace through faith.
So yeah - your objection noted, we stand on the Irresistible Grace principle.
Probably the toughest thing for us to explain is that 'free will' bit. I don't have a good answer for that except to say that I feel like I could have rejected Christ, but also had felt drawn, and am pleased (of course) to have accepted.
Clearly, we believe there are times and places in which people are steered directly by God (the scripture writers, for instance, were 'God Inspired'). Pharoah's heart was hardened in Exod. 7:13. But I see no scripture declaring that God orchestrates and directs the minds and actions of all men. To the contrary, if man is being controlled, then how could we all possibly be "without excuse" before Him (Rom. 1:20)? We would be able to say we were controlled! So either that verse is false, or we do indeed have free will.
Hmmmm - guess He gave me those words to write... or did He?
And, BTW, God isnt telling me whom is predestined. To try to guess is hubris.
And that is why we need to spread the Word to everyone, since we don't know the elect (but God does...).
Define "election" as used in the sentence above, please. Knowledge or active decision?
That is only your personal point of view, not all men.
Many people know they are unable to choose salvation; they believe it's 100% election (or God's sovereignty) by which they became part of the family of God.
John 6:63 “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”
John 6:64 “But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him.
John 6:65 And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”
John 15:16 “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.”
Limited Atonement - arrived at by reasoning backwards. Rejected. Hey, no one gets it all right...
1. Most of its subscribers I have encountered on a discussion basis have been pompous, arrogant, jerks who think they have God figured out. I have no doubt that there are fine Calvinists out there who do not take such an approach -— and most certainly those on FR would be some of the finest.
2. Calvinism is a man-developed system of beliefs that Calvinists use as a filter or mold into which scripture is to fit.
3. I have a very hard time believing that a significant portion of the earth’s population from the beginning of time to the end of time will have been born, lived their lives, and died into eternal damnation NEVER HAVING ANY CHANCE WHATSOEVER because they were not part of the pre-determined, elected, privileged class.
I’d much rather see Christians take a “let Sciprture speak for Scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit” approach to the Living Word, rather than parsing, dicing, slicing, twisting, and weaving God’s Word into a set of beliefs that are, in reality, a component of the mysteries that our Heavenly Father has not revealed to us.
I have many of the same concerns with hard core Arminians.
Here’s the reality: when it all ends and you, I, or any other person who has been washed by the sacrificial blood of the Lamb and are standing in God’s presence in Paradise, the absolute LAST thing on our mind will be whether Calvinism or Arminianism or any other man-made theological theory was right or wrong.