What Calvinism Isn’t

The first time I heard the name of John Calvin was in my high school Social Studies textbook, and it wasn’t a positive introduction. It said something about his belief that people were fundamentally bad and that God chose to love some but not others. Maybe it said more than that, but I don’t remember. What I do know, is I immediately disliked him and wondered how anyone could like this Calvin fellow.

Calvinism is a dirty word in many circles. Even among Calvinists, being called a “Calvinist” can seem like something of a slur. I have already explored some of the path that led me to embrace Calvinism, so I won’t do that here. I also don’t want to write in order to try persuading others to change their doctrinal positions. This article addresses some stereotypes of Calvinists and focuses on what Calvinism isn’t while next week’s article will highlight what Calvinism is.

john calvin

While recently visiting a friend, he mentioned a family member who has abandoned the Christian faith. This was a person who was actively involved in leadership of their church. I found it interesting that my friend described the church as a Calvinist church where every song was built around the theme “We are not worthy.” It was high on ethical standards and expectations, and frequently emphasized human sinfulness. After listening, since the Calvinism reference wasn’t the main point of the discussion, I simply commented, “That’s not what it means to be a Calvinist” and then moved on. As much as I’d like this think this wasn’t a fair representation, it is such a frequent caricature it’s probably truer than I want to admit.

Emphasizing human depravity (that we contribute nothing towards our salvation except the sin that makes it necessary) so much that everything conveys “We’re not worthy” to others is a misrepresentation of what it means to believe in total depravity. While it is true that “we are not worthy” of being children of God, this isn’t something we proclaim to bring guilt or shame, but to highlight the good and gracious love of God. The gospel proclaims grace, mercy, hope, and new life in Christ. Confession, rightly understood, leads to a richer appreciation of grace and the riches of God’s promises – not condemnation. Because salvation is the work of God and doesn’t rely on human effort, no one is “too far gone” to receive the grace of God if they are led by the Holy Spirit to faith and repentance.

Many think about pride and self-superiority when they think about Calvinists. New Calvinists often have an enthusiasm for their newfound theology that leads them to attempt convincing everyone of the beauty and superiority of Calvinism, regardless of the other’s interest or lack thereof. This is referred to, with tongue-in-cheek, as “Stage Cage Calvinism.” At this point, it’s probably safest to simply lock up the new Calvinist in a cage and keep them away from others for a period of time until they can calm down and stop giving Calvinists a bad reputation as arrogant and argumentative people who no one enjoys being around. This “Cage Stage” does not represent what Calvinism is all about, even though this is probably the most outspoken period of a Calvinist’s life – hence, why this is the image that comes to mind when others think about Calvinists. Chances are, they’ve gotten burned by someone in this stage and now equate Calvinism with this overly zealous new-Calvinist. How unfortunate.

Finally, others think about hyper-Calvinists who deny the need for evangelism and global missions. The thinking here is that God has already chosen the elect, and they will be saved by the sovereign will of God – He will do the work. Contrary to what these Calvinistic-extremists may say, this view is blatantly unbiblical and is no more representative of Calvinism than Abortion-clinic-bombers are representative of all Pro-Life Christians. Rejecting Calvinism because of these hyper-Calvinists is like rejecting Arminianism because some people follow Arminianism into Christian Universalism (that all people are saved by Jesus, regardless of whether they place their faith in him or not). These are extremes that go beyond the bounds of normal orthodoxy.

In closing, I want to share a word of counsel I received from someone years ago: Consider the strengths and weaknesses of other religions and philosophies based off the best representatives, not the worst. I think this is fair, wise, and it has served me well. Calvinists believe in freewill just as Arminians believe in God’s sovereignty – outright rejection of either is blatantly non-Christian and unbiblical. If there is going to be mutual respect and understanding, we must begin by stating the other’s viewpoint in a way they would say, “Yes, that is what I believe.”

Next week’s article will present some of the core teachings that Calvinists believe.

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