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.

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How I Changed My Mind on the Doctrine of Election

When I was a freshman in college, I remember the first time someone asked what I believed about the doctrine of Election. It was my friend Julie, and we were in Introduction to the New Testament. Honestly, I needed her to explain what Election meant before I could even tell her if I agreed or disagreed with it.

All I knew about John Calvin was from high school Social Studies class saying that he believed God created some people for Heaven and some people for Hell. That sounded pretty unbiblical to me, and everyone in class thought that was pretty terrible, so I agreed with them. Why would anyone like this Calvin guy?

A photo by Alex Siale. unsplash.com/photos/qH36EgNjPJY

As I sat under the spectrum of Bible/Theology professors, some of whom were Arminian and some who were Reformed, I was drawn again and again to wrestle with the simple text of Scripture.

“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Exodus 33:19)

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44)

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…” (John 15:16)

“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” (Romans 9:20-23)

“Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:4-6)

What would I do with these passages? I didn’t really want to believe them. I wanted to mix them up and explain them away. But that would mean I’m explaining away a ton of passages which seem pretty clear and direct… and that didn’t seem right or honest.

At the same time, the Bible talks a lot about our responsibility and freedom to choose:

 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14-15)

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)

“This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4)

“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

 

Rather than going into the details of what I currently believe about the particulars of Election, here are three general truths I’ve learned which have greatly shaped my Christian life.

Be Faithful to Scripture, Not Your Theological Grid: Embrace the Mystery
It’s so tempting to read and study theological systems and simply fall into them comfortably. Resist theological comfort. Stick to what the Bible teaches. If there’s a theological system that persuades you because it handles the whole counsel of God with greater faithfulness than any other system you’ve found, then great… follow that theological grid completely. But there are some times when grids draw conclusions in order to be logically consistent, not because the Bible clearly teaches that conclusion.

There are all sorts of versions of Arminianism as well as Calvinism. For sure, there’s a strong temptation to be so internally consistent within There is even a growing identify for Reformed Arminians, whose soteriology is a blend of both theological traditions (Roger Olsen, here’s looking at you).

Does God choose? Yes.
Do I choose? Yes.
Is that a contradiction? No… it’s a mystery. 

We need to avoid the temptation to ignore or distort Scripture from correcting our theology. Instead, we need to correct our theology to square with good biblical exegesis. Theology flows from Scripture.

God’s Sovereignty is Greater Than My Freedom
I’ve come across so many Reformed folk who are so focused on divine election they balk at any mention of human freedom. At the same time, I’ve met way too many arminians who talk/preach as if people willingly choose God apart from His sovereign call. God’s sovereignty doesn’t erase my freedom. My freedom doesn’t overpower God’s sovereignty. My freedom finds its strength through submission to the sovereignty of God.

The Bible repeatedly proclaims the holiness, sovereignty, and faithfulness of God. It also keeps reminding us of the sinfulness and faithlessness of God’s people. And yet, God continually rescues and saves his people. It seems far more biblical to err on the side of trusting God.

If there’s anything my ongoing war against sin teaches me, it’s that I would never choose God if it was completely up to me. I love Jesus and have assurance of salvation, and yet I continue to give in to temptation often enough that I should realize my salvation is completely the work of God, and whatever faith I have comes from Him. I am free and responsible before God. But all the glory for salvation and holiness goes to God.

Election Demands Humility
Where I had always believed the doctrine of Election promoted pride, I came to realize the opposite is true. This should be obvious. Unfortunately, it’s not.

God did not choose the elect because they were better or more worthy. Because I know that anything good in me is the result of God’s initiative, then what could I possibly boast about? There is no room for pride. God did not choose the elect because they were worthy, but because he chooses the foolish to shame the wise, so that his power might be put on full display.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

When we discuss the Doctrines of Grace, Election, Sovereignty, Freedom, or whatever else you want to call it… may we all remember these principles:

  1. The Bible is God’s Word. Theology helps us explain what the Bible teaches, but only when it’s the servant of Scripture. Keep the discussion about the text of Scripture as you disagree with others about theology. Also, when you keep the conversation centered around the Word of God then you (should) be less likely to speak disrespectfully to each other.
  2. Put God first. This is a priority everyone can agree on at the practical level of what it means to live theologically. In everything we do, we must put God first. I am persuaded that salvation from the very start to the very fulfillment is the work of God. Still, we have work to do, and both the power and motivation for that work come from God.
  3. Kill your pride. Pride should have nothing to do with these conversations. Stop being proud that you’re theologically right and the other people are wrong. Stop taking more credit than you deserve (this applies to everyone).