What is Calvinism?

Calvinism means different things to different people. Even to those who might call themselves “Calvinist,” what they mean by the term is not always the same. Typically, as a shorthand expression for what I believe about salvation, I am comfortable to call myself a Calvinist. And yet, because that label is so often misused, misunderstood, and misapplied, I am equally desirous to avoid it altogether.

Nevertheless, the question remains: What is Calvinism?

The answer to that question takes more than just two sentence, simple answer. Because it is a term that has historical, theological, and worldview meanings, it takes time to get a handle on it. Therefore, for those who have an interest and an ear to hear, let me give you a five-fold answer to that question: Calvinism is (1) a shorthand expression for the doctrines of grace, (2) a biblical-theological system, (3) an historical phenomenon, (4) a biblical worldview, and (5) an attitude of worship. As always, let me know what you think. 

1. A Nickname: A Shorthand Expression for the Doctrines of Grace

For many people, Calvinism functions as a shorthand expression for the doctrines of grace—the view that God is sovereign in salvation. Outlined under the lamentable acronym TULIP, the Father chooses a people to set his love on (U), the Son takes on human form to save these elect sons and daughters by means of his definite atonement (L), and the Spirit goes forth to regenerate these lost sheep as the Father calls them to the Son by means of the preached gospel (I). In this way, the man or woman, dead in sin (T), is made alive and secured eternally in the love of God (P).

Most basically then, Calvinism expresses a view of God’s work of grace in a fallen world. Or, to put it another way, Calvinism, although not to be confused with the gospel (for someone can preach the gospel without believing in unconditional election, for instance), is a nickname for the powerful working of the gospel. As Charles Spurgeon once said defending Calvinism:

It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus.

Again, while I would not go so far as Spurgeon to conflate the language of the gospel with the doctrines of grace, I do firmly believe that it is God’s unconditional election, Christ’s definite atonement, and the Spirit’s regeneration that make the gospel powerful to save (Rom 1:16–17). For this reason, I believe in the doctrines of grace and am happy to call it Calvinism. Moreover, I believe this evangelical and evangelism-inspiring form of Calvinism is what is most prevalent among the “new Calvinists” today. Still more needs to be said.

2. A Biblical-Theological System

Moving from popular expression to scholarly opinion, Calvinism is a way of reading the Bible that brings all the teachings about God, man, sin, and salvation into an orderly system. It does not try to say more than the Bible, or less. Its intention is to synthesize and arrange the truths of Scripture into a comprehensive system that accounts for God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility, and the relationship between the two.

In this way, it is no different than systems proposed by Arminius and the Remonstrants, John Wesley, or the proponents of Open Theism. Calvinism, Arminianism, Wesleyan, and Open Theism are all ways of arranging the whole counsel of Scripture. The question is: Who is most faithful to all the texts in the Bible?

In my personal experience, it was shocking to come in contact with all the passages of Scripture that speak of God’s exhaustive, meticulous sovereignty. In college, as an Arminian by default (and by choice), I was unaware of the volume of passages which affirmed God’s work in human hearts (Prov 16:1, 9; 21:1; cf. Pharaoh, Sihon, Og, Nebuchadnezzar, etc.), his sovereign control over evil (Isa 45:7; Lam 3:37–39; Acts 2:23; 4:27–28), and his work before time to give grace to his elect (Romans 9; Eph 1:4–5; 2 Tim 2:10). In other words, I was an ardent Arminian because I read everything in the light of John 3:16; rather than reading John 3:16 in light of the whole counsel of Scripture.

All that to say, Calvinism seeks to justice to the manifold ways Scriptures speaks of God’s love. And thus Calvinism is a biblical-theological system that seeks to synthesis what the Bible says, which means it also seeks to be corrected by those parts of the Bible that may counter its claims. This alone doesn’t make Calvinism better or worse than another system; it does mean to say Calvinists esteem Scripture above personal experience, cultural fads, or human logic.

3. An Historical Phenomenon

Calvinism is also an historical term. The term itself originated around the time of the Synod of Dort, which convened for two years (1618–19) to respond to the “heresy” of the Remonstrants who affirmed man’s ability to choose God. Instead of following the doctrine of the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.), the followers of Jacob Arminius (the Remonstrants) believed (1) humanity’s sin alienated from God but that Christ’s death enabled all men to respond freely to God. Thus, (2) God’s election was conditioned on man’s faith, (3) Jesus died for all mankind without distinction, (4) the Holy Spirit could be resisted in his saving work, and (5) men might fall from grace and lose their salvation. Notice, the five points actually originated with the anti-Calvinists.

Calvinism, at the start, was a pejorative term, much like today. In truth, Calvin did not create “Calvinism.” There is even scholarly debate as to whether he would hold to all five-points. For what it’s worth, I believe he did. By all accounts, he was an exegetical theologian and a pastor. He wrote his Institutes in order to help his readers better understand his commentaries (see the preface to the Institutes). Instead of diving into dogmatics in his commentaries, he organized his doctrinal beliefs around the major points of the Apostle’s Creed and expounded them in Institutes. 

In truth, Calvin’s views on predestination agreed with Luther and go back to Augustine. The latter contended against the heretical views of Pelagius, who believed that sin had not marred the human race and that people had the power to choose God on their own. In his view, men were not corrupt in nature but uneducated and undone by sinful models. Ignoring the bondage of the will to sin (Luther’s terminology), the Pelagian heresy believed a mere presentation of the gospel would be enough for men to be able to make a rationalism decision to come to faith. So much for the need to be born again or raised from the dead.

Arminians, and later Wesleyans, qualified Pelagius’s views to say, prevenient grace is needed for such repentance and belief, and God has given all men this grace. By comparison, because all men have been elevated from their bondage to sin, all men have freedom to choose God on their own. This begins to get at the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism.

Finally, as it concerns church history, it should be noted that “Calvinism” is not restrained to Presbyterian and/or Reformed churches. Throughout the history of the 400-year history of the Baptist movement, there have always been Calvinistic Baptists. Sometimes they were called Separate Baptists, Particular Baptists, or Reformed Baptists, as opposed to General Baptists. However it was labeled, Calvinism (as it relates to salvation) was not and is not inconsistent with Baptist thought.

4. A Biblical Worldview

More briefly, Calvinism also results in a view of the world. Worldviews are lens by which we understand and engage the world. The Calvinistic worldview sees God everywhere, behind everything, and providentially at work in the good and bad of the world.

Calvinists believe that God is in heaven and that he does as he pleases (Psalm 115:3; 135:6). He is accomplishing his will on the earth (Ephesians 1:11) and that there is no one or no thing that can withstand his purposes (Job 42:2; Daniel 4:34-35; Psalm 33:10-11). It is important to affirm that God does not work equally in all situations. He does not do evil and lead men to evil (James 1:13). He is light and can do nothing dark (1 John 1:5). That said, God has created a world in which he planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:15–17). He ordained that evil could and would exist, and that Christ would receive the greatest glory by redeeming from sin a people for his own possession.

This way of thinking is informed by God’s plan of redemption and biblical revelation. And, as has been best expressed in the likes of John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Cornelius Van Til, this way of thinking informs every area of life. Hence, Calvinism is not restricted to the doctrine of salvation, it also esteems the glory and sovereignty of God.

5. An Attitude of Appreciation

Last, a Calvinistic worldview leads to a kind of attitude that espouses incredible thanksgiving to God and confidence in his power, wisdom, and grace. It delights in God as Creator with exhaustive control in the world, and man being creature with limited, delegated control. It marvels at God as Savior who planned, purchased, and applied grace to undeserving sinners like me.

As it concerns worship, this means that Calvinists love songs that glorify the greatness of God, while simultaneously humbling man as created beings and fallen men. In moral categories, it sees God as absolutely holy, righteous, and good; and man as fallen, sinful, and unable to do any good thing. In terms of worldly goods, Calvinists receive every ounce of good as grace (1 Cor 4:7). For our sin, we deserve nothing but hell, and so every good and perfect gift is grace (James 1:17). Likewise, every bitter trial is understood to be God’s sovereignly administered medicine to cure us from the disease of self-love.

In this way, the doctrines of grace do not (and must not) simply create theologians with big heads. Rather, Calvinism ought to create worshipers with big hearts. True Calvinists, not just those who wear the label, are those who by God’s grace love, serve, and sacrifice for others. Any Calvinist who expresses arrogance, self-righteousness, and anger is inconsistent with the doctrine they claim to hold. For Calvinism is not a system of doctrine that seeks to elevate theologically-attuned men above others. Rather, following Christ himself it is a cruciform faith—one whereby Calvinists love to esteem the glory of God (not Calvin) and labor to serve others (not a system of doctrine).

In this way, Calvinism is a theological system that follows the heart of John the Baptist: May Christ increase, and I decrease (John 3:30).

Soli Deo Gloria, ds