What is Calvinism? – LIVE Q&A – February 1, 2024
Is Calvinism Biblical?
Understand the difference between Reformed and Calvinist: The many branches of the Reformation
- Historical context: a diagram showing the branches of the Reformation.
- Not all Reformed are Calvinists (Lutheran, Anglican, some others).
- Not all Calvinists are considered to be Reformed.
I don’t consider myself to be Reformed or a Calvinist, although:
- I have learned and gained a lot from Reformed and Calvinistic preachers and writers.
- There are many points in Reformed/Calvinistic theology that are really good and helpful.
- For these reasons, I don’t consider myself to be “anti-Calvinist” – though I will not number myself among them.
- I have found that there is much more of an issue with how the doctrines are held – if they are held in a contentious, argumentative, proud spirit – than the doctrines themselves.
I certainly believe in…
- God’s Sovereignty.
- Man’s inability to save himself.
- The central place of God’s covenants in His plan of redemption.
But I’m no Calvinist – I do not believe in those things just the same way most Calvinists do.
I also appreciate many Calvinist and Reformed thinkers and theologians: Spurgeon, Boice, Lloyd-Jones, Stott, Luther, Calvin himself, and so on. But I certainly don’t agree with all their theology.
I also don’t believe that it isn’t true or helpful to argue that….
- Calvinists don’t believe in a God of love
- Calvinists don’t believe in human responsibility
- Calvinists don’t believe in evangelism
- Calvinists are heretics
It may well be true and helpfully argued that Calvinists are contradictory or confused on such areas, but I’ve seen many arguments made that aren’t true or aren’t helpful.
Some Points of Disagreement
- Faith and Regeneration
Core to Calvinistic belief is that regeneration precedes faith; that one must be born again before he believes. The idea is that you are saved before you believe.
The Calvinistic belief in how God does His saving work in the believer is often summarized in what is known as the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or TULIP.
T – Total Depravity
U – Unconditional Election
L – Limited Atonement
I – Irresistible Grace
P – Perseverance of the Saints
I find a lot of the debate about these five points to be tiresome, and usually it all depends on how one defines these points. I focus more on the issue, “Are we born again before we believe, or do we believe and then we are born again?”
- Defending an Incomplete Reformation
In its full expressions, Reformed and (some) Calvinist systems brought over much from the Roman Catholic church that should have been reformed but were not. Three examples that apply more to classically Reformed than to many Calvinists are:
- Infant baptism.
- Liturgical, sacramental emphasis.
- The state church; the idea of a believer’s church was foreign to the major reformers and the reformed world in its early centuries.
I believe what Spurgeon said was true:
“What a blessing it would have been in Luther’s time if the reformation had been carried out completely! Great as the work was, it was, in some points, a very superficial thing, and left deadly errors untouched.” (“No Quarter,” on 1 Kings 18:40. Sermon #1058, preached on June 30, 1872).
Not all Calvinist or Reformed people are Amillennial or Post-Millennial, but those are the classic eschatological approaches of Reformed Theology.
We thank God for people like John MacArthur, Donald Grey Barnhouse, and James Montgomery Boice, who though were or are in some places too reformed for my liking, nevertheless were committed pre-millennial, pre-tribulation believers and teachers.
I have often said that our greatest problem with Calvinists is not their doctrines themselves (though some of those doctrines are certainly in error). In my opinion our greatest problem is the way in which those doctrines are often held; that is, if they are held in an attitude of smug intellectual and spiritual superiority and with a spirit of aggressive, divisive recruitment.
There are many groups we disagree with at different points, but do not have these same problems with. Maybe some of the fault is on our part, but I believe that at least some of it lies on the part of those who hold Reformed and Calvinistic ideas in attitudes of intellectual superiority and aggressive recruitment.
Some other areas related to attitude that I sometimes find problematic among our Calvinistic brethren:
- Criticizing the “logical end” of non-Calvinistic approaches, while not allowing the “logical end” of Calvinistic approaches to be criticized.
- Comparing the best of their churches or practices to the worst of other churches or practices. That’s not fair, no matter who does it.
Let me conclude with some observations from a Calvinist whom I really respect – Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher of Victorian England. He famously, said:
“And I have my own private opinion, that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless you preach what now-a-days is called Calvinism. I have my own ideas, and those I always state boldly. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism. Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”
It’s true – Charles Spurgeon was a committed, persuaded Calvinist and he actually endured a fair amount of opposition because of his dedication to Calvinistic doctrines. However, it is worth noting that his “Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else” statement was made in the very early years of his ministry – February 11, 1855, to be exact – in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 titled, “Christ Crucified.” At that point, he had almost 40 years of ministry in front of him in London. That statement “Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else” appears in sermon number 7 in his collected sermons – number 7 out of 3,563.
Consider some of what Spurgeon said later in his ministry:
“When a Calvinist says that all things happen according to the predestination of God, he speaks the truth, and I am willing to be called a Calvinist; but when an Arminian says that, when a man sins, the sin is his own, and that, if he continues in sin, and perishes, his eternal damnation will lie entirely at his own door, I believe that he also speaks the truth, though I am not willing to be called an Arminian. The fact is, there is some truth in both these systems of theology.” (The Way of Wisdom, sermon #2,862 – March 28, 1872 – more than 15 years later)
“I am myself persuaded that the Calvinist alone is right upon some points, and the Arminian alone is right upon others. There is a great deal of truth in the positive side of both systems, and a great deal of error in the negative side of both systems. If I were asked, ‘Why is a man damned?’ I should answer as an Arminian answers, ‘He destroys himself.’ I should not dare to lay man’s ruin at the door of divine sovereignty. On the other hand, if I were asked, ‘Why is a man saved?’ I could only give the Calvinistic answer, ‘He is saved through the sovereign grace of God, and not at all of himself.’” (Pride Catechized and Condemned, sermon #1,271 – delivered on January 2, 1876 – 20 years after the “Calvinism is the gospel” saying)
“We had better far be inconsistent with ourselves than with the inspired Word. I have been called an Arminian Calvinist or a Calvinistic Arminian, and I am quite content so long as I can keep close to my Bible.” (Heart Disease Curable, Sermon #1604 – June 19, 1881 – some 25 years later)
I’m not trying to say or even imply that Spurgeon was less Calvinistic in his beliefs as he great and matured in ministry. I am suggesting – it would take a lot more research to really “prove” it – that as the years went on and matured in ministry, how he held his Calvinistic doctrines changed. He admitted there was some valuable truth in some perspectives other than Calvinism, and became less condemning towards them.
Faith and Regeneration
Right there, a Calvinist might strongly object to what I just said. Sometimes they say regeneration comes before faith, not before salvation – but that’s something for another time.
- First you are regenerated (born again)
- Then you believe (faith)
- Then you are saved
I regard this as a distinction without a difference, because they don’t believe that anyone can is born again withoutbeing saved. There is no practical or concrete difference between regeneration and salvation; they are two aspects of the same work.
Why do Calvinists believe this?
- They believe it is what the Bible teaches
- They believe it gives more honor to God in His saving work
- They emphasize that before conversion, a man is dead in sin and must be made alive before he can believe
- They believe that the prior work in a man’s heart before salvation must be actual regeneration
Answering these Beliefs
- The Bible teaches, simply and plainly, that one believes and then is saved. It’s an idea that is repeated again and again.
Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. (Luke 8:12)
We sometimes think that our Calvinist brothers would re-write this, lest they should be saved and then believe.
So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)
That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:21)
Again, the phrasing is clearly not “to create belief in those who were saved,” but to save those who believe.
- The idea that it gives God more honor or glory in His saving work is pure opinion and speculation. We don’t always know what gives God more honor or glory, and it can be argued that God’s work in and through the faith of man gives Him more glory than acting upon man as a purely passive, robotic entity.
- Ephesians 2:1 clearly says, And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins. Yet there remains the question, “In what manner, and to what extent, is a person dead before conversion?” Must a person be converted beforethey can believe, or can there be a prior work of God to instill faith that is still short of conversion? Those who argue that man must be regenerated before he can believe like to say that a dead man cannot believe. This takes this particular description further than intended, to say that unredeemed man is exactly like a dead man, because a dead man also cannot sin.
We err if we think that dead in trespasses and sins says everything about man’s lost condition. It is an err because the Bible uses many different pictures to describe the state of the unsaved man, saying he is:
- Blind (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)
- A slave to sin (Romans 6:17)
- A lover of darkness (John 3:19-20)
- Sick (Mark 2:17)
- Lost (Luke 15)
- An alien, a stranger, a foreigner (Ephesians 2:12, 2:19)
- A child of wrath (Ephesians 2:3)
- Under the power of darkness (Colossians 1:13)
Therefore, in some ways the unregenerate man is dead; in other ways he is not. Therefore, it is valid to appeal to all men to believe. We need not look for evidence of regeneration before we tell men to believe and be saved.
- There is no doubt that no one can believe unless God does a prior or previous work in their heart. Jesus said at John 6:44, No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him. At John 6:65 Jesus repeated, Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.
However, there is no compelling reason to believe that this prior or previous work must be full regeneration, being born again. I believe the order goes something like this: God’s prior and preparing work, faith, regeneration and salvation.
This does not mean that man saves himself. Faith is not a work; it is simply receiving what God graciously gives. We believe that salvation is God’s work and His alone, and that no man saves himself. To believe that a person must believe before they are saved does not contradict this.
When one makes man a completely passive actor who must be saved before he believes, all sorts of problems may result.
It may make men hesitant to call for decision. Remember Peter on Pentecost: And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” (Acts 2:40)
It may lead to all sorts of theological problems. I believe Calvin himself ran into this. One place this is evident is in his Institutes [book III, chapter 2, sections 11-12], where he wondered why some men seem to believe yet will end up lost. Calvin’s solution to the problem? To say that God gives these men a false faith.
With all respect to Calvin, that’s wrong. Though he certainly didn’t intend to, that’s charging God with wrong. It would be wrong for any of us to give men a false faith, and so it would be with God.
If salvation is faith alone why do so many focus on works as if it is a determining factor of our salvation?
Salvation is attained solely through faith in Christ. However, it is crucial to consider the perspective of the apostle James in his epistle. In essence, the idea can be summarized as follows: genuine salvation is achieved through a living faith. While it is undeniably true that faith alone is the means of salvation, the type of faith that truly saves is one that is alive. The evidence of a living faith lies in its manifestation through actions and deeds. Some individuals mistakenly believe they are saved based on a mere intellectual agreement or a superficial acknowledgment of Jesus as a good person. Such a belief does not constitute saving or living faith, which is rooted in a profound trust in the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
While I strongly affirm the significance of God’s grace, it is crucial to recognize that grace is received through a living faith. This contrasts with a faith that is stagnant and lifeless. Consequently, examining one’s works becomes a valid way to gauge the authenticity of a living faith, although it is essential to clarify that works themselves do not bring about salvation. True living faith is characterized by its acceptance of the gift of salvation from God.
Why does God bring about the death of Uzzah, even though he seemed to be doing the right thing, and why did Ananias and Sapphira face merciless consequences for their actions? How can we reconcile these events with the idea that God is merciful?
I think you’re asking a great question. And here’s what we need to understand, both in the case of Uzziah and in the case of Ananias and Saphira, they sinned directly against the Lord. And God immediately called them to account in His righteousness.
There was nothing unjust about God’s punishment of Uzzah or Ananias and Sapphira. Mercy, by its very nature, is never deserved. Once it’s deserved, it’s no longer mercy. And so God is free to bestow or withdraw mercy as He pleases. What should fill us with amazement is how merciful God usually is. The fact that God does not strike down more people as He did with Uzziah or Ananias and Sapphira is a tremendous demonstration of His mercy. And for somebody to stand back and say, well, why didn’t he show that mercy to Ananias and Sapphira? You see, that’s up to God. It’s not up to us. So I really think that it is very easy for people not to understand and not to grasp, not to get into their heads what mercy is all about.
Some of you remember the great American theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’ most famous sermon was a sermon called “A Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God”. And in that sermon he considered a very interesting question. And the question is, why aren’t sinners burning in hell right now? Why does God let them live and walk the earth? And what Edwards came to in that message was that it’s just the mercy and grace of God, which is not to be despised.
I would take it back to the individual and say, “What are you doing with the mercy that God is showing you right now? Are you despising that grace? Do you see how that only piles up the condemnation of God against you? God is showing you great mercy. And you’re rejecting it.
How does the blood of Jesus function objectively, and how should we incorporate Jesus’s blood into our prayers, as mentioned in Revelation 12:11?
Does the blood have the efficacy to cover material possessions such as cars, houses, and properties?
It is possible to approach the concept of the blood of Jesus in a misguided, superstitious way. Let me clarify this perspective. The actual blood of Jesus had no magical properties when the Roman soldier pierced His side and blood and water flowed out. It’s reasonable to assume that any spot of blood on the Roman soldier had no supernatural power to bring salvation.
When the Bible refers to the “blood of Jesus,” it conveys the idea of sacrifice, similar to the sacrificial blood mentioned throughout the Old Testament. This term serves as a shorthand or word picture for the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on our behalf. The saving power is in His sacrificial death, not in the physical properties of His blood. While acknowledging the importance of His actual blood in relation to His sacrificial death, it is important not to perceive it as a magical substance. Jesus’ act of laying down His life for the forgiveness of sins, while not magical, can be described as miraculous in the salvation it brings to believers.
When believers pray, “I ask the blood of Jesus over my house,” it is acceptable as long as they understand the symbolism behind it. This phrase signifies a desire for the sacrificial death of Jesus to be recognized, exalted, and to rule over a particular place or object. However, it is crucial for believers not to approach it in a superstitious or materialistic sense. The phrase emphasizes the actual physical death of Jesus, which served as a sacrificial offering to secure salvation for those who believe. Engaging in this practice with a clear understanding is commendable, but approaching it superstitiously may not hold much weight with God.
It feels like our spiritual growth has plateaued at the church we are attending right now. We’re contemplating whether to explore different churches or continue attending the Church we are at. What would be the best course of action in this situation?
Jumping from church to church is not an ideal approach. Ideally, we should settle into a church where there is real fellowship and accountability. Not having a permanent place of fellowship doesn’t meet that ideal. However, if you are not satisfied with your current congregation and don’t believe it is beneficial for you or your family, it is acceptable to consider changing congregations.
For practical purposes, determine a reasonable travel distance, whether it’s 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, or more. Within that distance, look for the best church for you and your family. This decision requires spiritual maturity, because the best church may not be the one you like the most. Avoid churches that compromise biblical doctrine, but don’t choose a church you don’t like just for the sake of change.
Be practical about the process. You may need to try a few churches before you find the right one. It’s acceptable to explore options until you settle on the best church for your family within a practical driving distance.
Changing churches is acceptable, but it shouldn’t be done on impulse. It’s often better to stay a little longer in a less-than-ideal church than to leave hastily. Loyalty is a laudable virtue, so while it’s okay to look for a better fit, the ultimate goal is to settle into a church that matches your values and provides a nurturing environment for your family.
How can I know that I have real faith indeed, as I can’t seem to overcome reoccurring doubts?
Faith is not the absence of doubt. Having doubts does not negate the presence of faith. Instead, I encourage you to confront your doubts in light of your faith. It’s a familiar concept to question and examine our beliefs in order to understand why we hold them. Similarly, we should apply the same scrutiny to our doubts. When doubts arise, question the basis for those uncertainties. It’s important to actively engage with both beliefs and doubts.
It’s important to emphasize that faith does not mean having no doubts. Sometimes true faith is demonstrated by our unwavering commitment to the Lord even when doubts persist. So don’t be afraid to deal with your doubts while maintaining your trust in God.
Are the demons, the people in hell, the pharisees who blasphemed the holy ghost and the ones who take the mark of the beast the only creatures that can never be redeemed?
I would agree with this assessment. After all, being unsaved is a persistent, determined, and repeated rejection of Jesus Christ in this life. I’m excluding the question of those who have never heard of Jesus, as that is a separate issue.
However, for those who stubbornly reject the person and work of Jesus Christ, especially His grace, salvation is not available to them.
Salvation is presented to them through the person and work of Jesus Christ, but they consistently reject it.
So individuals such as demons and those in hell, such as the Pharisees who blasphemed against the Holy Spirit, or those who receive the mark of the beast, are examples of those who, as far as we know, cannot be redeemed. I hope this clarifies the perspective for you.
Is the baptism with the Holy Spirit, stated in Romans 6:4, the one John the Baptist and that Jesus told us would take place? Or is it the baptism rite that Christians practice?
Romans 6:4: Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead, by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life.
I am aware that my point of view on this verse may be considered unconventional in comparison to mainstream doctrine, but it is the interpretation that makes the most sense to me.
In my interpretation of Romans 6:4, the baptism referred to is our immersion in Christ, a deep identification with Him that is vividly demonstrated through water baptism. I believe that our salvation is rooted in this radical identification with Christ, where we become inseparable from Him and He becomes inseparable from us. In this divine exchange, He takes our sin upon Himself and we are clothed in His righteousness. This concept is echoed in another passage in Romans, where Paul uses the precise phrase “baptism into Christ.
Furthermore, I consider the baptism of the Holy Spirit to be related, yet distinct. In my view, there are three baptisms that can be discussed, and possibly more for those who delve deeper into the theological intricacies. While acknowledging some overlap and connection, I contend that there is a notable distinction between baptism in Christ, baptism in water, and baptism in the Holy Spirit.
To be clear, when Romans 6:4 speaks of the baptism of believers into Christ by faith, I understand it as a spiritual reality intimately connected with and symbolically represented by water baptism. That is my interpretation, Christopher. I want to emphasize that I see the baptism of the Holy Spirit as related to, but distinctly different from, these other baptisms. I recognize that my view may be considered unconventional compared to mainstream doctrine, but it is the interpretation that makes the most sense to me.
What is our Lord’s name? Is he Abraham’s God, Yahweh or is he named differently?
There is the God revealed in the Bible, especially emphasized in the Hebrew Scriptures as Yahweh-the covenant God of Israel. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the same God who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush. This unique God is a triune God, existing as one God in three persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Together they perfectly represent and in a sense manifest the Triune God. Each is fully God; therefore, Jesus Christ is Yahweh, God the Father is Yahweh, and God the Holy Spirit is Yahweh.
If you want to understand the nature of God, especially the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament, immerse yourself in the Bible. Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, is the very God revealed in Jesus Christ. For a full understanding, read beyond the Gospels, as the entire Bible provides insights. However, an excellent starting point is to ground your understanding in the gospels, which illuminate who Jesus is.
In the gospels, Jesus himself claimed, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen my Father. Jesus serves as the perfect representative of God, and there is complete harmony between who God is and who Jesus is. If you’re seeking to know God, to understand His love and salvation, putting your trust in Him is a commendable pursuit, Connor. I’m really glad to hear about your quest for understanding and faith.
Manassa repented his sins and God forgave him. Why then does the Bible tells us that Judah went to captivity because of the sins and bloodshed Manasseh committed?
Here we are confronted with the distinction between sin itself and the consequences of sin. God has the ability to forgive a person’s sin, but that person may still have to face the consequences of his actions. An example from the Bible is the forgiveness granted to Manasseh; his sins were forgiven, but the extensive ungodly rule he exercised had serious repercussions in the kingdom of Judah, leading to imminent judgment. This illustrates a clear, though not always easy to grasp, distinction between the guilt of sin and the resulting consequences.
A simple analogy that may help in understanding this concept is to compare sin to a nail driven into a board. Forgiving the sin is like removing the nail, but the hole left in the board represents the lingering consequences. Sometimes God, in His grace and mercy, will fill that hole and relieve the person of the consequences that the sin deserved. But that’s not always the case. It’s important to note that God, in His righteousness, may allow individuals to face the consequences that their sin rightfully deserved.
Consider the scenario of stealing a car: seeking God’s forgiveness for the act of theft does not necessarily negate the need to face legal consequences such as arrest and trial. This illustrates the dual nature of forgiveness-addressing the sin itself while acknowledging the ongoing repercussions or consequences.
Do the dead know what is happening on earth? I’m thinking of the saints asking God when they will be avenged, and the rich man and Lazarus.
The Bible doesn’t provide enough information to answer this question definitively, but there are some subtle hints. You have pointed out some of these clues, such as the story Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus, which describes individuals in heaven and their awareness of earthly events. Another clue comes from the story of the Great Tribulation martyrs, who seek justice from God and imply a recognition that retribution has not yet come. In addition, Hebrews suggests that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
The primary challenge people have with the idea of those in heaven watching earthly events is concern about how heavenly it would be for them to be aware of the problems of their loved ones on earth. The concern is that such awareness might cause stress or anxiety about the circumstances of family members. It’s a valid concern, and the uncertainty surrounding this aspect continues. Perhaps in Heaven, when we have knowledge of events on Earth, there will be no anxiety. This tranquility could come from a perfect understanding that all things work together for good and that God’s providence reigns supreme.
Unfortunately, the biblical evidence on this matter is limited to hints rather than explicit details, making it difficult to provide a more definitive answer. I wish I could give a more conclusive answer.
A new church I am considering has a married lesbian couple attend who are open about their relationship. Is it my responsibility to ask the pastor about this before I join? What should I do?
Certainly, it’s entirely reasonable for you to approach the pastor with that question. I can’t speculate on the pastor’s response since I don’t have any details about the situation; however, I can envision various scenarios in my mind. For instance, the pastor might explain that the couple has recently started attending, they are not believers, and the church is actively seeking to lead them to Christ. There could be various reasons for such a scenario, and your inquiry is entirely fair.
This leads to a broader question about how the church addresses those openly engaging in evident sin. Churches should have a mechanism for dealing with such situations, involving a loving confrontation and an effort to guide individuals towards a more aligned path with their discipleship journey. The important aspect is that the church actively addresses open, evident rebellion against God within its community.
It’s crucial to note that churches lack sin detectors akin to metal detectors at airport entrances. They don’t have a means to identify hidden sins, and their primary responsibility lies in addressing open, evident transgressions. However, the approach can be measured, allowing for a period to observe the work of the Holy Spirit and the Word in the individuals’ lives before initiating confrontation. For instance, if an openly lesbian couple started attending my church, I would eventually speak to them about their situation, but not necessarily in the first week. Sometimes, waiting allows for the transformative work of God through His Word and Spirit to unfold in a beautiful and powerful way.
Is it biblical that a pastor or his wife label himself or herself as an apostle?
While one could possibly make a biblical case for using the term “apostle” in a lower case sense, meaning a special ambassador of God’s work, the practical reality in today’s world is different. Frankly, the use of the title “apostle,” whether given or received, tends to create complications and can become awkward. This is a principle that holds true in today’s context, and I strongly recommend that it be avoided. Although it is possible to make a biblical distinction between apostles with a capital A and apostles with a lowercase A, I find it not only lacking in biblical support, but also unwise in practice.