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Calvinistic Theology

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

Origin and Demographics

Along with Martin Luther, John Calvin (1509-1564) is viewed as one of the two great Reformers of the Sixteenth Century, and one of the most influential Christian teachers in the history of the Church. He is regarded as the father of Reformed theology and the founder of presbyterian church polity. Today, well over 50 million Christians throughout the world consider themselves Calvinist in some sense. All Presbyterian and Reformed churches, and many Baptist denominations consider themselves Calvinist churches. Many others, such as the Episcopal Church in the USA, the United Church of Christ, as well as numerous evangelical and “nondenominational” churches, have been influenced by Calvinism.

Theological Orientation

Whereas Calvin and Calvinists have much in common with Lutherans on many of their teachings (e.g., justification, the grace of God, total depravity of man, Scripture as the sole source and authority of all Christian teaching), there is a very different approach to the Christian faith that results in many differences between us. For Luther and Lutherans, justification is the chief teaching of the faith without which no one can understand Christianity. For Calvin and the Calvinists, the sovereignty of God, and “What I must do to glorify God,” is that overarching principle. The “sovereignty of God” means that God is the absolute monarch, whose will is always obeyed.. The way to know God, according to Calvin, is to first recognize him as the Sovereign and Absolute Being upon whom everything depends. For Lutheranism, the way to know God is through the Gospel of Jesus Christ: that sinners have been justified by God’s grace for Christ’s sake through faith. Put another way, Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism (Catholic and Orthodox churches) ask, “What must I do for my salvation?” Lutheranism asks, “What has Christ done for my salvation?” Calvinism asks, “What must I do for the greater glory of God?” This has important ramifications, as will be demonstrated below.

God

For Calvin, the triune God is absolutely sovereign, and man was created to bring glory to that sovereign God. With this Lutherans agree, but there is a difference in emphasis and understanding. As F. E. Mayer points out, “In both Calvinism and Lutheranism the theological slogan is soli Deo gloria [to God alone be the glory]. But the motivation differs: in the former, because man must fear and glorify the sovereign Lord; in the latter, because man is privileged to trust and serve the gracious and forgiving God. In the one the emphasis lies on what God expects of man for His own glory, in the other on what God has done for man” (F. E. Mayer, The Religious Bodies of America (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 209). As a result of this difference in motivation, Calvinistic churches have often tended to de-emphasize the Gospel and emphasize the Law. The emphasis is not on God’s gracious love in Christ, but the obedience that we owe to the sovereign God.

The Five Points of Calvinism

At the Synod of Dort (1618-19), the theologians gathered there decreed that true Calvinism has five indispensable teachings. It stressed these five teachings over against the teachings of Jacob Arminius, a Reformed theologian who had rejected these doctrines of Calvin. The acrostic TULIP is an easy way to remember the five points.

(T)otal Depravity: Calvin correctly taught that because of original sin, all human beings are conceived and born totally corrupt (depraved) in spiritual matters. In other words, all people are born spiritually dead and blind, and therefore they are unable to seek God or contribute anything to their salvation. People do not have freedom to seek or choose God. This agrees with our Lutheran teaching (see Gen 6:5; 8:21; Ps 14:1-4; Mt 19:25-26; Mark 7:21-23; John 6:44,65; Acts 26:18; Rom 1:18-21; 3:9-19,23; 8:7; Eph 2:1-10; 1 Co 2:14; 12:3; 2 Co 4:4).

(U)nconditional Predestination/Election: Calvin taught that, because God is sovereign, the eternal fate of all people depends totally and only on God’s unconditional predestination before time began. In answer to the question, “Why are some saved but not others?” Calvin gave the following answer: The difference is not in man, for all are equally dead in sin and depend on God’s grace to be saved. The difference is in God. Before the foundation of the world, God chose some to be saved and go to heaven; God chose the rest to be damned and go to hell. This is known as “double predestination.” Lutherans affirm the Biblical teaching of single predestination. They answer the question, “Why are some saved but not others?” in the following way. Those who reach heaven arrived there only by God’s grace. Moreover, before time, God, in Christ, predestined those who will reach heaven to be saved. This is what the Bible teaches: Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:4-6; Acts 13:48. According to Scripture, the reason that some will not be saved is that they rejected God’s universal offer of salvation in Christ. Of course, this appears to be a contradiction. Logic dictates that if God predestined some to be saved, those he did not predestined to be saved he must have predestined to be damned. The Bible does not teach this logical deduction, however. It never tells us that God predestined some to be damned. Christians should speak when Scripture speaks and be silent when Scripture is silent. Lutherans are content with Biblical paradoxes. Calvinism seeks to solve them according to man’s reason. Most importantly, whenever the subject of predestination is brought up in the Bible it is always presented as a doctrine of comfort to those who are already Christian. Its message is, “See how much God loves you. Before time began he chose you in Christ Jesus to be saved eternally. He has seen to it, that everything that needed to happen for you to repent, believe, and persevere in the faith, would happen.” Predestination as taught by the Bible is never presented as a subject of philosophical inquiry that satisfies man’s reason.

(L)imited Atonement: Calvinism teaches that the death of Christ only atoned for the sins of the elect, those whom he had predestined to be saved. Christ’s atoning death was limited to them. Christ did not die for all people. But the Scriptures teach the opposite. The Word of God explicitly declares, “he died for all” (2 Co 5:15). The Scriptures also teach in many places that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was for the sins of the world, which certainly includes everyone: “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, NRS); “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.” (2 Co 5:19). Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). According to Scripture, God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4); God does not want any to perish but for all to reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9). The offer of salvation is offered to everyone without exception: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The pronoun “whoever” would be deceptive and disingenuous if it only referred to the elect. If Christ’s death did not atone for all sins, it is impossible to know for certain whether Christ died for me.

(I)rresistible Grace: Calvinism correctly teaches that we are saved by grace alone. Their notion of a sovereign God, however, incorrectly leads them to confess that God’s grace can not be resisted or rejected. According to Scripture, people can and do resist and reject God’s gracious offer of salvation. Consider the words of Jesus to the people of Jerusalem, “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Mt 23:37); consider the words of Stephen to the Sanhedrin, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 7:51). Sadly, even though God wants all to be saved, though Christ died for all, and though he extends his grace to all, many have and will reject the offer.

(P)erseverance in Grace: Calvinism teaches that it is impossible for true Christians to lose their faith, because God empowers them to persevere in grace. This is commonly referred to as “once saved--always saved.” They base this on such passages as 1 Co 1:8, “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is certainly true that those predestined to be saved will not ultimately lose their salvation. However, according to Scripture it is very possible for a Christian to fall away and lose their salvation; and in many places Christians are warned against this: “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall” (1 Co 10:12); “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal 5:4); “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Tim 4:1). The entire letter to the Hebrews was written to Christians who were in danger of falling away. See “‘’”Is the Christian Once Saved--Always Saved? by Dr. Bucher for a fuller explanation of this.

Jesus Christ

Calvinists correctly teach that Jesus Christ is true God and true man in one Person. They reject, however, the Biblical teaching of the communication of attributes between our Lord’s divine and human natures (this was confessed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451). For example, an attribute of human nature is death. God, in and of himself, cannot die. However, because the divine and human natures are united in the one Person of Jesus Christ, what is proper to the human nature is transferred (or communicated/shared) with the divine nature. That is why Scripture can say that on the cross, God died: “For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life” (Rom 5:10); “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7b). This Calvinists reject. They say that the finite is not capable of the infinite. This is probably the main reason that Calvinists do not believe that Christ’s true body and blood are eaten with the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. They believe that Christ’s body and blood cannot be there because Christ’s human nature is at the right hand of God and only there. Lutherans confess that the qualities of our Lord’s divine nature are shared with the human nature, so that his human nature can also be everywhere, including in the Supper. Didn’t the whole Jesus (human and divine) say, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age”? (Mt 28:20).

Assurance

If, as Calvinists teach, God does not want everyone to be saved and Christ has not died for all, how can I know for certain that I have saving grace? In his Institutes, Calvin wrote, “we shall follow the best order, if, in seeking the certainty of our election, we cleave to those posterior signs which are sure attestations to it” (Book III, ch 24, 4, 243). In other words, the only way to know for certain that one is saved is by looking at one’s sanctified life that follows conversion. The Christian is to examine their repentance, good works, self-denial, avoidance of the world, moods and inner experiences in order to determine whether they are true Christians are not. This totally robs the Christian of the comforting assurance that God intends. One who bases their certaintly of salvation on their sanctified life will never be certain. For our sanctified life is such that one day we do good works, and the next day we don’t; one day we feel God’s approving presence, and the next day we don’t. Our feelings are erratic and can deceive. And we never do the good works we should. How can I know that I’ve done enough? The Biblical teaching is that our certainty is based on the perfect and finished work of Christ’s atonement on our behalf, and on the universal promise of God’s salvation, given us in Baptism. We are to look outside ourselves to Christ for assurance not inside ourselves at our sanctified life.

Means of Grace

For Lutherans, the Holy Spirit has chosen to bestow God’s saving grace through certain means, instruments, or channels. He powerfully works through these means of grace to both create and strengthen faith. These means of grace are the Word of the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Calvinists also speak of means of grace, but they differ in their understanding. Though they admit that the Spirit ordinarily works through the means of grace, and can influence and stir up faith through them, he does not create faith thereby. Rather, the Holy Spirit works immediately and directly on a person apart from the Word and Sacraments to create faith.

Sacraments

Calvinists teach that there are two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They understand Baptism to be merely a symbol of salvation and forgiveness--not a means of it. A person must be converted first. This is why many Calvinist churches do not practive infant baptism, but only “believer’s baptism.” Similarly, the Lord’s Supper is not real means of grace either. No forgiveness is granted. Furthermore, Calvinists do not teach the real presence, that Christ’s true body and blood are eaten with the bread and the wine. Rather, Calvin taught that when a person communes, he is, by the power of the Spirit, mystically taken up to the right hand of God where Christ’s body and blood are, and communes with him there. Thus, when Calvinists state that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper, they mean it in this spiritual sense.

The Church

Whereas Lutherans define the holy Christian Church as the total number of those who truly believe in Jesus Christ, Calvinists define it as the total number of the elect. There is a very strong emphasis on the visible Church in Calvinism. Calvin devotes over 200 pages of his Institutes to this.