CALVINISM IN A NUTSHELL

QUESTION: Can you give me a concise summary of what is meant by “Calvinism”? Also, can you tell us briefly why these teachings are erroneous? What Bible verses would show this?

ANSWER: Okay, this is a challenge; but here I will identify the main doctrines of Calvinism, and identify the key Bible passages that refute them.

ONE. The OMNICAUSAL SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD. In Calvinism, divine sovereignty means that God CAUSES everything, to the smallest detail. Whatever happens is simply the outworking of the DIVINE DECREE (essentially a nearly-infinite computer program or blueprint), defined as eternal, comprehensive, unconditional, and efficacious. The practical result is that there is NO (truly) FREE WILL.

The Biblical view is that divine sovereignty is God’s absolute LORDSHIP over all things, understood not in terms of causation but in terms of control (being in control). God’s decision to create free-will beings was a sovereign act of self-limitation. God exercises complete control by causing some (not all) things to happen, and by permitting the rest. By his own choice he permits us to use our free wills even when we go against his own will for us. Some key Bible texts are Matt. 23:37; John 7:17; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9. Compare John 5:21 & 5:40.

An important application: the idea that “there is a reason for everything” is FALSE. This is a Calvinist idea.

TWO. TOTAL DEPRAVITY. (We are now turning to the T-U-L-I-P doctrines.) Calvinism teaches that, by God’s design, Adam sinned, and the entire human race came under the curse of original sin. (To prove this they use their interpretation of Romans 5:12-19.) Original sin includes inherited total depravity, the essence of which is the bondage of the will, which involves a total inability to respond to the gospel call. This is how “dead in your trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) is understood. The fallen world is a graveyard.

The Biblical view says that the key text that refutes this doctrine is—guess what—Romans 5:12-19! Properly understood, the main point of this text is not original sin but ORIGINAL GRACE! Christ intercepts and erases the (potential) effects of Adam’s sin for EVERY HUMAN BEING.

An important application is that all babies are born redeemed (with no need for infant baptism to take away original sin). Depravity is an acquired condition, and it is never total but always partial.

THREE. UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION. This is the Calvinist version of predestination. It says that since the entire human race is born totally depraved and unable to respond to the gospel, God himself must unilaterally and unconditionally decide who will become a believer and thus be saved, and who will never believe and thus go to hell. He does this as part of his eternal decree; it was settled even before the creation occurred. Human beings thus have no say in their eternal destinies.

In the Biblical view, predestination (election) IS of course a Bible teaching; but it is very different from the above. In some Biblical texts God is seen as predestining certain individuals and even groups to SERVICE in His plan of redemption, e.g. Israel as a nation (Rom. 9:1-29; Eph. 1:1-14), the apostles (John 15:16), and Jesus himself (Acts 2:23). However, it is true that some individuals are predestined to go to heaven (not to become believers) based on God’s foreknowledge of who will use their free will to meet his stated conditions. (Calvinism gets it backwards, saying God foreknows because he predestines, instead of vice versa.) Thus predestination (to heaven) is conditional, not unconditional. The key texts are Romans 8:29; 1 Peter 1:1-2.

FOUR. LIMITED ATONEMENT. Calvinism says Jesus died ONLY for the elect. The cross of Jesus Christ was never meant to apply to those whom God had already determined would be lost in hell forever.

In Biblical teaching, because Jesus was infinite in his divine nature, and because he suffered the penalty for sin especially in his divine nature, the atoning power of his death was by nature UNLIMITED (i.e., infinite). It is thus, by God’s intention, sufficient to save all human beings. I.e., the atonement is unlimited in purpose and efficacy (power). Only the application of the atonement is limited, and that limitation results from the fact that some who hear the gospel make the free-will choice to refuse to believe and accept it. Key texts are John 3:16; 2 Peter 2:1ff., 12-22; 1 John 2:2.

FIVE. IRRESISTIBLE GRACE. As Calvinists see it, at a time of God’s sovereign choice, the hearts (souls, spirits) of those who have been unconditionally predestined to believe are supernaturally and irresistibly changed by a direct act of the Holy Spirit. This change is called regeneration, and includes the unilateral gift of faith. The two main ideas here are (1) that faith is a gift, and (2) that regeneration precedes faith. Two things make this a necessity: first, total depravity makes any human response (i.e., faith) impossible, and second, omnicausal divine sovereignty rules out any uncaused human response.

The Biblical view says that faith is a gift only in the sense that God gives the opportunity to believe through the preaching of the gospel. See Acts 5:31 and 11:18. God does draw sinners (John 6:44) but he draws them through the gospel (John 6:45; Rom. 10:17). This gospel drawing is powerful (John 20:31; Rom. 1:16; Heb. 4:12), universal—not selective as in Calvinism (John 12:32), and resistible—not irresistible as in Calvinism (Matt. 23:37; Acts 7:51). A key verse is Colossians 2:12, which shows that faith must precede regeneration.

SIX. PERSEVERANCE (PRESERVATION) OF THE SAINTS, or “once saved, always saved.” Calvinism teaches that the unconditionally chosen and irresistibly changed person will never thereafter be lost. This is simply the logical implication of the U and the I of T-U-L-I-P. Just as there was no free will involved in becoming saved, so there is no free will in staying saved.

In the Biblical view, true Christians (who by nature have free will) can lose their salvation if they stop trusting in Jesus for their salvation. Key texts are Luke 15:11-32; Rom. 11:17-23; 1 Cor. 15:1-2; Gal. 5:4; Col. 1:22-23; Hebrews 6:4-6; 2 Peter 2. Faith can die in three ways: sudden (spiritual) suicide; slow (spiritual) starvation; and
strangulation by sin. A Christian who becomes lost again in one of these ways CAN repent and return and be saved again. See Romans 11:20-24; see especially the correct interpretation of Heb. 6:4-6.

CONCLUSION: Do not over-react to Calvinism. Reject universal, omnicausal sovereignty, but not true divine sovereignty. Reject total and/or inherited depravity, but not acquired, partial depravity. Reject unconditional predestination, but not predestination as such. Reject irresistible, selective grace, but not grace as such. Reject regeneration before faith, but not Holy Spirit regeneration in baptism. Reject “once saved, always saved,” but not true assurance of salvation.

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CALVINISM IN A NUTSHELL — 24 Comments

  1. Sorry sir, Your view of Calvinism is all over the map. Have you even read John Calvin? John Knox? Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon? Any of the Reformers?? It seems not! And, how can one avoid the doctrines of Predestination and Election and total depravity in Scripture? Sorry, you are very wrong of y0ur notion of Calvinism.

    • This comment is quite amusing, given that I studied for three full years at Westminster Theological Seminary, one of the most conservative, orthodox Calvinist seminaries, and received the M.Div. degree along with the Westminster Graduate Fellow award in 1965. Then I studied for three full years (two in the classroom, one writing a Ph.D. dissertation) at Princeton Theological Seminary, majoring in history of doctrine and concentrating on Reformation theology. I have been studying (and teaching about) Calvinism and the Bible for over 50 years. What are your qualifications, Jane? Just curious.

    • Jane M. Curtis asks “how can one avoid the doctrines of Predestination and Election and total depravity in Scripture?”

      My question to Jane M. Curtis is,Have you even read Jack Cottrell? Where has he “avoided” them?

      In this very essay he expressly states, “In the Biblical view, predestination (election) IS of course a Bible teaching.”

      In another essay at this site he states, “the language of election (predestination) is sometimes used in the Bible to refer to the fact that God has indeed chosen or predestined some individuals to salvation. Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists recognize this, of course.

      So much for your assertion that anyone is “avoiding” the doctrines. I always find it humorous when Calvinists (or those who think they are Calvinists) make it sound as though anyone who doesn’t agree with their spin on these doctrines is avoiding them altogether.

      What we’re trying to avoid are the false conclusions Calvinism draws from the Scriptural teaching in these areas.

    • J. M. Curtis:

      For Cottrell’s treatment on human depravity and an argument in favour of ‘partial depravity’ (over against ‘total depravity’), see The Faith Once for All: Bible Doctrine for Today (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2002), pp. 195–200.

      For Cottrell’s most recent treatment on election/predestination from a non-Calvinistic perspective (as from the time of this writing), see his essay, ‘The Classical Arminian View of Election’, in Perspectives on Election: Five Views, ed. Chad Owen Brand (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2006), pp. 70–134.

      For Cottrell’s treatment on the sovereignty of God (and Calvinism’s misconstrual of it), see his volume, What the Bible Says about God the Ruler (1984; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000). Towards this end, see also his essay, ‘The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty’, in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (1995; repr., Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1995), pp. 97–120.

      Lastly, for a distillation of Cottrell’s three-volume series on the doctrine of God (i.e. theology proper), see God Most High: What the Bible Says about God the Creator, Ruler, Redeemer (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2012).

      I believe you will profit greatly from a careful reading of Jack Cottrell’s works.

      J. D. Gallé
      12 April 2017

      Postscript: My apologies in advance if perchance I have utilised the incorrect comment formatting for italics in this post.

  2. My advice to resign also goes for any of our Christian college presidents and trustees who have abandoned the idea that “baptism is the occasion of salvation” and who seem to think that raising money to keep a school open trumps doctrinal integrity. Better to go out of business than endorse falsehood.

    • Back in the fall of 2013 I ordered a book that Dr. Cottrell had recommended: “Recovering the Evangelical Sacrament – Baptisma Semper Reformandum” by Anthony R. Cross. I am not a theologian, and I found it to be a very heavy read; but with perseverance I did manage to make it through the entire book, and found it to be a very worthwhile study.

      The book quoted several authorities who had varying ideas about baptism (some better than others) and there were presented a couple of useful phrases describing the nature of baptism. What surprised me was that no one bothered to bring these phrases together; for had they done so, they would have discovered poetry! So I took it upon myself to marry two of the phrases from the book to form the shortest poem I have ever written. Although it only has seven words/eight syllables (apart from the title), it actually has both meter and rhyme!

      Here it is:

      BAPTISM IS …
      The trysting place
      Where faith meets grace.

  3. Thanks again, Dr. Cottrell; an excellent summary. I’ve been asking myself lately: How is it that many of our independent Christian Churches and their preachers are abandoning our brotherhood’s distinctive idea that baptism represents the occasion of salvation when they have readily accessible to them your book, “The Faith Once For All, Bible Doctrine for Today” and other books/articles (which explain and defend this biblical truth)? I’ve concluded a pragmatic desire to find acceptance with other evangelical groups and the convenience of “faith-only” conversion may be the reason they de-emphasize baptism. For those RM preachers/elders who have sincerely come to believe in “faith only,” they need to graciously resign.

  4. I guess my sticking point in all of this is the last one. What will cause a person to lose their salvation? We all sin after salvation. Some in big ways, some in small ways. Just as sin was the reason for Christ needing to die on the cross, it is what will keep us from heaven, minus the cross. When God looks at us, it must be through Christ’s sacrifice, or no one is acceptable. If someone accepts Christ as the only path to salvation, I would think the only way to lose that would be to reject that belief, and put their faith in something else, like Muhammed, or the sun or the moon, or to declare there is no God. I guess the main scripture is John 10:28.

    • You might want to go to my website and type “once saved” into the search box; several essays will appear, all addressing this one issue. See, for example, http://jackcottrell.com/notes/once-saved-always-saved-again-and-again-and-again/ . You are correct that sins as such do not separate the saved person from the grace of God; the one sin that does cause one to lose his/her salvation is the death of faith. This is one of the implications of justification by faith. We stay justified as long as our faith continues to cling to the cross. If we give up that faith (as the first recipients of the Book of Hebrews were thinking about doing), we are no longer justified. We accept Jesus’s promise that no one will snatch the believer out of the hand of the Son or of the Father (John 10:28-29), but this does not eliminate the possibility that one may choose to jump out of his hand.

  5. I am a simple man. Forget the high-minded theology, that is, if you only wish to understand Calvinists “in a nutshell.”

    “In a nutshell” Calvinists imply (through their teachings that humans are so depraved that they cannot accept Jesus on their own and that Jesus chooses to only save certain people) that Jesus, our Creator, Savior, and Judge, created most people, specifically, for Satan. They will never admit to believing this, but it is the inevitable result of their doctrine, “in a nutshell.

    I have Calvinist friends and the most memorable excuse and response that they wish me to swallow are:

    “There are mysteries to my faith.”

    “The act of God saving even a single depraved soul, is love.”

  6. I can only echo the comments already made. I’m so thankful for the way you continue to share your knowledge, insight, and wisdom, Dr. Cottrell. Thanks be to God, and thank YOU as well.

  7. Very insightful summarization of Calvinism, Jack. I have never read a more clear yet more precise explanation. Thank you.
    This should be shared with every graduate of our ministerial schools so they can have it available to share with their congregations.

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