What is this Calvinism?

By G. Eric Lane

This teaching, which at various times in the history of the Church has been the accepted orthodox position, is in these days beginning to re-appear, particularly among the younger generation. It has, however, been for so long discredited by all but a handful of Christians, that many are puzzled as to exactly what it is, and some very godly men even fear its return to popularity. It seems, therefore timely to attempt some brief summary of it. This, it is hoped, will serve a variety of purposes:

  1. Those who are attracted to it will know exactly what it is to which they are committing themselves.

  2. Those who are opposed to or afraid of it will see exactly what is the true character of this teaching.

  3. Those who are ignorant of its very existence will be made aware that there is such a teaching, which in fact claims to be orthodox Christianity.

It is usual to sum up the doctrines of Calvinism under the famous “Five Points.” There are, however, some preliminary considerations that need to he dealt with before these can be described.

I. The Name

It is unfortunate that distinctive name has to be given to a certain class of Christians, and that this name is derived from a mere man. But in the circumstances this seems inevitable:

(a.) Because the term “Christian” or “Christianity” has become so debased that it can mean almost anything. The Englishman who says he “believes in God and does his best” is regarded as a Christian. All members of Churches linked to the World Council of Churches are “Christians,” and so are Roman Catholics, in spite of very wide differences of belief and practice. It is therefore necessary for a Christian to say what kind of Christian he is—in other words, to adopt a label.

(b.) The name of Calvin is attached to these doctrines not because he invented them but because he revived them after they had been in obscurity from the time of Augustine. It seems natural that the man who more than any other brought to light the doctrines of the New Testament should have his name attached to them, although Calvin himself would have been the last to desire this. If it be asked why the name needs to be kept alive all these years after the Reformation and the time of Calvin, the answer is that, alas, the pure doctrines Calvin expounded were not long retained in the Church. Spurgeon, as a Calvinist 100 years ago, felt very much in the minority, and in fact foresaw the complete rejection of Calvinistic doctrine that has come this century. However, arose by any other name would smell as sweet, and most of us are happy to refer to the teaching as “free grace” or “Reformed,” or simply “Biblical Christianity.” Biblical Christianity is undoubtedly what it is, although other systems also claim this title—even those which have only been in the field for a few decades!

II. The Basic Pre-suppositions

In is important to realise that the distinctive doctrines of Calvinism take certain basic points for granted, especially regarding God and the Bible. This means that, on the one hand, a person who does not hold these pre-suppositions will inevitably fall foul of Calvinism—in fact he had better keep away from it; and on the other hand, a person who does hold them will, if he is intellectually honest and consistent, be led to embrace it.

I know of no better place where these appear together than in Paul’s outburst of praise in the last four verses of the 11th Chapter of Romans. Paul in this Epistle has touched on all the main points of the gospel (those in fact that are embodied in Calvinism) and seems at the close of it all to fall back and marvel at these grand truths about God that are the foundation of it all. These are:—

(1.) That God is the Author of everything that comes to pass: “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (v.36). The Calvinist takes this seriously for he takes God seriously. It sums up what he means by “the sovereignty of God.” The Westminster Confession puts it: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

(2.) That man can have no knowledge of God and His ways but by divine revelation: “Who hath known the mind of the Lord?” (v.34). Man therefore is entirely dependant on the Bible for religious knowledge.

(3.) That man cannot understand this revelation in the Bible but by divine illumination: “How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out” (v.33). He is dependent therefore not only on the Bible but on the Holy Spirit in order to understand the Bible. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.” “But God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit” “The things of God knoweth no man but the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2.10-14).

(4.) God has no obligations to man, and man has no rightful claims Lon God: “Who hath first given to him and it shall be recompensed unto him again?” (v.35). It is impossible to understand and accept such truths as election, reprobation and limited atonement without taking seriously the fact of man’s utter demerit before God. Where this is accepted, the cries of “unjust” will fall to the ground.

(5.) The main, and ultimately the only, purpose of all things is the glory of God: “Of Him and through Him and to Him are all things. to whom be glory for ever” (v.36). We say “only” not overlooking the fact that man’s happiness is in subsidiary purpose of God, but realising that man’s happiness can only be found in glorifying God. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism).

Thus, as a foundation for the “Five Points of Calvinism” we would lay down “Five Pre-Suppositions of Calvinism.” Not one of the doctrines of Calvinism will be accepted without the acknowledgement that: (1.) God is absolutely sovereign over all things; (2.) the Bible is absolutely supreme on the things of God; (3.) the Holy Spirit is the sole interpreter of the Bible; (4.) man is cast upon God’s undeserved mercy; (5.) the glory of God must be the only ultimate purpose of all.

Before launching out into particulars, however, we must detain ourselves with some other matters. Let us not be fools and rush in to the inner sanctuary without carefully treading the outer courts.

III. Definition of Calvinism

Calvinism may be defined as a complete (in fact the only complete) systematizing of the truths of Scripture relative to salvation. It regards the Bible, as we have seen already, as the only source of these truths, but recognizes that, because of the nature of its composition, the Bible does not set them out in an orderly form. Calvinism is a serious attempt to do this. Because of this, one of the great characteristics of Calvinism is its balance. It pursues no one truth to the exclusion of any other. It is this which distinguishes it from “hyper-Calvinism,” which tends to stress some truths too much and play down others in a commendable enthusiasm to exalt God and abase man. Calvinism as taught by Calvin, the Puritans, Edwards, Spurgeon, Warfield, Hodge and others seeks to include the whole of Scripture in its system.

Because of this, Calvinism can only be called “extreme” by those who regard the Bible as extreme. All Evangelicals agree that the Bible, nothing more nor less, determines our theology, and Calvinism seeks only to set forth the teaching of the Bible.

IV. The Main Pillars

Calvinism is usually set out under five heads. However we shall confine ourselves to two of the five before passing on to a consideration of all five points.

Calvinistic theology has two main pillars its doctrine of God and its doctrine of man. It is not unique in this. These are bound to be the determinative factors in any explanation and interpretation of Biblical truth. But Calvinism treats these doctrines with the utmost seriousness:

(1.) It accepts the Biblical view of God in His absolute sovereignty and supremacy, and regards that truth as determinative of all others. Anything that lessens the Godhood of God is suspect.

(2.) It has an equally serious view of the condition of man. It recognizes the high destiny to which man was created and the noble Character with which he was endowed, but it regards the Fall (Genesis 3; Romans 5) as having ruined man’s character and altered his destiny.

Most evangelicals would agree with both these statements. But Calvinists say that these truths determine the whole scheme of salvation—i.e. that the “gospel” we proclaim is such as glorifies an omnipotent God and in no way detracts from His absolute sovereignty; on the other hand, it holds forth a salvation that meets man’s condition and needs—i.e. leaves him nothing to do to save himself, for he is totally unable to assist in this matter.

These two great concepts form the basis of the famous “Five Points of Calvinism.” All these “five points” do not necessarily have to be preached in one sermon before it can be called the “the gospel,” but they need to be held by of preacher in order to safeguard the purity of the gospel and maintain faithfulness to Biblical truth.

V. The Five Points

It must not be forgotten that Calvinism is a complete theology, which therefore includes many things not mentioned in the “five points,” such as the attributes of God other than His sovereignty, and teaching on the last things, not to speak of the Person of Christ. The “five points” are important however in that they distinguish Calvinism from all other teachings. Calvinists regard these points as essential to a right understanding of the gospel and a true presentation of it.

1. The Sovereignty of God

(a.) This must be absolute, or the phrase would be meaningless. A God who is limited, or limits Himself, is not the God of the Bible, nor is He a sovereign God.

(b.) It must apply in the salvation of men, as well as in their creation. Since God is sovereign in salvation. the action to save must begin with His choice and purpose. This is called “election.” (Predestination denotes the purpose for which God elects men—one of those purposes being our conformation to the image of His Son; see Romans 8.29). Some of the verses which teach this truth (in addition to that referred to from Romans 8) are James 1.18: “of His own will begat He us…,” and Ephesians 1.4: .”…He hath chosen us in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world.”

(c.) This is the kind of salvation man needs. If it were to man’s choice, he would never choose to he saved, he is too utterly ruined in sin. In fact, he has become God’s “enemy.” Thus although this doctrine does teach that some are inevitably lost, it does at least guarantee that some are saved. Calvinistic theology is more “charitable” than that which teaches “any one who wills may be saved” or “God is waiting for you to decide,”—for if that were really the case, none of us would ever be saved, for none of us has either the will or the power, to say nothing of the right, to be saved.

(d) The sovereignty of God demands human responsibility. Some think it dispenses with that truth. The contrary is the case. A sovereign God, by definition, requires the obedience of His creatures. But the fact that this obedience is demanded does not imply man has the power to render it—i.e. it does not imply an absolute “free-will.” This raises the whole subject of man, to which we must now turn.

2. The Depravity of Man

(a.) This was brought about by the Fall, which was an historic event, occurring after man had first been created “very good.”

(b.) The Fall was within the knowledge and will of God, yet in such away as He is not to be thought of as the Author of sin, and it was taken into account by God in the eternal counsels which He formed before the world began.

(c.) It was “total”—not in the sense that man became as bad as he could possibly be—but in the sense that it affected every part of him, to a greater or lesser degree, i.e. it affected his entire personality. By the operation of common grace and so that He does not have to destroy man altogether, God restrains the perverted passions of man in such a way that it is possible to have an orderly society in which His purposes may be furthered.

(d.) As regards the soul, the spiritual nature, this clearly “died”—“in the day thou latest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2.17) “ye are dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). This makes a man incapable of contributing anything to his salvation, or playing any part in it until “quickened.”

(e.) This does not in any way lessen man’s responsibility. But it does mean that man is not able to fulfil that responsibility until enabled to do so. This is entirely his own fault through sin, and is not to be attributed to any injustice on God’s part.

(f.) The will of man since the Fall is no longer “free.” It remains free in the sense that it is not under external compulsion, But its freedom is limited by man’s fallen nature. A man is free only to within the limits of his own nature. Since that nature is a fallen one. means he has no freedom except to sin. Man is unable to perform anything that is spiritual and pleasing to God. He may do good works and outwardly conform to God’s laws, but these do not please God. “They that are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8.5-8).

These are essential and basic truths. Once “seen” and seriously held to, others follow inevitably.

3. The Atonement

It is bewildering to some that Calvinism teaches that the atonement was only made for the elect; but quite apart from Scripture proofs, it is demanded by the Biblical doctrines of God and man.

(a.) A sovereign God must provide a complete atonement without any help, and not one which leaves man some part to play, even if it is merely the acceptance of it or the fulfilment of come conditions attached to it. I.e. Christ died actually to save sinners, not merely make it possible to save them. He did actually atone for sins on the Cross, not merely make such an atonement possible. It is inconceivable that He died in vail as far as some were concerned, or that He left man anything to do, for “he shall see the travail of His soul and be satisfied.” (Isaiah 53.11). He must therefore have died only for the elect. If he died for all, then all would be saved. (Some actually believe that, but not many evangelicals.)

(b.) Men who are dead in sins need this kind of atonement. The conditions that some teachers require him to fulfil before he is saved—he is unable to meet. This does not mean that Calvinism dispenses with repentance and faith—but it teaches that they are guaranteed for the person for whom Christ died, and are actually produced by the work of the Spirit in regeneration.

4. Effectual Calling

(Sometimes called “irresistible grace,” which is, rightly understood.)

This means that to His elect God gives the power to repent and believe the gospel, as a consequence of which they are converted. This is a work of the Holy Spirit and, without his “effectual call” a man cannot savingly believe however many times he hears the gospel.

(a.) Again this is demanded be the concept of a sovereign God. If the salvation is His and the choice of a person is His, so must be the moment at which a person experiences it and the way he enters it. God chooses the moment at which the sinner shall hear the good news, and He at His time gives the power to embrace it. See Paul’s great testimony in Galatians 1.15-16.

(b.) Man who is utterly depraved, lost and dead, needs an effectual call or enabling. It is not sufficient that the terms of the gospel be put to him—he cannot receive them, they are foolishness to him, The “general call” of the gospel proclamation is not sufficient, he needs a personal and effectual call. This is well illustrated by Christ’s raising of Lazarus and the widow’s son by a “powerful word” and call. Note that there is no sense of compulsion in receiving this “effectual Call.” No one has ever complained that he was forced against his will to become a child of God. Rather he is grateful that God released his will from enmity and enabled him gladly to embrace salvation.

The effectual call is closely related to the Atonement. The Atonement purchases a man’s salvation; the effectual call puts him in possession of it. The securing of salvation was the work of Christ on the Cross, the call into experience of it is the work of the Holy Spirit. He applies what Christ achieved. The effectual call through the Spirit begins the work of regeneration or new birth. The first fruits of this operation are repentance and faith. In actual experience the effectual call, the new birth, the response of repentance and faith are likely to be simultaneous, but in theological thinking the order must be: first the effectual call the the Spirit producing the new birth, second the repentance and faith of the new born soul.

5. Perseverance

This means that the person who is truly saved can never become lost again, but is guaranteed place in heaven.

(a.) If salvation is the work of God, it must be an enduring work. One which wears out or is thrown away would be an insult to Him. Moreover it is inconceivable that a sovereign God should go back on His promise that He will never release His hold upon His sheep. “They shall never perish.” (John 10.29).

(b.) How much we sinners need a salvation which is guaranteed to the end! Have we the power, by ourselves, to persevere?

IV. The Practical Conclusions

Just as the pre-suppositions of Calvinism lead inevitably to its distinctive “points,” so these doctrines will inevitably lead those who embrace them to certain practical results.

(a.) They will lead to the conclusion that this interpretation of the gospel is the only one that truly does justice to the Bible and the glory of God. In this system all the honour and glory in the work of salvation go where they belong—to God. None goes to the evangelist for his powerful preaching and clever methods—for he do nothing for those whom God has not can chosen and called. None goes to the convert himself, for he was dead until brought to life by God through the gospel. This is why the Bible speaks of “the gospel of the grace of God”—for it is all of Him. It is also why Calvinism is known as “free grace teaching.”

No other system, which purports to be Christian, seriously gives all the glory to God. The “Catholic” system fails because in it men claim possess the power to give or withhold grace. The Arminian one fails because it teaches that man’s faith precedes God’s act of regeneration, that predestination is conditioned on foreseen response, and that the Cross did not actually save any one in particular but made it possible for any to be saved who wished to avail themselves of it. The gospel as taught by Calvinists is “soli deo gloria”—“to the glory of God alone.”

(b.) This teaching will have the effect of greatly enlarging the heart towards God. Many can testify of the thrill of soul experiences when these truths are drawn upon it. is greater than any they have found elsewhere—even in the excitement of Pentecostalism. Their lives are revolutionised, particularly in the song of praise that ceaselessly flows from their hearts. They know what Paul meant when he wrote of “singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

(c.) At the same time, alas, it will have the effect of making one regrettably, but inevitably, critical of all lesser “gospels”—that is, those which omit any of the truths mentioned above; those which suggest that men can, if they will, come to accept what Christ has done for them and offers them; those that make conversion an easy immediate acceptance of Christ by faith and leave out the need for conviction of the heart and of its guilt before a holy sovereign God, and the need to cry to Him for mercy. These false gospels will be renounced by one who has seen the truth, even though he may in so doing earn bitter hatred from the propagators of them.

(d.) Further, this will make for greater caution about the methods of presenting the gospel. The true gospel can be falsified by the methods by which it is presented. The person who has seen the gospel of the grace of God will henceforth avoid all noisy and showy human displays which draw attention to men rather than God. The cult of the evangelist’s personality, high pressure publicity with pictures of the evangelist, large choirs, slick organisation, crooning soloists and all those other things which put a thick layer of human butter on the pure bread of life will henceforth sicken him. He will also avoid putting pressure on a person to make a “decision” on the spot. Nor will he immediately tell a person who has “made a decision” or “professed conversion” that he is saved. He will wait until the work has been tested and the fruits appear to see whether it really be of God. Meanwhile, he will urge the professor to “make his calling and election sure” (see 2 Peter 1.10).

In other words Biblical Calvinism is practical as well as theoretical. And this is where we have to pay for our convictions. For this resulting practice cuts right across the current way in which most Christian work to-day is conducted—even in Evangelical circles. The result will be that a person who embraces and seriously seeks to live and work by Calvinism will find himself isolated. He will not be able to join in most of the activities of other Christians. He will have to say things which will put others in a bad light. He will thus be considered as spiritually as a crank. He will have to alter very much in his Christian activity or ministry, but will find no help in re-organising his church affairs from the outside, where the prevailing winds are in the opposite direction. He will thus be unable to do anything but follow out where the truth leads him. For the hand of God has touched him and the truth of God has been revealed to him, and this will outweigh all human difficulties. He has put his hand to the plough and cannot turn back.

This is an old booklet from the Sovereign Grace Union (second edition), date unknown. Used here with permission from the SGU. G. Eric Lane was the pastor of Evangelical Free Church, Leyton, UK. There are some minor changes in this version, such as using double speech marks throughout, and using Arabic instead of Roman numerals in the Scripture references. A few references have been added for Scripture quotations that were lacking references. Other than this, none of the content has been edited.