Question and Answer

"Calvinism" and Reformed Denominations

Question:

My intent is to find a church which teaches the doctrines of Calvinism and predestination. Would you say that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church adheres more strictly than any other denomination to these doctrines? What other denominations embrace Calvinism?

Answer:

I am delighted that you intend to join a confessionally Reformed (Calvinistic) church. No, I would not say that the OPC necessarily adheres more strictly than any other denomination to the Reformed doctrine of predestination, although we are fully committed to that Biblical teaching. Many other denominations are confessionally Reformed and take their confessional commitment seriously, such as those who belong to the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).

Such denominations include the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Korean-American Presbyterian Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, The Reformed Church in the U.S., the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and the Reformed Churches of Quebec. For more information, let me encourage you to visit the website of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council.

Let me provide a brief overview of the so-called "Five Points of Calvinism," and what I believe to be their preaching and pastoral significance. I add it to encourage you in your study of the Bible and our Reformed standards.

The five points of Calvinism are very useful in both preaching and pastoral ministry, and in developing theologies of evangelism and worship.

1. Total Depravity: Paul sums up the natural spiritual condition of every person when he writes, "You were dead in your transgressions and sin" (Eph. 2:1). Death here does not describe the absence of physical life but of spiritual life. Jesus said, "This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3). Knowing God and his Son Jesus is eternal life. Spiritual death is knowing neither the Father nor the Son.

Spiritual death differs from physical death in that the spiritually dead are quite responsive. When dead in sin, men and women are in rebellion against their Creator God, and, in varying degrees, hostile to the gospel of reconciliation through Jesus Christ.

In describing the spiritual condition of fallen humanity, Reformed Christians often use the term total depravity. To declare that we are totally depraved does not mean that we are as sinful as we can be. Rather, it indicates that every aspect of our humanity is fallen. Our hearts, minds, and wills are corrupted by sin. And the devastating effects of the depravity do not merely scratch the surface of human life, but cut to its very core. The result is that lost persons are unable to choose what is spiritually good. As far as society is concerned, they may live morally responsible lives, but a love for the God of the Bible and a desire to live a holy life before him are absent.

2. Unconditional Election: If humanity is spiritually dead, the only way for sinners to be saved is by God choosing to bring them to spiritual life. A resurrection is needed. Once the biblical view of human sinfulness is embraced, it becomes immediately clear why we are without hope apart from the electing grace of God.

But there is hope. From a world of fallen sinners, God chose to save many. He undertakes to do for sinners what they cannot do for themselves. He raises the spiritually dead. He gives new life. He saves the lost. He brings them to heaven. Predestination and election are the words used in relationship to God's choice of men and women for salvation. Those sinners who are predestined to eternal life are called "the elect."

Because all humans are by nature spiritually dead and unable to choose what is spiritually right, God's decree of election cannot be dependent upon any foreseen act of obedience on the sinner's part (for example, future faith or repentance). The election of sinners to salvation is based solely upon God's good pleasure (Eph. 1:9, 2 Tim. 1:9, Rom. 9:10-18). Therefore, Reformed Christians teach the doctrine of unconditional election.

3. Particular Atonement (often also known as Limited Atonement—more on that in a moment): Christians who are not a part of the Reformed tradition believe that Jesus died for every person. By his death, Christ suffered for the forgiveness and redemption of all. Yet, only those who believe are actually forgiven and saved. In a very real sense, this view means that much of Christ's suffering was in vain. Whole hosts of people for whom Christ died are never saved.

Reformed Christians dispute this understanding of Christ's death. We do not believe it accurately describes Christ's work on the cross. Scripture teaches, we believe, that from before the creation of the world God chose an elect people for salvation (Eph. 1:4). For these people (and these alone), God sent his Son to purchase salvation (John 10:11). Jesus prays that the benefits of his death might be applied to these people; he does not pray in this way for the world out of which they were taken (John 17:9). Not one drop of Jesus' blood is spilled in vain, for all that the Father has given him will come to him (John 6:38,39).

Reformed Christians speak of a particular atonement. It was for the particular sins of particular people that Christ died. The purpose of Christ's death was not to make salvation a possibility for all persons, but to make salvation a certainty for his people, the elect of God.

Sometimes Presbyterians speak of a "limited" or "definite" atonement. What they mean is precisely what I have described here. Christ died to atone for the sins of a definite group of people. From this viewpoint, the scope of Christ's work is limited to the elect.

4. Irresistible Grace: God's intention in the death of Christ was to save his elect. That mission is perfectly accomplished. To be saved the elect must undergo a radical change of heart. The old sinful nature must be destroyed and a new nature, which seeks after God, given in its place. Only God can bring about such a mighty change. God promises his people that he will give to them a new heart (Ezek. 36:26). This change of heart is presented in various ways in the Bible. Believers are born again (John 3:8); are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17); are raised from spiritual death to life (Eph. 2:4-7). New birth, new creation, spiritual resurrection—these are the words representing the new heart. They magnify not our own human decisions, but the awesome power of the God who has chosen to transform sinners so that they will come to Jesus Christ as he is offered in the gospel.

God never fails in this work of spiritual transformation. All of the elect receive a new heart that seeks Jesus. With new hearts they will freely embrace Jesus in faith and repentance. Undoubtedly, the elect of God are (like the rest of mankind) sinners from birth who resist him, but in each elect person the grace of God ultimately triumphs. Therefore, Reformed Christians speak of God's irresistible grace. God's grace accomplishes what God intends. All whom God has elected to salvation will come to Christ.

The Bible is not a collection of a few disconnected stories about religious life in ancient times, but the unfolding of God's eternal plan to claim for himself a people perfect in holiness and love. All barriers separating holy God from his people are torn down and overcome by the triumphant power of his grace.

5. Perseverance of the Saints: All "those [God] predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified" (Rom. 8:30). This verse has often been called the "golden chain". All whom God has chosen as his own will be finally and completely saved in glory.

The biblical doctrine that believers are kept in faith by the power of God is called the perseverance of the saints. "Saints" used here is another word for the elect. God's great work of salvation began before the creation of the world as he set apart an elect people to be holy and blameless before him (Eph. 1:4, 2 Thess. 2:13). God's saving work continued as he sent his Son into the world to die for the elect, and then continues as his Spirit works to bring all the elect to saving faith in Jesus so that they experience the benefits of his life and death. God will persevere in the work he has begun in his people. Because he perseveres believers will persevere also (Phil. 2:13). Salvation is God's work. He never fails.

The doctrines of grace (a term I prefer to the term "Calvinism," for they are the doctrines not of a single man but the doctrines of Scripture) should powerfully influence our day-to-day lives.

The doctrines of grace subdue our pride. The reason God elects one person to salvation and leaves another to perish in sin forever is not because the individual is in some way more attractive than the other. Remember, God's election is unconditional.

The implications of this truth for the life of the church are staggering. We are not saved because of our status in society, or our intellect, or our wealth or poverty, or our dependable character, or because of our potential usefulness to Christ's kingdom. We are Christians because of God's free grace—pure and simple. Every manifestation of elitism within the body of Christ is a repudiation of the basic gospel truth that we are who we are by the work of God and not our own effort.

The doctrines of grace lead to our heart-felt worship. Some ask, "Why didn't God choose to save everyone?" Although the question represents a sincere desire to understand God's plan, it approaches the issue from the wrong direction. The question is not "Why did God not choose to save everyone?," but, given the Bible's teaching about human sin and God's holiness, "Why did God choose to save anyone?" Vibrant Christians are those people who, having studied the word of God, come to a sense of their unworthiness. They are overwhelmed that God would lovingly conquer their own hatred of him, and save them in Christ Jesus. Where joyful worship is missing, a true knowledge of the depth of human sin and of the grace and glory of God in salvation are missing too.

The doctrines of grace personalize the gospel for us. When we understand the truths of God's electing love and the death of Christ for the elect people of God, we understand that God did more than make salvation a possibility. Rather, we can say with confidence that Christ "loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). When Jesus went to the cross, he went to reconcile specific persons to the heavenly Father. "He suffered for me, he bled for me, he died for me," are the words of all Christians who know that Jesus took their personal sins to Calvary, and there died for them.

The doctrines of grace give us a strong sense of identity. God chose us before the creation of the world. We were redeemed by the death of Christ, and the Holy Spirit personally applied the work of Christ to our hearts. The biblical doctrine of salvation is an intensely personal love story of the Triune God who has sought us and won us to himself.

The doctrines of grace cultivate in us a life of absolute dependence upon God. At no point in the Christian life are we able to carry on by ourselves. From the new creation to final glory, we rely totally upon the power of God. When we are tempted to believe our pursuit of holiness is hopeless, we must turn your eyes away from your own weakness to the glorious, unfailing plan of God for us. We will persevere in faith because God will persevere in us.

The doctrines of grace lead to our fervent prayer in evangelism. We should be very energetic in presenting the gospel to unbelievers. We should be just as energetic, however, in praying that God will grant a new heart to those with whom we share the gospel. Our evangelism will never see the fruit of new believers without the demonstration of God's power in granting the new birth to the lost.


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