Calvin D. Keller
Many people have a very negative view of the term Calvinism. Most people are also ignorant of what true Calvinists believe. This article has been written to present a clear and simple statement of what Calvinism is, along with scriptural support for it. I hope that as you read this, you will find it to be what the Bible teaches. (For every Bible-believing Christian, that should be the end of the matter!) Also, I hope that you will find the truths of Calvinism to be powerful and life-changing, which we ought to expect the truth of God to be.
If you are trusting in your own goodness for salvation, you will be disappointed—no matter how good you are. But if you have a desire to know God and his truth, you will be challenged—and I hope moved—to trust him more and rely on his sovereign grace.
Let me first point out that “the five points of Calvinism” are not a summary of Calvinism or the Reformed faith. They are simply a response to five objections that Arminians have raised to the Calvinistic teaching about the sovereignty of God.
Now I will attempt to be brief and clear, as well as positive. I will tell you what we do believe instead of what we do not believe: we believe that man is one hundred percent responsible for his behavior. Why do I begin here? I begin here because many people wrongly assume that Calvinism denies human responsibility. But this could not be further from the truth. I cannot emphasize human responsibility enough, because the Scriptures emphasize it so much.
Man is responsible before God as one who bears his image (Gen. 1:26–27), and who therefore is able to respond to him. That is why the gospel is preached to people and not to dogs and cats. Man has the faculties of mind and will that are all connected in what the Bible calls his “heart.” Christianity, you see, is a religion of the heart.
This leads us to the first point of Calvinism, which asks, What is the condition of man’s heart? What is the natural man like? The Bible answers, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9 KJV). Jesus said that the problem with man is his heart. His heart must be changed (see Mark 7:20–23; Matt. 7:16–19).
This means, basically, that man has a sinful heart. All of his faculties are affected by the Fall. His mind and his will are affected and controlled, not by some outside force, but by his heart, which is bent away from God. There are many “good” people in the world whose company we may enjoy, but the Bible tells us what the condition of their heart is before God, apart from Christ.
We do not appeal to the “free will” of men, because man’s will is not free. Rather, it is in bondage to sin. You and I were born into the world as slaves of sin. Jesus tells us of the radical need we have because of sin: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). Furthermore, the Bible says, “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:11). “The mind of sinful man is death ...; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (Rom. 8:6–8).
The natural man “does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Instead of trying to appeal to the natural mind (the supposedly free will), we proclaim the gospel to sinners, because it is the power of God for salvation. Through the gospel, God changes people’s hearts! Man needs a savior, not someone to help him save himself.
Now the next three points of Calvinism have to do with the three Persons of the Godhead (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and how they are working together to save sinful people. Because of man’s sinful condition, if God simply left it up to people to decide for themselves, by the exercise of their own “free will,” whether or not they would trust and follow Christ, he would not find anyone doing so. But God has not left man in the condition into which he has fallen. God “has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Tim. 1:9).
God has chosen to save some people, not because of anything in them (for all are equally fallen and have inherited the same heart condition), but because of something in him. God saves certain people, called “the elect,” because he has chosen to set his love and grace upon them. “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16).
The fountainhead of salvation is God’s electing love. “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Notice that the apostle Paul does not speak about “what” God foreknew, but about “those” people whom he foreknew. The point is that God foreknew individuals.
The word “foreknew” is a term expressing the intimacy of personal knowledge. God set his love upon certain individuals before the world was ever created, and planned out their salvation from beginning to end. See the chain of salvation summarized in Romans 8:30. It is unbroken, and it is complete.
“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons” (Eph. 1:4–5). Election is not a fatalistic notion detached from love. It is the amazing revelation of God’s love that he chose to love sinners with an everlasting love to the end that they would be saved! (Much more could be said here, but I will be brief and move on.)
“All that the father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day” (John 6:37–39).
The point here is that Jesus came for the express purpose of saving his people. He did not come simply to make salvation possible for them if they wanted it. By his death, he actually purchased them and redeemed them. Jesus said that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
We call this doctrine “definite atonement” because Jesus made a definite atonement for the sin of his people. He made a real and full satisfaction for sin, and thereby truly accomplished salvation for his people. This is why he could cry from the cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).
Jesus is sincerely offered to everyone in the preaching of the gospel. His death is of infinite worth. It is not limited in its power. But God has not chosen to save every man, woman, and child. “Many are invited,” Jesus said, “but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Only those whom he has chosen will respond with genuine faith to the preaching of the gospel.
There is a real hell, and there will be people in hell, but none of those for whom Christ died will be there.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44). The Father draws his elect through the work of the Holy Spirit, whom he sends to do that work. Believers believe because God has changed their hearts and opened their eyes so that they can see and love the truth. Christianity is a religion of the heart!
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is [has been] born of God” (1 John 5:1). The preaching recorded in the book of Acts was successful because of God’s election. “All who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). God changes the heart of man and makes him alive. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins.... But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:1–5).
We have a wonderful analogy given to us in the gospel account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38–44). Lazarus was dead; he did not “cooperate” in his resurrection. Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, gave him the gift of life, and then Lazarus exercised his new energies in obedience to the voice of Christ. Dead men don’t obey.
Jesus proclaimed that you must be born again (John 3:3). Just as you did not have anything to do with your natural birth, so also, if you are a believer, you had nothing to do with your new birth. No one decides to be born—or to be reborn. God decides that, and changes our heart so that we welcome his decision.
The fifth point of Calvinism describes the new creation in Christ.
Jesus will lose none of those for whom he died. God is able to save his people. Paul confidently proclaims this truth at the end of Romans 8. Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord!
Calvinism is not an ominous, fatalistic doctrine. Rather, it is the gospel of the power of God to save. If you are a believer and have seen some measure of sanctification in your life, you can rejoice and with faithful confidence know that it is because God has loved you with an eternal love and has showered his grace on you.
Now you can “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12–13). Calvinism is not an excuse for presumption and careless living. Paul is speaking to those who believe and he reminds them that God is at work in them. Both the desire and the doing are of God. So he confidently says to them, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
Why does Paul have this confidence? Because “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:30–31).
I hope that you find this refreshing. There are many Calvinists who forget their own theology and become negative people. I hope you can see that Calvinism is anything but negative. This is the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation to all who believe! It magnifies God’s grace and mercy! Salvation is truly of the Lord. It causes the apostle Paul to worship God. It should elicit this same worship from us as well.
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:33–36).
The truths of Calvinism should also give us a real confidence in the ministry and mission of the church. We know that people will be saved through the proclamation of the good news, not because of our ability to persuade or their ability and desire to believe, but because God has ordained the salvation of many and is working to carry it out. He has determined not only the ends, but also the means, which is, the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 10:14–17).
Mr. Keller is the pastor of Cornerstone OPC in Chattanooga, TN. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 1999.