Because you clicked on this blog post, you likely fall into one of three categories: 1) you are an individual who is curious about what “Calvinism” is, maybe it is because you have never heard of it or you have heard it used in discussions but have never been taught what it means; 2) you are an individual who identifies as a Calvinist and you are interested in reading more about it; or 3) you are an individual who is utterly opposed to Calvinism and you find yourself here attempting to further justify your opposition to this set of doctrine.
No matter which category you find yourself in, I am grateful that you are here. My goal in this post is to not give an exhaustive description of what Calvinism is, but to present a simplified description for the average lay Christian, who does not have the time to read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and wants to know what these doctrines teach practically. I hope to share what Calvinism, or the “doctrines of grace”, is while also answering some common objections.
I will say here at the beginning that I am not a Calvin expert or historian, but I am one who has gone from opposing these teachings to now one who holds to them dearly as biblical convictions. I identify as a Calvinist not because of John Calvin, but because I have found these doctrines to be biblical. So let’s get started!
What does Calvinism Mean?
Calvinism is most commonly explained by using the acronym TULIP. TULIP stands for Total Depravity (T), Unconditional Election (U), Limited Atonement (L), Irrisitible Grace (I), and Perseverance of the Saints (P). Though I affirm this acronym, I like to explain Calvinism by stating it is simply a high view of God that believes God is able to do whatever He wants (Psalm 115:3). This is the central affirmation of Calvinism. The heart of the true Calvinist is not about seeking theological pride, but striving to give God the maximum amount of glory as seen in the Scriptures. Charles Spurgeon once said:
“To me, Calvinism means the placing of the eternal God at the head of all things.”An All Around Ministry, pg. 337
Breaking Down “TULIP”
T – Total Depravity: Our sinful corruption is so deep and so strong as to make us slaves to sin and morally unable to overcome our own rebellion and spiritual blindness. This inability is total. All mankind is spiritually dead in sin by nature. We are utterly dependent on God’s grace to overcome our rebellion, give us eyes to see Christ as supremely valuable, and effectively draw us to the Savior.
- Scripture references: Genesis 6:11-12, 8:21; Psalm 51:5; John 3:19; Romans 3:10-18; Ephesians 2:1-3
- Common objection: But what about free will? Total depravity does not deny human freedom as many claim. It affirms that our will as human beings is by nature in bondage to sin and we will continue to choose sin rather than Christ until God graciously overcomes our rebellion and gives us the ability to freely choose Christ. Christ simply changes our will, He never removes it. We can see this clearly in John 3:16-21. Men will always love the darkness rather than the Light unless God intervenes.
U – Unconditional Election: Act of free grace from the Father that is given through the Son, Jesus Christ, before the world began. By this act, God chose before the foundation of the world those who would be saved, delivered from the bondage of sin, and brought to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus by the power of the Spirit.
- Scripture references: Deuteronomy 7:7-8; Jeremiah 1:5; John 17:6; Acts 13:48; Romans 8:28-33, 9; Ephesians 1:1-12, 2:8-9
- Common objection #1: “Calvinists don’t believe in evangelism!” Many claim that Calvinists do not believe in fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20) because, after all, God has already decided who will be saved right? This could not be further from the truth. We believe salvation is of the Lord (Psalm 3:8) and God’s primary means of saving the elect is through the ministry of the word of God (Romans 10:14-17). We share Christ with all people because only God knows who He has predestined for salvation in Christ. The Calvinist has absolute assurance that people will be saved through the ministry of the Word because God has prepared a people for Himself (Matthew 9:35-38; Romans 9:6).
- Common objection #2: “Doesn’t God want all to be saved?” God does not wish that any should perish (2 Pet. 3:9) and neither should we. However, God’s greater desire, even over the salvation of sinners, is to display the full range of His glory (Romans 9:22-23) which results in God giving some sinners mercy, and some just wrath due to their sin. God is glorified in both salvation and in condemnation. This is a difficult teaching if we understand the Bible to be about us and God saving sinners rather than God being about His own glory.
L – Limited (Definite) Atonement: The atonement of Christ is sufficient for all humans and effective for only those who trust in Christ. The cross is not limited in its work or sufficiency to save all who believe, but it has been prepared for those whom the Father has given Christ before the foundation of the world. The full saving effect of the atonement was accomplished for those for whom it was prepared, the elect. The cross of Christ was not a work by Christ that was done in an attempt to save as many people as possible. The cross of Christ was a work by Christ that actually saved all the people for whom it was prepared – making the atonement not a hopeful opportunity but a definite salvation that was secured for God’s people. This is why Jesus proclaimed tetelestai on the cross, meaning “it is finished!” (John 19:30).
- Scripture references: Psalm 65:1-4; Isaiah 53; Matthew 26:28; Mark 10:45; John 10:15, 26, 11:50-52, 17:6, 9, 19; Ephesians 5:25-27; Hebrews 9:28; Revelation 5:9
- Common objection: “Calvinism puts a limitation on the cross of Christ!” This is actually true, but my point here is that every orthodox (faithful) teaching on the atonement is limited in some way. Every Christian should deny the heresy of Universalism – teaching that everyone is saved through the cross regardless if they put faith in Christ or not. Thus, for those who deny limited atonement in the Calvinistic understanding of the doctrine still limit the atonement to only those who have faith in Christ. The cross has always been limited in saving only those who trust in Christ. Calvinism simply takes a step further in affirming that not one drop of the Savior’s blood was in vain. Every drop secured the salvation of those the Father has given Christ. We see this most clearly in Romans 8:29-32. Who are the “us” in verse 32? They are the people in verses 29-31.
I – Irresistible Grace: Since men are dead in sin and spiritually blind to the worth of Christ, a miracle is needed in order for anyone to be saved. God overcomes all resistance to Christ when He wills. If God wills to save a man, God indeed will do it. Regeneration of the Spirit (new birth) precedes faith. God must first awaken the sinner and give him/her eyes to see their need for Christ. God calls all people to repent, but that call brings nobody to Christ unless it is accompanied by the special effectual call of the Holy Spirit.
- Scripture references: Psalm 115:3; Job 42:2; Daniel 4:35; John 6:44; Romans 9:14-18; Ephesians 2:1-10
- Common objection: “But I know I can resist the Spirit!” This doctrine does not teach that every influence of the Spirit cannot be resisted (Acts 7:51; Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19). It means that the Holy Spirit, whenever He chooses, can overcome all resistance and make His influence in our lives irresistible (Daniel 4:35; Psalm 115:3; Job 42:2).
P – Perseverance of the Saints: All who are justified will win the fight of faith. Those whom are saved in Christ by grace through faith will never lose their salvation but will endure to the end in faith. Notice the “golden chain” of Romans 8:30. Those whom are predestined are always called, those whom are called are always justified, and those whom are justified are always glorified.
- Scripture references: Romans 8:30; Philippians 1:6; Jude 24-25; 1 Peter 1:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; 1 Corinthians 1:8-9; Hebrews 13:20-21
The acronym “TULIP” is deeply rooted in Scripture and can cause one to study the depths of the word for years, but how is it actually experienced in our lives? In what order do we practically see these doctrines come to life?
- We first experience our depravity and need of salvation.
- We then experience the irresistible grace of God leading us toward faith in Christ.
- We then experience the trust in the sufficiency of the atoning death of Christ on the cross for our sins.
- We then experience the discovery that behind the work of Christ to atone (cover) for our sins and bring us to faith was the unconditional election of God.
- We finally experience the rest in God’s electing grace to give us the strength and the will to persevere to the end in faith.
So there it is, Calvinism in the length of a blog post. There are many things I left out that I wish I could have said, but I know I would be breaking the rules for proper blog length. My prayer is that you would see that Calvinism is all about giving God the maximum amount of glory. I identify as a Calvinist because I realized that every point of its doctrine is rooted in Scripture and not philosophy alone. I tried for years to reject these “doctrines of grace”, trying to prove they were false. I read countless books in opposition to Calvinism. At the end of the day, I could not keep running from Scripture. I had to look at these doctrines with an open mind. In doing so I realized that my former understanding of God and myself was man-centered and not God-centered. Because I now affirm these doctrines, I can say with great assurance – Soli Deo Gloria! (To God alone be the glory!).