A Sketch of Calvinism

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  • A Sketch of Calvinism

    by David P. Henreckson

    Through the apostolic age... through the medieval age... through the Reformation... and through modernism there has stood one group of Christians who have always been a thorn and menace to the ruling rebels of this world. One group which, by the grace of God, has always been able to endure much tragedy and travail and yet come out of the fire with more confidence and vigor than before. Nations have fallen before the might of the Word which this movement proclaims with such accuracy and boldness; rulers have repented with the same humbleness as the king of Ninevah in the time of Jonah. What is this movement which founded and revived our nation as well as that of the English, Scottish, German, and the rest of Christendom during the medieval period? What is this group that has authored and defended the foremost theological confessions of history.

    This now maligned movement is labeled Calvinism, although the critics of this movement know full-well that the set of doctrines to which this movement holds did not originate with Calvin. The glorious history of this group includes the martyrs of the early church, the conquerors of the pagan nations during the medieval period, and during the Reformation, the French Huguenots, English Puritans, and the Scottish Covenanters. But now, if anyone has even heard of Calvinism, they pucker up their lips, contort their face grotesquely, and start muttering such evil epitaphs as “Servetus... Witch trials... Predestination!!!”

    What exactly caused the glorious history of Calvinism? What doctrinal back-bone has effected such victory in the church’s history, but causes modernist “scholars” to gag? The answer to these questions lies in the so-called, “five points of Calvinism” (which actually were constructed in response to the rival five points of Arminianism). In the following essays I shall explain the meaning of the five points and, hopefully, convince the reader of their truth and Biblical accuracy.

    TOTAL INABILITY

    Ephesians 2:1-9:

    "And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of the world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as others.

    "But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast."

    The modern conception of regeneration (the renewing of our souls in salvation) is that of a sick man lying in bed. He is so sick (in sin) that a doctor (the Holy Spirit) must be called. When the doctor arrives, he gets out his healing medicine, pours it into a spoon and offers it to the patient. The patient may either accept or refuse the medicine. This is the analogy used by one of the foremost evangelists of our time. However, does this analogy line up with Scripture? According to Ephesians 2, no it does not. What is the analogy which Paul uses to describe our former state? "And you He made alive, who were *dead* in trespasses and sins." The picture which Paul paints shows us the unregenerate man as *unable* to accept the healing medicine. Instead, like Lazarus, the dead unregenerate soul made alive to salvation.

    "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." If the unregenerate soul is sick rather than dead, doesn't he have the right to boast in his part in the healing - accepting the medicine? The Arminian view of sin is that of a man being 99% sinful - 1% good. All man has to do, according to the Arminian, is utilize that 1% of goodness left over from before the Fall towards salvation. The final choice of whether or not to accept salvation is left up to the sinner! Is it God's work, or not?!

    Romans 3:10-12:

    "As it is written: There is none righteous, no not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no not one."

    "Now, come on Paul! Do you really mean that I can't do good? I mean, just yesterday I helped a little old lady across the street!" This is the typical reaction to Romans 3. Modern man just can't believe that Paul would actually say this. "He must have meant something else!" they say. But, no, Paul meant what he said. Man is totally unable to do good. If, as in the example above, someone does a "good" thing, it is only because God had extended his common grace to that person.

    John 6:44:

    "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him..."

    In the Greek, the verb for "draws" is much stronger than most translations put it. Literally, it means "drags." Unregenerate man does not want, and in fact hates the things of God. But when God decides to claim someone for His own, that regenerate person all of a sudden wants, and in fact loves the things of God (John 3:5-6). We are treading on the ground of the fourth point, Irresistible Grace, so I will continue this thought later.

    John 8:34-36:

    "Jesus answered them, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits a sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.'"

    The passage above describes what Martin Luther called "the bondage of the will." Man is either a slave to sin (John 8:44; I John 3:10; 2 Timothy 2:26), or a slave to God (Philippians 1:1; Romans 6:6,17). Man cannot both be a slave to evil and a slave to God. He cannot be half-evil, half-good. Either he relies on his filthy rags of good-works, or he relies on the pure righteousness of Christ's works.

    Every single one of the "five points of Calvinism" is dependent upon the other four. They cannot be separated. But if there was one point on which the whole system is based, it would be Total Inability. If man can choose God in his sin, then there is no need for election, regeneration, or sanctification. If man's unregenerate soul and mind can choose to do good (by accepting the things of God), why would God need to renew his old soul and mind? Either we accept the Bible's teachings on man's utter sinfulness, or we will rely on our one-work salvation of accepting Christ without the Holy Spirit's help. Either we praise God for His graciousness in regenerating us, or we boast in our holiness because we decided to accept Christ and our next-door neighbor did not. If we know that salvation is all God's work, we will stop relying on ourselves, and instead look to Christ for help.

    THE SOVEREIGN ELECTION OF GOD

    Romans 9:10-21:

    "And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, 'The older shall serve the younger.' As it is written, 'Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated.'

    "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.' So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, 'For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.' Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.

    "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?' But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, 'Why have you made me like this?' Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?"

    If one were to read this passage not knowing who wrote it, one might think, "Ah! This is from Calvin's Institutes!" But no, God, speaking through Paul, has declared quite lucidly how salvation works: "It is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy." Who does the choosing, man or God? Clearly, it is God who chooses us based not on our merits, but because He wishes to show mercy. Surely this cannot be God's way of salvation, some might object. Surely God is not this arbitrary! Surely man must decide for himself! Those who hold such views hold a higher view of man than is proper or true. To illustrate, let us say that it is man who does the choosing. Now, let us ask the question of the free-willer, "Why did you choose God?" How can he reply? If God woos everyone with the same effect, how did this free-willer come to repentance? The only logical answer is that he had more holiness than did unregenerate Joe down the street. But, of course, even the one who believes in "free-will" admits this isn't true.

    The free-will Arminian will then resort to this logic: "God must look down the corridors of time and see who will choose Him and then elect that person.... Ah, yes! That must be it!" This is not the case, says Paul in verses 11-13. Jacob was loved and Esau hated before they were even born; before they had done any evil or good! God never chooses anyone based on their own future righteousness.

    In desperation, the Arminian will cry, "Why then does God find fault if everyone abides according to His decree and will?" How does Paul respond to this charge against God? "Who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, 'Why have you made me like this?' Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?" "But doesn't God 'owe' grace to everyone?" says the Arminian. "After all, everything must be fair!" But God says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion." God doesn't owe His grace to anyone! Man has been rebelling against God since Eden; Man has broken his covenant with God. God does not owe anything to man except destruction and fiery judgment! Theologian RC Sproul writes, "Justice imposes obligation, but grace, in its essence, is voluntary and free."

    Ephesians 1:3-6,11:

    "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.... In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will."

    In verses 3-6 Paul breaks a cardinal rule of grammar: never ramble and create a run-on sentence. Now what could cause Paul to get so excited that he breaks into a doxology of sorts? Why, nothing other than the doctrine of election! God "chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world... being predestined according... to the counsel of His will." It is very strange to me how people could revile the doctrine of election as they do. It is such a marvelous and wonderful thing to me that God would reach down and cleanse me from my impurities, knowing that I deserve nothing good from Him. The only thing I have been able to figure is that people think better of mankind than they ought. If we view man as basically good or even basically evil - but not totally corrupt - we allow there to be some inner goodness left in man. The Fall was not total, in other words; man has just enough goodness to go that final mile by accepting Christ "into his heart." This is not orthodox Christianity; this is humanism. Strong words, I know, but the Bible never allows for any goodness in man other than goodness which God has placed in us by His grace. Our good works are but filthy rags.

    We must glory in the richness of God's grace, not our own good works. If man has enough goodness left in himself when he chooses to be saved, he has accomplished a one-work salvation. But salvation is not of works! History is the story of a massive, if unfairly matched, battle between the omnipotent God of the universe and puny mankind. Man has always wanted to be like his creator (Genesis 3:4-7), and has always tried to reverse the roles. But in the end, God will humble mankind and bring us into subjection under His rule. "For the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." May that day come soon!

    THE UNLIMITED POWER OF THE CROSS

    Every orthodox Christian will say that Christ’s death on the cross saved people from their sin. However, we must define what the word saved means. If you are an Arminian, the word saved means only that Christ’s death provided an opportunity for man’s salvation. If you take a Reformed view, you would define Christ’s death to be an effective death; that is, His death accomplished the salvation of the elect (Mat. 1:21, Acts 20:28). Loraine Boettner describes the differences between the Arminian and Calvinist quite well when he writes that the atonement “for the Calvinist is like a narrow bridge which goes all the way across a stream; for the Arminian it is like a great wide bridge which only goes half-way across. As a matter of fact, the Arminian places more severe limitations on the work of Christ than does the Calvinist.” So while the Arminian version of Christ’s atonement covers everyone who has ever lived, the atonement doesn’t actually save anyone, it only provides a way for someone to choose Christ.

    This area of doctrine clearly reveals the Arminians deepest flaw: that man has enough inner goodness to save himself. For if Christ’s death only provides half of the needed requirement for salvation, i.e. the offer, man naturally must provide the rest of the requirement and complete the work of redemption.

    In contrast to this man-centered theory stands the Reformed view, which declares that Christ’s death finished the work of redemption. Man receives absolutely no credit for his salvation and is totally undeserving of the great gift which he has been given.

    One passage of scripture that must be examined when discussing this subject is John 10:11-16. In these verses Christ draws an analogy between a shepherd and Himself. He declares that “the good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” Notice that He does not say that “the shepherd prepares a way of escape for the sheep, but they must choose to flee.” No, he says that the good shepherd effectively saves his herd from disaster. It is also interesting to notice that Christ compares people to sheep under attack. Sheep are totally helpless when being attacked by a powerful predator. In such a situation, the shepherd does not just provide a way for the sheep to escape, he must take the immediate and effective action of saving his sheep.

    The real controversy between Calvinists and Arminians, therefore, is not over the extent of salvation, but over the power of salvation and the cross. We should be longing for the day when Christians will not be resting their assurance in their own works, in their own salvation. Christ’s death on the cross efficaciously achieved victory for the great multitude of men who now call themselves Christians. Until the followers of Christ begin to recognize and admire the saving power of the cross, we will not see the message of the cross spread over the world in triumph. But when this happens, we will all rejoice over the unlimited power of the cross. Glory be to the One who saves!

    THE EFFECTIVE BIRTH

    The word grace is interpreted is many different ways. While all conservative evangelicals recognize that God bestows grace on certain people, the manner by which God gives the grace is a very controversial subject. To the Arminian, God shows grace by providing an opportunity for salvation to all men. This grace, however, is not an effective grace. According to the Arminian, God's grace does not actually achieve salvation, but only puts forth an offer for salvation. The Calvinist would disagree with this view and maintain that God's grace effectively accomplishes the whole task salvation for the elect.

    The usual evangelistic message used by Arminians will generally convey to the unbeliever that he alone has the choice of whether or not to except the gift of salvation. While the Calvinist does not deny that man must repent to be saved, he realizes that God, and not man, is the only One who can effectively bring about repentance and salvation. For man, being spiritually dead, must be awakened by God before he can come to salvation.

    After the fall, man lost all his ability to choose to do good, and became callous towards things of a spiritual nature (Jer. 17:9, Rom. 8:7,8). When Arminians claim that man possesses the ability to repent and come to salvation by himself, they deny that man is spiritually dead. But if man can choose God before regeneration, why does man need to be regenerated and given a new birth?

    Jesus says in John 3:3-8, "unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." What exactly does Jesus mean? Why does he draw an analogy between a baby being born and man being regenerated? In the same way that an infant cannot initiate or complete the process of birth, man cannot initiate or complete the process of regeneration. Regeneration occurs before belief, contrary to what Arminians would assert.

    Arminians insist that man can choose to believe and be saved. This is quite the opposite of what Jesus says in John 6:44, "no one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him." The Greek word for "draws" is more accurately translated as "drags." This passage makes it quite clear that no one will be saved unless God changes his heart. According to the Arminian gospel, God's grace is restricted in the extent of its power.

    Contrary to the Arminian belief, the Calvinist would say that God effectually calls his elect and changes their heart so as to make them want to repent. If man was left to himself he would never choose salvation, that is why God extends his sovereign grace to His people.

    Ephesians 2:1-9 plainly states that man is not merely sick or even close to death, but rather is totally dead in his sin. Christ has "made us alive" through His death on the cross. The Arminian seriously limits Christ's power when he says that Christ only provides the opportunity for salvation. Whereas the Calvinist knows that Jesus Christ does not just provide a way for salvation but actually and completely saves us from the penalty of our sin.

    The ultimate question is over whether man's will or God's grace will prevail in the matter of regeneration. Does grace have the power to change, or does man's defense system have the power to resist the Holy Spirit? Anyone who says that man's will may prevail over God's does not understand Scripture. Scripture does not allow for any compromise over God's omnipotence. May we always stand firm against the world of unbelief and affirm the truth of God's Word, not our own goodness.

    PRESERVATION OF THE SAINTS

    John 10:27-29:

    "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hands."

    Unfortunately, the theology of many modern Christians includes a belief that man is at least as powerful - if not more so - as God. I can picture all the Arminians readers of this essay jumping up and down in protest at this statement, so let me expound a little more. The last portion of the passage above says that the Father is greater and more powerful than all. The Arminian will at least grant this. But does the Arminian who believes that Christ can lose a Christian really believe that God is powerful enough even to keep His own from tripping? Once Christ has called someone to be His own, can He lose that person? The Biblical answer is "no!" John 3:16, probably the most well-known passage in the Bible says that those who believe in Christ will not perish. Christ will never allow one of His sheep to stay lost.

    But what about those who "back-slide?" asks the Arminian. Peter "back-slid" after Christ's betrayal by Judas. He denied Christ three times and yet Christ later rescued him from sin and set him up as the rock upon which the church would be built. If someone *truly* has been regenerated and then fallen away, he will eventually be rescued by Christ. In this way, we must also remember that Judas, one of the original twelve disciples, fell away and was not rescued because he was never truly regenerated.

    Once again, we come back to the ultimate difference between Calvinism and Arminianism; the first system of belief says that God is in complete control and has sovereign authority, the latter system says that God is sort-of in control and that man is a co-regent with God in ruling the world. Arminians believe that even after being regenerated man is still his own boss and that man will do what he wants when he wants to do it. This position cannot be defended exegetically. Once someone has been freed from sin he is a slave to God (Romans 6:22). And God will not allow his slave to run away! "No one can snatch them out of My hand." A good analogy would be a man and an elephant having a tug-o-war match - the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Man may try to rebel against God, but in the end God will triumph.
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