The Case for Calvinism

By James M. Rochford

Calvinism comes from the theology of John Calvin—one of the great theological minds of the Reformation. However, this term is really a misnomer. Many Calvinists argue that this teaching originates in Augustine in the fourth century (and others argue it originally goes back to Paul in the first century!). Calvin himself did not emphasize predestination in his Institutes (he only mentioned it in four chapters). While he taught predestination and election, he warned against delving too deeply into this subject. He writes:

First, then, when they inquire into predestination, let them remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity will enter in inextricable labyrinth. For it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear. Those secrets of his will, which he has seen it meet to manifest, are revealed in his word—revealed in so far as he knew to be conducive to our interest and welfare.[1]

However, Calvinism became one of the central teachings of Reformed Theology, expressed by the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619.[2] Calvinists make their case in this way:

1. God’s sovereignty and decrees

Calvinists argue that God is completely in control of all things and his decrees are never frustrated by anything. Thus even a sinner’s freewill cannot get in the way of what God wants. For instance, Isaiah writes that God declares “the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’… Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it” (Isa. 46:10-11). Likewise, Paul writes that God “predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). If God predestines all things, Calvinists ask, then how can we as humans claim to choose for our salvation?[3]

2. Total depravity

Calvinists next emphasize the complete inability of humans to come to Christ on their own. Specifically, they will often ask how it is possible for dead people to become alive, unless God causes this (“You were dead in your trespasses and sins” Eph. 2:1). Calvinists will often ask, “How much did you decide to be born physically?” Similarly, they argue, we do not have a choice in our spiritual birth, either. For instance, Calvinist James Montgomery Boice writes,

Like a spiritual corpse, he is unable to make a single move toward God, think a right thought about God, or even respond to God—unless God first brings this spiritually dead corpse to life.[4]

No one is responsible for his or her physical birth. It is only as a human egg and sperm join, grow, and finally enter this world that birth occurs. The process is initiated and nurtured by the parents. Likewise spiritual rebirth is initiated and nurtured by our heavenly Father and is not our own doing.[5]

Paul writes that “there is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11), and Jesus said it is “impossible” for people to be saved, but “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). Before Christ saved us, “We were still helpless” (Rom. 5:6), loving “the darkness rather than the Light” (Jn. 3:19). While Arminians often argue that freewill plays a role in our salvation, John writes that we were not saved by “the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13).

3. Salvation is a complete and finished work of God—not man

According to the Calvinist, if we contribute to our salvation (by adding a faith decision), then we spoil our salvation (it becomes works). However, the Bible says that we were saved by grace—not works. Paul writes that our salvation was “the gift of God; not as a result of works” (Eph. 2:8-9). Even our faith—according to Calvinists—was “the gift of God.” Since “nothing good dwells in me” (Rom. 7:18) according to Paul, we don’t even have the power to exert faith without God doing this for us. As the apostle Paul writes, “Those whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). Freewill isn’t involved anywhere in this picture; the entire act of salvation was a completed work of God—not man.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 21, Section 1.

[2] A synod is a church council. The Synod of Dort was a council held by the Dutch Reformed Church. It was a response to the writing published posthumously by Jacob Arminius’ followers. Arminius (founder of Arminianism) challenged the Reformed Belgic Confession.

[3] Arminians object to this Calvinist view of sovereignty, arguing that this would make God the cause of evil. Moreover, Arminians ask, “Why should we lament during times of evil and suffering (Rom. 12:9)?” If God causes all things to occur for his own glory, then why shouldn’t we be celebrating every time there is an earthquake or dead infant?

[4] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 74.

[5] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 148.