Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church Lexington, KY. Pastor Earl Thomas
Pleasant Ridge Baptist ChurchLexington, KY. Pastor Earl Thomas

CALVINISM DEFINED

by: A. C. Smith Vol. VIII, No. 5, May 1995 - Baptist Heritage

With a recent news story in the Religious Herald that Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a five-point Calvinist, and the letters to the editor in the Herald, it seems that many do not understand the evangelical Calvinism of Mohler and early Southern Baptists such as James P. Boyce, who founded Southern. In a recent interview with Howard Baldwin, the interim director of the Southern Baptist Conservatives, I asked him if Calvinism would divide conservatives. He said it wouldn't and replied, "Al Mohler believes the same thing that Billy Graham believes." Graham himself writes: "...the Bible teaches that man is dead in trespasses and sins, and his great need is life. We do not have within ourselves the seed of the new life; this must come from God Himself' [How to be Born Again, Waco: Word, p, 179].

Many conversations caricature Calvinists as believing in a capricious God who refuses to save people who want to be saved. I recognize that among conservative Southern Baptists there are a variety of views regarding Calvinism. God's election versus free will seems a paradox to the finite, human mind. But both are taught in scripture. Theologians have spent their lives either trying to reconcile them, or emphasizing one over the other, I consider myself an evangelical Calvinist. And the views presented herein are my own and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Banner. This article shall present the views of evangelical Calvinism so that people may discuss the subject intelligently.

Calvinism is known by the acrostic, "TULIP". The "T" stands for total depravity; the "U" unconditional election; the "L" for limited atonement; the "I" irresistible grace; and the "P" is for perseverance of the saints. John Calvin, the sixteenth century church reformer, held some views which would be rejected by Baptists. For example, his views on the church would differ with Baptist ecclesiology. But Calvin is most well-known for his stress on the Sovereignty of God,

Calvinism contrasts with Arminianism, which is named after James Arminius. He was born in Oudewater, Holland in 1560. Arminius studied under Theodore Beza, a pupil and successor of Calvin at the University of Geneva. While serving as pastor in Amsterdam, Arminius undertook a detailed study of Calvinistic teaching, which he rejected. The views he arrived at contrasted with Calvinism [Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, Foundations of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology, Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, p. 46-47]. Arminians believe, for example, that a saved person could lose his/her salvation, rather than believing in eternal security or the perseverance of the saints. Arminians differ not just on the "P," but all the other points as well.

Total Depravity

The "T", total depravity, means that man is thoroughly sinful. This doesn't mean people are as bad as they can possible be. But it does mean that man is completely sinful. It could be illustrated by a muddy river: The river is entirely muddy, but that doesn't mean it's as muddy as it could be.

The Calvinist understands that even lost people can do relatively good acts. An unbeliever who is unethical in his business practices may make a donation to charity. Or a person may be a good neighbor and not beat his wife, but refuses to have anything to do with the Lord or His work. Yet the "good" that the lost do is not done in faith.

Recently, many people were asking themselves how anyone could blow up innocent people in Oklahoma City. Why is it that children have to be taught to be honest and good? The answer is, the total depravity of humankind. The prophet Jeremiah described humankind's inward-most being when he wrote, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (17:9, all verses in this article are from the New International Version, unless otherwise noted.) David expressed it this way: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psa 51:5).

As it relates to salvation, total depravity means there is nothing in the natural man himself that he can do to be saved. "As it is written: `There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who does good, not even one"' (Roman 3:1012). People do not naturally search for God. This leaves humankind in quite a dilemma. How can anyone be saved? Fortunately, God has taken the initiative. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for sin. Furthermore, God also sent His Holy Spirit to bring sinners to life so they can believe in Christ. The Calvinist believes that people believe in Jesus because God's Spirit has awakened them. The reason anyone confesses Christ as Savior and Lord is because of the Holy Spirit: "Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,' and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3). People in their natural state are not going to receive Christ. They will not even understand a presentation of the gospel: "You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving" (Mat 13:14). The only ones who understand are those whom God the Holy Spirit has awakened.

Unconditional Election

Who is awakened by God? The elect, says the Calvinist. The second letter, "U" stands for unconditional election.

There are some related terms that are helpful in understanding election. The first is foreordination, which is "God's sovereign plan, whereby He decides all that is to happen in the entire universe" (Edwin H, Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, 1972, pp. 24-25). "He has foreordained everything ‘after the counsel of his will"' (Eph. 1:11l): the moving of a finger, the beating of a heart, the laughter of a girl,, the mistake of a typist – even sin" (Ibid.). God does not have to formally ordain sin. Where he does not actively prevent it by His grace, sin occurs. While the Arminian believes God controls the universe in a very general way, the Calvinist believes that God controls all.

The next term to understand is predestination, which is a part of foreordination. Predestination refers to "man's eternal destiny: heaven or hell" (Ibid.). Election means to choose. When a group elects a candidate, it makes a choice. Why does anyone come into a relationship with God? The Bible teaches that we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). "The man without the Spirit 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). If man cannot understand spiritual matters, he needs a supernatural work of God's Holy Spirit to bring him to life so that he can understand why Christ came and died upon the cross. Without the work of the Holy Spirit no one would ever believe in Christ. No one can say, "I am better or smarter or more moral, having been astute enough spiritually to believe in Christ." If that were the case, then believers would have something to boast about. The Calvinist believes that man has nothing to boast about in salvation.

The term "new birth" teaches us truth about regeneration – the work of the Holy Spirit, which makes us spiritually alive. When a person is born physically, he has no choice in the matter. What's true physically is also true spiritually. John 1:13 tells us that believers are "children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husbands's will, but born of God." The reason we believe in Jesus is because we have been born of God. When Calvinists say that election is unconditional they mean that God does not elect people based upon foreseen goodness, since people are not good in God's sight. Arminians, on the other hand, believe that election is conditioned upon what man does. An Arminian illustration is this: "God votes for you. The devil votes against you. You cast the deciding vote." In this illustration the devil and man are equally as strong as God.

Arminians normally choose one of two ways of understanding election. The first is election based on foreknowledge. Romans 8:29 is cited as evidence for this view: "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." Harold Lindsell comments on this view: "Some explain predestination as conditioned upon a foreknowledge by which God simply foresees what men are going to do, and then ordains that it shall come to pass as He foresaw it. This involves an interpretation of God's foreknowledge which is hard to reconcile with His absolute sovereignty. Perhaps it is better to conclude that here we are confronted with a divine mystery in which God works out his sovereign will in such a way as to preserve inviolate that prerogative of free will which is implicit in the divine image (Gen 1:27) in which man was created. Thus man may act freely, i.e., he can accept or reject God's free offer of the gift of eternal life through Christ, though only the Holy Spirit can move him to accept it. At the same time his response to God's grace and truth are fully certain, foreknown, and foreordained in the mind and will of God" [Harper Study Bible, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1965].

John R. W. Stott also believes that predestination based on foreknowledge is incorrect: "First, in this sense God foreknows everybody and everything, whereas Paul is referring to a particular group. Secondly, if God predestines people because they are going to believe, then the ground of their salvation is in themselves, and their merit, instead of in him and his mercy, whereas Paul's whole emphasis is on God's free initiative of grace" [Romans, Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1994, pp. 248-249].

The second method, which other Arminians use, is the view that God has predestined an organization – the church – and people must choose to become a part of the church. This view is expressed by Robert Shank: "Thus it is evident that the passages positing foreknowledge predestination must be understood as having as a frame of reference primarily the corporate body of the Israel of God and secondarily individuals, not unconditionally, but only in association and identification with the elect body, the Body of Christ (the Israel of God) – an identification that is contingent on identification with Christ Himself through abiding faith (John 15:1-6)" [Elect in the Son, Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1970, 1989, pp. 154-155].

But for the Calvinist, election is personal: "You did not choose me, I chose you..," said Jesus (John 15:16).

Election, says the Calvinist, is not based on the goodness of mankind nor the persuasiveness of an evangelist. If it were, then it would be conditional election. Calvinists say that election is unconditional.

All evangelicals agree that some people accept Christ, while others reject Him. We can't predict who will accept Christ or who will reject Him. It's not "good" people who accept Jesus, since none is good (Rom. 3:10). The Calvinist believes the answer to that question lies with God: "...all who were appointed for eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48) "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 through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will" (Eph 1:4-5).

Calvinists also believe that people have a free will. But the free will is a small circle operating in the larger circle of God's will. And even when we use our free will, there are other influences. If I go into a restaurant and have a choice between broccoli and beets, I am going to exercise my free will and choice broccoli every time. Why? I like broccoli. I don't know if it is due to my genes or social conditioning. Similar influences may determine why certain people accept Christ – they come from a Christian family or friends receive Christ. But the Calvinist doesn't believe this is due to blind chance. God, who works the miracle of the new birth, is in control of our genes and the circumstances that influence us.

Limited Atonement

The "L," stands for limited atonement. This is the hardest point for many to accept, which is the reason that some Christians are four-point Calvinists. But the five-point Calvinist does not see Christ's saving power as limited. A better description might be "definite" atonement. This means that Jesus, when He died upon the cross, actually purchased the redemption of certain individuals. Christ's death was not a shot in the dark. The Arminian, who would hold to a general atonement, would believe in theory that Christ would have died even if no one accepted Him. This would have meant Christ's death could have been in vain with no one being saved. And believing that people do come to Christ leaves God "hostage" to human kind: God sent His Son to save those who do accept Christ.

By limited atonement the Calvinist does not believe that Christ's death is limited in its power to save: Jesus died for each one who will come to Him. His death accomplishes the redemption of those who are saved. The Bible does give a picture of Christ dying for His church, which "He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28).

Early Baptists were divided into general Baptist, who believed that Jesus died for every person who has ever lived, and particular Baptists, who believed that Jesus died for His sheep.

Thomas J. Nettles, who formerly taught Church History at MidAmerica Seminary in Memphis, argues that genuine Baptists historically held to particular redemption [limited atonement]. Writing of those who held to a general atonement [Jesus died for everyone, including those who go to hell], Nettles states, "While they begin within the stream of Calvinistic Puritanism and Separatism, under the influence of the Mennonites in Holland they came to reject some of the more prominent features of Calvinism and affirmed the anti-Augustinianism of the Anabaptists" [By His Grace and for His Glory, Grand Rapids: Baker, p, 55]. Nettles continues by saying that they began with Calvinistic beliefs but "forsook the doctrine of justification be faith as understood by the Reformers and replaced it with the Roman Catholic synthesis between justification and sanctification" [Ibid]. Nettles extensively deals with the verses that speak of Christ dying for all of the sins of the world [Ibid., pp. 298-302]. Indeed, there are verses that use "all" in a limited sense: Christ said, "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32). Obviously, not everyone is saved, but multitudes are. Others say that limited atonement is not essential to Calvinism, arguing the Calvin himself did not believe in limited atonement. This idea was suggested to me by a well-known professed Southern Baptist Calvinist, Louis Drummond, former president of Southeastern Seminary and now evangelism professor at Beeson Divinity School, where he holds the Billy Graham Chair.
Robert P. Lightner, a professed moderate Calvinist who is a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, says, "In fact there are many passages that speak of Christ's death for the entire world of men" (Evangelical Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986, p, 210). I like the way some Calvinists express it: Christ's death is sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect.

Irresistible Grace

The "I" stands for irresistible grace. This means that when God does a work of grace in a person's life it is so powerful and influential that such an individual will definitely come to Christ. This is also known as effectual calling, which means that God's call fulfills its purpose. A court of law can summon one into court by legal authority. But such a call to court is not effectual – a person could still refuse to come. Milliard Erickson, who is now at Southwestern Seminary, sums it up this way: ",..some action by God must intervene between his eternal decision and the conversion of the individual within time. This activity of God is termed special or effectual calling" [Christian Theology, Vol. 3, 1985, p. 930]. How is it that sometimes the most unlikely people become Christians, while some relatively "good people" don't commit their lives to Christ. Sometimes the vilest individual is the very one who receives Jesus. The Calvinist says it's the result of God's irresistible grace.

Calvinists recognize the general calling of all to salvation: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Mat 11:28). Yet the Bible does make a distinction between the general call of God to salvation and the choosing of those who are special objects of God's calling: "For many are invited, but few are chosen," (Mat 22:14).

"Armenians sometimes argue that, on Calvinistic grounds, someone might choose to accept salvation, but not permitted to be saved. But according the Calvinistic understanding, this scenario never takes place, for no one is able to will to be saved, to come to God, to believe, without special enablements. God sincerely offers salvation to all, but all of us are so settled in our sins that we will not respond unless assisted to do so" [Ibid., p. 927].

Without God's enablement no one will accept Christ due to the effects of humankind's total depravity. "Is anyone who is specially called free to reject the offer of grace? The position taken herein is not that those who are called must respond, but that God makes his offer so appealing that they will respond affirmatively" [Ibid.].

The Calvinist can confidently pray for people to come to know Christ and to witness for Him. God doesn't just bring about the end result; He brings about the means to the end. People are not saved in vacuum. The Arminian, on the other hand, is guaranteed no results. The Calvinist knows there are definite people who will respond to the gospel. Calvinists present the gospel knowing that those ordained before the foundation of the world will eventually come to Christ. With the Calvinist it is as though the owner of a company has said, "I want you as a salesman. You are guaranteed sales. People will definitely respond. You only need to present the message." And God, who is much greater than any man, brings about results when believers faithfully share the gospel. And Calvinists also make confident witnesses who don't have to be uptight about sharing their faith. They can relax while they tell others about God's love, and Christ's death on the cross for sin, and the need to receive Christ. God's Spirit will bring the results.

Erickson draws four implications of God's predestination of specific individuals to Christ:

"1. We can have confidence that what God has decided will come to pass. His plan will be fulfilled and the elect will come to faith.

"2. We need not criticize ourselves when some people reject Christ, Jesus himself did not win everyone in his audience. He understood that all those whom the Father gave to him would come to him (John 6:37) and only they would come (v.44). When we have done our very best, we can leave the matter with the Lord.

"3. Predestination does not nullify incentive for evangelism and missions. We do not know who the elect and the nonelect are, so we must continue to spread the Word. Our evangelistic efforts are God's means to bring the elect to salvation. God's ordaining of the end includes the ordaining of the means to that end as well. The knowledge that missions are God's means is a strong motive for the endeavor and gives us confidence that it will prove successful,

"4. Grace is absolutely necessary. While Arminianism often gives strong emphasis to grace, in our Calvinistic scheme there is no basis for God's choice of some to eternal life other than his own sovereign will There is nothing in the individual which persuades God to grant salvation to him or her" [pp. 927-928].
Perseverance of the Saints

The perseverance of the saints, also known as eternal security, or the preservation of God, is believed by most Southern Baptists. Eternal security stresses the fact that God saves us eternally. The preservation of God emphasizes that God will keep us. The perseverance of the saints shows that once God begins His work in us He will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6).

The perseverance of the saints is the natural outcome of the other points of the TULIP. God is not going to elect an individual He is not going to bring to heaven ultimately.

Perseverance of the saints does not mean that Christians are perfect. Believers do sin, and they may experience backsliding. If erring believers do not ultimately heed God's voice, He will take them home prematurely to avoid embarrassment to the family name (1 Cor. 11:30).

Perseverance of the saints means that genuine believers heed God's warning about apostasy (Heb. 6:1-6), so that they do not finally fall away completely (Heb. 6:9).

Perseverance of the Saints helps the believer have assurance for his salvation. The Arminian, on the other hand, must hold out faithful every moment, of which there is no guarantee. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and an ardent Arminian, said, "To cease to exercise faith is tantamount to relinquishing all Christian status" [Wynkoop, p, 67]. "The Christian, Wesley explained, is not like a tree that lives from its own root system. Rather he is a branch ‘in Christ,' which if it is separated from the Tree dies and is destroyed.... We must be covered every moment by the atoning blood of the lamb of God" [Ibid., p. 69]. Wesley argues that a constant faith is needed to maintain salvation. This would make an assurance of salvation difficult since no one can be sure his faith will not waver. The Calvinist recognizes that his salvation is not dependent upon himself. Calvinists believe that God saves believers even if their faith lapses: "If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself' (2 Tim 2:13). What God begins He finishes. This gives added assurance to salvation (John 10: 28-29; Phil. 1:6; 1 John 5:11-13).

What about the person who says, "I would like to come to Christ, but I'm afraid I'm not of the elect." The late evangelist D. L. Moody had a good answer for this: "The elect are the ‘whosoever wills'; the non-elect are the 'whosoever won'ts"' [H, A. Ironside in his book Full Assurance cites Moody, p. 93].

The Southern Baptist Convention, founded 150 years ago, initially had a strong Calvinistic influence. These Calvinistic Baptists were not anti-missionary, hyper-Calvinists, who allowed good biblical truth to "go to seed." The early Southern Baptists were missionary, evangelical Calvinists, knowing that they should witness because God commands it. I don't believe that Calvinism should ever be a point of division, as good Christians will disagree on these points. But I do want what Calvinists believe to be presented accurately. And whether Southern Baptists hold to Calvinism or not should ultimately be determined by whether the view is biblical or not.

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