Recently, our church's spiritual life website posted a blog on 12 myths of Arminianism. It was a helpful and instructive post on what the author, C. Michael Patton, believes traditional or classic Arminianism really holds to be true versus caricatures that have been made about Arminianism.
I thought it would be helpful to add a piece, alongside that one, on 12 myths regarding Calvinism. Calvinism, too, as been caricatured quite a bit, and thus misunderstood. Does that mean Pastor Jay is a Calvinist? That is up to God's eternal decree, not my own (wink).
1. Calvinists do not affirm freedom of the will.
Calvinists have always affirmed that the human will is free, but have defined that freedom in terms of freedom from the slavery of sin, into freedom to serve Christ. They do not believe humans are puppets or robots but have real, true, fully actualized wills. Calvinists simply want to be clear that all created things are ultimately dependent on the first cause, prime-mover, namely, God, and that God is not just theoretically authoritative but actualized and efficient in his authority.
2. Calvinists believe in eternal security, regardless of fruit.
Calvinists believe in a doctrine called the perseverance of the saints, meaning that the Holy Spirit fills a converted man or woman and does not ever retreat. Said person can resist the Spirit, squelch the Spirit, but not evict the Spirit. God's grace is stronger than our sin and once we are adopted, we are eternally His. But, because of the indwelling of the Spirit, Calvinists believe some visible growth must occur as evidence of conversion, referred to as persevering faith. So yes, Calvinists affirm there is no possibility of losing salvation (Heb 6 is not teaching that) but that true salvation is made known in Spirit empowered works (see James).
3. Calvinism is fatalism, Christian style.
Calvinism could not be further from fatalism. There are several world religions and worldviews that are fatalistic but, unlike those, Christianity believes that God's sovereign plan for the ages is purposeful, non-capricious, and is for the good of His people and the glory of His name. Romans 8 ties God's predestined plan to our godliness and sonship. Also, Calvinists never take God's decreed plan as an excuse not to act, obey, or plan. Any teachings that seem fatalistic are to be deemed hyper-Calvinism, which mainstream Calvinism does not endorse.
4. Calvinism kills the impetus for evangelism and missions.
Calvinists believe our hope for evangelism and missions is God's sovereign bestowal of saving grace. If God did not effectually save, giving a Calvinist's view of how sin has wrecked our ability to reason, see beauty, and know truth, there would be no hope in sharing the gospel. But, persuading and proving is not the goal of evangelism and missions. Proclaiming the gospel is our responsibility. The Calvinist believes that the Spirit uses our proclamation to effectually call people to faith. So, there is great relief and peace in our mission to share the gospel, because God's will is ultimately done, even through our frail human efforts. Also, we do not know who God is after, so we share with everyone we can.
5. Calvinists love John Calvin more than the Bible.
John Calvin is obviously an important pastor and theologian for the Calvinist tradition. But, Calvinists believe that the truths and Biblical theology represented by Calvin are Biblical and can be clearly demonstrated in Biblical exegesis and theological themes in the Bible. John Calvin is simply a pastor and theologian who taught what the Bible taught, according to Calvinists. Also, there is a range of Calvinists, so the term must be further clarified in most cases. People who consider themselves Calvinists can be Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Bible churches, Acts 29, Congregationalists, Brethren, dispensationalists, covenantalists, charismatic, cesassionists, and so on. Present day evangelical leaders who are Calvinists include Tim Keller, Mark Dever, Elizabeth Elliot, Nancy Lee DeMoss, Matt Chandler, Josh Harris, and most if not all of the writers for The Gospel Coalition website. Dead people include Charles Spurgeon, John Bunyan, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and many other evangelical heroes. These people are radically committed to Scripture and believe their view is Biblically derived, and only use the term Calvinist as short hand for certain key doctrines about God, his character, and how he saves and restores.
6. Calvinism is heresy.
Some Arminians have referred to Calvinism as heresy. Some have even gone as far as to say Calvinists worship another god. Calvinism is squarely within Christian orthodoxy and has never been declared a heresy in an official manner. The debatable matters within Calvinism have never been considered essential to Christian belief or action.
7. Calvinists don't take holiness seriously.
Like the issue of evangelism and missions, Calvinists do not believe that God's sovereign plan for us negates our need to strive in obedience and growth as disciples of Christ. Rather, it is their belief that God is effectually at work in us that makes Calvinists affirm that growth is necessary and that God has created our wills and choices as the instrument he uses to create our growth. Calvinists have always, and currently, teach the necessity of radical obedience, often with great wrestling. Calvinists simply want to credit all of our growth to God's grace for His glory.
8. Calvinists care very little for God's immanence.
Calvinists admittedly have written many scholastic works that tend to focus on God in the abstract. But, Calvinists have always affirmed that God is immanent, personal, and brings us into a mind-blowing intimacy with Him through Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Gospel centered theology has been born out of Calvinist convictions and current gospel theology is very focused on intimate relationship with God and the emotional stirring that should occur in one's heart who truly understands the depth and logic of grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
9. Calvinists deny that we choose to trust God.
Calvinists believe that conversion only happens through the vehicle of the human will submitting to God by receiving his grace in Jesus. There is no other way. One does not come into the kingdom by good works, or by seeming to reflect God's kingdom, but by repenting of sin and an old dominion, and in turn putting faith in Jesus alone. Calvinists do affirm that this only happens as God awakens us to himself. Where they differ with Arminians is that once that happens, the person necessarily chooses God and will not reject him. How so? Not because God forces anyone into faith, but because the problem we had before we were converted is that sin blinded us to the beauty and glory of Jesus. Once the Spirit graciously opens our eyes and gives us a new heart, we can see Jesus. Once we can see Jesus, we are naturally, by our very being, drawn to love, submit to, and worship him. That is what is meant by irresistible grace. Put another way, Calvinists believe that regeneration/conversion preceeds faith. And so, necessarily, someone is saved and Spirit filled as the very basis of choosing God. Those who reject God are unconverted. In other words, prevenient grace does not get us to neutral. There is no neutral for Calvinists. One is either unconverted and a rejecter of God, or converted and a lover of God.
10. Calvinists cannot have assurance of salvation.
This is similar to the Arminian myth, except that the reason for anxiety is election, not our dismal obedience. The logic goes, if God elects some according to His decreed will, how do I really know I am one of them? What if I want to be a Christian but it is moot because God has not chosen me? Or, when I feel spiritually dry or am backsliding, how do I know that is not a sign I am not sealed with God's Spirit? The reality is Satan loves to kill our confidence in God, whether you are a Calvinist, Arminian, or something in between. We can't escape that. But, as for Calvinist belief proper, Calvinists do not think there is a reality where one can have desires for Christ and yet not be saved. If someone is interested in Jesus, has a sense of his/her need for his grace, and want to live within the reality of the Bible, then that is a sign of grace. But, like the Arminian, the Calvinist believes that one of the best ways to grow in assurance is to keep persevering in faith, by grace, working out our salvation with fear and trembling FOR/BECAUSE God is at work in us to work and will for His good pleasure (Phil 2.12-13).
11. Calvinists believe there are only first causes and prime movement.
OK, what does that even mean, nerdy pastor boy? That means that some people think Calvinists don't affirm human responsibility or the responsibility of other created things as truly acting agents that can cause good or bad within the universe. Calvinists believe in secondary causality, and in such a way that God cannot be accused of evil or tempting people into sin (see Romans 9 and James 4). So, if a man pulls a trigger and kills another man, Calvinists don't believe that God pulled the trigger and killed the man and so the gunman is free of true guilt. Calvinists would says God was sovereign in that moment, has decreed all that has come to pass, has purposes for that event, and yet the gunman is guilty, should be judged, and God grieves the death of the victim. How? Mystery. But, Arminian theology doesn't buy you any clarity either on things like that. In fact, Calvinists believe Arminian theology has more problematic philosophical and ethical issues when it comes to Theodicy (God's character and the reality of evil).
12. Calvinism is an offshoot of paganism, social Darwinism, and philosophical elitism born in the mentality of the continental Enlightenment out of which the Magisterial Reformers lived and wrote.
Calvinists appreciate the social and cultural milieu Calvin and other Reformers lived within. All theologians are socially located. But, Calvinists believe that the thoughts and systems developed by pastors like Calvin are ultimately Biblical and the overall fabric of the system is quite anti-social Darwinist, anti-Enlightenment ideal, and anti-pagan. Whether many evangelical realize it or not, the gospel ethos we crave are the very theological priorities that flowed from the Reformation, which revived the major currents that can be summed up in Calvinism. In other words, Calvinism is a lot more than predestination, or TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited (Particular Atonememt), Irresistable Grace, Perseverance of the Saints).
Bonus: Calvinists believe Jesus died for the whole world, but his death had two effects, both salvation and judgment. Atonement is a very specific word that is tied to actual salvation, not the offer of un-actualized salvation. AND, there is no Calvinia.
Jay Thomas is lead pastor at the Chapel Hill Bible Church in Chapel Hill, NC.