Why I’m Not a Calvinist

HomeChristianity and the BibleWhy I’m Not a Calvinist

There are a few very important reasons for my not being a Calvinist. The first should be obvious: when someone asks a Christian what they believe, Jesus should be the first name on their lips. Not Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Zwingli, or anybody else.

Who do you follow?

I follow Jesus. All actual Christians do. I’m not saying that Calvinists aren’t Christians, of course. I’m saying that I’m not a Calvinist for the simple reason that I’m just a Christian. I don’t follow John Calvin, regardless of whether I agree with him on any number of theological positions. Every disciple is to be a disciple of Jesus, not a disciple of one of Jesus’ followers. Here is our example, from the New Testament:

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Now, replace Paul and Apollos with Calvin and Luther (or your pastor or me or anybody but Jesus) and you can see what I mean. This isn’t a trivial, nitpicky thing to consider. If you talk more about Calvin (or whoever) more than you talk about Jesus, you have a serious theological problem. If I’m talking to you right now, this is easily fixed: talk more about Jesus and less about His followers. Spend more time studying the words of Jesus than the words of His followers.

Interpretations of interpretations

A lot of people ask me a lot of questions about what the Bible says. More importantly, a lot of questions have to do with that the Bible means. At times, understanding what God has said can be difficult. This seems obvious.

What’s less obvious is that following one particular person’s interpretations of Scripture multiplies this difficulty. Follow the chain:

  1. Jesus’ first followers write the New Testament.
  2. John Calvin (or anyone else) reads the New Testament and writes about their interpretations of it.
  3. Calvinists (or whoever) read Calvin’s writings and have to interpret them as well.

Do you see the issue? Not only do those who follow Calvin (or Luther, or a Pope, etc.) need to study Scripture carefully, they will end up also studying the writings of a fellow Christian as diligently. The alternative is to simply believe what Calvin has said without questioning it at all, which should clearly be troublesome for anyone claiming the name of Jesus.

I regularly see arguments about what Calvin or Luther or Arminius said about things. To be fair, I want to gather as much wisdom as I can… so I’m not saying nobody should ever read what other Christians write. After all, I’ve been writing here since the 90’s, and I hope I’ve done some good. The problems arise when we elevate a follower of Jesus to the same level as Jesus Himself. I don’t follow Calvin. I follow Jesus, and I let other mature followers show me the way as long as they’re following Jesus. How can I know they’re following Jesus? By comparing what they say and do with the New Testament. I have to know the Scriptures myself.

In Acts 17 we read about the Bereans, who listened to Paul and double-checked what he said with Scripture. Please do the same with this article… and don’t fail to do the same with what any other believer has written. Why? Because what God has actually said is far more important than what anyone else might say. The Bible is trustworthy, but we are sometimes not.

T.U.L.I.P.

The basic beliefs of Calvinists are often summed up with the TULIP acronym. Here are the ‘five points’ of Calvinism:

  1. Total Depravity
  2. Unconditional Election
  3. Limited Atonement
  4. Irresistible Grace
  5. Perseverance of the Saints

When someone considers all five points to be true, they sometimes call themselves a ‘five-point Calvinist.’ You might call me a 1½-point Calvinist. Or, simply, you shouldn’t call me a Calvinist at all. Don’t get me wrong: I worship with, and fellowship with, tons of Calvinists. I simply don’t agree with most of how Calvinists interpret the New Testament with regard to these five points.

You see, all it takes to invalidate an idea is proof that it’s not accurate. If, for example, someone claims that Jesus never wept, all we need is one verse to prove it wrong. That verse is John 11:35, the shortest verse in the Bible. Can you guess what it says? It says “Jesus wept.”

See how simple that is? Let’s see if there are clear passages of Scripture that clearly contradict the ideas found in TULIP.

Total Depravity

Simply put, total depravity is the idea that we are unable to save ourselves. We have been spiritually damaged by the Fall (where Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden), and are entirely unable to seek God on our own. This is totally biblical. The Bible is clear on this one. This quote from Romans 3 originally appears in the Psalms:

There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.

Jesus made it even more clear when He said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.” Total depravity is the idea that we don’t naturally seek God, and that we only want anything from Him because He causes us to. Think of it this way: God makes us hungry and thirsty for Himself. When I say I’m a 1½-point Calvinist, this is the 1.

Note: total depravity doesn’t mean that humans are by nature as bad as they can possibly be. It means that there is no part of us that remains unaffected by the Fall.

Unconditional Election

This point has two parts. The election part is about who can be saved… that is, who can be born again, be a Christian, go to Heaven. The idea is that God decided, before creating us, who would be saved and who would be lost. He “elected” us, so Calvinists often refer to Christians as “the elect.”

The unconditional part means that being chosen for salvation by God has nothing to do with you or me. According to this idea, we play no part in our salvation. We do not choose to be saved, they say… we are saved (or not saved) because God decided, all by Himself, to save us or not save us.

The unconditional part is where the most conflict comes from. Its meaning is clear: you can’t be saved unless God chose you, and you will be saved if He did. Where’s the conflict? Well… for starters, there’s that whole New Testament thing. You know, where Jesus and His disciples taught people that they should choose to surrender themselves to God, become citizens in His spiritual Kingdom, and teach others to do that same? Yeah, that.

Let’s suggest that God chose 1,000,000,000 people to be saved. According to unconditional election, all one billion WILL BE SAVED. It’s going to happen, no matter what. No amount of rebellion will keep them from being saved. They WILL – according to Calvinists – be regenerated, given faith and, as a result, will be saved. They don’t even have to want it. Why? Because God decided it will be so.

If that’s the case, we don’t need a New Testament. We don’t need a gospel. We didn’t need the Son to become Jesus, teach us how to live, do miracles to prove His identity, be betrayed, suffer and die on a cross, be resurrected, or even come back again.

Are there any Bible verses that clearly show us that people can choose to be saved, or choose to not be saved? There are simply tons. Here’s one:

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

That’s 2 Corinthians 5:20. Read it carefully. Read the whole passage, to get the context. Jesus died on the cross… therefore we beg people, if necessary, to be reconciled to God. The apostle Paul wasn’t suggesting that we undertake this as an empty exercise. He said that we’re speaking on God’s behalf, imploring others to accept His offer of salvation. Why would we beg them? If they haven’t been chosen for salvation, no amount of begging will change anything. Instead, according to Paul, we try to convince them to listen to the gospel, to change the direction of their lives, and to – as mentioned in the previous verses – become a new creature in Christ.

How can we be sure this is seen as a choice, rather than simply the means by which God accomplishes saving people against their will? Look at the first verse in chapter 6, which is undeniably connected to this section:

As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.

Paul is telling people to not let God’s grace be wasted on them… to choose wisely, in light of the facts. We’ll talk more about that verse a little further down. In the meantime, on to the next point:

Limited Atonement

This idea is closely tied to unconditional election. Because God only chose some for salvation, they say, Jesus only needed to die for those who would be saved. There is some of logic in this. If Jesus’ death is the method God uses to save people, then it’s only needed for those will be saved. Also, they say, Jesus wouldn’t have died in vain, sacrificing Himself for people who would reject Him… that would somehow make Jesus a failure.

Are there clear Bible verses that tell us that Jesus died for everybody, rather than only for the elect? Yes:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves.

That’s 2 Peter 2:1-2. Read it again. There will be false teachers among you, bringing swift destruction on themselves… and they were bought by Jesus. They are not saved – not part of the elect – yet Jesus bought them.

Are there others? Of course:

Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Those are the words of John the Baptist, from John 1:29. Jesus didn’t take away only the sins of the elect. Jesus paid the penalty for all sin, for all people, for all time. That’s what Paul meant in 2 Corinthians 5:14 when he wrote “one died for all, therefore all died.” The atonement wasn’t limited to only the elect, but unlimited.

Irresistible Grace

As mentioned above, this belief is tied closely to unconditional election. As Calvinists explain: because God graciously chose some to be saved, they WILL be saved. God makes man willing to respond… so when God calls, we have no choice but to obey.

Keep in mind that this gracious act of God, as they typically teach, only applies to salvation. Are there clear Bible verses that tell us that God’s grace, as it applies to salvation, is actually resistible? Yes, and we’ve already read it:

As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.

That is, again, from 2 Corinthians 6. God’s grace, according to the apostle Paul, can indeed be received in vain. Just to make sure we’re talking about the same that Calvinists are talking about, go back and read 6:1 in context… read the second half of chapter 5. Paul is clearly talking about the atonement and salvation:

God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.

Again – and I don’t say this with joy – it appears that this idea is contradicted by clear passages from God’s Word. On to the final point in TULIP:

Perseverance of the Saints

This idea is simple: if God has chosen you to be one of the elect – to be saved – then you cannot lose your salvation. It’s commonly expressed as “eternal security,” or “once saved, always saved.”

This is where the ½ of my 1½-point “Calvinism” appears. I agree, but with reservations.

While there are passages in the New Testament that appear to show people falling away from the faith, they aren’t abundantly clear. Some like to claim that they are, but they’re not. For example, Hebrews 6:6 says that those who fall away cannot be brought back to repentance. It sounds people could be ‘unsaved.’ However, many (if not most) Bible scholars consider this passage one of the most difficult to understand. That’s not just Calvinists, but many of those who believe we can lose our salvation agree. Making hard theological claims from unclear passages is a very bad idea. We need more.

Another example is 2 Peter 2. It sounds like Peter was writing about Christians who fell away, but it’s not abundantly clear. Where Scripture isn’t abundantly clear, we should be careful to not pretend that it is. Our conclusions in such cases should be tentative, acknowledging that we may have misunderstood.

In the final analysis of the perseverance of the saints, I don’t know of any passages that clearly contradict it. The opposite is true: salvation, as presented in the New Testament, is the present possession of all believers. That is, Christians aren’t waiting for some future event to be saved… we ARE saved NOW.

In light of being saved now, and in light of the lack of clear verses that show Christians losing their salvation, I have to somewhat agree with this idea.

Why only half?

That’s a good question… I’m glad you asked! When asked about losing one’s salvation, most Christians – Calvinist or not – will refer to Romans 8, where we read that nothing can separate us from God’s love. I agree with that passage, of course, but it’s not about keeping or losing one’s salvation. Clearly, this passage tells us that nothing outside of us – no external force – can cause God to stop loving us. Notice that the passage says nothing about our own intentions.

I don’t have direct biblical support for my position, but it seems important to consider. If we get to choose whether to be saved or not – and it seems the New Testament is abundantly clear on that – then we are probably free to choose differently, later. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to claim that we CAN choose to submit to God and then LOSE the freedom to change our minds.

I’ll sum up my tentative, partially-biblical idea in this way: it appears that having eternal life isn’t necessarily the same as keeping eternal life. If we can lose our salvation, I believe it probably happens very seldom, after a long fight with God. If we can lose our salvation, I believe that the Holy Spirit won’t give up easily… that we must be persistent in our rebellion if we can rebel at all.

Conclusion

After a lifetime of study and discussion, I believe that most of what’s behind Calvinism’s TULIP simply doesn’t match what we see in Scripture. However: these disagreements are “in-house debates.” That is, they’re discussions between Christians about the best way to understand God’s Word. It’s unfortunate that our fallen human nature has caused us to divide brothers and sisters in God’s family into what are too often warring factions.

To be clear: each of these 5 points are either true or false. None of them can be true AND false in the same ways. The reasons for the debate are simple: truth matters, and there is evidence for both positions. Regardless of whether we’ve fully understood what God has said, we should remain committed to studying Scripture and learning from one another.

With regard to salvation, one can hold all 5 points of Calvinism and be saved… or not be saved. Being right about these things won’t save anyone, and being wrong about these things won’t disqualify anyone from beginning a right relationship with God, or from going to Heaven. I worship and fellowship regularly with people who believe all 5, and it’s clear that our disagreement doesn’t change our standing with God… so we don’t let it change our relationships with each other.

Your comments are welcome. Before you comment, keep this in mind: our interpretations of Scripture should not come from our traditions. It’s the other way around: our traditions should come from Scripture. If you believe that the Bible is true, then what we believe about it comes from the text… not from those who didn’t write it. Any discussion of these ideas should include clear passages from the Bible, and primarily from the New Testament.

Questions

Don’t you believe that God is sovereign?

Yes, of course I do. Let’s be clear: virtually everybody who claims the name of Jesus believes that God is sovereign. This question is unfortunate, as it shows that some are willing to misrepresent those with whom they disagree. The question isn’t whether God is sovereign. The question is what our fully sovereign God has chosen to do. The idea behind TULIP is that God always gets what He wants… because He’s God. Nobody can stop God from doing what He wants to do, right? The problem with this logic is that the presumption about what God wants is incorrect.

Calvinists believe that God wants some to be saved, and wants some to be damned. No matter how you slice it, that’s the result of God choosing some and not others. Because God is sovereign, they say, He always gets what He wants… so some are damned and have no other option.

Are there any clear passages of Scripture that say otherwise? Sure. Here’s Ezekiel 33:11, for example:

I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!

The wicked WILL die, unless they turn from wickedness. Here God is trying to convince the wicked to repent. If unconditional election were true, then there would be exactly zero Bible verses like this. Had God chosen them for damnation, it would be good and right and perfect and glorious. Instead, this verse shows that 1) people have a choice, 2) God doesn’t want them to choose badly, and 3) He will not force them to choose well.

God IS sovereign, but that doesn’t mean He always gets what He wants. Instead, He allows us a measure of freedom to choose, and works to convince us to choose life rather than death.


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4 responses to “Why I’m Not a Calvinist”

  1. Porta says:

    Calvinism creates highly prideful persons who identify as Christians and who use thier religiosity and status to constantly condemn others — its blasphemy and demonic. Not important that some points may be “somewhat agreeable” the devil is in the details. Christ made it clear we will know his followers by thier love. Christ also made it clear that there are 2 commandments of scripture to love god and love others and that this fulfills all other commands — ask anyone — believer or not if these ideas of love come to mind when dealing with a Calvinist. No. Never. John Calvin when one investigates his life was a sociopathic murderer -/ literally ordering the murder of many who disagreed with him. Not a man of god in Christ’s view.

    • Tony says:

      Porta:

      No, that’s not how we do things. I spent the last 10 years serving in a church where people had a variety of backgrounds. Some leaned Reformed, some did not. Some were former Catholics, some former pagans. Some more mature, some less so. Your description of Calvinists suggests that you’ve spent more time arguing with them on Twitter than loving them over coffee. Yes, I see the tendencies you’ve mentioned. No, it’s not Calvinism that causes that. It’s spiritual immaturity, which is an affliction that knows no theological boundaries.

      Believe it or not, you would probably agree with 90% of what the typical Calvinist believes. For example, they believe as we do: that we are saved by grace through faith. That’s an essential Christian doctrine. They believe that God regenerates the unsaved so that they WILL have faith. I don’t believe that, and I doubt you do as well… but that’s not an essential Christian doctrine. There’s only one right answer, but someone can be born again and be wrong about this issue.

      You wrote that people who identify as Christians and use their religiosity and status to condemn others is blasphemy and demonic. I’m sorry to be a bit abrasive here, but that looks EXACTLY like what you’ve done here. You’ve condemned Calvinists, as a group, as demonic blasphers and unloving and not Christian at all. If you don’t mind, let me suggest another method:

      And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.

      Good advice, no? As for John Calvin, I’m not a fan either… but you seem willing to mischaracterize him, and to pretend you know Christ’s view of a man of God. With respect (and I mean that), I’d like to suggest a more biblical perspective. Did Calvin call for, or agree with, or take part in, the killing of others? Yes, it seems he did… and that dozens were killed. This is bad. There’s no excusing it, of course. Does that make him not a “man of God”? A little time spent reading about King David suggests that we might take a slightly different view of that. He was, without question, “a man after God’s own heart.” He was also a murderer and an adulterer. Under his leadership, a lot of people were killed… not just Israel’s own enemies, but a whole bunch who weren’t. Does being “a man after God’s own heart” excuse any bad thing? Nope. Should it cause us to re-examine our view of someone in light of God’s view of someone? I hope so.

      Those who belong to God are often wrong, regularly do bad things, and sometimes do horrific things. At no point should we look the other way… but we should speak of all of this in biblical terms. Otherwise, we may be disagreeing with God rather than following His lead.

      If you don’t mind, I’d like to make a suggestion. Find a friend who believes Calvin was right and buy them lunch. Get to know them better. Have calm, friendly, rational discussions about what the Bible says. You may end up helping them understand God better… and they may end up helping you understand God better, too. I’m no Calvinist, but I’m a far better follower of Jesus after 10 years of loving my Reformed brothers and sisters.

      Let me know how I can help.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I in no way am a Calvinist. Yes, I have studied Calvinism and I understand it. As much as I can’t go along with TULIP, I disagree with their concept of God’s Sovereignty. I do not believe every single thing that happens was planned out by God. I believe that would make Him the arranger of even murder, rape and other grave sins. I don’t know how you would get around that. However, I am in a church with a mix of Calvinists and those who are believers but not Calvinists. I do love them all. I also have learned a lot of good Biblical lessons from some Calvinist teachers. I am sorry, but I have found what feels like bullying from some Calvinists. It often happens on line and it feels like they are more intent on bringing other believers to the Reformed side than bringing sinners to Christ. I hope that doesn’t sound unloving, it’s just some of the observations I have made over the years. I have been a Christian believer for a very long time, I’m just turning 76.

    • Tony says:

      Elizabeth:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Like you, I have many (many) good friends who are “five point Calvinists.” I’ve worshiped with them and served with them for the past decade, so you and I have similar experiences. It’s true that some of the theological bullying online comes directly from the Reformed side of things, but it’s also true that I’ve never felt bullied by them in person. It seems people are willing to be more rude online than in person, which betrays a level of immaturity that should not be.

      I appreciate hearing from you, sister!

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