Revised from original article printed in PCC Bulletin vol. 2, no. 22 dated 26 Nov 2000
We have been looking at the five-points of Calvinism, or the biblical doctrine of salvation as taught by John Calvin. This was crystallised in the Canons of Dort in 1618, and then beautifully arranged by English theologians according to the acronym TULIP. Providentially, the tulip is generally regarded as the national flower of Holland! Today, these five points are so identified with Calvin, that the term Calvinism is often taken to be synonymous with the five points. Indeed, many will identify themselves as Calvinists because they agree with these points. This is despite the fact that Calvin taught much more than can be summarised in five points (see for e.g., Leonard J. Coppes, Are Five Points Enough? Ten Points of Calvinism [n.p., 1980]). Ironically, many who profess to be Calvinistic on the basis of the five point actually differ from Calvin in numerous areas such as in worship, church government, sacraments, eschatology, etc. If only more will pay careful attention to what Calvin has to say in these areas, the church would be much stronger and consistent today than it is. But even with all the general apathy and ignorance about what Calvin taught, the impact of what has percolated through Calvin’s thinking and teaching upon the modern world is unmistakable.
The practical implication of Calvinism is amazingly broad. But naturally, as we are studying the five points, we shall have to restrict ourselves to the implications pertaining to them. These implications, as we shall see, are far-reaching and life-transforming when understood correctly.
Theology, we must remember, is never intended to simply enlarge our minds or make us great debaters. The apostle Paul, after writing 11 chapters of theology in the epistle to the Romans, most succinctly summarise the purpose of knowing theology:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.Rom 12:1-2
In other words, the knowledge of theology ought to renew our minds for the purpose of transforming our lives. If our lives are not transformed, then our knowledge would not only be vain and unfruitful, but would actually condemn us: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Lk 12:48).
Many of us, I believe, have on occasions come across individuals who are able to defend Calvinism so logically and eloquently that we cannot help but detect a tinge of pride in their tone as they cut down their opponents. If indeed pride is involved, such individuals would be living a contradictions, for a proud Calvinist is a contradiction of terms. But more than that, often these same individuals are observed to manifest gross inconsistencies and compromises in their lives. I am not sure if anyone who reads this article thinks that I am referring to him or her, but there is really no need to speculate. If you consider yourself a Calvinist, and you feel indignation rising in your heart because you suspect that I may be pointing at you, than you may know that I am speaking to you. But in any case, all of us need to be warned against the increase of knowledge without any concurrent increase in piety.
With this in mind, let us consider how the knowledge of the five points of Calvinism ought to transform our lives.
1. Humility, Humility, Humility
The doctrine of Calvinism,—which exalts the holiness, glory and sovereignty of God, while debasing the ability, freedom and righteousness of man,—ought, first of all, to humble us to the dust. It is not surprising that the Christian virtue that Calvin himself and his theological progenitor Augustine found to be most valuable and to be most fervently cultivated is that of humility. Calvin avers:
I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom, “The foundation of our philosophy is humility;” and still more with those of Augustine, “As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What the third? Delivery: so, if you ask me in regard to the precepts of the Christian Religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.” By humility he means not when a man, with a consciousness of some virtue, refrains from pride, but when he truly feels that he has no refuge but in humility.ICR 2.2.11
The true Calvinist ought to be the humblest of man for a proper understanding of Calvinism is one of the most effective antidote to pride. Calvinism kills pride because it shows us how deserving we are of eternal damnation and how powerless we are to save ourselves. The man who truly understands Calvinism does not charge God for unfairness that He has chosen to save only a few to be saved (cf. Rom 9:14ff). He is amazed that God would even show mercy to any of us sinful creature at the expense of the infinite suffering of Christ; and He is humbly overwhelmed by why God should spare him and love him. In his astonishment, he does not ask: “Why dost Thou not save all?” Instead he asks “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps 8:4)
The Calvinist, furthermore, knows that the only reason he does not break out into gross immorality and rebellion against God is because the hand of Christ is upholding him. He is, as such, distrustful of himself. He constantly look to Christ the author and finisher of his faith for guidance and help (Heb 12:2). He has little difficulty esteeming others better than himself (Phil 2:3). He is acutely aware of his own depravity, and therefore poignantly and honestly acknowledges the beam in his own eyes (Mt 7:3). And he nurtures a forgiving spirit because he knows how undeserving he is of God’s forgiveness (Eph 4:32).
2. Honest Scriptural Self-examination & Assurance of Faith
Secondly, a proper understanding of Calvinism, far from making us fatalistic, ought to drive out the complacency and presumption in our hearts with regards to our own spiritual state. It ought to encourage us to take heed to the apostle Paul’s admonition: “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Cor 13:5).
The five points can actually provoke self-reflection in this regard. For example, when we consider the doctrine of Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace (Efficacious Grace) together, we see that one who is not sovereignly regenerated by Christ cannot possibly be a Christian, for he is dead in sin and cannot see the kingdom of God (Eph 2:1; Jn 3:3). The Calvinist contemplating on this truth realises the possibility that he may actually be dead in sin and so deluded about his faith. And so he seeks earnestly and honestly to examine himself according to Paul’s instruction.
Similarly, when we consider the doctrine of Unconditional Election and Perseverance of the Saints together, we see that those who persevere in the faith may have the assurance that they are elect.
But it may be asked: “How do I know that I am not fooling myself? I could, after all, be striving to enter the strait gate (Lk 13:24) and walking in the narrow way (Mt 7:14) by my own effort?”
Well, this is possible, but we must remember that perseverance is not only about doing things. It is about loving Christ, obeying Him out of love and reverence, not out of fear or mere duty. The apostle John tells how we may know if we truly love: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 Jn 5:3). If you can honestly say that it is not burdensome for you to keep the commandments of the Lord and that you are keeping them out of love for Christ (Jn 14:15), then you can have the assurance that God has “begun a good work in you and will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). In which case, you need not fear that you are fooling yourself, nor need you worry that you will fall, for the apostle Peter says: “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (2 Pet 1:10).
Bear in mind that morbid doubt is often a manifestation of distrust. We must indeed have a certain distrust of our own honesty in self-examination, but we must not doubt God’s Word that we will not fall finally and ultimately if we give diligence to make our calling and election sure. Indeed, unlike Arminians, Calvinists have the confidence that whenever they fall, Christ will lift them up: “For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again: but the wicked shall fall into mischief” (Prov 24:16).
3. Hatred for Sin & Gratitude to Christ
The Calvinist, thirdly, understands the sinfulness of sin and hates sin, especially his own sin. Thus, the Calvinist is filled with gratitude to Christ for His deliverance from the bondage and guilt of sin.
This is especially as he contemplates on the doctrine of the Limited Atonement of Christ, for Christ suffered and died to save His elect. He had to suffer and die to save us because we have incurred the wrath of God on account of our sin. Sin is so hateful to God that He sent His son to take on our flesh to suffer and die for it so that sinners may be reconciled to God.
At the Cross of Calvary, there was a double imputation. It was an unfair exchange of infinite magnitude, for there on the Cross was the guilt of all the sin of the elect of God throughout the ages heaped upon Christ, while, on the other hand, the righteousness of Christ was imputed on all of them.
The Calvinist understands this fact. His heart is therefore filled with gratitude to the Lord. He knows that from beginning to end, his salvation is of the Lord. At the same time, He knows that Christ died on account of his sin, and that He had to die because sin is hateful to the thrice holy, triune God—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Calvinist therefore mourns for his own sin, knowing that the Spirit who indwells Him hates sin. This leads us to our fourth point.
4. Holiness: The Inexorable Goal of True Calvinism
The doctrine of Calvinism spurs us unto holiness. Amazingly, we can see in Scripture a connection between every of the 5 points of Calvinism and goal of holiness in the saints.
First, we must recall the account when the Lord commanded Peter to launch out and to lower the net for a draught. Peter was amaze at how many fishes the net brought and he saw for the first time the glory and majesty of Christ. He knew that he was standing before the thrice holy God, and feeling naked on account of his sin, he fell at the Lord’s knees, saying: “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8). To be sure, in this statement, Peter speaks about his own utter depravity and says nothing about he being motivated to holiness. But consider the fact that there cannot be progress in sanctification except that the saint knows how far short he is of the holiness of God, and we can be quite sure that this discovery of his own depravity would have spurred Peter in a quest for holiness. I am persuaded that it is for this reason that Peter, among all the other apostles was chosen to remind the New Testament church of the call of God “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16).
Secondly, the doctrine of election also finds its fruition in holiness. This is made clear by the apostle Paul when he says: “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (Eph 1:4). The saints are elected to be holy and without blame. A Calvinist who is not pursuing holiness by the grace of God either does not understand the doctrine of election or is living a contradiction.
Thirdly, the particular atonement of Christ on behalf of the elect is also for the purpose of gathering a holy people unto himself: “Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit 2:14). How then can one who defends Limited Atonement live in sin and without regards to the holiness of God.
Fourthly, it is clear also that one of the effects of the efficacious call of the Gospel is holiness. Paul says: “For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness” (1 Th 4:7). A person who is truly a Calvinist not just in thought but in heart will know that if his life remains unchanged or is characterised by uncleanness, then he is in all probability yet in the state of nature.
Finally, the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints must go hand in hand with sanctification. The Calvinist knows that God does not preserve sinners in the way of life. He knows that a professing believer whose life is not transformed will be in for a rude shock at the day of judgement, for the writer of Hebrews has admonished: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).
5. Hope in Prayer & Witnessing
The final implication of Calvinism directly answers the charges of the Arminians that Calvinism destroys hope in prayer and discourages evangelism.
In the first place, the Calvinist understands that salvation is the work of the Lord from beginning to end. He knows that without the Lord’s help he cannot grow in sanctification. He knows that all his attendance to, and use of the means of grace is of no value unless the Holy Spirit makes them effectual unto him for salvation. Therefore, he cries importunately to the Lord for his help. He knows that the Lord will hear his prayer because his sanctification is the will of God (1 Th 4:3). And he knows that God will answer any plea of his children that is in consonant with his will (1 Jn 5:14) and are offered in the name of Christ.
Similarly, the Calvinist is also encouraged to pray for the unconverted. He knows that he must only pray according to the will of God, but he knows that the apostle John is referring to the reveal will of God and not the eternal counsel of God (Dt 29:29). He knows that although God does not reveal who is elect and who is not, it is His Revealed Will that sinners repent of their sin and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And so he is encouraged to pray that God would do so for his unconverted loved ones. He knows that God alone has the prerogative to answer his prayer according to His good pleasure, but he is encouraged to pray because he knows that if his loved ones were to be converted, it cannot be by their own efforts, but by the grace and power of God.
In the second place, the Calvinist is encouraged to witness for the Lord, and the Calvinistic church is encouraged to continue in the work of evangelism through the preaching of the Gospel, because these are the means that God has appointed to gather His elect. The Arminians may get discouraged when they see little result to their efforts at ‘sharing the Gospel.’ The Calvinist knows that God alone can make effectual our feeble efforts, and that because He has his elect whom Christ died for, these will definitely be soundly converted. So the Calvinist prays that God may bless his and his church’s efforts and that they may be instruments in the Lord’s hands.
In the same way, the Calvinistic church continues to preach the Gospel each week even though she sees little result because she knows that though preaching is her business (2 Tim 4:2), conversion is not her business. She is not tempted to introduce worldly innovations to attract the crowds because she knows that false conversions can easily result from these methods. She, moreover, knows that the regenerate needs to hear the Gospel too, for we are so prone to wander and prone to forget our need of Christ.
Calvinism is not cold and intellectual as many supposes. It is about knowing the God of the Bible and living Coram Deo (before the face of God). Calvinism is simply a synonym for Biblicalism systematised. Calvinism alone leads to true biblical Christianity.
Dr John Gerstner has succinctly summarised the situation in Christendom today when he says:
There have been essentially only three theologies in the history of the church. One is usually called Augustinian, Calvinistic, or Reformed. The second is called Semi-Pelagian, Arminian, or (often) evangelical. The third is called Pelagian, Socinian, or liberal (modernist).
Only the first two (Calvinistic and Arminian) can qualify for the terms Christian or Biblical. Calvinism is consistent Christianity and Arminianism if inconsistent Christianity, while Pelagianism or liberalism (anti-supernaturalism) is not Christianity at all but a counterfeit that has fooled a significant portion of the church in the modern period.Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, 2nd Ed. [SDG, 2000], 113
While we may charitably regard Arminianism as being inconsistent Christianity, we must warn that it is a short step from Arminianism to Pelagianism. We think of how the humanistic techniques of Charles G. Finney are widely employed in evangelical churches today. Finney was a Pelagian. His methods were intentionally designed to create conversion and revival! We think of how a very great part of Lutheranism and Methodism which were largely Arminian is today Unitarian. Arminianism is inconsistent and unstable because it is a compromise between humanism and theism. Who would want such a compromise but one who is uncomfortable with the theism of the Bible which reveals a sovereign and holy God who punishes sin in His infinite wrath. It is no wonder, then, that Arminian churches often settle into unbelieving churches.
Has there not been defections in the Calvinistic camp too? No doubt there has been, but history has shown that such defections often begin with the inroads of Arminianism and Pelagianism. May the Lord protect us from such a downward slide!
Confident that Christ will continue to build His Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Mt 16:18), we will continue to preach and live according to the old paths as reveal in His word and delivered unto the saints, which path is also known as Calvinism. Amen.