5 Misconceptions About Calvinism
I grew up as a Christian with basically no exposure at all to the understanding of salvation that many people call Calvinism. When I first came across it, I thought it was borderline crazy. At first, it was so obvious to me that Calvinism was a system of false teaching that I rejected it outright without giving it much of a thought. However, over the years (and it really has taken years), I have changed my mind about Calvinism and become a “Calvinist” myself. Or, at least, Calvinist-ish.
The problem with calling myself a Calvinist is (1) it undermines my desire to build my identity firstly on Christ, and (2) almost anyone who disagrees with Calvinism immediately associate the word with a whole host of wrong ideas. There are few doctrines that seem to be more misunderstood and mischaracterized than Calvinism. I can certainly understand why, because at one point I was one of those people.
All of that to say that I’m not trying to stir up theological debate. I’m not even trying to convince anyone to adopt Calvinistic beliefs. Instead, I just want to highlight a few common misunderstandings about Calvinism in the hopes that, when the subject does come up, we can have better, more informed, and more gracious conversations. This does not and should not be something that Christians fight relentlessly over. Yet it can be helpful to challenge each other back and forth, with brotherly love, in an iron-sharpening-iron kind of way.
Here are 5 common misconceptions about Calvinism.
1. It kills evangelism
The logic goes like this: if God has already chosen in eternity past who will be saved (which is what Calvinism teaches), then there is absolutely no point in evangelism because those who are chosen will be saved no matter what and those who are not chosen will be damned no matter what. There’s nothing you can do to change who God chose, so there’s no point in trying. Nothing can stop those who are chosen from finding Christ, and nothing can bring those who aren’t chosen to finding Christ. Destinies are fixed, and so evangelism is pointless.
This might be a logical flow of thought, but you can’t say that it’s what Calvinism teaches. Quite simply, it doesn’t. No person who understands Calvinism believes that there’s no use in evangelism. If they do, they don’t understand Calvinism.
Calvinists have always been fervent evangelists: from John Calvin himself to Charles Spurgeon, George Whitfield, John Bunyan, William Wilberforce, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, John Knox, Francis Schaeffer, and the like. Modern-day Calvinists like Martin Lloyd-Jones, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, David Platt, Matt Chandler, and others are also heavy on the need for evangelism. In fact, some of the most productive church-planting movements in the world today, such as the Acts 29 Church Planting Network, are Calvinist in their theology. In short, while logic may say that Calvinism kills evangelism, those on the inside seem to think otherwise.
Why would that be? Here’s why: Calvinists believe that God not only appoints the ends, he also appoints the means. We believe that though God has chosen who will be saved before he created the world (Ephesians 1:4), he also plans to reach those individuals through evangelistic efforts by Christians. We see both in the Bible, so we believe both. In fact, the reality that people were out there somewhere destined for salvation seems to be one of the things that motivated Paul towards relentless evangelism (2 Timothy 2:10). He knew that more people were appointed for salvation, and knowing that is what fuelled him to endure hardship for the spread of the gospel.
No one knows who will be saved and who won’t. Only God knows. And so we aim to evangelize everyone, knowing that some will receive it and others will reject it. And, that if anyone receives Christ and is born-again, we were God’s appointed means (or a part of it) to bring them to salvation. How cool is that? Every good Calvinist is a John 3:16 kind of Christian. There’s no contradiction there.
J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is one book that aims to flesh out these ideas further.
2. It is a man-made doctrine
If by “man-made”, you mean that the Calvinistic acronym TULIP does not come from the Bible, then yes, Calvinism is a theological framework created by man. If, however, you mean that the actual teachings of Calvinism come from man and are not found in the Bible, then certainly any Calvinist would beg to differ.
Though it is named after him, Calvinism did not come from John Calvin. The reason Calvinism is named after him is that he systematized these doctrines more than Bible teachers had in generations past (even though he himself did not develop TULIP, but students of his years later). Every Calvinist believes that the basic teachings of Calvinism come from the Bible. We make our arguments for Calvinist theology from the pages of Scripture and not from human philosophy. In fact, many Calvinists would admit (as I would) that their initial acceptance of Calvinism was difficult because it did not at all seem to fit with their pre-existing philosophies. Rather, most people who adopt Calvinism simply cave-in after finally admitting that they see the teaching there in the Bible, despite their emotional objections to it at first.
There’s a sense in which we could say that almost any doctrine is man-made, because any time a person tries to explain the teaching of the Bible, all we need to do is associate those teachings with the teacher and not the Scriptures themselves and we can claim it to be from man and not from God. This is simply not a fair way to characterize any theology. The question we must ask is not “does it make sense to me?” but rather “is it there on the page?”.
3. It eliminates free will and human responsibility
Because Calvinism places a high emphasis on the sovereignty of God, many assume that human beings are simply left to walk around as robots without free will. God makes all the choices, and we are just pawns in his little game. We are like puppets without any ability to function for ourselves. Essentially, if Calvinists believe that God is completely sovereign over all human affairs, then people (1) can’t make decisions for themselves and (2) can’t be held accountable for decisions they make, since God is sovereign over them.
To be clear, no Calvinist believes that human beings cannot make meaningful choices, nor do they believe that people are not accountable for their decisions despite God having ultimate control over them. Those who object would ask, “Why not? If Calvinism so highly exalts the sovereignty of God, aren’t those logical outcomes?”
The answer: Yes, those are logical outcomes! However, Calvinists allow Scripture to govern over logic. If the Bible says two things that seem to be contradictory to the human mind, a Calvinist (and certainly many other kinds of theologians) will simply accept both ideas as true and learn to live with the tension and mystery. Calvinists believe in logic, but also know that when something seems illogical to a human mind that does not necessarily mean it is illogical, and that God can and does see how it makes logical sense.
Think of the Trinity. Virtually all Christians believe in it, yet it is a divine mystery that defies logic. A God who is three, yet one? Doesn’t make sense! Yet we see it in the Bible, so we accept it. A similar thing could be said about the hypostatic union (Jesus having both a divine and human nature). Was Jesus God, or a man? He was both, fully and at the same time! Even though that makes no sense, we believe it, because Scripture teaches it. In fact, a lot of Christian theology contains certain degrees of mystery that are beyond human comprehension. Do Christians have to labour in their call to live a Christian life, or does God work in them to do it? Answer: both (1 Corinthians 15:10)! Are Christians made sinless by Christ, or do they need to conquer their sin? Answer: both (1 Corinthians 5:7)!
A significant portion of Calvinism contains these kinds of paradoxes. Calvinists hold to the absolute sovereignty of God over all creation, yet also that people can make real decisions that they are morally responsible for. How can that be so? Because the Bible says so. In some places, the two are taught in the very same verse. Consider Acts 2:23, where Peter says the following in his sermon at Pentecost: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Peter says two seemingly contradictory things here. He says that the death of Christ was at the hands of lawless men. In other words, crucifying Jesus was a sinful thing to do, for which those men are morally responsible. Yet, at the same time, Peter also says these events took place according to God’s foreknowledge and plan. God was sovereign over it. Therefore, God is sovereign even over the sinful choices of men and fits them into his plan, while also holding these men accountable without God himself becoming guilty of sin in some way. An almost identical thing is said in Acts 4:27-28.
In short, yes, Calvinists believe that God is ultimately in control of everything. Yet we also hold that human beings are able to make meaningful choices and are totally responsible for everything they do. Though these can seem at odds with one another, both seem to be present in Scripture, and therefore both are accepted as true.
4. It promotes “easy believism”
Easy believism is a negative term that means some people wrongly think they can put their faith in Jesus one time, secure their place in heaven, and then live however the heck they want in the middle. Some accuse Calvinism of promoting easy believism because part of the teachings of Calvinism says that once a person becomes a Christian, they can never lose their salvation. They are eternally secure, never to worry again about the possibility of experiencing damnation.
I have written about this before, but let me just frankly say that Calvinism does not promote easy believism. True, Calvinism says that once a person is born-again, they can never lose their salvation. But Calvinism also teaches that once a person puts faith in Christ, it is necessary for them to persevere in that faith. It is not as if they can trust Christ and then live any way they want. If that is the case, it is evidence that they never truly trusted Christ. Real faith produces a changed life (James 2:14-26).
How can these two things be? If faith is secured at the point of salvation, what is the point of persevering? Quite simply, both points are true because both points are present in Scripture. 1 John 2:19 is a good example to show that the professing Christian who does not continue in their faith proves themselves to be a false convert: “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Calvinism rightly teaches that holiness is essential to salvation (Hebrews 12:14, Romans 8:13). Holiness and a faith that does not die out are signs of being born-again. Jesus’ parable about false conversions, often called the parable of the soils or parable of the sower, also demonstrates that there can be outward signs of conversion but a lack of true life internally (Matthew 13:1-23). So these ideas are not contradictory. God promises that true faith is sealed by the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of inheriting eternal life (Ephesians 1:13-14), and yet that does not mean we can just ride out this life as if nothing has changed. It is imperative for believers to persevere, and those who do so demonstrate that they are the real deal. Those who don’t, prove themselves to be false.
5. It makes God a moral monster
This is probably the biggest hang-up on Calvinism. If God chooses who will be saved before human beings were even created, then why did he not choose some people? Isn’t he then basically creating people knowing full well that they will never repent and are destined to eternity in hell? Isn’t it like God seeing two individuals drowning and choosing to reach out and save the one, while deliberately not doing the same for the other, despite having the ability to do so?
You can see why many accuse the God of Calvinism to be a hideous, unkind monster. It was one of the reasons I rejected Calvinism early on. I could not fathom the thought of God letting people die in their sin while he had the ability to do something about it.
There are also many verses in the Bible that clearly say that God desires for everyone to be saved.
- 1 Timothy 2:3-4 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior,  who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
- 2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
- Ezekiel 33:11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
So here is the dilemma for the Calvinist. God clearly desires salvation for all, yet we know that not all will find salvation. Doesn’t that mean that God does not get what he wants, while supposedly he has the power to do? Can it be that the reason some are saved and some are not, despite God’s desires, is that human beings make the decision to be saved?
This is the toughest objection of all because it requires that we know the mind of God concerning something he has not shown us a clear answer to. God obviously is a God of love. In sending his Son to die for wretched sinners, he put that issue to rest. God loves mankind and has made a way for us to be reconciled to him, through the shed blood of Jesus as the atonement for our sin. So God loves us with that kind of love – end of debate on that.
But the Bible also teaches that God owes us nothing. That is, though he offered us salvation in Christ, he did not have to do so. He was under no moral obligation to find a way to deal with our sin. If God never sent Jesus to die, and the entire human race died in their sin and went to hell, God would have done us no wrong. The fact that anyone is saved at all is sheer grace. That is the point of Romans 9:9-24. It is a challenging passage to read, yet we must reckon with it’s content. It is part of God’s revelation of himself in Scripture, and we should not be too quick to run from it or find a way to make it say anything other than what it so clearly says. We must realize that the God of Romans 9 is the same God of John 3:16. There is no contradiction.
One other challenge along these lines is often made. It is usually said something like this: “God can’t be like that. He can’t randomly choose people for salvation and then randomly not choose others. He doesn’t make arbitrary decisions like that.” To which I would respond, who said his choices are random? Who said they are made arbitrarily? Romans 9:18-24 says rather clearly that his choice to extend mercy or not is NOT random, but purposeful. It has something to do with God’s desire to show his power and wrath, and also to show in no uncertain terms to those who receive mercy just how richly blessed we are. Is that not what the text says? If you object to it, how can you explain away what is so clearly said there?
In short, God is a God of love to have extended any mercy to us at all. That we are not all struck dead and sent straight to hell the first time we knowingly and willfully sin is an act of mercy. And just think how many sins, how many treasonous and adulterous actions we have grieved God’s heart with, and yet he gives us breath and food and friends and homes and countless pleasures to enjoy! God is not a moral monster, even in Calvinism. On the contrary, he is a God of more grace and love than we can ever fully fathom or appreciate.
There is a framework of mind operating within Calvinism. It is one that says I am willing to believe whatever the Bible teaches, even if I don’t fully understand it or it seems illogical or self-contradictory. Calvinists simply refuse to force God’s Word into a system that ignores parts of the Bible; at least, that is the goal. Most people accuse Calvinists of doing that very thing, yet as I have come to understand Calvinism more and more, it is not that way at all. Calvinists are willing to live with a lot of tension and mystery within their theology. They usually are accused of believing things they do not believe. This is because people look at the basic points of Calvinism, and then make logical conclusions about the various inevitable outcomes. That makes sense, but the problem is that the Bible simply contains too much mystery and unexplainable doctrines that weave together perfectly only within the mind of God.
My point in all of this is not to convince anyone that Calvinism is true. You can decide for yourself. Rather, I’m trying to give you the kind of framework it takes to give Calvinism a fair chance. Don’t assume you understand it because you can list the 5 points of TULIP. Don’t think you have it all pegged down because you drew out some logical conclusions. There is much more to it than that. As a former anti-Calvinist, I can attest to the reality that you simply never know where you will end up as you continue to study God’s Word and let it lead you where it may.