Common Misunderstandings of Calvinism

Calvinism 101: Session 3
What Calvinism Isn’t: 5 Common Misunderstandings
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? – Romans 9:14
The flesh cannot hear of this wisdom of God without being instantly disturbed by numberless questions, and without attempting in a manner to call God to an account…for when men hear anything of what Scripture teaches respecting predestination, they are especially entangled with very many impediments. – John Calvin, on Romans 9:14
Why Is Calvinism So Frequently Misunderstood?
-       We all are Arminians at first. Our firsthand experience of conversion emphasizes our own role.
-       An over-reliance upon philosophical speculation to the detriment of listening to the Bible leads to forced conclusions.
o   “My experience in reading analyses of God’s providence that prioritize philosophical questions over exegetical ones is that unbiblical assumptions easily take over and mute or distort what the Scriptures teach,” (John Piper, Providence, p. 212)
-       The Bible doesn’t answer every question we have (Deut 29:29).
-       This isn’t a simple doctrine: “There are some things in [Paul’s writings] that are hard to understand,” (2 Pet 3:16)
What Calvinism Isn’t
1.     Calvinists Don’t Believe We Are Utterly Depraved

Utter Depravity: You are as sinful and evil as you could possibly be.
Total Depravity: There is not any part of you that is unaffected by sin.

The difference is between being dirty all over and being dirt. (Greg Forster)

“By this sin [Adam and Eve] they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body,” (WCF 6.2)

“In every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven toward virtue throughout life…These examples, accordingly, seem to warn us against adjudging man’s nature wholly corrupted, because some men have by its prompting not only excelled in remarkable deeds, but conducted themselves most honorably throughout life. But here it ought to occur to us that amid this corruption of nature there is some place for God’s grace; not such grace as to cleanse it, but to restrain it inwardly.” (John Calvin, Institutes 2.3.3)
This is the idea of common grace.

But what about…“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Rom 3:10-12)

“When the Scripture records, “There is none who does good, no, not one,” good is more narrowly defined than it usually is,” (RC Sproul, Truths We Confess Vol. 1, p. 189)

“Calvinism doesn’t say fallen people are never good in any respect. It says fallen people are never completely and totally good—good in every respect,” (Greg Forster, The Joy of Calvinism, p. 37)

2.     Calvinists Don’t Reject Free Will

“God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil,” (WCF 9.1)

In addressing the providence of God, the Westminster Confession states that God “ordains whatsoever comes to pass,” but does so without “violence offered to the will of the creatures,” (WCF 3.1)

“Choose this day whom you will serve,” (Josh 24:15)

“Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,” (Acts 3:19)

Calvinists reject “fatalism” or “determinism” that teaches that human choices are only illusions. Calvinists also rejected that God (or Satan/sin) coerce us contrary to our will, the way a hostage with a gun to their head is coerced. We are free to choose.

The Problem: how do you define “free will”?

“We allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man’s innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil.” (John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, 2.280) 

One way to define free will would be “Freedom to make choices that correspond to our desires.” This is Jonathan Edwards definition in his work The Freedom of the Will. The question, then, is what controls or shapes our desires: righteousness or unrighteousness? God or Satan? The Spirit or the flesh?

So, we are not held at gunpoint by God or Satan who then override our will. We are free. But if our desires are “captive to the law of sin” (Rom 7:21-23) and “dead in our trespasses” (Eph 2:1-4), then we are free the way a drug addict is free. No one is coercing the addict to use, but their very desires are bent on destruction.

“We do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity wills in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced,” (Calvin, Bondage, 2.280)[1]

“Free will is not sufficient to enable man to do good works, unless he be helped by grace, indeed by special grace, which only the elect receive through regeneration,” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.3.6)

3.     Calvinists Believe that We Freely Respond to the Gospel

“When God converts a sinner and translates Him into the state of grace, He freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good,” (WCF 9.4)

“All those whom God hath predestined unto life…renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.” (WCF 10.1, see also points VIII and X of our Statement of Faith)

“One who heard us was a woman named Lydia…The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul,” (Acts 16:14).

“It is the saving work of the Spirit preserves the freedom of our wills rather than negating it…In fact, the work of the Spirit enlarges our freedom. Who is more free, the inquisitive and learned man or the contented ignoramus? Who is more free, the sober and self-controlled man or the addict? Who is more free, the man with natural and well-ordered desires or the pervert? In one important sense, they are all equally free. That is, they are all free to act within the bounds of their capacities and powers, and they are all fully responsible for their actions. And yet, those whose capacities and powers give them a wider scope to exercise their freedom are, in another important sense, freer,” (Forster, The Joy of Calvinism, p. 33-34).

4.     Calvinists Believe We Must Pray and Do Evangelism

“You do not have, because you do not ask,” (James 4:2)

“Ask, and it will be given to you,” (Matt 7:7)

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” (Rom 10:14-15, 17)

“We believe that election is…perfectly consistent with the free agency of man, it includes all the means necessary to achieve the ends of God’s purposes…That it encourages and strengthens the greatest possible exercise of human responsibility and evangelism,” (Point X, “Of God’s Purpose of Grace”).

John Wesley, in his sermon denouncing Calvinism, preached that if the Calvinistic doctrine of election is true then “all preaching is vain” since they will be saved regardless, and preaching to the non-elect is useless since “they cannot be saved.” George Whitefield, in his letter to his friend Wesley, quotes these words back to Wesley and then says: “O dear sir! What kind of reasoning, or rather sophistry, is this? Hath not GOD, who hath appointed Salvation for a certain number, appointed also the preaching of the Word as a means to bring them to salvation? Does anyone hold Election in any other sense? And if so, how is preaching needless to them that are elected, when it is designed by GOD, to be the Power of GOD unto their eternal Salvation? And, since we know not who are elect and who reprobate, we are to preach promiscuously to all.”
(George Whitefield, A letter from the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield, to the Reverend Mr. John Wesley, in answer to his sermon, entituled Free grace)

5.     Calvinism Does Not Promote Spiritual Laziness

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (Phil 2:13-14).

“Because of these remnants of sin dwelling in them and also because of the temptations of the world and Satan, those who have been converted could not remain standing in this grace if left to their own resources. But God is faithful, mercifully strengthening them in the grace once conferred on them and powerfully preserving them in it to the end,” (The Canons of Dort, 5.3)

“Neither does the renewed confidence of perseverance produce immorality or lack of concern for godliness in those put back on their feet after a fall, but it produces a much greater concern to observe carefully the ways which the Lord prepared in advance. They observe these ways in order that by walking in them they may maintain the assurance of their perseverance, lest, by their abuse of God’s fatherly goodness, the face of the gracious God (for the godly, looking upon that face is sweeter than life, but its withdrawal is more bitter than death) turn away from them again, with the result that they fall into greater anguish of spirit,” (Canons of Dort, 5.13)

“And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so God preserves, continues, and completes this work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments,” (Canons of Dort, 5.14)

[1] FWIW, Calvin disliked the term “free will” because of how easily it was misunderstood: “If anyone, then, can use this word without understanding it in a bad sense, I shall not trouble him on this account. But I hold that because it cannot be retained without great peril, it will, on the contrary, be a great boon for the church if it be abolished. I prefer not to use it myself, and I should like others, if they seek my advice, to avoid it.” (Institutes, 2.3.8) But often, when people use the term, Calvin recognizes that they assume that they aren’t affected by the bondage of sin in their desires and “take it to imply ability and power” and “as soon as the will is called free, the illusion that it therefore has both good and evil within its power, so that it can by its own strength choose either one for them,” (Bondage, 2.279)