What is a Calvinist?

John Calvin (1509-1564) was a French theologian and pastor who spent most of his ministry in Geneva, Switzerland. Calvin was a major influencer during the Protestant Reformation, preaching and teaching with the fervor of a man who seemed wholly-devoted to Christ.

Calvin preached and taught expositionally through the Bible, leaving behind many commentaries on the biblical text and other insightful books on Christian belief and practice. However, Calvin’s most notable work is known as “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” which is a magnificent theological treatise. Systematic theology texts are quite numerous today, but before Calvin such a thing was rare indeed.

Calvin’s writings create a bit of difficulty for anyone to answer my main question here – What is a Calvinist? – since his Institutes alone clearly demonstrate that Calvin’s theological system and contributions were both much more expansive than many Christians suppose today. However, I am going to avoid the worthwhile debate about who is and isn’t a real Calvinist.

Rather, I am going to focus my answer to the main question – What is a Calvinist? – on the popular or common perspective. Most people who claim to be Calvinists today are merely announcing their affirmation of the so-called Five Points of Calvinism, and many modern-day Calvinists don’t even affirm all five.

Ironically, Calvin never arranged or articulated a mere five points of doctrine. The five points popularly known as Calvinism today were not even a bulleted theological structure until after the Remonstrance (followers of Jocobus Arminius) made these points the focus of their opposition – 50 years after Calvin died. Even then, however, they were not arranged as the popluar acronym TULIP. That didn’t happen until at least 200 years later.

At the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), the Remonstrance petitioned the government for an allowance to hold their theological view (throughout history religion and government have been joined more often than not). A similar doctrinal position (called Semi-Pelagiansism) had already been condemned one thousand years earlier (in AD 431 at the Council of Ephesus and again in AD 529 at the Council of Orange), and the Remonstrance wanted to avoid the same designation.

But, alas, the Remonstrance were condemned as well. The Synod of Dort ended with a judgment against Arminianism, declaring it a heresy alongside Semi-Pelagianism. The synod produces several canons (or doctrinal affirmations), some of which became the origins of the so-called Five Points of Calvinism.

The Five Points of Calvinism are:

1) Total Depravity: Fallen humans, since Adam, are thoroughly affected by sin – their bodies, minds, and wills/desires; and unregenerate people are incapable of naturally doing anything genuinely good (Rom. 3:10-18).

2) Unconditional Election: God elects some sinners unto salvation, whereby they become beneficiaries of God’s blessings, not because of any condition in them, but according to the riches of God’s gracious grace and according to the purposes of His divine will (Eph. 1:3-6).

3) Limited Atonement: Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross is priceless, sufficient to cover all sin and all sinners, but Christ’s atoning work was intended and effectual only for those who believe and not for anyone else (Jn. 10:14-16).

4) Irresistable Grace: God alone causes sinners to be born again (regeneration is a monergistic act), through the proclamation of the gospel and powerful work of His Holy Spirit (God normally uses means). All who are born again possess new hearts with which they respond in loving affection for God, believing and repenting by His grace (Eph. 2:1-10).

5) Perseverence of the Saints: All sinners whom God has elected unto Himself, those for whom Christ has died, those God has made spiritually alive, will pursue personal holiness in this life and will persevere to the end (Rom. 8:28-39).

Calvinism – as anemically articulated in the five points above – has been the majority view among Protestants. Historically, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Anglicans have all affirmed these doctrines. Notable 21st-century theologians and pastors who affirm these doctrines include R.C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, and Mark Dever.

This brief article is only intended as a very simple introduction to this theological system. I suggest much further investigation for the interested Christian, and there are numerous books and articles that might be a help.

In my estimation, Wayne Grudem’s book, Systematic Theology, does a good job of explaining the various views of biblical salvation. This would be a great starting point for further study.

Whether you embrace this view or not, it is vital that all believers look to the Bible as the ultimate authority. It is also important that we humbly and graciously investigate the Bible alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Author: marcminter

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

2 thoughts on “What is a Calvinist?”

  1. I appreciate you doing this. Yes, I am a Catholic but study these things as well. Now maybe you can help me understand something, because I am at a lost.

    Why are Calvinist always sending to people to hell all the time. I am a Catholic and I cannot tell you how many of these people send me to hell, because of the Church I go to. My reply to them is: “God gave you the right to judge my soul when?”

    Not all, but the one’s I have ran into on blogs as well as personal are some of the most vicious people I have ever ran across. I mean they do not only do it to Catholics, they will do it to other Protestants as well. Is this something Calvin taught?

    I have also read about Calvinist being in the “cage” stage, which I do not get at all. If this is not their doctrine then why do they not teach this to those in the “cage stage.”

    I have never spoken with a Calvinist that demonstrated or showed me the love of Jesus in any form or fashion. I am just a member of a “cult” being the “Catholic Church,” doomed for hell by them.”

    Another thing they do is always tell me, “I need to go to the Bible only,” doing “away with Church teachings.” Then they are constantly quoting people like I think his name is Spurgeon, and other books that they read. So if they are Bible only people, then why do they go to these others for guidance and teachings?

    I am sorry but the Calvinist I have run across I have no respect for what comes out of their mouths or their teachings except for one. Though she and I disagree on some things, we never do the above mentioned things to one another.
    If you could explain some of this to me, I thank you. God Bless, SR

    1. SR,
      Thanks for reading, and thanks for the candid comment. I’m sorry for the experiences you’ve had with people who call themselves Calvinists. I can understand how easy it might be for a Roman Catholic to feel not-so-loved by any Protestant Christian.

      The fact is, the Roman Catholic Church did anathematize (condemn to hell) anyone who claims that a sinner is justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Protestants believe the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone is a central point of the gospel, which is central to Christianity itself. Therefore, officially and historically and formally, Roman Catholics and Protestants hold diametrically opposite positions on a doctrine we simply cannot agree to disagree about.

      Calvinists are one kind of Protestant, and this means Calvinists and Roman Catholics are technically and historically adhering to opposite doctrines regarding the salvation of sinners. This may very well be why you (a Roman Catholic) have felt some hostility from Protestants/Calvinists. I do not think it’s a good thing for anyone to express hostility when debating doctrine or theology, but I do understand why it happens sometimes. Again, I’m sorry for what you’ve experienced.

      I am a pastor, a father, and a husband, so I don’t have much time to go back and forth with lengthy comments online. But I’d be glad to talk with you over the phone about this sometime, if you want.

      If you are interested in talking more, comment with your email address, and we can exchange contact info privately.

      Thanks again for reading!

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