The term, “Calvinism,” is not the name by which we Calvinists prefer to have our faith called; nor do we ourselves prefer to call ourselves “Calvinists.” This was also true of most of the Calvinists of the past. Calvin was the name of a man, a great servant of God, John Calvin. He was one of the Reformers by whom the Holy Spirit reformed the Church in the 16th century. He ranks with Martin Luther as one of the two outstanding Reformers. To call ourselves “Calvinists,” and our faith “Calvinism,” leaves the impression that we follow a man and that these beliefs are the invention of a man. In fact, these terms originally were terms of derision used by our enemies, as were also the names “Christian” and “Protestant.” Therefore, from the very beginning, Calvinists called themselves “Reformed” or “Presbyterian.” Thus, they deliberately distinguished themselves from the other great branch of the Protestant Reformation, the Lutheran Church, which did call itself by the name of a man.
Nevertheless, “Calvinism” and “Calvinist” are useful terms, today. They are widely known, even though that be, in part, through the disparaging efforts of the enemies of Calvinism. The name “Calvinist” applies also to persons and churches who are not Reformed and Presbyterian, but who embrace the tenets of Calvinism, which they call “the doctrines of grace.” “Calvinism” has come to stand for certain doctrines, a certain system of truth. We have no objection to calling these doctrines “Calvinism” as long as two things are clearly understood. First, it must be understood that not the man John Calvin, but Holy Scripture is the source of them. Secondly, it must be understood that we who embrace these truths are not disciples of a man, Calvin, but are concerned exclusively to follow God’s eternal Son in our flesh, Jesus Christ, exactly by confessing these doctrines.
There are many ways of looking at and applying Calvinism. Men have viewed it politically. Others have viewed it economically. We could examine it as a total world-and-life-view of a man. Calvinism is more, much more, than a set of doctrines and, certainly, much more than five points of doctrine. It is a world-and-life-view, even as humanism or Marxism, with which a man takes a stand in every area of human life. Calvinism involves one with the Church, the instituted Church, and is not only the personal beliefs of the individual; it is, through and through, ecclesiastical. At its heart, however, Calvinism is theology, true religion, and that means doctrine. This is how we will be viewing Calvinism, here. We limit ourselves to a consideration of Calvinism as the gospel.
It is our conviction that Calvinism is the gospel. Its outstanding doctrines are simply the truths that make up the gospel. Departure from Calvinism, therefore, is apostasy from the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. Our defense, then, will proceed as follows. First, we will show that Calvinism is the gospel. This is necessary because of its detractors, who criticize it as a perversion of the gospel. Secondly, we will defend it as the gospel. In doing this, we carry out the calling that every believer has from God. Paul wrote that he was “set for the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:17). I Peter 3:15 calls every believer to give an answer, an “apology,” or defense, to everyone who asks him a reason for the hope that is in him.
Calvinism, as the name indicates, is a certain teaching associated with John Calvin; it refers to doctrines that he propounded. John Calvin was a Frenchman, born in 1509 and died at 55 in 1564. He lived during the Reformation, a contemporary of Luther. He was converted from Roman Catholicism early in his life and labored on behalf of the Reformation all the rest of his life. He lived and worked in Geneva, Switzerland as a Reformed pastor and theologian. His labor was prodigious. He preached almost daily; did an immense pastoral work; carried on a massive correspondence; and wrote commentaries, tracts, and other theological works. He is remembered, especially, for his great work on Christian theology,Institutes of the Christian Religion, and for his commentaries on almost every book of the Bible. All of his Protestant contemporaries recognized his outstanding gifts, especially, in theology and exposition of Scripture. They referred to him simply as “The Theologian.” Calvin’s influence in all the world, already during his lifetime and ever afterwards, was tremendous. Luther, of course, stands alone, as the founder of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin, benefiting from Luther, outstripped even Luther in influencing the Church of Christ in all the world. Even from this historical viewpoint, Calvinism is something of a misnomer. On the doctrines of Calvinism, there was no difference between Luther and Calvin. They were in agreement in their teaching of the doctrines of predestination, the depravity of the fallen man, and justification by faith alone. Almost without exception, all of the Reformers embraced what we now call “Calvinism.” But Calvin did develop these truths systematically and fully, and, therefore, they came to be called by his name. In history, Calvinism is the name for the faith of the Reformed and Presbyterian branch of the Protestant Reformation. These Churches were called “Reformed” in Germany, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. In England and Scotland, they were called “Presbyterian.” This faith was early expressed in written confessions, or creeds. Among the confessions of the Reformed Churches are the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dordt. The great Presbyterian creeds are the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Catechisms. All of these confessions are in essential agreement.
The Reformed and Presbyterian Churches insisted that the teaching embodied in these creeds, that which now is called Calvinism, was the revelation of God in Holy Scripture. Calvinism bases itself on Scripture. It holds fully the Protestant principle of sola scriptura, Scripture alone. The doctrine of Scripture is the very foundation of Calvinism. It is, therefore, a mistake to define Calvinism apart from its belief concerning Scripture. The Bible is the only authority in and over the Church. It is this because it is the inspired Word of God, as II Timothy 3:16 declares. As such, it is reliable, questioned, or subjected to criticism, but it must be received, believed, and obeyed. This is vital for Calvinism because Calvinism teaches many things about which man complains, “These are hard sayings, who can hear them?” For Calvinism, the question is not: “Will men in the 20th century like these things?” But the question is: “Does the Word of God say so?” Calvinism is concerned to proclaim the Scriptures. The preaching of Scripture, both within the Church and outside the Church, is the central interest of Calvinism. It is totally wrong to conceive of Calvinism as a theoretical, abstruse science carried on by heady intellectuals in the study. With the entire Reformation, it wanted, and wants today, to preach the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation to every one who believes.
Calvinism, then, can rightly be viewed as certain basic doctrines, the so-called five points of Calvinism. But even here, a word, of caution is in order. The five points of Calvinism, as five particular doctrines that distinguish Calvinism, originated after Calvin’s death. They were formulated by a Synod of Reformed Churches in 1618-1619, the Synod of Dordt, in response to an attack on these five doctrines by a group within the Reformed Churches that were known as the Remonstrants, or Arminians. The Synod set forth, confessed, explained and defended these five truths in the Canons of the Synod of Dordt. But these five points of doctrine had been Calvin’s own teachings and the faith of the Reformed Churches. What is more, they are the teachings of the Bible and essential elements of the gospel.
Total depravity is one of the five points of Calvinism. This doctrine teaches that man, every man, is by nature sinful and evil, only and completely sinful. There is in man, apart from God’s grace in Christ, no good and no ability for good. By “good” is meant that which is in harmony with the righteousness of God and that which pleases Him. From conception and birth, every man is guilty before God and worthy of everlasting damnation. This is man’s plight because of the fall of the entire human race in Adam. Romans 5:12-21 teaches this. Verse 12 states: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Not only is every man guilty from conception and birth, but he is also corrupt, or depraved. This depravity is total. One aspect of this misery of man is the bondage, or slavery, of man’s will. The will of every man, apart from the grace of the Spirit of Christ, is enslaved to the Devil and to sin. It is willingly enslaved, but enslaved. It is unable to will, desire, or choose God, Christ, salvation, or the good. It is not free to choose good. It is not Calvinism, that God forces men to sin or that men sin unwillingly, but that the natural man’s spiritual condition is such that he cannot think, will, or do anything good. On this doctrine, Luther and Calvin were in perfect agreement. Luther, in fact, wrote a book called The Bondage of the Will. In it, he wrote that the fundamental issue of the Reformation was this issue, whether the will of the natural man was bound or free.
(to be continued)