If you were to ask a Calvinist what he believed and why he believed it, he may well start by introducing the word TULIP. It is an easy way to remember the five points of Calvinism in the order that they are typically explained: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance (or preservation) of the saints.
From the traditional Calvinistic view, the first and most crucial point to be made is that man is in a condition of total depravity. Some people misunderstand this term and think that Calvinists believe everyone on the face of the earth is a horrible little person. But this is not what it means. Total depravity does not mean that man is as bad as he can be. It simply means that nothing he can do is truly and perfectly good as far as God is concerned. The reason is that in an unregenerate state, a man’s heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9), because man was born with a sinful nature (Ps. 51:5), and because he therefore does what comes naturally from that sinful nature (Rom. 3:10-18; Eph. 2:1-2). Any good done before someone receives the new birth, as far as the Calvinist is concerned, is ultimately for self-serving motives. Paul makes his understanding of this matter quite clear in the eighth chapter of Romans, where he says, “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires…The mind of the sinful man is death…the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (Rom. 8:5-8).
When this idea of total depravity is considered carefully, the concept can be seen playing out in the lives of real people every day. For example, a man may pride himself on being very honest, and yet sin because of the pride. And so, although his honesty is commendable, his pride ruins any chance for demonstrating a complete godliness in the honesty. On the other hand, a person may be honest and humble, but think nothing of committing adultery. And so he or she demonstrates (perhaps) some godly virtue in some areas, but a blatant disregard of God’s moral requirements in others. Since God considers all of these different areas in a person’s life important, this person, too, falls short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).
Or someone may be perfectly honest at all times. Yet the motivations for being honest are not for the sake of honesty itself. He or she may merely dislike having to deal with the negative consequences of getting trapped in lies, only to lose face because of them. And so the honesty is motivated by nothing better than a fear of negative consequences.
And so, based on passages like Romans 8:5-8, the Calvinist would say that even if people do appear to seek God, they really are doing nothing more than seeking God for their own sake. This is nothing more than using God for what those people perceive will create a more pleasant situation for their own lives. They don’t want to be saved to be a more effective servant and worshipper of a holy God—certainly not virtue as far as God is concerned.
The conclusion for the Calvinist then, is that since there is nothing good in and of man himself, God’s electing some to salvation is an unconditional election—their being chosen for salvation is not determined by any good works or goodness within them. God’s electing choice is not based on what the lost man is or on what he does, but entirely on God’s own sovereign purposes. Jesus said in John’s gospel, “All that the father gives me will come to me…I shall lose none of all that He has given me, but raise them up at the last day…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…” (John 6:37, 39, 44). Edwin H. Palmer defends the Calvinistic position on election.
If men are totally depraved and if some are still saved, then it is obvious that the reason some are saved and some are lost rests entirely with God. All of mankind would remain lost if left to itself and not chosen by God to be saved. For by nature man is dead spiritually (Eph. 2) and not just sick. He has no spiritual life or goodness in him. He cannot do anything that is truly good – no, not so much as even understand the things of God and Christ, let alone desire Christ or salvation. Only when the Holy Spirit regenerates man and makes him alive spiritually can man have faith in Christ and be saved.4
Since no one in and of himself has or does anything which will affect his or her salvation, because in a fallen state man is incapable of doing so, the Calvinist concludes that Christ could not have died for everyone, thereafter to wait for sinful man to respond and accept Christ. In fact, the typical Calvinist would almost recoil at this idea. They see it as an affront to God’s sovereignty that He should make His choice subject to man’s will. As one Calvinist author says, “To [the Arminian] the atonement is like a universal grab-bag: there is a package for everyone, but only some will grab a package.”5 A. W. Pink, in his book, The Sovereignty of God explains the reason why.
To say that God the Father has purposed the salvation of all mankind, that God the Son died with the express intention of saving the whole human race, and that God the Holy Spirit is now seeking to win the world to Christ—when, as a matter of common observation, it is apparent that the great majority of our fellow men are dying in sin and passing into a hopeless eternity—is to say that God the Father is disappointed, that God the Son is dissatisfied, and that God the Holy Spirit is defeated. To argue that God is “trying his best” to save all mankind, but that the majority of men will not let Him save them, is to insist that the will of the Creator is impotent, and that the will of the creature is omnipotent. To throw the blame, as many do, upon the devil, does not remove the difficulty, for if Satan is defeating the purpose of God, then Satan is Almighty and God is no longer the Supreme Being.6
The Calvinist believes in a limited atonement. Christ only died for the ones the Father chose unconditionally, “in [Christ] before the creation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). As far as the Calvinist is concerned, if Christ died for all, then all would be saved. The reason is that if someone is part of the group of the elect for whom Christ died, then His death has atoned for their sins, satisfied God’s wrath toward their sin and has made them righteous before God. So if Christ died for all, God would see all men in this light and all would be destined for heaven—but the Scriptures make it clear that some go to hell. And so Christ could not have died for all. Christ’s death was fully effective, but only to save those chosen to be saved. There was no purpose or requirement for Him to die for the rest. Indeed, if Christ died for someone, according to the Calvinist, it is because, and only because, God has planned to bring that person to saving faith from eternity past. Therefore, he will be saved. Usually, they believe Ephesians 2:8-9 means, “for by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that [faith] is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast.” The Calvinist believes that saving faith is a part of the gift of salvation. The thought is that mankind is incapable of even believing on Christ unless God has already given saving faith as a gift. They believe because they are chosen to be saved.
For the Calvinist, the logical conclusion from this line of reasoning is that if God has chosen some to be saved, then God is also able and sovereignly willing to finish what He started when He elected them in eternity past. He changes the man’s heart to believe on Christ with irresistible grace. Again, this is a logical conclusion for the Calvinist. None will come to Christ except He sovereignly empowers them to want to do so. Therefore, the ones who come to faith in Christ do so because God sovereignly transformed them to be able to believe on Christ and to want to come to Him and be saved. God keeps him saved forever—perseverance of the saints—because God will finish what He has started. In Romans we read:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified (Rom. 8:28-30).
For the Calvinist, the whole process has been predestined by the loving choice of God from eternity past clear through to eternity future. This theological system rises or falls, in the end, on the Calvinist’s concept of total depravity. None will ever want to come to Christ unless God decrees it to happen and sovereignly changes their hearts to bring it to pass—from beginning to end. And it comes to the ultimate conclusion that the atonement is limited to being fully effective, but only for the elect. It ultimately has no effect for the lost.
If the atonement was not limited by the choice of God, but potentially effective for all, then it must depend instead on man’s response to God’s universal invitation, and the lost man would have a part in the choosing. In this case, only the choices made by the lost as they respond to the call of the gospel throughout the course of time will determine who is saved. And this, as we shall see, is the view from the Arminian side.
>>> Next: Chapter 3