Myths and Caricatures of Calvinism Part One

I’ve decided to write some blogs before classes begin at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary on myths, caricatures, and straight falsities about Calvinism. What is Calvinism? Calvinism is a system of beliefs within Reformed theology associated mainly with the doctrine of salvation. Though not directly from Calvin himself as a system, it is often associated with five points known as TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the saints). The points are merely a short-hand for Reformed theology’s distinctives concerning soteriology. There’s definitely more to be said but certainly not less. To the Reformed, salvation is entirely of the LORD from start to finish.

One of the most pernicious caricatures concerning Calvinism is the charge of antinomianism. The word literally means “against”(anti) the “law” (nomos). The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines antinomianism as follows:

False teaching that since faith alone is necessary for salvation, one is free from the moral obligations of the law. The word “antinomianism” is not used in the Bible, but the idea is spoken of. Paul appears to have been accused of being an antinomian (Rom. 3:8; 6:1,15). While it is true that obedience to the law will never earn salvation for anyone (Eph. 2:8-9), it is equally true that those who are saved are expected to live a life full of good works (Matt. 7:16-20; Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:10; James 2:14-26). Since we have been freed from the dominion of sin through faith in Jesus, we have also been freed to practice the righteousness demanded by God (Rom. 6:12-22).

The typical charge is “If God is completely sovereign and one cannot lose his or her salvation because its completely in His hands, there is no incentive for moral obedience. Do whatever you please! The law can be thrown out the window.” The only problem is that this line of reasoning is completely absent from Reformed writers, pastors, theologians, scholars, and historians.

John Calvin himself would be rolling in his grave if a careful reader or listener walked away from his writing and pastoral ministry with this idea of lawlessness. In fact, Calvin believed that the law had three explicit purposes: a pedagogical use, a civil use, and a didactic use. The first use of the Law was pedagogical meaning that the Law shows us our failures and utter unrighteousness before God. In the Institutes Book 2 Chapter Seven, the theologian writes:

The law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both. He who has no power of following righteousness is necessarily plunged in the mire of iniquity, and this iniquity is immediately followed by the curse.

The law exists for man to examine, compare, and contrast himself in all his sinfulness with the holiness and righteousness of God. This act will lead the sinner to a holy despair for he will surely run to the only watershed of safety from the condemnation he sees in God’s rule. He will run to Christ. Sinners cannot obey the gospel, any more than the law, without renewal of heart. The law points the sinner to his great need of Christ and regeneration.

The second use of the law is civil. Calvin said in chapter 10 of book three that:

The second office of the Law is, by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice. Such persons are curbed not because their mind is inwardly moved and affected, but because, as if a bridle were laid upon them, they refrain their hands from external acts, and internally check the depravity which would otherwise petulantly burst forth. It is true, they are not on this account either better or more righteous in the sight of God. For although restrained by terror or shame, they dare not proceed to what their mind has conceived, nor give full license to their raging lust, their heart is by no means trained to fear and obedience.

The second use of the law is for governments and civic authorities to yield the law’s moral obligations for society’s good in the curbing of evil. This is one reason why you typically see the ten commandments in courthouses throughout our country.

The last use of the law and probably the most pertinent for this discussion is didactic. Calvin said that the law of God is:

The best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge; just as a servant who desires with all his soul to approve himself to his master, must still observe, and be careful to ascertain his master’s dispositions, that he may comport himself in accommodation to them.

The law is a tool of sanctification within the believer’s daily walk with the Lord. How can one know how to please the Lord? The answer is found in walking in his ways. Torah is a reflection of God’s ways and thus necessarily linked to the Christian’s life. The law remains the standard of measurement both for justification and sanctification. Furthermore, for Calvin, theology and biblical exposition are intricately linked. Whatever Scripture says concerning the Law, Calvin taught and believed it. Calvinism teaches that when Christ elects someone to salvation he works progressively in that person’s life to make him more and more Christ-like and the law is used in that process. By definition, if the law is used in this way throughout the believer’s life, the charge of antinomianism is straight lunacy.

The real misunderstanding in regards to the charge of antinomianism within the Calvinism/Arminanism is related to the nature or grounds of sanctification. Both justification and sanctification are grace-wrought works of God (granted sanctification is a work of synergism that flows from monergistic regeneration). Though never stated, many believe that “salvation is by grace through faith but holiness is by my own willpower, self-effort, or my white-knuckled attempt to please the God of grace.” Such line of reasoning can be no further from the truth. Michael Horton in his new Systematic Theology (The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way) elucidates this point very well saying:

Ethical imperatives are extrapolated from gospel indicatives. The gospel of free justification liberates us to embrace the very law that once condemned us. This new life Paul calls “life in the Spirit,” yielding “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16-26). When we were “in Adam,” that law yielded death and condemnation; “in Christ,” the law approves us…Only when it no longer can condemn us is the law a friend rather than an enemey.

We pursue holiness because we have been united with him in justification! We go to Christ for what is necessarily expected of us because he has come near to us first. God has provided all we need for our pursuit of holiness in our being united with him through his son’s work. He has delivered us from the reign of sin and given us His indwelling Holy Spirit. He has revealed His will for holy living in His Word, and He works in us to will and to act according to His good purpose. He has sent pastors and teachers to exhort and encourage us in the path of holiness; and He answers our prayers when we cry to Him for strength against temptation. What is the key to holiness? Eating and drinking and enjoying and delighting in all that God is for you in His Son. The key to holiness is falling in love with Jesus. And that work of God flows from our being united with and to him in justification. It is high time for this criticism or myth to be dropped.

Future posts will hopefully concern the following: Calvinism…

  • Impedes missions and evangelism.
  • Leads to a theocracy.
  • Resists gender equality.
  • Is joyless (the frozen chosen).
  • Doesn’t believe in free will.
  • Leads to pride.
  • Teaches men are mere robots.
  • Teaches God doesn’t love everyone.
  • Worships the man John Calvin.
  • Lays a system on Scripture.
  • Was invented in the Reformation.
  • Can be mixed with Arminianism.
  • Is not the only system taught in Scripture (it also teaches Arminianism).
  • Necessarily entails believe everything Calvin believed
  • Does away with an age of accountability.
  • Believes in total depravity which means men have no intrinsic worth or value.
  • Is wrong because philosophy supports libertarianism.
  • Cannot be found in the Old Testament.
  • Cannot be known this side of heaven.
  • Calvinism merely concerns soteriology.
  • Says God causes evil.
  • Says I did not make a decision to follow Jesus.

One response to “Myths and Caricatures of Calvinism Part One

  1. Pingback: Myths and Caricatures of Calvinism Part Five « Austin's Blog·

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