Explaining Calvinism to Calvinists (and Others)

Explaining Calvinism to Calvinists (and Others)

One surprising feature of the new Calvinist movement is that so many claim to be Calvinists but have not studied Calvinism thoroughly. Nothing shows that more clearly than the responses offered here to my critique of the Calvinist pastor who prays that his son be “among the elect.”

Many Calvinists simply do not understand Calvinism. I, as an Arminian, understand it better than they do. And right now, here, I am not talking about understanding it as inconsistent. I am talking about understanding its basic tenets.

Of course, someone will object that there is no one thing called “Calvinism.” There are many Calvinisms. True enough. There’s supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism and Amyrauldianism, etc., etc. But there are certain features common to all Calvinism historically. At least I, when I encounter someone who claims to be a Calvinist (not just “Reformed” in some vague sense) but denies certain universal features of historical Calvinism am not sure he or she really should be called a Calvinist. An example is unconditional predestination of individuals.

Many self-identified Calvinists, especially today where Calvinism is often shallow, learned from a conference or podcasts or one author but not imbibed deeply or understood profoundly, confuse “election” and “salvation.” This is not true or historically faithful Calvinism.

I have read literally scores of books of theology by Calvinists—most of them about Calvinism. From Calvin himself to Jonathan Edwards to Charles Hodge to Lorraine Boettner to R. C. Sproul to James Montgomery Boice (one of my seminary professors) to John Piper. I have shelves full of books about Calvinism by Calvinists. One thing all of them say, in some way, is that individual election to salvation is unconditional, an eternal decision made by God “within himself” (Calvin’s language) without regard to anything about the persons elected (or reprobated). Calvin, for example, never tired of emphasizing this point. (See Institutes of the Christian Religion III.XXI.7 [including especially "Summary survey of the doctrine of election"].)

One place where Calvin makes crystal clear the difference between election and salvation is InstitutesIII.XXIV.10 “The elect before their call” and 11. “Not growth from seed but divine deliverance.”  There Calvin states clearly that the elect are in exactly the same condition as the reprobate at birth and after birth until the inward, effectual call of God. There is no difference, he says, between the elect and the reprobate, as to their spiritual condition, until the elect receive from God the effectual call.

According to Calvin and all faithful Calvinists, “salvation” happens when an elect person receives the inward, effectual call of God which works faith in their hearts, justifies them on the basis of that faith, and they respond with repentance and are regenerated and united with Christ. All this is laid out in detail in Institutes III.II: “Faith: Its Definition Set Forth, and Its Properties Explained.” In that chapter of the Institutes Calvin sets forth his ordo salutis—order of salvation. What is absolutely and abundantly clear is that election is not conditioned on anything other than God’s good pleasure and will but that salvation is conditioned on faith. To be sure, Calvin (and all true Calvinists) argues that faith itself is a gift of God to the elect, but it follows and is a result of the effectual call which happens to the elect.

Here is a homely illustration (not to be pushed too far). Every four years we in the United States vote someone to be our president. When the person elected to be president (in November) is not already president (incumbent) he or she becomes, as a result of election, “president elect,” not president. He or she does not become president until January at inauguration. And yet many people begin to call the elected person “President So-and-So” before inauguration. That is the mistake many Calvinists make—they confuse election with salvation. Calvin clearly distinguishes them as have all true and faithful Calvinist theologians. (My illustration is of only one point—that a person can be “elect” and not yet enjoy the benefits of election.)

I have heard many Calvinists say that when they are asked when they were saved they say “The moment Christ died on the cross.” That is not true Calvinism. According to Calvinism, Christ’s death secured their salvation; it did not then save them. (John Piper is very careful to use that language but many of his followers miss the distinction and go on saying they were saved when Christ died on the cross.)

Why is this important? Well, for one thing, it shows why it is wrong (inconsistent) for a Calvinist to pray for someone to be included among the elect but (possibly) not wrong (inconsistent) for them to pray for someone to be saved. Salvation is conditional. A prayer for someone’s salvation can be a “foreordained means to a foreordained end.” God foreordains that someone will pray for an elect person’s salvation and that prayer becomes an instrumental cause (not efficient cause) of God sending his effectual call through his Word into that person’s life resulting in faith and justification.

But election is something entirely different. Calvin, anyway (and I would argue all true Calvinist theologians), described election in such a way that no prayer could possibly effect it even instrumentally. It is an eternal decree of God “within himself” not dependent on anything outside himself about who will be saved.

Many Calvinists came here and posted comments claiming that there is no reason why a Calvinist could not pray for someone to be elect. Many of them equated “election” with “conversion” or “salvation.” That’s false to true Calvinism.

Of course, if all they mean is that any person can express a wish to God, that’s true. But I assume the Calvinist pastor who said he prays for God to include his son among the elect did not mean that. He means that he hopes his prayer will somehow effect or contribute to God’s decision to elect his son. If he did not mean that, then he was simply confessing that his prayer is wishful thinking only and not true petition.

My advice to Calvinists all: “Drink deeply at the wells of Calvinism or drink not at all.”


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