6 Common Misconceptions About Calvinism

6 Common Misconceptions About Calvinism April 20, 2022

When it comes to Christianity, few theological subjects are more controversial and polarizing than Calvinism. Since the time of the Reformation, Christians, historians, and theologians all over the world have fiercely debated these doctrines. Subsequently, this has created all kinds of claims about what Calvinism teaches (some accurate and some not). Having been a Calvinist for almost 20 years, I have experienced this firsthand; I have heard it all. From robot analogies to man-worship, to even gross misunderstandings about God’s love and justice. In turn, I thought it would be useful to directly address some of the common misconceptions about the Doctrines of Grace.

This article is intended to be the first in a series on the topic of Calvinism as a whole. As stated, I will begin by addressing many of the misconceptions, then in future articles. I will build scriptural cases for several of the core doctrines represented within Calvinism.

 

Misconception #1: Calvinism is the Worship of John Calvin

To some (me) this might seem silly, however, I have heard the misconstruction dozens of times. I gather it is rooted in the thinking that because Calvinism is named after a specific man (John Calvin), then this implies some innate level of worship or veneration for the person. At face value, I suppose I can understand this. After all, the term “Christian” is used to describe people who worship Christ.

To put it bluntly, Calvinism does not teach the worship, adoration, or veneration of John Calvin. Rather, I would strongly argue that it teaches the exact opposite! The term “Calvinism” exists because the doctrines contained within gained popularity under the writings of Calvin. However, Calvin did not create them. His teaching large mirrors concepts taught by Saint Augustine, and the Apostle Paul before him. If anything, Calvin rediscovered scriptural truths once suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Contrary to this common misconception, at the heart of Calvinism, is a principle wholly focused on the glory, holiness, and worship of God alone. Reformed Theology teaches that man is completely devoid of being worthy of any type of worship. Additionally, John Calvin never sought any worship or any type of adoration; his focus was fully on directing all praise and honor to God. If you have met a person who seems to carry some undue adoration for Calvin, this is that person’s error and has nothing to do with the person or the theology of John Calvin – he taught the opposite.

As a type of exclamation point to this misconception, I will offer a small anecdote. When Calvin was dying, he requested that his grave be unmarked. He did so because he did not want people making pilgrimages to his burial site to pay him homage. Calvin never sought the attention he has received. His concern was only to honor God through the faithful teaching of Holy Scripture.

 

Misconception #2: People are Robots / God’s Sovereignty Undermines Man’s Responsibility

I have heard many times this notion that if God is completely sovereign then people are like programmed robots. Implied in this accusation is that because God is sovereign man is not responsible for his actions. This is simply not true. Any casual reading of God’s Word demonstrates that man is an independent moral agent completely responsible for their actions; Calvinism would agree. However, moral responsibility does not always automatically equate to ability.

In John 6:44, our Lord Jesus Christ said, “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”. He is effectively saying that no one, outside of the working/drawing of God, has the ability to come to Christ. Christ also taught condemnation for those outside of Him. Both are true. Paul makes this point extensively in Romans 1-5. All men are dead in sin because all men are naturally in Adam. At the same time, God is completely sovereign in salvation. Both realities are true.

Undoubtedly, there is an element of deep mystery in this. That’s OK. God never promised that we would know everything in this life. Rather, such mysteries allow us an opportunity to die to ourselves and trust God’s Word/truth to be correct even if we can’t fully grasp it. Likely, this relationship (God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility) is some of what Paul had in mind when he exclaims in Romans 11, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (11:33).

Humans are not robots controlled by God. Instead, we are moral agents made in the image of God. We live, move, and act according to our natural ability (more on this when I come to Total Depravity).  Yet, in all of this, God remains sovereign and just; He uses our brokenness and sin to accomplish His purposes. Perhaps one of the best examples of this in scripture comes to us in the last chapter of Genesis. Joseph, when confronting his brothers on their sin against him, famously says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (50:20).

 

Misconception #3: Calvinists Don’t Believe in Evangelism

This claim is rooted in some faulty logic that suggests since God elects those whom He wants to save, there is no need for Christians to evangelize. What’s the point? God will do it and save anyway. This thinking is not merely wrong, it is heretical (Hyper Calvinism). Scripture is clear: Christians are called to evangelize and share the truth of God’s love with the world; it is a fundamental role of the church.

Calvinism understands that in God’s sovereign plan of redemption, He sovereignly chose people-to-people evangelism as the method of gospel proclamation. What a wonderful gift and privilege for the church! Although God is omnipotent and fully capable, He allows us to be the means by which He saves his people. As the title of Paul David Tripp’s famous book wonderfully states, we are instruments in the Redeemer’s hands.

Calvin also never taught Hyper Calvinism. He was deeply passionate about reaching the lost. This is apparent to anyone who reads his works.  In a sermon on Deuteronomy 33, Calvin stated that “if we have any humanity in us, seeing men going to perdition,…ought we not be moved by pity to rescue the poor souls from hell, and teach them the way of salvation”. Another example comes from his commentary on 1 Timothy. He says, “…there is no people or rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception.” He later points out that people insult God who, “shut out any person from the hope of salvation”.

In summary, Calvinism joyfully teaches evangelism. Knowing that God is sovereign in salvation provides great hope to missionaries. This means that Christians can go into the darkest areas of the world with the gospel. They know that God is sovereign and will bring His people home, regardless of the environment and opposition. Their mission is to share the gospel and trust God with the results. Some of the greatest missionaries the world has ever known were Calvinists, such as William Carey and Jim Elliot.

 

Misconception #4: God is the Author of Sin / The Problem of Evil

This misconception is the logical cousin of #2 on this list. The thinking goes that if God is sovereign in all things, and because bad things happen, then God causes sin and evil. The Bible doesn’t teach this and therefore Calvinism doesn’t teach this. Still, the subject is complex and abstract. It will be difficult to address this topic in just a few paragraphs. Yet, let us be clear on defining some terms and bounding the discussion.

Unequivocally, it is false to say that God is the agent, doer, or author of sin; this is blasphemy. Allowing it to exist does not mean He is the cause of it. Rather, He allows it to exist to bring about His purpose, for His glory. Confused? It’s tough. Let’s look at a well-known example of this in scripture.

In Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon, he is speaking to a group of men and women who were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. He says, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23). Don’t miss what Peter is saying. The greatest sin and evil the world has ever seen (the murder of God) was also part of the “definite plan” of God. Yet, at the same time, Peter is clear in his accusation of the crowd. He says, “you crucified and killed”.

Jonathan Edwards, the great American Calvinistic theologian, offers an analogy to help us understand the relationship between God and sin. He explains that the sun gives us light and warmth. This is part of the sun’s basic nature and it is good. But at the same time, in contrast, it allows for cold and darkness when it sets in the evening. The sun does not create darkness, yet it comes about once the light is withheld. Similarly, God ordains to pass those things He loves and those things He hates by withholding his grace and light. Permission of allowing a thing to exist for a specific purpose does not also make one the creator of it.

 

Misconception #5: Some People Want to be Saved but are Denied Because They’re not Elect

This common misconception is rooted in a principle misunderstanding of how Calvinism understands and applies original sin. I  will address this topic in more detail in a future article. For now, I will offer a brief answer. Calvinism does not teach this because it understands that the natural man does possess the ability to seek God. Any person who genuinely desires to be saved is doing so because God has already completed the world of regeneration in their heart.

Their desires are the fruit of a work God has already done.

Paul, in this letter to the Romans, states that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:13). This is a true statement without error and one with which every Calvinist should agree. God receives all and any who come to Him; He denies no one. The crux of the issue lies not with God, but with the natural man’s ability to seek God on his own (Romans 3).

 

Misconception #6: John Calvin Murdered Servetus

I initially debated on whether or not to include this topic, as it is not theological. Yet, I ultimately decided to include it in the list due to the frequency with which I hear the objection. It generally sounds something like this: John Calvin murdered a man, Servetus, and therefore is unreliable and evil.

First, let’s address the poor logic. While all types of sins are grievous, especially sins tied to the ending of human life, such a claim does not immediately discredit the person as a whole. The entire Bible was written by sinful men. One simply has to look at the life of David as an example. Here we have a man who was deeply devoted to God and His kingdom.  Yet, he was also guilty of grotesque sins (adultery and murder). Let me be clear that I am not making light of such things; they’re horrible. All I am saying is that sinlessness is not a required prerequisite to teach/preach the truth.

We are all wretched sinners in need of God’s grace. The Bible is a collection of books that detail the awfulness of the human race and the greatest of Jesus; the contrast is intentional. The only truly good person to ever touch this planet is the God-man, Jesus Christ. It is a genuine miracle that God uses broken, sinful, wretched men (such as John Cavin) to accomplish His purposes.

Secondly, if one contextually, and historically, examines what happened between Calvin and Servetus, a very different narrative emerges. Servetus ended up in Geneva (Calvin’s city) because he was on run from the Roman Catholic Church for teaching heresy. He openly and repeatedly denied the trinity. At this time in history, an appropriate punishment for such a crime was death. If Servetus had not fled to Geneva, he would very likely have been given a death sentence by the Roman Catholic Church.

When he arrived in Geneva, he was arrested for heresy. Calvin met with him multiple times and pleaded with him to repent from his errors. In all of this, Servetus knew what punishment awaited him. He never repented, and eventually, Calvin turned him over to the local government. It was at this point that he was burned at the stake for teaching heresy.

In this day and age, it can be hard for us to comprehend such a punishment for theological error. Yet, this was generally normal for the time. Please note that I am not defending the morality of what happened. I am simply explaining that a statement as simplistic and dismissive as “John Calvin was a murderer” does not accurately explain what happened.

John Calvin’s works are a true gift to the church. If you have never read anything he’s written, I encourage you to try using one of his commentaries in your private studies. They often read like a devotional and can be wonderfully helpful for the Christian. Calvinism is a faithful, systematic understanding of God’s Word and work in salvation.

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