Calvinists subscribe to the doctrines of grace. These are typically summed up by the ‘five points of Calvinism’. As a mnemonic device, we use the acronym TULIP:
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistable Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
Despite how these doctrine of grace are sometimes presented, here are some things that Calvinists still believe.
People can do good things
Total Depravity teaches that everything we do is affected by sin. But we believe in Total Depravity not Utter Depravity. One only has to look around at the world to see many unbelievers helping other people, being kind and doing all sorts of things that we wouldn’t exactly describe as evil. Total Depravity does not deny that people – all of whom bear the imago dei – are capable of great good. It simply teaches that the effects of sin reach into all of our hearts and corrupts all of our human faculties such that nothing we do is unaffected. It means there are no inherently good people by nature because we all inherit the same sinful nature from Adam.
Total Depravity teaches that sin affects every part of a person – body/mind and soul – but it doesn’t teach that we have no potential to ever do good. The image of God remains on us and our consciences, though affected by sin, make us capable of making moral decisions. We also believe that God himself restrains evil which, from a human perspective, works itself out as people doing good.
We can actually please God
Unconditional Election states that God chooses us entirely apart from anything favourable or good he sees in us. God neither chooses us because of anything we have done nor because he looks to the future and sees that we will choose him. He elects us based upon the goodness of his own sovereign will.
Nonetheless, we still believe it is possible to please God. The Bible teaches that ‘without faith it is impossible to please God’. The implication, considering the comment comes after the great roll call of faith in Hebrews, is that with faith it is possible to please God. Although the Lord chooses us despite ourselves, we can nonetheless please him when we act in faith. There is nothing inherently about us that would cause God to choose us but, as his children by faith, it is possible for us to please him. Though all that we do is tainted by sin, we are nonetheless capable – through faith in Christ – of doing that which pleases God.
We do choose Christ
Although Unconditional Election teaches that God chooses us based upon his own sovereign good will, Calvinists do not deny that we choose God. Clearly, our will is involved in our coming to faith. The question is not whether we choose God or not (the Calvinist agrees that we do), it is whether God’s will is primary in our coming to faith.
It is evidently true that all who are real believers in Christ have chosen to follow him. It is clear they have, to quote the old hymn, ‘decided to follow Jesus’. The Calvinist simply notes the words of Jesus himself, ‘no one can come to the Father unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44) and ‘no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father’ (John 6:65). We do choose Christ and our will is actually involved in deciding to follow him, but the Father’s will is primary in our decision. Apart from his will and a supernatural drawing of the Spirit, we cannot choose him.
The gospel is for all
Limited Atonement teaches that Christ died for the elect. His death covers the sin of those who put their trust in him by faith. Jesus’ death is sufficient to cover the sin of all people but it only actually covers the sin of those who believe by faith in him. Jesus did not die for every single person in the world, he died for those who were chosen by the Father before the world began and who ultimately put their trust in Christ as saviour.
Nonetheless, the Calvinist believes the gospel is for all people. The call of Christ goes out to all people. We do not believe that we are called to determine the elect and focus our attention solely upon them. We treat everybody as potentially elect. Christ died so that sinners might be saved from every tribe, tongue and nation. We believe the gospel is good news for everybody and we are called to take it to all. The only way we can know who is elect is when they hear the gospel and respond to it in repentance and faith. The Calvinist believe the gospel is good news for all people.
You can fall away
The doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints teaches that true believers will persevere for Christ until the very end of their life (or until Christ returns). It teaches that those who are truly saved will not, and cannot, lose their salvation.
However, that people do fall away is clear. One only has to look at those who have faithfully attended church over the years, and those who appeared to joyfully follow the Lord, suddenly turning away and renouncing him. It is possible for people to fall away from Jesus. The Calvinist, along with everybody else, sees such things.
The teaching is not ‘once saved, always saved’ as if a one-time prayer of repentance means you are certainly saved no matter how far away from Christ you wander. The doctrine is of perseverance. It teaches those who are truly saved will continue with the Lord and cannot fall away. The Calvinist accepts that people do fall away and it is possible for those who appeared to be saved to prove that they never truly were. The Perseverance of the Saints teaches that the elect cannot fall away. But the only surefire evidence of this is when those who profess faith, and worked that faith out in practice, continue to do so until their dying day. It is almost a tautology. Those who cannot lose their faith are the elect who never actually lose their faith.
The Calvinist accepts that people can fall away and ‘lose their salvation’ but they would argue that such people were never truly saved and thus didn’t have any salvation to lose.