By: Steven Nelms
So what is Calvinism? Calvinism is simply a framework in theology that helps us understand the doctrine of salvation and its corollaries. Anything that has anything to do with salvation would be considered a corollary, and Calvinism is one theological framework that seeks to explain the relationships between these doctrines. This framework is most commonly explained by the use of the acronym TULIP.
T is for Total Depravity
U is for Unconditional Election
L is for Limited Atonement
I is for Irresistible Grace
P is for Perseverance of the Saints
Each one of these 5 points serves to explain certain aspects of salvation. Total Depravity explains the human condition in relation to God. Unconditional Election explains who is called by God. Limited Atonement explains for whom Christ’s death is sufficient (and/or applied). Irresistible Grace explains how God’s interaction with humanity is effective. And Perseverance of the Saints explains the assurance of salvation. Each one of these concepts also has a collection of proof texts used to support their interpretation of Scripture.
This is key to understanding the importance of Calvinism. It is supported by Scripture. By that I mean you can find verses within Scripture that support these 5 concepts of this theological framework. Calvinism is an interpretation of Scripture. That means that it is its developers’ best attempt at a consistent, holistic explanation of the doctrine of salvation in accordance with the teaching of Scripture. What’s the key phrase here? “Best attempt”.
What does that mean? It means that Calvinism is the result of theologians, whose hearts were solely desiring the glorification of God, working toward a better understanding of salvation as informed by Scripture. This can be said of both Arminianism and Molinism as well. All three of these theological frameworks are the result of theologians, whose sole aim was to understand and explain God’s salvific work, attempting to synthesize the teachings of Scripture to the best of their ability. Now, with that being said, they can’t all be right.
This is where the conversation gets heated and unproductive. The reality of the matter is that only one of these three frameworks can be right, because of the nature of their multiple points of disagreement. And while only one of them can be completely right, all of them could be completely wrong, and it’s more likely that each is a little bit right and a little bit wrong in different areas. The goal is not to figure out which one nailed it. The goal is to figure out what’s the most accurate framework that is consistent with the majority of Scripture’s witness.
Calvinism, Arminianism, and Molinism are attempts at a framework that is most consistent with the majority of Scripture. But they’re only that. Attempts at a framework. It isn’t a synthesis of gospel truth. That’s the danger in these frameworks. They become more than just frameworks. They became an articulation of the gospel itself and become synonymous with Scripture’s testimony. Rather than a tool that can be used to understand salvation, it becomes the measure of whether one has salvation.
This is particularly why Calvinism matters. It matters because it leads to conversations not only about the doctrine of salvation, but also about one’s personal salvation. I’ve personally heard from two different people within the last year that someone questioned their salvation because they didn’t whole heartedly agree with Calvinism. It wasn’t questioned as directly as, “Well if you don’t agree, then you’re probably not saved.” To paraphrase what was said to them was along the lines of, “If you don’t agree with Calvinism, then I am worried whether you have a good enough understanding of Scripture to really understand salvation.” The underlining accusation is, “if you don’t understand salvation, then how can you be saved?” This is the type of conversation that matters.
So what is it about the framework of Calvinism that would cause someone to question another’s salvation? It has to do with the operative of faith in relation to grace. Let me explain. The grand debate, when honed down to its very core, is the recipe for salvation where the two ingredients are faith and grace. How much faith in relation to grace is necessary to be saved? Does grace provide faith? Or does faith respond to grace? Do we have faith and it’s animated by grace? Or do we lack faith and it’s given to us by grace?
Calvinism requires grace to be predominant to the point that we are incapable of having faith in Christ without the grace of God providing us with that faith. If someone were to describe their salvation in terms of them choosing to place their faith in Christ, this might draw into question whether or not they adequately understand salvation. And if they think they contributed to their own salvation by virtue of putting their faith in Christ rather than receiving their faith by grace, then they might not understand salvation to such an extent that they’re not even saved. Here we see where Calvinism as an interpretive framework for the gospel blurs into being an articulation of the truth of the gospel itself.
The issue is over semantics. How do you understand the act of believing? Calvinism categorizes believing as a work. It’s a good work that is produced only by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit only produces good works in Christians and only Christians have saving faith in Christ and saving faith in Christ only comes by grace. Following this line of reasoning requires faith to be a result of grace. Grace encounters the Christian and grants to that Christian their faith as a simultaneous action of the Holy Spirit’s first good work in and through the newly regenerated believer. Now, if you understand faith to be a free will response to God’s extended grace, then a strict 5-point Calvinism will categorize that as works-based salvation since the good work of faith is being understood as a personal contribution to your own salvation.
A Calvinist might then draw into question whether you understand the gospel well enough to even have the capacity of being saved. And again, this is because a line has been blurred between Calvinism being a framework and being the gospel. It is of the utmost importance for us to be assured of our salvation based on the testimony of Scripture and not based on the developments of interpretative theological frameworks. When asked, “How can you be sure you are saved?” we should never respond with, “Because I have a firm understanding of my theological framework.” So what should we respond with? How do I know that I am saved? I know that I am saved because my faith is in Jesus Christ and because of the inner work of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s tackle the first one: faith in Jesus Christ. This is a biggy. Acts 4:12 says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” If your faith is in anything else, then you’re not saved. If your faith is in your activity, ministry, good behavior, denominational allegiance, attendance record, dietary plan, or DDR high score, then you’re not saved. (DDR anyone? Throwback, right?)
And your faith cannot just be in the fact that Jesus was a real historical person. It cannot just be in the fact that he taught some good lessons, had a following, started a movement, performed some miracles, or even died a sacrificial death. Scripture is clear that your faith has to particularly affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Romans 10:9 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” An acknowledgement of the resurrection of Christ is necessary because, “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (2 Cor. 15:17). So your faith being in Jesus Christ particularly as the resurrected Lord and Savior is crucial to salvation.
Second: the inner work of the Holy Spirit. The key word here is inner. It’s a litmus test that only you can take for yourself. You cannot perceive what the Holy Spirit is doing in someone else. You might attempt to see whether they are bearing good fruit or not, but that isn’t a guaranteed indicator. The inner work of the Holy Spirit has to do with your heart’s posture toward Christ-likeness. Are you resistant to the idea of conforming to the image of Christ? Romans 8:29 says that God’s purpose for Christians is that they would be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Do you desire to partake in God’s purpose for you? This can be a kind of abstract concept; the conformity to an image. But what exactly does that look like?
Titus 2:11-14 says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age...” This is a pretty clear description of a life that is under God’s grace. The Holy Spirit trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions. Is there any remorse in you over your sins? The Holy Spirit instills in us the desire to live upright and godly lives. Is there any joy in you to pursue righteousness? Again, only you can take an honest spiritual inventory of your motives and desires and see whether you can recognize the inner work of the Holy Spirit.
At the end of the day, I can feel assured of my salvation based on these two facts; that my faith is in Jesus Christ and his resurrection and that I can recognize the inner work of the Holy Spirit in my life. With both of those things in mind, think about how Jesus explained salvation to the Pharisee, Nicodemus in John, chapter 3. Jesus says that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Nicodemus asks the rhetorical question, “Can a man enter his mother’s womb a second time to be born again?” The obvious answer is, “No”. In the manner in which you are born, you are born in such a way that cannot be undone. Jesus clarifies, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Just as you cannot undue your physical birth and it is permanent until death, so also you cannot undue your spiritual birth. In other words, once you’ve been born again of the Spirit, you are unable to return again to the “womb” of the Spirit. The birth is permanent and so is your salvation.
I encourage you to deal seriously with this topic. It should not be a question of whether or not talking about Calvinism matters. Of course it matters! Any conversation dealing with our understanding of and interpretation of Scripture matters. Especially in comparison to many other topics we’re more than willing to spend hours conversing over. But the question is whether your opinion concerning the interpretive framework of Calvinism matters for your own personal salvation. And the answer should be a resounding “No”.
Scripture clearly says that, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” You have no contribution to your own salvation. There is nothing you can do to obtain, maintain, or sustain your own salvation. But your salvation does require your faith to be in the person of Jesus Christ, affirming his bodily resurrection. And you can be sure of your faith by (1) the object of your faith and (2) the inner work of the Holy Spirit as a result of your faith. When anyone tries to tell you otherwise, you can kindly ask them to stop trying to add prerequisites and extra requirements to your grace-based salvation.
Dr. Svigel, professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, told a story one day in class about a conversation he was having with a friend. His friend was of the mindset that unless you agree 100% with TULIP, then you are not saved. Dr. Svigel responded, “I can’t sit back and let your 500 year old confession bully a 2,000 year old faith”. I think that captures the idea perfectly. We must distinguish confession from faith because inadvertently when we blur the two, we’re actually distorting the grace of the gospel itself.