Calvinism


Five PointsThe doctrines of grace (otherwise known as the five points of Calvinism) are among the most hotly debated theological issues within Christianity. To some they are abhorrent and others they are cherished. The theological issues surrounding the doctrines of grace have been debated for centuries by generations of Christians with seemingly no end in sight regarding the tension the discussion elicits.

Pastor and author John Piper is no stranger to this discussion. He is perhaps the most well-known contemporary advocate of the doctrines of grace and many younger evangelicals have been persuaded by his rigorous, passionate and biblical appeal to their truths. Through Christian Focus, Piper has written Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace which is a positive contemporary presentation of the doctrines of grace. His goal in writing the book can be summed up in these words

My experience is that clear knowledge of God from the Bible is the kindling that sustains the fires of affection for God. And probably the most critical kind of knowledge is the knowledge of what God is like in salvation. That is what the five points of Calvinism are about. (8)

Realizing that much of the presentation of the doctrines of grace is given amidst, and in response to, criticism it receives, Piper wants to present the “positive biblical position” regarding the truths the doctrines of grace encompass (12).

Piper’s Summary

It is to be noted that Piper does not set out to reinvent the wheel in presenting the doctrines of grace. He presents a faithful description of the doctrines mixed with his his own characteristics that mark his writing style.

In short, here is a brief summary of the doctrines of grace:

  1. Total Depravity – “Our rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sinful, our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment.” (22) Some relevant texts are Romans 3:9-11; 8:7-8; 14:23, John 3:20-21 and Ephesians 2:1-3.
  2. Irresistible Grace – “Does not mean that every influence of the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. It means that the Holy Spirit, whenever he chooses, can overcome all resistance and make his influence irresistible (26)”…..”it makes the unwilling willing. It does not work with constraint from the outside, like hooks and chains; it works with power from the inside, like new thirst and hunger and compelling desire. (32)” Some relevant texts are Psalm 119:3, Acts 7:51; 16:14, Romans 8:7-8; 9:14-18, John 6:44 and 2 Timothy 2:24-25.
  3. Limited Atonement – “The atonement is the work of God in Christ on the cross in which he completes the work of his perfectly righteous life, canceled the debt of our sins, appeased his holy wrath against us, and won for us all the benefits of salvation (37)”……”And we affirm that when Christ died particularly for his bride, he did not simply create a possibility or an opportunity for salvation, but really purchased and infallibly secured for them all that is necessary to get them saved, including the grace of regeneration and the gift of faith. (40)” Some relevant texts are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:25-26, 1 Timothy 4:10, Matthew 26:28, Hebrews 9:15, John 10:15, 26; 17:6, 9, 19 and Revelation 5:9.
  4. Unconditional Election – “Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. It is unconditional on that there is no condition man must meet before God chooses to save him. Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.” (53) Some relevant texts are Acts 13:48, John 10:26, Romans 8:28-33; 9:1-33 and Ephesians 1:3-6.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints – “The saints will and must persevere in faith and the obedience which comes from faith (63)”……”God will so work in us that those whom he has chosen for eternal salvation will be enabled by him to persevere in faith to the end and fulfill, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the requirements for a new kind of life. (68)” Some relevant texts are Romans 8:30, 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, Colossians 1:21-23, John 10:27-30 and Jeremiah 32:40

Piper spends the least amount of time on the first, second and fourth points and the most amount of time on limited atonement and perseverance of the saints. Because this is a positive presentation of the doctrines of grace Piper does not overtly respond to objections but he does anticipate them (see pgs. 38 & 48 on limited atonement and the entirety of chapter seven on perseverance of the saints for examples of this).

Conclusion

Five Points is a clear on all points, consistent, faithful to the text exegetically, faithful to Scripture in its overall biblical witness and concise enough for anyone to benefit from. As my systematic teacher Fred Zaspel says time and time again, if you accept total depravity then the rest should fall into place. This is the case and Piper shows us the way.

NOTE: I received this book for free from Christian Focus through Cross Focused Reviews and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review. The thoughts and words expressed are my own.

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I remember sitting in my church history class and my professor asking us if we had ever read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In a class of about 15 students no one raised their hands. He went on to tell us that most Christians have never read it and yet everyone seems to think they know for sure what Calvin believed. It was at that moment I decided I would be one of those rare Christians and read the complete 1,500 page two volume work edited by John T. McNeil and translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Though it took me the better part of two years to complete I was better for having read it. Having read it I will attest to the fact that many Christians misunderstand Calvin because they have not done the  hard but rewarding work of reading this great work and no one can claim to understand Calvin until they have.

Tim Keller writes at the TGC blog about his journey this year in reading through the Institutes. After drawing on some things he has observed while reading the Institutes (all of which I can attest to being true having read it myself) he closes with this thought:

Last (and here our modern evangelical terminology fails us) Calvin’s writings are astonishingly “doxological.” We might be tempted to say “inspirational” or “devotional” or “spiritual,” but to use such Hallmark greeting card phrases doesn’t do them justice. Calvin’s writings don’t read at all like a theological treatise, but like a man’s meditating on the Scripture before God. The language is filled with reverence and awe, and often tenderness. That means that, despite the close reasoning of so many parts of the material, Calvin was all about the heart.

Indeed, he taught that our biggest problem is there. “For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart . . . the heart’s distrust is greater than the mind’s blindness. It is harder for the heart to be furnished with assurance [of God’s love] than for the mind to be endowed with thought.” (III.2.36)

To furnish our hearts with more of that assurance is the ultimate purpose of the Institutes, and I can say, personally, that it is fulfilling its purpose in me this year.

In the famous words of Saint Augustine – tolle lege – take up and read! Get your copy of the Institutes of the Christian Religion from Amazon or WTS.

Depending on who you talk to you will receive mixed responses when mentioning the name John Calvin. He is a menace to some and hero to others. It seems that you either like him or are against him and there is no one riding the fence. To hear some talk about him you wonder if they have ever read anything he wrote. To hear others talk about him you wonder if they had just had lunch with him and read everything he wrote. Robert L. Reymond is one such man.

In his new book, John Calvin: His Life & Influence, Robert L. Reymond gives us a very informative, short and honest presentation of the life and ministry of John Calvin. Reymond provides a timeline as well as description of the life of Calvin without the boring nature typically associated with listing names and dates.

Chapter one deals with the providential way in which God prepared Calvin for his life and ministry. Calvin enjoyed some of the best schooling under some of the best teachers of his time. Though he was trained in humanism it certainly did not hinder him coming to the faith and Reymond argues that it later aided him in his writing. In 1532 Calvin wrote his first and only humanist book at the age of twenty three which is the same year he came to faith in Jesus Christ.

Chapter two deals with Calvin and his famous Institutes. Here Reymond charts Calvin’s expulsion from Geneva and the events that led him to begin his work on the Institutes which was only two years after his conversion. Reymond points out that though Calvin’s Institutes is a theological work, it was written with political motives as well as he sought to defend his Protestant friends from persecution by King Francis I (p. 48). It was the persecution brought on by the Placard Incident that caused Calvin to rush his first of a number of editions of the Institutes.

Chapter three gives us a survey and context for Calvin’s many published works including his commentaries, further editions of the Institutes, sermons and various writings against the Catholic church and others. Interestingly enough, though Calvin was expelled from Geneva, he was later asked to return in an effort to bring moral and spiritual reformation to the city. After a year of deliberation and prayer he returned to Geneva where he would turn the city around. During his time in Geneva Calvin reformed the city, started a school and helped to write the Geneva Bible. What is very interesting about Calvin’s second time in Geneva is that we see a man who, though very scholarly, was very pastoral. Concerning Calvin’s work on the Institutes Reymond rightly states,

It is evident that where the Bible took him, there he went; where its declarations ceased, there he stopped to, but always giving benefit of the doubt to Scripture as God’s inspired and therefore inerrant Word (p. 93).

As one who has read the entirety of the McNeill translation of the Institutes I concur with Reymonds summation.

Chapter four addresses what unfortunately is the only event of Calvin’s life that his critics want to remember him for – the burning of Servetus. Despite the fact that Reymond favors Calvin’s theology and work he is not supportive of Calvin’s involvement in the situation. There are a number of aspects to the Servetus situation that Reymond brings to light that seem to have been lost in the darkness of Calvin criticism. Citing William Cunningham, Reymond notes that the putting to death of heretics was a law and duty held by Protestants and Catholics alike during Calvin’s day. Though this does not excuse the act (similar to not excusing Christians from having slaves a few centuries ago though they used Scripture to support it) it is not right to unfairly single out Calvin above the rest for his part in this. Also, it is not commonly known that though Calvin did support Servetus’ death, he did not support death by burning but rather some other means like decapitation. Further, though Calvin was in favor of Servetus’ death, he was only one among many who made the decision. Even if he had totally rejected the idea it was still going to happen. Reymond concludes his discussion of the Servetus incident with the following statement,

It is simply unfair to single Calvin out as if he were the originator of the practice of burning heretics of as if he were a particularly violent supporter of the practice at a time when a vast majority of the European continent’s enlightened populace would have wished it otherwise (p. 119).

In reflecting on the Servetus incident, Reymond makes one point of application that I find very helpful for our day:

But clearly in the sixteenth century the sense of order of both Catholics and Protestants was horrified by something else – something quite sobering and something to which few in our day heed anymore at all – namely, the thought of immortal souls being destroyed by false doctrine, of churches being rent asunder by heretical parties, and of God’s vengeance being poured out upon cities and nations that tolerate and endorse immorality by means of war, pestilence, and famine (p. 124).

Though death for heresy is not tolerated, nor should have been, we can learn this from these sixteenth century men – that the death of the soul to false doctrine is worse than the death of the body.

At the end of his life Calvin died at age 54 after battling numerous physical ailments but having accomplished so much for God, his church, the city of Geneva and having unknowingly effected the course of the future of the Protestant church worldwide.

John Calvin: His Life and Influence is a must read if you do not know much about Calvin or are looking for a good short Calvin biography. The chapter on Servetus alone is worth purchasing this great little book.

You can purchase this book from the following retailers: Christian Focus Publications, Amazon, WTS Books and Monergism .

NOTE: I received this book for free and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.

The debate over how to reconcile the biblical doctrines of divine sovereignty and human responsibility will continue on until we become God or Christ returns. Since we will never become God the church, and all its onlookers, will have to suffer through the discussion until Christ’s return (which Harold Camping says is May 21st!)

Anyways, Robert A. Peterson has written a new book for the Explorations in Biblical Theology Series called Election and Free Will: God’s Gracious Choice and Our Responsibility. From this outline that Justin Taylor has provided on his blog, it looks like this book will help to bring good clarity to the debate and to what Calvinists do and do not believe the Bible teaches on these two subjects.