Sovereignty Theologies (Part 1): Calvinism

***Check out “Ep#17: Sovereignty versus Free Will Theologies–Calvinism” on Redeeming Truth Radio at

Since the beginning of the human race, humanity has tried to decipher how God’s sovereignty blends with human free will.  Sovereignty is defined as the “rule of God.”  Merriam-Webster defines “sovereign” as:

“2 a : possessed of supreme power 〈a sovereign ruler〉

b : unlimited in extent : ABSOLUTE  (Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary., Eleventh ed. (Spr
ingfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003)).”

So, theologically speaking, sovereignty depicts the rule of God over the universe.  Some would hold that God controls every detail.  Since we are in the set that God would control, then human actions are thus determined by God.  However, juxtaposed to this belief is the belief in human free will.  Free will is the ability for a human being to make a consciously rational decision.  One could choose or reject a certain premise.  This is in accord with free will.  How do the two correspond?

Well, people have been debating this issue for centuries.  Even before the time of Jesus, this was a hot debate.  In ancient Judaism, three groups, or sects, existed: the Essenes (not mentioned in the New Testament, but are known through the Dead Sea Scrolls and the works of Josephus), the Pharisees, and the Sadducees.  In the debate on sovereignty versus free will, the Essenes were fatalists.  They believed that everything was due to fate and humans could do nothing about it.  In other words, the Essenes believed that God controlled every event and that humans actually held no free will but acted according to God’s direction.  The Sadducees (although conservative in ancient times, held more to modern liberalism theology) were the complete antagonists to the Essenes.  The Sadducees believed completely in free will and did not hold that God intervened in humanity.  The Sadducees, in my opinion, resembled more of a deist than necessarily a theist, although some would argue that point.  Finally, the Pharisees (the group to which Jesus most closely identified) were in the middle.  The Pharisees believed in a blend of God’s sovereignty and in human free will.

Calvin  Fast forward to the time of the Reformation and we find another great division in the controversy.  Galli and Olsen gives us an introduction to Calvin.

“Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. His father, a lawyer, planned a career in the church for his son, and by the mid-1520s, Calvin had become a fine scholar. He spoke proficient Latin, excelled at philosophy, and qualified to take up the intensive study of theology in Paris” (Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 38.)

Calvin is most famously, or infamously depending on your perspective, known for his doctrine of election.  The beliefs can be summarized by the following acronym: TULIP.

T= “Total Depravity.”  Total depravity means that a person is completely fallen and hold no way of knowing God by his or herself.

U= “Unconditional Election.”  This doctrine is the most controversial of Calvinist doctrines.  The doctrine of “unconditional election” holds that God chooses whom God will save.  That doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that the opposite is also true if that is the case, meaning that God would choose those whom God would condemn.  I’ll address this later.

L= “Limited Atonement.”  This doctrine holds that Christ did not die for everyone, but only died for a few.  Therefore, many Calvinists do not view John 3:16 as indicating the entire world, but only a few.  I’ll address this later, too.

I= “Irresistible Grace.”  This doctrine holds that if God calls, no one has a choice but to respond.  There is not an ability to choose or reject.  If God calls, the person will truly respond because they were elected to do so.  This is the second most controversial doctrine of Calvinism.

P= “Perseverance of the Saints.”  This doctrine is more popularly known to the laity as “once saved, always saved.”  This doctrine holds that if one is called by God and has no choice but to respond, then that person cannot lose his or her salvation since it is a work of God.

Drew PayneDrew Payne, a graduate student at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina (working on his Masters of Philosophy), joined us in our recent show on “Redeeming Truth Radio”.  Payne leans towards Calvinist doctrine, whereas I lean more towards Remonstrant or Arminian theology.  Arminianism will be dealt with in next week’s blog and show.  In the next few weeks, by Payne’s permission, we will post some of his thoughts on Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism, and Open Theism (more on the latter two in future posts).  Unlike many, Payne (Calvinist) and I (Arminian) are able to appreciate the beauty of both theologies and do not impose on Christianity the necessity to be either a Calvinist or an Arminian.  I like what Augustine said that “In essentials, unity; in differences, liberty; but in all things, charity.”  It is our hope that you will review our posts in the upcoming weeks and decide for yourself to which camp you belong.  But remember, regardless of which camp you find yourself, remember that both camps are still in the same arena.  We are brothers and sisters of Christ.  We have freedom to be united in truth and the freedom to differ in opinions.  That is what makes being a Christian so great…the freedom we have in Christ.


Pastor Brian Chilton

PS: Be on the watch for my posts “My Problems with Calvinism,” “Why I Hold to Remonstrant Theology,” and for the posts by Drew Payne coming very soon.


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