“The Ideas of John Calvin” by J. Andrew Payne

 NOTE: The following is a transcript by Mr. Andrew Payne.  Mr. Payne’s transcript lists out the rationale behind Calvinism and gives a detailed exposition of the thoughts and beliefs of Calvinism.  I will offer a rebuttal and offer an exposition behind Arminianism to which Mr. Payne will offer a rebuttal next week.  This is done for two reasons: to allow the reader to digest the information and form their own opinion, and also to show that as Christians we should actively engage our theology and remember that as the Body of Christ, we do not have to always agree.  That is part of the freedom that we have in Christ.  God bless and enjoy Mr. Payne’s research.  -BC

Drew Payne

The Ideas of John Calvin
by J. Andrew Payne

John Calvin is one of the more controversial figures throughout the history of the Christian Church. In many circles merely mentioning his name is enough to start an argument. But why is this? Are his ideas really that radical? Some have even gone so far as to call his teachings heretical.

The following essay will consist of a brief outlining of some of the major points of Calvin as well as presenting reasons for believing it. It is the hope of this author to demonstrate that Calvin’s views, though potentially unsettling to some at first, presents a view of Scripture that is at the very least worthy of consideration by all who consider themselves to be Christians. This essay is also written in the hope that it may lay to rest some of the misunderstandings that have so dogged this approach so much that it has almost become a mockery of its roots.

TULIP and Calvinism

            All those who hold to a Calvinistic persuasion are familiar with what are known as the “Five Points of Calvin.” Though these points themselves are not explicitly laid out as such within the writings of Calvin themselves, they do faithfully capture the essence of Calvin’s teachings. The acronym TULIP has been created to help us remember the Five Points, and stands for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Each of them are intimately linked and build upon each other so that the system usually demands that it is either wholly accepted or wholly denied.

Total Depravity: This beginning point lays the very foundation for the rest of TULIP. It is also, much like the rest of TULIP, often misconstrued to say something wholly anathema to the point that it is trying to get across. Total depravity is the teaching that man is by his very nature depraved and utterly incapable of doing a good work by his own means.

This point is often misrepresented to say that all men are as desperately wicked as they can be at all times. Such an understanding of total depravity just simply is not accurate. However, it cannot be summed up in one pithy sentence either.

The accurately understand total depravity, one must first recognize that all good things come from God and God alone. But man, before salvation, exists apart from God. Because of this, man exists apart from that which is good, and is also incapable of acting in a manner that is strictly speaking good. The idea is that God alone is the measurement of what is good, and man can never aspire to the level set by God. He is thus in need of God’s loving hand coming down to scoop him up and carry him across the goal line.

Unconditional Election: Building upon total depravity, it makes sense then, that man cannot earn his salvation. Goodness exists outside of man’s natural ability. It is no longer something resigned to the realm of free choice, but of being. Man either is good or he isn’t, there is no choice in the matter. If this is the case, then salvation is also not a choice. Man cannot choose to be something that is beyond his ability. It must be given to him. Seeing that salvation is a gift, richly lavished on the elect, man must realize that he cannot earn salvation but can only accept it with a humble heart, realizing his own inadequacy. God’s election to salvation is unconditional; it has nothing to do with man’s actions, and everything to do with God’s.

Limited Atonement: The doctrine of limited atonement is a highly controversial doctrine even among Calvinists. This is not surprising to those who are acquainted with Calvinists as it will become readily apparent that even no two Calvinists will agree on everything. The view of limited atonement presented here will thus be the least presumptuous interpretation of this teaching.

Limited atonement it its core affirms the truth that Christ’s salvific work on the cross did not extend salvation to all of humanity instantly. Simply put, Christianity is not universalism or inclusivism or anything of the like. The salvation of God is only meant for the elect – those whom have been chosen for salvation.

Building upon unconditional election, limited atonement recognizes that God reigns supreme over all events that take place on earth. Nothing can happen outside of God, for outside of God, there is nothing. But since salvation is not a volitional act of the will, contingent upon the actions of man, it must then be that God chooses some for salvation and others for perdition.

Some might object by bringing up 2 Peter 3:9, which says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” This verse can be read in a number of different ways, and when read by itself, apart from its context, seems quite clear. However, there is a strong case that such a verse is actually referring specifically to the elect even still. In this rather lengthy quote, James White reminds us of the importance of context and how it will transform the meaning of the statement:

When speaking of the mockers (speaking of the broader context of 2 Peter 3) he refers to them in the third person, as “them.” But everywhere else he speaks directly to his audience as the “beloved” and “you.” He speaks of how his audience should behave “in holy conduct and godliness,” and says that they look for the day of the Lord. He includes himself in this group in verse 13, where “we are looking for a new heavens and a new earth.” This is vitally important, for the assumption made by the Arminian is that when verse 9 says the Lord is “patient towards you” that this “you” refers to everyone. Likewise, then, when it says “not wishing for any to perish” but “all to come to repentance,” it is assumed that the “any” and “all” refers to anyone at all of the human race. Yet, the context indicates that the audience is quite specific.[1]

From that exegetical insight, the all must then be understood as speaking directly of the elect. Now, I am not so naïve as to assume that this is the only passage to be quarreled over, but my purpose in citing that example was to take a well known rebuttal and demonstrate that it is not as straight forward as it may initially seem.

Regardless of the debate, the minimum of limited atonement is the belief that God’s salvation is only granted to the elect. When studied in its proper context within TULIP, one also comes to realize that God also must have elected some and not others for salvation. While initially unsettling, this belief is not blithely assumed, but rather believed after carefully studying the scriptures. Such subjects merit patiently being studied. Consider the words of Calvin on the perils of considering the issues regarding predestination:

When men hear anything of what Scripture teaches respecting predestination, they are especially entangled with very many impediments. The predestination of God is indeed in reality a labyrinth, from which the mind of man can by no means extricate itself: but so unreasonable is the curiosity of man, that the more perilous the examination of a subject is, the more boldly he proceeds; so that when predestination is discussed, as he cannot restrain himself within due limits, he immediately, through his rashness, plunges himself, as it were, into the depth of the sea.[2]

This inquiry is without doubt one of the most important inquiries man can undergo. Its conclusions do nothing short of determine how we are to approach God Himself. As a result, whether affirming or denying Calvin’s greater teachings, it is essential that one makes sure that they proceed cautiously, recognizing the gravity of their endeavor.

Irresistible Grace: As it has already been pointed out in the previous points, salvation is not something that is contingent upon man, just as man’s very existence is not subject to his will, neither is his state of existence in regard to salvation. Salvation is not an act of the will that is chosen, but an act of God in creating – or recreating, as is the case with salvation. As such, just as a man cannot resist his very own creation that first brought him into being, he cannot resist the recreative work that God does in him again, bringing him to salvation.

Man, by nature, is in a state of being “dead in his trespasses and sins.” As a dead man is unable to respond, neither is man able to respond to the call of God that resides in his heart. It takes the act of God, and not the will of man. Due to this, the grace of God must be recognized as such a thing that it cannot be rejected or resisted.

Perseverance of the Saints: The simple explanation of what is meant by this final point is what is thought of in the phrase, “once saved, always saved.” It is impossible for man to lose his salvation. After all, if the gaining of salvation has nothing to do with the actions of man, then, by implication, losing his salvation is also outside of his prerogative. We needn’t worry about the ability to retain our salvation, for its very existence is not something that we in fact hold on to. Rather, it rests within the firm, competent, and trustworthy grasp of our savior, Jesus Christ.

Some Final Questions

            Now that the basic premise of the teachings of Calvin has been established, it is time to apply them. Admittedly, some of these issues can be a little hard to grasp at first, but after seeing them applied, they become more elucidated to the reader.


Calvinism has almost become synonymous with the issue of freewill. In fact this very issue, along with the issue of predestination, makes up virtually 90% of the debate that is actively argued. However, such an issue does not merit such attention. If Calvin were really denying the freedom of the will, then he would certainly be rightfully incurring such a debate. But this is not his goal, nor is it his teaching.

Freewill concerns, unsurprisingly, the free exercise of the will in choosing between potentials. Illustrated simply, the agent is free to choose either A or B. By extension, all of his actions exist in like form. Man acts because he chooses to. If this is what is meant by freewill, Calvin would not disagree. In fact, he says as much in one of his lesser known works, entitled, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will. In this book he elaborates on what is meant when he uses the phrase, “bondage of the will.” He writes,

Now as far as the term (‘freedom’) is concerned I still maintain what I declared in my Institutes, that I am not so excessively concerned about words as to want to start an argument for that cause, provided that a sound understanding of reality is retained. If freedom is opposed to coercion, I both acknowledge and consistently maintain that choice is free, and I hold anyone who thinks otherwise to be a heretic. If, I say, it were called free in the sense of not being coerced nor forcibly moved by an external impulse, but moved of its own accord, I have no objection. The reason I find this epithet unsatisfactory is that people commonly think of something quite different when they hear or read it being applied to the human will. Since in fact they take it to imply ability and power, one cannot prevent from entering the minds of most people, as soon as the will is called free, the illusion that it therefore has both good and evil within its power, so that it can by its own strength choose either one of them.[3]

Put simply, man is free to choose between ordinary everyday things. What Calvin is proposing might better be grasped in the term “meta-will”; that is, the nature of the sum total of all the choices of the will. Such a term as will is in all honesty wrongly even used here, as it is not so much concerned with the will, as much as it is concerned with the individuals very being in relation to God.

Why Pray to an Immutable God?

If God is in control is all things are already predetermined, why pray? And even more critically, why pursue the Great Commission to spread the gospel message to the farthest corners of the earth? The answer, though shockingly simple once grasped, is not as obvious as it would seem. One first envisions that, no matter what they might say to God in offering their petitions to Him, that it does not matter, the same thing will happen in the end regardless. But in saying this, one oversimplifies the nature of a predestined future.

Consider that a question is not answered unless it is first raised. Then consider that it is the same with prayer. When one prays, it is only because God has decreed from eternity past that he should do so. And once that prayer has been prayed, and answer is given. But just as it was the will of God that man should pray, it is the will of God that He should answer. If nothing is prayed, then nothing is answered, but if a prayer is prayed, then a prayer will be answered. Consider that when one asks a question about mathematics, the answer is predetermined. It exists as the same truth no matter how the questioner decides to go about asking their question. But the question itself will never be answered unless it is first asked. Prayer is like this.

Turn now to the call to be a light to the world to win others to Christ. It is God’s providence that we should do so as all events rest within the omnipotent hands of God. But if one never witnesses to a lost soul, then it should be impossible for the lost to hear of Christ and to learn of their salvation in Him. Thus, like with prayer, the Great Commission must be answered.


            Though this essay has been in no way exhaustive of the doctrines of Calvin, it is the hope of this author that its readers will have been brought to a deeper understanding of these most important issues to the Christian faith. Regardless of whether or not someone agrees with the teachings of Calvin, it must be recognized that they are at the very least worthy of deeper study, if for no other reason than because of the impact that they have had upon Christendom.

I urge the reader, however, to proceed in prayer, seeking the will of God and the truth of God, with the firm recognition and conviction that it exists apart from what we may want it to be. But we must also persist in the knowledge that, though we may not fully understand or even grasp how it is so, God remains good, no matter what things may seem to us, because man is not the measure of goodness. Only God is.


Calvin, John. Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans. Grand Rapids:           Baker Books, 2009

Helm, Paul. John Calvin’s Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007

White, James. The Potter’s Freedom. Amityville: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000

Further Reading Considerations

Providence, by Reginald Garrigou-Legrange

The Confessions of St. Augustine, by St. Augustine

On Christian Doctrine, by St. Augustine

Spurgeon’s Sermons, 10 Volumes, by Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Systematic Theology, Vol. 3: Sin & Salvation, by Norman Geisler

Death of Death in the Death of Christ, by John Owen

Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin

No One Like Him, by Paul Feinberg

Knowing God, by J.I. Packer

[1] James White, The Potter’s Freedom (Amityville, Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 146.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2009), 353-354.

[3] Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (New York, Oxford University Press, 2007), 159.


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