Letter to a Friend to Explain Calvinism

This letter has been mildly edited to make it more suitable for a public audience.


It was nice to have spent some time with you today.  I’m glad you brought up the subject of Calvinism.  I know your pastor is hostile towards it and to Calvin himself.  In a series of email exchanges I had with him a while back over his sermons against Calvinism, he went so far as to say that Calvin is a murderer and is in hell. 

The lies about John Calvin which most people today believe were invented by a “converted” monk name Jerome Bolsec.  He came to Geneva after having renounced Catholicism and adopting Reformation theology, and while there he vigorously denied the doctrine of predestination; consequently he was banished.  In retaliation he wrote a book filled with lies and malice against Calvin and published it.  That book is the source from which most of Calvin’s critics get their ammunition against him; it seems that even many Calvinists have also been deceived by it, not because any of them have read the book but because they Google or read books written by people who’ve read the books by people who’ve read the books by people who’ve read the books by people who have heard from somebody who said that Calvin was evil and cruel. 

John Calvin was a great man with a gracious and tender heart whom God used to extend the kingdom of God.  He was soundly converted and his whole life changed as a result, and he determined to follow Jesus from that moment.  He devoted the rest of his life to proclaiming the Truth and defending the Gospel against the corruptions of the Catholic Church, as well as against the libertines.  He loved Jesus and the Gospel with burning passion and in that passion he confounded the enemies of Jesus, the Gospel, and the Church.

Charles Spurgeon

I’m glad you already know that Spurgeon was a Calvinist, so now you won’t think I encouraged you to read his writings to ambush you.  It was inevitable that in reading his sermons you’d bump up against his Calvinism sooner or later because it underpinned his whole theology and consequently his preaching.  The reason Spurgeon left the General Baptists was because they had abandoned Calvinism.  He wrote: “The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach to-day, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox’s gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again.” 

You can read his defence of Calvinism here if you’re interested but it’s quite long: A Defense Of Calvinism And The Doctrines Of Grace by Charles H. Spurgeon (wordpress.com)

John Calvin: Church planter and trainer of missionaries

In the 1550’s, while Calvin was at Geneva, he received many refugees fleeing from Catholic persecution; while they were there, sitting under his preaching and pastoral care, many of them began feeling burdened for their homeland and wanted to return and take the gospel with them.  So Calvin taught them theology and how to preach, and he assessed their moral character before he sent them out.

By 1559 the church at Geneva had planted 100 churches in France and by 1562 there were more than 2000 churches there.  Some of these churches were so successful that they had to conduct three services every Sunday to cater to the many thousands who attended them.  He also sent missionaries to Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, the Rhineland, and even as far away as Brazil.

Calvin preached through almost every book of the bible and on nearly every imaginable biblical subject; and his sermons have been edited into commentaries.  He wrote voluminously, his greatest work being the “Institutes of the Christian Religion”.

Some famous Calvinists

Many Christians believe that Calvinists don’t preach the Gospel, but this is a fiction.  It’s well known that the man who began the modern missionary movement was a Baptist Christian named William Carey – you’ve probably heard your pastor, being an Independent Baptist, mention him.  However, it is not as well known, or at least acknowledged, that Carey was a Calvinist – has your pastor acknowledged that?  Carey’s church was one of the Particular Baptist union of Hyper-Calvinists – same as Westboro Baptist Church.  They believed that they didn’t have to warn sinners or preach the gospel because God will save the elect himself; so they didn’t bother.  But Carey and some of his Calvinists friends founded the Baptist Missionary Society in order to take the gospel to the heathen in all corners of the world.  So the person who founded the modern missionary came from within Calvinism and was a Calvinist himself – William Carey.  He and his Calvinist friends understood the link between predestination and the Gospel.

Here is a partial list of missionaries and revivalists, every one of them a Calvinist:

  • John Eliot – first missionary to the American (Algonquian-speaking) Indians (1600’s)
  • Jonathan Edwards (your namesake) preached during the “First Great Awakening” (a huge revival) and he recorded what God was doing during that revival.  His sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” caused multitudes to turn to Christ and be saved.  He was also a missionary to the Housatonic Indians, and established Princeton University.  It was established to train young men for the ministry but has since been hijacked by liberals who deny everything in the bible and train all their students to think the same.  Many have lost their faith through the influence of this one establishment since its theology corrupted
  • David Brainerd – a friend of Jonathan Edwards and missionary to the Mohawk Indians
  • William Tennent, founder of the “Log College”, a Calvinist theological college where many preachers were trained; these men preached during the “First Great Awakening”
  • Samuel Davies preached the gospel to the slaves in Virginia, and many hundreds were saved
  • Robert Moffatt took the gospel to “Darkest Africa”
  • David Livingstone also took the gospel to Africa
  • Robert Morrison was a missionary to China
  • Peter Parker (not Spiderman) also took the gospel to China
  • Adoniram Judson was a missionary to Burma, and was a bible translator and church planter
  • John G. Paton, missionary to Vanuatu
  • Charles Simeon, Anglican minister and founder of the Church Missionary Society (where I was grounded in the gospel and in Calvinism by many godly Anglican ministers and students training for the ministry who took a kindly interest in me).
  • Henry Martyn, missionary to India and Persia
  • Samuel Zwemer, missionary to Bahrain, Egypt, Arabia, and Turkey – known as “the Apostle to Islam”

The Five Points of Calvinism

These were not stated or formalized by John Calvin but by a Council of the combined churches of Europe several years after his death to counteract the false teaching of a man named Jacobus (James) Arminius, who rejected much of what Calvin taught and summarized his teaching under five points.  Thus, the Five Points were a summary of Calvinism.  Their acronym is TULIP.

T.  Total Depravity or Total Inability.  The doctrine teaches that humanity, every single person who has ever been born or is yet to be born, is totally depraved or totally sinful; and therefore they cannot respond to the Gospel by faith.  Total Depravity doesn’t mean we are as sinful as we can possibly be; rather, it means that every faculty of our person is corrupted and tainted by sin; every part of a human being is corrupt and fallen and is alien to God, hostile to him, and is his enemy (Rom 3:9-18); consequently they are unable to turn to God in repentance and faith unaided by his Holy Spirit (Rom 6:20; Acts 16:14) because they are spiritually dead (Rom 5:12; Eph 2:1-3).  Jesus said that nobody can come to him unless he is drawn to him or given to him by the Father (Jn 6:37, 39, 44, 65).

U. Unconditional Election.  Election, interchangeably called Predestination, is the doctrine that God chooses whom he will save.  He chose them before the foundation of the world by his own sovereign will (Eph 1:3-5; Rom 9:15-24) and for his glory (Eph 2:7-9) out of a fallen humanity (Rom 5:12), all of whom will perish eternally unless they repent and turn to God through Jesus by faith (Jn 3:16-18; 5:24; Eph 2:1-3).  But unless God opens their heart to understand and receive the gospel, they cannot come to him (Acts 16:14; Jn 6:37, 39, 44, 65).  God is the Potter and we are the clay and he does with us according to the good pleasure of his will (Eph 1:5; Rom 9:11-24; Dan 4:34-35).

However, we are not saved just because we are the elect; we are saved by faith.  The elect are simply those who have been chosen by God to be saved out of the fallen mass of humanity; he bypasses all the rest (Rom 9:18, 22-23).  God sent Jesus into the world so that they might believe and be saved (Jn 3:16; 5:24).  Predestination and the gospel work together in salvation – they are not opposed to each other.  Paul writes: “….work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13 RSV).  The gospel is the means by which the elect are saved, and they must exercise faith to be saved: “For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you; for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:4-5; see also Eph 1:5, 13).  

L. Limited Atonement.  The doctrine is a natural and logical consequence of predestination.  If predestination is true, and only a limited number of sinners (the elect) will be saved, then Jesus could only have died for them.  If he died for literally every person in the world, his death will have been in vain and his mission to save the world would be a failure.  Such a thing must never be said about Jesus’ mission.  Indeed, Jesus said, “….and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day” (Jn 6:39; see also Jn 17:2, 9).  He thus shows that he died only for those whom the Father had chosen from before the foundation of the world.

But doesn’t John 3:16 say that God loved the whole world and that all who believe in him will be saved?  Yes.  And even though Jesus died only for the elect, God’s offer was genuine – he would indeed save any of the non-elect (otherwise known as “reprobate” in theology, and “the natural man” in scripture) who want to be saved.  But not a single one of the reprobate will come because they are innately hostile to God (see references under Total Depravity).  It is a matter of the will, and here is where the main battle between Calvinists and non-Calvinists rages.  There are good arguments for each position and each produces bible verses to support their view, but Calvinism most consistently and most fully explains the scriptures because it is the Truth.  

When the reprobate hear the gospel, they reject it because God has not made them willing.  In their natural state, they reject Christ because they want to, they choose to; unless God first opens their heart, they will never come to him.  “The unspiritual man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14).  And Jesus said, when speaking to Nicodemus the Pharisee, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:19-20).  Unless God does something to and in unbelievers they will never turn to him because by nature they are hostile to God.  Those who reject the gospel do so because they choose to, and God will justly hold them accountable for it.  They act in accordance with their fallen nature and they would feel violated if their will was overridden; as Paul writes, “they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thess 2:10).  And, notice this – he follows it with, “And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess 2:11-12).  God does this in righteous anger and judgment in response to their refusal to believe him.

I. Irresistible Grace.  The doctrine teaches that the elect will be saved even if they were to resist.  God has determined and chosen whom he will save; therefore it must come to pass.  Jesus was sent so that he could save those whom the Father gave him (Jn 6:38-39).  But if even one were to reject him or refuse to come, Jesus’ mission was a failure – and that is impossible.  “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified [saved and made righteous]: and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30).  Here we see that God does the work of salvation from start to finish.  It was conceived in his mind from eternity, even down to each individual, and brought to fruition in time.

P. Perseverance of the Saints.  The doctrine teaches that not one of the elect will be lost, or fall away, or be stolen from God (Rom 8:35-39; Jn 10:28-29).  It is commonly called “Once saved, always saved”.  The term “perseverance of the saints” means that no matter what the trials, difficulties, obstacles, temptations, sins, falls, or anything else, the saint (or Christian) will be saved.  This process is beautifully described in “The Pilgrim’s Progress”.

The reason that the saint will make it to be with God forever is that the work of salvation is God’s work from beginning to end.  It is a doctrine, therefore, which is of indescribable comfort to the Christian.  And it is a doctrine which gives all the glory to God in the work and process of salvation and gives none to man (Eph 2:8-9).  It describes the sovereignty of God in the whole process (Dan 4:34-35; Rom 9:15-18; Eph 2:8-10; Col 2:13-15).  For example:

“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith….” (Heb 12:2 KJV).

“I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). 

“So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy….So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills (Rom 9:16, 18).

So you don’t need to worry about doing all sorts of good works and obedience because he’s done it all for you; you don’t need to try and make yourself worthy because in Christ you already are; you don’t need to try and make him love you because he already does (and has from before the foundation of the world); these are burdens from which he has set you free.  If you’re a Christian (and you are), you’re no longer in bondage to the law.  You are free forever, no matter what happens.  “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).  “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36).

This is the glorious doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints.   And it applies to you.  God chose you from before the foundation of the earth; he loved you, he lifted you out of the dung hill and washed you, he gave you life, and he watches over you every moment of every day of your life.  He invented salvation, he is the author of it – even immediately after the Fall, he promised the Saviour (Gen 3:15); and the rest of the bible and of history shows the outworking and fulfilment of this promise.  And, as he began that good work in you, bringing you to putting your faith in Jesus, he hasn’t stopped there but he is continuing to finish the work he began in you (Phil 1:6).  He will not stop until you are safe in the arms of Jesus.  Your whole life now is the process of sanctification, which means warfare against sin and Satan until you draw your last breath (Eph 6:10-18; Gal 5:16-18; 2 Pet 2:11).  Your sins won’t sink you into hell because they are nailed to the cross (Col 2:14) – even the sins you haven’t committed yet.  Jesus’ blood saves to the uttermost (Heb 7:25).  The work of bringing you to salvation (justification) is done (Jn 19:30); the rest of your life is one of obedience and continuing faith.  You can only be lost if you reject Christ; but I don’t think a Christian can even do this.  Only those who’ve made a profession of faith without the reality of it are lost – they seemed to have been Christians but they never really had the Holy Spirit (Matt 13:5-7; 20-22; 1 Jn 2:19). 

But Peter tells us: “Therefore brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election” (2 Pet 1:10).  And Paul says: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).  These are what Christians do after they’ve been saved; they describe the work of sanctification, the process of being made holy through the work of the Holy Spirit and obedience to scripture. They describe God’s work and man’s work which work together.

Some practicalities

Most Christians rightly believe that salvation is free – as the old hymn has it: “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to thy cross I cling”.  The wonder of the gospel is that God loves us as we are – he doesn’t tell us to make ourselves worthy for him to love by doing things – he just loves us.  We come to him with all our sins and weaknesses, our nastinesses, our dishonesty, our immorality, our self-righteousness, and so on, and he took the guilt of them and Christ held them to himself as he suffered and died in our place, and now they are nailed to his cross.  And we are made free.

But no sooner are you in the kingdom than Christians like your pastor start telling you that you must obey the law.  They bring you in by the gospel and then make you work for your salvation for the rest of your life.  They tell you that you must make yourself worthy of God’s love.  But why do we need to make ourselves worthy when God has already accepted us when we were totally unworthy?  They put a burden upon you which nobody can carry (Acts 15:10); they would take away your freedom in Christ – the freedom which Christ purchased for you with his own blood – and bring you back into bondage. 

Paul was confronted with this problem in two of his churches, i.e. Galatia and Colosse.  In Galatia they were saying that new converts had to get circumcised and obey the law – these were the Judaizers (see Acts 15; Gal 2 and 3:1-14; Phil 3:2-3).  Galatians 3:1-14 is too long to quote here but the key point he makes is this (and he is scathing as he rips into them for their wrong practice): “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh….Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:2, 5).

And Colosse was troubled by an early form of Gnosticism; you should read chapter 2:6-23, but here are the most salient verses: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?  Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines?  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigour of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:20-23).

I hope I’ve been able to answer some of the questions about Calvinism that you raised with me and that you’ll know what, if anything, you need to do about it all.  And I hope you’ll be able to sort out your issues with your church that you outlined to me. 

“The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright, 1952, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.”