When people take issue with Calvinism it is usually because they think that Reformed theology (Calvinism) is actually something that it is not. My experience has revealed that when people respond negatively to my Calvinism (better Reformed theology) it is most often from a lack of understanding of what Calvinism really teaches. The mistake they make is not due to their ignorance of Calvinism; most people I speak with know something about Reformed theology. Their problem is they are mistaken about what Calvinism / Reformed theology really is. Or to put it differently, they don’t like a version of Calvinism that true Calvinists don’t actually believe, and would, in fact, reject. It’s not that they have committed the straw-man fallacy, building an opponent that doesn’t actually exist, but they critique a version of Calvinism that is abhorred by non-Calvinists and Calvinists alike. What they question is actually not Calvinism at all, but what is known as HYPER-Calvinism. To be blunt, Hyper-Calvinism, is not biblical and is not what true Calvinists actually believe. One author has correctly called Hyper-Calvinism a rationalistic perversion of true Calvinism. Another goes even further, and correctly observes,
The difference between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism is the distance between heaven and hell. Calvinism is full of life and passion for God and desires to make God’s glory shine among the nations. Hyper-Calvinism is lifeless heresy that damns people to hell, kills evangelism, and ruins churches.
Since I have been publicly accused of being a Hyper-Calvinist by somebody whom I have never met or spoken with about theology (or anything else for that matter), I figured this would be a good time to articulate the differences between the two. In fact, this issue exists for all who claim to be Reformed / Calvinist, so I hope this post clears things up somewhat. (At least as best as can be done in a blog post.)
Don’t Make the Mistake in the First Place
First a word about how to avoid making the mistake I articulated above. In my experience, the critique of Calvinists along Hyper-Calvinist lines often arises for two easily avoidable reasons; if you are willing to put in the necessary work to avoid them.
Mistake #1 — Never having read or heard a true Calvinist who is able to articulate this theology in a way that reflects its true biblical, historical and confessional nature. A lot of those who critique Reformed Theology have never read What is Reformed Theology? by Sproul, or For Calvinism by Horton, or Why I am Not Arminian by Peterson and Williams. Nor have they listened to clear articulations of this doctrine as articulated here, here and here. Nor have they read, for example, the Canons of Dort or the Westminster Confession and Catechism. I am not a theologian on the level of these guys, but even a quick email or conversation with someone like myself (Ph.D. from a respected Reformed Seminary) will help clear up questions and issues that people may have about Reformed theology. (You can email me at the address found on the Contact page on this site; I can also come to your church to speak.)
Mistake #2 — The Calvinism they know is from an Arminian who articulates the nature of Calvinism from their perspective. This second issue is made worse by those who are also guilty of the first issue. Thus what people hear about Reformed theology, isn’t really Reformed theology at all. It is is some second-hand, negatively presented theology that is most likely not a true representation of Reformed theology.
One example of these mistakes will suffice. I recently read a paper from a large church in the area where I live, where these problems were clearly on display. In this work, R.C. Sproul was said to be a proponent of a certain theological stance. To ‘demonstrate’ this, a quotation of Sproul was used to prove the point. Unfortunately, the quotation completely misrepresented what he actually believes. How did this happen? Because the author of the paper didn’t quote Sproul directly, from one of his own works, but took it from a secondary source, a book by Dave Hunt. See the problem here? The writer of the original paper took something Sproul said via a bad theologian who is not a Calvinist and is in fact highly antagonistic to Calvinism and claimed the Sproul quote proved his point. That is terrible research and writing and it, quite frankly, breaks the 9th commandment regarding not bearing false witness about our neighbor, in this case Sproul.
Let’s not make these mistakes.
The Difference Between Hyper-Calvinism and Biblical Calvinism
So what is it that Hyper-Calvinism believes that biblical Calvinists don’t? Or to put it differently – what is it that Calvinists or Reformed theologians are accused of believing that they don’t actually believe? Here is a list of the major issues that I often have to answer. There are more, but these are the big ones (For more issues that are often raised see here). Brief rebuttal points are below each false critique:
False critique #1 — God must be the author of sin and evil if he is sovereign over all things.
- As Michael Horton observes – “The God of Israel “is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32:4–5). In fact, James seems to have real people in mind when he cautions, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Sin and evil have their origin not in God or creation, but in the personal will and action of creatures.”
- Further from Horton – “Scripture sets forth two guardrails…: On one hand, God “works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:15); on the other, God does not — in fact, cannot — do evil.”
- The Westminster Confession (ch 3.1) — “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;” “yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creature; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
- No-one – not Arminian or Calvinist – can explain the origin of evil. It is a reality that cannot be understood by us, the creature. We must simply follow Scripture where it leads and go no further than that. We must stay within the guardrails, as Horton suggests.
False critique #2 — People do not have free will; they are simply automatons of God; robots programmed by his will.
- Calvinism is not fatalistic or deterministic, contrary to this critique. Calvinism is compatibilist in their understanding of human freedom, but this is not even close to fatalism or determinism. (See the discussion of B.B. Warfield on fatalism and the Reformed understanding of predestination.)
- It is important that we define our terms before we can engage with this false critique. Calvinsts DO believe that people are free or have freedom (notice I did not say free will). But in order to understand what the mean, we need to understand the difference between free will and free agency. It is a key difference.
- Since our will is grounded by our nature, (as God’s will is grounded by his nature) our will is never ‘free’ since it exists at all times within the boundary of who we are. (see Mark 7:14-23) Sam Storms states, “A man’s will is the extension and invariable expression of his nature. As he is, so he wills. A man is no more free to act or to will or to choose contrary to his nature than an apple tree is free to produce acorns.”
- BUT we do make decisions all the time; we do what we want to do. We are free to choose whatever it is that our heart desires. This is free agency. As long as our choice is the voluntary fruit of our desire, our choice is free. Since we choose that which we want to choose we are accountable for it. The implication of this reality is that those who reject the gospel do so freely and willingly because it is their heart’s desire to do so.
- Thus, Calvinists believe fully in free agency.
- We must acknowledge the difference between moral ability and physical ability. This will also help us better understand what we mean by freedom. We have the physical ability to believe in God and to walk in his ways, we have reasoning ability, and the ability to speak and act. BUT we are morally unable to obey and follow God. Due to our sinfulness prior to God’s regeneration, we do not want to obey and follow God and thus we do not. We are dead in our trespasses and transgressions and in need of regeneration. As a result we can believe in the gospel (physical ability), but we will not due to our (moral inability).
- Outside of God’s regenerative grace we are unable (physical) and unwilling (moral) to believe. God must regenerate us in order for us to be able and willing.
False critique #3 — Since God has chosen who will be saved, they will be saved. Thus there is no reason to witness or preach the gospel to the nations.
- A simple reading of Calvin himself will destroy these fears, not to mention an understanding of the history of Reformed churches in Geneva and their emphasis on missions. For example, Calvin’s Geneva sent many missionaries as far south as Brazil. To properly understand this reality, read chapters 4 and 5 of Ten Myths of Calvinism by Kenneth Stewart. (Available here – A must read.)
- Belief in predestination actually spurs on the Reformed to greater gospel witness. We know that the fields are white. We know that there are those out there who will believe, but who need to hear the gospel preached to them in order to do so. (Romans 10:5-17) We know that many are called (preached to) but few are chosen (come to believe) so we preach and teach to everyone in order that some may come to faith. We, like Paul, “endure[s] all things for the sake of the elect” so that they will “obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” (2 Timothy 2:10)
- Our attitude must be that of Spurgeon who once said, “If God had painted a yellow stripe up the backs of the elect, I’d go through London lifting up coats and preaching only to them. As it is, He has not, so I preach the Gospel to all, and God brings his sheep.”
- Quite frankly, the explicit instructions of Scripture and our theology forces us to witness.
False critique #4 — The gospel offer is not for all people since not all people will be saved.
- This is closely related to false critique #3 and its rebuttals are the same as those listed there.
- We need to understand twin realities, much like we did when we talked about God and his relationship to sin and evil. They provide us with the guardrails necessary to keep us out of error on either side.
- On the one hand, God loves the world and calls everyone in the world to Christ outwardly through the Gospel.
- On the other hand, God loves the elect with a saving purpose and calls them by His Spirit inwardly through the same Gospel. (John 6:63-64; 10:3-5, 11, 14-18, 25-30; 1 Corinthians 1:21-24; et. al.)
- We must be careful not to choose between these two realities. The Arminian chooses option 1 as the only option. Hyper-Calvinism chooses option two as the only option and reserves preaching to them alone (as if it were possible). This kind of exclusivity denies the full witness of Scripture.
False critique #5 — Calvinism gives people a licence to sin. Or to put it differently, Calvinists believe in ‘once saved always saved’ – people who have once sincerely professed belief are saved regardless of what they do throughout the rest of their life. Thus it doesn’t matter at all how people live after conversion.
- We must admit that, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones has stated, if have never been accused of preaching antinomianism (that is, grace as a licence to sin), we probably have not preached the Gospel correctly. Paul himself anticipated this being a problem arising from his teaching, so we would be in good company if so accused. (cf. Romans 6)
- BUT, as Horton observes, “The difference between being accused of antinomianism and being guilty as charged is whether we are willing to follow Paul… into [Romans] 6.” In this chapter Paul vehemently opposes the idea of grace as a license to sin. Even a cursory reading of this chapter will reveal that Paul is adamant that we must be killing sin in our lives because it is NOT who true believers are anymore. Our union with Christ means that we are no longer under the power of sin and we need to live in this reality.
- Read the great Reformed Puritans John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, or Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks, or The Godly Man’s Picture by Thomas Watson and you will see the intensity with which Reformed theology has ALWAYS stood against antinomianism.
- This is also a total, and I mean total, misrepresentation of the Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. Reformed theology does not believe in ‘Once-Saved-Always-Saved’ as articulated above. It does believe that on account of the power of God’s saving and transformative grace, God will preserve his people in their salvation until the end. The Westminster Confession states this doctrine clearly (chs 17:1,2):
I. They, whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved, .
II. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which arises also the certainty and infallibility thereof.
Calvinism is NOT Hyper-Calvinism. Calvinism is fundamentally biblical; Hyper-Calvinism is Bible plus something or Bible minus something. Don’t assume they are the same, and don’t critique a true biblical Calvinist as though they were a Hyper-Calvinist. What’s the difference between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism? Calvinism proclaims the true gospel while hyper-Calvinism proclaims no gospel at all. It’s like the difference between someone with type 1 diabetes and someone with type 2 diabetes. They may have a few things in common, but they are NOT the same thing. (source)
Soli Deo Gloria