The Dark Sides of Calvinism
Written by Paul Race
Editor’s Note: This is an article that I hoped I would never have to write.
This is a fable, to introduce a topic that many Christians have argued over without deeply considering all the ramifications.
A great kingdom was bordered on one side by a river valley that was fertile, but which was uninhabited because every century or so a storm miles upriver would wash the valley clean of all but the sturdiest trees. During a time of reprieve from those storms, refugees from another country settled there. At first, the king’s messengers warned them of the danger, but after nothing bad happened for several decades, the settlers began to think of the valley as their home. Not only did they raise crops to support themselves, but they hired out their services to the kingdom’s citizens, as farm hands, coopers, weavers, smiths, and more.
Then a great storm took place on a faraway mountain range. The king’s advisors warned him that there would be a flash flood in the valley within the next three days.
What should the king do? He had more than enough resources to bring every one of the settlers into his kingdom, and to provide food, clothing, shelter, and even meaningful work. But they weren’t his citizens, and so, technically, weren’t under his protection.
He settled at last on a plan that would assuage his conscience without forcing him to spend too much time thinking about how to accommodate the settlers. He would randomly select a small fraction of the settlers to evacuate before the likely day of the flood, without telling the rest they were in danger. So the king acquired a list of names – every settler in the town. He randomly underlined a fraction of the names on the list.
Then, a day before the flood was expected, his men went through the settlement snatching the people whose names the king had underlined. With no explanation, they separated husbands from wives and children from parents. Mothers were screaming for their children; children were screaming for their mothers, and there was anguish all around. But the king’s men had their orders.
The next day, those who were had been brought out of the valley watched from the hillside as their friends and families were washed to oblivion by the flood. But they were so glad to have escaped the same doom, they never thought to ask why the king hadn’t given everyone in the valley a chance to escape. Instead, they composed songs in the king’s honor and sang them until the end of their days. In addition, more than a few of them started thinking that somehow they must have deserved rescuing more than the folks who died. In the future, when they saw others who needed, and possibly even deserved, compassion, they managed to harden their hearts and feel virtuous at the same time.
Before I launch into the heart of my topic, please let me acknowledge that most of the content in this article has little bearing on many people who have been told they were Calvinist. You may belong to a denomination (such as most Baptist churches) that was once Calvinist in everything but infant baptism. But chances are your church abandoned some of Calvin’s more extreme views a century ago retaining only:
- Calvin’s (quite biblical) belief that personal good works do not contribute to your salvation, and
- Calvin’s conviction that once a person truly becomes a Christian, they cannot possibly fall away. This doctrine goes under names like “the persistence of the believer,” “eternal security,” and “once saved, always saved.” Introduction of this doctrine stirs up some points worth discussing, but it doesn’t have the potential negative effects of Calvin’s more extreme doctrines.
So if what I’m describing as “Calvinism” further down this page doesn’t make any sense to you or doesn’t sound like anything your church has ever preached, be grateful that your church leaders had the sense to backpedal on some of this stuff, likely before you parents were born. Or their parents. Our article on “Once Saved Always Saved” doctrines provides some history on that score.
Also, if I seem to be taking some of the following content personally, it’s because we once belonged to a church that was not Calvinistic at all, but whose pastor suddenly decide to adopt the most extreme forms of Calvinism, with many undesirable “side effects.” And recently, we have encountered a hyper-Calvinistic movement within another church that is already causing problems like those discussed in the following paragraphs.
I had thought I was safe from this sort of thing rearing its ugly head again, but I was wrong. In fact, as we recently discovered, there’s a movement to revive Calvin’s most extreme teachings, with the idea that it is getting “back to the basics” or some such. To me, “back to the basics” should be about following the examples of Jesus and His first and second-generation disciples, not about rebooting unbiblical 16th-century doctrines that have historically caused church and societal problems that are still evident today.
So it’s especially timely to let people who’ve bumped up against Calvin’s more extreme doctrines know what is behind them and the damage they can do and have done. As they are defined and taught today by certain groups who consider themselves “Calvinist” (or, in some cases, the only people who “really believe the whole Bible”), they present a god who is far more merciless than merciful and a Christ who didn’t really die for the sins of the (whole) world. And they exhibit some very unChristian attitudes toward those outside their movement or subculture. (Note: I don’t capitalize the name of this “god” because it is not the God of the Bible.)
Who Was John Calvin?
John Calvin was a noted "Reformer," part of the movement that challenged the Roman Catholic Church's authority to speak for God and - frankly - overrule scripture when it conflicted with church practices and traditions. Like Luther and other reformers, he was writing at a time when Protestant theology was still coalescing, as Roman Catholic doctrines that seemed to have no biblical support were being replaced by attempts to depend on the clear teachings of scripture. Unfortunately, some of those reformers’ interpretations went beyond the clear teachings of scripture. Calvin’s vociferous promotion of his unique doctrines influenced several movements and the denominations that came from them, including the Presbyterians, the “Dutch” Reformed, and the Puritans.
I mention the Puritans in this account, because the Baptist movement in North America followed their Calvin-inspired theology in many ways, even after they had rejected infant baptism. If you are a Baptist today, you probably belong to a church that plays down or even rejects some of Calvin’s more extreme doctrines. Most Baptist churches have experienced a shift since those early days. But not all of them have.
A Little Theological History
To some extent, Calvin was responding to the Roman Catholic insistence that good works such as church giving contributed toward a person’s salvation – a self-serving theology from an already wealthy church that depended on a continuous stream of contributions. To most of the reformers, this dependence on good works was unbiblical and repugnant. “Solo Gratia” - “Only Grace” - brought salvation, and any good works we performed thinking they would earn us favor with God were as “filthy rags.”
To the reformers (and to me, by the way), Jesus died for our sins, and our only path to salvation is to repent of our sins, accept Jesus as Lord of our lives, and accept his sacrifice as the only thing that covers our sin and enables God’s forgiveness. “By grace you are saved, through faith, and that is a gift of God.” Afterward, God helps us and expects us to be kind, compassionate, helpful, honest, moral, and generous. But those behaviors are the result, not the cause, of God’s forgiveness and grace.
A Bridge Too Far
Calvin, however, took the “Solo Gratia” cry to an extreme. He taught that no one could be saved at all unless God unilaterally chose to save him and supernaturally planted “irresistible” saving faith in his heart. And that God wouldn’t do that for everybody. Personal choice was removed from the equation.
Yes, hyper-Calvinists claim that certain scriptures imply that God chooses only some to be saved (i.e. “except the Father draw him, no one can come to me”), just as there are scriptures that imply that “whosoever will” may come and that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
The majority of Christians believe that God gives everyone a chance at some point in their lives, maybe many chances, to come to Christ, though, sadly, few make the commitment. On the other hand, Calvin claimed that many people would never even have a chance.
The “darkest side” of Calvin’s theology, and the sticking point for most non-Calvinists, is Calvin’s teaching that God has made a deliberate choice to save only certain people. And if He had decided – before the earth was even created – that you were going to end up in hell, there was no hope for you at all.
A Twisted Definition of “Sovereignty”
When you ask a hyper-Calvinist how a just God could allow billions of people to be born with no chance of escaping eternal torment, the answer usually sound something like this: “Because He is God and He can do whatever He wants to do.” (There are gods in other religious who are as arbitrary and unjust as Calvin’s god, just not the God of the Bible.)
One Calvinistic code word for this is “Sovereignty.” When a hyper-Calvinist asks you if you believe in the “sovereignty of God,” they’re asking if you believe God created billions of people who are predestined for hell, just so God could prove some kind of point.
In some versions of this theology, Calvin’s god predestines most people to hell so that the few he chooses to save truly appreciate the value of his “grace” toward them.
Back to my fable. Do you really think seeing their friends and family perish would have helped the rescued few in my fable feel more grateful toward the king for their rescue? Who even thinks like that? Actually, that’s exactly how many hyper-Calvinists have been programmed to think.
I believe that God IS sovereign over all – I just don’t believe He is merciless toward the vast majority of people ever born on this planet. And that is what hyper-Calvinists mean when they use that word.
An Insufficient Calvary
In addition, Calvin asserted that Jesus’ death covered only the sins of those whom God had foreordained to be saved. Personally, I think it’s repugnant to believe that the death of the Son of God was insufficient to cover the sins of the whole world, but today’s “hyper-Calvinists” have no problem with the doctrine of “limited atonement.” They claim that the ultimate entity making the ultimate sacrifice wasn’t enough to give everyone at least a chance at salvation. I would like to know what they think would have been “enough.”
To a Christian accustomed to studying the whole Bible instead of every other verse, this theology is in stark contrast to passages like I Timothy 2:3-6 and 1 John 2:2, which assert that Jesus died as “a ransom for all.” Yes, the hyper-Calvinists have many explanations for why “all doesn’t mean all.” They’ve had three centuries to iron such things out.
If you are angered by my assault on Calvin’s doctrine of “Limited Atonement,” please send me ONE scripture that says, unequivocally, that Jesus didn’t die for everybody. You can’t. There are verses that say Jesus died for “many,” or that He died for “His sheep,” etc. But there is not one single Bible verse that says explicitly that Jesus did not die for everyone.
Yes, I’ve heard plenty of “scriptural proofs” that were combinations of verses that, taken together and ignoring many other verses in the same passages, seem to make the hyper-Calvinists’ point. But the Bible expressly claims that Jesus died for everybody no matter how you try to explain it away.
A Virtually Irrelevant Calvary
Even stranger, if you keep peeling back the layers of Calvin’s theology, you realize that there was really no need for Jesus to have died at all. You see, according to hyper-Calvinists’ interpretation of Ephesians 1:4, those who would be saved were chosen by God before the foundation of the world. In fact, before the Fall. Millennia before Jesus came to earth.
So Jesus’ sacrifice was essentially a formality to justify - retroactively - decisions Calvin’s god made before the dawn of time.
Few Calvinists I know actually believe this, and none would dare say it out loud, but if you follow Calvin’s assertions to their logical conclusion, the central events of our faith – the death and resurrection of Jesus – were little more than boxes to be checked as a way of justifying decisions the Father had already made before Genesis 1:1 ever happened.
By the way, I realize that I am oversimplifying both sides of the arguments I am presenting. And that claiming that hyper-Calvinists have a merciless god or an insufficient or irrelevant “christ” will make some readers very angry. If your anger spurs you to read the New Testament without the “aid” of some Calvinist or Calvinist resources, that will be a good thing.
A Twisted Definition of Grace
The early Puritans who believed these things understood that the logical conclusion of their theology was that some of them would never be saved no matter how hard they prayed or how they lived.
But most modern-day hyper-Calvinists don’t seem to be troubled by such doubts. Rather, if they “asked Jesus into their heart,” it’s because God predestined them to, just as God predestined countless others to go to hell with no chance for redemption.
They claim that God’s grace is amazing, and it is. For them. For everyone else the “gospel message” is more like, “sucks to be you.”
But they also claim that God choosing to send billions to hell with no chance of redemption makes the grace he shows for his favorites that much more amazing. It wouldn’t, even if it were true.
To most Christians, the word “grace” describes the concept that “God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” THAT’s grace.
But to hyper-Calvinists, “grace” means that out of the billions that their God sends to hell with no chance of redemption, he has picked out a relative handful for special treatment. That definition of the word “grace” is why you sometimes see the word “grace” embedded in hyper-Calvinistic materials and church names. The truth is, when they talk about grace, they’re not talking about the same thing most Christians mean when they use the term.
What is “Election” in this Context?
I am not going to claim that I totally understand what Paul means when he says His Christian readers were foreordained, or predestined for God’s grace. In fact, most non-Calvinists struggle with those verses a little. It almost sounds like Calvin was right – if you avoid other verses that say things like “whosoever will” may come or “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Unfortunately, those who preach hyper-Calvinism insist that their followers ignore such verses. I have heard some hyper-Calvinists preach literally every other verse in some passages.)
One of the code words that hyperCalvinists like to use is “election,” which is their way of saying “God chose me.” As a person or church becomes more comfortable with such theology, saying “I am of the elect” often takes on the sense that “God chose me and not you.”
I have been told that I may not be “of the elect” because I believe that Jesus’ death was sufficient for all the sins of the world, and because I don’t believe that God predestined anybody to go to hell with no chance of redemption.
In some churches, believing in Calvin’s definition of election or not can become a shibboleth that – to hyperCalvinists – determines whether you’re destined for eternal rewards or eternal suffering.
Signs of “the Elect”
Because being “of the elect” was so important in Puritan society, Puritans struggled to find ways to demonstrate that they were among the chosen. One way was to have a long list of things they had given up. This resulting in legalisms that had nothing to do with faith or piety, but which could be used as a measuring stick to show who in the community was the most religious, and, therefore, most likely to be among the “elect.”
In addition, Puritans believed that God would demonstrate who among their community was truly saved through material blessing (a conviction also held by the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day, but not held by Jesus or any of the New Testament believers).
It became culturally ingrained in the Puritans to work long and hard (sometimes in the dark of night or with curtains drawn) to make certain they seemed miraculously prosperous, and – therefore – favored by God. The “Protestant work ethic” that resulted was not necessarily bad in and of itself.
But as this attitude seeped throughout the culture of white New England, it brought with it a sense of entitlement among the heirs of those hard workers. Within the last few years, I have heard rich white politicians who have almost no spiritual values in common with their cultural ancestors say things like “God must favor me because I was born rich.”
Attitudes of “The Elect” Toward Outsiders
Centuries ago, the Puritans earned a reputation for being “holier than thou” and for lack of compassion for people outside their subculture. Why waste time, energy, and resources on people God has already predestined to go to hell? If they were predestined for heaven, they’d be more like us, wouldn’t they?
By the way, this attitude is exactly the opposite of the first-century church, who went to the ends of the known world to preach the gospel to every ethnic group they encountered, who appointed deacons to make certain there wasn’t racial discrimination within the church, and who took up collections for people of other cultures on other continents.
Sadly, the Puritan tenet that prosperity shows God’s favor has its reverse, one that is frequently displayed by the cultural descendants of the Puritans today. On the surface it makes no sense for people who call themselves Christians to lack any kind of empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, especially people of other cultures or races. But, like the Puritans, it boils down to: “They’re not rich, and they’re not like us, so they must not have God’s favor, so they are not our concern.”
In addition to the historical influences of hyper-Calvinism on wealthy white subcultures, we have also witnessed at least one church that adopted hyper-Calvinism go within a few years from outward-focused to inward-focused. It became self-centered, and self-satisfied, with an attitude toward “outsiders” (even the non-Calvinists who tried to remain in the church) that can only be described as arrogance.
You may tell me that your hyper-Calvinistic fellowship is nothing like that. Sadly, the longer the doctrines of “limited atonement” and “irresistable grace” saturate your church’s culture, the more “like that” the church, or denomination, or movement will become.
In fact, it may already be “like that,” but you’re sheltered from the dismissive attitudes of your fellow members toward outsiders by the fact that you’re also “in the club.” Pay attention to how the church treats people who disagree with any of their pet doctrines, even the ones with little or no apparent biblical support.
Dulling of the Evangelical Impulse
Though Jesus commanded His followers to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel,” it’s only a matter of time before most hyper-Calvinists realize that – if their theology is true – there’s no point in “overdoing it.” According to extreme Calvinism, people who are predestined to go to heaven or to hell will get there whether we preach to them or not.
Yes, there have been hyper-Calvinistic missionaries and evangelists. Considering their theological foundation, this indicates that even hyper-Calvinistic theology cannot hold back devout Christians determined to follow the will of the Lord in their lives. I praise God for such believers and wish there were more of them today.
With those exceptions, Calvinistic preaching until the 19th century tended to consist mostly of preaching morality and telling the church members to pray that they would eventually be counted among the elect. The idea of asking people to repent of their sins and turn to Christ, without, essentially, being forced to by a supernaturally implanted impulse was considered the province of the Methodists and other “holy rollers.”
Sadly, many of today’s hyper-Calvinists are very good at trying to force morality on those outside the church, but very poor at bringing people to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Considering that “evangelical” means “bearing the good news,” that’s backwards beyond belief. “Post-evangelical” is a better term.
Why Some Historically Calvinistic American Churches Moved Away from Predestination
In the early 1800s, one young Presbyterian minister-in-training assumed he had heard his mentors wrong when they explained the denominational (Calvinistic) view of predestination. Instead, when C.G. Finney began preaching, he told people that if they didn’t repent of their sins and turn to Christ immediately, they were rejecting Christ and it was nobody’s fault but their own if they went to hell. Churchgoers who had heard all their lives that they really had no choice in the matter responded with disbelief and anger. But in greater and greater numbers, they began responding with true heartfelt repentance and prayer.
Finney’s approach to gospel preaching caught on in many circles. Preachers who were firm believers in predestination nevertheless stopped harping on morality only. Instead, they began preaching for decisions, as Finney did. And eventually other influential evangelists like Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham followed the same pattern.
By the early 1900s, many historically “Calvinistic” groups had stopped promoting the idea of predestination at all, though some still had it buried in their denominational materials. Most Baptist groups did retain Calvin’s doctrine of “eternal security” – the idea that, once you truly become a Christ-follower, you can’t ever fall away. This was enough to separate Baptists from many other fundamental denominations and allow them to keep calling themselves “Calvinists.”
But when you try to explain to most modern Baptists why you have issues with Calvin’s concepts of predestination and limited atonement, they will usually have no idea what you’re talking about. Except for a few denominations who still enshrine Calvin’s more extreme doctrines and the occasional outliers who still manage to get “radicalized” into extreme Calvinism every generation.
How Do You Become a Hyper-Calvinist?
You are exposed to hyperCalvinistic teaching from someone you respect, usually a pastor or a teacher at a Christian school. For some people, that’s enough. Some people will go one step farther, such as reading a book by a hyper-Calvinist author that a hyper-Calvinist they respect recommends. Some folks just go along with what their pastor says; some folks have to be argued into the position by repeated sessions which inevitably involve beating certain scriptures to death while steadfastly ignoring the dozens of scriptures that say the opposite.
As far as I know, nobody outside of Calvin himself has ever adopted this theology based purely on personal study of the Bible. The extreme doctrines that hyper-Calvinists teach are simply not in there.
The Character of God and the Mission of Jesus
By now you’re wondering what the fable at the top of this essay has to do with Calvinism. Or maybe you’ve figured out that the king who could have saved many people yet chose arbitrarily to save only a few represents the god of the Calvinists. Where is the “christ” of the Calvinists you might ask? I remind you that the central event of Calvinism is not Jesus’ death and resurrection for a pre-selected few, but rather decisions that Calvin’s god made literally before time began. Calvin’s “christ" is irrelevant, or, at the very least inadequate – his sacrifice plays no important role in the grander scheme of things. (BTW, I don’t capitalize the word christ in this paragraph, because Calvin’s “christ” is not the Christ of the Bible.)
If my fable was true story, would you feel it was heartless and unfair for a king with enough resources to offer sanctuary to everyone in the valley nevertheless to arbitrarily offer the majority of the settlers no chance of survival? This is the nature of Calvin’s god. It is not the nature of the God who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
How would you feel of you were one of those rescued while your friends and family perished for no good reason? What would you think of people who told you not to worry about that side of things and focus on what the king did for you? Could you really pretend that the king was merciful, just because you personally won the lottery, so to speak? That’s exactly what extreme Calvinists do.
May I suggest another version of the story? When the king is told that the people in the valley will be destroyed, he wants to warn the people, but he knows they’re afraid of him and distrustful of his servants and soldiers. His only son volunteers to shed his royal robes, dress as a settler, go into the valley, engage the settlers on a personal level, and bring out as many as he can. Some of the settlers believe his claims and follow him, but many do not, in spite of many convincing evidences. The rich and powerful – those who think they have too much to lose – even plot against him. But everyone is given a chance, and the king announces that all who follow his son out of the valley will be citizens of his kingdom and under his protection henceforth.
Yes, the metaphor falls short – in this version of the story the rich and powerful don’t kill the king’s son like they did in the real version. But which version squares the most with what you believe to be the nature of the God of the Bible, who “commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”?
What to Do?
If you’re in a church that is hyper-Calvinist and you’re comfortable there, you may be fine. But most churches that hold to fringe doctrines tend to put an unbalanced emphasis on those doctrines and neglect teaching of far more importance. Your children may grow up with very little understanding of most biblical doctrines, but knowing exactly where they stand on “election.” If you want them to have a faith that can stand a little inspection, you may want them grounded in more than this one doctrine.
And the side effects of hyper-Calvinism, such as holier-than-thou attitudes and lack of compassion for people who aren’t like you can seep into your own heart or your children’s hearts without you even realizing that you’ve become more Pharisaical and less Christ-like over the years.
I won’t break fellowship with you if you are a hyper-Calvinist – I have Christian friends who believe stranger things. But I won’t be browbeaten into acquiescence in your position, as several pastors, elders, and even friends have attempted to do.
If you’ve been attracted to modern hyper-Calvinist movements, remember that, under all the rhetoric and inclusive language, there is a core belief that Jesus died only for certain people, and that God created the rest simply to prove some sort of point by sending them to hell with no chance of redemption.
Over the centuries since Calvin wrote, following his merciless god has turned many well-meaning believers into merciless and judgmental creatures, whose behavior and attitudes toward others has turned many away from saving faith.
I choose to follow the biblical God who gave His Son as a ransom for all. And, like the first-century church, I see everyone I meet as a potential child of God. There is hope for everyone you know, too. And isn’t that good news?
God bless and guide you through your life choices -
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