A friend has asked me why I’m a Calvinist. The truth is, I rarely if ever call myself that. My first allegiance is not to a 16th-century theologian or to a theological system, however much I appreciate them. My allegiance is to Christ. Call me a Christian.
But, yes, if you had to classify me by my theological inclinations, I’m probably best called Reformed—that is, a Protestant who believes in the great Reformation doctrines of Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gracia, Solus Christus, and Sola Deo Gloria.
John Calvin, of course, was one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, which as we all know began 500 years ago when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door at Wittenberg. Many of the Reformers, including John Calvin and Martin Luther, advocated strongly for the sovereign grace of God in the salvation of human beings, as opposed to what they saw as the insecure, human-centered, works-oriented approach of the Roman Catholic Church.
Calvin’s theology about the sovereign grace of God in salvation appears to me to be the most natural way to read the Bible, especially the New Testament. God’s Word teaches that man is fallen, sinful, and dead in his sins. Being spiritually dead, he is completely unable to approach and please God. A dead body cannot move. A dead, rebellious soul cannot raise itself to life through good works or faith or some combination thereof. It cannot be revived by prevenient grace. Baptism cannot restore our lost innocence, even for a moment.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph. 2:1-3)
Because of this grim reality, God must take all of the initiative to save us. And He did!
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph. 2:4-9)
We cannot save ourselves or make ourselves pleasing to Him. Our utter degradation, however, points to His supreme and infinite glory. From fallen Adam on down, we had no claim on His mercy as a race. Yet out of pure electing grace, He chose (“foreknew” Eph. 1:4 and “predestined” Eph. 1:5, 11) some to believe, purely and solely because of the death and resurrection of Christ—the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18). We must be raised by life-giving, radical grace, or we will not be raised at all.
Because our salvation is based on God’s grace rather than on our efforts, the eternal security of the believer follows. No one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand (John 10:28-30), and nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:31-39)—even ourselves.
While some have abused or misunderstood this doctrine over the 500 years since the start of the Reformation, I cling to it. If it would be possible to lose my salvation, I know I would. I recall one particularly dark period in my life when I consciously walked away from God and embraced a sinful lifestyle that could have ruined me. But while I let go of the Lord, He didn’t let go of me. Despite my most determined efforts, I remained aware of His presence and protection, and eventually He gently led me back to a place of spiritual sanity.
It is a great comfort knowing that God chose me from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), regenerated my wicked heart (Eph. 2:5) and made me born again (John 3:3), and will never leave me (Heb. 13:5). His grace is greater than all my sin (Rom. 5:20-21), and His grace ultimately will lead me into His loving arms (Col. 2:6).
The doctrine of God’s sovereign grace assures me that my salvation was His idea, not mine. Unlike all other religious systems, this one puts God, not human effort, at the center. Sola Deo Gloria. Because of this, I am born again and can never be “unborn again.” (See Eph. 1:11-14.)
By God’s sovereign grace, and for His own reasons, I have been predestined to receive an inheritance. As Peter says, “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:3-4).
I have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of that inheritance. Good works are just as much a part of God’s sovereign grace, of course. The same grace that saves and preserves also sanctifies.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:10).
Some who don’t understand the Christian doctrine of sanctification on this point may wonder why we shouldn’t simply do “whatever we want” if there are “no consequences” to our bad behavior. If we are saved, why would we bother with various Christian obligations such as baptism, growing in our faith, and good works?
First, I don’t think it is right to say there are “no consequences” to sin. There are always consequences. While a child may commit a sin or a crime and not lose his father’s love, he may lose his allowance, access to the car keys, or his freedom (if he goes to jail). When Christians sin against the truth, they pay a price. As the Apostle Paul told the Corinthian church, some of whose members participated in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:30). And as Hebrews 12:6 reminds us, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
Second, I don’t think it is right to say there are “no consequences” in the afterlife, either. While ultimate salvation is not an issue for the true Christian who sins—though habitual, unregretted sin is a warning sign (2 Cor. 13:5)—our experience of God in heaven certainly is. Just as there are degrees of punishment for the unredeemed (Matt. 11:20-24, Luke 12:41-48), so there are degrees of reward for the faithful (Luke 19:12-27). Our actions, and our attitudes, here on earth will matter very much in heaven! As Jonathan Edwards taught, our capacity to enjoy God in the next life is directly related to how much we seek Him in this one.
Third, this misunderstanding of the doctrine seems to suggest that the main reason we do good is to avoid punishment. While that may be the case with some, it misses the point about what it means to grow in grace—what is sometimes called the process of sanctification. We do these things not because we wish to avoid punishment or consequences, but because we love the Lord and want to please Him while attracting others to the good news.
Any mom or dad wants his or her child to behave, but it is a tragedy if the only motive for good behavior is to avoid a spanking (or worse). We want our child to develop the character, habits, and attitudes that express themselves in good works. A tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 12:33-35). We want the fruit of good works, of course, but we know that it will only come as the root—the heart—is transformed.
So those who believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation also believe in the sovereignty of God in sanctification—which, after all, is a critical and irreplaceable part of the whole. We grow in grace, using the means of grace, because that’s what saved people do. As our affection for God grows, so does our passion to follow Him.
Some object to this doctrine of God’s sovereign grace on other grounds. They say it’s unfair of God to condemn to hell those not chosen by Him for salvation. The Book of Romans anticipates this objection, asking who we are to question the Potter’s right to make some vessels for honorable use, and others for dishonorable (Rom. 9:21). That is a very hard word to accept, but it is God’s right to do as He pleases. After all, the Judge of all the world will do right (Gen. 18:25), whether we understand His actions or not (Isa. 55:9). We need to leave some room for mystery in the Christian faith. We’re not capable, this side of heaven, of understanding everything. But we can trust the One who is.
And it’s not as if people don’t have a choice. They do. They choose exactly what they want—which is anything but God.
But the doctrine I love also says that for some unfathomable reason, out of the depths of His love, God refuses to let hate and rebellion get the last word. Instead of walking away, God walked back to us, was lifted high on a shameful cross, and died for us, even as we jeered Him. Then, in an amazing act of grace, He overrode our hate-filled, rebellious wills, opened our spiritual eyes, breathed new life into us, and made us His children.
True, since we were all incorrigible sinners in our natural, post-Fall state, I don’t know why He chooses some for salvation and bypasses others. As I said, it’s a mystery. Life is full of them, isn’t it? One day we will see things more clearly (1 Cor. 13:12), but for now we must take some things on faith (Heb. 11:6).
His choice is certainly not because of anything that we have done, good or bad (Rom. 9:13). It is not for any faith in us, for faith itself is His gift to us (Eph. 2:8-9). No, it’s not fair, but then again, God’s fairness would send me to hell, because hell is what I deserve (Rom. 3:23). What I get, instead, is His grace, because of what Jesus did in dying and rising again (Rom. 6:23). He did it for me, a sinner with absolutely no claim on Him. It is a gift.
In the magnificent doctrine of God’s sovereign grace, God gets all the credit, and all the glory. It also lifts from us the impossible burden of saving ourselves, because salvation is all of God. That brings both freedom and humility. As Charles Hodge said, “The grace of God exalts a man without inflating him, and humbles a man without debasing him.”
Some people see it differently, of course, and that’s okay. If even the Apostle Paul saw through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12), how much more the rest of us? I love and will work alongside anyone who claims Jesus as Lord and Savior. Someone does not have to be Calvinist to be my brother or my sister. Whatever we believe about God’s sovereignty and human free will, we are united in worshiping Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God who died and rose again. “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
And let’s face it: There is more than enough work to go around to keep all of us busy until our Lord returns, even if this happens in 500 years. Speaking for myself, I can take or leave the label of Calvinism. But what I cannot give up is the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace in salvation, because I see it as the very heart of the gospel.
Image courtesy of borchee at iStock by Getty Images.
Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is “The Seven Signs of Jesus: God’s Proof for the Open-Minded.”