The Top Five Misconceptions of Calvinism

By Robin Schumacher

Even though I embrace reformed theology (a.k.a. "Calvinism") now, I understand the thinking behind articles such as Dan Delzell's recent "Infant Baptism and 5-Point Calvinism are Limited". I grew up under an Arminian pastor, whom I still deeply respect and admire, who would nod in agreement with all the points Delzell makes in his post.

When I first went to seminary, I studied systematic theology under a very well-known theologian who espouses what he calls "moderate Calvinism", which is really an inconsistent form of Arminian theology [1]. At the time, that framework seemed logical to me. But when I started my Ph.D. studies, I chose as the focus of my dissertation the apologetics of the Apostle Paul. This topic forced me to do something I had never done in my Christian life up to that point: seriously study the doctrines of grace.

I'm ashamed to admit I had never actually examined any of the biblical arguments of reformed thinkers but had only read observations about reformed theology written by those opposed to Calvinism. The outcome of that biblical investigation was that I became convinced of reformed theology's validity.

Because I know both sides of the fence so well, I thought I'd try and sort out what I believe to be the top five incorrect stereotypes and misconceptions about Calvinism that I constantly run into and see if some of the confusion that surrounds this sometimes volatile subject can't be cleared up. I'll use Calvinism's T.U.L.I.P. acronym [2] to work through each false impression.

T – Total Depravity

Misconception: People don't have "free will" and are basically robots without any ability to choose on their own.

Fact: Calvinism acknowledges that all human beings make various choices in life. However, when it comes to making a decision for God, reformed theology affirms that no one seeks God or receives Christ on their own without being spiritually awakened by God and enabled to do so. It is no understatement to say that once a person fully understands the doctrine of total depravity, all other points in Calvinism are easy to accept. Get this teaching wrong, and you have a theological mess on your hands.

Do people make choices? Of course, each and every day, and on many different levels. But when it comes to salvation in Christ, the Bible is clear that each person is born in sin (Psalm 51:5), spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1), and morally incapable of coming to Christ by themselves (1 Corinthians 2:14; Romans 8:6-7).

Jesus made the explicit statement, "No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father" (John 6:65), which clearly showcases the inability of anyone to freely choose Christ unless granted by the Father (see also John 6:44). Once an unbeliever is spiritually called out of their darkness by God (2 Timothy 1:8-9) and their eyes are opened (John 9:39), only then can they willingly receive Jesus as Savior.

James White sums up the correct position well when he says: "Reformed Christians believe that men believe and choose. It is the order of events that is in dispute. Every Christian has chosen Christ, believed in Christ, embraced Christ, and even more, continues to do so. The question is not 'must a person believe', but can a person believe while a slave to sin? Further, whose decision comes first: the decision of God to free the enslaved, dead sinner and give him the ability to believe, or the free-choice decision of the sinner that then makes him or her one of the elect?" [3]

U – Unconditional Election

Misconception: The doctrine that says God chooses who will be saved is incredibly unfair.

Fact: Reformed theology upholds that no one deserves salvation and that God displays incredible mercy in saving those He chooses.

Arthur Pink began one message in Australia many years ago by saying, "I am going to speak tonight on one of the most hated doctrines of the Bible, namely, that of God's sovereign election" [4].

By far, the most uttered complaint against election is that it's not fair. And yet, every Christian acknowledges they don't deserve God's mercy and His salvation—that it is indeed "fair" if God chose to judge all sinners as being unworthy of spending eternal life with Him.

That being the case, why is it considered repugnant if God chooses to show mercy to some and allows His justice to fall on others who willingly continue in their sin? Would a governor be considered an ogre and unfair simply because he or she decided to grant amnesty to one criminal while others are left to carry out their proper sentence? Those who reject election believe in choice, but they don't want God to choose; they want humanity to choose instead. This seems more fair and just to them.

However, Paul anticipated this response from the audience that received his letter to the Romans. In chapter 9, after carefully laying out the doctrine of election, Paul specifically and proactively answers the charge of unfairness with God and clearly spells out that salvation has nothing to do with our choice but is rather His choice alone:

"What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy." (Romans 9:14–16)

Such a statement from the Apostle Paul makes absolutely no sense if he believed that we are the ultimate decision-makers where salvation is concerned—not God. From a human standpoint, what would be unfair about that?

L – Limited Atonement [5]

Misconception: Only Calvinism limits the atonement of Christ on the cross.

Fact: Outside of Universalists, every Christian believes in limited atonement.

Unless you're a Universalist and believe that everyone will eventually be saved, then you believe that the atonement of Christ is limited and that it doesn't automatically save all of humanity.

How is the atonement limited? It is limited to those who believe (John 3:16).

But how does a person come to believe? This is where we must boomerang back up to the "T" and "U" of Calvinism's T.U.L.I.P. and first understand how God saves those He chooses.

As to who truly limits Christ's sacrifice on the cross, reformed pastor Charles Spurgeon offers these helpful words in this semi-lengthy but helpful quote:
"We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ. Because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men or all men would be saved. Now our reply to this is on the other hand our opponents limit it, we do not. The Arminians say Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by that. Did Christ die to secure the salvation of all men? They say no, certainly not. We ask them the next question: Did Christ die to secure the salvation of any one person in particular? They say no. They're obliged to say that if they're consistent. They say, no, Christ has died that any man may be saved if ... and then follow certain conditions of salvation...

"Now, who is it that limits of the death of Christ? Why, you—you say that Christ did not die so as to infallibly secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon. When you say we limit Christ's death we say no, my dear sir, it is you that do that. We say that Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number who through Christ's death not only may be saved but will be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it." [6]

I – Irresistible Grace

Misconception: God drags people kicking and screaming against their will into His kingdom.

Fact: Reform theology teaches that God lovingly overcomes the natural rebellion in the sinner's heart so that they may accept His gift of salvation.

J.I. Packer sums up this doctrine in a very succinct manner when he says, "Grace proves irresistible just because it destroys the disposition to resist" [7].

Acts 16:13-14 showcases this efficacious call of God in action: "And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled. A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul."

Another point worth making is that this call is not given to everyone. This fact is evident in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: "But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

Notice the same two groups are preached to (Jews and Gentiles) and yet only those called by God (also Jews and Gentiles) are saved by His grace. These are the ones who receive God's efficacious call (i.e. His irresistible grace).

P – Perseverance of the Saints

Misconception: A person remains saved no matter how they live their life.

Fact: Calvinism teaches that a professing Christian with no change in behavior and no movement toward sanctification proves that they were never saved to begin with.

Reformed scholar and pastor John Piper tells the story of a woman who heard a message he delivered on the perseverance of the saints (which says a born again Christian can never lose their salvation, but will persevere to the end). She came to him and stated that she was in an adulterous affair, but because she was saved, she intended to continue in her affair without any worry about losing her salvation.

Piper's reply to her was direct and rare in our current sugar-coated, seeker-friendly church environment: "God will damn you to Hell if you continue in your sin." [8]

In making that statement, Piper was simply affirming the Bible's teaching that the fruit of the tree identifies the type of tree (Matthew 12:33). In no way does Calvinism teach that a person born again may continue in their rebellion, sin against God, and see eternal life with the Creator.

Instead, reformed theology upholds just the opposite: that a true Christian will manifest holy affections that prove their salvation, although they will always struggle with the sin nature that they have (see Romans 7). For an excellent treatment of this subject, see Jonathan Edwards' magisterial work, "A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections" [9].


While I have no fanciful dreams that the above will instantly turn those who oppose Calvinism into reformed theologians, I do hope that perhaps some of the faulty critiques aimed at the doctrines of grace will be blunted, and that believers will take their Bible in one hand and some accurate teaching of reformed theology in the other [10], and at least understand the positions in a more accurate way.

[1] For a thorough treatment of this theology, see Chosen But Free by Dr. Norman Geisler.
[2] See for a brief explanation of the Calvin T.U.L.I.P. acronym.
[3] James White, The Potter's Freedom (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2000), Pg. 184.
[4] Arthur Pink, The Doctrine of Election (Granbury, TX: PBM Desktop Publications, 2005), Pg. 4.
[5] For an explanation of why I think this is the easiest teaching of Calvinism to believe, see my article, Why Limited Atonement is Easy to Believe.
[6] "Particular Redemption" by Charles Spurgeon.
[7] J.I. Packer, introduction to John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), Pg. 8.
[8] "Perseverance of the Saints" by John Piper, TULIP part 8.
[9] Religious Affectations by Jonathan Edwards.
[10] For some good starter books, see "The Five Points of Calvinism" and "What is Reformed Theology?"

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Published 3-5-13