Essentially Reformed or Hyper-Calvinist?

Essentially Reformed or Hyper-Calvinist?

I typically describe my Biblical perspective as “essentially reformed” because of the influence John Calvin’s writings, and his views on God’s sovereignty, have had on me. Yet I have this problem with so-called Calvinists and their attempts to hijack Calvin: Their extreme view of God’s sovereignty can’t be found in Calvin’s writings, and actually debases God’s sovereignty.

Reformed theology is usually identified with John Calvin. In his writings, he emphasized God’s sovereignty, the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the church, the continuity of God’s dual covenants of grace and law throughout all of redemptive history, and our total reliance on God’s grace for salvation and regeneration. Over many decades, I’ve drunk deeply of that well and those themes continue to transform and enrich my own life. On these doctrines, I am “reformed” through and through.

Decades after he died, however, Calvin’s disciples began placing more of an emphasis on predestination and rejected altogether the idea of human will, even though neither of these themes were ever a major focus of Calvin himself and were being pushed to new extremes. These new themes arose from a hyper-extreme view of God’s sovereignty that also went beyond Calvin’s own writings. (Even so, I have no particular problem with predestination – God can rescue whomever he wants, given the universal reality that we all chose to rebel against him and deserve death. Thus, he can certainly seek to rescue all if he wants, but there’s no injustice if he chooses to rescue only some.)

In the view of these post-Calvin Calvinists, everything that happens does so because God ordains and even causes it. (Thus the old joke about the unfortunate woman who, upon falling down the steps, got up and said “Thank God that’s over with!”.) As they attempted to simplify and systematize Calvin’s views, to a degree that he himself would not have recognized, they arrived at a form of hyper-Calvinism that now parades under the acronym TULIP (“Total Depravity,” “Unconditional Grace or Election,” “Limited Atonement,” “Irresistible Grace” and “Perseverance of the Saints”).

There are ample explanations of TULIP and its elements on the Internet (for example, see the Wikipedia entry on Calvinism), and I have no interest in repeating those discussions here. Suffice it to say, however, that TULIP’s proponents believe their views necessarily arise from the fact that God is sovereign. Essentially, they believe that because God is sovereign, there is no room for human will or decision.

Too many modern Calvinists have hijacked Calvin and their view of God’s sovereignty actually debases God’s sovereignty.

If we must deny human will in order to affirm God’s sovereignty, then we are really denying God’s ability to delegate choice to us. By this, I mean that God is powerful enough to delegate to us the right to reject him. If we deny God this option, then we are denying his absolute sovereignty!

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that human will is autonomous. We are not sovereign, and have no independent right to reject God. Rather, God himself has given us the delegated option to reject him. And who are we to say he can’t do this?

Nor am I minimizing the role of grace. Apart from God offering his grace to us, it’s impossible for us to choose God. After all, if we are “dead” in our trespasses and sin (see Eph. 2:1-5), there’s no part of us that is able to cry out, of our own accord, for salvation. (This, in simple terms, is the doctrine of “total depravity” – we utterly lack the capacity to choose God on our own.) But upon offering his grace to us, God allows us to refuse that grace.

Thus, we cannot choose God or earn his grace – it is God’s sovereign choice as to when, how and even whether to extend his grace to us. (I therefore also have no problem with “limited atonement”, but I readily admit that I don’t know the mind of God on whether he offers his grace to all, or only to some. In those immortal words of President Obama, that’s a couple of pay grades above me!) But I think scripture is clear – once grace is offered, we don’t have to accept it (see Rev. 3:20). This, and this alone, preserves the central role of grace and God’s sovereignty in our salvation, while also preserving the clear Biblical teaching of individual accountability and responsibility.

So who’s more reformed? Me, or the hyper-Calvinists? I kind of think I am, because I’m not willing to tell God what he can’t do in a misguided attempt to preserve some philosophically flawed view of his sovereignty that, in practice, actually denies his sovereignty.

(c) Copyright 2009, Fulcrum Ministries. All Rights Reserved.

8 responses

  1. I’m not going to try to debate with you the merits of effectual calling. That’s an issue much larger than a blog post merits. Where I take issue with you most, is with the actual point of your article: the claim that your position is in closer harmony with John Calvin, than is the position of those whom you’ve seen fit to call ‘hyper-Calvinists’. A few excerpts from the Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 24, should readily demonstrate your deep error:

    ‘But that the subject may be more fully illustrated, we must treat both of the calling of the elect, and of the blinding and hardening of the ungodly. The former I have already in some measure discussed, when refuting the error of those who think that the general terms in which the promises are made place the whole human race on a level. The special election which otherwise would remain hidden in God, he at length manifests by his calling. “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Moreover, “whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified,” that he may one day glorify.’

    ‘He says in another passage, “No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him.” This passage Augustine ably expounds in these words: “If (as Truth says) every one who has learned comes, then every one who does not come has not learned. It does not therefore follows that he who can come does come, unless he have willed and done it; but every one who has learned of the Father, not only can come, but also comes; the antecedence of possibility the affection of will, and the effect of action being now present”.’

    ‘For if we ask whom it is he calls, and for what reason, he answers, it is those whom he had chosen. When we come to election, mercy alone everywhere appears; and, accordingly, in this the saying of Paul is truly realized, “So then, it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy,”; and that not as is commonly understood by those who share the result between the grace of God and the will and agency of man.’

    ‘Two errors are here to be avoided. Some make man a fellow-worker with God in such a sense, that man’s suffrage ratifies election, so that, according to them, the will of man is superior to the counsel of God. As if Scripture taught that only the power of being able to believe is given us, and not rather faith itself.’

    Believe what you will (pun intended), but don’t try to appeal to a man who dedicates an entire chapter to establish, argue for, and support the very position to which you object…


  2. Steven —

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, and also for the civil way you engaged me in debate on Facebook.

    I am in full agreement with every passage you quote. There’s nothing in my post that is to the contrary.

    Grace is the only means of salvation, and no man can come to Christ unless God first offers his grace. We are truly and fully dead in our sin apart from God offering his grace to us.

    However, I am not aware of any statement by Calvin that takes the hyper-Calvinist view which, at its root, says that God is unable to delegate to us the right to reject his grace once he offers it to us. None of your passages say otherwise.

    After all, Adam before he rebelled had the option to reject God’s grace, and did so. Do you think we have less options than Adam in his pre-fallen state? Isn’t it true that one of main goals of salvation is to restore us back into fellowship with God, in a pre-fall condition, by removing — through grace — the taint of sin?

    I have read most of Calvin’s Institutes, and maybe I missed something. If so, I would appreciate your further response (I mean this sincerely, and not rhetorically). Essentially, where does Calvin say that grace is irresistible? I truly don’t think he does. That was added as an element of Hyper-Calvinism long after Calvin died.

    I still believe that I hold to a higher view of God’s sovereignty, because I’m not willing to tell him what he can’t do or deny his right to delegate. Thus, I’m more reformed than the hyper-Calvinists.


  3. (The below is spliced from a couple of posts from the facebook discussion, for the benefit of those who are following only here.)

    First, I reject your definition of ‘hyper-Calvinism’. Hyper-Calvinism, as it has been academically used, is a doctrine which plays itself out mostly in evangelism, by claiming that the call to repentence is only for the elect. You will find this idea rejected in all the major Reformed confessions. If you want to give a name to the views which you herein attack, you should coin a new phrases: Über-Calvinism, perhaps?

    Second, I am curious to know who you think *does* believe the statement, ‘God is unable to delegate to us the right to reject his grace once he offers it to us’. As it stands, you’ve only offered vague ‘post-Calvin’ theology as this strawman. As I think through some of the major Reformed theologians, I can’t think of any who have claimed such a belief or acted in such a way to imply such a belief. For the question is not whether God is able or unable to delegate authority, but whether he actually has, and if so, how we are to properly understand them.

    Your claim here is essentially that grace restores us to Adam’s state. But I must question such a position, for a lack of Biblical foundation. You seem to be forming an analogy here which the Bible does not itself form, and from that drawing conclusions. What we should instead do is address what the Bible teaches on the matter, and only from there start to form an analogy if we so wish. Calvin himself speaks to this topic, constrate quite starkly to the view your espouse:

    ‘In the second chapter of his Treatise De Correptione et Gratis, addressed to Valentinus, Augustine explains at length what I will state briefly, but in his own words, that to Adam was given the grace of persevering in goodness if he had the will; to us it is given to will, and by will overcome concupiscence: that Adam, therefore, had the power if he had the will, but did not will to have the power, whereas to us is given both the will and the power; that the original freedom of man was to be able not to sin, but that we have a much greater freedom, viz., not to be able to sin.’

    But you ask the wrong question, when you seek ‘irresistible grace’ in the Institutes. As you correctly point out, the phrase is post-Calvin; it even post-dates the Synod of Dordt, from which we derive the useful, yet pithy and perhaps misleading TULIP mnemonic. I don’t know whence the phrase originates, but I do find it somewhat unhelpful, because of the tendency it has to confuse.

    The question should not be whether Calvin uses the same words we use. Just as the question is not whether Reformed theology – or any theology – uses the same phrasings as the Bible (cf. Trinity). Doctrinal phrases are short-hand for dogmatic teachings that should be evaluated for content, not coined phraseology.

    So the question should instead be: does Calvin teach the same thing that is taught by the doctrine we now call ‘irresistible grace’ – or perhaps less misleadingly ‘effectual calling’? The answer is a resounding YES! The quotes from above demonstrate this clearly. It is also abundantly clear that no statement in Calvin’s writings supports your position, making your own position untenable by your own standards.

    Calvin, following Augustine, taught that all whom God calls are saved; those who are not saved God has not called. There is not a set of people whom God has called but who are not saved – a set which is required by your position. Calvin taught that election is by God’s grace alone, and is NOT ratified by man’s decision, and that election is effectual for salvation.

    Calvin again, speaking of the act of regeneration. He specifically addresses whether we are able to resist or not, or whether the grace is itself efficacious unto salvation:

    ‘This movement of the will is not of that description which was for many ages taught and believed, viz., a movement which thereafter leaves us the choice to obey or resist it, but one which affects us efficaciously. We must, therefore, repudiate the oft-repeated sentiment of Chrysostom, “Whom he draws, he draws willingly;” insinuating that the Lord only stretches out his hand, and waits to see whether we will be pleased to take his aid. We grant that, as man was originally constituted, he could incline to either side, but since he has taught us by his example how miserable a thing free will is if God works not in us to will and to do, of what use to us were grace imparted in such scanty measure? Nay, by our own ingratitude, we obscure and impair divine grace. The Apostle’s doctrine is not, that the grace of a good will is offered to us if we will accept of it, but that God himself is pleased so to work in us as to guide, turn, and govern our heart by his Spirit, and reign in it as his own possession. Ezekiel promises that a new spirit will be given to the elect, not merely that they may be able to walk in his precepts, but that they may really walk in them, And the only meaning which can be given to our Saviour’s words, “Every man, therefore, that has heard and learned of the Father, cometh unto me,” is, that the grace of God is effectual in itself.’

    Calvinism teaches as Calvin does. The Reformed Confessions teach as Calvin does. On this matter, there is not a Calvin/Calvinist divide. If you want to continue claiming that Calvin never called grace ‘irresistible’, you may claim correctly. But it is an empty claim, vacuous in meaning or relevance.


  4. You use the convenient debate tactic of misrepresenting my position, then addressing your misstatements as though they are my own. I don’t think you do this maliciously, but rather you have retreated to it because your earlier post did not support your assertions.

    Nowhere did I every question whether Calvin used the specific words “irresistible grace”. That would be rather odd for me to do, given that Calvin did not write in English! Rather, I claim that nowhere does Calvin clearly embrace the concept of irresistible grace in his writings, and neither you nor anyone else has come up with a quote to prove me wrong.

    Thus, the doctrinal position of “irresistible grace” is hyper-Calvinism, a term which you don’t like, but is appropriately applied to doctrines and positions attributed to Calvin that in fact go beyond Calvin.

    Even the newest quote you provide from Calvin does not say that God, having offered his saving grace, is unable to also offer us the option of refusing it. Rather, he rightly states that grace is not something offered because we will accept it or in any way merit it. As you quote: “The Apostle’s doctrine is not, that the grace of a good will is offered to us if we will accept of it, but that God himself is pleased so to work in us as to guide, turn, and govern our heart by his Spirit, and reign in it as his own possession.” God sovereignly reigns in my fallen nature when he offers his grace, and of own accord I am unable to receive God’s grace or the transforming power of his grace, let alone even want it. We all agree on this, and I support Calvin’s quote. God’s grace is wholly an act of God, and it’s effect on me and my will (as Calvin discusses in your quote) is wholly God’s work. As part of that work of grace is the granting, by God, of the option to reject that grace. Such option is not autonomous or inherient in me, but is something that God allows as his grace works on and quickens my will — which is never “free” because it is otherwise fallen and dead to sin. That my will is ever able to say no is itself an act of God’s grace.

    The doctrine of irresistible grace, not being found in Calvin, did not arise from Biblical exegesis so much as from a philosophical conclusion — long after Calvin died — that if God is sovereign, then we cannot refuse him. As I state in my original blog, however, this is flawed logic, because it ignores the possibility that God in his sovereignty can delegate to us the right to refuse his grace, once it is offered. Because it is a delegated option, and not an autonomous right, there is no diminishing of God’s sovereignty. And as the scriptures I quoted show, as well as the plethera of other scriptures often quoted by traditional Arminians (who I disagree with to the extent they believe in an autonomous will and ability part from grace), this in fact is the case.

    Thus, God’s grace in fact is grace, because it is not earned or predicated on anything in us or about us – including foreknowledge of acceptance (which, I think, also is one of the issues addressed in your quote from Calvin).

    But God has decided to nominally grant us the option, as grace quickens our will and as a delegation of his authority, to reject his grace once it is offered.

    Now, in anticipation of your further objection, let me clearly state that God has no obligation to delegate that option to us. I even have no problem if God, in order to accomplish his will, in some circumstances denies the option to reject his grace. Again, he does not owe us that option, but in his grace he nominally extends it. He probably does this, I think Scripture indicates, because he does not desire grace “puppets”.

    Denying God the right to do so is a denial of his sovereignty, which is the ultimate irony of TULIP!


  5. James, I certainly did not mean to misrepresent your position. But after offering a multitude of citations from Calvin's Institutes which support the Reformed doctrine of efficacious grace, I took your insistence on using the words 'irresistible grace' repeatedly to mean that you were looking for a specific formulation.

    Instead, it is now quite clear that you simply do not understand what the Orthodox Reformed position is, and are yourself misrepresenting it, despite my numerous attempts to correct you. I'm feel I must ask the same rhetorical question I asked during our facebook discussion: you didn't read a word I wrote, did you?

    >Even the newest quote you provide from Calvin does not say that God, having offered his saving grace, is unable to also offer us the option of refusing it.

    I entirely agree. And I agree that Calvin does not hold such a position. But neither do Calvinists! As I've mentioned at least once already, we (both Calvin and Calvinists) do not claim that, in theory, God is unable to offer us the option of refusing. What we DO claim is that, in fact, no one to whom God extends his grace refuses.

    >The doctrine of irresistible grace[…says] that if God is sovereign, then we cannot refuse him.
    >Denying God the right to do so is a denial of his sovereignty, which is the ultimate irony of TULIP!

    Twice again, you either misunderstand or misrepresent the Orthodox Reformed position. You will never have found me to made such a claim, so please stop putting words in my mouth. Such is certainly not my position; nor Calvin's position; nor the position of the Reformed confessions; nor the position of any of the articles on, a treasury of Reformed writing, which I encourage you to read. While you continue to ignore the fact that I've said it already, the challenge still stands for you to demonstrate that it is the orthodox position and not just a figment of your imagination.

    Wayne Grudem says this, echoing what I've said already: 'The term "irresistible grace" is subject to misunderstanding, however, since it seems to imply that people do not make a voluntary choice in responding to the gospel – a wrong idea, and a wrong understanding of the term irresistible grace.'

    The doctrine of irresistible grace is not derived from a philosophical perspective on sovereignty, but on a Scriptural exegesis of statements about the elect, and the effect of God's grace. The reasoning which you suppose the Reformed have for their position is completely off.

    To be honest, I'm really quite astounded by the number of times you've restated the same argument over and over after I've told you multiple times that what you are arguing against is not the Reformed position. If you want to continue the discussion, PLEASE address what I say specifically, rather than issuing inaccurate statements against positions which we do not hold.

    Because you do not engage the text I provide – besides a blanket statement of agreement – I honestly am left scratching my head at how you can say, 'God has decided to nominally grant us the option, as grace quickens our will and as a delegation of his authority, to reject his grace once it is offered,' and in the next say that you agree with statements such as, 'This movement of the will is not…a movement which thereafter leaves us the choice to obey or resist it, but one which affects us efficaciously.'

    Do you not see here that Calvin is quite directly contradicting your position, using virtually the same language as your own?!? God's regenerative work effects in us obedience. The will of the elect is affected efficaciously, such that we choose God.

    I really don't know where to go from here! Can you perhaps engage the text to explain how you're understanding the text so drastically different from what seems to me to be the clear meaning? Perhaps it's because you don't understand will in the same way that Calvin does? I can't be sure, but that's what I suspect. But I am sure that you are not in accord with Calvin, as you have claimed.

    Bottom line: God grants to his elect not merely the ability to walk in his spirit should they will, but the will to do so. This good will is not offered to us if we will accept it. The grace of God is effectual in itself, such that we are not left with the choice to obey or resist.

    I would suggest that any further discussion from your end address those concepts directly. Rather than diverting again to strawmen yet again.


  6. I truly enjoy the discussion, and the civility shown in sharing passionately your understanding. I have always (tongue firmly in cheek) said there are two groups of people in the world … The first group is those who are predestined to be Arminian. The second group is those who, by the use of their free will, have chosen to be Calvinist. Keep up the great work Jim!


What Are Your Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s