Calvinism: The Theology of the Reformer

One of the questions I am most frequently asked relates to theological identity. We Christians have our identity in a culture that is increasingly unsympathetic. As evangelicals, we reject both the radical separatism and the anti-intellectualism of an earlier time. Further, as Protestants we have an identity which is different, though this has been virtually lost. Add to all of this the continual blurring that has taken place with the rise of charismatic mysticism and religious gnosticism, and the result is confusion. In this mixture a new generation of young Christians is rediscovering their roots in a confessional identity that is profoundly indebted to the theology of the Reformers in general, and to the thought of John Calvin in particular.


After a long spiritual struggle Martin Luther came to profound understanding of the Gospel of Christ. He was driven, for years, to answer one question, “How can I be made right with God?” He looked to the church, but found it gave him answers that brought no peace to his troubled soul. The more he studied Scripture the more he understood the phrase “the righteousness of God.” Here was his only hope (d. Rom. 3:21ff).

At first he was frightened by this term. It seemed to demand the very thing he did not have and could not obtain. But when he understood that God freely gave, or imputed, His own righteousness to the believing sinner solely on the basis of faith in Christ, he found hope. In the process of this personal discovery of the Gospel a massive recovery period was launched — the Protestant Reformation.


John Calvin was born about 25 years after Martin Luther. He was clearly influenced by the reformation movement underway when he became an adult. As a child of the Roman Catholic Church he came to appreciate the writings of Luther. He too came to faith.

In Calvin’s time the religious and social life of the society was in shambles. Because the errors and corruptions of the old Catholicism had come under severe scrutiny, the fabric of the well-ordered Middle Ages was tearing apart. The confusion which resulted brought anarchy to some areas. Leaders were often threatened by violence and excess. The results led to an appeal by the Roman Church to civil magistrates, many of whom did understand the religious implications of the Reformation, to stop the advance of the Protestant faith in their cities and states.



Into this very unstable political situation a young John Calvin came. He wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion in order to explain to the King of France what the ongoing reform movement was all about. This classic book went through several editions over the years of Calvin’s lifetime and became a guide for much of the theological development of the Protestant Reformation in those parts of Europe which did not embrace all the Lutheran distinctives. As great as Luther’s earlier contribution had been, the church found in John Calvin a truly Biblical theologian. This is one reason why Calvinists who reflect carefully upon these historical factors, will recoil at the suggestion that they follow Calvin when they use the term Calvinism, or the Reformed faith, to describe what they confess. Quite the opposite is really the case. Calvinism, in its best sense, is not a system of human opinion so much as a way of confessing the truths revealed in the sacred Scripture. Calvinists believe that Calvinism is, in short, the answer of the Word of God to one of the most basic questions we can ask, “Who rules the universe, God or man?” Calvinism is a theology of God, a theology which places God at the center of creation and providence.


At its best Calvinism is the theology of grace. It is Augustinian, Pauline and Biblical. It answers the question posed above without equivocation: “God is King! He is sovereign!”

But, you say, “Don’t other Christians who are not Calvinists affirm this same truth?” Yes and no.

In the matter of submitting to God as king and sovereign many non-Calvinists humbly bow in practical ways. They do this in spite of inconsistencies of both mind and heart. They do this because it is the work of the Spirit to humble men and women.

At the same time, though many submit at one level they will rebel at another. The implications of this subtle rebellion can be immense. It has a direct effect upon how Christians worship, how they witness and how they pray. It has a direct effect upon how ministers preach. And it must, as is the nature of the case, profoundly effect how we understand God’s ways when we pass through darker providences that surely come.

Calvinism shatters a host of contemporary theological shibboleths. It offends the prejudices of enlightened modern man and it humbles those who properly embrace it. It protects grace from legalism on the one hand and lawlessness on the other. It is a profoundly needed corrective in our current state of things. Only a strongly God-centered message can bring the recovery needed in our man-centered age.


Many have identified the theology of Calvinism with the arguments which surround the so-called five points: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement (better understood as “definite atonement”), irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. This description is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons.

First, while it is true that Calvinism can be properly known for embracing these distinctives. this is not a full-orbed description of what is at stake in answering the question, “Who rules the universe?” These points are a series of distinctive truths which arose in opposition to a mediating party which came into prominence in the post-reformation era. Scholars debate whether or not Calvin actually embraced these distinctives (I am persuaded that he would have done so). The fact is that Calvinism is first and foremost a God-centered way of living under His rule. This is its true distinctive.

Second, to reduce Calvinism to five corrective statements is to miss the glory of what even the points are ultimately about. The purpose of the debate was to preserve the glory of God’s glorious salvation in a way that “no flesh can glory in His presence.” In heaven this truth will be experienced and known by all. As much as possible we should desire that this be true on earth. The Calvinist is concerned, ultimately, that God be God.

Third, this description of Calvinism is woefully inadequate because it limits the all-embracing nature of historic, Biblical faith to a few propositions. Calvinism, in its true Reformation sense, is far broader than this. It is historic, confessional, sound, evangelical religion. We must not restrict the faith in a manner that does any injustice to other essential truths by emphasizing some truths at the expense of others.

How then are we to think about Calvinism? In answer to this I want to share with you an outline of the answers provided by Dr. John R. de Witt in his excellent little booklet, What Is the Reformed Faith? (Banner of Truth, 1981).

Dr. de Witt gives the following points in answer to this question:

1. Says de Witt, “Utterly basic to the Reformed faith” (i.e., historic Calvinism) is “its doctrine of Scripture.” By this I mean that Scripture alone and entire is our sole authority for Christian faith and practice. The Reformation was about the Bible if it was about anything at all. Where was authority to be found? How does God speak to us?

2. The Reformed faith is “also characterized by the insistence that God is to be known and worshiped as the sovereign God.” This is clearly a central distinctive of the Calvinistic understanding of the teaching of Scripture, especially when these truths are seen as over against other traditions which do not adequately grasp this message. Nothing can hinder God from accomplishing His purpose in the world. There is mystery here, but we bow in adoration, confessing that God will be God.

3. The faith of historic Calvinism insists upon “the invincibility of the grace of God.” This is why you will hear Calvinists speaking of “the doctrines of grace,” a much better way of expressing this emphasis than the more emotionally laden term, “the five points of Calvinism.” Yet even this terminology has great danger in it. For some it is enough to preach, stress and emphasize these particular doctrines. It be comes a hobby horse that destroys initiative and responsibility regarding whole portions of Biblical truth.

It is just here that the doctrine of definite atonement is attacked. This truth, considered the weakest part of Calvinism by some, is frequently misrepresented. But why do Calvinists speak of Christ’s atonement in terms of its being efficacious and definite for the elect? The answer ultimately comes down to this Christ died in order to save His people, not merely to make all men savable. “You shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Christ did not die to make it possible for people to be saved. He died to save! This is why the Calvinist insists upon an atoning work that is definite and saving. This does not mean the Calvinist insists that God does not love all perishing sinners or that the Gospel is not for all mankind.

4. The Reformed faith also “accentuates the Biblical doctrine of the Christian life.” By this I mean the Reformed faith has a Biblically sound understanding of sanctification. The Calvinist does not accept the numerous theories of the “deeper life,” or the “victorious life,” or “entire sanctification.” (This is why Calvinists properly reject the “carnal Christian” teaching of much present day evangelicalism.) The growing Christian will always be in a battle, and nothing will take him out of this battle until God calls him home. As de Witt adds, the Christian lives “a multifaceted, full-orbed Christian life,” one which is in the world while at the same time oriented to a world to come. There is stress upon bringing the faith to bear upon every relationship in this world, both socially and intellectually.

5. The relationship between “Law and Gospel” is another important contribution of the Reformed system. There is room for difference here, but in the broader scope of things those who are the heirs of Calvin understand that there is a Law Gospel distinction to be properly made in the Scripture. This is important in our age when we often treat the Gospel as something we “do” and the law as something we can “satisfy” through our own doing. Further, Calvinists do not believe we are called to a life without Law, thus free to do as we please. The Spirit does not lead without the written Word. The Law is written upon the human heart but that Law is found in the sacred Word in relationship to Christ.

6. The Calvinist generally will have a carefully thought out view of the relationship of the kingdom of God to the present world order. The typical modern proponent of social and political involvement is often quite naive about society and culture. There are clear differences among Calvinists in these areas but one thing is consistently true — Calvinists are willing to talk about this world and the involvement of believers in both life and culture. They are not hostile to the world as we know it. Society does matter. Culture is important. Art, music and literature are all part of God’s gift to us.

7. Calvinism, or the Reformed faith, adds Dr. de Witt, “is marked by a distinctive view of preaching.” We have a very high view of the minister of the Word and the office he holds. We are committed to a view of preaching that is quite different than that generally held by evangelicals today (d. Update, Vol. 4, No.1, 1995).

There are other features of Calvinism upon which various traditions of the Reformation differ, such as the nature and subjects of baptism, the relationship of the old and new covenants, the present responsibility  of Christians to the Lord’s Day and others. In every case the better and wiser Calvinism has allowed for these differences while insisting at the same time that confessional Christianity is essential. In our time there is a great danger that men will divide over these matters without understanding huge areas of agreement they possess. “Let each be persuaded in his own mind” regarding these differing things but let all labor for the reforming of the visible Christian community.


How are those who embrace Calvinism to respond to other Christians?

On the one hand there is the danger of indifferentism. In our present relativistic milieu we are led to believe that one kind of faith is as equally valid as another. This approach minimizes differences between traditions and fails to see truth as an organic whole. It sees truth as the sum of several parts, a kind of arithmetic equation in which you can subtract one or two points and still have the whole.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the danger many Reformed believers fall into — intolerance and condescension. This approach holds that since the purest and most Biblical expression of truth really is Calvinism, all other Christian traditions are essentially deficient. The difference, I have often heard Reformed believers argue, is one of kind, not simply degree. This leads some to conclude that only Calvinistic believers are faithful to God and His Word. The fatal flaw in this approach is intolerance. This is a violation of the nature of Christ’s body and Christian love at the most fundamental level.

The surface appeal of such an approach is apparent, but it lands the practitioner in a sectarianism that violates the New Testament and often leads to cultic thinking of the most subtle and dangerous sort (e.g., “We are sovereign grace Christians,” meaning, “We are more mature Christians.”).

What is the proper response to other expressions of Christian faith? Richard Gaffin, professor at Westminster Seminary, answered this quite well by writing:

The proper attitude lies somewhere between the extremes of indifferentism and intolerance. What Reformed believers have in common with “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” (Rom. 10:13) is more basic than the differences, because above all they all share in Christ, and Christ is not divided (1 Cor. 1:13).

Rather than down play or suppress Reformed distinctives, the Calvinist will seek to share them with those in other traditions, as distinctives which ultimately belong to these other traditions and to which they tend in their deepest intentions.

At the same time Calvinists will not allow their confidence to lead them to suppose that they have cornered all truths or to obscure that they, too, only “see in a mirror dimly” (I Cor. 13:12). They will not at all be surprised, but grateful and delighted, to learn from and be edified by those in other traditions. At stake here is the capacity of the Reformed tradition to grow, so that in our day, “the Reformed church is always reforming” is something more than an empty slogan” (Issues for Christ Leaders, a Westminster Seminary faculty publication).


It is not my pressing personal burden to make all believers into Calvinists, at least not in the way this is often considered. It is my goal to teach the “whole counsel” of God’s Word and to pray that God will use truth to conform both me and my hearers to the grace revealed in Jesus Christ. I believe that the kind of Calvinism I have written of helps me reach this goal. I embrace Calvinism not because it is a logical and consistent system, which it is, but because I see these truths contained in the theology of the Scripture. My goal is to present those I teach and influence as mature in Christ. To that end, and to that end only. I use my Calvinism as a means to an end — the glory of Christ in the church.

May God deliver me from sectarianism while at the same time give me passion for His truth that transforms me, and other believers, from one degree of glory to another.

John H. Armstrong is director of Reformation & Revival Ministries, Inc.

Reprinted from Reformation & Revival Update, May–June 1995.