Common Misconceptions About Calvinism, Part One

I confess that I hate — and I mean really, really hate — the label Calvinist, not because I have any shame over believing in the oft-controversial doctrines of grace. Rather, there are so many misunderstandings about what Calvinism actually is — both from those who are critical of Calvinism, and from those of us who say we believe it. My intent in this blog post is not to try to convince anyone to adopt a Calvinistic theology. Instead, my goal is to make sure we all understand what it is we are choosing to accept or reject, before we choose to accept or reject it. For this reason, in this blog, I simply want to clarify some of the misunderstandings that people have had about me, and what I believe, when they identify me as a Calvinist

Misconception #1: We Believe What We Believe Because of John Calvin

Why would you want to be labeled as a follower of a dead white man from the 16th century? Don’t you want to be a follower of Jesus? Aren’t we supposed to get our doctrines from the Bible and not from men? 

I have been asked these questions so many times that I sometimes finish the person’s question while they’re still asking it. All of these questions are based on a terrible misconception, which is revealed in at least three ways.  

First, the majority of people who hold to what has been labeled Calvinism have probably never read a single page of John Calvin’s writings. They have read the Bible. It is through reading the words of the Bible — not the words of John Calvin — that they became convinced that God elects His people to salvation and gives them the grace to believe in the effective sacrifice of His Son. 

Second, the doctrines are called Calvinism not because the doctrines were invented by him, but because the doctrines came to be debated in a key historical moment in which his writings played a significant role. John Calvin was far from the first to write about these doctrines. Many in the Western Church had believed some version of the same, or written on some variation of the same, since at least as early as Augustine more than 1,000 years before Calvin. Of course, those who hold to these doctrines believe they were understood by the Apostles and spoken of by Jesus, and that Calvin, Augustine, and others were simply explaining what the Bible already taught. This is normal and good, and is what every one of our pastors does every Sunday.

Third, if you reject Calvinism you likely hold to an opposing view known as Arminianism. Arminians hold to the teachings of Jacobus Arminius, a student of John Calvin’s successor. Arminius challenged the common understanding of the Protestants of his time, and proposed an alternate understanding of predestination. Instead of believing that God unconditionally elects some to be His people, and thus grants them power to believe, Arminius proposed that God elects those whom he already knows will choose to respond to His gospel in faith. In other words, Calvin argued that we choose to believe because we are elected by God, and Arminius claimed that we are elected by God because we choose to believe. I only mention this to show that if you do not hold to Calvinism, the overwhelming odds say that you hold to Arminianism. Yet, more likely than not, you have never read — or perhaps even heard of — Jacobus Arminius. You believe what you believe because you are a follower of Christ and you are confident this is what He teaches, not because you are a follower of Jacobus Arminius or even remotely care what he taught. Thus, if you don’t believe what you believe because of Jacobus Arminius, you must grant that those who disagree with you don’t hold to what they hold because of John Calvin.  

Misconception #2: We Don’t Believe People Have Free Will

How could you possibly believe that people don’t have free will? Wouldn’t it be unjust for God to judge sin if we don’t have any choice? Doesn’t the Bible tell you to “choose this day whom you will serve”? Why would the Bible command us to make wise choices if we don’t have any freedom to choose? 

These common questions are based on a common misconception: that Calvinists deny that human beings have the ability to make their own choices. This is not the case. Human beings do, in fact, make all of their own choices. This is precisely why God holds us responsible for what we choose. However, it is true that Calvinists qualify the word “free” in the phrase “free will.” They do this because the Bible does this.

Calvinists affirm that human beings are always free to choose whatever they want. In this sense, they affirm free will. Yet, at the same time, Calvinists note that human beings are only free to choose “whatever they want.” In this sense, our will is not as free as we tend to think. It is limited by our natural desires. 

To illustrate, imagine it’s time to go car shopping. As you arrive at the car lot you have the freedom to choose any color you want. However, your human nature has been shaped in such a way that you don’t want every color equally. In fact, you despise both orange and yellow, and are not especially fond of brown. As a result — despite being theoretically “free” to choose any color you want — you will never even consider choosing orange, yellow or brown. You will choose what you most want. Your free will is a slave to your natural desires. 

Within the bounds of Christian theology, this means that apart from the intervention of God himself, human beings will always choose sin. Because of the nature we have inherited from our father Adam, this is always what we most want — unless, and until, we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself says, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Paul reinforces this when he writes, “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness” (Romans 8:20). In our slavery to sin, we were not free to choose righteousness, but were free from righteousness. It wasn’t even an option. We were free to choose whatever we wanted, but the only thing we wanted was sin. 

Thanks be to God that, once we are regenerated, the Holy Spirit gives us a new heart with new desires. This then frees us to choose things we would have never chosen before, because we now want new things. Yet even with this cataclysmic change, our free will remains able only to choose what it most wants. And what it most wants is up-for-grabs as our flesh and the Spirit continue to war with one another over our desires (Galatians 5:17).

Stay tuned for part two where we will address the misconceptions that 1) Calvinists don't believe that people make a free choice to follow Jesus and 2) Calvinists don't think Christians have to live a holy life. 

Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook