Common Misconceptions About Calvinism, Part Two

In part one of this series, I explained that I do not like the label Calvinist because both insiders and outsiders have misconceptions about what Calvinists actually believe. In this series, I hope to clarify some of those misconceptions. My goal is not to convince people to be Calvinists, but to make sure all of us know what we are choosing to accept or reject before we choose to accept or reject it.

IMPORTANT NOTE: In this entire series I am using the word "Calvinist" in the most general way possible. Rather than using it to refer to those who follow Calvin's writings on every point of his theology of election, I am using it to refer to those who believe God pre-destined certain people to salvation, solely on the basis of his personal pleasure, and is Himself responsible for their conversion. While the term Calvinist may not be wholly accurate in the technical sense, it is accurate in the practical sense. If you believe God predestined a chosen group of people to be saved, you are presumed to be a Calvinist by other Christians, even if you would not ascribe that label to yourself.

Misconception #3: We Don’t Believe People Choose to Follow Jesus

You are constantly stressing that God chooses us. But how can you believe we do not choose God, when the Scripture commands us to choose whom we will serve? If we have no choice in the matter, how can God hold us accountable? Didn’t you feel like you chose to follow Jesus when you were converted? Don't you feel like you continue to choose to follow Jesus every day? Why would God force someone to follow Him? 

These frequently asked questions are based on a significant misconception about what Calvinists believe. To be honest, this particular misconception is often due more to the poor communication of Calvinists than it is to the poor listening of outsiders. 

Calvinists rightly emphasize Jesus’ teaching that we did not choose Jesus, he chose us (John 15:16) — and he did so before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-5). Unfortunately, we often emphasize this biblical data while failing to mention other important biblical data our theology takes into account. Just as we believe the Bible says that God chose us, we simultaneously believe the Bible teaches that we must choose God. We are told to choose whom we will serve (Joshua 24:15), choose to receive or reject God's Son (John 1:12-13) and that God requires us to believe in Him (John 6:29). Thus, Calvinists believe that when Jesus says “You did not choose me, but I chose you” he is not making an argument for exclusivity. He is making an argument for priority. In other words, he is not saying “I chose you and you never chose me” he is saying “I chose you long before you chose me. In fact, the reason you chose me is because I had already chosen you.” 

When we say, “You did not choose God, God chose you,” Calvinists do not intend to communicate that Christians do not choose to worship Jesus. Calvinists believe Christians choose to worship Jesus as a result of being first chosen by him. This is illustrated well in the conversion of Lydia. Acts 16:14 tells us “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” Two things are happening here. First, the Lord chooses to open her heart. Second, Lydia chooses to respond to Paul’s message. Calvinists affirm that, yes, Lydia consciously chose to respond to the gospel while simultaneously affirming that the only reason she was free to respond to the gospel in faith was because God had first chosen to open her heart to see the glories of His message.  

Therefore, the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is not found in whether or not Christians choose to follow Jesus. The difference is found in which choice comes first, ours or God’s. Calvinists say we choose to follow Jesus because Jesus first chose us, and his choosing of us moves us to believe in Him. Arminians say God chooses us because he knew we would choose him, and our choosing of Him moves Him to elect us as His people.

Misconception #4: We Don’t Believe Christians Have to Live a Holy Life

You Calvinists don’t care about holiness. If the reason you’re saved is because you’re elect, then it doesn’t matter how you live. You can live however you want and it doesn’t matter because you’re still “the elect.” How can you believe in this kind of Christianity when the Bible has so much to say about how we live?

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard some version of the above. Somehow, the belief that God elects people to salvation without respect to their own righteousness has been interpreted as God electing people to salvation with no expectation that they ever live righteously. Yet this is a terrible misrepresentation of what Calvinists believe. 

First, Calvinists believe that when God saves one of his elect, He transforms them from dead to alive, from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, from slavery to sin to slavery to righteousness, from being led by the spirit of the age to being led by the Spirit of God. This is called regeneration or new birth and it is in this new birth that the converted individual receives an entirely new nature. This new nature is accompanied by new desires (the desires of the Spirit) and new power to fulfill those desires (the power of the Holy Spirit). Thus, not only should the elect live differently than they did prior to the conversion, they have to live differently than they did prior to the conversion because they are no longer the same person. 

Second, Calvinists don’t believe that everyone who says they are elect is one of the elect; nor do they believe that one must guess whether or not they are among the elect. Calvinists, just like Arminians, believe that those who are the elect are those who believe. And Calvinists believe, just like Arminians, that those who believe are those whose profession of faith is accompanied by the fruit of the Spirit. For this reason, far from believing it doesn’t matter how you live your life if you are among the elect, Calvinists believe that how you live your life is one of the ways you can know if your faith is real and, consequently, if you are among the elect. This is why the Apostle Peter tells us, “Make every effort to confirm your calling and election” by living lives of obedience that confirm the genuineness of our faith (2 Peter 1:10) and Paul tells us “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith” by evaluating our works (2 Corinthians 13:5). Thus, Calvinists do not claim that if one knows they are elect they do not have to obey God. On the contrary, Calvinists claim that one’s obedience to God is how one can know they are among the elect. Not because our obedience produces our salvation, but because our salvation produces obedience. It has to, since the free gift of salvation includes the free gift of a new nature.

Stay tuned for part three where we will address the misconception that Calvinists have no reason to evangelize. 

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