The Doctrines of Grace Part 1: An Introduction

Today, I’m starting a series on the Doctrines of Grace, also known as Reformed Soteriology/Theology or Calvinism.  It’s probably silly to think that I could add to the truly  enormous volume of, well, volumes written on this subject.  It also may seem a bit trite, that the Calvinist blogger writes the obligatory posts on the Doctrines of Grace.  Perhaps it’s a rite of passage.  Perhaps a necessary step to show those other Reformed folk out there that I know what I mean when I talk about this subject.  For whatever reason, I’m writing this series anyway.

I hope to offer something useful and unique, however, so that these posts aren’t just more of the same for like-minded believers.  Also, I hope that they’ll be accessible to everyone else, from the person who’s never really investigated these areas of Scripture and theology to the highly educated critic of my beliefs.  I’m not looking for a food-fight, so if you disagree, please be respectful in your comments.  I welcome debate, but I pray it is in the spirit of bringing everyone closer to the truth, not just bolstering our own position.  I am convinced, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing to learn.  I hope that any debates that arise from this series would be conducted with that mindset on all sides.  Of course, I also welcome questions not intended to start debates, but to clarify issues non-confrontationally.

First let me lay out the series as I see it unfolding.  After this post, I expect, of course, to address the “five points”, each with its own post.  I will try to address each point with a minimum of jargon.  However, I will mention the terms that are commonly used, and define them, so that if you’re reading someone else on the subject, you hopefully won’t be in the dark about what they’re talking about.  In each post, I will offer some things that the belief in question is not, since there is a lot of misinformation out there about just what Calvinists believe.

So, let’s get started. Whether it’s called the Doctrines of Grace, Calvinism, or Reformed Theology, it’s all the same thing.  Briefly, Calvinism is the belief in a collection of biblical teachings, or doctrines, including:


1. the inability of man to do what pleases God, including belief, due to his own rebellious, corrupted nature;

2. the choice of God to rescue some of His hardened enemies based on nothing within that people, but only according to His own purpose and plan;

3. the successful, intentional work of Christ on the cross as an actual substitute, punished for the sins of that people;

4. the action of the Holy Spirit in bringing about spiritual resurrection at some point in the life of each of those people, thus saving them and restoring their relationship with God;

5. and the continual work of God in the lives of His people, based on the previous work done by Christ, to keep them from being lost again and to insure their place in His kingdom.

While these five points are the traditional outline of Calvinism, they are by no means exhaustive.  There is a lot of debate about other issues, such as the sovereignty of God, which is defined differently by different sides of the issues, but basically means God’s rulership over His creation.  Also, there are questions concerning God’s love and goodness.

History of the Doctrines of Grace

It is the firm position of Reformed believers that the beliefs in question are thoroughly biblical.  Historically speaking, then, the basics of the Doctrines of Grace can be traced back to the Apostles, Jesus, and much even to the Old Testament prophets.  However, the development of these beliefs into a more organized form, as outlined above, took some time.  Therefore, most of the earliest Christians probably didn’t consciously hold to this system of doctrines.  

The early Church Fathers can be cited in contradiction of many of these points.  This shouldn’t be considered to be any sort of detriment to the truth of the Doctrines of Grace, any more than the fact that the early Church Fathers did not explain the fully developed Trinity should detract from its truth.  The fact is, that the earliest Christians often had more pressing matters to discuss in their writings, such as what to do with those Christians who give in during persecution.  Also, they often disagreed with one another.  Any time you hear someone say, “The early Church Fathers taught that…”, chances are good that that person is oversimplifying the issue.

The most prominent early Christian to hold to much of the basics of these teachings is Augustine.  He clearly taught that man is unable, because of his own sin, to come in faith to Christ, and that he must be changed, or born again, before this can happen.  He was writing these things in response to a man named Pelagius, who believed that, because God had given man free will, man could, by the exercise of that will, be morally good enough to merit heaven.  Augustine’s views on this issue were upheld at the time and Pelagius was condemned as a heretic, or false teacher, but Augustine’s position was not widely held in later centuries during the height of the Roman Catholic church, because they contradicted Rome’s view that grace comes to people through the sacraments of the church.

The biblical nature of Reformed Theology is alluded to, also, by the fact that it was the Reformation that brought it out into a more prominent place among Christians.  The push by the Reformers to have the Bible itself read among the people is what directly caused the Doctrines of Grace, still not in any organized form, to be taught widely.  Martin Luther’s book, The Bondage of the Will, is a treatment of the inability of man to exercise faith without the freeing work of the Holy Spirit.  

It was the second-generation Reformer, John Calvin, who most thoroughly organized Protestant thought on these issues, however.  It is for this reason that they are commonly called, “Calvinism”.  Calvin was not making up something new for the people he was teaching to believe.  They already believed it.  He just put it in a more systematic way.

It was later still, that a man named Jacobus Arminius began to teach that free will is necessary for a just system of belief, and so began to teach against the Protestant view.  Later, some of his followers put together a propositional paper that was brought before the council of Dort, which had within it five “points” that they believed should be taught in the churches.  These points were: 

1. Conditional election, that God’s choice to save some is based on his knowledge that they will believe;

2. Unlimited Atonement, that the atonement of Christ makes salvation possible for every person, without making it actual for anyone;

3. Depravity, that man’s sin renders him unable to even believe, but that God has graciously made everyone able to believe.

4. Resistible Grace, that God’s grace is what makes belief and salvation possible, but that man’s free will in cooperation with grace make salvation actual

5. Assurance.  The first Arminians believed that nothing outside of the man could remove his salvation from him, but, at the time of the paper, were undecided as to whether the man himself could remove himself from salvation.  They said that the issue, “must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full confidence of our mind.”  So they had doubts about the security of the believer, but were not convinced either way at the time.

This paper led to the convening of the Synod of Dort, in which the issues were debated.  It was decided at the time by that council that the paper put forth by the Arminians was to be rejected, and so the council put together a set of beliefs clearly contradicting each point, which later became known as the five points of Calvinism.

But, since Protestantism is not, by nature, centralized in power structure, Arminianism simply took root wherever it could and so evangelical Christianity today has both Calvinists and Arminians in it.

What Calvinism is Not

These issues are not uncontroversial.  People on both sides often malign and mistreat their opponents and even question their salvation.  In an effort to sidestep much of the mud that is thrown, I want to set out some of the things that Calvinism is not, so that we can move forward in clarity, discussing the issues as they are without getting sidetracked by what often amounts to mere name-calling.

1. Calvinism is not following Calvin instead of Christ.  It is a charge I hear from time to time that the main thing wrong with Calvinism is that we’re following a man instead of the word of God.  I hope I’ve made clear that the mere fact that it’s commonly called “Calvinism” does not mean that it’s some sort of cult of personality that puts one man above or even on par with the Scriptures.  I’m not ashamed to be known as a Calvinist, just as I’m not ashamed to be known to agree with the writings of any other Christian teacher.  Or to be known as a Baptist, or Protestant.  It does not mean that I, or any Calvinist, thinks that Calvin’s teachings are of equal authority to Scripture.  On the contrary, it is their agreement with Scripture that makes them trustworthy.

2. Calvinism is not the blanket endorsement of all that Calvin said or wrote or did.  I believe that baptism is a sign of having already been made new in Christ and saved through faith.  This flatly contradicts Calvin.  “Calvinism” is a term that is almost always used to describe only those beliefs outlined above, which are consistent with, but not even limited to, Calvin himself.  Often, Calvin’s life and actions are attacked by opponents of Calvinism, as if this has any bearing on whether the teachings that did not originate with him but happen to bear his name are true.  This is a waste of time.  Calvinism is a set of beliefs derived from Scripture, and so must be argued with on a Scriptural basis.

3. Calvinism is not fatalism.  Fatalism is the belief that, since every event is predetermined, human action does not matter.  We will get into these issues in more detail later, but for now, suffice it to say that Calvinism, while affirming that God has decided and determined every minute event, also affirms that human decision is of utmost importance concerning the judgment of sinners and the salvation of believers.  We are responsible for our actions because we engage in them according to our own desires.

4. Calvinism is not the rejection of human responsibility.  As seen above, Calvinists affirm that we are responsible for what we do.  Calvinism does not reject that man has a will and acts according to it.  The view of free will held by many non-Calvinists is that the outcome of our choices is not determined at all.  That, when faced with a choice, both paths of history are open, and that our choice will determine which path occurs.  Calvinism rejects this, affirming that only the one path that God has determined will occur.  However, it also affirms that our will is free insofar as our choices are determined by our own desires.  We make our own choices, and so we are held responsible for them.

5. Calvinism is not the rejection of the love or goodness of God.  The differences here are differences of just how these concepts are understood.  Calvinists vary to some degree on how they express their beliefs on this issue, but in general, God’s love is understood to not be limited to just one kind.  Just as we are free, and expected, to love different people differently, such as wives and husbands versus kids and acquaintances, so God is free to love different people differently.  It is thought by some that merely quoting that “God is love” is enough to disprove Calvinism.  Obviously it is not.

6. Calvinism does not reject or necessarily lead to the rejection of evangelism.  God has commanded us to preach the Gospel.  He has chosen this as the method by which He will add to the Kingdom of God.  This is not mutually exclusive with the belief that God effectively calls the sinner and successfully brings each of His own to spiritual life.  Calvinism affirms belief in causes other than the acts of God.  So the preaching of the Gospel is to be taught and believed by all Christians.  In point of fact, Calvinists who understand this issue well point out that, for the Reformed Christian, evangelism is an activity that succeeds every time.  It is an act of obedience on the part of the evangelist that always saves those whom God is drawing to Himself.

7. Finally, Calvinism is not hyper-Calvinism.  Often, uneducated people call traditional 5-point Calvinists “hyper-Calvinists”.  The term “hyper-Calvinist” was actually created by Calvinists to describe people who draw invalid and unscriptural conclusions based on the beliefs in Calvinism.  Many of those beliefs are rejected in the previous points, such as a belief in fatalism and a rejection of human responsibility and evangelism.  Many non-Calvinists make the mistake of hearing the term “hyper” and think that it refers to thoroughgoing 5-point Calvinism.  It does not, and when people use the term this way, they display their ignorance of these issues.  In some cases it is used merely as a pejorative to call Reformed people names.  It is not constructive to a pursuit of the truth.

I could list more things, of course, but these are some of the most common critiques of Reformed Theology that I’ve heard that are based on a misunderstanding of what it is.

I hope that, as we study these issues, you begin to see just how, well, large this picture of God is.  One reason I find this study so important is that much of the attacks leveled against the Christian faith cannot be adequately answered without a God as wise, sovereign and powerful as this.

4 thoughts on “The Doctrines of Grace Part 1: An Introduction”

  1. I appreciate your hope that your blogs on the doctrine of grace will be accessible; you also said that you welcome questions to clarify issues. So I hope you understand and will address that one aspect of the doctrine that utterly confuses and upsets people is the statement, “the inability of man to do what pleases God, <>including belief<>….”I hope you will address why you think it is so important to hold to the italicized portion of the statement and what you think we lose if we reject it. Also, you stated that it is the agreement of the doctrine with the scriptures that make it trustworthy and that the doctrine could be traced back to Jesus and the Apostles…can you give us examples from each? And, mustn’t you establish the Bible as the foundation of the doctrine as opposed to, say, the witness of the Holy Spirit?I hope, too, you will see that to be successful in your defense you will need to acknowledge that the discussion between Augustine and Pelagius may be too simplistic. Many of us believe that man is in prison, unable to escape our cell, and it is Christ that opens the prison door for us. The crucial point is whether He gives us the free will to decide whether or not to walk our of the cell, and what needs to be understood about this point is that the glory of God is at stake. There are those of us who contend that God is NOT glorified unless man has free will on this one particular point. You go onto say that Calvinism is not fatalism, that human actions do matter, that we are responsible for our actions. I am looking forward to you clarifying these matters. I think you have an interesting site and blog going and I have linked to it at my site, http://www.sophiesladder.comRegards

  2. Jeff,Thanks for your thoughtful comment.I do look forward to clarifying the issues you’ve raised. It is my firm belief that Reformed Theology is, first and foremost, a biblical system of doctrine. In part one, I didn’t go into the Scriptures yet because, in much the same way that the Scriptures don’t contain a treatise on the full-fledged doctrine of the Trinity, but rather support it by their support of all of its elements, so the Scriptures are clear on each element of the Doctrines of Grace.This is not an uncontroversial issue, and so I’ve found that a lot of people (on both sides, and including myself) believe that there are philosophical and moral issues at stake when accepting or rejecting the Doctrines of Grace. While I acknowledge this, I believe that none of these issues can take precedence before the Scriptures.For example, many Calvinists argue for Calvinism because it “glorifies God” or it “preserves the sovereignty of God”. I think Calvinism does both of these things, but they are not the reason one believes the Doctrines of Grace. One believes them because they are taught in Scripture.I’ve also heard Arminians and non-Calvinists argue, as you’ve alluded to, that our free choice of God is what glorifies Him and that His punishment of the wicked must be based on a free choice on our part to disobey. I would submit that these issues must be subordinated to the Scriptures. If the Scriptures don’t agree with our reasoning, then our reasoning is flawed.I agree that there are some philosophical issues, such as how God’s decree can be compatible with our moral responsibility, must be addressed. I will endeavor to do so as each point is treated more fully.Thanks for your comment. I hope that we can keep discussing these issues.

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