John Calvin’s works are a true gift to the church. If you have never read anything he’s written, I encourage you to try using one of his commentaries in your private studies. They often read like a devotional and can be wonderfully helpful for the Christian.
When it comes to Christianity, few theological subjects are more controversial and polarizing than Calvinism. Since the time of the Reformation, Christians, historians, and theologians all over the world have fiercely debated these doctrines. Subsequently, this has created all kinds of claims about what Calvinism teaches (some accurate and some not). Having been a Calvinist for almost 20 years, I have experienced this firsthand; I have heard it all. From robot analogies to man-worship, to even gross misunderstandings about God’s love and justice. In turn, I thought it would be useful to directly address some of the common misconceptions about the Doctrines of Grace.
This article is intended to be the first in a series on the topic of Calvinism as a whole. As stated, I will begin by addressing many of the misconceptions, then in future articles. I will build scriptural cases for several of the core doctrines represented within Calvinism.
Misconception #1: Calvinism is the Worship of John Calvin
To some (me) this might seem silly, however, I have heard the misconstruction dozens of times. I gather it is rooted in the thinking that because Calvinism is named after a specific man (John Calvin), then this implies some innate level of worship or veneration for the person. At face value, I suppose I can understand this. After all, the term “Christian” is used to describe people who worship Christ.
To put it bluntly, Calvinism does not teach the worship, adoration, or veneration of John Calvin. Rather, I would strongly argue that it teaches the exact opposite! The term “Calvinism” exists because the doctrines contained within gained popularity under the writings of Calvin. However, Calvin did not create them. His teaching large mirrors concepts taught by Saint Augustine, and the Apostle Paul before him. If anything, Calvin rediscovered scriptural truths once suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church.
Contrary to this common misconception, at the heart of Calvinism, is a principle wholly focused on the glory, holiness, and worship of God alone. Reformed Theology teaches that man is completely devoid of being worthy of any type of worship. Additionally, John Calvin never sought any worship or any type of adoration; his focus was fully on directing all praise and honor to God. If you have met a person who seems to carry some undue adoration for Calvin, this is that person’s error and has nothing to do with the person or the theology of John Calvin – he taught the opposite.
As a type of exclamation point to this misconception, I will offer a small anecdote. When Calvin was dying, he requested that his grave be unmarked. He did so because he did not want people making pilgrimages to his burial site to pay him homage. Calvin never sought the attention he has received. His concern was only to honor God through the faithful teaching of Holy Scripture.
Misconception #2: People are Robots/God’s Sovereignty Undermines Man’s Responsibility
I have heard many times this notion that if God is completely sovereign then people are like programmed robots. Implied in this accusation is that because God is sovereign man is not responsible for his actions. This is simply not true. Any casual reading of God’s Word demonstrates that man is an independent moral agent completely responsible for their actions; Calvinism would agree. However, moral responsibility does not always automatically equate to ability.
In John 6:44, our Lord Jesus Christ said, “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”. He is effectively saying that no one, outside of the working/drawing of God, has the ability to come to Christ. Christ also taught condemnation for those outside of Him. Both are true. Paul makes this point extensively in Romans 1-5. All men are dead in sin because all men are naturally in Adam. At the same time, God is completely sovereign in salvation. Both realities are true.
Undoubtedly, there is an element of deep mystery in this. That’s OK. God never promised that we would know everything in this life. Rather, such mysteries allow us an opportunity to die to ourselves and trust God’s Word/truth to be correct even if we can’t fully grasp it. Likely, this relationship (God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility) is some of what Paul had in mind when he exclaims in Romans 11, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (11:33).
Humans are not robots controlled by God. Instead, we are moral agents made in the image of God. We live, move, and act according to our natural ability (more on this when I come to Total Depravity). Yet, in all of this, God remains sovereign and just; He uses our brokenness and sin to accomplish His purposes. Perhaps one of the best examples of this in scripture comes to us in the last chapter of Genesis. Joseph, when confronting his brothers on their sin against him, famously says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (50:20).
Misconception #3: Calvinists Don’t Believe in Evangelism
This claim is rooted in some faulty logic that suggests since God elects those whom He wants to save, there is no need for Christians to evangelize. What’s the point? God will do it and save anyway. This thinking is not merely wrong, it is heretical (Hyper Calvinism). Scripture is clear: Christians are called to evangelize and share the truth of God’s love with the world; it is a fundamental role of the church.