Why I am A Calvinist - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

T.U.L.I.P. - The Doctrines of Grace

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind.

A short explanation of my theological conviction on grace.

 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Eph. 2:8).

There are a variety of theological persuasions in the world. One might say there are too many of them. We may go from denomination after denomination and find a great variety of beliefs and doctrines concerning things about God, things about Christ, things about man and so on (to the utter detriment of the church’s power in effecting the world). Yet these ideologies are but ripples from the great stone of the Gospel which was plunged into the lake of fallen humanity.

All theological persuasions are not perfect. It is impossible that any theological system of doctrine be perfect, for if it was perfect it would be the Scriptures themselves; for only the Word of God is inerrant, or without error, and infallible – for it will not fail us. Man has undertaken the task, as commanded by God (2 Tim. 2:15), to understand God’s Word in spite of his lack of ability to understand it perfectly. He strives to apprehend what he can because a good theologian knows he cannot comprehend (or understand totally) everything about the Scriptures. But that gives us no excuse not to try.

In the endeavor to ascertain right doctrine, various systems have come up throughout church history. There have been the Arians, the Socinians, the Gnostics, the Roman Catholics, the Epicureans, the Docetics, the Pelagians, the Mormons, the Arminians, the Manicheans and so on. These though, should not be considered to be a true systems of right doctrine since each of them denies a major tenant of the Christian religion. One denies the deity of Christ, where another denies the humanity of Christ. One says heaven is attained by knowledge alone, another denies that people are sinners. One says God is not sovereign, and another says man is the measure of all things. One says man is God, and another says God is not all powerful. One says that God can save but does not need to, another says that man must “do his part” in salvation or he cannot be saved. These systems of doctrines are clearly false. They remove or exalt a particular essential attribute, or many essential attributes of Christianity, not to mention adding many things which the Scriptures never teach. So it would rightly be said that they are systems, but it would also be equally fair to say that they are wrong systems.

So what is the right system of doctrine? From study, contemplation, and meditation and upon the Word of God, from assessing church history and the movements contained therein, from hearing hundred of speakers on varying subjects, and listening to a plethora of viewpoints on every aspect of the Bible, from reading over a million pages of grace-related literature, I rest upon the system of doctrine called “Calvinism.”

It is unfortunate for Calvinism that it is called Calvin-ism. Charles Spurgeon rightly stated that “Calvinism is nothing more than a nickname for Biblical Christianity.” He was right. The name is often a warrant for despisement though. People say because we follow a man named Calvin, we are not following God. Does not Paul say in 1 Cor. 1:12, “Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or I am of Christ.” is Christ divided?” Paul is right. We are not to follow after men. We are to follow after God for sectarianism is a sin rebuked by the 1st chapter of 1 Corinthians. But do Calvinists really follow Calvin? No. It is actually wrong to call Calvinists “Calvinist” because they are doing nothing other than using the same body of doctrine that Calvin used, who in turn copied Augustine, who in turn copied the church fathers and they, who in turn, followed Christ and the Apostles. The early church fathers, who lived between 95 AD and 200 AD are just as much Calvinists, for understanding grace, as Augustine was a Calvinist, and as John Calvin was a Calvinist. Calvinism is nothing more than a label to show what view one holds upon the Scriptures, not upon a certain man. Someone may say, “That is not true. If you are a Calvinist, then you follow the teachings of Calvin and his interpretation of the Bible.” Let us see if this is a worthy set of propositions. Because at the outset, they prove of necessity, nothing of the kind.

When I was 21, I had finished 2 years of Bible college. I went to an Arminian School, learned Arminian doctrine, and read Arminian books. I had no previous real learning in religion until I attended that school, so I was indoctrinated in that theology without ever knowing whether it was true or false. In my naivete I believed what I was taught (Surely not to question doctrine was my own mistake, but being indoctrinated in that way helped me to understand more about what I believe now. So it was the providence of God which kept me in my sin of false doctrine for a time.) Not too long after my second year, a friend of mine, who believed the doctrines of grace, began to challenge me on many of my “biblical” doctrines. I had a well rounded handle on the doctrine I possessed and propagated it thoroughly among my friends at school. But when this young man challenged me as he did, I was not able to refute him. The reason I was not able to refute his arguments had nothing to do with not understanding my own doctrine, for I did. But he came at me with something I did not expect; the Bible. He proposed a whole new system of doctrine which ran completely contrary to my own beliefs. My understanding of sin was so unbiblical that when he told me to read Romans 3:10-18, I was taken back by Paul’s poignant words. I was challenged by the very book I thought I understood. My views of man, Christ, God, salvation, sin, sovereignty, the will, and others were so warped and twisted that my young friend didn’t even need to rebuke me, for the Scriptures were doing it quite well. I had understood doctrine, it was just not the doctrine of the Bible.

So over the next summer, because of that day and that particular challenge of my friend, I devoted my time to reading through the entire Bible and endeavor to take it as it stood rather than what I wanted to read into it. My prayer was that the Lord would teach me His word by the power of the Holy Spirit so that I would know what it said rather than what I wanted it to say. After three months my views on man, Christ, God, sin, salvation and the like were radically transformed. (you would be amazed at what the Spirit of God will do with such a prayer and a simple reading of the Bible.) The point is this, my theology came out Calvinistic without ever knowing what Calvinism was, at least the beginnings of this. I had not known what Calvin taught or that he was even a person. But my theology reflected his theology which reflected Augustine’s theology, which reflected Christ’s theology. And so the study of the Word of God transformed me. The Scriptures taught me, instead of me trying to make it say what I wanted it to say. So we see that being a Calvinist is not following after one man, but submitting under the authority of the Bible. It is embracing the theology that has been long since defended by men like Calvin, Luther, Bullinger and others who believed in the sovereign grace of God.

Why would someone want to be a Calvinist? Calvinism is not adherence to a person, but to a set of beliefs which are rightly in accord with the Bible. People who want to be right in their understanding of the doctrines of the Bible, adhere to Calvinism. Calvinism is not perfect. It is a system of doctrine worked over and over by countless men since the time of Christ. It will never be perfect because it is not inspired by God. So why should we believe Calvinism over and above other systems of doctrines? Because if we were to determine what system of doctrine hits closest to the bulls-eye of the Scriptures, Calvinism would be the first outer ring. Any system of doctrine which does serious damage to the doctrines of man, Christ, God, sin and salvation, cannot be considered worthy of our attention as Christians. And there is no system of doctrine which covers all these so Biblically as Calvinism. Calvinism can be found illustrated in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. If you are a Calvinist, you agree with the Institutes. Yes, Calvinism follows the teaching of John Calvin and his Institutes of the Christian Religion. If you do not agree with the Institutes, then there are other names you can use to describe yourself. Calvinism is not for you. The term “Calvinism” would then pertain to those people who have READ the Institutes of the Christian Region, along with Calvin’s other works, and those that followed Calvin theologically, and those that preceded Calvin holding the same doctrinal ideas (like Augustine) and then they would be able to say, “OK, I am a Calvinist.”

What does Calvinism teach? Calvinism can be divided up into hundreds of points. There are a variety of propositions and ideas which are woven into the fabric of Calvinism. But if we were to concisely describe the simplistic form of Calvinism’s teaching on salvation (for instance), we would look at the acronym T.U.L.I.P.: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints. This is a helpful acronym to describe salvation in terms of God’s sovereignty (as the Bible does!). Please keep in mind we are talking about the basics of Calvinism. We are not talking about the basics of Reformed Theology. Basic Calvinism is simply the “distilling word” used to describe grace-related ideas surrounding the Gospel in salvation. Calvinism actually houses lots of ideas – ideas about the church, and God, and the Holy Spirit, and capitalism, and touches just about every area of Christian life you can think of. But for our purposes, let’s stick with the basics. Calvinism is a stalwart defender of the doctrine of God’s grace and Christ’s work. Let’s look at those briefly.

The first doctrine of grace is Total Depravity. Total depravity keeps us humble. It states that man is totally and completely a sinner; heart, soul, mind and body, who can do no righteous deed. The image of God is so marred and twisted by the fall of Adam that every person who is conceived is at that point at enmity with God. They are enemies of God, they hate God, and they would even kill God if he showed up in their living room. As a matter of fact, when the Lord Jesus Christ came down to earth, they killed him. Total Depravity is proven by both the Old and New Testaments: Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10-18. After one understands that he is a sinner who cannot by his own power come to faith, and that he has lost everything which would enable him to come to Christ because of the Fall and of his sin, then he comes to see Unconditional Election (Second doctrine). Man, being sinful cannot choose to follow God because he hates God. So God must remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. God chooses man. He unconditionally, not based upon anything a man can do which is good or evil, elects people to everlasting life. Its God’s job to save, and our job to praise Him for saving us. The Scriptures shows this doctrine emphatically: Malachi 1:2; Romans 8:29; Romans 9:1ff; Ephesians 1:3ff.

How does God save us? Yes, He elects us, but what is the basis for our election? It is not our work, but Christ’s work. God sends His Son to die for everyone whom He elects. The Son pays the price, and the debt is removed. When Jesus dies on the cross He secures salvation for everyone He dies for. And the work of Christ’s death and resurrection is transferred at that time to the account of all those who will be saved through Him. Jesus comes to die for God’s chosen people, His treasured possession. In this way the atonement is limited in scope but not in power (Third Doctrine). The Scriptures teach us this doctrine as well; Isaiah 53:1ff; Matthew 1:21; John 10:1ff; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25.

The fourth doctrine of grace, or Calvinistic doctrine, is Irresistible Grace. If Jesus dies for the elect, and God unconditionally elects all those depraved people whom He calls His own, the regenerating power of the Spirit of God will not fail. Regeneration is where the Spirit changes the old heart of stone to a beating heart of flesh. And He does this prior to our faith. We believe on Christ after our sinful depraved souls are given the new capability to believe through the renewing power of God’s Spirit. His grace is then called irresistible, not because we believe against our will kicking and screaming, but our hearts are inclined to believe, so we love to believe and we go to Christ willingly. The Scriptures show us this in Psalms 51:10; 110:3; Jer. 31:33ff; John 3:2ff; Romans 2:29; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 1:29; and 2:13.

The last main point of God’s grace seen so vividly in the doctrines of Calvinism is Perseverance of the Saints. All who are redeemed from their depraved states, all whom Christ came to ransom from death and pay the price to redeem from God’s wrath, all whom the Spirit irresistible touches with His grace, and all those who are unconditionally elected to eternal life will persevere to the end. They will sin, yes. But they will never fall away from grace. This does not give us a license to sin, for those who are truly changed are changed and have a new desire and new nature which releases them from the that the old depraved nature had on them. These saints persevere because God continually upholds them through the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. They are God’s temples, His residing place. God dwells in the spirit of a man’s renewed heart. This, in and of itself, is an amazing thing!! And does the Scripture show us this doctrine? More than we could imagine: Phil. 1:6; Romans 8:30; John 10:28-29; John 17:2, 6, 9, 24; 1 Thess. 5:23.

What doctrines am I rejecting as a Calvinist? I am rejecting everything that “changes the truth of God for a lie, and denies Jesus Christ as our only Sovereign and Lord (Jude 4).” I am rejecting anything which would rise up and call itself a Gospel which is no gospel at all. I reject anything which exalts man to a place and position where he ought not to be, and decreases the grace of Christ. I reject anything which makes God a cosmic bell-hop tending to the commands and demands of sinful men as another gospel. I reject anything which removes God’s sovereignty to place man as the Sovereign as another gospel. I reject anything which denies the sovereign decrees of God and His electing grace to put salvation into the hands of sinful men as another gospel. I reject anything which denies man’s total depravity and exalts his fictitious free will as another gospel. I reject anything which places the perseverance of man to glory in the incapable hands of a sinful man as another gospel. I reject anything which endeavors to treat God as the great Grandfather in the sky beckoning and pleading with man to be saved as changing the true God into a pitiable wimp. This is another Gospel. I reject anything which denies the atonement of Christ for what it is; a substitutionary atonement on behalf of the elect. If we deny this, we deny the Gospel. I reject anything which makes the cross less than definite salvation for the elect, as another Gospel. I reject anything which is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is preached by Christ in His Word. It is to these Calvinistic doctrines and teachings which all Biblical Christians hold. It is these Calvinistic doctrines of grace which wild horses could in no way drag from me. Especially the wonderful doctrine of Christ’s atonement for His people. And what does Paul say about those who preach, teach, and believe another Gospel? Galatians 1:8 is emphatic, “If we, or an angel from heaven, preach to you any other Gospel than what we have preached, let him be anathema, (or accursed.)” They are not slapped on the wrist and sent to their heavenly rooms. They are cast into the deepest, darkest, hottest section of hell for perverting the truth of God’s Word. We see that the Gospel is something to contend about, and is something we need to be right about.

When I was 21, I had a form of godliness but I denied its power. I had a system of doctrine which denied Jesus as the only Sovereign and Lord. Yet, God in His mercy forgave that heinous sin of wrong belief. He allowed the scales to fall from my eyes. He allowed me, if you will, to be “born again, again.” My mind has been renewed and my life transformed by these doctrines of grace. It is absolutely true what Spurgeon said, that Calvinism is nothing other than a nickname for Biblical Christianity. And until a person understands these doctrines, his walk with God will be a superficial walk. The doctrines of God’s grace, which are the doctrines of Calvinism, plunge us deep within the fountain of God’s mercy and power. Without understanding God’s election of depraved people, how can anyone understand what grace is really about?—they can’t. Why am I a Calvinist? Because God will not allow me to be anything else. He has opened my eyes to depth beyond my wildest aspirations. He continues to humble me, the rebellious sinner, before His awesome majesty and power. May it be that all of God’s people would be humbled by His grace.

Bible Verse:

“For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, And people should seek the law from his mouth; For he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts,” (Malachi 2:7).

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