Calvinism is perhaps the most misunderstood and misrepresented theological belief system found within modern Christianity. Some of this stems from simplistic representations, and caricatures, held up by those who would casually, or callously, dismiss the real tenets of Calvinism without detailed and biblical examination.
The complete sovereignty of God, over all affairs of man, is at the heart of what has become known as Calvinism. Virtually all of the early Protestant reformers, including Martin Luther, held to the sovereignty of God in regards to salvation (read Luther's "Bondage of the Will" for a better understanding of his views). At issue was the question of grace versus works. Is some work, or effort, or desire of man necessary in salvation, or is salvation completely and solely from God and by God?
This completely unoriginal paragraph summaries Calvinism...
According to Calvinism, salvation is accomplished by the almighty power of the triune God. The Father chose a people, the Son died for them; the Holy Spirit makes Christ's death effective by bringing the elect to faith and repentance, thereby causing them to willingly obey the Gospel. The entire process (election, redemption, regeneration) is the work of God and is by grace alone. Therefore God, not man, determines who will be the recipients of His gift of salvation.
Some, today, have distanced themselves from the term Calvinist because of the distortions that now abound (including the historic, yet incorrect, hyper-Calvinism). Many prefer to merely say that they hold to the doctrine of grace. Even the usual TULIP acrostic, directly associated with Calvinism (which we'll get to in a moment), has other variations including GRACE. Two variations of this are as follows, the second End Note 1 staying more fathful to the original order of TULIP...
G - God's Sovereign Grace
R - Radical Depravity
A - Accomplished Redemption
C - Called Effectually
E - Endurance of the Saints
G - Godless Attitude
R - Redemption Appointed
A - Atonement Accomplished
C - Calling Applied
E - Eternal Adoration
Numerous denominations, which once held to Calvinism, have dropped or moderated their views over the years; mostly due to general ignorance, or a general unwillingness to study these matters from scriptures. For example, early Baptist confessions of faith (including the London Confession of Faith and the New Hampshire Confession of Faith) reflect their Calvinist convictions. Charles Spurgeon professed himself a Calvinist and reflected such in both his writings and Catechism. Yet now, even churches that once followed the classic Westminster Confession of Faith, including some Presbyterian churches, have since changed their doctrine.
Regardless of what any church, or denomination, or individual teaches, we are to be followers of Jesus Christ and students of the Word. We are not followers of John Calvin or any other Christian - if they held (or hold) to a truth or doctrine that can be found in scriptures, so should we (1 Corinthians 11:1). Should any doctrine be found to be otherwise, we should be willing to discard that teaching as error. This being said, each individual should make a thorough and unbiased search of scriptures to establish a correct understanding of the sovereignty of God and a true understanding of grace. The Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth.
History of the Debate
Early in the seventeenth century a debate arose over Christian beliefs, centered primarily on the works of two theologians, John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. Understanding who these individuals were requires starting our examination even earlier, closer to the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. In the mid 1500's John Calvin reluctantly became one of the most influential spokesmen of the Reformation. For many years he was a pastor in Geneva, Switzerland, one of the places where the Reformation had taken root. It appears that his wish was to live a quiet life, perhaps in an academic setting, but his humility, godliness, scholarship and vigorous schedule catapulted him into a position of prominence throughout Europe. His book, in its final revision, "The Institutes of the Christian Religion," became - and still remains - the textbook of the Reformed faith.
The doctrines now commonly called "Calvinism" are only a portion of the material covered thoroughly in his book. In it he articulated a thoroughly biblical worldview encompassing specific doctrines regarding God, man, and salvation. Along with the previously mentioned Westminster Confession of Faith, Calvin's theology can also be found in The Belgic Confession and The Heidelberg Catechism. It was not Calvin's goal to introduce a new theology, but rather to reaffirm and express what he believed was a biblical understanding of these ancient doctrines and one that was held by others in the early church, including the early church father Augustine (an avid writer of the 4th century A.D.).
The heart of what Calvin expressed in his writings was the common belief of the reformers. In the late 1500's a few began to prominently challenge the unity of these Protestant beliefs. No longer in complete agreement with these doctrines a few were quite willing to speak out against them. They specifically targeted Calvin's well-written and well-known work. James Arminius, a professor of theology at the University of Leiden, was one such individual. Their teaching attracted a lot of attention and a great amount of enthusiastic support. After the death of Arminius in 1609, a group of his fellow theologians who became known as the "Remonstrants" drew up a summary of their objections to Calvin's teachings, which they called "The Remonstrance." This published objection was made using five basic points. Since the Remonstrants drew heavily from the writings of James Arminius, these people also became known as "Arminians."
To evaluate and answer the five points of the Arminian challenge, in 1618 a synod was called in the city of Dort. The result, in 1619, was "The Canons of Dort" which reaffirmed that Calvin's teaching was the biblical view on these subjects. Not surprisingly, to answer the five-point challenge, they issued a five-point response. Translated into English and suitably arranged, the first letter of each point became the well-known modern TULIP acrostic.
Since the five points are a rebuttal, some have used this to fuel a popular misconception that Calvin was a theologian with only five negative things to say. Equally untrue is the notion that either Calvin or Arminius was a narrow-minded scholar whose cold logic drove him to ignore about half of what the Bible said. In view at the synod at Dort was the whole of their written works and their complete system of belief.
For the record, in a quick summary, here are the five primary points of Calvinism given in their classic TULIP acrostic...
T - Total Depravity
U - Unconditional Election
L - Limited Atonement (also called Particular Atonement)
I - Irresistible Grace
P - Perseverance Of The Saints
In the same order as TULIP, the five primary issues of the Arminians and the response of the Calvinists are as follows.
Issue 1. The extent of damage done to the human race by sin.
Arminians say that a person's desire and ability to please God has been seriously impaired by his sinfulness, but that this impairment is only partial. They hold that people, or at least some people, still have enough goodness within them to turn from sin and to live for God if given the opportunity.
Calvinists say that the damage done by "the fall" was so great that humans have lost entirely their desire and ability to turn from sin and to believe in God (or live for Him). They summarized this teaching using the heading "Total Depravity," teaching that sin affected humanity in all aspects of life.
T - Total Depravity
Because of the fall in Adam, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the Gospel. The sinner is spiritually dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free but is in bondage to his sinful nature. He is as spiritually dead and estranged from God as are the fallen angels. Therefore he will not, indeed cannot, choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently it takes regeneration by which the Spirit brings a sinner to Christ - it takes regeneration by which the Spirit brings a sinner from spiritual death to spiritual life and gives him a new nature. Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God's gift of Salvation - it is God's gift to the sinner, not the sinner's gift to God.
This is an issue of identity. Through sin our identity became sin. It can also be said that it is an issue of nature versus deeds. Every deed, no matter how good it looks externally is evil in that our nature is evil (Isaiah 64:6, Genesis 8:21).
"T" Summary: The Bible describes unregenerate people as being "dead" and "slaves to sin." Both corpses and slaves lack what most Arminians would mean by "free will" - the desire and ability to turn to God on one's own. Both the Old Testament and New Testament are very clear, no one does any good or seeks after God on their own.
Some Key Verses
Genesis 6:5, 8:21; John 6:44; Romans 5:6 and 8:7-8; Ephesians 2:1-3,5; Colossians 2:13; Titus 3:3-5
Issue 2. How (or on what basis) God chooses (or elects) some to be saved.
Arminians say that God, desiring all human beings to be saved, chooses to save those that He knows (with passive foreknowledge) will choose to turn to Him if they are given an opportunity.
Calvinists say that God, knowing that no human being will ever choose on his own to turn from sin and live for God, displays His grace and mercy by choosing to save some. (This is for God's purpose alone and without any human merit. For example, see Isaiah 46:10 and also Proverbs 19:21). This selection of some leaves others still in their sin and fallen state - through whom God will display His justice and wrath. The term given to this belief was "Unconditional Election."
U - Unconditional Election
God's choice of certain individuals unto salvation, before the foundation of the world, rested solely on His own Sovereign Will. God's choice of particular sinners was not based on any foreseen response or obedience on their part, such as faith, repentance, etc. On the contrary, God gives faith and repentance to each individual whom He selected. These acts are the result, not the cause, of God's choice. Election therefore was not determined by or conditioned upon an virtuous quality or act foreseen in man. Those whom God sovereignty elected He brings through the power of the Spirit to a willing acceptance of Christ. Therefore God's choice of Christ is the ultimate cause of salvation.
If all people are equally depraved in nature, only limited by God's common grace in actions, there is absolutely no grounds (or merit) for God to pick one over another. It comes down to the fact that it is God's choice alone for His purposes alone. It can never be said that the choice is based on a mere knowledge of the future, for without God's active intervention all He would foresee in anyone is sin.
"U" Summary: The biblical basis of God's choice is His "foreknowledge" (1 Peter 1:2). Romans 8:29 reveals that "foreknowledge" is of people; not things, events, or actions. This means that God foreknows (and therefore predestines) some people, not all people, and does not choose to save people because of what is in them (as any latent "goodness" would automatically become merit). God chooses to save some by grace alone, by definition without any merit (in other words, in spite of what is in them), because election is based solely on God's foreknowledge of His people, not God's prior knowledge of what all people will do.
Some Key Verses
John 6:37, 39, 6:64-65, 13:18, 15:16; Acts 13:48; Romans 9:11, 11:5, 7, 11:28, 8:38-39; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 1 Peter 1:10; Ephesians 1:3-14; 2 Timothy 1:9,10; Revelation 13:8
Issue 3. God's intention behind (or in) sending Christ to the cross as a sin-offering.
Arminians say that God's intention in sending Christ to the cross was to provide all mankind with the opportunity to be saved. Forgiveness (and salvation) is therefore made available to all and is conferred upon any who through faith ask for it.
Calvinists say that Christ went to the cross with specific intention of actually paying the penalty for the sins of those that God had previously chosen to save. The term originally used for this was "Limited Atonement."
L - Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)
Christ's redeeming work was intended to save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them. His death was a substitutionary suffering of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners. In addition to putting away the sins of His people, Christ's redemption secured everything necessary for their salvation, including faith which unites them to Him. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, thereby guaranteeing their salvation.
For those who get hung-up on the word, "Limited", this has also been described as; "Christ's death being sufficient for all, yet efficient for some." Strictly speaking, His atonement is limited in design and not in power.
"L" Summary: The question of the intention of Christ's sacrifice is a real problem for Arminians. What was Christ actually doing on the cross? Was anything really accomplished? Was anything actually paid for? Charles Finney (1792-1875), an Arminian theologian, said: "I cannot believe in the vicarious atonement (i.e. that the death of Christ actually purchased the redemption of any specific person) for if I did I would either have to become a universalist (those who believe everyone will be saved) or a Calvinist (believing that a defined people will be saved)." Finney's logic was very sound up to this point, and with the preponderance of Scriptures that oppose universalism, his outcome should have been to become a Calvinist rather than to throw out the purpose of Christ's death. (For the record, Finney was not around at the time of the original debate, a debate that was carried out by those with much theological training and study. The McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia said this of Charles Finney: "ordained in 1824, with comparatively little previous theological training.")
Some Key Verses
Matthew 1:21; John 6:37-40, 10:14-16, 10:26-28, 15:13-14; Acts 20:28; Hebrews 10:14; Romans 8:31-34; 1 Corinthians 8:11; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 John 4:10-11
Issue 4. The effectiveness of God's saving influence on an individual.
Arminians say that human beings have the strength or ability to resist God in His intentions to convict them of sin and to bring them to repentance. Therefore some of the people who God tries to save remain lost nonetheless.
Calvinists say that God cannot be resisted in any of His intentions, except in the specific ways in which He allows Himself to be resisted (again for His purposes). Every person that God intends to save shall be saved. Since God is sovereign, His grace always accomplishes what God intends it to accomplish. (See Psalms 115:3, Psalms 135:6, and Romans 9:15-21, Daniel 4:35). This belief was summarized with the expression "Irresistible Grace."
I - Irresistible Grace
In addition to the outward general call to salvation which is made to everyone who hears the Gospel, the Holy Spirit extends to the elect a special inward call that inevitably brings them to salvation. The external call (which is made to all without distinction) can be, and often is, rejected, whereas the internal call (which is made only to the elect) cannot be rejected; it always results in conversion. By means of this special call the Spirit irresistibly draws sinners to Christ. He is not limited in His work of applying salvation by man's will, nor is He dependent upon man's cooperation for success. The Spirit graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent, to come freely and willingly to Christ. God's grace, therefore, is invincible; it never fails to result in the salvation of those to whom it is extended.
People often say that Irresistible Grace can be proven wrong because they personally spent years resisting God's call; what they perceive as being an inward resistance to an internal or external call. The true issue of Irresistible Grace is the outcome, not the experiences or process. Some only hear an external call once before immediately responding to the message; others hear numerous external calls and go through many experiences that point them towards Christ before heeding that call. What is assuredly the same for both is that they responded to the internal call which cannot be rejected.
"I" Summary: It is not out of character that the Sovereign God would plan and carryout his plans without regards to anything other than His own purpose. In regards to His creation, nothing happens by chance. (Consider also Proverbs 16:1, 9, 33)
Some Key Verses
Ephesians 1:19, 20; Ezekiel 11:19; 1 Corinthians. 4:7; John 17:2; John 5:21; Acts 13:48; John 6:44
Issue 5. What the gift of salvation guarantees.
Arminians say that since the salvation of a human being requires that human being's cooperation, continuing cooperation is essential to the completion of the process. Therefore, saved people who change their minds and turn away from God become once again unsaved, and perish eternally if they die in that state. In more recent variations of this claim, it's even held that it doesn't have to be a willing change of mind, only a rejection through returning to sin. This places the sin as the reason for the loss of the state of salvation.
Calvinists say that since the salvation of a human being is initiated by God and involves God giving that person the desire and ability to trust and obey, God will continue to supply this desire and ability to all He intended to save. The term given to this is "Perseverance of the Saints."
P - Perseverance of the Saints
All who were chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and given faith by the Spirit are eternally saved. By the power of the indwelling Spirit their lives are changed; enabling them to bear good fruit. They are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and thus persevere to the end.
Other words to describe perseverance in Scriptures include; overcome and endurance.
Perseverance does not describe the speed or form of the process (sanctification). One believer may have severe ups and downs, another may grow greatly in a short amount of time, while even another is still a baby Christian years later. Perseverance solely guarantees the twin outcomes; saved for eternity and the fruit of a new life (at whatever pace or duration God ordains).
What can remove a saved individual from being "in Christ?" Scripture answers that question clearly...
Nothing in all creation can remove a believer from the love of God. Since human beings are created creatures this would preclude them from being able to accomplish it either (even presuming that a believer would have the will to do so).
Since there is no condemnation for all who are in Christ Jesus, there is no longer any sin that can have a believer condemned. No sin, past, present, or future, will ever be held against a Christian. So, obviously, no sin can be cause for a believer to lose his salvation (and be condemned).
After eliminating everything in all creation, supernatural or natural, plus all the actions of a believer, it leaves only one who could remove me from His presence. Yet, God has clearly said that He'll never do that!
Who is it that keeps the believer from falling (ultimately and even in regards to specifics here and now)? Certainly it is not the believers themselves or another human being...
The typical Baptist doctrine of "Once saved, always saved" differs from the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints in that it only holds to the security side. It claims that security is established with no guarantee of any fruit. This dangerously allows unregenerate people to claim eternally security, and tells them not to examine themselves for the fruit of God working in their lives (Romans 7:4).
"P" Summary: What cannot be obtained by any human effort or merit cannot be lost by any human effort or loss of merit.
Some Key Verses
John 6:37-39; Philippians 1:6, 2:12-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; 2 Timothy 4:18; 1 Peter 1:23
A common form of hyper-Calvinism teaches that since salvation is completely God's choice, and by His doing, therefore the church (and all Christians) have no responsibility for missions, evangelism, etc., as "God will save them if He wants to." This is a heretical concept that cannot be reconciled with scripture and true Calvinism. The true Calvinist believes that though God chooses and enables; all Christians are commanded to preach, witness, and call everyone to repentance and salvation (universal call - Matthew 22:14). A second distortion of Calvinism is that people can live lives of sin (never repenting or bearing fruit) and God will save them if He desires. This becomes an excuse for lawlessness and again twists the true belief of Calvinism - that saving faith effects change in all believers.
In modern years it has become fashionable for Christians to claim to be "a four-point Calvinist," or some other quantity. If you followed how tied-together each of the points are, as originally presented, you'll see that it's functionally impossible to be anything less than all or nothing. If man is total depraved (as defined above) then the only hope of salvation is to believe in the subsequent four points. In practice, most who profess to be less than a five-point Calvinist will often have a modified view of man's depravity.
So why is Arminianism again so popular? (I say "again" because much of Arminius' beliefs were around long before he was and had become predominate within the church prior to the Protestant Reformation). Another name for Arminianism could be Christian Humanism as it starts with a humanistic presupposition about man's inherent autonomy (or as a friend of mine put it: man's exaggerated sense of self importance). Everything else the Bible says about God's intentions and man's need are then filtered by this starting bias. It shouldn't surprise us that mankind would gravitate toward a system that would work to exalt man as being at least equal to God in some capacities, or perhaps superior to God (in that they profess that mankind can resist God's will). This desire has been around for a long time...
Common misconceptions of God and man.
Three additional commonplace ideas also help to confuse the debate over Calvinism.
#1. The teaching or belief that God's wrath is impersonal.
The common idea is that God doesn't actually hate anybody, at least not personally. But passages such as Psalm 5:5 and Psalm 11:5 both say that He does. A list of additional examples could include Esau, the world population in Noah's day, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the people of Canaan in the days of Joshua. I don't think anyone would argue that the final judgment will be anything less than a demonstration of God's personal wrath (Revelation 20:11-15).
#2. The teaching or belief that the love of God is universal.
#3. The teaching, belief, or implied idea, that mankind exists in some state of moral neutrality.
Simply put, this is pure fiction in any form, as the Bible clearly refutes any such idea (try Romans 1:18-3:18 for starters). The inherent sinfulness of fallen man is a pervasive message in Scriptures. Regardless, it's hard for members of the human race to let go of the notion that we're all really not that bad.
In conclusion; search the Scriptures in their entirety. Be willing to get beyond the implications of a few verses pulled from the context of the whole. The clear statements of Scriptures will leave you with a Biblical picture of God, man, and salvation.
Related links to research
Calvinistic Confessions of Faith...
or it's parent site...
Also Reformed Theology Resources is loaded with great information on this subject.
One of the best books on the Doctrines of Grace, in the form of a theological novel, is entitled "A Journey in Grace" by Richard P. Belcher:
The original response to this QnA question, in shorter form, is found here