21 Misunderstandings of Reformed Thinking

Table of Contents

A. The Sources of These Misunderstandings

· Arminian Misrepresentation—It is unquestionable that both today and in the past history of the church Arminians have constantly repeated misrepresentations of the doctrines of grace. While these misrepresentations may have seemed to them the necessary implications of the views of their Calvinist opponents, they were made in many cases in spite of the clearest denials by the Reformed. It is unfair for anyone to charge their opponents with views that they deny even though they may seem the logical implications of their positions. It is fair to point out that their views seem to lead to such implications. It is not fair to affirm that they hold or believe such implications when they explicitly deny them.
· Immature Reaction—Another source of various misunderstandings of the doctrines of grace comes from the over-reaction of immature Calvinists. In their new found vision of the absolute sovereignty of God and newly acquired revulsion to the widespread ignorance and denial of God’s sovereignty by professing Christians, it is easy to make all sorts of extremist statements and take all sorts of imbalanced views that time and calm consideration will show are filled with ill-considered assertions and careless implications. These statements are not the deliberate misrepresentations of Arminians or the calculated presumption of Hyper-Calvinists, but the enthusiastic overstatements of “Young Turks” or “Cage-stage” Calvinists.
· Hyper-Calvinist Presumption—But another and dangerous source of misunderstandings is the historical stream of real Hyper-Calvinism which developed in the centuries following the Reformation. Yes, there really is such a thing as Hyper-Calvinism! Now granted such Hyper-Calvinism scarcely exists anywhere any more. But its writings and its representative do exist and pose a constant and, I fear, growing temptation to young, imbalanced Calvinists ready to embrace anything that appears to exalt a sovereign God. I warn you, then, that everything is not gold that glitters. Be careful of those who will tell you that the free and well-meant offer of the gospel, the doctrine of common grace, and duty-faith are Arminianism.

B. The Solution to These Misunderstandings

The root of each of these sources of misunderstanding is, I think, the same. It is rationalism. By that I mean the exaltation of human reason over the teaching of the Word of God. It is, of course, true that human reason is created by God and is a necessary tool in the interpretation of the Bible. This is undeniable. I concur with the Westminster Confession when it says:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture …

But we must never forget that our reason is limited in two respects. It is both finite and fallen. We must be, therefore, modest and careful in the deductions which we draw from Scripture guarding always against allowing our human reason to purge from Scripture things which seem contradictory to our reason. We must be prepared, to put this in other words, to allow the divine wisdom of Scripture to correct our human wisdom and reason. We must not jump quickly to unnatural and forced interpretations to remove from Scripture things which are offensive to our reason.

C. The Substantiation of These Misunderstandings

The assignment given me in this hour assumes that we have some authority for what Calvinism or Reformed thinking is. Only on the basis of some authoritative statement of Calvinism can I show or substantiate that certain views are misunderstandings of its teaching. I will use two such authoritative statements of Calvinism in this lecture. First, I will use the historic Calvinistic Baptist Confession of Faith, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. It is the confession that can claim more than other to have shaped Reformed and Particular Baptist thought. Second, I will use the Canons of Dort. The Canons of Dort were the first, creedal, and systematic exposition of the doctrines of grace in the history of the church and were affirmed by an international synod of Reformed churches and theologians in 1619. I think these two documents are indisputably authoritative, historical affirmations of Calvinism.

D. The Sequence of These Misunderstandings

I will arrange the various misunderstandings in the order in which the doctrines of grace are normally treated. That is, the order of the acronym T-U-L-I-P. That is, I will treat the various misunderstandings in the order of the Five Points of Calvinism.

I. Misunderstandings related to Total Depravity

The first of the five points of Calvinism is total depravity. This point includes the idea of total inability which (to quote 9:3 of the Confession) is the idea that “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”

A number of misunderstandings of this point must be refuted:

(1) Calvinists do not believe in free will!

It certainly is true that Calvinists do not believe in what most people call (and usually with a great deal of confusion) free will. Sometimes I have heard respectable Calvinists say that they believe in free agency rather than free will. As for myself and many other Calvinists we prefer to say that we believe in free will properly defined. What is a proper and biblical definition of free will? It is the one given in the 1689 Baptist Confession in chapter 9, paragraph 1: “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.” Such a view of free will is suggested by a number of texts:

Matthew 17:12 but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished (willed). So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.”
James 1:14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.
Deuteronomy 30:19 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants,

Mankind still possesses this natural liberty, but He does not possess the spiritual or moral liberty to use his “free” will to choose what is right. His will is tied to his sinful nature so that he cannot will any spiritual good. Thus, Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:17-18: “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.” All this means that I and many other Calvinists agree with Walt Chantry that man’s will is free, yet bound. So it is not true to say that Calvinists do not believe in free will.

(2) Calvinists do not believe in human responsibility!

This assertion is also a slander on authentic Calvinism. Calvinists not only believe that men have a natural liberty, but they also agree that men are responsible for their actions because of that natural liberty.

The reason why Arminians claim that Calvinists deny human responsibility is that they have adopted what a Pelagian premise into their theology. They believe that responsibility assumes ability. The notion that responsibility for doing something assumes ability to do something is not true—if you are talking about moral ability. The Bible in many places teaches that men cannot come to Christ, but it still holds them responsible to do so.

John 6:44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.
John 6:65 And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”

I am with the great Calvinists Jonathan Edwards and Andrew Fuller who made a distinction between natural and moral ability. I think in making this distinction they are simply enlarging on what the Confession already teaches. Human responsibility assumes natural ability, but it does assume moral ability. God does tell us to run one minute miles. He does tell us to do things which He has given us the natural ability to do. He also tells us to do things that because of sin we do not have the moral ability to do.

(3) Total depravity means that men are as bad as they can be!

Once more this is not mainline Reformed teaching. While it is true that men can do no spiritual or saving good, the Reformed tradition has recognized that unconverted men can and do perform what is often called acts of civil righteousness. Thus, I agree with E. H. Palmer who in his book on the five points of Calvinism said that, while men are not as bad as they can be, they are as bad off as they can be.

(4) Total inability means that, even though men want to be saved, they cannot be saved or come to Christ!

Once more this is a total misunderstanding of the doctrine of total depravity and total inability. May I quote the Confession once more?

Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

Total inability absolutely does not mean that men want to be save, but they just cannot be because they are totally depraved. Total inability consists in an indisposition of the will to any spiritual good. It means that men are “averse” to good. It means that “the cannot’s” of John 6 are a way of describing “the will not” of John 5:40: “and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” Total inability that nobody really wants to be saved apart from the grace of God working in their hearts.

II. Misunderstandings related to Unconditional Election

(1) Calvinists are fatalists!

I looked up the dictionary definition of fatalism, but I think it has little to do with what the people who make this charge actually mean. Let me tell you what I think they mean. I think they mean to say that Calvinists think that nothing we do can change our final destiny. I think they mean that there is no relation between how a person acts and where he will spend eternity. I think they mean that somehow a person’s destiny in eternity is fixed regardless of how he responds to the gospel here in this life. If that is what they mean by fatalism, then it has nothing to do with mainstream Calvinism. Calvinists believe that the promises of the gospel are true for any person who will receive them by faith. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved is absolutely true for everyone. The persons who repents of his sins and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved without exception. Listen to the first systematic statement of the doctrines of grace, the Canons of Dort:

SECOND HEAD: ARTICLE 5. Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life….

(2) Calvinists believe the elect will be saved no matter what we or they do!

Once more this is absolutely not what the doctrines of grace teach. Consider these words of chapter 3 of the 1689 Baptist Confession:

God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established …

The Confession teaches this because it is absolutely the teaching of the Bible. 2 Timothy 2:10 gives us Paul’s doctrine of the election: “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” If Paul believe that the elect would be saved no what they or we do, how could he have uttered these sentiments? Election does not mean that the elect will be saved no matter what we or they do. It means that they and we will certainly do certain things!

(3) Calvinists steal assurance of salvation from God’s people!

Wrong! It is Arminians who make assurance of salvation impossible. Real assurance of salvation is only possible if the genuine Christian cannot fall from grace. If a genuine Christian can fall from grace, then you can have assurance that you are Christian today, but you can have assurance that you will be a Christian tomorrow! Only someone who believes that salvation is a gift of the sovereign God and the fruit of sovereign election can be certain that the salvation he has today he will have on the day he dies!

But Arminians probably make this assertion that Calvinists steal assurance of salvation from God’s people! because they think that connecting salvation with election makes it into a mysterious matter about which one can never be certain. But this is simply a misunderstanding. The Confession (3:6; 10:1) teaches what the Bible clearly says and that is that someone’s election is made clear by the results of that election in his life. One can know that one is elect from the fruits of election in their life.

1 Thessalonians 1:3 constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, 4 knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; 5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.

Listen to the Canons of Dort on this subject:

FIRST HEAD: ARTICLE 12. The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God – such as, a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.

(4) Calvinists teach the damnation of infants!

Once more this is simply false. Many famous Calvinists believe in the salvation of all infants dying in infancy. Spurgeon a century ago and Al Mohler are two examples of such Calvinists. No Calvinists of whom I am aware affirm the damnation of infants.

(5) Calvinists teach double predestination!

Once more the question here is, What do you mean by double predestination?
· It is certainly true that unconditional election means that when some are elected for salvation others are passed over and left to their just condemnation for their sins. So, true, the same election which chooses some for salvation leaves others in their sins. This is a kind of double predestination.
· But if you mean by double predestination that people are predestined to hell regardless of their sins, then that is not true, and I know of no Calvinists who ever taught it.
· And if you mean that people are predestined to damnation in the same way that they are predestined to salvation, then that is not true! God intervenes in magnificent and multiple acts of grace to bring to predestination of some to salvation. He simply leaves others to follow their own sinful desires so that their predestination to damnation is brought to pass.

(6) Calvinists do not believe in missions or evangelism!

Listen to the Canons of Dort once more:
SECOND HEAD: ARTICLE 5. Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.

Have you never heard of William Carey? Do you not know that this first Baptist missionary was a Particular or Reformed Baptist and was sent out by church that were Particular or Reformed Baptist?

The fact is that it is not Calvinism, but Arminianism which is the great danger to evangelism and missions. The foundation of evangelism and missions is the exclusivity of the gospel. The great defenders of the exclusivity of the gospel are the Calvinists. It is the Arminians who think God has to be fair with sinners and are always inventing ways for men to be saved without the gospel that are always chipping away at the exclusivity of the gospel and, thus, chipping away at the foundations of evangelism and missions.

(7) It is not the duty of the non-elect to believe in Christ for salvation! Calvinists do not believe in the free offer of the gospel.

This is, indeed, the doctrine of a few Hyper-Calvinists, but it has never been the doctrine of mainstream Calvinism. The 1689 Baptist Confession (7:2) affirms: “Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved.” Listen once more to the Canons of Dort:

THIRD AND FOURTH HEAD: ARTICLE 9. It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted. The fault lies in themselves; some of whom when called, regardless of their danger, reject the Word of life

(8) God does not desire the salvation of the non-elect, but has only hatred for them.

There are some that teach, even though God commands the non-elect to come to Christ, He really has no desire that they come. Listen again to the Canons of Dort:

THIRD AND FOURTH HEAD: ARTICLE 8. As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. For God has most earnestly and truly declared in His Word what is acceptable to Him, namely, that those who are called should come unto Him. He also seriously promises rest of soul and eternal life to all who come to Him and believe.

(9) There is no such thing as common grace.

Once more the 1689 Baptist Confession contradicts this claim. At 14:3 it speaks of “the faith and common grace of temporary believers…”

This is a good place to stop and make a comment or two about what is going wrong when Hyper-Calvinism denies duty-faith, the free and well-meant of the gospel, and common grace. What is going wrong is that they have adopted an imbalanced doctrine of the divine will! They are identifying the divine will simply with the God’s decree. The Bible, however, teaches that the divine will is also revealed in God’s precepts. Consider a couple of texts:

Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.
Genesis 50:20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.

Hyper-Calvinism refuses to value or undervalues God’s preceptive or revealed will in favor of His decretive or secret will. But these two dimensions of God’s will must be equally valued. God as holy, righteous, and good desires and must desire that men act in a way that is holy, righteous, and good. For mysterious reasons of His own He has not predestined in His decretive will that men should always act according to His preceptive will. Sometimes it is God’s decretive will that men violate His preceptive will and do what Joseph calls “evil.” We must bow to this mystery and not try to explain it away!

III. Misunderstandings related to Limited Atonement

(1) Only Calvinists limit the atonement.

The fact is that every evangelical somehow limits the atonement. Only the Universalist who believes that absolutely everyone will actually be saved by the death of Christ has a really unlimited atonement. Evangelicals with an atonement which is unlimited in extent limit the power or efficacy of that atonement to actually save those for whom Christ died. Calvinists limit the extent of the atonement. But both limit the atonement! This is why—by the way—I prefer to describe limited atonement as particular redemption.

(2) Calvinists limit the value of the atonement.

Actually, it is Arminians who do this! But it is certainly not Calvinists who limit the atonement. Listen once more to the Canons of Dort:

SECOND HEAD: ARTICLE 3. The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.

(3) Limited Atonement contradicts the free and well-meant offer of the gospel!

Arminians make this claim because they rightly conclude that limited atonement means that you cannot tell everyone you meet that Christ died for them. If limited atonement is true, the Christ did not die for everyone, and we may say that He did!

The problem is that the offer of the gospel does not consist in anybody’s view or statement about the extent of the atonement. The gospel offer is not Christ died for you. You can find no such gospel offer in the preaching of the Apostles of Christ or in the Book of Acts. The offer of the gospel is simply the offer of Christ Himself. It is not necessary to speculate about whom Christ died for in the mystery of the divine will in order to offer Christ as a sufficient Savior to all men without exception.

(4) Limited atonement means that whosoever will may not come!

Once more the Canons of Dort contradict this slander:

FIRST HEAD: ARTICLE 2. but in this the love of God was manifested, that He “sent his one and only Son into the world, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (1 John 4:9, John 3:16).

IV. Misunderstandings related to Irresistible Grace

(1) Irresistible grace means that God saves men against their will!

Exactly not! Irresistible grace means rather that God makes people willing in the day of His power! The text often quoted by Calvinists here is Psalm 110:3: “Your people will volunteer freely in the day of Your power.” The 1689 (10:1) makes this matter abundantly clear:

Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, he is pleased in his appointed, and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.

(2) Irresistible grace means that men never resist the Holy Spirit!

Of course, if irresistible grace meant this, then irresistible grace would not be biblical. The Bible is explicit that some men do resist the Holy Spirit. Acts 7:51 reads: “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.”

Irresistible grace does not mean men never resist the Holy Spirit. As I showed above, there is such a thing as common grace. There is also such a thing as the general call of the gospel. In common grace and the general call of the gospel, the Holy Spirit speaks to men and calls them to come to Christ. Such common grace and general calls of the gospel are frequently resisted by men. As I will show tomorrow, the special grace and the effectual call of the Spirit actually creates the response to which it summons men. That grace and that call are irresistible!

V. Misunderstandings related to Perseverance and Preservation

(1) The Perseverance and Preservation of the Saints means that, once men are saved, it does not matter how they live, they will still go to heaven!

In our degenerate age this is how many professing Christians actually do understand what they call eternal security. Eternal security is a degenerate form of the doctrine of the perseverance and preservation of the saints.

The fact is that neither Calvinists nor Arminians believed such a horrible doctrine. Neither the Calvinists who wrote the Canons of Dort, nor the Arminianism which forced them to write the Canons, would ever have dreamed of teaching such the doctrine that, once you are a Christian, you will be saved no matter how you live. Both Calvinists and Arminians believed the perseverance of the Saints to be a necessity. They only disagreed as to whether it was a reality and a certainty!

Listen to these excerpts from the Canons of Dort:

Those whom God, according to His purpose, calls to the communion of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, He also delivers from the dominion and slavery of sin …. But God is faithful, who, having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end. (5th Head; Articles 1 and 3)

(2) The Perseverance and Preservation of the Saints means that God’s people can have no assurance of salvation until after they have persevered!

Nothing could be further from the truth. It is only the doctrine of the perseverance and preservation of the saints that grounds assurance of salvation. Assurance of our perseverance does not have to wait till after we have persevered. It can be gained from the marks of special grace which accompany all true faith. The Confession affirms this clearly in chapter 14, paragraph 3:

This faith, although it be different in degrees, and may be weak or strong, yet it is in the least degree of it different in the kind or nature of it, as is all other saving grace, from the faith and common grace of temporary believers; and therefore, though it may be many times assailed and weakened, yet it gets the victory, growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

Once more and finally listen to the Canons of Dort:

FIFTH HEAD: ARTICLE 9. Of this preservation of the elect to salvation and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they surely believe that they are and ever will continue true and living members of the Church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.

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