Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)
[The following blogpost was originally published on 2/13/07.]
Imagine that you'd never before heard the term Sudoku, from any source except the following video:
Then, imagine that after seeing this video, you heard other people talking about that horrible place called "Sudoku," "where bad kids go to dig with spoons for moon rocks." Of course, you probably wouldn't ever believe such a place really exists, but you would be left with a negative feeling toward the idea of "Sudoku" and you would probably pity or mock anyone who said they really enjoyed Sudoku.
You see how a false definition can engender an unnecessarily negative reaction.
Likewise, the first time I remember hearing someone try to explain the term "Calvinism" I was in a college American literature class in which we had to read Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The professor explained that Edwards was a Calvinist, which meant that he believed God had arbitrarily decided from before the foundation of the world who would go to Heaven and who would go to Hell, so that basically God would take some to Heaven against their will while consigning others to Hell who had lived saintly lives: one could therefore never be sure of his or her eternal destiny.
Sadly, though this definition of "Calvinism" does not have much more to do with the true historical meaning of the term that the definition offered in the song above has to do with Sudoku, it is all too common to hear people offer this kind of rhetoric when speaking of "Calvinism." Bogus definitions of "Calvinism" are frequently put forth, not only by liberal college professors, but also by gospel preachers who should know better.
Consider the following parable from Nelson Price, which is supposed to clarify what "Calvinism" entails:
A mass of people are gathered at a bus stop marked “Planet Earth.” Along comes the Celestial Bus marked “Destination Heaven.” It pulls up and stops. The driver, who is God, opens the door, and says, “All destined for heaven get on board.” A number do. A missionary couple who with zeal have served Christ all their lives start on and God says, “Step aside. You haven’t been chosen to ride this bus.” A couple of infants start on and God tells them to step aside. Persons who from youth have loved and ministered in Christ’s name are told to step aside. As the bus is about to depart and the door is closing God says to those not on board, “Catch the next bus.” “No,” they plead, “here comes the next bus and it is driven by Satan and marked ‘Destination Hell!’”
“Sorry,” says God. “I didn’t choose to save you. Your love and commitment to Jesus doesn’t matter.”
Reformed Baptist apologist James White responded to the above illustration by sending an open letter to Nelson Price, saying:
No Reformed theologian, no Calvinist, with the slightest knowledge of their faith, would ever own your story as their own. Not a one. It is a mockery at best, sir. Consider: The Bible teaches men are dead in sin, enemies of God, incapable of doing what is pleasing to Him. Hence, as Paul said, there are no "God-seekers," and therefore, the very idea that there would be anyone who, outside of God's efficacious grace, believe in Christ, is absurd on its face. Hence, there would be none who "want to get on the bus" outside of God's grace in the first place. The entire foundation of the illustration involves a direct denial of the truth itself as presented by Reformed believers. We believe every single person who trusts and believes in Jesus Christ will be saved. We simply accept what Jesus Himself taught, that no one has that capacity outside of the work of the Holy Spirit drawing them to the Son (John 6:37-44).
Contrast the illustration from Nelson Price with the following definition of Calvinism from Charles Spurgeon:
"Salvation is of the Lord." That is just an epitome of Calvinism; it is the sum and substance of it. If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, "He is one who says, Salvation is of the Lord." I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this. It is the essence of the Bible. "He only is my rock and my salvation." Tell me anything contrary to this truth, and it will be a heresy; tell me a heresy, and I shall find its essence here, that it has departed from this great, this fundamental, this rock-truth, "God is my rock and my salvation." What is the heresy of Rome, but the addition of something to the perfect merits of Jesus Christ—the bringing in of the works of the flesh, to assist in our justification? And what is the heresy of Arminianism but the addition of something to the work of the Redeemer? Every heresy, if brought to the touchstone, will discover itself here. I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.
Though every Christian will proclaim, "Salvation is of the Lord," and no true Christian would wish to receive any credit for contributing to his or her own salvation, teaching that fails to focus upon salvation as being a sovereign work of God (a primary emphasis of Calvinism) leads people to start proclaiming errors such as, “God did 99% of the work in saving you, leaving only 1% for you to do– you must accept Jesus” (a message I’ve heard from a famous evangelist in the past) or “God has cast a vote for you, the Devil has cast a vote against you, and you must cast the deciding vote” (an old distortion noted by Timmy Brister). Notice that if God has left 1% of the work of salvation up to Man or if Man must cast the deciding vote, then it is Man’s work or Man’s vote that becomes the most important consideration in salvation. This teaching would demote the work of God to mere background information. On the other hand, if God sovereignly assures the salvation of those who will believe on Him– if His work even assures the faith of those who will be saved (as Jesus is declared to be the author and perfecter of our faith in Hebrews 12:2)– then we truly have a basis for praising God for salvation, which salvation is all of grace.
So I encourage everyone reading this post to think on these things, to make sure that your understanding of the Doctrines of Grace (commonly called "Calvinism") is informed by people who are accurately representing what these doctrines teach, and to form your understanding of salvation according to what the Scriptures teach, to the glory of God alone.