Tag Archives: Canons of Dort

Calvinism: An Introduction

 

With the summary of chapter 3 “The New Covenant Constitution and Arminianism” from a Reformed Baptist Manifesto written in the last post, it seems like a good time to expound upon some of the central tenets of Calvinism, otherwise known as the Doctrines of Grace.  Before beginning, it would serve us well to examine the historical development of Calvinism.  I should point out that while the name Calvinism has been given to the synthesis of 5 particular theological concepts, they didn’t originate with John Calvin (1509-1564).  In fact, the 5-points of Calvinism were written after Calvin’s death and were written as a defense of the 17th Century orthodox faith against what was determined to be the “heresy” of Arminianism[1].

Though Calvin certainly held to “Calvinism”, as can be seen in his Institutes of Christian Religion, historically, the beliefs can be traced throughout church history to the writings of Augustine (354AD-430AD), and I would argue to the Apostle Paul and all of inspired Scripture.  However, for some reason when modern evangelicals hear the term Calvinism they immediately put up a wall of defense and condemn not only Calvin, but anyone who would follow the teachings of this dastardly villain[2] (in their mind).  The problem is they, like me at one time, know little to nothing about Calvin neither the man nor the beliefs which share his name.  Without the work of Calvin, building upon the work and reformation of Martin Luther, there would have been no Protestant Reformation, no separation from Rome.  Calvin was not only instrumental in the Reformation, the proclamation of the gospel, the advancement of systematic theology, the writings of biblical commentaries, but he was instrumental in the discussions of church vs. state, church government, work ethic, and an argument could be made that America, as a democracy, owes the establishment of a republican form of government to John Calvin.  Take a few minutes to view the brief video about Calvin below (forgive the Desiring God commercial) or listen to the longer biography by Steven Lawson given at the 2009 Ligonier Conference, also below.

To understand the basis for the 5-points of Calvinism, we must examine why they were even written to begin with.  Largely, they were the consequence of a rebuttal to a contrary set of doctrines advanced in Netherlands in the early 17th century.  The “5-points of the Remonstrants”, as they are known, were drafted in 1610 by the Remonstrants, a group who sought to carry on the legacy of their teacher Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609).  They were written to set forth an opposition or protest against the teachings of Calvin, particularly as they were expounded upon by the author of the Belgic Confession (1561)[3].  Written in face of persecution from the Roman Catholic Church, the Belgic Confession remains one of the most helpful and comprehensive confessions of the Reformed faith.  For the purposes of why the Belgic Confession was written, see the helpful article here: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/belgic-confession/

Controversy swirled for nearly a decade after the publication of the Remonstrant’s articles.  To settle the dust storm, a synod was called to examine these articles as they related to the confessions of the Belgic churches.  “This synod convened on November 13, 1618 consisting of 39 pastors and 18 ruling Elders from the Belgic churches, 5 professors from the universities of Holland, 19 delegates from the Reformed churches in Germany and Switzerland, and 5 professors and bishops from Great Britain. France was also invited but did not attend. The Synod was thus constituted of 86 voting members in all. There were 154 formal sessions and many side conferences held during the six months that the Synod met to consider these matters. The last session of the Synod was held on May 9, 1619.”[4]

Upon study of the Remonstrant’s objections, and a comparison of their beliefs with Scripture, the Synod determined that the Arminian doctrines were unscriptural.  Not only did they reject their assertions, but they drafted a rebuttal setting forth the beliefs that had been advanced by Calvin, et.al., coming out of the Reformation.  This document, called formally The Canons of Dort[5], contained, among other issues, a point by point rebuttal of the 5 articles set forth by the Remonstrants.  This summarized 5-point rebuttal is what has become commonly known as the 5-points of Calvinism.  As irony would have it, neither Calvin nor Arminius were alive during this debate, consequently, neither were able to stamp their own signatures upon the beliefs that have now become synonymous with their names.

Below you will find a helpful comparison of the two 5-point systems[6].  It’s not difficult to see the modern evidences of Arminianism in today’s church.  Although Arminianism was rejected at the Synod of Dort, these beliefs were revived from their dormancy through the ministry of John Wesley (1703-1791) (and others) and have come to dominate much of modern evangelicalism.  There is much more that could be said regarding the issue, but numerous books and anthologies have been written documenting the historical debate and defending/rebutting each position as the discussion wears on into the 21st Century.

THE “FIVE POINTS” OF
ARMINIANISM

THE “FIVE POINTS” OF
CALVINISM

Free Will or Human Ability
Although human nature was seriously affected by the fall, man has not been left in a state of total spiritual helplessness. God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe, but He does not interfere with man’s freedom. Each sinner possesses a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it. Man’s freedom consists of his ability to choose good over evil in spiritual matters; his will is not enslaved to his sinful nature. The sinner has the power to either cooperate with God’s Spirit and be regenerated or resist God’s grace and perish. The lost sinner needs the Spirit’s assistance, but he does not have to be regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe, for faith is man’s act and precedes the new birth. Faith is the sinner’s gift to God; it is man’s contribution to salvation.
Total Inability or Total Depravity
Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel. The sinner is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free, it is in bondage to his evil nature, therefore, he will not — indeed he cannot — choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently, it takes much more than the Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ — it takes regeneration by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive 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.
Conditional Election
God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world was based upon His foreseeing that they would respond to His call. He selected only those whom He knew would of themselves freely believe the gospel. Election therefore was determined by or conditioned upon what man would do. The faith which God foresaw and upon which He based His choice was not given to the sinner by God (it was not created by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit) but resulted solely from man’s will. It was left entirely up to man as to who would believe and therefore as to who would be elected unto salvation. God chose those whom He knew would, of their own free will, choose Christ. Thus the sinner’s choice of Christ, not God’s choice of the sinner, is the ultimate cause of salvation.
Unconditional Election
God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world rested solely in His own sovereign will. His 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 God’s choice. Election therefore was not determined by or conditioned upon any virtuous quality or act foreseen in man. Those whom God sovereignly elected He brings through the power of the Spirit to a willing acceptance of Christ. Thus God’s choice of the sinner, not the sinner’s choice of Christ, is the ultimate cause of salvation.
Universal Redemption or General Atonement
Christ’s redeeming work made it possible for everyone to be saved but did not actually secure the salvation of anyone. Although Christ died for all men and for every man, only those who believe on Him are saved. His death enabled God to pardon sinners on the condition that they believe, but it did not actually put away anyone’s sins. Christ’s redemption becomes effective only if man chooses to accept it.
Particular Redemption or Limited Atonement
Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them. His death was a substitutionary endurance 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, therefore guaranteeing their salvation
The Holy Spirit Can Be Effectually Resisted
The Spirit calls inwardly all those who are called outwardly by the gospel invitation; He does all that He can to bring every sinner to salvation. But inasmuch as man is free, he can successfully resist the Spirit’s call. The Spirit cannot regenerate the sinner until he believes; faith (which is man’s contribution) precedes and makes possible the new birth. Thus, man’s free will limits the Spirit in the application of Christ’s saving work. The Holy Spirit can only draw to Christ those who allow Him to have His way with them. Until the sinner responds, the Spirit cannot give life. God’s grace, therefore, is not invincible; it can be, and often is, resisted and thwarted by man.
The Efficacious Call of the Spirit or 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 eternal 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 mean, 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.
Falling From Grace
Those who believe and are truly saved can lose their salvation by failing to keep up their faith. etc. All Arminian, have not been agreed on this point; some have held that believers are eternally secure in Christ — that once a sinner is regenerated. he can never be lost.
Perseverance of the Saints
All who are chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and given faith by the Spirit are eternally saved. They are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and thus persevere to the end.
According to Arminianism: Salvation is accomplished through the combined efforts of God (who takes the initiative) and man(who must respond)—man’s response being the determining factor. God has provided salvation for everyone, but His provision becomes effective only for those who, of their own free will, “choose” to cooperate with Him and accept His offer of grace. At the crucial point, man’s will plays a decisive role; thus man, not God, determines who will be the recipients of the gift of salvation. REJECTED by the Synod of Dort. This was the system of thought contained in the “Remonstrance” (though the “five points” were not originally arranged in this order). It was submitted by the Arminians to the Church of Holland in 1610 for adoption but was rejected by the Synod of Dort in 1619 on the ground that it was unscriptural. 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. Thus God, not man, determines who will be the recipients of the gift of salvation. REAFFIRMED by the Synod of Dort. This system of theology was reaffirmed by the Synod of Dort in 1619 as the doctrine of salvation contained in the Holy Scriptures. The system was at that time formulated into “five points” (in answer to the five points submitted by the Arminians) and has ever since been known as “the five points of Calvinism.”

 

 


[2] It should be noted that many people equate the burning at the stake of Michael Servetus with John Calvin, particularly the inaccurate account written by Voltaire, the source for much of the false information.  In reality, Servetus was convicted of heresy and by law was required to be burned at the stake.  Not by John Calvin.  Calvin actually worked to have the execution sentence changed to a more human form and it has been recounted that Calvin was concerned with the eternal soul of Servetus 16 years earlier and the concern remained up to Servetus’ march to the stake at which he was burnt.

[6] From: http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/reformed-theology/arminianism/calvinism-vs-arminianism-comparison-chart/ –  “The following material from Romans: An Interpretative Outline (pp.144-147). by David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas, contrasts the Five Points of Arminianism with the Five Points of Calvinism in the clearest and most concise form that we have seen anywhere. It is also found in their smaller book, The Five Points of Calvinism (pp. 16-19). Both books are published by The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Philadelphia.(1963). Messrs. Steele and Thomas have served for several years as co-pastors of a Southern Baptist church, in Little Rock, Arkansas.”