Episode #76: Are You a Calvinist?

by Derek Brown & Cliff McManis

In this episode, pastors Derek and Cliff ask the question, “What is Calvinism?” while also discussing some distinctives of Calvin’s theology and ministry.


Derek: Welcome to the With All Wisdom Podcast, where we are applying biblical truth to everyday life. I’m here today with Cliff McManis. My name is Derek Brown and we are both pastors and elders at Creekside Bible Church in Cupertino, California. We both have the privilege of serving as professors of theology at the Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary in Vallejo, California. And today we are on part two of our discussion of John Calvin. But before we get back to our topic, I wanna encourage you to check out withallwisdom.org, where you will find a large and growing collection of resources all rooted in God’s Word and aimed at helping you grow in your walk with the Lord Jesus. Alright, let’s get back to our topic, Cliff. We picked this up in a previous episode and I’d encourage you to check out that episode, part one, on John Calvin. And today, before we get into his specific theology and teaching, Cliff, you had a several practical questions that you wanted to pose before we get into some of his theology. And so I just wanna hand it right over to you and see what you have on your list there.

Cliff: Yeah. Some of these questions, I didn’t prepare you with, Derek, on purpose, ’cause I wanted to see what your gut reaction was. <laugh> Because I actually get these questions pretty frequently at the church from visitors who come to our church. And that’s been true for the last 17 years that we’ve been at this church, where every so often a visitor comes, first time visitor, and after the service would come up and ask all kinds of questions. But a routine one is regarding Calvinism. And it might be, so is this church Calvinistic? Or they personalize it to me as the pastor. So are you a Calvinist? Have you ever had that experience, Derek? Do people ask you that?

Derek: They have.

Cliff: Yeah. What do you do? How do you respond to that? What’s your initial gut reaction? Especially, I mean, there’s different contexts, but after church, some visitor you have never met in your life. And you’re in the visitor’s line at church and they just ask you that.

Derek: Well, I think it was you who taught me this, either by telling me or just by example. But what you have to do is you have to ask them what they mean, because you don’t know what they could mean. They could have a particular view of Calvinism that is hyper-Calvinistic, which I reject. It’s not Calvinism, but that’s what they have in their mind. So then if they ask me “are you Calvinist?” and I say, “yes, I’m a Calvinist,” just like that, without finding out what they mean by that, then all of a sudden they have a wrong view of me and what I believe merely because I agreed that yes, I’m a Calvinist. So I now, whenever someone asks me kind of about a specific label in the area of theology or belief in scripture, I always ask them, what do you mean by that?

Cliff: Yeah. That’s a great answer. I do the same. Usually that’s my answer. I think I learned that from Jesus. Because a lot of times when somebody asked him a question, he wouldn’t give a direct answer. He might follow up with a question himself. So Jesus was the master getting clarity. I’ll have first time visitors ask me that—are you a Calvinist? And then I will usually say, well, what do you mean specifically by that? Just for clarity’s sake. But also, even recently, a longtime member of our church here that’s been basically hearing me preach for 15 years, asked me if I was a Calvinist and if our church was Calvinistic—after being here for 15 years. So that surprised me. I didn’t know how to answer that. The only thing I can think of is maybe they were reading something recently that informed them of what they thought Calvinism was. And so they wanted to see if that was true. So I think that’s great advice, on those kind of things. Some questions are clear and direct and very specific. And then there are others that just come with a lot of baggage, history, misconceptions, and caricatures, where you just kind of need to get more specific. What do you mean by that? I think that’s one of them. Are you a Calvinist? Which leads me to my next question, Derek. How would you define Calvinism? Well, no, before that question, here’s what I thought I need to ask, Derek. This question. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of John Calvin?

Derek: When I think of John Calvin?

Cliff: Yeah. When you think of Calvin.

Derek: Oh, I think, it’s funny now, actually. The more that I’ve read and studied of Calvin, I think of Calvin as a man who loved the Bible. That’s what I think of. I think of him—I think of his Institutes. I think of his commentaries. I think of him as a pastor. Someone who loved to shepherd the people of God, who was immersed in scripture, who values scripture above all texts. That’s how I think of him now.

Cliff: Same here. When somebody says John Calvin, I just think—I have happy thoughts. For the exact same reasons you just said. Having read Calvin and I continue to benefit from his writing ministry, from his commentaries and his theology. That’s what I think of Calvin. A pastor, a shepherd, a scholar. Which is what, you know, the Cornerstone Seminary is big on. Right?

Derek: Yep. That’s right.

Cliff: I mean, seminary professors should be pastors. Because it’s all about the local church and the body of Christ and God’s word. So I’m the same. I think, when I think of Calvin, I think of a faithful pastor, a shepherd, as well as a scholar and a genius. An exemplary scholar. A great model and example. You know how Paul exhorts Timothy the pastor to be an example to all the flock. Be an example. “Be thou one example,” says the King James. That’s a requirement of a pastor. You need to be an example to your church people. And I think Calvin was an example for Christians. So then the other question is, how would you define Calvinism? What’s your short answer?

Derek: Well, so Calvinism is typically understood within that acronym of TULIP. So just briefly, that stands for: T stands for total depravity. Meaning that Calvinism starts with the idea that man is totally depraved, unable to save himself, without a will that freely desires to go to God or to believe in Christ and is dead and trespasses and sins. For that reason, you need unconditional election. That’s the U. Unconditional election is required because we’re dead in sin. It’s not as though God can look down the corridors of time and see, oh, Derek’s gonna believe in me, therefore, I will elect him. No, I am depraved. I’m unable to believe in Christ, and therefore my election must be unconditional. It can’t be conditioned on God foreseeing my faith; rather, it’s unconditional. God chooses me out of his good pleasure and for no reason in and of myself. And so that would be the U. L—I don’t prefer the L. I prefer the I. I’m not a TULIP guy. I’m a TUDIP guy. I prefer to say definite atonement—that Christ died and in Christ’s death, he actually saves the people for whom he died. But that has historically been called limited atonement. But I prefer to say definite atonement because what I mean by that is that Christ’s death is effective. When he died on the cross, he actually saved those for whom he died. Irresistible grace—that’s the I. That refers to the fact that God, when he’s unconditionally chosen or elected one of his people, he will draw them irresistibly to Christ. This is John chapter six. And the Father draws to Christ. And that grace is powerful. It actually changes the heart. Not that we’re drawn, kicking and screaming, to Christ, but rather our hearts and our wills are changed so that we want to come to Christ more than anything in the world. And then finally the perseverance of the saints.

Cliff: Can I comment on that?

Derek: Yeah, go ahead.

Cliff: Because I think you make a good recommendation on the limited atonement versus definite atonement. There’s been a lot of discussion over the last 50 years on maybe redefining some of the nomenclature of TULIP. Definite atonement, and also irresistible grace. Some people think, oh, you don’t have a say in it. God saves you against your will. And so some in the reformed [circles] prefer efficacious grace. Because God definitely initiates the grace, but it’s efficacious. But he doesn’t save you against your will. As a matter of fact, Calvin says, God doesn’t save you against your will. And then the last one, you were gonna say…

Derek: Perseverance of the saints, meaning that the person who’s genuinely saved will continue to believe until the very end. They don’t lose their salvation. Meaning that they will not apostatize or reject Christ, but that they actually persevere in faith until they die and meet the Lord.

Cliff: And then I need to comment on that last one, too. Because that’s another one that’s gone through modification and change in the reformed camp, where they don’t like to say perseverance anymore because that puts the impetus on the individual when salvation is all of God. He’s sovereign. So a lot of them are saying, instead of perseverance, now they’re saying preservation. Preservation of the saints. Anyway, all those little nuances. Did Calvin go around talking about TULIP all the time? I mean, was he English speaking and [did he] use those letters, Derek?

Derek: No, he did not. In fact, I was about to mention that this TULIP and the way of formalizing the theology—this actually came later at something called Synod of Dort, where they actually formalize these things over against Armenians who were arguing against these views. TULIP actually is answering directly some Armenian principles regarding salvation. So, for example, I mentioned unconditional election. They would believe in conditional election. But my point is simply to say that what was happening at the Synod was that they were formalizing what they believed. So this is a theological formalizing of what they believe Calvin taught. Calvin himself, like you said, did not walk around talking about TULIP. He did not in his Institutes have a section called TULIP where he broke things down this way, though he talks about each of those topics in turn. It’s not framed this way in the Institutes. This is something that was formalized later.

Cliff: Yeah, that’s true. And as a matter of fact, his Institutes, the final version especially, was not modeled after TULIP, but after the Apostles’ Creed.

Derek: That’s a great point.

Cliff: And the Trinity, basically. Its first section is on God the Father, and then Jesus and salvation. Section three is on the work of the Holy Spirit. And then the final section is on church—the Body of Christ. Not TULIP. And then TULIP, actually, being that the Synod of Dort was a bunch of Dutch-speaking guys, and Tulip is not spelled T-U-L-I-P and it’s Dutch, it is actually a later innovation probably from 20th century English-speaking people. So it’s much of a Johnny-come-lately, hindsight kind of a thought. I don’t even think TULIP’s the best way to summarize Calvinism, myself. But it’s pretty popular. That’s how it’s understood. Anyway, so going back to your summary of what does Derek think Calvinism is? Because you’re right. He does emphasize those five points.

Derek: So I would say that Calvin himself believed in unconditional election. He believed in total depravity. He believed in those things. But I would say that, in terms of what Calvinism is, if you’re understanding is in the Synod of Dort sense, then yes, Calvin does speak of those things and defend those things from Scripture. But actually, I think what characterizes Calvin and Calvinism is an emphasis on justification by faith. And an emphasis on God’s providence and his sovereignty. He emphasizes the centrality of the Word of God, the centrality of the Holy Spirit, and the life of the believer. In fact, some even called Calvin the theologian of the Spirit, believe it or not. And so, these elements that are formalized at the Synod of Dort, they are things that Calvin definitely believed and maintained, but it was not as though these things were the main or overall flavor of Calvin’s ministry, though he firmly believed in all of them. It’s reductionistic to make it sound as though this is all that Calvin stood for.

Cliff: I agree. What do you think—because you mentioned some things in there that typified Calvin’s thinking—but some of those were also true of Martin Luther. So what, even more specifically, what are distinctives of John Calvin—the man and his theology—would you say, versus other reformers or other theologians, if anything stands out? I mean, you mentioned a couple that I thought were good.

Derek: I do think I mentioned his understanding of the testimony of the Holy Spirit is a significant contribution. I think he advances Martin Luther on this particular doctrine and is very helpful. And to this day, I think it is useful. So that was significant. He emphasized union with Christ. That was a big contribution as well. And that’s particularly helpful because that answers the questions that are often raised against justification by faith. If you’re justified by faith, then you can just do whatever you want. And Calvin’s point is like, no, all of the blessings we receive in Christ are given to us in union with Christ—both our justification and our sanctification. So you can’t be justified and not sanctified because you’re united to Christ who both justifies you and sanctifies you. So he gave some conceptual clarity to how justification and sanctification are held together in that greater umbrella of union with Christ. And so that’s another big contribution, I think, of Calvin.

Cliff: Yeah. You mentioned God’s sovereignty. I think that’s huge. Michael Horton makes a good point. And he says, a lot of people think, when they think John Calvin, they think predestination. But he actually said very little about that, comparatively speaking. And that’s true. The sovereignty of God, though, is definitely a dominant theme in all of Calvin, which sets him apart from Armenian thinking. I agree with you on the Holy Spirit. If you go through his Institutes, he talks about and expands just about every key doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer, from salvation to final preservation and sanctification, in a way that few had done before him, in terms of systematizing that. So the work of the Holy Spirit, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the image of God in man is distinct to Calvin in terms of his development of it. One thing you and I talk about is common grace. When you trace the theology of common grace from all of our favorite theologians, it ends up with Calvin.

Derek: It does. Yeah.

Cliff: And then another distinctive of Calvin is exposing all the compromise of the Roman Catholic Church. And how they just weren’t being biblical. We have got to get back to the Bible. And then people need to be reminded. He’s called a reformer, but he wasn’t really the groundbreaking reformer. He joined the Reformation. He didn’t start the reformation.

Derek: Yes. Good point.

Cliff: But a lot of good stuff with Calvin. You got time for another question, Derek?

Derek: Sure.

Cliff: On Calvinism. Is our church—Creekside Bible Church—are we Calvinistic? And if so, in what ways and in what ways are we not?

Derek: Again, it depends on what you mean by that. But I would say, yes, in some ways we are, and in some ways we are not. So in some ways we are, you could say with regard to our doctrine of salvation. We believe God is sovereign over the salvation of all people. And we believe that God’s acting upon us in efficacious ways that are necessary because we’re dead in sin. But something that Calvin also emphasized, by the way, was human responsibility. You must repent and believe. So, we would also hold to that. Both things are true and both things are necessary. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. God must cause us to be born again and raised up. And he will do that and must do that sovereignly. Yet at the same time, we are fully responsible to repent and believe, and God holds us responsible. So in that sense, we don’t believe in a libertarian free will, but we believe that the will is bound by sin and enslaved, and therefore needs to be freed and changed by God and his Spirit. So in that sense, we are Calvinistic. We do believe in the sovereignty of God. And he rules meticulously, he knows all things, he knows all things exhaustively, and he has exhaustive foreknowledge, not just some kind of simple foreknowledge. But what he knows is what will happen. And he decrees all that will happen, and his purposes cannot be thwarted. So we’re Calvinistic in that sense.

Cliff: He was also an expository teacher.

Derek: There we go. Right. We are Calvinistic in that sense.

Cliff: He was into the exegetical study and then the expositional proclamation of books of the Bible in a systematic way.

Derek: And a cool story about that is, when he left Geneva and then came back to Geneva, you might be thinking his first sermon would be a rebuke for kicking him out the first time. And what he did was, he just picked up on the next verse, after a three year break in between. I think it was the book of Isaiah. Was it preaching through Isaiah? I can’t remember. He gets booted out of the church, comes back three years later, picks up on the next verse.

Cliff: He had the right focus. He just wanted to get to the exposition of the word of God. He preached in Geneva, but twice on Sundays, and either three times a week or five days a week, teaching and preaching. Sometimes the five days a week was alternate weeks. That’s a lot of preaching. He preached over 2,000 sermons while in Geneva. He preached expositionally through the book of Deuteronomy. And usually they say he preached without notes, but he was teaching from the overflow of his study, which was tremendous. He did 200 lessons or sermons on Deuteronomy.

Derek: That’s unbelievable.

Cliff: The master expositor. We have more questions for you, Derek.

Derek: Well, I was gonna say one way we’re not Calvinistic is that Calvin believed that you should baptize infants. We don’t believe that. We believe that only believers should be [baptized].

Cliff: Yes. And this would be kind of the residual of his Roman Catholic upbringing, right? Because him and Luther—actually, I think just about all the original reformers were Catholic.

Derek: Yeah.

Cliff: And then they joined the Reformation, or started the Reformation in the case of [Luther]. I mean, Luther had predecessors, but still. So Luther was into infant baptism. Calvin. A lot of ’em, weren’t they?

Derek: Yeah. And so, like you said, a kind of hangover, you could say, from their previous religious experience.

Cliff: Sorry, are you saying we shouldn’t baptize babies? Is that what I’m hearing?

Derek: Well, absolutely not. We would find ourselves in the Baptist tradition. And that’s not merely a tradition. We believe that, biblically speaking, there’s zero warrant for infant baptism and that only believers should [be baptized].

Cliff: It’s not in the Bible. Which is interesting and ironic, because of all the Christian traditions on planet earth today, among our 8 billion people, we are in the super minority in the Christian communities and traditions in that we don’t believe or hold to infant baptism. I mean, if you counted the Catholic church, Presbyterian churches, Lutheran churches, Episcopal churches, Methodist churches. We are in the super minority. And yet you are telling me the biblical position is we should not be baptizing babies?

Derek: Correct.

Cliff: I agree with you.

Derek: It all has to do with how you understand the relationship of the New to the Old Covenant. But that’s probably for another podcast.

Cliff: It is. So we are not Calvinistic in terms of baptizing. There is some ecclesiology where we would agree with Calvin. And I think we were blessed by some of his work where he—and this probably comes from his exposition of the pastoral epistles and just the New Testament. He systematizes this in his Institutes, where he critiqued the Roman Catholic church for unbiblical hierarchy of God’s church and dismantled it and said it was basically an abuse of power. And then he recognizes from the pastoral epistles and Paul and the apostles of God’s basic hierarchy of the church. And that is a community or a colleague of shepherds or what we would call a plurality of elders and deacons. So Calvin does a nice job at that. It’s not highly developed into the Presbyterian system that we have today. Calvin didn’t do that. He’s not even responsible for that system as much as John Knox in the Scottish tradition. But when you read Calvin on church hierarchy, he is sticking close to scripture and what Timothy says. Good stuff.

Derek: So in that sense, we’re Calvinist.

Cliff: Yeah. Anything else? I’m thinking eschatology.

Derek: Oh. So I would say we’re not Calvinistic in our theology because we are pre-millennial. And he was probably amillennial.

Cliff: Yes, he was. And he did not have much use for Israel, sadly. As a matter of fact, in his Institutes, over and over again, he keeps saying that the promise that God made to Abraham and the descendants of Israel, which would be the Jews, when the first time he does it in Genesis 12:7, I think, where God tells Abraham, I’m gonna give to your descendants the land. And then he says in Genesis 17, that’s an eternal, everlasting promise that I will give you the land. I’ll give you the land. And then Calvin says, nah, everlasting. That’s not a long-term, everlasting promise that Israel has a future regarding the land. He says that the promise given to Israel in the Old Testament regarding the land is fulfilled when Jesus comes in the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus says, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land; they shall inherit the Earth. And thus he supplants the promise given to Israel that was literally in the Old Testament. So, that’s unfortunate. That’s displacement theology, which we would not hold to. And, as a result, I think disparages the future of Israel that God gave to them through Abraham.

Derek: Which is clear in Romans 11. But again, that’s probably for another podcast.

Cliff: Yes. So, are we Calvinistic at our church in many ways? We are. And I think in many important ways.

Derek: Great question. Hopefully that encourages our people also when they’re asked that question. Or is your church that you go to Calvinistic? Well, it depends on what you mean by that. Here’s the way we are and here’s the way we’re not.

Cliff: Yep. Um, and then can I make a recommendation? You’ve probably got some resources. Derek, I don’t know if there have been some good books or biographies that you thought were helpful for those who want to do further study on Calvin. A little one, John Calvin: His Life and Influence by Robert Raymond. I actually haven’t read this. I think they were giving it away at a Shepherd’s Conference. Haven’t read it, but it’s a shorter book for those who don’t like to read a lot of stuff. And I’m recommending this one because I like Robert Raymond. He does good stuff. Robert L. Raymond. Short one on Calvin. One that I actually have read by a friend of mine actually—his name is Curt Daniel. He’s also a good friend of Phil Johnson. He has reformed conferences and Calvin conferences, and he invites Phil Johnson on a regular basis. So Curt Daniel’s done a wonderful work here. It’s called The History and Theology of Calvinism. And it’s a doozy. It’s a thousand pages, small print, and just about everything you want to know about Calvin and his theology is in there. And then there’s a good series of lectures on YouTube by Dr. Reeves from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s got good stuff on history. He’s a history scholar. He’s really good. And he’s probably got six or seven lectures on Calvin and does a great job. And I think one of the biographies that he recommends on that one is by this guy Herman J. Selderhuis. I don’t even know if I’m spelling it or pronouncing it right. It’s called John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life. And then finally, this one is a very bad book. There are people who write with a chip on their shoulder. Or they have an agenda and they promote caricatures and things about Calvin or just any given topic. They don’t do a service to the church. So in other words, I’m not recommending this book. I’m saying beware of this book. It’s called Rock and Sand. It’s an orthodox appraisal of the Protestant reformers and their teachings. It’s a true scholar that wrote this with, I believe, a PhD. I actually know him personally. We went to college together, and I was just disappointed in it because his chapter on Calvin is just terrible because he misrepresents him. And all he wants to do is just tear him down and just paint with broad strokes and basically just disparages Calvin. There’s nothing good about Calvin.

Derek: Not a fair, honest reading.

Cliff: No. And those were my recommendations.

Derek: In terms of actual biographies that I’ve read, I’ve read the Institutes. I’ve read a lot of his commentaries. And then what I’ve learned of Calvin in some just general church histories that have been faithful to accurately represent the Reformation. And one that I’m really enjoying right now, in fact—I’m trying to read my way through all five volumes—is Nick Needham’s 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, which is quite an amazing work with how it can speak of so much that you have to talk about in church history, yet do it concisely and keep you interested. And it’s got a lot of good stuff about Calvin in that work. And just in all the other major reformers and folks in church history. So that’s just a great series in terms of a church history.

Cliff: Yeah. I have that one as well. Good stuff.

Derek: I think that’s all I have in terms of—oh, I was gonna say the only other biography that I’ve read was a very, very short one. I don’t know if you know that John Piper does these little pastoral biographies, and then they’ve collected into these books and he’s got a short little one on Calvin, which is great. He focused on Calvin as the preacher and Calvin as the one who exalted God’s sovereignty. And so he kind of takes this theological interest and displays it in Calvin’s life. And that’s an edifying little biography. I mean, it’s only 60 pages long and it’s a collection of three other biographies. That’s it. It’s in the Swans Are Not Silent series. So it’s an edifying little series and then an edifying little section on Calvin as well.

Cliff: So you can read biographies, but this would be my last comment on this topic, Derek. And I would encourage all of our listeners, if you’re a Christian, to get a copy of the Institutes—you can actually get it free online. Or you can buy it pretty cheap and just start reading slowly through it. If you want to know about Calvin, the best thing to do is just read what he said, and the Institutes probably is the place to start. It’ll take you a while. You can read it as a devotional. And just go through it slowly and you will be blessed.

Derek: Yeah. Great idea. Read the primary sources.

Cliff: Primary sources. I had a Cornerstone Seminary pastor last week call me on the phone because his young wife wants to read the Institutes.

Derek: Wow. There you go.

Cliff: And so he was asking me for a recommendation of what version? What version. That was cool.

Derek: That is cool. It’s edifying. Don’t let the size of it intimidate you. Another thing that characterized Calvin that is probably important to bring up is that he’s known for what some have called it his lucid brevity. So he’s not verbose. He’s concise, clear, easy to understand. He’s writing for the people. And the Institutes is big just because there’s a lot of little sections in it. It’s a collection of a lot of little sections on thoughts on God and his word and so on.

Cliff: Yeah. Calvin is readable.

Derek: That’s right.

Cliff: Good point.

Derek: He’s actually used as an example of how modern pastors should be. We shouldn’t—and even scholars—we shouldn’t try to be overwhelming people with our word choice and long, convoluted sentences, but rather teach in a way that’s clear, concise, edifying, and helpful,

Cliff: Great economy with words.

Derek: Well that was, that was a fun. Any more questions? Are we gonna move on to our next episode to talk specifically about some of his teaching and theology and hear from some quotes?

Cliff: Yeah. I think we should go on to our next topic.

Derek: Alright, let’s do it. When we come back, we will delve into Calvin’s theology, hear from him and hear some quotes from his various sources that he wrote. And we will also be back to wrap things up in this third episode. We encourage you to go back to listen to the first one, and also check out withallwisdom.org where you’ll find all kinds of resources that’ll help you grow in your Christian faith. Until next time, keep seeking the Lord in his Word.

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