What Calvinism Means for the Christian Life
I was once told by one of my non-Calvinist friends that what we believe about predestination, the extent of the atonement of Christ, and how we are “born again” is inconsequential for how we live our lives as Christians. Respectfully, I must say that I disagree. However, for much of my life as a Calvinist, I couldn’t explain why the doctrines of grace mattered for the Christian life. Over time, I have come to understand that the doctrines of grace affect not only the head but the heart and the hands of the Christian.
My prayer for this article is that my non-Calvinist brothers and sisters in Christ will understand the critical implications of Calvinism for our daily lives and see how it leads to a life more dependent on grace. I also pray that many younger Calvinists will be moved by this article to treasure the grace of God and to be more loving in how we contend for the doctrines of grace.
Concerning God’s decree and predestination of the elect, the Second London Confession of Faith teaches,
From all eternity, God decreed everything that occurs, without reference to anything outside Himself (Isaiah 46:10). He did this by the perfectly wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably… Those who are predestined to life were chosen by God before the foundation of the world, according to His eternal and unchangeable purpose and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will. He chose them in Christ for eternal glory, purely as a result of His free grace and love (Ephesians 1:3-14), without anything else about them serving as a condition or cause moving Him to do so (Romans 9:11-16).
All of us may wonder, “How do I know I am elect?” John Calvin argues that we can only discern our election is through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He writes,
If we are elected in Him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look to Him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we contemplate our election.
If you want to know if you have been predestined to eternal life by the Father, look to Jesus, the mirror of your election. When you look into a mirror, you see what you’re wearing. If Christ is the mirror of our election, then, when we look to Him, we see that we are covered with His blood and clothed with His righteousness. Don’t try to gain your assurance before God by your obedience, because you’ll never obey enough. Don’t try to gain your assurance by practicing more spiritual disciplines or by looking to some spiritual experience, because God has not ordained them to be a means of grace.
You’re still a sinner who fails daily to keep God’s commands, but Christ never failed. He obeyed the Law perfectly to be your righteousness and died to satisfy the wrath of God against you. And the Father chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world. His love for you will never change. His love in which He predestined us before the foundation of the world will bring us safely home to Him. As Byron Yawn once said,
Are you going to get home? You better believe you’re going to get home because it would take a force greater than God in Christ to stop it.
Calvinists believe that the extent of the atonement of Christ was limited by God to the elect. That is, Christ did not make redemption potential for everyone who has ever lived in history, but actually “secured an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12) for a definite number of people who are known as the elect. The Calvinist view of the atonement is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to many Evangelical Christians. But let’s think about Limited Atonement, or Particular Redemption, for a moment.
Say, for instance, you told me that you were struggling with assurance because you see all of the sin that is still in you, even after becoming a Christian. You wonder whether or not you still stand condemned in the eyes of a holy God. I would encourage you with these words,
God demonstrated His love for you that He had before the foundation of the world by sending Christ to die for you! You are ungodly. This is true. But ‘while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly’ (Romans 5:6). You’re the type of person Jesus came for. He is interceding on your behalf as your Great High Priest at this very moment (Hebrews 7:25)! Rest in Him for, since, ‘we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God’ (Romans 5:9). You no longer have to fear the wrath of God falling on you, because the wrath of God fell on Christ!
If God loved and Christ died for those who are burning under the just wrath of God in hell for all eternity, my words of encouragement would be pointless. In fact, I would do better to point you back to yourself. Have faith in your faith since, in Arminian theology, faith is a work we add to the redemptive work of Christ. Consider the popular phrase “Jesus does 99% and all you have to do is 1%.” Do you trust Jesus enough? Your baptism? Your profession of faith probably wasn’t sincere. The Lord’s Supper? You’re not worthy to partake. Just fight harder against sin unlike those pagans and clean up your life then maybe you can have some assurance.
But since God demonstrated His covenantal love for the elect when Christ satisfied the justice of God on the cross, and He ended any fear of condemnation on the Last Day, the Apostle Paul joyfully proclaims,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace
It’s good to point out at this juncture that although Christ accomplished redemption with His life, death, and resurrection, the elect “are not justified personally until the Holy Spirit applies Christ to them at the proper time (Colossians 1:21-22, Titus 3:4-7).” This occurs at the moment of regeneration, or when you are “born again” (John 3:3-8) and come into union with Christ. In the Reformed view, regeneration precedes faith. The Holy Spirit frees our will that is in bondage to sin so that we may receive and rest upon Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and the imputation of His righteousness. This is the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. God the Holy Spirit has “caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3, John 1:12-13). God the Holy Spirit “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together in Christ” (Ephesians 2:5).
The doctrine of Irresistible Grace is beautiful, because apart from His sovereign grace, we would still be “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:2-4). But now, we can trust in Jesus and love Him for the beautiful and magnificent Savior He is. Not only that, we have the ability to love our neighbor as ourselves as Ezekiel 36:27 teaches, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” The new heart God has given us can do nothing but overflow in love for God and neighbor as an expression of gratitude for the love in which God has loved us (1 John 4:19).
However, the desires of the flesh are still present within the believer (Galatians 5:17). The Second London Confession of Faith confesses that believers “may fall into grievous sins and continue in them for a time, due to the temptation of Satan and the world, the strength of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of means of their preservation” (Matthew 26:70-74, 2 Samuel 11). But the good news of the Gospel is that God not only fixes our legal standing before Him, but He brings us back into communion with Him that we may have the assurance of His love as “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:6-7). Martin Luther writes concerning the cry of the Spirit in our hearts,
This is but a little word, and yet notwithstanding it comprehends all things. The mouth speaks not, but the affections of the heart speaks after this manner. Although I be oppressed with anguish and terror on every side, and seem to be forsaken and utterly cast away from thy presence, yet I am thy child, and thou art my Father for Christ’s sake: I am beloved because of the Beloved.
Perseverance of the Saints
The Canons of Dort summarizes succinctly what Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace means for the certainty of our salvation:
Thus it is not in consequence of their own merits or strength, but of God’s free mercy, that they neither totally fall from faith and grace nor continue and perish finally in their backslidings; which with respect to themselves is not only possible, but would undoubtedly happen; but with respect to God, it is utterly impossible, since His counsel cannot be changed nor His promise fail; neither can the call according to His purpose be revoked, nor the merit, intercession, and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated.
Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace are the reasons why we believe we can never lose our salvation but have the certainty of eternal life. Apart from the Doctrines of Grace, one simply has no ground to be assured of eternal life. We have the certainty of salvation because “salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10). Therefore, we ascribe all honor and glory and worship to our triune God. If what we believe about the Doctrines of Grace are inconsequential, then we will never have the certainty of our salvation nor understand how much we ought to worship our God.
Some may be wondering at the conclusion of this article about what the practical application of Calvinism is. Where’s all the stuff I have to do? But that’s the point. There is nothing left to do. For this is what Reformed theology offers to the skeptical Evangelical: a daily rest in the promises of God in Christ Jesus. The crescendo of all of the grand and glorious doctrines of Reformed theology is the Person and work of Jesus Christ. We need only to rest in Him and the duties of the Christian life will be performed from the natural overflow of our redeemed hearts. Of this rest, Calvin concludes,
While proclaiming the mercies of the Lord, they never lose sight of His free favor, with all its ‘breadth and length, and depth and height,’ testified by Paul (Ephesians 3:18); as if he had said, ‘Whithersoever the believer turns, however loftily he climbs, however far and wide his thoughts extend, he must not go farther than the love of Christ, but must be wholly occupied in meditating upon it, as including in itself all dimensions.’