Are Calvinists, or is Calvinism, as cold and heartless as some say? This article shows a different way. It highlights the heart of John Calvin, the biblical roots of Calvinism, and how doctrine moulds character.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 2007. 3 pages.

Winsome Calvinism

There is a common notion among some Christians that Calvinism is hard-edged and hard-nosed. If this jibe were directed against some Calvinists, I would have little about which to object. Sadly, within the professing Christian church there have been, and presently are, men and women who are prickly, metallic, cold-hearted and clinical. This, however, is as true of non-Calvinists as it is of Calvinists. That any Christian should be hard-edged and hard-nosed is a contradiction of the grace of God in our Lord Jesus Christ, who himself was 'gentle and lowly in heart' (Matt.1 1:29). Indeed, the gospel calls upon believers to 'be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave (them)' (Eph.4:32). Still, the jibe of hard-edged and hard-nosed is most often directed against Calvinism as a theological system. Is this criticism fair? Is Calvinism the cold, heartless theology that some say it is? Are Calvinists (and I am an unashamed, unreconstructed Calvinist), because of their commitment to the theology of John Calvin, by definition people with whom you would not want to be stranded on a desert island? Allow me to answer these questions, first historically, and then biblically.

The History of John Calvinโค’๐Ÿ”—

John Calvin must be one of the most maligned figures in the history of the church. He is commonly thought to have been a theological tyrant, the church equivalent of Genghis Khan, a man who brooked no rivals and who crushed all opposition. The myth, sadly, continues to the present. There is no doubt that Calvin was a towering figure in the middle decades of the sixteenth century. He was recognized by friend and foe alike as a theological giant. Almost single-handedly he kept Geneva faithful to the Reformed cause and defended and promoted that cause by his commentaries, treatises, letters, and above all by his magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion. So much is generally agreed.

What is less well appreciated is that Calvin shrank from the conflict of the day. His heart was set upon the quiet life of a scholar, toward which, he states, his 'poor, timid heart' inclined. It was with some strong initial reluctance that he agreed to stay and help the infant Reformed church in Geneva. Two years later, in 1538, the Genevans decided they had had enough of Calvin and his insistence that the Bible be the church's and the city's sole rule of faith and life. He went to Strasbourg and, for more than three years, enjoyed the life of a pastor-scholar among the French evangelical refugees. In 1541 Geneva, which had known only tumult and doctrinal controversy since Calvin had left, pleaded with him to return. Upon hearing that Geneva wanted him back, Calvin said he would rather die a thousand deaths than return there. However, return he did since, in the end, he believed he could not disobey 'the heavenly calling'. The measure of Calvin the man is seen in the passage he preached on immediately after his return. With no recrimination he picked up exactly where he had left off three years before and 'preached the Word'.

It was not until 1555 that Calvin's supporters gained the majority in the Genevan Councils. Until then a mixture of malcontents and Libertines had resolutely opposed Calvin (and his biblical theology). Far from exercising a domineering control, Calvin suffered many indignities at the hands of his opponents, many of whom deeply resented 'ille Gallus' ('that Frenchman'). Calvin was not slow to admit that at times he had acted over hastily and even intemperately. But his faults were the faults of a man whose heart and soul were committed to the evangelical faith, in an age when it was threatened by an abundance of enemies both inside and outside Geneva.

Far from being a forbidding tyrant, Calvin was so highly esteemed that his advice and counsel were sought after by leaders of reform throughout Europe. Far from being theologically inflexible, Calvin was willing to lay aside some cherished convictions if by doing so the Reformed cause might exhibit a greater unity. Further, Calvin's Geneva was a centre for missionary activity. Pioneer missionaries were sent to Brazil as well as to Roman Catholic countries like France and Poland. A quick reading of T. H. L. Parker's biographyย 1of Calvin, for example, would do much to dispel the myths that surround the Reformation's greatest theologian. He was, of course, a man of his times. Like Luther, he draws down the opprobrium of moderns who have little time for dogmatic Christians and dogmatic theology. But, like Luther, Calvin was above all a biblical theologian and the warm, engaging, scintillating Institutio confirms to any unbiased reader what a pastoral, biblically-controlled theologian and church leader he was.

Biblical Roots of Calvinismโ†โค’๐Ÿ”—

Secondly, and more to the point, 'Calvinism' (Calvin would have hated the term) claims to be nothing more than the evangelical teachings of Holy Scripture. It is a matter of some regret that many Christians' knowledge of Calvinism is restricted to the acrostic TULIP. However, the truths highlighted in TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited or definite atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints) are, I would certainly contend, truths clearly taught in God's Word.

But Calvinism is grander, vaster, and more comprehensive than these five truths. This is exemplified in what B. B. Warfield called 'the formative principle of Calvinism'. Contrary to what many assume, the formative principle of both Calvin himself and of Calvinism is not predestination but the glory of God. Calvin was so conscious that the biblical doctrine (for biblical it is) of predestination was 'a high and holy mystery' that he waited until Book 3 of the Institutes before he expounded it. For Calvin the supreme focus of the Christian life was God's glory.

Calvinism is natively God-centred. More particularly Calvinism, as expressed in Calvin's Institutes is self-consciously Trinitarian, expounding the teaching of Scripture in terms of 'the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit' (2 Cor. 13:14). One hundred or so years later John Owen, in Communion with God (vol. 2 of his Works), expressed the same emphasis. Indeed, B. B. Warfield argued that Calvin's distinctive contribution to the history of Christian doctrine in no sense lay in his exposition of the doctrines of predestination and election (which were far from new), but in his teaching on the Holy Spirit (in particular the Testimonium Spiritus Sancti).

Some Enticing Calvinistsโ†โค’๐Ÿ”—

The question, then, is this. Why has Calvinism been identified as cold, metallic, narrow-hearted and hard-nosed, when so many Calvinists were, and are, selfless, sacrificial servants of Christ? (Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, John Eliot, Brainerd, Whitefield, Spurgeon, John G. Paton, M'Cheyne, to name but nine). The answer lies in the antipathy of the human heart to the unconditionality of God's sovereignty. We see this in the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Jesus concluded his lengthy teaching on the grace and sovereignty of God in salvation in John 6, he told his hearers, 'There are some of you who do not believe ... This is why I told you that no-one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father' (John. 6:64-65). For Jesus, God's unconditional sovereignty was not something to hide from people, far less something of which to be ashamed. In Matthew 11:25 and following, Jesus told his disciples that if anyone 'knows the Father', it is because 'the Son chooses to reveal him' to him. Far from being embarrassed by the unconditional nature of God's sovereignty in salvation, Jesus encouraged himself and reassured his disciples in its certainty. He stated, 'All that the Father gives me will come to me ... And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day' (John 6:37,39). This confidence in divine sovereignty did not produce evangelistic lethargy or narrow-hearted arrogance in our Lord Jesus Christ. On the contrary, his passion for God's glory in the salvation of sinners shone from a life that was 'gentle and lowly in heart' (Matt. 11:29).

Doctrine Moulds Characterโ†โค’๐Ÿ”—

A biblical belief in the sovereignty of God smashes, not cultivates, human pride. When we are brought to see that we owe every phase of our salvation to the gracious, electing kindness of God, we can only cry out with Paul, 'Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! ... For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen' (Rom. 11:33, 36).

A proud Calvinist is an oxymoron. What do we have that we did not first receive? (cf. 1 Cor.4:7-8). We are 'debtors to mercy alone'. This is why the essence of being 'Reformed' lies ultimately in conformity to our Lord Jesus Christ. The TR (the 'Truly Reformed', a truly horrible phrase!) is not he who is most definite and sharp-edged in his espousal of the doctrines of grace, but he who is most like our Saviour. If our commitment to the biblical theology of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms is not matched by a conformity to Christ's likeness, we have never understood what the Confession and Catechisms are teaching. This is simply another way of saying, 'By their fruits you will know them.'

Calvinism challenges the residual pride in human hearts. We are naturally and natively far more comfortable with Arminianism, which allows us to make a contribution to our salvation. To be confronted by the truth of our total inability is deeply humbling, but it is the truth of God's own Word, not a notion that John Calvin concocted in Geneva. Becoming persuaded of this and casting ourselves solely on God's mercy in Christ knocks (in large measure) the pride out of us and teaches us to live as men and women who glory in the God of grace. This is simply another way of saying that Calvinism puts God where he belongs and puts us where we belong. This is the test of authentic, biblical Christianity.

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