The Five Distortions of Calvinism
Some have used the doctrines of grace to excuse a lack of mission or evangelism
Written by David Murray | Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Some don’t want to go all the way with all the five points. For many, the sticking point is limited or definite atonement. Others reject the idea that no believer can ultimately fall away from the faith. But as Steve Lawson points out, “compromising any one of the five points dilutes and diminishes the grace of God.”
As with every truth of God, the Devil has worked to deny or distort every single one of the doctrines of grace, resulting in various errors and imbalances, as the following distortions highlight:
Distortion 1: Heartless Calvinism
Some have used the doctrines of grace to excuse a lack of mission or evangelism. They say that if God has elected a certain number of people and that they will definitely be saved, what’s the point of doing evangelism or missions? Many who wouldn’t actually say that, effectively practice it by rarely witnessing and reaching out with the Gospel to those around about them. However Calvinism does not necessarily produce such heartlessness. In fact it has produced some of the biggest-hearted evangelists in church history.
In Does Calvinism kill missions, Jason Helopoulos produced the following list of famous Calvinist missionaries and evangelists: John Calvin, John Eliot, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, William Tennent, Samuel Davies, William Carey, Robert Moffat, David Livingstone, Robert Morrison, Peter Parker, Adoniram Judson, Charles Simeon, Henry Martyn, Samuel Zwemer, John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, D. James Kennedy. And there are many, many more Calvinists whose names are not so well-known but who have given up all to bring the Gospel to the lost.
Far from hindering evangelism, the doctrines of grace are our only hope in evangelism. Without God’s election, none would choose Christ.
If the doctrines of grace do not make us missionaries and evangelists of grace, it’s unlikely we have ever understood or embraced them rightly.
Distortion 2: Hyper-Calvinism
Similar to the above, some have taken the position that if not all will be saved, we cannot offer the Gospel to everyone in our preaching.
It’s true, we certainly cannot promise universal salvation to every hearer: we cannot promise all our hearers that God has planned their salvation, that Christ has died for their sins, and so on. However, we may and must give universal Gospel invitations to every hearer: we can promise them that if they repent and believe they will be saved. We don’t believe in universal salvation but we do believe in universal invitations.
Other hyper-Calvinists say that we cannot call men and women to be born again, to repent and believe, if they lack the ability to do so. However, this is to put human logic above biblical revelation which confirms our inability and yet commands us to be born again, to repent, and to believe in Christ. For example, Christ knew the man with the withered hand could not stretch it out and yet he commanded him to do so. Our responsibility is not limited by our inability. With the command comes enabling grace.
Distortion 3: Half-hearted Calvinism
Some don’t want to go all the way with all the five points. For many, the sticking point is limited or definite atonement. Others reject the idea that no believer can ultimately fall away from the faith. But as Steve Lawson points out, “compromising any one of the five points dilutes and diminishes the grace of God.” He went on:
To speak of a mere partial corruption of man, one in which the lost sinner is only spiritually sick in his sin, makes a misdiagnosis that grossly diminishes the grace of God. Likewise, to espouse a conditional election that is dependent upon God’s foresight of man’s faith corrupts the grace of God. To teach that Christ made a universal atonement, making salvation possible for all (though actual for none), cheapens the grace of God. To believe in a resistible call that allows for the free will of man compromises the grace of God. And to think of reversible grace, which would allow man to fall away from the faith, contaminates the pure grace of God. These views undermine the grace of God, and because of that, sad to say, they rob God of His glory…. To whatever extent one deviates from any of the five doctrines of grace, one marginalizes the glory that is due to God alone for the salvation of sinners.
Distortion 4: Hateful Calvinism
Some Calvinists not only produce a reaction of hatred in their manner of communicating the doctrines of grace, they also seem to be full of hate towards those who differ from them.
Usually (hopefully) this is just an quick phase that some go through when they first embrace the doctrines of grace (see Early Warning Signs of Adult Onset Calvinism). Sadly, it sometimes seems to go on much longer. This has been called “cage-stage Calvinism” where the baby-Calvinist tries to ram the five points down everyone’s throat, making the points as sharp as possible, often writing off anyone who disagrees with the doctrines they had only recently discovered themselves. As somebody said, “We begin with a humbling doctrine, but we end as prideful jerks.” In Why are Calvinists so negative? John Piper wrote:
I love the doctrines of grace with all my heart, and I think they are pride-shattering, humbling, and love-producing doctrines. But I think there is an attractiveness about them to some people, in large matter, because of their intellectual rigor. They are powerfully coherent doctrines, and certain kinds of minds are drawn to that. And those kinds of minds tend to be argumentative. So the intellectual appeal of the system of Calvinism draws a certain kind of intellectual person, and that type of person doesn’t tend to be the most warm, fuzzy, and tender. Therefore this type of person has a greater danger of being hostile, gruff, abrupt, insensitive, or intellectualistic.
If Calvinism makes you proud, you’re not a Calvinist. The doctrines of grace should produce graciousness.
Distortion 5: Hollow Calvinism
The doctrines of grace should never be considered apart from Christ. To do so is to hollow out their core and just view their remaining shell. It’s like looking at clothes hanging in J C Penney racks rather than viewing them on a supermodel. Every doctrine looks so much better when it clothes Christ, when it is understood in connection with Christ. The doctrines of grace are the doctrines of Christ. Be warned, you can embrace this system of doctrines and fail to embrace Christ.
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand.