As we have seen over and over, part of the divide and argument concerning Calvinism is a definition of Calvinism. Someone will say, “Calvinism teaches or believes…” A Calvinist will answer, “We don’t believe that.” Others will reply, “Well we know self-identified Calvinists who claim this.” Discussion spirals downward.
But Calvinism proper has a particular definition. For the sake of discussion among Baptists, we, of course, limit this to the arena of soteriology. No Baptist worth his salt agrees with Calvin or a Reformed/Presbyterian system on all matters of baptism and ecclesiology. Indeed, regardless of our feelings about the “Reformed” label, all Baptists despite their soteriological position essentially hold that Baptists have reformed further than the reformers, going back to a more faithful scriptural stance in rejecting paedobaptism and accepting credobaptism.
So when Baptists speak of Calvinism we limit ourselves to the finer points of our doctrine of salvation.
Even then, Calvinism has a particular definition. Perhaps, though, Calvinism is a misnomer and a term like “Dortianism” applies better. For it is the Canons of Dort that ultimately define a classical Calvinistic soteriology. It will do us well to admit that in the centuries since Dort there have been by various groups and individuals different adaptations of the Canons.
For instance, in speaking about the extent of the atonement, the Canons basically say Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient for all people but it is efficient or effective only for the elect. The common view of unlimited atonement rejects this formulation for a sufficient/sufficient one, but there is also another rejection that favors an efficient/efficient formula—thus limiting both the extent and application to the elect. Some argue this is still Calvinism; it just “goes beyond” the classical understanding. But in reality this, what we could label a “hyper-limited atonement,” is no more properly Dortian than unlimited atonement.
Still, there are modern day theologians who hold to unlimited or hyper-limited atonement and still claim “Calvinism.” Both may be a form but neither are classical in reference to the Canons.
Below, I will provide a brief description of Calvinism as defined by the Canons of Dort. This is not an attempt to defend the points biblically—that is beyond the scope of this post. Nor is this a full exposition of Dort. The version/translation I am using (available here) is 14 pages long with small print. A full exposition would require a series of posts, and is again beyond the scope of what I intend.
Instead, I hope to provide a clear and basic explanation of Calvinism in the classical/Dortian sense. And therefore shed clearer light on the idea that aberrations to this, while still potentially broadly Calvinistic, do not speak for the classical use of the term. The titles for each section below are drawn from the Canons of Dort itself.
First Head of Doctrine: Divine Election and Reprobation
The first lines of the Canon declare that all men “have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death.” It defends God’s justice in that he could have chosen to condemn us all and not be in the wrong. Yet it points to God’s love, quoting from John 3:16, that God manifested his love by sending his Son so whoever believes will not perish but have eternal life. In order for men to believe and have such salvation, “God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings,” with the ministry to call people to repentance and faith in Christ crucified.
God’s wrath remains upon those who do not believe the Gospel. “But such as receive it and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith are by Him delivered form the wrath of God…and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them.”
A person’s guilt, unbelief, and all other sins are caused “in man himself; whereas faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him is the free gift of God.” It is here we come to Article 6 which begins, “That some receive the gift of faith and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree.” In that, “He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe; while He leaves the non-elect in his just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy.”
Article 7 states, “Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He has out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ.”
The document goes on to state that such election was not “founded upon foreseen faith” or any good quality in any man; but rather men are chosen to faith and holiness, etc.
To summarize the teachings of this section of Dort:
1) We as mankind are guilty of sin upon our own doing and are equally condemned.
2) The only way we are saved is out of repentance of sin and belief in Christ as Savior through reception of the Gospel message.
3) Through Christ, God chose to save some out of their condemnation while letting others remain in their sin.
4) These who are saved must be saved through hearing and responding to the Gospel. And they are able to respond to the Gospel because God first softens their hearts, enabling such faith.
Second Head of Doctrine: The Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men Thereby
The first four articles teach that God is both merciful and just. His justice will not allow sin to stand unpunished, and thus the sinner will face temporal and eternal punishments in both body and soul. The only means of escape is a satisfaction of the justice of God, which we cannot make. Through mercy, however, God gave Jesus to become sin and a curse “for us and in our stead, that He might make satisfaction to divine justice on our behalf.”
Because Jesus is the Son of God, and both fully man and fully God, His sacrifice “is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.”
Article 5 declares that since the “promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ…shall not perish but have eternal life,” then the Gospel promise along with the command to repent and believe should be preached to all nations and all persons without distinction.
The fact that some who hear the Gospel do not repent and believe “is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ…but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.”
Yet given such sufficiency in the sacrifice of Christ, according to Article 8, “It was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectively redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chose to salvation and given to Him by the Father.” The sacrifice is enough to cover the sins of all people everywhere, but it only actually covers the sins of the elect, those who believe in Christ.
In summary, this is a quite simple statement. Jesus’ sacrifice was great enough, perfect enough, and large enough to cover every sin committed—it is sufficient for all; but as it is the blood of Jesus which actually atones for sin, it is applied only to the elect—it is efficient only for those who believe.
Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine: The Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God, and the Manner Thereof
Article 1 posits that before the fall, the heart and will of mankind were upright. But Adam revolted from God “by the instigation of the devil and by his own free will.” Thus man forfeited the holiness, purity, and uprightness of his heart. This brought “blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment” thus man “became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.”
According to Articles 2-4, after the fall man “begat children in his own likeness. A corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring.” All the offspring of Adam, save for Christ, “have derived corruption from their original parent…by the propagation of a vicious nature, in consequence of the just judgment of God.” Therefore mankind is “by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God.” Yet within man remains a glimmer of the knowledge of God and ability to recognize the difference between good and evil. But this “natural light” is insufficient to bring one to a saving knowledge of God.
Whereas neither natural light nor Law could save, “God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it has pleased God to save such as believe.”
The call of the Gospel goes out to all who hear the words of the message. Those who reject the Gospel do not do so due to the “fault of the Gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God,” but rather, “The fault lies in themselves.”
Article 10 then states, “But that others who are called by the gospel obey the call and are converted is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will, whereby one distinguishes himself above others equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion…but it must be wholly ascribed to God, who, as He has chosen His own from eternity in Christ, so He calls them effectually in time.” This effectual call is wrought by the work of God’s good pleasure through the external preaching of the Gospel, the internal illumination of the Holy Spirit, and the work of regeneration by the Spirit in which He “pervades the inmost recesses of man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which is uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will.”
According to Article 16, “This grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor take away their will and its properties, or do violence thereto; but it spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends it, that where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed, a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign; in which the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consists.”
1) Mankind fell in Adam, due to the exercise of his own will to reject God.
2) Being now in the image of Adam (a corruption of the image of God), we are naturally sinful, wicked, and under the judgment of God.
3) The knowledge of God and goodness was not eradicated from us, but its remnant is not sufficient to save us.
4) All who hear the Gospel are called by the Gospel, some reject, but the elect are effectually called.
5) The effectual call is caused by God’s gracious work by the Holy Spirit in healing and bringing a stubborn and rebellious heart back into a state where it willfully and happily chooses God through Christ.
6) Thus, through this change wrought by the Spirit, inward illumination, and the external call of the Gospel, the elect in time will hear, repent, and believe.
Fifth Head of Doctrine: The Perseverance of the Saints
Articles 1 & 2 teach that though God regenerates us and delivers us from our slavery to sin, he does not in this life altogether deliver us “from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh.” Thus daily “blemishes cleave to even the best works of the saints.” These are reasons we must also perpetually humble ourselves before God, flee for refuge in Christ, and seek to put away sin and pursue holiness.
Article 3 states, “By reason of these remains of indwelling sin, and also because of temptations of the world and Satan, those who are converted could not persevere in that grace if left to their own strength. But God is faithful, who, having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end.”
Articles 4-8 teach that weaknesses of flesh cannot prevail against God. Yet some who are saved by grace may grieve the Holy Spirit through backsliding into sin. God, however, will not remove His Spirit nor allow the “incorruptible seed of regeneration” to perish and be lost. Rather, by His Word and Spirit with time will effectually renew them back to repentance and a godly sorrow for their sin. Such perseverance is also an act of God’s free mercy.
In perseverance, “True believers themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they surely believe that they are and ever will continue true and living members of the Church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.” Such assurance does not come from “any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God,” but rather comes from faith in His promises, “abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God, and lastly from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works.”
In this life, we may “struggle with various carnal doubts” but God will provide us the way of escape from such temptations and inspire us through the Holy Spirit “with the comfortable assurance of persevering.” Such an attitude of true perseverance does not lead to pride or licentiousness, but is a “real source” of humility and true piety.
1) God who graciously saves will also graciously keep his saints in true perseverance.
2) Even if a saint slips back into sin, God will not allow them to fall from grace but will in time bring them back to repentance.
3) A saint may struggle with doubt at times, but God provides comfort to his people to realize the assurance of their salvation in Christ.
4) Perseverance does not provide an excuse for sin.
The above is drawn from the Canons of Dort to help paint a picture of classical Calvinistic or Dortian soteriology. It will hopefully help us clearly understand what Calvinism is and is not. There may be deviations from the Canons which are broadly Calvinistic, but they must be recognized for what they are, and not truly described as Calvinism proper.
For it is not Calvinism which produces an attitude of anti-missions/evangelism. It is not Calvinism that limits the preaching of the Gospel to only a select audience. It is not Calvinism that teaches a person can be saved apart from a willful response to Christ in faith. It is not Calvinism that places perseverance into the hands of man or robs saints of assurance. It is not Calvinism that argues God arbitrarily chose some to damn while others to save. And it is not Calvinism that limits the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice to a few. And one more for fun…it is not Calvinism that denies John 3:16 :).