A Study of the Theology of John Calvin (1509 – 1564)


In this study of Calvinism we will lay out who John Calvin is and what he believed.  We will hold his doctrine up to the word of God and compare the two.  We will also use scripture from God to set straight the idea that any on earth should follow man’s theology over God’s inspired words.  This is an important topic for any Christian today to learn as Calvinism is a growing theological movement in our society that attempts to supersede God’s words for its followers.  Calvin’s system of beliefs forms the basic doctrine of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches as well as several of the Baptist denominations.  In modified form, some aspects of Calvinism are accepted by almost all denominations today.

For us to better understand Calvinism, we must know some background on the man from which the theology came.  John Calvin was born July 10, 1509.  Calvin’s formal education was complete in 1527 when he was eighteen.  He became a very influential reformist in the 16th century after Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation after being excommunicated by the pope and the Roman Catholic Church.  According to the Catholics, Calvin drifted from his Roman Catholic faith to become a humanist and a reformer.  The “sudden conversion” to a spiritual life in 1529 could possibly be interpreted as his becoming saved, but throughout his life he counted on his Roman Catholic infant baptism as the basis of his regeneration.

Calvin’s international influence on the development of the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation began in 1534 when Calvin was 25.  That marks his start on the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion (published 1536), which went through four major revisions during his lifetime.  The book was written as an introductory textbook on the Protestant faith for those with some previous knowledge of theology and covered a broad range of theological topics from the doctrines of church and sacraments to justification by faith alone and Christian liberty.  It attacked the teachings of those Calvin considered unorthodox, particularly Roman Catholicism to which Calvin says he had been “strongly devoted” before his conversion to Protestantism.  The theme of the book, and Calvin’s theological legacy, is the idea of God’s total sovereignty, particularly in salvation and election of saints.

As stated he revised this work several times, and even produced a French vernacular translation.  Calvin had a direct personal influence on Protestantism with his writings and teachings against the corruption of the Roman Catholics, his contributions to confessional documents for use in churches, and his massive outpouring of commentary on the Bible.  Others who had major influences on the doctrines of the Reformed churches were Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Ulrich Zwingli.  However Calvin eventually became the most prominent of those reformers.

Calvin’s Influence

Many of Calvin’s ideas were founded and came from Saint Augustine, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hippo, who lived from 354 – 430 AD.  Calvin continually praised Augustine’s work with numerous references and quotes through his own writings.  Augustine was greatly influenced by the Gnostics, an early Christian sect, whose doctrine was contrary to accepted belief.  Gnostics believed that mankind was wholly evil, and some sects even renounced marriage and procreation.  They also believed in two gods, one evil and one good.  Their teachings are believed to have influenced Saint Augustine in the development of his theology of the “total depravity” of mankind and his concept of God.  For nine years Saint Augustine adhered to Manichaeism, a Persian dualistic philosophy proclaimed by Mani (216-276 AD) in southern Babylonia (Iraq) that taught a doctrine of “total depravity” and the claim that they were the “elect.”

Augustine then turned to skepticism and was attracted to the philosophy of Neoplatonism (Neoplatonism is generally a religious philosophy and a form of idealistic monism [also called theistic monism] and combines elements of Polytheism.  Neoplatonism strongly influenced Christian thinkers such as Augustine.)  He blended these beliefs with his later Gnostic and Christian teachings.  Augustine’s prolific writings were more strongly biased by his previously-obtained theology than on his detailed study of the Christian Scriptures.  He used Christian Scripture out of context when words or phrases could be adapted to match his theology.  Augustine’s teachings were in turn passed on to John Calvin through his extensive study of Augustine’s writings, the most popular being his book, Confessions.  It is very easy to follow the trail of John Calvin’s theology from the pagan religion of Mani in Babylonia to Saint Augustine and into his own writings in France and Geneva that distort the word of God.  We can easily see how Calvin’s false doctrine came directly from Augustine.

Opposition to Calvinism

Jacob Arminius, 1560 – 1609, was a Dutch scholar who resisted some, not all of Calvin’s teachings.  He taught that unconditional predestination and limited atonement were false teachings from Calvin and attempted to reform Calvin’s teachings during his years of preaching before death.  Arminius taught of a “preventing” grace that has been conferred upon all by the Holy Spirit and this grace is “sufficient for belief, in spite of our sinful corruption, and thus for salvation.”  Arminius stated that “the grace sufficient for salvation is conferred on the Elect, and on the Non-elect; that, if they will, they may believe or not believe, may be saved or not be saved.”

After his death in 1610 early Dutch followers of Arminius’ teaching became known as Remonstrant’s after they issued a document containing five points of disagreement with classic Calvinism, entitled The Remonstrance of 1610.  These five points set forth his understanding of God’s plan of salvation.  The five points are as follows:

a)     Man has free will and can choose to obey God or refuse to obey God.

b)     Man can be elected to salvation by accepting God’s provisions for saving him.

c)      Christ died to save all men potentially, but actually saves only those who obey Him.

d)     The Holy Spirit works in salvation on behalf of all who are willing to accept Him.

e)     A saved person has the ability to deny God and thereby fall from grace.

Response to Opposition

From 1618 – 1619 Calvinist who were members of the Dutch Reformed Church convened for the purpose of condemning Arminius theology at what would be called the Synod of Dort.  At the Synod of Dort Calvinist declared the writing of the Remonstrance and the believers of it to be accursed and excommunicated them from the Dutch Reformed Church.  During this Synod Calvinist persecuted Arminian preachers who remained in the Netherlands and also defined and published their response to the five points of Arminius.  These five points in response would be known as the “Five Points of Calvinsim,” which were set forth as an acrostic which spells TULIP. 

Let us now study and compare the adopted five points, which were created at the Synod of Dort by Calvinist, alongside the words of God in the Bible. 

Total Heredity Depravity

Total depravity is the Calvinistic teaching that asserts that, as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, every person born into this world is enslaved to sin.  In other words every baby is born with sin inherited from his parents; often called original sin; and that the entire human race fell in sin when Adam fell into sin in the Garden of Eden.  This doctrine of original sin is what gave birth to infant baptism in many denominations.  Total depravity goes on to teach that people are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, but rather are inclined to serve their own interests and to reject the rule of God.  In other words all people are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own interests they will serve. 

Biblical Teaching of Man’s Sins

The Bible never teaches that anyone inherits the sin of his father or even holds the words “original sin” within its pages.  By definition sin is “a transgression of God’s law” in I John 3:4.  Therefore, sin is committed not inherited as written in James 4:17, Romans 3:23.  Children do not inherit either the iniquity or the righteousness of their parents, but each soul is responsible for his own, Ezekiel 18:20: The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”  Each person’s spirit comes from God; therefore, it must be sinless when given (Zechariah 12:1, Hebrews 12:9).  Finally, we must become as little children in order to enter the kingdom of Heaven as we read in Matthew 18:3, 19:13, 14.  After reading these last two verses we know that little children do not have sin for they have not sinned.  In other words, they are not lost but are safe until they reach the age of accountability and choose to do the wrong (Genesis 8:21, John 4:11).

Unconditional Election

This doctrine is often called the chief article of Reformed Christianity.  This Calvinist doctrine teaches that God’s choice for those whom He will bring to Himself for eternity is not based on virtue, merit, or faith in those people, rather it is unconditionally grounded in God’s mercy on those selected by God alone.  In other words from the creation of the world God arbitrarily, and without conditions, predestined some to eternal life, and some to eternal damnation; the number is fixed and no one can change his status.  This means that if one is not of the elect, they cannot be saved, no matter how much they desires it or seek to obtain it by following God’s words.  This also means on the other hand that if one is of the elect from God, they cannot be lost no matter how they live or how much evil they commit.

Biblical Teaching of How One Can Become Saved

The Bible teaches predestination, but not arbitrary, unconditional predestination (Ephesians 1:3-5, Heb 5:8-9, Mark 16:15-16).  The Bible teaches that God created man as a free moral agent such as the Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  They were given the power of choice to follow or disobey God in Genesis 2:16-17 and Genesis 3.  In Joshua 24:14-15, Joshua challenged the Israelites to “choose for yourself this day whom you will serve.”  Unconditional Election is in direct contrast with God’s words.  God’s blessings are conditional upon our obedience to His will not a predetermined destination as we can see in I Chronicles 28:9, II Chronicles 15:2, and Jeremiah 18:7-10.  If there was an Unconditional Election that would make God a respecter of persons, but the Bible says, “God is no respecter of persons” in Acts 10:34-35.  The Gospel of Christ is for all men on this earth, Jew and Gentile as read in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  The same message is taught in Matthew 11:28-30, 28:19 or Mark 16:15 that says “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”  We must comply with the conditions of salvation in order to be saved, not simply chosen by God.  We must:

a)     Hear the Gospel (Rom. 10:17)

b)     Believe that Jesus is the Christ and son of the living God (Matt. 16:16, John 8:24)

c)      Repent of our sins (Luke 13:3-5, Acts 2:38)

d)     Confess our faith in Christ (Matt. 10:32-33, Acts 8:37)

e)     Be Baptized in water for the remission of sins (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Rom. 6:3-4)

 Limited Atonement

Also called “particular redemption” or “definite atonement”, the doctrine of limited atonement is the teaching that Jesus’ atonement was definite and certain in its design and accomplishment.  However, not for everyone as Calvinism teaches that since God has elected only a portion of the human race to be saved, then Christ did not die for all, but only for the elect.   Calvinists view the Christ’s atonement as a substitution in the place of sinners, and Calvinists argue it would be unjust for God to pay the penalty for some people’s sins and then still condemn them for those sins; all those whose sins were atoned for must necessarily be saved.  Also, since in this scheme God knows precisely who the elect are and since only the elect will be saved, there is no requirement that Christ atone for sins in general, only for those of the elect.  Hence, Calvinists hold that the atonement is sufficient for all and efficient for the elect.

Biblical Teaching of Who Can Become Saved

John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  This verse does not say that God so loved “the elected few” that He gave His only begotten Son.  Christ came to this earth to save “the world.”  God wants all to be saved as we can read in I Timothy 2:3-4, “who desires all men to be saved” as well as II Peter 3:9, “not willing that any should perish.”  Christ died for all men upon this earth (II Cor. 5:14-15), again nowhere can we read that God sent His son for an elected few, however we read every time that Christ died for all men, Jew and Gentile.  As Heb. 2:9 says Jesus “might taste death for everyone,” not a limited atonement.  Another verse we can read that shows who can be saved is in I John 2:2, “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”  Again, those saved are not “ours” or a select few “but also for the whole world.”  Let us also look at who Jesus commanded the apostles to preach the gospel to and save.  In Matthew 16:15 Jesus commands His apostles to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”  Matthew 28:19 also quotes Jesus speaking to His apostles, and the command was “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Finally we see again that the Calvinist man made theology is shown to be in direct opposition to God’s word in Heb. 5:8-9 as we are told Jesus “became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.”

Irresistible Grace

The doctrine of irresistible grace (also called “efficacious grace”) asserts that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save, the elect, and in God’s timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith.  In other words, man is corrupt and cannot do anything to save himself; God must send His Spirit directly into the hearts of the elect to cause them to believe; those chosen can neither invite nor reject God’s grace.

Biblical Teaching of Who Can Receive God’s Grace

The Bible teaches we all are saved by grace through faith in our creator and savior (Eph. 2:8-9).  Grace is God’s part; it is the ground of our salvation.  God supplies that which men could never supply for the forgiveness of our sins.  God tells us we have a role to obtain His grace, He does not just pre-determine who can obtain it.  It is the sinner’s response to God’s free offer of forgiveness through the blood of Christ that forgives us.  The faith that saves must be an obedient faith (Gal. 5:6,  James 2:14-26).

The Bible also teaches the Holy Spirit works in the conversion of sinners through God’s word not a pre-destined decision.  Eph. 6:17 describes the word of God as the “sword of the Spirit.”  Rom. 10:17, “so then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  This Romans verse lies out that one must begin to have faith in God by hearing His words, not by a determined grace appointed on him without any action to the word of God.  In every example of conversion in the book of Acts, the word (Gospel of Christ) was first preached before faith and obedience came (Acts 2:14, 36-37; 8:5-6, 12, 26-39; 11:14; 16:30-34; 18:8).  By reading these scriptures one will know that we must “obey from the heart” in order to follow the New Testament pattern of becoming saved (Rom. 6:16-18).  We are all called by the Gospel of Christ, II Thess. 2:14, to act and obey to receive the grace and mercy of forgiveness of sins Christ gave to us by giving himself as the perfect sacrifice to atone for our sins.  Only those who receive the grace of God by hearing and obeying God’s word are saved; those who reject it are lost (Mark 16:15-16).

Perseverance of the Saints

This doctrine of Calvinist teach that the “elect” cannot fall from grace, but will continue through sin and will ultimately be saved regardless of what they do or how they live.  This doctrine takes the position that one’s sins cannot condemn his soul.  Rather, the way one lives, acts, talks, or displays their attitude toward others has nothing to do with the salvation of their soul as long as they were once saved.  This is often called “the doctrine of eternal security” or “once saved, always saved.”  Calvinist will argue that one cannot fall from grace, but if one does go back into sin after “being called” that it is a sign they were never of the “elect.”

Biblical Teaching of Saints Falling From Grace

God’s word teaches the complete opposite of this human doctrine of “perseverance of the Saints.”  In II Peter 2:20-22 we learn that the saved of this earth can turn from their salvation and return to the world.  This verse goes onto to instruct Christians that the “end is worse for them” that once knew and have now fallen from grace.  A Christian is warned to “take heed lest he fall” in I Cor. 10:12; this warning would be meaningless if it were impossible for a Christian to fall from grace.  The apostle Paul warned that those who attempt to be justified by the Law of Moses “have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4).  Hebrews is filled with warning of the danger of falling away (Heb. 2:1-4; 4:1, 11; 6:4-8).  We clearly learn by reading the Bible that there are very specific ways a Christian can fall from grace in direct result in one’s actions, speech, attitude, and obedience to God.


Calvinism has enjoyed resurgence in North America especially in recent years.  Its growth has been cited to have been the result of new growth in Presbyterian, Reformed Baptist, and Southern Baptist churches.  However, as it started with John Calvin branching off of human theology and not being based upon God it continues to grow new branches of human theology.  As with all denominational way of thinking men will not agree with the last reformer so a new idea of theology will and has changed Calvinism.  The traditional Calvinist abides by the Five Points of Calvinism, but today many new branches have formed such as Four Point Calvinism (known as Moderate Calvinism, Modified Calvinism, or Unlimited Limited Atonement), Hyper-Calvinism, Neo-orthodoxy, Neo-Calvinism, and Christian Reconstructionism.

Unlike the false teachings of men that have spawned from John Calvin, God’s word will always be true and should not ever be changed by men.  Our responsibility to God today is to not follow the commandments of men, but to study and learn for ourselves by reading the words of God in the Bible.  When we will do that we will understand what God commands for our lives and what Jesus our savior has done to allow God’s grace to do in our lives.  By testing doctrines of men with the Bible we will understand that no man on earth is depraved from the grace of God.  Instead each of us on this earth is valued and loved by the one and true living God in heaven.  God has given us a promise that he would send a perfect sacrifice to atone for our sins and He has.  His son Jesus the Christ has lived, died, and has risen from the grave for “all men” to be saved.  No human theology should ever be followed.  A man’s theology is only that, the thoughts and opinions of a man.  As Proverbs 14:12 tells us, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”  The only words we should follow can be found in one place and one place only, the Bible!

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