Why I Am Not Reformed (4): Calvinistic Excesses

Being a Calvinist is not synonymous with believing in election. Election is a biblical term – all Christians believe in election. Calvinism is a human construct that attempts to understand and explain the Bible’s teaching on election, God’s sovereignty in salvation, and related issues. It is often summarized by the acronym TULIP.[1] Most Reformed teachers are happy to identify their faith with Calvinism. Thus, concerns with Calvinism are legitimate concerns with Reformed theology and comprise my third reason for not being Reformed. While the last article did touch on one part of TULIP, I will pick at a few more of its petals here.

Calvinism Leads Reformed Teachers Beyond the Bible

Romans 3 is sufficient evidence that mankind is depraved, but when Calvinists use that phrase, I submit that they take its implications beyond the Bible. Scripture is clear that sinners are dead (Eph 2:1) and thus need new life from God, as the Lord told Nicodemus. This new life is received by faith – notice the recurrence of the word “believe” in John 3:12-18.[2] But Calvinism teaches that “from the standpoint of reason, regeneration logically must initiate faith and repentance.”[3] “We do not bring about the new birth by our faith. God brings about our faith by the new birth …. Thus new birth is the effect of irresistible grace.”[4] In Reformed theology, depraved sinners must first be regenerated in order to exercise faith unto salvation.

The new birth is definitely an act of God. But nothing in John 1:12-13, John 3, or Titus 3:4-7 indicates that new birth, or regeneration, is the precursor of faith. Spiritual death is a metaphor that conveys alienation from God and corruption, not a corpse-like inability to respond. Perhaps the best illustration is the younger son of Luke 15. He comes to grips with his alienation from his father and how he has corrupted his life. It is upon his return that his father says, “Your brother was dead, and is alive” – his being alive was a product of his repentance, not the cause.

As further evidence, when the Son of God speaks, dead sinners can “hear” his voice, “and those who hear will live” (Joh 5:25). Faith is not a result of being made spiritually alive, but the condition on which we pass from death into life (Joh 5:24). Teaching a pre-conversion regeneration unnecessarily confuses the experience of salvation.

More disconcerting to many of us is how Reformed teachers speak about the intended scope of Christ’s death. “The atonement of Christ is sufficient for all humans … but the full, saving effectiveness of the atonement that Jesus accomplished is limited to those for whom that saving effect was prepared …. Thus Christ died for all people, but not for all in the same way.”[5]

People who reject the gospel will be punished for their sins. But that is not to say that Christ did less for them than He did for us who believe the gospel. Corresponding to God’s desire to save all, Christ’s ransom payment was offered for all (1Ti 2:4-6). Contrary to what has sometimes been taught, the language of that text is not speaking of Christ’s death in a different way than Matthew 20:28 or Mark 10:45 – what is said to be accomplished for “many” in the gospels is accomplished for “all” in 1 Timothy 2:6 (see this month’s Q&A).

Furthermore, in 1 John 2:2 Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. Propitiation is the New Testament fulfillment of what was foreshadowed in the Old Testament’s Day of Atonement. People stray from the biblical teaching on atonement when thinking Christ bore a particular, quantifiable number of sins, but there is no scriptural or logical need to limit the value of His work in that way. It is not an issue of quantity, but quality – and the qualitative value of the sacrifice of “Jesus Christ the righteous” is infinite. What He did on the cross accomplished what could never be accomplished by all humans being punished for their sins eternally – He satisfied God. On the Day of Atonement, the sacrifice of the goats answered the problem of the congregation’s sins, but individuals were still responsible to afflict their soul in repentance, or else they would be “cut off” (Lev 23:29). Likewise, the Lord Jesus has fully dealt with the obstacle that stands between all mankind and their God, but an individual’s actual forgiveness of sins hinges on whether or not they place their faith in Christ.

Calvinism Becomes Paramount

On top of what is held theologically is how it is held. Too often, Calvinism is communicated as the key to understanding the Bible and living a God-glorifying life. For example, an otherwise fantastic book on racism becomes in some sections a platform for the propagation of the five points of Calvinism – “the Reformed faith undermines racism and ethnocentrism.”[6] Notice – not merely “the gospel,” but “the Reformed faith.” The implication is that I do not realize the full global impact of the reconciling work of the cross if I eschew the Reformed label.

In my brief experience of local church testimony, I know of multiple occasions of unrest and division arising from an unnecessary emphasis on Calvinistic theology. Calvinism becomes the linchpin in their assessment of biblical faithfulness, and in their view, its absence means the church is not clear on the gospel. While election is obviously in the Bible, Calvinists often place excessive focus upon this one theme. We do need to recognize that spiritual, intelligent Christians have taken different interpretive positions on the subject of election. That in itself should cause us to approach the issue with humility – let me caution you about basing your opinion of a brother or sister based solely on how they blend God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. In Scripture, the two are consistently placed side by side. But it is the undue emphasis and excesses of Calvinism that concern me and form another reason that I am not Reformed.


[1] Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; Perseverance of the Saints

[2] As to whether or not faith itself is a gift, see the coming January 2020 issue.

[3] John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 255.

[4] John Piper, What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism at desiringgod.org.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Piper, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 159.