The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 36): John Calvin and TULIP! (Yes! Total Depravity, Predestination…all that!)

Along with Martin Luther, John Calvin is perhaps the most well-known Protestant revolutionary/reformer. Born in 1509, Calvin was a mere eight years old when Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. As a teenager, Calvin must have witnessed firsthand the disintegration of religious world around him: the crumbling of the Catholic world, the rise of Lutheranism, and the chaos that embodied various Radical Reformation movements like the Munster Rebellion. So, what was a young man to do?

It turns out that John Calvin eventually found himself in Geneva, Switzerland, as the virtual theocrat of the Protestant community of Geneva. He set about trying to reconstruct what seemed to him, based on his own understanding of Scripture, a true, biblically-based Christian community, patterned after the early Church. Like Luther before him, and very much unlike the Anabaptist movement, Calvin envisioned a community in which the Church and State were virtually synonymous.

Striking a balance between Church and State has always been a tricky business. From the time Constantine called for the first Church council of Nicaea in 325 AD, it is fair to say that the lines have often gotten blurred. But the goal, in both the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, more or less was for the Church to be distinct from the State, so that it could be in a position to critique the State and to act as the conscience for the State. In other words, the Church had to be distinct from the State in order to hold the State morally accountable for its actions. This has not always been perfectly achieved, and throughout history there have been times the Church has cozied up too much with the State, but nevertheless, the ideal was there.  Therefore, the desire to make the Church and State synonymous is bound to raise some problems.

Calvin and the Reformed tradition is perhaps most well-known for the acronym TULIP, which stands for the five core tenants of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Grace, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints.

Total Depravity
Now, much like Luther’s view of the human will, Calvin’s concept of total depravity went far beyond any church teaching about human beings up to that point. It ultimately was a total denial of human free will, for it states that man is so utterly sinful, that he is completely incapable of doing anything good. In fact, he has even lost the capability of choosing to turn to God and accept Christ. Man, therefore, cannot step out in faith to trust Christ—he is totally depraved and incapable of doing so. Instead, Calvin taught that faith was something that God gave to the people He chose to save.

Unconditional Election
This led to Calvin’s second plank in the Reformed tradition: unconditional election. Since man was so totally depraved that he was incapable of choosing Christ, Calvin reasoned that God must choose which people He saves and which people He allows to be damned. Quoting from passages like Romans 8-9, Calvin taught that God simply showed mercy on whom He showed mercy, damned those He chose to damn, and that God’s choice was utterly not based on any works any person could do. Therefore, salvation was totally God’s choice, and man had no choice in the matter.

Of course, it should be noted that Calvin’s reading of Romans 8-9 was totally wrong. Paul was definitely not arguing that God simply chose which people He was going to save and which people He was going to damn to hell. Rather, Paul’s point was that God had the right to choose to use people in any way He saw fit in order to bring about the fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, namely the salvation and re-creation of the entire world. God, for example, chose to work through Jacob and not Esau. Paul was not saying God chose to save Jacob and damn Esau; he was simply saying that God chose to work through Jacob. Simply put, Paul’s discussion about election in Romans 8-9 was not about ultimate destinations regarding heaven or hell.

Limited Atonement
In any case, according to Calvin, if man is totally depraved, and if the choice of election is entirely God’s, it goes without saying that since God chose some people to be saved, He obviously chose other people not to be saved—and therefore, Calvin argued, Christ’s atoning death on the cross applied only to those God predestined to be saved: limited atonement. For whatever reason, God chose to save only some people, and therefore Christ’s work was only meant for those whom God chose. Yes, Calvin, reasoned, all human beings deserve damnation, but for some reason known only to God, some were lucky enough to be chosen. It was a mystery, so we just have to deal with it.

Irresistible Grace
And so, if man is totally depraved, and if election is entirely based on God’s choice, and if Christ’s atoning work was only for those whom God elected, then it went without saying that those people whom God elected to be saved are going to be saved, no matter what—salvation was not up to them. It was entirely a “God thing,” and therefore, if He chose someone, that someone had no choice in the matter. The denial of free will led to the inevitable conclusion of  irresistible grace. The Holy Spirit, quite literally, Calvin argued, forces the sinner not only to believe but to cooperate with the will of God. Again, at the heart of this is Calvin’s complete denial of human free will.

Perseverance of the Saints
So if man it totally depraved, if God elects those whom He wills, if Christ’s atonement only applies to those whom God elects, and if those whom God elects have absolutely no choice in the matter, then it goes without saying that whomever God choses to be saved can never become unsaved. In other words, no one can lose one’s salvation: the perseverance of the saints. To be sure, that is a very comforting thought if one is saved, but it is also a very disturbing thought to one who is not saved. Furthermore, it is a very confusing thought to, well…everyone. After all, how does one truly know who is saved and who is unsaved? If God has not chosen you to be saved, it won’t matter how often you repent, or how godly you live your life—you are destined for hell. Such has been the conundrum of many when trying to understand the theological implications of TULIP.

Side Note: Something I’ve Always Found a Bit Odd
I grew up within Evangelicalism and taught at Evangelical Christian schools for 16 years. Every now and then issues like “free will or predestination” would come up, and the students could get quite heated when they talked about it. What I found fascinating is that the majority of Evangelicals that I know completely reject the Reformed idea of predestination, and instead insist that we have free will. Yet then, those same Evangelicals turn around and argue for the very Reformed idea of “once saved, always saved.”

I’ve often wondered if you could have it both ways: how could you argue that one is free to choose salvation, but then say, “Once you make that choice, then no, you can’t lose your salvation”? I think it points to sort of a schizophrenia within Evangelicalism, and is a symptom of not being well-versed in Church history and theology. Consequently, many people’s theological views end up being a smorgasbord of contradictory, or at least not well-thought out, theological positions. And that is precisely why we have to do a better job at educating Christians in Church history and basic Christian theology—not so much to get into all the details that theologians love to obsesses over, but rather to just get a basic grasp on the basic “scaffolding” of the faith.

Incidentally, regarding the “once saved, always saved,” conundrum, I think we all know how the debate often goes. One person asks, “If someone gets saved at 16, is a faithful Church member and good Christian for 30 years, but then renounces Christianity at 46 and embraces…whatever…is that person still saved and going to heaven? I don’t think so, because he rejected faith in Christ.”

The inevitable response is, “Well, he probably wasn’t really a Christian in the first place.”

My response to that is this: “Then what’s the point of debating this? You both agree that after 46, that guy isn’t a Christian.” Personally, I think one certainly can choose to walk away from the Christian faith, but I don’t think one can lose one’s salvation, like you happen to lose your car keys.


  1. Thanks, another educational post that has cleared some things up. But, I have questions. As a youngster, growing up in an atheist, anti-Christian household, I was taught that free will was real, and that the evil Christians denied it. I later found out that free will was a mainstay of secular humanism (which I believe is now dead). I realize now that the anti-theists have always taken the worst aspects of Christianity, such as Calvin’s crazy ideas rejecting free will and so on. But what I find very strange is that the rejection of the existence of free will has now become a dominant theme in modern atheism, and that most Christians accept free will as real.

    Can you shed any light on this puzzling issue of who supports free will, and why? Thanks


  2. Wow, Joel! A reformed Christian who doesn’t invoke Romans 9 for individual election to Heaven and Hell! Great honesty. Good for you.

    It’s quite striking to read Schaff who is aghast at Calvin’s police state of Geneva. The brutality, banishings, parading bound parishioners through the streets, dozens of murders….all under the Geneva Consistory’s church discipline.

    I am former calvinist and did not leave for any of the above reasons, but because of Calvinism’s defective Christology. Free will shouldn’t be battled out with incessant scripture grenades but we should get our anthropology from our Christology. Christ has free human will from the humanity he assumed from us, and it is revealed in Gethsemane which reveals both his human and divine will.

    1. Actually Darrin, I’m not Reformed. I grew up Assemblies of God, and ended up joining the Orthodox Church. But now, there is no Orthodox Church were I currently live, so I attend a Methodist church. lol

      1. I thought you posted something recently that said you were in the Reformed tradition? Sorry about that..

        Yeah, I became Orthodox in 2012, but some of the critical challenges I used to make that transition, I now have been forced to do on Christianity itself. Never have I doubted God because never have I asked big enough questions. I discovered when you put your beliefs to a more rigorous test, you better be ready for real doubt.

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