Was Calvin a Calvinist?


Kurt Dahlin December 4, 2002

It is often said, “Calvin wasn’t a Calvinist.” This statement is an attempt to dissociate John Calvin from what is considered today as extreme Calvinism. Many suppose that the later development of Calvin’s Reformed theology, most notably at the Synod of Dort 1618-1619, does not fully represent John Calvin.


The next few pages will examine the “five points of Calvinism” and their relationship to the teaching of John Calvin. Each section begins with a summary quoted from The Five Points Of Calvinism, by Calvinist authors, David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1963). After a summary of each point there follows direct quotations taken from John Calvin’s book, Institutes of the Christian Religion. 


It is important to realize that the “five points” are inseparable. They stand together as a unit or system of interpreting the Scriptures. If Calvinism can be modified endlessly to suit each individual preference, then everyone is a Calvinist. However, to reject any one point is a rejection of all.


Steele and Thomas write, “For the five points, though separately stated, are really inseparable. They hang together; you cannot reject one without rejecting them all, at least in the sense in which the Synod meant them” (23).


One, therefore, cannot be a one point Calvinist or a modified Calvinist. A three-point Calvinist is really a two-point Arminian. One cannot be a Calminian. If Calvinism is anything I want it to be--then I’m a Calvinist. However, if Calvinism is what John Calvin taught--then I’m not a Calvinist. It should be clear from the following pages that the Synod of Dort did not distort Calvin. John Calvin was a Calvinist.


  • Total depravity
  • Unconditional election
  • Unlimited atonement
  • Irresistible gracePerserverance of the saints

Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel.  The sinner is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt.  His will is not free, it is in bondage to his evil nature, therefore, he will not--indeed he cannot--choose good over evil in the spiritual realm.  Consequently, it takes much more than the Spirit's assistance to bring a sinner to Christ--it takes regeneration by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature.  Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God's gift of salvation--it is God's gift to the sinner, not the sinner's gift to God (Steele and Thomas 16).


There is no doubt that Adam, when he fell from his state, was by this defection alienated from God. Therefore, even though we grant that God’s image was not totally annihilated and destroyed in him, yet it was so corrupted that whatever remains is frightful deformity (Calvin, Inst. I. ch. 15. 4).


Since in the whole seed of Adam our heavenly Father found nothing worthy of his election (Calvin, Inst. III. 22. 1).


Hence it is that the whole world no longer belongs to its Creator, except in so far as grace rescues from malediction, divine wrath, and eternal death, some, not many, who would otherwise perish, while he leaves the world to the destruction to which it is doomed (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 22.7).


As we are all vitiated by sin, we cannot but be hateful to God,...all whom the Lord predestines to death are naturally liable to  the sentence of death,...Should all the sons of Adam come to dispute and contend with their Creator, because by his eternal providence they were before their birth doomed to perpetual destruction, when God comes to reckon with them, what will they be able to mutter against this defense? If all are taken from a corrupt mass, it is not strange that all are subject to condemnation (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 23. 3).


I admit that by the will of God all the sons of Adam fell into that state of wretchedness in which they are now involved; and this is just what I said at the first, that we must always return to the mere pleasure of the divine will, the cause of which is hidden in himself (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 23. 4).


I say with Augustine, that the Lord has created those who, as he certainly foreknow, were to go to destruction, and he did so because he so willed. Why he willed it is not ours to ask, as we cannot comprehend, nor can it become us even to raise a controversy as to the justice of the divine will (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 23. 5).


but since he foresees the things which are to happen, simply because he has decreed that they are so to happen, it is vain to debate about prescience, while it is clear that all events take place by his sovereign appointment (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 23. 6).


Scripture proclaims that all were, in the person of one, made liable to eternal death. As this cannot be ascribed to nature, it is plain that it is owing to the wonderful counsel of God (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 23. 7).


I again ask how it is that the fall of Adam involves so many nations with their infant children in eternal death without remedy unless that it so seemed meet to God? Here the most loquacious tongues must be dumb. The decree, I admit, is, dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknew what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree ( Calvin, Inst. III. 23. 7).


Nor ought it to seem absurd when I say, that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it. For as it belongs to his wisdom to foreknow all future events, so it belongs to his power to rule and govern them by his hand (Calvin, Inst. III. 23. 7).


Nor, indeed, is there any probability in the thing itself, viz., that man brought death upon himself merely by the permission, and not by the ordination of God; as if God had not determined what he wished the condition of the chief of his creatures to be. I will not hesitate, therefore, simply to confess with Augustine that the will of God is necessity, and that everything is necessary which he has willed; just as those things will certainly happen which he has foreseen, (August. de Gen. ad Lit., Lib. 6, cap. 15.).... The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should: why he deemed it meet, we know not....  Man therefore falls, divine providence so ordaining, but he falls by his own fault (Calvin, Inst. III. 23. 8).


God had expressly approved what proceeded from himself.  Therefore man's own wickedness corrupted the pure nature which he had received from God, and his ruin brought with it the destruction of all his posterity (Calvin, Inst. III. ch 23. 8).


that the reprobate are hateful to God, and that with perfect justice, since those destitute of his Spirit cannot produce anything that does not deserve cursing (Calvin, Inst. III.  24. 17).



God's choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world rested solely in His own sovereign will.  His choice of particular sinners was not based on any foreseen response or obedience on their part, such as faith, repentance, etc.  On the contrary, God gives faith and repentance to each individual whom He selected.  These acts are the result, not the cause of God's choice.  Election therefore was not determined by or conditioned upon any virtuous quality or act foreseen in man.  Those whom God sovereignly elected He brings through the power of the Spirit to a willing acceptance of Christ.  Thus God's choice of the sinner, not the sinner's choice of Christ, is the ultimate cause of salvation (Steele and Thomas 17).


The predestination by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no man who would be thought pious ventures simply to deny; (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 21. 5).


By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 21. 5).


The external invitation, without the internal efficacy of grace which would have the effect of retaining them, holds a kind of middle place between the rejection of the human race and the election of a small number of believers (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 21. 7).


Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment (Calvin, Inst. III. 21. 7).


God being pleased in this matter to act as a free dispenser and disposer, distinctly declares, that the only ground on which he will show mercy to one rather than to another is his sovereign pleasure (Calvin, Inst. III. 22. 6). 



Christ's redeeming work was intended to save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them.  His death was a substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners.  In addition to putting away the sins of His people, Christ's redemption secured everything necessary for their salvation, including faith which unites them to Him.  The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, thereby guaranteeing their salvation (Steele and Thomas 17).


God had already shown that in the exercise of his mere liberality he was under no law but was free, so that he was by no means to be restricted to an equal division of grace, its very inequality proving it to be gratuitous (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 21. 6).


The external invitation, without the internal efficacy of grace which would have the effect of retaining them, holds a kind of middle place between the rejection of the human race and the election of a small number of believers (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 21. 7).


The reprobate are expressly raised up, in order that the glory of God may thereby be displayed. At last, he concludes that God has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth, (Rom. 9: 18.) You see how he refers both to the mere pleasure of God. Therefore, if we cannot assign any reason for his bestowing mercy on his people, but just that it so pleases him, neither can we have any reason for his reprobating others but his will. When God is said to visit in mercy or harden whom he will, men are reminded that they are not to seek for any cause beyond his will (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 22. 11).


The human mind, when it hears this doctrine, cannot restrain its petulance, but boils and rages as if aroused by the sound of a trumpet....there could be no election without its opposite reprobation.... Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 23. 1).


God is said to have prepared the vessels of mercy, because in this way the praise of salvation is claimed for God, whereas the blame of perdition is thrown upon those who of their own accord bring it upon themselves (Calvin, Inst. III ch. 23. 1).


There is a well-known saying of Solomon, (which, however, few properly understand,) "The great God that formed all things both rewardeth the fool and rewardeth transgressors," (Prov. 26: 10.) For he is speaking of the greatness of God, whose pleasure it is to inflict punishment on fools and transgressors though he is not pleased to bestow his Spirit upon them (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 23. 4).


There is nothing inconsistent with this when we say, that God, according to the good pleasure of his will, without any regard to merit, elects those whom he chooses for sons, while he rejects and reprobates others (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 23. 10).


Therefore, this inward calling is an infallible pledge of salvation. Wherefore, it is false and most wicked to charge God with dispensing justice unequally, because in this predestination he does not observe the same course towards all (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 23. 11).


Why, then, while bestowing grace on the one, does he pass by the other? In regard to the former, Luke gives the reason, because they "were ordained to eternal life," (Acts 13: 48.) What, then, shall we think of the latter, but that they are vessels of wrath unto dishonor? Wherefore, let us not decline to say with Augustine, "God could change the will of the wicked into good, because he is omnipotent. Clearly he could. Why, then, does he not do it? Because he is unwilling. Why he is unwilling remains with himself," (August. de Genes. ad Lit. Lib. 2.) (Calvin,   Inst.  III. ch 24. 13).



In addition to the outward general call to salvation which is made to everyone who hears the gospel, the Holy Spirit extends to the elect a special inward call that inevitably brings them to salvation.  The external call (which is made to all without distinction) can be, and often is, rejected; whereas the internal call (which is made only to the elect) cannot be rejected; it always results in conversion.  By means of this special call the Spirit irresistibly draws sinners to Christ.  He is not limited in His work of applying salvation by man's will, nor is He dependent upon man's cooperation for success.  The Spirit graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent, to come freely and willingly to Christ.  God's grace, therefore, is invincible; it never fails to result in the salvation of those to whom it is extended (Steele and Thomas 18).


Although it is now sufficiently plain that God by his secret counsel chooses whom he will while he rejects others, his gratuitous election has only been partially explained until we come to the case of single individuals, to whom God not only offers salvation, but so assigns it, that the certainty of the result remains not dubious or suspended (Calvin, Inst.  III ch. 21. 7).


God being pleased in this matter to act as a free dispenser and disposer, distinctly declares, that the only ground on which he will show mercy to one rather than to another is his sovereign pleasure; (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 22. 1).


For it will hence follow that the predestination to glory is the cause of the predestination to grace, and not the converse (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 22. 9).

I at least hold with Augustine that when God makes sheep out of wolves, he forms them again by the powerful influence of grace, that their hardness may thus be subdued, and that he does not convert the obstinate, because he does not exert that more powerful grace, a grace which he has at command, if he were disposed to use it, (August. de Praedest. Sanct., Lib. 1, c. 2.) (Calvin,  Inst. III. ch 23. 1).


Therefore, when God elects one and rejects another, it is owing not to any respect to the individual, but entirely to his own mercy which is free to display and exert itself when and where he pleases (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch 23. 10). 


Here, therefore, boundless goodness is displayed, but not so as to bring all to salvation, since a heavier judgment awaits the reprobate for rejecting the evidence of his love. God also, to display his own glory, withholds from them the effectual agency of his Spirit.  Therefore, this inward calling is an infallible pledge of salvation (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 24.  2).


For the elect are brought by calling into the fold of Christ, not from the very womb, nor all at the same time, but according as God sees it meet to dispense his grace. Before they are gathered to the supreme Shepherd they wander dispersed in a common desert, and in no respect differ from others, except that by the special mercy of God they are kept from rushing to final destruction (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 24. 10).


As the Lord by the efficacy of his calling accomplishes towards his elect the salvation to which he had by his eternal counsel destined them, so he has judgments against the reprobate, by which he executes his counsel concerning them (Calvin, Inst. III. ch. 24. 12).



Salvation is accomplished by the almighty power of the Triune God.  The Father chose a people, the Son died for them, the Holy Spirit makes Christ's death effective by bringing the elect to faith and repentance, thereby causing them to willingly obey the gospel.  The entire process (election, redemption, regeneration) is the work of God and is by grace alone.  Thus God, not man, determines who will be the recipients of the gift of salvation (Steele and Thomas 19).


but not one of those whom Christ has once engrafted into his body will he ever permit to perish, for in securing their salvation, he will perform what he has promised; that is, exert a divine power greater than all, John 10: 28  (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch 22. 7).


Another confirmation tending to establish our confidence is, that our election is connected with our calling. For those whom Christ enlightens with the knowledge of his name, and admits into the bosom of his Church, he is said to take under his guardianship and protection. All whom he thus receives are said to be committed and entrusted to him by the Father, that they may be kept unto life eternal  (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 24. 6).


Moreover, it cannot be doubted, that since Christ prays for all the elect, he asks the same thing for them as he asked for Peter, viz., that their faith fail not, (Luke 22: 32.) Hence we infer, that there is no danger of their falling away, since the Son of God, who asks that their piety may prove constant, never meets with a refusal. What then did our Savior intend to teach us by this prayer, but just to confide, that whenever we are his our eternal salvation is secure? (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 24. 6).


But we have elsewhere seen, that our hope extends into the future, even beyond death, and that nothing is more contrary to its nature than to be in doubt as to our future destiny  (Calvin, Inst.  III. ch. 24. 7).

REAFFIRMED - by the Synod of Dort


The Synod of Dort reaffirmed the Calvinistic system of theology in 1619 as the doctrine of salvation contained in the Holy Scriptures.  The system was at that time formulated into "five points" in answer to the five points submitted by the Arminians and has ever since been known as "the five points of Calvinism.” All who were chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and given faith by the Spirit are eternally saved.  They are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and thus persevere to the end.


TULIP is a popular acronym for the five points of Calvinism:


T= Total Depravity

U= Unconditional Election

L= Limited Atonement

I=  Irresistible Grace

P= Perseverance of the Saints


The Synod of Dort 1618-1619 was born out of internal controversy in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, which was occasioned by the rise of Arminianism.   The Canons of Dort are the expression of the Synod's judgment concerning the Five Points of the Remonstrance, developed by the followers of Arminius. This also explains the fact that the Canons are divided into five chapters, explaining the Calvinistic doctrines of sovereign predestination, particular atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and perseverance of saints.   


Jacob Hermann, a Dutch theologian, who lived from 1560-1609, was best known by the Latin form of his last name, Arminius.  Arminius was chosen in 1603 to be a professor of theology at the University of Leyden in Holland.  He taught there until his death.  Arminius came to doubt the whole doctrine of unconditional predestination and to ascribe to man a freedom, which had no place in pure Calvinism.  A bitter controversy sprang up between Arminius and his Calvinistic colleague, Franz Gomarus, in the university. Soon after the Protestant Netherlands were widely involved.   The Remonstrance taught a predestination based on divine foreknowledge of the use men would make of the means of grace.  It asserted that Christ died for all, though none receive the benefits of His death except believers.  It was at one with Calvinism in denying the ability of men to do anything really good of themselves-all is of divine grace.  Therefore, the Arminians were not Pelagians.  In opposition to the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, they taught that grace may be rejected, and they declared uncertainty regarding the Calvinist teaching of perseverance, holding it possible that men may lose grace once received.