Calvinism is a euphemism for the principal teachings of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin being one of the most articulate of the Reformers. Others were Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and many others. They had their differences on some matters, but overall they agreed that the doctrines that came to be known as “Calvinism” are what the Bible sets forth and that the Bible is our only authority for the Christian faith. A major Bible doctrine is election, found in both Old and New Testaments. Within a certain period of history God chose (Amos 3:2) some (Israel) to be his people and not others (the Gentiles). With respect to eternity, he has chosen some for salvation (the “elect”) and passed over others (the “non-elect”). This remains a hugely controversial issue among modern evangelical Christians, but it was not the invention of John Calvin. It is the teaching of the apostle Paul (Rom. 9:13–33) and many early church fathers, most prominently Augustine. This teaching is often subsumed under the theme of the sovereignty of God. The Lord does whatever pleases him (Ps. 115:3), is not tied to some humanly-constructed code of “fairness,” and always acts in love, wisdom and perfect moral behavior (Deut. 32:4).
Briefly, the doctrine of election says that God, before he created the world, decided to have a redeemed people as his own special possession (Eph. 1:4). In order for them to be considered “redeemed,” they would first have to be justly condemned for their sins. Such is the situation in which all human beings find themselves: under condemnation (Rom. 5:18).
From out of all the condemned, God has chosen (elected) a fixed number known only to him and redeemed them through the substitutionary atonement of his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ (John 17:9), On the cross Jesus paid the penalty for their sins, and with that atonement God has credited Christ’s righteousness to them.
The Bible teaches that mankind is dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5). Being spiritually dead, man has no “free will.” He must sin because that is his nature—to rebel against God and his rule (Rom. 6:16). However, man is also a free moral agent, meaning he does what he wants to do, and generally speaking he will always act in what he believes is his own self-interest and against the interests of the Lord. Least of all will he repent of his sins and accept God’s offer of redemption in Christ.
How, then, can anyone be saved? It can happen only by a miraculous work of God by which the rebellious heart is transformed. This is what the Bible calls the “new birth” or being “born again” (John 3:1–8). And this is exactly what happens to the elect. At some point in his or her life, the elect person will by the grace of God hear the Gospel, be acted upon by the Holy Spirit and be given a new heart (John 10:27).
We do not choose to be born again. We choose Christ because we are born again. The renewed heart will always choose to repent and follow Christ as Savior. At the same time, no one should think himself truly elect until he consciously trusts Jesus as his Savior and Lord (Acts 16:30–31) and perseveres to the end of his life (Matt. 10:22). These fruits of regeneration sometimes come in a spectacular way and at other times in a quiet, unassuming fashion. Either way, the rebel against God becomes his faithful follower, and all the credit and all the glory belong to God alone (Gal. 1:21–24).
I have given you only a quick overview. Whole books (many) are written on the subject of Calvinism and election. If you are looking for a helpful study of reasonable length, I recommend The Sovereignty of God, by A. W. Pink. If you have a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith, you will find much helpful instruction in chapters 3–10. The Confession is available for perusing on the OPC website; click on “Standards.”
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