Podcast: Calvinism 101 (Kevin DeYoung)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Doctrines of Grace
Kevin DeYoung unpacks Calvinism, discussing the famous five points summarized in the TULIP acrostic, the problem with cage-stage Calvinists, and the one question he’d ask Arminians to consider.
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Grace Defined and Defended
Best-selling author Kevin DeYoung equips Christians to clearly define grace by looking at the Canons of Dort, exploring the historical context, theological implications, and practical applications of this important document in the Reformed tradition.
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Kevin DeYoung, thank you so much for joining us on The Crossway Podcast today.
It’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Introduction to Reformed theology
Do you remember your first introduction to Reformed theology? And more specifically, who introduced you? And how did you initially respond?
I do. I grew up in a Reformed church as a part of The Reformed Church in America, which is more of a mainline Reformed denomination but, grew up in an evangelical church and in a strong Christian family. So I don’t know if I first heard of Reformed theology from my parents or from my church. I do remember—when I was probably in elementary school—having a sermon series that my pastor did on TULIP. I couldn’t have recalled at the time what the five letters stood for, but I remember going through it and thinking, Oh, that’s kinda cool that all these letters spell some other word. But I didn’t much understand what it was. So I was probably introduced to it fairly early.
Later when I was in, I think, middle school I went to a public school and in a western civilization class there was a paragraph on Martin Luther and two sentences on John Calvin. And of course, it said about John Calvin that he believed in predestination—that God chose who would be saved—and I thought that sounded kind of barbaric. I guess I hadn’t picked up my pastor’s sermon series very well. It does say something about our human intuition and how we need to constantly be reminded and taught these things. We don’t come upon them naturally. So I remember going home to my mom and telling her what happened at school, So, we learned about this guy John Calvin. And before I could launch into how dumb this idea of predestination was, she just interrupted me and she said, “Oh, John Calvin! We like him!” And it’s the power of a maternal statement that you may not think means anything at the moment, but just that from my mom saying, “Oh, we like him!“ I thought, why don’t I pause there and I won’t say what I was going to say. And it just put a little seed in my mind, Okay, next time I hear of this maybe I need to do some more learning and digging and try to understand what this is about, and I’m not going to dismiss this.
Growing up in a Reformed church I was much more familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism. I had to go over that with my pastor before I joined the church. But in the same book that had the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, there was the Canons of Dort, so I would have read it and started to think a little bit more about it. But I certainly didn't understand all of the nuances of it until some time later. But I was introduced to Reformed theology probably earlier than a lot of people.
Five Points of Calvinism
You mention TULIP and hearing your pastor preach about those five points. Just for those who are listening who might not be as familiar with the five points in that TULIP acronym—could you briefly summarize what they are, what they mean, and how they hang together?
The T stands for total depravity. The U—unconditional election. The L—limited atonement. The I—irresistible grace. And P—the perseverance, or the preservation, of the saints. So it’s not the five points of everything you need to know as a Christian, or the five points even of all that’s important in Reformed theology, but it’s five disputed points relative to soteriology, that is the doctrine of salvation.
Total depravity says that we are not just sick, but we are dead in our sins, in our trespasses, and there’s nothing that we can do in and of ourselves to procure our salvation.
Unconditional election says that before the foundation of the world, before we were born, before there even was a creation, God in his own immutable decree determined who would be saved—that he elected. He chose those who would by faith come to him and this choice was not based on foreseen faith—not just God putting in the tape to see what we would do millennia later—but based on his own good will and purposes he chose us.
Limited Atonement, or sometimes called Particular Redemption, means that the extent of Christ’s work on the cross—insofar as it was a saving work to save sinners—is for the elect. That Christ died as a substitutionary sacrifice for the elect only. So the extent of the atonement is limited in that way.
Irresistible Grace means that God sovereignly, supernaturally, irresistibly by his Spirit, of his own accord and not cooperating with us—so it’s monergistic not synergistic; that is, he’s the only one working, mono—saves us and causes us to be born again and implants within us the faith to believe.
And then finally the P is that God will work out in all of his chosen ones, in all of those who are truly justified, that they will persevere to the end and will ultimately be glorified. So that golden chain, as it were in Romans 8—that those whom he foreknew he justified, those whom he called, and then justified, and then glorified—that chain cannot be broken. God will see to it that we persevere to the end and are saved all the way to glorification in heaven. All of those hold together because they show that from start to finish this is the work of God’s grace for his glory. And though we are creatures with a will—and we talk about that later—we have wills that are operative; yet our wills are not determinative. And we are not the ones who are choosing this. We are not the ones to make it happen. We are not the ones to earn it. We’re not even the ones to ultimately keep ourselves in it. But rather, it is the work of God’s grace from start to finish to save dead sinners who would have no other hope of salvation except for God’s sovereign mercy.
Doctrines of Grace
I would imagine some of the people listening who are familiar with these issues—and maybe even people who aren’t as familiar and they’re hearing these five points for the first time explained to them—they might have a sense though that some of these are challenging topics and challenging doctrines that do sort of push against maybe some of our natural inclinations or natural intuitions about how things should be. But I’m struck that another name for these five points of Calvinism, and just the broader system, is as you mentioned the Doctrines of Grace. Why do you think that’s such a helpful or important name for what we’re talking about here?
You’re right that these doctrines are difficult for many people the first time they hear them. They’re extremely difficult. That may be even some people listening to this. Wait a second. That doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible. That doesn’t sound like the God that I know. That’s not the God that I worship. If we can patiently learn what they mean and what they don’t mean and most importantly search the Scriptures for these things, hopefully we come to realize not only are they true, but as you pointed out, they are good.
So the Doctrines of Grace remind us that ultimately what we’re talking about here is not just getting our theology buttoned up, as important as that is. We’re not trying to pummel people into a Calvinist-submission-hold. But we want to magnify the glory of God in the grace of God. They’re the Doctrines of Grace because they help to defend and define what grace is really all about. Every Christian of every stripe is for grace. Almost everyone on the planet is going to be pro-grace. That’s just a word that we like. Especially Christians understand. The gospel is about grace. But what is the nature of that grace? How is that grace operative? How are we sustained and chosen and preserved in that grace? These are the questions that are often controversial.
I remember one time teaching a Sunday school class on this years ago and a man came up to me afterwards and he said, “I feel like in finally learning these things I feel a sense of cleansing and relief.” That may be strange. That may not be how many people encounter them at first. But I was very impressed by this man’s statement because he heard in these Doctrines of Grace a sense of God’s mercy washing over him. A realization that from start to finish this was not of him. It did not depend upon him. And that meant that he did not deserve any of the glory in his salvation. Not one tiny little dot. But it was all of God and because it was all of God he could have confidence that God would see his plan to completion to the very end. So at the heart of this is grace and good news. We never want to lose sight of that.
Misconceptions about Calvinism
What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions about Calvinism that you’ve encountered in your own ministry as a pastor?
Great question. A number of things come to mind. Certainly, I think for many people today they hear Calvinism they might think, Oh, those people don’t believe in evangelism, they don’t do missions, they’re fatalists. They just believe God’s already chosen people so why should we bother sharing our faith? In the Canons of Dort there is actually a wonderful section on the necessity of the gospel being proclaimed among all nations. It’s one of the clearest statements in any of the Reformation era confessions or catechisms on the need for missions and speaking this gospel, giving a free offer of the gospel. So that’s certainly one that people misunderstand. Yes, we believe in election, but we believe that God uses means and in so doing he uses the preaching of the gospel.
Another misunderstanding—and this one is probably perpetuated sometimes by Calvinsts who don’t understand their theology as well as they should—is presenting the human will as basically robotic, or maybe even removed. So again there’s a section in the Canons of Dort that says we are not stocks or we’re not blocks or stones to be thrown. That God’s work in our lives does not remove the human will, but rather regenerates it, and empowers it, and enables it to believe. So when people say, Calvinists. You just believe we’re puppets on a string. No. No Reformed theologian will affirm that, because a puppet does not have a will. A puppet is moved by another person’s external coercion and compulsion. That’s not how we believe God’s sovereignty works. God’s sovereignty is not like when your older brother would grab your arm and make you start punching your face and say, “Why are you punching yourself? Why are you punching yourself?“ No, that’s not what God does like a puppeteer. We still have a will. Choice is not a bad word for the Calvinist. We do make choices. We do make a choice to follow Christ but we understand that prior to any of those choices, God has a choice. So we still do will and we still do take actions, but there is a sovereign disposer of that will in those actions.
And then another misunderstanding is around limited atonement. People, if they’re uncomfortable with one of the five points, it’s that one. People say, *I don’t like the idea that the atonement is somehow limited, and can't I sing “Jesus loves me” or “Jesus loves all the little children of the world?” Can I say “Jesus died for you”? Well, if you step back from that and think about what Christ really accomplished on the cross—was his death merely to make us savable such that he removed the final obstacle so that now we can come to him? That’s what the Arminians thought. Or, do we actually have the death of death in the death of Christ such that he saved sinners so that he’s not merely presenting a choice? We do make choices—but he is securing infallibly for the elect our salvation, and so working in us that faith by his sovereign working that we will and must believe.
So everyone believes in a limited atonement. Unless you’re a Universalist and you think there is no hell, everyone believes in a limited atonement. The question is whether it’s limited in its extent or it’s limited in its nature? And the Calvinist says its limited in its extent because its not limited in its nature. That is, it really accomplishes the salvation of sinners, and if Christ’s death is a substitutionary sacrifice for sinners such that he died in our place, when he died we died, then it must be only for the elect because we don’t believe from Scripture that everyone has had their sins forgiven. That everyone will be in heaven. That everyone is right with God. So the Arminian will limit the nature of the atonement. The Calvinsit says, No, because we do not want to limit the nature of the atonement, we understand in Scripture that the extent must be limited. Not that Christ’s death wasn’t sufficient for all, but it was efficient and intended only for the elect. And that’s what we take from the Bible. That Jesus didn’t die for goats. He died for sheep. He died for his bride. He died for the church. He died for his people. All of that language speaks to the particularity of his redemption for sinners.
Is Reformed Theology a Gospel Issue?
So do you view the acceptance of Reformed theology as a gospel issue?
Yes“ is the short answer. And then you need to define what that means. It’s certainly a gospel issue because every five of these points, every one of them, touches on the gospel. And it intimately is related to how we understand the gospel, how we preach the gospel, what we expect from the preaching of the gospel, who is ultimately going to do the work to save sinners through the gospel. So through-and-through it is a gospel issue. And that speaks to its importance and that I don’t believe these things should be just put in a corner to gather dust somewhere, but they ought to be taught wisely and winsomely and proclaimed from the Scriptures.
Having said that, if we mean by “gospel issue” that if you don’t agree with the Canons of Dort you cannot be a Christian—well, that’s not what I would say and I don’t know that very many Reformed theologians or churches have said that throughout church history. We understand that there are differences and—to put it somewhat crassly—sometimes our hearts are better than our heads on these issues. Sometimes we have blessed inconsistencies in our thinking and so certainly we understand that there are dear Arminian brothers and sisters and Arminians who will be in heaven. And yet, I would want to press on an Arminian brother or sister to say, Have you thought this through all the way to the bottom to see whether this is consistent or not? And to follow not just biblical logic, but the exegesis of specific biblical texts and asking, Am I removing something of God’s glory and giving to myself some small tiny speck of glory if I depart from these Doctrines of Grace?
So yes, Arminians can be saved. Praise the Lord! I’m sure I have my theology wrong in some ways that I’m not aware of; and yet, I don’t want to be quick to set these aside as unimportant because they’re massively important for life and ministry.
So many of our listeners might have heard of the term cage-stage Calvinist. Can you explain what that means, if you’re familiar with that, and if you think that’s a fair moniker for some Calvinists?
It certainly is fair and hopefully we can help people in our churches avoid that, move through it quickly. I know when I was in college and really coming to grips with these I was reading Calvin’s Institutes, I was understanding these things fully for the first time. I went through some of that stage. I remember talking to people in my college ministry and sort of setting them up with the Romans 9 slam dunk: Well, do you know God chooses before we ever did anything good or bad? They would give some sort of response, Well then, how can I be blamed for my unbelief? And I would turn to Romans 9 and say, Who are you to talk back to God! Read it and weep! Probably a better evangelist for Calvinism than for the gospel.
So yes, that happens. In one sense I understand why it happens because these things are intimately connected to the gospel. We should be excited about them, we should be passionate about them, we should want people to hear them. And yet, they always need to be seasoned with salt. We need to understand that we don’t need to download all of our theology on every unsuspecting person. And we need to have enough maturity to realize that for most of us we came to these things with some difficulty or some initial misunderstanding. And so we need to realize that when people hear them they’re not just hearing them as an intellectual debate, or a matter of strict exegesis, or historical theology. They hear these doctrines in particular and they think, What about my husband who is not a Christian? Are you saying there’s nothing he can do to be saved? What about my kids who have walked away from the Lord? What about my mom and dad who I pray for? Are you saying it doesn’t make any difference what I do because God is going to save them or damn them based on his own immutable decree? These are the sort of things that people are hearing and we need to understand that, anticipate that, and be sensitive not just to the Scriptural questions people have but to the existential angst that the Doctrines of Grace can present to people at first.
Criticism of Reformed Theology
So we’ve talked about already about how the Doctrines of Grace are doctrines truly focused on grace that seek to lift high God’s grace, and yet often times Calvinists are viewed as, or portrayed, or the charge is often that Calvinists can be more harsh and less loving. Maybe less passionate about God, about loving God and others than perhaps their Arminian brothers and sisters. And so before addressing that on the theological level, which you’ve already kind of hit on, do you think there’s truth in that charge against Reformed people generally?
I was going to say yes until the last word generally. I don’t know about generally. I wouldn’t know how to answer that for sure. Can most of us see unfortunate examples of that sort of harshness? Yes. I don’t think that it’s because the doctrines make people harsh. I think there is an intellectual rigor, and sophistication, and robustness to it that is attractive to people who are wanting intellectual rigor and deep thought. And with that can come a certain haughtiness, a certain pridefulness that I understand things that other people don’t. Lots of church traditions have certain things that they’re good at that then draw people. If you’re at a church tradition that has very emotive worship, people who have that personality are going to be more easily drawn to it. And so, no doubt the strength of the Reformed tradition has always been a doctrinal rigor, an intellectual life of the mind, sophistication. And so that attracts a certain type of person. Now with that we need to go out of our way then to see that these are not just doctrines for smarty pants. These are doctrines for everyone. We need to be able to communicate them in a way that they are for everyone. And we need to help people not be intimidated by some of the words and the names and the history and make them feel like, Well, you’re not initiated so you can’t really understand these things. I think people can learn a lot more than we give them credit for. But that takes a skill in teaching, and that takes a winsomeness, and a willingness to love people and walk with people patiently.
Whether Reformed Christians are on the whole bigger jerks than other people, I actually kind of doubt it. You go online or you have a Twitter account you see Reformed people do not have a corner on jerkdom. There are rude, aggressive people everywhere. In fact, in my experience in Reformed churches my whole life I’ve certainly encountered my share of cage-stage calvinists and probably had to grow out of some of that myself. And yet, by and large I see godly, wonderful people who have these Doctrines of Grace as an anchor for their soul, who love Jesus, who love the Bible, who love evangelism, who care for people when they’re hurting. Like you would want to see in any good, healthy church.
A Question for Armenians
So if you could sit down with the Arminians listening to us today and leave them with one question to ponder, what would that be?
Who plays, ultimately, the decisive role in your salvation? We know that God uses lots of secondary means. He uses the preaching of the gospel, uses parents, he uses books, uses preachers, uses the Bible. But if you’re looking at two people and Person A believes and is saved and Person B does not, you try to explain why. You can give lots of answers: Oh, that person had a Christian background, that person didn’t. Okay, but keep going up. But why? Maybe they both had a Christian background. Well, that person had a bad experience in the church. That person didn’t. Okay, but lots of people have bad experience in the church and still believe. But, why? And as you press in on that question, I think you can only come to one of two conclusions: either the why rests in us some little teeny bit of it. I chose. I saw. I made the decision. Something. Why?
Or the why has to rest ultimately with God. That when you get through all the secondary and tertiary reasons, it’s because God chose that person for salvation. And I know that the existential weight of that can feel like, “You’ve removed responsibility. What sort of God then wouldn’t choose everyone?“ Those are real questions and I think the Bible has some answers to that. But what we gain—biblically, and theologically, and existentially—is the great freedom to know that it was entirely of God. It was nothing of me. I cannot give one teeny grain of sand worth of credit to me in believing. But it is entirely of God, which means he gets 1,000% of the glory and I get none of it. To me that is the central question I would leave an Arminian brother or sister with.
A Question for Calvinists
And how about a Calvinist. So you’re sitting down with one of the Calvinists listening to us today. Someone who has heard what you’ve been saying and is cheering you on from their own living room or from their own car, but if you could leave them with one question to ponder what would that be?
Okay, I’m going to cheat and give two questions for two different sorts of people. One question would be, Do you really understand the particularities and the nuances of the Doctrines of Grace? And I say that because I think a lot of people who know TULIP listening to this—and they can give you the acronym and the basic five-minute version of it—would be very helped to study something like the Canons of Dort to understand there’s a lot more to this than just a TULIP boilerplate. So that’s one thing.
And then a second question would be, If and when you truly understand these things, have the Doctrines of Grace made you a more gracious person? It doesn’t mean a weaker person. We have to be courageous. Some of the things that Calvinists believe will always be unpopular. So I’m not talking about a personality type. But if we truly believe this about God and his grace and that it was entirely 1,000% of him, it should mean that Calvinists ought to be—of all people—the most humble because we have the best theology that reminds us and reinforces to us the great glory and grace of God in our complete and abject unworthiness and that ought to make us happy, humble, gracious people.
Well Kevin, thank you so much for talking with us today about the Doctrines of Grace. We appreciate you taking the time today.
Great to be with you.
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