Is ‘Calvinism’ the Gospel?

One accusation that is often aimed at those of us who believe that all advocates of universal atonement are unregenerate, is that we believe that “Calvinism is the Gospel”. Is this true?

Let’s first define what is meant by ‘Calvinism’. The term was first used during John Calvin’s lifetime by Roman Catholics, to describe Calvin’s followers. Calvin himself seemed unimpressed by the attempt to brand him as a heretic and leader of a heretical sect. In the dedication of his Commentary on Jeremiah, Calvin wrote:

“They can find nothing more atrocious by which they can irritate your Highness, Most Illustrious Prince, than the word CALVINISM. But whence this bitter hatred towards me it is not difficult to conjecture.”

Dedication, Commentary on Jeremiah

I have already written a critique of John Calvin, and his involvement in the execution of Michael Servetus. Here, I specifically want to focus on his view of the atonement:

“And, indeed, in the Second Epistle of Peter, Christ alone is mentioned, and there he is called Lord. But He means that Christ is denied, when they who had been redeemed by his blood, become again the vassals of the Devil, and thus render void as far as they can that incomparable price.”

Commentary on Jude 4

“Also we ought to have good care of those that have been redeemed with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we see souls which have been so precious to God go to perdition, and we make nothing of it, that is to despise the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Sermon on Ephesians 5:11-14

“The four reasons, whereby Paul doth carefully prick forward the pastors to do their duty diligently, because the Lord hath given no small pledge of his love toward the Church in shedding his own blood for it. Whereby it appeareth how precious it is to him; and surely there is nothing which ought more vehemently to urge pastors to do their duty joyfully, than if they consider that the price of the blood of Christ is committed to them. For hereupon it followeth, that unless they take pains in the Church, the lost souls are not only imputed to them, but they be also guilty of sacrilege, because they have profaned the holy blood of the Son of God, and have made the redemption gotten by him to be of none effect, so much as in them lieth. And this is a most cruel offense, if, through our sluggishness, the death of Christ do not only become vile or base, but the fruit thereof be also abolished and perish …”

Commentary on Acts 20:28

“He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him.”

Commentary on Romans 5:18

“True it is that the effect of His death comes not to the whole world. Nevertheless, forasmuch as it is not in us to discern between the righteous and the sinners that go to destruction, but that Jesus Christ has suffered His death and passion as well for them as for us, therefore it behoves us to labour to bring every man to salvation, that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ may be available to them …”

Sermon CXVI on the Book of Job (31:29-32)

“The word many is not put definitely for a fixed number, but for a large number; for he contrasts himself with all others. And in this sense it is used in Romans 5:15, where Paul does not speak of any part of men, but embraces the whole human race.”

Commentary on Matthew 20:28

Calvin believed that those who were redeemed by Christ’s blood could become vassals of the Devil again, and go to hell; that the redemptive power of Christ’s blood could be nullified, and made fruitless; and that Christ suffered for the sins of everyone in the world, including those who don’t receive him and eventually go to destruction. He viewed the atonement as failing to accomplish what it was intended for, which shows that he was unregenerate. In no sense, therefore, are we followers of John Calvin.

Of course, the term ‘Calvinism’ is usually intended to embrace more than just the doctrines of John Calvin; theologians such as John Owen, Richard Baxter, Jonathon Edwards, Charles Hodge, Robert Dabney, J. Gresham Machen, Louis Berkhof, and many others have contributed to the development of Calvinistic soteriology over the centuries. But this only multiplies our objections to the label ‘Calvinist’, because these men, and many others, believed doctrines that denied the Gospel. In particular, most of them would agree with Calvin that the work of Christ failed to accomplish everything it was intended for, which denies the very heart of the Gospel. Scottish theologian, William Cunningham once wrote:

“… no Calvinist, not even Dr. Twisse, the great champion of high Supralapsarianism, has ever denied that there is a sense in which it may be affirmed that Christ died for all men.”

The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 396

Those of us who hold to the Christian Confession of Faith do not ascribe to this view; we absolutely deny that there is any sense in which Christ died for all men without exception. By Cunningham’s definition, then, we are not Calvinists in any sense.

But it gets worse. Virtually all of the theologians who developed the doctrines of Calvinism spoke peace to those who denied the Gospel. The so-called ‘Reformed heritage’ or ‘Calvinist tradition’ is full of such heresy and peace-speaking. This is the reason we don’t call ourselves ‘Reformed’, any more than ‘Calvinist’.

And this is also what really gets at the heart of the matter. Most who call themselves ‘Calvinist’ or ‘Reformed’ don’t see it as being a difference between those who believe the Gospel, and those who don’t; or between those who are regenerate, and those who are not. They see it as a preference, that true Christians can be in disagreement over. Even if they believe in Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited (or Effectual) Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints, they don’t value those vital Gospel doctrines to the point of using them as a standard for judging; which shows that, like John Calvin, they don’t truly understand or believe those doctrines, and thus deny the very heart of the Gospel. So it makes sense when they accuse us of being divisive and schismatic when we insist that those who believe in Universal Atonement are unregenerate. They have the same false gospel as the Universal Atonement advocates, but clothed in a slightly more biblical form, and are therefore fully capable of speaking peace to them.

One of the best known of those peace-speakers, Charles Spurgeon once wrote:

“If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, “He is one who says, Salvation of the Lord.” I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this.”

A Defense of Calvinism as the Gospel

Notice how watered down is his definition of Calvinism — nothing about Limited Atonement, Total Depravity, or any other distinctively Calvinistic doctrine. But that is exactly the point. He wants to be able to say that Arminians also believe in Calvinism (and, consequently, the Gospel), so he has to find the lowest common denominator with them. Speaking peace to advocates of Universal Atonement isn’t just a feature for Spurgeon, it’s his very goal.

Those of us who hold to the CCF cannot join hands with Spurgeon. In fact, we must separate from him, as well as from the advocates of Universal Atonement he held to be his brothers. We believe that Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited (or Effectual) Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints (when these doctrines are defined correctly) are vital to the Gospel; but we cannot call ourselves ‘Calvinists’ in any sense of the word, and we deny that ‘Calvinism’, however it is defined, is the Gospel.