Dr. Win Corduan


TULIPHave you ever prayed for someone's salvation? Did you ask the Lord to open their eyes to the truth, to help them understand their need for salvation, to lead them to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their savior? I hope you have. If so, you were, for that time at least, a Calvinist.

Have you ever thanked the Lord for your salvation? Did you acknowledge to the Lord that you are totally unworthy of the grace that he has bestowed on you, that he is the one who sought you out in his mercy, that he alone brought you redemption? I hope you have. If so, you were, for that time at least, a Calvinist.

Have you ever shared the gospel with someone? Did you point out to that person that their only hope for eternal life lay not in what they would or could do, but in Christ's redemptive work alone, which they could only receive by trusting faith? I hope you have. If so, you were, for that time at least, a Calvinist.

You see, the theological position that we label as "Calvinist" is first and foremost nothing more than an attempt at the consistent outworking of the proposition that our salvation is the result of God's grace alone and that there is nothing you or I could conceivably contribute to our salvation, not even our good intentions. It is not primarily a doctrine of divine decrees, providence, or election, though all of those will play a role, but more than anything else it is the assertion that you or I could not be saved unless God had, from beginning to end, done everything that was necessary, including even drawing us to him.

It is no accident that the strongest assertions of the so-called "Calvinistic" position occurred at times when there was debate about the importance of divine grace in salvation, namely in Augustine's debate with Pelagius (at which we will look more closely in a second) and during the sixteenth-century Reformation under Luther and Calvin. The opponent of Calvinism is not so much Arminianism as any position that might detract from fully acknowledging God's grace.

Pelagius was a monk, a contemporary of Augustine in the fifth century, who taught that God would not have required perfect obedience of his people if they were incapable of such obedience. Thus, he did not recognize that the most fundamental function of the law is not to bring us to perfection, but to demonstrate to us by means of our failure to abide by it, how badly we need divine grace. Consequently, Pelagius taught that we have it within our power to make ourselves acceptable to God so as to merit his salvation. Augustine responded by pointing out that we are so sinful that our salvation has to be effected by God alone.

Unfortunately, as clear as this point ought to be, many people have found a way of muddling it up, creating a notion that ought to be rejected for its ugly name if not for its theological error; we call it "semi-Pelagianism." This heresy acknowledges that we are too sinful to save ourselves and that in our own power we cannot possibly be good enough to merit salvation, but then it veers off in the wrong direction. It asserts, not that Christ alone saves us, but that Christ gives us the power to make ourselves good enough to receive salvation. In other words, it turns salvation into a cooperative venture, where God supplies the capital, so to speak, and we put it to work, hoping that he will be pleased with the final product.

But semi-Pelagianism is also a mistaken understanding of salvation. It runs afoul of the central tenet, as expressed in Ephesians 2:8,9

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast." (NASB).

Just as Augustine's writings are a response to Pelagianism, we need to understand the sixteenth-century Reformation under Luther and Calvin as a response to the semi-Pelagianism of the medieval church. And it is in both cases that the champions of orthodoxy stressed God's sovereign work in our salvation in order to clarify the utter graciousness of it all.

Thus Calvinism is an attempt at the coherent outworking of the basic premise that salvation is by grace alone. It rejects (or should reject) Arminianism or various attempts at compromise positions only to the extent that it undercuts this foundational premise. But, alas, such an unfortunate misunderstanding can happen quickly and thoroughly, and many people who call themselves "Arminians" are really semi-Pelagians.

Let me clarify my position now by means of the notorious five points of Calvinism.

T1. Total Depravity. The reason why we must guard the gracious nature of our salvation so carefully is because we recognize that, apart from God's grace, we are utterly dead in our sins. Preceding the affirmation of salvation by grace through faith in Ephesians, we are reminded of our need for grace. "We were dead in our transgressions." (Eph. 2:5) A contemporary pastor tells how he used to illustrate salvation by referring to us as people in the process of drowning who need to grasp on to the life preserver, thrown our way by God before we go under the third and final time. But he came to recognize that this is not the exact truth. Rather:

"In terms of the illustration, we have not only gone under once, then twice, but we have gone down for the third and final time. Now we are lying at the bottom of the sea of sin . . . completely lifeless, utterly helpless, and absolutely unable to do anything to effect our own rescue. We are spiritually dead!"(1)

Listen to these words as the Apostle Paul quotes the Old Testament in Romans 3:

"There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless." (Rom. 3:10-12 NASB)

Did you catch that part in the middle about no one seeking God? There goes the old bromide about everybody searching for truth and God in their own way! It's not just that we could not find God if we tried, but that we would not even if we could. Our sinful nature has corrupted our very will.

U2. Unconditional Election. Well, if that's true, something else follows immediately, namely that none of us deserves salvation. If salvation were based on our own merits, then no one could be saved. But God loved us so much that he allowed us to become Christians. The only explanation for this happening is that he chose us when we were yet in a state of death in our sins, completely unacceptable in every way. God did not choose us because we would make such wonderful Christians, and-please-could we get away from the sophism of God choosing us because he knew we would choose him. Dead people can't choose.

L3. Limited Atonement. Much theological ink has been spilled on this topic. Most of it, on both sides of the issue, tends to rest on misunderstandings. The fact of the matter is that, even for the Arminian (come to think of it, particularly for the Arminian) Christ's atonement is actually effective only for the "elect," and Calvinists will concede that in a potential sense the atonement could, of course, have covered the sins of the entire world. (I John 2:2)

While we're chatting of such things, though, I might just mention that such verses as 2 Peter 3:9 and I Timothy 2:4 which talk about God's will that all should be saved and that none should perish, verses that Arminians tend to bring up against Calvinism, are just as much of an embarassment to their own position because, clearly, they believe that not all people will be saved, but only those who choose Christ. Only a genuine universalist, and then only by routing these verses out of context, can claim them as unequivocally supporting his position. The rest of us must do equally what should be done with all scripture anyway: interpret it in a full biblical context.

I4. Irresistible Grace. Jesus stated clearly that "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him." (John 10:44) Again, this is nothing but the logical extension that begins with our utter deadness in sin. If we are truly dead in sin and God elects us to salvation, then he must do the work of drawing us to him. Dead people cannot choose or grasp. God not only offered salvation to me, he gave it to me freely. And what God sets out to do, he will accomplish.

"For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified." (Rom. 8:29,30).

It is at this point that a number of theologians try a little maneuver of having their Arminian cake and eating it, too. John Wesley, for example, took this matter to heart (to a certain extent) and insisted that we cannot choose apart from God first of all enabling us to do so; this is called "prevenient grace." God paves the way because, said Wesley, we are indeed totally depraved, but then God leaves it up to us to choose: yes or no. That gets us around the difficulties and still leaves us a choice, doesn't it?

Well, of course, it does not, once you think about what is being offered here. Let us ask this question: Who does the choosing? Easy answer, you say, the human being. All right, but now, is this human being in a natural or restored state? If he is in a natural state, then he never was truly dead in his sins to begin with. But that's not what you want to say because prevenient grace came and revived him, as we just stated. Nevertheless, prevenient grace did not do so completely-that would be irresistible grace. So, God is in the peculiar position of reviving a person somewhat, enabling him to make the correct choice if he wishes, but not so much that he definitely will make that choice. In fact, God, being omniscient will know already which persons, having only been partially revived, will make the wrong choice. But God will not do anything further to bring that person to salvation. Brothers and sisters, this is no different from election to damnation. The Wesleyan is in a pickle. He will have to choose (sic) between either endowing the human person with the ability to select God-thereby compromising God's full grace-or allowing God to have the final say, after all. Why not just acknowledge God's full gracious action?

P5. Perseverance of the Saints. It follows finally that, since God is the one who acts alone in our salvation that he is also the one who keeps us.

"My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them; and I know them, and shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of My hand." (John 10:28)

However, please be aware that the Calvinist does not hold to the cheap "eternal security" doctrine according to which, if you have prayed the sinner's prayer sometime it no longer matters what you do: once saved always saved, even if you renounce Christ by word or deed. Not at all! The Calvinist affirms that the life of the person who is justified by God will manifest Christ's righteousness. A changed life is not a condition for salvation but the evidence of salvation. As the Apostle John asserts of certain people who had left the church:

"They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us." (I John 2:19).

Our perseverance, too, is ultimately the work of God. (Gal. 3:3)


Calvinism is an attempt to work out consistently the biblical teaching that our salvation, from first to last, is the work of God alone. The five points, based on the canons of Dort, are simply aspects of this truth. The real opponents of Calvinism are Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. Arminianism and its relatives are responses to these heresies that preserve the gracious nature of our salvation, but do so les scripturally and less consistently. From the perspective of a Calvinist, Arminianism is an error, insofar as it does not do full justice to what the Bible teaches about salvation, but it is not a heresy, which means that both sides ought to remain in Christian fellowship, and hopefully Arminians will take the same approach to Calvinism.


1 Timothy A. McCoy, "The Gospel Truth" in Paul R. House and Gregory A Thornbury, ed., Who Will Be Saved? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 168-69. Return to text.