This article is from Issue 55: Jan/Feb 2012

Debating Calvinism

There's probably no other issue in popular Christianity as argued or debated as Calvanism and it's implications. Whether a dorm room, a Sunday school class, a dinner table, a small group or a classroom, chances are there’s been a discussion there about election, sovereignty and free will at least once in the past month. It’s a theological battle royale, argued by scholars and blog commenters alike.

That debate has only grown over the past decade or so, as more young people have begun to identify as “Reformed”—that is, the tradition housing Christian doctrines commonly referred to as Calvinism. Popular writers and speakers like John Piper, Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll have ignited a movement of Reformed Christians that has fanned the flames of debate into a more visible fire. Meanwhile, Christians
like Greg Boyd, N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight offer significant challenges to the current, Reformed mode of thinking.

Of course, just because it’s hotly debated in some circles doesn’t mean everyone knows there’s even a debate going on. Many Christians grew up in or joined churches without knowing if they were Calvinist, Arminian or something in between. Even for many who would not claim a side, they probably have an underlying theology that leans one way or the other. So ... what exactly is the difference between those who are Reformed and those who aren’t?

Most Christians today identify Calvinism with its famous TULIP acronym (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints), an acronym originating in the 20th century. Of course, as with any acronym, clarity can be sacrificed to cleverness.

Essentially, Calvinism attempts to answer one question: How are Christians saved? The Calvinist answer boils down to emphasizing that salvation is entirely dependent on the actions of God and His sovereignty. Humanity is not saved on any merit of its own but completely by the grace of God. That means you don’t choose God—God chooses you and saves you.

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