Calvinistic theology, or Reformed theology, is a branch of Protestant Christianity that is based on the teachings of John Calvin, a French minister who lived in the 16th century. Calvinism has a short yet storied history, with adherents who are deeply committed to its tenets. However, its theology has also faced criticism for its legalistic and graceless nature, as well as for displaying cult-like tendencies at times. 5-Point Calvinists will always adhere to all of the 5 points of Calvinism, aka “TULIP”.
The acronym TULIP stands for:
- Total depravity (Mankind lost the image of God and is pure evil1)
- Unconditional election (Predestination: God chooses who to save)
- Limited atonement (Christ didn’t die for everyone)
- Irresistible grace (Mankind has no real free choice2)
- Perseverance of the saints (Your actions prove if you are really saved or not)
Some of the names associated with promoting 5-points Calvinism (TULIP) are John MacArthur, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, John Piper, David Platt, R.C. Sproul, Paul Washer, Voddie Baucham, and others.
Various aspects of Calvinistic theology have led to major criticism, but the implications in people’s lives only lately became evident outside its immediate communities.
In simple words, 5-Point Calvinistic theology teaches that God has predetermined the eternal destiny of every individual, either for salvation or damnation, before they are even born. This means that people do not have genuine free will (which they call, “bondage of the will“) and, therefore, cannot choose whether to believe in God. And yet, God will judge them as if they have chosen to reject him out of their own free will.
Take a look at the explanation offered by the popular reformed website “GotQuestions”:
God elects people to salvation by His own sovereign choice…God, before the foundation of the world, chose to make certain individuals the objects of His unmerited favor or special grace…God elects someone to salvation not because of something worthy God finds in that individual but because of His inscrutable, mysterious will. He makes the choice as to who will be saved for His own reasons…The question we really should ask is not why God chooses only some for salvation but why He would choose any at all.2
Notice the last part of the quote, “The question we really should ask is not why God chooses only some to salvation, but why He would choose any at all.” This reminds me of the prodigal son who said to his father: “I am not worthy to be called your son.” Gladly, his Father proved him wrong.
In addition, 5-Point Calvinistic theology teaches that mankind lost the image of God and, therefore, men cannot do good of any kind unless God intervenes and “takes the wheel” to do it through them. This “marionette” doctrine paints a picture of humanity as incapable of choosing God or doing good without divine intervention. Here’s an example by John Piper:
All men are in total rebellion. Everything they do is the product of rebellion and cannot be an honor to God but only part of their sinful rebellion…Man’s inability to submit to God and do good is total.3
Likewise, in “Tulip: The Five Points of Calvinism,” Spencer explains:
Natural (soulish) unregenerate men cannot comprehend the things of God. They are the unborn dead (spiritually) who know only darkness. They are totally depraved, wholly incapable of thinking, perceiving, or doing anything pleasing to God.4
However, there is no way to know if God elected you are not. The only way to know is in retrospect by looking at your actions. If you lived a sinful life, that means, according to Calvinistic Theology, you were not chosen to begin with and are not saved. Of course, this causes great distress as the believer never has a true assurance that he is indeed saved/elected by God to begin with. However, the better his behavior, the more likely he was elected. Therefore, the believer’s good behavior is fear-driven. This, of course, is the best formula for legalism. The lack of assurance may create a graceless environment, as individuals may feel the need to prove their faith through strict adherence to religious rules and practices rather than relying on God’s grace.
5-Point Calvinistic theology also teaches limited atonement, which is the belief that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was only intended to save a select group of individuals (the elect) and not the entirety of humanity. Critics argue that this doctrine is graceless because it implies that God’s love and mercy are restricted to a select few, while the majority of God’s creation is left without hope for salvation. This stands in contrast to more inclusive theologies that emphasize God’s grace and love for all people who may freely choose to accept Him.
Real-life Side Effects of 5-Point Calvinistic Theology (TULIP)
Authoritarianism and Fear-Based Control
Calvinism’s legalistic nature can contribute to authoritarianism within churches and communities that adhere to its teachings. Leaders within these communities may feel justified in exercising strict and sometimes abusive control over their congregations, believing that they are carrying out God’s will. This can result in a hierarchical structure that stifles dissent, encourages conformity, and perpetuates spiritual abuse.
Calvinistic theology, with its emphasis on the total depravity of humanity and predestination, can create an environment of fear and uncertainty for its adherents. This fear can be exploited by leaders within the community, who may use it to control and manipulate their congregations. Believers may be hesitant to question or challenge their leaders, fearing that they might jeopardize their status within the community. Moreover, it may cause an overly-strict discipline of the family’s children, inflicting severe punishments in the very name of God.
The legalistic and graceless nature of Calvinistic theology, combined with its authoritarian and exclusive tendencies, can create an environment ripe for spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse occurs when religious leaders use their power and influence to manipulate, control, or even exploit their followers. In a Calvinistic context, spiritual abuse may include using the doctrines of total depravity, predestination, and limited atonement to shame, and guilt, and manipulate individuals into conforming to the expectations of the community.
The doctrines of predestination and limited atonement can foster a sense of exclusivity and promote pride among Calvinist believers. By asserting that only a select few are chosen for salvation, Calvinism can create an “us versus them” mentality that encourages exclusionary practices and discourages dialogue with those who hold differing beliefs. This exclusivity can also manifest in a sense of spiritual elitism, where Calvinist believers may view themselves as more enlightened or spiritually advanced than others.
In conclusion, while Calvinistic theology has only a short history, it has many devoted followers to its legalistic and graceless doctrines. This and its cult-like tendencies have led to significant criticism, especially in the last few decades. The doctrines of TULIP have been criticized for fostering a rigid, legalistic approach to faith and minimizing the role of grace in the lives of believers to a minimum. Additionally, the authoritarian and exclusive tendencies within Calvinistic communities can contribute to spiritual abuse and the silencing of dissenting voices.
I have published a new book to refute Calvinistic doctrines, I welcome you to check it out: The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse: Redeeming the Gospel from Gruesome Popular Preaching of an Abusive and Violent God. A sample is available here.
1 “For our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.1.8)
2 “All events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 16)
3 Got Questions, “Unconditional election – is it biblical?”
4 John Piper, in his explanation of the Calvinistic doctrine of “total depravity” (monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/piper/depravity.html)
5 Duane Edward Spencer, Tulip: The Five Points of Calvinism in the Light of Scripture. Baker Books, 2002. pp. 35.