Calvinism is well known and widely respected for its theology. But can we say the same thing about its piety?
It is sometimes said that Calvinists do not make very good Christians. According to one critic: “Nothing will foster pride and indifference as will an affection for Calvinism. Nothing will destroy holiness and spirituality as an attachment to Calvinism. The doctrines of Calvinism will deaden and kill anything: prayer, faith, zeal, holiness.”
Perhaps it is true that some people who call themselves Calvinists are not very good Christians — the “frozen chosen,” they are sometimes called. But if they are not very good Christians, then they must not be very good Calvinists either, because a true understanding of Reformed theology results in a vibrant Christian experience that is full of spiritual vitality. Far from hindering warm personal piety, the doctrines of grace help cause it to flourish.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the life of John Calvin himself, with all his passion for Christ. “Let us steadily exert ourselves,” Calvin wrote in his Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, “to reach a higher degree of holiness till we shall finally arrive at a perfection of goodness which we seek and pursue as long as we live, but which we shall attain then only, when, freed from all earthly infirmity, we shall be admitted by God into his full communion.” In other words, we should always strive for greater and greater holiness, even if we will not completely reach that goal until we see God in His glory.
Calvinism is deeply committed to warm, personal piety because it is so fully committed to the Bible. It is only in Scripture, said Calvin, that we can “find the root principle for the reformation of our life.”
It is Scripture that shows us the righteous character of our holy God, and then tells us to be holy, just as He is holy (see Lev. 20:26; 1 Peter 1:15).
It is Scripture that teaches us what righteousness God requires in His holy law. It is Scripture that proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for He has become our holiness by faith (see 1 Cor. 1:30). It is Scripture that testifies to the work of the Spirit, whose holiness conforms us to Christ. And it is Scripture that calls us to strive “for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
It is also Scripture that teaches the distinctive doctrines of Reformed theology, commonly known as Calvinism. These doctrines do not hinder us from the pursuit of holiness, as some have claimed, but in fact call us to greater holiness. More than that, these doctrines make holiness possible by grounding our whole Christian experience in the powerful grace of God.
Maybe the best doctrine to begin with is total depravity. Like Calvin himself, Calvinists believe that nothing we ever do is completely good. Sin has pervaded every aspect of who we are. Our minds, our hearts, our wills, and even our bodies have been corrupted by our iniquity.
This doctrine may not sound very encouraging. However, the knowledge of sin leads to repentance, which is the first step to holiness. It is only when we see how much holiness we lack that we will go to God for grace. Then, and only then, are we able to do the righteous works God requires. There is no holiness without repentance, and there is no repentance without the knowledge of sin. Thus the doctrine of depravity is fundamental to Gospel holiness.
A second distinctive doctrine of the Reformed faith is election. This truth teaches that what happens in our salvation is determined by the prior decision of God. Election is a loving decree of God’s sovereign will for our salvation that is not based on anything we do, but only on His mercy. God’s grace is God’s choice.
Critics sometimes say this doctrine eliminates any incentive for personal holiness. If we have been chosen by God from all eternity, our salvation is already secure. So why bother to live a righteous life?
This criticism is a dangerous distortion of what the Bible teaches. Far from eliminating the need for personal holiness, the doctrine of election calls us to lead a holy life. We have been chosen in Christ for the very purpose that we would be holy.
To see this, we only need to follow the logic of Paul’s opening argument in Ephesians. There the apostle praises God for choosing us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4a). But why did God give us this blessing? What was His purpose for choosing us in Christ? It was so “that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4b).
The doctrine of election, then, is a call to holiness. God has chosen us to be holy in Christ. Paul makes essentially the same point in Romans, when he says that we were “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). We were chosen by God to be like Jesus, according to the pattern of His righteousness. Rather than making us proud and presumptuous, therefore, God’s predestinating grace is the basis for our sanctification.
A third distinctively Calvinistic doctrine is the sovereignty of God. To a certain extent, every Christian claims to believe this doctrine. However, only the Calvinist has a fully comprehensive view of God’s sovereignty, not limiting God’s control over human choices, but believing that He “preserves and governs all his creatures and all their actions” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer 11).
Some people say such a high view of divine sovereignty eliminates any sense of human responsibility, including responsibility for our own spiritual growth. But Calvinism understands that this is not the logic of Scripture. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul writes to the Philippians (Phil. 2:12). But on what basis does the apostle make this exhortation? Is it because everything is up to us, so that unless we achieve our own holiness, we will never be saved?
On the contrary, Paul tells us to work out our salvation because “it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). The gracious work of our sovereign God establishes the basis for a life of service and devotion to God. John Calvin wrote, “Holiness is not a merit by which we can attain communion with God, but a gift of Christ, which enables us to cling to him, and to follow him.”
Finally, God’s sovereign grace is the basis for the life of prayer, which is the very heart of personal piety. Prayer is not a way of getting something that God has no intention of giving — of persuading Him to do something He doesn’t want to do. Rather, it is a way of surrendering our own will to God’s sovereign purpose. We pray according to the promises of God, asking Him to do what only He can do, and then waiting for Him to answer. We are all Calvinists when we pray, because in prayer we submit to the sovereignty of God, trusting His gracious plan for our lives.