The Marrow of Calvinism

by Joel Beeke

There is no true religion in the world which is not Calvinistic-Calvinistic in its essence, Calvinistic in its implications.... In proportion as we are religious, in that proportion, then, are we Calvinistic; and when religion comes fully to its rights in our thinking, and feeling, and doing, then shall we be truly Calvinistic.... [Calvinism] is not merely the hope of true religion in the world: it is true religion in the world-as far as true religion is in the world at all.'  - BENJAMIN B. WARFIELD

If you were to ask theologians in seminaries or people on the street, "What is Calvinism all about?" the answers you would receive would vary widely. Caricatures abound. For instance, on Thanksgiving Day 2007, the Grand Rapids Press printed an article by John M. Crisp titled, "Thinking like a Pilgrim on Thanksgiving." It said of the Pilgrims: "Their religious roots reached back to the gloomy tenets of John Calvin, which means-at the risk of oversimplification that they lived with the nagging fear that they dangled every moment by a thin thread over the fiery pit of hell in spite of their own faith or good works or the outward manifestations of the blessings of God."2

Does any Calvinist recognize this as a definition of Calvinism? I wrote back to the Grand Rapids Press: "This statement is not an oversimplification. It is a misrepresentation. Calvin and most of the Pilgrims rejoiced in Christ their Savior, and lived joyous Christian lives of spiritual depth with assured faith in the rich promises of God."3

Of course, most evangelical Christians and, sadly, even some Calvinists, lack a proper understanding of the real heartbeat of Calvinism. "There is nothing upon which men need to be more instructed than upon the question of what Calvinism really is," Charles H. Spurgeon once said.4 Whether you are a Calvinist, a non-Calvinist, or an anti-Calvinist, you need to give this question a fair hearing: what really is the marrow of Calvinism?


Calvinistic theology includes all the essential evangelical doctrines, such as the deity of Christ, objective atonement, and the person and work of the Holy Spirit. It also includes many doctrines developed by theological giants such as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Martin Luther. Yet, it is not entirely correct to say, as did "Rabbi" John Duncan, "There's no such thing as Calvinism [because] the teachings of Augustine, Remigius, Anselm, and Luther were just pieced together by one remarkable man [Calvin], and the result baptized with his name."'

Calvin's synthesis is far more remarkable than that; he certainly was no midget standing on Augustine's giant shoulders. Calvin's presentation of the plan of salvation, choice of materials, and sense of the interconnectedness of biblical doctrine are unique. He was a genius in organization and systematization. His indebtedness to his predecessors does not detract from his originality, which is clearly evident in his doctrine of divine Sonship; his emphasis on the humanity of the Redeemer and His threefold mediatorial office as Prophet, Priest, and King; his explanation of the inward witness of the Holy Spirit; his development of Presbyterian church polity; and his exposition of how worship should be based on the Second Commandment, which the Puritans would later develop as the regulative principle of worship.

In addition, Calvinists throughout history have not been mere imitators of Calvin. For example, in their development of covenant theology, decretal theology, and the doctrine of assurance of faith, they labored hard to explain the whole counsel of God within the context of all the profundity, harmony, and consistency of Scripture.

Despite these various contributing strains, Calvinism is remarkably consistent and defined. As Valentijn Hepp writes, "Calvinism is the broadest and deepest Christianity; or, if you will, it is the purest Christianity; or, as I should prefer to qualify it, it is the most consistent and likewise the most harmonious Christianity."'

But what is at the heart of the Calvinistic system? Over the centuries, many scholars have sought to identify a single concept that governs Calvinism. Herman Bauke, a German Calvinist, lists at least twenty interpretations of the "basic principle of Calvinism." Some of these include:

• Predestination. While some scholars say predestination is the core of Reformed truth, that assertion can be misleading if it is understood to mean that everything proceeds from absolute predestination in such a way that what transpires in time matters little. This hyper-Calvinistic view leads to a tendency to move away from biblical revelation into a more rationalistic kind of theology.

• The covenant. While the covenantal relationship between God and man is emphasized in Reformed theology, it is not necessarily the controlling concept. All men are indeed either in covenant with God or are covenant-breakers, but Calvin did not structure all doctrines under this important truth.

• The sovereignty of God. Sovereignty means "rule"; hence, to speak of God's sovereignty is to refer to God's rule. God's sovereignty is His supremacy, His kingship, and His deity. His sovereignty declares Him to be God, the incomprehensible Trinity who is nevertheless knowable insofar as He chooses to reveal Himself to us. His sovereignty is exercised in all of His attributes, declaring Him to be perfect in all respects and possessor of all righteousness and holiness. He is the sovereignly gracious and omnipotent Jehovah, the Most High who does His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth (Dan. 4:35). He cannot be reduced to special or temporal categories for human understanding and analysis.

Here, at last, we draw near to the true marrow of Calvinism. The Calvinist believes that God is the Lord of life and Sovereign of the universe, whose will is the key to history. The Calvinist believes that He is free and independent of any force outside Himself to accomplish His purposes; that He knows the end from the beginning; that He creates, sustains, governs, and directs all things; and that His marvelous design will be fully and perfectly manifest at the end of the ages.? "For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever" (Rom. 11:36). As Charles Hodge says: "God's sovereignty is to all other doctrines what the granite formation is to the other strata of the earth. It underlies and sustains them, but it crops out only here and there. So this doctrine should underlie all our preaching, and should be definitely asserted only now and then."'

God's sovereignty is the marrow of doctrinal Calvinism-provided we understand that this sovereignty is not arbitrary but is the sovereignty of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Duncan wrote: "It is a holy will that rules the universe-a will in which loving-kindness is locked up, to be in due time displayed. It is a solemn thing that we and all creatures are at the disposal of pure will; but it is not merely free will, it is the free will of the sovereign Lord Jehovah, and therein it is distinguished from the abstractness and apparent arbitrariness of mere will."9 B. B. Warfield wrote in his essay on predestination: "The Biblical writers find their comfort continually in the assurance that it is the righteous, holy, faithful, loving God in whose hands rests the determination of the sequence of events and all their issues.... The roots of the divine election are planted in His unsearchable love, by which it appears as the supreme act of grace.""

This is balanced, genuine, defensible Calvinism. It is the Calvinism expressed in Isaiah 9:6, which says that the government, or sovereignty, is upon the shoulders of Him who is "Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." In Christ, the warm and fatherly sovereignty of the God of the Scriptures is vastly different from the cold and capricious sovereignty of other "gods," such as Allah. Fatherly sovereignty, like the incarnation itself, is in perfect harmony with all of God's attributes. The Calvinist finds peace in the conviction that behind God's all-encompassing providence is the full acquiescence of the triune God. The sovereign grace and love that went to Calvary has the whole world in its hands. God's fatherly sovereignty in Christ is the essence of who God is.


Thus, if we had to reduce Calvinism to one concept, we might be safest to echo Warfield, who said that to be Reformed means to be theocentric. The primary interest of Reformed theology is the triune God, for the transcendent-immanent, fatherly God in Jesus Christ is God Himself. Calvinists are people whose theology is dominated by the idea of God. As Mason Pressly says: "Just as the Methodist places in the foreground the idea of the salvation of sinners; the Baptist, the mystery of regeneration; the Lutheran, justification by faith; the Moravian, the wounds of Christ; the Greek Catholic, the mysticism of the Holy Spirit; and the Romanist, the catholicity of the church, so the Calvinist is always placing in the foreground the thought of God."" i

To be Reformed is to stress the comprehensive, sovereign, fatherly lordship of God over everything: every area of creation, every creature's endeavors, and every aspect of the believer's life. The ruling motif in Calvinism is, "In the beginning God ..." (Gen. 1:1).

In His relation to us, God has only rights and powers; He binds Himself to duties sovereignly and graciously only by way of covenant. In covenant, He assumes the duties and responsibilities of being a God unto us, but that does not detract from His being the first cause and the last end of all things. The universe is ruled not by chance or fate, but by the complete, sovereign rule of God. We exist for one purpose: to give Him glory. We have only duties to God, no rights. Any attempt to challenge this truth is doomed. Romans 9:20b asks, "Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?" God enacts His laws for every part of our lives and demands unconditional obedience. We are called to serve Him with body and soul, in worship and daily work, every second of every day.

To be Reformed, then, is to be concerned with the complete character of the Creator-creature relationship. It is to view all of life coram Deo, that is, lived before the face of God. As Warfield wrote:

The Calvinist is the man who sees God: God in nature, God in history, God in grace. Everywhere he sees God in His mighty stepping, everywhere he feels the working of His mighty arm, the throbbing of His mighty heart. The Calvinist is the man who sees God behind all phenomena and in all that occurs recognizes the hand of God, working out His will. [The Calvinist] makes the attitude of the soul to God in prayer its permanent attitude in all its life activities; [he] casts himself on the grace of God alone, excluding every trace of dependence on self from the whole work of his salvation.12

The doctrine of God-a fatherly, sovereign God in Christ Jesus-is therefore the center of Reformed theology. R. C. Sproul puts it this way: "How we understand the nature and character of God himself influences how we understand the nature of man, who bears God's image; the nature of Christ, who works to satisfy the Father; the nature of salvation, which is effected by God; the nature of ethics, the norms of which are based on God's character; and a myriad of other theological considerations, all drawing on our understanding of God."13

So Calvinists define all doctrine in a God-centered way. Sin is horrible because it is an affront to God. Salvation is wonderful because it brings glory to God. Heaven is glorious because it is the place where God is all in all. Hell is infernal because it is where God manifests His righteous wrath. God is central to all of those truths.

Consider the example of the true reason for the horror of sin. A Christian may say that sin is damaging and leads to wretchedness, but without a Godcentered perspective, he will miss the most important emphasis of all. Sin is an affront to God Himself, as David confesses in Psalm 51:4: "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest."

The most common word in the epistle to the Romans, the greatest doctrinal text of the Bible, is not grace, faith, believe, or law, but God. Most of the great theological statements in Romans begin with God:

• God gave them over.

• God will give to each person according to what he has done.

• God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ.

• God set Him forth as a propitiation.

• God justifies the ungodly.

• God has poured out His love into our hearts.

As Calvinists, we are enamored with God. We are overwhelmed by His majesty, His beauty, His holiness, and His grace. We seek His glory, desire His presence, and model our lives after Him.

Other Christians say that evangelism or revival is their great concern, and these things must concern us greatly, of course. But ultimately, we have only one concern: to know God, to serve Him, and to see Him glorified. That is our main objective. The salvation of the lost is important because it leads to the hallowing of God's name and the coming of His kingdom. The purifying of society is important because it helps us do God's will on earth as in it is done in heaven. Bible study and prayer are important because they lead us into communion with Him.


God-centeredness has been the trademark of the church, and especially of Calvin and of Calvinism, through the centuries. Here are some examples:

• Augustine. One significant reason the Reformed tradition has held the early church theologian and author Augustine in high regard is his theocentric perspective on life and salvation. Listen to him as he writes about his conversion:

During all those years [of rebellion], where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to Thy easy yoke ... ? How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose ... ! Thou didst drive them from me, Thou who art the true, the sovereign joy. Thou didst drive them from me and took their place, Thou who art sweeter than all pleasure, ... who dost outshine all light, ... who dost surpass all honor... 0 Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.14

• John Calvin. Calvin's life offers abundant commentary on theocentrism. Despite shortcomings, he strove to live soli Deo gloria. That goal bore fruits of godliness in his character. When Theodore Beza broke the news of Calvin's death to the Geneva Academy students, he said, "Having been a spectator of his conduct for sixteen years, ... I can now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate."15

• Jonathan Edwards. Calvin's most noble group of successors, the Puritans, aimed to live all of life theocentrically. That is perhaps best illustrated in Jonathan Edwards, the New England Reformed theologian of the eighteenth century:

The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean.16

Then, too, journals of Presbyterians such as Andrew Bonar, the letters of Anglicans such as John Newton, and the sermons of Baptists such as Spurgeon all center on God. These men developed their theology and fulfilled their ministry in adoration of God. Everything flowed out of that passion.

You might be saying that these men had such a God-centered mindset only because they were extraordinary theologians and pastors. If so, listen to these words of Ann Griffiths, a humble Welsh Calvinistic Methodist who was a farmer's wife and who died in 1805 at the age of 29 when giving birth to her first child:

This kind of God-centered passion has been mostly lost because of our backsliding and the theological errors of our day. In many so-called evangelical churches, the fear of God has been lost and thus, in a real measure, so has a biblical understanding of the love of God. Evangelicalism has become man-centered and, as a result, promotes a view of God that is far less than the reality set forth in Holy Scripture.

But even many who delight in Reformed truth seem to have lost their sense of the awe of God. As in the broader evangelical culture, God-centeredness has given way to man-centeredness in many Reformed circles. We aim too often at giving people what they want instead of following the example of the great Reformed evangelists, whose first objective was to confront men and women with God's greatness and majesty.

Too many of us today present God as more user-friendly than His own Word does. We want to make people feel comfortable, so we avoid telling them anything that will make them uneasy. We are so concerned about losing our young people that we never ask them to gaze on the holiness of God or challenge them to live out that holiness in the childlike fear of God. We condone materialism, worldliness, and triviality because we have so little sense of an ever-present, infinitely holy God.

Our lives seldom testify that we are willing, at any price, to "buy the truth, and sell it not" (Prov. 23:23). Dangerous compromises, subtle backsliding, Ephesian coldness, and Laodicean indifference multiply the "unreformedness" of our lives. How often we esteem ourselves and our reputation above the name of God and His reputation.

But when the Holy Spirit shows us the Father's divine generosity to us in His Son, together with the absolute freeness of His grace, we wholeheartedly yearn to glorify our worthy, fatherly triune God with all that is within us. As Maurice Roberts writes:

The realization that God has chosen an individual to life and glory, though he was not a whit better than others, leads the mature Christian to cherish the most ecstatic feelings of gratitude to our heavenly Father. With an upturned face the adoring believer confesses to heaven that, apart from eternally given grace, he would never have believed in Christ, nor even have wished to believe. Then, lowering his gaze and covering his streaming eyes, the grateful Christian exclaims: "My Father and my God! To Thee alone be everlasting glory for such unmerited grace!""

Are we true sons and daughters of the Calvinistic Reformation who are enamored with God Himself, and with honoring and obeying Him? If so, we should pray with the psalmist:

By all whom Thous hast made
Be praise and worship paid
Thro' earth abroad;
Thy Name be glorified,
There is none great beside,
For Thou art God.
Help me Thy will to do,
Thy truth I will Persue,
Teach me to fear;
Give me the single eye
Thy Name to glorify,
O Lord, my God Most High,
With Heart sinvere. 19

And with Philip Doddridge:

Perish each though of human pride
Let god alone be magnified;
His glory let the heavens resound,
Shouted from the earth's remotest bound. 20


1. What lies at the core of Calvinism?

2. Who were some notable believers who held to the central tenet of Calvinism?

3. Can you think of some individuals in the Bible whose lives and thinking reflect what we have seen to be at the core of Calvinism?

4. How does the fatherly sovereignty of God help you in practical ways in your daily walk with Him?


B. B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings [of] Benjamin B. Warfield, ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1970), 1: 392.

2 Grand Rapids Press (Nov. 22, 2007), A-18.

3 GrandRapids Press (Dec. 3, 2007), A-6.

4 Charles H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Pasadena, Texas: Pilgrim Publications, 1986), 7:301.

5 John Duncan, Colloquia Peripatetica (Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 1870), 9.

6 Valentijn Hepp, The Reformed Faith Commonly Called Calvinism, 87.

7 G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 7ff.

8 Charles Hodge, Princeton Sermons (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), 6.

9 Duncan, Colloquia Peripatetica, 89.

10 B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: P&R, 1952), 301, 323-324.

11 Mason Pressly, "Calvinism and Science," in Evangelica Repertoire (1891), 662.

12 B. B. Warfield, Calvin as a Theologian and Calvinism Today (London: Evangelical Press, 1969), 23-24.

13 R C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart ofReformedTheology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 25.

14 Augustine, quoted in John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God's Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000), 57.

15 Quoted in Selected Works of Calvin, ed. and trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 1:c.

16 Jonathan Edwards, "The Christian Pilgrim," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Edward Hickman (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 2:244.

17 Quoted in A. M. Allchin, Songs to Her God: Spirituality of Ann Griiths (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1987), 104.

18 Maurice Roberts, "Before the Omnipotent's Throne," Tabletalk, 16, no. 11 (Nov 1992): 17.

19 The Psalter (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2003), no. 236, stanzas 1-2.

20 From the hymn "God Magnified by Those That Love His Salvation," by Philip Doddridge.

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