Why I Am a Calvinist, Part 5 – 8 of 8

by Phil Johnson – Grace to You

Why I Am a Calvinist, Part 5

. . . and why every Christian is a Calvinist of sorts.

Part V: Why this issue is really a lot simpler than most people think

At the end of the previous post, I described how even in my Arminian days, I affirmed an awful lot of truth about the sovereignty of God: I would have affirmed with no reservation whatsoever that God is God; that He does all His good pleasure; that no one can make Him do otherwise; that He is in control and in charge no matter how much noise evildoers try to make; and not only is He in charge, He is working all things out for my good and His glory. As a matter of fact, my confidence in the promise of Romans 8:28 was what motivated my prayer life.

That’s Calvinism. If you believe those things, you have affirmed the heart of Calvinism, even if you call yourself an Arminian. Those are the basic truths of Calvinism, and if you already believe those things, you are functioning with Calvinist presuppositions.

In fact, the truths of Calvinism so much permeate the heart of the gospel message, that even if you think you are a committed and consistent proponent of Arminianism, if you truly affirm the gospel you have already conceded the principle points of Calvinism anyway.

I want to turn to the Scriptures and illustrate for you from a typical passage of Scripture why I think that’s true. For the remainder of this series, we’ll focus on one very short text of Scripture that illustrates perfectly the point I am making.

Let’s home in on a truth Arminians hold in especially high regard, and rightfully so: the love of God. I’ve chosen a short verse, and a familiar one, to make this as simple as possible—1 John 4:19. This is one of those memory verses AWANA kids love because it’s easy to get credit for memorizing a whole verse, and it’s just eight words in English: 1 John 4:19: “We love Him because He first loved us.”

I remember very well the first time I noticed this verse. I was a fairly new Christian at the time, and I was surprised to find this truth in the Bible.

I was appallingly ignorant of the Bible when I was a brand new Christian. I grew up going to liberal churches where the Bible was hardly mentioned unless the Sunday School teacher wanted to disagree with something the Bible said.

So I remember taking a Bible literacy exam when I entered Moody Bible Institute, still as a fairly new believer. I hate to think what kind of score I made on that exam. I’m sure it was appallingly low. The amount I knew about the Bible was embarrassingly meager. I knew, of course, that Moses got the Ten Amendments on Mount Cyanide, but the only one I could name was “Thou shalt not admit adultery.”

But we still sang some of the old hymns, and one of the ones that was familiar to me was, “Oh, How I love Jesus!” And I was always intrigued by the closing line of that song: “Oh, how I love Jesus, because He first loved me.” So I was familiar with the words, but I was really surprised to find that this is what the Bible says: “We love Him, because He first loved us.”

For some reason, from my earliest childhood, hearing the chorus of that song, that had always struck me as a pretty lousy reason for loving Jesus. Of course, in my unregenerate state, I had almost no understanding whatsoever of the love of Christ for me. I knew that He loved me and I was supposed to love Him, because we sang about it and all. But loving Him just because He loved me first didn’t seem like a particularly noble or admirable reason for loving Him. In fact it always sounded a little bit childish, because it was the very same reason I always gave my mother when she asked me why I hit my brother: Because he hit me first!

I understood that reciprocity is not a good motive for determining how we act toward other people. “You love me, and I’ll love you in return” is as morally bankrupt as saying, “You hit me, and I’ll hit you back.” Love is supposed to be unconditional, isn’t it? So “because He first loved me” never sounded like quite an adequate motive for loving Jesus.

So I was really surprised after I became a Christian and started reading the Bible, when I found that these words are taken directly from Scripture: “We love Him, because He first loved us.”

But what I didn’t understand then, but I understand now, is that this verse isn’t speaking merely about the motive for our love. It is a profound statement about the grace of God that sovereignly secures our love and transforms us from God-hating enemies into adopted sons and daughters whose hearts naturally overflow with the purest kind of love—not only love for God, but also love for one another.

Incidentally, there’s a minor textual issue in this verse that I ought to mention. In the King James and New King James Versions, this verse is translated just the way I have read it: “We love Him, because He first loved us.” That’s because the Greek texts from which the King James Version was translated include the object Him.

It doesn’t ultimately matter which reading you prefer, because both things are actually true, and our capacity for loving God is dependent on our ability to have true love. If we couldn’t love at all, we certainly couldn’t love God. So either way, the meaning of this verse includes the truth that “We love Him, because He first loved us.”

© 2008 by Phil Johnson
Executive Director
Grace to You


Why I Am a Calvinist, Part 6

. . . and why every Christian is a Calvinist of sorts.

Part VI: We love Him because He first loved us

Notice: this profound text is a clear statement about the sovereign power of God’s love. It is a lesson about the sovereignty of God’s saving purpose. It is a celebration of the glory of sovereign love.

The verse, despite its brevity, also turns out to be incredibly rich with meaning. Look at it closely and you’ll see at least five great doctrinal lessons this verse teaches us. Today, we’ll consider two of them; then we’ll look at the other three in tomorrow’s post.

First, the text teaches us about:


In other words, it underscores for us how bad our sin is, and how deeply infected we are with sinful tendencies.

Think with me for a moment about the implications of that phrase at the end: “He first loved us.” In other words, there was a time when we didn’t love Him. That is the very essence of depravity, isn’t it?—a failure to love God as we ought. Nothing is more utterly and totally depraved than a heart devoid of love for God. Romans 8:7 says, “The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.”

That describes a hopeless state of utter inability to love God, to obey His commands, or to please Him. That is the state of all whose hearts have not been renewed by Christ.

This is a particularly poignant expression coming from the apostle John—who in his gospel refers to himself repeatedly as “that disciple whom Jesus loved.” Notice: in John’s own mind, Jesus’ love for him completely defined who he was.

Why was this such a prominent feature in John’s thinking? I think he gives us a clue right here in our verse. The reason he was so preoccupied with the love of Christ for him is that he knew that love was utterly undeserved. He was keenly aware of his own sinfulness. As amazed as John was with the love of Christ for him, he must have been equally amazed at the thought that his own heart had once been devoid of any love for One who was so lovely. How can the human heart be so cold to One who is so worthy of our love? Anyone who truly appreciates the glory of Christ’s love, as John did, will be appalled and horrified at the realization that our own hearts do not love Him as we ought to. The knowledge of how perfectly He loves us produces such a sense of utter unworthiness, doesn’t it?

You can see this vividly, even at the end of John’s life, when he sees a vision of the risen Christ in Revelation 1, and he writes in Revelation 1:17, “And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead.” He was literally frightened into a coma, because this vision of the glorified Christ smote him with such an overpowering sense of his own sinfulness. And in an almost involuntary response, he collapsed on his face in a dead swoon out of fear. And there he lay until Jesus “laid His right hand upon [him,] saying . . . Fear not.”

That same overpowering consciousness of sin and shame is implied in the words of our verse, “We love Him, because He first loved us.” We are so utterly and totally depraved that if God Himself did not love us with a redeeming love, we would never have loved Him at all. If that does not fill you with a consciousness of your own sin—if it doesn’t shock you with a stark realization of the impenetrable hardness of the fallen human heart—then you need to meditate on it a little longer.

I hope you can see how this verse clearly and forcefully underscores the very essence of human depravity. There is nothing more desperately wicked than a heart that fails to love God. There is nothing more blind and irrational and sinful than not loving Someone so worthy of our love. We should need no motive to love Him other than the sheer glory His perfect being. And yet, we would not love Him at all if He had not first loved us!

Remember, this is the first and great commandment (Matthew 22:37): “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” The whole of God’s law is summarized and epitomized in that one simple rule. To break that commandment is to fail in every single point of the law. There is nothing more completely and totally wicked.

And yet, our verse reminds us that we are so hopelessly and thoroughly wicked that not one of us could ever truly love God unless God Himself enabled us to do so. That is the doctrine of total depravity in a nutshell. It means that we are totally unable to save ourselves. We have a debilitating moral inability that makes our love for Him an utter impossibility until He intervenes to give us the ability to love Him.

We cannot by sheer force of will set our hearts to love Him, because as fallen creatures we are so in love with our own sin and rebellion that our desires are twisted. Our affections are warped and hopelessly corrupted. And we are powerless to change ourselves. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:23). “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint” (Isaiah 1:5). “The [unregenerate] heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked”—who can possibly understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9).

Our hearts are poisoned by sin, and that is why we do not and cannot love God on our own. That is precisely what we mean when we talk about total depravity. It’s not that we are as evil as we could possibly be, but that evil has infected us totally—in every part of our soul—so that we are incapable of righteous desires and holy motives and loving affections toward God. Some theologians prefer the expression total inability, rather than total depravity. But the truth is the same—and I hope you can see how it is implied in this text. Arminians, if they are true Arminians, and not full-blown Pelagians, actually affirm that truth.

So that is the first doctrine taught by this verse: The perverseness of our fallen state. Here’s a second one:


He loved us first. That is exactly what this verse says. It is also the whole gist of what the doctrine of election teaches. God’s love for us precedes any movement toward God on our part. Even Arminians affirm that much of the doctrine of Election. God loved us first.

The apostle John is actually echoing something Jesus once said to him. That last night prior to the crucifixion, when the disciples were alone together with Jesus, after they ate the Passover meal together in the Upper Room, Jesus said to them (John 15:16), “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.”

Now, John and the other apostles might have protested, “But that’s not true, Lord; we did choose You.” After all, they had left all to follow Him. Peter said so explicitly in Mark 10:28: “Lo, we have left all, and have followed Thee.” They had made a conscious, deliberate choice to abandon their former lives, their loved ones, their livelihoods, and all they had—in order to follow Christ. They had indeed chosen to devote their lives to following Him. And in the case of John and his brother James, giving up their livelihood meant giving up the family fishing business, which by all appearances was a lucrative business for them.

John himself had met Jesus while John was under the discipleship of John the Baptist. As soon as he and Andrew understood that John the Baptist was pointing to Jesus as the promised Messiah, they left John the Baptist in order to follow Jesus. In a very real sense, they did choose Jesus. So what did Jesus mean when He said, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you”?

He meant simply that whether they realized it or not, He had chosen them first. His choice was the decisive one. They would never have chosen Him at all had He not first chosen them. They loved Him because He first loved them.

Even if you are a devoted Arminian, you implicitly affirm this truth. You acknowledge it every time you thank Him for saving you. You know in your heart that you cannot take personal credit for your love toward God. You did not love Him first; We love him, because He first loved us. You and I are no better than the unbelieving people who still hate and reject Him. The only reason we love Him while they remain at enmity with God is that God’s loving grace has worked a miracle in our hearts to enable us to return His love.

First Corinthians 4:7 asks, “Who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” Do not think for a moment that you can take credit for your love toward Christ. If you love Him at all, it is only because He first loved you. That is the very essence of the doctrine of election.

“We love Him, because He first loved us.” In other words, God took the initiative in salvation. One of the points Roger Olson makes in that book I referred to is that historic, knowledgeable Arminians do affirm that truth. God is both the Author and the Finisher of our faith. He started the process. His love for us not only came before any love we have for Him; but His love is what secured our love for Him. That’s exactly what this text says.

© 2008 by Phil Johnson
Executive Director


Why I Am a Calvinist, Part 7

. . . and why every Christian is a Calvinist of sorts.

Part VII: A second look at one of the shortest verses in the Bible

We’re looking at five doctrinal implications of a very short verse, 1 John 4:19: “We love Him because He first loved us.”

We’ve reached point three. This verse not only highlights the perverseness of our fallen state; and teaches us about the priority of God’s electing choice; but, third, it shows us—


What do I mean by that? Look at the verse again: “We love Him, because He first loved us.” Those words express John’s conviction that God has done something special for us. “We love Him . . . ” but not everyone loves Him. God has done something on our behalf and in our hearts that He does not do for everyone. He has demonstrated a particular love for us.

The apostle John was always keenly aware of this fact. He gloried in the knowledge that Jesus’ love for him was a special love. That is the implication of his favorite self description: “that disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:7). John used that phrase again and again because he delighted in the knowledge that Christ loved him in particular. God had redeemed him in particular. He was not merely the beneficiary of a general goodwill that God has for all creation; he was convinced that Christ’s love for him was personal and special. Jesus loved him in particular.

You know what? Every born-again Arminian will say that, too: He loves me in particular. He loves me with a special love. I’m not merely a dog, licking up the crumbs of God’s general love for all mankind. I am one of the children He has seated at His table. He has a special love for me. Every believing Arminian could refer to himself, as the apostle John did, as “That guy whom Jesus loves.”

By the way, I do believe with all my heart that God has a general love of God for everyone in the human race. “His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 145:9). Acts 17:25: “He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things”—and those are tokens of a genuine goodwill and lovingkindness that extends to everyone who was ever born. God even loves His enemies (Matthew 5:45) so “He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Yet God’s love for the elect is a particular love. He loves them with the love of a Father for His own children. He loves them each uniquely. He loves them in a special way. His love for them is the highest and most sacred kind of love known to man. No greater love can possibly be extended to any creature. And that great love is manifest in a particular way. It is a sacrificial kind of love that will stop at nothing to preserve its object. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Christ’s love moved Him to give His life for His friends.

Look back a few verses at verses 9-10: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” The proof of His electing love—and the thing that lovingly guarantees the salvation of His people—is the atoning work of Christ.

God gave Christ to die for them in order to be a propitiation for their sins. That simply means He satisfied justice on their behalf. He satisfied the wrath of God on their behalf. He bore their guilt. He died in their place and in their stead, so that they wouldn’t have to suffer the penalty for their own sins. He bore the wrath of God on their behalf. He paid in full the penalty of their sins. He was their substitute. He died for them in particular.

So let’s talk about “limited atonement.” Some of you are thinking, There’s a doctrine no Arminian presupposes. Actually, I think anyone who believes the atonement was substitutionary presupposes a Calvinistic doctrine of the atonement. And historic, evangelical Arminians do believe in substitutionary atonement. Christ suffered in my place and in my stead. He wasn’t such a substitute for Judas’s punishment, because if what Jesus said about Judas is true, Judas is in hell this very moment, bearing the wrath of God for himself.

I don’t like the expression “limited atonement,” because it suggests that the atonement is limited in its sufficiency.

Let me clear this up for you: No true Calvinist believes that. If you had the idea that Calvinism places some limit on the value or sufficiency of the atonement, forget that idea. Any Calvinist who denies that Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world is a bad Calvinist. Christ’s sacrifice was infinite in its sufficiency, “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” (In fact, that phrase, “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world,” is quoted directly from the canons of the Synod of Dordt, which is the original manifesto of Calvinism.) The death of Christ is infinitely sufficient and that one sacrifice could have atoned for the sins of the whole world, if that had been God’s design.

But was that God’s design? Or was the central and supreme object of His death the salvation of those whom God had loved with a special love from before the foundation of the world? I believe those questions are definitively settled forever by 1 Timothy 4:10: “We trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.” In the design of God, the atoning work of Christ has a special significance for the elect, because it was the means by which He secured and guaranteed their salvation forever. “The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). And even Arminians affirm the basic gist of that truth—Christ’s atonement is efficacious only for those who actually believe.

Notice: when John writes, “We love Him, because He first loved us,” he is addressing those who were the particular objects of Christ’s redemptive work. Look once again at verse 9: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.” This was the object of God in the death of His Son: “that we might live through Him.” He undertook this saving work for us in particular, because we are special objects of His eternal love.

There’s more. Here’s a fourth doctrine we find taught in this verse:


Look at our verse again: “We love Him because He first loved us.” John is saying that God’s love for us is the cause—the effectual cause—of our love for Him. Once again, he is not saying merely that God’s love is a motive or an incentive for our love. Rather, John’s point is that God’s love is the actual productive cause of our love.

Remember that it is impossible for an unregenerate person to love God. The heart of fallen flesh is by definition an enemy of God. It has no power to change itself, any more than a leopard can change its spots. It is the nature of a sinner to love sin, and nothing is more contrary to a sinful heart than love for God. So it is morally impossible for the sinner to love God.

“Who then can be saved?” Do you remember Jesus’ answer to that question? “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). He does the impossible. His own love for us is such that He purchases us and pursues us and persuades us lovingly to love Him. And in order to make that love possible, He even graciously gives us new hearts that are capable of loving. That’s the promise He makes to His people in Ezekiel 36:

25 Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.

26 A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.

27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and ye shall keep My judgments, and do them.

That speaks of God’s regenerating work, whereby He resurrects us to a state of vibrant spiritual life, enlightens our minds to understand His truth, and makes the glories of His love so attractive to us that we find them absolutely irresistible.

In fact, that is exactly the expression we sometimes use to speak of this truth: irresistible grace.

Some people misunderstand that term and imagine that there is some type of violent force or coercion involved in God’s drawing us to Christ. But irresistible grace isn’t something that pushes us against our wills toward Christ; it is something that draws us willingly to Him.

It is similar to my love for my wife. I find her irresistible. But she doesn’t force my love for her. She doesn’t employ any constraint other than the sheer attractiveness of her charms to draw me to her. But she is irresistible to me.

God’s saving grace is irresistible to the elect in the very same sense. We speak of it as “effectual grace,” because it always secures its object. God always procures a reciprocal love from those upon whom He has set His redemptive love. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “the love of Christ constraineth us.” He died for us, so we cannot henceforth live unto ourselves.

Think about what this means: We cannot take personal credit for loving God. Our love for God is a fruit of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:22. It is the work of God in us. “We love Him, because He first loved us”—our love for Him is the natural fruit of His great love for us. So you see the power of His loving deliverance.

Here’s a fifth doctrinal lesson from this simple verse: It also reminds us of—


Just consider the first two words of our verse: “We love.” Again, that speaks of a totally transformed heart. At first, we didn’t love. “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” That’s Titus 3:4 5. It speaks once again of that regenerating work that turns our cold, unloving hearts of stone into hearts that are capable of true love for God.

And inherent in the same lovingkindness that obtained our salvation is a guarantee that we will persevere in that love to the very end. We love Him. We’re completely free from that sinful enmity that once kept us hostile to Him. And He loves us. He will not permit anything or anyone to snatch us out of His hand.

Notice verses 17-18:

17 Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as He is, so are we in this world.

18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.

That love is a fruit of God’s own Spirit, and therefore it is a permanent love. It casts out fear; it gives us boldness even in the day of judgment. It will not fade or diminish. Why? “Because as He is, so are we in this world.” This love conforms us to His image, and keeps conforming us to His image, until that goal is perfectly achieved. In other words, the same love that guaranteed our salvation from sin in the first place guarantees our perseverance in the faith.

© 2008 by Phil Johnson
Executive Director
Grace to You


Why I Am a Calvinist, Part 8

. . . and why every Christian is a Calvinist of sorts.

Part VIII: To sum up. . .

We’ve been taking note of five important truths implied in the eight words of 1 John 4:19 (“We love Him because He first loved us”). I alliterated the five implications of that text I highlighted for you, but if you simply give them slightly different names, they spell TULIP:

* The perverseness of our fallen state—that’s the doctrine of Total Depravity.

* The priority of God’s electing choice—that is the doctrine of Unconditional Election

* The particularity of His saving work—that, as we saw, entails the doctrine that is often called Limited Atonement.

* The power of His loving deliverance—that, once more, is the doctrine of Irresistible Grace.

* The perfection of His redemptive plan—that is nothing other than the doctrine of Perseverance.

You might be one of those people who doesn’t want to be referred to as a Calvinist or an Arminian. But the fact is, if you are a Christian at all, you do already affirm the fundamental principle in every one of those truths. You already know in your heart of hearts that you weren’t born again because you were morally superior to your unbelieving neighbors. You were worthy of God’s wrath just like them (Eph. 2:1 3). According to Ephesians 2:4-6, it was God who quickened you and showed you a special mercy—and that is why you are a believer. You already know that in your heart. You don’t really believe you summoned faith and came to Christ in your own power and by your own unaided free will. You don’t actually believe you are morally superior to people who don’t believe. You therefore must see, somewhere in your soul, that God has given you special grace that He has not necessarily shown everyone.

You also believe God is absolutely sovereign over all things. I know you do, because you lean on the promise of Romans 8:28. And that promise would mean nothing if God were not in control of every detail of everything that happens. If He is not in control of all things, how could He work all things together for good?

Furthermore, you pray for the lost, which means in your heart, you believe God is sovereign over their salvation. If you didn’t really believe He was sovereign in saving sinners, you’d quit praying for the lost and start doing everything you could to buttonhole people into the kingdom by hook or by crook, instead. But you know that would be folly. And you pray about other things, too, don’t you? You pray that God will change this person’s heart, or alter the circumstances of that problem. That’s pure Calvinism. When we go to God in prayer, we’re expressing faith in His sovereignty over the circumstances of our lives.

You even believe God operates sovereignly in the administration of all His providence. You say things like, “If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (James 4:15)—because in your heart you believe that God works all things after the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11), and nothing happens apart from His will.

Nothing is more biblical than these doctrines that are commonly labeled Calvinism. In a way, it is a shame they have been given an extrabiblical name, because these truths are the very essence of what Scripture teaches. The very gist of Calvinism is nowhere more clearly stated than in the simple words of our verse: “We love Him, because He first loved us.”

© 2008 by Phil Johnson
Executive Director
Grace to You

Copyright 2007, Grace to You. All rights reserved.  Used by permission.


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