Calvinism for my family wasn’t just an abstract theological concept. It informed every aspect of our lives, painfully so.
The RPCNA, which I grew up in, is definitely Calvinist in their beliefs. They hold the Westminster Confession of Faith as subordinate only to the Bible in terms of doctrine. And the WCF is strictly Calvinist in doctrine.
The TULIP acronym is a useful aid to what we believed and what our church believed:
· Total Depravity: the doctrine that humans are completely unable to do anything good whatsoever. As in, even your thoughts are evil. I could go on forever about this; the belief was that the unsaved were incapable of doing any true good in the sight of God. Example: an unsaved man risks his life to save a child from drowning. Good, right? According to this belief, no, only “less evil” than letting the child drown, because the unsaved man was not performing this act “to the glory of God.” He was performing it for less pure motives than God’s glory, and therefore he was sinning. Saved people were only capable of true good insofar as the Holy Spirit inside of them was motivating them and purifying their sinful actions.
· Unconditional Election: the doctrine that God has chosen, from eternity, those people that he will save; and that he has chosen them not for anything that they have done, but just because he can. (Sort of like Thanos randomly decimating half the universe’s population).
· Limited Atonement: the doctrine that Christ died ONLY for the elect (the ones that God had already chosen to save). John Doe is not elect; therefore, Christ did not die for John Doe’s sins. This doctrine is kind of disgusting and pisses me off. Christ, the figurehead for love, salvation, and forgiveness in the Christian religion, LIMITED his salvation to the elect. Ugh. Gross. You might as well praise Thanos for leaving half the universe alive. He was so merciful!
· Irresistible Grace: the doctrine that God’s decision to make you elect cannot be changed or resisted. Free will is not a thing for Calvinists. You don’t have free will. If God wants to save you, wants to make you believe in Christ for salvation, you will not be able to resist it. On the other hand, if God hasn’t chosen you, you will never be able to have saving faith in Christ.
· Perseverance of the Saints: the doctrine of “once saved, always saved” except for Calvinists. Since they were chosen from eternity, it’s more like “always saved.” Since God is all-powerful, never changes, and has chosen you, you’re either elect or not. There is no crossover. This leads directly into the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, as people do leave the faith. They are seen as having never been true Christians in the first place. (There are differences of opinion on “the unpardonable sin” mentioned in Mark 3: 28-29, and other passages. Some Calvinists would say that I have committed the unpardonable sin by leaving Christianity and following another path. But those Calvinists would consider me to have never been regenerate to start with.)
This is Calvinism as it was taught to me and as I understood it. There are shades of Calvinism, of course, just as there are shades of all religions.
The effects of this doctrine were, to start with, guilt. Everything I did and thought, every breath in a literal sense, was either evil or highly suspect of being evil. Coupled with my OCD, this led to years of muttering under my breath “oh-God-please-forgive-me” for the littlest action that might have been sinful. I dragged my guilt with me everywhere I went, crippled by the sense of sin. I didn’t understand people who talked about the burden of sin being lifted. Sure, I could hope that I was one of the elect and would escape hell; but that was about it. I was simultaneously told to avoid sin, and that sin could not be avoided. It was painful, painful beyond belief. Coupled with mental illness, it was nearly unbearable.
Another effect was prejudice against others. Our doctrine was special: the only true doctrine. People who were not Christians were evil, incapable of doing good. My motives were suspect: theirs were undoubtedly sin. People who were not Calvinists, even though they were Christian, were seen as “less than,” not having the whole truth. I learned to doubt the salvation of people who believed in free will (Arminianism). The prejudice and doubting may not have been an intended effect, but I have never known a Calvinist congregation that did not have an extra helping of arrogance. An arrogance that corrupted my mind and poisoned me against others.
I think that Calvinists often see themselves as “special,” and “intellectual,” because their doctrines are convoluted and require a lot of study and understanding to grasp. The idea that “Jesus died for my sins,” and a simple faith in that idea, is seen as being a “baby Christian.” Calvinists pride themselves on being more advanced. They like discussions on the “act” of justification vs. the “work” of sanctification. They like infighting over the nuances of the Westminster Confession. They like debating the positions of tiny splinter denominations. (I knew of a Calvinist preacher who refused to enter an alliance with another tiny Calvinist church because the second church refused to force the women to wear headcoverings. They were aligned on salvation doctrines and worship practices.)
Yet another effect was fear. Paralyzing fear. If I was elect, everything would be ok in the end. I would go off to Heaven, which sounded horribly boring, but at least it was devoid of flames. But if I wasn’t elect? Nothing could save me from Hell. And there was no way to be 100% sure that I was elect. No literal book with my name written in it.
To counteract this, the church talked about “assurance,” which was supposedly the Holy Spirit comforting our souls with trust in God. It wasn’t very comforting, as Satan was also waiting, ready to trick us into false assurance. Determining which voice was speaking to our hearts was difficult. I had no “assurance” until I was about 18 or 19, at which point I formally joined the church I’d been attending since I was 6 or 7. It was an intense, traumatic time for me, knowing that refusing to join could be a sign that I wasn’t elect, but that being admitted to Communion and taking it “unworthily” would bring down unpleasant heavenly consequences.
(I took the membership vows very seriously, but I now consider myself to have been coerced. I was brought up to believe that Hell awaited people who refused to join the visible church—because refusing membership was most likely a sign that you were not elect. And Hell as a literal eternal fiery pit is a pretty powerful motivator.)
Good works, to the Calvinist, are seen as a sign of being elect. Oddly enough, they become massively important for that reason, because they serve as the only outer barometer of being elect. If you claim Christianity and run a charity, take care of your kids, go to church, and dress modestly, you’re probably elect. If you claim Christianity but have an addiction, don’t go to church, or have sex outside of marriage, you might be unregenerate (in certain people’s eyes). Instead of seeing hurting people as brothers and sisters, this kind of Calvinist sees them as either unregenerate or as sinners not yet filled with the Holy Spirit.
As I said before, this is how Calvinism was for me, and my birth family, and my church. It was an ugly, ugly system full of arrogance and othering and guilt and doubt and fear.
If you have questions, feel free to ask. I realize I’ve written a novel here, and it still doesn’t cover more than the surface of this issue!