Misunderstanding Calvinism?

What is Calvinism and what do Calvinists believe? I’ve just seen someone post on another site that Calvinism is very misunderstood. My understanding is that it teaches that only a certain group called the Elect are saved. If that is true, then how do Calvinists believe one becomes an Elect? And how do they reconcile the notion of a merciful God with one who arbitrarily assigns people to Hell even before they had been born?
Please correct my understanding of this religion if it’s wrong.
Pax Christi.

Like you, I have sometimes engaged in online conversations with Calvinists. As I understand it – and I don’t claim to have expert knowledge! – nobody becomes one of the Elect. It’s predestination. Either you have always been one of the Elect or you have always been one of the Reprobate, and whichever of the two you are, there’s nothing you can do to change it.

I hope I’m not being unfair to Calvinists, but that truly seems to be what they believe.


Sounds strange. So a murderer would be saved if he was one of the Elect despite his heinous sin? And a good, God-fearing man would go to Hell depsite his devoutness? Finding it hard to wrap my mind about it.
How do Calvinists even know they are Elect? It seems like the height of vanity, to believe oneself chosen and special over all others.
Pax Christi

I think they’d say that committing a murder shows that he was never truly one of the Elect in the first place.

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Yes, that’s true. How you behave in the world shows whether you are one of the Elect. Being a good and responsible person in daily life indicates you are among the Elect.
That is how my husband who was Calvinist explained it to me.

They aren’t vain about it, they just consider it a fact. Obviously part of being a good person is not lording your Elect status over other people. They do feel pretty strongly about personal responsibility and work ethic so there is a tendency to regard people who are not making a good effort (in their mind) as being responsible for their own problems.


And this is why it’s a good idea to always ask about what you’ve seen or heard. The man I encountered online seemed to believe that, being Elect, he was free to sin and fornicate freely. Your explanation is most welcome.
But you and @BartholomewB seem to be talking about the Elect as if they were an actual thing- is there something similar to it in Catholic doctrine?

An excellent resource for all things Calvin is Dr. David Anders (http://calvin2catholic.com/). He was in Calvinist theological school when he studied Calvin in depth and found out that Calvinism was buried with Calvin - and what exists today does in almost no way reflector resemble what Calvin thought and taught. The reformation’s fracturing has continued unabated.

Interesting. Thank you, I will take a look.

No, Catholics do not believe in “the Elect”. Catholics believe that each person has the same potential for salvation. Each person with his free will determines whether he will finish in Heaven or Hell, based on the choices he makes and actions he does on earth. You can also be on the path to salvation but lose your salvation if you commit mortal sins and do not repent before death. God is outside time so while he knows the outcome, he doesn’t predestine us to go to Heaven or Hell, it’s all dependent on our free will.

The closest Catholics came to the concept of an Elect was the Jansenist heresy, which as I recall claimed that Jesus didn’t die for everybody, just for a subset of people. Their crucifixes tended to have Jesus with his arms pointing up, straight up to heaven only for the subgroup of chosen ones, rather than outstretched side to side, showing that he died for all. You can find these on ebay called “Jansenist Cross.” The Church condemned Jansenism, and St. Therese of Lisieux, among others, taught against it.

As for your acquaintance, his belief sounds more like some evangelical groups who believe that once you accept Jesus as your personal savior, you’re saved regardless of any sins you commit, because Jesus has done everything needed to accomplish your salvation. John Calvin and his mainstream Protestant followers would reject this view. They were a very strait-laced bunch and the “reformed” branch forbid even things Catholics wouldn’t say were necessarily sinful, like dancing, moderate drinking, and moderate card playing.

Calvinists would say that the murderer has conducted himself in accordance with his destiny of being a reprobate while the righteous man will conduct himself in the manner of the elect.

Either way, it takes away from the moral agency of the individual.

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That’s a difficult question because “Calvinism” can range from Baptists who only hold to the Five Points of Calvinism (TULIP) to those who are hyper-dedicated to his teaching. To cover TULIP, though, it teaches:

  1. Total Depravity - Humans aren’t so much corrupted as depraved. Due to this, the human will cannot choose God.
  2. Unconditional Election - God has chosen some to salvation based on His decision alone and irrespective on them meeting some “condition”. This often includes the idea of “double predestination”, in which God also predestines some for hell, but some modern Calvinists are trying to distance themselves from this teaching.
  3. Limited Atonement - Jesus only died for the elect from #2. Some modern Calvinists are moving in the direction of “Limited Intent”, meaning that Jesus died for all, but the efficaciousness of it was only intended for the elect.
  4. Irresistible Grace - God’s efficacious grace is irresistible. The human will will always respond positively to it. However, as per #2, He only grants this to the elect.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints - Those who have encountered God’s efficacious grace can never fall out of His grace, even if they enter a temporary life of debauchery. In general, though, the elect are guaranteed to be saved in the end.

Catholicism isn’t entirely opposed to #2, assuming that it doesn’t come with double predestination, nor is it opposed to #3 if under the Limited Intent context. It would be opposed to the other three points, and it is often opposed to Calvinism’s take on the two points where there might be agreement.

However, if we look beyond TULIP, Calvinism is also notable for Covenant Theology, which drives a lot of its historical and Scriptural understanding and is at the core of some of its teachings, like embrace of infant baptism. Baptist variants often have their own unique view of Covenant Theology that doesn’t permit infant baptism.

Calvin also had his own version of the Real Presence. Jesus wasn’t so much physically present as spiritually present. Grace is also conferred in the Lord’s Supper, and it is one of two sacraments in Calvinism along with Baptism.

These are at least the “big issues” that Calvinists often bring up. Around the time I left Presbyterianism, I know that there was some ongoing discussion about Mary’s title “Mother of God”, “Union with Christ”, and whether or not Christ is eternally subordinate (or eternally submissive as some put it) to the Father. From what I remember, most were OK with calling Mary as “Mother of God” and were interested in what “Union with Christ” meant and Calvin’s comment on “quasi-deification”. The last point of discussion was much more heavily debated and even caused a bit of trouble for the ESV when it was decided the “final” version would take a side in its translation of a key passage to the debate.

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Catholics do believe in predestination. The root of the differences go deeper than “works vs faith” or “predestination vs free will”. It’s a different understanding about man’s agency within God’s providence, and differences in understanding the human response to God’s grace.

And there’s more to TULIP besides
election, of course.


I think you better expand on this topic or link to an existing article or discussion, or you are running a risk of confusing people mightily with this statement.

Edited to add, here is one I found. “Predestination” from a Catholic perspective is basically God knowing how some person will respond to Him. This is not like the Calvinist “predestination”. I know the current Catechism uses the word “predestination” (explained in the article) but when I was taught comparative religion in Catholic high school, they would not use the word at all in connection with Catholic teaching. Perhaps they thought it was too advanced or maybe the teacher wasn’t as skilled as she should have been.

Calvinism is the common term for Reformed theology. The Reformed tradition includes churches in the Presbyterian, Congregationalists, and Reformed Baptist denominations. It’s most famous theologian was John Calvin, hence “Calvinism” but he’s really just one person who helped shape Reformed Christianity.

Predestination and unconditional election is one part of Reformed theology.

God chooses who the elect will be. There is an entire order of salvation that Calvinists believe in to describe the process of salvation:


There are a couple of Catholic users on here who seem to discuss predestination only without acknowledging human agency or cooperation with God at all, sometimes seeming to exclude human cooperation. I won’t name them. That said, if one looks at either the Thomist or Molinist positions in depth, I think many Catholics would be surprised at the level of God’s providence over predestination both positions hold.

But I’ll stop there. That is a good article you posted, and I recommend anyone curious read it for an explanation on what Catholics believe about predestination. We do have agency and God involves us in his work, allowing us the freedom to choose to cooperate with his grace or not.

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Some hard core Calvinists embrace double predestination, the idea that God actively chooses both the elect and the damned.

Most don’t however. American Calvinist Jonathan Edwards, who continues to have an important influence on evangelical churches, distinguished between the natural ability and the moral inability to follow Christ. Because sin does not annihilate the will, Edwards believed that all humans theoretically could choose to follow Christ, what he termed “natural ability”. Nevertheless, sinful dispositions prevent the unregenerate individual from ever perceiving Christ as the greatest good, what Edwards termed “moral inability”. Though unregenerate people can follow Christ, they never will because of their sinful dispositions. Edwards believed this explanation affirmed free will, human responsibility and human depravity. He also believed it left intact God’s sovereignty in salvation because only God could grant a person’s soul a new disposition capable of seeing God as the greatest good.


A murderer could be one of the elect, but the Calvinist would say that he was saved by the grace of God that regenerated him (gave him new life) and moved him to repentance (turning from his sin) and out of gratitude to God the murderer grew in grace and lived a life of progressive sanctification going further.

The person may be a devout person on the outside, but if he was never regenerated and moved to repent of his sin then he is not actually God-fearing or devout. Outward works of holiness are not meritorious apart from the saving work of Christ in the Calvinist system.

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I unknowingly went to a Calvinist Bible weekend when I was at college. They did teach about the elect. When I got back to speak to my Methodist minister he said oh no don’t believe in the elect. That poster someone put on here I found dreadful. When I started RCIA the first week said people were basically good and that went against everything from my background ie we are all damned and just saved by grace alone.

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That’s exactly what I got told I was from a non church background, got saved when I was 16, started going to Methodist church and attended different non don events throughout college. Came home last year to the RCC

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The main thing is simply trusting in Christ for your salvation and placing your hope in him. Out of gratitude you live a life of holiness, which is itself in some ways a way to confirm your election. If you have truly been regenerated then you will act like it.

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