Mere Calvinism

Somewhere along the way, it seems like the New Calvinism became about everything but Calvinism. Somewhere along the way, we stopped thinking and writing about the very doctrines that brought the movement together in the first place. Maybe we had already mastered them, so it was time to move on to more advanced topics. Or maybe we just began to assume them and then to subsume them to other matters. Either way, I’m delighted to see a new crop of books on the subject, with Jim Orrick’s Mere Calvinism leading the way. It is, in my opinion, one of the finest introductions to Calvinism you’ll find.

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Maybe I need to begin by answering these questions: Do we really need another introduction to Calvinism? And should someone like you bother with it? In both cases, I will answer in affirmative. We do need more introductions to Calvinism, not least because there are lots of people who may be associated with this broadly Reformed movement who have never read one. Many people have found their way into Reformed churches but have not yet come to a sound understanding of its most basic theological tenets. Where some regard its contents as old hat, others will regard it as groundbreaking and soul-stirring. As for the second question, I can answer for myself and say that even though I’ve read many (many!) similar works, I still benefited from this one and enjoyed it tremendously.

So what does Mere Calvinism offer? It offers an introduction to Calvinistic theology. Orrick, a professor at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, says “My aim in this book and in my entire preaching and teaching ministry is to explain what the Bible teaches—not to explain what John Calvin taught. I held to what is called Calvinist doctrine before I had read a single page of the writings of John Calvin. … I believe it because I am convinced the Holy Spirit has revealed it in the Holy Bible.” In this way he’s a Bible teacher before he’s a theology teacher. His goal in the book is “to demonstrate … that the Bible teaches that God always does as he pleases, and that he initiates, sustains, and completes the work of salvation of everyone who goes to heaven.” He, like most Calvinists, is ambivalent about what this doctrine is called, but passionate about showing how it’s consistent with Scripture.

Orrick insists, rightly, that Calvinism is more than just the famous Five Points, saying that in its totality, “it is a way of looking at everything in the world. It is a way of thinking about everything.” Still, it’s not surprising that the heart of the book is a chapter-length explanation of each of those points. While he makes use of the common TULIP acronym, the chapter subtitles offer additional explanation.

  • Total Depravity: We have received a bleak diagnosis
  • Unconditional Election: The Father planned for the success of the gospel
  • Limited Atonement: The Son secured the salvation of his people
  • Irresistible Grace: The Holy Spirit supernaturally calls the elect
  • Perseverance of the Saints: God brings all his children to heaven

In each case he describes the doctrine, shows how it is consistent with Scripture, answers the most common objections, and shows its practical outworking in the mind, heart, and life of the Christian. In this way he powerfully combines doctrine with Christian living. The final chapter is a unique and unexpected surprise. Taking as his inspiration the way the Apostle Paul shows the necessary consequences of denying the resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15), Orrick asks what must be true if Calvinism is not. What if God is not sovereign over all? What if total depravity is not true? What if unconditional election is not true? This makes for a powerful conclusion that forces the reader to grapple with the consequences of these doctrines.

Mere Calvinism has several noteworthy strengths, and near the top I’d note Orrick’s ability to seamlessly weave Scripture into his words and arguments. Often he does not extract a verse or passage, then analyze it, but instead works the relevant passages right into his own words. This method aptly displays how deeply biblical his arguments are. Another strength is his graciousness. He makes it very clear that, while Calvinist doctrines are important, they are not necessary to be saved. He pleads with readers—and especially those with the opportunity to teach—to tread carefully and respectfully. “With the knowledge of these doctrines comes the responsibility to be a wise soul physician. Most medicine is to be administered gradually and over time. These doctrines are offensive enough to the natural man without making them more offensive through pushy, belligerent arguments.” And then there are his illustrations. He often illustrates at length and with a rare effectiveness that engages the imagination to better understand the facts.

Put it all together, and this is a top-tier book and one I’m very enthusiastic about. If you’re new to Calvinism, Reformed Theology, or gospel-centeredness, or whatever you want to call it, you can’t go wrong in reading Mere Calvinism. If you’re suspicious of Calvinism, then read this book to engage the best arguments for it. And even if you’re a convinced Five Pointer and this is all familiar territory, the book will still refresh your knowledge, your confidence, and even your joy. I give it my highest recommendation.

(FYI, it’s listed twice at Amazon, once for paperback, once for Kindle.)

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