Aug 16, 2016

One Weird Way in Which You Might Accidentally Be Acting Like a Calvinist

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

Maintaining good dental hygiene. Memorizing the Catechism. Donating blood. Sharing the Gospel in Africa. Getting married. Creating beautiful art. Being kind to your next-door neighbor and your daughter-in-law. There are many things in life that are good.

Yet there are also many good things which each of us will never do.

Sometimes it’s because we are too busy fulfilling other duties and obligations. Sometimes it’s because we are never granted the requisite talents or opportunities. Sometimes it’s because we are selfish sinners.

How many good things do we need to get done in this life in order to feel comfortable about ourselves? As Lutherans, we can recognize that question as a terrible one. We know that our salvation is a gift, credited to us through the perfect goodness of the Saviour who died in our place. We are wretched sinners and yet we are saved. We rejoice in the knowledge that our comfort comes not from anything we do but from what Christ did.

Yet despite our blessed understanding of justification through faith, many of us Lutherans are guilty of falling into a peculiar kind of accidental Calvinism when it comes to how we feel about the choices that we and our neighbors make.

Calvinists, you see, are eminently logical. They note that God predestined certain individuals for salvation. They deduce that God must therefore have predestined others for damnation. It follows, they believe, that Christ died only for some sinners. They call it limited atonement.  

We Lutherans stick staunchly to Scripture and refuse to “deduce” things about God which He clearly did not tell us Himself. Yes, God predestines those who believe. No, we cannot make up a doctrine that says he also predestines those who reject faith.

Let’s not fall into the logic of Calvinism when we hear each other praising one thing or another as good. If you are a mom who works outside of the home and your Facebook friend comments that stay-at-home moms give their children a special, irreplaceable gift, don’t jump to the “logical” but incomplete assumption that she is calling you a bad mother for not also giving this particular gift to your children. If you read an article saying it is good to publicly mourn babies who have been miscarried, try not to feel that someone is criticizing your lack of emotion over your own miscarriage or your desire for privacy. If the lady behind you in church (or an author for a blog like ours) likes to talk about the wonderful blessings of homeschooling, don’t take that as a sneaky way of saying you are a reprobate for choosing public school instead.

It’s hard not to be emotional Calvinists sometimes. There is nothing quite like the gnawing ache of insecurity. Nothing like the sting of feeling that perhaps we haven’t done enough or made all the right decisions. Nothing like thinking that other people are judging us. Don’t I know it!

Yet goodness is complicated. It intermixes with the brokenness of sin into a labyrinth of choices and opportunities.

I believe that what I do as a homemaker is good and valuable. It is worth a woman’s time--a woman’s life--to [try to] create a place of order, beauty, and productivity; to care for the needs of others, to teach and train children, and to help my husband with his work and duties.

Perhaps your life is different. You aren’t any less of a woman or a Christian if the good work that is given to you is different from mine. Making sure that your children have food, clothing, and medical care is a good thing indeed; and perhaps you cannot provide those things without taking on a night shift or a day job. Perhaps there are other reasons why the things that are worth your time, the things that allow you to serve your family or your neighbors, are different from mine. I hope no matter what you hear me say, you will believe that I know this.

Acknowledging this isn't relativism. Our choices in life do matter. Yet we are Lutherans, and we can agree that certain choices are usually best--things like letting mothers be the primary caretakers for their small children, pursuing economic models that do not attempt to stifle the differences between the sexes, or practicing hospitality--without necessarily judging those who live in a different way.

We cause a lot of heart burning with our accidental Calvinism. It is so logical! So emotionally compelling! Yet it is heresy, friends. Let’s try not to be heretics.


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.


  1. I know a good group of Reformed people (Calvinists) and yes the double predestination is there, however I never got the sense of them praising one thing meant they were saying another thing was wrong, unless of course the opposite of the thing they were praising was unbiblical. They just saw the good in that thing they were praising. Maybe I'm misunderstanding your article though.

    1. I'm not intending to accuse actual theological Calvinists of being more inclined than anyone else to judge the opposite of what they praise. :-) My intention is just to make a point--a kind of analogy--that when we Lutherans do that, we are using the same kind of incomplete logic that gets the Calvinists to limited atonement and double predestination.

      As you say, our Reformed brothers and sisters are usually lovely people to hang out with.

  2. "Don't I know it!" Oh, don't I know it, too! You make an interesting and good point about the relation between Calvinism and jumping to conclusions.

  3. I enjoy your writing a lot. You have deep insights about a wide range of topics from a solidly biblical perspective. That said, this article seems off to me. The point of your article has nothing to do with the very minor differences between Reformed and Lutheran theology. I know your target reader is mainly Lutheran, but surely we ought to seek out unity, not division. For me--and it looks like for the other commenters so far, too--the Calvinist analogy, besides being a broad-stroked caricature of a nuanced theology, was more distracting than helpful. Please take this comment in a kind manner; I couldn't write an essay half as good as your 3rd grade scribblings if my life depended on it.

    1. Wesley,

      Thank you for the kind and encouraging words. I get what you are saying.

      I shared this piece because I found the analogy to be helpful to myself when I thought of it. Being able to redirect my thoughts with a catchy phrase--"Hey, emotional Calvinism!"--can keep me from being internally silly. I hope that some readers find the analogy helpful as well.


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