Jonathan Ahlgren’s Review of MERE CALVINISM, by Jim Scott Orrick

Published on February 11, 2020 by Benjamin J. Montoya

P&R Publishing, 2019 | 224 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Jonathan Ahlgren


Mere Calvinism is a short and simple book which presents the five points of Calvinism in a way that few other books can. Jim Orrick focuses on the Scriptures, uses simple terms, illustrates the doctrines from every angle, responds to common objections, and applies the teachings to life.  The book title truly does the book justice considering its brevity and simplicity. The layout of the book illustrates this – consisting of a chapter on each of the five points in traditional order (TULIP), surrounded by a short explanation of Calvinism and a concluding argument for embracing the doctrine.

In the first chapter, Calvinism: More than the Five Points, Orrick sets out to explain what Calvinism is and what it is not. What a Calvinist believes can be summarized by the following two statements. “First, a Calvinist believes that God always does whatever he pleases. Second, a Calvinist believes that God initiates, sustains, and completes the salvation of everyone who gets saved” (14). The book stays true to this unifying idea throughout when addressing each of the five points. The book also makes clear in this opening chapter that Calvinism, despite its name, is about what the Bible says rather than what John Calvin has said. What the Bible says will always be true and genuine Christians, when they understand what the Bible teaches, will believe it. The Bible continually makes clear that God is the creator of all things and he does whatever he desires to do (Ps. 115:3). Orrick does not suggest that all Christians are Calvinists and all Calvinist are Christians. He rather says that the doctrines of grace are taught in the Bible and if a Christian begins to understand what the Bible says regarding Calvinism, they will submit to it saying, “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him” (1 Sam. 3:18).

One of the common accusations against Calvinism is that it discourages missions and evangelism. Orrick, therefore, addresses this issue both in this initial chapter as well as at several other points in the book. He points out that many of the most zealous and powerful evangelists, from William Carey to George Whitefield, were devout Calvinists who were zealous for the spread of the gospel. The reality is that the doctrines of grace, when rightly understood, serve as a motivation to preach the gospel and to call the lost to faith in Jesus. This argument is backed up by the assurance that the gospel will surely be effective in light of Jesus’ assertion in John 6:37 and Orrick further shows an illustration of this in Paul’s experience at Corinth in Acts 18.

Chapter two, Total Depravity: We Have Received a Bleak Diagnosis, lays the foundation for the other five points. Orrick fulfills his promise in the introduction to stick close to the text, addressing passage after passage presenting the bleak state of the unregenerate human heart. He argues that “while no human is completely saturated with sin, every component of human nature has been adversely affected by sin.” He makes his argument by examining each of the three non-physical components of human nature and showing how the Bible presents each of them as ruined by the fall. The three components of human nature are understanding, will/volition, and affections. The Bible presents the fall as bringing about a spiritual death that corrupts every aspect of our nature. This is most clearly seen in the Bible’s description of fallen humanity as marked by sin (Ps. 51:5), dead (Eph. 2:1-2), a natural person who “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14), and in the flesh (Rom 8:5-8). These bleak pictures display the need that humanity has for an act of God to bring salvation. The chapter concludes by responding to objections and providing applications.

Chapter three, Unconditional Election: The Father Planned for the Success of the Gospel, begins by arguing that anyone who believes the Bible must believe something about election because the Bible talks about election. The added nuance presented in Reformed theology though relates to the condition or grounds for this election. Unconditional election holds that God’s choice is not grounded upon any action of any person but upon the sovereign choice of God. Universal election holds that God elects all people but not all the elect will be saved, only those who believe in Jesus. One might hold to this view of election because the idea of God electing some but not others seems unfair, yet the Bible presents God electing Israel while rejecting other nations, a choice on God’s part that is clearly not based upon anything good in Israel (Deut. 7:6-8). Alternatively, many reject the Reformed view in favor of conditional election. This view presents the grounds of God’s election as the future faith of those who will believe. God knows those who will believe in Jesus, and he therefore looks down through the tunnel of time and he chooses to elect them alone. Orrick counters this view by first pointing to the inability of people to believe in Jesus (Rom. 3:10-12). Furthermore, there is an important inconstancy in this view in relation to prayer. When we pray, we often ask for God to bring salvation to the lost, yet in so praying we contradict this “Tunnel of Time” theory behind conditional election. If God honors the free will of man to the extent that he will only elect those whom he knows will believe in him on their own, then why would we pray for God to interfere with this “hands-off” approach to saving the “elect.” With this overview and interaction with other views, Orrick moves on to address two important texts related to election; Ephesians 1:3-14 and Romans 9:6-23. Ephesians 1 teaches God chose a specific people to be holy and blameless, to be predestined for adoption, all according to God’s will. Biblical election makes salvation secure for God’s people and brings glory to God alone.  Romans 9 teaches unconditional election and makes clear that God’s choice is never based on godly parents or human works but is rather dependent on God’s choice. This election of God may lead some to question God’s justice, yet God’s actions fit with a perfect standard of justice that often contradict ours. Other views of election often seek to align this doctrine with a human understanding of justice, yet Romans 9 affirms that the true nature of election will surely sound unjust to the natural man (71).

This chapter concludes with several objections to Election. Dr. Orrick uses this section to address the idea of people being predestined to hell. Those who object to unconditional election would argue that election creates an unalterable future that is fatalistic. Yet the Tunnel of Time theory creates the same difficulty since God election is still set in eternity past based on future actions that cannot be altered. Furthermore, election to everlasting life is unconditional, but election to eternal punishment is conditional. People are sent to hell because they willingly rebel against God. This doctrine also does not kill evangelism because it assures us that our work of spreading the gospel is not in vain. It frees Christians to ignore gimmicks and tricks, having confidence that God has chosen a people for salvation that he has then chosen to reach through our preaching.

Chapter four, Limited Atonement: The Son Secured the Salvation of His People,  focuses on two questions related to the atonement: “Did Christ die to take away the sins of every human in the world, or did he die to take away the sins of his people only?” and “Did Christ die to make the salvation of every human possible, or did he die to make the salvation of his elect certain” (90). The book argues that Jesus only died for the elect and that his death makes the salvation of the elect certain. This is important for Christians to understand mainly because “those who hold to false ideas about the extent of the atonement nearly always give a non-biblical answer to the all-important question “What must I do to be saved?” They tell sinners that they must believe that Jesus died for them and that, if they believe this, then they will be saved. This is deadly false” (87). Orrick lays the foundation for limited atonement in penal substitutionary atonement because this doctrine related to the nature of the atonement determines the extent and power of the atonement. The book then lays out the three possible perspectives on the extent of the atonement, explaining the problems with the first two and progressing through the chapter with the final view, that Christ died to take away all sins of some persons. The idea that Christ died to take away all sins of all persons is rejected because this reality would undermine the justice of God in sending sinners to hell for sins that Jesus paid for. The idea that Christ died for all sins except for the sin of persistent unbelief is rejected because the Bible indicates that people are sent to hell for sins other than unbelief (1Cor. 6:9-10, Gal. 5:19-21) and this view would once again require God to punish sins twice.

The argument of the chapter then progresses to address three ideas that have the potential to call limited atonement into question. The idea that limited atonement is unfair should be moved to the side considering the mercy of God in saving anyone. God would be just if he did not pay for any sins but he mercifully chooses to pay for the sins of some. God is under no obligation to save anyone.

The next idea that calls limited atonement into question is the idea that the words “world” and “all” in the Bible always refer to all people without exception including in texts such as John 3:16, 1 John 2:2, 1 Tim. 2:3-6, John 12:32, and Romans 5:18. This idea is countered by a lengthy analysis of texts which indicate that the Bible often uses the words “world” and “all” to refer to all people without distinction rather than all people without exception. In Orrick’s own words, “the words world and all in these passages refer to all the people groups of the world, not to every person who has ever lived.”

The final idea that could lead people to question limited atonement is the idea that all sin is equal in God’s eye. Dr. Orrick spends several pages defending the view that different sins receive different levels of punishment. Based on this understanding of God’s exact execution of justice upon sinners, it follows that God was exact in his administration of justice upon Christ at the cross.

Next in the progression of the argument, Orrick presents his three main arguments in favor of limited atonement. He begins by walking through several proof texts that indicate that Jesus died for a specific group of people. Jesus came to save “his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), he “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). He has a people “whom the Father has given” him (John 6:37), and prays for them specifically in John 17:9. His people are his bride in Revelation 19:6-8, 21:9 and he “gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Finally, Romans 8:32 is provided as a final argument in favor of limited atonement.

The next big argument provided is the tone of victory presented in the NT. Because in fact, Christ has already paid for the sins of the elect, their salvation is secured, and the victory is completely won for them individually. According to Dr. Orrick, this would indicate that either Christ died for a chosen people and therefore their redemption is accomplished already, or Christ died for all people and therefore salvation is universally accomplished and all people will be saved in the end (a clearly unbiblical option that he rejects).

The final major argument of the chapter addresses the word pictures used in the Bible regarding the atonement. According to Orrick, the idea of Christ being a ransom, a means of redemption, a sacrifice of propitiation, and other word pictures make more sense within the limited atonement view.

Next, the proper use of limited atonement is addressed along with more objections. Limited atonement should be used as a means of assurance of salvation, as a guide to preaching the true full gospel, and a ground for confidence in Christ. Orrick’s concluding interactions deals with more complex objections related to how Christ could die for a specific amount of sin. The question of why the elect are born condemned is illustrated with a story of how people generally value items that they have taken pride in fixing and this correlates to the way God gets glory in redeeming and repairing the elect who are born into condemnation and sin. The conclusion of the chapter returns to the issue addressed at the start, the question of how the gospel should be presented.

Chapter 5, Irresistible Grace: The Holy Spirit Supernaturally Calls the Elect, once again builds off the foundation of total depravity. If in fact, people are completely sinful and unable to come to Christ on their own as the Bible teaches, God must act to save His people. God intervenes in the heart of the elect and he overcomes the resistance inside of them. “As a result of the Spirit’s work, the elect person freely repents of sin and believes in Christ. God uses the bees of circumstances and the honey of his kindness and goodness to lead his people to himself. The objection of some, that God would not interfere with human freedom because that would be unjust, is rejected with an illustration. If a small child was determined to walk deeper and deeper into the waves at the beach to the point of no return, the parents act quickly, often against the will of the child, to bring deliverance. In the same way, God is loving to act against the will of sinful hearts to save people from their stubborn intent on walking into eternal destruction.

Staying close to the text, Orrick displays the important distinction between the universal call of the gospel and the effectual call upon the elect. Once again, the language issue associated with the word “all” has to be addressed, this time in the context of John 12:32 where Jesus speaks of drawing “all people” to himself. In the context of John 12, Greeks have begun to come to Jesus and his disciples do not know what to think of this considering that salvation was seen as something reserved for only one people group, the Jews. Jesus’s response makes clear that his salvation will be for all people without distinction. The text, therefore, does not support a universal drawing of all people to himself but likely refers to a specific call that will be given to all types of people, not Jewish people only. Holding to the idea that God draws all people equally would be inconstant with the way we pray for God to lead someone to a place of salvation. The Bible does include texts which speak of a general call of the gospel, yet this call is insufficient to bring about salvation. It is necessary for God to bring an effectual call whereby God “persuades and enables us to embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the gospel” (146). The challenge in this doctrine is often found in the way Western people do not fully understand the reality of spiritual forces and their impact on the world we live in. A dead person is unable to resurrect himself but needs an outside supernatural force. In the same way, a spiritually dead person needs the Holy Spirit’s effectual calling to enlighten the hostile mind and renew the will.

The final chapter on the five points, Perseverance of the Saint: God Brings All His Children to Heaven, displays how salvation is of the Lord from start to finish. Those whom God elects and for whom Christ died and to whom the Holy Spirit comes will persevere in faith until the end. This does not mean that all people who make a profession of faith will continue with that profession until the end. Only those who believe in Jesus as their prophet, priest, and king show themselves to be a child of God. The Bible makes clear that there will be false believers. The saints in heaven “are not more secure” than the saints on earth (165). While there are many wrong understandings of faith, the Bible teaches that faith is the assurance of the truth that is based on a true word, “believing what God said” (174). This faith brings about works of faith as illustrated in Hebrews 11. Faith is a legitimate means of knowing and a condition of salvation, yet faith is not a work. This true saving faith that is displayed in the elect endures until the end because it is seed sown on good soil (Luke 8:13-14). Those who depart from the faith were never in the faith to begin with (1 John 2:19). True salvation will be displayed in a preserving faith (Col 1:21-23, Heb. 3:14, Mark 13:13). Salvation is secure because a believer is united with Christ who secures a justification and adoption that can never be reversed. Those who are of God are now therefore given a new heart, never left alone, are loved, can please God, are being sanctified, and have become partakers of the divine nature.

The final chapter takes the reader through a wild ride of what-if statements considering the implications of the five points being false. This is balanced in each occasion with the statement, “but in fact…” which addresses the true results of the truthfulness of each of the five points. The book ends with a very short conclusion showing how the five points of Calvinism if embraced, aught to change us into humbled and grateful Christians who are led to glorify God and enjoy him forever (215).

Mere Calvinism is a compelling and delightful book that would be a helpful guide to anyone seeking to understand Calvinism. Orrick’s approach is unique in the way he presents arguments and illustrations that would be both helpful for Calvinist seeking to understand the five points better yet also compelling and fair for those who are skeptical of the five points. Readers will be hard-pressed to find any occasion where Dr. Orrick was unfair or slanderous in his presentation of opposing ideas. The book counteracts some of the stereotypes of Calvinists, being both simple to understand, close to the Bible, and overall, quite positive in its tone. This alone makes the book easier to recommend to a wider audience.

Related to this as well is the readability and accessibility of the volume. The book is the perfect length considering its title, Mere Calvinism. Dr. Orrick sets out to explain the basic ideas of Calvinism along with the primary arguments for each point. He does this with an amazing balance of specificity and simplicity. What is most impressive though is his pervasive use of illustrations. Practically every idea in the book is illustrated at least once, making this an invaluable resource for pastors who struggle to find illustrations. Those who are new believers or have never heard the doctrines of grace explained will find great help from the illustrations. These stories and word pictures also make the chapters feel short and will keep readers engaged.

The layout of each chapter and the book as a whole provides another example of the clarity which Dr. Orrick brings to the five points. Having a simple overview followed by a short chapter on each of the five points followed by a concluding chapter of “what if” questions makes navigating the book and traversing through it a joy rather than a job. Each chapter keeps Reformed doctrine simple by laying out the texts related to the point at hand, the main arguments related to those texts, common objections, some final practical applications, and a series of discussion questions. The careful reader of this book will walk away with a clear understanding of several main arguments for the five points, several answers to the most common objections, and with applications for life.

One minor point of caution must be stated related to the illustrations. Dr. Orrick’s illustrations and stories generally consisted of things that are generally of interest to men making the book feel like a book written primarily to men. This is most clearly illustrated by the way chapter 4, Limited Atonement: The Son Secured the Salvation of His People is framed using the picture of a hunting trip where he examines the lot of woods (explaining penal substitution atonement),  picks his tree to setup his tree stand (the tree of limited atonement), cuts away interfering bushes (addressing interfering ideas), shoots three arrows (arguments in favor of limited atonement), and then harvests the deer (addressing the proper uses of limited atonement).

This also brings us to the one big weakness of the book. Orrick makes three missteps in this hunting expedition and the first mistake can be found in the complexity in his outline. Sometimes, creativity and color can distract from the points being made in a book. This was the case for this chapter. It is the opinion of the reviewer that Orrick should have laid out this chapter on limited atonement with a simpler outline. He frames the chapter using a hunting metaphor to show the progression of his argument is visual terms. This might make the chapter interesting for some readers but is likely to confuse others. The importance of simplicity for this chapter can be seen in the reality that it is bound to be the most controversial chapter as it covers the most controversial point of Calvinism.

The second misstep in his hunting journey takes place as he prepares to set out, failing to find the right gear for the journey. The introductory part of the chapter builds up to the supposed defining reason why limited atonement is important, that many of those who reject limited atonement “give a non-biblical answer to the all-important question ‘What must I do to be saved?’” (87). It does not follow to say that the main reason this doctrine is important is that many who reject this doctrine wrongly present the gospel. The connection between the rejection of limited atonement and a misunderstanding of the gospel is not provided in the book at all. Furthermore, this fact does not contribute to his coming argument on the truthfulness of limited atonement even while, for some, it will help illustrate the importance of the doctrine. This is a big misstep considering this limited atonement, out of the five points, is the one that is most likely to be rejected by readers in the first place.

The third misstep of this hunting expedition can be found in the way he cleared away the second bush of ideas that interfere with limited atonement. His argument for understanding “world” and “all” in terms of people groups was important and persuasive but had an oversight within his analysis of 1 John 2:2. He argues, along the same lines as the other texts, that the whole world refers to all people without distinction. His argument, again, is founded on the assertion that John is writing as a Jew with Jewish people in mind and that “the whole world” refers to all kinds of people. This foundational assertion upon which his argument hangs is well established for John 3:16 as he points out that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus who is a Jew who thinks his Jewish heritage makes him a recipient of God’s salvation. This argument is not established in 1 John though. In other words, Orrick failed to give an exegetical or historical argument for why we should see John’s intended audience in 1 John 2:2 as Jewish people for whom John is explaining that salvation is for Jews and Gentiles. This oversight is unfortunate considering that this is one of the most used texts by those who reject limited atonement. He could have easily pointed to John 11:51-52 where the same construction is used to refer not to all people without exception but all people without distinction.

Orrick’s final misstep is found as he is harvesting the deer at the end of his journey. As Orrick provides the proper use and application of this doctrine (123-125), he fails to present the way in which limited atonement contributes applications beyond what the other four points contribute. Focusing on the unique contribution which limited atonement makes for the life of the Christian would have contributed further to the arguments of the chapter and the book.

To be clear, there was much to still be commended about this chapter. Orrick took the right path forward in seeking to establish limited atonement within the foundation of penal substitutionary atonement and allowing the progressing arguments to build off this. His entire treatment of the use of “all” and “world” in the Bible is excellent despite the fact that it leaves much to be desired in regards to 1 John 2:2 as noted above (98-107). He is levelheaded and accurate in his assessment of the differences between Arminianism, Four-Point Calvinism, Hyper Calvinism, and Limited Atonement (130). He also makes solid use of the three options on the extent of the atonement originally presented by John Owen who states “Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either [1] all the sins of all men, or [2] all the sins of some men, or [3] some sins of all men” (95) even though he does not give credit or reference to Owen (The Death of Death in the Death of Christ p. 173–74).

Mere Calvinism will continue to be a helpful resource on my bookshelf as I seek to teach the Bible verse-by-verse and so often come to a place of needing to illustrate Reformed doctrine. When Christians come to me seeking a better understanding of the five-points, I will continue to recommend Mere Calvinism as a solid starting point to understanding what Calvinism really is. The tone of the book and the simplicity of his explanations make the book a solid read for a wide audience.


Jonathan Ahlgren

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Daily Dose of Greek, Hebrew, Latin

Books At a Glance

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MERE CALVINISM, by Jim Scott Orrick

P&R Publishing, 2019 | 224 pages

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