Growing up, I thought that we Calvinists were a persecuted minority among American Christians. The mythology went like this: all Protestants (except Methodists) were originally Calvinist. Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and the like, all believed in predestination, total depravity, and all the rest. However, the American churches in particular had been lead astray by false human doctrines called Armenianism, and now only a minority were faithful to the Word of God. (Catholics and early Christianity didn't really figure into the story; nobody ever talked about pre-Reformation Christianity except how corrupt the Popes were). We were part of that minority: those who were both conservative and Reformed, who hadn't given in to liberalism or Armenianism. If you've been part of a fearful group, you know the drill, except maybe you spoke in tongues amongst a bunch of Baptists or were the only group that knew the TRUTH about Jesus coming back for your congregation. It didn't help that a prominent Southern Baptist church in our town had our denomination listed as a cult. It also didn't help that I grew up in an area crawling with Baptists and Methodists and a bit slim on conservative Presbyterians.
That mythology has been burst. In a couple of decades, Calvinism has become cool again, as evidenced by the gradual take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention and the popularity of dominionist groups. Young people are especially attracted to this theology, perhaps because they've been disenchanted from the altar-call style evangelism of their youth. The image of a Calvinist is no longer Mark Twain's frozen chosen choir boy but a bald-headed hipster seminarian smoking a pipe with his ale. As one who was Calvinist before Calvinism was cool, I'm terrified by this turn of events.
Part of my worry is that young people are diving in head-first without thinking through the repercussions for their children. That may sound strong, but I have been severely wounded by Calvinist theology, and those wounds haven't healed yet. So nothing I say is meant to be against a particular Calvinist, unless he or she is obviously being manipulative or controlling of others. However, I'm not going to mince words when it comes to the theology, if only because many, many people have been wounded by it, some of them losing faith altogether. There are also many misconceptions about the theology, and it's good to know what people actually think outside of the stereotypes.
Here's what I grew up believing:
God is completely holy, pure, incorruptible. He is also unchanging - "immortal, invisible, God only wise." This means that God never changes His mind, or His "will," and that because He is God, His will is both unshakable and perfect.
Furthermore, because God is holy, He cannot look upon sin. This means that He cannot love a sinner whose sin is still visible to Him. Moreover, His perfect justice demands that all sins be punished. To be clear, this punishment is not meant to be a deterent for future sins, or a refining fire for penatants. This punishment is needed because God's holiness demands punishment for sins, full stop. Think of it as a mathematical equation, and in order to solve for X, sins must be punished by suffering.
Now, this holy God made everything, including Satan and mankind. In the beginning, Adam and Eve had free will, meaning that they could chose whether or not to obey God. They chose to disobey God. This act of rebellion spawned "The Fall," and this fall was total and complete. Because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, every human being is born without free will. In other words, no one can chose to worship or serve God, and no one desires to. Not only that, but we are spiritually dead and completely incapable of doing any good. The only reason we haven't all killed each other is because of "common grace," which means that God allots a certain amount of grace to most humans in order for human civilization to continue. I was taught that people like Hitler were not given common grace in order to show us what we are really like, but I don't know that all Calvinists think that. Most Calvinists would compare the unregenerate human heart to Lazarus' dead body, simply incapable of waking himself up or walking without Jesus' miraculous healing. Also, most Calvinists would never say that God pre-ordained evil, so there's a very fine line that one must walk. This is what is known as "total depravity," the T in TULIP.
In response to the Fall, God's holy nature requires punishment of sins (see number 2 above). However, God is also love, and He loved His elect so much that He sacrificed His Son in their place. This is similar to garden-variety evangelicalism but with a distinction. An Armenian would agree that God's holy nature requires punishment of sins; however, they would argue that Christ's death on the Cross was meant for all humanity. The onus is then on individual humans to accept the gift of Christ's death and believe that their sins are therefore forgiven. Calvinism is different: in this paradigm, Christ only died for those already predestined by God "before the foundation of the world." What this means is that Christ's sufferings are mathematical, an exact calculation for an exact number of people. The Calvinist would never say that Christ died for everyone, but only that He died for His elect. I was told that this way none of Christ's sufferings were "wasted" on those who would decide to reject Him (again, I don't know if all Calvinists think this, but it's certainly a common belief). This belief is called "limited atonement" and, for obvious reasons, is the most controversial Calvinist belief. There are so-called "Four Point Calvinists" who believe all the tulip except the L because of a niggling sense of compassion.
The U, for unconditional election, follows from those beliefs. Because of The Fall, man is totally depraved and has no free will. Because God is holy, all sins must be punished. Because God is love, He sacrificed His Son in place of the elect. Because man is totally depraved, i.e. has no free will, he requires direct intervention; ergo, God predestined a certain number of human souls to be saved. His election of these souls is eternal, meaning that it is outside of time altogether. Some Armenians would interpret election to mean that God foreknew - i.e. saw into the future - and knew that Sally Sue would accept Jesus Christ, and therefore Sally Sue is part of the elect. This is not how the Calvinist sees it. In Calvinism, God predestined Sally Sue before the foundation of the world for no discernible reason other than simply because He willed it. It had nothing to do with any choice or good works on her part, and it only had to do with God's (admittedly capricious) choice. This is called "unconditional election" because it is not conditional based on our will or works.
The I, for "irresistible grace," follows logically from unconditional election. If the creator of the universe wills for Sally Sue to be saved, then nothing can stop Sally from being saved. God's saving grace cannot be resisted by her or anyone else, cannot be stopped, cannot be negated by human sins. Those alarm bells ringing in your head are correct - this does sound a lot like rape. When I was a Calvinist though, I was derisive of those who called it divine rape. It goes back to the Lazarus analogy: Christ brought Lazarus back to life, and Lazarus didn't have anything to do with it. Lazarus came forth from the tomb because he had no choice, but no one thought Jesus was guilty of rape!
The P is for "perseverance of the saints," which is kind of controversial. I've heard it called "once saved always saved," but I've also heard Calvinists take great pains to distinguish it from once saved always saved. What I believed growing up is that if Sally is elect, then she will persevere in God until she dies. She may fall away for a time, but she will never be totally separated from God. This is the part where fear and legalism really come into play, because if you're not showing "signs of the elect" then you must not be saved. Jonathan Edwards was mildly obsessed with this problem and wrote a book about it called "Religious Affections." This is why so many atheists get the "No True Scotsman" fallacy thrown at them. After all, the existence of fallen Christians is really frightening if you believe in TULIP. These people thought they were saved, sincerely believed, and now they don't.
John Calvin actually took it a step further and believed that God would trick people into thinking they were chosen when they weren't, a little godly cat and mouse game. Not all Calvinists espouse this though, for obvious reasons. There is also disagreement on whether God foreordains souls for destruction or simply foreordains those whom He saves. In my opinion this is a non-sequiter because if you're not elect, you're headed for Hell, whether God assigned you a seat there or not. There are philosophical reasons to believe or not believe in "double predestination" (or as some would call it double secret predestination), but I'm not going to go into that here.
The other key element is that of "imputation." On the cross, our sins were imputed onto Jesus, and His righteousness is imputed to the elect. This is different from the Catholic idea of infused grace for many reasons. Unlike infused grace, imputed grace doesn't require an act of human will (see: unconditional election); the transaction can't be resisted by human will (see: irresistible grace); it's only offered to those whom God has chosen (see: limited atonement), and it can't be lost through human sin (see: perseverance of the saints). This grace also doesn't mean that we stop sinning or "aren't living in Mortal sin." What it does mean is that we are, in Martin Luther's phrase, a "snow-covered dung heap." We need the covering of Christ's righteousness (i.e. His perfect obedience on earth) so that God can stand to look at us, because a holy God cannot look on sin. I didn't understand this concept as a child, which is interesting because without it the whole building collapses. You want to try something disheartening, try being a Calvinist without understanding imputed grace, with a little Armenian altar-call theology and Last Times obsession stirred in for good luck.
If you're confused, the now-disbanded Caedmon's Call (the band Derek Webb used to write for) explains this quite clearly, in a more positive light than I can manage:
Now, most people would say that the above beliefs make God a monster. However, there's a catch: "who are you, O man, to question God?" You're totally depraved, remember? Your spiritual intellect is decayed, rotten to the core, and your moral compass is shot unless God supernaturally corrects it. So who are you to say that God is being capricious? You're a tiny, sinful human, and God is the pure, holy, sovereign creator. Aren't you being a wee bit presumptuous to judge God?
I'll let you sit with that.