Calvinism and Arminianism

(Some Observations)




It should be noted, first of all, the issues of God's sovereignty and man's free will as taught in the Bible are doctrines about which believers have long been concerned - well before the Reformation - especially as to how these teachings relate to each other.  Any student of Scripture at any time in history is bound to have grappled with these doctrines  which at first glance might seem to be mutually exclusive.  The public debate over these issues, however, seems to have come to a head after the Reformation.


Those outside of the family of faith have little interest in what Scripture teaches; therefore, the relationship of these two doctrines (God's sovereignty and man's free will) form the basis of discussion within the family of faith.  Believers with equal trust in the authority of Scripture have come down on both sides.  Calvinists, following the lead of John Calvin, the great reformer, have historically championed the sovereignty of God applying this doctrine to the exclusion of any free will whatsoever.  Arminians, on the other hand, have historically championed the doctrine of free choice -- while at the same time affirming God's sovereignty (which they believe does not exclude free will).


Calvinism summarized:

John Calvin, 1509-1564, was one of the major reformers and is known by his extensive work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Much of his theological teaching and preaching took place in Geneva, Switzerland.  He was completely controlled theologically by his thorough application of God's sovereignty to all of biblical teaching.  If portions of Scripture appeared to give humanity the opportunity to choose to love God and respond to his offer of salvation in Christ, Calvin assumed the sovereignty of God  excluded any genuine offer of salvation -- or any genuine response to that offer.  For him, every human response is simply the pre-determined sovereign will of God - a kind of Christian fatalism.  In other words, we do not love God because we want to: we love God because we have to.  We do not freely respond to his offer of salvation in Christ: we must respond favorably to his offer if we are chosen by him to be his elect.  If we do not respond to God's offer of salvation in Christ, then we were never chosen to do so.  In other words, some are chosen to be saved -- and others are not.  In Calvin's mind, any  ability to choose would be impossible because it would contradict the sovereignty of God.


Calvin pointed to biblical passages emphasizing God's sovereignty such as 

Ephesians 1:11-14: "In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.  And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.  Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession - to the praise of his glory."  He really believed he could not be consistent in his biblical interpretation unless the sovereignty of God excluded anything that could be seen as acting contrary to God's will.  Otherwise, he thought God's will would not really be sovereign.



The classic acrostic used to remember the five points of Calvinism is the word "TULIP".

What follows is only a very short summary:


1.  Total Depravity:  We are totally and completely sinful and therefore have no ability to respond to any offer of God's salvation in Christ.


2.  Unconditional Election:  God elects some to salvation and does not elect others.  Since everyone is totally depraved, God accomplishes this election sovereignly -- not taking into consideration any human condition.


3.  Limited Atonement: Jesus died only for the elect.  Since God is sovereign, if Jesus had died for the whole world then everyone would have had to be saved.  Since not everyone is saved, it must be that Jesus died only for the elect.


4.  Irresistible Grace:  When God extends his grace to the elect, they will be saved --  without any free exercise of choice/faith.  This is God's sovereign choice.  (There is some relationship between this point of Calvinism and the second -- unconditional election.)


5.  Perseverence of the Elect:  As a result of God's sovereign choice of the elect they will continue as such.  In other words, they are forever saved. 


These five points summarize the Belgic Confession - written in the middle 1500's - and finally adopted by the Great Synod of Dort in 1619.  Arminians present were in the minority and were not given any opportunity to influence the result of this Great Synod of Dort.



Arminianism summarized:

Interestingly enough, Jacabus Arminius (1560-1609), was a disciple of Theodore de Beze considered to be the successor of John Calvin.  So the theological position known as Arminianism did not arise outside of Calvin's teachings -- but came from within.  Shortly after his death, forty-five of Arminius' fellow ministers adopted a theological position which differed from that stated in the Belgic Confession - a document known as The Remonstrances - promulgated in 1610.  Jacabus Arminius and his followers were thoroughly convinced of God's sovereignty as taught in Scripture, but they had difficulty with some of Calvin's logical conclusions based on that doctrine which to them seemed to exclude other biblical teachings -- such as the opportunity of a genuine response to the genuine offer of salvation in Christ.  In summary, Arminius was determined to be true to all of Scripture even though portions of it seemed to be impossible to synthesize with other portions.  Above all, he was convinced all of biblical doctrine must be accepted - even if it cannot be completely comprehended or logically systematized.


Arminius stressed biblical passages such as:  "Whosoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:36)  "The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas.  He then brought them out and asked, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?'  They replied, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved - you and your household.'"

(Acts 16:29-31)  "And this is his command; to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us." (I John 3:23)  "He (Jesus Christ) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our but also for the sins of the whole world." (I John 2:2)


Each of the five points of Arminianism correspond to the five points of Calvinism outlined above.


1.  Total Depravity:  We are totally lost and unable to save ourselves.  How the Holy Spirit brings a person to the place of belief in Christ cannot be fully understood since it is only God who saves - but it is the individual who believes.


2.  Conditional Election:  God by means of his eternal plan elects those who by his grace believe in his Son, Jesus Christ.  


3.  Unlimited Atonement:  Jesus Christ died for the sins of the whole world, but his death and resurrection will only bring about the salvation of those who believe.


4.  Resistible Grace:  The grace of God in Christ which is absolutely necessary for salvation can be refused.


5.  Perseverence of the Elect:  Whether or not it is possible for the elect to unfailingly persevere needs further biblical study.


As you can see by this summary of The Remonstrances, there is the desire to fully attribute salvation to the superintending grace of God, but there is also the desire to come to terms with the bone fide offer of salvation outlined in Scripture.  Arminians would be the last ones to say we can save ourselves: that must be solely the work of God's grace.

On the other hand, they would be the first ones to say the offer of God's grace is a bone fide one, and our response to that grace is also bone fide.  If God's commands to believe his Gospel and love him in return are purely mechanical as taught in the Calvinistic system, then Arminians respond by saying this does not correspond to the nature of God as they understand it.  They teach God cannot make a true offer unless it can be truly accepted or rejected.  Otherwise, his command to believe and love him is really an exercise in futility since our belief and love is not voluntary - according to Calvinistic teaching.  God would not make a false offer.  That would be contrary to who He is.



And so the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism continues within the family of faith - a debate between Christian brothers and sisters which this side of heaven will never be settled.


To the credit of Calvin and his followers, there is a constant desire to protect the sovereignty of God at all costs.  Calvin deeply believed he could not relinquish any part of God's sovereignty without denying the nature of God himself.  Any acknowledgement of choice or free will would be an affront to God because it would take away from his sovereignty.  


On the other hand, Arminius and his followers also desired to protect the nature of God who they believed would not make a false offer.  In other words, they believed it was against the nature of God to extend an offer of salvation in Christ which was not genuine.  Arminius was convinced God would not command that we believe, love and obey him if we could not do so - if the results were already predetermined.


It should be noted again, the differences explained above are those between believers all of which are convinced of the authority of Scripture.  This discussion is within the family of faith!


A Possible Solution:

Perhaps the ultimate synthesis of Calvinism/Arminianism is found in the relationship of time and eternity.  If we could think of eternity outside of time's limitations - past, present and future - then the relationship of predestination and free choice may find a solution.  We would not have to think of a prior divine determination and then a later human decision -- since time would be swallowed up in eternity.  The concept of before and after would be gone.  It would be as though time were a tiny dot surrounded by the infinitude of eternity.  Then we would not have to think of God sequentially predetermining everything as though he were acting within time - since He lives in eternity.  We would only see God's sovereignty and our choice as some kind of eternal concomitant - without the consecutive limitations of time.