Calvinism or Arminianism?
An outline of the five key differences between Calvinism and Arminianism.
10 JANUARY 2016 · 07:10 CET
One of the most exciting theological debates over the last 500 years has been the dispute between Calvinists and Arminians.
To cut a long story short, the controversy came about in 1610 when a group following the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) reacted against the theology of the Protestant giant John Calvin (1509-64).
We are going to divide our article into the five key doctrinal points that keep these two Evangelical groups separated unto this very day. Enjoy!
#1 FREE WILL OR TOTAL DEPRAVITY?
Arminians believe that the Fall has had a negative effect on all humanity. Every descendent of Adam and Eve is born into sin. Nevertheless, people still have free will which they can duly use to repent and believe the Gospel. The eternal destiny of sinners depends upon how they use their wills.
They can choose either the good or the bad. In the last analysis, their will is not completely bound by their sinful nature. If a man decides to put his faith in God, he will be regenerated by the Holy Spirit. First faith, then regeneration (that is, the New Birth). Faith, therefore, is an act of man’s will.
Calvinism, however, says that humanity’s will was so affected by the Fall that it is no longer possible for them to believe the Gospel. Their will is blind, deaf and stone cold dead. They have no free will because their will is entirely enslaved to sin. Man is only free to sin; not to follow the paths of righteousness.
Therefore, for a sinner to be saved, the Spirit of God must regenerate him (her) miraculously. A person thus regenerated will put his (her) faith in the Gospel and repent. First regeneration, then faith. Without the New Birth granted by the Spirit, saving faith is an impossibility. Faith, then, is something produced in man by the Holy Spirit.
#2 CONDITIONAL OR UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION?
Conditional election (the Arminian stance) teaches that God’s election is conditioned by man’s decision. Since God is omniscient, He already knows from eternity past who is going to choose to obey Him and who will rebel against Him. As a result, God determined to save all of those who were going to follow Him. In other words, God chooses those who were going to choose Him. This means that the determining factor in God’s election is the decision that each man takes according to his free will.
Unconditional election (the Calvinistic view) says that election has nothing to do with man whatsoever. It depends exclusively upon the will of the Almighty. God chooses whosoever He wants to choose. He does not determine to choose a person because He foresaw their good works, but because He was pleased to choose them.
A sinner’s conversion, then, is not the cause of God’s election but rather the consequence of it. Sooner or later, a predestined child of God will accept Christ because God has chosen him to do so. And why did God choose him? By pure grace! Not by anything foreseen in man.
#3 UNIVERSAL OR LIMITED ATONEMENT?
On the one hand, Arminians believe that Jesus potentially died for all people. He did not achieve the salvation of any one person in particular, but He did make salvation possible for anyone who would believe on Him.
Thanks to His atoning death, God can now forgive repentant sinners. However, such pardon depends upon man’s will. It is man who has to believe upon the sacrifice of Christ so that the forgiveness of God can be activated.
On the other hand, Calvinists are persuaded that Jesus did not die for all people. He only gave His life for His people, His flock, His elect and His bride. Consequently, Christ’s death does indeed guarantee the salvation of His people. The Spirit applies the gift of faith to the hearts of all of those for whom the Lord Jesus died.
#4 RESISTIBLE OR IRRESISTIBLE GRACE?
Resistible or irresistible grace alludes to the work of the Holy Spirit. Arminians believe that the Spirit does all He can to lead sinners to conversion. He calls many by means of the preaching of the Gospel. But the decisive step is in the power of humanity’s will. The Spirit will save those who decide to cooperate with Him.
Until the sinner does not respond positively to the call of God, the Spirit cannot give him spiritual life. Man must exercise faith in the Gospel in order to be regenerated by the Spirit.
Calvinism, nonetheless, proclaims that the Spirit effectually saves those chosen by the Father. As well as calling the elect by the means of the Gospel, He also calls them internally by converting their hearts to Christ. This work is irresistible. It always produces conversion.
The Spirit overcomes man’s enmity to God and conquers his fallen will. He puts the desire to repent and believe in man’s heart. Due to this internal call, the unbeliever is born again unto life eternal.
#5 ONCE SAVED, ALWAYS SAVED?
As a general rule most Arminians believe that salvation can be lost. Some think otherwise. The main consensus, however, is that salvation can be lost if believers do not persevere in the faith. Therefore Christians can never have a full assurance of their salvation.
Conversely Calvinists are convinced that the elect will always persevere unto the end as it is impossible for a child of God to be lost. God keeps them by His power therefore the believer can enjoy a full assurance of his salvation here and now. Once saved, always saved!
Perhaps the most important aspect in this debate is to realize that there are great servants of God in both camps. On the Arminian side of the fence we find preachers such as John Wesley (1703-91), A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) and Leonard Ravenhill (1907-94).
Unto this very day, many servants of the Most High God position themselves in different camps regarding this great controversy. This fact alone should teach us that we must be humble as we profess faith in these doctrines.
What we cannot do is label those who think differently to us as “apostates” or something worse. Study and knowledge are both important but they must be married to humility and a contrite spirit. There is no uglier spirit than theological pride.
We are brothers and sisters in Christ –whether we be Calvinists or Arminians- so, as we continue preaching the Word of God together, let us love one another, serve one another and glorify our great God and Saviour together with all of our strength.