Here’s a topic I’ve had a lot of people ask me about lately. And it’s one I write about with much fear and trembling! Not because I haven’t studied it out, but because it’s kind of like talking about people’s political party or their favorite sports teams.
It’s a topic that most people already have some serious and deeply-held opinions on (even if they don’t realize it yet!).
Here are three things I think everyone should keep in mind when it comes to the never-ending debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, starting with the absolute most important:
#1: This is an intramural debate!
No matter what some extremists on both sides may say, you can be an orthodox, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christian and be either a Calvinist or an Arminian.
People on both sides can all agree on the essential doctrines of the Christian faith — things like the Trinity, the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, etc. — while debating second-tier topics like how God’s providence and predestination work.
This is not an issue over which to label people “heretics” just because they are on the other side of the theological aisle from you. Rather, it is a matter of personal conviction, based on some very complicated and debatable matters of interpretation, philosophy, and tradition.
But the two sides have much in common: They both emphasize that salvation is something people cannot earn by their good works; it is only by God’s grace through faith in Christ. They both treasure Scripture as God’s inspired word. And they both affirm that God is sovereign over all things and that no plan of his can be thwarted.
But they disagree over how God chooses to exercise his sovereignty, and how human responsibility factors into that.
How the Two Sides Differ:
Calvinism (also commonly referred to as “Reformed theology”) emphasizes God’s absolute, determining sovereignty in salvation. This involves a specific interpretation of election and predestination, which Calvinists view as God’s unconditional choice, which he made before the world began, to save some individuals (the elect), with no regard for their faith or merit; it’s solely from God’s great mercy.
Since God has already sovereignly decided which individuals will be saved, he automatically makes those people respond to the gospel and receive his grace, through the inner work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Calvinists see God’s grace as irresistible. They also see salvation as something believers can never lose — all true believers will persevere in faith until they inevitably reach heaven.
On the flipside, God chooses to leave all others (the non-elect, or reprobate) to be justly damned for their sins. This may sound harsh, but Calvinists explain that everything God does is done to demonstrate his glory — including his glory in judging sin. Also, they maintain that this view of election is necessary for salvation to be completely the work of God, rather than ultimately the result of human decision.
The alternative, Arminianism, also affirms that God chooses who will be saved. They don’t deny election and predestination — they’re biblical concepts — but they understand them differently. Arminians believe that God’s choosing is conditioned on whether a person puts their faith in Christ. Because God loves the entire world and desires that every person be saved, it follows that if anyone ends up not being saved, it’s not because God rejected them, but because they rejected God.
There are different perspectives among Arminians about how this works. Many believe that God chooses based on foreknowledge of people’s faith-decision. In other words, because God knows all that will be and all that could be, he can know in advance who will respond to his grace, and they are the ones he deems “chosen.”
Others hold to a corporate view of election. On this view, the one God primarily chose is Christ — he’s the elect one, chosen by God the Father, and God has sovereignly decreed that whosoever will put their faith in Christ will be incorporated into God’s people “in Christ.” In other words, God established an elect group, and individuals enter that group by putting their faith in Christ.
But all Arminians affirm that salvation is by God’s grace — God makes the first move. He draws people to Christ by the Holy Spirit. But he ultimately leaves it up to them to accept or reject him. Arminians believe his grace is able to be resisted. Most Arminians also affirm that since salvation is conditional upon continued faith, it can be forfeited if a believer abandons their faith in Christ and returns to unbelief.
While some opponents claim that Arminianism’s main objective is to defend human free will, this is actually not the case. The primary concern (of James Arminius himself, at least) was to reclaim the biblical view of God’s love and mercy toward all people, which Arminius felt was being compromised in his day by Calvinists teaching a very strict view of predestination. Arminians argue that an appropriate emphasis on human responsibility is not only biblical, it’s what makes genuine relationship with God possible.
#2: There is diversity on both sides.
This is another vital point to keep in mind: Not all Calvinists believe the same things, and neither do all Arminians.
There are some Calvinists (Hyper-Calvinists) who affirm God’s control so strongly that they deny human responsibility. They simply shrug and say, “Yep, God determines everything and there’s nothing you can do.”
Most Calvinists say this is too extreme and does not fit the biblical picture. These moderate Calvinists affirm that although salvation comes from God’s unconditional choice, nevertheless there is some mysterious way in which human faith or unbelief plays a role. They say this is a paradox we simply must affirm until we reach heaven.
Arminians, on the other hand, say that this Calvinist position is not holding to a mystery but to an outright contradiction. You would be claiming that salvation is simultaneously conditional and unconditional. It’s like saying there can be a square circle, or an A that is also not an A.
Instead, we should affirm that there is more going on in the passages that seem to present God choosing unconditionally than what Calvinists assert. There is always an implied responsibility on the part of individuals to respond to God’s call.
But, as mentioned above, how Arminians interpret those passages varies. Is election based on foreknowledge, or is it corporate? Can it be both? To what extent does God’s providence affect human decision-making? Again, there is great diversity of opinion.
[On a side note: I’ve heard a lot of folks say that they want to avoid these labels altogether. They may say, “Well, I’m not a Calvinist or an Arminian; I’m just a biblicist!” Or, “Call me a Calminian, ‘cuz I’m both!” While I certainly understand the sentiment, in my experience I’ve tended to find that if you probe a little deeper into the views of these folks, they usually show themselves to be either moderate Calvinists or Arminians by virtue of how they actually explain election, grace, and whether believers can lose their salvation. Which, to me, makes it unhelpful when they imply that their view is simply “the biblical one,” as if all those who disagree aren’t looking to the Bible to inform their beliefs, too!]
All of this leads me to my final point:
#3: Ask people what their view is, and don’t assume you already know.
Since there are differences of opinion even within the two camps, the best policy you can take is to ask people what they actually believe on this issue.
Find out how they’ve interpreted certain Scripture passages to reach their conclusions. Or learn what teachings they’ve heard that have influenced their position.
And be polite! Again, this is an intramural debate. Brothers and sisters in Christ can (and should) engage these topics with respect. Keep in mind that you can still learn a lot from people you disagree with — I certainly have.
And let the debate push you to look more closely at Scripture and to focus more on Christ. Because there will always be questions. God’s ways will always be beyond us.
But we can trust him. We can keep seeking him as we seek to better understand his word. And we can all praise him for the great gift of salvation he has offered us.
Phew! Now that I’ve brought up this controversial topic, I’m eager to hear what your thoughts are!
Also, please note that there is so much more I could say about this subject than can fit in one post, so please bear with me if you perceive my depictions of either Calvinism or Arminianism as insufficient — I’ve tried to keep it as brief as possible. If this is a topic you’d like to see me go more in-depth about, let me know in the comments!
See you down the path.