Calvinism & Arminianism: What I Wish Everyone Knew About the Debate

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.



Categories: Calvinism/Arminianism, Theology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. I’m not an Arminianist or a Calvinist. It doesn’t actually have to be either one. There is actually an alternative view that is well represented by teachers such as Mike Winger and Dr. Leighton Flowers. It has many labels including Provisionalist and Traditionaist.

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    • Very interesting! Since the Provisionalism/Traditionalism stance affirms corporate election, I’ve always thought of it as a subset within the broader Arminian tradition. From my perspective, at least, the most important line of division is whether one believes salvation is God’s unconditional choice or that it’s conditioned on faith. We could go on and on about other subsets (Molinism, Open Theism, even Universalism), but I tried to keep the post as broad and simple as possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome summary! I appreciate the education.

    I particularly like your first point. It seems vital for Christians to understand that this is a debate within the Christian community. Regardless of ones perception of the validity of their opposers salvation, predestination should be debated with mutual love and respect but, the kidney jabs and sarcasm amongst Christians, especially on sociol media, do little to shine the love of Christ to non-believers.

    I enjoyed the read. Well said, Sir.

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  3. The claim that as long as Christians believe the FEW essentials so it doesn’t matter what they think about the rest of the Bible because it’s less “essential” is precisly what promotes ignorance and division in the church rather than unity. It is simply a FACT that God does not tell people opposing things so Calvinists and Arminianists cannot both be right. Scripture is CLEAR that God chose us BEFORE the creation of the world. (Ephes. 1:4-6, Rom. 9:11-12, Psalm 139:16, Jer. 1:5) but Arminians DO NOT LIKE THAT FACT. THAT is the issue, not confusion by God. God is not a God of confusion nor is he a deceiver. People either believe everything he said or they do not. You cannot change Scripture to suit your desires. So deceiving people that they’re Christians if they only believe a FEW essentials is helping the MANY described in Mt. 7:21-23 who call Jesus Lord to be deceived that they’re saved just so they can wake up in hell and find out they’re not.

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    • Heidi, respectfully, I think you have it exactly backwards. It’s this kind of insistence on a strict Calvinist viewpoint that alienates millions of Christians around the world (and the majority of Christians historically, prior to Luther) who would otherwise agree on the historic creeds of Christianity as the best definition of essential beliefs required for salvation. Which God we trust for our salvation, rather than what we assume about how his pretemporal decrees function, is arguably what matters most. As I’ve already written above, the statements in Scripture about God’s choosing of his people are capable of several different understandings besides the one you describe (unconditional individual election), no matter how much you may rail against that fact. And what I would say is probably the most important non-Calvinist objection to your stance is this: If God unconditionally elected some individuals to salvation without any regard for anything they would do in response to him, then only God is responsible for the rest of humanity being left to damnation. So how could anything non-Calvinists say on the subject bear any responsibility for deceiving anyone? The deceived would have no one to blame but God’s eternal and unchangeable decree. This is the fact that non-Calvinists take issue with in light of the FACT of God’s love for all his creations and his desire that none should perish (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9), as well as the Bible’s constant insistence that he will judge individuals based on what THEY are responsible for doing by their own will (Jer 17:10; 1 Pet 1:17; Rev 20:12).

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      • Jesus said that the road to life is NARROW, Derek and only a FEW will find it. Mt. 7:13-14. So the bible will NOT be believed by most people.

        Furthermore, if Christians only have to believe the few “essentials” to be saved, then why should we care about what most of rest of the Bible says?That’s either turning most of the Bible into a fiction novel that we can ignore or read for merely entertainment purposes, or the belief that most of the over 770,000 words in the Bible are non-essential and God wasted his time by giving us His words. But Jesus says this in Mt. 4:4, “For it s written, ‘man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

        So it’s not true that we only have to believe in the few “essentials” to be saved. As Jude 19 and 1 Co. 11:19 say, divisions in the church come from those who have God’s approval (have the Spirit) and those who do NOT have God’s approval (those without the Spirit). That’s proven by Arminians who reject God’s words such as “predestined” and “God’s elect”, “election”, “chosen people”, which you HAVE to do to be Arminian.

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        • “That’s proven by Arminians who reject God’s words such as “predestined” and “God’s elect”, “election”, “chosen people”, which you HAVE to do to be Arminian.”

          This is so wrong, as I’ve already shown in the post. Go read it again. Each of those terms come in contexts, in a Bible that affirms humans play a role in their choice to have faith or not and will be judged for their own actions. You’ve refused to engage the argument there and instead want to write off millions of Christians as damned simply because they don’t have the exact same narrow understanding of soteriology as you. That’s not acceptable here.

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      • And lastly, professed Christians who say that we only have to believe the “essentials’ argue with much of the rest of the Bible such as; homosexuality, women “pastors”, waging war, killing in self-defense, Christians leading the world, getting rich, hair length on men and women, genders, predestination, election, and every other dictate which Scripture CLEARLY addresses. 1 Co. 6:9-10, 1 Tim. 2:11-15, 1 Co. 14:34, Mt. 5:39-48, Acts 7:59, 2 Co. 10:3-4, Ephes. 6:12, Jn 15:19, Mt. 10:22, Rom. 12:2, James 4:4, 1 Co. 11:14-15, Mt. 6:24, Lk. 6:24. So they’re arguing with God’s words which indicates unbelief, proving Jude 19 and 1 Co. 11:19 correct.

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Trackbacks

  1. Recommended Resources on Calvinism & Arminianism – Theology Pathfinder
  2. No One Can Come to Jesus Unless the Father Draws Them: Two Views on Election in John 6 – Theology Pathfinder

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