Calvinism versus Arminianism

By James M. Rochford

At the heart of the Calvinist-Arminian debate is the question of how it is that humans come into a relationship with Christ. Is it through our freewill or God’s selection? Arminians claim that we decide to come to Christ through our freewill, while Calvinists will often ask, “Do you think that God was the one who was lost, and you found Him?” But how does this fit with the notion that “none seek for God” (Rom. 3:11). Moreover, how does this fit with the biblical teaching that humans are the lost sheep (Jer. 50:6) who need to be found by Christ—the good shepherd (Lk. 15:3-7; 19:10; Jn. 10:11)? Calvinist J.I. Packer writes,

The difference between them [Arminianism and Calvinism] is not primarily one of emphasis, but of content. One proclaims a God who saves; the other speaks of a God who enables man to save himself.[1]

Our understanding of this subject will affect a number of areas in our theology. It pervades our understanding of the problem of evil, God’s sovereignty, freewill, hell, total depravity, and hermeneutics. Moreover, while we might wish to disregard this subject as abstract theology, this simply isn’t an option. The subject is unavoidable when reading our Bibles and working with new Christians or non-Christians. What does the Bible mean when it uses the language of “predestination,” “election,” and being “chosen”? Let’s consider two differing perspectives.

The Case for Calvinism

Calvinism comes from the theology of John Calvin—one of the great theological minds of the Reformation. However, this term is really a misnomer. Many Calvinists argue that this teaching originates in Augustine in the fourth century (and others argue it originally goes back to Paul in the first century!). Calvin himself did not emphasize predestination in his Institutes (he only mentioned it in four chapters). While he taught predestination and election, he warned against delving too deeply into this subject. He writes:

First, then, when they inquire into predestination, let them remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity will enter in inextricable labyrinth. For it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear. Those secrets of his will, which he has seen it meet to manifest, are revealed in his word—revealed in so far as he knew to be conducive to our interest and welfare.[2]

However, Calvinism became one of the central teachings of Reformed Theology, expressed by the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619.[3] Calvinists make their case in this way:

1. God’s sovereignty and decrees

Calvinists argue that God is completely in control of all things and his decrees are never frustrated by anything. Thus even a sinner’s freewill cannot get in the way of what God wants. For instance, Isaiah writes that God declares “the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’… Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it” (Isa. 46:10-11). Likewise, Paul writes that God “predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). If God predestines all things, Calvinists ask, then how can we as humans claim to choose for our salvation?[4]

2. Total depravity

Calvinists next emphasize the complete inability of humans to come to Christ on their own. Specifically, they will often ask how it is possible for dead people to become alive, unless God causes this (“You were dead in your trespasses and sins” Eph. 2:1). Calvinists will often ask, “How much did you decide to be born physically?” Similarly, they argue, we do not have a choice in our spiritual birth, either. For instance, Calvinist James Montgomery Boice writes,

Like a spiritual corpse, he is unable to make a single move toward God, think a right thought about God, or even respond to God—unless God first brings this spiritually dead corpse to life.[5]

No one is responsible for his or her physical birth. It is only as a human egg and sperm join, grow, and finally enter this world that birth occurs. The process is initiated and nurtured by the parents. Likewise spiritual rebirth is initiated and nurtured by our heavenly Father and is not our own doing.[6]

Paul writes that “there is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11), and Jesus said it is “impossible” for people to be saved, but “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). Before Christ saved us, “We were still helpless” (Rom. 5:6), loving “the darkness rather than the Light” (Jn. 3:19). While Arminians often argue that freewill plays a role in our salvation, John writes that we were not saved by “the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13).

3. Salvation is a complete and finished work of God—not man

According to the Calvinist, if we contribute to our salvation (by adding a faith decision), then we spoil our salvation (it becomes works). However, the Bible says that we were saved by grace—not works. Paul writes that our salvation was “the gift of God; not as a result of works” (Eph. 2:8-9). Even our faith—according to Calvinists—was “the gift of God.” Since “nothing good dwells in me” (Rom. 7:18) according to Paul, we don’t even have the power to exert faith without God doing this for us. As the apostle Paul writes, “Those whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). Freewill isn’t involved anywhere in this picture; the entire act of salvation was a completed work of God—not man.

Articles on Calvinism

TULIP The T.U.L.I.P. acronym explains the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism.

Biblical Defense of Arminianism In this article, we make a hermeneutical case for a moderate Arminian view. We give hermeneutical principles for interpreting disputed passages and interpret many of these passages.

Philosophical Defense of Arminianism Here we offer a philosophical critique of Calvinism and respond to common Calvinist objections to Arminian theology.

Limited Atonement: A Critique Did Christ die for the entire world, or just the elect? We feel that many passages support the doctrine of unlimited atonement.

Conclusions regarding Calvinism We offer some concluding concepts regarding this debate, including some of the positive components of Calvinism from our view.

Further Reading for Calvinism-Arminianism We give a list of books and websites from both an Arminian and Calvinist perspective.

[1] J.I. Packer’s introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Cited in Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 142.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 21, Section 1.

[3] A synod is a church council. The Synod of Dort was a council held by the Dutch Reformed Church. It was a response to the writing published posthumously by Jacob Arminius’ followers. Arminius (founder of Arminianism) challenged the Reformed Belgic Confession.

[4] Arminians object to this Calvinist view of sovereignty, arguing that this would make God the cause of evil. Moreover, Arminians ask, “Why should we lament during times of evil and suffering (Rom. 12:9)?” If God causes all things to occur for his own glory, then why shouldn’t we be celebrating every time there is an earthquake or dead infant?

[5] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 74.

[6] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 148.