CALVINISM VS. ARMINIANISM:

A Discussion of Doctrine

Larry Taylor

Calvary Chapel Bible College, 1994

TABLE OF CONTENTS

    Introduction
  1. What is Calvinism?
  2. What is Arminianism?
  3. An Evaluation of the Doctrines
  4. The Fruit of Arminianism
  5. The Fruit of Calvinism
  6. The Biblical Balance

INTRODUCTION

God has, in these last days, raised up Calvary Chapel as a ministry of balance. Since its inception under the leadership of Pastor Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel ministries have sought the Biblical middle ground between the extremes of Pentecostalism versus fundamentalism, emotionalism versus traditionalism, and Calvinism versus Arminianism. With respect to this latter debate, no final solution is possible. Great theological minds have debated the issues of free will versus the sovereignty of God for centuries without ever being able to reconcile the two. Arguing for one side at the expense of the other is foolish because it is by nature not provable, and therefore is an argument which no one can win. Humility demands that we bow in the presence of a God who is beyond our intellectual comprehension and confess the wisdom of Deuteronomy 29:29: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever...".

I. WHAT IS CALVINISM?

Historically, the doctrine we call Calvinism arose out of the teaching of the reformer John Calvin, although five point Calvinism as it is espoused by its followers today was not taught by Calvin, but instead implied by those who carried his teachings to what they considered to be their logical conclusions. Calvinism is often called Reformed theology, as distinct from Lutheran or Anabaptist theology, and is founded upon John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Puritans and independent Presbyterians of Great Britain were heavily influenced by Calvin's writings, but some of its greatest followers were Dutch (Bavinck, Kuyper, etc.). Calvinism is the basis for the doctrine of many Baptist, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches. In The Canons of the Synod of Dort in 1619, a response to the teachings of James Arminius, the five points of Calvinism were stated as follows:

1. Total Depravity, the belief that man is dead in trespasses and sins and totally unable to save himself. Many adherents of Calvinism carry this a step further, claiming that man cannot even desire a relationship with God apart from His working in their hearts. In fact, it is claimed that God must regenerate a person before they can even desire to come to Christ.

2. Unconditional election is the belief that in eternity past God chose or elected certain people to obtain salvation. Some Calvinists (although not all) carry this belief further and teach what is referred to as "double election", or "reprobation", the teaching that God, in eternity past, selected some people to go to heaven and others to go to hell, and there is nothing anyone can do to change God's election; i.e., if you are elected for heaven, you'll go to heaven regardless of what you do, and if you're elected for hell, there is no possibility of your ever being saved. John Calvin taught this, but called it a terrible doctrine.

3. Limited atonement is the Calvinist teaching that Jesus did not die for the sins of the entire world, but that He instead only died for those that He elected to go to heaven. The argument is that Christ's work on the Cross must be "efficacious", that is, it must work for all for whom He died, that He could not have shed His blood for those who are lost. Some Calvinists have gone to great lengths to explain away limited atonement, saying, for example, that Jesus died for all, but does not pray for all, or that His death theoretically could save everyone, but is effective only for the elect. The end result is the same in each case - the belief that Jesus only died effectively for some people, not all.

4. Irresistible grace is the doctrine that teaches that God will draw to Himself those whom He elected regardless of their rebellion against Him. It is the belief that man cannot resist the drawing of God to Himself.

5. Perseverance of the saints, or eternal security, is the doctrine that often attracts people to Calvinism because it is the belief that a true born again Christian cannot lose or give up his salvation because salvation is entirely God's work, not man's.

II. WHAT IS ARMINIANISM?

Jacobus (James) Arminius was a Dutch theologian who lived from 1560-1609. Arminius taught that man is not guilty for Adam's sin, but only when he chooses to sin voluntarily. Arminius started out as a strict Calvinist, but later modified his views, views which were expressed in a document called The Remonstrance in 1610. Arminianism is the theological basis for the Methodist, Wesleyan, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Free Will Baptist, Holiness, and many charismatic churches. Arminianism teaches:

1. Election based on knowledge, the belief that God chose those who would be saved in eternity past based on His foreknowledge of those who would respond to and receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Arminianism rejects the concept that God elected anyone for hell.

2. Unlimited atonement is the belief that Jesus died on the Cross for all people, that His blood is sufficient to pay the penalty for the sins of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. Thus, all mankind is savable.

3. Natural inability is the teaching that man cannot save Himself, but that the Holy Spirit must effect the new birth in him. Strict Arminians do not believe that man is totally depraved and condemned as a result of Adam's sin.

4. Prevenient grace is the Arminian belief that the prepatory work of the Holy Spirit enables the believer to respond to the Gospel and to cooperate with God in the working out of that person's salvation.

5. Conditional perseverance is the belief that man can choose to reject God, and therefore lose his salvation, even after he has been born again. Rather than the "once saved always saved" doctrine of the Calvinists, the Arminian believes that you must abide in Christ to be saved, and that you can choose to walk away from God. Arminius himself, and his early followers, stated that they were unsure of this doctrine and that it required further Biblical study. Later Arminians, however, accepted it.

III. AN EVALUATION OF THE DOCTRINES

At the heart of the controversy between Calvinism and Arminianism is the emphasis on the sovereignty of God by the Calvinists and on the free will of man, or human responsibility, by the Arminians. Arminian theology teaches that man has free will and that God will never interrupt or take that free will away, that God has obligated Himself to respect the free moral agency and capacity of free choice with which He created us. Calvinism, on the other hand, emphasizes that God is in total control of everything, and that nothing can happen that He does not plan and direct, including man's salvation. Both doctrinal positions are logical, both have Scriptures to back up each of their five points, and both are, in my opinion, partially right and partially wrong.

As Philip Schaff put it in his History of the Christian Church, "Calvinism emphasizes divine sovereignty and free grace; Arminianism emphasizes human responsibility. The one restricts the saving grace to the elect; the other extends it to all men on the condition of faith. Both are right in what they assert; both are wrong in what they deny. If one important truth is pressed to the exclusion of another truth of equal importance, it becomes an error, and loses its hold upon the conscience. The Bible gives us a theology which is more human than Calvinism and more divine than Arminianism, and more Christian than either of them. " (New York, Charles Scribner's & Son, 1910, VIII 815 f). Certainly, the Bible does teach that God is sovereign (Psalm 135:6; Daniel 4:35, Ephesians 1:11), and that believers are predestined and elected by God (Romans 8) to spend eternity with Him. Nowhere, however, does the Bible ever associate election with damnation. Conversely, the Scriptures teach that God elects for salvation, but that unbelievers are in hell by their own choice. Every passage of the Bible that deals with election deals with it in the context of salvation, not damnation. No one is elect for hell. The only support for such a view (which John Calvin did teach) is human logic, not Biblical revelation.

The idea of total depravity is consistent with Scripture (Ephesians 2:1, Romans 3:11), but the doctrine of limited atonement, that Jesus did not die for the sins of the whole world, is clearly anti-Biblical (John 3:16, I Timothy 2:6, II Peter 2: 1, I John 2:2). The Bible teaches that Jesus died for everyone's sins and that everyone is able to be saved if they will repent and turn to Christ. Limited atonement is a non-Biblical doctrine. (John 3:16,17; Romans 5:8, 18; II Corinthians 5:14,15; 1 Timothy 2:4; 4:10; Hebrews 2:9; 10:29; II Peter 2:1; I John 2:2; 4:14.)

Irresistible grace is taught by some, who do not understand the concept, to mean that God drags people to Himself contrary to their wills. Actually, the Biblical view, and the view of most Calvinists, is the belief that God works on our wills so as to make us willing to surrender to Him. In other words, He makes us willing to come to Christ for salvation.

And, many Scriptures teach that a true believer is safe and secure in Christ, that salvation doesn't depend on our ability to keep ourselves, but on God's ability to keep us. (I John 5:11-13; John 10:28; Romans 5:1 and 8: 1). The only condition for salvation is faith in Christ (John 3:16; Acts 16:31; Romans 10:9). On the other hand, the Bible teaches us that we must abide in Christ (John 15; Luke 13:14; Colossians 1:29; II Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 6:4-6; I Peter 1:10) to persevere in salvation.

IV. THE FRUIT OF ARMINIANISM

In its strictest form, Arminianism has taught that man is responsible for saving himself via his own good works of devotion. Although not the view of Arminius, or of Wesley, the teaching from some pulpits puts the emphasis on man's efforts to the expense of God's grace. Thus, in its extreme form, Arminianism leads to the belief that if a believer sins, he has lost his salvation, and must be born again over and over again. Hence, the emphasis in some churches of coming to the altar at each meeting to repent, rededicate, and renew the salvation which was invariably lost in the course of daily life. Adherents of this position have no assurance of salvation, no rest in Christ, and no spiritual peace.

Or, on the other hand, if they can convince themselves that they've reached a state of sinless perfection (which is clearly contrary to I John 1), then believers become proud and super-spiritual, seeing themselves as having reached a higher spiritual plane than regular Christians. A works equals righteousness theology leads either to terror and fear or to pride and haughtiness.

Innumerable believers have lived in needless fear because they wondered time and time again whether or not they were truly saved, thinking that each time they sinned, each time they discovered anything internal unlike Christ, indeed, anytime they felt emotionally separated from God, that they were no longer His children. Surely it is not the will of God for His children to live in such bondage. The fact is that we can know for certain that we are His children, we can know for certain that our sins are forgiven, that we will spend eternity in heaven with the Lord. The Lord does not want His children to doubt His love, nor does He want them to believe that they must, through their own efforts and good works, gain or maintain their salvation. Our position with God is determined by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ for us on the Cross. We can rest in His love and grace, knowing that He who began a good work in us will complete it. We need not fear the one who said He would never leave us or forsake us, who promised to present those who believe in Christ faultless before His presence, who said that He would be with us until the end of the age.

Similarly, it is not the will of God for His children to feel prideful, for them to take credit for the salvation that is entirely His work, for them to falsely believe that they are sinlessly perfect, or better than other believers in any way. Arminianism has historically lead to the holiness movements which teach sinless perfection, and foster pride in some, while condemning and terrifying the more timid.

V. THE FRUIT OF CALVINISM

Five point Calvinists, like full strict Arminians, typically bear fruit contrary to the teaching of God's Word. Specifically, it is typical of five point Calvinists to ignore or at times even oppose evangelism. After all, if all of humanity is either predestined to hell or to heaven, and there is nothing anyone can do to switch from one group to the other regardless of their will, then why evangelize? The elect will be saved whether they like it or not, and the non-elect will be doomed whether they want to or not. Historically, some hyper-Calvinists have even gone so far as to object to putting a Gospel verse on a sign, lest one of the non-elect read it and believe, thus thwarting God's plan. Even today, Calvinists can be found fighting against evangelistic crusades and missions.

Secondly, strict Calvinism seems to invariably lead to division, strife and argument. Many Calvinists seem to spend more time arguing with fellow Christians about doctrine than loving and caring for the lost and hurting in the world. They are seeking, it seems, to convert the converted, and have neglected the call of God to missions, evangelism, and practical service. Indeed, Calvinism seems to attract those of an argumentative nature who are often unreachable, legalistic, and dogmatic.

Five point Calvinists tend to speak of love and grace frequently, but display very little of either. Rather than loving and serving the lost and hurting, they are engaged in continual arguing, often dividing the Body of Christ in a legalistic and hurtful manner. To many of them, being what they consider to be right is more important than doing what Jesus commanded, viz., evangelizing the lost and ministering to those in need. I have not infrequently seen rank Calvinists who assert that because God chose some for heaven and others for hell, we cannot know the destiny of babies who die. If they were elect, they are in heaven, if not, hell. Such a belief makes God a monster who eternally tortures innocent children, it removes the hope of consolation from the Gospel, it limits the atoning work of Christ, it resists evangelism, it stirs up argumentation and division, and it promotes a small, angry, judgmental God rather than the large hearted God of the Bible.

VI. THE BIBLICAL BALANCE

Like a river that flows between two banks, so the truth of God's Word flows between the extremes of Calvinism and Arminianism. As it has been pointed out, both are true and both are false. Election and predestination are Biblical doctrines. God knows everything and therefore He cannot learn anything or be surprised by anything. Thus, He knows, and has known from eternity past, who will exercise their free will to accept Him and who will reject Him. The former are the elect, the latter are non-elect. As D.L. Moody once said, the "whosoever wills are the elect, and the whosoever wont's are the non-elect". Every person who is not saved will have only himself to blame; God will not send anyone to hell, but many people will choose to go there by exercising their free will to reject Christ.

On the other hand, no one who is saved will be able to take any of the credit. Our salvation, from start to finish, is 100% God's work, and is based entirely on the finished work of the Cross. We were dead in trespasses and sins, destined for hell, when God in His grace, drew us to Himself, convinced us of our sin and our need for a Savior, and gave us the authority to call Jesus Lord. Is this grace, this wooing, irresistible? No, we have free will and we can resist, even to the damnation of our souls, but God does everything short of making us puppets to draw us into His family.

Moreover the concept of a limited atonement, that Jesus only died for the elect, and not for the sins of all people, is clearly unbiblical. The Bible is crystal clear that Jesus' death on the cross was for all people, and that there is sufficient power in His blood to cleanse away every sin. "Whosoever will may come" is meaningless if man has no free will and no ability to choose God.

The question of whether or not a Christian can lose or walk away from salvation (point 5 in both doctrinal systems) is academic. When a person who claims to be a Christian and shows some fruit to that effect turns his back on God and lives the life of a pagan, the Arminian says he was saved and is now not saved, while the Calvinist says that he was either never really saved to start with, or that he is severely backslidden, but still within grace. Ultimately, no one, not even the sinning person, knows the truth only God does. In a backslidden or sin-filled state, there is no assurance of salvation, no resting in Jesus, no peace of God in the heart. So the sinning person, whether he is actually a Christian or just thinks he might be, needs to repent and get right with God. The true believer in Christ never has to doubt his salvation. He can rest in the perfect assurance that God saved him and will keep him, and nothing will ever separate him from God's love in time or eternity. We are secure in Christ, kept by the power of His loving grace, forever safe in Jesus.

It is imperative to remember that both Calvinism and Arminianism are systems of theology devised by godly, devout, Bible-believing men in the 1600's. Both systems are based on the Word of God, and both contain essential elements of truth, but neither can be substituted for reading and believing the Word of God. The Apostolic church knew nothing of either system, they simply believed what God had revealed. The difficulty arises when it seems that some of what God has revealed contradicts something else He revealed. How can man be absolutely free and God absolutely sovereign and directive simultaneously? How can salvation be entirely God's work, yet require the cooperation of mere men simultaneously? These are unanswerable questions ultimately. The Bible teaches both the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. It teaches what appears to be unconditional perseverance in some places and conditional perseverance in others. These things can never be intellectually reconciled because God is simply too big for us to understand. Both systems of theology emphasize one set of Scriptures while either ignoring or drastically twisting and explaining away others.

We are not called to understand God, only to believe Him. I am a free moral agent, responsible for my own sin, hopelessly lost. Jesus not only died for me, He drew me to Himself with bands of lovingkindness and grace, convicted me of my sin, gave me the power to call Him Lord, and will one day present me faultless before His presence with great joy. I am, by His grace, His child. And yet, I am still free to walk with Him or not to walk with Him. And what applies to me, applies to every human being. Jesus died for all of us and desires fellowship with all of us. Whosoever will may come and receive of His forgiveness and grace and salvation. Innocent babies who die are safe in heaven. God's election excludes no one; Jesus' atonement includes everyone. As has been pointed out, we are looking at two sides of the same coin. Election is God's side, free will is our side. Someone once said that as we enter life, we see emblazoned over the gateway the words "Whosoever will may come"; then as we enter and look back at the backside of the same gateway, we see inscribed what the words "Elect from the foundation of the earth". Election is God's side of the coin we call salvation, human responsibility is our side.

Rather than interpreting the Bible based on any theological or philosophical structure, it behooves us to simply read and believe the Word of God. As we teach the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, verse by verse, in context, we will at times sound like staunch Calvinists, preaching those passages which emphasize God's sovereignty, while at other times we will seem like devout Arminians, as we preach those passages which emphasize man's responsibility. The key to successful ministry is balance - to stay focused on the Word of God, and not become distracted by the doctrines of men.

Throughout the history of the Calvary Chapel movement, Pastor Chuck Smith, and those that God has raised up around him in the ministry have maintained a Biblical balance, that makes them neither Calvinists nor Arminians, but simply Bible believing brothers and sisters who love Jesus, desire to know Him intimately, long to worship Him in Spirit and in truth, and who yearn to see a lost, broken, hurting, bleeding, dying world come to know the unlimited capacities of His love and grace.