Who's on first: God or man? A comparison of two views
Does man naturally seek after God? Does man find God or does God find man? Is man basically good or inherently evil?
Within Protestant Christendom, two schools of thought answer these questions in drastically different ways. They are “Arminianism” and “Calvinism.” Both of these theological systems agree that human beings are fallen creatures because all humans fail to stand up to God’s perfection and justice and are in need of forgiveness from God; we will refer to this as “salvation,” however, these systems do have some major differences.
In this article I will define both systems of belief and briefly trace their histories. I will then compare and contrast each, and then close with a thought from a famous English preacher on why understanding this is so important.
Calvinism is the belief that salvation is accomplished by the power of the Almighty God. The entire process of salvation is the work of God and is by grace alone, not works; this means humankind can’t do anything to earn salvation, it is granted solely by God via His grace and mercy. Calvinism holds that man must respond to God’s calling, but he will respond only if God has chosen him. In brief, Calvinists believe God, not man, determines who will receive the gift of salvation.
Arminianism, on the other hand, is the belief that salvation is accomplished through the combined efforts of God (who takes the initiative) and man (who must respond). However, man’s response is the determining factor. In short, Arminians believe each individual determines his own salvation.
One way to boil down the essential differences between these two views is to pose this question: is man able to choose God prior to God’s intervention? That is, are men only drowning and in need of choosing to grab the life ring God how thrown them in Jesus (Arminianism); or are men already at the bottom of the sea, dead, in need of discovery and resuscitation by God (Calvinism).
Arminianism and Calvinism take their names from two men associated with their development, though they were not the sole proponents of each.
The famous theologian and pastor of Geneva, John Calvin, was born in 1509 and died in 1564. He, along with Martin Luther in Germany, was the most influential force in the Protestant Reformation. This was a religious movement of the 16th Century that began as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church. In Basel, Switzerland, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). He firmly believed that the Bible taught predestination: the belief that God has foreordained all things, and especially that God has elected certain souls to eternal salvation. However, by 1538, Genevan leaders reacted against the doctrines of the Protestant pastors and Calvin and several other clergymen were banished. That same year, Calvin became the pastor of a church in Strasbourg, Germany. Later, the Geneva city council begged Calvin to return and he did in 1541. (World 70)
Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), a professor of theology at the University of Leydon, Holland, was born only four years before the death of John Calvin. He was a Dutch theologian and tried unsuccessfully to liberalize the Calvinistic views on predestination. Arminius’ followers published the Remonstrance, a formal reproof or complaint against Calvinism, to the Synod of Dordt in 1610. This Synod was a national assembly and council made up of 84 Dutch theologians and 18 commissioners who met in Dordrecht, Holland, and found Arminius’ teachings unbiblical. They answered his complaints with their own Counter Remonstrance. This is now called the “Five Points of Calvinism.”
Conservative Arminians and Calvinists believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. They both recognize and believe the Triune God of the Bible; one and only one God, eternally existing and fully expressed in three Persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They both affirm Jesus’ perfect life and his death on a cross and resurrection. They both believe redemption is necessary for salvation.
However, they disagree on some very important issues.
Arminianism (Remonstrance) / Calvinism (Counter Remonstrance):
Human Ability/Human Inability
Conditional Election/Unconditional Election
General Atonement/Limited Atonement
Resistible Grace/Irresistible Grace
Losable Grace/Perseverance of the Saints
The Five Points of Calvinism
The five points can best be understood by comparing them:
Arminius believed that God decided which humans to save on the basis of his foreknowledge of their decision. This means that God “looked down the corridors of time” and “saw” who would choose Him and accept Him. Then God essentially “predestined” (to foreordain or elect by divine will or decree) those whom He “saw” choose Him. This presumes that humans have the ability to choose God.
On the other hand, Calvinism reminds that Romans 3 tells that we are spiritually dead in our sins and iniquity and that we are unable to do anything which pleases God. (NLT) Keep in mind that choosing to obey, to love or to trust in God pleases Him. Romans 9:16b says, “We can’t get it [salvation] by choosing it or working hard for it. God will show mercy to anyone He chooses.” According to the Bible, we can’t choose God. Dr. R.C. Sproul, a theologian, minister, and professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary said, “Total depravity refers to the idea that our whole humanity is fallen. That is, there is no part of me that has not been affected by sin. Sin affects my will, my heart, my mind, and my body” (Sproul 103). The unregenerate (unsaved) man is spiritually dead in his sins (Romans 5:12). Without the power of the Holy Spirit, man is blind and deaf to the message of the gospel (Mark 4:11). This is why the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity has also been called "Total Inability." The man without a knowledge of God will never come to this knowledge without God's first making him alive (Ephesians 2:1-5).
Arminianism teaches that God selected only those whom He knew would of themselves freely believe the gospel. Election, therefore, was determined by or conditioned upon what man would do. The sinner’s choice of Christ, not God’s choice of the sinner, is the ultimate cause of salvation.
However, Calvinism points us back to Scripture. God chose those whom he was pleased to bring to a knowledge of himself, not based upon any merit shown by the object of his grace and not based upon his looking forward to discover who would "accept" the offer of the gospel, as in the first point. God has elected, based solely upon the counsel of his own will, some for glory and passed over the rest (Romans 9:15,21). He had done this before the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1:4-8).
Arminius believed Christ died for all men (not just the Elect), but no one except the believer enjoys remission of sin.
With the Bible, Calvinism teaches that Christ died for those whom the Father gave him to save (John 17:9). Christ died, indeed, for many people, but not all (Matthew 26:28). Christ died for the invisible Church -- all those who would ever rightly bear the name "Christian" (Ephesians 5:25).
According to Arminius, all good deeds or movements in a believer must be ascribed to the grace (generosity) of God, but His grace is resistible. This means that we are given the choice if we want to receive God’s grace, His gift of salvation. Therefore, according to Arminius, we are able to withstand the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts.
In Calvin’s view, grace is irresistible. The Elect, those whom God chooses, will certainly respond to the inward call of the Holy Spirit when the pastor or minister of the Word of God gives the outward call. Christ Himself, teaches that all whom God has elected will come to a knowledge of Him (John 6:37). Dr. Sproul has said also, “Only those who respond to the outward call of the gospel in faith are justified [freed of the guilt and penalty of sin]. Justification is by faith. However, not everyone whose ears hear the outward preaching of the Word of God responds in faith” (Sproul 131). Men come to Christ in salvation when the Father calls them (John 6:44), and the very Spirit of God leads God's beloved, the Elect, to repentance (Romans 8:14). An individual will respond to the call of the Father only if the Holy Spirit calls them. The Holy Spirit will only call those whom God has chosen.
Arminianism says that those who have a true faith in Christ have power given them through the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit to persevere in the faith. However, it is possible for a believer to lose their salvation.
Calvinism claims that the saints, or those whom God has saved, will remain in God's hand until they are glorified and brought to abide with him in heaven because it is impossible for them to fall away. Romans 8:28-39 makes it clear that when a person truly has been regenerated by God, he will remain in God's hand. The Reformation Study Bible puts it this way, “God’s gracious preservation must sustain true believers so that they remain faithful to Christ. Christians do not begin their walk with Christ by faith and then continue by reliance on their own efforts (Gal. 3:3)” (NIV). J.I. Packer says, “Perseverance means persistence under discouragement and contrary pressure. The assertion that believers persevere in faith and obedience despite everything is true, but the reason is that Jesus Christ, through the Spirit, persists in preserving them.” (Packer). The work that God has brought about in his Elect will continue until it reaches its fulfillment in eternal life (Phil. 1:6). Christ assures His children that He will not lose them and that they will be glorified at the "last day" (John 6:39).
The Situation Today
Though the Synod of Dordt (and other such convocations) rejected Arminianism as unbiblical, many professing Christians believe it to be true today. Why?
One reason is that human nature drives man to be in control. Individuals naturally want to believe this. So they want to think they “make a decision” for Christ. They want to believe they have enough goodness in them to recognize the goodness of God and embrace Him. Humans want to believe their problem is not their corrupt nature so much as a lack of knowledge of this God who loves them.
They also misunderstand God’s love. They think His love is not “true” love when He predestines them. However, the Bible makes it clear that it is God who initiates and accomplishes this redemptive relationship (Ephesians 1; Romans 9, etc.). God chooses men, not vice versa.
Where Does That Leave the Individual?
Arminianism’s focus on the individual’s ability to respond to God and make one’s own decision may be more appealing to our human nature and man’s obsession with autonomy. However, the foregoing discussion seems to argue that the Bible clearly teaches that we are not able to make this decision. Scripture seems to hold that we are dead in our sins and unable to please God. God is a Holy and Just God who requires perfection, which is only attainable through His Son, Jesus Christ. It is at the Cross, where Jesus took our sins upon Himself, that redemption happens. That is why the Calvinist view of salvation seems to most accurately reflect what the Bible teaches.
Charles Spurgeon, a widely popular English preacher of the nineteenth century, wrote:
“I believe that, at this present time, we are in great danger of being burdened with a crowd of so-called converts who do not really know anything as it ought to be known. They attended a revival meeting, were much excited, and thought they were converted; but just ask them to explain to you the simplest truths of the gospel, and you will soon discover how little they know. Could they explain the three R’s, ruin, redemption, and regeneration. Do they know what the ruin is? Do they know what the remedy for that ruin is? Do they understand at all what it means to be born again? Do they comprehend what the new nature is, or what “justification by faith” means? Perhaps someone says, “They do not comprehend your theological terms.” I do not mind whether they know the meaning of the terms that are familiar to many of us; but do they know the truths themselves? There is a certain degree of Christian knowledge which is absolutely necessary to salvation.”