Since I was a wee lad in college, I have been surrounded by the never-ending “Calvinism vs. Arminianism” debate. I enjoy a good theological dustup as much as the next guy, but this particular debate seems to be getting more and more shrill as the years go by.
Warning: This is a long and “doctrine specific” post, so if you are not in the least interested in Calvinism or Arminianism (and that’s ok), move on to another topic.
One of the frustrations of many young, and recently converted, reformed bloggers – to whom Calvinism is fresh and new – is that middle-aged preachers like me refuse their labels. “No, you’ve got to be one or the other!” they squeal. Carefully laying out all positions, they demand that I accept one and thereby label myself. “Oh, you believe that regeneration follows repentance? Gotcha! You’re an Arminian!” “What? You believe in predestination? Gotcha! You’re a Calvinist!” Sorry, I’m not playing that game. That would be just as silly as me forming my own theological matrix, then forcing everyone in the world to be labeled “Albinian” or “Anti-Albinian”. I consistently appeal to be addressed as a Bible-believing Christian. But, for some, that’s just not good enough. And for others, my own salvation and worthiness of being their “brother in Christ” is questioned. Ugh. Like Paul, I continue to ask, “Is Christ divided?” Do we still have “one baptism”, “one faith”, and “One Lord”? Are we all still part of the Body of Christ of which Jesus Christ is the Head?
I have several dear friends and relatives who are self-proclaimed Calvinists. I do not question their love for Jesus or their status as brothers and sisters in Christ. I also have many friends and relatives who do not subscribe to all of Calvin’s ideas. They, also, are brothers and sisters in Christ who love Jesus. The church is bigger than you think, and she is Christ’s bride.
I like what Dr. Kevin Bauder, President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, said on his website:
Of all the discussions in which we engage, the bickering between some Calvinists and some Arminians tends to be among the least edifying. Not that I’m against discussion: far from it! These are issues worth deliberating, and I have my own views about what is biblical. I’ve grown enormously through hearing and reading the intelligent and charitable exchange of opinions. The problem is that, too often, the exchange is neither intelligent nor charitable.
Both Calvinism and Arminianism have their reasonable and balanced defenders. I find myself challenged whether reading John Wesley or François Turretin. I find myself edified through the writings of both A. A. Hodge and A. W. Tozer. Both Reformed theology and Arminianism can be defended charitably. Alas, not all defenders are so thoughtful.
There are Crusading Calvinists, and there are Aggressive Arminians. They feed off each other. One of them begins with a bit of sniping, and then we are confronted with the spectacle of caricature, misrepresentation, vituperation, extreme reaction.
Now that I have made clear that I reject forced labeling in reaction to the theological systems of others, let me lay out my present position in regards to Calvinism and Arminianism. Let me begin by taking the humble road and saying that my position may change over time, as I become convinced by the Scripture of error. Some of my current beliefs about eschatology, for example, are different than the ones I held in college, but what must never change is our conviction that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, and ultimate authority and judge in matters of doctrine and practice. In the words of Evangelist Billy Sunday, “When scholarship disagrees with the Scripture, scholarship can go to hell.” This is why I am a “Bible-believing” Christian, or a “Biblicist” — the Bible must trump church tradition every time.
My friend Reuben has laid out a good graph on the remonstrances of Jacob Arminius and how the followers of John Calvin responded with their T-U-L-I-P matrix. If you click over to his website and read through the material (although admitedly slanted toward Calvinism), it will bring you up to speed on the subject (or you can read my summary below). These differences get to the heart of the matter, in the never-ending tussle between self-proclaimed “Calvinists” and “Arminianists”.
Usually, questions like the following emerge: Did God decided who goes to hell or heaven long before the earth was formed? Does He really want all to be saved? Must we repent and call on His name by faith to receive His free gift? But can we really say “no” to the Almighty? Can we be lost after we are saved? Did Jesus Christ shed His blood for all human beings or just the elect? Are we capable of “choosing” salvation? Does God really know and control everything? Am I just a robot? Why does my lane always go the slowest when crossing into the US from Mexico?
Welcome to the endless merry-go-round! Hop on and hang on for dear life!
SIMPLE SUMMARY OF ARMINIANISM — Articles of Remonstrance
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 — 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 — 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, but most Arminians do believe in depravity, just defined differently.
4. Prevenient grace — the 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 — 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.
SIMPLE SUMMARY OF CALVINISM – 5-point T-U-L-I-P
T = Total depravity of man (We are totally incapable of right choices)
U = Unconditional Election (God has already decided who is saved and who is lost)
L = Limited Atonement (Jesus died only for the “elect”, who God already pre-selected.)
I = Irresistible Grace (If God draws you, resistance is impossible)
P = Perseverance of the Saints (Once saved, always saved)
ALBINIAN, BALANCED, VIEW
Calvin and Arminius: Both are right and both are wrong. Let’s see, for you more linear-minded saints, I guess I would agree with half of Calvin’s depravity doctrine and half of his perserverence doctrine, making me a 1-point Calvinist (1/2 plus 1/2). As to Arminius’ remonstrances, I guess I would fully concur with his description of unlimited atonement, as well as his view of resistable, prevenient grace and partially-conditional election. I would tend to leave more tension and nuance in the Bible when it comes to perserverance of the saints and total depravity. So I guess that makes me a “3 1/2 remonstrance Arminian”.
Here’s the deal. 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.
1 God knows everything, therefore nothing surprises Him.
Thus He knows who will accept and reject Him through their free will. Those who accept are the elect, those who reject are the non-elect. God did not create man so that He could enjoy “forced” or “robotic” love from pre-programmed automatons.
D.L. Moody – “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.
2 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. If His love was truly irresistable, why would He have wept over Jerusalem, longing to embrace them, but they “would not”? Why would the Bible say, “Whosoever will may come…”, and why would God not “be willing that any should perish but that all come to repentance.”?
3 The concept of a limited atonement, that Jesus only died for the elect, and not for the sins of all people, is clearly unbiblical, and, in my view, repulsive.
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. While His blood sacrifice is available to all, it is only effective for those who believe. “Whosoever will may come” is meaningless if man has no free will and no ability to choose God. To eliminate all the verses that say that Jesus died for the sins “of the world”, you must twist Scripture with such vigor as to make even a Jehovah’s Witness blush.
4 The eternal security argument 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. 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 — read Jude 24-25.
5 Some things will always be mysteries – Deuteronomy 29:29
If you are eager to logically explain God’s severeignty and man’s free will, forget it! 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.
6 Preach the Gospel, not a system
Often we preach like Arminianists (“Come to Jesus, accept Him today, don’t say no to the Savior”) and pray like Calvinists (“Oh, God, draw him to Yourself, reach him, save him, pour out your mercy on him”), and both are Biblical. 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. God’s election excludes no one; Jesus’ atonement includes everyone.
When asked how he reconciled the sovereignty of God and the free choice of man, Pastor Charles Spurgeon responded, “I don’t need to, because friends don’t need to be reconciled.”
Rather than interpreting the Bible based on any theological or philosophical grid or matrix, 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 Arminianists, 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.
We are all the body of Christ
Finally, let me return to my appeal for Christian unity from the beginning of this post. All Christians have a common enemy and that enemy is not each other. In the end, there will be only two categories of people: saved and lost. Like that old Sunday school chorus says, “One door and only one and yet its sides are two. I’m on the inside; on which side are you? I admit to adding hyperbole to this discussion at times, but let’s all renew our efforts to extend charity to other Christians who may not hold exactly the same doctrinal positions on every point.
A.W. Tozer was asked by a young man studying at a Bible school, “Dr. Tozer when the boys begin to debate Arminian and Calvinistic theology, what position should I take.” Dr. Tozer replied, “Son, when they begin that debate you go and get in your prayer closet and you cry out to God and in four years you will be closer to the Lord but those boys will still be debating Arminianism and Calvinism.”