Calvinism vs. Arminianism - Whose Will?by Rit Nosotro
Compare the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism. To what extent does God allow humans to exercise their free will?
Free-will remains one of the more highly debated topics among Christians. An extension of this conflict arises with the idea of predetermined salvation. Has God given man the choice to choose or reject His gift? Or has God predetermined each individual's fate? Two separate theologies, Calvinism and Arminianism, grew in response to these questions. Both groups agree that "for God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him will have everlasting life" (John 3:16). However, the difference lies the cause of that belief. Does God allow man to chose or cause man to choose? Soteriology, or the study of how salvation is obtained, touches the context of free will, election, atonement, sanctification, eternal security, grace, works of man, works of the Holy Spirit and the purpose of evil. Although the Bible says that salvation comes from Jesus Christ alone, people continue to debate about the extent to which man can exercise his choice. Do we choose to follow God or did He choose us to choose Him?
Total Depravity vs. Free Will
According to the Calvinist belief, man's inclination to sin has ensnared his will. Even though he can make choices according to his nature, man's character has been so corrupted that he can never choose what is pure. Calvinists point to verses in Mark 7:21-23 and Romans 3:10-12, which say that man's heart is utterly wicked and that no one seeks God because they have all wandered down the wrong path. Thus, man cannot accept Christ without God's intervention. In essence, Calvinism states that man only has the free will to choose evil and that he does not have the capacity to choose God.
On the other hand, Arminianism says that man's sinful nature has not completely hindered his ability to choose God. Rather, Arminians believe that man can freely choose good or evil. They read John 3:16 and emphasize the phrase "whoever believes in Him", as it seems to indicate man has a choice to accept or reject Christ. In John 7:17, the prophet writes, "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own." This highlights man's capacity to choose God. Arminians say that, through choice and faith, man can receive God's gift of salvation.
Unconditional Election vs. Conditional Election
Because man cannot choose salvation for himself, Calvinists conclude that God makes the ultimate choice. God must have predestined man's salvation since man's sinful free will can only reject Him. In Romans 8:29, Paul tells the Christians that for those God foreknew, He also predestined to follow Christ. Calvinism looks at Ephesians 1:4-5, "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will." Based on their interpretation of these verses and others, Calvinists believe that God has foreknown and predetermined who will choose Him. According to His sovereign election, God elects people out of the goodness and mercy within His heart. Hence, Calvinism holds to their belief of unconditional election.
Like Calvinists, Arminians believe that God foreknows who will choose Him. However, although they agree that God predestined His plan for salvation, they do not believe God predetermined man's salvation. To support their theory, Arminianism cites Acts 2:21 where it says that anyone who cries out to God will be saved. Because of their belief that God's election is based on the choices of mankind, Arminians believe in conditional election. Since God already knows who will accept Him, He has called them the elect. Consequently, the decision to accept salvation is entirely dependent upon man's free will. God, therefore, has no role in man's acceptance of His gift.
Limited Atonement vs. Universal Atonement
If God only chose a fixed number to be His elect, did His son's death and resurrection atone for the sins of all? Calvinists do not believe so; rather, they believe in limited atonement. They believe that, although Christ's sacrifice was sufficient for the entire human race, it provided only the effectual atonement. Essentially, Christ died only for those He had chosen. Calvinism places emphasis on Isaiah 53:12 and Matthew 20:28, which both point out that Christ gave His life for many, rather than all.
However, the Arminians believe in universal atonement, the idea that Christ died for every human being throughout time. From the Arminian perspective, Christ's death and resurrection gave all of humanity the opportunity to accept Him. They believe that, through faith and Christ's sacrifice, everyone has the choice to receive salvation. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 speaks about how God died for all. Arminianism support their belief with the verse in 1 John 2:2, where the apostle writes, "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world."
Irresistible Grace vs. Obstructable Grace
As an extension of the Calvinist belief of unconditional election, Calvinism also believes in irresistible grace. Since God has already predetermined who will receive salvation, His elect cannot resist His grace. God calls all people to repentance through the 'outer call', which can be rejected. However, God extends the 'inner call' to the elect alone, and this call cannot be resisted. Romans 9:16 says that salvation does not come from man's desire or effort, but is given as a result of God's mercy. Calvinists refer to Philippians 2:13, where Paul writes, "For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." Salvation, therefore, comes from God's compassion on man, rather than man's free will choice to accept Him.
Alternatively, Arminians simply believe in one call, in which God shares the Gospel, giving each individual the opportunity to accept or reject His gift of salvation. Contrary to irresistible grace, Arminians believe in obstructable grace. Not only does man have the capacity to choose God; he also has the capability to reject God's grace. In Stephen's speech to the Sanhedrin, he exclaims, "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!" Arminianism looks to John 1:12, which reads, "To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." For the Arminian, man must choose for themselves whether or not they will receive God's grace.
Perseverance of the Saints vs. Falling from Grace
Because Calvinists believe God preordained man's salvation, they also feel that those whom He has chosen cannot fall away from salvation. They look to John 3:36 and 6:47, which both reaffirm that whoever believes in Christ has eternal life. 1 Corinthians 1:8 says, "He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." According to Calvinism, those whom God has elected will not lose their salvation due to the following reasons: First, God, out of His sovereign will, chose them from the beginning. Second, He will continue to preserve the elect for His heavenly kingdom so that they will not turn away.
Due to the Arminian belief of man's free will to choose God, they also believe that man can also fall away from His grace. From the Arminian standpoint, God cannot force man to accept His gift of salvation, nor can God force man to retain his beliefs. Man can reject God's grace in the same way that he accepted God. Therefore, man's eternal security is entirely dependent on the choices he makes. Romans 11:22 says, "Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off." Paul writes in Galatians that those who tried to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ and thus, have fallen away from grace.
What Does This Mean?
Ultimately, Calvinists and Arminians share and believe in one Bible, one Word, and one true God. To a large extent, their differences have arisen because of their separate vantage points. In the same way that the six blind men described the elephant differently according to the famous Indian parable, Calvinism and Arminianism view the same truth from two distinct perspectives. The parable describes how one man felt the elephant's leg and figured the animal had the shape of a tree. Another man groped at its flank and exclaimed, "This animal is like a wall!" Every other man touched different parts of the elephant's body, thinking that he was right and the others were all wrong. Yet, they all were touching the same animal! Likewise, Calvinism looks at free will from one angle, while Arminianism views it from another.
Neither is incorrect; in many ways, the two are observing different aspects of God's infinite and inconceivable character. Calvinism attempts to look at man's election from God's eternal perspective which transcends time. Since God has known from eternity past to eternity future those who would receive Him (and conversely those who would not receive Him), the Calvinist is able to advocate, for example, the doctrine of limited atonement. That is, Calvinists look backwards from eternity future and state that those who did not receive Christ were not chosen and that Christ did not die for them. Arminianism looks at man's election from the human perspective, confined by boundaries of time. From this vantage point, man does not know who will choose God and thus, the focus is placed upon man's choice or free will. As such, Christ's atonement is universal and all possess the capacity to come to Him.
In the end, what does this mean for the follower of Jesus Christ? From the Calvinist perspective, we come to understand the omniscience and awesomeness of our God. Romans 11:33 says, "Oh, what a wonderful God we have! How great are his riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his methods!"
We come to realize our utter dependency upon God; He has given us our abilities and unique personalities. In Psalm 139:13, David writes, "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb." God opens doors to opportunities man could never have opened by himself. Occurrences that appear to some as "circumstances" are not coincidences at all. Rather, they are under God's absolute control. Even when Paul was imprisoned, he wrote, "Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel." Romans 8:28 says that for those who love him, God causes everything to work together for good. Although He has given man the capability to make his own decisions, He has not lost control over man and will intervene when He sees necessary.
From the Arminian perspective, we come to understand our human responsibility and the requirement to obey God. Abraham's descendants were blessed as they followed the Lord and were cursed when they chose to reject Him. Exodus 34:7 states, "Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."
As such, man's decisions take on much more significance. These decisions are made in all aspects of life. We make choices with regards to our spirituality, work ethic, family, and worship. With every passing minute, man is faced with a new decision, significant or not. In Proverbs 4:5, it says that God wants us to be prudent in our decision-making, clearly showing that we are required to make decisions. Matthew 25:14-30 speaks about the parable of the talents, in which the master gave his three servants a certain amount of money, depending on their abilities. When he returned, he was pleased with the two who had invested and doubled their money, but was furious with the one who had done nothing with his money. In the same way, man will be held accountable for what he does with the gifts and responsibilities God has given him. (Romans 3:19)
Despite man's attempt to solve the mystery surrounding election and salvation, in the end, he will only find the real answer on the other side of heaven. However, while this debate continues, Christians must always acknowledge God's sovereignty and power. At the same time, He requires us to respond to His enabling and gifting. Romans 12:6-8, "God has given each of us the ability to do certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out when you have faith that God is speaking through you. If your gift is that of serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, do a good job of teaching. If your gift is to encourage others, do it! If you have money, share it generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly."
God will continue to operate paradoxically. Concepts such as God's mercy and justice, often times, will always appear to be at odds with each other. Our limited understanding prevents us from fully comprehending His perspective and design. Yet, this grandeur and mystery draws us to Him and makes Him even more worthy to be worshipped and praised as our creator. Consequently, regardless of our stance on free will and the surrounding issues, our focus should be directed heavenward to God.
see also Calvinism and Arminianism
Eternity Security. Biblical Support for Arminianism .
Slick, Matthew J. The Calvinist Corner. The Five Points of Calvinism. 2004.
Slick, Matthew J. The Calvinist Corner. Defense of Total Depravity and Its Effects on the Human Will. 2004.
Slick, Matthew J. The Calvinist Corner. Romans 9 and Predestination. 2004.
Challies.com. Introduction to Calvinism & Arminianism, Part 2. Nov. 2003.
Challies.com. Introduction to Calvinism & Arminianism, Part 3. Nov. 2003.
Spreading Light. Arminianism
vs. Calvinism. 2004.
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