The chief motif of the Christian gospel is salvation. It is unimaginable to think that any Christian would disagree on it. But not all evangelical Christians mutually agree on all biblical doctrines, especially, the saving plan of God and in the redemption of Jesus Christ. There are two well-known views are available: the Calvinism and the Arminianism. Some argue that Calvin’s and Arminius’s theologies share a common ground in many views, still, they do not match in God’s plan of salvation. This separation started when the Reformed pastor and professor Jacobus Arminius (1559-1609 CE) questioned the object of predestination in John Calvin’s writings. Otherwise, Calvinists call this doctrine as an “Unconditional Election” and Arminians call their stand as a “Conditional Election.”
John Calvin (1509-1564 CE) and Jacobus Arminius were hardly contemporaries since Arminius was born just four years before the death of Calvin. Though he showed great admiration for the Genevan Reformer he never met, Arminius was the best-known rival of Calvinism in his day in Holland. Arminius studied theology under Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza (1519-1605 CE) in Geneva. Later he fell into a dispute with his fellow theology professor Franciscus Gomarus (1563-1641 CE) at the Reformed University of Leiden as he believed in free will and human cooperation with God’s grace despite believing in the unconditional election for salvation.
In 1610, just one year after Arminius’s death, his followers formed five articles of faith and presented to the State of Holland in the form of “Remonstrance” (i.e., protest). The Arminians opposed the doctrinal views of divine sovereignty, human inability, unconditional election or predestination, particular redemption, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints which were supported by Calvin’s theology. Roger Nicole summarises the five doctrines included in the Remonstrance as follows:
1. God elects or reproves on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief. 2. Christ died for all men and for every man, although only believers are saved. 3. Man is so depraved that divine grace is necessary unto faith or any good deed, 4. This grace may be resisted. 5. Whether all who are truly regenerate will certainly persevere in the faith is a point which needs further investigation.
The Synod of Dort discarded Arminianism and reaffirmed the Calvinistic position in the five doctrines in 1619, which is known as ‘the five points of Calvinism.’ The title Calvinism was obtained from the great French Reformer, John Calvin, who had accomplished so much in explaining and supporting these views. The five points are “1. Total depravity (Humanity’s radical corruption) 2. Unconditional election (God’s sovereign choice) 3. Limited atonement (Christ’s purposeful atonement) 4. Irresistible grace (The Sprit’s effective call) 5. Perseverance of the saints (God’s preservation of the saints).” This doctrine is known as TULIP a familiar five-point acrostic and also known as ‘The Five Points of Reformed Theology.’
Calvinists believe in the unconditional election. Predestination or a divine election is a part of foreordination. Palmer defines “Foreordination means God’s sovereign plan, whereby He decides all that is to happen in the entire universe. Nothing in this world happens by chance. God is in the back of everything. He decides and causes all things to happen that do happen.” He has foreordained everything “after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1.11).
Predestination formed of two elements: election and reprobation. Election concerns those who go to heaven, and reprobation concerns those who go to hell. Moreover, J.I.Packer defines the biblical doctrine of election is that “before Creation God selected out of the human race, foreseen as fallen, those whom he would redeem, bring to faith, justify, and glorify in Jesus Christ.” Thus, Calvinist’s view on predestination called as unconditional election, because God’s election not conditioned upon anything that God sees in us that makes us worthy.
Many verses in the New Testament appear to insist very clearly that God foreordained beforehand those who would be saved. For instance, when Paul and Barnabas started to preach to the Gentiles in Antioch, Luke reports, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). It is important that Luke states the case of election almost in passing. In Romans 8:28-30, we read:
We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
In Rom. 9:11-13, Paul says that God chose Jacob and not Esau, it was not because of anything that Jacob or Esau had done, but simply “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue.” It shows that God’s choice was not based on foreknowledge as Paul writes that God made His choice known to Rebecca before her twins were born and before they had done anything good or bad. To clinch the sovereignty of this choice, God simply pronounces, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Regarding Israel, Paul indicates two distinct groups, those who were “the elect” obtained the salvation that they sought, while those who were not the elect simply “were hardened.” Also, Paul explicitly talks about God’s sovereign choice of believers before the foundation of the world in Eph. 1:4-6.
Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:4-5). Paul asserts that the fact that Thessalonians believed the gospel when he preached it (“for our gospel came to you…in power…and with full conviction”) is the reason he knows that God had chosen them. As soon as they came to faith Paul concluded that long-ago God has chosen them, and therefore they had believed when he preached.
Arminians take the side of the conditional election. Palmer hints “A conditional election is an election that is conditioned on something in the person being elected.” For instance, political elections are conditional elections as the voter’s decision is conditioned by something that the candidate is or has assured. Clark Pinnock claims that “God desires all to be saved and cannot be thought of any longer as selecting some to be saved and placing the others under wrath and reprobation, as in high Calvinism. One possibility that presented itself was to think of election as being based on the foreknowledge of God. (Rom. 8:29; 1 Peter 1:2)”
God foresees who will believe in Christ, and then on the basis of that foreknowledge, God decides to elect the believers to heaven. Also, unregenerate man has enough goodness in him so that if the Holy Spirit assists him he will want to choose Jesus. Man chooses God and then God Chooses man, moreover, God’s choice conditioned upon man’s choice. Arminius in his own words:
To these succeeds the fourth decree, by which God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing grace, believe, and through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before-described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.
Clark Pinnock states that Rom. 8:29-30 does not express of predestination to salvation, but rather to a specific privilege that of being reconciled to Jesus Christ: “There is no predestination to salvation or damnation in the Bible. There is only predestination for those who are already children of God with respect to certain privileges out ahead of them.” In addition, God’s plan for the world and for us does not overpower but rather supports and includes the spontaneity of vital human decisions. We are co-workers with God, associating with him in whatever in the future, which is not stored up in a heavenly videotape but is the realm of chances, many of which have yet to be determined and actualized. Peter provides a fine example when he describes the delay of Christ’s return as being due to God’s desire to witness more sinners saved since God actually postponing the near return of Christ for their sakes (2 Peter 3:9).
Arminius presented his developing views on human free will and predestination in a series of sermons on Romans 7 and 9. He argued that Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau, are not represented as individual persons by Paul in Romans 9, but as typological characters. God does not predestine individuals, but rather classes of persons, moreover, those who will believe the gospel and those who will not. It is easy to reconcile the Arminian view of God with a number of important biblical themes, including affirmation of God’s desire to save all people (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), numerous calls to repentance (e.g., Ezek. 33:11; Matt. 3:2; Acts 2:38; 17:30), warning about falling away (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:12; Heb. 6:4-6; 2 Peter 2:20-21), and the general emphasis on human responsibility. Finally, Arminian thought stresses God’s respect for the integrity of creaturely freedom and God’s responsiveness and sensitivity to creaturely experiences.
Both Calvinists and Arminians share a common ground in many doctrines. Arminius believed in total depravity that every person born into this world except Jesus Christ is completely helpless to do anything spiritually good or even to exercise goodwill toward God apart from God’s prevenient grace. They believe in resistible prevenient grace but Calvin believed in irresistible grace. For Arminius, people do not have ‘free will’ with regard to salvation, but the Holy Spirit gives them a gift of ‘freed will’ through prevenient grace.
Remonstrants (Arminians) also believed in God’s sovereignty, but they rejected any account of divine providence that would make God the cause of sin or evil. They also believed in predestination but defined as a God’s foreknowledge of which persons would respond to the gospel faith. Most importantly, both belief in the Gospel, Triune God and salvation by faith alone through grace alone in Jesus Christ.
In South Asia, many non-Christians do not know the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic and they consider both are same, however, as we know, it is different. When the society outside the Church unites us one, the community in the Church do not agree. There is four hundred years long-standing debate going between the Calvinists and the Arminians. Most importantly, the doctrine of election involves mystery and seldom provokes a dispute. Even the greatest minds in the history of the church struggled about predestination. A brief glance at church history tells that the debate over predestination is not between liberals and conservatives or between believers and unbelievers. it is a debate among believers. For example, Augustine vs Pelagius, Thomas Aquinas vs Jacob Arminius, Martin Luther vs Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin vs John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards vs Charles Finney.
Eighteenth-century revivalist and founder of Methodism John Wesley (1703-1791 CE) was a passionate Arminian. His friend and fellow Great Awakening revivalist George Whitefield (1714-1770 CE) was an equally passionate Calvinist. Nevertheless, they had a falling out over their theological differences, they reconciled, and Wesley preached a laudatory sermon at Whitefield’s funeral. The Wesleys and Whitefield had covered their differences for the sake of revival harmony. We have to put aside our differences over predestination and free will, and present a united front to the watching world. When we look back at the church history, theological differences never going to end. They are always present among us. Most importantly, Palmer stresses, “Salvation does not depend on our having a theologian’s knowledge. It depends only on whether or not we truly put our trust in Jesus Christ to save us from our sins.” So, both Arminians and Calvinists who repent their sins and turn to Christ for salvation are going to heaven. Sometimes, it is not making sense to study the mysterious infinite God with our finite mind. However, the most important thing is our responsibility for evangelism and faithfulness towards our saviour.
WHY I AM A CALVINIST?
Why am I a Christian? Why did God decide to elect me? The answer for the Calvinists is not because of anything good in us, simply because He decided to love us, there is no more ultimate cause than that. I will take Grudem’s words, “Calvinism, especially the doctrine of election humbles us before God to think in this way. It makes us realise that we have no claim on God’s grace whatsoever. Our salvation is totally due to grace alone. our only appropriate response is to give God eternal praise.” Most importantly, the Calvinist knows that all of his salvation depends on God and not himself. Arminians hold to man’s freedom and restrict God’s sovereignty. There is a danger in Arminianism, it might lead to legalism and try to earn favour from God through works and rituals rather relying upon God’s sovereign grace, most importantly, my personal journey from Arminianism to Calvinism.
Calvinists believe in the unconditional election which teaches divine sovereignty by pointing out that God’s selection of a man for eternal life is not based on anything in a man. But, Arminians believe in the conditional election which teaches His choice is conditioned by His foreknowing who would cooperate with Him and accept the sacrifice of Christ. Both have a long-standing debate in history, belief in the gospel and salvation by faith alone through grace alone. Personally, I am convinced by Calvinism which is totally relying on God’s divine sovereignty.
Boer, William den. “‘Cum Delectu’: Jacob Arminius’s (1559—1609) Praise for and Critique of Calvin and His Theology.” Church History and Religious Culture 91, no. 1/2 (2011): 73–86.
Cline, S M. “Calvinism and Arminianism Compared.” Review & Expositor 39, no. 2 (April 1942): 166–73.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. First Edition edition. Leicester: IVP, 1994.
Harrison, Everett F., Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Carl F. H. Henry. Baker’s Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Pub Group, 1987.
J.I.Packer. Concise Theology. Reissue edition. Nottingham: ivp, 2011.
Keefer, Luke L. “Characteristics of Wesley’s Arminianism.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 22, no. 1 (1987): 88–100.
Olson, Roger E. God in Dispute: “Conversations” among Great Christian Thinkers. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2009.
Palmer, Edwin H., and Michael Horton. The Five Points of Calvinism: A Study Guide. 3 edition. Grand Rapids, Minn: Baker Books, 2010.
Pinnock, Clark H., ed. Grace Unlimited. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock Pub, 1999.
———. The Grace of God, the Will of Men. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1989.
Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale Momentum, 1994.
———. What Is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2005.
Steele, David N., Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn. The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented. Updated and Expanded edition. Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2004.
Williams, Michael D. “The Five Points of Arminianism.” Presbyterion 30, no. 1 (2004): 11–36.