What are the Main Differences between Calvinism and Arminianism?

by Robert Driskell · Print Print · Email Email

Calvinism and Arminianism are two systems of looking at, and interpreting, the biblical record concerning salvation.  Calvinism is named after the teachings of theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) and Arminianism after the teachings of theologian Jacobus (James) Arminius (1559-1609).  Both base their beliefs on the Bible, but end up with different views on several issues.

Of course, there will be some in each of these two groups who do not believe certain points of their own system.  There will also be some who agree with certain points of the opposing system.  In other words, not all Calvinists hold to every point of the Calvinist system, nor does every Arminian uphold every point of the Arminian system.  This article will focus on the points that most clearly contrast one system from the other.  To dissect every nuance of each of these points is outside the scope of this article.

The Calvinist’s viewpoint has been documented using the acronym TULIP, which stands for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.  The Arminian viewpoint, for the most part, is a rebuttal of these five points.  There are many shades of Calvinism and Arminianism, so this article will only deal with the most basic forms of each.  First, will be an explanation of the Calvinist’s TULIP acronym, then an explanation of the Arminian rebuttal, followed by a comparison of the two ideas, and finally, concluding remarks.

Calvinism and Ariminianism

In other words, not all Calvinists hold to every point of the Calvinist system, nor does every Arminian uphold every point of the Arminian system.

Calvinism Briefly Explained

1. Total Depravity:

This is the belief that sin controls every part of man.  He is spiritually dead and blind, and unable to obey, believe, or repent.  He continually sins, for his nature is completely evil.  This is based on verses such as Romans 3:10; Psalm 14:3, and 53:3.

2. Unconditional Election: God chose the elect solely based on His free grace, not anything in them.  He has a special love for the elect.  God left the rest to be damned for their sins.

3. Limited Atonement: Christ died especially for the elect, and paid a definite price for them that guaranteed their salvation.

4. Irresistible Grace: Saving grace is irresistible, for the Holy Spirit is invincible and intervenes in man’s heart.  He sovereignly gives the new birth, faith, and repentance to the elect.

5. Perseverance of the Saints: God preserves all the elect and causes them to persevere in faith and obedience to the end.  None are continually back-slidden or finally lost.

To summarize a very basic picture of the Calvinistic viewpoint would go something like this:  Man’s heart is depraved.  If left to himself, he would only do selfish, sinful things.  However, God arbitrarily decided, before time began, which people would be saved and which would be lost.  Jesus Christ came to earth and died on the cross for the sins of those God had decided would be saved.  The Holy Spirit comes upon a person’s heart in an irresistible way, so the person will choose to be saved.  The saved person can never become unsaved, no matter what.

Arminianism Briefly Explained

For each of the Calvinist’s points, the followers of Arminius have a counterpoint.

1. Free Will: Sin does not control man’s will.  He is sick and near-sighted, but still able to obey, believe, and repent.  He does not continually sin, for his nature is not completely evil.

2. Conditional Election: God chose the elect based on their foreseen faith.  He loves all men equally.  God passed over no one; He gives everyone an equal chance to be saved.  This is gleaned from I Timothy 2:4; II Peter 3:9; Matthew 18:14.

3. Universal Atonement: Christ died equally for all men, and paid a provisional price that made salvation possible for all, but guaranteed it for none.

4. Resistible Grace: Saving grace is resistible, for God does not overrule man’s free will.  Man is born again after he believes, for faith and repentance are not gifts of God.

5. Falling from Grace: Believers may turn from grace and lose their salvation.

To summarize a very basic picture of the Arminian viewpoint would go something like this:  Man’s spirit is damaged, but still somewhat good.  God, able to see all things past and future, knowing who would say ‘yes’ to the Gospel, elected those people to salvation.  Jesus died on the cross giving everyone the opportunity to repent and turn to Him, excluding no one from the possibility of salvation.  The call of God can be resisted and, ultimately, rejected.  A Christian can turn from God and no longer be saved.

Making Some Sense of This

Both of these belief systems have strong points and weak points:  the Calvinists stress the sovereignty of God, that God is in control of everything, a good and biblical concept.  However, if we take this too far, we end up saying that God is even responsible for man’s sin, but we know this is not true: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13 ESV).  Therefore, a balance must be struck that says that God most certainly is in control of everything in this way: He either causes or allows everything that happens to happen.  He has self-limited His own involvement in the lives of men and women.  He has allowed us some measure of freedom in order that we might freely choose Him.

As with many doctrinal systems, problems usually arise from the abuse of the system, rather than the system itself.  On the issue of Total Depravity, the Bible does say that man does evil constantly (Romans 3:10; Psalm 14:3, and 53:3).  However, the Bible also tells us that the Holy Spirit works on human hearts to convict us of, “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8) and that Jesus gives light to everyone (John 1:9).  The Bible makes it clear that humanity is not as bad as it could be.  This is because of the continued presence of the Holy Spirit and His influence on even the lost person’s heart.

Likewise, the Arminian belief that one may lose his or her salvation may cause some to put too much emphasis on the believer’s responsibility to maintain their faith by their own strength rather than relying on God to sustain them.  The Calvinist’s belief that you cannot lose your salvation may give some a license to sin, believing in their hearts that they can do nothing bad enough to be rejected by God.  It seems that a biblical balance here would be that, even though believers go through times of great temptation, even failure, as long as that believer holds on to the source of his or her salvation, Jesus Christ, that person is safe.  In other words, if one does not renounce faith in Jesus, and thereby become an ‘unbeliever’, that person is still a Christian.  That is why the phrase “Security of the Believer” seems appropriate.  As long as one believes [trusts, has faith] in Jesus, that person cannot lose his or her salvation.

Can a person once saved ever be lost again?  Why take a chance?  A Christian is never in danger of falling from grace if he or she will simply, “…love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30; cf. Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27).

Now, a word of caution is in order here.  I do not want anyone to think I am saying that it is acceptable to continue in sin as long as you profess to have faith.  May it never be (to borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul).  As we all know, one can profess faith in Jesus, but not possess that faith.  One who can continue in sin without feeling the guilt, shame, and sorrow that comes with disobeying God, may not be a Christian at all.

Conclusion…For Now

The topic of Calvinism and Arminianism is a huge subject and this article has only touched the surface.  There are many good theology books that contain much more in-depth treatments.  The differences between the two group’s theology should not stand in the way of fellowship between the two.  True believers in both groups serve the same risen savior, Jesus Christ.  There is much in both viewpoints that glorifies God.

The believer can take the best aspects from both of these systems, incorporate them into his or her life, and be completely biblical in his or her walk with God:  God is sovereign; nothing happens that He does not cause or allow.  Man cannot now, nor has he ever been able to, save himself.  Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins (John 3:16-17).  God, through the Holy Spirit, is even now reaching out to the lost in order to save them, and reaching out to the saved in order to love and strengthen us.

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The Holy Bible, English Standard Version

“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

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