Calvinism vs. Arminianism: Which Theology is Biblical?*

Recently, in a class on soteriology I was teaching for an online university, a spirited debate broke out among students over the age-old theological conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism.  One student wondered whether he was wrong to believe that Jesus died for everyone in the world and not just for the elect?  How would you respond?  

Most Calvinists, I'd hazard a guess, wouldn’t be too troubled by this statement: “That God, by an eternal and unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his son, before the foundation of the world were laid, determined to save, out of the human race which had fallen into sin, in Christ, for Christ's sake and through Christ, those who through the grace of the Holy Spirit shall believe on the same his Son . . ."  So who said this?  It was none other than Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), the Dutch theologian disliked by many Calvinists for his teaching that advocates free will (a.k.a., Arminianism).  

Does that mean Arminius denied predestination and election?  No, not really.  While it is true that he broke away from Calvinism because he felt that predestination (inferring that the unelected be damned to hell) made God the author of sin, Arminius rejected neither predestination nor election.  More specifically, “though he did not deny election he based it not on a divine arbitrary decree, but upon God's foreknowledge of man's merit” (Betterson 1968:269)—that is, his decison.  In Calvinism, however, God’s electing grace is based on his unilateral decree (Eph. 1:11) that prompts a response of faith among the chosen and their turning to God.  

So then, which theology is biblical? If our response is solely based on Acts 2:23, then, the answer would be both.  The apostle Peter, while mulling over how godless men ended up nailing Jesus to a cross, declares that Jesus was “delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (NASB). This is to say, Jesus’ crucifixion was the outcome of God’s unilateral decree as well as God having foreseen what men will do.  This idea of divine foreknowledge is clearly laid out 1 Peter 1:2 in which the apostle says, “To God’s elect . . . who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God.”  The word “foreknowledge” derives from a compound Greek word of "pro" (in front of) and "gnosis" (knowledge).  It implies that God, “foreseeing [men’s] potential faith and the fact that they would turn to Him when they heard the gospel,” sealed their response with election (Hammond 1968:88).  

Okay, fine, but a burning question is whether the unelected can be saved?  How did the apostle Paul deal with this issue?  At the outset of Romans 9, a distraught Paul makes a stunning admission that he is willing to be cut off from Christ for the sake of his “own race” (9:2-4), for his “heart’s desire . . . is that they (Israelites) may be saved” (10:1). And then, after momentarily wondering whether God kept His promise made to Israel (9:4-6), Paul quickly realizes that God's word had not failed because not all who are descended from Israel are Israel, meaning some Jews are elected while some are not (9:9-12).  That would explain why many Israelites didn’t believe at that time, assumedly because they were unelected.

This realization, then, should have ended this discussion—the unelected cannot be saved.  But no!  The apostle Paul throws a monkey wrench when he responds “incorrectly” to his own question, “Again I ask: Did they (i.e., unelected Jews) stumble so as to fall beyond recovery (i.e., the possibility of being saved)?”  Paul should have answered “NO,” but instead he says, “Not at all!” (Romans 11:11).  What?  In the ensuing argument, the apostle insinuates that being unelected won’t prevent any Jews from believing, saying, “If they do not persist in unbelief . . . God is able to graft them again” (11:23).  Keep in mind that the Jews persisting in unbelief in this context are the unelected.  With that in mind, Paul hopes that his ministry to the Gentiles will “somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them” (11:13). If election means that the unelected cannot be saved, then, what Paul asserts here makes no sense!  Note that Paul is not just thinking about the Jews turning to Christ in the future (11:25-6); he also has in mind the unelected Jews turning to God in his days and beyond.  How could this be?  While our systematic theology may say that’s not possible, Scripture declares, “God is able” (11:23).

Be that as it may, unconditional election still stands (9:11-16), for God has His reasons, but that doesn’t prevent anyone from believing. Ultimately, election understood by Arminius implies that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (9:13).  And a person can confirm his election by laying aside his unbelief and believe in the person and the work of Christ.

That, then, affects the doctrine of Limited Atonement (i.e., Jesus died only for the elect).  A while back, I received an email from a former Reformed seminary professor with whom I used to have intense theological discussions while he, then a seminarian, attended my church in the 1990s. He wrote, “I want to be clear that I no longer hold to limited atonement.”  Perhaps, he finally read 1 John 2:2 without the prism of Calvinism: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”  I am sure the professor would agree with the following interpretation of 1 John 2:2: “. . . Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and every man so that he has obtained for all, by his death on the cross, reconciliation and remission of sin; yet so that no one is partaker of this remission except the believers.” Again, Arminius said that!  

I am in no way an Arminian (eternal security gets in the way) but his thought must be a side dish with the main dish being Calvinism so that the latter does not become a rigid ideology. The same goes for those whose main dish is Arminianism; it needs a side dish of Calvinism so that it does not turn into humanism or Pelagianism (rationalistic view of human nature).

*The view expressed here does not necessarily represent the respective views held by other AMI pastors.