Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Arminianism and Calvinism: What's the Difference?

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
There is much confusion in Evangelical and Reformed circles today about the Biblical doctrine of God's sovereign grace in the salvation of sinners. Many who think they are following the teaching of Scripture are actually holding a view rooted in human reason rather than in the Word of God--a view which sets man's freedom of choice above God's eternal counsel as the ultimate decisive factor in human salvation. While this view has had various names in the history of Christianity, the name most commonly used is Arminianism.

The name "Arminianism" comes from Arminius, which is the Latinized form of the Dutch name Harmensz, an abbreviation for Harmenszoon, son of Harmen. Jacob Arminius was a Dutch theologian who was born in 1560 and died in 1609. However, Arminianism is really older than the time of Arminius. The heresy of Pelagianism, which arose in the fifth century A.D., was essentially the same as Arminianism. Also, semi-Pelagianism, the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church, includes many features that are found in Arminianism. Throughout Church history there has always been a tendency to emphasize the freedom of man at the expense of the sovereignty of God. Whenever and wherever this tendency has come to expression in a strong and vocal way, the Church has had to deal with some variety of the Pelagian-Arminian heresy. Such instances have been frequent in history, for the reason that Arminianism comes easy to man. No one needs to work at becoming an Arminian. We are all Arminians by nature and will die Arminians unless the grace of God checks this impulse in us and causes us to submit to divine sovereignty in salvation.

Initially Arminianism was a reaction against Reformed theology taking offense at several specific doctrines of the Reformed faith. The early Dutch Arminians were called "Remonstrants" because they issued a manifesto called "the Remonstrance" in which they stated their objections to Reformed doctrines.

To settle this controversy, the historic Synod of Dort was convened in the Netherlands. It met in the years 1618-19 and was attended by delegates from several countries besides Holland. The Synod of Dort pronounced the doctrines of the Remonstrants heretical, and in opposition to them it issued the famous Canons of Dort which affirmed the truth of the contrary doctrines of the Reformed faith.

Although the Synod condemned Arminianism, it continued to exist and to influence many in the Netherlands and beyond. In a somewhat modified form it was held by John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodism. Today in English-speaking countries the majority of Protestants who are not liberals are Arminian in their theology, including many who are members of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations subscribing to the standards of Dort or Westminster.

The five doctrines of the Reformed faith to which the Arminians or Remonstrants objected were: 1. God's unconditional election of sinners to salvation; 2. the total depravity of the unsaved sinner; 3. particular atonement, or the doctrine that the intended purpose of Christ's atonement was to redeem the elect; 4. the efficacious character of the saving grace of God, which without fail brings about the salvation of the elect; 5. the perseverance of the saints, or the doctrine that those who are truly saved cannot lose their salvation and perish eternally.

Over against these Reformed doctrines the Arminians held the contrary views, namely: 1. God's election of sinners to salvation is not absolute, but conditional, being based on God's knowing beforehand that they will repent and believe the Gospel; 2. the unsaved sinner is not totally depraved, but has only been morally weakened by sin; 3. universal atonement, or the doctrine that the intended purpose of Christ's atonement was to redeem all mankind; 4. the grace of God is not in itself efficacious, but only persuasive, and does not certainly bring about the salvation of anyone; 5. truly saved Christians can at any time totally fall away from grace and so perish eternally.

The unscriptural character of the Arminian system was somewhat modified by the Methodists under John Wesley and especially Richard Watson, the most prominent Methodist theologian. This modified form of Arminianism is called "Evangelical Arminianism" and is the type of Arminianism most often found today. Wesleyan or Evangelical Arminianism is more Biblical, but at the same time less consistent than the older Arminianism of the Dutch Remonstrants. Evangelical Arminianism still differs in important respects from the consistent Biblical Christianity which we commonly call Calvinism or the Reformed faith.

The teaching of the Bible on the subject of divine sovereignty and human freedom is paradoxical. That is, it seems to involve a contradiction. The Bible teaches that God is sovereign and that He has predestined everything that comes to pass. As the Westminster states in chapter 3, paragraph 1,

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of
his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to
pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is
violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty
or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather
established.

This foreordination includes the choice of particular persons to be heirs of eternal life, and the passing by of others who are to be condemned to eternal punishment on account of their own sins. At the same time the Bible teaches that man is a free agent and is responsible for the use or abuse of his freedom. It is his duty to repent and believe the Gospel, and only by doing so can he receive salvation and eternal life. It is important to understand, however, that by the term "free agent" here is meant no more than that man is not forced to do what he does by any outside agency. Freedom in that sense may be defined as the absence of external coercion. If a man is not forced by any power outside himself to do what he wants to do, then we may properly say that he is 'free.' Arminians, however, use the word "freedom" in quite another sense, however. When they say man is free they mean that he has the power to do good or evil whenever he so chooses. To say that man is able to do good or evil, is very different from saying that man is at liberty to do what he desires.

Scripture teaches that man has liberty but not ability to do what is right. While man is free from external coercion or force, he is not free from the control of his own nature. Because he is evil by nature, man must of necessity do evil (just as a corrupt tree must of necessity produce corrupt fruit, Matt.7:17-19). Just as we may say that God is good and therefore cannot do evil, so we may say that man (by nature) is evil and cannot (of himself) do good. As long as a man is unregenerate he can only do evil because this is the one thing that he wants to do (Gen.6:5; Ps. 53; etc.).

Only when he is regenerated this will change by virtue of the new nature he receives which comes to expression in new desires, new aspirations, new joys and delights, etc. He will now do the good because he wants or wills to it. In either case there is a complete absence of external coercion, yet in such a way that God's will is done. Even where internal power is exerted (in the case of the elect) it does not force man to do what he does not want to do, but rather God redirects his will so as to bring it in line with His own will (see also Canons of Dort, III,IV, Articles 11-13).

The above explanation admittedly does not answer all our questions with regard to the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom. The paradox remains. Yet it makes a great deal of difference how we approach this complex issue. The Arminian tries to "solve" the problem by affirming the freedom and responsibility of man, and limiting the sovereignty of God. In other words, God is limited by man's free will. Arminianism interprets passages such as Ephesians 1:4 this way: God before the foundation of the world, chose unto eternal life those whom He knew beforehand would by their own free will repent and believe on Christ. This amounts to saying that God, in eternity, elected those of whom he knew that they would elect themselves. God's act of election thus becomes a mere ratifying of a decision made by man's free will. As a well-known evangelist put it: "God's hands are tied. He can only wait for you to make your decision."

This is wrong. This is blasphemous, really. It misrepresents God as helpless and unable to make a move until man moves first. The difference between Arminianism and Calvinism is not that the former affirms and the latter denies that salvation involves a decision on man's part. Rather, the difference lies in which decision is viewed as prior and more basic: God's or ours. They cannot both be; one or the other must be the more ultimate and basic. Arminianism in all its forms opts for man's decision being the more basic, and is therefore forced to interpret Scripture all along the line in terms of this false principle.

Arminianism is in essence rationalistic; it misuses Scripture because of what it regards as the demands of human reason. It cannot face the paradox between divine sovereignty and human freedom and allow it to stand. The Reformed faith faces the same paradox but is content to let it stand by affirming both God's real sovereignty and man's true freedom. This is clearly the approach of Scripture itself. When the issue is raised, as it is, for example, in Romans 9:19, the apostle replies, not by trying to solve the paradox and thus satisfy man's reason, but by reminding us that as creatures we have no right to pronounce judgment on the acts of our Creator: "Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?" (Rom.9:20).

The relation between human freedom and divine sovereignty involves the relation between the finite and the Infinite, between time and eternity, between creature and Creator. It is bound to be veiled in mystery and cloaked with thick darkness; it cannot be fathomed by human reason; it is among the deep things of God. We should not expect to be able to explain it by human reason. We do not have to understand this mystery; all that is required of us is that we accept the truths of God's Word by faith.

It is the strength of the Reformed faith that it refrains from attempting to solve this and similar paradoxes. It refuses to tone down statements of the Bible because of the demands of human reason.

It is a good thing that people, including preachers, are often inconsistent. If Arminians were to follow their Arminian principles through with logical consistency to the very end, they would finally have to say that man is his own saviour. Most of them do not say this and cannot say this for the simple reason that God who saves many Arminians too, prevents them from going all the way into the path of error.

A really consistent Arminian will end up as a humanist, as indeed many of them have done. Fortunately, many others "suffer" from the intellectual disease called inconsistency. This inconsistency of Arminians is often quite obvious to others, though the Arminians themselves are, of course, unconscious of it. The evangelist mentioned above may tell his audience that everything depends on their own free will, even to the extent of saying that "God's hands are tied." But just prior to the "altar call" he will pray earnestly that God will bring sinners to repentance and salvation. If God's hands are really tied, the prayer ought to be addressed to the audience, not to God, for how can a God whose hands are tied answer the prayer? Evidently, the evangelist does not really believe that God's hands are tied, though he has just said they are. He really believes that in the end it depends on God's working in sinners' hearts after all, even though this contradicts what he has said earlier. In other words, there is something in the evangelist which cannot accept the Arminian statement that "God's hands are tied" and that convinces him deeply (though he is quite unaware of the inconsistency) that God's power, which can come in answer to prayer, can and does move the sinner to repentance and faith.

Every Arminian, if he is really a Christian, is a Calvinist at heart. Men can be better than their creed, just as they can be worse than their creed.

What, then, is the harm of Arminianism? Is this dispute a mere quarrel about words and terms? Is it perhaps just another example of "theological hair-splitting?" Does it make any real practical difference whether we are Reformed or Arminians? Yes, it certainly does! This controversy affects the heart and core of our religious life. It deeply affects what we think of God and what we think of ourselves. Arminianism tends to self-sufficiency; Calvinism promotes dependence upon God. Arminian converts tend to say, "I gave my heart to the Lord," while Reformed converts feel constrained to say, "the Holy Spirit convicted me of sin and renewed my heart." In short, the Reformed faith exalts God and humbles man, while Arminianism limits God and flatters man and his powers.

The essential difference between Calvinism and Arminianism, therefore, is not merely theological but is religious in the deepest sense. It concerns man's basic attitude toward God, and his appraisal of himself in the light of God. As Benjamin B. Warfield once said, "The Calvinist is the man who has seen God, and who, having seen God in His glory, is filled on the one hand with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God's sight, as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand with adoring wonder that nevertheless this God is a God who receives sinners."

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