Should I be a Calvinist or an Arminian?

John Calvin

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Question: My friend says that at Central Church we are not Calvinists. I say we are, we just don’t believe all the points of Calvinism. Could you please describe the degrees of Calvinism and the denominations involved? Also, what is Armenianism and what churches are involved in these belief?

Answer: In order to carefully answer this question, let me begin with some definitions. Calvinism is that system of doctrine that purports to represent the basic viewpoint of John Calvin, the Swiss reformer who introduced the reformation movement to its most recognized systematic theology and contributed what many consider to be the first modern commentary on Scripture. Armenians are an ancient people who were the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion, became subject to many different nations including the USSR, but now maintain an independent republic. Arminians, on the other hand, are those who purport to represent the theological views of Jacob Arminius, a man who lived many years after Calvin and who taught an alternative view to his.

Many times the views of Calvin and Arminius are contrasted on the basis of a statement created by the Calvinistic Synod of Dordt in response to Arminius. Often an acrostic is used to make it memorable: TULIP. T stands for total depravity, which means that humans are incapable of responding positively in faith to God’s truth (Arminians believe this, but some Christians believe that man has the capacity to move towards God on his own). U stands for unconditional election, which means God did not choose anyone on the basis of positive conditions he found in them (Arminians believe God chose those He knew would believe or who had faith in their hearts). L stands for limited atonement, which means Christ died for the elect only (Arminians believe Christ died for everyone, in some way paying the penalty for their sin without yet saving them). I stands for irresistible grace, which means every person chosen by God and to whom He offers salvation does indeed embrace it and is saved (Arminians believe that we have the ability to resist the grace of God offered us in salvation). And P stands for perseverance of the saints, which means believers will demonstrate faith by spiritual growth and never fall away permanently from the truth and so finally be saved (Arminians believe that you can choose to reject the salvation you received and thus be lost forever).

The Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith is the official doctrinal statement of our church. On the issue of man’s depravity, the Confession says, “Man, by disobedience, lost his innocence, forfeited the favor of God, became corrupt in heart and inclined to evil. In this state of spiritual death and condemnation, man is still free and responsible; yet, without the illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit, he is unable either to keep the law or lay hold upon the hope set before him in the gospel” (article 36). How do people come to Christ, then? The Confession says, “The Holy Spirit…inclines them to come to Christ….This call of the Holy Spirit is purely of God’s free grace alone, and not because of human merit, and is antecedent to all desire, purpose, and intention on the part of the sinner to come to Christ; so that while it is possible for all to be saved with it, none can be saved without it….This call is not irresistible, but is effectual in those only who, in penitence and faith, freely surrender themselves wholly to Christ” (articles 39-41). What this is basically saying is that even though no one is capable, since Adam’s disobedience, to move toward God on his or her own, God’s Spirit enables every person to come to a place of being able to make a decision one way or the other without His determining what that decision will be. The Spirit does this “through the written word, and through such other means as God in his wisdom may choose, or directly, without means…to enlighten, reprove, and convince them of sin, of their lost estate, and of their need of salvation” (article 39). In effect, God, according to our confession, removes every person’s inability to respond to Him when He chooses so they can believe if they want to.

The Confession makes no direct statement as to election or the extent of the atonement. However, it does simply say regarding the atonement: “Jesus Christ…became the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, so God can be just in justifying all who believe in Jesus” (article 31). It may be supposed from this that an unlimited atonement view was in mind. As to perseverance of the saints, the Confession prefers the term “preservation” saying: “Those whom God has justified, he will also glorify; consequently, the truly regenerated soul will not totally fall away from a state of grace, but will be preserved to everlasting life. The preservation of believers depends on the unchangeable love and power of God, the merits, advocacy, and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Holy Spirit and seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of Grace. Nevertheless, true believers, through the temptations of Satan, the world, and the flesh, and the neglect of the means of grace, may fall into sin, incur God’s displeasure, and grieve the Holy Spirit, and thus be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, and have their consciences wounded; but the Christian will never rest satisfied therein” (articles 60 and 61). It also teaches that “a state of sinless perfection in this life is not authorized by the Scriptures, and is a dogma of dangerous tendency” (article 56).

All in all this may lead us to conclude that our Confession does not endorse true Calvinism, but a modified form of it which gives some credence to the more Wesleyan form of Arminianism and some to Calvinism. It does not really teach total depravity in the way Calvinism does, nor unconditional election, irresistible grace, or limited atonement. It does sound more like Calvinism on the issue of perseverance of the saints.

This is a difficult subject to discuss because there are often strong emotional responses to these views. Methodists and related denominations (Pentecostal and Holiness) are typically Arminian. Presbyterians are typically Calvinistic. The Episcopal Church was originally Calvinistic but has developed many different viewpoints since. Catholics are generally Arminian, though there are factions of a more Augustinian and thus Calvinistic-like viewpoint among some. Baptists are typically a mix of Calvinism and Arminianism, some splitting over these issues, like the Free Will Baptists and the Hardshell Baptists. Typically, if you see the label “Reformed” in front of a denomination or church name, it is representative of a more Calvinistic doctrine. Though I believe it is important to think clearly and correctly about this issue, and not one to just shove to the side because it is controversial, I also am convinced that it is not one to separate over. We should seek to express our love to one another despite our differences of opinion on these matters.

Follow-up Question: I guess I’m still a little confused. I was raised Southern Baptist and always felt I was a Calvinist. But what you are saying is (from this view) that when a baby is born and is not of the elect they don’t have a chance to accept Christ? Also if the parents are of the elect, aren’t the children under the covenant of their parents until the age of accountability? Or is there such a thing as accountability if they are elected and don’t have a choice in the matter?

Follow-up Answer: What the Calvinist is saying is that no one has a chance to accept Christ because even if presented with the truth of Christ by Christ himself, they do not have the ability to submit to and trust God. Unless God chooses to open their hearts to believe the message of truth, they are without hope. Despite this, God still holds us accountable for being unable to choose him. Paul anticipates an objector in Romans 9 saying, “Why does He find fault? For who has resisted His will?” When Paul answers, “Who are you to reply that way to the creator?” it confirms that Paul believes that God does legitimately find fault with us for not believing, yet believes at the same time that no one resists God’s will in terms of either being hardened (like Pharaoh) or shown mercy. Consequently God does not take responsibility for our not believing. That is our fault and a consequence of our sin in Adam.

As far as an age of accountability, the Bible makes no mention of such a concept. However, it is obvious that there are times in our lives when we are unable to make wise decisions. Does God take this into account? I don’t know how He deals with infants, for example, who cannot believe and who are still, nonetheless, under the curse for Adam’s sin. If they die then does that mean they were not elect? I don’t know. There is some indication that David believed his son who died a few days after birth, would be with him in Paradise (that portion of Sheol where believers were comforted; see 2 Samuel 12:23 and the article on Is There an Age of Accountability). I do know that God is fair, good, and wise, and that He will always do the right thing.

As you can see, this issue has far reaching ramifications. It is easily the most debated issue among thinkers in history and relates intimately to the issue of suffering in the world. Our job is to accurately interpret the Scriptures in what they say about it, and leave the rest to God. I believe that only an infinite mind can fully comprehend this issue and that we will have to maintain the outline of truth that God has given us in this area and trust him with the gaps in our knowledge and understanding.

Randall Johnson


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