The Critical Differences Between Calvinism and Arminianism

by Dale Partridge

There are two essential questions in the human life. The answers to these two questions will shape every facet of your existence—from tying your shoes and choosing a church to how you discipline your children and even the focus of your funeral. They are questions that have haunted some, plagued others, and overjoyed many. They are:

  1. How can I be right with my Maker?
  2. How was I made right with my Maker?

The first is a futuristic discovery. The second is a historical investigation. The first must obviously precede the second because the second deals with the preexisting state of the first. The first, as we know, is life’s most primary issue and devours any other curiosity that attempts to rival against it. Society proves this by sheer sociological evidence. The first-century Greek philosopher Plutarch defends this fact when he said, “If we traverse the world, it is possible to find cities without walls, without letters, without kings, without wealth, without coin, without schools and theatres; but a city without a temple, or that practiseth not worship, prayer, and the like, no one ever saw.”[1] Our relationship with God is paramount. However, it is the second question that magnifies the magnificence of the first. It is the polisher of the diamond or the exalter of the prize. It is in this second question that we, as Christians, find the comprehension and, as a result, the beauty, wonder, gratitude, and glory of the first.

Several years ago, in an audio clip from a John Piper sermon, I remember him saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “When I found myself alive in Christ, I quickly embarked on a journey to understand what happened to me?” This was true of my conversion as well. Coming from a long history of dead religion, the radical spiritual awakening that occurred at the point of my rebirth drove me to an insatiable investigation of the process of my own rebirth and salvation. However, my story is quite unique. Prior to adhering to the Calvinistic position, I was a highly informed and white-knuckled proponent of Arminianism. I had studied the sermons and theology of John Wesley, A.W. Tozer, Norman Geisler, and Ravi Zacharias. I comprehended the philosophical argumentation and was, in my conscience, a full-blooded free-will theologian. In fact, to my regret, I actually dedicated an entire chapter to the defense of Arminianism in one of my books.

Now, this article is not intended to share my personal conversion and commitment to reformed theology, I have already done so in an exhaustive exposition titled “How God Saved, Freed, and Reformed Dale Partridge.” In this piece, however, I would like to present a brief look at the critical theological differences between Calvinism and Arminianism and why I have convictedly sided with the former and not the latter.

A Brief History

To be clear, both of these men would be appalled at the idea of their names representing such important theological positions—especially Calvin. In Robert Godfrey’s book John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor, he records Calvin’s adamant desire to be forgotten after his death. He writes, “[Calvin] was buried on Sunday in an unmarked grave at a secret location somewhere in Geneva. In one of the last commentaries he wrote, he commented on the death and burial of Moses, ‘It is good that famous men should be buried in unmarked graves.’ This conviction guided his own burial. He rejected the superstitious veneration of the dead and wanted no pilgrimages to his grave. He had lived to make Christians, not Calvinists.”[2]

That said, these two men (John Calvin and Jacob Arminius) still stand as the pillars of modern soteriology. However, Calvinism cannot be credited to Calvin. For it was Augustine in the fourth century who first synthesized and systematized the New Testament’s doctrine on salvation. The same is true of Jacob Arminius. His theology was simply a reaction to the celebrated doctrines of Calvin’s and finds a portion of its theological roots in the works of Pelagius. Pelagius was the opponent of Augustine and was declared a heretic at the Council of Ephesus in 431. In other words, this debate between man’s free will and the sovereignty of God in salvation goes deep into the annals of Christian history.

The heart of the issue, however, circles around five core soteriological doctrines. The Arminians hold to the acronym F.A.C.T.S which stands for (Freed by Christ, Atonement for All, Conditional Election, Total Depravity, and Security in Christ). While these are not the exact titles for their historic position, they are the titles used in the modern view today. Jacob Arminius was only three years old when Calvin died in 1564. Later, he became a student of Theodore Beza (Calvin’s successor) and over time became troubled by elements of Calvin’s theology. He soon broke away from Beza initiating a group called The Remonstrates. It was this group who, out of a reaction to Calvin’s position, produced the “Articles of the Remonstrance” in July of 1610 (The first version of F.A.C.T.S). Several years later in 1618, a group of Christians gathered in Holland to formally review and respond to these articles. They rejected their position and countered their five doctrines with five of their own doctrines anchored in the orthodox reformed theology of Calvin and Augustine.[3] They are Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. You may know them as T.U.L.I.P. While there are some similarities between these two positions, they are more different than they are alike. To some, they believe these differences are irreconcilable and generate two completely different Gospels. To others, they are critical differences that may diminish Christian fellowship but do not require total division. Personally, I share the position of Dr. Martyn Llyod Jones who once said:

“I am a Calvinist; I believe in election and predestination; but I would not dream of putting it under the heading of essential. You are not saved by your precise understanding of how this great salvation comes to you. What you must be clear about is that you are lost and damned, hopeless and helpless, and that nothing can save you but the grace of God in Jesus Christ and only Him crucified, bearing the punishment of your sins, dying, rising again, ascending, sending the Spirit, regeneration. Those are the essentials… While I myself hold very definite and strong views on the subject, I will not separate from a man who cannot accept and believe the doctrines of election and predestination, and is Arminian, as long as he tells me that we are all saved by grace, and as long as the Calvinist agrees, as he must, that God calls all men everywhere to repentance. As long as both are prepared to agree about these things, I say we must not break fellowship.”[4]

All that to say, I will not pretend there isn’t landmark differences between these two soteriological systems. Furthermore, these differences, while they may seem minor in theological texts on a page, they are the major means of tuning the Gospel to a different melody. Since, I have sung both songs from a place of sincerity, I believe I can offer a thoughtful and fair presentation and convincing conclusion for why the general Calvinistic structure is both more beautiful and more closely aligned with Scripture.

The Alpha and Omega of Soteriology

The human body is a symphony. But if asked to define the two central driving forces of human physiology, the universal response would be: The heart and the brain. In regard to this discussion on the critical differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, they too have two driving forces—they are: (1) the will of man and (2) the sovereignty of God. Be that as it may, to speak of only two doctrines that are inseparably connected to the rest of their respective systems is like talking about the heart without talking about the blood or the lungs or the nervous system—it’s quite difficult. In other words, these two positions are systematic and interconnected—therefore, when you talk about one thing, you are, in some degree, talking about the other things. However, it is my objective to remain focused on a brief overview of the vitals—the heart and the mind, or, in our case, the will of man and the sovereignty of God.

The Alpha of Soteriology

The view of man’s will finds itself, arguably, as the Alpha issue of these two soteriological systems. Both systems agree that humans have a will, but the question becomes, “Is it free?” The answer to this question will inevitably and subsequently define the Omega of these two systems (God’s sovereignty). That is, if our will is truly free (self-determining) in regard to Gospel reception (Arminianism), God cannot overpower it or violate it without our sovereign permission. An Arminian might say, “If humans do not have the free will to choose to come to God or to leave God, our relationship with Him would not be based on love, but on compliance.”

However, if our will is not free (Calvinism) and is enslaved to sin, then God’s strength to overcome our will is not an unloving violation but a loving vindication.

Namely, if God, by His sovereign choice, has set His children free from the bondage of sin and darkness and instead made them slaves of Him and His righteousness, then any overpowering of human will (by God) is wonderful and charitable. This is the narrative Paul presents in Romans 6:17-18. He writes, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” He continues in 6:22 with, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”

For those who study theology, you can see this discussion is at the center of both the doctrine of Total Depravity and our definition of grace. While the Arminian’s F.A.C.T.S includes the doctrine of Total Depravity (“T” in their acronym), their definition is quite different from the “T” in T.U.L.I.P. In their interpretation, Arminians believe that we are all fallen, we cannot come to God on our own, and we need the Holy Spirit to produce such a moment for salvation to be made possible. In short, they believe that when a person is saved, the Holy Spirit offers, what they call, prevenient grace. That is, divine grace that precedes human decision. Simply put, they believe that at the point of a person’s conversion, the Holy Spirit temporarily eliminates their depravity to the extent that they can, of their own free will, accept or reject the offer of salvation.

When you take this position to its logical conclusion, however, it reveals the Achilles’ heel of the Arminian position. Namely, they conclude that the decisive action of salvation is synergistic and not monergistic. That is, man, cooperates with God and, to some degree, man retains a measure of credit for making such a wise choice to accept the Gospel. While the Arminians would not admit it, this creates a situation in which one must conclude that those who are presented with the Gospel and accept it are in some way smarter than those who are presented the Gospel and deny it. This undeniably infers the ability of those who have chosen correctly (to accept the Gospel) the ability to boast. This stands in opposition to the Apostle’s statement on the matter in Ephesians 2:8-9 that claims, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Ultimately, the Arminian view wounds the doctrine of sola gratia (grace alone) as it inserts man into the equation of salvation and permits a portion of the glory of our salvation to ourselves. This is not compatible with Romans 11:36 that asserts, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

Ultimately, the Arminian position, at least as it pertains to the will of man, stands in stark opposition to the Bible’s description of not only the spiritual inability of our fallen state (Gen. 6:5; Job 15:14-16; Psa. 130:3; 143:2; Prov. 20:9; Eccl. 7:20; Isa. 64:6; Jer. 13:23; John 3:19; 8:34, 44; Rom. 3:9-12; 6:20; 8:8; 2 Tim. 2:25-26; Tit. 3:3; 1 John 5:19; Jam. 3:8; 1 John 1:8; John 3:3-8; 6:65; 10:26; 12:37-41; Rom. 3:10-11) but also to God’s commitment to retaining all the glory of redemption to Himself (Isa. 42:8; 48:11; Rom. 3:23; 11:36).

The Omega of Soteriology

It is only logical to believe that two entities cannot be sovereign. Better said, in relationship to God and man, both entities cannot be free. In his book Chosen by God, Dr. R.C. Sproul comments on the culmination of this idea of dual freedom by saying, “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.”[5] Dr. Sproul understands that in order for sovereignty to be sovereignty there must be no unpredictable or rogue factors. For if there are then God is not sovereign and is competing for the accomplishment of His will. However, that is not the description of God seen in the Scriptures. The Christian God’s sovereignty is total and saturates all things, including our salvation (Eph. 1:11).

This leads us to the Omega of soteriology—God’s sovereignty in our redemption. While the Arminian proports to believe in the doctrine of sovereignty, again, his definition is different from that of the Calvinist. The Arminian, as we saw in the previous section, must invent a philosophical bridge to accommodate the freedom of man in tandem with the freedom of God. The Calvinist, however, does not need such devices as he believes that God is not only the sovereign inaugurator of redemption (which includes the calling, regenerating, repentance, and faith of a believer) but He is also the Sustainer of that redemption. Tragically, the Arminian doesn’t believe in the perseverance of the saints but only the security of the saints (“S” in their acronym). Again, this displays their commitment, in some degree, to human participation in salvation; not only do we see this in the decisive initiation of faith but also in the sustaining of that faith throughout one’s life.

We must conclude, then, on the basis of this position, that the Arminian believes, to some extent, that we contribute to the maintaining our saved status.

In other words, if salvation can be lost it would not be because of a failure of God but a failure of man. Therefore, if we can lose salvation by our own failure then we must also, to some degree, be sustaining our ability to keep it. This position is an obvious attack on the doctrine of assurance and reveals another weak point in the Arminian system. If the Achilles’ heel of Arminianism is the attribution of human involvement in the salvation process, then the denial of God’s ability to sustain the redeemed is a hole in its jugular. In John 10:27 Jesus clearly devastates this position when He says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” Not only does Christ promise eternal life (not just the potentiality of eternal life) but He also promises to never leave or forsake His people. Sadly, the Arminian does not see this, and instead of living in a place of peace that is driven by love and gratitude for the eternal life that has been completely given, they are forced to live in a place that’s driven by fear and the law that might take it away. Charles Spurgeon once spoke on this matter and said, “If I did not believe in the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints, I think I should be of all men the most miserable because I should lack any ground for comfort of my own salvation.”[6]

But this attack on God’s sovereignty goes beyond God’s willingness to sustain those He saves; it also implies that He’s unable to overcome the sin that would cause one of His sheep to fall. Dr. Sam Storms brilliantly speaks to this matter:

“One of the greatest mistakes made by those who deny the perseverance of the saints is in focusing on the strength of our will to rebel rather than the strength of God’s commitment to preserving us in faith. Do you actually believe that in His infinite wisdom and love and kindness and grace that He cannot figure out a way to overcome whatever rebellious tendencies you might have and keep you safe in His arms? Do you actually believe that you are able to outsmart divine omniscience?”[7]

R.C. Sproul once made a similar point through an illustration that stuck with me. It goes something like this: Imagine a father and son are walking across an old rope bridge 200 feet off the ground. The father says to his son, “Hold on tight to my hand. If you let go and fall, you will die.” Now, if the young son, in a moment of foolishness, lets go of his father’s hand will the son truly fall to his death? Well, any father knows the answer—no. But why? Because even if the son lets go, the father will not. This applies well to our security in Christ. To believe that our heavenly Father says, “If you let go, I’ll let go” makes God even less protective and loving than a fallen human father. The truth is, we can believe in Jesus’ words—we will never perish. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t tell us to, “Hold on tight!” It simply means that our safety is not rooted in us, it’s rooted in Him.  

Essentially, to deny God’s ability to sustain His people and place the decisive action of falling away into the hands of men is to belittle God. We reduce this grand rescue to a divine business arrangement where only if both parties do their part, is the contract kept. But more importantly, as it pertains to Christians, the Arminian position on God’s sovereignty leaves believers in a state of uncertainty void of peace. That is, it lays a burden of unfailing obedience upon the shoulders of its proponents and robs the Christian of the unconditional joy that comes knowing that they are saved not temporarily, but eternally.

Conclusion

If we look at these two systems of soteriology as large oak trees and we follow the leaves to the branches and the branches to the trunk and the trunk to the roots, we see that the central difference between these two positions is this: Calvinism claims that God does it all in regard to redemption. He does the electing (Rom. 8:30; Eph. 1:4-5; 2:8) He does the calling, He does the regenerating (1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:17), He gives us the gift of repentance and faith (Acts 11:18; 13:48; 2 Tim. 2:25; Eph. 2:8), He sustains us through life and death (John 10:28; 1 Pet. 1:5; Jude 1:24; Phil. 1:6), and He glorifies us with Himself for eternity (Rom. 8:30; Col. 3:4; 2 Thess. 1:12). On the other hand, Arminianism claims that God does most of the redemptive work but it’s man who, of his own free will, makes the ultimate decisive actions to (1) accept or reject the Gospel and (2) to maintain their faith commitment to Christ. Ultimately, it is only the Calvinist who can say, “To Him be the glory!” For the Arminian must say, “To Him be the glory for the opportunity to be saved! But to me be the glory for accepting it!”


References

[1] Plutarch and Bernadotte Perrin, Plutarch’s Lives (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1967) 87.

[2] Robert W. Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009), 192.

[3] Nick R. Needham, 2000 Years Of Christ’s Power (Fearn, United Kingdom: Christian Focus), 2016.

[4] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, What is an Evangelical? (Scotland, United Kingdom: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), p. 87-88.

[5] R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God: Knowing God’s Plan for His Glory and His Children (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986), 26-27. 

[6] C. H Spurgeon and G. Holden Pike, Sermons Of Rev. C.H. Spurgeon, New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co, 1892, 232.

[7] Sam Storms, The Preserving Power of A Father’s Love, Oklahoma City, OK: SamStorms.org: Last modified 2006, https://www.samstorms.org/all-articles/post/the-preserving-power-of-a-fathers-love.


Bibliography

Plutarch, and Bernadotte Perrin. Plutarch’s Lives. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Godfrey, W. Robert. John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009.

Needham, Nick R. 2000 Years Of Christ’s Power. Fearn, United Kingdom: Christian Focus, 2016.

Jones, Martyn Lloyd. What is an Evangelical? Scotland, United Kingdom: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992.

Sproul, R.C. Chosen by God: Knowing God’s Plan for His Glory and His Children. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986. 

Storms, Sam. The Preserving Power Of A Father’s Love. Oklahoma City: Sam Storms, OK, Last modified 2006. https://www.samstorms.org/all-articles/post/the-preserving-power-of-a-fathers-love.

Spurgeon, C. H, and G. Holden Pike. Sermons Of Rev. C.H. Spurgeon. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co, 1892.

Holcomb, Justin S. Christian Theologies Of Salvation. 1st ed. New York: New York University Press, 2017.

Lloyd-Jones, Martyn. The Assurance Of Our Salvation. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1988.

Boothe, Charles Octavius. Plain Theology For Plain People. 2nd ed. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017.

Dale Partridge is the Founder and President of Relearn.org. Dale finished his graduate studies at Western Theological Seminary and is now an M.Div candidate at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles, California. He is also the author of several Christians books, the host of the Real Christianity podcast, and an elder and teaching pastor at the local house church in which he serves. He and his wife have three children.

More by Dale

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