"Who Are You Calling A Calvinist?"

by Pastor Mike Wilkins

I was first called a "Calvinist" in an English Renaissance literature class at Queen's University by a professor who called himself a "Christian humanist." Neither his label for me or his label for himself meant anything to me at the time. To my mind, I was simply "a Christian" who was trying to reflect what the Bible actually said about God, about mankind and about salvation. That was 1974. I have since had opportunity to study the very old debate that in the seventeenth century centred around the work of two theologians, John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. This is what I have learned...

Historical Background ...

Early in the days of the Protestant Reformation (the mid 1500's), a Frenchman named Jean Calvin reluctantly became its most influential spokesman. For many years, he was a pastor in Geneva, Switzerland, where the Reformation had taken root. His wish was to live a quiet life in an academic setting, but his humility, his godliness, his scholarship and his unspeakably industrious schedule catapulted him into a position of prominence throughout Europe. His "handbook" for Christian living: "The Institutes of the Christian Religion," became (and remains) THE textbook of the Reformed faith. The specific doctrines of God and man and salvation that are usually referred to as "Calvinism" are only a portion of the many details of his articulation of a thoroughy biblical worldview. More complete statements of Calvin's theology can be found in The Belgic Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism and The Westminster Confession of Faith.

Late in the 1500's, a Dutch theologian named Jacob Harmensz found himself no longer in complete agreement with the view of God and man and salvation that had become widely held in Reformed churches and universities. His willingness to speak out against Calvin's understanding of Scripture attracted a great deal of attention and in some quarters a great deal of enthusiastic support. After Harmensz' death in 1609, a group of theologians who became known as the "Remonstrants" drew together a summary of their objections to Calvin's teachings, which they called "The Remonstrance". It had five basic points. The Remonstrants drew heavily from the writings of the theologian whose surname translates into Latin as "Arminius." In time these people became known as "Arminians".

In 1618, a synod was called in the city of Dort to evaluate and respond to the teachings of the "Arminians." Emerging from this synod in 1619, "The Canons of Dort" answered the five objections of the Remonstrance and reaffirmed the biblicity of Calvin's teaching. The first letters of these five "points", if translated into English and rearranged, can be made to spell the word TULIP. From this incidental detail comes the popular misconception of Calvin as a theologian with five negative things to say. Equally untrue is the notion that Calvin and Arminius were narrow-minded scholars whose cold logic drove them both to ignore about half of what the Bible says in order to produce theological systems through which any casual reader of the Bible can see.

"The Five Issues" ... 1. The extent of the damage done to the human race by sin.

Arminians say that a person's desire and ability to please God has been seriously impaired by his sinfulness, but that the impairment is partial. People, at least some people, still have enough goodness in them to turn from sin and to live for God if given the opportunity. Romans 10:9-13. Calvinists say that the damage done by "the fall" was so great that humans have lost entirely their desire and ability to turn from sin and to live for God. This teaching is summarized by the words "Total Depravity," a term which means that sin has affected humanity in all aspects of life. Romans 1:18-32, Romans 3:10-18.

Comment: The Bible describes unredeemed people as "dead" and as "slaves". Both corpses and slaves lack what most Arminians mean by "free will": the desire and ability to turn to God on one's own. Romans 1:18-32 makes it clear: the Calvinistic assessment of mankind is the biblical one.

2. The basis upon which God chooses (or elects) some to be saved.

Arminians say that God, desiring all human beings to be saved, chooses to save those that He knows will choose to turn to Him if they are given a chance. I Tim. 2:3,4, I Peter 1:2, II Peter 3:9.

Calvinists say that God, knowing that no human being will ever choose on his own to turn from sin and live for God, displays His grace and mercy by choosing to save some, and displays His justice and wrath by declining to save others. This is referred to as "Unconditional Election." John 6:37-44.

Comment: The biblical basis of God's choice is God's "foreknowledge" (I Peter 1:2). Romans 8:29 reveals that "foreknowledge" is of people, not of things, (i.e. peoples' actions); and that God foreknows (and therefore predestines) some people, not all people. So God does not choose to save some people because of what is in them. Rather He chooses to save some people in spite of what is in them... i.e. election is based on God's foreknowledge of His people, not God's prior knowledge of what all people will do.

3. The intention of God in sending Christ to the cross as a sin-offering.

Arminians say that God's intention in sending Christ to the cross was to provide all mankind with the opportunity to be saved. Forgiveness is therefore made available to all and is conferred upon any who through faith ask for it. Romans 8:32. Calvinists say that Christ went to the cross with the specific intention of actually paying the penalty for the sins of those that God had previously chosen to save. This is known as "Limited Atonement." John 10:11,14,15,25-30, John 17:2, 6-9.

Comment: The question of the intention of Christ's sacrifice is the real problem for Arminians. What was Christ actually doing on the cross? Was anything actually accomplished? Was anything actually paid for? Charles Finney, an Arminian theologian, said: "I cannot believe in the vicarious atonement (i.e. that the death of Christ actually purchased anyone's redemption) for if I did I would either have to become a universalist (someone who believes all humanity will be saved) or a Calvinist (believing that certain people will be saved)." His logic was very sound at this point. (And he should have become a Calvinist!)

4. The effectiveness of God's saving influences on an individual.

Arminians say that human beings have the strength of will to resist God in His intentions to convict them of sin and to bring them to repentance. Therefore some of the people who God tries to save remain lost nonetheless. Matt.23:37, Acts 7:51, Hebrews 6:4-6. Calvinists say that God cannot be resisted in any of His intentions, except in the specific ways in which He allows Himself to be resisted. Every person that God intends to save shall be saved. God being sovereign, His grace always accomplishes what God intends it to accomplish. This is called "Irresistible Grace." Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135:6, Daniel 4:35, Romans 9:15-21.

Comment: The Bible is quite plain on the fact that God can and does make things happen. Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135:6, Pr.16:1,9,33, Daniel 4:35, etc.

5. The degree to which the gift of salvation guarantees eternal life.

Arminians say that since the salvation of a human being requires that human being's co-operation, continuing co-operation is essential to the process. Therefore, saved people who change their minds and turn away from God become once again unsaved, and perish eternally if they die in that state. Hebrews 6:4-6. Calvinists say that since the salvation of a human being is initiated by God and involves giving that person the desire and ability to trust and obey God, God can and does continue to supply this desire and ability to all He intends to save. This is referred to as "Perseverance of the Saints." Phil. 1:6, 2:12,13, Jude 24.

Comment: The scriptural assurances in favour of the "Calvinistic" opinion are well known. John 10:27-29; Philippians 1:6. What cannot be obtained by any human effort cannot be then lost by any human effort.

Summary of Opinion

In general, the "Arminians' conclusions" are based on apparent implications of Scripture which contradict actual plain statements of Scripture. (e.g. The Bible says "Whosoever will may come...". Arminians say, therefore, all human beings have the ability to come to God. But the Bible doesn't say that "all human beings have the ability to come to God." The verse only seems to imply it. "The ability to come to God" is an apparent implication, but an apparent implication that other verses plainly contradict. e.g. John 6:44, Romans 3:10-18) Clearly, when forced to choose between a plain Bible statement on the one hand and an apparent biblical implication on the other, the implication must give way to the statement. In general, the "Calvinists' conclusions" are based on a straightforward reading of what the Bible actually teaches about God, about mankind and about salvation. Why then the strong draw towards Arminianism? It's always been a very popular point-of-view (long before Arminius starting teaching it!), and most of the time more popular than Calvinism. My answer to that question, and my conclusion to the debate, takes me back to 1974, and the first time I was ever "accused" of being a Calvinist: "Arminianism" is Christian humanism. It is a blend of some of what the Bible says about God's intentions and man's need with humanistic presuppositions about man's inherent autonomy. The popularity of Arminianism can be explained by the "humanism" that has been an inherent part of human nature since the third chapter of Genesis. (Consider verse 5)

Three commonplace modern notions that confuse the debate...

That the wrath of God is impersonal.

The common idea is that God doesn't actually hate anybody. But Psalm 5:5 and Psalm 11:5 both say that He does. And then there was Esau, the world population in Noah's day, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the people of Canaan in the days of Joshua ... and then there's Rev. 20:11-15.

That the love of God is universal.

But Hebrews 12:6-8 (and many other passages) speak selectively of those that God loves.

That mankind exists in some state of moral neutrality.

It is hard for members of the human race to let go of the notion that the human race is a pretty nice bunch of people. But Romans 1:18 - 3:18 refutes the idea.

Suggested reading:

Chosen by God, R.C. Sproul

Ashamed of the Gospel, John MacArthur, Jr.

The Sovereignty of God, A.W. Pink

The Sovereignty of Grace, A.C. Custance

Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, J.I.Packer

A Quest for Godliness, J.I.Packer

Arminius, Carl Bangs*

                Carl Bangs is a leading Arminian scholar who can be counted upon to present a sympathetic account of the life and thought of Arminius. In this book, Bangs explains how "Calvinistic" Arminius actually was.