Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree in 2018 from UNC Charlotte. He specializes in History and Theology.
The Difference Between Arminianism and Calvinism Explained
Throughout world history, religious doctrines and theology have both played a vital role in the shaping of societal norms, customs, and even governmental systems of authority. Two theologies that tend to dominate Christianity today include both Arminianism and Calvinism. Devised several centuries ago by Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin, respectively, both camps maintain significant differences from one another in regard to their overall interpretation (and application) of Scripture. This article provides a direct analysis of Calvinism (and its five points), using the Five Articles of Remonstrance as a basis for contrasting thought. It is the author’s hope that a better understanding of these two theologies will accompany readers following their completion of this work.
It is vital to note that this work does not attempt to prove which system is more relevant (or Biblical). For that, individuals must decide for themselves which theology lines up with their current beliefs and is supported by Scripture. Likewise, the author does not wish to impose a particular set of theological beliefs as being truthful. Again, when presented with ideas that run counter to your current beliefs, an individual should always consult their Bible (and the Holy Spirit) for guidance regarding spiritual matters of this sort.
What is Predestination and Election?
Before investigating the inherent differences between Arminianism and Calvinism, it is important to first define predestination, election, and the “elect” (as these terms will appear frequently throughout the duration of this work). Although many of these terms are self-explanatory, a deeper examination of their meaning is crucial for understanding the latter segments of this work. Such definitions also provide a great deal of insight into the specific debates concerning Arminian and Calvinist thought.
- Predestination: The term “predestination” refers to the act of “predestinating.” More explicitly, it describes an action by God where everything was foreordained (or predetermined) to occur before the Earth was ever created. In other words, predestination simply means that nothing occurs by chance. Rather, everything that transpires (including the most minute and trivial moments of an individual’s life) happens according to a design laid out by God Himself. As a result, the concept of predestination implies that God is completely sovereign in His authority over mankind, that He is omniscient (or all-knowing), omnipresent, and omnipotent (all-powerful). Taken together, predestination also implies that God chose certain souls for salvation over others (collectively referred to as the “elect,” which is discussed in greater detail below).
- Election: The term “election” is often used interchangeably with the word “predestination,” as they have very similar meanings. Predestination is the broader of the two concepts, however, and simply describes God’s ability to ordain before time. Election, on the other hand, is more specific and is the term used to describe God’s choosing (of individuals) to receive salvation before the foundation of the world. Similar to our modern concept of “election” (an event where we “choose” candidates for political office), this term implies that God chose certain individuals over others to be saved. In this view, salvation is entirely dependent upon God.
- The “Elect”: The term “elect” is even more specific than “election,” as it describes the individuals who are specifically chosen by God’s election to salvation. In other words, the “elect” are God’s predestined and elected people who were chosen before the foundation of the world to receive salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ. The term coincides with the definition presented in any modern dictionary, which describes “elect” as an individual that is chosen or singled out (adjective), or a person chosen by another to serve a particular role (noun). To date, this term has resulted in sharp divisions between Calvinists and Arminians, who sharply debate the implications of the “elect” in terms of one’s salvation.
Who Was John Calvin?
John Calvin was a French-born theologian of the Protestant Reformation era. During his lifetime, Calvin became one of the leading figures of the Reformation movement due to his theological stance on the doctrine of predestination. Calvin believed that God’s sovereignty extended into all areas of life and that nothing occurred by random chance. Rather, everything that happened in the world was predesigned (preordained) by God himself, including both the good and the bad. As a result, Calvin believed that an individual was incapable of obtaining Salvation of their own free will. To Calvin, Salvation for individuals was predetermined before the foundation of the world and was wholly dependent on the choice made by God Himself. As a leading proponent of predestination and election, Calvin’s approach was later dubbed “Calvinism.” To date, his views continue to be upheld by a number of Reformed churches in the modern era.
What is Calvinism?
The Five Points of Calvinism:
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
Often known by the acronym “TULIP,” the Five Points of Calvinism provide a basis for John Calvin’s theology. Nevertheless, it should be noted that these five points do not provide a complete picture of Calvin’s ideas; rather, they are simply “five answers” to the so-called “five errors of Arminianism” (ligonier.org).
The first point of Calvinism, known as “total depravity,” simply states that mankind is both sinful and depraved. After his fall in the Garden of Eden, Calvin argues that mankind has always been incapable of obeying God’s laws and commands due to his inherently corrupt nature. The major basis for this first point of Calvinism derives from Romans 3:10 (KJV), which states: “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one.”
This idea of “depravity” is a central element of Calvin’s teachings, as he argues that sinfulness affects all elements of the human mind and body. From birth until death, he states that humans are in a constant state of rebellion against God. Left to his own devices, therefore, “total depravity” simply states that man possesses no ability to do good in the world and will always choose to sin over Christ. Calvin bases this point on Romans 8:7-8 as well as Psalm 14:1-3.
The Second Point of Calvinism known as, “unconditional election” (or “sovereign election” in some circles) argues that only some individuals are predestined (elected) into salvation, whereas others are not. Calvinists believe that election isn’t based on anything that God foresees in a particular individual. Rather, the “elect” are chosen solely from God’s goodwill towards mankind. Because of mankind’s inherent nature to rebel against God, Calvin argues that predestination was necessary since all individuals deserve to be thrown into Hell for their wickedness and depravity. Likewise, mankind will always choose to do “wrong” over what is “right.” Through God’s infinite love and mercy, however, Calvinists argue that God decided to choose particular individuals to spend eternity with Him in heaven rather than suffer all of mankind to burn in Hell.
Calvin’s notion of “limited atonement” states that Jesus Christ died only for His chosen people (i.e. the “elect”). And while some Calvinists maintain that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for all individuals, most argue that His death was intended solely for those who were predestined to spend eternity with Him in heaven. Calvin bases this belief on Acts 20:28, Matthew 26:38, as well as the verses presented in Hebrews 7:26-27. Much of the book of Romans is also used as a basis for this doctrine. Thus, for Calvin, atonement is (in a broad sense) conditional, in that only the “elect” garner the benefits of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross.
This fourth point of Calvinism argues that the “elect” are incapable of resisting God’s “calling” through the Holy Spirit. Calvin bases this point on the belief that man is incapable of coming to Christ of their own free will due to their total depravity and evil nature. In other words, no man is looking for God or salvation and can only come to Christ once the Holy Spirit regenerates the mind and spirit of the elect. Once this occurs, Calvin argues that the inward call placed in an individual’s heart by the Holy Spirit is irresistible, forcing an individual to submit to the will of Christ against their natural sinful nature. In other words, when God chooses to save an individual, He will (without exception).
Perseverance of the Saints
The fifth and final point of Calvinism (known as “Perseverance of the Saints”) is relatively simple and argues that an individual cannot lose their salvation once they are saved. Calvin bases this notion on the fact that individuals are elected to grace by the Father and are, therefore, eternally secure. As such, Calvinists believe that nobody is capable of abandoning their faith. Those who supposedly do, they assert, were never really saved to begin with.
Who Was Jacobus Arminius?
Jacobus Arminius was a Dutch-born theologian and minister that played a key role in forming the Dutch Remonstrant (also known as “Remonstrants”) movement of the late Reformation era. Born in 1559 in Oudewater, Utrecht, Arminius was believed to have been orphaned at a young age. Later in his childhood, he was adopted by a Protestant-leaning priest known as Theodorus Aemilius. His views, which were later dubbed “Arminianism,” served as a direct counter to John Calvin’s views on predestination and election. As such, his belief system offers a direct challenge to the standards outlined by many Reformed beliefs.
Arminianism, in turn, is a system of theological ideas first devised by Dutch Reformer, Jacobus Arminius, during the late Sixteenth Century. In stark contrast to ideas espoused by Calvin, however, Arminianism rejects the notion of “irresistible grace” in favor of free will (or human ability). Like the 5 Points of Calvinism, Arminianism also employs five separate articles that govern their beliefs. Following the death of Arminius in 1609, these articles were created as a means to document their collective beliefs, while simultaneously serving as a form of “protest” against Calvin’s doctrines. This is why the Five Articles are often referred to as the Five Articles of Remonstrance, which comes from the word “remonstrate,” meaning “to make a forcefully reproachful protest.” Many of Jacobus Arminius’s followers formally took on the name “Remonstrants” due to their strong conviction to oppose Calvinist doctrine.
What is Arminianism?
The Five Articles of Arminianism:
- Article 1: Conditional Election
- Article 2: Unlimited Atonement
- Article 3: Total Depravity
- Article 4: Prevenient Grace
- Article 5: Conditional Preservation of the Saints
In direct response to Calvin’s Second Point, the First Article of Arminianism (“conditional election”) argues that election was based on God foreseeing individuals that would believe (and accept) the gospel of Jesus Christ. Election, therefore, was conditioned on the free will of mankind. According to this doctrine, God only chose individuals He was confident would choose Christ in the future, and who would persevere in the faith. Thus, in this regard, salvation is based on the choice of sinners rather than God. This view serves as a major counterpoint to the Calvinist view that God elects individuals to salvation of His own will (without taking into account the future worth of an individual).
According to Arminius, this second article of Arminianism specifies that atonement was provided for all individuals through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this view, Christ’s death (and Resurrection from the grave) paid the penalty for all sins, thus, extending “saving grace” to all individuals. However, this article specifies that it is through personal faith (not God) that atonement becomes effective for the individual. In other words, grace is not conferred solely to the elect (as Calvinism demonstrates). Rather, saving knowledge of Christ becomes effective when an individual chooses to believe.
This next article of Arminianism, known as “Total Depravity,” argues that human beings are depraved and corrupt (by nature). In stark contrast to Calvinism, however, which states that individuals are incapable of seeking (or trusting) God on their own behalf, Arminianism states unequivocally that individuals are still capable of trusting in God (through the exercise of their own “free will”). Arminius believed that conviction was still brought on by the working of the Holy Spirit, but that individuals were able to accept or reject Christ (regardless of their depraved condition). As such, some scholars have relabeled this article as “partial depravity.”
Also referred to as “enabling grace,” the concept of “Prevenient Grace” argues that God’s love is shown to all individuals before they make a decision to receive Salvation. This is in stark contrast to the Calvinist view which states that the Holy Spirit only works within the souls of the elect or predestined. According to this concept, prevenient grace implies that everyone is given the opportunity to choose salvation as God’s grace empowers individuals to seek Him through conviction. Unlike the Calvinist view, however, individuals are free to reject this gift if they so desire (through the exercise of their own “free will”). This article serves as a direct counter to Calvin’s idea of “irresistible grace,” as Arminianism dictates that grace is resistible by an individual.
Conditional Preservation of the Saints
Also referred to as “conditional security,” the idea of “Conditional Preservation of the Saints” is an Arminian belief which argues that believers can later lose their faith by committing apostasy (i.e. denouncing their faith). This view runs counter to the Calvinist view which argues that an individual is provided eternal security in their faith and cannot be separated by God. It is important to note, however, that the early Remonstrants did not fully reject the concept of “eternal security” that was espoused by Calvin and his followers (arguing that additional study was needed on this particular subject). Nevertheless, many continued to maintain that man’s inherent depravity could turn them away from Christ, thus, losing salvation in the process (through the exercise of man’s corrupt free will).
Similarities and Differences Between Arminianism and Calvinism
Now that we have established the primary beliefs that underpin both Arminianism and Calvinism, the best (and easiest) way to understand their differences is through a side-by-side comparison of the two theologies. By examining the two doctrines in this manner, their inherent differences are far easier for students (and those who are simply curious) to see the major divisions that exist.
The Sovereignty of God
The sovereignty of God refers to the belief that God is in complete and total control over anything (and everything) that occurs throughout the universe. Total sovereignty implies that God’s rule is supreme, making His will and desire final.
- Calvinist View: The Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty implies that His rule is unlimited, absolute, and unconditional. According to Calvin, all things were predetermined through the goodwill (and pleasure) of His own will.
- Arminian View: Arminians hold a similar view, in that they believe God is sovereign and that everything was preordained (or predetermined) throughout the universe to work together for the cause of Christ. However, Arminius and his followers asserted that God’s foreknowledge of events was conditioned by His foreknowledge of man’s response (free will) to the call of salvation.
Total depravity is the belief that mankind is wholly (or partially) depraved by their own nature. Without the atonement of Christ’s crucifixion and Resurrection, this general view holds that mankind is destined for the gates of Hell. Both Calvinists and Arminians maintain similar views on this particular subject. However, their primary difference lies with whether it's man's or God’s responsibility to initiate salvation.
- Calvinist View: According to Calvinists, the fall of mankind resulted in the world being totally depraved and “dead” in their sins. Calvin argues that man is wholly incapable of saving themselves, and that salvation is totally dependent upon the choice of God. This view implies that free will is non-existent for mankind and that salvation is a concept that must be initiated by God alone, as man’s sin makes them totally incapable of seeking the things of Christ on their own. This view is based on Romans 3:10-11 which states: “As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.”
- Arminian View: Arminians maintain a slightly different view regarding “total depravity.” Often dubbed “partial depravity” by Bible scholars, Arminianism states that mankind is indeed corrupt and depraved by nature (resulting from the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden). However, Arminians state unequivocally that an individual is still able to respond to God’s call to salvation, placing “free will” at the forefront of their beliefs.
Predestination and Election
As defined earlier in this study, predestination and election refer to the means by which people are chosen for salvation (before the foundation of the Earth). Although both Calvinists and Arminians agree that predestination and election are Biblical, the two theologies diverge significantly in their overall application to sinners and salvation.
- Calvinist View: Calvinists maintain that the concept of “election” is unconditional, meaning that only a specific number of individuals were chosen to be saved by the grace of God. Likewise, they maintain that election has nothing to do with God’s foreknowledge of an individual’s personal choice (or response) to the call of salvation; rather, the elect were chosen specifically by God for His own will and purpose. This view reiterates the previous section regarding “total depravity,” as Calvinists argue that mankind is wholly incapable of saving themselves due to their sinful and corrupt nature.
- Arminian View: Arminians also believe that predestination and election are Biblical truths espoused by the Word of God. However, their view contrasts with Calvinism in that they believe “election” is conditional. In other words, Arminians hold to the belief that God chose people before the foundation of the Earth for salvation, but that this selection is derived from God’s foreknowledge of what an individual’s future response would be. As with the Calvinist view on this topic, this belief reiterates the idea of “partial depravity” mentioned above and implies that “free will” is a major part of the salvation process.
Christ’s Atonement for Sin
Out of all the differences that exist between Calvinists and Arminians, the concept of atonement remains one of the most heated (and controversial) aspects of their ongoing debate. Atonement refers to the Lord Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for sinners. To date, Calvinists and Arminians remain divided on whether or not His atonement was limited to the elect, or sufficient for all human beings.
- Calvinist View: According to the Calvinist view of atonement, Christ’s atonement for sins is strictly limited to the elect. In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ died to save only those who were chosen by the Father (known collectively as the “elect”). According to Calvinists, this view implies that Christ’s death (and Resurrection) made atonement wholly successful.
- Arminian View: Arminians maintain a significantly different view of atonement which can be best described as “unlimited” in its application. According to the traditional Arminian view, Christ died for everyone in the world, with His death providing a means of salvation for all humans. However, they argue that atonement is only effective once an individual accepts Christ (through their own “free will”).
God’s Grace and Man’s Will
God’s grace refers to His call to salvation and is a hotly debated topic amongst Calvinists and Arminians. This debate also encompasses “man’s will,” and the responsibility of mankind in the salvation process. This area, in particular, deals heavily with the idea of “free will” versus “irresistible grace.”
- Calvinist View: According to Calvinists, grace was extended towards mankind, but is not sufficient to save anyone. Likewise, mankind’s total depravity extends to all areas of our life (including the will), making all individuals wholly incapable of receiving Christ of their own “free will.” Only through the application of God’s “irresistible grace” are humans (the “elect”) drawn toward saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is performed by the inner-working of the Holy Spirit, who makes a person “willing” to respond to God’s call. As such, Calvinists maintain that grace cannot be obstructed by an individual, or resisted once the Holy Spirit begins to convict a person’s heart.
- Arminian View: Arminians hold an entirely different view of grace and “man’s will,” and argue that “prevenient grace” (provided by the Holy Spirit to all mankind) allows individuals to fully cooperate and respond to God’s call to salvation through their own “free will.” Although they argue that mankind is certainly depraved (and sinful by nature), Arminians state that humans are still able to choose God through their own decision-making process. Likewise, they maintain that grace and the convicting power of the Holy Spirit can be resisted (and rejected) by an individual.
Perseverance of the Saints
The final point known as “perseverance of the saints” (or “preservation of the saints”) is another area of debate between Calvinists and Arminians that has been hotly contested over the years. The debate is rooted in the idea of “eternal security” of the soul. In other words, once an individual is saved, are they always saved? Or can an individual lose their faith (and salvation) over time? As can be expected, Calvinists and Arminians maintain two entirely different views on this topic.
- Calvinist View: Calvinists believe that believers will “persevere” in their salvation as they are incapable of becoming “lost.” They argue that God’s predestination and election make a believer secure in their faith and that an individual is incapable of turning his/her back on God. Although an individual may attempt to “wrestle” against God (similar to the story of Jonah in the Bible), this view implies that the will of God is concrete and that one’s destination is impervious to alteration.
- Arminian View: Arminianism states that an individual is entirely capable of losing their salvation (or faith) through the exercise of their own will. In other words, salvation is not entirely permanent and requires an individual to persevere in their faith if they are to maintain their salvation. As stated before, however, it is important to note that this view has recently become a topic of debate amongst Arminians, as some maintain that eternal security of the soul is Biblical, whereas others insist that salvation can be lost.
In closing, both Arminianism and Calvinism continue to play a vital role in the religious doctrines of the modern-day. While a number of similarities exist between the two theologies, they are far outweighed by the multitude of differences. After all, traditional Arminian beliefs were constructed with an inclination to denounce Calvin’s teachings which they viewed to be erroneous. Which belief system is correct, however, is a topic for another day. Only you (the reader) can make that determination based on a careful reading of Scripture as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
- “The Five Articles of Remonstrance.” 1610.
- “The Five Points of Calvinism.”
- Bray, Gerald. Documents of the English Reformation. Cambridge: James Clark & Company, 1994.
- DeJong, Peter. “The Opinions of the Remonstrants (1618).” Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dordt, 1618-1619. Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship.
- Sproul, R. C. “The Five Points of Calvinism.” Ligonier Ministries. 27 April 2021.
© 2021 Larry Slawson
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 26, 2021:
This article has a wealth of information, Larry. It is very good. I do not believe in predestination.
I just try to take the Bible as it is written, listen to good sermons and especially pray.
I have some problems with both of these views. I have never researched this topic in depth like you did, and it is a very informative article that makes you think carefully about your own beliefs. Thanks for sharing all of this information.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 26, 2021:
Larry, what a long read, interestly, and informative article. Both doctrines are great, and can only be reconciled into Pentecortal in the modern era though, these seperate movements retain their individuality. So I could not in anyway vote for either. Thanks for the read.