I am often asked whether I am a Calvinist or an Arminian. Honestly, it is not a simple question because these are not simply defined theological categories that can be chosen as one would choose from a menu at a restaurant. I certainly understand the importance of the question, as our answer reveals much about our understanding of God’s character and how He works with humanity. But neither label – Calvinism nor Arminianism – is adequate in explaining the Biblical position. In fact, the labels aren’t even adequate in explaining the positions of the men they supposedly represent.
For example, Calvin himself had nothing to do with the formal five points of Calvinism, and in reading Calvin over the years, I am convinced he would not have been a good Calvinist. The five points were really developed through the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) in response to the teachings of followers of Jacobus Arminius. These followers were called Remonstrants, after the document published in 1610 called the Remonstrance, which challenged the Belgic Confession (1562-1566) and some of John Calvin’s and Theodore Beza’s teaching. So when we engage this question, we need to understand that we are dealing with decades (and now centuries) of intense theological controversy over theological perspectives and statements.
I recently stated that in examining my writing and theology, one might conclude I was a four point Calvinist, but that conclusion would not quite be an accurate representation of my understanding of Scripture. When asked the question, I generally answer that I am neither Calvinist or Arminian, but that I am a Biblicist. While this may sound like a cop-out, I suggest it isn’t. If we engage only the Biblical data without extending beyond what is written, then we will not conclude in favor of either system. These articles attempt to address how both Calvinism and Arminianism differs from a simple Biblical approach. (If you want the quick version, I understand that God is completely sovereign, and we are held by God to be completely responsible.) We start with Calvinism, considering the classic TULIP system of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of saints.
Westminster Confession on Total Depravity
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto (Westminster Confession, 9:III)
This statement is consistent with Romans 3:9-20, 5:1-12, and Ephesians 2:1-3 in describing our former estate. The insufficiency here is in the explanation of how man is presently in a state of sin. Calvin advocated the idea of federal headship – that Adam was representative of all humanity in his sin. But the Biblical conception of human depravity is not simply that we are all in sin because Adam represented us. Adam’s son was born in his image and likeness (Gen 5:3). So the sin Adam bore is passed down to all of us as an inherited trait. We have the sin nature just as Adam. Insofar as all are sinners by nature (Rom 5:12; Eph 2:3), we all bear the consequences of spiritual death (Gen 2:17) and physical death (Gen 3:19). This is likely why David referred to himself as having been brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin (Ps 51:5). In short, depravity seems to include representation in Adam, but extends beyond that to an ontological depravity due to our own individual natures: we are born from a sinner – in the image and likeness of that sinner – therefore, we are by nature, sinners.
Westminster Confession on Unconditional Election
III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.
IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it can not be either increased or diminished.
V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.
VI. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
VII. The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice. (Westminster Confession, 3:III-VII)
In these assertions there are some overstatements. Angels are predestined to eternal life? Where does the Bible assert that? Their number can be neither increased or diminished? Upon what Biblical basis? These statements are possibly true, but they go beyond what is written. There is a subtle problem here, and it is not necessarily in the conclusion of double election (that God elected believers to salvation and unbelievers to damnation). The problem is in the means of arriving at that conclusion.
The Canon of Dort, Rejection of Errors, First Head, Paragraph 8 quotes three passages: Romans 9:18 (“he hardens whom he wants to harden”), Matthew 13:11 (“not revealed to them”), and Matthew 11:25-26 (“you have hidden these things from the wise”). But in each of these three cases the Canon of Dort goes too far. The content of the what was hidden in Matthew 13:11 was the mysteries of the kingdom – the things Jesus was sharing with the disciples in private – the things of the kingdom, not of individual salvation. And are we to understand Matthew 11:25 as restricting saving knowledge from the wise and intelligent? If so then Paul is wrong, because he admits there are some wise who are saved (1 Cor 1:26). The hardening of Romans 9 has nothing to do with election. In fact, the first Biblical instance of hardening is done with Pharaoh after the fact (Ex 4:21). We cannot say whether Pharaoh was ever a believer or not, because the Bible doesn’t reveal it. While double election seems logically necessary, it is not exegetically provable. It may even be probable, but it cannot be justified as Biblical fact.
Canons of Dort on Limited Atonement
The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world (Second Head, Article 3).
For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them, free from every spot and blemish, to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever (Second Head, Article 8).
That God the Father has ordained His Son to the death of the cross without a certain and definite decree to save any, so that the necessity, profitableness, and worth of what Christ merited by His death might have existed, and might remain in all its parts complete, perfect, and intact, even if the merited redemption had never in fact been applied to any person (Rejection of Errors 2:1).
Contemporary explanations of limited atonement rest upon a basic syllogism:
P1: None of Jesus’ blood was wasted
P2: His blood provided a complete satisfaction for sin wherever it is efficacious
C: Jesus could only have died for the elect, who would ultimately receive redemption
Interestingly, this syllogism is not found explicitly in Calvin’s writings, the Canons of Dort, or the Westminster Confession. However the Dort statement (Rejection of Errors 2:1) provides the logical basis for it: only the elect can be saved, and Christ’s death would have been wasted if never applied to any person. This Dort statement assumes the necessity of unconditional election, and undergirds the efficacy of the atonement upon that principle. In short, if Jesus paid the price for the sin of those who wouldn’t believe, then His blood was wasted. The Belgic Confession (Article XXII) illustrates the significance of this: “Therefore, for any to assert, that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides him, would be too gross a blasphemy: for hence it would follow that Christ was but half a Savior.”
The logic is not too difficult to follow, and if the premises are correct, then the conclusion is also correct. However, that Jesus did die to pay the penalty for all (elect or not) is clearly stated in 1 John 2:2 – “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” This simply stated passage underscores the fact that the limited atonement view is not accurate. It is better to understand Christ’s sacrifice through the lens of the Passover illustration. The blood shed by the lambs was perfectly efficacious blood, but it had to be applied in a specific manner, otherwise it did not provide benefit for the individual (Ex 12:7,13). The only way to justify the limited atonement view is to change the meaning of the words in 1 John 2:2, and that is not allowed by the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic.
Canons of Dort on Irresistible Grace
That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree. “For known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18 A.V.). “who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:11). According to which decree He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe; while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation, revealed in the Word of God, which, though men of perverse, impure, and unstable minds wrest it to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation (First Head, Article 6, emphasis mine).
This purpose proceeding from everlasting love towards the elect, has from the beginning of the world to this day been powerfully accomplished, and will henceforward still continue to be accomplished, notwithstanding all the ineffectual opposition of the gates of hell, so that the elect in due time may be gathered together into one, and that there may never be wanting a church composed of believers, the foundation of which is laid in the blood of Christ, which may steadfastly love, and faithfully serve him as their Savior, who as a bridegroom for his bride, laid down his life for them upon the cross, and which may celebrate his praises here and through all eternity (Second Head, Article 9, emphasis mine).
In my estimation, this is probably the best (most Biblically) stated of the five points. This point reflects accurately the process described in Romans 8:28-30, that the foreknowledge of God with respect to the ones He predestines and calls and justifies concludes with their glorification. The Dort statements logically presuppose double election, and I have already addressed the exegetical challenge there: while logically possible, it is not exegetically certain. These Dort statements of irresistible grace come close to what is Biblically certain, with only the subtle extension beyond what is written.
Dort and Westminster on Perseverance of Saints
And as God Himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient, and omnipotent, so the election made by Him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled, or annulled; neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished (Canons of Dort, First Head, Article 11).
May not true believers, by reason of their imperfections, and the many temptations and sins they are overtaken with, fall away from a state of grace? True believers, by reason of the unchangeable love of God, and His decree and covenant to give them perseverance, their inseparable union with Christ, His continual intercession for them, and the Spirit and seed of God abiding in them, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 79).
The Dort statement appeals to election, while the Westminster statement appeals to God’s giving of perseverance. The conclusion that believers are eternally secure is Biblically accurate, but the means of arriving at that conclusion is better connected to (1) the present tense possession of eternal life by the believer in Jesus Christ (Jn 6:47), and (2) the protection of God (1 Pet 1:5). In 1 Peter 1:3-5, for example, there are eleven statements affirming the security of the believer, and none of them depend on or are focused on the believer, but all are focused on God’s activity. The issue here is that the phrase perseverance of saints implies some activity on the part of the believer, whereas the Biblical data is explicit regarding God as exclusive Protector. If this fifth point was referred to as protection of saints, I think the point would be positioned more Biblically, with a theocentric focus.