Calvinism and Arminianism are two attempts to explain how the sovereignty of God works with mankind's free will/responsibility in the area of salvation. The quest is noble, but ultimately doomed, as God is so much bigger and wider than we could possibly imagine, and there is no way we could possibly understand exactly how He works. The difference between Calvinism and Arminianism hinges on how much responsibility we have for our own salvation as opposed to God's ultimate sovereignty. Arminians and Calvinists are definitively split on three key areas and moderately split on two others.
In the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate, which side is correct?
Calvinists conveniently separated their theology into a 5-point acrostic: TULIP. They differ with the Arminians completely in the "ULI" of the acronym: Unconditional election, Limited atonement, and Irresistible grace. Calvinists believe that God alone chooses who will be saved by His sovereign choice. We are born dead in our sins, unable to respond to the grace of God. Therefore, God's predestination of who will be saved is in no way dependent on our reaction to God's grace. Arminians believe that God chooses who will be saved based on His foreknowledge of who will choose Him. The "L" stands for Limited atonement. Calvinists believe Jesus' sacrifice was only to cover the sins of those who were predestined to be saved; Arminians believe Christ died for every sin of everyone in the world. This is the only way anyone could be free to choose God. The "I" is related. Calvinists believe in "Irresistible grace." God chooses those who will be saved, and the individual has no choice—they cannot "resist" God's grace. Arminians believe that God's offer can be resisted/rejected.
Arminians are less consolidated with the "T" and the "P." Calvinists believe in Total depravity, that is, we are born completely dead in our sins and are unable to save ourselves. Some Arminians agree, while others believe we cannot be completely depraved if we are able to choose salvation. The "P" stands for Preservation of the saints. Calvinists and many Arminians believe "once saved, always saved." Because the saving work is done by God alone, believers cannot lose their salvation. Some Arminians, however, believe that mankind has so much influence in their own salvation that their actions can cause God to revoke it. They believe we must continually reject sin and live a godly life in order to maintain our position with God.
So, who is right? Calvinism seems to be a more biblical system than Arminianism. The Bible makes it clear that humanity is born in total depravity (Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10-18). Because of our state of sin, unconditional election is essential for our salvation (Romans 8:29-30, 9-11; Ephesians 1:4-6, 11-12). We cannot respond to God's gift in our sinful state; He has to take us unconditionally. Likewise, His offer of grace is irresistible. We can no more choose to turn it down than we can choose to accept it (John 6:37, 44, 10:16). And if we are unable to refuse God's gift, then we are unable to return it; eternal security is absolutely biblical (John 10:27-29; Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:3-14). Limited atonement is the only point of Calvinism against which a strong, biblically-based argument can be made. Despite the fact that Bible clearly states that God predestines those He will save, the Bible suggests Christ's sacrifice covered the sins of all the world, not merely the sins of the elect (1 John 2:2; John 1:29, 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:6; 2 Peter 2:1). Calvinists reply that while Christ's sacrifice has the power to save all, in reality it applies only to the elect. If it applied to everyone, then those in hell are paying for the same sins Christ paid for on the cross.
So, while it is valuable to understand the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, ultimately, they are both human attempts to explain divine concepts. Yes, God is absolutely sovereign over salvation. Yes, humanity is fully responsible for receiving the gift of salvation God offers. How these two truths work together is the essence of the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate. But, whether Calvinism or Arminianism is correct, or some compromise between Calvinism and Arminianism is correct, our responsibility remains the same. We are to proclaim the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to the entire world (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8).
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