A listener to the podcast, Peter from Seattle, writes in: “Pastor John, what is the main difference between Calvinism and Arminianism? I’m trying to explain this difference to my 13-year-old son and would love to boil it down to one or two watershed differences. What would those be?”
Okay, I am going to give him more than he asked for. Then I am going to give him what he asked for. I think it will be helpful for me to walk through the so-called five points because these five points are what the Arminian Remonstrance in 1610 threw back at the Calvinists. The Calvinists didn’t come up with five points to start with. The Calvinists wrote their vision of what salvation looks like and how it happens under God’s sovereignty. When the Arminians read it, they said, “These are five places we don’t agree.” That is where we got these five points. So, if you want to talk about what is the key soteriological differences between Arminianism and Calvinism, you have to take these one by one.
“The key difference between a Calvinist and an Arminian is in the way they understand how we get saved.”
So here is what I will do. I will give one sentence for each Calvinism and Arminianism under the five points, and then I will say what I would say to my 13-year-old.
Calvinism says people are so depraved and rebellious that they are unable to trust God without his special work of grace to change their hearts so that they necessarily and willingly — freely — believe. Arminians say, with regard to depravity, people are depraved and corrupt, but they are able to provide the decisive impulse to trust God with the general divine assistance that God gives to everybody.
Calvinism says that we are chosen. God chooses unconditionally whom he will mercifully bring to faith and whom he will justly leave in their rebellion. Arminians say God has chosen us, elected, to bring to salvation all those whom he foresaw would believe by bringing about their own faith — providing the decisive impetus themselves. In those, God doesn’t decisively produce the faith that he foresees.
Calvinism says in the death of Christ God provided sufficient atonement for all but designed that it be effective for the elect. Meaning, it purchased for them the new covenant promise that God would bring about in his people faith and perseverance. Arminians say in the death of Christ God provided a sufficient atonement for all and designed that it would become effective by virtue of faith for which we, not Christ, provide the decisive impetus. Meaning, faith itself is not purchased by the cross, but that it is the human means of obtaining what the cross purchased — namely, forgiveness of sins.
4. Grace or New Birth
Calvinists say that the new birth is God’s work of renewal in our hearts that necessarily brings about the act of willing, hearty, saving faith. Arminians say the new birth is God’s work of renewal in our hearts in response to our act of saving faith.
Calvinists say God works infallibly to preserve us in faith — all of us who are truly born again — and that no one is ever lost who was truly born of God. Arminians say God works to preserve his people, but does not always prevent some who were born again from falling away to destruction.
So what is the one thing dad would say to a son? Because those are all heavy. Those words are carefully chosen. Those words would be hard to get, and they might need years to work through that. I did a seminar on the five points. But let me close with a question, trying to answer the question that the dad asked. I would like to say that the one key difference is the sovereignty of God, but that won’t work, because the Arminians won’t like that since they affirm the sovereignty of God too. They just mean something a little more limited by it.
“Calvinists believe that God has to produce in us the decisive desire for Christ. Arminians believe we have to.”
So here is what I would say to my 13-year-old. I would say the key difference is how we get saved. The key difference between a Calvinist and an Arminian is how they understand how we get saved; that is, how we move from a condition of spiritual unbelief to a condition of heartfelt belief or faith in Christ. And the key difference is this: Calvinists believe that God has to produce in us the decisive desire for Christ. Arminians believe we must produce in ourselves the decisive desire for Christ. The Arminians say that God helps us. He helps all people, but we provide the last, decisive impetus and desire for that belief.
Or I might say it like this: You can tell if someone is an Arminian or a Calvinist by how they answer the question, “What was the decisive cause of your faith in Christ?” So you go up to somebody and you ask, “What was the decisive cause of your faith in Christ? Was it God or was it yourself?” And the Calvinist says, “The decisive cause of my faith was God” and the Arminian says, “The decisive cause of my faith in Christ is myself.”