Calvinism, Arminianism and the biblical data

In this post, Grace Communion Seminary President Michael Morrison looks at Calvinism and Arminianism, compares them, then addresses the biblical data that brings both into question.


Classical Calvinism, a development of the teachings of John Calvin, has five key points, commonly presented with the acronym TULIP:

T is for total depravity. This does not mean that everything people do is evil, but it means that all humans have some evil within them, and that the evil is found in all parts of humanity, including our use of reason.

U is for unconditional election. God chooses some people for salvation, and his choice is based entirely within himself, not on anything the people have done or will do.

L is for limited atonement. This is the view that Jesus died only for the people he intended to save; he did not die for the sins of the people God does not want to save.

I is for irresistible grace. Grace is always effective, because God always gets what he wants. If Jesus died for someone, or for a group of people, his sacrifice is not going to be in vain. 

P is for perseverance or preservation of the saints. Those who begin the journey will always finish it.

This is not all there is to Calvinism, but these five points help distinguish Calvinism from other Christian theologies. The five points are logically connected. If humans are all depraved, then they cannot save themselves; it must be done by God. Salvation is by grace alone, not by anything anyone can do. Therefore God must initiate salvation, and he must be the one who sees it through to completion. Since he is all-powerful, he will always be effective. But since we see in Scripture and in experience that not everyone is saved, it must be (using fallible reason) because God intended it that way. He wants some people to be saved, but not everyone, so he sent Jesus to save only those people that he intends to save, and he will see them through to the end.

Most people who call themselves Calvinists accept all five points, and some say that an authentic Calvinist must be a “five-point Calvinist.” However, others claim to be “four-point Calvinists” – these usually deny the middle point. They believe that Jesus died for all people, even if God does not want to save all people. They believe the Bible teaches an unlimited atonement and therefore requires them to have this element in their theology even if they cannot explain why Christ would die for people he did not want to save. Calvin himself did not teach unlimited atonement (or at least the evidence can be understood in different ways), but his followers said that it was logical deduction from the other points.

Jacob Arminius and John Calvin


Non-Calvinism comes in diverse forms, but it is often called Arminianism, after Jacobus Arminius, a 16th-century Dutch professor who had been in the Calvinist tradition. In 1619, a synod defined Calvinism as upholding the five TULIP points over against the beliefs of Arminius. Many Anglicans, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have beliefs similar to Arminius, but it seems odd to call them Arminian because they are not following Arminius – these beliefs existed before Arminius did. Nevertheless, it was the Dutch controversy that helped define the points in dispute.

The dispute has roots in the Bible and in theology:

  1. God is sovereign, omnipotent and almighty (Psalm 115:3).
  2. Humans cannot save themselves; salvation must be by grace (Ephesians 2:8 and other scriptures).
  3. God loved the world, and Jesus is the Savior of all people, especially those who believe (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 4:10 and other scriptures).
  4. Passages such as Hebrews 6 and 10 imply that people can receive God’s blessings and yet fall away.
  5. Not everyone is saved (John 5:29 and other scriptures).

As a simplification, Calvinists stress the first two points, and reduce the meaning of points three and four. Arminians stress points three and four, and reduce the meaning of point one. Calvinists find it difficult to explain why God is not the author of evil, if everyone is simply doing what God has decreed. By positing a God who loves the world yet creates some people for eternal destruction, they end up with a love that cannot be comprehended, and a God who cannot be known by what we see in Jesus. Jesus supposedly revealed that there is a Father, but did not reveal what he is like. Why would anyone want to spend eternity with a being they cannot know?

Arminians struggle to explain why people cannot take a little credit for their own salvation, if their salvation depends on something they do. If people do not believe, then God does not welcome them – but if they believe, then he does. This means that people are changing God’s attitude toward them – they change God. Arminians say that, with his foreknowledge, God has chosen people based on what they do.

Calvinists seem to start with a definition of sovereignty that does not allow them to accept what some scriptures seem to say. Arminians seem to start with a definition of free will that does not allow them to accept what other scriptures say.

Calvinists want to give us assurance that people who have faith in Christ are eternally safe. However, Calvinists cannot guarantee this for any specific person. Some people who think they have faith, and look like they have faith, nevertheless end life without faith, so Calvinists conclude that they never had real faith. Appearances can be deceiving. Therefore, no matter how good the doctrine of perseverance is in theory, in practice, there is an appearance of failure for some individuals. People who seem to have faith at one stage of their life can end up not having faith at the end of their life. We can never have an iron-clad guarantee that we are part of the elect. 

It is a complex problem; that is why there is no consensus even after 400 years of debate. One contributing factor to the problem, I suspect, is that people are working with an overly simplified definition of salvation. People are acting as if salvation is a transaction, a payment that is external to what humans are. It’s like a light switch, either on or off. Either God flipped the switch with an ancient decree, or the switch is flipped when people come to faith in Christ. People are either in category A (unsaved) or category B (saved).

Perhaps due to an emphasis on hell and the last judgment, some people act as if salvation is primarily about getting a favorable verdict at the last judgment. It is “yes” or “no.” People want to be declared “not guilty.” Salvation is all about escaping the threat of hell. That is a reasonable concern, but salvation is more than a way to escape hell, and more than an entrance ticket into heaven. 

The Bible says that Jesus purchased us by his death on the cross, but that is only one of many metaphors the Bible uses for salvation. There is more involved in salvation than just flipping a switch, or just declaring a verdict at a trial. That is why the Bible speaks of salvation in past, present, and future tenses (for examples: Ephesians 2:8; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 3:15). It is not just something done in the past – it involves an ongoing process and a future culmination.

Heaven (or salvation) is good not because of its location, but because of who is there. Salvation is defined by the triune God: it is an eternal relationship with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit. It is life in harmony with God, life characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, meekness, kindness and faithfulness. It is life freed from the “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-24). 

We not only need a favorable verdict on the day of judgment – we also need to be saved from ourselves. The doctrine of total depravity is right: there is something seriously wrong about human nature. We need more than an external pronouncement – we need an interior transformation, brought about by the Holy Spirit. This does not happen at the flip of a switch or simply by command. This part of salvation is a process. We need to be rescued – saved – from our own tendency to sin, our tendency to hurt ourselves and everyone around us.

Jesus Christ is our salvation – not just that he purchased it, but he embodies it as we are connected to him. Our lives are hidden in him and he lives in us (Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:3). He is our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30). It is through him that we are children of God. As our Creator, he represents all humanity before God. Salvation is always in relationship with him, not merely a declaration about where we will go after we die, as if we could exist independently of him. Relationships are complex; they are not just a matter of “yes” or “no.”

The biblical data

Let us return to the Bible. On one side, we see passages that seem to include everyone in the scope of God’s redeeming love: God loved the world; Christ died for all; in him all are reconciled to God. But in other passages, we see that some people reject what Christ has done for them. Some reject him from the start; others reject him after they have started. Many seem to have no chance to even get started.

Calvinism says that Jesus died only for the elect, only for those who God predestined for salvation. Arminians say that Jesus died for everyone. There is biblical support for this, and if a Calvinist abandons one of the five points, it is most likely this one. Calvin was not always clear on this topic. The primary question is what the Bible teaches. Here are some key verses:

  • 2 Corinthians 5:14: “We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.”
  • Colossians 1:19-20: “God was pleased…to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
  • 1 Timothy 2:3-6: “God…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth…. Christ Jesus…gave himself as a ransom for all people.”
  • 1 Timothy 4:9-10: “The living God…is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”
  • Hebrews 2:9: “Jesus…suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
  • 1 John 2:2: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Some of these verses distinguish between believers and nonbelievers, and say that Jesus is the Savior of both categories. Calvinists, based on their understanding of how predestination works, suggest a different meaning for these verses. I have read those suggestions, but they seem to me to be contorted and special pleading. I think the better exegesis is that these verses indicate that Jesus died for all people, and I will fit my understanding of predestination around that, rather than let my prior understanding dictate what the meaning of these verses is.

Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the whole world, but not everyone ends up being saved. How can that be? Arminians have an answer, but I do not think that their answer does justice to the above scriptures. Arminians say that Jesus’ sacrifice is not effective until a person accepts it, or has faith in Jesus. But this falls short of what the verses actually say. How could Jesus’ effectiveness be limited by human unbelief? 

Jesus died for all people, he ransomed all people, he paid for the sins of all people, and he reconciled all people (2 Corinthians 5:14-19). God is “not counting people’s sins against them” (verse 19). Love does not keep a record of wrongdoing (1 Corinthians 13:5). His love (which is far more powerful than ours) covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). 

Granted, many of the biblical statements are metaphors. But what do the metaphors imply? Jesus paid for all our sins, even the sin of unbelief, and he did it 2000 years ago. It was done before we lived and before we believed. Forgiveness has been granted; God is not waiting on us to believe before we are actually forgiven. There is no longer any debt to speak of. At the final judgment, all the charges have been dropped.

The gates of heaven are wide open – any yet not everyone goes in (Revelation 21:25-27; 22:15). It seems that not everyone wants to go in. Although God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), not everyone wants to be saved. Some do not want to live in a kingdom in which there is no more pride and selfishness. They do not want life on the terms that God gives it. They want God to stay out of their life. God gives forgiveness, reconciliation, and acceptance, but they do not want it. They have chosen what the evil spirits chose long ago.

God gives, but does not force. He desires salvation for all, and purchases salvation for all, but not all end up with the result that God desires. Since all created things are sustained by Jesus’ word (Hebrews 1:3), there is no such thing as a will that is totally free (except for God). God puts boundaries on what a human can choose – we cannot choose to have life inherent within ourselves, for example. We are finite. He may influence our desires, to cause us to want certain things rather than others, but he apparently does not force all of our desires. People can grieve the Holy Spirit and despise his gifts. His grace may be powerfully attractive, but some people resist, even after experiencing heavenly gifts.

Some say that divine perseverance will eventually overcome all objections, and everyone will end up saved (even the evil spirits, according to some). But there is no biblical evidence for this. The Bible indicates that some will be outside, and the story of the Bible ends with that situation. It does not explain how we will be eternally happy with that result, nor does it need to. We cannot require that God conform to our notions of what makes us happy.

God does not decree evil, but he allows it. He allows things (traditionally called his “permissive will”) to happen outside of his decrees. Just as he allowed Adam and Eve to disobey his command, he allows people today to reject what he commands. Although he has the power to force them to do whatever he wants, he does not always use his power in the way that we might think that he would. Our understanding of power, and its proper use, is fallible. We cannot rely on our logic to tell us what God must do with his sovereignty. Rather, we must see what he actually does, as he reveals in Scripture, and what we see in Scripture and in experience is that he gives grace to all, but not everyone responds to his grace in the right way.

God welcomes us to come, but he does not manipulate us so that we always do his bidding. He does not force us to enjoy what he enjoys. Although no one can snatch us out of his kingdom, it seems that he allows people to opt out (just as he allowed spirit beings to rebel long ago). 

Assurance in Christ

Our assurance is not in our logic, but in Christ. We can be confident that he will never leave us or forsake us. He died for us when we were sinners; we can be doubly sure that he is on our side when we love him. We can also be confident that Jesus will not force us to be in his kingdom when we don’t want to be. (Calvinists agree, with the explanation that God causes the elect to want to be in the kingdom.) Christ is always willing. If we want to be with him, we get what we want. On the other hand, if we want him to leave us alone, we also get what we want. As C.S. Lewis wrote, 

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it…. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. For those who knock it is opened. (The Great Divorce)

People who want the salvation that God gives – life with God in love, joy and peace – will accept it; those who do not want what he gives will not be forced to live in it. 

So, is it possible for someone to be enlightened, to repent, to taste the heavenly gift and experience the Holy Spirit, and despite all that, to eventually turn away from it? The author of Hebrews implies that this is a real possibility, although he does not say it is a common one. We hope that it is extremely rare. 

Does this mean that a person’s salvation depends partly on what that person does – on what the person chooses? No. The salvation is given regardless of what the person does or wants. The person can choose to enjoy it, or choose to despise it, but the person cannot choose whether it is given. The person can have eternal joy in what was given, or the person can have eternal frustration in trying to live in a way that is contrary to the way that God has created them to be. If we choose to enjoy what God has given, it is good, but we cannot take any credit for enjoying it. Salvation is 100 percent grace; even our ability to enjoy it is a gift we did not deserve.