Arminian Vs. Calvinistic Perspectives on Salvation
First of all, it seems to me that the primary message that God wishes to impart through the pages of scripture – His Book, the Holy Bible – is that He alone is involved in the business of salvation. Salvation is the saving of souls for eternal life which it pleases God to bestow on a people of His own choosing (the church) through the sacrificial death of God-incarnate, Jesus Christ – a death which sufficiently atoned for the sins of this chosen people. The Bible, then, is really all about two things: (1) Jesus, the Bridegroom who is anticipated in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament; (2) the Church – the Bride consisting of His people whom God foreknew and chose from before the foundation of the world. In the fullness of time when history comes to a close and all the souls of God’s people are gathered together in heaven, there will be a ‘marriage supper’ for the Bridegroom and His Bride.
The Old Testament is a series of historical narratives involving another chosen people, the Jews, that anticipates, foreshadows or illustrates in a physical sense, future events that would be fulfilled or consummated in a spiritual sense in the New Testament between Jesus and His Bride, the Church. For example, God’s dealings with the Jews foreshadows, or is a ‘type’ of, the Church (the ‘ecclesia’ or ‘called-out ones’) – the chosen people who constitute the Bride of Christ. The Jews did not choose God. In fact, scripture shows them to be a rebellious, stiff-necked (stubborn, dogmatic, inflexible) and often wicked race of people who continually wandered after other gods. But it pleased God that the Jews would be the wayward people who would illustrate and foreshadow His plan of salvation to all men, and also be the race through whom the Messiah, a Saviour, would be born, thus overcoming the finality of death and making eternal life possible. This plan of forgiveness, redemption and salvation would extend not only to Jews but also to Gentiles through a ‘grafting in’ of one chosen people (of the physical sort – the Jews) with another chosen people (of the spiritual sort – consisting of both Jews and Gentiles).
Not every Jew or Gentile is a chosen person, so I would have to say that Jews are not saved by virtue of their race, but by the circumcision of their heart – something spiritual that applies to all people who are ‘born again’. However, for illustrative purposes it pleased God that Jews would be a ‘chosen people’ through whom His plan of salvation would enter the world. The physical tribe of the Jews of the Old Testament foreshadows the spiritual Church of the New Testament in the same way that Abraham’s physical dealings with his only beloved son, Isaac, was a forerunner of the spiritual dealings that God the Father had with His only beloved Son, Jesus, the Christ. Abraham equates to God the Father in the same way that Isaac equates to Jesus. The only difference is that God spared the life of Isaac when he was about to be sacrificed by Abraham, but He did not spare Jesus from being sacrificed for the sins of His chosen people. The Jews were obliged to go on sacrificing unblemished animals to atone for the sins of their tribe because without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin. This meant a lot of bloody sacrifices on a daily basis, but these were merely an imperfect ritual that foreshadowed an unblemished sacrifice in the New Testament, namely the Lamb of God, slain from before the foundation of the world to be a perfect sacrifice – one sacrifice for all time that made no further sacrifices necessary.
Through Christ’s crucifixion, God’s justice had been fully satisfied and His anger satiated through His mercy – a sin offering made once for all people chosen from before the foundation of the world – a people whom God foreknew before Time, the World, and the Universe were even conceived. Clearly, this all happened in a spiritual realm because the physical universe, time, and space weren’t even in existence yet. This business of God ‘choosing’ his Bride is further illustrated in the case of Hosea who chose Gomer, a common @#!*% , to be his bride simply because he loved her. Then time and again he willingly did all in his power to have her return to him when she departed in pursuit of a host of other extra-marital affairs.
When a person reads the Bible, it would be well to keep these basic facts in mind as a ‘frame of reference’. Scripture will naturally ‘hang together’ when the overall context and message of scripture is understood through the many ‘types and shadows’ – the physical illustrations experienced by the Jews in the Old Testament which pointed to future spiritual fulfillments. So too, various discrepancies and seeming contradictions can be overcome, and the Bible will no longer read like a collection of disconnected moral stories with only a word or two of wisdom to impart. Neither will the Bible appear simply as a collection of laws and rules of behaviour to be followed by those who want to be ‘good’, or to earn their own salvation through a regimen of good works. The important lesson is that God foreknew us and chose us from before Time and the World came into existence, thus we can do nothing to earn or add merit to our own salvation, neither can we lose our salvation by anything bad that we do. Like Elias, the Lord will relentlessly pursue his unfaithful bride and woo her back into the marriage so that she will eventually love and cherish him out of pure gratitude for his unfailing love and mercy. Others would ‘give up’ on an unfaithful spouse, but God doesn’t do that. He’s in it for the ‘long haul’ – a ‘haul’ that happens to last forever!
The Arminian seems to think that we can decide today or tomorrow to ‘follow Jesus’ and thereby qualify for eternal life. No, God chose us eons ago; we didn’t choose Him yesterday or today. And, like Gomer, we now love Him because He first loved us. God chose us before we were even a twinkle in our earthly parents’ eyes. But when our time came to be born into this world, a clock was started such that, if we are among God’s chosen people, something or someone would eventually cross our path in a very casual way that would spark our interest and curiosity in spiritual matters. The fact that we were able to respond with interest to the gospel message was made possible by the subtle patient promptings of the Holy Spirit who brought the truth of scripture to our understanding. Our faith then arose out of this understanding, and it is this faith in God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ that justifies, or makes one acceptable in God’s sight. At this moment one is ‘born again’ (spiritually, this time) and aware that one is an adopted child of God – one who was chosen and is saved. Therefore, justification is by faith alone, not by works lest any man should boast, and faith comes by hearing the Word of God which contains the gospel – the ‘good news’ of God’s plan of salvation.
Having sinned only once in our life, this single moral failing alone would be enough to disqualify us from enjoying eternal life with our Creator. That’s the bad news. But all is not lost because God has a plan of redemption that makes everlasting life possible. That’s the good news. Since everyone has sinned and fallen short of the sinless perfection that God requires, nobody would qualify for salvation no matter how good their works might be! There is no ‘good enough’ or ‘grading on the Bell curve’ with God. It’s always ‘all or nothing’. You’re either absolutely perfect and saved, or imperfect and unsaved. The Law reveals our sin and shortcomings that we commit daily, if not hourly, through our speech, deeds and thoughts – any one of which would disqualify us for eternal life.
Thankfully, by God’s grace and mercy, at least His chosen people do qualify for salvation because God’s own sinless righteous perfection has been imputed to them. God therefore sees his Church clothed in robes of righteousness without spot or wrinkle – a sinful people like Gomer, deemed to be a worthy and chaste Bride of Christ – a bride who will live with Him forever. Then all the tears of sadness, sorrow, grief and hurt – the consequences of the sin in our lives – will be wiped away forever.
There is great liberty associated with sound doctrine because it takes the pressure off us to behave contrary to our nature in order to ‘earn’ our salvation through merit or good works. We can simply ‘be ourselves’ and go on with our lives knowing full well that we can never become perfect through our own efforts. God sees right through our attempted ‘make-over’ anyway (to be sweet and gentle while our human nature remains prone to sinful acts from time-to-time). We are born with a sin nature – the ‘inner-man’ that strives against the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the other nature that is now co-habitating alongside our own spirit within the temple of our body. The regenerated man or ‘born-again’ person now has two spirits residing within him, and these two are in conflict with one another as long as he is alive. Sometimes one dominates, then the Other. Paul lamented the power that the inner man still has on one’s conduct, but gradually one becomes transformed more and more into Christ-likeness. As we become transformed by the renewing of our minds, our penchant for sinful habits begins to diminish and we become better examples of God’s nature. We also become less inclined to reflect poorly on the gospel and the Christian faith. This process over time is called ‘sanctification’. We may be increasingly sanctified in the period following our conversion, or being ‘born again’, but until we die we will never attain the full perfection of Christ because we will always have the sinful inner-man to contend with.
Even though we can never attain it through our own efforts, God demands absolute perfection from us. Thankfully He gladly imputes perfection to our account because of the obedient sacrifice that Christ submitted to at Calvary over 2000 years ago. God suffered and died on our behalf; He paid the penalty so that we might have eternal life – the Just died for the unjust. A substitute was provided on our behalf and God the Father accepted it. A ram was found by Abraham as a substitute sacrifice for the Jews, but the Lamb of God obediently went to the cross as a substitute sacrifice for us. That is why Jesus is worthy of all honor, glory, and thanksgiving. Our debt is cancelled because He paid it in full. That is the amazing plan of redemption that God had in mind from before the foundation of the world.
We must always remember, however, that Christ’s sacrifice was not a ‘gift’. A gift is something that is offered to us, and then we are obliged to make a decision on whether to accept that gift or not. If salvation is dependent on our ‘decision’ to accept ‘Christ’s sacrificial gift’ by our own ‘free-will’, then a little bit of human involvement enters into the process of salvation. It may seem minor, but man can play no part whatsoever in salvation. It is all of God, so that He gets all the credit and glory. We cannot even glory in ‘making a decision for Christ’ or ‘accepting a gift of salvation’.
Salvation is something God bestows on his chosen people whether they initially want it or not. But the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the lives of God’s chosen people, drawing them; wooing them; and awakening their understanding so that they are ‘born again’ and eventually respond with joy and thanksgiving, as unfaithful Gomer did with Elias. The ‘call’ goes out and many hear the gospel, but only those whom the Holy Spirit is drawing – the chosen ones – will respond to it and return thanks and praise to God. Many are called, but few are chosen, and the chosen ones can be known by their thanksgiving. In the story of the ten lepers, only one returned to give thanks for the miracle of healing that all ten received. As in the ‘common grace’ that God bestows on all mankind – the sun, rain, food, flowers, etc. – God’s benevolent call goes out and benefits everyone, but only the few who return thanks to God who created all things, can be counted amongst the chosen.
Once a person recognizes his/her acceptance as a member of the Bride of Christ, a person whose name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life from before the foundation of the world, he/she is pleased to participate in the Great Commission to proclaim the good news that you don’t have to be perfect, or even try to be perfect, in order to be saved. Faith alone, not works or impeccable behavior, is what justifies.
God’s exclusivity in the process of salvation leads to a great liberty and freedom to one who awakens to the fact that he/she is amongst the ‘chosen’ who constitute the Bride of Christ. The onus is not on us to be saved, but on God who has mercy on whom He will have mercy. He bestows salvation on whomever He pleases. He does all the choosing so that our so-called ‘free-will’ doesn’t even enter into the equation. Free-will isn’t even an issue because we are much like a lump of clay which has absolutely nothing to do with the Potter’s decision to fashion it into a beautiful ornament or a bedpan. Once God has decided to turn me into a beautiful ornament, I remain that way, and I return thanks and praise to Him for choosing me for that honour. Grace and mercy has elevated me to a place of distinction, not debasement, irrespective of my thoughts or feelings in the matter.
As I understand it, the Arminian view of scripture would have us believe that salvation is not exclusively God’s work and of His choosing, but that man – the lump of clay – has something to say to the Potter, thereby influencing Him as to what it will be fashioned into – a pot, an ornament, or a bedpan. Arminians believe that man is able to ‘decide for’ or ‘against’ accepting a ‘gift’ of salvation once they hear the call to be saved (the gospel) delivered by an evangelist, or by reading the Bible, or some other piece of Christian literature. This notion that man has the wherewithal to play even a minor part in his own salvation opens a ‘Pandora’s box’ as it changes the business of God’s exclusive act to one that is a shared act involving both God and man. Since Arminianism places an obligation on us to ‘decide for Jesus and salvation’, it also opens the possibility for us to ‘decide’ at a later date to be ‘un-saved’. Man’s involvement in the salvation process introduces a great deal of uncertainty as to one’s current ‘salvation status’.
If there is great uncertainty right now about his salvation status, the Arminian might go in search of ‘spiritual gifts’ like ‘speaking in tongues’, ‘holy laughter’, or ‘being slain in the spirit’ in order to assure himself and others that he is, in fact, saved. Or he might work extra hard to evangelize and try to earn some extra credits by seeing others saved through his time and effort spent in the Lord’s work, perhaps on the ‘mission field’. Suddenly ‘good works’ become an important part of life to merit our continued approval in the sight of God. The Arminian is always in a state of apprehension and uncertainty because some sins might not have been suitably confessed, or he beats himself up for continually ‘falling short of the mark’. After all, how good is ‘good enough’ in measuring up to God’s impossibly high standard for salvation? A wavering fear arises in the Arminian whose theology would have man play a small but vital part in his own salvation. There is no peace or assurance because one day the Arminian ‘feels’ blessed and thankful, and the next day he ‘feels’ totally inadequate and damned under God’s critical eye. While the Arminian puts great stock in his ‘feelings’, the Calvinist places great stock in ‘faith’ – confident assurance of his eternal security because of God’s promise that He will never leave us nor forsake us, no matter how miserable we might feel on a certain day. Martin Luther was similarly oppressed by feelings of inadequacy which led him to discover that men are justified by faith in God’s finished work on our behalf, not by man’s merit, or fickle feelings of being worthy and accepted. That revelation alone launched the Protestant reformation.
Arminians think that God is an ‘enabler’ – One who enables a born-again Christian to live righteously, and any shortcomings or ongoing sinful behaviour which he/she still manifests is a likely sign that this person isn’t saved. In other words, obedience to the Law is necessary to be saved now that one is ‘enabled’ to be obedient. This is the same kind of oppressive theology that Peter was rebuked for by Paul when Peter listened to the Judaizers who tried to bring new converts back ‘under the Law’. The Law is oppressive because nobody can measure up to it perfectly – not even the Judaizers who prided themselves in their ability to ‘keep the Law’. Outwardly they looked pious enough, but inwardly they were full of ‘dead men’s bones’. They were phony, self-righteous hypocrites!
Arminians and Judaizers ‘spy out the liberty’ of Calvinists who are able to ‘be themselves’ without having to put on airs, or striving to become more ‘holy’. They would like to bring Calvinists back under the bondage of the Law in order to have them also share in its oppressiveness. Only a theology in which man plays a part in salvation – albeit a minor role – can make one forget that he is a member of God’s chosen people and therefore one whom God loves, warts and all, not because of his works and deeds, but in spite of them. Having no assurance of salvation themselves, Arminians and Judaizers try to be joy-robbers and ‘party poopers’ to those who do have that assurance.
The reason Arminianism is such a fickle theology is because it stands midway between sound doctrine and Humanism. Sound doctrine teaches that salvation is ‘all of God’ whereas Humanism teaches that salvation is ‘all of Man’. Arminianism teaches that salvation is a hybrid – a process shared by both God and man because of man’s ‘free-will decision’. Humanism and Christianity don’t mix, and any attempt to do so creates something akin to ‘swamp water’ – an insipid bitter brew that is neither hot nor cold and worth spitting out. Humanism denies the existence of God and openly declares in the Humanist Manifestos that man must save himself because there is no God who can save us. And since there is no afterlife, man must make a ‘paradise’ out of this earthly existence. How can one possibly reconcile Humanism with sound Christian doctrine? Arminianism tries but, understandably, it fails.
Sound doctrine gives one the liberty to ‘be oneself’ without having to ‘measure up’ to the Law or putting on a contrived ‘mask of piety’. We don’t have to wear clerical garb or ‘wear our religion on our sleeve’. Neither do we have to deny ourselves certain behaviours although some acts are not convenient since they would be impediments in the furthering of the gospel. These would reflect rather poorly on the nature of God and His gospel because they are the very sinful things that exact a penalty from which we are saved, and for which Christ died. Why then should we continue in them? Out of gratitude to God we should desire to have less to do with the things that we were slaves to before we became aware of being chosen of God. If our misdeeds grieve the Holy Spirit, why hurt the One you love?
A child’s misbehavior as seen by neighbors reflects badly on his parents. Similarly his politeness speaks well of those who are rearing him. Therefore, shouldn’t we out of courtesy and love for our heavenly Father attempt to show our appreciation by minimizing our sinful behavior and being kind toward others? This isn’t a salvation issue because that has already been dealt with exclusively by God, but it is an issue of removing any stumbling blocks to non-believers who might be seeking answers to spiritual questions, preferably from someone who obviously doesn’t look like a hypocrite. Indeed, a Christian may not look or act much different from an unsaved person, since ‘being saved’ and ‘chosen’ are invisible qualities. But by their fruits you might get an idea of their status or conviction. The fruits of the Spirit are listed in the scriptures. These fruits emerge naturally and don’t need to be ‘forced’ by an act of the will. Good fruits emerge because the Holy Spirit is at work within an individual, not because he has ‘decided’ to bear some fruit to earn his salvation, or to convince himself and others that he is, in fact, saved.
A church or preacher whose sermons declare a theology in which the parishioner is expected to behave a certain way; or do certain things; or make a decision; or accept a gift, imparts a barely perceptible ‘nudge’ or vibration that culminates in an avalanche or a landslide. It is the first hint that man has a role to play in pleasing God and earning his own salvation. This is a ‘watershed issue’ because it starts the snowball traveling down ‘this’ side of the mountain, rather than ‘that’ one. Unfortunately when the parishioner lands at the base of the Arminian side of the mountain, he discovers that he is worshiping another god – a god who makes up his mind about your eternal destiny based on a ‘decision’ you make, or don’t make. This theology is a counterfeit.
Arminianism is a seductive effort to merge Humanism with Christianity. It is like trying to fuse clay with iron. It doesn’t work. The fusion is unnatural and reminds us of God’s admonition to ‘separate yourselves, for what concord does Christ have with Belial?’. We are not to look for ‘common ground’ and try to ‘understand’ or ‘reconcile’ ourselves with those of other faiths. We are called to ‘separate’ from those of any other religion, including the man-centered religion of Humanism which articulates its tenets in the Humanist Manifestos. Liberal churches such as Anglicans, Lutherans and the United Church of Canada have more to do with man-made rituals and a social gospel than with sound doctrine. They have taken Arminianism to the extreme. Anglicans and United Church people would even have you ‘walk the Labyrinth’ while meditating, which places these churches well on the road to spiritual Humanism: the human potential movement, or New Age Movement. The Humanist Manifesto is at least being honest when it declares man-centered liberal Christianity to be an extension of its own religion.
Any church or pastor not preaching the exclusivity or ‘sovereignty’ of God in the matter of salvation should be avoided at all costs. Each sermon should expand upon a scripture or biblical text so that it reinforces awareness of God’s sovereignty in all things, and the grace and mercy He has shown toward His chosen people through the forgiveness made possible by the ultimate sacrifice: God dying for the sake of man! In the fullness of time, a Marriage will be celebrated in the heavenly realm where God’s chosen Bride will be presented pure and chaste to Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom. History, therefore, is going somewhere. Current events are not random or accidental. History is moving inexorably toward a climax when a chosen people commence living eternally with their Creator while those who vainly try to impede this climax from happening will receive their just desserts in some unpleasant state of damnation.
Sound doctrine, therefore, is very important because it enables us to see clearly the nature of the invisible God whom we serve, and His plan of salvation. Unsound doctrine, on the other hand, presents a fuzzy, out-of-focus image of Jesus or some other god that has no ability to save. There are many winds of doctrine to tempt one who is seeking after God, but the Good Shepherd knows His sheep, and His sheep know His voice. When they have gone astray or lost their way, sheep will recognize their shepherd’s voice and be led back to safety. The Lord will lose none of the sheep that were given to Him by the Father from before the foundation of the world. Like sheep we have all gone astray, but the Good Shepherd is faithful. He goes out looking for us and returns us to the safety of His fold. There is blessed assurance in this message – an assurance that Arminians and adherents of other religions fail to grasp.
Other religions require man to ‘climb a mountain’ where all the different paths [e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, etc.] ostensibly merge into one at the summit where God is to be found – the same god who was known all along under a different name by people of different faiths. In true Christianity, however, we don’t go in search of God – He goes in search of his chosen people who have fallen short and gone astray. And He doesn’t rest until He has brought each and every one home to safety. God does all the work; He gets all the glory and credit; we simply get lost and then bask in His goodness and mercy when He finally finds us. Then we return thanks and praise for His faithfulness and goodness for going to so much bother on our behalf!
We make Christianity more complicated than it is when we overlook the ‘simplicity that is in Christ.’ True Christianity is the least demanding religion of all since God does all the work. Therefore we are admonished to come ‘all ye that are weary and heavy laden for my burden is light and I will give you rest.’ It just doesn’t get any easier than that – you don’t even have to make a ‘decision’! All other religions, Arminianism included, imposes a burden which progressively becomes more grievous. This burden may not be as obvious as the ‘indulgences’ sold by the Roman Catholic church to pay for the completion of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, but the burdens of a ‘works-oriented’ theology such as Roman Catholicism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or simply ‘having to make a decision’ (Arminianism) leads progressively to more onerous burdens which, in the end, turn out to be the requirements of a false god who cannot save. They are no better than the philosophy of Scientology where each ‘rung’ up the ladder to spiritual enlightment costs a certain amount of money – a ladder which ultimately leads into the pit rather than paradise.
A person attending church should listen for the lesson in the sermon that connects Jesus, the Bridegroom, with his chosen people, the Bride of Christ. Most chapters or books impart some understanding by way of ‘types and shadows’ of God’s plan of salvation and to whom it applies. This is the essence of a good sermon because there are many ‘types and shadows’ in which physical historical incidents serve as signposts that point to more profound lessons involving some future spiritual fulfillment. For example, Noah’s Ark – a physical ark of temporal safety – is a ‘type’ of Jesus Christ who is a spiritual ‘ark’ of eternal safety. A preacher who habitually fails to draw out of scripture these kinds of revelations, fails to fix ever more firmly in the hearts of his parishioners an awareness of God’s sovereignty and plan of salvation throughout the ages. Such a preacher isn’t worth listening to.
Sermons aren’t meant to be solely about how we are supposed to behave, or moralistic stories containing the escapades of some good and bad role models in biblical times. Sermons are meant to make us more familiar with the nature of God and to impart assurance of our salvation. Sermons should invoke in us a sense of gratitude for God’s mercy and goodness so that we naturally return thanks by way of hymns and prayers of thanksgiving, and then desire all the more to share this good news with others within our sphere of influence. A sermon about social justice such as apartheid, or the blessing of same-sex couples, somehow doesn’t inspire this kind of rejoicing. Properly taught, and motivated to participate in the Great Commission, we can become effective instruments in awakening others whom God is adding to the church. With, or without our help, he is adding to His Church daily those who should be saved – those whom He foreknew from before the foundation of the world.
While the Arminian is fretting as to his current spiritual status, perhaps contemplating the pursuit of a new spiritual gift in order to prove that he is, in fact, saved, the Calvinist is busy enjoying himself, confident in the assurance that nothing he has done will ever separate him from the love of God and salvation. If the Calvinist likes dancing, you might find him out on the dance floor enjoying the music, but ever ready and willing to share the gospel with new people he comes across. His new dancing partner might even be one who is spiritually lost and eager to know the Way of salvation. The Holy Spirit, unbeknownst to both, may have gently arranged this divine appointment on the dance floor so that another perplexed sheep might be brought home.
I was somewhat partial to Jacob Arminius when I began this exercise, but upon further reflection I see that the man-centered component of Arminianism is what spoils it. Man can play no part in his own salvation. If God isn’t Sovereign in the act of salvation, then what other things isn’t He Sovereign over? Is God also not Sovereign over current events and world history? Does man hold sway in everything? I don’t think so. Scripture says that man may have his ideas, but it’s God that ultimately orders his steps so that they conform to his overriding Plan. This means that all the petty conspiracies being plotted by elitists in high places can only go so far until they are brought to nothing in the fullness of time. Elitists dig pits for their own destruction. Why? Because of God’s Sovereignty. He will have them in derision and laughs at their feeble attempts to undermine His Church – a body of chosen people who will stand forever because this was His plan from the beginning of time. And when the Lamb’s Book of Life gets opened some great day in the future, there is only One who will be found worthy to open it because there was only One who had anything to do with the work of salvation that went on quietly behind-the-scenes throughout the whole pageant of history. What praise and thanksgiving there will be on that day!”