Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

7 Oct 2014

Why You Must Be a Calvinist or an Arminian

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A few weeks ago, Mark Snoeberger had a post arguing that in the matter of salvation, especially the issue of regeneration, there are only two possible options, which he labeled as Calvinism and Arminianism. As might be expected, there was some push back to the idea of this two-option-only proposal. Mark also alluded to an ongoing series of blog posts on this issue titled “Why I’m Not a Calvinist…or an Arminian,” which is currently up to five parts. I would like to try and reinforce the point that Mark was making.

The real issue comes down to the question of who saves us. Does God save us, or do we, with some help from God, save ourselves? That’s rather stark, so let me expand upon that. What I mean, and what I’m trying to get at, is who is the ultimate decider in the matter of our salvation? Is God the one who ultimately decides if I end up in heaven or hell, or am I the one who ultimately decides if I end up in heaven or hell? Quickly, someone will say that both God and I decide. There is truth there, but there can be only one ultimate decider, one person who makes the final determination.

This binary choice I am insisting on is nicely captured in the U of the acronym TULIP, where the U stands for unconditional election. Grudem says, “The reason for election is simply God’s sovereign choice…. God chose us simply because he decided to bestow his love upon us. It was not because of any foreseen faith or foreseen merit in us” (Systematic Theology, 679). Calvinists of all persuasions believe in unconditional election: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world” (Eph 1:4). God’s choosing or election of the individual to salvation is not conditioned on anything within the individual himself—thus unconditional.

The other, and the only other possibility, is conditional election, which says God’s election is conditioned on something within the individual. God is said to elect those to salvation whom he foresees will have faith in Christ. This is the viewpoint of Arminianism.

In Calvinism faith is the result of election; in Arminianism election is the result of faith. All evangelicals, whether Calvinist or Arminian, believe in salvation by grace. All agree that we are sinners and because of depravity need God’s grace: efficacious grace in the case of the Calvinist, or prevenient grace in the case of the Arminian. In Arminianism prevenient grace is given to all people, or at least to all who hear the gospel, and enables them to be saved by cooperating with God’s grace (synergism), but this prevenient grace may be rejected. Again, there are only two choices. Either God’s grace is efficacious and ultimately overcomes the individual’s depravity and brings him to faith in Christ (Calvinism), or God’s grace is just prevenient, that is, it is sufficient to overcome depravity, but the individual may reject this grace (Arminianism).

This binary choice is untenable, unthinkable for many. There must be another way, a third position (tertium quid), particularly a middle way (via media) between these two harsh extremes. But there is none. In Calvinism God ultimately chooses (unconditional election) and gives grace (efficacious) to bring the sinner to Christ. The sinner makes a real, genuine choice for Christ, but only because of God’s prior choice. God is the ultimate decider. In Arminianism the sinner cooperates with grace (prevenient) and chooses God (conditional election). In Arminianism God is not the ultimate decider. If the sinner chooses God, God must choose to save the sinner, but if sinner rejects God, God cannot choose to save the sinner. God simply ratifies whatever decision the sinner makes. God is not deciding anything. The sinner is the ultimate decider.[1]

Both Calvinists and Arminians agree that the sinner chooses Christ. The sinner is not coerced into a decision for Christ. The major difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is what ultimately and finally causes a depraved sinner to choose Christ. Imagine Joe and Jack, identical twins, attend church together and sit together in the same pew week after week listening to the gospel being proclaimed. Maybe their hearing of the gospel goes on for many years. But Joe eventually responds to the message, receives Christ, dies, and goes to heaven. Jack rejects the message, never receives Christ, dies, and goes to hell. Why does Joe go to heaven and Jack to hell? What is different about these two similar, in many ways identical, men, who both heard the gospel over many years? Why does Joe say “Yes” and Jack say “No”? What rational person wants to go to hell?

One answer is that God chose Joe (unconditional election) and gave him grace (efficacious) that caused him to believe. He owes his salvation completely to God (monergism). Joe cannot boast in his salvation (1 Cor 1:28–29; Eph 2:8–9). This is Calvinism.

The other, and only other[2] possible, answer is that God chose Joe because Joe chose God (conditional election). God looked down the corridors of time and saw that Joe would one day believe the gospel, so he elected Joe. But actually God did not make any independent choice. If Joe chooses God, God must choose Joe, but if Joe rejects God, God cannot choose Joe. God simply ratifies whatever choice Joe makes. Joe has the same grace (prevenient) necessary to believe the gospel as his brother Jack. According to this view, everyone who hears the gospel has the prevenient grace necessary to believe the gospel. But if that is so, how do we explain why Joe accepted the gospel and Jack rejected it? The only answer is that there is something in Joe, something superior in Joe (intelligence, merit, goodness—something) that caused him to believe—something that Joe had but Jack lacked. This difference between Joe and Jack is not due to God. God does exactly the same thing for both Joe and Jack. They had the same opportunity, the same grace (prevenient). The only conclusion that can be drawn is that in some way Joe must be better than Jack. Joe did not do it all, or most of it, but he deserves some credit. This is Arminianism.

One may not like the labels Calvinism and Arminianism and can rail against them all day long. But they historically represent the two evangelical options for the salvation of sinners. Either God is the ultimate decider: He gets all glory. Or the sinner is the ultimate decider: he deserves to share in that glory.

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[1]Even though in conditional election God does not really elect anyone—he simply ratifies the sinner’s decision—some Arminians have rejected conditional election since for them any sense of God choosing individuals for salvation is too repugnant and contrary to their concept of man’s free will, which is the animating principle behind Arminianism. They promote what they call corporate election, which insists that God does not choose individuals, but the church. But as Arminian Brian Abasciano admits: “Nevertheless, corporate election necessarily entails a type of individual election because of the inextricable connection between any group and the individuals who belong.” In other words, corporate election is a form of conditional election since membership in the elect church is conditioned upon the individual’s faith.

[2]Roger Olson, who is probably the most prominent Arminian theologian in America, has said: “Isn’t there a ‘middle ground’ between Calvinism and Arminianism? A: No, there isn’t, not that is logically coherent. In fact, Arminianism is the middle ground between Calvinism and ‘semi-Pelagianism,’ which is the heresy (so declared by the Second Synod of Orange in 529 and all the Reformers agreed) that sinners are capable of exercising a good will toward God unassisted by God’s grace” (

14 Responses

  1. Well said. I just preached a message this past Sunday from Jn 12:37-41 where I was forced to deal with this issue head-on. This is a hard truth to gently get across to people who have been conditioned to see salvation as merely a free choice. It certainly IS a free choice, but why does one man choose and another not? Because one man has been given the grace to believe, and the other has been left to go his own way. I’m not sure I handled it all that well, but this most basic truth – that God is the decider – is the Biblical truth. Appreciate the article.

  2. paul

    The series you and Mark refer to does take a position on unconditional election, doesn’t it? His real argument is about Biblical vs. Systematic theology it seems to me. I don’t think either one of your posts has countered his position. He argues that both of the historic systems go beyond what can be asserted with scriptural warrant. Why is he wrong?

  3. BE


    I’m not sure what from your list an Arminian would necessarily deny. I assume you are focusing on eternal security. But Arminius himself did not deny eternal security. “Not all Arminians deny the eternal salvation of the born again believer. Arminius did not and the Remonstrance did not.”


  4. Mark Snoeberger

    Paul, Here are some problems with Cone’s model, as I see it:

    (1) The label Cone chooses, “biblicist,” is a prejudicial term, implying that in the whole history of the church, no one has ever taken the exegetical high ground until now. ALL the historical options available are contrived and tainted by logic, having allowed a system to inform their exegesis.

    (2) The fact is, Cone has done exactly what his forebears have done. He has collected as much biblical data as he could and has crafted out a model for harmonizing it. Calvin did this and his position became known as Calvinism. Arminius did this and his position became known as Arminianism. Same thing with Augustine, Pelagius, Amyraut, Molina, Socinus, etc. The only difference is that these historical figures did not arrogate to themselves the title “biblicist.” If Chris Cone has truly come up with a nuanced position that is not exactly like any historical precedent, I suggest that he call it what it really is: Conism. Above all I would suggest that he not try to corner the market on the “biblical” label.

    (3) In truth, Cone has not come up with anything substantially new. But by eschewing all solidarity with any historical referent, he has facilitated those who perennially dodge the stark watershed that Bill has so ably reinstated, viz., that there are some who see God as the ultimate arbiter of salvation and some who see man as the ultimate arbiter of salvation. That’s the Great Divide, whether or not we like it.

    (4) Cone’s observation that there are nuanced positions other than pure Calvinism and pure Arminianism is unobjectionable. To suggest otherwise would be sheer lunacy. There are literally scores of these, yeah, hundreds or even thousands. So many exist, in fact, that it could logically be argued that there are no Calvinists or Arminians alive anywhere in the world–after all, no one believes everything exactly as either of these two men did. But saying this is kind of like saying that the sky is never blue because the refracted light at the horizon features tiny variations of color that are never exactly the same from one day to the next.

    But in fact the sky is blue, and there are Calvinists and Arminians. And when someone asks me if I am a Calvinist, I see this question quite the same as the question whether the sky is blue. The answer is “Yes.” Not because the sky is perfectly blue, or because I agree perfectly with Calvin on every issue, but because the predominant color of the sky is blue and when it comes to the central/binary/watershed issue that defines Calvinists away from Arminians, I find myself on Calvin’s team.

    Now that I have declared my team, I can start quibbling intramurally with my teammates about the peculiar position I play, but there’s no doubt what team I’m on.

  5. paul

    Thank you, Mark. I find that explanation helpful as a pew occupying eavesdropper on these discussions. Thanks to Dr. Combs for re-visiting the topic as well.

  6. Trevor

    I’m not sure if anyone caught the tone of this article or not…But this is how I understood it–Calvinism means God is glorified and Arminianism means man is glorified.
    Dr. Combs, this is in direct contradiction to your statement that “All evangelicals, whether Calvinist or Arminian, believe in salvation by grace.” Are you suggesting that even though we may say that salvation is all of grace, we should in fact be boasting in our salvation if we are not Calvinist?

    I find the terms ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ to be accurate historical portrayals of 2 theological systems regarding justification, however, I do not think it is appropriate to continue with this terminology as has been suggested. One inevitably lumps in the teachings of these men with the theological system. I do not want to attempt to defend some or all of Arminius’ teachings, nor, do I believe ‘Calvinists’ would want to defend some or all of John Calvin’s teachings. I would propose that the terms ‘monergism’ and ‘synergism’ to be more appropriate labels and would help to decrease many of the rhetoric we find today that is so divisive among believers.

  7. Ken Garrett

    The Free Grace position seems a biblical, reasonable third way in this discussion. I’m puzzled that the writer dismissed such a possibility with no explanation. Since there are godly, intelligent theologians who do not subscribe to either of the two ways above–isn’t it safe to assume that there are, in fact, other options?

  8. Ken

    There are many variations within Calvinism & Arminianism depending on the questions being asked. This post is mostly asking the question: is salvation synergistic (God and man) or monergistic (God).

    So in the Free Grace position how is someone saved? Does God change a person’s will so they irresistibly (but not coercing) come to faith? Or does God enable a broken will giving it the ability to choose to accept or reject salvation?

  9. If the sinner chooses God, God must choose to save the sinner, but if sinner rejects God, God cannot choose to save the sinner.

    Because God chose in His sovereignty to offer His Son so that by His death we might be justified, reconciled, regenerated, and transferred into His kingdom. This salvation is all of God. He did all the work to allow a sinner like me to be in Christ and in His kingdom.

    God also chose in His sovereignty to conditionally offer salvation. It is by faith. All who trust in Christ are saved. God did not have to save the sinner on this basis but ultimately decided that was how He would do it.

    All who reject Christ will perish. God did not have to reject the sinner on this basis but ultimately decided that was how He would do it.

  10. Trevor


    Besides taking exception to the caricature painted of synergism, the main point of the article was in fact to enforce the statement that you MUST as an evangelical Christian fall into the category of Calvinism or Arminianism.

    I take great exception to those two labels. Someone please tell me why ‘Monergism’ and ‘Synergism’ would not be more suitable titles?

  11. Trevor,

    Not sure if you are saying I caricatured synergism or the OP did…

    I agree that if one wants to frame the discussion along the question in the OP that a better title would have been: Why You Must Be a Supporter of Monergism or Synergism.

  12. I think the main point is that there are many people out there who think it is a badge of piety to reject any such label and declare that they are simply “Christian” or “biblical”, etc. The fact is, however, that all systems that seriously attempt to provide a logically consistent and coherent explanation of the biblical data necessarily intersect at certain points.

    There are certain propositions that are either considered true or false within a particular system of understanding the Bible. One cannot answer with a third option because of the nature of the proposition. The determinate cause in salvation is one of these. If God is, nothing else can be, if something else is, God cannot be. There are thousands of potential ways to get there but the answer will reduce down to one of those two for every Evangelical system. Arminianism and Calvinism are terms that encompass much more than this but they are distinct from one another at this point. When specifically addressing this point we will inevitably be aligned with one or the other.

    1. Ken Garrett

      “When specifically addressing this point we will inevitably be aligned with one or the other.” I understand that this reasoning seems very incontrovertible to you, and that any who disagree must seem to be illogical, or at least not completely thought-through. However, since I ascribe to neither Arminianism, nor Calvinism, and yet am certainly a born-again believer in Jesus Christ, it stands to reason that there must be another understanding to consider–and perhaps more than one at that. I simply have found neither the conclusions of the Calvinist/Reformed camp nor those of the Arminian camp to be compelling, from a biblical standpoint. That’s just me, and from what I gather, a few more people, too! My contention was that it smacks of a doctrinaire predisposition to make the blanket statement, “You must be either A, or B, (and cannot be anything else).” At least give the arguments of Molinism a 5 minute consideration–even on Wikipedia, and you might be less disposed to make the either/or argument that your article seeks to advance. Thank you for taking the time to respond!

  13. Ashwin Sasidharan

    Is the most important factor to salvation, a persons decision? In that case, Jesus need not have been incarnated or died on the cross.
    The question to ask is, Are our choices real? or is every human action really pre-programmed by God?

    Its not a matter of who gets the glory, or whose “vote” swings things. Its a question of what is real?

    When a person chooses to carry out wicked fantasies and Rape children.. is it finally his decision or is God the one who causes him to Act?
    The answer to the above question can only be that the Person makes a free will choice. He submits to his evil impulses and perhaps to the Devil and acts this way.
    When a Person rejects the Gospel, resisting the prompting of the Holy Spirit, is it his Choice or has god caused him to Act?
    Again, the answer is its his own free choice.
    If God works in a persons heart and he submits to God, Does he have freedom to not submit?
    The answer has to be Yes, if we maintain that People have a Free will. Else we cannot use Free will to explain how evil human actions are independent of God.
    God powers good works; however, we need to make a free choice to submit to him,
    If you dont believe me.. The next time you feel a prompting to pray.. see if you can resist.. I bet you can!