November 2014 – The Arminian – Calvinist Controversy

Published November 7, 2014 by Dr. David M. Berman in Articles 2014

 For hundreds of years the theological argument between those who hold to the Arminian and Calvinist view of soteriology has been raging. I could mention great men of God on both sides of the argument that have served God with distinction. The purpose of this paper is to express why I believe as I do. There are two main illusions that I can state firmly that I am not under. I realize that this paper will not resolve the argument that has gone on for so long, nor do I believe that this alone will change the mind of most five point Calvinists. Having said that, I do think it’s important to state my view so that those whom I believe to be in error would at least consider that possibility. I do wish to make one thing clear. I do not deem Calvinists to not be Christian. I do however believe that Calvinism is a grave error and ignores the rules of proper hermeneutics.

Calvinism’s two very problematic doctrines are their view of atonement which they refer to as “limited atonement” and what they refer to as “total depravity.” In the course of discussing any theological controversy, it is imperative that the expositor be removed emotionally from the debate, and seeks to draw out from the Scriptures rather than look for out of context “proof texts.” This is the problem with so many arguments. Often (not always) an expositor will form an opinion based on human emotion and reasoning on a given subject, then look to prove that preconceived supposition.

As with all long term theological controversies, there are seemingly reasonable arguments on both sides that keep the debate going. For the Calvinist the debate is rooted in the tradition known as “Reformed Theology.” Since the Swiss reformer John Calvin was such a major figure in the reformation, his influence remains powerful to this day. Calvin viewed Soteriology as absolutely and totally by God’s grace. His position was that there is no way that mankind could in any way cooperate with God in salvation since in his view man suffers from “total depravity.” Calvin’s idea of total depravity was that man is so evil, so far removed from any possibility of seeking after God, so dead in sin that only by grace could he be saved. Those who do not believe in Calvin’s view also claim to believe in salvation by grace as well. The problem is that those with an Arminian view do not agree with Calvin’s definition of total depravity. The Calvinist would argue that if a man cooperates with God in any way the he is in some part self saving and salvation by grace is diminished. The Armenian would argue that God’s grace is not diminished by man cooperating with God. Let’s look at Calvinism’s Doctrine of “limited atonement” first and then we will look at Calvinism’s view of “total depravity.”

The doctrine of limited atonement is that God, by his pre determined will purposefully created mankind with two separate eternal destinies for each of the two groups. He in his sovereignty created some to be sent to eternal damnation to suffer in Hell forever with no possible opportunity to be saved from it. He made the other group to be saved by “irresistible grace” and that they would go to heaven, a place of eternal life and love and happiness with no sorrow or pain to ever be in communion with God. This is the doctrine of limited atonement. It teaches that Christ’s work on the cross was limited only for those whom God pre ordained by His will would be saved, and therefore his work on the cross was not done to pay for the sins of every individual person, but rather only for a limited amount of people that he wanted to have in Heaven. The rest he created by his sovereign will to live forever in Hell.

John Calvin said “Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which He hath determined in Himself what He would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others.”

From the above quote we see clearly what Calvin’s position was on this. There is no debate on what he believed and spread in his teachings concerning this question.

The main text that Calvinists use as a proof text is this:

Romans 8:29 “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”

Calvinists believe that this passage is clearly saying that God “predestinated” some to be conformed to His image so obviously not all are predestined for that purpose. Since there are only two places a person can end up in, the ones who are not predestined go to Hell. They will point to other verses that speak of being chosen as further proof texts for their doctrine of limited atonement.  So what is the controversy? This verse says he predestined some. The controversy is in the word “foreknew.” For whom he “foreknew” he also did “predestinate” to be “conformed.”    Let us look at these key words in this verse:

Foreknew (Greek – prog-in-oce’-ko) –   to know beforehand, to foresee.

Predestinate (Greek – pro-or-id’-zo) – determine before, ordain.

Conformed (Greek – soom-mor-fos)     fashioned like unto.

This passage is plainly speaking of God knowing beforehand who would receive him as Savior and then determining that they should be fashioned unto His image. This speaks of sanctification of the believer who he foreknew would be saved. A Calvinist would say that the Greek word for foreknew could also be translated as “ordained.” They would be right in saying that, however when interpretation of a single verse leads to a full doctrinal position, that is bad hermeneutics. The Bible interprets the Bible. One should never base any interpretation or teach a homily established on one verse or word in the sacred text. In order to interpret Romans 8:29 as the Calvinists do, one would have to dismiss numerous passages of the Bible. The following passages make it impossible to interpret Romans 8:29 as teaching the doctrine of limited atonement:

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

This verse says God so loved the world, not some in the world.

 1 John 2:2 “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Here we see the clear reference to unlimited atonement in “not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 Timothy 2:4 “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”

2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

We see from these two verses that it is not God’s will that any perish so why would God purposely by an act of His will create some for the purpose of making them perish?

1 Timothy 4:10 “For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe.”

Here we see beyond any shadow of doubt that Jesus is the Savior of all and it is effectual to those who receive the Savior.

2 Peter 2:1 “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.”

Here the Bible obviously states that Jesus bought (paid the price for) those unbelievers who are described as false teachers. It says “denying the Lord that bought them.” So Jesus clearly bought those unbelievers who denied him. Atonement is provided not just for those who receive it.

I could go on but I believe these are sufficient to express that Romans 8:29 cannot be interpreted the way Calvinists do. Hermeneutical principles disallow that sort of selective elucidation.

The reason that Calvinists come to the conclusion that they must interpret Romans 8:29 the way they do is do to their understanding of two main points; first their idea of God’s sovereignty, and secondly their view of total depravity. Let’s look at their doctrine of total depravity.

Calvinists believe that man is completely unable to grasp their need for the Savior and have no ability to cooperate with God at all. There is a large Scriptural problem with that view as we will see in the following verses:

Romans 1:18-21  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.  For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

You will notice that here the Bible is undoubtedly speaking of unrighteous men (depraved unbelievers). The Apostle Paul makes it clear what these unbelievers understand about God.

Look at the following points:


  • The wrath of God is revealed to unrighteous men
  • Those unrighteous men hold the truth
  • That which may be known of God is manifest in them
  • God showed it to them
  • The eternal power of the Godhead is clearly seen in the creation
  • Unbelievers are without excuse because it is clearly seen
  • Unbelievers “know” God (understand his existence due to creation evidence)
  • Instead of receiving God, the choice is made not to, and then their foolish heart is darkened.

These points are unambiguous concerning unsaved people being able to understand the truth; that the “eternal power of the Godhead” is made known by the creation evidence, and thus all men are without excuse. Here we see clearly that “they” meaning unbelievers, are without excuse because they can see by creation that God is. Also we see the words in verse twenty one “when they knew God.” This speaks of the ability for fallen man to know about God, and make a choice to seek him, and accept him or not. This is not to say that they were believers, or regenerated in any way. It simply expresses that unbelievers can know of God’s existence. The fact that mankind is depraved is not lessened by this is any way. Mankind is wretched, and full of sin, and self will. However God has revealed himself through the evidence of creation and so man can seek to know who the creator is. God has made a way for all to escape eternal damnation.

The Calvinists main objection to this is their idea of God’s sovereignty and grace. They state that if my view is right, then I am somehow saving myself and that diminishes God’s sovereign choices. Free will they argue would place work of salvation in the hands of man and thus subject the power of God to the power of man. The truth is that this is the presupposition that motivates all of Calvinist theology. This main point does not allow the hyper Calvinist to consider the whole of Scripture. Calvinism is a reaction to Pelagianism. The Catholic Church was full of Pelagian theology at the time of the reformation; indulgences, works salvation and on and on with self righteousness. Calvin reacted to this by forming a set of doctrines that were opposed to the errors of the papists. In doing so he set up a narrative that breathed error in the other direction.

Another problem is the Calvinist view of sovereignty. Calvinism is actually the teaching that limits the sovereignty of God. Let me explain:

Calvinism proclaims the sovereignty of God by proclaiming the only way God is allowed to be sovereign is according to their human limits of what sovereignty is. In other words, God is not allowed to desire his people to have free will. This position negates God’s Sovereignty. They say that if man has free will, God is not the sovereign because man is somehow contributing to his own salvation. The further say that if the atonement was not limited only to those that God made for the purpose of going to heaven, then God would be a failure due to the fact that all will not be saved. This reasoning is really quite illogical. Let us examine each of these points;

  • If man has free will, God is not sovereign.

Free will is given by the sovereign God because he wants his created humans to have it. That itself is an act of God’s sovereign will. By analogy – If a King desires a bride and has his eye on a particular commoner (non-royal) woman, there is no diminishment in his sovereignty if it is his desire that she has a choice. Although he could force her to be his wife since he is all powerful in his kingdom, his own sovereign desire is to have a woman that would want him by her own free will. In this there is no diminishment of his power whatsoever since he is declaring his desire.

  • If atonement is not limited, God failed.

(Continuing with this analogy) The king may desire a woman who rejects him and later find another who he wished to have as his wife who receives his offer of marriage. Did the King fail because one did not respond to his gracious offer of marriage which included all the benefits of his kingdom? Of course not. There is no failure on the king’s part since his will is that his bride would only be one who says yes because she wants to.

  • Man contributes to his own salvation if he has a choice.

(Continuing with this analogy) Did the woman contribute to her opportunity to be married to the King? No, she did not since she had no sovereign ability to make the king want her, offer her, or communicate to her. She is a commoner, and could not even get the king’s ear. She has no power or influence. She is a commoner who the King chose to offer marriage. She did not participate in any way except to simply have faith in his offer and receive him as her husband.

Having faith in the gospel is not a work. It is a key. If I told my friend that I had placed ten million dollars in an account for him and gave him the account number, all he would have to do is choose (or choose not) to use the access code I gave him. He would not be earning it, working for it, or doing anything except taking my word by faith (trust what I offered) and using the access number. He can also choose to not to trust what I said and throw away the key. If he threw it away that would not diminish what I did, or my will that he would have the money since I am giving him what he needs to get it and he can choose not to receive my free gift.

Now let’s examine a few of the obvious conclusions one must come to if one believes in Calvinism.

  • If you are Calvinist you are saying that God created Adam and Eve, told them not to sin by eating of the tree, forced them to sin, and then punished them for what he made them do. But what does the Bible say?

James 1:13 “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man”

God does not tempt with evil!

  • If you are a Calvinist you are saying that men are not really responsible for their sin because God made them for the express purpose of sinning. This would make the sinner a doer of God’s will.

James 1:14 “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.”

  • If you are a Calvinist you are saying that God created Hell for the purpose of having a place to send those whom he created by his will for the express purpose of sending them there.

Matthew 25:41 “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”

Hell was not even created for the purpose of sending people to it originally. So how can we conclude that God willed certain people to go there?

  • If you are a Calvinist you are saying that mankind is nothing more than a zombie robot with a predetermined programmed computer chip, and thus has no real will. This is a picture of an unconscious being…frankly that is absurd on its face.
  • If you are a Calvinist you do not believe that Man can choose since some are pre ordained to serve God and others are not.

John 7:16-17 “Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”

Matthew 23:37  O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Not could not, WOULD NOT)

Joshua 24:15  And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

These are just a few of the passages of the Bible that make it beyond clear that God, by his sovereign will, gives people a choice. I think it is safe to say that this paper has hit on the main problem with Calvinism and I trust God will use it to unlock some from the hold that this bad doctrine has. That is if they choose to listen.


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