Arminianism vs. Calvinism:
Two Differing Views of Christ’s Atonement in Securing Salvation
R. Alan Woods San Diego: Rhema Rising Press Copyright 2007
To begin with, what was the intended scope of Jesus’ death in securing salvation?
Dr. Walter A. Elwell* suggests that there are two primary views that seem to be quite antithetical at their core when he asks, “Was the death of Jesus intended to secure salvation for a limited number of people (the ‘elect’) or for everyone? The first view is sometimes called ‘limited atonement’, because god limited the effect of Christ’s death to a specific number of elect persons, or ‘particular redemption’, because redemption was for a particular group of people. The second view is sometimes referred to as ‘unlimited atonement’ or ‘general redemption’, because God did not limit Christ’s redemptive death to the elect but allowed it to be for humankind in general”.1
General definitions of terms are necessary and are as follows:
Arminianism: “The theological perspective of Jacobus Arminius (sixteenth-century Dutch theologian), in which he emphasized mankind’s free will in salvation (that is, one may reject God’s offer) and discounted the Calvinistic tenets of unconditional election and irresistible grace. Arminius also rejected “eternal security”, believing that losing one’s salvation is possible. John Wesley and Martin Luther are just a few of the vast number of theologians who were and are strong proponents of Arminian theology.”2
1 Horton, David (General Editor) and Horton, Ryan (Associate Editor). The Portable Seminary. Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 2006, P. 142.
2 Ibid, p. 680.
* Dr. Elwell is author and editor of numerous books, including the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology and the Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible. A former book-review editor for Christianity Today, he is emeritus Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College. He earned his doctorate from the University of Edinburg.
Calvinism: “A theological system based on the teachings of John Calvin (Jean Cauvin), a sixteenth-century French reformer; Calvin stressed the supremacy of Scripture (Sola Scriptura) in theology and practice. Five key doctrines of Calvinism outlined by the Synod of Dort (1610) form the acrostic TULIP:
Total depravity of mankind (sin renders us incapable of righteousness),
Unconditional election (God’s election is not conditioned on our belief),
Limited atonement (Christ’s redemptive work applies only to the elect),
Irresistible grace (God’s grace cannot be rejected or thwarted);
Perseverance of the saints (the elect are eternally secured)”.3
3 ibid, p. 362.
Dr. Elwell goes on to define more specifically the historic theological differences in theses two views. Regarding Calvinism he says, “The doctrine that Jesus died for the elect in particular, securing their redemption, but not for the world, arose as the implications of the doctrine of election and the satisfaction theory of the atonement were developed immediately following the Reformation. A controversy arose that resulted in the pronouncement at the Synod of Dort (1618-19) that Christ’s death was ‘sufficient for all but efficient for the elect’. This did not satisfy many theologians, even some Calvinists, and the controversy has continued to this day. Numerous arguments are used to defend the doctrine of limited atonement, but the following represent some of the more frequently found:
First, in the Bible there is a qualification as to who will benefit by the death of Christ, thus limiting its effect. Christ is said to have died for his sheep (John 10:11, 15), his church (Acts 20:28), the elect (Romans 8:32-35), and his people (Matthew 1:21).
Second, God’s designs are always efficacious and can never be frustrated by humans. Had god intended for all to be saved by the death of Christ, then all would be. It is clear that not everyone is saved, because the Bible clearly teaches that those who reject Christ are lost. Therefore, it makes sense that Christ could not have died for everyone, because not everyone is saved. To argue that Christ died for everyone is in effect to argue that God’s saving will is not being done or that everyone will be saved, both of which propositions are clearly false.
Third, if Christ died for everyone, God would be unfair in sending people to hell for their own sins. No law court allows payment to be exacted twice for the same crime, and God will not do that either. God could not have allowed Christ to die for everyone unless he planned for everyone to be saved, which clearly he did not, since some are lost. Christ paid for the sins of the elect; the lost pay for their own sins.
Fourth, to say that Christ died for everyone logically leads to universalism. It is true that not all of those who believe in general redemption believe in universalism; but there is no valid reason that they do not. If they were consistent they would, because they are arguing that Christ paid for everyone’s sins, thus saving them.
Fifth, Christ died not just to make salvation possible, but also actually to save. To argue that Christ died only to provide the possibility of salvation is to leave open the question of whether anyone is saved. If God’s designs are only of possibilities and not actualities, then no one is secure and everything is open to doubt. The bible clearly teaches that the death of Jesus actually secures salvation for his people, thus making it a certainty and limiting the atonement (Romans 5:10; Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 1:4; 3:13; Ephesians 1:7).
Sixth, because there are no conditions to be met in order to be saved (i.e., salvation is by grace and not by works)—both repentance and faith are secured for those for whom Christ died. If the design of the atonement were for everyone, then all would receive repentance and faith, but this is clearly false. Therefore, Christ’s death could have been intended only for those who will repent and believe, namely, the elect.
Seventh, the passages that speak of Christ’s death for ‘the world’ have been misunderstood. The word world really means the world of the elect, the world of believers, the church, or all nations.”4
4 Ibid, pp. 142-143.
Regarding Arminianism he says, “The doctrine of general redemption argues that the death of Christ was designed to include all humankind, regardless of whether all believe. To those who believe it is redemptively applied, and to those who do not believe it provides the benefits of common grace and the removal of any excuse for being lost. God loved them and Christ died for them; they are lost because they refuse to accept the salvation sincerely offered to them in Christ.
First, those who defend general redemption point out that it is the historic view of the church, being held by the vast majority of theologians, reformers, evangelists, and the fathers from the beginning of the church until the present day, including virtually all the writers before the Reformation, with the possible exception of Augustine. Among the reformers the doctrine is found in Luther, Melanchthon, Bullinger, Latimer, Cranmer, Coverdale, Wesley, and even some of Calvin’s commentaries. For example, Calvin says regarding Colossians 1:14, ‘this redemption was procured through the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of his death, all the sins of the world have been expiated’; and on the phrase ‘shed for many’ in Mark 14:24 (KJV) he says, ‘By the word many he means not apart of the world only, but the whole human race.’ Even among Calvinists there is a generalism, called hypothetical universalism, to be found with Moise Amyraut, Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, John Newton, and John Brown, among many others. Is it likely that the overwhelming majority of Christians could have so misunderstood the leading of the Holy Spirit on such an important point?
Second, when the bible says Christ died for all it means just that. The word ought to be taken in its normal sense unless some compelling reason exists to take it otherwise— and no such reason exists. Some passages (e.g., Isaiah 53:6; 1 John 2:2; 1 Timothy 2:1-6; 4-10) make no sense if not taken in the normal way.
Third, the bible says Christ takes away the sin of the world and is the Savior of the world. A study of the word world—especially in John, where it is used seventy-eight times—shows that the world is God-hating, Christ-rejecting, and Satan-dominated. Yet that is the world for which Christ died. There is not one place in the entire New Testament where the world means ‘church’ or ‘the elect’.
Fourth, the several arguments that reduce to a charge of universalism are special pleading. Christ dying for all does not mean all are saved—one must believe in Christ to be saved, so Christ’s death for the world apparently does not secure salvation for all. Paul had no trouble saying that God could be the Savior of all in one sense and those who believe in another sense (1 Timothy 4:9-10).
Fifth, God is not unfair in condemning those who reject the offer of salvation. He is not exacting judgment twice. Because nonbelievers refuse to accept the death of Christ as their own, the benefits of Christ’s death are not applied to them. They are lost, not because Christ did not die for them, but because they refuse God’s offer for forgiveness.
Sixth, it is true that the benefits of Christ’s death are referred to as belonging to the elect, his sheep, his people, but it would have to be shown that Christ only died for them. No ones denies that Christ died for them. It is only denied that Christ died exclusively for them.
Seventh, the Bible teaches that Christ died for ‘sinners’ (Romans 5:6-8; 1 Timothy 1:15). The word sinner nowhere means the ‘church’ or ‘the elect’; it is all of lost humankind. Finally, god sincerely offers the gospel to everyone to believe, not just the elect. How could this be true if Christ did not actually die for everyone? God would know very well that some people could never be saved because he did not allow Christ to pay for their sins. Even if Louis Berkhof, a staunch defender of limited atonement, admits, ‘It need not be denied that there is a real difficulty at this point.”5
Dr. Elwell summarizes the seemingly hopeless irreconcilability of these two views when he says, “Both points of view try to preserve something of theological importance. Defenders of limited atonement stress the certainty of God’s salvation and the initiative he took in offering it to humans. If salvation depended on our work, all would be lost. The defenders of general redemption attempt to preserve God’s fairness and what to them is the clear teaching of Scripture. Salvation is no less certain because Christ died for all. The decision to reject it brings about condemnation, and faith puts one in a saving relationship with Christ, who died that we might live. E. A. Litton attempts to mediate the two views in this fashion: ‘Thus the combatants may not be in reality so much at variance as they supposed. The most extreme Calvinist may grant that there is room for all if they will come in; the most extreme Arminian must grant that redemption, in its full Scriptural meaning, is not the privilege of all men.’”6
5 Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1938, p. 462.
6 Litton, E. A. Introduction to Dogmatic Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed., 1912, p. 236.
I contend that it does not nor has it ever had to be either/or as it relates to the classical debate of Calvinism versus Arminianism. Either/or reasoning has been deemed a logical fallacy for millennia. My thesis is that God’s Sovereignty it not impugned by the agency of a sovereign free will in humankind. How can this be? Either God is sovereign or he is not, right? Wrong.
I contend that the sovereign agency of both God and Man are operationally co-existent. Here is a clue to my argument--What is the most significant dissimilarity between Nature and Supernature? Calvinist’s and Arminian’s are both equally valid and correct in their respective views. It is not either/or but rather both that are based in reality and truth**.
**Look for my book: Woods, R. Alan."The Journey is the Destination: the Way on is the Way In". San Diego: Rhema Rising, 2007.