In our last two essays we looked at classic Calvinism and Arminianism. In this essay we want to get a better understanding of the difference between the two. This means that we must look at some several key theological concepts.
The first two that we want to discuss are election and predestination. Both Calvinists and Arminians have doctrines of election and predestination; and both would define the elect as God’s chosen people. But the two systems differ greatly as to how one becomes elect.
Calvin said that only those are elect whom God has predestined, in the sense of predetermined, to be elect. On the other hand, Arminians believe that predestination is God’s plan to save every human. It is the way of salvation that predestined, not the salvation of individuals. The only reason that all are not saved is because God also gave humans free will; and he does not violate that freedom when humans choose to reject his salvation.
Perhaps a better way of describing the difference is this. Calvinism defines election as individual and particular; whereas Arminians define it as corporate.
In Calvinistic thought, a person is elect because God chooses that particular, individual person to be saved rather than some other person. But in Arminian thought, election is corporate, because God chooses all people to be saved. The Church is the body of Christ, and all who believe are part of it. It is the body that is elect, not the individuals. Each individual who chooses to believe becomes a part of that elect body of believers.
The next concept that we want to take up is extremely important. It is the doctrine of prevenient grace. The term comes from the Latin praevenire, which literally means “to go before.” In respect to salvation, as the term implies, prevenient grace is that grace of God which “goes before” salvation. It prepares the human soul for salvation.
By that I mean, before a person is saved, God reaches out to that person by means of the Holy Spirit. That is, God initiates the saving process by mercifully drawing human beings to Christ, and enabling them to respond favorably to him. In other words, God “woos” sinful people by means of the Holy Spirit; and in the same manner, he enables them to repent and believe, if they so desire. Now this is strictly an Arminian doctrine, and it was especially emphasized by John Wesley.
For the Calvinist, God’s decision to save someone is final. And although it may appear that God is “wooing” persons by his Spirit, it is only a means that God uses to work out what he had has decreed will happen.
Interestingly, some of the Scriptures that are given to support the Arminian-Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace also are used by the Calvinists to support their beliefs. This provides a good illustration of how easily the same Scriptures can be interpreted to support two differing theologies.
For example, John 6:14 quotes Jesus as saying, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Calvinists believe this statement means particular election. No one can come to Christ unless that person is predetermined by God for election. Arminians and Wesleyans believe that the statement is one of prevenient grace. No one can come to Christ apart from God’s drawing that person by prevenient grace.
Another example is Eph. 2:8, which says, “by grace you have been saved through faith: and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” Again Calvinists would interpret this verse as a reference to particular election, and Arminians and Wesleyans would interpret it as a reference to prevenient grace.
Thus in the Arminian-Wesleyan understanding, it is prevenient grace that brings us to repentance, another important concept. Repentance is an important doctrine in the New Testament generally. When John the Baptist came out of the wilderness, he came preaching, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). And Jesus, after his baptism and temptation, began his public ministry with the same message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17). And then the apostles, when they began to preach also preached repentance. For example, Peter concluded his Pentecost sermon with the appeal, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Again there is a difference of perception between Arminians and Calvinists. Arminians and Wesleyans understand repentance to be an aspect of the condition of salvation. That is, one is not saved until one repents and believes. Calvinists on the other hand believe that repentance is a result of salvation. That is, we repent because God decided to save us, and indeed has done so (Calvin, Institutes, Book III, 1, p. 309f., and 21, p. 321).
Another concept I want to mention is saving faith. By saving faith I mean the faith that saves us when we believe in Jesus. But saving faith is more than that. Remember that the demons believe and shudder. Saving faith is not just intellectual. It involves a relationship. When we believe for salvation, we enter into a personal relationship with Jesus. Thus the primary element in saving faith is trust. It is a personal trust in a real person. As you can see, these concepts all are related. The prevenient grace of God leads us to repentance and saving faith, and saving faith results in salvation.
One final concept that I want to mention is another extremely important one from the standpoint of Arminians and Wesleyans. It is called the free gift of righteousness. The classic scripture passage for this doctrine is Romans 5:12-19. I suggest that you read those verses now.
We see that Paul, in this passage, is drawing a contrast between two men. The two men are Adam and Jesus. And they performed two acts. That is, they acted in contrasting ways. Adam’s act was “one trespass,” an act of disobedience; namely, the original sin. The act of Jesus was “one act of righteousness,” an act of obedience; namely, his death on the cross.
This had two different results. The result of Adam’s trespass, or sin, was that all humanity was made sinful. And the result of Jesus’ act of righteousness was that many were made righteous. To put it differently, the result of Adam’s sin was condemnation and death for all. And the result of Jesus’ death on the cross was the justification and life of all who would believe.
Thus the effects of the righteousness of Christ exactly offset the effects of the sin of Adam with one exception. Verse 16 makes it clear that Christ’s righteousness brings justification for “many trespasses,” not just the “one trespass” of Adam. That is, all sin is forgiven in Christ, not just original sin. But original sin was the issue with which Paul was concerned here in Romans five.
Remember the distinction between inherited and acquired depravity. Inherited depravity or sinfulness stems from original sin. Acquired depravity stems from conscious sinful acts. And “the free gift of righteousness” that Paul is talking about here takes care of the culpability of inherited sin, not acquired sin. And it does it as a universal benefit of the atonement. That is, it is a totally free gift. It is in effect for every human being. One doesn’t even have to be a believer to receive its benefit. Of course Calvin would associate the free gift of righteousness only with the elect.
I remind you that Jacob Arminius fully agreed with Calvin that inherited depravity not only exists, but carries culpability with it. Where Arminius and Wesley would disagree with Calvinists is at the point of the free gift of righteousness. The guilt of inherited depravity is remitted by the free gift. Therefore, because of the second Adam, no one suffers in hell because of the sin of the first Adam. Indeed, only the culpability of acquired depravity condemns us.
Calvin on the other hand, would say that inherited depravity condemns everyone to hell except the divinely chosen elect. Acquired depravity is merely added weight to already sinking ships. You might ask, “What’s the difference?” That question can best be answered by an illustration.
When a small child dies, Arminians and Wesleyans confidently can say that it goes to heaven, because of the free gift. Its original sinfulness is forgiven because of the free gift, and it has no acquired sinfulness. Calvinism is at a real disadvantage here. According to Calvin, that child can only be saved if it is one who is elect by God’s sovereign choice. And only God knows whom he has chosen. Of course Calvinistic pastors don’t say that to parents who have lost a child. They assume that the child was among the elect. But that is a really big assumption in light of their theology.
Now then, in summary, some of the concepts that we have discussed are found in both Calvinistic and Arminian-Wesleyan theology, though they are not always understood in the same way. Examples are election, predestination, repentance, saving faith, original sin, and others that we have not had the time to mention.
But two of the concepts that we have discussed are peculiarly Arminian-Wesleyan. They are prevenient grace and the free gift of righteousness.