Arminians, Calvinists, and Two Theological Terms Worth Chucking

There are real theological differences, and then there are ways we just talk past each other. In this post I’d like to share two of my pet peeves with how Arminians and Calvinists sometimes define the terms of their debates. The differences are certainly real, and I don’t pretend to understand them in depth. But I’ve heard enough by now to be quite sure that the way we are using some terms probably isn’t helping anyone.

So, in the interests of pugnacity and peace (or at least the latter), let’s get started!

Since I’m more of an Arminian than a Calvinist—though I’ve benefited from listening to both and though I wish I had time to also explore molinism (such as in this book)—I’ll start closer to home and take Arminians to task first.

(1) Arminians, stop saying Calvinists believe in “once saved, always saved”!

If you ask any well-trained Calvinist whether they believe this, they will certainly say “no.” As Craig Keener (an Arminian NT scholar) says, “‘Once-saved-always-saved’ as it is commonly taught in many churches is neither Calvinism nor Arminianism.” Similarly, I recall hearing Bill Mounce, a self-proclaimed 4-point Calvinist (I recall he doubts “irresistible grace”), strongly deny that he believes in “once saved, always saved.” He speaks passionately against the kind of gospel invitation that he heard as a boy—the kind where you are invited to come down the “sawdust trail” to the “altar” and “believe” and—in Mounce’s words—“have a moment of positive volition.” No repentance needed, and not even any clear specificity about what you are supposed to believe. And, if you respond, you are assured that you are eternally saved—no matter how grossly or freely you sin thereafter.

That, my friends, is “once saved, always saved.” And unfortunately, it is what some people promote (both some self-professed Calvinists as well as all true Free Grace advocates, etc.). And some who use the term do seem to use it to promote apparently orthodox Calvinist positions that do not match the scenario above. (For example, this is the first link that pops up on a Google search for the term.)

So what is the problem with using the term? The term “once saved, always saved” normally implies that there is no need for a Christian to live a holy life in order to be assured of salvation. But John Calvin didn’t believe this. Listen to Timothy George’s analysis:

In his commentary on John 10:28, Calvin declared:

…This is a remarkable passage, teaching us that the salvation of all the elect is as certain as God’s power is invincible… He who keeps what we have committed unto him is greater and more powerful than all; and so we have nothing to be afraid of, as if our life were in danger.

This is a rich and nuanced doctrine and cannot be reduced to the shorthand formula “once saved, always saved.” Calvin did not minimize the sin of apostasy, that is, a complete falling away and utter renunciation of the gospel. However, this sin could be committed only by one who had not received the “incorruptible seed” of the Spirit in the new birth. Such unbelievers might show evidence of the Christian life, and might even possess what Calvin called “temporary faith,” but in the end they would prove to be false saints… On the other hand, true believers might fall into sin, even gross sin, but, sustained by the Spirit, they would not totally or finally be lost. Those who took this teaching as an occasion for laxity were presuming on the grace of God and stood in jeopardy of divine judgment. (Theology of the Reformers, Kindle location 4941, bold added)

I am not convinced Calvin is right in every point (as summarized here by George), but clearly we are not doing him justice to claim he believed “once saved, always saved.”

So, what should we say Calvinists believe? Timothy George uses the term “indefectibility of faith” and the Dictionary of the Christian Church uses the term “indefectibility of grace” (pg. 268)—both implying that Christians will not defect (turn away from) from faith or grace. A more common term was made popular through the “Five Points of Calvinism” (TULIP) that attempt to summarize the conclusions of the Synod of Dort half a century after Calvin’s death (these are a summary of disagreements with Arminianism, not a summary of Calvin’s whole theology). This term is “perseverance of the saints,” and it is probably the best term to use if you want to describe what Calvinists actually believe.

A classic explanation of this term is found in the seventeenth chapter of the Westminster Confession of faith:

They, whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved… Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein… (bold added)

This conundrum naturally raises the question of assurance of salvation—how can one really know whether they are saved or not? The Westminster Confession addresses this topic in the next chapter:

…Such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed… Therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness. (bold added)

This is not Arminianism, to be sure. But neither is it a flippant “once saved, always saved.” This more nuanced theological understanding explains why I have repeatedly heard multiple Calvinist pastors, theologians, and seminary teachers insist that a Christian has no right to be sure of their salvation unless there is evident fruit of holiness in their lives. Not perfection, certainly, and maybe not even the level of holiness expected in some Arminian or many Anabaptist churches. But definite evidence of the fruit of regeneration, nonetheless. Otherwise there is no assurance of salvation.

In summary, only bad Calvinists believe in “once saved, always saved,” just as only bad Arminians believe that they earn their salvation by their good works rather than relying on grace. If you don’t want to be accused of the latter, don’t accuse Calvinists of the former!

Which brings me to my pet peeve for Calvinists…

(2) Calvinists, stop implying that Arminians don’t believe in “Doctrines of Grace”!

“The Doctrines of Grace” is a term Calvinists often use to summarize their classic five points (see above). A quick survey on Amazon shows that this term is currently a favorite phrase among Calvinists choosing titles for their books. A Google search of the term leads to a host of more Calvinist resources, headed by a link to the website of John MacArthur, a staunch Calvinist publicist if ever there was one.

The problem with this term—I am speaking with some authority now as a non-Calvinist listener—is that it implies (to at least some listeners) that those who disagree with the “Five Points of Calvinism” do not believe in, rely on, or teach the grace of God. Arminians deny such a charge wholeheartedly!

To be certain, I don’t think most Calvinist intend to imply quite that, despite their belief that Arminians misunderstand how grace works. But, intentional or not, their ownership of the term “doctrines of grace” can tend to leave that impression. (I see some others agree with me that the term feels offensive and misleading. See, for example, here and here. Note: I do not intend to affirm all other aspects of these links.)

The problem here is that grace is a much more slippery subject than is often imagined—by most people, not just Calvinists. What exactly is grace? Who gets to define it? Can grace come with any conditions and still be grace? Can it be resisted and still be grace? Can it be potentially withdrawn and still be grace? How is God’s grace different from the grace that humans show? How is it the same? And is our modern conception of grace the same as how ancient Jews—including the apostles–thought of it?

Some of my thoughts here are triggered by an interview with the author of an important new book on grace. I am referring to John Barclay and his 2015 book Paul and the Gift, which has been described as “must reading for all interested in Paul, and in particular in his concept of grace.” That endorsement comes from Ben Witherington—a prominent Arminian NT scholar—and he has interviewed Barclay at length on his blog.

Here are some extended interview excerpts that underscore (a) the complexity of defining grace and (b) the fact that Calvinists most certainly aren’t alone in affirming grace:

JOHN: …Paul is not just a covenantal theologian with an eschatological or a radical social twist. He has a radical, even dangerous, view of God’s grace, but I was struggling to see how to articulate that. I realized that to understand what Paul means by ‘grace’ I had to understand how gifts worked in the ancient world, and the deeper I got into that (which is a fascinating subject in itself) the more I began to see that there are different kinds of ‘grace’ in the ancient world, including the ancient Jewish world…

I have tried to trace… how we have acquired the modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ with ‘no strings attached’, but I think it is increasingly recognized now that this is a very modern (indeed, modern Western) notion and not one that is shared in antiquity (or in most non-Western cultures)…

Paul radicalizes the incongruity of grace (grace given without regard to worth), and his understanding of the Christ-gift as an incongruous gift lies at the heart of his Gentile mission (and his own self-understanding). But this does not mean that God gives expecting nothing in return (what I call non-circular or unilateral grace): in fact Romans 6-8 expressly refutes that notion (of ‘cheap grace’) by saying that believers are ‘under grace’ (Rom 6.14). And on a human level, Paul does not think that gifts carry no obligations: see Romans 15.27 (on the Jerusalem collection as an obliged return gift), for example!…

I discuss Luther and Calvin at some length (after discussion of Augustine, on whom they both draw). I think Luther and Calvin were both absolutely right in emphasizing the incongruity of divine grace (given without regard for our merit or worth), but they also radicalized other aspects of Paul’s theology of gift (in Luther’s case, a clear move towards the gift as a unilateral, one-way movement) that go significantly beyond Paul. I also think that their (in their context necessary) emphasis on grace as the cure for sin, guilt and anxiety, left out another and very important social dimension of Paul’s theology of grace. Since God’s grace has no regard for human criteria of worth, it enables the construction of innovative, counter-cultural communities that sit loose to dominant cultural values… (Source for above quotes, bold added)

JOHN: I think are two questions here: i) should the gift be given without regard to the worth of the recipient and ii) should a gift elicit a return of some sort? The two can run together (a worthy recipient might be one more likely to express gratitude), but they are also seperable [sic]…. We have created notions of ‘altruism’ and ‘disinterest’ that are distinctly modern (making disinterest and interest mutually exclusive). It feels like that is Christian, and there are certainly Christian reasons for risky forms of giving that may not elicit a response, but the core Christian tradition is that even God’s giving wants a response from humans, even if it does not and cannot require it. Does God give to us ‘with no thought of return’? Does not God give to us, without regard to our worth, but lovingly wanting the return that fulfils our human potential, that is the return of thanksgiving (see Romans 1) and faith (see Romans 4)?

Gift [grace] is a phenomenon that has at least these three facets. The six I have identified are: superabundance (the size of character of the gift); singularity (God’s character as giver and nothing-but-giver); priority (the timing of the gift before any initiative from the other side); incongruity (the mismatch between the gift and the worth of the recipient; efficacy (the ability of the gift to achieve the giver’s intentions); and non-circularity (gifts that escape any system of exchange or reciprocity)… The point of this analysis will become clear as the book proceeds. It helps to clarify the differences in the highly influential history of reception of Paul (e.g. the differences between Augustine and Pelagius, or between Luther and Calvin: they all believed in grace, but in significantly different ways)… (Source for above quotes, bold added)

BEN: On p. 575 you define ‘gift’ as follows: “Gift denotes the sphere of voluntary, personal relations, characterized by goodwill in the giving of benefit or favor, and eliciting some form of reciprocal return that is both voluntary and necessary for the continuation of the relationship.” I like this definition a lot, and I notice that the word ‘voluntary’ shows up twice in the definition. I would imagine however, that a uber-Calvinistic theologian (e.g. John Piper) would not be happy about that word in a definition of grace, if by voluntary you mean ‘the recipient of the gift could have done otherwise than respond positively’. In other words, a certain kind of theology of predestination, would say that the ‘gift’ and the relationship were predetermined from before the foundation of the universe…

JOHN: First, note that my definition is a definition of gift (the domain of human relations as analysed by anthropology and traced in human history) not a definition of grace, if by the latter we mean ‘the divine gift of grace, given ultimately and definitively in Christ’. However, it would be problematic for Paul, as for us, if our response to grace could not be considered in any sense ‘voluntary’ (i.e. truly willed). Note how much he emphasises in 2 Corinthians 8-9 that the Corinthians’ gift (‘charis’) to Jerusalem should be voluntary and not an extraction (2 Corinthians 9.5); otherwise in his eyes it would not be a gift. Now, ‘voluntary’ in Paul’s eyes does not mean ‘free of any external influence’ (see how much effort he puts into persuading them to make this voluntary gift!): he does not labour under our illusion that we can and should act as completely autonomous individuals. But he does expect that God’s work in us generates our own willing (Phil 2.12-13), as freed agents who could do otherwise (it is possible, in Paul’s eyes, to fall out of grace).

What you are touching on here is the tendency, in a line of interpretation from Augustine, through Calvin, to Jonathan Edwards, to ‘perfect’ (radicalise or absolutise) the efficacy of grace, to the point where it causes, constrains, or compels our own wills. This is to turn God’s agency/will and our agency/will into a zero sum game: the more of one, the less of the other. But God’s will is not on the same level as ours, working in the same causal nexus… To perfect the efficacy of grace in the way you describe is certainly not necessary, even if it is understandably attractive to some. (Source for above quotes, bold added)

Back to the “uber-Calvinistic theologian” John Piper. (Please understand I am using him only because he is a prominent Calvinist proponent, and I hasten to add that I have been greatly blessed by much of his teaching.) Here is Piper’s explanation of the term “doctrines of grace”:

Probably the most crucial kind of knowledge is the knowledge of what God is like in salvation. That is what the five points of Calvinism are about. Not the power and sovereignty of God in general, but his power and sovereignty in the way he saves people. That is why these points are sometimes called the doctrines of grace. To experience God fully, we need to know not just how he acts in general, but specifically how he saves us — how did he save me? (“What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism“, bold added)

Given this explanation, we can see that the “doctrines of grace” are really the “doctrines of how God saves people.” More accurately, they are the “Calvinist doctrines of how God saves people.”

That phrase is not nearly as snappy for book titles, I know, but it is much more accurate! After all, when we probe the finer points of exactly how God saves people, there are many complexities and mysteries, and there have been many different balances of understanding throughout church history. All orthodox Christian understandings, however, have centered on the reality that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. This is an understanding shared by Arminians as much as by Calvinists.

To deny our need for grace is to deny our need for Christ! Thus withholding the term “doctrines of grace” from Arminians is tantamount to denying that they are Christians at all.

To call one theological system but not the other “the doctrines of grace” is begging the question—assuming the answer before the discussion has begun. Instead, we should be debating this: What are the differences between the Arminian and Calvinist doctrines of grace? And which matches Scripture best?

In sum, it would be helpful if Calvinists would stop insinuating that Arminians are denying our dependence upon grace. Denial of grace is not a classic Arminian stance, just as universal human salvation by grace apart from any human response—at the other end of the spectrum—is not a classic Calvinist belief.

So there you have it: two pet peeves from me, one for Arminians and one for Calvinists. As my dad used to tell me and my brothers, let’s fight nice!

Please add your peaceable thoughts in the comments below. Thank you!

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10 thoughts on “Arminians, Calvinists, and Two Theological Terms Worth Chucking”

  1. Thanks for that! You’ve echoed and verbalizes some of my own “pet peeves” on the subject. I think there would be a ton of other terms, tags, and labels that need to be put in similar perspective! It seems we are wired to want to put certain things in tiny little drawers, when sometimes they must be organized in large, spacious drawers in order for us to get them right (or at least close to right).

    1. Yes, I had briefly thought of making a longer list, but decided two was plenty for one post. You say “at least close to right.” Exactly: I’ve already had to tweek my post in a couple minor ways thanks to feedback on Facebook. Thankfully, I am satisfied thus far that I seem to be mostly on target. My main point, besides sharing pet peeves, is to encourage us to use language that (a) describes the positions of our debate partners in ways they would affirm and (b) doesn’t describe our own in ways that leave others wrongly sounding unChristian. That’s not easy to achieve.

  2. Dwight, I really appreciate this post. As I was reading, I had a flashback to my short time years ago at SMBI and sitting around with fellow students as we trashed the “once saved, always saved” position. Then I skipped forward 6 years to attending Moody Bible Institute and realizing how wrong I was in my characterizations of the Calvinist position. True, there was a guy who lived a couple doors down from me who was a strong 5-point Calvinist and took me out to pizza one day to try and persuade me to join his side. I fear that I did not defend the Arminian position very well but neither did I become a Calvinist. The pizza was good, though! Basically what I discovered at Moody, and what my wife discovered at her Baptist College was that many of our classmates spoke basically the same language, but with a different accent. We discovered that our previous characterizations of them and their continued characterizations of us were just flat out unfair. Thanks again

    1. Thanks, Conrad. Your story is shared by others, and would be an even more common one except that many conservative Anabaptists have only experienced the first half of your story. I once listened to a lecture series by John Piper, arguing for the five points of TULIP. I was not convinced, but I did find the listening helpful as a way to clear away misconceptions about what Calvinists such as him actually believe, and as a reminder that we too often engage straw men while he is busy wrestling with Scripture. And yes, when we both stick to wrestling with Scripture, we have more in common than we’d otherwise guess. Thanks for sharing!

  3. My impressions on the subject are that there are extremes in both camps but as both near the Heart of the Word of God that we are really not very far apart. Some is terminology, some from silently different angles. But both near the Cross. It doesn’t peeve me so much that some of the terminology is used as it is a reality in the extremes, but your appeal that we be careful how we label others is well said. Blessings,

    1. Thanks James. I agree: My pet peeves are less important to me than than the reminder to treat each other with grace. And yes, I feel a much greater spiritual kinship with a warm Calvinist than with a cool Arminian. Thanks for engaging.

  4. Dwight,
    is there perhaps a word missing in your quote from Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers?
    Seems like the next-to-last sentence would make more sense if the word “not” was inserted between ‘would’ and ‘totally’, i.e.
    “…On the other hand, true believers might fall into sin, even gross sin, but, sustained by the Spirit, they would *not* totally or finally be lost.”
    as it reads now, there is no ‘other hand’ to be on; no contrast with the unbeliever referenced by George.
    Just checking…:)

  5. I am catching up with this old post, but want to say thank you. I have heard speakers talk of being enlightened to understand “that it is all of grace” in the same tone as they would talk about salvation–these are people with strong theological backgrounds. I was always a little uncomfortable with this and now I have more understanding as to why.

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