Calvinism vs. Arminianism: The Basics

In each era of church history, Christians debate different doctrines. In much of the New Testament, we see the early church grappling with Christ’s relationship to the Gentiles and to the Old Testament Law. In the 4th and 5th centuries AD, the church debated the Doctrine of the Trinity and the personhood of Christ. Skip to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and we see a vigorous debate about the nature of the Church, the meaning of the sacraments, and the nature of grace, to name but a few of the issues.

In the 21st century, the hot area in theology is the Doctrine of Salvation, or Soteriology. The reason for debate within the Doctrine of Salvation is the (in)famous Calvinism/Arminianism debate.

Calvinism and Arminianism are both systems of thought that attempt to understand the Bible’s teaching on salvation: They both answer questions concerning the influence of sin on the sinner, the availability of grace, and the security of the believer, to name but a few issues. Based on their different theological systems, Calvinists and Arminians disagree primarily on two fronts: the meaning of the steps of salvation and the order of the steps of salvation.

The First Disagreement: The Meaning of the Steps of Salvation

First, Calvinists and Arminians disagree on what two of the steps of salvation mean. In Christian theology, salvation is a broad term that encompasses different parts or steps. Salvation is a process that begins when a person repents of their sins and is not completed until their death. Broadly defined, salvation is the series of events in which God calls a sinner to repent of their sins, declares them righteous in Christ, and then proceeds to recreate the sinner in the likeness of Christ. Think of the term “salvation” as an umbrella under which are several concepts; or, perhaps think of the term “salvation” as a file on your computer that holds numerous documents. Each of these documents is a step, or a part, of salvation.

Though some would add words to this list while others would delete some of these terms, a representative list of the steps of salvation would usually include election, God’s call to salvation, regeneration, sanctification, glorification, adoption, justification, faith, and union with Christ. Here’s the definition[1] of each if you aren’t familiar with them; I’ve also included significant points of debate for the two controversial steps:

  • Election. Definition: “God’s choosing of a people to enjoy the benefits of salvation.” Point of debate: Both Arminians and Calvinists believe in election; however, they differ on the basis and basic meaning of election. The differences on election are foundational to the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism.
  • God’s Call to Salvation. Definition: “God’s summons of humans to salvation.”[2] Point of debate: Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that the only way to be saved is for God to call a person to salvation; the question, however, regards to whom this call is extended and whether this call can be rejected. The differences on the nature of the call to salvation are foundational to the differences between Calvinists and Arminians.
  • Regeneration. Definition: “The action of the Holy Spirit, who transforms the life of those who have saving faith so that they experience a “new birth” and salvation through Jesus Christ.”
  • Sanctification. Definition: “The process or result of God’s continuing work in Christian believers through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
  • Glorification. Definition: “The final step in the process of salvation; it involves the completion of sanctification and the removal of spiritual defects.”[3]
  • Adoption: Definition: “Reception of a sinner into the familial relationship of a child to God.”
  • Justification. Definition: “God’s declaring a sinful person to be “just” on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.”
  • Faith. Definition: “Belief, trust, and obedience to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.”
  • Union with Christ. Definition: “Believers’ unity with Jesus Christ on the basis of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

I hope one thing’s clear from that list: Calvinists and Arminians agree on the meaning for the majority of the steps. When an Arminians talks about what justification means, a Calvinist will almost certainly agree; similarly, when a Calvinist talks about sanctification, an Arminian will probably fall in line with the Calvinist’s ideas. Election and God’s call to salvation are the primary areas of disagreement.

The Second Disagreement: The Order of the Steps of Salvation

The second point of contention is the order of salvation—the ordo salutis. The order of salvation is the order in which the above steps take place. Imagine that you had to go through the above list and put a “1” next to the first step in salvation, a “2” next to the second step, a “3” next to the third step, etc.: Calvinists and Arminians would put different numbers in front of some of the steps.

Based on their different systems of thought, Calvinists and Arminians hold different beliefs about the correct arrangement of the parts of salvation. While they agree that the same things happen, they debate the order in which the different steps of salvation take place. Making this debate more complicated is the fact that we aren’t actually talking about temporal order—that is, we aren’t talking about what comes first in time; usually, these debates center on logical order—that is, which event must logically proceed another event. In reality, I think Calvinists and Arminians would agree that many of the parts of salvation happen at the same point of time; the difference comes when you ask what event of salvation logically follows another part of salvation.

To get a handle on logical order as opposed to temporal order, consider this example: When a married man dies, his wife immediately becomes a widow. The man’s death and the wife’s becoming a widow happen at the exact same point in time; however, the man’s death logically proceeds the woman’s becoming a widow.

When we talk about the order of salvation, the parts we typically debate happen at the same point in time. When God saves a person in Christ, they are justified, adopted, and regenerated in one movement of God; however, the debate is which of these steps logically proceeds the others. This logical order of salvation’s events is the second key difference between Calvinists and Arminians.

The Root of the Controversy

The reason that Calvinists and Arminians disagree on the meaning and order of the steps of salvation resides in their prior commitments. The Calvinist system requires the Calvinist to understand the meaning and order of the steps of salvation in a certain way; similarly, the Arminian system dictates to its adherents how they must understand the meaning and order of salvation. Thus, the root of the differences lies in the two different systems themselves.

On Friday, March 2nd, I’ll begin exploring the details of the Calvinist system. I’ll also explain how the Calvinist system influences the Calvinist’s understanding of the meaning and order of salvation’s parts. Then, I’ll do the same for Arminianism. Make sure to subscribe so you can finish this important discussion!

Notes & Sources

[1] Unless otherwise noted, each definition comes from Donald K. McKim’s, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996). I have paraphrased the definition of “regeneration” in an effort to avoid giving definitions that lean towards either Calvinism or Arminianism.

[2] Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 28.

[3] Ibid., 76.

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