Debating Calvinism: Reflections

The other night I did something I hadn’t done it quite some time: I had an in-depth discussion on Calvinism with someone who does not share my belief in the famous “5-points”.

Nevertheless, since the interaction, I have reflected back on why discussions like this are sometimes a bit frustrating. Each side can quote scripture, of course, and there was plenty of that coming from my side. But here are a few reasons –other that just looking at scripture– why it’s just not as simple as looking at a few verses in trying to reach common ground between the two polar opposites:

  • There is a clear ‘language barrier’ that so often hinders these types of discussions. That is, when we use the term ‘Calvinism’, it is often misunderstood to mean something that it is not. Also, when the term ‘free-will’ is used, it likewise, is often defined in a manner different than we Calvinists intend.
  • Sadly, too many equate ‘Calvinism’ with cold, dead, orthodoxy and a neglect of personal evangelism. Sometimes it is confusing as to why these types of perceptions arise. One reason, which I have covered before, is because Arminians recognize that Calvinists do not go about evangelism in the same manner as they. Another reason stems from the logical-consistency of their own minds in that if God is sovereign, then there is no point in doing anything about it. Yet another reason why Calvinists are given a bad rap is because the popularity of some teachers who mislabel the doctrine in order to denounce it. I suppose more could be written on this, but my main frustration is how these hurdles must constantly be cleared in order to really get through to an Arminian.
  • It is simply assumed that Calvinist do not believe in a ‘will’ of man. A ‘will’, as used in the term ‘free will’, by necessity implies something other than just robots in motion. Calvinists, of course, believe that man has a will, and that it definitely has an element of freedom to it. Men have choices and make choices every day; men must choose to repent and place faith in Christ; but these are not the real issues as relates to this subject. The Arminian often fails to distinguish between absolutely free autonomy, and robotic-like, forced, coercion. (A will enslaved to sin and a will empowered by the Spirit are, of course, two opposites, and the only two options for human ‘freedom’; that is if we are follow scripture in this area instead of our own rational.)
  • The pertinent issues as to WHY this subject is important are SO very often overlooked. That is, from the free-will side, it is hard to see why they should really care whether or not God is completely sovereign in salvation (I use the term ‘completely’, because most anybody who is the least bit orthodox will admit that God plays at least the majority-role in conversion. To put it better: most Arminians believe that God will draw, woo, and place men in special circumstances to ‘receive’ Him, but they stop short of saying that God is absolutely and completely sovereign from beginning (election) to end (regeneration/conversion)). Thus, most Arminians, holding a ‘foreknowledge’ or similar view, are actually very close to Calvinists in creed (being but a point or two off), but are in reality miles and in fact worlds apart in relation to how this seemingly small difference affects every aspect of faith and practice. For me, the Calvinist, this is often hard to communicate and demonstrate without a strenuous effort and much discussion.

Those are but a few observations after a fruitful discussion and further reflection on the subject. I’m interested, however, in better understanding how some people have overcome these problems. For I’ve been a Calvinist from (new) birth, and have never struggled with the perceptions listed above. If you have struggled with some of these hurdles in the past, and by God’s grace you were able to get over them, I would appreciate you sharing exactly how you finally dealt with the points listed above (coming from an Arminian to a Calvinist mindset). Also, I’m now looking into some resources on this subject that meet the criteria below; any recommendations are greatly appreciated. I am looking for material that:

-Is short, concise, and readable (no “freedom of the will”, “bondage of the will”, tough-read type of stuff). Would like to buy in large quantities to give as hand-outs.
-Will properly define the historical and accurate definition of ‘Calvinism’ and ‘hyper-Calvinism’.

-Will properly define the ‘will’ from a biblical perspective, not simply from a humanistic, philosophical, or of course, Arminian perspective.

-Can demonstrate how this subject radically but practically affects things such as: how we read scripture; our prayer; our worship; our evangelizing; how we see the world; what our churches should look like, etc.

-Will be candid in giving details on the pitfalls, shallowness, and slippery-slope consequences of Arminianism as pertains to personal sanctification and church structure.

Explore posts in the same categories: Soteriology

14 Comments on “Debating Calvinism: Reflections”

  1. Paul Says:

    Dear Nathan,
    For me, the real issue was the Sovereignty of God. I had “accepted Christ” at the age of 7 and was baptized soon after. I didn’t think I was Arminian because I believed in Eternal Security. Like many Baptist young people, my walk was characterized by a sort of bi-polar worldliness and frequent “re-dedications”. In H.S. and college I was heavily influenced by evolutionary theory. After still another “re-dedication” I went to Bible Institute. After over 1 1/2 years of study, I had a dilemma, Genesis. How could I not believe the Book I supposedly loved? I realized it wasn’t a lack of proof for its authenticity, it was that I would not surrender to its Author. In February of 1975, I fell on my knees in my bedroom and surrendered to my Sovereign. And when I had, I suddenly truly believed. After that, the study of Soteriology set my heart aflame with love for my Savior. Thanks be to God for a teacher named Bill Hueston who forced me to see that salvation is by grace alone and had nothing to do with God somehow seeing something savable in me but rather all to do with His Grace, Mercy and Love for the despicable and unlovable.

  2. genembridges Says:

    -Can demonstrate how this subject radically but practically affects things such as: how we read scripture; our prayer; our worship; our evangelizing; how we see the world; what our churches should look like, etc.

  3. Charlie Arehart Says:

    Nathan, this is very timely. Thank you. I’ve been dealing with this myself recently, in helping others see the difference. It’s quite a challenge (especially for someone like me, new to RT only in the past couple/few years). I, too, would love to find something that helped make the case succinctly.

    Like many, I’m sure, the road to my understanding has been long and full of detours, potholes, and gracious tow trucks. 🙂 I have to admit that no single document did it for me, so perhaps it’s a pipe dream to hope some single one could exist to do it for others.

    (Then there’s the whole operation of the Spirit, of course. Can seem quite a conundrum. Perhaps someone will roundly smack my bottom and see that I’m exhibiting a very error of ways that will cripple my attempt to solve this dilemma.)

    But I’ll throw out a couple, at least as alternatives to books (to reach those more drawn to video):

    RC’s “What is Reformed Theology?” –

    “Amazing Grace” – (was

    They’re not short, sadly, and may even be too dry for the unregenerate or ardently Arminian to bear through. I’d love to see someone do an abbreviated version, that instead linked to the deeper content if one showed having missed a point.

    To me, that’s the challenge in all this–and goes to the heart of your main point, I think: we can’t presume when we have any discussion (or read any book, etc.) that we’re necessarily really all on the same page. Half the battle is in ensuring that, and doing so necessarily makes any such effort more laborious and equally challenging for both sides.

    But I appreciate your putting this out there.

    Indeed, to genembridges, at 14 pages that “death of death” piece is neither “short” nor “concise”. Again, if someone could create a condensed version that referenced the depths of it, that may help with the challenge Nathan has put forth.

    Or are we chasing the wind?

  4. Eric Says:

    Hi Nathan,
    I grew up in a small SBC and never even heard about Calvinism. I think
    I first heard the term on The Bible Answer Man program back in the early 90’s. It piqued my curiosity because it was new (to me) and confused me, but something seemed to make sense about it. I think it was the debate about whether God is totally sovereign or only almost sovereign.
    Whatever it was caused me to go book shopping and I ran across the book called “The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented”. The book is short and to the point (I’m sure you’ve heard of it, I think it is fairly popular). I liked the step by step progression from Total Depravity on, each point backed up with loads of scripture references. I think that book did the most to convince me early on. Not everyone likes a step-by-step (scientific) approach to this subject, though. I’ve been working on my Mom for years, and she’s getting closer, but the concept is so foreign to her she’s afraid to make the leap. It’s not a matter of hermeneutics or exegesis with her but more of, “I’ve never known anyone who believed that before”.
    Good post.

  5. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    Amazing Grace and Thomas and Steele’s “Five Points” are excellent resources. The problem is getting the individual whom you are in dialogue with to imbibe.

    I agree with the individuals who know that this is not an easy road to walk. But then, neither is evangelism to the unsaved. I think first that we must realize that what we are offering is the Gospel, and whether a person has made their confession or not, the enemy of our souls is fully capable of stealing the Word right out of their minds. So, we must with long suffering, and here is where I fall down, with patience and kindness, press forward with what we know to be true.

    I look for passages that are in the formula, “this must be, or that cannot be,” such as John 1.13, or John 3.3, and John 6:35-71. Recently, I re-read Psalm 65:4, amazingly familiar, isn’t it? It is so, because it is exactly what Jesus says when evangelizing and explaining how one becomes a follower. This is familiar, also, because it is the formula found in Ezekial 36:27. Other passages that have helped with those I have talked to are 1 Corinthians 2, especially 10-16. And, Romans 8:5-9 and 1 Cor. 12:3 ref. 1 John.

    There are many such passages, yet these will still not convince anyone. It truly is a work of the Spirit. But, if the person sees that the inititial work of regeneration is by the Holy Spirit is necessary, then a whole arena of discussion opens.

    I do not think there will ever be a “simplified” tract like approach. I do not think there are any simple answers to evangelism within our without the church, except to follow Paul to Timothy, and study.

  6. Nathan White Says:

    Paul said: Like many Baptist young people, my walk was characterized by a sort of bi-polar worldliness and frequent “re-dedications”.

    This was true of my life as well. The ‘re-dedications’, sadly, were used to ease my conscience and ‘prove’ to myself that I was really saved. Looking back, that kind of practice is more in line with the gospel of Rome than with the gospel of Grace.

    Paul said: Thanks be to God for a teacher named Bill Hueston who forced me to see that salvation is by grace alone and had nothing to do with God…

    I think wherever you look, there is always someone behind the scenes, an influence on your life, that is vital to your growth. With me, it was a little-known man who doesn’t get much recognition from others, but who is faithful in preaching/ministering/discipline in season and out, which led to my conversion and ultimately to my understanding of Sovereign, free grace. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Nathan White Says:

    Let me reiterate the immense value of the link Gene shared above! One of the best, ever.

    Charlie, thanks for recommending ‘Amazing Grace’, that is a great idea. My only concern is how long it is, but certainly anyone interested in the truth will see it through. However, I don’t think we’re chasing the wind; it’s just got to be a perfect balance of: God’s grace, our input/challenges/shepherding in their lives, and good resources to back up what we say.

    great resource. I would like to consider myself somewhat ‘well-versed’ on the subject, and I STILL consult that resource when thinking through these things. Tons of scripture indeed.

  8. Nathan White Says:

    Thomas said: I think first that we must realize that what we are offering is the Gospel, and whether a person has made their confession or not, the enemy of our souls is fully capable of stealing the Word right out of their minds. So, we must with long suffering, and here is where I fall down, with patience and kindness, press forward with what we know to be true.

    I agree with you, in a sense. Generally, if I believed a person was really lost, I probably wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to convince them of the 5 points, even though my presentation to them would thoroughly consist of what some would call ‘Calvinism’.

  9. Cindy Bleil Says:

    Dear Nathan,

    I was also raised Baptist and can totally relate to both Paul’s testimony and your response (#6). Thank you both for encouraging words.

    Gene, thank you for the link. I always look for and appreciate your comments.

    Wonderful post. Thank you.

    1 Thess. 5:23-24

  10. Pat McGee Says:

    I learned of the doctrines of grace by reading Martyn Lloyd Jones’ sermons on the sermon on the mount. He pastorally opened my eyes. He didn’t use the term ‘Calvinism’ or even ‘doctrines of grace.’ Hi logic on fire got me to see the error of my ways. I didn’t even know I had been Arminian. His preaching was a giant breath of fresh air.

  11. Brian Adams Says:

    Two articles that strongly influenced my life were “The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination” by Jerome Zanchius” and “Absolute Predestination” by Gilbert Beebe. Both can be found with any search engine typing in those words.

    In Hope

  12. Bryan Says:

    I have a general observation to make about the Calvinism/Armenian debate. I believe that both systems of theology ask the wrong question. That being, “Why are some people lost while others are saved?” I don’t believe scripture addresses these issues in that way. Would it not be better to ask two separate questions? Scripture does answer, “What must I do to be saved?” Concentrating on this one issue one could hardly argue against what is typically seen as, but older than, the theological system of Calvinism. The bible is equally explicit concerning the lost. “Why do some perish?” They perish because they refuse Christ. While scripture does speak of election unto salvation, it does not speak of election unto damnation. I agree that it would seem logical that if some are elect unto eternal life that the non-elect are hell bound, but that is not scriptural. Both sides seem to err on this point. Armenians what to limit God’s power while Calvinist limit his atonement. This is not philosophy it is theology. Some things like the Trinity will not be fully understood this side of heaven. You asked “I’m interested, however, in better understanding how some people have overcome these problems.” This is how I overcame it. Not by being an Armenian or a Calvanist, but by following the plain reading of scripture. Is this an apparent contradiction? Yes, depending on how you ask the question. Calvinism is not a system established by the scripture like the covenant, it is a human method for explain it to flawed humans and will necessarily be flawed it self.

  13. Paul Bollen Says:

    Then how do you explain these scriptures?

    Here are some scriptures we use for Limited Atonment taken from two different T.U.I.P. pamplets

    Limited Atonement

    Luke 2:1,2;
    John 6:37-40; 3:16;
    John 17:2-11, 20,24,26;
    John 10:11,26,27,29,42;
    John 12:19,32;
    Acts 20:28
    Romans 3:24; 4:25; 5:18;
    Romans 8:5-10; 31-34; 9:1;
    Galatians 3:13;
    1Timothy 2:4-6;
    Ephesians 1:3-4,13;
    Ephesians 12:15-16;
    1Corinthians 1:21; 15:22
    2 Cor. 5:14,15,17-19;
    Heb. 2:9,17; 3:1; 9:28;
    1Peter 2:9;
    2Peter 1:1, 3:9
    1John 2:1-2; 4:14;

    Deut. 7:6-8; 10:14-15;
    Isaiah 65:1;
    Matthew 7:22; 24:22,31;
    Luke 4:27; 18:7
    John 6:29,44; 15:6;
    Acts 13:47;
    Romans 3:24; 5:9; 8:9,10,28-30,33; 9:30-33; 11:7;
    1Corinthians 1:26-29; 8:3;
    Galatians 2:16
    Ephesians 1:4,5,11,12;
    Philippians 1:29; 2:12-13
    Colossian 2:13; 3:2,3
    1Timothy 1:9
    2Timothy 1:9; 2:19;
    1Thessalonians 1:5; 5:9;
    2Thessalonians 2:13,14;
    Titus 1:2;
    1Peter 1:1,2, 5-11 20; 2:8,9;
    Revelation 13:8; 17:8

  14. Bryan Says:

    Thank you for your response. The original post was so old that I was not sure anyone would answer. You asked, “Then how do you explain these scriptures?” My initial response was shock that I had missed so many scriptural references to the limited atonement of Christ. After looking at some of the references and being familiar with the rest I have decided to offer no explanation to any of them. Although I am not sure that God can be bound up neatly in a philosophical explanation, I did not say that those explanations could not go a long way. It would be pointless for me to explain scripture you already known and we already agree on. I have no problem with four of the five points of Calvinism, only limited atonement. The list you provided covers all of T.U.L.I.P., which means without some explanation as to why T, U, I and P scripturally, not logically, necessitate L we have not moved our discussion forward. I agree I am a believer because God chose me and that decision to do so was not based on foreknowledge but his divine will. I will also concede that based on logic I am left with limited atonement or universalism. What I am not ready to concede yet is that Gods’ offer of salvation is for everyone. I do not feel bound to mesh scripture and logic. I am perfectly happy saying that although God saves through election he does not condemn through election. If you could show me from these scripture references you have provided how the bible teaches limited atonement I would be grateful. A list of references however is not very convincing. If I were to provide an equally long list and offer no explanation to the verses I do not believe that the size of the list alone would cause you to abandon Calvinism. Both of us know that is what the Mormon does when he comes to your door. I would not say that is truly comparing scripture to scripture. Although if the length of lists were the only thing needed to win a debate we could be done with Catholicism today.

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