In this post we want to continue to define what the classical Calvinist and classical Arminian views are before we jump fully into the debate itself. Today we will discuss the Arminian and Calvinist view on the atonement. We will also look briefly at Universalism, which both of them deny, in order to show how closely Arminianism and Calvinism are actually related. They are both evangelical to the core and therefore would do well to fight together on many issues facing the confessing Church in our day.
Evangelicals Vs. Universalists
Both Classical Arminianism and classical Calvinism teach that mankind is under the wrath of God and can only be delivered from this wrath by the substitutionary and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Both affirm that men can do nothing to save themselves but must place their trust in Jesus Christ in order to benefit from His sacrifice. Both the Calvinist and Arminian call people to repent of their sin and trust in Jesus Christ in order to the reconciled to God. And both theological camps wholly affirm Christ’s teaching in John 3:18, “He who believes in Him is not condemned. But he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
“Christian” Universalism also believes in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners, though they have various ideas about how His death saves. But unlike evangelicals they believe that Christ’s death saves everyone, whether they trust in Christ before they die or remain hostile to Him until their last breath. This includes atheists, Hindu, nominal Christians and everyone. Men like Rob Bell (author of Love Wins), Carlton Pearson (author of The Gospel of Inclusion) and William P. Young (author of The Shack) believe that even if someone dies apart from Christ, eventually in the after life they will be led to faith in Christ and received into heaven.
So here is the evangelical difference as it relates to the atonement of Christ: one must be born again through personally placing their trust in Jesus Christ in this life, for “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this comes the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) Both Arminians and Calvinists are in full agreement on this issue. So, what is the difference in their perspectives?
The Arminian believes that Christ died on the cross in order to atone for the sins of all men, but only those that place their trust in Christ will benefit from that death. They believe in conditional universal atonement. That is, Christ tasted death for all men, but only those that believe will actually be saved. The Calvinist believes that Christ’s death on the cross was not made for all people, but only for those whom God had predetermined to save. They believe that those whom God predestined are born into sin and condemnation like all other men and will only benefit from the atonement of Christ when they believe; but they believe that Christ’s work on the cross was not intended for all, but only for the elect.
Universalist – Christ died for all men, everyone will be saved whether they believe or not
Arminian – Christ died for all men, only those who believe will be saved
Calvinist – Christ died only for the elect, only those who believe will be saved