Total Depravity & Saving Grace: Calvinist & Arminian Perspectives

A Few Introductory Posts

In this post I want to continue to introduce the key points of contention between Calvinists and Arminians. David over at reformedtruths.com pointed out in a comment on my last post that these two theological positions are irreconcilable on several important points, and I have yet to address which one is more biblical. His comment made me realize I must have not made it clear that these first several posts will just be an introduction to the differences between Calvinists and Arminians. I believe some of those that visit this blog are not familiar with the long-standing debate, and I wish to bring them up to speed before jumping into the deep end.

I would also like to present the position each side holds clearly and objectively upfront because many that are veterans of this debate have heard many strawmen arguments against the other side. And I am afraid that many of these veterans have come to believe that these strawmen are actually the position that the other side affirms. So, in this post, as in the few that will follow, I will merely present the Calvinist and Arminian position as accurately as I can and point out what each side finds unacceptable in the other. Hopefully this will give us some time to consider what each position actually affirms and denies. If you hold to one of the two positions and do not feel like I present it accurately, please post a comment below letting me know how I could have better explained it.

Today we want to discuss the view of Calvinists and Arminians on two points, namely the depth of human sinfulness and the role of divine grace in a person’s conversion to Christ.

The Agreement

The first question for today is, “How do Calvinists and Arminians differ in their beliefs about human sinfulness?” The answer might be surprising to Calvinists who have been enmeshed in the controversy, but classical Arminianism has the same view as Calvinism on the nature of human sinfulness. Classical Arminians believe that man is totally depraved and will never seek after God unless the grace of God works in them the willingness to repent and believe. Classical Arminians believe in total depravity.

Now it should be noted, that most people who call themselves Arminians in the confessing Church of our day are not classical Arminians, but some sort of semi-Pelagians at best, and full Pelagians at worst. The modern “Arminian” would believe that if the preacher sets the mood just right (often with the help of some slow music and dim lights), the arguments are set forth persuasively and the person’s felt needs are addressed, people might possibly decide to come to the altar, pray the “sinner’s prayer” and “invite Jesus into their heart.” This is completely unorthodox and unchristian. This is some sort of modern psychology / Humanism / pseudo-Christian mixture that has nothing to do with the historic Christian Faith. And informed Arminians object to it as passionately at Calvinists do.

So, the classical Arminian and Calvinist agree that man is at enmity with God. They do not hold that mankind’s evil is primarily displayed in open immorality and violence against other human beings (though this is obviously part of human sinfulness), but that their enmity is primarily with God. A person might be very loving, compassionate and generous to their fellow men, but their heart, until it is changed by God’s grace, is passionately opposed to God. Such people might make a show of religiosity, and even some form of “Christian” religiosity, but the god they create in their mind is nothing like the God of Scripture. When the true God is proclaimed, they close their ears in disgust at what they hear, for they hate the nature, character and truth of the living God. Man is totally depraved and completely unwilling to repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ; on this classical Arminianism and Calvinism agree.

The Disagreement

Classical Arminianism and Calvinism agree on the depth of human depravity, but they do not agree on the way in which God’s grace draws a sinner to faith in Christ. Without getting too technical we could put it this way, the Arminian believes that God gives the sinner the ability to accept Christ while still giving him room to reject the offer of salvation in Christ. In other words, God’s Spirit makes it possible for the sinner to repent and trust in Christ, but He doesn’t make it inevitable; God still leaves the ultimate choice up to the individual. The Calvinist on the other hand believes that God so satisfies the sinner with the saving sufficiency of Christ that the sinner would never choose to reject Him. That is, God makes the person see his deep need for a Savior and shows him how perfectly Jesus meets his need. He so shows him the sinfulness of sin that the sinner begins to hate it and turns from it with all of his heart. By this work in the individual’s heart, God makes His grace irresistible and the person’s conversion inevitable.

The Primary Objection

So, what is the fuss about such a relatively slight difference? Well, as in most of the disagreements at the heart of the Arminian/Calvinist debate it boils down to the glory and character of God.

Here is how that plays out. The Arminian feels that by maintaining that people can choose to accept or reject the Gospel he believes that he has made men responsible for their own damnation on the one hand and has made God responsible for their salvation on the other. He reasons that if the person chooses to accept the Gospel it is due to God’s enabling grace, and if he chooses to reject the Gospel it is due entirely to his own sinful rebellion. So, in this view God gets glory for salvation and the rebel’s rejection, not God’s choice, takes all the responsibility for damnation.

In the mind of the Calvinist his theological perspective has the same result. He believes that mankind hates God, not because they are somehow unable to love God, but because they are unwilling to love Him. The sinner is not viewed as a poor creature that is unable to muster up faith and love, but as a rebellious creature that will never trust or love God. Therefore, every unrepentant sinner, not God, is fully responsible for his rejection of God’s grace. But when men do come to repentance and faith the Calvinist sees that as purely a work of God’s grace. Yes, the person willingly chooses Christ, but only because God has so influenced his heart to make him willing. Therefore, God alone gets the glory for the sinner’s conversion and salvation.

So, what does each side object about the other if both have seemingly maintained the responsibility of the unbelieving sinner for his damnation and have given God the glory for the salvation of believing sinners? The Calvinist objects to the Arminian by claiming that in that view the repentant sinner, not God, gets the glory for his salvation. After all, they argue, it was the sinner’s choice that made the difference between damnation and salvation, therefore it is their choice that helped save them, not God alone.

The Arminian also objects to the Calvinist’s view, but for a different reason. They argue that if the lost sinner cannot possibly choose to accept the Gospel without God’s saving grace, and He does not give that grace to everyone, then it only follows that God’s choice, not the sinner’s choice is what damns the lost soul. In the Arminian’s mind this insults the loving character of God and makes Him the one responsible for the damnation of the lost.

  • The Arminian intends to defend the character of God
  • The Calvinist intends to defend the glory of God

Comes Down to Scripture

Which is more important, the glory or the character of God? Of course, we cannot possibly say one is more important than the other. And we can be sure that God has never considered compromising neither His goodness nor His glory. How then can we decide which of the views is correct? It comes down to what Scripture teaches. We must look at the Bible and see what it has to say about the role of God’s grace in the conversion of sinners. We must accept all that it says, and nothing less. We cannot merely argue about which position makes God look better, we must find out what God has told us in His word, and then find out how He reconciles His goodness in the damnation of sinners and His glory in the salvation of His saints. This is what we intend to do, after a few more posts introducing the controversy between Calvinists and Arminians.

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