The Calvinist/Arminian Controversy

Calvinism or Arminianism?

The debate between Arminianism and Calvinism, which concerns God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, is one of the most divisive in the church today. Rather than being an honest, respectful dialogue among brethren, this debate has led to an unhealthy compartmentalization within the Body of Christ. Sadly, this has resulted in much vital truth being buried and neglected.

The Calvinist understanding of predestination stems from their emphasis on God’s sovereignty, and the fact that He alone is the basis for our salvation. A key text in Calvinist doctrine is “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9) and they are certainly right to emphasize this. To the Arminian, the chief goal is to proclaim God’s love grace freely extended to all people, which is also a very noble goal. Emphasis is placed on the person’s individual responsibility to receive the Gospel. These issues are debated at length in this video:

While I respect both traditions, my understanding in this area remains a work in progress. I am less concerned about adopting a label as I am about being consistent with the full counsel of Scripture. There are strengths and weaknesses in both camps. When not kept in proper perspective, Calvinism can lead to fatalism while Arminianism can lend itself to legalism.

Both the Calvinist and the Arminian can provide long lists of Scriptures that they believe support their respective positions. The point is that one set of Scriptures is no less God’s Word than the other. All too often, the substance is obscured by semantics. As Randy Alcorn observes:

My wife Nanci and I learned years ago that we got into trouble by attaching our own meanings to the other’s words…Both Calvinists and Arminians say “God is sovereign,” but mean different things by sovereign. The same goes for the term “free will.” When Calvinists and Arminians use these terms in conversation without understanding what it means to the other person, miscommunication is inevitable. Then tensions rise, and soon one or both are frustrated and defensive. ¹

It is possible to believe in both the “behind the scenes” work that God does in drawing and convicting the sinner, as well as the more “outward” responses to God’s grace. In fact, Scripture allows us to do no less. For example, I can give you a date for my conversion to Christ (August 8th, 1983). At the same time, Scripture says that it was something God had ordained from the foundation of the world (Romans 8:28-30, Ephesians 1:4-5, etc). Again, while I may not understand how all of it fits together, I still rejoice in this wonderful truth. To paraphrase Vance Havner, I may not fully understand electricity but that does not mean I have to sit in the dark!

Just like trying to understand the Trinity, we must acknowledge that God is bigger than us. He is not limited to the four dimensional understanding of reality. This is how two ideas that may seem contradictory to our human understanding can still be true. Calvinist theologian Loraine Boettner states:

Predestination and free agency are the twin pillars of a great temple, and they meet above the clouds where the human gaze cannot penetrate. Or again, we may say that Predestination and free agency are parallel lines; and while the Calvinist may not be able to make them unite, the Arminian cannot make them cross each other. ²

Both John Calvin and Jacob Arminius were brilliant men who made immeasurable contributions to the Body of Christ. At the same time, both were fallible human beings who were prone to the same errors and excesses as the rest of us. When taken to extremes, both systems can lead to abuse and error. For those who still insist on blind allegiance to either of these camps, keep in mind that the Bible calls this sort of sectarianism a sign of pride and immaturity (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). The great preacher Charles Spurgeon puts it well:

It is time that we had done with the old and rusty systems that have so long curbed the freeness of religious speech. The Arminian trembles to go an inch beyond Arminius or Wesley, and many a Calvinist refers to John Gill or John Calvin as any ultimate authority. It is time that these systems be broken up, and that there was sufficient grace in all our hearts to believe everything taught in God’s Word, whether it was taught by either of these men or not. ³

These are complex issues that some of the greatest theological minds in history have grappled with for centuries. Certainly we should discuss and debate them. God would not have included them in the Bible if He did not intend for us to be engaged. Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely that the debate will be resolved simply by posting insulting memes on social media. It is past time for Christians on both sides to put away the straw man arguments and personal attacks and show some humility as we seek to grow together into the united body that Jesus prayed we would be.

Keep It Real,



1. Alcorn, Randy. Calvinists, Arminians and Everything In Between. The Gospel Coalition. January 14, 2015.

2. Boettner, Lorraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Kindle Edition). 1932. Location 3096.

3. Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. Election and Holiness. Sermon Preached at New Park Street Pulpit, March 11, 1860.







#jameshboyd #keepitreal #yourfriendjames

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