Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Look Back

Note: While Steve graciously provided a link back to my personal blog, I am cross-posting my post here too.

Every once in a while, it doesn’t hurt to go over some ground that can be seen as basic and trivial, to remind ourselves of some basic facts. This is a common occurrence during the Christmas season, when we remind each other of the basic truths of Christ’s birth.

In a similar vein, I’m reminded of an important facet of Calvinism and Arminianism. Namely, I want to look at one species of question in particular: why is it that historic Calvinists thought Arminians had recapitulated to the Roman Catholic Church? More specifically, why is it that Calvinists believe Arminianism is so dangerously close to salvation by works?

This question can perhaps be even better illustrated if we think of two individuals, Amy and Bill. In this illustration, Amy is saved while Bill is not. So the question bringing the distinction between Calvinists and Arminians is this: why is it that Amy is saved but Bill is not?

Calvinist soteriology (i.e., the doctrine of salvation) states that anyone who is saved is saved by grace alone through faith alone. These represent two of the five solae (or the Anglicized “solas”) of the Reformation: Sola gratia and sola fide. More specifically, Calvinism is monergistic (taken from “mono” = one + “ergon” = work, literally meaning “one worker”). Calvinism does not deny that man does good works, but instead claims that man does good works solely as a result of having been saved. Thus, the Calvinist will say that Amy is saved because God alone worked in Amy’s life such that Amy, through no contribution of her own, was regenerated, responded in faith, and was saved. Bill, on the other hand, is not saved because he was not granted the grace of God and continued on his sinful way.

In contrast, the Roman Catholic view held that meritorious works were also necessary for salvation. Faith alone was insufficient (indeed, the Council of Trent declared “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema” (Canon 9)). Thus, a Catholic would answer the question by saying that Amy was saved because she cooperated with God. It is a synergistic work (from “sunergos” meaning “working together”). In the Catholic view, Amy had the grace of God and she added her meritorious works to it, resulting in salvation. Furthermore, Bill not being saved could be due to Bill not having faith and/or Bill not having works.

What of the Arminian position then? The Arminian view does affirm sola fide (salvation by faith alone), yet denies sola gratia. Thus, the Arminian view tries to straddle the two positions. On the one hand, they will say that there is nothing that a person can do to add to the work that Christ already has done, and thus Amy is saved solely by the work of Christ. Yet because the grace of God is indiscriminate and available to all, the grace of God is insufficient to make the distinction between why Amy is saved but Bill is not. Clearly, both Amy and Bill received the same grace of God. Clearly, if God does not act differently between Amy and Bill, then the deciding factor of who is saved must lie within Amy and Bill themselves. Thus, there is some aspect by which Amy and Bill must do something on their part in order to be saved, for God’s actions are universal in this view.

If we trace out the distinction in the views, we can look at this symbolically. In all views, we can have the following format:

[God’s work] + [Man’s work] -> [Salvation] + [Good deeds]

For the Calvinist, God’s work is 100% and Man’s work is 0%. For both the Catholic and the Arminian, God’s work is some number less than 100% and Man’s work is some number greater than 0%.

Now I know that many Arminians claim that man's work does nothing to save the man, but again we ask: why is it that Amy is saved and Bill is not? God's actions toward both Amy and Bill are identical. Amy does not receive more grace than Bill in this view. Thus, if God's actions were all that were needed, there would be no difference in the outcome. Since there is a difference in outcome and since God's work is identical in this scenario, then there must be something other than God's work that determines whether or not someone is saved. (And given the fact that Arminians claim that God is unjust if He is the determiner of salvation, how much more so if the determining factor is in some quality outside of the man who is choosing?)

So clearly the Arminian view is much closer to the Roman Catholic view than it is to the Calvinist view on this point. And furthermore, I note that one of the most common reasons that I have personally witnessed Arminians say as to why one person is saved while another is not is because the one who is saved has exercised his or her will and chosen God. To quote again the passage from the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning …that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.”

This explains why historic Calvinists believed that Arminianism was a return to Roman Catholic belief. Today, sola gratia is not as emphasized in theology. Instead, the focus on sola fide is maintained. And it is quite clear that Arminians have a vastly different view than Catholics when it comes to sola fide. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Arminianism is a synergistic salvation, whereas Calvinism remains monergistic. And this distinction is vital and necessary to be kept, especially when weighing the fact that the Bible clearly speaks of monergistic, not synergistic, salvation.


  1. This piece suffers, imho, from using saved and justified interchangeably. Calvinists believe that good works are necessary for salvation.

    “Nevertheless, we must also own up to the fact that our final salvation is made contingent upon the subsequent obedience which comes from faith.” John Piper and Pastoral Staff, What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-we-believe-about-the-five-points-of-calvinism)

    “The question is not whether good works are necessary for salvation, but in what way they are necessary. As the inevitable outworking of saving faith, they are necessary for salvation.” John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991) p. 210.

  2. But that's a different issue. Faith without works is dead -- both Calvinists and Arminians agree on that. God's grace will enable the believer to will and to work for His good pleasure. So anyone claiming to be a believer who doesn't have those good works thereby demonstrates that he is not a true believer.

    The question here is whether man contributes anything of his own towards the regeneration of his own heart. Is the ultimate determining factor whether or not someone will be saved found within him? Both Arminianism and Roman Catholicism teach "Yes". Calvinism teaches "No".