In part one of this series I explained that I do not like the label Calvinist because both insiders and outsiders have misconceptions about what Calvinists actually believe. In this series, I hope to clarify some of those misconceptions. My goal is not to convince people to be Calvinists, but to make sure all of us know what we are choosing to accept or reject before we choose to accept or reject it.
IMPORTANT NOTE: In this entire series I am using the word Calvinist in the most general way possible. Rather than using it to refer to those who follow Calvin's writings on every point of his theology of election, I am using it to refer to those who believe God pre-destined certain people to salvation, solely on the basis of his personal pleasure, and is Himself responsible for their conversion. While the term Calvinist may not be wholly accurate in the technical sense, it is accurate in the practical sense. If you believe God predestined a chosen group of people to be saved, you are presumed to be a Calvinist by other Christians, even if you would not ascribe that label to yourself.
Misconception #6: Arminianism Provides a Solution to the Parts of Calvinism that Make Me Uncomfortable
I could never be a Calvinist. The God I believe in wouldn’t create someone knowing that they were destined for hell. I also could never believe in a God who chooses some to be saved, and allows others to be damned. The Bible very clearly says that God “desires all men to be saved.” That’s why I'm an Arminian.
In my experience, many believers who consciously know they are Arminians have chosen this theological system because they are uncomfortable with some of the positions of Calvinism. For instance, they do not desire to believe in a God who creates people knowing they are destined for hell, nor a God whom chooses to save some and not others. They look at certain Bible verses such as 1 Timothy 2:14 (God “desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth”, NIV) and conclude that Arminianism deals with biblical data like this better than Calvinism.
The problem is, it really doesn’t. The uncomfortable beliefs one might be trying to avoid by escaping Calvinism remain after embracing Arminianism. While Arminianism is a different theological system, it does not provide a neat-and-tidy solution to the most common objections I hear to Calvinism. Here’s why….
“I can’t believe in a God who would create people knowing they are doomed to hell.”
One of the most common objections to Calvinism is that the God of Calvinism is cruel. A loving God, it is argued, would not bring someone into existence knowing that this person’s ultimate destination would be eternal torment. It is true that within a Calvinistic framework God brings people into existence knowing that some will be saved and others will not. Yet this is equally true of the God of Arminianism.
Both Calvinists and Arminians believe in predestination and election. After all, they are both biblical words (Ephesians 1:5, 11 Romans 8:29 etc…). Both believe that before God creates a person, He knows whether or not they will respond to Him in faith. There is no difference between the two on this issue. The only difference is the basis upon which He knows this information. Calvinists believe God knows who will respond to Him in faith because He has predestined to grant the gift of faith to those He has chosen beforehand, while Arminians believe that God knows who will respond to Him in faith because He has looked forward in time and has seen who will choose Him in the future. In both Calvinism and Arminianism, God has created every person knowing full well their eternal destiny.
If you cannot believe in a God who would create someone knowing they are destined for hell, you cannot believe in Arminianism any more than Calvinism. In fact, the only way to avoid this conclusion is to believe in a God who is not omniscient, by adopting a position such as Open Theism, which may solve your objections to this issue, but does so by adding the much greater problem of contradicting essentially the entire testimony of Scripture.
“I can’t believe in a God would choose some and not others to be saved.”
Another common objection to Calvinism is that it offers us a God who would choose some to be saved and not others. To many, this appears to contradict the biblical presentation of God as supremely loving. For this reason, they reject Calvinism and hold to Arminianism instead. However, Arminianism does not solve this issue. In fact, it faces the exact same challenge.
Calvinists believe that only those who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved. Likewise, Arminians believe the same. In the theology of both groups, God saves only those who place faith in His Son. There is no difference between the two groups in who is saved nor in how many are saved. The only difference is in the cause of salvation. In Calvinism, the cause is God’s irresistible grace which empowers those who receive it to believe. In Arminianism, the cause is the human being’s response to the grace God gives to all people. Within both theological systems, we have a God who chooses to save some and not others.
Of course the objection many Arminians raise at this point is that, within the framework of Calvinism, God could give his irresistible grace to more people and doesn’t. Thus, in their view, the God of Calvinism is not a God who “desires all people to be saved” as the God of the Bible clearly does (1 Timothy 2:14). Yet this criticism fails to recognize that the God of Arminianism is equally believed to be a sovereign God who could do the same. Yet, just like the God of Calvinism, He doesn’t.
The reason is that in both theological systems, God does not only desire that all people are saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, He also desires something else. And those desires cannot both be fully fulfilled at the same time. The God of Calvinism desires His glory above all and, for this reason, saves some but not all because to save all would eliminate the opportunity for His glory to be displayed to His people through righteousness and the judgment of evil (Romans 9:22-23). The God of Arminianism desires to honor human free-will above all and, for this reason, saves some but not all because to save all would be to overcome free-will. Thus, within both systems you have a God who “desires all people to be saved” but who, because of His allegiance to a greater desire, permits that not all are saved. He does this either in allegiance to His own glory (Calvinism) or in allegiance to human free-will (Arminianism).
One of the reasons I abandoned Arminianism in favor of Calvinism is because I found a mountain of biblical evidence in support of God’s supreme commitment to His own glory but no biblical evidence that convinced me of God's supreme commitment to human free-will.
If you are reading this as an Arminian I am not asking that you abandon your Arminianism, I am only asking that you recognize that Arminianism has to answer the same difficulties as Calvinism. Both theological systems have to reckon with the fact that God creates people knowing they will never come to faith in Him and both systems have to reckon with the fact that the God who desires all men to be saved does not, in the end, save all men.