Arminius vs. Calvin on Assurance of Salvation and Perseverance

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Some have argued that Arminianism offers little assurance that one will finally be saved due to the notion, which many Arminians hold, that a believer can lose his or her salvation. What may astound you is that Arminianism actually holds to a more firm case for the believer’s perseverance than does Calvinism.

First and foremost, a believer cannot lose his or her salvation (cf. John 3:16, 36; Rom. 5:1), since he or she by definition remains in the state of belief or trust in Christ and is hence a believer. The one who falls away from salvation is the one who is no longer believing or trusting in Christ alone and is thus not a believer. Second, the believer does not lose his or her salvation by falling into sin. Though sin may lead one to deny Christ, the act of sin itself does not cause one to lose his or her salvation. A person is justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 5:1). And a person is not justified due to unbelief. If a person no longer believes in or trusts in Christ Jesus for salvation, then that person will not be justified by God — accounted righteous in Christ and by His merit.

But how may a person be assured that he or she will remain a believer and finally inherit everlasting life? Jesus commanded His disciples to remain in Him (John 15:4-5). But Jesus did not teach that a person would inevitably remain in Him. As a matter of fact, He stated, “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6 NIV). There is no assurance of final salvation in this particular statement of Jesus. He then said, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7 NIV). Again, there is no assurance that a person will inevitably remain in Him. He states, “If you remain in me . . .” in order to draw one’s attention to the significance of remaining in Him.

It would appear that Calvin’s doctrine of unconditional election and predestination would guarantee that a person, having been unconditionally elected unto salvation from before the creation of the world, would automatically be granted assurance of final salvation. This, however, is not the case.

It is significant to keep in mind that in Calvinism, an unconditionally elected person is granted or given faith in Jesus Christ when a person is regenerated by God. This experience is something that happens apart from any volition of the recipient. A person goes from unregenerate to regenerate, and from unbeliever to believer, apart from any thought or motion of his or her own. And since this grace was given by God, it is also His to take back. Calvin explains:

      And this is the only reason why some persevere to the end, and others, after beginning their course, fall away. Perseverance is the gift of God, which He does not lavish promiscuously on all, but imparts to whom He pleases. If it is asked how the difference arises — why some steadily persevere, and others prove deficient in steadfastness — we can give no other reason than that the Lord, by His mighty power, strengthens and sustains the former, so that they perish not, while He does not furnish the same assistance to the latter, but leaves them to be monuments of instability.”

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I sincerely hope that you understand clearly what Calvin has suggested. God may enlighten you and cause you to hope in Jesus Christ for salvation, but not give you perseverance, whereby you fall away from faith and salvation. What deception! And why does God do this? God does this in order to make you a monument or trophy of instability. Calvin is using the same language as did Augustine. The latter writes: “It is, indeed, to be wondered at, and greatly to be wondered at, that to some of His own children — whom He has regenerated in Christ — to whom He has given faith, hope, and love, God does not give perseverance also.”2

As if unconditional election and reprobation were not heinous enough, Calvin also promotes a God who taunts, teases and deceives people with the faintest glimmer of salvation, only to withdraw it from them, leaving them in utter disillusionment and shame — bound for an eternal torment in hell. There is absolutely no hope of final salvation in Calvinism, for the present believer has no idea as to whether or not he or she is truly one of the elect. Yes, God may have enlightened you unto faith in Christ Jesus, but there is absolutely no hope that He will not take it from you in the very next moment. For God may desire and will for you to be a monument of instability.

The above quote from Calvin was no mere slip of the pen. Again he writes: “In fine, we are sufficiently taught by experience itself, that calling and faith are of little value without perseverance, which, however, is not the gift of all.”3 Even the Arminian who does not hold to the doctrine of Perseverance would not admit to the latter part of that statement! Though, in principle, Calvin’s statement is true. There are those who were called of God and possessed faith in Christ who did not persevere. However, we would never attribute their lack of perseverance or falling away to the decree of God of making them objects of instability. Calvin’s view of God has more in common with Islam than orthodox Christianity. Dr. Ahmad Shafaat explains: “For these reasons a Muslim is very cautious about making any categorical statement about the ultimate fate of specific individuals, including himself. He never presumes himself to be a soul already saved but humbly leads his entire life in a state of mind that lies between hope and fear.”

Hope and fear. Popular author and Bible teacher Dave Hunt recounts the story of a Calvinist who existed in the same manner: hope and fear. Hunt writes:

      Al immersed himself in a detailed study of each of the five points of TULIP. And that turned out to be the start of a downward slide in his faith. . . . Al realized that if he had been elected unto salvation, it could only have been unconditionally and thus completely apart from any “faith” he could have placed in Christ. That faith had to be given to him after he was saved and could not have involved belief on his part. Looking back on what he had once thought was a clear memory of responding to the gospel by simply believing in Christ, his confusion only grew. . . .

The fact that he had read at least some, though not all, of that imposing and intellectually challenging volume, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, had once given Al considerable pride. . . . With horror Al read what now seemed to be sadistic reasoning:

        . . . experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. . . . Not that they truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith; but the Lord the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instills into their minds such a sense of His goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption.

Still it is correctly said, that the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment. . . . Nor do I even deny that God illumines their minds to this extent, that they recognize His grace; but that conviction He distinguishes from the peculiar testimony which He gives to His elect in this respect, that the reprobate never obtain to the full result or to fruition. When He shows Himself propitious to them, it is not as if He had truly rescued them a manifestation of this present mercy. In the elect alone He implants the living root of faith, so that they persevere even to the end.

There is nothing to prevent His giving some a slight knowledge of His Gospel, and imbuing others thoroughly [3:2.11-12].4

The Calvinist can only hope without assurance that he or she is truly elect — a person whom the Lord will grant perseverance and final salvation. But there is no guarantee to that end. Calvin quotes some very reassuring passages about the salvation of those whom the Father has given to Jesus from John 6:37-39, 10:27-28, and other places. But this only begs the question: How can a person be sure that he or she will not be the one whom God does not grant perseverance? While it is a gift of God, it is most certainly not the gift of all.

Again, in yet another place, Calvin promotes the God of the Taunt:

      Besides this there is a special call [the effectual call of the elect, as opposed to the general call to all people], for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit He causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts. Sometimes, however, He communicates it also to those whom He enlightens only for a time, and whom afterward, in just punishment for their ingratitude, He abandons and smites with greater blindness.

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Contrast this confused, distorted and ghastly view of God, salvation, and perseverance with that of Arminius. He asks and then answers two questions:

      1. Is it possible for any believer, without a special revelation, to be certain or assured that he will not decline or fall away from the faith?

2. Are those who have faith bound to believe, that they will not decline from the faith?

3. The affirmative of either of these questions was never accounted in the Church of Christ as a catholic [universal] doctrine; and the denial of either of them has never been adjudged by the Church Universal as a heresy.

4 The persuasion by which any believer assuredly persuades himself that it is impossible for him to decline from the faith, or that, at least, he will not decline from the faith, does not conduce so much to consolation against despair or against the doubting that is adverse to faith and hope, as it contributes to engender security, a thing directly opposed to that most salutary fear with which we are commanded to work out our salvation [Phil. 2:12-13], and which is exceedingly necessary in this scene of temptations.6

Let us assess what was just conceded. If a person thinks that it is impossible for him or her to fall away from faith in Christ Jesus, or of not remaining in Christ (cf. John 15:4-7), that admission does not bring assurance of salvation or consolation in a time of doubt. Paul commanded believers to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13 NIV). This working of God in the believer “to will and to act in order to fulfill his good pleasure” is not accomplished automatically, however. Paul alerts us to that fact by his first admonition, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” What is to fear and tremble if God is going to automatically cause you to persevere?

Arminius’s statement can be summed up by the words of Paul: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Cor. 10:12 NIV). Arminius continues:

      He who is of opinion that it is possible for him to decline from the faith, and who, therefore, is afraid lest he should decline, is neither destitute of necessary consolation, nor is he, on this account, tormented with anxiety of mind. For it suffices to inspire consolation and to exclude anxiety, when he knows that he will decline from the faith through no force of Satan, of sin, or of the world, and through no inclination or weakness of his own flesh, unless he willingly and of his own accord yield to temptation, and neglect to work out his salvation in a conscientious manner.

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The fact that a person fears that he or she could fall away from the faith and salvation is 1) a tell-tale sign that the person is a child of God; for those who fear of not being saved show that the work of God is active in their heart; and 2) a motivating factor for him or her to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling. As the writer to the Hebrews warns believers: “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? (Heb. 2:1-3 NIV)

Arminius’s view of assurance and perseverance urges believers to seek and remain in the Lord by continual faith, the pursuit holiness, and the seeking to live to honor Christ. Calvin’s model of assurance and perseverance teaches that God has unconditionally chosen some for heaven and others for hell. But even some from among those chosen for hell, God may delude and confuse into thinking that they are Christians, saved and enlightened children of God.

What is my point? Let me be very clear. Among the various reasons why Calvinism should be avoided by orthodox Christians, assurance of salvation and perseverance is certainly a contender. In Calvinism, the only hope for the lost is unconditional election. In Arminianism, the only hope for the lost is faith in Christ Jesus by the proactive grace of God — a God who genuinely desires their salvation (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11;1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) — a God who would never deceive some people into thinking that they were saved when they were not saved.

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 2:5.3.

2 Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola: Vance Publications, 1999), 58.

3 Calvin, 3:24.6.

4 Dave Hunt, What Love is This? Calvin’s Misrepresentation of God (Sisters, OR: Loyal Publishing, Inc., 2002), 385, 387, 390, 391.

5 Calvin, 3:24.8.

6 James Arminius, “Certain Articles to be Diligently Examined and Weighed: Article XXII. On the Assurance of Salvation,” in The Works of Arminius, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 2:726.

7 Ibid.