Arminius vs. Calvin on Irresistible Grace

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Irresistible Grace, also known as Effectual Calling, is, according to Calvinist Wayne Grudem, “an act of God the Father, speaking through the human proclamation of the gospel, in which he summons people to himself in such a way that they respond in saving faith.”1

This concept differs from what is known as a General Calling. The general call is “offered to all people, even those who do not accept it. The gospel call is general and external and often rejected, while the effective call is particular, internal, and always effective.2 Grudem continues: “However, this is not to diminish the importance of the gospel call — it is the means God has appointed through which effective calling will come. Without the gospel call, no one could respond and be saved!”3 Hence the significance of the gospel call is found in the ultimate salvation of those whom God has unconditionally elected unto salvation (heaven). Those whom God has reprobated by decree unto damnation (hell) are commanded to believe in Christ Jesus for salvation, but they are not enabled by God to do so, because God has decreed not to enable them.

This theory is one of logical necessity for the Calvinist rather than an exegetical doctrine deduced from the explicit teaching of Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture does one find such a clear distinction in an effectual, irresistible and general call of God.

Both Arminius and Calvin believed in Total Depravity. Both also held to Total Inability (the notion that people are unable to come to or believe in Christ Jesus without the aided grace of God). But both men came to different conclusions as to how our depravity and inability is overcome, so that a person can trust in Jesus for his or her salvation. Calvin writes:

      Moreover, this [theory of unconditional election] is clearly demonstrated by the nature and dispensation of calling, which consists not merely of the preaching of the word, but also of the illumination of the Spirit. . . .

Here, therefore, boundless goodness is displayed, but not so as to bring all to salvation, since a heavier judgment awaits the reprobate for rejecting the evidence of His love. God also, to display His own glory, withholds from them the effectual agency of His Spirit. Therefore, this inward calling is an infallible pledge of salvation.4

Here we find Calvin’s view of God’s “boundless goodness”. Notice, however, that this “boundless goodness” was only intended for those whom God would unconditionally elect unto salvation. Unfortunately, for Calvin, he is holding to a contradiction. For he allows that “a heavier judgment awaits the reprobate for rejecting the evidence of His love,” but God’s love — His “boundless goodness” — was only granted to the elect. God never genuinely demonstrated His love for the reprobate.

This category works on two levels, actually. First, God, according to Calvin, never intended to save or regenerate the non-elect (though here we find Calvin’s admission that God actually does taunt some poor souls, leading them to believe that they are saved, but not granting them perseverance). Second, according to Calvin, God never genuinely loved the non-elect, for the apostle taught: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16 TNIV). For the reprobate to reject God’s boundless goodness, that goodness would have to have been genuinely granted them. But God does not grant His boundless goodness to the reprobate. Therefore, they cannot reject that which they were never offered.

Contrary to Calvin’s contorted opinion, however, God loves even His enemies. “You see,” writes Paul, “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. . . . But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . . . For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life” (Rom. 5:6, 8, 10 TNIV). If Calvin is to be consistent, then he cannot admit that the reprobate reject the evidence of God’s love, for God’s love has not been expressed toward them.

According to Calvin, a person is not granted the ability to believe in Christ, but is given faith itself as a direct result of having been unconditionally elected unto salvation before the creation of the world, and the work of regeneration in one’s heart and mind. He writes:

      Two errors are here to be avoided. Some make man a fellow-worker with God in such a sense, that man’s suffrage ratifies election, so that, according to them, the will of man is superior to the counsel of God. As if Scripture taught that only the power of being able to believe is given us, and not rather faith itself.

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We want God alone to be glorified in the salvation of humanity. There is no room for boasting. And how could there be, since no one is capable of saving or regenerating him- or herself, and since salvation cannot be earned? But must one go so far as to insist that faith is irresistibly bestowed or infused by God into a person’s heart? That would mean that God irresistibly imposes or makes a person believe in Jesus Christ. Is that the interpretation that one deduces from a prima facie reading of Scripture?

Calvin makes and rejects the following statement, which is exactly what Arminius embraces: “Others, although they do not so much impair the grace of the Holy Spirit, yet, induced by what means I know not, make election dependent on faith, as if it were doubtful and ineffectual till confirmed by faith.”6 Arminius writes:

      I use the word “Election” in two senses: (i.) For the decree by which God resolves to justify believers and to condemn unbelievers, and which is called by the Apostle, “the purpose of God according to election” (Rom. 9:11): (ii.) And for the decree by which He resolves to elect these or those nations and men with the design of communicating to them the means of faith, but to pass by other nations and men. . . .

“Sufficient Grace is conferred on, or rather is offered to, the Elect and the Non-elect”; but also, “Sufficient Grace is not offered to any except the Elect.” (i.) “It is offered to the Elect and the Non-elect,” because it is offered to unbelievers, whether they will afterwards believe or not believe. (ii.) “It is offered to none except the Elect,” because, by that very thing which is offered to them, they cease to be of the number of those of whom it is said, “He suffered them to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16); and, “He hath not dealt so with any nation” (Psalm 147:20).7

Arminius did not vie for a separate so-called effectual and general grace; his was a sufficient saving grace — sufficient for the saving of the soul that would trust in Christ Jesus. Arminius believed that because free will is “unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good,”8 God would need to perform a gracious work on the sinner if he or she were to be saved. He writes: “That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word ‘Grace,’ I mean by it that which is the Grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration.”9

Here, he does not mean that regeneration precedes faith in Christ, as does the Calvinist. Arminius viewed regeneration as the process by which the Spirit of God began His convicting work (prevenient grace) in the heart and mind of a sinner — a grace which, if not resisted, would lead to spiritual renewal, i.e. regeneration proper. Elsewhere Arminius states:

      Besides, even true and living faith in Christ precedes regeneration strictly taken, and consisting of the mortification or death of the old man, and the vivification of the new man; as Calvin has, in the same passage of his Institutes, openly declared, and in a manner which agrees with the Scriptures and the nature of faith. For Christ becomes ours by faith, and we are engrafted into Christ, are made members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones, and, being thus planted with him, we coalesce or are united together, that we may draw from him the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit, by which power the old man is mortified and we rise again into a new life.

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Arminius was referring to Calvin’s chapter “Regeneration by Faith” in his Institutes (Book Third. Chapter 3). Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor and mentor to Arminius, taught that regeneration precedes and is the cause of faith. Beza states that “renovation of life or newness of living, is the effect of faith.”11

Concerning the operation of grace, Arminius continues:

      I affirm therefore, that this grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good: It is this grace which operates on the mind, the affections, and the will; which infuses good thoughts into the mind, inspires good desires into the affections, and bends the will to carry into execution good thoughts and good desires.

This grace goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and cooperates lest we will in vain. It averts temptations, assists and grants succour in the midst of temptations, sustains man against the flesh, the world, and Satan, and in this great contest grants to man the enjoyment of the victory. It raises up again those who are conquered and have fallen, establishes and supplies them with new strength, and renders them more cautious. This grace commences salvation, promotes it, and perfects and consummates it.

I confess that the mind of a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins. And I add to this, That teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to Divine Grace; provided he so pleads the cause of Grace, as not to inflict an injury on the Justice of God, and not to take away the free will to that which is evil.12

This sufficient saving grace of God, however, is resistible. In Calvinism, this act of God must be irresistible, for God has unconditionally elected to save some and they must be saved. God saves them by infusing their heart and mind with faith in Jesus Christ through regeneration (Calvin and Beza’s model). In Arminianism, God acts in the heart and mind of the sinner, granting him or her the ability to place their faith in Jesus Christ — a faith that is not infused from without, but freed from within.

For Calvinists who follow Beza’s form of regeneration preceding faith, then, they are right to insist that such is irresistible. This fact is irrefutable and completely consistent. However, the burden of proof rests upon the Calvinist to demonstrate where in Scripture any author taught their theory of regeneration preceding faith. I think that such a theory is impossible to maintain without doing damage to authorial intent or proper hermeneutics.

Moreover, God’s grace is said to be resisted in Scripture (cf. Luke 7:30; John 1:14; Acts 7:51; Rom. 2:4; 2 Cor. 6:1). Paul writes: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people” (Titus 2:11 TNIV). Sufficient saving grace has appeared to all people, yet all people are not saved. Logically, one may deduce that such grace is resistible, or, not irresistibly imposed. And while Calvinists readily acknowledge this fact (that God’s grace is resisted by sinners), their distinction between an effectual and general call affords them to contend that while the general call can be resisted, the effectual call is irresistible. Again, the burden of proof rests upon the Calvinist to demonstrate where in Scripture any author taught their theory of a separate effectual and general call, teaching that the latter can be resisted but the former is irresistible. As it stands, the doctrine of Irresistible Grace appears to be a theory in search of biblical warrant.

Finally, the Remonstrants (followers and successors to Arminius), concerning God’s grace, state:

      But that man may not just perform the commandments of God thus far explained, but also willingly want to perform them from the mind, God willed for His part to do everything necessary for effecting both in man [Jeremiah 31:32-34; Ezekiel 11:19; 2 Cor. 7:1; Col. 1:4-5; Heb. 8:8ff; 1 Pet. 1:3-4; 2 Pet. 1:3-4], that is, He determined to confer such grace to sinful man by which he [man] might be suitable and apt to render everything which is required of Him in the gospel, and even more, to promise such good things to him, whose excellence and beauty might far exceed the capacity of human understanding, and that the desire and certain hope of this might kindle and inflame the will of man to render obedience in acts to Him. Indeed, God habitually both makes known and bestows all these benefits to us by the Holy Spirit [Rom. 5:5, 8-9; 1 Cor. 2:10; 1:23; 1 John 2:20, 27]. . . .

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1 Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 296.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 3:24.2.

5 Ibid., 3:24.3.

6 Ibid.

7 James Arminius, “Apology Against Thirty-One Theological Aritlces: Article XXVIII,” in The Works of Arminius, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 2:53.

8 Ibid., 700.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 498.

11 Ibid., 496.

12 Ibid., 700-01.

13 The Arminian Confession of 1621, trans. and ed. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2005), 105-06.