Those who have a strong doctrine of the grace of God are often called 'Calvinists'; those who have a heavy emphasis on man's ability to save himself by free will and good works are often called 'Arminians'. The history is as follows. The Bible clearly has a strong doctrine of grace. The stories of Abraham (in which election, grace, faith-without-initial-good-works are all strongly emphasized), the teaching of Isaiah, the teaching of Jesus (especially as recorded by John's Gospel), the teaching of Paul — all have strong emphasis on the grace of God rather than the ability of men and women.
In the story of the church those who have followed this line of thought were always the most powerful preachers of the gospel. It includes such people as Augustine in the early church, Wycliffe and Hus in medieval times, all of the Reformers in both the Luther-section and the Calvin-section of the Reformation, the British and American and Dutch Puritans, Whitefield and Edwards, the pioneers under God of the 18th century revivals, Spurgeon and Bishop Ryle, and so on... These are the people who have been the greatest preachers of the gospel. Since Calvin was easily the most influential theologian of the 16th century this kind of teaching has often been called 'Calvinism' - but it ought to be remembered that all of the early 16th century Reformers basically agreed with the grace-teaching of the Bible.
In the late 16th century objections to this grace-teaching arose in the teaching of Jacobus Arminius. The Arminians of the late 16th century were not great spreaders of the gospel, but when their teaching was in some ways followed by Wesley in the 18th century an evangelical Arminianism came into being. Sections of the modern Christian church which look back to Wesley (Wesleyan Methodism, the 'holiness churches', much of Pentecostalism) tend to be somewhat fearful of the grace-teaching of the Bible to this day.
Dr J.I. Packer, the Calvinist Anglican theologian, once wrote an article entitled "Arminianisms". He pointed out that there are different kinds of Arminianism [which I define as the teaching which says that non-Christian men and women are not completely lost but have sufficient strength and ability to save themselves with the grace that God provides for them to use]. There is need, I think, for an article similar to Packer's called Calvinisms [which I define as the teaching that non-Christian men and women are indeed completely lost and do not have sufficient strength and ability to save themselves until God sovereignly and powerfully brings them to his Son, after which the grace of God continues to persevere with them such that their faith is never lost].
There are different kinds of Calvinisms and different kinds of Arminianisms. The difference between rationalistic Arminianism that arose in the late 16th century and the 18th century evangelical Arminianism is this. It was John Wesley who pioneered a kind of inconsistent Calvinism and gave it the name 'Arminianism' (perhaps not seeing clearly how different his teaching was from the people who called themselves 'Arminian' in the 16th and 17th centuries). Wesley and his followers agreed with the Calvinist teaching that spiritual depravity and deadness grips every human being by nature. But they taught that God [not human nature] gave sufficient grace for everyone to come to faith by their own ability. J.I.Packer's article deals with this in detail. I think I could call this type of Arminianism Bible-Arminianism. They are people who sincerely want to be very close to the teaching of the Bible - as Wesley clearly did. He was not trying to be philosophical. He was concerned to be biblical and to promote holiness. This is why people like myself who belong to the Augustine-Reformation-Puritan-Whitefield-Edwards-Spurgeon-Ryle-Lloyd-Jones kind of understanding of the Bible can nevertheless often get on quite well with the Arminians. At bottom we are all Bible people and we agree in a lot! Whether Wesley succeeded in his aims is another matter! I think he was more rationalistic than he should have been. And I think despite his love of 'holiness' his treatment of Whitefield was not so 'holy' as Whitefield's treatment of him. Who was the antinomian at this point? Who was really like Jesus? I leave the question to be investigated!
Having said all this, it is surely obvious that to go around putting labels on people or upon ourselves is something we should generally avoid. It rouses prejudice rather than stimulates thought. On the other hand, we have to have words to talk about different kinds of belief so labels are minimally necessary.
Here are three vital differences between Arminianism and Calvinism.
1. Arminianism is more rationalistic; Calvinism allows mystery much more. Arminian doctrine of free-will is easily understood. Men and women have the ability to save themselves by their 'free will'. Calvinism is more mysterious. It is not fatalistic. Listen to the Calvinist evangelists (Bunyan, Whitefield, Spurgeon and others). How much they appeal for willing and voluntary faith! There is nothing fatalistic about their preaching. How do they respect human responsibility and divine sovereignty? They respect both. A favourite text is Genesis 50:20 ('You meant it for evil... God meant it for good'). They appeal to mystery! Both responsibility and divine sovereignty are true. 'Calvinism' is not the word for an emphasis on God's sovereignty; it is the name for the mysterious combination of human responsibility and divine sovereignty maintained side-by-side without attempting to reconcile them. The greatest of Calvinists have always done this - but it means admitting there is much mystery in one's theology.
2. Arminianism has never paid much close attention to the exposition of Scripture; the Calvinists at their best always do. Think of the massive expositions of Calvin - his five volumes on Jeremiah, five volumes on the Psalms, five volumes on Isaiah. What Arminian expositor has worked through Scripture in such detail? Not one! Think of Lloyd-Jones fourteen years preaching on Romans. What Arminian preacher did anything similar? Not one! I once wrote a short history of Calvinistic biblical exposition. I then tried to write a short history of Arminian biblical exposition, but I could not do it. Why not? Because it hardly exists – certainly not with anything like the detail of the Reformers and their successors.
3. Arminianism has many links with destructive liberalism; Calvinism has many links with powerful evangelism. The more 'destructive' types of Christian doctrine are always 'Arminian'. Roman Catholic, Socinianism, the sceptical 'deism' of the 18th century, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the cults, the 'liberals' in the churches who attacked the Bible during the 19th and 20th century – they all held 'Armininian' doctrines of salvation, or their Arminianism led them into sceptical doctrines of salvation - and eventually no doctrine of salvation at all!
But this has never been the trend among the Calvinists! They have their problems; I shall mention them below! There are several types of 'Calvinism'. But a tendency to destructive man-centred doctrines of salvation has never been one of their problems. And they pioneered many missionary movements! Men like Martin Luther, and Calvin, and Zwingli [all of them strong believers in Paul's doctrine of grace] were pioneers, 'heroes marching in front of reformation and evangelization … cutting down the tall trees, tunnelling the hills, and bridging the rivers' [as Spurgeon put it]. William Carey is called the “father of modern missions.” He was a member of the Calvinistic Baptists of the 1780s. His great sermon calling for the world to be reached for Christ had two points: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” This is the essence of the Calvinistic outlook, and it was shared by the pioneers of the missionary movement. It was the Calvinist George Whitefield who pioneered open-air preaching to the unsaved in the 1730s. He persuaded John Wesley – a gospel-centred Arminian – to follow him in this respect. The Calvinist were the pioneers not the Arminians. Whatever their critics might say, Calvinists at their best are never fatalistic! They believe in human responsibility more than anyone!
But there are different kinds of Calvinism. I shall list five of them. I begin with Calvin himself.
I could distinguish five kinds of Calvinism. I will not try to argue the case in detail but let us begin with John Calvin and his 'Calvinism'. Calvin's great gifts included these two. He showed (i) incredible integrity and honesty in interpreting Scripture. Arminius recommended his commentaries! Calvin was the pioneer of modern careful biblical interpretation. He may have made mistakes but his honesty cannot be denied. (ii) He had the kind of 'global' outlook which could see the whole of a subject and present it to us tidily and clearly. He was a born biblical interpreter and 'systematic theologian'. The idea that he was driven by logic is a myth, but he did have the kind of mind that could take everything and hold it all together, so that he is always giving 'the big picture' in a tidy and logical manner in what he says.
He believed in unconditional election but warned us not to look at it directly. Instead you come to faith in Jesus. Only then do you know you are elect and you think about your salvation in no other way. Otherwise - said Calvin - you get lost in a labyrinth.
He should be admired in that he did not hold to 'limited atonement'. He was a four-point Calvinist more than a 5-point Calvinist [explained below].
In my opinion he made a mistake in teaching double predestination (some predestined to salvation, some to damnation). This is not found in Scripture. In Scripture there is only predestination to salvation. The lost are lost by their own fault ('fit in themselves for destruction', says Romans 9). Calvin's view might seem logical, but in Romans 9 the saved and the lost are not treated in a parallel manner.
Calvin may be praised for not being introspective. He did not take the 'tests of life' in 1 John as primary means of assurance. He did not think 2 Peter 1:10 means you should examine yourself to se whether you are saved. These Puritan developments were not held by Calvin. Calvin is always encouraging; the Puritans can be intimidating.
People often use this word carelessly and ignorantly. Hypercalvinism is the word that describes those who believe that because God has chosen his elect, therefore evangelism is not necessary and is unsound. Hypercalvinists accuse Bible Calvinists of Arminianism! There are not many of such people around today. Such people tend to get angry with the evangelistically-minded Calvinists. They opposed the Calvinist, Charles Spurgeon. There are a few denominations which are hyper-Calvinist but they are so small you might never have heard of them - the Gospel Standard Churches, for example. Perhaps there was a slight tendency to hypercalvinism in USA in the evangelism of 1800-1820. This might explain why Charles Finney had such a weird and extreme doctrine of freewill. Was he reacting to hypercalvinism? Were the Calvinists being too complacent and tending towards a heretical hypercalvinism? Maybe!
High Calvinism or 5-point Calvinism or developed Calvinism
These terms refer to the same thing. After Calvin's death Reformation theology tended to develop in a way that I do not think was so helpful. Beza taught limited atonement. He taught that examining one's works should be a method of assurance. His teaching was taken up by William Perkins. Then Arminius arose and pioneered a revolutionary teaching that went back on the grace-teaching that the Reformers had discovered. After this the Arminians in Holland produced a five-point statement of their teaching and the Calvinists at the Synod of Dort (which met during November 1618 to May 1619) produced a five-point reply. This meeting produce a statement of the famous 'five points of Calvinism' – commonly remembered by the word TULIP.
Total depravity. Men and women are damaged in every area of their lives [the teaching is not that they are as depraved as possibly could be!]
Limited atonement. Jesus did not die for everyone. Calvin did not teach this. Even at the Synod Dort there were people who disagreed with it. None of the British Calvinists at Dort supported it.
Irresistible grace. This is a confusing expression. It means that grace is powerful in saving us, but the term irresistible gives the impression of force - and this is not what was meant.
Perseverence. Christians do not lose their regeneration.
It should be remembered that 5-point Calvinism was a reply to Arminians; it is not a perfect statement of the doctrines of grace. At some points it is confusing. At one point I believe it is quite wrong!
People who delight to be called 'Reformed' are often 5-point Calvinists. Or they could be called 'high Calvinists'. They tend to believe in limited atonement; they do a lot of testing salvation by works; they sometimes do not have much personal assurance of salvation. They are skeptical of the idea of the baptism with the Spirit as a distinct experience. They include some great people but I believe their style of Calvinism needs to be reshaped somewhat! They include such people as John Piper, Jim Packer, R.C.Sproul, Iain Murray – all good men whose writings I recommend often. But there are elements on the fringe of their theology which I personally think need some pruning! If only they would drop limited atonement and endless talk about 'the law' and get a higher doctrine of the baptism with the Spirit…!
There have always been people who have disliked the way Calvinism went after the death of Calvin himself. There are Calvinists who do not like the scholastic developments of the 17th century. One of the earliest was Amyraldus (and this type of Calvinism is sometimes called Amyraldianism). The great four-point Calvinists include people like Bishop J.C.Ryle who loved the Puritans but was careful to avoid some of their legalisms and exaggeratons. American dispensationalists are also generally 'four point' Calvinists.
Encouraging Calvinism; Bible Calvinism
I believe in what I could call 'encouraging Calvinism' or 'Bible Calvinism'. Let me try to describe it.
1. Encouraging Calvinism is clear and strong in its doctrine of justification by faith-without-works. All Protestants claim to believe in justification by faith, but our grip on justification by faith-without-works needs to be much stronger than it is amongst most evangelicals.
2. Encouraging Calvinism is clear and strong in its doctrine of eternal security. Like Paul and Jesus (Romans 6:1-2; Matt.5:17) it is vulnerable to the charge of antinomianism – but it is not guilty of antinomianism and produces outstandingly godly men and women.
3. Encouraging Calvinism is clear and strong in its doctrine of regeneration. It is deadening to have a doctrine of justification by faith-without-works without a clear doctrine of new birth. German Lutheranism with its doctrine of justification by faith-without-works quickly became cold. It required German pietism with its doctrine of new birth to restore the preaching to a more balanced position.
4. Encouraging Calvinism is careful in its doctrine of repentance. 'Change of mind' [Greek metanoia] is mentioned before faith in the New Testament. But newness of life [epistrophe - turning around] is the result of faith - as Calvin taught so clearly.
5. Encouraging Calvinism is careful in its exposition of Hebrews 6 and avoids expositions which make it impossible to have assurance of salvation. It is not a chapter about losing salvation; it is not about false imitation-salvation. The warnings of Hebrews about about loss of reward - as Hebrews 10:35 says.
6. Encouraging Calvinism does not try to 'test salvation' by works — although it is eager to confirm salvation by works. As with Calvin himself the tests of 1 John are positive, not introspective. 1 John 3:14 says 'We do know that we have passed out of death into life, because we do love the brothers'. It does not say 'We wonder whether we have passed out of death into life, because we are trying to see whether we love the brothers'. The 'tests' are tests of fellowship (see 1 John 1:3) and nothing in 1 John contradicts the assurance of 1 John 2:12-14.
7. Encouraging Calvinism has a strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The greatest Calvinists have distinguished regeneration and the outpouring of the Spirit and have constantly sought experiential fillings and outpourings of the Spirit upon their ministry.
8. Encouraging Calvinism is evangelistic. The greatest evangelists (Whitefield, Spurgeon) and missionaries (Livingstone, Carey, Hudson Taylor) have been Calvinists. But Calvinistic evangelism is not bullying or pressurizing, nor does it involve deceitful methods of forcing decisions. The true evangelist does not try to 'force decisions' which will not last very long, because they are the result of human will-power rather than the power of new birth. Calvinistic evangelism is unenthusiastic about the high-pressure techniques that were introduced by Charles Finney and that brought to an end the powerful revivals of the period before Finney. The 'encouraging Calvinist' is more like George Whitefield and not at all like Charles Finney.
9. Encouraging Calvinists love prayer! They pray a lot and saturate their ministries with the power of the Spirit as a result of their seeking God. They spend time talking to God about people as well as talking to people about God — as John 14-16 is followed by John 17. They look for the anointing of the Spirit upon their prayers as well as upon their preaching. Their churches have strong prayer meetings as well as strong sermons.
10. The 'encouraging Calvinist' believes in putting 1 Corinthians 13 high on the agenda! Perhaps the greatest exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 is the one by the greatest Calvinist of all time — Jonathan Edwards. Charity and Its Fruits is the great model of the Calvinist's love-life! True Calvinism knows how to hand enemies over to God, how to endure amidst slander or persecution, how to refuse jealousy and malice and ill-will, how to control the tongue.