Differences in Calvinism and Arminianism

It is easier to respect the position of someone whom you disagree with if you can understand their motivation.  Therefore, it is helpful to identify the foundational differences between Calvinism and Arminianism.

God’s Primary Attribute: Calvinists understand God primarily in terms of power and authority. God is sovereign in a deterministic sense.  Nothing happens without God’s decree.  Any doctrine that limits God’s power is viewed with suspicion by the Calvinist, even if it’s a self imposed limitation of God’s choosing.  Arminians understand God primarily as relational. Arminians believe that God is willing to set aside his rights in order to be reconciled with humanity. God did this because of his great love for humanity.  Power vs Relationship is the primary difference between Calvinism and Arminianism.

The purpose of the fall: Calvinists believe that God created mankind in such a way that the fall  was certain and necessary.  God purposed the fall to display his attributes of  justice and mercy, which in turn display his glory and greatness.  Arminians don’t believe that the fall was necessary. God purpose was relational.  He created man with the ability to freely respond to him in love.  In order to facilitate genuine relationship, Adam and Eve and their posterity needed to have the capability to do things that God did not ultimately prefer.

The Source of God’s Foreknowledge:  Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of the future, However, the source of God’s foreknowledge is different in the two systems.  In Calvinism, everything that happens is certain and necessary.  God knows everything because he has decreed for everything to come to pass.   In Arminianism, man’s doing is the cause of God’s knowing.  God sees our future choices and knows what we will do.  This is a logical order, because God has always had this knowledge.  Arminians  make a distinction between certainty and necessity.  Knowing something will take place is different than causing it to take place.

Grace: Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works.  Both believe that man must be drawn by God in order for him to want to be saved.  We disagree on the nature and extent of grace.  Calvinists believe that drawing grace is effectual and particular.  Those whom God chooses to be saved will certainly be saved.  God elects to save certain individuals and passes over others.  Arminians believe that drawing grace is universal and resistible.  God desires for all to be saved and draws all to himself.  Drawing grace can be resisted by the individual, to his own detriment.


Filed under Arminianism, Attributes of God, Calvinism, foreknowlege

17 responses to “Differences in Calvinism and Arminianism

  1. slw

    Nice to see you posting again, and doing such a fine job doing so!

  2. Thanks SLW, I have been a slacker. ;)

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  4. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for posting! While there certainly are some differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, it’s important to point out that there is also a lot of common ground within the two evangelical theologies (as Roger Olsen points out in his book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities).

    If I may, I would like to ask a quick question: Would you consider the terms “Classical Arminianism” and “Wesleyan Arminianism” to be interchangeable terms, or are there some differences between the two? If so, what are those differences?

    Thanks again,

  5. Hi Kyle, thanks for stopping by. You’re right, Arminians and Calvinists do have a lot of common ground. Regarding Wesleyan and Classical Arminians, I do think there are some genuine differences between the two (although they are minor).

    Here’s a post along those lines: A Comparison of Wesleyanism and Classical Arminianism

  6. Dr. James Galyon


    Thanks for your thoughts regarding the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism. I realize I’m getting to this post a bit late, but wanted to interject a few thoughts nonetheless.

    As a “Calvinist,” I do not view God primarily in terms of power and authority, but essentially as holy (Is. 6:1-3; Rev. 4:8).

    Generally speaking, “Calvinists” believe Christ Jesus set aside His rights in order to be reconciled with humanity (cf. Phil 2). However, the entire Godhead did not do so. In other words, God did not set aside His sovereign rights, His authority, His power, etc., for the sake of reconciling the world to Himself.

    I honestly believe the assertion that “Power vs. Relationship is the primary difference between Calvinism and Arminianism” misses the mark. Relationship is at the heart of “Calvinism” — the relation of each member of the Godhead with the others; the relation of the Father and the Son, especially since the Father “gives the nations/a people” to the Son as “His inheritance”; the relationship of believers to God through their union with Christ; and the relationship believers are to have with non-believers in our world. To think either that “Calvinism” boils down simply to the TULIP or to the raw assertion of divine power is erroneous.

    May our Lord bless you as you continue to serve Him!

    • Thanks for the thoughts Dr. Galyon. Arminians view God first as relational. We believe he is relational with every person and desires reciprocal relationships. I would not dispute that Calvinists also believe God is relational, however, it comes secondary to his sovereignty.

      We also believe to see Jesus is to see God. The Son and the Father have the same desire to be reconciled to man. As you said (in Calvninism), “God did not set aside His sovereign rights, His authority, His power, etc., for the sake of reconciling the world to Himself.” This is the difference.

  7. It was only as a Calvinist (I prefer the term Sovereign Grace Believer) that I came to appreciate the relational aspect of God with reference to the Creation, especially His elect, and even the non-elect. The Holiness of God, mentioned by Dr. Gaylon, along with the other attributes, in the matter of the relational, is what produces such a humbling reverence for the Divine and which inflames the believer with such a burning passion to see his Savior’s cause advanced in this world by deliberate choice and effort on the part of all God’s people. All of the TULIP Truths along with Presdestination and Reprobation are intensely evangelistic soul-winning doctrines designed to electrify, grip, excite, thrill, and galvinize the people of God to desire, pray for, and labor to win the whole world and every soul in it for a 1000 generations in order to fulfill the promises to Abraham of a seed as innumerable as the stars of Heaven, the sand of the sea, and the dust of the earth. Interestingly enough the church out of which came the first Baptist missionary to China, Matthw Tyson Yates, the Mount Pisgah Church, had as its doctrine in its articles of faith adopted at the founding in 1814, that Christ died for the church. It never even mentioned His dying for anyone else. The theology of the First and Second Great Awakenings and the launching of the Great Century of Missions was Sovereign Grace, and now it is coming back and by God’s good pleasure it will produce the Third Great Awakening which will go on for a 1000 generations or about 20,000 years. Like the lady said to Dr. Gene Spurgeon who won her to Christ before he ever believed in the doctrines of Grace that his famous relative had preached, “O it was so wonderful that I could not resist it!”

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  10. Todd

    I have read alot on the this subject and I find some things ‘hard to swallow’ on both sides. If one can resist the drawing of the Holy Spirit, what make this so? Why does one person not resist and another to do so? Salvation seems arbitrary because each man’s will is different and beyond much of his own control (our brains, heredity, enviroment, etc. . .) This makes the ‘relationship’ idea mute for each will respond differently and with different degrees of responsbility -some may choose Christ and other will not -if they are so lucky to be born with a ‘good will’ or great christian parents. Now if God chooses to save by changing a man’s will so he will not resist and he does this for some and not others, it may seems cruel; why not save everybody? (I would say: why would He have to?) If I had to choose between man’s choice and God’s I’d choose the later cause; I wouldn’t want my salvation in the hands of men or myself -I’ve lost my mind a few times. Also the thought of witnessing to others is affected by which one of these I believe. Do I go out to preach the gospel because ‘unless they hear a preacher’ they won’t get saved? So it all depends on me or another? Or do I go out and preach not knowing what God will do and who he may save? -or why go out at all if he wills someone to be save -let Him send another. Arminians seem the worst of the two to me; do I count on men to get saved or God -seems like a no brainer but than again how can God let stupid people go to a place of eternal torment in hell? -now that’s really the issue for both sides isn’t it? The stakes are high. The problem to me starts there. I am hard pressed to find anywhere with clear words of a place of eternal torement and torture but I do find Jesus promising eternal life to those that believe but final judgement and death. Did you ever think of why did God kept the Tree of Life away after the fall? Couldn’t God have just let them eat it? Surely the earth would have been a terrible place to live in and no hell would be needed. Wasn’t God gracious just let them die?

    • Thanks for the comment Todd. You ask good questions, and I appreciate that you acknowledge that both Arminianism and Calvinism have some conundrums to deal with. I freely admit that Arminian theology has its own set of issues to resolve.

      For me Arminianism has the fewest problems, and they are issues that I can live with. If I can trust the goodness of God (Arminianism), everything else falls into place. But if I can’t trust the goodness of God (my understanding of Calvinism), then I can’t trust anything God says. For me the system has too much tension and ultimately (though certainly unwittingly) makes God responsible for evil.

      You might enjoy these two other posts too. The first one addresses some of the questions you have asked about Arminianism. The second one addresses some of the questions I have about Calvinism. The second one also has a lot of comments by both Arminians and Calvinists, and touches on a lot of your questions here.

      Answers to Common Calvinist Questions

      Questions for Calvinists

      • Todd

        Thanks for you reply. Though I don’t know if I’ll ever make up my mind. lol
        All I know is I’m a rather stupid and rebellious person (and abused by living on this planet) and if I had to depend on myself to make the right decisions I would end up in hell. I can accept God grace and forgivness but it better not depend on my ‘willingness’ to do His will ’cause I fail miserably everyday. So what side should I be on?
        Really, I can’t see it either way. An abused child is suppose to be able to hear the gospel and be saved? I was lucky enough to be born in a christian home so I’m saved? Only the ones God likes get saved? None of this is exceptable to me. Why can’t a loving father who has all power and wisdom use it to heal the mind and body and turn everyones heart -no matter how messed up and restore them to his fold? To bad for the young man who got hit by a car yesterday, just a few more days and he would have made it to heaven ;).
        If I was a Arminianist I wouldn’t choose to be saved, if I was a Calvinist God wouldn’t choose to save me. What a conundrum.

      • Bruce

        I am interested in attending your church as my wife and I will be moving to Grecia. Im not so interested in an online course in Systematic Theology.
        If you could be so kind to answer four questions for me with a simple yes or no? 1. Do you believe that God is Sovereign? 2. Do you believe that God is omniscient? 3. Do you believe that without the Grace of God there is no salvation? Do you believe that your only contribution to your salvation is the sin which has made it necessary? Hopefully a simple yes or no will eliminate any further confusion on my part. Thank You
        Bruce Tracht

      • Thanks for the comment Bruce. Where is Grecia? I’m not familiar with that name. In reply to your questions, I would answer yes to all four. Hope that helps!

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