Arminian and Calvinistic Systems Compared

by W. G. T. Shedd

The two great systems of theology that divide evangelical Christendom—Calvinism and Arminianism—are marked by their difference respecting the doctrines of election and preterition:

1. In the Calvinistic system, election precedes faith, and preterition precedes perseverance in unbelief. God elects a sinner to the bestowment of regenerating grace, and faith in Christ is the consequence. God passes by a sinner in the bestowment of regenerating grace (though he may bestow all the grades of grace below this), and endless unbelief is the consequence. God is thus the efficient cause and author of faith, but not of unbelief. The electing decree is efficacious and originates faith. The nonelecting decree is permissive and merely allows existing unbelief to continue. In the Arminian system, election is subsequent to faith, and preterition is subsequent to perseverance in unbelief. God elects an individual because his faith is foreseen, and God omits to bestow regenerating grace upon an individual because his persistence in sin and unbelief is foreseen. For the divine mind, the faith and the perseverance in unbelief have occurred, and the election and preterition follow after them as their consequence. Consequently, in the Arminian scheme, the reasons for election and preterition are not secret but known. Man's faith is the reason for election; man's perseverance in unbelief is the reason for preterition.

2. Arminian election and preterition are judicial, not sovereign acts of God. They are of the nature of reward and punishment. Because a man believes in Christ, he is elected—this is his reward. Because he persists in sin and unbelief, he is passed by—this is his punishment. Calvinistic election and preterition are sovereign, not judicial acts. A man is elected because of God's good pleasure (kata eudokian), not because of faith; and a man is passed by because of God's good pleasure, not because of persistence in sin.

3. Since Arminian election succeeds saving faith in the logical order, it must in the same order succeed death. Inasmuch as in the Arminian scheme the believer may at any time before death fall from faith, and therefore it cannot be determined until after death who has saving faith, it follows that a man cannot be elected until after he is dead. In the order of events, death is prior to election.

4. Arminian election and preterition are the election and preterition of qualities, namely, of faith and persevering unbelief. Calvinistic election and preterition are those of persons, namely, Peter, James, and Judas.

5. Arminian election is inconsistent with a part of the Arminian statement respecting inability. If God elects a sinner because he foresees that he will believe and repent, it follows that the sinner has power to believe and repent. If election is conditioned by the act of the human will in believing, this act must be within the sinner's ability. But in the seventeenth chapter of the Declaration of the Remonstrants, the following statement is found: "Man has not saving faith from himself, neither is he regenerated or converted by the force of his own free will; since in the state of sin he is not able of and by himself to think, will, or do any good thing—any good thing that is saving in its nature, particularly conversion and saving faith." If this were all that is said in the Arminian Articles respecting ability, it would be impossible to harmonize it with conditional election. Unconditional election alone is consistent with it. But in connection with this statement of inability, a view of grace is presented that modifies and really retracts this assertion of utter inability and is consistent with conditional election. Though it is said that man by apostasy "is not able of and by himself to think, will, or do any good thing that is saving in its nature," yet, it is also said that "the Holy Spirit confers, or at least is ready to confer, upon all and each to whom the word of faith is preached, as much grace as is sufficient for generating faith and carrying forward their conversion in its successive stages." Every man, therefore, that hears the gospel receives a degree of grace that is sufficient for regeneration, provided that he rightly uses it. If therefore he is not regenerated, it must be from the lack of his human efficiency in cooperation with the divine. The difference, consequently, between the believer and unbeliever, the elect and nonelect, is referable not wholly to God's electing grace, but partly to the right use made of grace by the man himself. Dependence upon regenerating grace in the Arminian scheme is partial, not total; and Arminian election depends partly upon the act of the human will and not wholly upon the will of God. (See supplement 3.6.22.)

Objections to Election and Reprobation Answered

It is objected to the doctrine of preterition that God cannot be sincere in the universal offer of the gospel in Mark 16:15. The first reply is that sincerity depends upon the intrinsic nature of the thing desired, not upon the result of endeavors to attain it. A parent sincerely desires the reformation of a child, because his reformation is a good thing in itself. He may have little or no expectation of accomplishing it, but this does not weaken his longing or impair the sincerity of his efforts. A miser upon his deathbed desires wealth as a species of good as sincerely as ever, but he knows that he can no longer have it. In like manner, God, by reason of his inherent compassion, may sincerely desire the conversion of a sinner as the sinner's highest good, though he knows that it will never take place. The Arminian theory has no advantage over the Calvinistic at this point. God, says the Arminian, sincerely desires the sinner's repentance, although he foreknows infallibly that his desire will not be gratified by the action of the sinner. Second, the decree of God is not always expressive of his desire, but sometimes may be contrary to it. God decreed sin and yet prohibited it. A man's decision, which is his decree in a particular case, is frequently contrary to his natural inclination. He decides to suffer pain in the amputation of a limb, though he is utterly averse to pain. His natural spontaneous desire is to escape physical pain, but in this particular instance he decides not to escape it. If there are sufficient reasons for it, a man's particular decision may be not only no of his general desire, but directly contrary to it. The same is true of God. The natural spontaneous desire of God toward all men, the nonelect as well as the elect, is expressed in Ezek. 33:11; 18:32: "As I live, says the Lord, I have no pleasure (ḥāpēṣ) in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his evil way and live. I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies, says the Lord; wherefore turn yourselves and live." This divine desire is constitutional. It springs from the compassionate love of the Creator toward the soul of the creature and is founded in the essential benevolence of the divine nature. But this general and abiding desire is distinguishable from the realization or gratification of it by a particular decision in a particular instance. It is conceivable that God may sincerely desire that Judas Iscariot would believe on Christ and repent of sin, and yet for some sufficient reason decide not to overcome his opposition and incline him to the act of faith. God desires that there should be no physical pain in his creation. He takes no delight in physical distress. But in particular instances, he decides not to realize this desire by a special act of his own in preventing or removing pain. The purpose of God—in distinction from his desire—toward the nonelect is expressed in Exod. 9:16: "For this cause have I raised you up, for to show in you my power and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth"; and in Rom. 9:18: "Whom he will, he hardens." The purpose spoken of here was the decision of God not to interfere with the will of Pharaoh. God desired that Pharaoh would spontaneously and of his own accord let the people go: "Let my people go" (Exod. 9:1). But he decided not to overcome the unwillingness of Pharaoh to let the people go: "God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not" (9:12). This "hardening" was the not softening of his already hard heart. God sent Moses to persuade Pharaoh. This indicated divine desire. But God at the same time informed Moses that his persuasion would fail (7:1–4). This indicated divine purpose not to conquer Pharaoh's obstinacy. Christ, in deep sincerity and in tears, said: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets and stones them that are sent unto you—how often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not" (Luke 13:34; 19:41). He unquestionably desired that the inhabitants of Jerusalem would yield to that degree of common grace with which they had been blessed and would repent and believe on him; and he unquestionably could have exerted upon them that degree of uncommon grace, by which he is "the author and finisher of faith" (Heb. 12:2) and by which he demonstrates that "all power is given unto him in heaven and in earth" (Matt. 28:18). Yet he did not exert his power to overcome the obstinacy and resistance of the human will in this instance. Those inhabitants of Jerusalem over whom he had wept were passed by in the bestowment of regenerating grace, but not of common. (See supplement 3.6.23.)

One class of scriptural texts teaches that the benevolent desire of God is that all should turn from sin. Another class teaches that for reasons unknown to man, but sufficient for God, God determines in some instances not to gratify his own desire. There is nothing self-contradictory in this; for it finds a parallel in human action. It is indeed strange to human view that an omnipotent being should, in even a single instance, forbear to bring about what he sincerely desires. But if there be a sufficient reason for it in the divine mind, there is nothing intrinsically contradictory in the procedure, and there is certainly nothing unjust to the sinner in it. Says Turretin (4.17.33):

God delights in the conversion and eternal life of the sinner, as a thing pleasing in itself and congruous with his own infinitely compassionate nature, rather than in his perdition; and therefore demands from man, as an act due from him, to turn if he would live. But although he does not will, in the sense of delighting in, the death of the sinner, he at the same time wills, in the sense of decreeing, the death of the sinner for the display of his justice. Even as an upright magistrate, though he does not delight in and desire the death of the criminal, yet determines to inflict the just penalty of the law.

God desires that the nonelect would turn of himself by the spontaneous action of his own will under the operation of common grace. He would rejoice in such a conversion. The entreaty "turn, why will you die?" springs out of this desire. That this entreaty of God fails in this case is owing to the sinner and therefore does not prove that God is insincere in his desire. Sincerity, we have seen, is independent of the result. If the failure of this entreaty were due to God's own action, then, indeed, insincerity might be charged. If God, at the time when he is entreating a man to turn, were at work to prevent him from turning, the entreaty would be hypocritical. But God, instead of hindering the sinner, is helping him with that degree of grace which is called common. The reason why divine entreaty thus accompanied with common grace is unsuccessful is the resistance of the sinner. Surely, the fact that God does not think proper to add a second degree of grace in order to overcome the sinner's resistance of the first degree of grace does not prove that God is insincere in his desire for the sinner's conversion under the first degree of grace. If a man offer a beggar a small sum and it is rejected, it would be absurd to say that because he does not now offer him a large sum, he was insincere in the first offer. A parent wills the payment of a son's debts, in the sense of desiring that his son would by industry and economy pay the debts which he has contracted; but he may not will the payment of these debts in the sense of deciding to pay them for him, the reason being that should he pay them he would do injustice to the other members of his family.

A certain class of objections to election and reprobation rests upon the assumption that God is not merciful unless he shows special mercy and not sincere unless he does all that he possibly can to save sinners. This is a fallacy. Sincerity in extending an invitation does not involve an obligation to give a disposition to accept it. God is merciful in bestowing the gifts of providence and of common grace, though he go no farther than this; and he is sincere in doing what he does in common grace, though he does not exert saving grace. Says Richard Baxter:

If God please to stop Jordan and dry up the Red Sea for the passage of the Israelites and to cause the sun to stand still for Joshua, must he do so for every man in the world or else be accounted unmerciful? Suppose a king knew his subjects to be so wicked that they have everyone a design to poison themselves with something that is enticing by its sweetness: the king not only makes a law strictly charging them all to forbear to touch that poison; but sends special messengers to entreat them and tell them the danger. If these men will not hear him but willfully poison themselves, is he therefore unmerciful? But suppose that he has three or four of his sons that are infected with the same wickedness, and he will not only command and entreat them, but he will lock them up or keep the poison from them or feed them by violence with better food, is he unmerciful unless he will do so by all the rest of his kingdom?

If common grace should prevail over the sinner's resistance, it would be saving grace. This is not the same as saying that the sinner by a right use of common grace makes it saving grace. In this latter case, there is a cooperation of the sinner with God in regeneration. The sinner by working concurrently with common grace renders it effectual. This is synergistic regeneration and involves conditional election. But if without any right concurrent working of the sinner's will common grace should overcome the sinner's resistance and do the whole work, the regeneration would be due to God alone. To overcome the sinful will is not the same as to assist it. (See supplement 3.6.24.)

The difference between divine desire and divine purpose or decree is the same as between the revealed and the secret will of God, mentioned in Deut. 29:29. God's desire in reference to sin and salvation is expressed in all that he has revealed (a) in the moral law and (b) in the plan of redemption. Everything in the law and the gospel implies that God does not take pleasure in sin or in the death of the sinner. But there is nothing in the revealed will of God, as made known in the law and gospel, that indicates what he has decided to do toward actually converting particular persons from their sins. This decision is altogether different from his desire, and it is a secret with himself.

The phrase God's will is ambiguous. It may mean what he is pleased with, loves, and desires. An example of this is Heb. 13:20–21: "Now the God of peace make you perfect to do his will (thelēma), working in you that which is well pleasing (euareston) in his sight." Here, God's will is something which he desires and delights in. An example of the secret will is found in Rom. 9:19: "Who has resisted his will?" Here, God's will is his purpose or decree to "harden" (or not soften) and is designated by boulēma. What he wills, that is, decrees in this instance, is the sinner's remaining in sin, which certainly is not well pleasing in his sight. In the holy actions of elect men, the secret and the revealed will agree. God, in this case, decrees what he loves. In the sinful actions of nonelect men, the two wills do not agree. God, in this case, decrees what he hates.78 This distinction is sometimes designated by the terms legislative will and decretive will, sometimes by will of complacency (complacentiae) and will of good pleasure (beneplaciti), in which latter case, good pleasure must not be confounded with pleasure. The Schoolmen employ the terms voluntas signi (signified) and voluntas beneplaciti. The Greeks speak of the will euarestias81 and eudokias.

The universal offer of the gospel is consistent with the divine purpose of predestination because (1) Christ's atonement is a sufficient satisfaction for the sins of all men and (2) God sincerely desires that every man to whom the atonement is offered would trust in it. His sincerity is evinced by the fact that, in addition to his offer, he encourages and assists man to believe by the aids of his providence—such as the written and spoken word, parental teaching and example, favoring social influences, etc.—and by the operation of the common grace of the Holy Spirit. The fact that God does not in the case of the nonelect bestow special grace to overcome the resisting self-will that renders the gifts of providence and common grace ineffectual does not prove that he is insincere in his desire that man would believe under the influence of common grace any more than the fact that a benevolent man declines to double the amount of his gift, after the gift already offered has been spurned, proves that he did not sincerely desire that the person would take the sum first offered. (For a fuller statement upon this subject, see pp. 750–53.)

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