The Main Difference Between Calvinist and
Non-Calvinist Views of Saving Grace

by John Hendryx

Recently I had am exchange on a message board regarding the particulars of Calvinism. Hopefully you find it helpful:

Visitor #1: I gave up on Calvinism a long time ago.

My response: You mean you gave up on the idea that Jesus Christ alone is sufficient to save you?

Visitor #1
: Yep

Visitor #2 chimes in:
John, is it possible you're caricaturing the situation just a smidge? Calvinism cannot possibly have a monopoly in affirming Jesus Christ as sufficient.

My response
: Actually the central difference between Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriology is that Calvinist believes Jesus Christ is sufficient to save to the uttermost while non-Calvinist soteriology believes that while Jesus is necessary, he is not sufficient. To clarify what I mean, both Roman Catholics and Arminians for example, would anathematize anyone who says you can be saved without the grace of God. The Reformers never claimed Rome believed you can be saved apart from grace. That wasn't the debate. The debate of the Reformation was never ever about the necessity of grace, it was always about the sufficiency of grace. That remains the issue today in so many contexts (James White). So no I am not caricaturing the situation. This is the essence of it. The theology of Calvinism or Reformed Theology centers on the sufficiency of Christ in salvation. There is nothing more essential to its position and this is what sets is apart from other all other types of theology. Another way to put it: it is the difference between Monergism &. Synergism. As Michael Haykin notes, "the most vital question, is, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving us by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying us for Christs' sake when we come to faith, but also raising us from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring us to faith." In other words, whatever God requires of us, (including faith), if we believe the unregenerate man has the power in himself to exercise, then we make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of no effect. Either Christ is a complete savior, OR He helps us to save ourselves. What Calvinism means in the historic sense, is that Jesus Christ is a complete savior, not a partial one.

Visitor #1
: I gave up on Calvinism because grace is resistible.

My response
: Jesus himself teaches that no one can believe in him unless God grants it (John 6:53-65)... and ALL to whom God grants it will believe (v. 37). These passages plainly teach that Jesus alone is sufficient to save. His grace is effectual. He leaves no room from the unregenerate, natural man making good choices on his own, so as to leave no room for any boasting. Why do you think one person believes the gospel and not the other? Was one born with more natural wisdom? Or inclination to good? What makes people to differ? Jesus Christ or something else?

Visitor #1
: so does "sufficient" mean that those whom God decides shall have salvation shall have salvation, or that those whom God decides shall have salvation can have salvation?

My response
: The word "sufficient" means that Jesus Christ meets all the conditions for us that are necessary for our salvation, not only some of the conditions. It further means what Jesus does for us on the cross meets all of God's requirements for us, including giving us a new heart which is needed to believe and obey (Ezekiel 36:26). In other words, apart from grace sinners are unable to obey the gospel, any more than the law, without a new heart. The non-Calvinist (synergist) position denies this and instead affirms that the natural man, can have faith in Christ while still in the flesh (with an unrenewed heart).

So to answer your question, it means that what Jesus does for us in his life death and resurrection is not only necessary but completely sufficient to save us. This was the point of the Reformation's affirmation of the principle of Solus Christus, or Christ alone. God's love for His own is unconditional so He makes sure the job gets done. To look at it from another perspective, the synergist denies that what Jesus does for us is sufficient to save us... grace is necessary but the unregenerate man must also somehow come up with the good will to exercise faith apart from the Holy Spirit granting renewal of heart. So God's love for the sinner is conditional, based entirely on his response. But the Scripture says that "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at one can come to [Jesus] unless it is granted him by the Father." (John 6:63, 65)

Visitor #1
: John: thanks for the response...boiling that down, though, does Calvinism hold that if God decides that someone is to receive salvation, then that person will indeed receive it? My understanding of Calvinism is that the answer is "yes", and what you're saying seems to validate that: Jesus Himself meets all the necessary conditions, so there remains no condition that the one receiving salvation must fulfill.

My response
: Yes that's right! - This is what Jesus teaches in John 6:63-65. & 37. A new heart which has faith is part of Christ's grace to us (Ezekiel 36:26). We don't come up with faith on our own (drawing from our own resources), apart from the Holy Spirit. This passage in John (among many others) should put an end to all argument on this issue. God's love for his people in Christ is unconditional, not conditional ... therefore Jesus meets the conditions of salvation for us, doing for us what we are morally unable to do for ourselves. He is a Savior, not merely a helper. That means when He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:3,4) he makes sure the job gets done on earth in time. On the other hand, the non-Calvinist, or synergist position, believes God's love for people is conditional. That is, conditioned on the natural man's response.

The difference between the two views could perhaps be illustrated fairly well by two parents whose children run into the street. The first parent stands afar at the curb and calls out to the child to get out of the way of the car, but does not lift a finger beyond asking him to use his will. The second parent, on the other hand, runs out into the street at the risk of his/her life, scoops him up, and makes sure the child does not get hit by the car. Which is more loving? When the person loved cannot save themselves true love does not dilly dally.

God loves his loved ones with a resolute will that gets the job done. The God of the Bible names and numbers his sheep, who saves the lost sheep and fends off the wolf.

Visitor #1
: Well, despite your well-formulated arguments, I'm sticking by my abandonment of Calvinism. Let me just say a few things in my defense, though, before we put the matter to rest:

John 6:37 - Everyone the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will never cast out.

I don't take that as a guarantee of salvation--the guarantee is that Jesus will not renege on His offer of salvation, provided those who come to Jesus remain with Him. Remaining with Jesus, might I add, is the subject of much of the NT: "Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called." "Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." etc. etc. ... Read More

What's more, in John 6, after Jesus finished speaking, a number of His disciples left him...they cast themselves out, as do those described by Hebrews 6:4

As for the rest of John 6, note all of the conditions which fall on us:
* This is the work of God: that _you believe_ in the One He has sent
* For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who sees the Son and _believes in Him_ MAY have eternal life
* Unless _you eat_ the flesh of the Son of Man and _drink His blood_, you do not have life in yourselves.

My response
: So in other words, you believe Jesus takes you part of the way, but you have to do the rest?"  So Jesus' work isn't enough to save, according to your theology?.  In this view Jesus only conditionally justifies you.  You have to maintain your own just standing before God? In Galatians 3 Paul rebukes the church for this view: He says, "Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" I would argue the Scriptures emphatically teach that all who believe are already justified before God (past tense).  Jesus saves us to the uttermost. We do not (and cannot) maintain our own just standing before God. Jesus ALONE is our justification and our sanctification. There is nothing we could EVER do to be good enough to meet God's perfect and holy demands.

Of course you and I both agree God calls us to believe and persevere in the faith.  But all of God's commands He gives us the power to do in Christ. He receives us ONLY because of Christ, not because of ANYTHING he sees in us. Those who he saves, He preserves so that they will continue on to the end.  He gives us both the gift of faith and of perseverance. Without it we must depend on something in ourselves. This is the very reason the we differ from Roman Catholics and that the Reformation happened in the first place. So while I agree with you that God requires His people to persevere in the faith (Colossians 1:21-23;   1 John 1:5-10; 3:3-6,   Hebrews 10:26-31,   Hebrews 12:1), yet God also promises in the Scripture that He will preserve us in the faith ( John 6:38-40,  John 10:28-29,   Romans 8:28-39,  Philippians 1:4-6,  Philippians 2:12-13,  1 John 2:19. In other words, He grants what He commands in Christ.

Which brings us to another problem: your understanding leaves you dilemma of being unable to thank God for your faith. You can thank God for everything else, but your faith and ability to persevere is the one thing YOU must contribute to the price of your salvation. Can you thank God for your faith? and perseverance in the faith or sanctification? (1 Cor 1:30). Is this his gift to you or something you did to maintain your standing before God, apart from Christ?

John 10:26-27 Jesus says to some unbelieving Jews, "you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand."

Visitor #1
: I believe God gives us a choice, and God will honor our choice despite it being against His will for us.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling."

You know, I think Reformed theology suffers from the problem that Christ's sacrifice was insufficient to save everyone. Christ was unable to fulfill the Father's will that all men shall be saved, so thus God decided not to "will" certain people to be saved. Maybe that's one of "[His] reasons for choosing some and not others..."

Seriously though, for the sake of my family vying for my attention, I want to stop this back and forth. We'll have to talk about miracles and stuff sometime.

By the way, thanks for exposing me to the "Synergist" term. I've never heard of it before. I'll have to use it sometime to describe my beliefs.

My response: You said, "Reformed theology suffers from the problem that Christ's sacrifice was insufficient to save EVERYONE."

Interesting charge. Before I answer it you may want to consider that synergistic theology suffers from the problem that Christ's sacrifice was insufficient to save ANYONE. It loves many people with a general, ineffectual love, but loves no one in particular. Furthermore synergism limits the sins which Christ dies for. Just to show that this is no straw man, let me give you two examples: The synergist believes that Christ does not die for any person for 1) the sin of unbelief or 2) their moral failure to persevere. So then, we ask, is His work on the cross not powerful enough to cover all sins? So he dies for only some of our sins and we have to make up for the rest? So again, back to the same core thesis of my argument: Christ's work (to the synergist) is not sufficient to save completely since he dies for only some sins. We must make up for the sins He does not cover. This is extremely problematic and should reveal that the synergist's picture of Christ is woefully incomplete.

On the other hand, Calvinism believes the Scripture teaches that Christ's sacrifice is sufficient to atone for all His people's sins, including our sins of unbelief and lack of faithfulness in persevering. He is both the author and perfecter of our faith and gives His people everything they need that they could not provide for themselves. He is a complete Savior, not a partial one.

With this in mind, let's take your objection to Calvinism above, where you assert that in Calvinism, Christ's sacrifice is insufficient to save everyone. The Bible teaches that the Father elects a particular people, the Son redeems them and the Holy Spirit convicts, regenerates and unites them to Christ. The Trinity works in harmony to make certain God's will is accomplished. We see this particular love everywhere in the Bible. For example, in Jesus' high priestly prayer just prior to his atoning sacrifice, Jesus prays, "you have given him [the Son] authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him...I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours." (John 17:2,9). The reason this is called the high priestly prayer is that it is just like the high priests' in the Old Testament who prayed specifically for Israel prior to atonement in the Holy of Holies.

So obviously, Jesus' prayer to the Father is about whom He intends to save on the cross. We can see, then, that the issue is not whether Christ's sacrifice was sufficient to save everyone. That is the wrong paradigm. The issue, rather, is God's intent, not his power, for we all know that God has the power to save the whole world, and 10,000 more beside.

In fact, when we ask the question, “Is there anything biblically that limits Christ's power to save,” the only answer we ever find is that, in fulfilling his redemptive mission, Christ can only do what the Father has willed. He cannot do anything on his own, that is apart from or at odds with the Father's plans (see John 5:17-19, 30; 8:28-29). Of course, this is not an inability of power, but an inability of the persons of the holy Trinity to work against each other – it is the impossibility that Paul later speaks of when he says that God “cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). But this is also the exact opposite of your charge: you say the Calvinistic perception of redemption is that Christ cannot fulfill God the Father's will; but in reality, the Calvinistic perception is that Christ cannot fail to fulfill God's will, hence he can only redeem those whom the Father has given him from all eternity.

Lastly, while God commands all people everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, no one, in their own power and insight, obeys this command. Yet, God still has mercy by determining that he will still forgive the debts of a particular people whom he has foreknown and loved from eternity in Christ (Eph 1:3, 4) ... a group, the Scripture says, that he has given the Son prior to the foundation of the world. People without distinction from everywhere in the world: since he purchased with his blood PEOPLE FROM every tribe, people, nation and language (Rev. 5:9).

Solus Christus


Note: I am using the word Calvinism to cover the historic Augustinian, monergistic view of regeneration.