What Calvinism and Arminianism Have In Common

Lost in a thicket of Arminian and Calvinist debate,
we sometimes lose sight of the grand truths
we hold in common…

By Edward Fudge

What does it mean that Jesus died for all? The question is beguilingly simple. You would not know from the face of it that the question has been at the center of a heated and sometimes vociferous debate. For almost two thousand years, Christians have struggled to understand the effect of Jesus’ death and the scope of its saving power. With the publication in recent months of a number of books by evangelicals on the fate of the unevangelized, larger questions about the scope of the Atonement are gaining renewed currency. Does “all” refer to individual human beings, or nationalities and peoples, or just the elect?Within the Reformation mainstream, two contending viewpoints have emerged, which observers often label Calvinist (after John Calvin), on the one hand, and Arminian (after Jacob Arminius, an early Dutch opponent of Calvin) or Wesleyan (after John Wesley), on the other. On the Calvinist side of the debate, you have Augustine, Calvin, and their followers. They argue (with varying degrees of explicitness and forcefulness) that the “all” refers to the elect: Christ died to save only those whom the Father had predestined to eternal life.

On the Arminian side, represented also by Wesley, believers argue that Christ in his atonement intended to make salvation available to everyone. It is faith (or, in some versions, obedience) that makes the saving work complete. The debate includes a host of related questions. What are we to make of this preposition “for”? If Jesus died “for” every human ever born, can anyone finally be lost? Does a yes to that question mean Christ’s death was somehow ineffective? And just who are these “elect”? Does this scriptural term refer to an indeterminate and nameless mass of people (as Arminians would tend to argue), or does it describe specific individuals with faces (as Calvinists would suggest)? Do we speak of Jesus’ death making salvation possible for all people, or, as the traditional query phrases it, does a “particular” atonement necessarily exclude those who are not saved?

The question is also sometimes phrased in terms of those who have never heard of Jesus. Will they all be lost? If so, why? Because they never heard — or for some other reason? Does Scripture allow (or even encourage) one to conclude that, based on Jesus’ atonement, God might finally save still others who in life never knew what Jesus had done on their behalf?

For those who take Scripture seriously, these distinctions represent more than abstract theories. These “theories” express convictions. And they may collide with the convictions of other Christians — people as sincere and informed and committed as we are. When concern for people and for theological integrity seem to clash, the anguish only increases. Sometimes people from the different camps lose sight of their brothers or sisters in the doctrinal thicket.

I was trained through graduate school in the Arminian viewpoint as expressed by the Churches of Christ. Later, I studied under Calvinists at Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri. These queries thus reflect the honest uncertainties of one who has been the lone Arminian in a classroom of Calvinists and a suspected Calvinist in a fellowship where that term is no compliment. Today, some 20 years downstream, I am certain that neither “side” has the whole truth in its pocket and that no human analysis can fully contain or explain what God accomplished for sinners in Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet we can speak truthfully even when not exhaustively. Convinced that evangelicals of all stripes share more than they generally realize, I propose the following seven couplets as a modest attempt at bridge building. Of course, this is only a step. But perhaps we can at least survey the terrain, establish some boundaries, and drive a few stakes. Doing so is surely better than defending our doctrinal turf while firing volleys of proof texts at each other.

Couplet 1:

– Every accountable person deserves to be lost.
– No accountable person deserves to be saved.

On this point Scripture is transparently clear: “All …are under the power of sin…that…the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:9, 19). “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).God requires absolute obedience, and not one of us has presented it. The mystery is not that some are finally lost but that any are finally saved. Every person finally lost will receive justice, whereas every person finally saved will receive mercy grounded only in its giver (Rom 1:18-20, 32; 2:5; 3:4-8).

There are important differences between Augustine and Pelagius, between Calvin and Arminius, between Whitefield and Wesley. But this is not one of them. Every careful Calvinist insists that God deserves no blame for the fate of the lost. Every careful Arminian affirms that God deserves all glory for the salvation of the redeemed. Stressing each of the two points in the couplet can help us minimize needless misunderstanding, define genuine differences with sharper clarity, and cultivate a fraternal climate in which to study jointly the Word of God.

Couplet 2:

– God takes no pleasure in the final destruction of any.
– God finds pleasure in the salvation of every person who is saved.

God finds no joy in the death of any sinner. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” he asks rhetorically in Ezekiel 18:23 (see also Eze. 18:32; 33:11). He is not vengeful or vindictive. The Creator dues not delight in the destruction of any person he has made, not even his enemies. He desires “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Whoever is finally lost will not see God smiling as a result. Indeed, the Son of God says, there is celebration in heaven over every sinner who repents (Luke 15:7,10).

Couplet 3:

– No one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him or her.
– Every person whom the Father has given to Jesus will come.

These statements did not originate with Calvin, Augustine, or even the apostle Paul, but with Jesus himself (John 6:37, 44). The assurance that God is in control should stimulate courage rather than contention; it should inspire hope and not harangues. To know that God has a plan and a people emboldens us to proclaim the gospel to every person we meet (Acts 18 : 9-10) . What God initiated in eternity he will consummate in his own good time (Eph. 1:1-14; Rom. 8:28-31).If we recoil at the prospect of divine sovereignty, as though God’s gracious choice of some requires his unilateral rejection of others (a notion sometimes described as “double predestination”), we may rejoice that Scripture here is “splendidly illogical,” to borrow a phrase from biblical commentator A. M. Hunter. For, as Hunter notes, “the opposite of election is not predestination to destruction; it is unbelief a self-incurred thing.” Many Calvinists urge the same point. Instead of charging them with “doublespeak,” Arminians should welcome the unexpected common ground and rejoice. Until one claims to know everything personally, there is room to tolerate paradox in others. The hallmark of a Christian is not logic, but love. The proclamation of God-who-acts-to-save is as old as Exodus and as relevant as next Sunday’s sermon in our day of positive-attitude platitudes and self-help schemes. It ignites holy boldness even as it smites our pride. That God is sovereign means that none can come to Jesus — despite our clever phrases, latest methods, and polished salesmanship — unless the Father draws him or her. At the same time, it assures us that every person the Father has given to Jesus will come — without exception, and despite our own faulty choices and often bumbling work. If prophets are mute, donkeys can speak. If disciples remain silent, the stones can cry out. If the church should prove unfaithful or disobedient, God’s plan still will see its intended end.

Couplet 4:

– The ultimate basis of condemnation is the lost person’s own works.
– The ultimate basis of salvation is the work of Jesus.

Calvinists and Arminians already agree that every person finally saved will enjoy salvation only because of what God did in Jesus. “No one comes to the Father,” said Jesus, “but by me” (John 14:6). “There is salvation in no one else” (Acts 4:12). All who “receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” will do so “through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17) . It is his “act of righteousness” alone that “leads to acquittal and life” (Rom 5: 18).These truths apply equally to those who lived before Jesus and to those who lived after, to Jew as well as to Gentile, to those who hear the gospel and to those who do not. None will be saved except on the basis of the atonement Jesus has made. Salvation will be conclusively “to the praise of [God’s] glory (Eph 1:6, 12, 14). The mere presence of each redeemed human will attest throughout eternity to the “immeasurable riches of his grace” (Eph 2:7). On the other hand, all who ultimately perish in hell will do so despite the fact that Jesus died for sinners and despite the fact that he receives everyone who truly wishes to come.

Couplet 5:

– Salvation occurred objectively two thousand years ago in Jesus’ work.
– Salvation occurs subjectively as each person believes the gospel.

Jesus himself announced that he came “to save” the lost (Luke 19:10; John 12:47; 1 Tim 1:15). He accomplished his stated assignment and triumphantly proclaimed from the cross “It is finished” (John 19:30; Heb. 1:3). God scrutinized what Jesus had done and was satisfied (as foreshadowed in Isa. 53:11). Then, to confirm the mission accomplished, God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 4:25). After he had made purification for sins, Jesus took his place at God’s right hand (Heb 1:3; 10:11-14). If we preach that Jesus’ death was the payment for our sins, we may also proclaim that his resurrection was God’s paid-in-full receipt.All this occurred in the historical experience of Jesus, our substitute and Savior. God reconciled the world to himself in Jesus’ fleshly body (Col 1:19-22; 2 Cor 5:18-19). Salvation is not a theoretical possibility but a _fait accompli_. It is “the good news of [our] salvation” (Eph 1:13). We may speak of this finished aspect of Christ’s work as “objective” salvation. It happened once for all, outside us but for us, in the personal life and death of Jesus of Nazareth almost two thousand years ago.

On the other hand, every person who enjoys salvation in this life does so by a response of faith to God’s gracious call. Whatever the case in the age to come, no one can enjoy salvation now apart from hearing and believing the gospel. We may speak of this present participation in Christ’s work as “subjective” salvation.

Just as President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and, by the stroke of his executive pen, freed every slave in the Confederate States effective January 1 , 1863, so Jesus, by his perfect act, effectively saved every human being who finally will enjoy eternal life. Yet just as no slave empirically enjoyed the benefits of Lincoln’s act until she or he heard and believed the good news of emancipation, so no redeemed sinner experientially enjoys Christ’s redemptive blessings now except through hearing and believing the gospel (1 Cor 1:18). Until women and men learn the good news of their salvation, they continue to live as if nothing has happened. They remain as they were — without hope, not knowing God, unaware of his forgiveness and favor. The gospel ministry is for the sake of such individuals, that they may obtain salvation in every sense, subjectively as well as objectively (2 Tim. 2: 10). Like Paul at Corinth, we need to declare the good news fearlessly and without ceasing, so long as God’s patience indicates that he still has others who do not know they have been reconciled in his Son (Acts 18:9-10; 2 Cor. 5:18-19; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Couplet 6:

– Every person finally lost will have knowingly rejected God’s goodness.
– Every person finally saved will have accepted God’s goodness as it was known to him or her.

Scripture speaks of some who perish “for lack of knowledge” or “by believing a lie” (Hos 4:6; 2 Thess. 2:8-10) This “knowledge” is relational as well as cognitive; it is not only intellectual but also moral and spiritual. Whoever rejects this “knowledge” does so by conscious choice and inevitably courts condemnation (John 3:19). Yet, because God is so just, and because Jesus’ saving work is so extensive and so powerful, the apostle Paul confidently affirms that only those who consciously reject God’s light will finally be lost (Rom 5:13-14, 18-21).Not all who are finally lost will have rejected the gospel, at least not in this life. But even those will have consciously rejected knowledge of God in some form, whether in nature (Acts 14:17; Rom 1:19-25), conscience (Rom 2:15-16), or divine revelation (John 5:45-47). God’s judgment of condemnation will be manifestly just in every case (Rom. 2:5-12).

On the other hand, Scripture indicates that all those finally saved will have welcomed in a spirit of faith the light of God they had. “God is one,” Paul writes, “and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised because of their faith” (Rom 3:30). Abraham is the prime example of one who was justified by faith though neither Christian nor Jew, and with limited gospel understanding as well (Rom 4:9-22). Jesus had in mind those who hear when he said: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

Couplet 7:

– No person is better for not hearing the gospel. – No person is injured by hearing the gospel.

Sometimes people mistakenly assume, upon learning that Jesus’ work saved all who are finally saved whether they hear the gospel or not, that those who never hear are somehow better as a result. That inference is neither necessary nor proper.The ultimate rejection of God is in the rejection of the light of the gospel. For that reason, whoever willfully rejects Jesus incurs the greatest guilt (Heb 10:26-31). It does not follow, however, that those who gladly receive God’s dimmer rays before they learn of Jesus will reject the brightest light when it appears. Each heart remains the same regardless of the degree of light to which it is exposed (Luke 16:30-31; Rev 22:11). We may be sure that no person who rejects the gospel and is lost would have been saved if only that one had remained ignorant of Jesus. It is inconceivable that anyone who cries “yes” to God from the hopeless darkness will suddenly shout a defiant “no” when the bright light of the cross and the empty tomb burst finally into view.

Common ground

These seven couplets come short, of course, of providing a third alternative to Arminianism and Calvinism, although with cultivation by brighter minds they might furnish seeds for a biblical “via media”. Even so, they can serve a useful purpose. For they stake off common ground — to the surprise, at times, of participants all around — marking a safe and neutral area large enough for both groups to stand while growing together in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. After 450 years of constant controversy, perhaps that is no small step.


It is my hope that there is indeed common ground as Brother Edward Fudge presents these convincing statements. Surely, those who have of a certainty experienced the love and mercy of God in salvation should be able to accept those in love who disagree on the finer points of theology and doctrine but who also are trusting only the claims of the good news about Jesus who died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures. I submit that there is no room for name calling, condemning, and treating as infidels those with whom we disagree.

It seems clear to me that both Calvinists and Arminians work toward and expect the same outcome, that every person might hear the gospel invitation and come to faith in Christ and be saved. I cannot imagine a Christian who desires anything different.

Let us contribute to making Christ and His work for sinners known and not our petty, selfish, and often ill-informed differences.



Have you been good enough?

I wonder...One of the finest men I ever knew was my wife’s step father, T.L. Cannon. T.L. was a true Texas gentleman in every sense. And, he was a Christian.

He had been a member of several churches of Christ all of his adult life. He had served in many ways, even serving as an elder in two or three of those churches.

T.L. was a kind, compassionate, and loving friend. He was a car guy and he and I became fast friends soon after we met. His phone calls to me and our shared projects when I visited him are cherished memories.

When T.L. was well past his 80th birthday and Carol’s mom was about 80, one of our conversations included dying and what lies beyond the grave. Carol’s mom had also been a Christian since she was a girl. The church of Christ legacy ran back several generations in both families. In fact Carol’s father was a preacher and ministered in many churches of Christ until near his death several years ago.

We sat at the kitchen table and I listened to two dear people express to me their shared fear that they might not go to heaven. I was saddened and my heart went out to them. As they talked, one said and the other agreed, “I don’t know if I have been good enough”.

I opened a Bible and tried the best I could to give them some assurance from the Bible, to share God’s promises, but to no avail. On my birthday about two or three years after this conversation we buried my friend. Carol’s mom is now 89.

I wonder, how many Christian’s live their lives devoted to Christ and His people and face what they believe is an uncertain future? Is it tens of thousands, millions?

“T.L. was right, he had not been good enough. And, this is precisely the reason Jesus bore his sin, died for him, and was raised again for his justification. None of us are “good enough” to be approved by God. The righteousness he accepts is that of Jesus. It is that righteousness which is revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:17) and given as a free gift to those who depend on Christ alone for forgiveness and eternal life. (Romans 3:23, 4:22-25)

I suggest that perhaps we should do some house keeping ourselves before we make a fuss over the dirt in someone else’s house. What a sad commentary on over 60 years of preaching and teaching in the case of my wife’s mom and step father.

In the last decade I have seen more and more Christ centered ministry in our fellowship. People are embracing the good news of the grace of God. The joy of being freed from the yoke of trying to do it themselves is refreshing and hopeful. So, many of us keep preaching Christ  and against every voice that opposes the good news about Jesus.

Truth always prevails in the end. You have not been good enough to go to heaven. Put your trust in Jesus who is your only hope. He is the way, the truth, and the life and you can be safe only in Him.


…On Spiritual Transformation

Spiritual Transformation is an important subject in the Christian community and rightfully so. One of the inescapable truths that serious church leaders must grapple with is the apathy of those who populate church pews on Sunday. Common knowledge is that perhaps as much as 90% of all the work in a local congregation is done by about 10% of the members. The numbers fluctuate a bit but this sad template applies to most churches and across denominational lines.

To say that “most” church members are content to show up once a week for a worship service, give some money, sing a few songs, listen to the preacher, and live much like their pagan neighbors the rest of the week is not a stretch. Since this is true, the challenge is how do we get “Mr. Joe Christian” transformed from nominal believer to an on fire disciple?

Based largely on the popular idea that more “activity” equals more “maturity”, many church leaders have simply opted to create more and more opportunities throughout the week for members to be involved. In my view, having committees,  ministry teams, and small groups staffed by people with little appetite or aptitude for God solves nothing. Unless church leaders are content with a church that operates like a civic club that methodology is not a good idea.

The apparent question then is how does “Spiritual Transformation” happen? There is no valid answer unless we first know “what” it is. The first thing we must understand is that it is a work of God.

“for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13)

This important text, understood in context, lays the foundation for any spiritual transformation of the believer. I invite you to read the prior 12 verses and you will see the Apostle’s plea for selflessness, putting the interests of others ahead of our own, and imitating the humility of Christ. The verse preceding  the one above gives the correct response to the knowledge that God is at work in us for His pleasure.

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12)

The often quoted phrase “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” is more often than not taken out of context and misapplied, putting “self”in the seat of power only God deserves to occupy. The “work(s)” we do are in the knowledge that our part of the equation is to humbly walk with God as He directs.

Paul’s absolute confidence in God’s ability to transform believers into the image of Christ should encourage each of us that in our own lives and the lives of those in our faith communities, God is at work!

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6)

It is God’s will, work, and purpose to transform every believer into the image of Christ. That work will be final at the resurrection. Until then we must cooperate, on purpose, if we want God’s best life now. We must not only know God is at work but we must do the work of a disciple, that is we must practice the disciplines of the Christian faith. Bible study, prayer, and interaction with other believers is essential to our growth.

A man is what he thinks. The remedy is to think right. The injunction of Romans 12 applies here.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1,2)

Two striking truths challenge us from this passage. First, we are to give our whole selves to God as a sacrifice. This is true worship! The implication is human effort alone is worthless to God. Secondly, we must have renewed minds. Unless, and until, we are no longer depending on the energy and resources of human flesh, and we begin to have minds filled with God and his purposes and not focused on our own agenda’s, there will be little “Spiritual Transformation”.

What then is the solution for the church at large? First, know and admit the problem. Our people have not been taught correctly. We have taught for centuries that more “church” related activity equals spiritual growth. Instead of a recipe for maturity this method often results in hypocrite church members.

Once we believe and admit the bankruptcy of human effort we must focus our personal and cooperate teaching and practice on the worth and work of God in us by the Holy Spirit. We must dethrone “self” and invite God to have free access to every facet of our lives.

More trust and less trying, less hustle and more humility, and ego crushing purposeful living and loving will open the door wide for God’s work in us and through us.



Is Caring for the Poor Optional?

In his letter to the churches of Galatia the Apostle Paul records an abbreviated story of a meeting he had with Peter, James, and John in the early days of the church. The conclusion of the meeting was that Peter, James, and John would go to the Jews with the gospel and because of their recognition of Paul’s gift of “grace” that he and Barnabas should go to the Gentiles. They shook hands signifying their brotherhood in Christ and those ancient pillars of the early church simply asked them “to remember the poor“. (Galatians 2:9-11)

This would have been a great time to have given a sweeping theological discourse on the doctrine of justification or the biblical model for missions but their only request as they sent these two gifted men to evangelize the pagan masses was Remember the poor.

Another consideration along this line of thought is our practice of taking up a collection on the first day of the week (Sunday) in our churches. We do it because it is biblical and after all we do want to be guided by the Bible in all that we do don’t we? A careful reading of the text we base our practice on follows.

“Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do.On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem” (1 Corinthians 16:1-3)

Now, to be people of the Bible we must be honest about this passage. It was not that people should bring tithes into the store house. It was not to pay for the church plant and it’s employees. It was simply a collection for the poor.

It was to be done, not only in Corinth but in the churches of Galatia as well, to provide funds for the poor saints in Jerusalem. And, it was to be temporary. Paul instructed that they should do it ahead of time so there would be no need to try to gather up the collection after he arrived.

Sorry to disappoint you but that is exactly the case. Do I think it is wrong for our churches to take a collection each Sunday. Absolutely not, but I do believe we have missed the main purpose of doing so, the poor.

I suggest we look closely at the ministry of Jesus. He was truly a holistic healer. He healed and he taught. He fed and he taught. And, it is clear that his early followers did the same. The first outpouring of Christian love by the newly born again folks in Jerusalem not many days after Pentecost is recorded in Acts 2.

And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:43-35)

The first observable proof of a new found faith was not evangelical zeal, or fascinating manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but rather their common concern and care for the needy among them.

In light of this clear teaching in the Bible I am astonished that some people are complaining that too much emphasis is being placed on helping the poor by churches and para church mission groups. I am saddened that so many are misguided and only see the need to preach the gospel while largely ignoring the poor they are preaching to.

May I explain my theological position on this matter by illustration? I love my wife Carol Jane. She is a bright, vibrant, talented, driven, godly woman. How do I love her? Do I love her by sitting in my recliner with a warm fuzzy feeling about her in my heart? Is that what love is? Certainly not!

I love her by doing the dishes, by complimenting her on a new outfit or hair style, by seeing to her needs when she is sick, by giving her pleasure, by honoring her, by seeing to every need possible for me to fulfill. That is how love works. Love is a verb!

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15,16)

You see, caring about one’s soul and having nice warm feelings and mushy thoughts doesn’t put food on the table or clothes on the bodies of the poor. Only providing for their needs in tangible ways counts in the end.

In conclusion, one way we love God is by caring for the poor, loving our neighbors, and the household of faith. We cannot honestly claim devotion to God and ignore the less fortunate around us and in the world at large. It is good to have reasons to love God based on solid truths from the Bible, and it is good that those truths evoke strong emotions at times and feelings of joy and satisfaction and result in praise. However, you can’t love God and not at the same time love others, and love is much more than an emotion.

Our missionary outreach should always and forever be a telling of the good news about Christ by any method or means available to every person possible. But, as we go we must care for the poor or our message will more likely than not fall on deaf ears. A fellow with a good meal in his belly will care more about what you tell him about a God who loves him than one who is hungry.