CALVIN AND ARMINIUS -- Predestination AND Free Will

The age old debate of Arminian vs. Calvinist continues. It divides and causes quarrels and it breaks my heart. I consider myself a Calvinist who believes in free will. I embrace those saved by Jesus Christ alone (Calvinist or not!) as my brethren in Christ. Free will is not the Way to God. Calvinism is not the Way to God. Jesus Christ is the Way to God (See John 14:6).

I will share my thoughts about the debate, however.


Like Calvin, I believe that God is sovereign. He knows all, sees all and history is but a moment to Him. He engineered this universe knowing all that would happen. Further, all glory goes to Him and our works and merits are nothing. Yet, even as that is true, that does not mean that free will does not exist. Where I differ from some Calvinists is free choice. God knows the choices (by my free will) I would make, both those influenced by a Holy Spirit empowered spirit and those influenced by an enemy corrupted flesh. God knew all the choices I would make before I was born and while I indeed do make those choices, the choices that I do make are choices that God has already Himself foreknown. God revealed Himself to me and I responded. HOWEVER, I ONLY RESPONDED BECAUSE GOD MOVED IN ME TO RESPOND. Left to myself, I could not and would not choose God as I would be incapabale. This is true for all of us (See Psalm 51:5, Psalm 53:3, Isaiah 48:8, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 3:10-12, Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12-18, Ephesians 2:3). God will have mercy on whom He has mercy. Consider Romans 9:13-22, Ephesians 4:1-11, and Acts 4:28. I have heard it said of free will that it is "giving into the greatest inclination at the time." In his book Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Michael Horton writes, "Just because humanity declared independence does not mean that it became independent" (chapter 3). Prior to God changing one's heart, the only "free" will is to choose which sin to be in bondage to. Everyone who sins is enslaved to sin (see John 8:34). We cannot please God without faith in Him since "everything that does not come from faith is sin" (see Romans 14:23).

And then John Piper asks the question, "What is the will of God and how do we know it?" (which links to a very insightful site). God demonstrates 2 wills -- that of His commandment (which we can fail) and that of His sovereignty (which we cannot - i.e., it will happen no matter what). And if we fail His commandment due to behaving out of the flesh, then are we free at all? Or is it some twisted sense of "freedom" since we become enslaved to sin and can only make the right choices when we are slaves to righteousness by the transforming work of His Holy Spirit?


I agree with Calvin that no one is good. This is supported in the Bible in Psalm 53:3 and Romans 3:23 to name a couple of the many verses listed above.

Calvin states the following:

"Let it stand, therefore, as an indubitable truth, which no engines can shake, that the mind of man is so entirely alienated from the righteousness of God that he cannot conceive, desire, or design any thing but what is wicked, distorted, foul, impure, and iniquitous; that his heart is so thoroughly envenomed by sin that it can breathe out nothing but corruption and rottenness; that if some men occasionally make a show of goodness, their mind is ever interwoven with hypocrisy and deceit, their soul inwardly bound with the fetters of wickedness."

I agree that mankind is sinful. One could argue about the changes made by the Holy Spirit and transformation via the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1) when one is saved and subsequently in process of sanctification. However, this is not Calvin's point as Calvin is referring to the unregenerate man who is totally depraved and steeped in sin. One could ask, "What about the spirit versus the sinful nature?" This is not at issue.

Where is the person's participation in God's redeeming work? TRUE, our work may not mean anything as far as gaining salvation but our participation is part of our transformation after salvation and our transformation does not come without our choices made during our temptation! This choosing (empowered by the Holy Spirit) in transformation is part of sanctification.

Calvin is addressing man separate from the life of God (see Genesis 6:5 and Jeremiah 17:9). Yes, man is separated from God, but when Christ is in the heart of man then that gap of separation is bridged by Jesus Christ via the cross.


Jesus did all of the work on the cross and in His life. I am justified by Christ alone. When I responded to the Holy Spirit tugging at my heart, it is only because the Holy Spirit had ALREADY DONE WORK IN MY HEART for without Him we perish (see 1 Corinthians 2:14 and 2 Corinthians 4:3-4). I did work some changes in my life afterwards IN CHRIST; He empowered and began to change me. And He will complete that work He began (see Philippians 1:6). God always works and I, now included in His flock, work (empowered by Him). In doing this, He did not abolish my free will. He restored it. I now actually have free will, though in Christ am a slave to righteousness by His work, certainly not my own. In Christ, I can choose not to sin. Jesus gives me freedom to choose daily! When I choose to sin, I choose to not live life abundantly as Christ offers in John 10:10. I make choices based on the battle between spirit and flesh, and He knows what choices I will make and works them out according to His purpose whether that be to witness to another or to learn a lesson myself or to be disciplined or something far beyond my understanding. He sees the "big picture." I do not. I only see glimpses -- divine revelation. Yet, He goes even further than just working it out for good. He doesn't idly sit by an wait for me to screw up and then do the trick to make things just "work out." While He does allow, use, and sometimes initiate adversity, that last word is the point. He initiates. He moves me via His Spirit to make the right choices as left to my own devices, I fail. In my salvation, I responded ... to prompting by the Holy Spirit. He drew me. John 6:44 states, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day."

Choose this day whom you will serve (Refer to Joshua 24:14-15). When faced with temptation I DECIDE which way I go, but as a believer, I HAVE THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT TO OVERCOME. Not by my power do I overcome, but by His. Grace is a gift and gifts can be refused, but once taken, grace is for good.


There is something called predestination out there since "predestined" is in the Bible (See Romans 8 and Ephesians 1). Predestination intertwines with foreknowledge -- God's knowing of my destiny (-destination) before (pre-) it happens. This is what makes this debate almost a moot point. If God preordains it OR He works out things so that in the long run my choices fit into His purpose, then isn't the same thing ultimately going to happen? Ok, I know most, if not all, of my Calvinist friends will say that foreknowledge is not predestination. I agree! Foreknowledge does not fully capture what predestination is. I heard an interesting twist on predestination one time, and I think there is something to be said for it: When one is saved, he or she is predestined to Heaven and eternal life (That is once one is saved, he or she is forever saved and destined to go to Heaven even though he or she is before -- pre -- the point of having passed from this earthly life and into the life to come). Many Calvinists extend predestination to a predeterministic view of all humanity. This almost says to me that if Joe Schmoe is shared the gospel and says he chooses it that he still may be predestined for condemnation. Ludicrous! I know personally some Calvinist brothers and sisters who share tracks and the 4 Spiritual Laws with others where it is set up for the reader to make a CHOICE. If these brothers and sisters believe in "predeterministic" Calvinism, then besides Matthew 28:18-20, why do they bother offering people a choice if Joe Schmoe might be destined for condemnation? Maybe they would say because they don't know how he is pre-ordained. Well, if they don't know, they could still just sit back and let God's pre-ordained stuff just happen. No! God knows, but we act, too. Even if we just sat there, and we all do that too often, then we are exercising our will though in an ungodly way (which means that we are acting out of the flesh, which is bondage, not freedom). Yet, to go against God's will is not to undermine His plan. Reflecting back on that insightful twist to predestination, one could say that foreknowledge applies to all, but predestination is for those who become saved WHEN they become saved. I would say it applies to those who are saved even BEFORE they become saved. Does not God want ALL to come to repentance and not perish as 2 Peter 3:9 suggests? Yet, people choose against God and He knows that they will choose against Him. Yet, to leave predestination there is to reject biblical election and replace it with foreknowledge; predestination is more than foreknowledge. Humanity does not do what God intended most of the time, but God knows all, sees all. He is not surprised, but we are not stuck in a predetermined program. It begins to go beyond trying to understand at this point. Much of this is an argument for evangelism, not against predestination. Even though choice is evident, one cannot make a choice for God without God FIRST working in his or her heart.


While the Bible mentions "predestined", it is also quite clear that we have (or at least had) a free will. I believe that free will is part of Imago Dei (The image of God). True love and fellowship cannot exist without free will. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden was what I call the "free will element." Why else would God put the tree there? He wanted true love and fellowship with Adam and Eve, not a forced predeterministic fellowship which would not be true fellowship. God told Jonah what to do and he CHOSE to run. God wants all to come to repentance and not perish (2 Peter 3:8-9), but Jesus also said that narrow is the gate to Heaven and wide are the ways to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). That means that somehow, people go against God's will. That means people choose against God. However, again, the most "freedom" an unregenerate heart can have is to choose the type of sin to be enslaved to. A requirement for true love and fellowship and being in God's image is free will, and it happens that they are of great cost! Our choosing against God cost Him Jesus on the cross! Yet, this is what God foreknew (and planned from the beginning) and how it is the Greatest Example of God working things out to the good. The crucifixion and resurrection are the climaxes of all existence and history fulfilling prophecy and saving the lost and giving the believer hope for eternal life! I do not deny the power of the Holy Spirit and His influence in the lives of people, but God is not in the clouds with a remote and we a bunch of robots. God knows my decisions and their outcomes, but I don't sit and let all the preordained stuff just happen around me. That is a predeterministic view that I reject, a view pragmatically synonymous with atheistic behavioralism or evolution. But in saying all of this, I am also not saying that God sits around and lets things just happen as a distant an impersonal deity. He knows each and every choice -- good or bad -- that is going to happen and He knows how it will all fit together for His ultimate purpose. There are NO SURPRISES TO GOD! And our only hope to do good is in and through Him!


I am saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone for if He had not done the act of grace on the cross, there would be no option except Hell. Yet His freeing act on the cross gives those in Him freedoms to choose His will, choosing He foreknew and choosing empowered by His Holy Spirit.


God and mankind are both active; but only God foreknew what occurred, is occurring, and what will occur. However, the real issue is "Where do you stand?" Certainly how salvation occurs is worth exploring, but division over how is ridiculous. I am exploring it and I hope that this document can unify as opposed to divide brethren in Christ. The free will aspect of my perspective is not to the degree that I am saved by works and is not one to the degree where I deny God's sovereignty. I believe in God's working in the lives of people but not at the expense of people becoming mindless (and not being able to think and make choices, thus unable to love and fellowship truly, though we can only truly love in Him).

To try to ultimately pin this down is unfruitful in my opinion. More accurately, pinning this down is impossible (to be mentioned). Ok, maybe I am in my folly to type all of this but I do this to dilute some of the "stuff" that separates the Body of Christ and to get at the heart of the matter. Is Christ in your heart? Are you saved? Are good works coming out of your faith instead of trying to save you? These are the questions that must be asked, even though others are asked above. "Are you Calvinist or Arminian?" while a good question, is NOT the question that needs to be asked. Jesus asked, "Who do you say I AM?" (Mark 8:29).


I have revisited this topic (and this document) many times. I have in the past fluctuated between Arminius and Calvin, neither accepting both nor rejecting both, but now I am a Calvinist who lets the tensions stand. Phil Smuland, a pastor and Calvinist himself stated, "Extreme Calvinism is unhealthy" and in a later message reminded the congregation to remember when they first came to Christ before they were "theologized, Calvinized, galvanized, and homogenized." God is a God of justice and grace. Both justice and grace are attributes of God. Just as neither justice alone nor grace alone is healthy for a Christian lifestyle (as grace alone is abused as a license for sin when without justice, and justice alone is abused as Pharisaic legalism when without grace), free will and predestination also co-exist. It was so eloquently put in words paraphrasing Charles Spurgeon in a Bible study I attended in February 1999 that free will and predestination are two lines that are both co-existing principles in truth; these two lines converge in eternity. I am a free moral agent, but God is omniscient. I can make choices, but the Holy Spirit inspires righteous choices. I can go against God's will, but God can use it in the "big picture" for good. How I want to reconcile this in my mind! It is like a cruise ship. People choose whether they dance, go to the restaurant, the show, lounge, swim, or whatever, but the ship is set on its course. All those choices are part of the functioning of the cruise ship and the cruise ship will reach the destination. The universe is like the cruise ship. Or as one quote went from J. Nehru states, "Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will." Yet, to play the cards right or to be doing good activities on the cruise ship can only be accomplished by the One who knows right and good and works in us to do it. Humanity can make its choices, but the book of Revelation shall unfold. Still, this document may raise questions and tensions in both free will and Calvinist camps. It raises tensions and questions within me. Am I repeatedly contradicting myself? A wise sister in Christ named Rebecca (Breindel) Dillard once said that part of this debate is reflective of God's divinity. I pondered her statement. How true that is! We can make choices and even go against God's will, but God is still God and He is still sovereign. The lack of reconciliation is mind-boggling, but the tensions stand. Free will and predestination co-exist in some mysterious way, a way that seems tense, but in my finite mind, I see that I will never fully comprehend this aspect of God's divinity. It surpasses the mere three-dimensional world I perceive in my finite mind. This goes beyond the finite and into the eternal. I just must go in faith knowing that these seemingly irreconcilable ideas co-exist and I must trust that as I make choices, God is also sovereign. God is good and we can trust that.

Pastor Jim Logan dissected Romans 8:28-30, which states, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." He mentions that predestination has nothing to do with Heaven or hell, that all of us were destined for hell before we were in Christ. Rather he mentions that foreknowledge means that God foreknew we would exist and of those who would be in Christ He predestined to be conformed to Christ. Predestination, Logan states, is a matter of believers in Christ being conformed to Christ. Logan emphasizes to not confuse predestination with election. Some Calvinists are mistaken in that confusion, though that is not good Calvinism. Logan also reminds those to whom he preaches that it was God's work, not yours. And I once again reiterate that God is good and we can trust Him.


The Reverend C.H. Spurgeon delivered a sermon entitled Sovereign Grace and Man's Responsibility (No. 207) on Sabbath Morning, August 1, 1858, at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens. He covers this issue eloquently and more maturely and clearly than I have here. See his full sermon at I conclude with some quotes from his sermon:

And just let me say here, that it is the custom of a certain body of Ultra-Calvinists, to call those of us who teach that it is the duty of man to repent and believe, "Mongrel Calvinists." If you hear any of them say so, give them my most respectful compliments, and ask them whether they ever read Calvin's works in their lives. Not that I care what Calvin said or did not say; but ask them whether they, ever read his works; and if they say "No," as they must say, for there are forty-eight large voluines, you can tell them, that the man whom they call "a Mongrel Calvinist," though he has not read them all, has read a very good share of them, and knows their spirit; and he knows that he preaches substantially what Calvin preached-that every doctrine he preaches may be found in Calvin's Commentaries on some part of Scripture or other. We are TRUE Calvinists, however. Calvin is nobody to us. Jesus Christ and him crucified, and the old fashioned Bible, are our standards. Beloved, let us take God's Word as it stands. If we find high doctrine there, let it be high; if we find low doctrine, let it be low; let us set up no other standard than the Bible affords.
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This doctrine is as much God's Word as the other. You ask me to reconcile the two. I answer, they do not want any reconcilement; I never tried to reconcile them to myself, because I could never see a discrepancy. If you begin to put fifty or sixty quibbles to me, I cannot give any answer. Both are true; no two truths can be inconsistent with each other; and what you have to do is to believe them both. With the first one, the saint has most to do. Let him praise the free and sovereign grace of God, and bless his name. With the second, the sinner has the most to do. O sinner, humble thyself under the mighty hand of God, when thou thinkest of how often he hath shown his love to thee, by bidding thee come to himself, and yet how often thou hast spurned his Word and refused his mercy, and turned a deaf ear to every invitation, and hast gone thy way to rebel against a God of love, and violate the commands of him that loved thee.
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I do not think the truth lies between the two extremes, but in them both.
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Where we get wrong is where the Calvinist begins to meddle with the question of damnation, and interferes with the justice of God; or when the Arminian denies the doctrine of grace.
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Have nothing to do with me where I have nothing to do with Christ. Where I separate from the truth, cast my words away. But if what I say be God's teaching, I charge you, by him that sent me, give these things your thoughts, and turn unto the Lord with all your hearts.

And let's not forget about considering the 5 points of Calvinism, a.k.a. Calvin's TULIP:

If there are any comments, please feel free to e-mail me at

Blessings in the Name of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

James A. Johnson

For this and other documents, refer to

Originally written March 1998. Revisited and updated 7 September 1998, 20 February 1999, and 27 July 2006, 3 September 2008, 16 December 2008, November 2009, March 2010 and November 2015.

Special thanks to William H. Johnson, Phil Smuland, Rebecca Breindel Dillard, Lee Dunbar, John Morrison, Dave Miller, Jim Logan and others whose reflections have both challenged and enriched what I have written by my choosing and with God's help :)