The Heart of It All: Salvation

January 15, 2013

by Peter Amsterdam


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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

In the previous article, I wrote about the different views within Protestantism regarding the assurance of salvation or the possibility of losing one’s salvation. There is another notable difference within the various Protestant belief systems related to the subject of salvation. This variance is rooted in different ways of looking at God’s providence, which is defined as His continuous activity of preserving and governing the whole of creation by His wisdom and goodness and power, for the fulfillment of His eternal purpose and for the glory of His name.[1]

There are two general overarching positions: the Reformed position, which follows John Calvin’s (1509–1564) teaching regarding predestination, and the Arminian position, which follows the teachings of Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609). While this article will use the terms Reformed and Arminian as referring to the two different positions, it is only referring to these positions in regard to the interpretation of predestination. It doesn’t reflect total agreement with all Arminan doctrine, nor disagreement with all Reformed doctrine.

Reformed Position

Some denominations, such as the Reformed churches that follow the teachings of John Calvin, believe that each human being’s actions are decreed by God, and thus God ordains all that happens in the world. Within their definition of God’s providence they state that God cooperates with the created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and directs them to fulfill His purposes.[2]

I wrote about this subject in an earlier article. In this line of belief, God is seen as the primary cause of all that happens on earth, but He causes things to happen in a way that is hidden and thus it’s not evident that He caused it. To an observer, there is something else that caused it which he calls the secondary cause … When applied to human actions, this doctrine means that all things that people do are foreordained by God as the primary cause, and that people do what God has foreordained. However, they have no awareness that they are doing these things due to the primary cause. Even though they feel they are doing these actions of their own volition, they are actually the secondary cause. Nevertheless, they are held accountable for their actions.[3]

Believers in the Reformed tradition consider that humans have free will, in that they make free choices, but the choices they make are predetermined by God. As stated in the earlier article on this topic, this belief [Reformed] holds that even though God has foreordained the choices individuals make, humans freely choose what God has foreordained them to do. According to this position, humans make willing choices and aren’t aware of any restraints by God on their decision making, even though those restraints exist.[4] Christians in the Arminian tradition also believe in God’s providence as defined above, but believe that humankind has been granted true free will, in that people can make choices that are not previously decreed by God.

The “Elect”

When these two different belief systems approach the matter of salvation, the question arises as to whether believers—those who are saved and are called “the elect” in scripture—are predestined to salvation or whether they make a freewill choice to accept salvation. Are the elect chosen by God for salvation from before the foundation of the world? Has He predetermined who will be saved and who won’t be? Or is it the case that God, in His foreknowledge, knows the freewill choices individuals will make, and thus knows in advance who will choose to accept salvation?

In the Reformed belief system, the view is that God chose those who would be saved before the world was created. In the Arminian belief system, it’s considered that He knew who would accept His gift of salvation which was offered to humanity because of His omniscience, but not because He predestined some to be saved and some not to be.

Within the Reformed belief system, humans are seen as making a free choice regarding salvation. They hear the Gospel call to salvation and they respond positively and thus have made a freewill choice. However, the Gospel call is seen as being irresistible. When the call is heard by those who are predestined to salvation, they heed the call. They choose to heed the call because they are predestined.

Wayne Grudem explained it this way:

When Paul says, “Those whom He predestined He also called; and those whom He called He also justified” (Romans 8:30), he indicates that calling is an act of God. In fact, it is specifically an act of God the Father, for He is the one who predestines people “to be conformed to the image of His son” (Romans 8:29) … This calling is rather a kind of “summons” from the King of the universe and it has such power that it brings about the response that it asks for in people’s heart. It is an act of God that guarantees a response … The powerful act of God is often referred to as effective calling, to distinguish it from the general gospel invitation that goes out to all people and which some people reject. [5]

In the Reformed understanding, the Gospel call goes out in a general way, but the only ones who respond, who receive the summons that guarantees the right response, are those who are predestined to salvation. Those who reject the call do so because they are not chosen for salvation.

Grace and Works

Those who hold the Arminian interpretation of free will and predestination see the Gospel call as offering the hearer a completely free choice to accept or reject the call. They see God’s election as having to do with His foreknowledge of an individual’s acceptance of salvation, rather than God choosing those who will be saved and those who won’t. From this perspective, God’s elect are those who God, in His omniscience, knows will respond when they hear the Gospel.

Within the Reformed belief system, if someone makes a choice to accept salvation, that would mean that the person is doing something to merit salvation—in other words, the person would have a part in their salvation and as such would feel they deserve some credit for being saved.

Wayne Grudem explained it this way:

If the ultimate determining factor in whether we will be saved or not is our own decision to accept Christ, then we shall be more inclined to think that we deserve some credit for the fact that we were saved: in distinction from other people who continue to reject Christ, we were wise enough in our own judgment or good enough in our moral tendencies or perceptive enough in our spiritual capacities to decide to believe in Christ.[6]

Both the Reformed and Arminian positions affirm that we are saved by grace and not by works. The difference between the two positions is that the Reformed put forth that salvation is a complete act of God, with God being the one to prepare the heart to receive the Gospel of those whom He has elected and foreordained to be called and chosen. He bestows irresistible grace on the foreordained, and because it is irresistible, the elect person can do nothing else but get saved. Thus there is no participation on the human side, and salvation is a complete act of God.

In the Arminian view, it is also understood that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, and that no works are involved on the part of humanity. This free gift from God is offered to all, but not all accept it. Salvation is made available, but individuals are able to freely choose to either accept or reject God’s gift. That is a freewill choice, granted to humans by God. Such a choice isn’t seen as a “work” to merit salvation.

William Lane Craig makes the following point regarding our freewill choice:

John 6:65[7] means that apart from God’s grace, no one can come to God on his own. But there’s no suggestion there that those who refused to believe in Christ did not do so of their own free will … the fault does not lie with God that some persons freely resist God’s grace and every effort to save them; rather they like Israel fail to attain salvation because they refuse to have faith.[8]


The Reformed position is that God has chosen those who will receive salvation from before the foundations of the world. He has also chosen those who will not be saved. This is known as the doctrine of reprobation.

Some would say that this concept shows God as being unjust and unmerciful. The Reformed understanding is that God is under no obligation to save anyone who sins, yet in His mercy and love He has chosen to save some—those He has predestined to salvation.

The doctrine of reprobation teaches that reprobation is the sovereign decision of God before the creation to pass over some persons, in sorrow deciding not to save them, and to punish them for their sins, and thereby to manifest His justice.[9]

The Arminian position does not endorse the doctrine of reprobation. Their understanding is that salvation is available to all, and while God’s foreknowledge allows Him to know who will choose to accept and who will reject, it is a choice made by the individual, not by God Himself.

Who Did Jesus Die For?

The difference in beliefs carries over into Jesus’ work of salvation. The question arises: did Jesus die for the sins of everyone or only for the sins of those who were predestined to salvation?

The Reformed position is that Jesus died for the sins of the elect, that it is a limited atonement, or a particular redemption, and He didn’t die for the sins of all. The Arminian belief is that of unlimited atonement or general redemption, that Jesus died for the sins of all, although the atonement, while available to all, isn’t accepted by all because of free will.

Following are some of the verses Reformed Christians use to put forth that Jesus died for only the predestined:

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I am the good shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.[10]

The Reformed understanding is that the people Jesus laid down His life for are the sheep, those who know Him, because they were predestined to know Him. And the others aren’t His sheep, He doesn’t know them, and He didn’t lay down His life for them.

In these next verses, the interpretation in the Reformed thinking is that Jesus knew that there were those whom the Father gave to Him, and they were predestined to salvation, while others weren’t.

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day.[11]

I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.[12]

The next verse is used to make the point that Christ gave Himself up for the church—meaning for the believers—inferring that He didn’t die for those who don’t believe.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.[13]

Based on these and other verses, the Reformed position is that Jesus died for particular people (specifically those who would be saved and whom He came to redeem), that He foreknew each of them and had them individually in mind for His atoning work.[14]

Those who embrace the Arminian position, who believe in universal—or general—atonement, base their understanding of Christ’s atonement on other verses which indicate that Jesus tasted death for everyone. That He died for the sins of the world, as a ransom for all, for whoever believes in Him.

[John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”[15]

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.[16]

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.[17]

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all … [18]

We see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.[19]

The understanding in the Arminian position on these verses, which I agree with, is that Jesus died for the sins of the world, meaning for the sins of all. This doesn’t mean that all people in the world are saved, as clearly many people reject the offer of salvation, but it means that through Jesus’ death on the cross salvation is made possible for all men.

God doesn’t wish for anyone to perish, and He desires that all people receive salvation. In His great love, mercy, and patience, He has made salvation possible through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for “the world,” for humankind, so any who believe can be saved.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.[20]

The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.[21]

The atonement is universal in God’s attitude and desire that none would perish, and in the saving grace made available through Jesus’ sacrifice. But not all believe or receive, so the atonement, the forgiveness of sin, and eternal life, is not given to all. It is bestowed on those who believe.

Theologian Jack Cottrell explained it this way:

God’s grace as it appears within His own nature in the form of a desire to give forgiveness to sinners is universal in scope. It is true that this gift is actually given only to particular individuals, but the limitation is the result of man’s choice and not God’s. It was God’s choice to create man with a relative independence and a relatively free will. He does not force His own desires upon man, but respects the integrity of the free will with which He endowed His image-bearers at the time of creation. The reason why some receive grace and some do not is because some freely reject it and some freely accept it. This is to say that the actual reception of grace is conditional; i.e., it is conditioned upon a man’s willingness to accept it.[22]

J. Rodman Williams wrote:

God yearns for their salvation … and Jesus Christ died for them all. It is reprehensible to speak of a limited atonement, that is to say, that Christ died only for those whom God elected to salvation. Christ did not come into the world to save some and condemn others, but to save all. The only barrier is man’s own disbelief: “This is the condemnation, that … men loved darkness” (John 3:19). Thus general calling is the calling of God’s outreaching love that would take every person to Himself. He has no hidden agenda, by which He has already decided to save some and reprobate, or bypass, the others. There is no predestination to death. God’s purpose is never destruction. Those who do not believe will go into darkness, but this is not God’s desire. They go, not because God didn’t choose them before the foundation of the world, but because in spite of His great love and act of reconciliation they do not choose to receive it in faith.[23]

As much as I admire many of the Reformed theologians and feel that they are right and very strong on many aspects of Christian doctrine and faith, I believe they are mistaken in this case, and I agree with the Arminian position in this instance.

While there is a difference in some beliefs between Reformed and Arminian Christians, we are, along with all Christians, all part of the body of Christ. All Christians believe God loves humanity, that everyone needs to hear the Gospel message from Christians who are willing to bring it to them. In explaining the differences regarding salvation and atonement, it is not to say that Arminian are better Christians than Reformed, or vice versa. There are differences in theological perspectives, but we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, who love Him deeply and who desire to see others receive God’s gift of salvation.

God loves humanity. In His great love, He made it possible for human beings to become reconciled with Him, justified before Him, and able to possess eternal life, all through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. He loves each human being. His Son died for the sins of each individual. He has given humans the ability and the freewill choice to believe and receive salvation or to decide against it. His desire is for all men to receive redemption, but in choosing to create human beings with free will, He does not force people to accept His love.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.[24]

[1] Jack Cottrell, What the Bible Says About God the Ruler (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1984), 14.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 315.

[3] The subject of predestination was touched on in The Heart of It All: The Nature and Character of God; God’s Omniscience (Part 2).

[4] The Heart of It All: The Nature and Character of God; God’s Omniscience (Part 2).

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000) 692–693.

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000),  678.

[7] [Jesus] said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65).

[8] William Lane Craig, Molinism and Divine Election.

[9] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 684.

[10] John 10:11, 14–15.

[11] John 6:37–39.

[12] John 17:9.

[13] Ephesians 5:25.

[14] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 596.

[15] John 1:29.

[16] John 6:51.

[17] 1 John 2:2.

[18] 1 Timothy 2:5–6.

[19] Hebrews 2:9.

[20] 1 Timothy 2:3–4.

[21] 2Peter 3:9.

[22] Jack Cottrell, What The Bible Says About God the Redeemer (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1987), 382–383.

[23] J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology, Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective, Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 20.

[24] John 3:16.