a house with a door

As a companion post to the question of Arminianism vs Hypercalvinism, this argument is based on the analogy of salvation as a house – one where you’re safe inside and all your needs are met in ways much better than you could wish for, and you live in a state of reconciliation and friendship with the rest of the members of your family, with a Father, an elder Brother, and many many other adopted brothers and sisters.

Written over the entrance to this fortress-home are the words, “Whosoever cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.” These words (or others very like them) form the main reason why those who are inside the house were encouraged to come – they are the promise, the genuine invitation, the implied command, and the warrant which each of them used as the basis for their temerity to come like the beggars they were and knock on the door to ask to meet the head of the house.

Once these people come inside, it turns out that when they look back at the door they came in by, they see that the words written over the door from this side are: “All that the Father gives me shall come to me.” These words are what provide their total security and safety – the explanation of why they were ever drawn into the house in the first place, and the guarantee that they will never be allowed to wander out of it, ever.

This is another way of thinking about the free offer of the gospel. It’s not Arminianism in disguise, and it’s not the teaching of Hypercalvinism. It’s simply the presentation of the fact that God has provided a Saviour for sinners, the fact that this Saviour is exactly the Saviour who meets the needs of each and every single sinner, and the fact that any sinner whosoever who trusts in him to be the Saviour who he reveals himself to be will not be disappointed in their trust.

Now this needs to be elaborated in the following ways.

1. There is also the fact that the identity of those sinners who trust in him will be an exact match with the identity of those sinners who were elected by the Father and given to the Son in the eternal covenant. Nevertheless the gospel is not addressed the elect, but to sinners as sinners: it’s not a case of establishing whether or not you’re elect, in order to know whether or not to pay attention to the gospel. It’s rather a case of recognising that you’re a sinner who owes God obedience to all his commandments, including his commands to forsake sin and turn to him for salvation.

2. There is also the fact that no one is able to trust in God out of their own resources, nor are they willing – even faith itself is a gift, and one that’s given merely out of the good pleasure of the giver, not for any deservedness about any of those who so desperately need it. Nevertheless this is not an excuse for sinners to do nothing but wait and see if they’ll be given this gift. Sinners, whether or not they think they are elect, are required to make use of the means of grace, the means which God has ordained for sinners to use, and which he blesses in order to make them effective/effectual to salvation in the case of some of those who use them. For example, nobody has any excuse for neglecting to pray to him to have mercy on them, or for neglecting to read the bible when it’s available to be read, or for failing to turn up to church to hear the gospel preached when there’s a minister somewhere in the vicinity. The fact that you might not be “one of the elect” is no excuse for doing only what you ought to be doing. (See the quote from Boston in this previous post, eg.) This, I think, is where Hypercalvinism falls down.

3. Notwithstanding that everyone should make as full use of the means of grace as they possibly can, we cannot leave ourselves under any delusions that doing so somehow qualifies us for God to look at us approvingly, or that we can in any way infuse any spiritual life into ourselves by our activity, or that carrying out religious duties can be anything more than going through the motions, without the Holy Spirit giving us new life and enabling spiritual life to be exercised. (This must be why William Gurnall said, “Go and endeavour … as if all were in thy power, yet looking to Him for the thing, as knowing that it must [all] come from him.”) This, I think, is where Arminianism falls down.

By making the gospel something that’s held out only for the elect, and discouraging sinners from engaging in any activity related to the welfare of their souls, Hypercalvinism ends up looking like a house which has no door – talking about God’s salvation, but with no way for sinners to lay hold of it. Meanwhile Arminianism lets people initiate and maintain their own salvation, which makes it look like a wide-open door which leads to a house that’s no house at all. The advice of a Calvinist to someone who wants to be saved will therefore run along the lines that they should use all the means of grace with the maximum diligence, acting on the truthfulness of God’s revelation of himself as one who has mercy on sinners for Christ’s sake, and depending on his Holy Spirit for all spiritual life and ability. Whoever you are, however bad a sinner you are and have been, Christ is a suitable and sufficient Saviour for you: trust in him to be to you the Saviour he declares himself to be, and you will be saved. This, as far as I understand it anyway, is the real door to the real house, the only way of offering hope to sinners while preserving the integrity of the Saviour.

as bad as each other?

If you were asked which was worse, Arminianism or Hyper-Calvinism, how would you respond?

I’ll say straight out that my initial instinct was to say Hypercalvinism, but after discussing it with various people it seems that opinions are divided nearly half and half, and most of the time we end up saying it’s a case of six and half a dozen.

To be clear, I’m thinking of the brand of Arminianism which teaches that God loves everyone, and/or Jesus died for everyone, and that everyone has the power to repent and believe for themselves. The advice of my hypothetical Arminian to someone who wanted to be saved would be along the lines that they should just believe that God loves them, and accept Jesus into their heart.

On the other hand, I’m envisioning Hypercalvinism as the teaching that God only saves the elect, meaning that the gospel is only concerned with the elect. The advice of my hypothetical Hypercalvinist to someone who wanted to be saved would be along the lines that they should just wait for the Holy Spirit to regenerate them, knowing that he only regenerates the elect.

(If either of these descriptions are exaggerated or inaccurate, I’ll be glad to know, but this seems to be how the differing positions are conceptualised by the people I’ve been speaking to.)

The reasons why I suggested that Hypercalvinism was the worst of the two in the first place went something like this.

  • Hypercalvinism doesn’t emphasise the duty to believe and a person’s personal culpability and sin for unbelief. There is a tendency to encourage people to “sit back with their arms folded” and simply wait to be regenerated. When a soul isn’t saved, it almost has the effect of putting the blame on God for not regenerating the sinner, since it provides no reason (or compulsion/obligation) for a sinner to take any pains at all about his or her own salvation. On the other hand, of course, Arminianism allows sinners to keep flattering themselves that their salvation is within their own power to achieve – that because the responsibility is all ours, therefore the ability must be ours too. (Does this make it worse than Hypercalvinism?)
  • Hypercalvinism over-emphasises the doctrine of predestination, thrusting it to the forefront of the gospel, neglecting the advice of, say, the Westminster Confession that the doctrine of this high mystery is to be handled with special prudence and care. In perpetually proclaiming the truth that God only saves the elect, hypercalvinism fails to proclaim the truth that all the elect are sinners, and that God saves sinners. On the other hand of course, Arminianism fails to make use of the link between regeneration and predestination and glorification, ie that it’s all one golden unbreakable chain, providing salvation as a complete package, the purchase of eternal security in its entirety for definite persons. This, maybe, might make it worse than Hypercalvinism?
  • Related to the previous point, Hypercalvinism tends to give an austere view of the Saviour, minimising the graciousness of his sovereign purposes, and discouraging sinners from applying to him for salvation by the teaching that the gospel is only for elect sinners (rather than for sinners as such). Arminianism gives an artificially encouraging view of the Saviour, making out that he has saving love for everyone, but if you take the view that a seeking soul needs to be constantly diverted towards God, it is hard not to think that a teaching which provides an appealing view of the Saviour is less potentially damaging than one which provides the sinner with a reluctance to approach him, even if the appeal is over-exaggerated and sometimes misleading.
  • Finally, as a threat to the clear publishing of the gospel within reformed denominations, Hypercalvinism may be worse because in their haste to avoid Arminianism people may be less likely to notice the alternative errors of Hypercalvinism, and fail to recognise the seriousness of allowing the pendulum to swing too far away from the extremities of Arminianism into the extremities of Hypercalvinism.

Now let me hedge slightly here and say that I’m not wholeheartedly committed to any of these rose-tinted presentations of Arminianism. As someone pointed out when I discussed it with her, Arminianism is much more flattering to fallen human nature – it’s arguably much easier to be attracted to and appeased with a false view of God’s love than with a false view of God’s sovereignty.

I suppose that the errors of both sides can be classified as mistakes regarding human nature and mistakes regarding God the Saviour. Arminianism over-emphasises the love of God and the spiritual powers of fallen human beings, whereas Hypercalvinism over-emphasises the sovereignty of God and the inability of fallen human beings in spiritual matters. So that whereas Arminianism could be said to offer sinners a false hope, Hypercalvinism can be said to offer sinners no hope. Either way, a massive obstacle is presented to the sinner in need of salvation: neither of these are teachings which are healthy for sinners to be exposed to.

Now, to avoid straining your patience with an excessively long post, go here for my best stab at the middle way, avoiding the extremes of both sets of unhelpful teachings.